Category Archives: Non-Fiction (History)

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

Hitler was insane, irrational, and terrifying. What is possibly more terrifying is the way that no one really believed that he was any of the above things (much less all three) until it was too late to stop him without war. The few people who did realise, and who tried to warn others, were dismissed as insane or irrational themselves.

In the Garden of Beasts is about William Dodd, the American ambassador to Berlin from 1933 – 1937. America was mired in isolationism, but Dodd wasn’t. He wasn’t a warmonger, but he knew that it would be impossible for the US to stay completely clear of international conflict, and he tried to portray that during his time in Berlin to both his fellow Americans and the Germans he encountered.

It’s also about his daughter Martha, who came to Berlin with him. (Dodd’s wife and their son were there, too, but not explored as characters at all; they’re essentially non-existent in the book.)Martha and her father both loved the idea of Germany and of Germans,  but Martha (unlike her father) went so far as to publicly admire the Nazis, at first. She recognized the steps that they’d made toward economic recovery and government stability. She even dated, semi-seriously, a leader of the Gestapo. Ultimately, of course, she realised that the extremists in the party weren’t the outliers – the moderates were. By then she’d fallen in love with an NKVD agent and was being considered for recruitment as a Soviet spy.

Culturally, there a lot of interesting things about this time period that feature in this book. The whitewashing that the Nazis did about their activities was kind of incredible: they would attack Americans (and others) who didn’t give the Hitler salute, for example. Official regulations said that foreigners didn’t have to salute, and that soldiers who attacked foreigners would be punished. But despite official reassurances from Hitler himself, nothing was ever done. Violence continued and escalated, and yet the embassy continued to believe the official line and wouldn’t even issue travel warnings.

Another point was the US’s refusal to officially denounce the treatment of the Jews iwoun Germany. Anti-Semitism was rife in the US itself, but also the US government was afraid that shining light on Germany’s racism would reflect back on itself and the treatment of African-Americans. How sick is that – the US government didn’t take steps that might have prevented war because they didn’t want to admit how horrible their own institutionalised, legally encoded racism was.

The Nazis got more and more chilling as the years went on, and that atmosphere was vivid in this book. Anyone might be watching or listening, even in the embassy or walking along the street or sitting in a cafe. It was kind of frustrating – and frightening – to pseudo-live through; again, I think Larson did a good job of making the reader realise what life was actually like, even for high-ranking, protected people like the Dodds.

So much has been written about the war itself that it’s kind of refreshing – although that’s too positive a word – to have some background of 1930s Germany. It’s fascinating to me how many of the pieces were in place even in 1933, but no one could see the whole picture yet. In hindsight, of course, we know that Hitler would stay in power even with a poor economy, that he would systematically destroy any opposition in the most brutal way, that he had the political and personal charisma to make people think they were doing the right thing.

It’s a rare talent to make historically documented events seem real and suspenseful. Ron Howard can do it as a director, and Erik Larson seems to be able to do it as an author. More please.


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Who Murdered Chaucer? by Terry Jones

There are so many post-it bookmarks in this book now. It’s totally the period I’m interested in, and gives so much information on the cultural life of Richard II’s court (and Europe in general in the late 14th century) – including, of course, my area of expertise, musicians. The first third of the book is almost unclosable because of the post-its. I marked so many passages and references…I really need to get back to proper research one day.

There were also parts I wanted to mark just for the style. Terry Jones is one of the authors, and you can kind of tell the parts that are his and the parts that are from people who are more academically trained.  There’s an irreverence to his style, even while it’s factually accurate. I knew he was a Richard II apologist (almost fanboy) because of when I heard him speak two years ago, and his defense ofRichard and his court is one of the more powerful arguments in the book.

Not everything is factually accurate, though – not that things are inaccurate, but so much of this book is conjecture based on lack of evidence. It’s not unreasonable conjecture, it is necessary conjecture, but it’s still conjecture. Most of the jumps made sense – I particularly like the explanation for Henry IV’s coup – but on a couple (like Chaucer living until 1402), the initial jump was a bit iffy, even if the following jumps were logical.

This book is fantastic for the background of the time and the character portraits of Henry IV, Richard II, and Archbishop Arundel that it draws. What it did for me more than anything else, though, was increase my reading list about a million times. Not only do I now need to finish reading the Canterbury Tales, but I also need to read….everything else written between 1330 and 1450.


