Monday, May 7, 2012


Really Good Books About History: Part One

WAIT, how can we possibly do a "history" installment? Is it going to be, oh, okay, here are a bunch of books from various disparate eras that may or may not correspond to fields Nicole studied? Yes. That's how it's going to work. And then we'll do a few more of them in upcoming weeks.

London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew – I have read this book, along with Mayhew's The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: First-Person Accounts by Beggars, Thieves, and Prostitutes, at least eleventy-one times. It's the English equivalent of my oft-recommended Low Life. It makes you want to write historical novels. It's TEEMING WITH LIFE! VIVID LIFE! Also, fevered fans of the greatest poet of the English language (and certified juicebox), Philip Larkin may recognize the quotation he borrowed for one of his most beautiful poems, "Deceptions." Do you know "Deceptions"? Shall we cover the final stanza?

Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfillment's desolate attic.

No, really. EMPATHY. Larkin's little moment of empathy for a long-dead girl. Unnnnfh. Moving on.

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight – If you read one book about Reconstruction, it'll probably be Eric Foner's, which is totally legit. But if you want to be emotionally transformed by a second book about Reconstruction, go for David Blight. It's masterful. If you've ever wondered how the American South managed to change the national conversation into some kind of ridiculous "Brother's War" soapfest in order to make everyone besties again and leave black Americans out in the cold, this will explain the EXACT MECHANISM to you. But you'll also get into fights at parties, so, um, you'll have to make that call on your own time. 

, Max Hastings – I asked for this for Christmas, obviously. Everyone needs a very large and imposing WWII tome on their coffee table to impress visitors. Hastings has written about nine books on WWII by now, but you really only need this one, honestly. It's also very person-focused, so it's a little less "let's shove our Risk pieces around the map for 1400 pages," not that those books aren't also necessary and wonderful. But I think you'll find this one both bracing and engaging.

Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust – You don't necessarily have to agree with Faust's larger conclusions about the connection between the ebbing of female homefront fervor and the collapse of the Confederacy to find her research fascinating. Me, I can't get enough of letters between women and diaries. I can't! Is this why Tumblr works? Maybe. But the way women talk to each other and encode their desires and fears and interests and hopes is endlessly interesting, and watching an entire CULTURE go tits-up as the ultimate hollowness of their lives is revealed in wartime is just...argh....so incredible. Faust is also the first female President of Harvard University, and generally a great person.

The Girls Who Went Away, Ann Fessler – Sometimes I think about doing a "The Comment Section for Every Article Ever Written About Infertility," just so we can cover the "why don't people adopt?"/ "Please educate yourself about the historical social injustices of the Baby Grab Era, which has left people hesitant and bruised about the whole concept" phenomenon. This book destroyed me. And then my mother told a friend of hers about it, and her friend said: "it happened to me when I was seventeen. They tossed a towel on my face so I wouldn't see my baby before they took him away. I wanted to change my mind, and they told me he was already with his new family. But he wasn't, he was a preemie and was in the hospital for seven weeks before he went home." But she met him last year, and it's been very healing for her. And obviously we live in a very different world now, and what you should really take away from this book is the unintentional horrors we can cause by deciding who "should" have babies, and what would be "kindest" for women in difficult circumstances, and how we need to actually listen to each other, and all that.

The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care
, Nina Bernstein – Case in fucking point. I apologize for my strong language. You know how I recommend all these books, and sometimes I say "no, really, though, this one is necessary in order to live in society as an aware and often-bitchy person"? This is one of those books. You can watch yourself go through anger and denial and bargaining and so on, but SPOILERS, you're not really going to wind up at acceptance. Please read the entire first chapter here.

Oh, we got heavy this week, guys, I'm sorry. But I really want you to read Wilder, okay?

137 Comments / Post A Comment


Nothing intelligent to say here, just OH MY GOD "THE GIRLS WHO WENT AWAY." Yes.


@dahlface I'm really excited about reading this - just added it to my amazon cart. I wrote a paper about this topic in law school for my Women & the Law class and man, I wish I could travel back in time with this book as a reference.


love your work!@m

Anne Helen Petersen

Best (slightly embellished) book about history ever: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I've already pre-ordered part deux (out tomorrow, out tomorrow, such good timing).


@Anne Helen Petersen Not an hour ago I was reading this review of the sequel. Can't wait.


@Anne Helen Petersen I have had that sitting on my book shelf for like two years and for some reason cannot get myself excited to read it. Would love to hear why you liked it so much! I have a weird block about it at this point.


@Anne Helen Petersen I need to give that book I second go. I began it last year because I really like Mantel and I really like the Tudors, but I got so frustrated at her unnecessarily confusing use of pronouns.


