This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. This review first appeared in the History Teachers of Victoria journal Agora.
If you are especially keen on the history of the Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Roman Empire, like me you might have bought the classic John Julius Norwich trilogy. Again if you are like me, you may have got to the end of the second book and thought, “No more!” Despite that, the city at the heart of that empire (thrice-named, eat your heart out New York) has always enthralled me – and, Bettany Hughes suggests, has fascinated, enticed, and aggravated people for a good few thousand years.
Firstly: don’t be put off by the page count. Those 800 pages include an extensive timeline, detailed (and interesting but not imperative) endnotes, a thorough bibliography and an index. At 600 pages, with often quite short chapters, this is a very approachable book for such a complicated subject.
Hughes attempts to do two things in this book, and generally succeeds; she calls it “an organic examination – an archaeology of both place and culture” (6). It is a chronological examination of the development of the city now called Istanbul – the invasions and innovations and growth through successive regime changes (although “not a catch-all of Istanbul’s past” (3)). However, woven through that is a social history of the people who made the city what it is. This includes such luminaries as Theodora and Constantine and Süleyman II, but also the everyday people who made the city function. There are chapters, for instance, on the presence of eunuchs in Constantinople, and the realities of the harem (insofar as they can be known), and the Varangian Guard. Hughes includes discussion of the various peoples who threatened, worked with, and generally impacted on the city (Goths, Vandals, Vikings, Turks). In doing so she naturally expands her focus beyond the city walls, but this is unavoidable when dealing with the likes of a city such as Byzantion. Indeed, it adds greatly to the context of the book: how to understand the numerous Muslim sieges and eventual conquest of the city without an understanding of the growth of Islam? How to understand the birth of Turkey as a country and the move of the capital to Ankara without the context of the First World War and the internal Ottoman politics of the time? And so on. Hughes does a magnificent job of weaving all of these pieces together into a coherent whole.
Nominally the book’s narrative stops at 1924; there’s a chapter after that about Istanbul’s future, but it’s a fairly sweeping overview of the following ninety years. However, something that I very much enjoyed and which added to the book’s approachability is that Hughes makes occasional reference to contemporary events from when she is writing (2016). A passing reference to Prime Minister Erdoğan acting in a similar fashion to Justinian, preparing “to take his money and to fly” (219), points up similarities in situations that may provoke and intrigue the reader. Describing the city as “well designed for rioting” and using the Gezi Park/Taksim Square riots to indicate this truth in 2013 (when Hughes was herself in the city), and then proceed to discuss the AD 532 Nika riots, suggests a continuation in the city’s physical existence that is extraordinary over that span in time.
One of the most captivating aspects of Hughes’ book is her wonderful use of archaeological evidence. There are frequent references to discoveries made in Istanbul and elsewhere around the world, and how the goods and structures uncovered are continuing to change historians’ and archaeologists’ understandings of different periods. For a historian to remind her reader that the story of a place is not completely known is refreshing. She contextualises these sites, too: to find “one of the few scraps of evidence for one of the most remarkable phenomena of the medieval world” (the Varangian Guard), one passes “young men push[ing] second-hand mattresses… on wooden carts and kids sort[ing] through piles of redundant television aerials” (321). This provides a visceral feel for the city as it is today – a living city, not abandoned; a city continuing to leave behind remains for future archaeologists to sift and puzzle through. Hughes also has a lovely sense of humour that occasionally pokes through: in discussing the archaeological finds at Tintagel (which indicate trade connections between that part of England and the Byzantine world), she describes the finding of the graffito reading “Artugno” as “[u]tterly unhelpful for the historian but irresistible for the tourist guides” (292).
Another aspect of Hughes’ attitude towards the city and her people over time is the sympathy she displays. In speaking of the development of iconoclasm, for instance, which she says historians have “[o]ften described… as an irrational, typically ‘Dark Ages’ response” to the consequences of the Theran volcanic eruption in AD 726, Hughes insists “we have to pause for a moment to think of the horror of Thera’s eruption” and proceeds to describe the physical realities of such an eruption (300). This is a lovely moment of historical empathy that enables the reader to glimpse life for an eighth-century Byzantine.
