Thursday, September 12, 2013

Book Recommendations

A few notes on some books I have read recently (all are available as e-books).

"Life in Feejee" by Mary Wallace

Written around 1850, this is the diary of the wife of a sea captain and beche de mer (sea slug) trader. Tribal warfare, bloodshed, deceit, horrific violence, and cannibalism. What's not to like? Makes me glad we are visiting Fiji in the early 21st century when our chances of survival are somewhat better. Available as a free e-book from the US Library of Congress website.

"The First American - The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin" by H.W. Brands

This life of Franklin makes fascinating reading. I had some inkling of Franklin's reputation as a polymath - his experiments and inquiries into nature and human nature, but I had little knowledge of his many other achievements. This work - just shy of 800 pages - provides a decent summary of his life - both achievements and foibles.

Franklin was an accomplished writer and publisher, a brilliant satirist, a clever and pragmatic scientist, and a man admired throughout Europe beyond any other American both before and after the war of independence. In his later life, he devoted many years as an agent for the American colonies, living for years at a time in England and later in France. Initially an ardent British patriot, he worked tirelessly to keep the colonies within the British Empire. He abandoned this stance only when it became clear that no compromise was possible between the British who refused to relinquish control over legislation and taxation and Americans colonies who felt that their own elected bodies should have this control. One things that stands out is Franklin's remarkable patience during endless political machinations.

Franklin was not particularly successful in his family life - his son William sided with the British during the revolution and was estranged and he spent years at a time away from his wife, failing to return to her even after she suffered a stroke. Nor was he a great orator - his pen was far more effective than his speech. Despite these and other failings, he stands out as one of the greatest men of his time.

"At Home - A Short History of Private Life" by Bill Bryson

If you liked his "A Short History of Nearly Everything" you will enjoy these musings on domestic life. Bryson organizes this work around the rooms of his house - an English  Victorian parson's home. Do not expect a thorough or complete exposé of domestic history. Bryson goes off on tangents at the slightest provocation (whenever an interesting story or fascinating character comes into sight) and focuses much of his investigation on 19th century Britain. Despite this, I enjoyed the book and learned a few things, too. For example - did you know that the first café in London was opened in 1652 by a Sicilian in a shed in a London churchyard? The proprietor promoted coffee for its health benefits. To quote Bryson, he claimed it cured "wind, gout, scurvy, miscarriages, sore eyes, and much else".

"Neither Here Nor There" by Bill Bryson

Describes a trip through Europe. I enjoy Bryson's travel writing because his sometimes biting humour is almost always offset by an essentially positive outlook. He tells a good story in an often self-deprecating style and with colorful descriptions of events and people.

"Postwar - A history of Europe Since 1945" by Tony Judt

Not sure if I have mentioned this book in the blog before, but well worth a read even if you have lived through much of the events described. A bit long-winded at times, but very helpful if you want to understand how Europe reached its current state. Each country is considered separately during different periods and the interplay of nations is also explored. Begins with a good discussion of the immediate post-war era in the Eastern Bloc and Western Europe. The book then examines the great social experiments that followed the war as well as the gradual amalgamation of European commerce and policy that resulted in the European Union. The history of the nations of Eastern Europe and the Soviets is described in parallel until the collapse of communism and the re-unification of eastern and western Europe.

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