Category > History

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

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If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley, book reviewIf you are the sort of person who wonders when women started wearing knickers, what people did before the flushing toilet became standard, or why people in much of the past seemed to have feared eating fruit, then If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is probably the book for you. Written by Lucy Worsley (Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces), it was prepared to accompany a BBC4 documentary of the same name that was first shown about three years ago (and which I unfortunately missed). Having seen several of Worsley’s other documentaries, though, I hoped that her engaging, chatty style would be as evident in her writing as it was in her presenting.

Divided into four sections, If Walls Could Talk gives us an informative and often surprising history of the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen from the earliest sources available to the present day.


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Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girls’ Survival Story in Berlin

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Broken Glass, Broken Lives: A Jewish Girls’ Survival Story in Berlin, 1933 - 1945  Rita KluhnBroken Glass Broken Lives is Rita Kuhn’s first hand account of growing up in Berlin in the 1930s and 40s during Hitler’s Nazi regime. Rita is Jewish, brought up as a practicing Jew, going to a Jewish school, wearing her yellow star along with all the others marked out for attention by the regime. The difference was that in the eyes of that same regime, Rita was somehow not quite Jewish enough.

In Rita’s case, her mother was a Jewish convert who gave up the religion she’d been born with in order to marry Rita’s father. As such, Rita’s mother was exempt from much of the abuse that was perpetrated on ‘born and bred’ Jews and Rita and her brother were classified as a Geltungsjuedin – or ‘Jews by law’.


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When the Hills Ask for Your Blood

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When The Hills Ask For Your Blood, David Belton, book reviewDuring the Rwandan genocide in 1994, David Belton was working as a producer and director for the BBC’s Newsnight programme, for which he covered the genocide along with a reporter and small crew. He also co-wrote and produced the feature film Shooting Dogs, which was based on real events during the genocide. Twenty years later, he tells his story in When the Hills Ask for Your Blood, revisiting a country trying to recover from those horrific events. He also tells the stories of Jean-Pierre and Odette, a Rwandan couple fearing for their lives and those of their children, and Vjeko Curic, a Bosnian missionary who tried to save as many lives as he could.

The genocide in Rwanda is one of the most horrific periods in recent history, the pain of which Rwandans continue to live with.


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Ammonites and Leaping Fish

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Ammonites and Leaping Fish, Penelope Lively, book review“This is not quite a memoir. Rather it is the view from old age.”

Ammonites and Leaping Fish is Penelope Lively’s third autobiographical work (the others are Oleander Jacaranda and A House Unlocked). Rather than a chronological account of her life, this volume contains 5 pieces of prose, mixing current reflections and anecdotes with past recollections.

Old Age

At what age are you old? This is a witty piece on our shifting definitions of old age and what it means – apparently most people think youth ends at 41 and old age starts at 59, but those over 80 suggest 52 and 68 respectively. She speculates on the political and economic implications of the growing number of people over 80.


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Peter the Great

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Peter the Great by Robert Massie, book reviewBorn in 1672, Peter the Great is credited as being the Russian Tsar who pulled Russia out of the medieval world it was living in, and transformed it into a Westernized empire, becoming a great European power in the process. Peter was the son of Alexis I, by his second wife, and came to the throne after the death of his sickly half-brother Feodor III. Ruling initially as joint tsar with another half brother, Ivan, Peter became sole ruler in 1696. Having spent much time in the company of Europeans in his youth, Peter was determined to turn the Muscovite people into a European nation, and brought in many reforms, including forbidding beards. He expanded Russia’s territories, with wars against the Ottoman Empire and Sweden. He had a huge love for the sea, and turned Russia into a naval power. On land won from Sweden in the Baltic, he built his new capital, St Petersburg, and insisted that the court move there. Peter the Great died in 1725, still issuing decrees to improve Russia.


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Counting One’s Blessings

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Counting One's Blessings,  William Shawcross, book reviewCounting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother is edited by William Shawcross, whose official biography of the Queen Mother was published in 2006.This volume begins the Queen Mother, then Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was a young girl, and continues until a few months before her death in 2002.

The Queen Mother was a prolific letter writer throughout her life, from her childhood to her time as Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, and finally the many years as Queen Mother. She wrote to friends, family, acquaintances, people who worked for the royal family, and people she admired. These letters must have been like a treasure trove for Shawcross while he was writing his biography, and now he has been given permission to publish this volume of them.


