Category Archives: History

The Dressmakers of Auschwitz – Lucy Adlington

The Dressmakers of Auschwitz – Lucy Adlington

I attended a (virtual) talk by Lucy Adlington – it was organised by Selvedge magazine. After that, I was keen to read this book. I found a copy in Busselton (in the local Dymocks). It did take me a while to get to it.

Here’s the blurb …

A powerful chronicle of the women who used their sewing skills to survive the Holocaust, stitching beautiful clothes at an extraordinary fashion workshop created within one of the most notorious WWII death camps. 

At the height of the Holocaust twenty-five young inmates of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp—mainly Jewish women and girls—were selected to design, cut, and sew beautiful fashions for elite Nazi women in a dedicated salon. It was work that they hoped would spare them from the gas chambers. 

This fashion workshop—called the Upper Tailoring Studio—was established by Hedwig Höss, the camp commandant’s wife, and patronized by the wives of SS guards and officers. Here, the dressmakers produced high-quality garments for SS social functions in Auschwitz, and for ladies from Nazi Berlin’s upper crust. 

Drawing on diverse sources—including interviews with the last surviving seamstress—The Dressmakers of Auschwitz follows the fates of these brave women. Their bonds of family and friendship not only helped them endure persecution, but also to play their part in camp resistance. Weaving the dressmakers’ remarkable experiences within the context of Nazi policies for plunder and exploitation, historian Lucy Adlington exposes the greed, cruelty, and hypocrisy of the Third Reich and offers a fresh look at a little-known chapter of World War II and the Holocaust.

This is an extraordinary story that needs to be told and remembered. Not easy reading, I am not sure how anyone survived it and went on to live productive lives. And their treatment directly after the war was also heart-breaking.

It is well-written and researched, and with the death of the last survivor in 2021, we need books like this to remind us of the past.

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Filed under 4, History, Non-Fiction, Paper

Wifedom – Anna Funder

Wifedom – Anne Funder

This was a Christmas present. Given to me by a friend who wanted to discuss it (what a good way to create a little book club). There has been a lot of hype about this book, which always makes me trepidatious, but I was very pleasantly surprised. This book lives up to its reputation.

I have read All that I Am, which I enjoyed and I meant to read Stasiland but I haven’t read it (yet).

Here’s the blurb …

This is the story of the marriage behind some of the most famous literary works of the 20th century —and a probing consideration of what it means to be a wife and a writer in the modern world

At the end of summer 2017, Anna Funder found herself at a moment of peak overload. Family obligations and household responsibilities were crushing her soul and taking her away from her writing deadlines. She needed help, and George Orwell came to her rescue.

“I’ve always loved Orwell,” Funder writes, “his self-deprecating humour, his laser vision about how power works, and who it works on.” So after rereading and savoring books Orwell had written, she devoured six major biographies tracing his life and work. But then she read about his forgotten wife, and it was a revelation.

Eileen O’Shaughnessy married Orwell in 1936. O’Shaughnessy was a writer herself, and her literary brilliance not only shaped Orwell’s work, but her practical common sense saved his life. But why and how, Funder wondered, was she written out of their story? Using newly discovered letters from Eileen to her best friend, Funder re-creates the Orwells’ marriage, through the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War in London. As she peeks behind the curtain of Orwell’s private life she is led to question what it takes to be a writer—and what it is to be a wife.

I thought the structure was very interesting. A combination of historical facts and quotes (complete with notes), imaginative non-fiction (is that a thing? Where the author imagines conversations and thoughts within a known historical context?) and personal anecdotes about her life, marriage, domestic duties, etc.

I have read both 1984 and Animal Farm, but I was indifferent to George Orwell, now I think poorly of him.

This book is about speaking truth to power, about how women’s labour is taken for granted in a patriarchal society. And it’s the mental labour as well, what is everyone going to eat for dinner? Who needs to be where and when? Even with the most helpful of husbands it is usually still the wife asking the husband to do domestic chores; pick up the children, cook dinner, buy food etc.

