“Mendelssohn Is On The Roof” by Jiří Weil (1960)

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“Antonin Becvar and Josef Stankovsky were on the roof, walking around the statues.”

As a general rule, I try and avoid books that heavily feature the Holocaust and the dark days of the Second World War, but there are exceptions, of course. It’s a part of our history that I simply cannot fathom and I find the whole area so depressing to think about that I decided a while ago to not read fiction about it. Of course it’s an important historical event and I’m not suggesting otherwise, but with so much awful stuff going on in the world, it’s not unreasonable I feel to want to read things that are a bit more upbeat. I was duped, however, when I saw this book on a friend’s shelf and, intrigued by the title and blurb, bought myself a copy.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof takes place in Nazi-occupied Prague during in 1942. The city has been ravaged, with Jews kicked out and either sent to ghettos or killed. An official concert is due to be performed soon, but the Nazis have discovered that one of the statues on the concert hall is of Felix Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer. The order is given to have the statue removed, but none of the Nazis know which one he is. They decide to go for the one with the biggest nose – unfortunately, that’s Wagner…

While the Nazis try to find a scholarly Jew left in the city, elsewhere other events have begun to unfold. A man has an incurable disease that is slowly tuning him to stone. Two children are hidden away behind a wardrobe so they can’t sent off. An architect is commissioned to design a set of gallows for an upcoming execution. The Gestapo continue to torment and torture anyone they see fit, never having to take responsibility for their actions. As the world descends into chaos, there seems little hope left for anyone.

What makes the book all the more haunting, of course, is that Weil was there. Born in 1900, he was assigned to work at the Jewish Museum in Prague, and when he was summoned to go and live in the ghetto, he instead staged his death and spent the rest of the war hiding in apartments and, in one case, a hospital. This is almost certainly what makes the book’s horror so visceral. Although billed as a “darkly comic” novel, the emphasis is most certainly on the first of those words. While the set up and first few chapters are quite humorous as we see the Germans struggle to comply with their orders, it quickly descends from farce to tragedy, and by the end there is nothing but doom, gloom and the horrific events of one of the darkest moments in our history.

Perhaps overwhelmed by the awful events that befall the characters, I admit that I got a bit lost throughout it and was never quite able to keep everyone’s names straight, meaning it would often be a couple of paragraphs before I realised which character we’d gone back to. The story lines weave together at random, with occasional overlap. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding many of them, and there’s not really a happy ending for anyone here. The true abhorrence of the Nazi party’s “final solution” and way of dealing with the “Jewish problem” are writ large and it makes for very difficult reading.

Of course it’s an important book, and it’s artfully done, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s enjoyable. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to read these accounts from someone who was actually there. A few of them remain, but it won’t be long before this chapter of humanity is consigned entirely to the history books. We cannot let its important diminish.

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“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (2009)

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“Lightning struck me all my life.”

History, as we all know, has given women a rough ride of it. One could read through numerous history books and believe that, aside from the occasional queen or witch, women hadn’t appeared until the 1920s. This inequality is the reason that Watson and Crick are considered the discoverers of DNA leaving out Rosalind Franklin who did most of the preliminary research, or why Charles Babbage is hailed as the first computer scientist, leaving Ada Lovelace often ignored. Fortunately, we are now righting these wrongs, and one of the women who, after her death, achieved great notoriety is the fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose discoveries shook the scientific community to its core. Tracy Chevalier explores her life in this novel.

Anning shares the duty of narration with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter who specialises in fossil fish (and was also a real person, but whose story has been eclipsed by that of Anning). When Elizabeth’s brother marries, she and her sisters Louise and Margaret are sent to live in Lyme Regis, a quiet coastal town, because that’s what happened in the early 1800s. There, Elizabeth discovers she has a love for finding fossils on the beach, but her skills are nothing compared to that of young Mary Anning who, despite the age gap of twenty years, she strikes up a curious friendship with.

As the two women grow, they make more discoveries and when Mary’s brother encounters a fossil of a creature unlike anything anyone has ever seen, it becomes the talk of the world and centuries of religious doctrine begin to look a little shaky. Is it possible that animals can go extinct? Did God make some creatures only to kill them off? Is it possible that God made a mistake? The ideas are sacrilege to many, but Elizabeth and Mary are determined that the world should see their fossils and hear the theories. Unfortunately, they’re women, but their passion and loyalty to the fossils ensure that the truth will out.

