Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust by Jacob Boas

We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers who Died During the Holocaust by Jacob Boas reveals the diaries of five Jewish teenagers who, although they recorded their experiences during the war, were not able to survive the Holocaust that rapidly consumed those around them. The diaries of David Rubinowicz, Yitzhak Rudashevski, Moshe Flinker, Eve Heyman and finally, Anne Frank are each explored through a brief biography of the history and short lives of these teenagers along with a series of quotes from the diaries or other records that they left behind. Although Boas provides ample information about the lives of each diaries, none of the diaries are quoted extensively. We are told mainly of what the teenagers wrote about, and given long quote or two--but there is too much "tell" on behalf of the author when showing would have been a more effective way of revealing the characteristics of these teenager writers to the reader. Despite this shortcoming, the book is still a worthwhile introduction which may give readers both context and a starting point for reading the full diaries left behind by those who did not survive.
"Dear diary, I don't want to die. I want to live even if it means that I'll be the only person here allowed to stay. I would wait for the end of the war in some cellar, or on the roof, or in some secret cranny. I would even let the cross-eyed gendarme, the one who took our flour from us, kiss me, just as long as they didn't kill me, only that they should let me live.
 --The last entry in the diary of Eva Heyman, before she and her family were deported to Poland. She was murdered in the gas chambers upon her arrival to Auschwitz.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Featured Book: Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine by Yang Jisheng

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine (1958-1962) by Yang Jisheng

An estimated thirty-six million Chinese men, women and children starved to death during China’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s. One of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, the famine is poorly understood, and in China is still euphemistically referred to as the “three years of natural disaster.”

As a journalist with privileged access to official and unofficial sources, Yang Jisheng spent twenty years piecing together the events that led to mass nationwide starvation, including the death of his own father. Finding no natural causes, Yang lays the deaths at the feet of China’s totalitarian Communist system and the refusal of officials at every level to value human life over ideology and self-interest.

Tombstone is a testament to inhumanity and occasional heroism that pits collective memory against the historical amnesia imposed by those in power. Stunning in scale and arresting in its detailed account of the staggering human cost of this tragedy, Tombstone is written both as a memorial to the lives lost—an enduring tombstone in memory of the dead—and in hopeful anticipation of the final demise of the totalitarian system. Ian Johnson, writing in The New York Review of Books, called the Chinese edition of Tombstone “groundbreaking…The most authoritative account of the great famine…One of the most important books to come out of China in recent years.”

You can read more about the writing of this book and Jisheng's experiences in a two-part article here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Wales and the French Revolution: 2012 and 2013 Releases

If you've been following the new and upcoming releases about the French Revolution, then you may have noticed an abundance of titles from the University of Wales Press! Although I haven't had the time to read any of these titles yet, they definitely look interesting.

Footsteps of Liberty and Revolt: Essays on Wales and the French Revolution by Mary-Ann Constantine and Dafydd Johnston [June 15, 2013]

All of Europe was swept up in the events of the French Revolution and the radical restructuring of society that occurred in its aftermath. This collection of essays by leading academics explores how Welsh clerics, diplomats, singers, poets, journalists, and soldiers—many of whom traveled to Paris to witness the conflict firsthand—responded to the Revolution.

Edward Pugh of Ruthin 1763-1813: "A Native Artist" by John Barrell [May 15, 2013]

Edward Pugh of Ruthin 1763–1813 is the first book to consider the work of this nearly forgotten Welsh artist and writer in detail, linking the history of art in Wales with the social history of the country. John Barrell shows how Pugh’s pictures and writings portray rural life and social change in Wales during his lifetime, from the effects of the war with France on industry and poverty, to the need to develop and modernize the Welsh economy, to the power of the landowners. Almost all of the pictures and accounts we have today of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century North Wales were made by English artists and writers, and none of these, as Barrell demonstrates, can tell us about life in North Wales with the same depth and authenticity as does Pugh.

English-Language Poetry from Wales, 1789-1806 by Elizabeth Edwards [April 15, 2013]

This anthology presents a selection of poetry from Wales written in English in the years following the French Revolution of 1789. Arranged chronologically, it brings together a wide selection of little-known texts, some of which are published here for the first time. A comprehensive introduction sets the poems in their cultural and historical contexts, while detailed endnotes give concise biographies of the writers—where known—and explain specific references within the texts.

The Fantastic and European Gothic: History, Literature and the French Revolution by Matthew Gibson [April 15, 2013]

This fascinating study examines the rise of fantastic and frénétique literature in Europe during the nineteenth century, introducing readers to lesser-known writers like Paul Féval and Charles Nodier, whose vampires, ghouls, and doppelgängers were every bit as convincing as those of the more famous Bram Stoker and Ann Radcliffe, but whose political motivations were far more serious. Matthew Gibson demonstrates how these writers used the conventions of the Gothic to attack both the French Revolution and the rise of materialism and positivism during the Enlightenment. At the same time, Gibson challenges current understandings of the fantastic and the literature of terror as promulgated by critics like Tzvetan Todorov, David Punter, and Fred Botting.

Welsh Poetry of the French Revolution, 1789-1805 by Cathryn A. Charnell-White [February 15, 2013]

This anthology presents a selection of poems written by Welsh writers living in Wales and London in response to the French Revolution. Edited and translated from Welsh into English for the first time, these poems artfully capture this period of unprecedented change and upheaval, challenging what it meant to be Welsh, British, and patriotic amid shifting views on religious affiliation. Accompanying the English poems are the Welsh originals as well as explanatory notes and an introductory essay that provide context.

Travels in Revolutionary France and A Journey Across America by George Cadogan Morgan and Richard Price Morgan [January 15, 2013]

In July 1789, Welsh-born George Cadogan Morgan, the nephew of the celebrated radical dissenter Richard Price, found himself in France at the outbreak of the French Revolution. In 1808, his family left Britain for America, where his son, Richard Price Morgan, traveled extensively, made a descent of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers by raft, and helped build some of the early American railroads. The adventures of both men are related here via letters George sent home to his family from France and through the autobiography written by his son in America.

Welsh Responses to the French Revolution: Press and Public Discourse, 1789-1802 by Marion Loffler [July 15, 2012]
The French Revolution inflamed public opinion in Wales just as it did throughout the world. Welsh Responses to the French Revolution delves into the mass of periodical and serial literature published in Wales between 1789 and 1802 to reveal the range of radical, loyalist, and patriotic Welsh responses to the Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars. This anthology presents an English-language selection of poetry and prose published in the annual Welsh almanacs, the English provincial newspapers published close to Wales’s border, and the three radical Welsh periodicals of the mid-1790s, all alongside the original Welsh texts. An insightful introduction gives much-needed context to the selections by sketching out the printing culture of Wales, analyzing its public discourse, and interpreting the Welsh voices in their British political context.

Welsh Ballads of the French Revolution: 1793-1815 by Ffion Mair Jones [April 15, 2012]

Welsh Ballads of the French Revolution is a collection of ballads composed in reaction to the momentous events of the French Revolution and the two decades of war that followed. Ballad writers first responded in 1793, when the French monarchs were executed and France declared war upon Britain, but as the decade proceeded, sang in thanks for the victory of British forces and to the extensive mobilization of militia and volunteer forces. This volume, complete with parallel English translations of the original Welsh texts and copious contextualizing notes, introduces readers to this telling corpus for the first time and to a host of little-known authors.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review: The Resurrection of the Romanovs by Greg King and Penny Wilson

Anna Anderson. To say her name--even today--summons thousands of dissenting opinions about what may be one of the most controversial royal mysteries in recent memory. Was she the Grand Duchess Anastasia, miraculously saved from a horrible fate at the hands of her family's executioners? Or was she a pretender, complicit in a hoax that captivated millions for the better part of the 20th century? All evidence points to one conclusion: Anna Anderson was not Anastasia. DNA testing in the 1990s on the discovered remains of the Romanov family and on multiple samples of Anderson's DNA concluded that she was not related to the Romanov family. Who, then, was she? Why did she claim to be Anastasia? And why would people, especially those who had some connection to the real grand duchess, believe her story? How did a lie which had no factual basis become an inescapable legend firmly rooted in the minds of the public?

