1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illies

1913 The Year Before the Storm

Rating: 1 Star ★☆☆☆☆

This is the month when Hitler and Stalin meet while strolling in the Castle Park at Schönbrunn, Thomas Mann nearly gets outed and Franz Kafka nearly goes mad with love.

About

The stuffy conventions of the nineteenth century are receding into the past, and 1913 heralds a new age of unlimited possibility. Kafka falls in love; Louis Armstrong learns to play the trumpet; a young seamstress called Coco Chanel opens her first boutique; Charlie Chaplin signs his first movie contract; and new drugs like cocaine usher in an age of decadence.

Yet everywhere there is the premonition of ruin – the number 13 is omnipresent, and in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Trieste, artists take the omen and act as if there were no tomorrow, their brief coincidences of existence telling of a darker future. In a Munich hotel lobby, Rilke and Freud discuss beauty and transience; Proust sets out in search of lost time; and while Stravinsky celebrates the Rite of Spring with industrial cacophony, in Munich an Austrian postcard painter by the name of Adolf Hitler sells his conventional cityscapes.

Told with Illies’s characteristic mixture of poignant evocation and laconic irony, 1913 is the story of the year that shaped the last century.

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Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

Nine Lives William Dalrymple

Rating: 4 Stars ★★★★☆

Twi hills of blackly gleaming granite, smooth as glass, rise from a thickly wooded landscape of banana plantations and jagged palmyra palms.

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A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve herself to death.

Nine people, nine lives; each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story. William Dalrymple delves deep into the heart of a nation torn between the relentless onslaught of modernity and the ancient traditions that endure to this day.

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Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodríguez McRobbie

Princesses Behaving Badly Real Stories from History without the Fairytale endings

Rating: 5 Stars ★★★★★

Princess Alfhild had a choice to make.

About

You think you know her story. You’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you’ve watched the Disney cartoons, you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But the lives of real princesses couldn’t be more different. Sure, many were graceful and benevolent leaders—but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power, and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets.

Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe was a Nazi spy. Empress Elizabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire slept wearing a mask of raw veal. Princess Olga of Kiev murdered thousands of men, and Princess Rani Lakshmibai waged war on the battlefield, charging into combat with her toddler son strapped to her back. Princesses Behaving Badly offers minibiographies of all these princesses and dozens more.

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The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale

The Wicked Boy Kate Summerscale

Rating: 3 Stars ★★★☆☆

In June 1930 an eleven-year-old boy walked four miles along a dirt track in New South Wales, south-eastern Australia, to report a crime.

About

Early in the morning of Monday 8 July 1895, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie set out from their small, yellow-brick terraced house in East London to watch a cricket match at Lord’s. Their father had gone to sea the previous Friday, the boys told their neighbours, and their mother was visiting her family in Liverpool. Over the next ten days Robert and Nattie spent extravagantly, pawning their parents’ valuables to fund trips to the theatre and the seaside. But as the sun beat down on the Coombes house, a strange smell began to emanate from the building.

When the police were finally called to investigate, the discovery they made sent the press into a frenzy of horror and alarm, and Robert and Nattie were swept up in a criminal trial that echoed the outrageous plots of the ‘penny dreadful’ novels that Robert loved to read.

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The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave

The Soong Dynasty Seagrave

Rating: 3 Stars ★★★☆☆

Shanghai no longer smells like the Mysterious East.

About

Descendants of a Chinese runaway who grew up in America under the protection of the Methodist church and who returned to his homeland to make a fortune selling Western bibles, the Soong family became the principal rulers of China during the first half of the 20th century and won the support of the American government and press for many decades.

Sterling Seagrave describes for the first time the intricate and fascinating rise to power of Charlie Soong and his children: daughters Ai-ling, who married one of China’s richest men, H.H. Kung; Ching-ling, who married Sun Yat-sen, leader of China’s republican revolution; May-ling, who married Chiang Kai-shek, the autocratic ruler of Nationalist China whose ties to the Shanghai underworld the author has documented; and son T.V. Soong, who at various times served as Chiang’s economic minister, foreign minister and premier. How all of the Soongs except Ching-ling amassed enormous wealth while millions of Chinese starved or were killed in the long fight against Japan and the equally bitter struggle with Mao are just some of the revelations in this explosive book.

 

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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

packing-for-mars-roach

Rating: 4 Stars ★★★★☆

To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with.

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Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour?

To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations. As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

wild-cheryl-strayed

Rating: 3 Stars ★★★☆☆

The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California.

About

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.

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