@Decca I could not get through Wolf Hall. But having heard so many good things about it, I may give it another shot this summer.

Anne Helen Petersen

@Decca When my mom gave it to me for Christmas (in my family, we essentially only exchange piles of books at Christmas) I was like, ew, yuck, get this historical fiction nonsense away from me. Even the cover of the book makes you think as much. But Mantel has such a fascinating way of approaching a story I thought I already knew everything about -- and making each character weird and sympathetic and fascinating. Plus she's just a ridiculously skilled writer.


@Decca The pronoun use is so so confusing, as is the many many people named Thomas and Henry. And yet I read the whole thing, even though it was a huge hardback (my least favorite form of book). It took me a little while, but then I totally got into it.


@Anne Helen Petersen I'm confused because I found Wolf Hall to be kind of a slog and felt like it took up way too much of my life, but now I also kind of want to read the new one.

elysian fields

@Anne Helen Petersen eh ... that book. It's ... well .. it's ... okay. I finished it, and I didn't violently dislike it, but I could have died happily having never read it. *shrugs*

Maybe I just feel like I'm too old for "historical fiction." That stuff was the jam in middle school, but now that I'm an old lady (not really, but sort of), Nicole's list of super heavy tomes seems a lot more exciting to me than Wolf Hall-type books. Give me the real shit!

elysian fields

@elysian fields oh, I remembered one thing that bothered me! It was her use of the present tense ("he says" this, "he thinks" that). It's an annoying gimmick that I can't stand.


@elysian fields I don't think that present tense is a gimmick at all! I have heard other people say that, and I don't understand that. I've read a bunch of books in present tense, and I don't mind it at all. That feels the same as saying that first person is a gimmick -- it's just a different way to tell a story.

Anne Helen Petersen

@thebestjasmine I *LOVED* the use of present tense. John Jeremiah Sullivan uses the same "trick" in his essay on Michael Jackson in PULPHEAD, and it does something peculiar and unexpected and wonderful.

Tragically Ludicrous

@Anne Helen Petersen uggggh I want to read it SO BAD but I have a thesis to write damn it. Must wait.


@Anne Helen Petersen I feel like it really puts you right into the story. It was in Hunger Games too, which I didn't notice until someone pointed it out, but to me it feels like you're living the story as the character does.


@Anne Helen Petersen Put me in the "loved it" category. Once I figured out that "he" is almost always the protagonist, unless another male person was being described or was speaking, I was cool with the pronoun thing. Though there were some passages I had to read 2x.


@Anne Helen Petersen I am so freakin' excited for Bring Out the Bones. And there will be a third! (Though we do know how it ends...)


Yes, London Labour and the London Poor is really great and full of awful details.

And Nicole, I read Black Dogs. And I really, really liked it! I'm reconsidering punching McEwan in the face next time I see him. I was just really horrified by it - especially when I realised what the black dogs were for - in the way I was supposed to. Very compelling and complicated and so rich for such a short book.


@Decca Just added Black Dogs to my Amazon wish list. I'm taking the plunge.

Also, is there a Parisian equivalent to London Labour and the London Poor / Low Life?

Nicole Cliffe

@Decca YES, so so happy you liked Black Dogs. I think it's so different and twisty and genuine.


Can anyone recommend a good book about California history? Emphasis on San Francisco preferred but not required. I am currently trying to read "A Crack in the Edge of the World" about the 1906 earthquake and it is ohmygodterrible. Like, Thomas Friedman-esque levels of tortured metaphors terrible.

Anne Helen Petersen

@Alixana ANGLE OF REPOSE, ANGLE OF REPOSE! And if you want something more straight-up history, City of Quartz (on the history of Los Angeles) is so, so, so good (but maybe only in an American Studies grad student sort of way? I have little perspective).


@Anne Helen Petersen Oooh City of Quartz is great.
The best book I've ever read about CA is "Where I Was From" by Joan Didion, even if it's more of a personal memoir than straight history.


@Anne Helen Petersen Angle of Repose indeed, forever!!! Great for fans of having their hearts ripped out and lives ruined by literature.

Nicole Cliffe


Anne Helen Petersen

@Nicole Cliffe The other day the BF (from NYC) was gazing upon my entire shelf of Wallace Stegner and was all "what's the deal with this guy?" YOU MUST READ TO UNDERSTAND.


@Anne Helen Petersen ANGLE OF REPOSE x Infinity!


@everyone *buy ALL the books


@Anne Helen Petersen I have an story about Angle of Repose: that and The Virginian were my parents mutual favorite novels, so for their anniversary one year, my father went to a jeweler and had a brooch designed in mother of pearl in the shape of a surveyor's levelling instrument. (The tool surveyors use to find the angle of repose.) It was a very creative gift.


