Friday, October 30, 2015

Books for Christmas 2015 Part 1: Horrible (and not-so-horrible) History

For the last, ooh, how long is it now...eight years (No! Really? Can it be that long?) we've worked extremely hard to curate our favourite books published over the previous year, to produce a series of blog posts and newsletter editions that represent our favourite books for Christmas.

Now, we know it's only October, but it is almost the *end* of October, and besides last year there were so many good books that we almost ran out of time - so we're starting a little bit earlier this year...

We're starting with our favourite History titles of 2015. Enjoy...

The Great British Dream Factory – Dominic Sandbrook (£25.00)Our manufacturing base is a shadow of its former self; the Royal Navy has been reduced to a skeleton. Russian officials dismiss us as 'a small island'. And yet there is still one area in which we can legitimately claim superpower status: our popular culture.

It is extraordinary to think that J K Rowling has sold more than 400 million books; that Doctor Who is watched in almost every developed country in the world; that James Bond has been the central character in the longest-running film series in history; that The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written (behind only A Tale of Two Cities); that the Beatles are still the best-selling musical group of all time; and that only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie. To put it simply, no country on earth, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination.

Historian and broadcaster Dominic Sandbrook explores the success, origins - and meaning - of Britain's popular culture, from Bond and the Beatles to heavy metal and Coronation Street, from the Angry Young Men and Harry Potter, to Banksy and Damien Hirst.

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear –James Shapiro (£20.00)
Talking of Shakespeare, author and English professor James Shapiro focuses on another annus mirabilis (can you have more than one of those?) in the life of The Bard, '1606'. Using the same biographical style that he used in '1599' (which won the Samuel Johnson Prize), Shapiro traces Shakespeare's life and times from the autumn of 1605, when he took an old and anonymous Elizabethan play, The Chronicle History of King Leir, and transformed it into his most searing tragedy, King Lear.

1606 witnessed the bloody aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, saw divisions over the Union of England and Scotland, and an outbreak of plague. But it turned out to be an exceptional one for Shakespeare, who before the year was out went on to complete two other great Jacobean tragedies that spoke directly to these fraught times: Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra. Absorbing, compelling - and further proof of the way Shakespeare still speaks powerfully to us across the centuries.

(There's a great interview with James Shapiro on the excellent History Girls blog here)

The Nation Through Its Portraits - Simon Schama (£30.00)
A history of the British people told through portraits, tying in to a major five-part BBC TV series and an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. From the divine paintings of Elizabeth I to the iconic photograph of 'bulldog' Churchill; from Victorian portraits of dead children to Hockney's of his elderly parents; from anonymous workers to the artists themselves, Simon Schama uses a stunning and surprising array of images to tell the story of the British from the Tudors to the present day, changing the way we see Britain and each other.

The Secret War - Max Hastings (£30.00)
Historian, journalist and author Max Hastings plots the fabulous espionage networks created by the Soviet Union in Germany and Japan, Britain and America, and explores the puzzle of why Stalin so often spurned his agents, who reported from the heart of the Axis war machine. The role of SOE and American's OSS as sponsors of guerrilla war are examined, and the book tells the almost unknown story of Ronald Seth, an SOE agent who was 'turned' by the Germans, walked the streets of Paris in a Luftwaffe uniform, and baffled MI5, MI6 and the Abwehr as to his true loyalty. 

'The Secret War' links tales of high courage ashore, at sea and in the air to the work of the brilliant 'boffins' at home, battling the enemy's technology. Hastings tells the stories - often bizarre, sometimes with the highest prices at stake - with excitement, panache and the highest quality of writing as befits his reputation as a brilliant military historian and journalist. Hugely enjoyable and informative and a great choice for any family or friends who love reading about the Second World War.

The Cooler King - Patrick Bishop (£17.99)
Max Hastings pulls out personal dramas to illustrate his big-picture histories, but in 'The Cooler King' military historian Patrick Bishop tells the astonishing story of William Ash, an American flier brought up in Depression-hit Texas, who after being shot down in his Spitfire over France in early 1942 spent the rest of the war defying the Nazis by striving to escape from every prisoner of war camp in which he was incarcerated.