As they grow, they find much more than just fossils, learning about their places in the world, the meaning of heartbreak and how friendships can be as brittle as any of their findings.

I knew a little of Mary Anning before beginning the book – her face and her fossils are all over the Natural History Museum – but Elizabeth Philpot unfortunately was new to me, although no less interesting. Neither she or Mary ever married, and instead dedicated their lives to their fossil hunting even though, because of their sex, they would never be welcomed into the Royal Society or be allowed to write scientific papers. Philpot, in fact, discovered fossilised ink sacs inside belemnite fossils and even worked out how to revive the ink for use. Anning had the harder life, arguably, being from a very poor background and losing her father at a young age. She however became the first person to find skeletons of both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton in Britain. Her legacy is one that should be heralded for what it did to science and the advancement of knowledge.

The story itself adds much colour to both ladies, as well as the scientific men around them, and Chevalier freely admits that she has embellished much of what happened in their private lives, but that’s not a fault, as it just gives the women more depth. Parts of the story do drag a little, I can’t deny that, but in general it’s an interesting read featuring two remarkable women. Chevalier has a good eye for metaphor and the two narrators are wonderfully distinct in their styles.

A fascinating and thoughtful look at some figures many may not have heard of, but should have.

“The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton (2014)

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“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends.”

I’m very poorly-travelled in the real world, preferring to do my travelling via literature. As such, I’ve never been to Amsterdam in reality, although I keep stopping in. In just the few years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been there on a stag weekend, hidden from Nazis with Anne Frank, and on one occasion just stopped in for dinner. I returned again this week, but it’s an Amsterdam I’m not familiar with from my readings. For this review, we’re stepping back in time.

It’s 1686, and Nella Oortman, an eighteen-year-old from a small village has arrived at a large house in Amsterdam where she is to live with her new husband, the rich trader Johannes Brandt. Nella is unfamiliar with the ways of the city, but is prepared to do her wifely duty. Her new husband, however, is vague and distant, and hardly seeks her out for conversation. His sister, the stern Marin, is anything but friendly so the best welcome she receives is from Cornelia, the maid, and Johannes’ black manservant, Otto.

Johannes, however, realises that his new wife is bored and purchases for her a beautiful doll’s house, and Nella sets about finding a craftsman to make furniture and dolls for it. She is shocked, however, when the furniture that arrives from her mysterious benefactor matches perfectly the furniture in her new house. Indeed, even the dolls are exact replicas. And then more parcels begin to arrive, with other things for her doll’s house that she didn’t request. It seems that the maker, the miniaturist, knows something that Nella doesn’t, and when the house’s many secrets begin to spill out, she isn’t sure if the miniaturist is sending a warning or a threat.

As much as I read pretty much anything, there probably is a certain pattern to what I read, and The Miniaturist at first glance seems like it’s going against that pattern. It doesn’t feel very “me” but something about it obviously stirred interest in my gut when I found it on a second-hand stall at a train station platform. It’s sat on the shelf for about two years, but then when I started it I was instantly captivated. The characters are vivid in their description, and the whole novel is permeated with a strange sense of foreboding. Like Nella, you wonder what is going on, who this miniaturist is and what they could possibly want with the family, and what secrets are being kept from the wider world.

I was sympathetic to Nella immediately, but I was particularly taken with the character of Marin. She is foreboding and unpleasant, but her manner hides something else and she becomes something else. Indeed, everyone inspires pity, but for very different reasons. With a couple of exceptions maybe, sugar plantation owner Frans Meermans being one of them. Amsterdam is painted as a living, breathing city, but one where there are always eyes watching everything that happens, a fact emphasised by the doll’s house figures, each laced with secrets that the maker could not possibly have known.

I was oddly moved by the novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve been reading a little less lately due to a vain attempt to catch up some other media I’d been ignoring, but this was the first book for a couple of weeks I’d purposely set aside a little more time to read, not just using train journeys to plod through it. A charming and special novel, it is a simple story told beautifully and I’m pleased to have added it to my pool.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

“Death Comes As The End” by Agatha Christie (1945)

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This murder is ancient history...

This murder is ancient history…

“Renisenb stood looking over the Nile.”