In The Resurrection of the Romanovs: Anastasia, Anna Anderson and the World's Greatest Royal Mystery, Greg King and Penny Wilson tackle the answers to these questions about the woman who became known as Anna Anderson and her claim to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia with meticulous detail. King and Wilson begin by recounting the short life of the real Anastasia, who was born into a world of unimaginable privilege and ended her life in captivity with her parents, siblings, and a handful of loyal servants. In the aftermath of the Romanov execution, uncertainty was born. There was no official resolution to the fate of the family. Rumors of survival and execution traveled around the world, from mainstay newspaper publications to the gossip of former Russian courtiers in Berlin apartments.

It was in this atmosphere of uncertainty that a young woman, who had been hospitalized after a suicide attempt in Berlin, claimed that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia. But her claim, which may have gone unnoticed as a mere wild statement by someone with a mental instability had circumstances gone otherwise, took on a life of its own--soon, she was living with courtiers, being discussed by newspapers around the world, being addressed as Her Imperial Highness, and living in European castles. She traveled around Europe, to America, to Germany, and back again. Her story was made into books, plays, and feature films during her lifetime. She was supported by some, reviled by others, and pitied by a few. This woman would be known by many names throughout her life: Fraulein 'Unknown,' Fraulein Annie, Frau Anastasia Tchaikovsky, Anna Anderson, and Anastasia Manahan. The name she was born with was, in the end, Franziska Schanzkowska.

Throughout their dissection of the story of 'Anna Anderson,' King and Wilson are quick to debunk many of the myths which made her story so enticing and so believable--not only to readers following the story in books and newspapers, but even to some who knew Anastasia or her family. Much of the information released to the public about Anderson and her claim was, at best, edited. Published evidence of Anderson's claim was often revised by one of her most prolific supporters, Harriet Ellen Siderowna von Rathlef-Keilmann, who removed details which might produce suspicion about Anderson and added details which supported her claim. Her book about Anderson was widely printed, while books which debunked the myth were left to go out of print, or left untranslated.

King and Wilson cover ample ground with Anderson's claim and her long life, which ended at the age of 87 in the 1980s. From there, they discuss the discovery of the remains of the Romanovs in 1990s and the decision to test Anderson's DNA against the remains of the Romanov family. And finally, the discovery that she was Franziska Schanzkowska is revealed in the final chapters, where her real life--and the reason why her identity was obscured--are finally revealed.

In many ways, The Resurrection of the Romanovs is not just the story of Anna Anderson's claim to be Anastasia. It is a resurrection of the real Anna Anderson, the real Franziska Schanzkowska, who had been lost to history through a hoax of her own making.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Romanov history or royal history--it is essential reading for anyone interested in Anastasia, for her story, for better or worse, would not have reached so many were it not for this imposter and her claim. I will end with this apt quote: "It is the greatest irony in Franziska’s tale: the farm girl from an obscure German village turned the real grand duchess, whose name appropriately meant “Resurrection,” into a modern legend."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Confessions of a Ci-Devant: Missing Royals and Murder Mysteries

I am in the middle of reading a book about the infamous Anna Anderson case, The Resurrection of the Romanovs (which I hope to review this month!) and I came across an interesting post by Gareth Russell about the enduring legacy of the survival of Anastasia and the persisting  'romance' of other survival stories that found their beginninigs in the secreative deaths of royal children.

Missing Royals and Murder Mysteries: Anastasia and the Allure of Romance

All four of these young royals – Edward V, his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Louis XVII and Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia – disappeared in times of turmoil and secrecy. Richard III could not reveal what he had done with the boys, or allowed to be done to them, without fears of toppling his own regime. The French Republic felt that drawing attention to the appalling treatment the little boy had suffered in jail would only inflame royalist sympathies and the fledgling Bolshevik movement were concerned that Kaiser Wilhelm II would back-out of his recent truce with them if he discovered what had happened to his cousins. The myths about their survival are therefore perfectly explicable by a process of historical logic: initially, no one knew exactly what had happened to them which led to them speculating about possible explanations. I suspect, of course, that it’s more than that and that the reason why so many people believed, or believe, in these fantastic tales of  imperial survival is because the allure of fairy stories never quite leaves us – however hard we try. We want to believe in royal glamour, excitement, danger and happily-ever-afters. We want to believe, I suppose, in some form of magic.
 What do we do with these stories, though, once we know they’ve been disproved?
Read more.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Featured Book: An Imperial Concubine's Tale by G.G. Rowley

Who doesn't love a bit of unique history? I'm a big fan of "hidden" history (as this blog would suggest!) and this upcoming title from Columbia University Press certainly fits the bill. An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley is the tale of a scandalous imperial concubine who finds herself banished, shipwrecked, and thrust into an entirely new life. description:

Japan in the early seventeenth century was a wild place. Serial killers stalked the streets of Kyoto at night, while noblemen and women mingled freely at the imperial palace, drinking saké and watching kabuki dancing in the presence of the emperor's principal consort. Among these noblewomen was an imperial concubine named Nakanoin Nakako, who in 1609 became embroiled in a sex scandal involving both courtiers and young women in the emperor's service. As punishment, Nakako was banished to an island in the Pacific Ocean, but she never reached her destination. Instead, she was shipwrecked and spent fourteen years in a remote village on the Izu Peninsula, before being set free in an amnesty. Returning to Kyoto, Nakako began a new adventure: she entered a convent and became a Buddhist nun.

Recounting the remarkable story of this resilient woman and the war-torn world in which she lived, G. G. Rowley investigates aristocratic family archives, village storehouses, and the records of imperial convents to re-create Nakako's life from beginning to end. She follows the banished concubine as she endures rural exile, receives an unexpected reprieve, and rediscovers herself as the abbess of a nunnery. As she unravels Nakako's unusual tale, Rowley also profiles the little-known lives of samurai women who sacrificed themselves on the fringes of the great battles that brought an end to more than a century of civil war. Written with keen insight and genuine affection, An Imperial Concubine's Tale tells the true story of a woman's extraordinary life in seventeenth-century Japan.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Featured Book: The Salem Witch Trials by Marilynne K. Roach

I admit, like many people, that I have a certain fascination with some rather depressing and even gruesome aspects of history. I remember reading about the Salem Witch Trials when I was a young girl and was always fascinated by the sense of mob hysteria that took over th etown. A few years ago I purchased The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege by Marilynne K. Roach to help refeed my childhood fascination. The book is about what you would expect from the title--a day by day account of life in Salem as well as the nearby towns and villages, including (of course) the proceedings of the witch trials. Although I've had this book for a few years, I've yet to get through it... it is very, very thorough. Below is an excerpt of one of the smaller 'entries' included in the book.