As a physical object, it’s well-designed. The cover is perhaps predictable but gorgeous nonetheless. There are three sets of colour plates, covering a range of people and events, and many black and white images throughout. Each section (there are eight, each representing some important change in Istanbul’s history) has a series of maps at the start, showing changes in the city as well as context such as the reach of the Byzantine or Ottoman Empire over time (there is one section where the map, which goes over two pages, is split by the colour picture insert; that was a bit irritating).
Hughes’ passion for Istanbul – for the history of the place and for the contemporary city – come through across the volume. She delights in all aspects of its history and she wants the reader to share that with her. As an introduction to the complexity of the city’s history, as a history of a place that has impacted on European and Asian history for 2500 years (and was inhabited for many thousands of years before that), and as an example of how history writing can be made approachable, this is a fabulous book.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. RRP $32.99 trade paperback; it’s available now.
This is a great idea for a book, obviously; it’s similar in concept to Cranky Ladies of History although with a more pointed political stick, given the timing.
So… look. I have a few issues with it. Some of these are particularly my issues and may not be a problem for other people. So let me start with the good things.
- There are women in here I’ve never heard of. And that includes in the historical section, not just in the more modern sections. That’s awesome. And is largely because…
- The women aren’t just European. That is also awesome. The opening section on Wonderful Ancient Weirdos includes Seondeok of Silla (Korea), Khayzoun (Yemen/ Baghdada), and Subh (Basque/Cordoba), as well as Sappho and Hatshepsut and others.
- It acknowledges some of the problems with sources, and that info about women can be hard to come at. Too true.
But. Hmm. I’m actually writing this review before I finish reading it, for two reasons. It’s going to take me a long time to read because each entry is only a couple of pages long, and I find that exhausting… and I’m not sure I actually will read the whole thing. But since I got it to review, I wanted to write something about it close to publication.
The above points are absolutely reasons to buy and flick through this book. It’s got a bit of swearing so it’s not quite right for ten year olds, but 15 years olds? oh yes. Do it. Have it on the shelf ready to pull out to point out just a few examples of women being awesome scientists or what have you. However… like I said. Some things rub me the wrong way.
- The introduction includes this: “Where there are mistakes, forgive me. I have done the best I can, and it turns out there is a lot of history out there which I have shoved into my eye sockets. processed through the lukewarm innards of my brain, and squeezed through my fingers. It’s inevitable that some things will have gotten lost on that perilous, squidgy journey” (4). And… it really made me uncomfortable. Why is she disparaging her intelligence? Why is she blase about mistakes? By all means acknowledge there may be some, and I know she’s being humourous, but this way of presenting just irked me.
- The first chapter is “Wonderful ancient weirdos”. I guess she was going for alliteration but these are powerful women she’s discussing, and she’s calling them weirdos? That’s sending the wrong message, in my book.
- Also on this chapter: ancient? Uh, no. Hatshepsut, sure. Sappho, yes. But Margery Kempe, Hildegard von Bingen, and the others are all medieval, or at best early medieval. These terms matter, for me, because the context is important. Everything before the Industrial Revolution is not ancient.
- I don’t love the language. No, this isn’t a tone argument. This is definitely the most idisyncratic complaint, and your mileage may well vary. For instance, Hildegard’s regime described thus: “The strict regime of the convent demanded that each day the nuns have… eight hours of manual labour, which entailed, I dunno, putting up retaining walls and stuff” (26). That’s irksome for me.
- Verging on not caring about historical accuracy: “This is my book, and everyone gets laid” (10), on whether Hatshepsut and her chief advisor were lovers. Just nooo.
- Historical accuracy again: I skipped to the chapter on Alexandra Kollontai, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that she got a chapter! but it says that International Women’s Day was February 7th by the Russian calendar, in 1917… but it was Feb 23. That’s just careless. Also? “Sorry, New Zealand, I know you gave women [the right to vote] in 1893, but you’re just so little and far away” (376). Far away from whom? Are only Americans going to read this?
- The end of Seondeok’s chapter: “Ugh, men” (18).
- Also, they’re not arranged in chronological order, within their thematic chapters, and that drives me batty.