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Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir

It has been enough of a break for me from Alison Weir that I was able to pick up The Wars of the Roses a couple of weeks ago: after I’d finished reading Ian Mortimer, I was still in a medievalist mood, and the Wars of the Roses themselves are much less controversial than The Princes in the Tower.

The book itself is really in two parts. The first half(ish) deals with the founding of the Lancastrian dynasty: Henry IV’s usurpation, Henry V’s military might, and Henry VI’s early reign. The second half deals with the conflict that we now consider the Wars of the Roses.  The first half, which sets up the personalities and motivations, is much stronger than the second, and much more interesting to me.  The second half is very battle-heavy. It’s justifiable that that part is battle-heavy, since it’s kind of the point of the book, but I personally found the setup more interesting than the conflict itself.

One person that I developed a massive dislike for was Margaret of Anjou. Some of that is my own Yorkist sympathy, but a lot of it is her complete misinterpretation/misreading of the culture and prejudices that she married into. She was already hated by the English people and nobles when her marriage ended the war, gave France a few traditionally English provinces (although not Calais), and brought no dowry to England itself. She then compounded the hatred by creating her own faction at court, essentially siphoning power away from both Henry and any nobles (like York) that she didn’t like. By the end, she was trying to ally with both Scotland and France – England’s most prominent enemies.

The other fact that I found interesting – and that I hadn’t known before – was that Elizabeth Wydville and her family were originally Lancastrians. Her first husband, and I think her father, had both died in the service of Henry VI – and yet she married Edward IV.

In part because of the emphasis on battles in the second half of the book, I don’t feel like I got to know Edward IV as much as I got to know his father, or even his brother George (Duke of Clarence), who was instrumental in the various machinations around the return of Henry VI.  Gloucester (Richard, later III) was also relatively shadowy, but I think her feelings for him were made pretty clear in The Princes in the Tower.

The main thing I took away from The Wars of the Roses was a renewed interest in Henry V and, by extension, Shakespeare’s history plays. Studying Henry V was one of the more memorable aspects of my Shakespeare class at university, and I happen to have full-cast recordings of all of Shakespeare’s plays. It was really interesting to listen to (and sometimes read along with) the various parts of Henry VI and “fact-check” to some extent the play with Weir’s book, and vice versa. I did the same with Henry V – and given my recent Ian Mortimer reading, I plan on reading 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory in the very near future.

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The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer

I am a medievalist; this is not a secret. My shame is only that it has taken me so long to read this book and then blog about it. If anything, it’s a book that I wish I could have written – but it would take much more research than I have time and scope for.

It’s such a wide-ranging book: basically, it covers every conceivable aspect of the 14th century, in the guise of a travel book. It discusses hospitality, sights, sounds, costume, social structure, habits….everything (and more) that a modern travel guide would cover.

There’s so much in here that is fascinating to me: meals, physical city structure, social hierarchy and mobility (which changed so greatly from the beginning of the century to the end), travel modes and customs, manners…any detail you might want is probably in this book. I do vaguely remember thinking at points “Oh, there should be more about that” or “Why didn’t he include this” but since I can’t remember now where those points (or what this and that) were, they’re quibbles rather than problems.

Another quibble, which is a little bit ridiculous, is that the book is at times too wide-ranging and also too narrow. The fourteenth century was an amazingly dynamic time, encompassing the Black Death, Peasant’s Revolt, and quite a lot of the Hundred Years War. At times Mortimer (what a great name for a medievalist, by the way) goes into details about how things changed over the decades, but at other times he doesn’t. In some ways, it would have been nicer if he’d started off the book with the disclaimer that he did – because of a lack of surviving information before the 1300s, this book will only focus on the fourteenth century – but then added even further refinement, to a specific decade or even king’s reign. The things that remained relatively constant over the century could have been noted, but the things that were more fluid wouldn’t have been so overdetailed.

My last quibble is just a general shifting in tone. At times he’s very conversational, very much a travel agent/tour guide. You can almost picture him on top of one of the open-topped buses, with a microphone in his hand as his details are translated into fifteen different languages. But at other times, the style gets much more stereotypically historian: less conversational, more dry and serious. Not a big thing, hence the quibble label, and probably inevitable given the subject matter and level of research.

