Posts tagged ‘History’

July 17, 2017

Dr James Barry: a Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield

by Team Riverside

This excellent new biography charts the rollercoaster life of Margaret Anne Bulkeley, Du Preez DR JAMES BARRYborn in Cork into genteel chaotic poverty, who became Dr James Barry – leading and innovative army surgeon in the nineteenth century.

An almost unbelievable yarn, Margaret’s remarkable life takes in Edinburgh, Cape Town, Canada, and many other places en route.   A believably flawed character, several times I found myself gasping at the audacity of her behaviour.  Some serious new archival research has been undertaken for this book, but the learning is worn lightly and the book zips along with much action, adventure, and drama.  No wonder it was BBC Radio 2’s Fact not Fiction book choice.

This is a great addition to the literature of the history of medicine and surgery, but is equally important as women’s history.  Advice: if you don’t already know the story of this life, don’t read a summary beforehand – let the book unfold and you’ll be treated to a truly vivid narrative.

The authors are very good at identifying the current names of locations so the reader can place the action.  Some of it happens in London, and in particular Southwark, and so this is another great read for Riverside Bookshop locals.  This was a perfect holiday read for me.

Review by Bethan

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January 22, 2017

City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

josef-wittlin-and-philippe-sands-city-of-lions

Paperback, £12, Pushkin Press, out now

This beautifully made small book is an excellent companion read to Philippe Sands’ award winning East West Street: on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (see my review here, https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/east-west-street-on-the-origins-of-genocide-and-crimes-against-humanity-by-philippe-sands/).  It comprises two essays on what is now known as the city of Lviv, in Ukraine.  Exile Józef Wittlin, writing in 1946, recalls the city when he knew it before the Second World War.  Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose mother’s family were from Lviv and whose story is told in East West Street, gives his account of the city in 2016.

The book’s striking cover shows the many names the city has had over the last 100 years – Lviv, Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg.  Europe’s sometimes brutal twentieth century history has overrun this place over and over again.  Evocative black and white photographs and maps add a ghostly and sometimes melancholy note throughout.  Small publisher Pushkin Press can be proud of this book – read it, then read their republished The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig from 1942 (http://www.pushkinpress.com/book/the-world-of-yesterday/).

Both Wittlin and Sands’ accounts show their great attachment to the city, while dealing with the terrible things that happened there. They speak to each other, providing a vivid addition to the literature on exile and belonging.  Wittlin writes: “Balabans, Korniakts, Mohylas, Boims, Kampians – what sort of a motley crew is this?  That’s Lwów for you.  Diversified, variegated, as dazzling as an oriental carpet.  Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovians ‘through and through’” (p. 49).  Visiting the local museum 70 years later, and thinking about Wittlin’s quote, Sands asks: “… where were the spaces devoted to the former residents of the city, the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans?… What of the legacy of the Polish and Jewish inhabitants whose presence had been eclipsed?” (p. 130).

These memories of and reflections on the City of Lions, where many of Wittlin’s streets and buildings remain though their names and occupants have changed, help us to process and acknowledge the past. In our troubled present, inhumanity and change continue.  But there is also hope, as Sands concludes: “We too can play at games, as the world erupts once more.  We too can close our eyes, and imagine that beyond the dark clouds that settled over this unhappy city, a ray of light broke through, and that it still offers hope today” (p. 130).

Review by Bethan

May 31, 2016

East West Street – On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, by Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Orion Books, £20, out nowPhilippe Sands EAST WEST STREET

International human rights barrister Philippe Sands opens his remarkable new book with a quote from Nicolas Abraham: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others”.  Sands tries to fill some of these gaps in the stories of both his family and two lawyers who developed the legal concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity that featured for the first time in the Nuremberg tribunal – Hersch Lauerpacht and Rafael Lemkin.  Remarkably, there turn out to be connections between all of these people and the (now Ukrainian) city of Lviv, a site of mass murder of Jewish residents during the Second World War.

The best thing I’ve read this year, East West Street is both personal and international in scope.  Sands undertakes remarkable archival and other research and succeeds in uncovering surprising and illuminating stories, which help to explain both how international law developed as it did and why it was important that it did so.  In this he echoes the approach of Hartley Shawcross, British prosecutor at Nuremberg, who in his closing trial address used a single devastating case study to force home the inhumanity of Nazi war crimes (Sands recounts this at p. 346-7).  It takes a skilful and confident writer to manage the risks involved in bringing the huge themes of history back, over and over again, to real individuals.  He does so seamlessly, creating a book that reads as compulsively as a detective story.  The photos of people and original documents scattered throughout the text make it even more engaging.  The related film, My Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did, is also well worth watching (http://www.wildgazefilms.co.uk/my-nazi-legacy-2015/) .