@Alixana if you are interested in SF in particular, you might try Wide-Open Town by Nan Alamilla Boyd (it's specifically about queer life in SF from late 19th c. to 1965, but it also has a lot of more general info that is fascinating). I guess the definitive California historian is Kevin Starr, so you could check out some of his books for something more general. I have heard good things about My Blue Heaven, which is about working-class suburbs in LA, but haven't read it myself. and if you want to know about the East Bay, then American Babylon by Robert Self although that one is a little heavy on the academic speak. (I am a history grad student, so I could list titles all day but I will restrain myself now.) I love Joan Didion's Where I Was From for something more impressionistic/literary on the California mythos.

simone eastbro

@saramayeux these are excellent suggestions. I also like DJ Waldie's "Holy Land." Also Lisa McGirr's "Suburban Warriors."

oh, disaster

THE GIRLS WHO WENT AWAY. I first saw it mentioned on a site that was doing a 16 & Pregnant recap. That book killed me. What a punch to the gut.


@oh, disaster It's so great - I cried several times while reading it, and for sure yelled at the book many times. If anyone is interested in a fictionalized account of a mid-century home for unwed mothers, may I recommend "The Patron Saint of Liars" by Ann Patchett? PRETTY good.


I would recommend Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men for an utterly compelling, terrifying and necessary read.

Nicole Cliffe

@Decca Okay, full disclosure? I like to do, you know, themed coffee table displays, and then I had a Real German Person visit, and had to kick "Ordinary Men," "The Good Old Days," and "Hitler's Willing Executioners" under the couch on five minutes notice. Now I have a women's memoir display instead.


@Nicole Cliffe ...Basil Fawlty?

Nicole Cliffe



@Decca ORDINARY MEN! Definitely on the list of "must-read books about WWII," in my opinion. Also, Browning's ongoing feud with Daniel Goldhagen (author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners") is absolute popcorn-chomping entertainment. One of my favorite historian's feuds (GO TEAM BROWNING!).



Here is where I exhale in what feels like the first time for years.


@melis ahhh Fawlty Towers... When someone was explaining that Russell Brand scandal to me a few years ago I was like, "oh Andrew Sachs- that guy who did the (racist) impression of a Spanish guy?" I'm still confused why prank phone calls caused such a scandal by the way..


@melis This is...you are still being sarcastic, right? This isn't Honest Melis (tm), right??


I already have Inferno on my Kindle wishlist. One step ahead!

Can I prat on about James Reston's Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors again? Because it was really good. And one of my former coworkers has my copy. She's had it for like two years and I don't think she's read it yet and I don't care because I want it back. I hate loaning my books out.

I think I have also mentioned Craig Symonds's excellent Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History, but it bears repeating. It covers battles in the Revolutionary War (this one is sort of a bonus prologuey thing since there weren't any American ships involved, just British and French), the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War II, and the Gulf War. I skipped lunch almost every day last summer so I could sit in the car and read this, it was so good.


I'm a freak for books about Lincoln and just read "The Fiery Trial" - oh, so good. And also "Lincoln at Cooper Union" by Harold Holzer if you like broad studies in rhetoric. Team of Rivals actually is as enjoyable as everyone says and I cannot freaking wait for the movie --> Sally Field as Mary Todd !!! <3


@fortress In the depressing assassination category, I found James Swanson's Manhunt amazingly readable and informative. It has a lot of information about what happened in D.C. - including to the Seward family - as well as the aftermath.


How about Late Victorian Holocausts? Super grim, horrifying and informative! It's data heavy, but seriously, the stories about Ethiopia and India and Brazil are searing.

In the Garden of Beasts? I adore Larson, so vivid. Better than the Devil in the White City.

Team of Rivals gets rave reviews from everyone I know who has read it.

Changes in the Land- William Cronon....I guess it shows I'm a geographer by training, since these are all geographical histories.


@E OH MY GOD LATE VICTORIAN HOLOCAUSTS. It's horrifying, it's grim, it's informative, and I'm not quite sure I have been so LIVID while reading a book in my life. Injustice after injustice after injustice, just keep turning the pages, more injustice! MORE! And if that's not enough there are charts about living conditions and dietary restrictions and more goddamn injustice, just injustice everywhere, AAAAUGH MY RAGE. FEEL MY RAGE, HISTORY, FEEL IT.


@Scandyhoovian When it points out that basically every 3rd world country is poor because some stupid europeans came in with social darwinism and helped everyone starve and wiped out the fail safe systems, and that it's not the "developing world" it's the "previously developed, systematically ransacked and now crippled by European colonialist policy" world?! Ghastly. I knew about the systematic theft of "structural adjustment" and World Bank loans and all that, but to find out that was ROUND 2?! No wonder Africa can't get a damn break.


