Category Archives: History

Until Proven Safe: the History and Future of Quarantine

I like to imagine Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh saying “No one would have believed…” like Richard Burton at the start of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, when asked how they feel in 2021 about this book. They started it, as far as I can tell, many years before 2020… and then finished it while large portions of the world were getting the ideas of ‘quarantine’ and ‘isolation’ mixed up. (As the pair make clear, quarantine is when there is doubt about the infection status of a person or object.)

I came across this book because I am a massive fan of Gastropod, “food through the lens of science and history”, co-hosted by Twilley. And as a fan of wide-ranging history in general, it seemed like a good bet that it would be right up my alley. The podcast did one episode using some of the ideas from the book – talking about the quarantining of cocoa plants, mostly, so as to prevent the spread of chocolate-destroying pests, which I am heartily in favour of.

As the name suggests, the book covers both the history and the future of quarantine – and, of course, the present. Many more people know, in 2021, the origins of the word – the 40 days people and cargo on ships were kept out of places like Venice, for fear of sickness. Manaugh and Twilley visit Venice and Dubrovnik and Malta, places where quarantining had a long history in architecture and laws, and occasionally in famous people getting grumpy about being stuck.

The middle section is about quarantine today. As an Australian this is a particularly real issue; we really don’t want to bring yet more pests and diseases in if we can avoid it. There’s a reason dogs don’t get to be smuggled in, JOHNNY DEPP. It was fascinating to read about measures that are used around the world to try and stop invasive stuff – and how often, this is a stop-gap measure, because with ever-increasing world trade it’s just so easy for teeny critters and seeds to travel. This section also looks at ‘quarantining’ radioactive waste – which is a bit of a stretch, since there’s no real question about the stuff being dangerous; and the authors acknowledge that it is, indeed, about isolation, rather than quarantine; but their argument is that places doing this stuff are fascinating for ‘quarantine tourists’ because they showcase ‘extreme engineering controls’. And this section also looks at the measures used around space travel: like I didn’t know the first couple of sets of Apollo astronauts were required to quarantine for fear of moon diseases.

My one grumble about the book is a minor Australian one. In discussing Australian legislation from 1884, they call Australia “the newly unified continent” (p125). Australia didn’t federate until 1901. My quick google suggests that there were, indeed, “Sanitary Conferences” at this time aiming to have a united policy across the colonies, so I guess in that sense the continent was unified?

In the section about the future, Twilley and Manaugh do look at COVID responses, comparing them to medieval responses in terms of government use of power, and even deploy Foucault as a way of examining government (over)reach. We’re discussing these questions a lot at the moment, of course, and it was interesting to see it all in this context. And what was completely terrifying was to discover that there’s a “data-aggregation and modelling firm with close ties to the US defense industry” (p328) called Palantir. Palantir. The seeing-stones of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Wikipedia notes that “beings of great power could manipulate the stones to see virtually any part of the world”. And someone at this company thought this was a good name for this company.

I think, given our situation at the moment, one of the last points made in the book is particularly pertinent: “Ironically, if quarantine does work… it will almost always be perceived as an overreaction” (p349).

Well written, well researched, broad ranging and examining difficult issues with compassion and clarity. This is a great history of quarantine and I thoroughly recommend it. Exactly WHEN you want to read it will depend on your experience of 2020 and 2021, I suspect.

Green Chili and Other Impostors

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

Part travel memoir, part personal memoir, and part food history; it’s an intriguing combination. Furstenau discusses her own history – born of Bengali parents, in Thailand, and then growing up in the US. Throughout the book are comments about how hard it was to demonstrate that her visa to India ought to reflect that heritage, but given a lack of paperwork for her parents, it wasn’t to be. This sense of questioning where she belongs is woven through her discussion of “Indian” food, as she looks into the histories of both ingredients and dishes. “Indian” because some of what is discussed is about how now-common ingredients in Indian food actually came to India (green peas, chillis, potato… cheese…); and also some things you might think of as Indian are not, and some things appropriated by others are, of course, from India.

