1. The Essence of Style by Joan DeJean (Free Press, 2005)
The blurb on the front cover says: "How the French invented high fashion, fine food, chic cafes, style, sophistication, and glamour." Basically, Louis XIV realised he wasn't going to win in the world quantity stakes so he shifted the mindset of the French to value lesser amounts of quality instead. It was pure genius and the reason people are willing to pay small fortunes for what are perceived to be 'luxury' items. How he did it is the fascinating story in this book. It makes you understand that so much gold is simply dross and at the same time, it makes you want to be part of that quality over quantity mindset.
2. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (Black Swan, 1995)
One of Bryson's series of travel books from around the world but this one I found particularly hilarious, recognising so much of the peculiarities he depicts about Britain. One of my favourite observations is that the British are endearingly satisfied with with small pleasures. They are delighted if the sponge cake has currants in it and, when a cup of tea was served at 9 pm in the guest house, he had never seen a group of people get so genuinely excited over a hot beverage. Another observation that I only saw after Bryson had pointed it out is the gender differences at the supermarket express checkout. You only have a small number of items so the men tot up the payment and have it ready to hand over. The women seem surprised by the amount due and only then start searching for their purse in their bag, as if they didn't know that they would have to pay. And don't get me started on the uncoordinated country railways where each train would arrive 20 minutes after the connecting train, on a once a day schedule, had left. There's a lot in this book that perhaps died out with the last century but that just makes it all the more worth reading.
3. The Victorians by A.N. Wilson (Arrow, 2002)
We have a love-hate relationship with the Victorians. On the one hand they personify family values and good behaviour, while on the other hand they conjure up horrific scenes of the work houses, squalor, quack surgery, Oliver Twist type orphans living on the streets and cruel governesses like Miss Minchin in A Little Princess. It was the age of the British Empire - once a great source of pride and now never mentioned because of the shame of colonisation. It was the era in which the biggest changes in in lifestyle occurred due to the agricultural and industrial revolutions. It was when Britain stopped being a nation of farmers and became a nation of shopkeepers. And factory workers. It was the beginning of the end of the aristocrat-servant relationship. So much history and change within one century.
4. The Pity of It All by Amos Elon (Picador, 2002)
Disclaimer: I used to do pilates with Amos Elon's wife but this in no way influenced my opinion of this book. ;~) Joking aside and with all the furore about the rise of anti-semitism in Europe, this book is extremely topical. The book shows how "a persecuted clan of cattle dealers and wandering peddlers was transformed into a stunningly successful community of writers, philosophers, scientists, tycoons and activists." The Jews of Germany were more German than the Germans. They were more patriotic and influential than any other minority. And then this small minority came to be seen as a "deadly threat to German national integrity." The pity of it all is that they were never accepted even in their most influential heyday. And, as we know, they never saw it coming until it was too late.
5. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (Pantheon 2004)
This is a group entry with The Architecture of Happiness and The Philosophy of Travel (not pictured). Status Anxiety explains what makes us doubt ourselves and our lives. De Botton observes that you are not likely to be jealous of, for examples, Kate Middleton or Meryl Streep because their worlds are far removed from our own. However, the girl you sat next to in primary school and who now owns a property empire can take up not a small amount of envious obsessing. The reason is, of course, it could have been you. She came from the same place and similar opportunities but she did it while you're still wondering if you can afford a week in a caravan next summer.
The architecture book is about the homes that make us happy and the things we put in them. "It prompts us to think about how we live and how we might change things."
Finally, the problem with travel as a form of escape, is that we take ourselves with us. And that glossy brochure showing palm trees on a white sandy beach facing an azure sea, doesn't show the building site behind the cameraman, the beggars who accost you every time you leave your hotel, the humid and oppressive heat, the smell of the leaky sewer, and the shear inconvenient shleppiness of getting there in the first place. So there you have it, a taste of three books to make you love your life.
6. Singled Out, How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson (Viking 2007)
Not Pictured as I gave it to my cousin.
The Blurb says it all. "After the First World War a generation of women who believed marriage to be their birthright discovered that there were simply not enough men left to go round. Tracing their fates, Nicholson shows how the single woman of the inter-war years had to depend on herself and, in doing so, helped change society." I remember loads of spinster teachers from my childhood who all lived with lady friends. Many of these women lost their fiances in WWII or perhaps there were also just too few men to go round in 1945. And maybe this book is even more relevant today with the rising number of divorced, never-married and childless women.
7. Outliers: The story of Success by Malcom Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co, 2008)
Not pictured as I gave it to my nephew.
A bit like Freakonomics, this book takes instances of outstanding success and shows how they are as much a mixture of historical background, social, cultural and economic factors, as they are due to individuals with the courage to go for it. For example, Mayor Guliani who came to office in 1994, claims that he vastly reduced crime in NYC. Whist the crime rate did drop dramatically, Gladwell couples this with legalised abortion in the early 1960s. By the time Guliani was in charge of law and order, for the first time in history there were thousands of unwanted young men who had not been born. In another example, the law in Eastern Imperial Russia that forbade Jews from owning land, forced them to become peddlers and tailors. This gave them a economic advantage over the Italian and Irish immigrants arriving in New York and Boston from the mid 1800s, who had largely been farmers. And if you think western airlines are safer than East Asian airlines, it's partly because the international language of aviation is English, but also because of cultures where people defer to their betters in silence and are always polite - we're very low on fuel but we'll wait until you give us permission to land. Oy vey!
You'll notice that the photo includes A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich (Originally published in German, 1936) but I've not actually read it yet so I decided that it would be cheating to write about it. It does appeal to me though and I do fully intend to read it asap.
I loved all these books and I'm not even going to give them away as I want to read them all again.