Tag Archives: history

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey: When the Duke of Rutland died in his study in 1940, his son ordered the rooms sealed. Bailey, one of the first historians allowed in, had intended to use the Duke’s meticulous record keeping to aid in a book about the experiences of the locals during World War I. What she found was three specific periods of time carefully excised from the record. This book is about her search for what happened during those times, and why he took such pains to hide it. For the most part, all is revealed. I found it much more interesting than I’d expected. There aren’t any grisly murders or anything truly sensational hidden in those lost months, but the aristocratic intrigue was fun to detangle. Fans of Downton Abbey would probably enjoy this, as it takes place during the same time period (the 1910s).

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman: In November of 1889, World journalist Nellie Bly set off for a trip around the world with the intent of beating Jules Verne’s fictional record of eighty days. On the same day, The Cosmopolitan journalist Elizabeth Bisland set off in the opposite direction, and the race was on. I find this to be a fascinating period in American history to begin with, but even more compelling were the stark differences between Bisland and Bly, one a genteel Southerner and the other a born urbanite. Their reactions to their foreign surroundings covered the ends of the spectrum of popular opinion. I especially appreciated the sheer thoroughness of the narrative: this book also covered Bly’s exposure of a local asylum by getting herself committed undercover, Joseph Pulitzer’s strange quirks, and the working conditions aboard the steamships of the time, among other things. This is truly nonfiction that reads like fiction, and I simply loved it. Definitely recommended.

A note on this edition: I read an advance reader’s copy, which is an uncorrected proof. Most of the time these books are nearly identical to the final publication, but in this case there were a number of placeholder images and the index was completely blank. I’ll have to pick up a copy when it’s released to see what that map of Ceylon at the beginning of every chapter is really supposed to be.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Help Support Markeroni!

As you may know, Markeroni is one of my favorite hobbies. Because of it I’ve visited some fascinating new places and learned so much (not least of which how the Civil War was really the beards vs. the mustaches). I love hunting for historical markers. I even wrote a Squidoo article about it. Well, what you may not know is that this great site is run by two people on truly ancient computers, and they need your help to bring the site into the 21st century! Every little bit helps, even just spreading the word. Click here to learn more.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale: In 1860, a child was murdered in a grisly fashion and the case more or less inspired all of detective fiction. Mr. Whicher was the detective on the case, whose unorthodox and – by Victorian standards – extremely intrusive investigative style ruffled many feathers and caused a nationwide sensation. The details and public reactions were fascinating, as were the quotes from various detective novels of the day, most of which were clearly based on Mr. Whicher and this case. Not something I normally would have picked up, not being a mystery or true crime buff, but this was truly interesting. Recommended.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel

Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel (unabridged audiobook read by George Guidall; 10 hrs 49 min on 9 discs): This is basically a biography of Galileo interspersed with letters from his devoted eldest daughter, a cloistered nun. The life story was of course quite fascinating, from his earliest publications to the trial by the Inquisition late in his life. His daughter’s letters, however, were less illuminating, consisting mostly of household minutiae and requests for money. Her repeated professions of love seemed to border on the passive aggressive, but I suppose that may have just been the translation. It’s too bad her father’s replies were lost; I would have liked to know what sorts of things he said to her. Still, this was a good overview of the life of a great man, and Sobel remains one of my favorite science writers.

A note on the audio: What can I say? It’s George Guidall. His name on a book guarantees it will be pleasantly listenable no matter what the subject matter. I know his voice well, and I appreciate that sort of consistency.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (unabridged audiobook read by Doug Ordunio; 16 hrs 21 min on 13 discs): This book aims to answer the question of why Eurasia became such a world power and dominated other nations. The historical (and racist) answer was that there was some inherent difference in the people of those lands, but this book goes into explicit detail on why this is clearly not the case. Rather, it boils down to a large number of factors dealing with crop and livestock domestication, climate, and geographic accessibility. There’s a lot of truly englightening information gathered here, but the text is quite dense, and quite difficult to digest quickly. It’s not a casual beach read, but certainly well worth picking up.

A note on the audio: This is a difficult book to earread, as the narrator is very monotone and yet also puts emphasis on unexpected words. Having to decipher the words through the jarring inflection made it much harder to digest the already dense information. If you want to read this one, stick with the paper version.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester: One might think that the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary would be a dry read, but it most certainly is not. This is mostly due to the fact that one of the most prolific contributors turned out to be an American inmate in an asylum for the criminally insane. Seriously. True, you should have at least a passing interest in linguistics – or at least vocabulary – to get a lot out of this book, but in a lot of ways this nonfiction book reads like a novel. This is the sort of history book I enjoy. Definitely recommended for lovers of words.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Don’t Know Much About Mythology by Kenneth C. Davis

Don’t Know Much About Mythology by Kenneth C. Davis (unabridged audiobook read by John Lee; 20 hours 20 min on 17 discs): Wow, this book is long. I mean, it’s interesting, but there’s so much information covering so vast a scope that reading it is like running a marathon. Each section covers a geographical region such as Africa or Western Europe, with the countries boasting the most well-documented mythologies getting the most treatment, such as Egypt, India, and Greece/Rome. Each section includes a timeline, a “who’s who” of gods and goddesses, relevant quotes, and answers to common questions like “was there really a Trojan War?” Though many comparisons are made, there is no separate section for Judeo-Christian mythology, having covered it in depth in his other book, Don’t Know Much About the Bible. Davis holds nothing back, describing a representative sample of each culture’s myths in (often hilarious) detail. For example, I was surprised (and kind of disgusted) by how many creation myths involved excrement and other bodily fluids of the gods, and laughed at the tales of the trickster god’s magical penis. The little asides and pop culture references were also often amusing. Though admittedly not meant to be a thorough compendium of mythology (and I would have loved for the “New World” section to have been much longer), it is certainly an excellent start. The writing is very accessible and has made me want to read more of the original myths, particularly the Norse and Egyptian tales. A word of warning, though: once you read the section on Egypt, you will never see the Washington Monument the same way ever again.

On the audio version: It’s always interesting to listen to the same people read vastly different books. Lee is an excellent narrator, with the added personal bonus of making me feel like the book was being read to me by Dawsey Adams. The two short myths at the back, specially recorded just for the audiobook, were fun and well worth listening to, even if the African one about the lion was kind of tragic.

The Code Book by Simon Singh

The Code Book by Simon Singh: A history of cryptography from ancient Egypt through quantum computing. My favorite parts were about WWII, with Turing and the Navajo Codetalkers. Some parts were a touch slow – cryptography isn’t nearly as thrilling as the activities associated with it – but by and large it was an informative read. My only real complaint was how long it took me to read. Though Singh’s text was thorough and readable as ever, it took me nearly a month to finish. I think I just wasn’t in the right mood for a math book.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Amir D. Aczel

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Amir D. Aczel: Earlier this year I read a book by the same title by Simon Singh, and unfortunately it is the superior read. Both are about the steps leading to Andrew Wile’s 1993 solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, from ancient Greece on. At less than 140 pages, this tiny volume does not do the story justice. I have a decent math background, but I found myself getting lost in places, and the intrigue simply didn’t grab me like it did in Singh’s book. If you’re in a hurry and just want a bare bones account of the history behind Fermat’s Last Theorem, this will do, but if you want the whole story, go straight to Simon Singh.

Also posted on BookCrossing.

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