The author travels around India, sometimes visiting relatives and sometimes finding food-connected people, who talk about history and share recipes and teach her to cook some of the dishes. And these recipes are included, of course – Sandesh and Nolen Gur Cheesecake; Kedgeree (which is Indian, not Scottish, and the story of it becoming a breakfast staple is fascinating and I have never eaten it!); Koraishutir Kochuri (puffed bread with green pea filling, and goodness I really want to make this)… and so many others.

This book is very readable; it’s enjoyable to journey around India, it’s varied in what ingredients and ideas it discusses, and the recipes seem easy to follow.

Of Fear and Strangers

I received this via NetGalley.

What an absolutely remarkable book. It’s not quite what I was expecting – which was a history of, I guess, where xenophobia has occurred, and maybe it consequences. But more interestingly that that, this is a history of the very concept of xenophobia. It does use examples of historical xenophobia – of course it does; you can’t discuss what the word means without showing what it has looked like. But it’s more psychological and philosophical than I was expecting, as a way of getting to the guts of why humans can react so poorly towards strangers, and how we have tried to explain that to ourselves.

And the first thing I learned is that ‘xenophobia’ as a word is brand new. Like, end of the 19th century new. Makari goes through his whole journey of discovery about this – detailing what he read and what explanations he chased down – in what almost amounts to a thriller in terms of sudden clues popping up. This was the first hint that not only was this going to be fascinating information, but also that the style was going to keep me engaged and keep me ploughing through what otherwise might have been overwhelming, both intellectually and emotionally. This was also building on a very personal opening to the book: Makari outlines his own family’s experience of being “xenos” – strangers – descended from Lebanese ancestors, living in America, experiencing the dismissal of “Arabs” and wondering about his family’s place in the world. Being published in 2021, as well, and of course, the question of xenophobia and how “we” react to the “stranger” remains as tragically relevant today as it has been at any time in the past.

Part 1 explores “The Origins of Xenophobia” – where the word originates, how it was used to describe the so-called Boxer Rebellion in China – and therefore the ‘mad’ reaction of Chinese people to Westerners and all the ‘enlightenment’ they could bring. And then how the word was used in colonial contexts – xenophobia is a product of the inferior mind, because ‘they’ don’t understand what ‘we’ (colonisers) are bringing, and they don’t know any better than to be hostile! And then on through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, flipping that idea of xenophobia around and showing how colonisers might be the scared ones… and then on into discussion of immigration. Sadly, that connects really early on with Jewish migration, and then of course the book leads into the Holocaust.

Part 2, then, explores “Inside the Xenophobic Mind.” I have neither philosophical nor psychological training, so this part both taught me many new things, and was also surprisingly approachable. Well, approachable in terms of understanding in general, although again confronting in some parts – like the experiments to train kids into having phobias to try and understand how such fears can develop… and also because some of the philosophical aspects definitely went over my head. So this section, too, made me think much more both about xenophobia as a concept but also about how different groups have approached the desire to understand it – external or internal reasons, love and projection and can we ever truly know someone else… and so on.

I would heartily recommend this to people who are interested in why humans act the way they do, for people seeking an understanding of the way the world is and has been; whether you’re an historian or not, whether you’ve knowledge of psychology or not, Makari makes difficult concepts relatively straightforward to grasp. And he doesn’t claim to be able to explain all of humanity, but the book does suggest a range of ways that we might try to think about ourselves, and our neighbours, and our leaders… and think about why we react the way we do. And that can only be a good thing, right? In fact, I think that as many people as possible should read this book, so that we can be much better at talking about these things and be a little less defensive.

The Hood, by Lavie Tidhar

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

This was… completely bonkers.

Some context: I studied medieval history at bit at uni, and I also did a subject about medievalism in modern society; I did an essay on Robin Hood. I am by no means an expert, of course, but I have some awareness of the whole mythology. Which is why I was so excited to read this. I had loved what Tidhar did with the Arthurian stuff in By Force Alone, and I was wide-eyed at what he would do here. The Robin Hood stuff is so wide-ranging – in history and in modern incarnation (Disney’s version is still the best) – that there’s just so much to play with.