Sands’ perspective as a lawyer involved with the International Criminal Court and war crimes tribunals from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia makes the work highly relevant when thinking about human rights now.  70 years after Nuremberg, how do we deal with crimes against humanity?  Do we have the courage required to remember that real individuals are caught up in these huge convulsions, and the greater courage not to look away?

Review by Bethan

August 19, 2015

Gods of Metal, Eric Schlosser

by Team Riverside

Penguin, paperback out now £1.99Eric Schlosser GODS OF METAL

Somehow I had stopped really thinking about the piles of nuclear weapons placed all over the world: owned, operated and sought by fallible humans. In this substantial and important new piece of reportage, Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation, Executive Producer of There Will be Blood) updates us on the threats posed by nuclear weapons today.

He describes repeated security breaches at US nuclear bases, spending time with anti-nuclear weapons campaigners imprisoned for breaking in. He reflects on their pacifist and radical forerunners.

Looking to the future, he details attempts made by non-state actors to gain access to nuclear weapons and weapons-manufacturing materials: “In October 2009, ten militants entered the central headquarters of the Pakistan Army in broad daylight, wearing military uniforms and carrying fake IDs. They took dozens of hostages, killed high-ranking officers, and maintained control of a building there for eighteen hours. The two leading commanders of Pakistan’s nuclear forces were stationed at the base.” (p. 73).

Published by Penguin 70 years after the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this thoughtful and thorough work is a must read. Get ready to have your consciousness raised: as the author writes when thanking experts for their help, “I’m not sure how they sleep at night”.

Review by Bethan

September 15, 2014

Ruth Rendell & Penelope Lively

by Andre

Ruth Rendell THE GIRL NEXT DOORAmmonites and Leaping Fish PENELOPE LIVELYIt’s a truism that old age brings a reawakening of childhood memories. For almost every writer, memory is a rich resource, but things get especially interesting when they undergo that memory reboot in their seventies or eighties. At the age of 84 – and 50 years since her debut From Doon with Death – Ruth Rendell has written a captivating novel about that experience. The Girl Next Door is nominally a crime novel, though the killer is identified at the beginning and the crime (a double murder) occurred in 1944. The case is brought to light by the unearthing of a pair of severed hands. What’s fascinating is the effect the grisly discovery has on the 70-somethings who used to play on the site as children. Memories are stirred and lives are shaken up at a time when the days, months and years might appear to be predictable and unchanging.

Penelope Lively’s brief, meditative memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, is a treasure trove of memory – from childhood in Alexandria to the ‘hospital years’ of old age – filtered through her precise and discursive prose. She is especially good on the working of memory and how it becomes “the mind’s triumph over time”, as well as childhood amnesia and the importance of teaching history (our collective memory). At 81, Lively has written a rich, absorbing memoir that has you hoping for further novels from this former Booker Prize winner.

November 17, 2013

Live From Downing Street: Nick Robinson

by Andre

Updated paperback out now – £8.99

Nick Robinson LIVE FROM DOWNING STREETThe BBC political editor is one of TV’s most familiar faces – and one of the most annoying if you accept Alastair Campbell’s assessment of Nick Robinson (“a jerk”). Well, I’d rather read Robinson’s engaging, witty history and insightful memoir than Campbell’s obsessive, late-night scribbling. It’s not an autobiography but it does begin – after a perfectly worthy, BBC-style introduction – with a revealing chapter on his youthful fascination with current affairs (Today presenter Brian Redhead was a neighbour) and his dogged research as BBC producer for a Dimbleby. Even when he switches to reporting, Robinson still seems to write a lot of memos and happily describes himself as a “pointy head” in contrast to BBC Rottweiler interviewers (Paxman, Humphrys, Neil).

Nevertheless, he’s a tenacious reporter who was bloodied early in the Blair years when, he claims, Mandelson tried to get him sacked, as well as being – for the most part – a staunch defender of his trade. While he acknowledges the soundbite culture’s gone too far, he reminds us of Draconian restrictions on reporting parliament from the 1600s to the 1950s. Politicians wouldn’t even deign to be interviewed. (In 1955, Clement Attlee was asked if there was “anything else you’d care to say about the coming election?” His answer in full: “No.”)