Long story short, though, it’s definitely worth a read if you’re at all interested in medieval life. Even if you’re only interested to the point of “I wonder if that scene in that Robin Hood/King Arthur movie was anywhere close to accurate”, this is the book to tell you – and you’ll definitely learn more than you thought you would along the way.

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Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan, by Giles Milton

This is another book which ultimately (kind of like The Age of Wonder) wasn’t really about the title. The title (and the back-cover summary) say that it’s about William Adams, a 17th century Englishman who wound up in Japan and became a trusted advisor to the shogun. But while Adams is a character, and not a minor one, really it’s more about the East India Company’s attempts to trade in Japan (as an extension of the rest of their Asian trading).

I found it interesting to read about 17th century Japan. It’s not a period and place that I know a lot about, and some of the cultural insights were interesting to me. And I think that William Adams could be an incredibly interesting character: he was the only one of the Dutch and English adventurers/businessmen who adapted to Japan. Unfortunately, this book skips over the process of assimilation, and jumps right to the problems that the East India Company’s agents had in setting up a factory and store.

In fact, for a book that’s nominally about William Adams, he’s not the most well-defined character. I certainly felt like I knew Richard Cocks, the senior merchant, much better than I knew Adams. I understood his issues and his motivations a lot more than I understood Adams’s. The other sad thing/relatively misleading thing about the title is that, even though the subtitle is “The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan”, the English economic base in Japan ultimately failed – didn’t even last a generation – and internal Japanese politics then led to the country being isolationist for quite a while afterwards. William Adams may have temporarily unlocked Japan, but as soon as he was gone it slammed shut again, with chains on the doors and everything (to belabor the metaphor).

I think I’ve also pinpointed one of the problems that I have with the 17th century. I really hate the Puritan mentality. There is one way to be moral; it is the same for everyone, regardless of situation, circumstance, or personal belief; if you do not live up to it at every moment, then you are inferior and must be punished. The directors of the East India Company seemed to have this belief. They’d never been to Japan, and yet they felt qualified to judge what would best succeed there in terms of both goods and behaviour. Ugh. (Not saying that the English merchants didn’t deserve chastisement, just not necessarily for the same things, and certainly not in the same way.)

Anyway, back to the book itself. It’s a quite readable book. Milton does seem to have the trick of making what is basically an economic history very personal and fairly compelling. My biggest problem with it is that it is more an economic history than a biography, so there was almost a sense of false advertising. (Not blaming Milton for this, I must add – I know from reading authors’ blogs how tricky the politics of publishing and book promotion/marketing are.) If you’re interested in Japanese history and English history and the 17th century in either England or Japan, it’s a good read.


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The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes


I’ve finished it now, and my reaction is basically the same. It’s a good book, very engaging and mostly well-written. I just don’t think it’s the book that he thinks it is.  The subtitle is “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” but, at least to me, it was much more about the web of scientists and protégés that Joseph Banks developed. So much more time was spent developing the history of the Royal Society and discussing some of the feuds and connections that the argument about the Romantic Generation just sort of faded away. There are still mentions of Coleridge and Byron and the war(s) with the French, but those are not even remotely the focus of the book in the same way that Joseph Banks and his relationships with the scientists discussed are. Again, it’s not a bad book – in fact, it’s a very good book. It’s just not a book about the Romantic Generation, except coincidentally.

I say mostly well-written above. There are a few rogue commas, and a couple of odd phrasing and structure things. There are a couple of passages I want to point out: two odd ones, and one other.

First, a footnote talking about comets: “In modern times the passage of Hale-Bopp (1997) inspired a mass suicide by the Heaven’s Gate cult, though that was in California.” Um, exactly why does the location matter? Why does it matter enough to be put in an aside phrase? And why, exactly, does that phrase seem so dismissive? ‘Comets are interesting and mystical and have inspired odd behaviour. But only in the past, except in silly California.’ That’s how that sentence comes across to me: as though it’s somehow less relevant because it was in California.

