Tag Archives: History

Julie Kavanagh – The Girl Who Loved Camellias (2013)

16030646I’m not quite sure what compelled me to pick up this book. It tells the story of Marie Duplessis, one of the 19th century’s most well known courtesans from her difficult upbringing to her rise among the Paris elite. Made famous by her beauty, Duplessis’ story is much better known through the novel, play and opera that made her a cultural icon.

In her colourful biography, Kavanagh seeks to look at who Marie Duplessis actually was not the woman portrayed on the stage. Duplessis was much more calculating and manipulated that she is portrayed as. This will be disappointing to those readers looking to find some integrity behind Marie as her letters to various suitors and willingness to do anything to get ahead show that Marie was quite calculating and her one true love always remained money.

Kavanagh is actually quite sympathetic to Marie however using her hard upbringing as an explanation for her behavior later in life. The daughter of wretchedly poor peasants in Normandy, her father an alcoholic peddler, Marie’s early life was definitely not easy. After moving to the city and working as a laundress however Marie (formally Alphonsie) began to gain notoriety for her looks and realized she could make money and succeed being “kept” by another man. Her love of material good strong, Marie elected to this option.

This was a good book but I wish that Kavanagh had spent a bit more time setting the scene in 19th century Paris. I loved learning about Marie Duplessis but would have loved to know more about her historic context and the world of high class courtesans in Paris.

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Elizabeth Abbott – The History of Celibacy (1999)

51W7SE0QGHLIn today’s world where we spend a majority of our time being exposed to sex whether through popular culture, advertising, or online dating apps, it’s easy to think of celibacy as something restricted to the past or the very religious. In her book however, Abbott traces the fascinating history of celibacy from biblical times through to the present day looking at the way that abstaining from sex has been used to both control and empower people.

She follows a rather traditional trajectory, looking at celibacy from the earliest days of human memory through its embracing by Christianity up to the present day. The first half of the book was a bit tedious for me, but only because I never found myself that interested in early modernity. For me the most interesting discussions were surrounding the 19th century modes of respectability for both men and women. Women were supposed to be chaste, but men also had to embody “masculine Christianity” balancing masculine impulses with Victorian respectability. She also discusses the 19th century movements in America started by Sylvester Graham and John Kellogg who used food to try and control (and diminish) libido.

She definitely spends more time exploratory chastity from a feminine perspective which is understandable given the way that history has played out, but I would have loved a bit more of a discussion on the masculine dimensions. After seeing Spotlight I was looking for more of a discussion of clerical celibacy, which took up only a small portion of the overall work.

The history of celibacy is a broad and very dense topic to attempt to explore in a single book. Each chapter of Abbot’s could have been a volume of work unto itself. This is a good overview and jumping off point for those looking to learn more about celibacy and the way it has been prevalent through history.

Barbara Tuchman – Guns of August (1962)

51FgcC7xc8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lauded as one of the most important works dealing with the First World War, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August takes an in depth look at at the earliest stages of WWI from the decisions made to the moment when the Franco-British offensive stopped the German advance.

Tuchman beings at the funeral of Edward VII of the UK which drew the presence of Kings from around the country including Kaiser Wilhelm the II of Germany. Through this, Tuchman introduces the key players and personalities in the lead up to the First World War before moving on to a discussion of military planning and finally the outbreak. The bulk of the book, (12 chapters) is a detailed account of specific military campaigns and battles.

I love reading military history, but found that Tuchman focused way more on strategies and military campaigns in her book than I was expecting. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, it’s just not really my cup of tea. I’m must more interested in big picture and the international events that occurred during the lead up to the war, which Tuchman does touch upon in her narrative. Overall however her book was just a bit too nitty gritty with military details for me. Fans of military history and strategy will love this, while other may find it hard not to get lost in the details.

 

Recommended Listening:
If you’re a fan of the intricacies of military history, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast (Specifically the Blueprint for Armageddon series) would be a good listen. Be warned these episodes are LONG! 

Recommended Reading:
For anyone needing a refresher on WWI this timeline provides key events and easy to digest content about the lead up to war.

I loved this news article from a couple of years back because it showed how the outbreak of war was announced in the papers. 

Alternate Reading:
Those interested in a more socio-political look at the outbreak of war might appreciate Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace

Frances Hill – A Delusion of Satan (1995)

89522I love reading about the Salem witch trials. Obviously anything to do with witchcraft will seem intriguing and is easily sensationalized, but the trials, because the were so confined to a specific time and place make them so interesting to study. Why Salem? Why 1692? These are questions that have bothered American historians. While many are apt to pass over the witch trials or view them as simply an anomaly in American history, there are a number of scholars who have attempted to give this event a significant amount of attention.

Frances Hill’s book is one of the better accounts that I’ve read. For those unfamiliar with the trials, the historical record is shaky at best, and absolutely impossible to get through at its worst. There are so many families involved, many sharing names and way too many people to keep track of. Factor in the debts owed and the grudges held and wading through the history of the Salem witch trials becomes a giant mess. Hill does a good job however, writing clearly and focusing on the prominent community members so the reader does not get lost.

What was especially interesting was Hill’s ideas about what started the whole paranoia about witches. As most know, the panic started when a number of teenage girls appeared hysterical and claimed to be possessed by other women in the community. Hill blames this on the nature of their existence. Growing up in the Puritan faith would have caused young people a great deal of stress and anxiety. While boys had a physical outlet for these feelings (it was permissible for boys to play outside, fight, etc), girls had no such way of dealing with these emotions. Hill believes the mass hysteria that gripped teenage girls in the community was a result of this. They blamed women who were outcasts in society to begin with and as Hill points out, this episode became one of the first episodes of women-on-women bullying.