Agatha Christie lived an interesting life. After her first marriage broke down, she found happiness with Max Mallowan, an archaeologist of some renown. Being fourteen years her junior never seemed to stop either of them from being incredibly happy in one another’s company and soon Christie was joining him on his digs to North Africa and the Middle East. Her novels Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile and Appointment with Death all make use of her knowledge of archaeology and the landscape she and her husband were visiting, but then one book took this to a whole new level. Unique among the canon of Christie, Death Comes as the End is the only one that doesn’t take place in, what was to her, the modern day. Instead, we are catapulted to 2000 BC to the shores of the Nile, where we are soon to learn that humans haven’t actually changed all that much in the intervening four millennia.

Young Renisenb has returned to the home of her father Imhotep, a priest, and her extended family. Her brothers Yahmose, Sobek and Ipy live here still with their wives, along with her grandmother Esa, and several other workers around the house including the bright and charming Kameni, the doting and wise Hori, and the snivelling, creeping Henet. Things seem much as they were when Renisenb left eight years ago, but soon her father returns from his travels with a stranger in tow, his new concubine, Nofret. This new woman soon has turned everything in the house upside down.

However, soon things go from bad to worse when Nofret’s body is found at the foot of a cliff, crumpled and dead. Imhotep is adamant that it’s an accident, but Renisenb has other ideas. It seems too convenient that a woman who was so hated has suddenly died, and it’s only when other members of the household start to be killed off one by one that everyone becomes a lot more wary. Murder is hardly a new thing, and here we are, thousands of years in our past, dealing with a serial killer and a complex web of lies, in classic Christie fashion.

As I said above, this is a Christie novel that is in many ways unlike any other, but then again, it contains all the usual hallmarks of her work. Human nature never changes, which is something Miss Marple in particular always notices, so it’s great fun to see a classic murder mystery set somewhere entirely different. The outcome remains the same and the issues of love, family, jealousy and murder are just as at home here as they are in a little English village in the thirties. Esa, indeed, as a character reads a lot like an Ancient Egyptian Miss Marple, and Renisenb has much in common with the spunky, adventurous girls of her modern books. The characters are almost archetypes – the domineering wife, the doting mother, the spoiled child, and creepy servant – and yet each character also manages to be fully fleshed out.

The murderer in this novel, unusually, has a wide range of methods of murder at their disposal, rather than picking one and sticking to it. Christie makes excellent use of her knowledge of the time period and while she occasionally seems to dip into more exposition than is necessary for the story, such as listing of gods or going into detail on burial practices, it actually just adds to the colour rather than distract and feel like showing off.

Christie has done something entirely different and it has worked. This might be one of her novels that I like best. Fresh, smart and a touch creepy.

“A Million Years In A Day” by Greg Jenner (2015)

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million years“The shrill klaxon of the alarm clock startles us from a deep snooze.”

I don’t have many regrets, but a big one is that I didn’t study more history in school. It was compulsory for the first three years of secondary school and then became optional, at which point I stopped, meaning I haven’t had a proper history lesson since 2002. In the past five or six years, however, I have got back into history and started finding it fascinating. OK, I have limited interest in the particulars of warfare, and anything about the textile industry seems important but is just really dry, so I prefer the darker, weirder, funnier and less recognised parts of history. This brings us to Greg Jenner.

Greg Jenner is a historian who was the sole person responsible for historical accuracy in the Horrible Histories TV series, a series that I’m well aware was for kids, but nonetheless was hugely entertaining. This time he’s turned his attention to an older audience, sharing with us a strange history of every day life. In this book, he details the events a modern Saturday and explains how all the things we take for granted have long, and sometimes bizarre, historical origins.

By looking at an average modern day, he follows us from waking up to our morning routine, meals, dog walking and socialising, right up until bed time comes and we set the alarm clock once more. Along the way he introduces us to the chequered and interesting histories of toilet paper, toothbrushes, champagne, bread, underwear, dogs, newspapers, table manners and even time itself. Along the way we’ll discover that what we do isn’t really that much different to anything humanity has been doing since the time of the Stone Age.

Witty, sharp and occasionally silly, the book is nonetheless completely factual and straddles that perfect line of educating while entertaining, whether discussing how forks came to exist, the fastest ways to send messages, or detailing just what exactly the customs were throughout history regarding sleeping arrangements. We meet history’s most famous faces and encounter some that we may not know so well, even though their achievements continue to be important in modern times. I’m thinking of the monk Dom Perignon for one, whose addition to society is probably obvious from his name, or Pierre Fauchard, the man who invented false teeth, fillings and braces.