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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K Massie, book reviewCatherine the Great was ruler of Russia in the eighteenth century. Born Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Herbst in 1729, she was brought to Russia by the Empress Elizabeth as bride to her nephew and heir, Peter. The marriage however was not happy, and when Peter ascended the throne and proved to be a poor Tsar, largely due to his idolisation of Frederick of Prussia, Russia’s enemy and ruler of Peter’s birthplace, Catherine staged a coup and became Empress, ushering in one of the golden periods of Russia’s history.

Catherine the Great by Robert Massie is not the first book on Romanov rulers by the author which I have read. Several years ago, having been fascinated by an exhibition on the last Tsars at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, I read and loved Nicholas and Alexandra.


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A Great and Glorious Adventure

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A Great and Glorious Adventure: A Military History of the Hundred Years War , Gordon Corrigan, book review“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”

Most of us will be familiar with these rousing lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V, spoken on the eve of the battle of Agincourt. Less of us, I imagine, will be familiar with the background to the battle or why Henry was fighting there at all. Despite having an interest in history, I for one will confess to knowing little about the period, my knowledge of the Hundred Years War limited to the odd novel (such as Bernard Cornwell’s Harlequin, Azincourt and 1356) and seeing period re-enacters demonstrate the weapons of the era at various events I’ve attended. When I received a copy of A Great and Glorious Adventure: A Military History of the Hundred Years War by Gordon Corrigan in the post recently, this seemed an excellent opportunity to start filling in the gaps in my knowledge.


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The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton

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The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton, Diane Atkinson, book review“A woman is made a helpless wretch by these laws of men” – Caroline Norton writing to Mary Shelley, 1837.

Caroline Norton is a name that deserves to be more widely known. Famous in her day, she left a profound and lasting legacy for women in Britain, and Diane Atkinson’s new book The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton rightly trains the spotlight back on this remarkable woman. Had she been a man, history would probably have recorded her name as a reformer along the lines of William Wiberforce, but as such she appears to have been largely forgotten now. This is an important story that women, particularly wives and mothers, everywhere should be familiar with and thankful for.


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The Elimination

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The Elimination by Rithy Panh, book reviewWhen my copy of The Elimination by Rithy Panh came through the letter box I took it out of its wrapper and thought “Oh boy, what have I done?”

The subtitle will maybe give you an idea why a sense of trepidation came over me. The Elimination – A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts his Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields.

I was pretty scared of what I might find. Even though I’d asked for this book, even though I’d told myself that I should be thoroughly ashamed to know almost nothing about something that took place during my own lifetime, I was still struck by a fear of what I might find inside the covers.


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Raffles

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Raffles, Victoria Glendinning, book reviewWhen I visited Singapore in 2009, I was of course aware of the world famous Raffles Hotel. I even visited it, as many tourists do, to enjoy a Singapore Sling or two in the renowned Long Bar. During the course of my trip, I began to notice that the name Raffles popped up in many other places around the city-state: a hospital, a leading school, a shopping mall and numerous businesses, not to mention the elegant statue on the quayside of the man who bore this name, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. For a man who was an imperialist – something we generally frown upon now – he seemed remarkable popular in the country that he played a key part in establishing. He was viewed not as a man imposing one country’s governance upon another, but rather as a founding father, without whom the Singaporeans of today would not be enjoying such prosperous lives. This attitude intrigued me. It was therefore with considerable interest that I read Victoria Glendinning’s Raffles and the Golden Opportunity, the first biography of Raffles to be written in over forty years.

While not full of the unequivocally glowing praise of earlier biographies, Stamford Raffles does come out of this book looking rather good.


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No One Left to Lie to

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No One Left to Lie to: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, Christopher Hitchens, book reviewThe first book I read by Christopher Hitchens was ‘The Missionary Position’ in which he attacked Mother Theresa of Calcutta. I was impressed – I always thought there was something a bit odd about raising millions and preaching the glory of poverty. If I was impressed by his research and his merciless attack on a little old lady, I was totally blown away by the character assassination of Bill Clinton in Hitchens’ 1999 book No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton. Whilst much of the world will look back on Bill as a philandering draft dodger who may or may not have inhaled, Hitchens soon shows us that fondling interns in the Oval Office was just the teensiest tip of the iceberg of misdemeanours which can be attributed to the 42nd president of the United States of America.


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