- Also not in order, this time alphabetical, is the Old People Glossary, which in itself (despite my comments on the language) is quote amusing. I’m fine with using modern slang in these sorts of biographies; I think it can make them much more approachable. But why, why would you not put the words in alphabetical order??
So… there you go. Decide for yourself how annoying these issues are vs having a handy reference to Kollontai and Rosa Luxembourg, Mergery Kempe and Sappho, Queen Nanny of the Maroons and Sojourner Truth, Hypatia and Nana Asma’u and 92 other women on the shelf.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. RRP $19.99 and available now.
This book consists of two lectures given by Mary Beard, Roman history professor and all-round awesome person, for the London Review of Books in 2014 and then 2017. I had seen the film of the second one, which was neat because I really (ironically) like Beard’s voice and intonation so that was an added bonus.
The first chapter is “The Public Voice of Women”. Beard presents a number of examples of how women were silenced in the Greek and Roman worlds, and then uses those instances to illuminate how women are silenced in the modern Western World, as well as how women’s voices (literally and metaphorically) are portrayed. She does not suggest that everything about the modern West is founded on classical traditions – and is at pains to point that out – but her examples make it very clear how many expectations and perceptions can be traced back that far. The examples she gives from her life (being described as whining, for instance, or told to shut up) as well as examples of other women will be all too familiar to many women – and this has happened to women in classical texts since way back. This is important because those texts are used and studied still, and have been/still are seen as… if not imprimaturs, then still worthy of examination. And so they continue to pervade modern Western society.
Beard notes in the Afterword that she avoided making big changes when it came time for publication – this lecture was given in 2014, with Obama still president of the USA and Theresa May not yet PM on the UK. The afterword was written in September 2017… thus before the current spate of #metoo and sexual harassment/abuse accusations. So perhaps even more than she could have expected, this (and the second chapter) are necessarily of their times. Beard’s points still stand, though, of course. Beard doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; she’s pointing out the issues, making sure they’re not just accepted as ‘the way things are’ – and does suggest that we need to “think more fundamentally about the rules of our rhetorical operations… go back to first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do” (40). Including women not thinking they need to deepen their voices to get more cred (guilty).
The second chapter on “Women in Power” was presented this year, which means it does deal with some of the depictions of May and Hilary Clinton… including some appalling versions of Clinton as Medusa (and Trump as Perseus??). Beard says insightful things about what power is, and how we think about it, and the language around it… and that when we talk about women ‘knocking on the door’ or ‘storming the citadel’ or ‘smashing the glass ceiling’, well: we “underline female exteriority” (57). Which horrified me when I realised its truth. Because she’s right, and while women are largely outside of power we need to write, and speak, ourselves in. But also: “if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?” (83). Yaaaasss.
This is a book I’ll be revisiting over and over, to remind myself of the reality I live in and to give myself encouragement to keep on. Things can change and it’s easier when we know where some of the problems lie.
Also, I need to read Herland and then re-read “Houston, Houston, Do You Read”?
The short version is that Muriel Matters was an Australian actress and acclaimed elocutionist who went to Britain and ended up participating in the suffrage movement in the early 1900s, and went on to work with underprivileged children, among other things. She was also one of the first women in a flying machine, and was – as far as we can tell – the first person to engage in aerial leafletting: she tossed Votes for Women pamphlets over the side of the airship basket. She was amazing and this biography captures her wonderfully.
The longer version… is basically going on about some of the other, remarkable parts of Matters’ life. Like chaining herself to the Grille, part of the screen that stopped MPs from seeing the women who were in the tiny little room where they could watch parliament. Or the things that she endured while on her endless speaking tours, such as constant heckling and having eggs – and other things – thrown at her. The stays in prison. And her magnificent speeches about suffrage – which was not an end in itself, for Matters, but merely the beginning of women coming to full participation in social life and the fabulous consequences that would have for society. At the moment, it’s all too tragic to read some of Matters’ hopes and dreams for how women would be able to participate once they had the vote. Because yes, there were some positive changes made in SA, for example, once women were voting, around labour laws and the like. But we still see the ways in which women are hampered from full participation and the consequences of women’s voices not being taken seriously.
