This is an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.

‘Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of Communism.

As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals.’

A few quotes.

Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great Idea.  This is entirely new for Russia;  it’s unprecedented in Russian literature.  At heart, we’re built for war.  We were always either fighting or preparing to fight.  We’ve never known anything else — hence our wartime psychology.

We thought that freedom was a very simple thing.  A little time went by, and soon, we too bowed under its yoke.  No one had taught us how to be free.  We had only ever been taught how to die for freedom.

On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, “And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.”  Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be.  Our time comes to us secondhand.

The mysterious Russian soul.  Everyone wants to understand what’s behind that soul of theirs.  Well, behind our soul there’s just more soul.

Very interesting book.  The translator, Bela Shayevich, is a well-known writer, translator and illustrator.

THE ABORIGINES AND MAORI by Charles River Editors

“The History of the Indigenous Peoples in Australia and New Zealand.”    What an interesting book, although the tag on the title is deceptive.  It is not really the history of the Aborigines and Maori, but rather the history of the founding of Australia and New Zealand by the British and their appalling treatment of these people, most of the time considering them ‘not human,’

So if you Americans were wondering where our forefathers’ notions came from as to how to treat the native people they found when they took over territory, those notions came from the Europeans and the British.  In the book there is a fair amount of discussion as to the British brutality towards all the indigenous in their empire, such as those in India, and the Caribbean islands.   It is certainly something to be ashamed of.

I was a bit disappointed to find that there was nothing about the day-to-day life of these peoples or their culture, other than to point out the warlike nature of the Maori, but that may be because the British engaged in what was essentially genocide, herding the few who remained into reserves (the counterpart to the American native reservations), where they starved, became alcoholics and died off in disheartening numbers.

The pure bloodlines of these peoples has been so diluted that there are only a few left with the pure DNA of their origins, such so that when an indigenous person was in politics, it was pointed out that he had a true DNA bloodline.

Like I said, an interesting book, and the author is a boutique digital publishing company specializing in history topics.



galileos-daughterI seem to have stumbled into something of a history turn of mind lately.  Several historical novels, and now Galileo’s Daughter.  This is not fiction.  It is the story of Galileo… and one of his daughters.

Galileo, as of course you know, wasn’t some tinpot scientist.  He was a well known mathematician,  a man of infinite curiosity, a scholar, a scientist, an author.  And a guy with a fascinating personal life.  He never married the mother of his three children, and for that reason could not arrange any kind of marriage for his daughters, so as things were heating up for him, heresy-wise, he put them in a convent basically for their own safety at the ages of thirteen and fourteen.  One of them was a little batty, frankly, but he had a close relationship with the elder which lasted all their lives.

This older daughter, who was named Virginia in honor of his sister, adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun, in a gesture that acknowledged her father’s fascination with the stars.  But life at the convent was not all skittles and beer.  In fact, it was a terribly poor convent, and they were in danger several times of actually starving to death.  It is certain that the sisters often suffered bouts of malnutrition.  She lived out her life in poverty and seclusion.  All his life, Galileo did quite a bit to support his daughters and the convent financially.

The younger brother, meanwhile, Vincenzio, had been legitimized in a fiat by the grand duke of Tuscany and went off to study law at the University of Pisa.

Galileo kept up a prolific correspondence with Maria Celeste all her life.  Fortunately for us, he saved every letter, and that is how we come to learn of her life, as well as his.  There are no letters extant that he wrote to her.  There was a tricky time during the heresy trials when it seems the Mother of the convent burned them all in order to protect the girls and the convent.

This is a wonderful vehicle for a biography of Galileo, and for descriptions of daily life in the 1600s in Italy.  They talk of selling some of the wine, how some harvests weren’t any good, how Maria Celeste was sewing garments for him.  Just so fascinating.  History can be so 8th grade textbook dry, but really, history is stories,  and I love a good story.

Dava Sobel is the author of Longitude,  another of her books that I just loved.  I talk about it here.



Daughter of timeJosephine Tey was one of two pseudonyms used by Elizabeth Mackintosh, a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels which feature Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard, and her play, Richard of Bordeaux.

