This was a complete impulse-buy on my part; something about it just really drew me, in the moment, so I went ahead and grabbed it. I read it right away to try to capitalise on that, and it was the perfect thing for my mood: it’s a history of a number of specific lighthouses and how they relate to the development of rock lighthouses in the UK, but also a personal response to them in many ways –Nancollas’ enthusiasm and interest, along with his imaginings about the lighthouses, really shine through. Do I really care about how the light of a particular lighthouse was installed? Only because he did, and made it sound interesting.
There were a couple of bits I found a bit overly sentimental or kinda purple-prose-y, and I had a roll of my eyes when he referenced King Arthur and got something wrong (Arthur died at Camlann, not anywhere else, in most versions of the Arthurian stories)… but mostly it just really hit the spot. I love it when someone can take a topic that I have very little personal connection to, and make it fascinating. If that sounds interesting to you too, then I recommend this!
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made The World, Virginia Postrel
This book looks at fabric not as an art but as a piece of technology, a scientific endeavour. Separate chapters discuss various themes: how the first thread was made, and the impact of selective breeding and experimentation in finding threads long enough to work with, for instance. I found the chapter on dyes particularly interesting, to be honest.
There was one thing that I found kind of weird, and that was some of the perspectives Postrel takes. Like she defends the low-paid status of women who spun thread because it would be cost-prohibitive to pay them more — cloth would be too expensive if people were paid more, so it can’t be done (instead of valuing people’s work at what it’s worth). And she’s very much automatically on the side of the middlemen who sold cloth for others, saying they were unfairly treated by people who didn’t know the worth of what they did? (Rather than what is more likely which is that it’s a bit of both.) It hits weirdly for me.
The chapter on new fabrics was pretty fascinating as well. I’d kind of like to see this on Great British Sewing Bee: here is this new fabric, here are its properties, make something out of it.
Anyway, overall pretty enjoyable and informative; I wish I was a bit more visual so I could understand exactly what’s going on in some of the descriptions, but that’s not the author’s fault — I can never picture anything, no matter how well you describe it.
The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, Thomas Morris
The answer to most of the “mysteries”/”curiosities” here is “someone was mistaken or lying”. I was hoping for some weirder tales, to be honest, and some of this is really just “hur hur people swallow weird things sometimes” and “lololol someone put WHAT up their butt?” I was raised by a doctor, none of this is a shock to me, though I’m gonna provoke an internal wince in anyone in my family by just mysteriously leaving one word here: “lightbulbs”. (It’s probably worse than you’re imagining.)
It’s a fun enough light read, though for me it really harped too much on obvious hoaxes, misunderstandings and just the weird things people do that isn’t particularly interesting except that it’s sex-related and idiotic so it’s a reliable source of humour for some people.
Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick, David Frye
This book has one major thesis, which it argues fairly well: walls made civilisation possible. Walls are contrasted against wars, with warmongers living a more day-to-day existence and wall-builders creating culture, politics, philosophy, technology, etc. As you read it, at least, it seems pretty convincing — but of course, Frye chooses his examples carefully, and doesn’t provide any counter-arguments of times and places where people created art without being walled in, had complex social contracts that allowed for safety and self-expression without carefully delineated borders.
I don’t have the historical knowledge to properly argue the point, but I suspect that Frye’s version is pretty lopsided. I don’t want to romanticise unwalled cultures either, but by and large humans are more complicated than simple dichotomies like this.
Still, I found it an entertaining survey of world cultures where this did seem to play out, and it’s certainly a very readable book. I wish he’d gone more into the modern relevance of walls, but I don’t think it much suited his thesis to discuss Trump’s wall — hardly a beacon of culture-creation — at great length.
Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England, Michael Livingston
I studied ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’, a poem included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as a piece of literature, back when I was an undergrad. I knew a little of the real history, of course, because I do think it’s important to understand the context that literary works come from — but I’d never dug into the detail, and this book was a great opportunity to do just that, and one I really enjoyed.
Livingston does a great job not only of making his case for the location of Brunanburh (though I’m sure I’d find other accounts persuasive, and don’t particularly have a horse in the race) but of providing the context for what made the battle so important, so crucial, that it ended up being remembered in verse recorded in a chronicle. He avoids fictionalising too much, apart from in one of the final chapters during which he tries to reconstruct the battlefield somewhat — and he manages to write engagingly, so that I read this almost in one go. (Okay, I had to stop for work, but I happily would have sat and read it straight through.)
I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the book, but I note that he does include footnotes and sources to help support his argument, and he also responds to some of the counterarguments to his ideas, which is usually a good sign. It’s popular history, in the end, but I feel like it matched up pretty well with what I do know, and his quoted translations of the Anglo-Saxon poem match my own pretty well (so I trust either his knowledge of the language or the translation he’s working with, for that part).
For me, this was part nostalgic delight (but how good is my Anglo-Saxon now? ah, not so hot), part genuinely good read, and partly, yeah, curiosity about where he’d nail down as the site of the battle. I think he has me convinced, though I’d be interested to read rebuttals.
This is a fairly academic volume, it feels like; it reminded me of reading essays about literature through history or something like that. The chapters are written by different people, so they vary in how fascinating (or not) they might be: I did like the late chapter about the development of restaurants, which added nicely to what I knew from William Sitwell’s whole book on it.