September 9th, 1672; Friday; Salem Town

The Grand Jury heard testimony concerning Giles Corey. The court had summoned witnesses to testify about him and his wife, but if he were scheduled to stand trial today, he did not cooperate. Although pleading innocent to all the indictments as they were read, he refused to answer when asked the formality of how he would be tried. Giles was expected to answer "By God and my country." Until he spoke those precise words, his case could not proceed. This situation, despite his not-guilty plea, was technically known as a "standing mute" and, under English law, was punishable by [pressing under heavy weights] until he cooperated. ... The court postponed Giles Corey's trial.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Featured Book: Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith

 Lately, I've been on a little bit of a Russian history kick. And since I've always, like many people, had a fascination with revolutions and the concept of "fallen aristocracy," I thought that this upcoming book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux looked particularly interesting.

Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith recounts the story of the aristocrats of Russia, many of whom found their homes burned, their wealth and liveliehoods lost, and even their lives threatened--or ended.


Epic in scope, precise in detail, and heart-breaking in its human drama, Former People is the first book to recount the history of the aristocracy caught up in the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of Stalin’s Russia. Filled with chilling tales of looted palaces and burning estates, of desperate flights in the night from marauding peasants and Red Army soldiers, of imprisonment, exile, and execution, it is the story of how a centuries’-old elite, famous for its glittering wealth, its service to the Tsar and Empire, and its promotion of the arts and culture, was dispossessed and destroyed along with the rest of old Russia.

Yet Former People is also a story of survival and accommodation, of how many of the tsarist ruling class—so-called “former people” and “class enemies”—overcame the psychological wounds inflicted   dddby the loss of their world and decades of repression as they struggled to find a place for themselves and their families in the new, hostile order of the Soviet Union. Chronicling the fate of two great aristocratic families—the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns—it reveals how even in the darkest depths of the terror, daily life went on.

Told with sensitivity and nuance by acclaimed historian Douglas Smith, Former People is the dramatic portrait of two of Russia’s most powerful aristocratic families, and a sweeping account of their homeland in violent transition.

Former People is due to be released on October 2, 2012.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Review: Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob

[A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher upon my request.]

When most people consider the role that women played in the American Revolution, they probably turn right to women like Abigail Adams or Molly Pitcher, who both supported the revolution in their own ways.  But what about the women who did not support the revolution or who even worked against it?

Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob is the first modern popular biography of this enigmatic and often ignored figure in American history--Peggy Shippen, the wife of the infamous Benedict Arnold. Peggy, born Margaret, was born into the world of Philadelphia's high society. Not much is known about her early childhood, although Case and Jacob suggest that she received an above-average education for her sex and learned much about finances through her father and mother. She came of age during the American Revolution in British-occupied Philadelphia and developed a strong social reputation. She was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the city and frequently attended balls and other social gatherings with others of her rank--and British soldiers, including one John André, who would later play an important role in the "Benedict Arnold plot."

Peggy was considered to be beautiful, loving and sweet, but she was not Benedict Arnold's first choice for a new wife. Case and Jacob point out that many of the lines Benedict used in his courting letter to Peggy were, in fact, recycled from letters he had written to a previous potential wife. However, the two were eventually married  and what soon followed is the subject of much debate and controversy, even today. How much of a role did Peggy Shippen play in Benedict Arnold's decision to become a spy for Britain? Did she know about his betrayal?

Although the title of the book labels Peggy to be the woman "behind" the plot, I don't think that the authors, if it was their attention to paint her as the mastermind, successfully provided enough evidence to suggest that Peggy was in fact behind the betrayal. Unfortunately, much of Peggy's correspondence was destroyed or burned in the wake of the plot, perhaps to save her reputation. In the past, Peggy's involvement in the plot to  has been downplayed at best and completely ignored at worst--"the poor innocent wife of Benedict Arnold," as she was called after news of his betrayal broke out. And although they do not provide a strong case for Peggy being the woman "behind" the plot, Case and Jacob provide ample information which not only indicates she knew about Benedict Arnold's betrayal--but that she helped him as well.

The plot to betray America is, understandably, the real meat of the book. Because there are gaps in the recorded history of Peggy's life, some of the narrative focuses much more on the actions of Arnold--whom Peggy often followed--and John André, who left behind a more tangible historical trail than Peggy Shippen. However, Case and Jacob have made excellent use of the resources they had to create an interesting and rounded narrative of Peggy's life--from her birth in pre-revolutionary American to the betrayal of the revolution and to her last years in England, where she spent most of her time dealing with poor state of her family's finances and securing a future for her children.

I recommend Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob to readers who are interested in the American Revolution, 18th century, or women's studies in the 18th century.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Featured Book: Treacherous Beauty and Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case

I'm actually in the process of reading this book for review at the moment, but I thought I would feature it once as a teaser for my review! In my pre-teen years, I was a bit obsessed with the American Revolution... but I'm ashamed to say I can't remember ever reading about Peggy Shippen before, even as a sidenote or footnote to Benedict Arnold's story. This book is definitely providing some interesting information about a lesser known historical figure.

Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case

Histories of the Revolutionary War have long honored heroines such as Betsy Ross, Abigail Adams, and Molly Pitcher. Now, more than two centuries later, comes the first biography of one of the war’s most remarkable women, a beautiful Philadelphia society girl named Peggy Shippen. While war was raging between England and its rebellious colonists, Peggy befriended a suave British officer and then married a crippled revolutionary general twice her age. She brought the two men together in a treasonous plot that nearly turned George Washington into a prisoner and changed the course of the war. Peggy Shippen was Mrs. Benedict Arnold.

After the conspiracy was exposed, Peggy managed to convince powerful men like Washington and Alexander Hamilton of her innocence. The Founding Fathers were handicapped by the common view that women lacked the sophistication for politics or warfare, much less treason. And Peggy took full advantage.

Peggy was to the American Revolution what the fictional Scarlett O’Hara was to the Civil War: a woman whose survival skills trumped all other values. Had she been a man, she might have been
arrested, tried, and executed. And she might have become famous. Instead, her role was minimized and she was allowed to recede into the background—with a generous British pension in hand.
In Treacherous Beauty, Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case tell the true story of Peggy Shippen, a driving force in a conspiracy that came within an eyelashof dooming the American democracy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Featured Book: From Splendor to Revolution: The Romanov Women, 1847--1928

From Splendor to Revolution: The Romanov Women, 1847--1928 by Julia Gelardi

This sweeping saga recreates the extraordinary opulence and violence of Tsarist Russia as the shadow of revolution fell over the land, and destroyed a way of life for these Imperial women.

The early 1850s until the late 1920s marked a turbulent and significant era for Russia. During that time the country underwent a massive transformation, taking it from days of grandeur under the tsars to the chaos of revolution and the beginnings of the Soviet Union.

At the center of all this tumult were four women of the Romanov dynasty. Marie Alexandrovna and Olga Constantinovna were born into the family, Russian Grand Duchesses at birth. Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna married into the dynasty, the former born a Princess of Denmark, the latter a Duchess of the German duchy of Mecklendburg-Schwerin. In From Splendor to Revolution, we watch these pampered aristocratic women fight for their lives as the cataclysm of war engulfs them. In a matter of a few short years, they fell from the pinnacle of wealth and power to the depths of danger, poverty, and exile. It is an unforgettable epic story.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Via Tea at Trianon: Review: The Divorce of Henry VIII by Catherine Fletcher

 Tea at Trianon:

The Divorce of Henry VIII  (UK title: Our Man in Rome) by Professor Catherine Fletcher of Durham University is an indispensable addition to the library of any serious scholar of Tudor history. I say "serious" scholar because, while the book is not overlong, it is not light reading. It might be challenging for some to keep track of all the various players and intertwining events unless one is already deeply immersed in the politics of the King's Great Matter. However, after glancing at the author's extensive bibliography, I must commend her for being able to concentrate so much detailed research into one volume. It includes material rarely covered by other works about Henry VIII, shedding light on the fascinating world of sixteenth century ambassadors.