Second, the first chapter about Humphrey Davy – and, actually, the second chapter about Humphrey Davy – is presented a bit oddly. I can’t remember exactly what confused me about the first chapter during the bulk of it, but the chapter ends with the sentence “At a glittering reception afterwards, Jane Apreece told Humphrey Davy that she loved fishing.” Um…..okay. I know he’s an angler and all, but quite a bit of the chapter has been about his (presumed) love affairs and the women chasing him, and …. it’s a really abrupt way to end a chapter, especially when Jane Apreece was only introduced in the preceding sentence. And then this isn’t resolved for another couple of chapters, past a chapter about the Vitality experiments and Frankenstein. Also, the second chapter about Humphrey Davy, chronologically after he and Jane Apreece have gotten married, keeps referring to future-to-them events (“Jane would remember it regretfully during a similar trip the next year” or things like that) with very little, if any, follow-up. Don’t tease us with emotional insight and then not actually provide any emotional insight!

Third, because it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, here is one of the sappiest love letters I’ve ever read. It’s from Humphrey Davy to his wife, when he’s on a fishing trip and she’s back in wherever they live: “I flirt with the water nymphs, but you are my constant goddess. I make you the personification of the spirit of the woods, and the waters, and the hills, and the clouds….this is the earliest form of religion. I breathe a sigh upon paper from the thought of being apart from you for only two days. My dear, dear Love creates a void which no interest or amusement can fill….The longer I live, the more I shall love you, my dearest Jane.”

Okay, it’s sweet. Sickeningly sweet. Happy Valentine’s Day.


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Initial thoughts on The Age of Wonder

Thoughts on The Age of Wonder


I have been somewhat sporadically reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. (Sporadically because I’ve just started a new job, and someone who shall remain nameless has gotten me hooked on World of Warcraft to the point where I have to play it myself, and then there’s the musical theatre group that I don’t practice for enough…anyway…..) It’s a good book, and definitely worth the acclaim that it got. It’s not without flaws, though, and since this is a relatively critical blog, I thought I’d mention them.

One of the things is just me and my personal history and education in the Romantic era. I took a class in my study-abroad year on Romanticism (primarily in literature) which focused a lot (a lot a lot) on the political and intellectual background of the era – the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the extending of the vote in the UK and the Corn Laws and the “Industrial Revolution” and the resulting unrest, etc. [England in 1819? Highly topical sonnet by Shelley and brilliantly scathing if you know the characters] To me, primarily because of this class, the political/current-event background of the time period is essential to the issues in Romanticism. We discussed, in detail, how the world that these writers lived in shaped their mentality and ideas and forms – whether by addressing them in their work (Shelley, Wordsworth in some things, Mary Wollstonecraft), by allegorizing them (Byron, Shelley some more), or by ignoring them and focusing on something else entirely (Keats). (These examples are not exclusive of other writers, nor inclusive of all of these writers’ work.)

This book….doesn’t. It doesn’t completely ignore the political situation – there’s a scientist mentioned who was guillotined, balloon technology was feared because it could have military implications, etc. – but it doesn’t make any sort of claim or connection between the external situation and the scientists’ internal motivations. I know it doesn’t have to, necessarily, but if something is specifically about the “Romantic generation”, then I want to know what about it being the “Romantic generation” led to this seemingly sudden explosion in scientific research and discovery – and so far it’s not giving me that.

If anything, it’s more a book about Joseph Banks and his protégés/connections/influence and assistance than it is a book about the Romantic generation’s discovery of science. Banks was the focus of the first chapter (which was actually the chapter so far that I’ve had the hardest time keeping interest in), and he has shown up in every following chapter – almost as the guiding hand for all of the research. He was President of the Royal Society (or whatever) so it makes sense – but he’s definitely the link, and that structural connection isn’t really even hinted at in the title or back-of-book summary. (Side question that I really should know, but I don’t: is there a technical term for the back-of-book/dust jacket summary thing?)

The other thing that I’ve been thinking of in connection with this book is the definition of technology. This is something that pops up every once in a while in my life, often when someone calls themselves a “Luddite” or makes similar comments about technology (usually in the “it’s taking over the world!” vein). The thing is, almost everything is technological. When people say, “I’m giving up on technology and going to live in the woods!” they forget that things like axes (for cutting down trees) and matches (for starting fires) and baskets (for collecting food) are all technology.

I noticed it in this book with the chapter on ballooning. It refers to “balloon technology”, which struck me as odd when I first read it. We don’t usually think of balloons, even hot-air balloons, as being “technology”, but they are. Everything we use is technology – it’s not limited to electronics or computers or internal combustion engines.

I still have four chapters left to read; I’ve just finished the chapter on Humphrey Davy and his research into nitrous oxide. I’ll probably post again when I’ve finished the whole thing.


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