Robinson draws perfect sketches of the political pas de deux between each prime minister and the Beeb. Churchill loathed the BBC, which had (wrongly) denied him a platform in the 1930s; Wilson was a paranoiac who preferred ITV; Thatcher was positively hostile. He gets angry about propaganda during the Falklands War and regrets his failure to give Robin Cook’s opposition to the Iraq war airtime when employed by ITV (Robinson avoided the Blair-BBC death duel). Of course, this impartial correspondent’s candour becomes cloudier the closer he gets to the present but his profound questions about the future shape of British broadcasting make this essential reading for students of politics and the media.

March 7, 2013

Richard III: biographies and classic crime

by Andre

David Baldwin RICHARD IIIJosephine Tey THE DAUGHTER OF TIME

The surprise reappearance of Richard III, dug up in a Leicester car park, is a timely opportunity to try and disinter the truth about a king portrayed as a Machiavellian villain by Shakespeare. “We have to concede the curved spine was not Tudor propaganda, but we need not believe the chronicler who claimed Richard was the product of a two-year pregnancy and was born with teeth,” as Hilary Mantel said in her (unfairly) infamous lecture on royal bodies. “The king stripped by the victors has been reclothed in his true identity.” If you want to learn more about the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty, there are a pair of updated historical biographies that feature the car park dig: David Baldwin’s Richard III and – not so snappily titled – The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA: The Book that Inspired the Dig by John Ashdown-Hill.

Perhaps the most enjoyable piece of historical revisionism for Richard III, though, is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a unique and classic crime novel in which a bed-ridden Inspector Alan Grant decides to investigate the real facts behind the murderous ‘hunchback king’ after seeing a contemporary portrait of Richard. Could such a sensitive, noble face really belong to one of the most infamous villains of history? It’s a fascinating premise for an exquisite crime novel which, 62 years since publication, is more inventive and adroit in its plotting than almost any modern genre author can manage.

December 2, 2012

Authors’ Books of the Year 2012

by Andre

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2012

We’ve been trawling the literary pages for the books of 2012 and – after totting up the picks in The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Evening Standard, Spectator and New Statesman – here’s our top 10 poll of polls based on the books with the most nominations from fellow authors (all available at the Riverside, of course).

1. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
“Superb history as well as magnificent literature” – David Marquand, New Statesman
2. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
“[A] magisterial mix of scholarship and exploration of landscape” – Penelope Lively, The Spectator
3. NW by Zadie Smith
“Angry, committed, richly humane” – Philip Hensher, Daily Telegraph
4. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley
“A model of how royal biographies should be written” – Philip Ziegler, The Spectator
5. Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan
“The man is astute, funny and wonderful company” – Nick Laird, The Guardian
6. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum
“Comprehensive and compelling” – Amanda Foreman, Daily Telegraph
7. Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo
“Sets a gold standard for exactly what a gifted reporter may still do alone” – David Hare, The Guardian
8. Canada by Richard Ford
“Breathtaking” – Philip Hensher, The Spectator
9. Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper
“The man whose life I think I would most have wished to live… a triumph of tact and sympathy” – Robert Macfarlane, Daily Telegraph
10. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
“A memoir of the fatwa years that showed the human reality behind the headlines” – Louise Doughty, The Observer

It should really be a top 12 as Rushdie has the same number of picks as Skios by Michael Frayn and Alice Munro’s Dear Life. It’s also heartening to see The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway just outside the top 10.

October 6, 2012

2012 Samuel Johnson Prize Shortlist

by Andre

The six titles up for the UK’s leading non-fiction prize include some popular and much admired books here at the Riverside Bookshop. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane, is lyrical nature writing that draws deep on literature, myth and memory; a book for walkers or indeed anyone who’s felt their imagination stir as they put one foot in front of the other.

The other nominees are:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity by Steven Pinker
The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston
Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux

The winner will be announced on 12 November.

August 5, 2012

Artur Domosławski: Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life

by Monika

 There  are not many as disappointing things in life as finding out that someone whose work you’ve always admired was not an impeccable, godlike figure, but a deeply flawed human being. Suddenly it’s down to us to judge if we can overlook these flaws or if we find them utterly unforgivable. This is a decision that the reader of ‘Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life” by Artur Domosławski (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) will have to make for himself. Domoslawski hit hard with a brilliant and thoroughly fascinating biography that openly questions the veracity of Kapuściński’s writing as well as the nature of his political engagement in Communist Poland. It’s a book that caused a little civil war in reporter’s home country: Kapuściński’s wife tried to stop it from being published – fortunately, in vain. It is a beautifully written testimony, full of respect and understanding that is aimed at truth, before that truth would have been (surely) revealed by some other, (surely) far less kind source. A must read.

