Category Archives: History

Timekeepers

Unknown.jpegEven if you’re not that history books, but you are a keen observer of the world and how it works, this is a book I can highly recommend.

There were times (heh) when reading this that I wasn’t quite sure what book Simon Garfield was trying to write. Some of the things that he writes about didn’t immediately appear to connect to the idea of time. But when I considered the blurb, I decided that Garfield did indeed know exactly what he was doing. This is a book that considers the idea of time from a multitude of angles: “our attempts to measure it, control it, sell it, film it, perform it, immortalise it, re-invent it, and make it meaningful.”

I really, really enjoyed this book. Garfield writes in lovely, sometimes whimsical ways – not that his ideas are less than scientific when required, but that he has a lovely turn of phrase to make some difficult concepts approachable. And I really did enjoy the different ways that he approached time. I already knew about trains and train timetables essentially necessitating the development of time zones, but I didn’t have a problem with it being reiterated; I adore that he included discussion of the French Republican calendar and its attempt to decimalise, rationalise, time. Including questions of the metronome and how to play Beethoven’s Ninth and why a CD fits as much as it used to is just marvellous, and the question of just how many times someone can be shown, in film, hanging from a clock is one I had never considered. Also, the idea of a film that goes for 24 hours and is comprised of snippets from other films that together make 24 hours, each shown at the appropriate time of the day? Madness and genius have rarely been so close together. And that’s barely scratching the surface of the ideas that Garfield explores: how to make a watch, the four-minute mile, the modern drive for efficiency… yeh. This is a varied, delightfully jumbled, exploration of a topic that consumes a lot of modern Westerners.

Garfield is not suggesting he’s written the definitive book on time; far from it. There’s a wonderful Further Reading section that I’m afraid to look at because this is a rabbit hole I could very easily fall into. But it is a good introduction to pointing out that time is a lot more subjective, and invented, and dependent than we sometimes think.

Reading this is a good way to spend some time.

 

 

Robin Hood (2010)

MV5BMTM5NzcwMzEwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjg5MTgwMw@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgGetting through Great Scott!

Robin Hood

Ridley (2010)

A: And so we come to the only film on our list that neither of us has seen. This promises to be interesting. I have an abiding fascination with Robin Hood: both visually (I will quote the animated version at you; I don’t care if you disapprove of my adolescent love of the Costner version) and academically (Stephen Knight’s history is awesome). So… I’m a bit scared.

J: In ye olde times …

A: Yikes look at that font.

So, 12th century eh. Blanchett already being forceful, with a bow? I’m pleased. A flaming arrow!

J: More ye olde times …  

A: Robin Longstride, eh? That’s different. But it’s still Richard not-so-lion-heart’s time. AND we’re actually on crusade with Rusty! (wait, not crusade – this is France, surely, with Richard more interested in running French bits than his English territory)

J: So basically it’s Gladiator … gosh I hope it’s not as slow. I wonder if they will show the archer’s paradox… slow motions arrows n all. Continue reading →

Sisters of Tomorrow

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Wesleyan University Press, at no cost. It’s available now.

Unknown.jpegIt’s no secret that I like science fiction and history and am feminist, so books like this are like a perfect conjunction for me. I’ve previously read Helen Merrick’s Secret Feminist Cabal, and Justine Larbalestier’s Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction AND Daughter of Earth, which is a compilation of early female SF writers. So I’ve got a bit of background knowledge – not that you need it at all for this anthology, because Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B Sharp set the scene magnificently in their intro to the book and to the chapters.

Here’s the thing that makes this book really special: while the biggest section is on the authors, because they include some stories – including a fairly long novelette – the editors don’t stop there. They also have sections on the female poets, and artists, and journalists, and editors of the 30s and 40s. This blew my mind. I’d vaguely heard of Margaret Brundage, I think? But I certainly didn’t realise that there were women active and influential in all of those spheres. Yaszek and Sharp also cross into the amateur magazines, where women were also hugely important in the development of “understandings of science, society, and SF in different arenas of SF production” (xxiii). If you’re interested in early science fiction at all, if you’re interested in women in literature, if you’re interested in the history of SF – this is an excellent anthology.

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In the Chinks of the World Machine

Look, any book whose title is taken from a Tiptree story – and “The Women Men Don’t See” no less – is likely to be very appealing to me. And ta dah! It was.

Unknown.jpegThis delightful feminist, academic, personal, humorous, thoughtful, and passionate examination of women in science fiction and women writing science fiction came out in 1988. So yes, it’s dated – of course it has. There have been lots more stories written in the last (oh heck) nearly thirty years that have a variety of female characters, and of course more female authors challenging and playing with science fiction ideas. But I think that the categories that Lefanu considers – Amazons, utopias and dystopias, women in love, and so on – these categories often still apply to the ways that women appear, or are thought that they should appear, as characters. So I certainly found these chapters resonant and not only from a historical perspective.