This is not a mystery novel exactly, even though it does feature Inspector Grant.   He is laid up in hospital in this 1951 novel, with nuttin’ to do.  A friend brings him a collection of portraits for his amusement, and he is quite taken with that of Richard III.    I thought this might be an interesting read for me, seeing as how His Majesty has gotten so much press lately, what with being buried under a parking lot, and all that followed from that.

Inspector Grant, while giving the king’s portrait a really good look, can’t decide whether he looks like a judge or a murderer, and remembers that the king was accused of murdering or having someone else do the deed, of his two young nephews, supposedly because they were in his way to succession to the throne.

Grant gets interested in this and wonders how the story came to be and was it in fact true.  It seems to be based entirely on Sir. Thomas More’s account, which upon some savvy detective work, turned out to be based on the account by John Morton, Henry VII’s Archibishop of Canterbury.  Yeah, THAT John Morton.  Morton hated Richard.  It is on this account that Shakespeare fashioned his  character in his play, Richard III.

A young man who is doing research on another time of history is sent to Grant to help him out and becomes his happily willing research assistant.

As the research goes on and gets deeper and deeper, it becomes clear that all this history that everyone believes is all hogwash and not what happened at all.   It is Tey’s way of examining how history is constructed, and how certain version of events come to be widely accepted as the truth, despite a lack of evidence.

Here’s a quote about Mary Stuart:

Her tragedy was that she was born a Queen with the outlook of a suburban housewife.

And at the very end of the book, the researcher finds out that unknown to him (and Grant), historians have known for yonks that the story about Richard was a bunch of hooey, but that the correct version had not yet made its way into the history books.

So we have this whole book used as a vehicle to talk about the history of Richard III.  Yawn.

The title of the book comes from a quote by Sir Francis Bacon:

Truth is the Daughter of Time, not of Authority

Richard III

Richard III



GOD AND GENERAL LONGSTREET -The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind by Thomas L. Connelly & Barbara L. Bellows

God and GeneralDid you know that over 600,000 people died in the American Civil War?  Demographic historian David Hacker now says there were 750,000 casualties.   This is probably more accurate.  The book was written in 1982 and Hacker’s analysis is much more recent.   There were  more or less over 300,000 lost on each side.  But the difference was that the Confederacy lost one out of every 19 men, whereas the Union lost one out of over 3,000.   The South was almost annihilated, its cities destroyed, its railroads, its farms and fields despoiled.

Thomas D. Clark of Indiana University writes of

the shortsightedness of a region going to war while hopelessly incapable of sustaining itself in a long and devastating struggle, or with the enormously human and spiritual loss of approximately 300,000 young men, or with the all but incalculable loss of property and momentum in advancing the region beyond its undeveloped frontier conditions. Historians themselves have been caught up in what the authors intriguingly call the “Lost Cause” mentality.

Connelly and Bellows compassionately yet clear-sightedly examine with interest the mind and the culture  that made the war possible, and in its aftermath, what is called The Lost Cause.

An antebellum South embroiled in a power struggle with the “churlish Saxons” of Yankeedom could identify with a heroic Ivanhoe.  Small wonder it was that the Rebel battleflag adopted the design of the Scottish St. Andrew’s cross, or that Dixie writers during the Reconstruction era attempted to link the ancestry of Robert E. Lee with that of Robert the Bruce.    The Lost Cause phrase developed soon after Appomattox as a byword for the perpetuation of the the Confederate ideal.

I found this extremely interesting, being a Yankee myself.  The book’s main author is a southern gentlemen, a professor at University of South Carolina, so it is not a condescending, superior look at the conquered by the victor.  Connelly is a historian specializing in Civil War issues  and personages of that time.

I believe that all regions of the country have their own mindsets, their own outlooks, so I was interested to see what these authors had to say about the ‘Southern mind’.   They say that the Southern mind is one of ambivalence and paradox,

those eternal southern opposites, such as a longing for order and a penchant for evasion of the law, deeply embedded religious fundamentalism and hedonistic behavior, Dixie braggadocio and insecurity.

The religion of the Lost Cause generation was man-centered.  The southern concept of the Trinity was not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but God, man, and Satan.

He quotes Robert Penn Warren’s observation that the southern mind does not grasp abstractions well, but demands a sense of the concrete. the authors say

the cultural isolation of the Old South allowed the populace to exist within a fantasy world of utter contempt for the Yankee and absolute confidence in southern might.