Fascinatingly, Tidhar begins with Maid Marian, and goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all. And then goes to Will Scarlett, and likewise. And then to Rebecca – riffing off Ivanhoe – and… well, there’s a very long section of the story that’s exploring things other than a man with a bow and arrow and Lincoln green. In fact, I would argue that “Robin Hood” is probably the least important main character in the entire narrative. Which is a very interesting choice and one I’m still chewing over. Many of the characters recognisable from old and new stories make an appearance – Guy of Gisborne, the sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Little John and Tuck and Much the miller’s son – although perhaps not as you would expect them (that aspect I’m completely happy with).

The different sections, especially in perhaps the first third, are almost like stand-alone ballads; and maybe that’s intentional, reflecting the structure of those early, medieval ‘Gestes’. But it is somewhat disconcerting if you come to this expecting a straightforward “Robin Hood story” – because it definitely isn’t. I have no problem with this idea; disjointed narratives can be brilliant. Many of the early ideas do eventually have their pay-off later in the narrative, and often in quite clever ways; but it often didn’t feel like enough of a pay-off given the set up. I think perhaps there’s not enough of a crescendo – I finished the book feeling a little flat, a little lost – surprised: “is that it?”

(For those having read By Force Alone: that too was somewhat chaotic, but to me it always seemed like a coherent chaos. In contrast, I think The Hood doesn’t always succeed in coherence, narrative or character wise.)

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. It’s a rollicking ride from the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda’s civil war of the 1140s through to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th Crusades; Tidhar incorporates a surprising and unexpected amount of English history that’s usually not connected to the Robin Hood stories at all, commenting along the way. There’s an excellent range of characters, all stubbornly themselves and threatening to break away and live their own damned lives, thanks all the same. It’s not always easy to read – Tidhar clearly has a love of language and he likes playing with repetition and surprising slang – but it’s also not a slog.

I have no regrets about having read The Hood, and I will read whatever books Tidhar puts out in the Matter of Britain series (I think I heard it described as a quadrology, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what else will be included).

The Gilded Page

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I loved this book.

I already love medieval manuscripts and the stories that go along with them – about marginalia and the sheer effort that goes in to making one. What Wellesley has done here is look at manuscripts to understand the people who made them, used them, saved them, and occasionally caused their destruction. I read this in uncorrected proof, as an ebook (and there’s some twisty lineage there from hand-written sheepskin to pixels), so I’m not sure whether the published version will have images, but that’s about the only thing that would make this even more of a joy to read.

An overview of the chapters will show just why this is such a fabulous book.


Chapter 1: Discoveries. aka “near heart-attack-land at the idea that the Book of Margery Kempe was nearly not found.” She uses just a couple of manuscript discoveries to show just how contingent our 21st century knowledge of, awareness of, and possession of such manuscripts is.
Chapter 2: Near Disasters. Imagine me having heart palpitations at the fire in Ashburnham House, home of the Cotton collection and various other rather important bits of parchment. As above with the contingency, with added flames.
Chapter 3: Patrons. Who wanted stories written about themselves, and who wanted their own copies of particular books (Henry VIII annotated his Book of Psalms. I have no problem with this, other than it reveals his colossal ego, equating himself with David.)
Chapter 4: Artists. The images added to some manuscripts make them incredible works of art. Wellesley examines what is known about some of the people who did this work, their inspiration and their methods.
Chapter 5: Scribes. Who did the physical act of writing… and that some of them were women.
Chapter 6: Authors and scribes. Probably one of the hardest things for moderns to grasp is the lack of the concept of ‘author’ in the medieval period. If a student copies a quote without a reference, they’re in trouble; 700 years ago, someone could copy out a story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and stick it in their own collection of stuff with nary an acknowledgement (yes I am aware this happens today; it was less of a cause for hue and cry back in the day, for various reasons). Figuring out exactly who was the author of various things is the work of a lifetime for some historians.
Chapter 7: Hidden Authors… basically carries on a similar idea from Chapter 6, but in particular looks at works written for (and by?) anchorites – people who had decided to get themselves walled away, to devote themselves more fully to Christ.