I think I forgot to ask in the 'about famous people' threads whether anyone has read a really good biography of Elizabeth I. I find her very fascinating.


@dale I have not, but I have seen a really, really (unintentionally) funny History Channel documentary that argued that Queen Elizabeth was actually a man.

Tragically Ludicrous

@dale Have you read the the Alison Weir one? Her stuff tends to be poppy but very enjoyable to read, I think I have read all of them.


@Tragically Ludicrous Alison Weir's is the only one I've read. Am woefully behind - are there others you recommend?


@dale (Sorry to comment so late!) I've read maybe ten biographies of Elizabeth, and I think Anne Somerset's 600-page Elizabeth I is the best. I also think some of Weir's books and novels are great (especially Innocent Traitor about Lady Jane Grey, though it's really gut-wrenching). I also loved Mary S. Lovell's biography of Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury. She was a friend of Elizabeth's, and she made herself a powerful magnate in her own right.

Glenda Jackson's 1971 performance in Elizabeth R is my favorite Elizabethan film. It's six 90-min. episodes that are streaming on Netflix, and they go from Elizabeth's teens to her 60s. The history is pretty accurate. The series also has that nice difference between when they used different kinds of low-budget film inside and outside, while never ever scrimping on the quality of the performances.


@Gracious! Ooooooo, thanks for that rec. Looks like my library has a copy I can grab tomorrow.
I've never even heard of this Elizabeth R film, I'll have to do some digging to see if it's available here. I finally got to see the Helen Mirren one, and I think right now it's my favourite. The cast is brilliant, and it gave me a better sense of the individuals involved - and a very good sense of how difficult it must have been for her to know who she could trust.


LIZA PICARD LIZA PICARD LIZA PICARD ABOUT EVERYTHING LONDON EVER. "Elizabeth's London," "Victorian London," "Doctor Johnson's London," "Restoration London." All the best ever. Dense and scholarly, but with moments of surprising humor.

Also "At Day's Close: Night In Times Past" by Roger Ekirch: he's the guy who popularized the theory that human sleep had historically been segmented. The chapters on travel by night and segmented sleep are go-to comforters for me.

For WWII stories from enlisted women's perspectives, may I recommend "We Band of Angels" (lost my copy and need to rebuy) by Elizabeth Norman and "And If I Perish" by Evelyn Monahan? Both of them are gripping, occasionally nightmarish (I haven't bitched about my working conditions since reading about American nurses in Bataan), and thoroughly absorbing books.

Hey, Nicole, can we have books about medicine and science? I'm your gal on the medicine part.

Nicole Cliffe

I'm doing 'Really Good Books About Diseases' very shortly!


@Nicole Cliffe OMG, do The Ghost Map. It's London AND Cholera, and it's non-fiction, but it reads like a novel, and it. is. SO. GOOD.


@Nicole Cliffe ooh, and Mountains Beyond Mountains?

...I kind of love Books About Diseases.


@Ophelia Have you read Paul Farmer's own book, Infections and Inequalities? It's sooooo gooood.

I'm so excited for Really Good Books About Diseases, I can't even tell you.


@Nicole Cliffe Can I nominate Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks?

Antonius Block

@Nicole Cliffe Seconding the rec of The Ghost Map. So excellent.


@cuminafterall I've read excerpts, but not the whole thing. Will get on that!


@Mingus_Thurber I was going to recommend "We Band of Angels" and "And if I Perish" too! They are so, so good. I also really enjoyed "The Women Who Wrote the War."

Liza Picard is amazing too. She's so readable.

My specialty is the history of women in science and medicine, but most of what I read is scholarly, so while it's very interesting it's not necessarily fun!


@Ophelia YES the Ghost Map. I haven't even finished reading this article, even though I'm SO EXCITED about said article. I ctrl +f'd ghost map. Seriously, I bought three copies of this so I could lend it to people (good thing to, I only have one left) it is GREAT.


@Ophelia MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS! THE GHOST MAP! Love. Ecumenical/ Secular Liberation Theology= the reason I love Paul Farmer the most.

Also, if we can expand diseases to chronic conditions, THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN.

And some enterprising person should write a history of looking for a way to make insulin. It'd be about Canadians!


@Ophelia I fourth the rec of The Ghost Map. I read it in a binge with The Great Mortality by John Kelly and Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill. I'd also give Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors, Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, & Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On to my kids yesterday if I had 'em (kids, that is).

@Nicole Cliffe do Books about Mental Diseases toooo!


@Cavendish I'm reading Katharine Park's Secrets of Women right now and it's an awesome mindroast.


@lucindahead That sounds really good! I'm glad I remembered to come back and check this thread. Thanks for the rec!

