Category Archives: History

The Radium Girls- Kate Moore


Synopsis

The Radium Girls is the story of the dial painters who worked with radioactive plaint with no knowledge of how dangerous it was, until they found they were starting to get ill. It is a story of their fight to find justice in a system determined that radium was safe.

Review

I saw a lot of buzz around this book a year or so ago, and it won a goodreads choice award in 2017. It had been on my wishlist for quite some time, but I ended up buying it because it was a kindle deal.

The story itself made me angry and upset, with maybe a little hope. The radium companies were painted like the Mr Burns type company that only care about profit. They were determined to show the world that radium wasn’t dangerous, despite the evidence they had seen from elsewhere. Even as the girls were getting sick they continued to deny that the radium was the cause.

mr burns.png

I was also angry at how long it took for something to be done about it, and at how even those not immediately related to the radium industry wanted to deny what was happening.

The girl’s illnesses were not easy to read about. They suffered, greatly, with no possible cure, and all the time they weren’t listened to. To imagine the injuries to teeth and jaws was sort of disgusting and sounded like it would be humiliating if you were suffering,

Moore points out that the suffering of the radium girls was not completely in vain. The knowledge gained from their illnesses and the bodies of those who had died meant that working with radium and radiation could be made safer. However, I became somewhat, possibly irrationally, annoyed at Moore for pointing out that it meant those involved with creating nuclear weapons were kept safe. It felt like Moore agreed with nuclear weapons from the ways she said they helped in ending the war. The knowledge from the radium girls should mean that those weapons should never have been thought possible, because it shows they aren’t just going to affect the people you intend to bomb, but also those around them, and anyone in the area post-bombing. Seeing what the girls suffered should make people not want to see that on anyone, even your enemy.

In terms of the book itself. I found it dragged a little, I feel it could have been stripped down to something like a feature piece in a magazine or newspaper, and it was rather repetitive. I did want to know what happened overall, but little bits in-between were overlaboured, I think. Plus the way Moore had written it as a sort of story seemed like she had used artistic licence, I don’t think she had made facts up but some things I don’t think she can have known, I’m not even sure if people who were there could remember exactly some of the smaller details.

The end was a bit like the end of the Lord of the Rings films, it kept seeming to come to a close, but then didn’t.

A note on the kindle version. It was meant to have photos, but they only seemed to be visible via the picture index at the end. I’m not sure how they would appear in a real book.

3/5

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The War on Women- Sue Lloyd Roberts


Synopsis

Sue Lloyd Roberts spent her life filming in hostile areas, where women were mistreated. In this book she talks about how women are treated around the world and what is (or isn’t) being done to fight their corner.

Review

This was the book for my feminist bookgroup in July, and I think I can safely say we found it pretty hopeless. I think it is an important and eye opening book to read, but it does make you despair a bit.

The full title of the book includes the line ‘The Women Who Fight Back’, and whilst these women did exist- and were very admirable for it- often their ‘fight’ actually made little real difference.

The most stark and memorable of these was the story of the female peacekeeper charged with routing out sex trafficking in war torn areas. When she found that a lot of her fellow American peacekeepers were using the services of these abused girls she tried to put things right- and was dismissed for the pleasure.

Some of these stories are ones you may know, the brutal rape of a woman on a bus in India, the frequent sexual and physical attacks during protests in Egypt, but you may not know the levels, and how things stand today.

There were also things I know were an issue, but not quite how close to home. I knew about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), but I guess I (maybe naively) presumed that even on girls in Britain it happened abroad.

I’m not going to rate this book, I think it’s important to read, but a rating is a bit too much about pleasure. I wouldn’t say it was pleasurable. In terms of readability it was good, graphic when it needed to be but without trying to drown you in emotion, and not too obviously political or ‘news-y’.

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War- Roald Dahl


Synopsis

War is a set of short stories for adults written about war. Based on Dahl’s own experiences in the RAF and of wartime in general.

Review

I’ve ever read any of Dahl’s adult stories before, it’s one of these things that I always thought I’d do at some point and never got around to. I loved his stories as a child, so I was both excited and a bit apprehensive about reading the adult stories. I chose this particular collection because of my love of war stories.

The first, and longest, story was ‘Going Solo’ and it was an account of Dahl’s own experiences in the RAF. Now I read his book ‘Going Solo’ when I was a child, which I only vaguely remember. I’m sure that this version (the one in ‘War’) is more adult, it doesn’t read like a children’s book anyway, but as both are autobiographies I imagine that a lot of the stories are of the same incidents.