Read more.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet by Dorothy Ko

(Note: I apologize for the unaccounted inactivity for the past month--real life has been taking up a lot of my energy and I was short on time to devote to this blog until now!)

The word "footbinding" conjures up two distinct images: the intricate and impossibly small "lotus shoes" and the women with deformed feet who wore--and, for a dwindling number of older Chinese women, still wear--them. While these two images are certainly part of footbinding, they are merely pieces of a much larger cultural puzzle that made up a practice which lasted for at least four centuries. Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet by Dorothy Ko fills in more of this puzzle by providing an overview of the history of footbinding, its development and adaptation through varying Chinese cultures, and how--and possibly why--footbinding played such a large role in the vital but often overlooked "inner circle" of women's society in Qing China.

It is clear from the outset of this book that Kohas chosen to approach footbinding from a historical and cultural viewpoint, rather than from one which casts judgement on the practice of footbinding from a modern viewpoint. "As a historian who has studied footbinding and women's cultures for years," she writes, "I do not claim to be neutral. I feel strongly that we should understand footbinding not as a senseless act of destruction but as a meaningful practice in the eyes of the women themselves."  Although the pain and deformations caused by footbinding are discussed (and, in a few photographs, shown) Ko does not linger on them outside of providing an informative though, of course, shocking "instructional" illustrated guide to how footbinding was usually performed. However, most of the book explores the shoes worn after footbinding and the role that both the practice and lotus shoes had in the lives of women of varying social standing throughout several centuries of Chinese history.

Although footbinding was a consequence of living in a society which was ruled and dominated by men, the world and culture of footbinding was ruled and dominated by women. Footbinding, in essence, was strictly within the female domain. Female matchmakers and other respected women in a village or area would be consulted before the process of footbinding began in order to ensure that the process was started during the correct time. Mothers, aunts, and elder sisters would perform the act of footbinding on daughters and other young girls in the family. They would also teach those girls to create well-made and intricate lotus shoes, which were not only for practical purposes--the girls would need to be able to create footwear for their bound feet, in varying sizes as their feet became smaller--but also to help improve their chances of making a successful marriage match. Girls who could create well made shoes with fine and detailed designs were favorable to those whose work was more or less shoddy. Matchmakers would not only assess the size of a girl's feet, but her ability to create shoes and perform other essential female work. A young woman's ability to create fine lotus shoes would also make her transition into a new household after marriage much easier, as this skill was highly valued.

In addition to the vivid descriptions of how footbinding fit into female Chinese society, the book features numerous colorful photographs of lotus shoes from various Chinese cultures. Many of these shoes have never been on public display due to their delicacy and were seen by the public for the first time in this book. From a cultural standpoint, it is very interesting to see how the shoes varied depending on the region and time period. Lotus shoes from mountain regions, for example, tended to be bigger and more sloped to allow for women to more easily navigate the harsh terrain. Almost all of the shoes feature beautiful embroidery and vivid colors, which makes it easy to see why having the skill to make these shoes was so highly valued.

 Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet by Dorothy Ko is an essential look at the practice of footbinding from a historian intent on placing this cultural practice back into its historical context--as an important piece of the puzzle of women's lives during Qing Dynasty China. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Chinese history, women's studies, or unique historical fashion.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Book Finds: Chinese history releases for 2012

Chinese history is incredibly long and incredibly fascinating--I was tempted to do a post on some of my favorite older Chinese history books, but I thought I would go for a little something different instead and share some of the more interesting Chinese history book releases for 2012. Personally, I'm most excited for the new book on the Forbidden City and the study on women's poetry form the late imperial period.

The following descriptions are all from

The Forbidden City by Jean-Paul Descroches, Guillaume Fonkenell and Isabelle Lemaistre [June 1, 2012]

An enigmatic locale that has long fascinated the West, the Forbidden City of Peking is explored in this chronicle. It reveals how the city has always been reserved for imperial families and their circles of acquaintances only, remaining taboo to the Chinese people, who were not allowed to approach it nor even look at it. It explains what it took to realize what is regarded as the most important architectural project in China, and documents how its construction spanned 14 years and required over a million workers. More than five centuries of the city’s history is revisited, detailing an array of magnificent treasures secretly passed down through its generations. Focusing on several exceptional pieces, the examination places them beside recognizably Western works, and reflects on the Far East’s remarkable influence on the other side of the world.

The Seventies: Recollecting a Forgotten Time in China by Theodore Huters [July 3, 2012]

The Seventies (Qishi niandai) is a remarkable compendium of essays recollecting those years originally edited by the poet Bei Dao and the writer/editor Li Tuo, first published in Hong Kong in late 2008. Among the collection's most notable features is its powerful ability to reach back and illuminate that strange decade, now mostly thought of as an interregnum between a just preceding Maoist frenzy with its intense socialism and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping and his new era at the very end of the period. It was also, however, the formative time in the growth of the group of intellectuals, writers and artists -- almost all born after 1949 -- who came to dominate Chinese cultural life by the turn of the century. As "educated urban youth" (zhishi qingnian), many of the writers represented here were at once the most active participants and most evident victims of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that spanned the years between 1966 and 1976. The works selected and translated here provide a series of vivid impressions of what has turned out to be a key period in modern Chinese social, intellectual and artistic life.

The Silk Road: A New History by Valerie Hansen [August 6, 2012]

The Silk Road is as iconic in world history as the Colossus of Rhodes or the Suez Canal. But what was it, exactly? It conjures up a hazy image of a caravan of camels laden with silk on a dusty desert track, reaching from China to Rome. The reality was different--and far more interesting--as revealed in this new history. ... For centuries, key records remained hidden-sometimes deliberately buried by bureaucrats for safe keeping. But the sands of the Taklamakan Desert have revealed fascinating material, sometimes preserved by illiterate locals who recycled official documents to make insoles for shoes or garments for the dead. Hansen explores seven oases along the road, from Xi'an to Samarkand, where merchants, envoys, pilgrims, and travelers mixed in cosmopolitan communities, tolerant of religions from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. There was no single, continuous road, but a chain of markets that traded between east and west. China and the Roman Empire had very little direct trade. China's main partners were the peoples of modern-day Iran, whose tombs in China reveal much about their Zoroastrian beliefs. Silk was not the most important good on the road; paper, invented in China before Julius Caesar was born, had a bigger impact in Europe, while metals, spices, and glass were just as important as silk. Perhaps most significant of all was the road's transmission of ideas, technologies, and artistic motifs.

Women's Poetry of Late Imperial China: Transforming the Inner Chambers by Xiaorong Li [September 1, 2012]

This study of poetry by women in late imperial China examines the metamorphosis of the trope of the "inner chambers" (gui), to which women were confined in traditional Chinese households, and which in literature were both a real and an imaginary place. Originally popularized in sixth-century "palace style" poetry, the inner chambers were used by male writers as a setting in which to celebrate female beauty, to lament the loneliness of abandoned women, and by extension, to serve as a political allegory for the exile of loyal and upright male ministers spurned by the imperial court. Female writers of lyric poetry (ci) soon adopted the theme, beginning its transition from male fantasy to multidimensional representation of women and their place in society, and eventually its manifestation in other poetic genres as well.