Tragically Ludicrous

History booooks! I love history books, I (used to) read a ton of them. Mostly vaguely trashy ones, I guess? Those are my favorite.

But so is this book on The Thirty Year's War. It's not only a fantastic and vivid account of that period in European history, but also sort of says something about the time period it was written (1930s Europe) and how parallels could be drawn. So good!


@Tragically Ludicrous
I basically forgot everything about the Thirty Years war after I put my pen down at the end of the AP Euro test (wait, I remember that defenestration is a cool word and that the fighting was related to the Reformation and it was probably the only thing I needed to know about Sweden for), but that book sounds absolutely fascinating (unlike the textbook we had for that class which made even the Spanish Inquisition sound dull). The fact that it was written in the '30s (right before another war which would dramatically alter Europe) just makes it sound even better.

Learning history in general is much more fun now that I'm not spending all of April cramming it in and am just learning it for the hell of it and not for a 5.

ETA: Holy hell, I want a book from the 30s and my library tells me it's CHECKED OUT. Mad uncool.

Tragically Ludicrous

@Poubelle History really is more fun when you're doing it for yourself. And it's a very good book, still holds up as the standard of a book about the period. Plus, female historian! CV stands for Cicely Veronica.


@Tragically Ludicrous She is AMAZING! It turned out the online catalog was wrong or it was magically returned while I was at work this morning because it was right where it was supposed to be on the shelf. I absolutely love it--at least the first chapter, anyhow. (And I remember more of the political/religious conflicts than I thought!)

But thank you thank you thank you for the recommendation--I am super-excited for the rest of it. I like that I can read it and care about facts because they're interesting or seem important to me and not because they'll be on the test or I should probably mention them in my paper. (Do I need to take notes or cite anything? NOPE!)


Several of these books have just made their way to my library holds list (and The Thirty Year's War is really good too!) But I came here to rave about Empire of the Summer Moon. The rise and fall of the Comanche on the great plains! Abduction! Horseback warfare! White dudes vastly underestimating nature! It's so good! (Exclamation points!)


@elephony Amazing book. I grew up in Fort Worth, which means I grew up on the legend of Cynthia Ann Parker, but there was so, so much I didn't know until I read this!


@sudden_eyes I have an essay in my stuff somewhere on Native readings of Native accounts of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and white readings of Native accounts of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and I feel the same way about it.

Same with Waterlilly.

Cat named Virtute

Oh Nicole, I love you and how much love you put into these and your equal commitment to the delightfully trashy and the necessarily political. I'm still working my way through Really Good Books About Fake Murder (because that's about where I'm at with my reading brain these days--Ripley is sooooooo good), but I adore and appreciate every one of your columns.


Add to this list: Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante.


Philip Larkin! Philip Larkin. Oh man. Such a crappy, miserable person, such great poetry. I credit him with getting me through my shittily lonely teenage years.


@feartie Yep. Horrible person, incredible poet. "The Life with a Hole in It." "Aubade." Oh, my God, "Aubade." One of the greatest English-language poems of the 20th century (though at this writing I still think Derek Mahon's A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford is ... yeah, just read it).


@sudden_eyes I read that a few years ago in a Bloodaxe anthology, and it stuck with me. Yearning mushrooms!


@sudden_eyes Oh, my god, how have I never read that before? Fuck, that's wonderful. And Aubade makes me dizzy. And jealous.


Just went online to reserve a few of these, and there was already a hold on Wilder. This begets the question: WHICH OTHER SFPL-LOVING PINNER GOT THERE FIRST?!?!


OMG, please, everyone, read "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" by James W. Loewen. It's a revelation. Suddenly everything will make sense. The middle/end part gets a bit stodgy, but it's worth it. Everything from the discovery of America, to the Civil War, to the Reconstruction and it's downfall... It's a wonderful book. I am always waiting for someone to ask me a question that will give me a chance to refer to this book, that's how much it means to me.


@carolita then read Studs Terkel's Working, which is history now. About mid-century working people. Yes.

Jane Err

@PistolPackinMama People's History of the United States, also, if it even needs to be said.

Howard Zinn forever


@carolita oh man, helen keller has been my ultimate hero after reading that book in high school.


@ohyeahmetoo mine, too!


@PistolPackinMama I think I've commented on the Hairpin maybe twice, but I have to chime in for Studs Terkel's Working: amazing.


(Dating myself here) I was definitely a member of the Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today chant squad. So it is with some humility that I announce that, for history, you can't really beat Robert Caro's LBJ books (Book 4 of, assumedly, 5 books just came out). It's really exquisite, if you have any interest in politics. The side portraits of figures like JFK and RFK are worth the price of admission. You kind of really have to read all the books, in order, but if you are not up to that, Master of the Senate is perhaps the primus inter pares.

