“A Short History Of Drunkenness” by Mark Forsyth (2017)

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“Before we were human, we were drinkers.”

My fondness for alcohol is well-documented. The best job I ever had was working, briefly, for a spirits magazine which involved perhaps an inordinate amount of tasting different tipples. But I also found the world of alcohol fascinating, rather than just loving the fact it’s so readily available and easy to drink. In this book, Mark Forsyth reveals what we’ve always known – humans are a species that are very fond of their drink and always have been.

Racing through history, from the first farmers to American Prohibition, Forsyth explores not just what humans have been drinking all this time, but also how, why, when and with who. We (in Britain at least) associate alcohol with evenings and the weekend in particular, although pretty much any time after noon when we’re not at work seems acceptable. This hasn’t always been the case. In the Middle Ages, Sunday morning was the time to get drunk, and the Romans and Vikings were at it pretty much all the time.

The book is packed with fascinating facts about the history of boozing, covering all the major types of alcohol including ale, beer, mead, wine, vodka, whisky, gin and cocktails. We learn about how alcohol was never meant to find its way to Australia (a plan that got as far as Plymouth), that in London, gin was once served out of dead cats, why you originally had to drink ale through a straw, and even how alcohol may have been responsible for the entire of civilisation. After all, hunting and gathering is all very well, but it takes time to brew beer, and you can’t do that when you’re constantly on the move.

As well as being incredibly interesting, the book is also very funny. Forsyth is open about the fact that he doesn’t understand all the science behind how alcohol affects us, nor even some of the history that doesn’t directly relate to booze, but he does know what he’s talking about when it comes to popping the cork or opening a cold beer. With wit and humour, he dashes away the rumours that Prohibition was a failed crusade, explains how to get served in the Wild West, and why the saloon of the movies never existed in reality, shows that the Egyptians loved to get drunk and partake in orgies in their temples, and that even the Middle East failed to curtail people’s alcohol intake, despite strict laws against it.

As he says, humans have been drinking since before we were human, and it changed our path forever. And I for one am not sorry about that at all. Cheers!

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“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

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“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

“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.

“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.

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