I didn’t expect this one to have me hooked, and to the extent that I was interested, I’ll admit that it was initially mostly in the true crime aspect. I didn’t know much about H.H. Holmes’ actual crimes, just a vague sense of notoriety, so that was really what I was interested in — the design of the World’s Fair, with all the architecture and infrastructure decisions, sounded kind of boring to me. I wasn’t really sure about the juxtaposition of the two, either: it seemed like the story of the World’s Fair would be boring in comparison with the horrors of Holmes’ crimes.
In the end, I was more interested in the World’s Fair sections, and I don’t know why. Partly the people discussed, I guess: they had a powerful vision, they had determination, and they achieved a lot in a very short time. Regardless of the topic, that kind of drive can be fascinating. And Larson’s writing works for me — it feels crisp and to the point, and evokes feelings and motivations that the people involved may have felt without feeling like he was going out on any limbs or fantasizing too much.
I think in the end, despite my initial sense that H.H. Holmes would be more interesting, the thing is that psychopaths are psychopaths. I’ve read about psychopaths before, but the challenges of organising the Chicago World’s Fair were a one-off thing that nobody has or could repeat in quite the same way.
This was a really fun and quick read, even if it wasn’t quite what I expected. When someone says Amazons, you get a very clear picture, right? But John Man goes beyond the myth and digs into first the origins of that myth, and then into other societies which might more or less be considered Amazons (whether they were ever identified with Amazons or not). There’s also stuff on why Amazon.com is called Amazon, and other detours like that. It becomes a sort of cultural history of warrior women — and that’s not a criticism, because I found that more enjoyable than something which focused myopically on something the evidence suggests was never more than a rumour born from a rumour, or even political convenience.
And though the subtitle is all about warrior women of the ancient world, there’s a good discussion of modern warrior women too.
Overall, enjoyable — and left me very curious to read more about the Scythians and the archaeology of the people of the steppe. One book leads to another… Anyone got any recommendations along those lines?!
I love archaeology, and I must confess I really love the kind of general books that do a bit more of a survey — like Cline’s Three Stones Make a Wall, for example. This looked like it was going to be good in that line, and it wasn’t bad; there’s definitely a lot of info in it and stuff I want to research more, but overall it’s a bit too brief for me. It’s definitely a little history, just a little; there’s so much more to be said about so many of the people and sites that Fagan skims past in giving an overview.
Which is not exactly the fault of the book, but sometimes I feel that the history of archaeology would’ve been better followed through fewer key sites or key archaeologists, rather than a general mix of the two, which ended up feeling unfocused.
This is a rather exhaustive account not only of the Templars, but of the Crusades and the interactions between Popes and Kings during that period. That’s not a bad thing, though I had expected something a little more focused on the Templars as a group, and maybe more discussion of individual Templars as examples. Instead, there was a lot about individual kings and their reactions — fair enough, there’s probably more material available on them, but I still found it a little disappointing.
Still, it’s kind of fun reading it as someone who has played Assassin’s Creed, and playing spot-the-name-I-know and spot-who-got-assassinated-by-Altair.
I think it was a bit stodgy in places, but informative. And dude, you totally protested too much in the other direction that Templars weren’t ever gay. Let’s be real: the reality is that some of the Templars will have been gay, some bi, many straight, and some will have remained celibate while others won’t have done so.
This story is, in general, more impressive until you get to the bit at the end where doubt is cast on the veracity of some of the modern stories. It feels really cheap to get to the end and read this critique that suggests things presented as fact never occurred, and the things that do appear to have been true may be rather overexaggerated. It feels dishonest in a way that it wouldn’t have done if these critiques were presented side by side with the accounts, and it makes me wonder about the author’s integrity in the other parts of the book as well.
I mean, reading it credulously, it’s a heck of a story and these people are heroes. And surely, surely, you think, the author must have done his research to verify these accounts as far as possible. And then you find out, well, he did, but he didn’t feel like saying so at the time.
Tell the story, by all means. It’s a heck of a story after all, and it remains absorbing even if you know there are questions about it — but if you only know that at the end and look back, well, it all seems a bit of a sham, and can you really trust the author to tell the ancient story straight?
The Great Mortality is how the Black Death was referred to, before we came to know it by that evocative name. There’s a lot of detail here if you’re interested in the historical aspects of the plague: where it struck, how people reacted, the changes it brought about. The scientific background is a bit more lacking, though: there’s some tantalising hints, like a brief discussion of the increased virulence of the illness compared to the modern version that’s still endemic in some parts of the world, but for me with my primarily scientific rather than purely historical or sociological outlook, it began to drag.
So, not a bad read, but not what I was really looking for.
Mummies are always fascinating to me, at least in non-fiction, and this book was especially so because it covers a lot of ground, from Inca child sacrifices to Stalin to ancient bog bodies. It’s the kind of book I love, with something new (but related) in each chapter, introducing new sites and concepts I wasn’t aware of without going into any one thing exhaustively. I found myself googling for images to match the text.
The only thing I would really criticise is the hyperbolic breathlessness about how some of these mummies “look as if they were alive” or “wouldn’t look out of place on the street”. No, the preservation is amazing, but I have yet to see a mummy that is truly so immaculately preserved that it wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb trying to walk around the streets. The faces are sunken, the jaws and teeth and cheekbones too prominent, etc, etc. They’re obviously dead. I find I have more respect for them while recognising that they’re dead than trying to pretend that they look just as they did when alive. They don’t.
There’s an amazing amount to be learned from some of these bodies, and Pringle does a great job of showing some of the breadth of what’s out there and what questions we need to ask.
Buy this book: Amazon UK | Amazon US
The above affiliate links, at no extra cost to you, provide a small commission for me if you purchase something.
The Terracotta Army is great popular history: atmospheric, easy to read, almost a travel guide to seeing the Army in the modern world as well as to understanding its context and how it came to be. Man writes engagingly about the politics that informed the creation of the Terracotta Army and how it was seen, and about the politics which informed the revelation of the Army and the way it is now viewed in the world. He makes a lot of smart points, and though I don’t know the history of the period or the area well enough to judge whether he’s right in his analyses, it seemed convincing to me.
I’m definitely thinking of picking up more of Man’s work; this wasn’t unputdownable, but it was definitely easy to just keep reading instead of finishing a chapter, putting it down, and going to sleep. He brings the events and politics to life very clearly. It doesn’t feel greatly in depth, but it’s entertaining and informative.
This is a really good account of the outbreak of cholera that led to John Snow’s famous map, showing that a particular water pump was the culprit. He traces the history of how London dealt with sewage and how it became such a big issue, and also examines some of the main characters in the drama of trying to stop the outbreak — and trying to challenge miasma theory, which was so much the paradigm at the time. There isn’t a lot of specific science stuff here, but Johnson makes clear why the cholera pathogen is so deadly in a very accessible way.
The only weird part is in the conclusion/afterword to the book, where Johnson talks more generally about the risks to city life and starts discussing nuclear war and terrorism. It seems very much a non-sequitur, and adds nothing to the book to my mind.
Libraries in the Ancient World contains a not too surprising round of historical libraries, including of course the Palace of Ashurbanipal and the Library of Alexandria, but nonetheless I found it interesting to read about exactly who libraries were for and how they worked in various societies. Casson’s style is engaging, and I found it just overall the kind of relaxing read about a thing I love that fills an excellent gap without being wildly exciting or revelatory.
I know that seems like faint praise, but I really can’t think of anything else to say! If you want to look at the history of libraries, this makes a good start.