May 5, 2012

The Rise & Fall of Ancient Egypt: Toby Wilkinson

by Andy

As interesting and informative as learning books can be, the reading of them is not always easy and makes impressive demands on the attention. Proper attention, that is.  And that’s if you already have a vague idea of what the book is about (as, quite often, what you bring to the learning book is just as important as what the learning book brings to you, so that if you know nothing and naively think it will be easy to pick something up and simply discover proper attention might well require the re-reading of various bits and the taking of moments to remember who such-and-such a person was and why they did what they did)).  For history in particular there are not that many titles that cater for the vast majority who have not got seven years to spare to really study a subject.

So, Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise & Fall of Ancient Egypt is one of those rare things – a big, fat impressive tome, the completion of which will leave you feeling immensely smug, immeasurably fascinated and thoroughly informed (unless, like me, you have the recall facility of a gnat).  But better than all of that is that you can zip through it in almost no time (which I did) and fully appreciate the scope of over three thousand years of civilisation and finish with a pretty good idea of what happened and feel entertained.  Quite possibly the best history book I’ve read in a very, very long time (and I read a lot of them, and I stop reading a lot more of them).

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July 23, 2011

Elizabeth the Queen: Alison Weir

by Andy

Without doubt the definitive biography of the era-defining monarch.  Weir’s patient (but never torpid) detail is ideal in reconstructing the life and Court of a woman about whom [too] much is assumed, exaggerated and scandalised.  A wonderful read that leaves you with an indelible portrait.

February 21, 2011

The Hammer and the Cross: Robert Ferguson

by Andy

Medieval European history: not for everyone, perhaps, but for those so inclined you can do a lot worse than this (as I have, too often, as testified by an ever-growing pile of never-to-be-finished doorstops). And because I liked it, and more importantly because I finished it (and also because it’s highly accessible but not dumbed down and exhaustive without being exhausting), I’m insisting on recommending it; if only because one day you too may feel the need to know more about the Vikings beyond a plethora of slightly misinformed nuggets.

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February 3, 2011

The Hare with the Amber Eyes

by Team Riverside

Edmund De Waal, £8.99

De Waal’s Costa Winning bestseller (Biography) traces the history of an inherited collection of netsuke in what was one of 2010’s most warmly received titles.

October 4, 2010

AD 500: Simon Young

by Andy

Bestiality.  Mad monks.  Human sacrifice.  Britain was far more interesting back then, if a tad intolerant and gruesome.  Written in the form of a travelogue for visiting Byzantines, it is a fabulously engaging snapshot of a chaotic and emerging Britain

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October 4, 2010

The Celtic Revolution: Simon Young

by Andy

The Celts, it would seem, did an awful lot; don’t let the apparent brevity of the book deceive you.  Young certainly knows his stuff and yet is one of the rare few able to effortlessly distil his arguments into something that is: –

(a)     readable

(b)    comprehensible

which always helps.

Perhaps not the most obvious topic but this is a lively and illuminating insight into an all too often unacknowledged period.

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September 30, 2010

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Alison Weir

by Andy

Take the Queen Mother, combine with Margaret Thatcher, insert into Medieval England (and France) and that’s Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Chances are you’ve never heard of her (King John’s mother if you remember your Maid Marion) but worry not.

Weir has a habit of taking the most controversial and misunderstood historical persons and situations and rendering them in such considered detail, free from salacious diatribes and glib asides, so that you finish with the full story told.  This is no exception but with the added bonus of a genuinely fascinating and wilful monarch who let nothing – her first husband, her second, her children, the Pope and the Crusades (which she joined in with, on horseback) get in her way.  Informative and entertaining.

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September 27, 2010

Penguin Book of Classical Myths: Jennifer R March

by Andy

Everything you wanted to know about Greco-Roman mythology (with the emphasis on Greek, for reasons that will become obvious when reading) in handy, book form.  Or rather handy, readily readable book form.

No endless chapters detailing the ten year wait outside the walls of Troy, no lengthy stanzas reciting who begat who (and with who, and what they happened to turn into, and which god’s ire was stoked in the process).  March adopts the approach of a novel – starting from the very beginning, sticking to a rough, chronological order – and supplies enough background to avoid mere summaries but does not burden the text.  The result is an approachable jaunt through thousands of years of mythology and an abundance of highly enjoyable and thrilling tales told with style.

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