It is a saga full of incident and high drama, climaxing in a break out via a tunnel dug in the latrines of the Oflag XXIB prison camp in Poland - a great untold episode of the Second World War. Alongside William Ash is a cast of fascinating characters, including Douglas Bader, Roger Bushell (who would go on to lead the Great Escape) and Paddy Barthropp, a dashing Battle of Britain pilot who despite his very different background became Ash's best friend and shared many of his adventures.

Bricks and Mortals – Tom Wilkinson (£9.99)
We don't just look at buildings: their facades, beautiful or ugly, conceal the spaces we inhabit. We are born, work, love and die in architecture. We buy and sell it, rent it and squat in it, create and destroy it. And because architecture moulds us just as much as we mould it, understanding architecture helps us to understand our lives and our world. 

Through ten great buildings across the world art historian Tom Wilkinson reveals the powerful and intimate relationship between society and architecture and asks: can architecture change our lives for the better?

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard (£25.00) - signed copies whilst stocks last
Britain's favourite classicist lifts the lid on the Roman Empire; its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess. Its myths and stories - from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia - still strike a chord with us, and its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR covers 1,000 years of history, and casts fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire.

Beard has achieved something remarkable, producing an enthralling, genuinely original history of Ancient Rome which never sacrifices scholarship and yet has wide appeal. She explains why Ancient Rome still matters, and why the Roman Empire is something against which we still judge ourselves. A wonderful book.

Ferguson's Gang : The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters
 - 
Sally Beck and Polly Bagnall (£15.99)
The year is 1927 and Britain's heritage is vanishing. Beautiful landscapes are being bulldozed, historic buildings are being blown up. Stonehenge is collapsing. Enter 'Ferguson's Gang', a mysterious and eccentric group of women who help the National Trust to fight back...

The Gang raise huge sums, which they deliver in delightfully strange ways: Victorian coins inside a fake pineapple, a one hundred pound note stuffed inside a cigar, five hundred pounds with a bottle of homemade sloe gin. Their stunts are avidly reported in the press, and when they make a national appeal for the Trust, the response is overwhelming. 

Yet somehow these women stay anonymous, hiding behind masks and bizarre pseudonyms such as Bill Stickers, Red Biddy, the Bludy Beershop and Sister Agatha. They carefully record their exploits, their rituals, even their elaborate picnics, but they take their real names to the grave. Now Sally Beck and Polly Bagnall can reveal the identities of these unlikely national heroes and tell the stories of their fascinating and often unconventional lives. A triumph of British eccentricity combined with a truly priceless legacy.

This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC– Charlotte Higgins (£12.99)
Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian's chief culture writer, steps behind the polished doors of Broadcasting House and investigates the BBC. Based on her hugely popular essay series, this personal journey answers the questions that rage around this vulnerable, maddening and uniquely British institution. Questions such as: what does the BBC mean to us now? What are the threats to its continued existence? Is it worth fighting for? Higgins traces its origins, celebrating the early pioneering spirit and unearthing forgotten characters whose imprint can still be seen on the BBC today. She explores how it forged ideas of Britishness both at home and abroad. She shows how controversy is in its DNA and brings us right up to date through interviews with grandees and loyalists, embattled press officers and high profile dissenters, and she sheds new light on recent feuds and scandals.

Parish Church Treasure: The Nations Greatest Art Collection - John Goodall (£25.00)
Our parish churches constitute a living heritage without precise European parallel. Their cultural riches are astonishing, not only for their quality and quantity, but also their diversity and interest. Fine art and architecture here combine unpredictably with the functional and the curious, from prehistory to the present day, to form an unsung national museum which presents its contents in an everyday setting without curators or formal displays.

Because church treasures usually remain in the buildings they were created for, properly interpreted they tell from thousands of local perspectives the history of the nation, its people and their changing religious observance. John Goodall has expanded his weekly series in Country Life to tell this remarkable history afresh.

