Tuesday, 31 July 2012

History Books - Web Resources

I'm always on the look out for great new history books, but searching on the internet for good information is quite difficult. There's lots of information on historical fiction, but not much for non-fiction popular history books, and when you do come up with something there's invariably a lot of historical fiction mixed in. Here's a few websites I've come up with that you might find useful.

http://www.historyextra.com/books - This is the books section of BBC History Magazine. There are hundreds of reviews from books reviewed in their magazine over the last few years, and you can browse and search by category or keyword. They're also starting book lists by asking leading historians to suggest five books on a particular topic.

Reddit History Books List - On Reddit (a social bookmark & link sharing site), the 'Ask Historians' subreddit community came up with a list of the best history books, by category and era. There's a lot of great books on there, and as well as the list you can see the discussion that is behind it. I even contributed a few books to that list. Obviously this is only a very small selection of the great books in each category available, but its useful to look at for inspiration as to what to read next or what you've missed before.

http://www.lovereading.co.uk/genre/his/History.html - LoveReading is a lovely site with hundreds of book reviews, book extracts/first chapters and more. In each genre (which includes non-fic history) they choose a few books each month to review and provide extracts for, which as it has been going for years means quite a big back catalog!

Goodreads History Book Club - This is a very active forum and book group (probably the most active history book forum online) that reads all sorts of history books - mostly non-fiction. They have several books the group reads each month and then discusses, as well as a variety of challenges. If you want to though, you can just browse the forums and join in whenever you like.

History Books Review Blog - I'm always on the look out for good blogs, and I've recently come across that one which is really good. This guy's been posting regularly for about 5 years which is a very good sign in my book!

I'll be updating this as and when I find other good web resources, and if you know of any please let me know and I'll add it.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

'Idea Man' by Paul Allen

For those of you who don't know who Paul Allen is, he is the multi-billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, with Bill Gates. He left the company in the mid-eighties before Microsoft became the technology giant that it is today (though crucially, didn't sell his shares until many years later). 

The book is part autobiography, part history of technology. Paul starts off telling us about his childhood and love of computers, before moving on to when he met Bill Gates. Microsoft wasn't the first business they set up, and the book charts their early efforts and then the founding of Micro-Soft as it was then called. We find out about how they came up with BASIC computer language for the PC, the foundation for their later success, and then how they got the opportunity to write an operating system for IBM. The book also covers the strained relationship Paul Allen had with Bill Gates leading to Allen leaving the company.

Interestingly the book doesn't stop there, in fact it is only halfway through. The rest of the book is taken up with his life after Microsoft, his thoughts on technology and what he did with his money. Find out what he lost $7 billion on, or how close he came to a prize to make his billions made with Microsoft look like small change.

This is really a book of two halves. I won't lie - I was more interested in his time at Microsoft that what he did after, and consequently I enjoyed the first half of the book more. It probably helps that I'm a bit of a geek, but then I suspect a lot of people picking up this book will be. It's not heavily technical though, and the first part is as much about business as it is about computers. I did know a bit of the early history of Microsoft but still learned a lot.

The second half of the book is a mixed bag, at times fascinating, at other times merely interesting but always worth reading. My favourite chapter here is probably the story of Space Ship One and the attempts to win the X-Prize for the first private sector manned spaceplane leaving the Earth's atmosphere. I did also enjoy the chapter about when he bought an NBA basketball team, despite not being American and not having a particular interest in the sport!

Overall, this is a very good book, and Paul Allen is refreshing in his honesty, both in describing his relationship with Bill Gates, and in particular how he dealt with having so much money, and the mistakes he made. I'd give this a good 7/10.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Unearthed - 'Uncommon law' by A.P. Herbert

One of the things I enjoy most is discovering new books, particularly by little known authors or books that have been obscured and buried over the decades, or even centuries. I 'unearth' new (well old usually) books and authors in many different places. Sometimes it is reading reviews of other books on Amazon which leads to a new find, or browsing the shelves of a second hand bookshop. Most often though it is chatting with people, either online or in real life, that I discover so many good books. From time to time I'd like to share these books with you too. Where I do, I'll tag the posts with 'unearthed'.

This week, my parents came up for a visit. Over after dinner coffee, we were discussing how there were so many great books published in the past that were acclaimed at the time, but are long since out of print and languishing in obscurity. He told me about a very interesting writer he remembered called "A P Herbert", so I looked him up. He was a British Member of Parliament, who was also a humorist, playwright and law reform activist. He wrote a number of novels and plays, but was most famous a humorous series of writings called 'Misleading Cases in the Common Law'. These were satirical law reports or 'judgements' about different aspects of English law, highlighting the absurdity of many laws in the English legal system.