RK Fire

@purefog: I heard an interview with Robert Caro on NPR! It sounds like a very interesting series of books.


@purefog I read the excerpt of the latest book in a recent New Yorker. It was outstanding: keenly observed, tightly written. Just a great, riveting read.


@datalass Ah, yes, the 11/22 segment. Entirely riveting. I was reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King at the time, and so now they have, weirdly, morphed into one story.


Also, "Vichy and the Eternal Feminine: A Contribution to a Political Sociology of Gender [Hardcover]
Francine Muel-Dreyfus (Author), Kathleen A. Johnson (Translator): excellent book about the Occupation of France and how the Vichy regime "brutally resurrected the gender politics that had been rejected during France’s social struggles in the 1930s." It's a fascinating read, and practically a Republican playbook on how to use women and women's rights as socio-political pawns. What they did back then is what they're trying to do now.


Judith Flanders! "The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed" is a comprehensive history told room by room and it's GREAT. It's like Bryson's 'Home' except better, more accurate, more interesting, and written first. It's also in the 'Women's History' section of my local library which makes me a bit ragey.

I'm halfway through her "Consuming passions : leisure and pleasure in Victorian Britain" which is also great but I feel like it's denser? Maybe it's just because I'm now editing non-fiction for a living and it makes it harder to read it. I keep putting it down and then forgetting where I'm up to.

In searching for the full titles I discovered she has a new one: "The invention of murder : how the Victorians revelled in death and detection and created modern crime." I AM ALL ABOUT THIS.


@Craftastrophies Guests of the Sheik: an Ethnography of an Iraqi Village- about ladies at home. And A Midwife's Tale, about a midwife in Revolutionary era US.

Related, but not, exactly.


@Craftastrophies I *loved* The Vitorian House. Which I actually finished, unlike Home which was meh.


@Poubelle I quite enjoyed the first 1/3 of Home. Then I realised it was really 'White American Men Who Invented Things But Aren't Famous'. I gave up exactly halfway through. Which is a pity, because I really WANTED to like it. But there were also lots of things in it that were wrong - and if someone who is just a casual reader of this type of thing and not an expert (ie, me) knows it's wrong, well...

I expected more, is all.

@PPM those sound fascinating.


@PistolPackinMama Oh, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea is great! I have also read A Street in Marrakech, about her and her family living in the Medina in Marrakech for a year in the ... I want to say 1970s? She wrote a bunch more about her life in the Middle East and was in general an awesome lady.

Antonius Block

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild, about how the Belgian Congo came to be and how the atrocities that took place there (and in colonial Africa more broadly) still impact us today, is one of my absolute favorites.

I finished Guns, Germs, and Steel (by Jared Diamond) a few weeks ago, and highly recommend it as well.

Antonius Block

@Antonius Block
Also, if you're into books about the history of science, Owen Gingerich's "The Book Nobody Read," about Copernicus' De revolutionibus, is very good so far.


@Antonius Block I am just here to geek out over your user name.

Antonius Block

@Lucienne Ahh, I love hearing that! I will never ever get over this movie.


@Antonius Block I second "Leopold's Ghost" - it's shocking really what happened in colonial Africa and this book only scratches the surface.

Also, of course, "The Power Broker" by Caro is a must read for anyone interested in NYC history. There are slow bits, but parts of it (the wrecking of the Bronx and building the Cross Bronx Expressway) - nailbiting!


@Antonius Block I read King Leopold's Ghost in college and it blew my mind. I underlined practically the entire book.


I mostly read historical fiction or literary criticism about WWI (I include biography under the litcrit heading), but I really liked Ekstein's Rites of Spring.


Oh, you know, just opening up this page on my phone so I'll have everything mentioned here when I go to the library after work tomorrow. No biggie.

American Colossus by HW Brands is an interesting look at the rise of American capitalism in the second half of the 19th century. It's especially fascinating because he used the broadest definition of capitalism possible, so nearly any economic-related thing that happened in that time period gets touched on. (It's way less overwhelming than that sounds, though it does jump around a lot, by necessity.)


Another vote up for Angle of Repose, and another I don't get the fuss about Wolf Hall. Angle was an amazing read - somebody picked it for my book club and we all loved it, and then I passed it around my family as well. Everybody - younger sister, mom, dad, devoured it, and we all got something different out of it. Great book.


Can we go back to the Revolutionary War and talk McCullough's John Adams? Because that book was a fucking revelation and at the end I was a sniveling weepy mess.


Nicole! I adore heavy reads, lay them on whenever you need to. I always love your book recs.


Does anyone else love 'Down And Out In Paris and London' by Orwell as much as I do, with his descriptions of trudging along the poor house routes? I re-read that one a lot and it came up in conversation this weekend, while discussing the weird reality of very high-end restaurants having filthy kitchen bowels.