The book’s intrigue – who wrote it? who sold it? why do we only have one copy? It’s got feminism – women wrote and read and commissioned and created. It’s suffused with a love of books and reading, it’s a celebration of books as objects, and it ends with Gutenberg and that weird interstitial period where some manuscripts were created by copying out the text from a printed book. And the author’s voice is present throughout, which I found a lovely touch: what it was like to view a manuscript at the British Library, or a discovery as an undergrad, or an experience learning about the making of parchment.

This is a wonderful book about books. Entirely accessible to the non-medievalist, in fact a great entry for those with no real conception of the medieval manuscript.

Beyond the Blue Mountain

I received this book via NetGalley.

Interesting overall but with some frustrating gaps.

The intro to this book explains that it was begun as a memoir for children and grandchildren and later expanded for a general readership. This explanation is useful because it doesn’t read as a polished memoir. There are lacunae and years brushed over; the most egregious is what happens to his first wife. She is mentioned as having post partum depression with their first child, then the depression recurs over the next several years, and eventually she just… disappears from the story. And then he talk about holidaying with the woman who was initially his PA, and with whom he spends his retirement. In a book designed for the family this makes sense – the kids know what happened to their mum. For me this was just bewildering.

As the blurb outlines, this is partly the memoir of a rock climber, about which I’m not especially interested except that it does mean travel to interesting places, and partly the memoir of an almost accidental MI6 officer. That bit is also mostly interesting in the way it’s told here because of the travel involved. I’m not particularly up on the political intricacies of places like Benghazi in the 1960s and 70s so there were swathes of narrative where the assumed knowledge – which I don’t have – meant I didn’t have a solid grip of what was happening: names that meant nothing, dates likewise. Nonetheless, this was an overall entertaining story with some interesting insights into different places from the perspective of a intelligence officer who didn’t seem to perceive himself as a spy.

The Rebel Suffragette

I received this to review via NetGalley.

The good things:

  • It’s always good to have another woman featured in a history book! And I mean that very seriously. Minor men have had tomes devoted to them. To have an individual suffragette whose name is not Pankhurst (not that I don’t love a Pankhurst) get a book is AWESOME.
  • I love suffrage history in all its guises and having a book that’s about circumstances outside of London – or Manchester – is great.

These things are big and important. The negative things are generally smaller, so although there are more they are basically balanced in my mind. But these are important things to note, I think:

The negative things

  • There are some really annoying editorial aspects. Partly this is about commas instead of semi colons, which I think must be from the editor becuase I’ve seen the same thing in other books from this publisher. It irks the editor in me.
  • There’s a chapter about “Men and the Media”, which has basically nothing to do with the suffragette in question. If the author had placed her in a wider context more often, then this might almost have made sense a chapter – but even then I’d be dubious. This chapter had no place in this biography. And nor did the chapter about the relationship between the royal family and the suffrage question – it was completely out of place.
  • The title. Almost by definition if you were a suffragette you were a rebel, and Edith did nothing that was rebelling against the WSPU general vibe. So the title is click bait at best.
  • One of the historian’s problems with writing such a biography is the dearth of resources. There’s a fine line to be walked in between theorising from thorough research, and making vague suppositions about things like, in this case, the relationship between wife and husband.
  • A couple of specific irritants: the idea that women went in hunger strike to be classed as political prisoners becuase then they’d get better perks, rather than becuase of a real political reason, is just insulting. Also, the author suggests that the whole WSPU and Pankhursts ditched campaigning in WW1, when actually Sylvia Pankhurst was disowned by her mother and sister for doing the opposite.

Finally, I found the discussion about whether 21st century can or should condone the militancy of the suffragettes quite lacking in depth. It was more a series of questions than a rigorous interrogation of the place of violence in political campaigning. And it didn’t really need to be included – there’s no need to pass judgement on the subject of your biography.

Overall I think this is a really worthwhile biography – Edith was clearly a fascinating woman and I greatly appreciated being able to learn about her place in the suffrage movement. I’ve seen the picture of her being removed from the gates of Parliament and had no idea who she was! It’s not perfect, but it’s a good addition to the suffrage library.