Wainwright, who also wrote Sheila, has done a remarkable amount of research here. Matters has never had a biography written before – and I’ve read quite a few books about English women’s fight for suffrage and she has never featured significantly in any of them. Matters died a widow, and with no children, and most of her family gone and overseas, so most of her own papers have been lost. So there’s a huge amount of reconstruction from newspapers, from early accounts of the suffrage movement, and other such sources to find out what can be found out. There are gaps, of course – in particular around Matters’ personal relationships – and Wainwright offers speculation but is clear that that’s what it is.
As to her politics and passions, those seem quite clear from her speeches and from where she devoted her energies. After becoming disillusioned with parts of the suffrage movement, Matters works with striking workers and then eventually becomes one of the first Montessori-trained teachers in Britain, working with children in slum areas. Knowledge of her later life is sketchy because she disappears from public view, which is such a shame because surely this woman didn’t sit at home fuming, after her actions earlier on? It makes me want to encourage everyone to print their emails and keep them in secure vaults so that historians can find them later.
This is an engaging, thoughtful, and generally lovely look at a fascinating and important woman who was part of a historical struggle that most people know far too little about.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now, RRP $29.99.
Terra nullius has a specific resonance for Australians who know anything about their history. It’s the legal fiction under which Britain decided they could colonise the land that’s now Australia, because it was ‘nobody’s land’ – that is, no one that the British recognised owned it. Because the British didn’t recognise the traditional owners as ‘owning’ the land, for a whole bunch of reasons. So for Claire G Coleman to use that as the name and premise of her book is brilliant, and pointed, and tells you a lot about what the book is on about before you even open it.
Coleman, who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, won the black&write! writing fellowship in 2016 with this manuscript. The main reason why I think that’s awesome – aside from the obvious one that it’s a great book – is a bit spoiler-y, and that’s a bit of a problem with discussing this book at all…
The blurb talks about Natives, the Colony, and Settlers. It says “This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.” Along with the fact that this is a didactic book (in no way a criticism) that does its message-work with clear prose, understandable characters, compassion and a lot of toughness… I can’t really say much more about the book without revealing what makes it something other than a book about Australian history. There’s runaways and enforced schooling and hiding from Settlers and Settlers complaining about the environment… and… other things.
I want to throw this book at all white Australians. And I would be fascinated to hear what non-Australians think, especially people living in other colonised lands. I don’t know enough about how that’s spoken of elsewhere to know whether the resonance would work in a non-Australian context… but I think there’s enough commonality for it not to be a completely foreign experience.
And now, for those of you who don’t mind spoilers:
Even 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.
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I have loved everything I’ve read by Mark Kurlansky. So when I was in a small bookshop in a small town and saw a new book from him, I was pretty stoked. I half considered buying it as an e-version, partly because OH THE IRONY, but then my darling fawned her how pretty it is (and it really is very pretty, with rough-edged paper and all), so I bought the bard-back. Supporting small book shops for the win.
Tragically, I am disappointed.
I was trying to pin down exactly why the book didn’t work, and halfway through I realised: each paragraph felt like an extended dot point. Like he had all of these great ideas and fascinating points, mostly connected to paper, but… couldn’t quite nail the flow and structure. There are weird disjointed bits that entirely lack in connection, there are some fascinating bits about language and so on that aren’t clearly tied to paper, and… well. Disappointed.
I appreciated his discussion of the technological fallacy: that tech happens and then society follows. Rather, he argues, society creates a demand and THEN technology follows, playing catch up: why else is so much money spent on market research? So I liked that bit. However, as someone has pointed out to me, Kurlansky is entirely too linear in his perspective on the relationship between change and society. Civilisation just isn’t like that.
More serious than the lack of sequencing, though, were a few points where he was just… kinda wrong. For instance: he suggests that some people credit Ada Lovelace with inventing computers, and then reveals that actually she was inspired by Charles Babbage. And, uh, no. She invented the first computer language, and it’s no secret she worked with Babbage! … so this makes me a little concerned when he’s discussing those bits of history that I don’t actually have knowledge of. Because… can I trust him?
I gave it a four over on Goodreads because the ideas and the history really are fascinating, but the book itself as a piece of text ought to get a three.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Wesleyan University Press, at no cost. It’s available now.
It’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.
This 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.
Reading 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.