Speaking of cake, I have cake

@HaughtyTotty Down and Out is really good, though it was spoiled for me by a couple of incidences of throwaway but viciously sexist remarks Orwell makes in it. One is describing a particularly menial kitchen task and he says something along the lines of 'it required no intellectual ability whatsoever; the kind of work women would do if they were physically strong enough' [i.e. it'd suit women cos they are STOOPID], then later he has a go at a homeless woman in London for not being broad-minded enough or something which he thinks is typical of women. Very stabby-making. You had to go and ruin it, ERIC.

RK Fire

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki. I'm having trouble explaining why this book had such an impact on me in college, but.. yeah. This is the book that got me started on my American Studies undergrad degree.


@RK Fire Oh, or A Larger Memory: A History of Our Diversity, With Voices. I miss Ron Takaki.


One of the most moving history books I've read in a long time was actually made into a heartwrenching documentary -- "The Rape of Europa," by Lynn H. Nicholas. She goes in-depth about what people did to try and save Europe's priceless art from the Nazis, who were pretty much no more than petty looters and plunderers, as well as the damage and destruction that the German blitzkriegs brought upon the cultural treasures of Europe. If you're into art and/or WWII history, this book will have you reacting emotionally all up and down its pages (and if you're like me, you'll sob your soul out while watching the documentary).


@Scandyhoovian ITS A BOOK TOO??? Welp that just went on my amazon wishlist. That doc gets me every time. Also, if you liked that one try "The Art of the Steal" (on Netflix Instant, "Europa" is too).


@Burly-Q YES IT IS! And man, that doc. There was a bit in there where they talked about the bombing of major parts of Italy where I just sat on the couch BAWLING. It gutted me, truly.


ALSO if anyone is at all interested in the intersections of race, gender, and class and 19th century British imperialism, it would do you well to read Anne McClintock's "Imperial Leather." Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic book.


ONE MORE COMMENT, this time with Things From My Major, i.e. Modern Germany and the Holocaust.

For insight into what German life during WWII was like (for German civilians in particular) as well as the power of propaganda and coersion in getting people to go along with and accept the absolute crap the German government was pulling in general, I'd definitely recommend Peter Fritszche's "Life and Death in the Third Reich" and Robert Gellately's "Backing Hitler: Consent and Coersion in Nazi Germany."

For insight on Jewish life in Germany leading up to the Holocaust, ABSOLUTELY you want to read Marion A. Kaplan's "Between Dignity and Despair."

As for survivor testimonials, I'm sure many have already read Elie Weisel's "Night," but definitely do not miss out on Primo Levi's works, particularly "Survival in Auschwitz."

And last but not least, for a great graphic novel retelling of his father's story, Art Spiegelman's "Maus" is a must-read. It's not every day you read a graphic novel in a graduate level history course, I'll put it that way.

Antonius Block

@Scandyhoovian Everyone should definitely read Maus. I'm loving a lot of your recs, and making note of the rest.


Along the lines of "The Lost Children of Wilder," may I also recommend Dorothy Roberts's "Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare." Startling, overwhelming, and really fucking important.

Ten Thousand Buckets

In addition to the Mayhew and Flanders books, any suggestions for reading on the Victorian industrial revolutions, particularly if they have a focus on society?


@Ten Thousand Buckets Well, there's always Engels?


@Ten Thousand Buckets Seriously, Elizabeth Gaskell novels are incredibly etched portraits of the social changes wrought in the North of England by the Industrial Revolution. "Mary Barton" covers the Chartist movement, and "North and South" has some memorable descriptions of the noisy, hot interior of a cotton mill.


So I have this really unhealthy fascination with the Booth family, and therefore Nora Titone's My Thoughts Be Bloody, about the sibling rivalry between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth is kind of my favorite thing in the history of ever. It's just a really interesting story, and of course pretty sad, too. The book is incredibly written, and I should mention that I got to meet the author at Tudor Hall (the Booths' family home in Maryland) and she is awesome. I kind of hope they make a movie, or at least a cable miniseries, out of it.

The Barrymores ain't got shit on these people.


I'm a history student and so I've got PILES of history books lying around. I was going to recommend some but I suspect that none of them are "really good" in the way that somebody who wasn't already writing a paper on the subject would be interested.

you're a kitty!

I just came in here to EXTREMELY ENTHUSIASTICALLY recommend Simon Volkov's "St. Petersburg: A Cultural History." Absolutely fascinating, whether or not you go in with starting knowledge of Russia. There's nothing like reading about artists to really bring home the emotional impact of a rich and troubled history.


Just in case, Voices from Chernobyl. Just in case.