Going Solo was the story in the collection which I enjoyed the most. The others though really held something which said that Dahl knew war, and the aftermath. What I liked was how things like loosing a child, or shellshock, or even just generally recovering from the experience of war were talked about but not explicitly. Most of the other short stories felt like they were a story which showed how these things felt, without actually saying how they felt- a sort of metaphor if you will.

The other stories did tend towards the weird, which I think is part of why I didn’t like them so much in the moment. They weren’t weird in an entertaining way, just strange.

I’m not sure if my experience means I will read more of Dahl’s adult stories or not. When I bought this one I also considered Madness and Innocence so I still may read them.

3/5

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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking-Anya Von Bremzen


Side note: So yes it’s been a while. Me and the boyfriend just moved into our very own house a few months ago, and with everything that needs doing, and organising we didn’t really have much time for internet (or we shouldn’t have…) so we only got our internet connected last week. But yay I’m back and hoping to post a bit more regularly, although my focus is still off a bit. I have quite a few reviews to catch up on so I should get on it really!

Synopsis (from amazon)

Born in a surreal Moscow communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen, Anya von Bremzen grew up singing odes to Lenin, black-marketeering Juicy Fruit gum at school, and longing for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy and, finally, intolerable. In 1974, when Anya was ten, she and her mother fled to the USA, with no winter coats and no right of return. These days, Anya is the doyenne of high-end food writing. And yet, the flavour of Soviet kolbasa, like Proust’s madeleine, transports her back to that vanished Atlantis known as the USSR .

Review

It’s been a while since I actually read this, so my review may be a little sketchy, although I at least have a few general thoughts which I knew I wanted to share.

This book it a bit difficult to put into a box, part memoir, part biography, part history book, part food book, part cookbook. It all sort of fits together, although it has a bit of a flighty nature jumping between present day and the past- and not just Anya’s past, her parent’s past too, and her grandparents. It sort of makes a bit of a clash, although the historical bits are more or less in order sometimes it is difficult to connect different events, especially when it becomes more history than biography. Maybe it’s meant to be like that- with the idea of the gap between the government and the general population. It’s hard to connect what she says about the government with what it happening ‘out there’.

I did find it a little slow at first for this reason. I found Anya’s first hand accounts easier to connect with and found I wanted to read the book more when she was a young girl in the narrative, probably it is easier to narrate something which has happened to you personally.

I didn’t get the same sort of sense of amazing food from the food descriptions as I have in other books about food, maybe because I don’t really have any experience of Russian cuisine. Having said that I’ve wanted to try foods from descriptions before, and a lot of the time the descriptions given by Anya were expecting prior knowledge.

I did like the way that history was told with food as a starting point, it made it accessible, and the parallel between those who ate whatever they could get and those who had whatever they wanted was interesting.

3/5

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Night- Elie Wiesel


This book was read as part of The Rory List

Synopsis (from amazon)

Born into a Jewish ghetto in Hungary, as a child, Elie Wiesel was sent to the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. This is his account of that atrocity: the ever-increasing horrors he endured, the loss of his family and his struggle to survive in a world that stripped him of humanity, dignity and faith. Describing in simple terms the tragic murder of a people from a survivor’s perspective

Review

I have started and stopped this review a number of times. I want to write it, but somehow it seems that reviewing a book of somebody’s experiences, especially such horrible experiences, makes it loose some of its importance. I’ve written reviews of this type of book before, but only when I’ve been asked to, in which case I feel duty bound to write a review, even if I feel it trivialises something, This is the first time I’ve reviewed a book like this by choice, and to say anything that isn’t the highest praise seems wrong.

I suppose what that means is that I am not one of those people blown away by Night. There is one thing about autobiographies, when it’s something which is real you can be more matter of fact about it, or writing re-feels the emotions, which makes it more matter of fact. With fiction it’s more detached, you are writing about imagined emotions, it can still be hard, because you are attached to a character.

We had to write autobiographical pieces when I was in sixth form, I wrote about my osteoporosis (which I spoke about here, when discussing Handle With Care). My teacher praised my piece because of a lack of self pity, but for me it’s nothing special, it’s just my life, matter of fact.

When it comes to something emotional though, I think this can make it less hard hitting than fiction. In a way Wiesel’s experiences didn’t seem to be the worst. Not that they weren’t horrible experiences, but you didn’t get the same sort of descriptives that you might get in a fictional book, which made it seem…less. It was partially balanced out by knowing that it was real. Fiction is fiction, even when based on fact, you can’t know how much can really be close to how it really was. With non-fiction at least you know what you are reading is true. Maybe it’s less descriptive, less emotional, but in the end it means more.