These writings were collected together in the book "Uncommon Law". A number of them are about laws which have since been changed, but they are still very funny, or so reviewers on Amazon say. One particularly helpful reviewer gave it 3 stars, but "if you like reading Jeeves and Wooster give it another star", which I think sums it up quite nicely.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

'Love and War in the Apennines' by Eric Newby

‘Love and War in the Apennines’ is a travel book which I picked up recently from a second hand book stall, in the military history section of all places (given I rarely read military history, I’m not sure how I spotted it, but I am glad I did). It is not even close to a military history book, but I can see how the mistake was made, as it is the author’s account of his time as a prisoner of war and his story of escaping and hiding out in the rural world of the Appenines in the autumn and winter of 1943.

Eric Newby is an acclaimed British travel writer who came to fame with his first book ‘The Last Grain Race’ in 1956, and particularly with his second book ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ which is considered one of the best travel books of all time. During the Second World War he was an officer in the Special Boat Service, and was on a mission to sabotage an airfield in Italy, when he was captured. The book briefly documents this mission, his capture and time as a prisoner of war, and then for the majority of the book he recounts his time on the run in the rural Apennines, being put up by kind, brave country folk, and staying in shepherd’s huts, caves and woodburners shacks. If you are expecting tales of gung-ho derring do, then you will be sorely disappointed.

For me, the book has a certain stature to it because of the time in which it is set and the enforced nature of the author’s travels. This is not the story of someone who set off on a journey of discovery to see the world and meet new people (though I’m not belittling those books, for there are many fine books of this ilk). I’m really rooting for the narrator and willing him along, enjoying the story. As well as a survival narrative it is a love story too, because along the way the author meets and falls in love with a woman who ultimately becomes his wife. It’s worth noting that the book only really gets going 50 pages or so in, once he has escaped into the countryside. Before that it has something of the feel of a war memoir, so if you’re not enjoying the first few chapters, I do urge you to persevere - it will be worth it.

What makes this book what it is though is the beautiful descriptions of a world now long gone, and a cast of wonderful characters, the likes of which have also now sadly all but passed from this world. As well as enjoying the overall story, I savoured every page, drinking in the sights, sounds and experiences the author so masterfully communicates to us through these pages. That is the mark of a truly great book. It is difficult to pinpoint any favourite moments, there are so many, but if I had to I’d probably pick Newby’s description of the storyteller cum-craftsman’s little cottage, where almost everything in it was made by his own hands. Or the shepherd’s hut and his many thick shirts, handmade before the industrial revolution from the wool of his ancesters’ flock. Erm, I guess you just have to read the book!

The book itself is a little over 200 pages, but the type is small and there are quite a lot of words on the page, so while not a long read, it will keep you going a while particularly if like me if you hang on every word and skip back to read a particularly haunting or beautiful paragraph. It is not a difficult read, and he sticks to the point and doesn’t meander off topic into art, history, literature and so on very much, except where it fits into the narrative (in contrast to some authors, who regularly and artfully deviate into all sorts of fascinating topics). Really highly recommended to just about anyone that likes serious travel books.

Monday, 23 July 2012

'A Time of Gifts' by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I thought long and hard about what should be the first book I reviewed here, and I eventually settled on what  is the most magnificent travel book I've ever read, 'A Time of Gifts'.

A Time of Gifts is a travel book by acclaimed writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Published in 1977, it is actually based on travels in 1933-34. When the author was just 18 in 1933, he decided to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople (now Istanbul), a journey of more than a thousand miles. This book, the first in what was intended to be a trilogy, covers his journey as far as Hungary. It is based partly on recollections, and partly on a notebook which he rediscovered many decades later in a castle somewhere on his route!

The book is not overly thick, weighing in at almost exactly 300 pages, but the type is small and a lot of words are packed onto each page so it isn't a particularly quick read. Leigh Fermor is a master of the English language, and the book has many lengthy and beautiful descriptions in. It is at its heart a travel book, but covers quite a bit of history as well as art, literature and various other topics.

The book is regarded by many as one of the finest travel books written in the English language, Leigh Fermor is a highly regarded writer and this is considered his masterpiece. So what is it actually like to read?

It starts off with a lengthy letter to a former colleague from WW2, which serves as the book's introduction. I skipped past this at first, eager to get started with the book, but came back to it when I was part way through and found it full of useful backplot and biographical detail. I found the book overall a joy to read, it gives a wonderful view of pre-second world war Europe, painting a picture of a world long gone. Much of the book is beautifully written. The author does use a lot of long words and bits of German and other languages (mostly though not always with translations), as well as references to literature and art which I wasn't familiar with. My advice is just enjoy the book, and don't get bogged down in the sections where he is discussing a (now obscure) old literary text, or an old historical-political situation which has long since evapourated. Just enjoy the book for what it is, a wonderful travelogue.

I wouldn't recommend this book to everyone, as it is not an easy read and written in an old fashioned style (i.e. nothing like Bill Bryson). But I loved it. I can't wait to read more books by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and it has got me itching to explore more great travelogues. A maximum 10/10.