Emerging from the role of sexual objects within poetry, late imperial women were agents of literary change in their expansion and complication of the boudoir theme. While some take ownership and de-eroticizing its imagery for their own purposes, adding voices of children and older women, and filling the inner chambers with purposeful activity such as conversation, teaching, religious ritual, music, sewing, childcare, and chess-playing, some simply want to escape from their confinement and protest gender restrictions imposed on women. Women's Poetry of Late Imperial China traces this evolution across centuries, providing and analyzing examples of poetic themes, motifs, and imagery associated with the inner chambers, and demonstrating the complication and nuancing of the gui theme by increasingly aware and sophisticated women writers.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book Finds: Geishas of Japan

I'll admit that, like many people, I've always been fascinated by the world of the geisha. Striking costumes, traditional song and dance and a dash of that mysterious allure make reading about geishas nearly irresistible. The following are some interesting books about geishas which I think will satisfy any lover of history or traditional Japanese arts.

The following descriptions are all from

Geisha: 25th Anniversary Edition by Liza Dalby [December 10th, 2008]

In this classic best seller, Liza Dalby, the first non-Japanese ever to have trained as a geisha, offers an insider's look at the exclusive world of female companions to the Japanese male elite. A new preface examines how geisha have been profoundly affected by the changes of the past quarter century yet--especially in Kyoto--have managed to take advantage of modern developments to maintain their social position with flair.

Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda [May 25, 2005]

Sayo Masuda has written the first full-length autobiography of a former hot-springs-resort geisha. Masuda was sent to work as a nursemaid at the age of six and then was sold to a geisha house at the age of twelve. In keeping with tradition, she first worked as a servant while training in the arts of dance, song, shamisen, and drum. In 1940, aged sixteen, she made her debut as a geisha. ... Masuda also tells of her life after leaving the geisha house, painting a vivid panorama of the grinding poverty of the rural poor in wartime Japan. As she eked out an existence on the margins of Japanese society, earning money in odd jobs and hard labor -- even falling in with Korean gangsters -- Masuda experienced first hand the anguish and the fortitude of prostitutes, gangster mistresses, black-market traders, and abandoned mothers struggling to survive in postwar Japan.

A Geisha's Journey: My Life As a Kyoto Apprentice by Komomo [May 1, 2008]

This is the story of a contemporary Japanese teenager who, in a search for an identity, became fascinated with the world of geisha, and discovered in herself the will and the commitment to embark on the many years of apprenticeship necessary to become one. It is also the story of a young Japanese photographer who grew up overseas, and who also was captivated by the traditional lives of these women who choose to dedicate themselves to their art. He began following and documenting the life of teenager Komomo as she studied and grew into her role. Naoyuki Oginos photographs follow Komomos entire journey, from her first tentative visits after finding the geisha house on the internet through her commitment to the hard schedule of an apprentice, learning arts that go back centuries, all the way to the ceremony where she officially became a geiko, as Kyotos geisha are known and beyond.

Geisha by Lesley Downer [June 14, 2011]

Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, we have been intrigued by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of fictional creations from Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha". The reality of the geisha's existence has rarely been described. Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but literally "arts people". Their accomplishments might include singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument but, above all, they are masters of the art of conversation, soothing worries of highly paid businessmen who can afford their attentions. The real secret history of the geisha is explored here.

The Nightless City: Geisha and Courtesan Life in Old Tokyo by J.E. de Becker [September 19, 2007]

Written over a century ago, this pioneer study was the first to venture behind the teahouse doors of the Yoshiwara quarter, Tokyo's red-light district. It remains unsurpassed as the definitive survey of geisha and courtesan life, with meticulous descriptions of traditional training, dress, social hierarchy, and erotic practices. 49 black-and-white illustrations; 2 maps.

Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile by the Peabody Essex Museum [September 2004]

Renowned throughout the world as purveyors of beauty, mystery, and allure, geisha have come to represent the epitome of Japanese elegance and chic. The rich 250-year history of these performance artists is vividly presented in this volume, taking the reader behind the mask-like makeup and into the studios where they train and rehearse and into the teahouses where they entertain. Geisha have altered definitions of feminine beauty and identity and are the prevailing icons of Japanese womanhood. Their influence on Japan's decorative arts is documented by their beautiful kimono and hair ornaments and by the musical instruments and fans they use in their performances. Illustrated with woodblock prints and paintings as well as historical and contemporary photographs, this groundbreaking study also explores the dynamic tension between image and reality in the art of these exquisite entertainers. Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile is a comprehensive presentation of geisha culture from its origins nearly three centuries ago to contemporary Japan

Friday, April 13, 2012

Review: At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker

[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher upon my request.]

David Koker was only 23 years old when he died on route to Dachau in early 1945---just one of almost 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. But his legacy, published in English for the first time as At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944, has lived on. The diary, published by Northwestern University Press, is nothing less than a remarkable and essential read. David Koker was interned, along with his mother, father and younger brother, in the Vught camp in February 1943. He began his diary soon after, and maintained it until February of the next year, when the diary was given to a civilian employee working at Vught, who smuggled it out to a friend of Koker. The diary is not only a well-detailed account of life in the Vught camp, but a testament to Koker's internal struggles as he (and those around him) attempted to come to terms with the growing horror of their situation. Koker was a budding poet and intellectual, and some of the verses he drafted while interned in Vught are included in his diary. Also quoted in the book are several surviving letters and notes that Koker wrote and received while in the camp--letters and notes were often hidden in parcels, such as in loaves of bread.

In his introduction to At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, Robert Jan van Pelt explains why the diary's existence is unique:  "... the number of postwar memoirs written by Holocaust survivors is enormous, and the number of diaries and notebooks written during the Holocaust [by people who were] at home, or in a ghetto, or in hiding is substantial, the number of testimonies that were written in the inner circles of hell, in that German concentration camp, and that survived the war is small." The ability to write a diary under such circumstances would have been difficult enough, both emotionally and logistically, but David Koker managed not only to write—but to write a substantial and and highly observational diary, full of factual observations about life in the camp and an increasingly psychological probe into the “abyss” that surrounded them. Koker was able to obtain a relatively privileged position in the camp, which was one of the reasons why he was able to maintain his diary and maintain a sense of ‘detachment’ from camp life. 

At first glance, David Koker's diary is remarkably subdued and even subtle. Many of his diary entries describe unreal circumstances with an almost nonchalant attitude. One reason for this apparent “normalcy” in his diary could be that Koker felt assimilated and yet detached from camp life early on.  In March of 1943, less than a month after having been imprisoned at the camp, he wrote to his girlfriend in hiding: "I immediately accept everything as normal. That's why I don't experience things sufficiently. ... You must believe me: from the second day on everything was quite normal: the German detachments, being together with so many people, the strange food, taking care of the most essential daily matters, etc. I didn't notice the passage from one kind of life to the other ... even the strangest and most awful things become normal and agreeable." Koker, at least, was self-aware of how imprisonment had changed him: "You become selfish, even towards your own family ... Sometimes I treat the children with bitterness, yet the friendliest treatment hides a bit of sadism and lust for power. ... A kind of feeling of being in charge."

In several passages throughout his diary, Koker mentions Poland and in particular, Auschwitz—the inevitable destination that we, in hindsight, know meant certain death. However, many of the people in Vught (and other camps) were not aware of the ultimate fate of people sent to Poland—or “to the East”—until much later. In September of 1943, Koker wrote: “… good reports are coming in from Poland. It’s only too bad that people really are working in the coal mines. But the work isn’t all that heavy, many writer.” A footnote goes on to explain that a special project was created in which Jewish inmates were, prior to being murdered, forced to write postcards to relatives, which were then sent out at intervals to give the impression not only of life but of relatively good conditions in the camps. In November, Koker wrote again: “ … the administrator has spoken about Auschwitz, where the [Escotex branch] will go in its entirety. Stories … have a more or less sunny aspect. Jewish camp leadership. A lot of agriculture, the camp is largely self-supporting. … If you ask me, it sounds livable.” 