Sometimes I think that I read too much about the Holocaust, like I’ve become somehow sensitised to it. Did that make a difference to how I viewed Night? Probably. Did the fact that it has been so praised mean that I was expecting more? Possibly. The first edition of Night in a similar version to what we now read was published thirteen years after the end of World War Two. At that time it may have been more powerful. It was probably an event which lived much more in the memory at the time, and people would remember finding out the full truth of what the Nazis did. Those who had been through the concentration camps may have had enough time to start talking, and I imagine there was not much literature about the events, it was too soon. It would have given people truth that they may not have otherwise seen.

Night is still powerful. Still important. The writing is still good writing. However there was a certain lack of detail which I hadn’t expected, maybe I would have liked that. It is reported that Wiesel said he had originally written a manuscript in Yiddish which was over 800 pages long, maybe the less edited version was more detailed, maybe too much so. Would it make it harder to read, and therefore read less widely?

I’m not going to give a score because I don’t feel this can be scored.

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DNF: The Teacher Wars



Disclaimer: I was given this book free of charge in exchange for an honest review

Synopsis (from amazon)

Teaching is a wildly contentious profession in America, one attacked and admired in equal measure. In The Teacher Wars, a rich, lively, and unprecedented history of public school teaching, Dana Goldstein reveals that teachers have been similarly embattled for nearly two centuries. From the genteel founding of the common schools movement in the nineteenth century to the violent inner-city teacher strikes of the 1960s and ’70s, from the dispatching of Northeastern women to frontier schoolhouses to the founding of Teach for America on the Princeton University campus in 1989, Goldstein shows that the same issues have continued to bedevil us: Who should teach? What should be taught? Who should be held accountable for how our children learn?
She uncovers the surprising roots of hot button issues, from teacher tenure to charter schools, and finds that recent popular ideas to improve schools—instituting merit pay, evaluating teachers by student test scores, ranking and firing veteran teachers, and recruiting “elite” graduates to teach—are all approaches that have been tried in the past without producing widespread change. And she also discovers an emerging effort that stands a real chance of transforming our schools for the better: drawing on the best practices of the three million public school teachers we already have in order to improve learning throughout our nation’s classrooms.
  

Thoughts

I wanted to like this book, I really did. In a way I was enjoying it, I did find it interesting. However I also found it difficult to connect with because I have no experience of the American education system. I began to find things a little repetitive, and I found myself reading it less and less (although to be honest I’ve been finding that a lot recently with my kindle reads). I’ve read about three other kindle books since I last looked at The Teacher Wars, I had intended to finish, but I don’t think that’s really going to happen.

I do think if you have an interest or knowledge of the American education system you will find it interesting, and it is a fairly easy read for a none-fiction book

DNF

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Surviving the Angel of Death- Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri


Disclaimer: This book was given my free of charge via netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Synopsis (from amazon)

Among Holocaust survivor stories, Eva Kor’s experience as a 10-year-old guinea pig of Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz is exceptional. It is the story of a child facing extraordinary evil and cruelty, written for young teens and ending with an uplifting message. Eva Mozes Kor was just 10 years old when she arrived in Auschwitz. While her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, she and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man known as the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. Subjected to sadistic medical experiments, she was forced to fight daily for her and her twin’s survival. In this incredible true story written for young adults, readers will learn of a child’s endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil. The book also includes an epilogue on Eva’s recovery from this experience and her remarkable decision to publicly forgive the Nazis. Through her museum and her lectures, she has dedicated her life to giving testimony on the Holocaust, providing a message of hope for people who have suffered, and working for causes of human rights and peace.

Review

Eva Kor is known for her talks about her time in Auschwitz and about forgiveness. She is also the founder of the CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiment Survivors) organisation and the CANDLES Holocaust Museum. She wanted to share her story in a way that was accessible for children and she worked with Lisa Rojany Buccieri to achieve this.

So did she achieve it? Well I’ve read a lot of war time stories involving children (although few are actually set in a concentration camp).  I think generally these stories have been more accessible, although maybe that is because most of what I have read are fiction. They still tell a horrible, disturbing story but it is easier to sanitise them in a way, you can’t change the truth.

The story did give me a lot of respect for people who had gone through the death camps, and especially for Eva, for the strength and compassion they showed even in such an ugly situation.

I did feel it as a little brief in some areas, however this was probably due to it being a children’s story.

If you are looking for children’s books about the holocaust this might not be top of my recommendations but you can’t really go wrong with it.