The second half of the book was the bit that I really loved, though. James Tiptree Jr, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas and Joanna Russ: what a magnificent set of women, and a magnificent set of stories between them. Lefanu examines a set of the novels and short stories of each of the women (in Russ’ case, almost all her science fiction) and dissects the ways in which they present women. She’s not always flattering – she has some issues with Le Guin’s early female characters, which I don’t entirely agree with – but she is always interesting and insightful.

One of the things I really appreciated and enjoyed about this book is that while Lefanu is absolutely writing an academic piece and interrogating issues of feminism and how science fiction fails or encourages women, there are also personal moments that didn’t feel at all out of place. I really, really like this idea that the writer actually exists and has an opinion – that the book isn’t pretending to be a disembodied, clinical examination but acknowledges the very real body behind the … well, typewriter probably.

If you’re interested in feminist science fiction, in women in science fiction (in all senses), or have a somewhat historical literary bent, this is a really great book. It’s very approachable and even if you haven’t read the stories Lefanu examines (I’ve only read one of the Charnas books), she explains them enough that her analysis makes sense… and I still want to read the books.

Long Hidden

Unknown.jpegA book that celebrates the marginalised throughout history. The women. The black. The brown. The queer. The trans. The freaks.

Stories that give the marginalised agency, even when they’re oppressed; purpose, even when they’re condemned; existence, even when they’re ignored.

I loved this anthology. I at least liked, if not loved, every single story.

Every story is set in a historical time and place: parts of the Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe. They deal with real instances of marginalisation and oppression: sometimes minorities within hostile communities, sometimes systemic social oppression. In each story the characters are those whose stories have tended not to be told in Official History – at least not until the last few decades, and still slowly at that. In some cases the stories are triumphant; in some cases the stories tell of loss and woe. But almost always there’s an element of optimism, or hope. That through oppression, defiant humanity shines through. That despite others trying to remove that humanity, the marginalised know that they are human, and deserving of dignity. Even if in this instance, they’re not accorded it. I found it an unexpectedly uplifting anthology.

It reminded me of Cranky Ladies of History, for its agenda of shining light into often unlit areas of history. But the difference is that this is consciously speculative fiction about the margins. Most often that’s expressed as magical ability of various kinds, rooted in real religious systems or within individual humans; or there’s the occasional science fictional element. Sometimes it’s zombies or shape-changing, or magical/otherworldly creatures. Sometimes the speculative element is central to the story, and sometimes it’s just there, part of the world. It’s always done well.

Everyone should read this anthology.

The Silk Roads

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out in September; RRP $29.99.

This is one of the finest history books I have read in recent times. It’s also probably the first book I’ve read that calls itself ‘a history of the world’ that does not mention the Norman invasion of England. And that’s because in 1066, from the perspective Frankopan presents here, a wee island on the west coast of Europe was of absolutely no relevance to the movers and shakers of the world. (Henry VIII is barely mentioned either!) The real business of global activity was in what Frankopan calls the real heart of the world – the lands of the Silk Roads, from the Himalayas to the Mediterranean, which for the two thousand or so years covered here drove human history.

Now, that’s a big claim, but what’s a history book without a big claim behind it? and of course important things were happening in places like Britain in the 11th century – but things of regional importance, not things with world-changing impact. Frankopan’s thesis is that the areas connected by what came to be called the Silk Road had an impact on actions, thought, and policy across most of Europe and Asia and, eventually, the Americas and Africa as well. Sometimes this area is actively driving history (the beginnings of Christianity and Islam, anyone? – and Judaism too although it doesn’t start in the period covered) and sometimes it’s – not quite passive – but almost: that this area happens to be incredibly oil-rich isn’t anyone’s fault or decision, but the reactions to it are.

Each chapter of the book is centred around the theme of roads: the road of faiths, to a Christian East, of gold and silver and black gold and genocide. It’s blunt about the horrors perpetrated – so much slavery – and waxes lyrical about the beauties produced by various cultures. Islam and Christianity and Judaism are shown cooperating, although rarely all three together, as well as antagonistic – for religious and political reasons (throw Zoroastrianism in there too, and indeed Buddhism).  There are countless invasions – sometimes repelled, sometimes welcomed, sometimes hugely resented; there are alliances and back-stabbings and intermarriages. Most of all, though, there is trade. Trade along the Silk Road – from China and indeed further east, all the way to that insignificant island on the west coast of Europe, and of course within the regions along it too. The impact of Chinese pottery on the Dutch. The impact of silk and gold and – of course – oil, as well as innumerable other goods, back and forth, is mapped out by Frankopan. Not quite half the book is basically from 1900 onwards (the chapter is called ‘The Road to War’), which I know makes sense in terms of the availability of sources; the medievalist in me was a bit sad, I’ll admit.