It’s a book that will undoubtedly make you think, and make you realise that so much of what we take for granted has such hugely complicated origins, as well as that history does indeed move in circles, as people chop and change their habits depending on what’s fashionable. Perhaps the most pervasive of the ideas is that all of this has been going on a lot longer than we think, and that clothing, beer and beds have been going on since our caveman days.

The notion of breaking the book up into chapters comparing history to modern day is brilliant. It means that each chapter has a specific topic. For example, the first chapter, in which we bash our alarm clock into silence upon waking allows for a talk about how we measure time and have come to use the calendars we do. The second chapter has us attend to natural business at the toilet, giving us a chapter on the history of this essential item. And on it goes, from breakfast to bedtime.

Anyone with even a passing interest in history can enjoy this, and it’s full of tasty nuggets to bring out at any social occasion at any time of day, although maybe some of the ones about hygiene and the ever-changing standards of cleanliness throughout the ages are best avoided over the dinner table. A really compelling and hugely fascinating read.

“Who Cooked The Last Supper?” by Rosalind Miles (1989)

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last supper book

A woman’s work is never done.

“The story of the human race begins with a female.”

Quickly, without giving it too much thought, name ten famous historical women. Got them? Right. Probably you’ve all gone for the same ones. Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, maybe Victoria, possibly Marie Curie, Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale? Emmeline Pankhurst?

OK, now name ten more. Who’ve we got this time? Cleopatra? Boadicea? Mary Seacole, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman? Not so easy that time, was it?

Now do it again. Struggling? Horrendously, so was I. And yet if I’d asked you to name fifty historical men, you might not have even had to pause for a moment, reeling off a checklist of men from Alexander the Great to Winston Churchill. Why, then, is it so hard to quickly recall even a handful of history’s greatest women? Simply, because men wrote the history books and have edited them ruthlessly.

In Rosalind Miles’ book, Who Cooked The Last Supper?, she laments this lack of women throughout history, pointing out that wherever men were, women had to be there too, usually being treated far worse and often without much public outcry. Her story begins in the caves of old, where women gathered most of the food for their tribes and leads us through history up to the last century where women fought for their rights to suffrage, contraception and independence.

Along the way, she talks about the hypocrisy of men as they struggled to keep women under their thumbs, deciding almost arbitrarily that women are weaker and more stupid, making them unable to do the jobs that men could do, despite the fact that women had been doing them for centuries before. She covers every horror that women have faced over the advancing millennia, from rape and slavery, to genital mutilation and the punishments doled out for having the audacity to menstruate. Women had originally been worshipped as goddesses, creators who gave life to everything, but as soon as men realised that they had something to do with childbirth too, then that was that. Woman’s fate was sealed and the phallus was held up as the greatest thing on the earth.

There are tales of genuine horror in here, such as the trials of female coal miners, the sex slavery that most women endured, and the horrendous, almost vomit-inducing tortures forced upon those women who dared to step outside of the norm.

Miles pulls no punches here, never for a minute accepting that men weren’t at fault here. She is out to redress history and show that women have been there all this time, even if the history books so often don’t show that. There are stories of great women in history who worked as laborers, soldiers, teachers, scientists, writers and doctors, only to have most of their achievements blasted out of history by men. But women are responsible for some of the biggest leaps forward in humanity’s history. The first novelist was a woman, and so was the inventor of calligraphy, and thus the art of handwriting. Female gynecologists ruled the wards of Ancient Greece, and there’s always been women willing to go out and teach others.

It’s an interesting book and will make you look at history in a completely different way, but I warn you now that this is at heart an academic text, and Miles is an academic, so it’s fairly dry in some places. With such a seemingly frivolous title, I expected it to be a bit lighter, but it was not to be so. Also, there are a few tales of famous women who should be remembered better, but few of them are much fleshed out, and it would have been interesting to read more of these.

In any case, it’s a stark reminder that men did not build this world alone, and that some backwards thinking people may continue with their beliefs that women are lesser than them, but they are wrong. Of course women should have equality, but it’s been a long, torturous process to get to the point we’re at now, and we’ve still got further to go.

An important read for men and women alike.

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