But the reality of “the East” came crashing down only a few weeks later, November 27th, on Koker’s birthday: “The morning of my birthday: Spitz reads an excerpt from a letter from Poland. Three people … are living with Moves [expression meaning “they are dead.”]. And Moves’s business is working overtime. …  Seldom have I seen anything set out so clearly in writing … Our optimistic messages from Poland are not incorrect. They have simply been incomplete. A probably relatively small group is working and doing reasonably well. And the rest: wiped out. The world has changed.”   

Koker’s diary is, at times, a difficult read. The diary is essentially a raw, first draft—unlike many of the writers who penned diaries in hiding or wrote postwar memoirs, Koker did not have the chance to edit his diary for his intended reader (his girlfriend) or a broader audience. However, numerous citations and footnotes provide ample information about almost all of the people and events mentioned in the diary. But perhaps the raw nature of Koker’s diary is part of what makes it such an important read, in addition to the irreplaceable information about daily life in the Vught camp. We are reading, at its heart, the inner thoughts of a human being—imperfect, as we all are—whose life was cut short by events he could not control. 

I highly recommended At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker, which was edited by Robert Jan van Plet and translated from Dutch by Michiel Horn and John Irons. It is one of the most important contemporary accounts of a concentration camp currently published, and one of the most insightful and raw accounts of a human being put into an impossible situation that I've personally read.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage by Hugh Brewster

[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher upon my request.]

It has been almost 100 years since the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage that took the lives of over 1,500 people. Since that fateful night, the story of the Titanic has been told again and again (and again) through books and film and even a successful Broadway musical. The question on many people's minds as the anniversary of the Titanic disaster looms is: Do we really need more books about Titanic?

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster answers this question with a resounding "yes." Although hundreds of studies have been published on the Titanic disaster, Hugh Brewster's newest book is not a rehashing of the same old "Titanic" story that we have heard time and time again. In many books, the story of the Titanic is the story of the ship itself: how big she was, how many people were aboard her, how she struck the iceberg and ultimately, how she sank. Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage avoids making the Titanic center stage and instead thrusts the reader into the world of the most famous and noteworthy of Titanic's passengers. The story of the Titanic presented here is not a cold tally of the dead or a countdown of her lifeboats, but a human story about real people who lived and died and made human decisions that night, allowing the reader to "... place ourselves on that sloping deck and ask, 'What would we do?'"

It's clear from the outset that Brewster has done his research, not only on the Titanic (he has published previous works about the ship) but on the world of its first-class passengers and most remarkably, their personal lives. After all, it is one thing to read about the disaster and see an offhand remark about "Lucile Duff Gordan, a popular designer," or "Frank Millet, a popular artist and writer," who survived and did not survive the disaster, respectively. It is quite another to be presented a history of their lives--their loves, their losses, their passions and their personality--while eventually learning of their actions during the voyage and the impact that their life or death had on their world. Some readers may notice that Brewster sometimes has to rely on speculation, such as remarking that perhaps Lucille Duff Gordon wore a certain dress on a particular evening. Most of his speculations are based on research (in the previous example, Brewster is referring to a dress which was included in Lucille's cargo inventory) and, in my opinion, are simply a necessity of writing about what is ultimately a human story.

Brewster's writing is always engaging, always clear, and a pleasure to read. There are black and white photos related to the narrative included throughout the book, including some more uncommon photos of the passengers and first-class rooms. Included in the postscript of the book is a concise guide to the passengers mentioned in the book, with basic information about their lives, whether or not they survived the sinking, and (when applicable) their fate after the Titanic disaster.

I highly recommended Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage to anyone who has an interest in the Titanic, whether they are picking up their very first books about the incident or have been studying the ship for years. It is definitely a worthy addition to the long list of Titanic studies, and I would say it's one of the most interesting and important newer Titanic books to come out in recent years. I would also recommend this to anyone with an interest in the end of the Edwardian age, especially early 20th century American politics, Edwardian fashion and social history.

Friday, March 23, 2012

History Book Finds: 2012 Titanic Book Releases

With the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking nearly upon us (and a Titanic book review on the way!) I thought it would be the perfect time to share just some of the more interesting and unique new Titanic books released/set for release in 2012... though I did let one 2011 release sneak its way in!

The book descriptions are taken from

How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson [October 11, 2011]

A brilliantly original and gripping new look at the sinking of the Titanic through the prism of the life and lost honor of J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner ... Accused of cowardice and of dictating the Titanic’s excessive speed, Ismay became, according to one headline, “The Most Talked-of Man in the World.” The first victim of a press hate campaign, he never recovered from the damage to his reputation, and while the other survivors pieced together their accounts of the night, Ismay never spoke of his beloved ship again. ... Using never-before-seen letters written by Ismay to the beautiful Marion Thayer, a first-class passenger with whom he had fallen in love during the voyage, Frances Wilson explores Ismay’s desperate need to tell his story, to make sense of the horror of it all, and to find a way of living with the consciousness of lost honor. For those who survived the Titanic, the world was never the same. But as Wilson superbly demonstrates, we all have our own Titanics, and we all need to find ways of surviving them.

Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson [March 6, 2012]

Although we think we know the story of Titanic—the famously luxurious and supposedly unsinkable ship that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Britain to America—very little has been written about what happened to the survivors after the tragedy. How did they cope in the aftermath of this horrific event? How did they come to remember that night, a disaster that has been likened to the destruction of a small town?

Drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished letters, memoirs, and diaries as well as interviews with survivors’ family members, award-winning journalist and author Andrew Wilson reveals how some used their experience to propel themselves on to fame, while others were so racked with guilt they spent the rest of their lives under the Titanic’s shadow. Some reputations were destroyed, and some survivors were so psychologically damaged that they took their own lives in the years that followed.

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster [March 27, 2012]

The Titanic has often been called “an exquisite microcosm of the Edwardian era,” but until now, her story has not been presented as such. In Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, historian Hugh Brewster seamlessly interweaves personal narratives of the lost liner’s most fascinating people with a haunting account of the fateful maiden crossing. Employing scrupulous research and featuring 100 rarely-seen photographs, he accurately depicts the ship’s brief life and tragic denouement, presenting the very latest thinking on everything from when and how the lifeboats were loaded to the last tune played by the orchestra.

And the Band Played On: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank by Christopher Ward [April 1, 2012]

On 14th April 1912, when the Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank, 1,500 passengers and crew lost their lives. As the order to abandon ship was given, the orchestra took their instruments on deck and continued to play as the ship went down. The violinist, 21 year-old Jock Hume, knew that his fiancée, Mary, was expecting their first child, the author's mother. A century later, Christopher Ward reveals a dramatic story of love, loss, and betrayal, and the catastrophic impact of Jock's death on two very different Scottish families. He paints a vivid portrait of an age in which class determined the way you lived—and died. This outstanding piece of historical detective work is also a moving account of how the author's quest to learn more about his grandfather revealed the shocking truth about a family he thought he knew, a truth that had been hidden for nearly 100 years.

A Girl Aboard the Titanic: A Survivor's Story by Eva Hart [May, 2012]

'We went on the day on the boat train... I was 7, I had never seen a ship before... it looked very big... everybody was very excited, we went down to the cabin and that's when my mother said to my father that she had made up her mind quite firmly that she would not go to bed in that ship, she would sit up at night... she decided that she wouldn't go to bed at night, and she didn't!'