The Nile: A New History of the World’s Greatest River

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I should start by saying that this book is not quite the book I expected. Given it’s the Nile, and given the blurb, I expected the book to be much more about the swathes of history involved in that region of the world. There is, of course, discussion about the role of the Nile in the grand sweep of ancient Egyptian history, and what might be called “medieval” history for want of a better term. There’s mention of ancient Nubia, and some commentary on “medieval” Ethiopia, as well as the Rift Valley and the Olduvai Gorge. However, the reality is that the vast majority of this book is focused on European, and in particular British, colonialism – efforts to control the various parts of the Nile for their own purposes. So I was surprised by that, and occasionally disappointed that it was so modern in focus.

This is also not “just” a history book, and in general this is a good thing. It has aspects of a travel memoir; the author has travelled to every country he mentions, I think, and to most of the parts of the Nile and its tributaries discussed. So there are sections where Tvedt is quite personal in his writing, reflecting on his own experiences and how this matches – or doesn’t – with historical or literary representations of the places. This aspect I enjoyed a lot.

As well, there are aspects of historical theorising that I found quite intriguing. The author challenges Edward Said’s theories about ‘orientalism’ and whether it’s appropriate for this challenge to apply to all aspects of European writing; and challenges most historians in their refusal to consider the very solid, material, and geographic nature of a river like the Nile. I don’t know that much about the theories he’s challenging so I can’t say with full confidence whether he makes perfect sense; but certainly many of the ideas he raises seem fair.

But overall, the book is indeed about the Nile: as something that has shaped geography, as something that has shaped the civilisations that exist along its banks and those of its tributaries, as something that has contributed hugely to political tensions over the last 150 years or so. I had no idea there was a 1929 Agreement that basically said upstream countries could do nothing with the Nile unless Egypt agreed! And of course for most of those upstream countries, this was signed by the imperialist powers then in control… so since the 1960s there’s been argument about whether those powers had the right to sign on behalf of these now-existing countries. Nor had I ever considered the notion of the Nile as a weapon (withhold water, or release too much if you’ve got a dam); or the idea that the Suez Canal crisis can also be linked to control of the Nile.

I learned a lot about the realities of European colonialism and imperialism in the Nile basin – primarily the British, but also German and Italian (I didn’t learn anything new about Belgium, and Leopold). The machinations made me sick all over again: water for Egypt so Egypt can grow cotton to supply to England for the cotton mills…

In terms of structure, the book basically flows from the Nile Delta (seriously under pressure thanks to climate change) to the various sources of the Blue and White Niles (hello, Stanley and others). So it’s not chronological; I quite liked this geographical perspective, though, and it certainly makes sense in the context. Each chapter is broken into what are basically vignettes. It means the author doesn’t have to make one solid narrative for each geographical area, but instead takes various different issues and treats them in sometimes one, sometimes five, pages.

This is a thoroughly researched, detailed, meticulous and very clever story of the Nile.

The Good Wife of Bath

I received this as a review copy via NetGalley.

I love a story about reclaiming women – whether it’s in history or fiction. Turns out I’ve read a few of these recently: Wendy, Darling and Forces of Nature for example. And The Good Wife of Bath fits into that space: yes, it’s that Wife of Bath, perhaps Chaucer’s most contested character (from The Canterbury Tales anyway).

I have to admit it’s a long, long time since I studied Chaucer at university, and I’m not sure I read all of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale even then (I found the language really hard going, not going to lie). Which means that people who’ve never read any Chaucer (like, most of the population, surely) will be just fine with reading this. If you do know the Wife’s original story I guess you get that extra frisson when a name is dropped, but it’s not essential to the story. Honestly I got more of that from the fact Chaucer is a character in the book and I know bits and pieces about his life courtesy of Who Murdered Chaucer? which I recently re-read.