3.5/5

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The Hare the Amber Eyes- Edmund de Waal


Image from Amazon

This book was read as part of the Take a Chance Challenge

Synopsis(from Amazon)

The history of a family through 264 objects – set against a turbulent century – from an acclaimed writer and potter

Note: This is the short description from Amazon. The long description gives away just a little to much, so I decided to leave it more mysterious.

Review

This book, which was the winner of the Costa Biography Prize last year, got a lot of buzz towards the end of last year and during this year (although I don’t believe I’ve seen any bloggers reviewing it, if you have please link me so I can look). It made it a pretty easy choice as my book recommended by a professional reviewer for the Take a Chance Challenge, but it’s taken me all year to actually get around to reading it.

One thing I can say that really stood out in this book was the descriptions, especially the descriptions of places and objects. I could really imagine what the netsuke looked and felt like, and I came out of the book wanting to visit Vienna. The last time a book has made me want to visit a place was when I read The Historian back before I started this blog.

I did have a bit of an odd relationship with this book though. When I was actually reading it I found I was quite interested, but when I had put it down I was never really that bothered about picking it up again. At one point I was even on the brink of giving up on it, but with a little persuasion from my Mum, and he knowledge that I did find it interesting part of the time, kept me going. I am glad I did. While I didn’t find the first part of the story that interesting I really raced though the last hundred or so pages because I was generally enjoying that section. I think just the period of time it was set in was interesting (during the second world war) or maybe it was just because I knew that period of history so I could put events into a more clear setting. I did like however the thread going through the book setting a sort of atmosphere for what was to come. I suppose that is history, but certainly it was a good idea to make that path clear.

One thing I would have really liked in this book though is more pictures of the Netsuke, however there is an illustrated edition which may work better.

3/5

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That Day in September- Artie Van Why


Cover of "That Day In September"

Cover of That Day In September

This book was sent to me free in exchange for an honest review

Synopsis (from Amazon)

We all have our stories to tell of where we were the morning of September 11, 2001. This is one of them. In “That Day In September” Artie Van Why gives an eyewitness account of that fateful morning. From the moment he heard “a loud boom” in his office across from the World Trade Center, to stepping out onto the street, Artie vividly transports the reader back to the day that changed our lives and our country forever. “That Day In September” takes you beyond the events of that morning. By sharing his thoughts, fears and hopes, Artie expresses what it was like to be in New York City in the weeks and months following. The reader comes away from “That Day In September” with not only a more intimate understanding of the events of that day but also with a personal glimpse of how one person’s life was dramatically changed forever.

Review

I feel that words cannot really describe my thoughts on this book, it completely blew me away. I will try my best to put my thoughts into words, just don’t expect too much!

At first I was a little unsure about reading a book based on September the 11th, not because I had no interest in the subject but because there was a part of my that thought it didn’t seem right to make money out of a tragedy such as that day, but once I started ‘getting to know’ Artie I didn’t feel that way any more. It felt more like he was helping people to understand while relieving his own pain. I can imagine that writing about what happened that day must have been difficult for him.

In terms of read-a-bility for such a difficult matter That Day in September was surprisingly easy to read. The book was short (less than 100 pages) and the language was simple, so I managed to read the whole thing in less than an hour while waiting for the boyfriend in a coffee shop. However the simplicity didn’t take anything away from the subject matter (at least in terms of  emotional impact), if anything it let events speak for themselves. I liked that Van Why left things unsaid, sometimes words cannot match an emotion or an image, who can really describe what we all saw (whether in person or through the television) that day?

I did find myself wanting to e-mail Van Why as soon as I had read the book. Wanting to write about what I had read and urge you all to read it. What a shame I was nowhere near a computer!

5/5

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The QI Book of the Dead


The QI Book of the Dead

Image via Wikipedia

Synopsis (from Amazon)

The QI Book of the Dead is a book about life.

‘What an awful thing life is. It’s like soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface. You have to eat it nevertheless.’ (Gustave Flaubert)

Around 90 billion people have existed since the human race began. From this huge number, the bestselling QI team selected 600 of the finest examples of our species and researched them in depth, distilling this immense banquet of life into an exquisite tasting menu of six-dozen crisp, racy mini-biographies, where the internationally and immortally famous rub shoulders with the undeservedly and (until now) permanently obscure.

The object is to learn something about what it means to be alive and how we can make the most of the time we have.