I must admit that given how academic it felt, I kind of zoned out a lot with this, and I ended up continuing to read because it was mildly enjoyable rather than because I was really retaining information. If you’re interested in more vibrant popular-history stuff on the history of food, this isn’t it: the academic feel keeps it rather dry, and at least one of the essays simply regurgitates its sources in huge chunks rather than doing a lot of interpretive work.
It was okay, but not something I’d hold onto myself — but depending on your level of interest and knowledge on the subject, it might be just the thing.
Ancestors: A Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials, Alice Roberts
To get my nitpicking out of the way, the subtitle is really inaccurate. There are a lot (a lot) more than seven burials discussed here: I wouldn’t be surprised if it managed to get up to seven burials per chapter, though I wasn’t counting. It makes sense, in a way: many prehistoric remains are fragmentary, and they can tell us more in aggregate — which does lead me to my other peeve with this book, which is that many of the examples were actually not even British. Sure, each chapter discussed British remains as well, but there’s inevitably a lot of discussion of other burials, including quite a bit of detail about places like Shanidar.
I guess what I had hoped for was a book that really focused in on seven specific exemplary burials, and was quite exhaustive about those, discussing all the different factors we know about that specific individual, that specific grave. At least, that’s what I expected with the subtitle, at least. So, it isn’t that. There is quite a bit of detail about some of the burials, including some fascinating ones I didn’t know about, but it is really much more of a general survey of prehistoric burials, mostly in Britain, but using burials in Europe and further afield to help contextualise them. Which also makes sense, but is not how the title sounded.
Despite those peeves taking up a lot of my writing space so far, I did really enjoy the book. There are some burials here which really intrigue me, like the full chariot burials, complete with horses. Roberts mentions some ideas that really fascinate me, like the idea that maybe offerings to the water were actually funerary offerings, not offerings to abstract deities. She suggests that some of the “missing” dead (we would expect to find more prehistoric remains than we do) could have been cremated and scattered on water, with offerings thrown in after them — or even that bodies could have been placed on rafts with their belongings, and then the offerings ended up in the water when the rafts deteriorated.
It’s an interesting idea, at least, and the book had a few such titbits. Although I knew a little about most of the burials she discusses, if not all, there was definitely some new material in here and stuff that surprised and fascinated me. Worth the read!
Oh, and I’ll just bet the section on interpreting sex/gender in burials reaaaally chapped some people’s hide. Ahaha.
I didn’t really expect to enjoy this as much as I did, because this isn’t really my area of history and it started out kind of dry. Somehow, though, I did get sucked in by the author’s enthusiasm for the subject and the slightly gossipy tales about some of the ways these texts survived and how they influenced societies — and how societies influenced their transmission, of course.
It’s quite a narrow book in the sense that it focuses on seven specific cities where manuscripts survived. It does peek around at the world and how outside events affected things, of course, but it narrows the scope of what could be a huge topic by focusing in on those cities.
In the end, it was a little slow/dry in places, but I found myself picking it up whenever I had a spare minute. It’s a good potted history of the survival of some of the pre-Christian texts that were so influential, and it’s definitely worth it, in my view. It’s not my subject, so I can’t speak to the quality of the research, but where it did intersect my other interests, it matched up. There are plenty of references, too, so that’s reassuring.
I wasn’t sure how interesting a book on store-bought white bread could be, but someone recommended it to me and I wanted to give it a chance… and it was everything I could want from the kind of book which takes an everyday part of life and digs into its history and social meaning. Bobrow-Strain lays bare all kinds of things about the US which you wouldn’t necessarily link to white bread. Or maybe, knowing the US you would — wealth, health, religion, race.
It ended up being really fascinating: rather densely written — for 200 pages, it took me a while — but in a good way, informative and considerate. Unlike another recent book on food I read, Reinventing the Wheel, it managed not to sound like it was judging everyone in the world’s bad food choices for causing problems. Instead it really dug into why white bread seemed (and seems) so desirable, and what powerful motivations lie behind the choice.
I’d really love to know more about this whole subject as relates to the UK as well, and I’m eager to explore the references for more books on food, since I’ve been finding them fascinating lately.
Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, Rebecca Wragg Sykes
That’s a pretty big title, particularly as it includes concepts that people doubt applied to Neanderthals (like love and art). Nonetheless, Wragg Sykes lives up to it, painting a picture of the current state of the art in understanding Neanderthals, their lives, their relationships to each other… and their relationships to us. I lost count of the number of times I just had to share a snippet or an image from this book with my wife, because it’s just so cool what we can know about these people, from the way they ate to their technology level.
One example: their technology level, since we’re speaking of that, was higher than you’d think — for example, they were creating a sort of glue from resin. Pine resin was the best, but other resin when mixed with beeswax gained similar properties, and they knew that and used it! There are multiple levels of technology there, from getting the resin out of the bark (which required a low-oxygen fire) to mixing it to applying it to attaching spearheads to hafts, etc.
I knew some of the things mentioned in this book, of course, particularly when it comes to how Neanderthals are related to us. But much of it was new, or more detailed than I thought, and Wragg Sykes’ interpretation of the evidence is fascinating. Even if you don’t go all the way with her in attributing complex thought and planning to Neanderthals (though I think the evidence tends in her direction), the evidence is astounding enough to keep your attention.
This is actually that rarest of things: a popular science book which I will keep, even though I probably won’t read it again, because I enjoyed it so much and I would like to have it to hand to refer to in the future.