The antebellum South remained the most puritan of all American regions, and was an exaggeration of that general American faith that there is a correlation between Jehovah’s grace and success.  The belief that God was on the side of the Confederacy was universal south of the Potomac.

The title of the book comes from the deification of General Robert E. Lee at the expense of General James Longstreet, whom Lee called ‘his old War Horse’.   He was at odds with Lee about the strategies and tactics at the Battle of Gettysburg, and his detractors pilloried him claiming he was the reason for the Confederate loss at that battle.  Perhaps no Confederate officer is surrounded by more controversy than Longstreet. He was Lee’s trusted advisor and friend.  But, after the war, Longstreet became the target of many “Lost Cause” attacks.  His letters to the New Orleans Times, his support of the Republican Party, and his memoirs served to alienate many Southerners.

The book talks about how ‘Virginia Won The War’,  the state’s role in the conflict and its image-building of reluctant virgin, if you will, being against secession, but being a slave state, forced into the war.

Of course, there is so, so much more in the book, and if you have in interest in such things, I urge you to read it.

Beautifully researched,  it is a fascinating read, and I would be interested to know how southern readers feel about the conclusions in it.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

 General James Longstreet

General James Longstreet



Saints and HerosDuring my Medieval Period, which does not refer to my age but to the period a while back when I was very interested in the Middle Ages and read quite a bit about it, was when I came across this nice book and snagged it, but never actually got around to reading it before my Literary ADD kicked in and I was off on another hobby horse.  I saw it in my List of Books I Will Probably Not Live Long Enough to Read, and decided, what the heck, I could use a role model right about now, so I gave it a go.

This little abbreviated history of the Christian saints of Europe and England was written in 1911.  I also tend to like things written in the early part of the 20th century…. they have a soothing and gentler tone to them that today’s works don’t seem to possess.  And not just because today they are mostly about zombies rather than saints.

We start off with Cyprian, who lived from 200 – 258 AD.  He was born in Carthage, and Christianity was in its early stages, still heavily under attack and the emperor Septimius Severus even made it a crime to invite anybody to join the Christian society.  So unlike today when certain unnamed Republicans would make it a crime NOT to join the Christian society.  Ya live long enough, you’ll see it all…..

Then we learn about Athanasius (yeah, I never heard of him either), Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, and of course Augustine, Benedict, Gregory, Charlemagne, Hildebrand, Anselm, Bernard, Becket, Langton, Dominic, Francis, Wycliffe, Hus (another one who is not part of my memory banks) and Savonarola.

We see that from this author’s mind, at least, the Saints tend to be the founders of the various Catholic Church priestly orders, but we also see that all those good intentions soon turned to naught, and that money, power and greed for both always wiggles its way into the picture.

As it turns out, this series (there are several more) was written for young people, so it is an historical account uncluttered by a plethora of mind-numbing details.  It does leave holes here and there for questions as to actual succession of facts, but it did teach me that I have a Young Person’s mind, because I enjoyed this so much more than many other volumes on history which I have read in the past.

I have also decided not to aspire to sainthood.  Too much work and pure thoughts.

TERRY JONES’ BARBARIANS by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

BarbariansAfter reading Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives,  I was all hot to trot to dig into this book, with the tag line, An alternative Roman History.  It was all of that, all right.  Lots of it.  Lots and lots of it.  Lots and lots of blood, gore, fighting, destroying entire civilizations, obliterating entire cultures, slashing and burning, taking the people for slaves stuff.  Whew.  And all done by the ROMANS!

Turns out the barbarians weren’t really all that barbaric.  Barbarian really just means stranger, it doesn’t mean one who pillages and rapes and destroys as he goes.  That would be the Romans, thank you very much.

The book covers basically the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, over 700 years worth of blood, gore, fighting, destroying entire civilizations, obliterating entire cultures, slashing and burning, taking people for slaves.  You know what?  History sucks.  By that, I mean the history of the human race.  We totally suck.  We are cruel, selfish, uncaring, and all about the collective me me me.  It’s just so depressing reading about this stuff.  Dreary and dispiriting.

Got some great civilization going on?  Higher values?  Technology?  Beauty?  Arts?  OK, let’s rush right in and sack the place, rape the women, take the men — those that we haven’t killed — and make them slaves, all the while destroying the architecture, the culture, the arts, the beauty.  Totally  sucks.

