Monthly Archives: April 2014

Ben Franklin may have discovered electricity – but it is the man who invented the meter who made the money.

Children of light : how electricity changed Britain forever Gavin Weightman London : Atlantic, 2011 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xxii, 282 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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In the early 1870s a night-time view over Britain would have revealed towns lit by the warm glow of gas and oil lamps and a much darker countryside, the only light emanating from the fiery sparks of late running steam trains. However, by the end of this same decade that Victorian Britons would experience a new brilliance in their streets, town halls and other public places. Electricity had come to town.

In Children of Light, Gavin Weightman brings to life not just the most celebrated electrical pioneers, such as Thomas Edison, but also the men such as Rookes Crompton who lit Henley Regatta in 1879; Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, a direct descendant of one of the Venetian Doges, who built Britain’s first major power station on the Thames at Deptford; and Anglo-Irish aristocrat, Charles Parsons inventor of the steam turbine, which revolutionised the generating of electricity.

Children of Light takes in the electrification of the tramways and the London Underground, the transformation of the home with ‘labour saving’ devices, the vital modernising of industry during two world wars, and the battles between environmentalists and the promoters of electric power, which began in earnest when the first pylons went up. As Children of Light shows, the electric revolution brought  luxury that would have astonished the Victorians, but at a price  still having being paid.

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They that die by famine die by inches… Matthew Henry

Mao’s great famine : the history of China’s most devastating catastrophe, 1958-1962 Frank Dikotter New York : Walker & Co., 2010 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xxi, 420 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., map ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Distribution of rice during time of famine in the Kiangsu Province or Yunnan Province in China

Distribution of rice during time of famine in the Kiangsu Province or Yunnan Province in China

Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up to and overtake Britain in less than 15 years The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives.

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So opens Frank Dikötter’s riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that “fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era.”

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Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world’s superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It became the site not only of “one of the most deadly mass killings of human history,”at least 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death – but also of “the greatest demolition of real estate in human history,” as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble. The experiment was a catastrophe for the natural world as well, as the land was savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments.

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In a powerful meshing of exhaustive research in Chinese archives and narrative drive, Dikötter for the first time links up what happened in the corridors of power – the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders – with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, giving voice to the dead and disenfranchised. His magisterial account recasts the history of the People’s Republic of China.

A man with a shovel burying a child in a shallow grave in a rural area in the Kiangsu Province or Yunnan Province in China

A man with a shovel burying a child in a shallow grave in a rural area in the Kiangsu Province or Yunnan Province in China

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Apes are apes, though clothed in scarlet… Ben Jonson

1603 : the death of Queen Elizabeth, the return of the Black Plague, the rise of Shakespeare, piracy, witchcraft, & the birth of the Stuart era Christopher Lee New York : St. Martin’s Press, 2004 Hardcover. Originally published: London : Review, 2003. 1st U.S. ed. and printing. xi, 368 p., [8] leaves of plates, : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

1603 was the year that Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors, died. Her cousin, Robert Carey, immediately rode like a demon to Scotland to take the news to James VI. The cataclysmic time of the Stuarts had come and the son of Mary Queen of Scots left Edinburgh for London to claim his throne as James I of England.

Diaries and notes written in 1603 describe how a resurgence of the plague killed nearly 40,000 people. Priests blamed the sins of the people for the pestilence, witches were strangled and burned and plotters strung up on gate tops. But not all was gloom and violence. From a ship’s log we learn of the first precious cargoes of pepper arriving from the East Indies after the establishment of a new spice route Sharkespeare was finishing Othello and Ben Jonson wrote furiously to please a nation thirsting for entertainment.

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I never weary of great churches. It is my favorite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral… Robert Louis Stevenson

The secret lives of buildings : from the ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in thirteen stories Edward Hollis New York : Metropolitan Books, 2009 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. x, 338 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [315]-322) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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A strikingly original, beautifully narrated history of Western architecture and the cultural transformations that it represents. Concrete, marble, steel, brick: little else made by human hands seems as stable, as immutable, as a building. Yet the life of any structure is neither fixed nor timeless. Outliving their original contexts and purposes, buildings are forced to adapt to each succeeding age. To survive, they must become shape-shifters.

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In an inspired refashioning of architectural history, Edward Hollis recounts more than a dozen stories of such metamorphosis, highlighting the way in which even the most familiar structures all change over time into “something rich and strange.” The Parthenon, that epitome of a ruined temple, was for centuries a working church and then a mosque; the cathedral of Notre Dame was “restored” to a design that none of its original makers would have recognized. Remains of the Berlin Wall, meanwhile, which was once gleefully smashed and bulldozed, are now treated as precious relics.

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Altered layer by layer with each generation, buildings become eloquent chroniclers of the civilizations they’ve witnessed. Their stories, as beguiling and captivating as folktales, span the gulf of history.

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One ship drives east and other drives west by the same winds that blow. It’s the set of the sails and not the gales that determines the way they go… Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Burned Bridge : how East and West Germans made the Iron Curtain Edith Sheffer ; foreword by Peter Schneider New York : Oxford University Press, c 2011 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xvii, 357 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 325-342) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 shocked the world. Ever since, the image of this impenetrable barrier between East and West, imposed by communism, has been a central symbol of the Cold War.

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Based on vast research in untapped archival, oral, and private sources, Burned Bridge reveals not the hidden origins of the Iron Curtain, but an example of how the West had to protect itself from the East. Historian Edith Sheffer’s  account focuses on Burned Bridge – the intersection between two sister cities, Sonneberg and Neustadt bei Coburg, Germany’s largest divided population outside Berlin.

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Sheffer demonstrates that as Soviet and American forces occupied each city after the Second World War, townspeople who historically had much in common quickly formed opposing interests and identities. The border walled off irreconcilable realities: the differences of freedom and captivity, rich and poor, peace and bloodshed, and past and present. The differences between the lawlessness of a closed society stifled by regulation – and the crimes committed to circumvent that regulation – and a free society.

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Sheffer describes how smuggling, kidnapping,  and killing in the early postwar years led citizens to demand greater border control on both sides – long before East Germany fortified its 1,393 kilometer border with West Germany turning itself in to another Soviet gulag. It was in fact the American military that built the first barriers at Burned Bridge, which preceded East Germany’s borderland crackdown by many years. Indeed, Sheffer shows that the physical border between East and West was not simply imposed by Cold War superpowers, but was in some part an improvised outgrowth of an anxious postwar society. What seems to be missing is the analytical insight that smuggling – and the acts of lawlessness that it engenders – is a response to both military occupation and a closed society both of which describe East Germany from 1945 until 1989. What is clearly here is an attempt to conflate the protection of the West with the enslavement of the East – something that requires a great deal of equivocation.

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Ultimately, the defensive measures gave a public excuse to one of the most horrible prison barriers in history. East and West Germans became part of, and helped perpetuate, the barriers that divided them. From the end of World War II through two decades of reunification, Sheffer traces divisions at Burned Bridge, presenting a stunning portrait of the Cold War – if an inaccurate and incomplete one.

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