The QI Book of the Dead compares and contrasts the different ways individual human beings cope (or fail to cope) with the curves that the uncaring universe* throws at us. Collected into themed chapters with thought-provoking titles such as ‘There s Nothing Like a Bad Start in Life’, ‘Man Cannot Live by Bread Alone’ and ‘Is That All There Is?’ here is a chance to share the secrets of the Dead, to celebrate their wisdom, to learn from their mistakes, and to marvel at their bad taste in clothes.

‘The man who is not dead still has a chance.’ (Lebanese Proverb)

*We don t rule out the alternative possibility of a compassionate God whose motives are beyond our ken.

Review

Bit of a difficult one to review this. Very interesting, and well written so it was as easy to read as fiction tends to be. Gave me a fair bit of knowledge without any of it being particularly useful! Quite amusing too, although I found more made me laugh in the first few chapter than in the last few. Well worth a read anyway.

4/5

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The Fatal Englishman- Sebastian Faulks


Synopsis (from Amazon)

Christopher Wood, a beautiful young Englishman, decided to be the greatest painter the world had seen. He went to Paris in 1921. By day he studied, by night he attended the parties of the beau monde. He knew Picasso, worked for Diaghilev and was a friend of Cocteau. In the last months of his 29-year life, he fought a ravening opium addiction to succeed in claiming a place in history of English painting.

Richard Hilary, confident, handsome and unprincipled, flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain before being shot down and horribly burned. He underwent several operations by the legendary plastic surgeon, A H McIndoe. His account of his experiences, “The Last Enemy”, made him famous, but not happy. He begged to be allowed to return to flying, and died mysteriously in a night training operation, aged 23.

Jeremy Wolfenden was born in 1936, the son of Jack, later Lord Wolfenden. Charming, generous and witty, he was the cleverest Englishman of his generation, but left All Souls to become a hack reporter. At the height of the Cold War, he was sent to Moscow where his louche private life made him the plaything of the intelligence services. A terrifying sequence of events ended in Washington where he died at the age of 31.

Review

I’m going to split this review into 4 sections, one general section and one for each story or ‘life’. It just makes it a bit easier to organise my thoughts.

General

Again this is a book which Waterstones put in the wrong section of their store, which kind of disappointed. Maybe they did it purposefully because Sebastian Faulks is better known for his fiction (his most famous novel being Birdsong) but this book is in fact a sort of biography (I say sort of because there are really 3 biographies). This meant I bought it expecting Faulks’ normal style, and this is where I found the book a bit of a let down. I usually really enjoy Faulks’ books, and Birdsong is amongst my favourites, so I had pretty high hopes for this one. While I found the stories themselves quite interesting I found the style was not up to Faulks’ usual standards. At times is read like a list which had just been joined together with a few conjunctions and a bit of punctuation. I think this was partly because, being a biography, there was little on how the ‘characters’ (I say for want of a better word) felt, understandable but I found it jarred with the story-like style of the writing.
After a while my problems with the writing style did become less important as I got more interested in the stories.
The only thing which wasn’t reduced by my interest in the stories was that there was a sense that Faulks’ wanted to use all th information he had read while researching for the book, this meant that in parts there did just seem to be lists of information which wasn’t really needed and actually extended each section beyond the point where you would have expected it to finish.

Christopher Wood

Photobucket

Of all the accounts this was the one which interested me the least. While Wood’s life was more interesting than the majority of the population I didn’t really become interested until the section was almost finished, in fact I almost gave up within the first 50 pages, all that really kept me going was wanting to know how he died (although I did get interested before that point)! Really the only thing it did was made me intrigued to see some of his art work. I have posted one of his more famous pieces above.

Richard Hilary

Factually this was my favourite section. I’ve always been pretty interested in history (at one point I was planning on taking a history degree) and particularly the period around the two world wars. However I’ve never really known that much about the RAFs role in the second world war (in fact I think my only knowledge comes from a story I read as a teenager which was more focused on the work on the ground than in the air) so I found it really interesting to find out about what it was like to be a pilot and getting into the RAF. I also found the information about early plastic surgery really interesting. This was also the section I found easiest to read, because one of the sources was Hilary’s own book (which was more or less an autobiography) Faulks was able to include more information about how Hilary felt than he had been able to for the other two sections.

Jeremy Wolfenden

Character wise this was my favourite section. Wolfenden seemed to spend most of his life trying to be controversial, and various events made things all the more crazy. It seemed there was always stuff going on in his life. This section also partially took place in Moscow during the Cold War so I found it historically interesting too although it had less historical content (in terms of world history rather than personal history) than the section on Richard Hilary.

3/5

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