I am guilty of having a Euro-centric view of history. Partly this is my education and upbringing which have in turn led me to be most interested in European history, especially British and the ‘classical’ worlds. I have a bitser knowledge of events involving Persia across the ages and the regions of Central Asia – usually as they intersect with those areas I have studied (Alexander the Great, the Huns, the Mongols). More recently I am absolutely guilty of falling into the complacent trap of thinking of Central Asia, in particular, as being a war-torn area that is to be pitied (HELLO privilege). To see this area’s history presented chronologically and with a focus squarely on it, the actions taken by people in the area as well as those acting on it; and to see the actions involving Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Egypt, and Britain and the US in particular, over the last five decades or so – this was an absolute revelation. For those who are more interested in modern politics perhaps this won’t be quite so eye-opening, but I imagine that for most it will still be a revelation to have all of the pieces fitted together and the connections between them pointed out clearly and cogently.

Unknown.jpegReading about the actions of the British Empire made me embarrassed to be Anglo, at times. The sheer arrogance on display was truly remarkable.

The aesthetics: if I could have a framed copy of the front cover, I probably would. It’s gorgeous. Inside there are two sets of eight pages of colour pictures – which isn’t as many as I might have expected from such an epic book, but they were a reasonable overview of the content. I have a copy of the trade paperback; it’s a hefty tome: I didn’t quite manage to not put creases in the spine, which is an indication of how hard it was to read without opening it fully! (Yes I am that person; crease my book’s spine and I will crease you.) It’s 520 pages long (with another 100 pages of footnotes) – so it’s not a fast read, but it’s definitely a worthwhile read.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in world history, or in modern history. It should be read by any politician or policy-maker who thinks they can make decisions about any part of the world other than their own without consequences. It should also be read by anyone with a tendency to Eurocentrism. It’s a study in well-written history, too.

The Deadly Sisterhood

Not a lady-assassins novel, but a history book about the role of eight significant women in Unknown.jpegthe Italian peninsula during the Renaissance.

I scored this at a school market for about $2, which was very cool.

Firstly, two problems:

  1. There were a number of egregious editing issues, which really annoyed me. A major publisher should not be putting out books with mistakes that *I* can pick up as I read it – it’s not like I read with the attention of a copy editor.
  2. More significantly, the book falls into the trap that many such history books do. They’re trying to write a book about the women, who have largely been ignored by contemporary and modern historians… but there’s so much else! being done by the lads! and honest, it’s needed for context! … that there are large slabs of text that really don’t seem to be connected to the women who are in theory at the heart of the book. Even if there are occasional mentions of “oh, and he was Duchess Blah’s son”. It was frustrating to have the women seem to be ignored in their own book.

Anyway. Frieda focusses on eight women, some of whom I’d heard of – Lucrezia Borgia, of course – and others I hadn’t heard of – of course. It covers the height of the Italian Renaissance, from 1471 to 1527. She discusses their births and marriages and deaths, their children and (often multiple) husbands, as well as the roles they played in politics – both consciously and as marital pawns – and in the artistic and cultural milieu. Actually that last was the bit that, surprisingly, got least attention; I would have thought that the women would have played greater roles as patrons. Perhaps Frieda was more interested in discussing the political aspect, which is definitely at the forefront of her interests here.

Despite the problems mentioned above – and that sometimes the language was a bit too snarky; I don’t need to be reminded that one of the Isabellas apparently got quite fat, unless that contributed to how people treated her – I did enjoy reading this, and I am very pleased to know more about these women of important families who themselves managed to do important and significant things.

 

Queen of the Desert: the film

As I mentioned in my post about the book Queen of the Desert, a biography of Gertrude Bell, I finally got around to reading the book after seeing the biopic directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman. I didn’t mind the film; my mother, having read the book, didn’t love it but didn’t hate it; having read the book I am increasingly annoyed by the film.

The good things: Continue reading →

Gertrude Bell

164972.jpgEvery now and then I come across a new historical figure and I think

HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THIS PERSON WHAT HAS THE WORLD BEEN DOING THIS JUST SHOWS HOW MUCH STUFF GETS LOST

Usually that person is a woman, although not always. Gertrude Bell is the most recent of these people. I don’t even remember how I heard about her – it might have been in passing in a podcast or something? – at any rate the moment I heard about her I went online to see if there was a biography about her. There are two, I think, modern biogs; this seemed to be the better rated, and so I immediately bought it. Since then my mother has read it, since I always have too many books to be read, and she loved it; then we spent some time together which just happened to coincide with Nicole Kidman’s movie about Bell being at the cinema, so we went to see it and I was pushed to move my reading of this bio to the front of the reading queue.

Gertrude Bell might be described as the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’, but really it would be more accurate to say that he was the male Gertrude Bell, since I think she had more adventures and was more involved in the immediate post-WW1 decisions regarding Mesopotamia.

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The Age of Genius

This book was sent to me by the publisher at no cost. Unknown.jpeg

This was a really interesting book; I’m just not sure it’s entirely the book that AC Grayling thinks it is.

I adore the concept of exploring a century as a turning point; in fact for Grayling, the seventeenth century was “the epoch in the history of the human mind” (p3, his italics). Obviously other historians have disagreed, as he acknowledges, but even if there are strong arguments for other times – or even suggesting that such a claim is ridiculous – it nonetheless should make for an interesting book.

Continue reading →