This is the amazing story of how Eva survived the sinking of the Titanic, how her father perished and the affect it had on her life following the tragedy. The events of a few hours in her childhood remained with her so vividly throughout her life that it took Eva nearly forty years before she could talk openly about the tragedy. A Girl Aboard the Titanic is the only child eyewitness description we have of most famous maritime disaster.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: Secrets of Versailles: The Palace and Beyond by Nicolas Jacquet

(This review was initially published on Reading Treasure.)

[I was provided a review copy of this book by the publisher upon request.]

"May readers understand that, behind the facades and the decors of the most beautiful palace in France, you can still sense the beating hearts of the men and women who once inhabited it and the history that unfolded there.

May they also understand that the palace is neither a dead site nor a placid memorial, but rather a living space which still aims to surprise and amaze visitors and fill them with wonder..."

So ends Jean-Jacques Aillagon's introduction to Secrets of Versailles: The Palace and Beyond by Nicolas Jacquet, a recent publication by Parigramme in partnership with the Chateau de Versailles. True to its title, the book is filled with secrets, surprises and tidbits about the history of Versailles and the people that once lived there.

There are about 200 or so entries in the book. The entries range from buildings to rooms to personal items and effects, such as the library of Madame du Barry, the last staircase ordered to be constructed by Louis XVI, and the "Treaty of Versailles" desk. Each entry also features one or more photographs of the place or item in question, a location for those who wish to visit and an asterisk (or double asterisk) to denote whether or not the entry is available for the public to see. Jacquet's writing is easily accessible in this English translations, and the photographs are well taken and printed nicely.

Some of the entries will be familiar to many, such as an entry for the Queen's village, while others are areas and items only available to those on private tours or not available to the public at all. My favorite entries were those offering those little secrets of life at Versailles, such as a view from the balcony at the Queen's House in the Petit Trianon, and the bathroom of the duchesse d'Angouleme during the Bourbon Restoration. Surprisingly, the book does not limit itself to the chateau of Versailles or its gardens, and extends its surprises to the city of Versailles, revealing many buildings and locations that are often ignored outright in many other books about Versailles. Those who might fear the book focuses solely on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette need not worry, as the history discussed in the book ranges from Louis XIV all the way to the 20th century.

It's definitely a book I will keep in mind when I take my someday-soon trip to Versailles, and something I recommend for anyone interested in the history of the palace and the city, especially if you might be traveling there. I feel that knowing the history behind any location will make it all the more special. The human history behind locations can so often be lost when you're viewing them behind a computer screen or taking snapshots on a tour, but Secrets of Versailles really brings that history to the forefront, reminding us of the people and events that once passed through the city and palace of Versailles.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review: Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory by Marilyn Yalom

Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory by Marilyn Yalom is an exploration of the memoirs of women from a variety of social positions who, in some way, were affected by the French Revolution. These women range from female soldiers to the wives of prominent revolutionary figures to the only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The memoirs encompass a range of different experiences during the revolution as well as range of different "memories" of these events which are colored by the context the time period the memoirs were written in and the own personal ideals of the writer. In the book, Yalom not only explores the importance of historical context when reading these memoirs (a book written by a royalist during the Bourbon Restoration will naturally be colored by that context) but argues that the primary drive behind these memoirs - and indeed, many memoirs before and since the 18th and 19th centuries - is to bear witness to events which uprooted the country and resulted in the deaths of family, friends and countless others.

Blood Sisters excels in several ways. Yalom is clearly invested in this subject and her passion for these women and their writing shines in a narrative that is clear, engaging and incredibly hard to put down. The book also benefits because Yalom has chosen to engage the reader in these  memoirs not only from a narrative point of view - explaining what happened to the women and what they wrote - but also from a critical point of view, exploring how these women wrote about what happened to them. Memory and personal conviction can have a great effect on what we write about our lives later in life, something Yalom doesn't hesitate to explore.

The one downside to this book is that I personally wish it was longer! As a side note, Yalom does provide an extensive list of memoirs written by women who were affected by the French Revolution, although this list only contains the French editions of these memoirs.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in women's memoirs, the study of women's history, or the French Revolution.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Quick Reviews: Fasting Girls, Hollywood Monster and Vive La Revolution.

Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg is an updated edition to Brumberg's critical study on the history of anorexia nervosa which was first published in the 1980s. Fasting Girls traces the history of the modern disease anorexia nervosa as well as the history of food refusal among young women, which dates back at least as far as the 16th century. Brumberg is careful to differentiate between these earlier historical cases of "fasting girls" and our more modern conception of anorexia nervosa. Brumberg argues that anorexia nervosa did not fully develop until the mid-late 19th century when increased social stability and heavy emphasis on mealtime as a sign of status in the growing upper middle class allowed for the development of a mental disorder which revolved around the consumption and control of food and weight.

Brumberg's writing tends toward the academic, but most readers shouldn't have trouble following her linear narrative which begins in the 16th century and continues until the 1980s, with a brief addition that was written at the start of the new millennium. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa will appeal to anyone interested in the history of this mental disorder as well as the history of "fasting girls" in the 16th through the 19th centuries. The book will also be of interest to students or professionals in the mental health and wellness field.

Hollywood Monster: A Walk Down Elm Street With the Man of Your Dreams by Robert Englund recounts the now famous horror actor's early years in the theater and in Hollywood before landing his most iconic role: that of Freddy Kreuger in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street film and subsequent franchise. Although the memoir seems marketed as a book which focuses on Englund's "career" as Freddy Kreuger, it's actually more of a general overview of Englund's career and personal life. Englund's career before the first Nightmare film, which may be surprising to fans who only know him from the Nightmare franchise, includes classical theater roles, bit parts in plenty of older Hollywood flicks and small roles alongside growing major stars like Sally Field and Henry Fonda. Englund, of course, recounts his time filming A Nightmare On Elm Street and its many sequels as well as his other work during and post-Nightmare, such as his acclaimed role in the mini-series V.

The memoir is very casual but still engaging. The major flaw with this memoir is that Englund does not focus on any particular topic for very long. He briefly mentions roles or events or people but rarely goes into any great detail about any of them. Fans of Englund's portrayal of Freddy Kreuger will enjoy some anecdotes about the behind the scenes hijinks, but may be disappointed that there isn't really much dirt, gossip or secrets revealed in the course of the narrative. I would recommend Hollywood Monster for hardcore fans of the Nightmare franchise or readers who enjoy a casual, if sometimes flighty, Hollywood memoir.

Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution by Mark Steel is a casual history of the French Revolution told in a conversational and comedic tone. Vive La Revolution covers the basics of the French Revolution, including its origins, major events and players and the subsequent consequences and results of the revolution. Steel's presentation of the revolution is noticeably sympathetic towards the revolution and most of its supporting figures. Some readers may find this refreshing, considering the glut of books in recent years which are more sympathetic toward the French royal family. However, Steel's argument that negative portrayals of "pro" revolutionary figures are mostly based in biased myth and legend is sometimes lost when Steel relies on legends or myths in his descriptions of aristocratic or royal figures. I would have preferred for the author to point out the inaccuracies of popular conceptions of all figures of the revolution, not just the ones he personally supported. The book also occasionally suffers from a lack of basic fact checking, such as mixing up the sister of Louis XVI with the sister of Marie Antoinette and then later, the niece of Louis XVI.