Metropolis: Mapping the City – Jeremy Black (£30.00)
More than half of the world’s population lives in towns and cities, and by 2030 this number will swell to about 5 billion. But mapping urbanization is challenging, and is as much about capturing the essence of where we live, and the promises and reality of our urban lives.

The first city atlas, the Civitates Orbis Terrarum, was published in 1572 for the armchair traveller interested in a world that was opening up around him. In 'Metropolis', British history professor Jeremy Black looks at the development of the mapping and representation of the city revealing how we organize the urban space. From skyline profiles, bird's eye views and panoramas, to the schematic maps of transport networks and road layouts to help us navigate, and statistical maps that can provide information on human aspirations, cities can reveal themselves in many ways. Both a fascinating insight and a sumptuous treat for anyone interested in the city in which they live or with the desire to explore the history and culture of a metropolis overseas.

The Celts: Search For A Civilization - Alice Roberts (£20.00)
We know a lot about the Romans: they left monuments to their glories and written histories charting the exploits of their heroes. But there was another ancient people in Europe - feared warriors with chariots, iron swords, exquisite jewellery, swirling tattoos and strange rituals and beliefs. For hundreds of years Europe was theirs, not Rome's. They were our ancestors, and yet the scale of their achievements has largely been forgotten. They were the Celts, and unlike the Romans they did not write their history, so the stories of many heroic Celtic men and women have been lost...

Alice Roberts goes in search of the Celts, their treasures and their achievements in a narrative history to accompany her new BBC series. 

Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters - Laura Thompson (£25.00)
The eldest was a razor-sharp novelist of upper-class manners; the second was loved by John Betjeman; the third was a fascist who married Oswald Mosley; the fourth idolized Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany; the fifth was a member of the American Communist Party; the sixth became Duchess of Devonshire. They were the Mitford sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah, and in the 1930s their stark - and very public - differences in outlooks came to symbolize the political polarities of a dangerous decade...

Told with wit, verve, and a particular attention to their early lives, 'Take Six Girls' by Laura Thompson shows how the intertwined stories of their lives continue to fascinate decades later.

The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf (£25.00)
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist: more things are named after him than anyone else. There are towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the ocean current that runs along the South American coast, there's a penguin, a giant squid - even the Mare Humboldtianum on the moon...

His colourful adventures read like something out of a Boy's Own story, and in 'The Invention of Nature' Indian-born historian and writer Andrea Wulf shows why his life and ideas remain so important today. Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800, and 'The Invention of Nature' traces his ideas as they go on to revolutionize and shape science, conservation, nature writing, politics, art and the theory of evolution. He wanted to know and understand everything and his way of thinking was so far ahead of his time that it's only coming into its own now. This is epic history with broad appeal.

Kissinger – Niall Ferguson (£35.00)
No American statesman has been as revered and as reviled as Henry Kissinger. Hailed by some as the "indispensable man", whose advice has been sought by every president from John F Kennedy to George W Bush, Kissinger has also attracted immense hostility from critics who have cast him as an amoral Machiavellian - the ultimate cold-blooded "realist". In this remarkable new book, the first of two volumes, Niall Ferguson has created an extraordinary panorama of Kissinger's world, and a paradigm-shifting reappraisal of a man who rose from poor immigrant, WWII GI, Nazi interrogator and adviser to presidents.

The Invention of Science – David Wootton (£30.00)
This is a landmark book, charting the way we came to live in a world made by science. Historian David Wootton argues that the discovery of America in 1492 shook the prevailing orthodoxy, because up until then it was assumed that all significant knowledge was available. With concepts of 'discovery' and progress, Tycho Brahe's nova of 1572 proved that there could be change in the heavens, and the telescope (1610) rendered the old astronomy obsolete.

The new science did not consist simply of new discoveries, or new methods. It relied on a new understanding of what knowledge might be, and with this came a new language: discovery, progress, facts, experiments, hypotheses, theories, laws of nature - almost all these terms existed before 1492, but their meanings were radically transformed so they became tools with which to think scientifically. 'The Invention of Science' changes our understanding of how this great transformation came about, and of what science is.

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