Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

NY: Liveright, 2015.

Until recently, Beard wasn’t that well-known outside the world of academic classicists, her occasional appearances on BBC notwithstanding. Then this engaging and engrossing volume of her thoughts on the Roman republic and the early empire came out after (literally) fifty years in the making, and everyone’s reading it. She may have done more for popular interest in ancient Rome than any writer since Gibbon.

First, she makes it clear that this is not a complete history of the 1,500 years of Rome’s existence in various forms. She’s interested mostly in the city’s establishment and the slow, nearly mythical formation of the Republic from its period of what were essentially warlords and gangsters. And she ends with Caracalla’s extension of citizenship to all free people within the empire in 212 CE, because after that it was an entirely different game with different rules, and not really “Roman” any more.

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Lord, Walter. The Good Years.

NY: Harper, 1960.

Lord was one of the best popular historians of the mid-20th century, best known for his classic books on the Titanic and Pearl Harbor. His method was always to go to the original sources, especially the people who participated in, or at least witnessed, events. Behind that would be family correspondence, newspaper accounts, and anything else that was “up close and personal.” I got hold of this book my first year in college, shortly after it was published. I was already hooked on social history and I loved it. A half-century later, it well repays rereading.

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Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals.

NY: Baen, 2016.

I discovered the multidimensional Liaden universe more than twenty years ago, of which this volume is (I think) the nineteenth adventure. I’ve read the first dozen or more twice — once as they were published, and again by order of internal chronology (though it isn’t actually that simple). In fact, the action this time takes place at more or less the same time as the story in Dragon Ship and Dragon in Exile (and, apparently, according to the endnotes, in the next volume to come).

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Heinlein, Robert. A. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

NY: Putnam, 1966.

From the late 1950s on, I always read Heinlein’s newest book within months of its publication, and this one was no exception. It got me to thinking for some time afterwards about political systems in general and the requirements of a revolution. And boy, does he have a lot to say.

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Cole, Allan & Chris Bunch. Sten.

NY: Ballantine, 1982.

Neither Cole nor his late writing partner, Chris Bunch, ever really reached the big leagues among science fiction authors — even though they published more than forty novels (and sold more than 150 screenplays) between them — but this book, the first volume in a series of eight, ought to be rediscovered by fans of high-quality space opera. It’s a big canvas with several larger than life characters and the action hardly lets up for a paragraph. Except, perhaps, when the Eternal Emperor is busy in the kitchen or is reconstructing Kentucky moonshine.

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Adams, Samuel & Sarah. The Complete Servant.

London: Knight & Lacey, 1825 (reprinted, 1989).

A number of books were published in the first half of the 19th century in Britain on how to deal with servants. The burgeoning middle class was becoming wealthier and an important part of the servant-employing population, but most of them hadn’t grown up with servants in the house — no more than a generalized maid-of-all-work and perhaps a cook — and they needed guidance.

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Published in: on 24 March 2016 at 7:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves.

NY: Morrow, 2015.

I read a great deal, well more than a hundred books a year, and by a large number of authors. Neal Stephenson, though, is one of a very short list of “automatic” authors for me, and has been since the appearance of Snow Crash in 1992. When I discover he has a new book coming out, I order it. I don’t even bother with reviews. Anything Neal writes, I want to read. And I’ve never been disappointed. It sometimes takes me awhile to figure out where he’s going with a narrative, what exactly it is that he thinks needs saying, but I always get there. And you sometimes have to be patient. The “Baroque Cycle” took me a couple years to work through, in thoughtful bites and chewing slowly. But it’s always worth the effort and the journey. His latest epic, Seveneves, definitely confirms that judgment.

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Roffe, David. Decoding Domesday.

Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2007.

As both an historian and an archivist, I’ve long been fascinated by Domesday Book, the oldest surviving government-produced document in the English-speaking world, ordered by the Conqueror and completed about 1087 — a surprisingly short time. It was part-census, part-inquest, compiled to establish a base for taxation and to record the pre- and post-Conquest control of the land in detail.

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Published in: on 6 January 2016 at 4:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ardman, Harvey. Reunion: What If the Civil War Had Never Happened?

np: Amazon Digital Services, 2014.

I’ve never heard of Ardman but this one came to my notice because I’m a long-time fan of alternate histories. What-if-ing is great intellectual fun — if you do it right and play by the rules. Ardman has written some twenty books, nearly all of them workmanlike nonfiction, and has produced a number of television documentaries (and lots of commercials, apparently), but this appears to be his first attempt at fiction.

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Moran, Joe. Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime.

London: Profile Books, 2007.

Fifty years ago, as an undergrad student picking up some necessary sociology credits, I took a seminar in the “anthropology of everyday life,” which turned out to be a fascinating introduction to ethnography and its methods. As part of this, we were told to record every mundane event and action in which we participated on a given day and then to analyze the results.

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Published in: on 4 October 2015 at 6:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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