Anyway. The story is Eleanor’s biography, basically beginning with her marriage at age 12 to a stranger several decades older than she is. Which is a deeply unpleasant thought, but it wasn’t until I got to the Author’s Note that it occurred to me that many people would find this shocking – the shocking-ness of not knowing this was at least sometimes a reality in the 14th century, I mean. 12 was the legal age of marriage in much of Europe for much of the Middle Ages, a fact I already knew and so I guess I’ve already dealt with being shocked by that. (I still don’t find it a pleasant idea, don’t worry.) In Chaucer’s recounting, the Wife talks of having had five husbands, and how she has tried to have mastery over them. Two thirds of the book is Eleanor as wife: who she marries, why, and what her life is like in each circumstance. In many ways it’s an exploration of the possibilities for a woman in the late 14th century: a good life or hard, a loving husband or abusive, allowed by her husband to participate in decision making or treated like a child, and the fact that her property becomes his property at marriage. And then the last third is Eleanor attempting to live as a feme sole, or sole woman – not connected to a man – which basically translates to “target”.

What Eleanor doesn’t personally experience, the women within her circle do. And overall that means that this book has some hard parts to read. Life for everyone in the Middle Ages had its brutality, especially compared to many of the things I take for granted in 21st century urban Australia; and the mid 14th century has the added bonus (?) of the Botch – what we call the Black Death. Life for women had its particular brutalities, and Brooks presents these as a part of life. Eleanor is at times very poor, and at times relatively wealthy; living on a farm or in town; respectable and not, surrounded by family and not. Brooks explores the lot. And by including Chaucer as a character, with as accurate a biography as is available, Brooks also includes bits of the contemporary politics (Lollards, John of Gaunt, 1381…).

The one thing I was left feeling a bit… confused by is the subtitle: A (Mostly) True Story. I love an unreliable narrator, and Eleanor certainly has the potential to be one. But nowhere is there a clear suggestion that she is being slippery, or fiddling with facts to make herself look better, or do anything other than present her story as she experienced it. So the suggestion that she is somehow being crafty in presenting her story doesn’t make sense. I actually forgot it was the subtitle while reading, because it’s just not relevant.

Overall, this is a great addition to the reclaiming of women’s voices within fiction. It’s fairly long; that’s balanced by being very readable, and smartly paced: it’s certainly not a trial to read. Definitely recommended to the historical fiction crowd, or if you were compelled to read any of Chaucer at any stage.

Salmon, by Mark Kurlansky

I received this book via NetGalley.

I’ve read a lot of Mark Kurlansky books, because I’ve really enjoyed the way he takes one thing – salt, in particular – and investigates its history and place in the human and natural world. Sometimes his work can feel a bit too general; I think this is a function of the format and his purpose, which is to present a wide-ranging view of the chosen topic. However, he does also present specifics – vignettes, effectively, to illuminate a broader point.

All of these comments stand for Salmon.

The first chapters are largely about the biology of the fish, which is way more complicated than I had realised – what even is a salmon, basically?? – and about its natural habitat and habits. Most salmon return to their natal spawning ground for their own spawning, and then die, which is just a whole thing when it comes to life cycles and how on earth they find their way back to a particular river after hanging out in the ocean for a variable number of years.

Much of the rest of the book is a litany of how humans have placed the existence of salmon in peril: through destruction of habitat in a multitude of ways, and directly through overfishing. Kurlansky touches on several ways in which indigenous peoples in what are today the USA and Canada and Japan used and managed salmon over hundred or thousands of years to demonstrate the possibility of living in balance… but all of that is against the construction of dams and other ways that ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ have led to the destruction of rivers, in particular. Honestly most of this book was pretty depressing to read. There’s so much we just don’t really understand about how to make it possible for salmon stocks to redevelop… which leads to further catastrophe in the food web. Salmon is, to an extent, just a symbol for how much the last 300-odd years of industrial development have ravaged the environment. So that’s fun.

If you can handle the story of environmental destruction, this is a readable and generally approachable book. As noted above, Kurlansky necessarily goes in for some generalisations – it’s a result of making a readable book for the general public, I think. But he does present specifics – about particular rivers, about particular indigenous groups, about particular styles of fishing, and so on – and there’s no doubt that he’s put an enormous amount of research and work into telling this story. It’s a sobering read, and it’s a worthwhile one.