Anyway, the whole premise of the book is

about all those peoples whom the Romans wrote off as uncivilized.  It is a a chance to look at the Romans themselves from an alternative point of view — from the point of view of the people they trashed.

We’ve all been sold a false history of Rome that has twisted our entire understanding of our own history — glorifying (and glossing over) a long era of ruthless imperial power, celebrating it for the benefit of Renaissance tyrants and more modern empires, and wildly distorting our view of the so-called ‘Middle Ages’ and of the peoples whom Rome crushed and who were then blamed for its fall.

Nobody ever called themselves ‘barbarians’.  It’s not that sort of word.  It’s a word used about other people.  In fact, it’s a term of otherness used to label (and usually libel) the peoples who surrounded their [the Roman’s] own world.   The peoples whom they called barbarians became forever branded – be they Spaniards, Britons, Gauls, Germans, Scythians, Persians or Syrians.  And of course ‘barbarian’ has become a by-word for the very opposite of everything we consider civilized.

An interesting, and very dense as in chock full, not dense as in hard to understand, book that I found difficult to read all in one go.  I found it necessary to read a bit, digest that info, then go back and read some more, pause for reflection for a day or more, go back and read on.

If you are interested in the Roman empire, and the concurrent histories of the other civilizations surrounding it during that time period, you will like this book.  It is not as lighthearted as the Medieval Lives book;  the two authors have a bone to pick, with Rome and its culture and civilization, and with the Church as well.  So it’s tone in spite of the occasional humorous line, is more somber, and the humorous parts tend to be more along the line of sarcasm, because it is hard to be blithesome about blood, gore, fighting, destroying entire civilizations, obliterating entire cultures, slashing and burning, and taking people to use them as slaves.

Sigh. Stay calm and solder on.

Carved sarcophagus depicting a battle between Romans and Barbarians, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome,

Carved sarcophagus depicting a battle between Romans and Barbarians, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome,




LIFE BELOW STAIRS by Alison Maloney

life below stairsI like reading about the downstairs folk, and have ever since Upstairs Downstairs was popular on TV.  But I never really gave much thought to the lives of those working downstairs.  Probably because I always aspired to an Upstairs life.  Yeah, like that’ll ever happen.

One of the nice fiction series on this theme was The Swallowcliffe Hall Trilogy, which seemed to rely heavily on fact and truth and not so much on the misty glorification of the servant class and their lovely lives that weren’t all that lovely.

Life Below Stairs is a factual compilation of the way of life for servants in the Edwardian age.   We learn that just one hundred years ago, service was the largest form of employment in the UK.

With millions of families living in stifling poverty in the Edwardian era, going into service was a sought-after alternative to near starvation, but it was no easy option.  From scullery maid to housekeeper and butler, the domestic servant was at the beck and call of their master and mistress every hour of the day.  Up with the lark and toiling well into the night, they were rewarded with meagre wages and sparse, comfort-free accommodation in the attic or basement.   While their employers dined on nine-course meals, costing up to six times a maid’s annual wage, employees were treated to the leftover cold cuts in the basement kitchen.

But the First World War was the end of what we might think of as the golden age of domestic service, as the men of the servant class went into the military, and the women left service to take up the much better paying jobs left behind by the men gone to war.

The book uses scraps of memoirs and diaries of servants of the time, and books written after their life in service had ended, for its wonderful detailed look at this institution, now nostalgia-filled and even glorified.  Well, yeah.  Wouldn’t you want a house full of servants to do your every bidding?  Yeah, me, too.

It is interesting to discover that Mrs Beeton, she of of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, written in 1861, in advising young people on seeking domestic employment in foreign parts, advises they go to Australia, because in America, service was looked down upon as a career.

Oooohkay, that’s why I couldn’t have a house filled with cheap servants.

Really nice book for you history buffs.



TERRY JONES’ MEDIEVAL LIVES by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

medieval-lives-pb-visual-7lI like reading about various periods of history, and the medieval period is one of my favorites.  But, you have to admit that a lot of what is written is …how shall I say this …. while interesting, not always entertaining.  I have read monographs, thesis papers, published books, both recent and pretty darn old — moldy and dusty.  Well, they would be moldy and dusty if I were reading the actual book, but electrons don’t make you sneeze, so chalk another one up for e-readers.