It is definitely a feminist perspective on the whole episode in Salem, but seeing as the trials involved a majority of women (only one man was convicted of witchcraft), viewing it through a feminist lense is not off base. Hill does a great job in dealing with this very interesting, but aso muddled subject.

Hazel Rowley – Franklin and Eleanor (2010)

FranklinandEleanorIt’s pretty well agreed upon that there is a sense of romanticism that settles around FDR, as well as his wife Eleanor. FDR managed to lead a country through wartime while battling debilitating illnesses and Eleanor has been an inspiration to generations of women. It should not be surprising that two such extraordinary individuals had an extraordinary marriage, but it does as a President’s private life is often treated as just that, private.

In her novel, Hazel Rowley provides an intimate look at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s partnership from the day that they met to the day of his death. She details the number of affairs that both, either formally known or suspected, engaged in and how the pair made their marriage work. Franklin was a notorious flirt and enjoyed the company of young women, while Eleanor also had her fair share of “special companions.”

I for one have always been a great admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a strong silent presence in Franklin’s life and always stood by him. While this may have caused her to have a bit of a martyr’s complex, having to play the role of a put-upon wife, she was always willing and ready to put the needs of others, especially her husband’s before her own. Franklin relied on Eleanor and in turn supported her causes where he could even when certain issues, such as Eleanor’s support for Civil Rights, could hurt Franklin’s popularity.

Even though the couple spent a great deal of time a part, especially during the later half of their marriage while Eleanor was traveling supporting her own causes and Franklin was constantly visiting other world leaders during the Second World War, their letters to one another show a level of tenderness and love. While they may have taken other lovers, it is very clear that Franklin and Eleanor were life partners and needed, and loved each other vey much.

Margaret MacMillan – The War That Ended Peace (2013)

The_War_That_Ended_Peace_EditorCopy_EditWhile her previous book, Paris 1919 dealt with the end of the First World War, her most recent looks at why war broke out in the first place. In her very detailed way, Margaret MacMillan walks the reader through all of the events that led up to the outbreak of war in order to answer one question, Why did the long peace not continue?

Building on the copious literature that already exists on this subject, Margaret MacMillan provides her own take on this question. She takes a rather hard stance, something unusual for historians, stating that the naval race is a key, if not the key factor in explaining the growing hostility between Britain and Germany. This is an interesting approach, and one which, I will admit, I had not given much thought to before.

The most interesting thing I found however was the long list of assassinations that occurred leading up to the First World War, and how while all of these had the potential to start a war, none of them did. This makes the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand both unremarkable and incredibly important at the same time. The panic around these assassinations or “terrorism” that occurred is also eerily familiar and proves that sometimes history does repeat itself.

MacMillan has also learned from Paris 1919, not to focus too much on individuals and personalities. She does still rely on prominent men to explain why some events played out the way they did, but she does not rely on them as heavily as she had done in previous writing.

I liked this book better than Paris 1919, although it is not for the faint of heart. At just over 600 pages, MacMillan has done her best to cover everything she can to explain the outbreak of hostilities. Those passionate about this time period will find her work enjoyable, while those looking for a lighter take on the subject might want to steer clear of this one.

Recipes – No Machine Vanilla Ice Cream

Everyone who knows me knows I love ice cream. I always keep my freezer well stocked and often find myself taking walks down the street to the Baskin Robbins on summer evenings.

I’ve always wanted to try to make my own ice cream, but this has proven to be difficult, as I don’t have an ice cream maker. While working as a camp counsellor we made outside in plastic bags with rock salt, but as I live in an apartment downtown this didn’t seem like a realistic method either. I found this recipe and decided to give it a try.

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Whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks. An electric mixer would have been helpful.

Overall it wasn’t terrible, it was actually quite good, but it just didn’t taste like ice cream. It was much denser and not quite as creamy, but lacking an ice cream maker I think this is to expected. I’m also a huge fan of frozen banana ice cream. The kind where you mash up bananas, mix with nutella, and freeze the mixture, which turns into the consistency of ice cream. There are definitely ways to stay cool during the summer and ways to make ice cream without an ice cream maker, but for now I think I’ll stick to my Ben and Jerry’s or my nightly walks to Baskin Robbins.

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Pour mixture into a frozen loaf pan and cover with saran wrap before putting back into the freezer.

While I was reading Susan Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, I found myself craving ice cream reading all her descriptions of different flavors and the processes in which ice cream is made. As I have already written, Gilman’s novel was fantastic and she also provides a brief insight into the history of ice cream. Anyone looking for more information about the history of ice cream should check out a this podcast episode put out by Stuff You Should Know. A relatively new food pocast, Gastropod, also just did an episode about ice cream which also focuses on the history and science of ice cream. Anyone interested in whats new and trendy in ice cream should check out this episode from The Table Set, and while you’re listening to podcasts you should absolutely check out this episode from my favourite podcasters over at Spilled Milk where they teamed up with Dan Pashman from the Sporkful to taste vanilla ice cream.

Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream Without A Machine (From ZoomyYummy)

1 1/4 cups Heavy Whipping Cream
2/3 Cup Sweetened Condensed Milk
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

  1. Whip the heavy cream until stiff peaks form
  2. Add the condensed milk and the vanilla extract, gently fold to combine.
  3. Pour the mixture into a container (I used a loaf pan, which I had put in the freezer for 20 minutes prior to filling)
  4. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in freezer for at least 6 hours.