Despite these flaws, the book does manage to cover the revolution in a way that is engaging, especially for casual readers. I would mainly recommend Vive La Revolution to readers looking for something easy to read about the French Revolution, despite its occasional flaws, or readers who are fans of Mark Steel's comedic writing.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution by Olivier Blanc

Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution by Olivier Blanc is an exploration of prisons and prisoners of the French Revolution through first-hand accounts, memoirs and--as the title would suggest--last letters written by condemned prisoners. The first section of the book details the conditions of the numerous prisons in revolutionary France, which ranged from horrendous to relatively livable, especially for wealthy prisoners during the earlier years of the revolution. Many prisons were in fact refubished chateaus, which were seized from emigrees, prisoners or those who had already been executed. These prisons often afforded prisoners more freedom and luxuries than the than the prisons being used in Paris, which were overcrowded, damp and increasingly restrictive as the revolution went on. This first half includes many excerpts from contemporary resources, usually the prisoners themselves, detailing their daily lives, escape attempts, and the general atmosphere of the prisons which grew increasingly restrictive and dangerous as the revolution bore on.

The second half of the book is, in my opinion, where the real "meat" of the book comes in. The second half is entirely "last letters," or the last letters written by condemned prisoners before they were executed.The letters were written to husbands, wives, children, mothers, fathers, neighbors, and even sometimes government officials. Common themes include forgiveness, debts, innocence and love--a testament to human nature. Almost all of the letters included in this volume were intercepted before delivery and never given to their intended receipiants, adding an entirely different layer to the already somber nature of these letters.  Blanc typically provides an adequate background for each letter, detailing the person's lives, their crime or supposed crime, and occasionally reports of their behavior on the scaffold from contemporary newspapers.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the French Revolution or the study of prisons and prisoners. It is also a moving read for anyone interested in social and personal history.

I've written out one of the shorter letters in the book. It was written by Gabriel Rochon de Wormesele, who was condemend to death for supporting the General Council of the Department of the Gironde, who in June of 1793 declared that the Natioanl Convention in Paris was corrupt and needed to be removed. The General Council also declared that they would form their own People's Commission for Public Safety that would not dissolve until the “liberty is re-established at the heart of the National Convention.”

to Citizeness Wormeselle, rue du Temple, no 1
12 Brumaire.

These are the last letters that my hand will trace. In a few hours I shall be no more. I am condemned to death. My wife, whom I have always lovingly cherished, I die full of love for you. I do not ask you to remember me; I know your fine soul, your loving heart, no, you will never forget me. But go on living for our poor children. Remember me to them. May I serve as an example to them, may they be better than I. Raise them in the practice of the virtues. My property has been confiscated; there was so little that it will be no great loss to them. Raise them in the love of work. Lavish upon them all the love that you had for me. Farewell, a thousand times farewell. Wipe away your tears and concern yourself only with our children.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture by Meredith Martin

(Originally published at Reading Treasure.)

[I was provided a review copy of this book upon my request by Harvard University Press.]

Meredith Martin delves into more than two centuries of French history in her book Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture from Catherine de Medici to Marie Antoinette, which seeks to place the French pleasure dairy back in its historical context, shattering the myths and assumptions about the role of pleasure dairies in elite society.

The assumption that pleasure dairies were built by royal women as a way to pretend at being peasants while not actually living like one has permeated books, films and pop culture for years. Marie Antoinette is still accused of pretending to be a peasant while drinking dairy from porcelain cups and milking perfumed cows -- a true example of a "Let them eat cake" (which no, she never said) state of mind. However, Martin puts the pleasure dairy of Marie Antoinette (along with several other prominent French women such as Madame de Pompadour and Catherine de Medici) in their historical context, dismissing the notion that the dairies were there for the frivolous play of the elite class.

Martin explores the political, social and gender politics behind the pleasure dairies, revealing a surprising role in the lives of the women or men who built and enjoyed them. Pleasure dairies were often ways for aristocratic or royal women to exercise a form of political power, while still working within their gender role by promoting their status as nurturing mothers and worthy estate managers. They were also a way to improve health, employing Rosseau's notion that aristocratic women should retreat to countryside estates and reap the benefits of fresh milk and air. The catch, of course, is that most pleasure dairies were not built in the true countryside but on the outskirts or even within cities, so that a woman could enjoy the benefits of the countryside without giving up her social obligations. However, the female influence on the pleasure dairy was, particularly by the 1780s, often criticized and made suspect. When the dairy at Rambouillet was built in 1787 (without input from Marie Antoinette) it was a noticeably different from her own dairy at the Trianon. Martin believes this was an intentional move by the male designer to, in a way, put Marie Antoinette back in her place. Marie Antoinette may have been the "goddess" at her Trianon, but not so at the 'male' dairy at Rambouillet.

In addition to discussing the historical role of the pleasure dairy from the 17th century through the French Revolution, Martin touches on the impact the pleasure dairy - and its political and gender ramifications - have had on modern society.

Martin's writing is clear, intelligently written and supplemented by many photographs, drawings and paintings. It's worth a mention here that the layout of this book is absolutely wonderful. I'll admit I was expecting a "dry" layout from a University press, but when I opened the book I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of images used. It's really a superb layout, and something that not only compliments Martin's writing but makes the book something worth looking through even after you've finished reading.

Overall, I definitely recommended this book to anyone interested in French history, especially Marie Antoinette and her much maligned pleasure dairy. It's an excellent addition to any library and I think most readers will find the insights about the often ignored pleasure diary interesting. The book was released earlier this year and is available at most online bookstores

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France by Sean Takets

[I was given a review copy of this book by the publisher upon my request.]

The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France by Sean Takats fills a much needed gap in 18th century studies by exploring the history of cooks in 18th century France. There has been much written about French food and cooking methods during this period, but precious little has been published about the people behind the food. Takats places the French cook back into the spotlight, providing a concise and informative overview on cooks, their work, their precarious role in society and how they hoped to strengthen that role through cooking during the Enlightenment.

Cooks, as Takats explains, held a unique place in 18th century society. Both men and women worked as  cooks, and unlike other occupations which were primarily male or female, cooking was seen as neither masculine or feminine.  The occupation of a cook was not entirely domestic, like a house servant, or entirely professional, like an architect. This in-between occupation created a greater degree of autonomy and freedom for cooks when it came to looking for employment. They often bargained with employers for wages and other benefits, and had much more freedom when working in the home than a typical domestic house servant. Cooks also published cookbooks, recipes and other instruction manuals, which was not common outside of 'behavior' manuals written with domestic servants in mind.

However, their role in society was at times contradictory. Although employers gave cooks much freer 'reign' than a typical house servant, cooks were greatly mistrusted. Satirical prints and stories about dirty, evil, and sexually promiscuous cooks abounded in 18th century France. Cooks intended to improve their status by reforming methods of cooking, recipes, and the kitchen itself, however these reforms only inspired greater suspicion of cooks and cooking. When 'modern cuisine' was developed, it was intended to showcase the power that cooking and food could have on the body and establish cooking as a legitimate science. These attempts to establish the importance of cooking only caused greater problems - after all, reason followed that if food could be used to improve health, it could cause destruction and death as well. The poor reputation of cooks at the time only helped to strengthen the stereotype of the cook as a dangerous, secretive person. Unfortunately, efforts by cooks to improve their reputation in society generally fueled the suspicion and derision he general populace held for them. However, despite this setback, cooks played an important role with 18th century society and used the Enlightenment to help pave the way for French cooking as we know it today.

It is a slimmer book - about 145 pages of text - but it provides a good overview of the role of cooks during this period and Takats' writing is academic but accessible enough for the general reader to enjoy. It was a surprising read for me, as I hadn't thought about cooks during this time period as anything other than a typical servant. It was enlightening to read about their unique position, and the surprising poor reputation that cooks had in society. I definitely recommend it for 18th century libraries, French studies libraries, and anyone particularly interested in the role of cooks during the 18th century.