I love all your book recs, Nicole. LOVE.


The Lost Children of Wilder. OMG Nicole, I love you. I have never met anyone who has even heard of this book! I picked it up out of the blue at a used book store years ago and it completely reshaped everything I thought I understood and every opinion i had regarding foster care, adoption, separation of church and state, poverty, etc. And Marcia Lowry's dedication and strength is so beautiful its hard to believe she is a real human being. read it, everyone!

Essam Moaauad@facebook

Titan Cement in Egypt - Alexandria( THE STORY)
SOS | Company workers Alexandria Portland Cement are crying out for the disbursement of dues ..
1257 workers from the workers of the company Alexandria Portland Cement, owned and now of Greece (Titan Cement).

Sale of the company and the holding of falsehood and wrong are many and we the workers victims of a system since privatization and we went out for early retirement since 2001 and 2003 we do not get our rights stolen and the procrastination so far after many promises from the company, regardless sums
And our presence and the presence of a representative of the military's Northern Command, to discuss our demands, and sit with them, often to no avail ... With the help of Director of Egyptians who are the company for this purpose so far, and who sought to get out of workers for early retirement through threats and intimidation did not do, regardless sums, which is represented in our legitimate rights of activating the hold out collective action of workers (up to now, we get the pension of the private sector, where he is discount of monthly pay us to the pension sector) and profits and the shares of workers union shareholders of workers 10% and shares of Cement and Suez shares ASIC, which had been purchased on behalf of workers and the fellowship fund for workers has not been liquidated so far, and earnings of employees in 2002 and 2003 and 2001 has not been discharged in full and 5% share of workers in the construction of the oven fifth new was being deducted from the monthly incentive-General of the wage and annual earnings of workers and rewards private and resort Marsa Matrouh, which had been purchased from the dues of the workers and benefits the club and the Assembly of consumer associations and many which were discount of the monthly wage for us and many entitlements to us Cement Company Titan ask you to stand with us and help us to be able to recover our rights from inside the Titan Cement We call on all honest people to stand with us in front of the colonizer, which displaced 1257 Egyptian family without getting their dues and enjoy the benefits of investment in Egypt and steal the wealth of our country at the cheapest prices, such as prices, quarries and energy supported and in addition to encroachment on state property and other dust and turning Egypt into dollars and then to their country of Greece, and leave us with serious pollution and disease, and thoracic and toxins in the air of Alexandria is very close to the Mediterranean ...

Dear honorable urge you to stand with us to return our rights ..... We urge you on behalf of the family of 1257 subject to destruction and displacement .... We appeal to every honest man reads this article to cooperate with us and that you would arrange to send our voices to all parties and all the country ...
Send to all the friends in order to know who they are Titan Cement in Egypt - Alexandria
I have All Photo About That
Introduction to you / Essam Mouawad / facebook / Phone: 002/ 01278031690 so5656so@yahoo.com victims of the privatization of the company Alexandria Portland Cement (Titan). Egypt - Alexandria

Oliver St. John Mollusc

Yaaay! Thanks Nicole! I was the one who emailed you to request this list so THANK YOU! So looking forward to impressing all the history buffs in my life.


Long-time lurker, first-time commenter. I've been loving the hell out of all these book lists, and I joined specifically to add my two cents on good history reads, as a grad student in Egyptology. Then I realized, like someone above, that most of the books I can think of would probably bore the socks off everyone but me (and most popular books about ancient Egypt are multiple kinds of terrrrrrible, so let's not even go there).

BUT I do have one recommendation that you all should totally read -- Women of Jeme: Lives in a Coptic Town in Late Antique Egypt, by Terry Wilfong. It's a short little book about the lives of ordinary women at Jeme (a village that sprung up in the ruins of the mortuary temple of Ramesses III! so awesome!) around the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt, pulled together from letters and legal documents and archaeological materials. It's not pyramids-and-mummies Egypt, but still, sooooo good -- a nice slice of social history for a period that only a handful of Egyptologists and classicists even bother with. There's so much interesting stuff: ladies running their own businesses! aunts squabbling with nieces over inheritance! misogynistic jerks running the local church!

Also, some awesome books that have nothing to do with Egypt, but that I don't think I saw above:
The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser (women in 17th century England)
Massacre at Montségur, by Zoe Oldenbourg (Albigensian Crusade)


Thanks for the recommendations! I'll check these out!

In the spirit of the list: does anybody have a recommendation for a fantastic book on the Spanish Civil War? I'd really like to learn something about it, but I don't know where to start.


This is an excellent post I seen thanks to share it. It is really what I wanted to see hope in future you will continue for sharing such an excellent post. bulk sms in nigeria

Post a Comment

You must be logged-in to post a comment.

Login To Your Account