Gotta tell ya, this book has got to be my favorite so far.  It is somewhat along the lines of Misconceptions About the Middle Ages,  in that it talks about our erroneous ideas of what life was actually like in medieval times.  Misconceptions considers the middle ages to be from 500 AD to 1500 AD, whereas Medieval Lives  likes to think of it as being from 1066 (the Norman invasion, doncha know) to 1485 when Henry Tudor took the reins. Whatever.  I am up for any interpretation.

 The Renaissance invented the Middle Ages in order to define itself; the Enlightenment perpetuated them in order to admire itself; and the Romantics revived them in order to escape from themselves.  In their widest ramifications ‘the Middle Ages’ thus constitute one of the most prevalent cultural myths of the modern world.

We learn all kinds of nifty facts, such as a ‘village’ was where the lord of the manor kept his villeins – men who were bound either to the land itself or to his personal service, and who lived with their wives and children in wretched cottage hovels.

We learn that literary culture arose out of the tradition of jongleurs, the troubadors and traveling poets.  Remember, there was no TV so folks had to get their entertainment somewhere.

We learn more about the horrific eradication of the various religious groups and ethnic groups.  Honest to pete, we are a savage species with only a thin veneer of what we call civilization.

The Albigensian Crusade was truly genocidal in intent, and it has been estimated a million people were slaughtered.

All in the name of God.

I learned that ‘forest’ was a technical term in the Middles Ages and stood for something that was far from idyllic.

One of William’s first acts as conqueror of England was to create ‘the New Forest.’  This didn’t mean he planted a lot of nice trees so people could enjoy a picnic in the shade.  What he was doing was ear-marking a vast tract of land as his own personal hunting ground.  This is what the Norman word ‘forest’ meant.  Where there were trees or not wasn’t really the point.  The ‘forest’ was wherever ‘Forest Law’ applied, and ‘Forest Law’ was not something anyone wanted to live under.

Towns and villages could be, and were, destroyed, and every animal and tree became royal property.  The forest was administered by royal officials with draconian powers, who replaced the community as denouncers before the court.

Give a whole new meaning to ‘a walk in the woods’, doesn’t it.

We learn about the Church:

But the men who then ran the Church were not theologians.  The most powerful bishops and archbishops were career politicians, with little or no theological training.  For them, the Church was a political and economic power base.

Did you know that Isaac Newton was also actually an alchemist, and that by far the greater part of his writings was devoted to alchemy and interpreting the Book of Revelation?  Yeah, me, neither.

There is just so much in this book, about knights and chivalry, and who was and wasn’t a good king, (“The Good King/Bad King stories are the propaganda of their successors.  And even the question of who was and was not a king of England was decided after the men themselves were dead — by the chroniclers.  Propaganda, thy name is History.”).

The emphasis is on that period in England, with only brief references to the time in Europe and other countries.  It is not a comprehensive world overview by any means, but, so what.  I loved it.

Terry Jones is best known from his stint with Monty Python, but he is a comedian, screen writer, poet, musician, director, and historian.  Well, no wonder the book is so readable.  ‘Real’ historians, you know, those with degrees and such, write for the most part for other historians and academics.  Jones (and his writing partner Alan Ereira) write for us unwashed masses, so it is all so much more entertaining.

If you like history, read this.  You will love it.  If you like in particular the medieval period, read this, you will love it.  If you simply want to disabuse yourself of some erroneous ideas, read this, it will help with that.



TombsBarbara Mertz is an Egyptologist. A PhD, in fact.   She is also Elizabeth Peters, who wrote the Amelia Peabody mystery series, plus some other books, and she is also Barbara Michaels and wrote a bunch of books under that name.

So it was with great anticipation that I opened her book on the history of Egypt, written in the 60s and never out of print since.

But, alas, disappointment was to be my lot.  Boring.  Linear.  Dreadfully unexciting.  All those pharaohs and dynasties and kingdoms.  Did I mention boring?  One began hoping for an unused pyramid in which to start one’s own journey into the next world. Soon.

If you want to learn something about ancient Egypt and be entertained in the bargain, try Apprenticed to Anubis, which is fiction, yes, a mystery, but just filled with nifty ancient hieroglyphEgyptian details.  Way more fun.