In the Orwell household Eileen not only did all domestic chores, but she was also the main bread-winner (mostly) and she typed and helped edit his work. I don’t know why she stayed, particularly when he openly had affairs (and even implied that she was OK with that).

I think everyone (but definitely men) should read this book.

A review.

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Filed under 5, Biography, Historical Fiction, History, Recommended

Threads of Life – Clare Hunter

Threads of Life – Clare Hunter

This book has been in my pile for quite some time. I have read Embroidering Her Truth, I think this one just got buried under the pile of new books. Eventually I listened to it.

Here’s the blurb …

A globe-spanning history of sewing, embroidery, and the people who have used a needle and thread to make their voices heard 

In 1970s Argentina, mothers marched in headscarves embroidered with the names of their “disappeared” children. In Tudor, England, when Mary, Queen of Scots, was under house arrest, her needlework carried her messages to the outside world. From the political propaganda of the Bayeux Tapestry, World War I soldiers coping with PTSD, and the maps sewn by schoolgirls in the New World, to the AIDS quilt, Hmong story clothes, and pink pussyhats, women and men have used the language of sewing to make their voices heard, even in the most desperate of circumstances. 

Threads of Life is a chronicle of identity, protest, memory, power, and politics told through the stories of needlework. Clare Hunter, master of the craft, threads her own narrative as she takes us over centuries and across continents—from medieval France to contemporary Mexico and the United States, and from a POW camp in Singapore to a family attic in Scotland—to celebrate the age-old, universal, and underexplored beauty and power of sewing. Threads of Life is an evocative and moving book about the need we have to tell our story. 

It is split into 16 chapters (each chapter is the theme by which the needlework is discussed):

  • Unknown
  • Power
  • Fraility
  • Captivity
  • Identity
  • Connection
  • Protect
  • Journey
  • Protest
  • Loss
  • Community
  • Place
  • Value
  • Art
  • Voice

For example, embroidered banners are discussed in the Protest chapter (mining unions, the women’s suffragette movement)

If you are at all interested in social history and/or textiles, then you will find this book fascinating and inspiring. The research is impressive, but not overwhelming. And there are some personal anecdotes as well, which I always enjoy.

A review

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Filed under 4, History, Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction, Recommended

Power and Thrones – Dan Jones

Power and Thrones – Dan Jones

This book has been languishing in my digital pile for quite some time (along with some of his other works, not to mention the novel Essex Dogs). I finally decided I had to read it, and I have a new regime of reading for 30 mins a day.

I really enjoyed it, it’s obviously well-researched, but easy and entertaining to read. I have also read/listened to Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler, so I feel that I am slowly building up an idea of the medieval western world. Now I am quite keen to read Femima by Janina Ramirez to get a feminist persepective on the middle ages, but I have a large number of unread history books in my pile.

Here is the Goodreads description

An epic reappraisal of the medieval world–and the rich and complicated legacy left to us by the rise of the West–from the New York Times bestselling author of The Templars.

When the once-mighty city of Rome was sacked by barbarians in 410 and lay in ruins, it signaled the end of an era–and the beginning of a thousand years of profound transformation. In a gripping narrative bursting with big names–from St Augustine and Attila the Hun to the Prophet Muhammad and Eleanor of Aquitaine–Dan Jones charges through the history of the Middle Ages. Powers and Thrones takes readers on a journey through an emerging Europe, the great capitals of late Antiquity, as well as the influential cities of the Islamic West, and culminates in the first contact between the old and new worlds in the sixteenth century.

The medieval world was forged by the big forces that still occupy us today: climate change, pandemic disease, mass migration, and technological revolutions. This was the time when the great European nationalities were formed; when our basic Western systems of law and governance were codified; when the Christian Churches matured as both powerful institutions and the regulators of Western public morality; and when art, architecture, philosophical inquiry and scientific invention went through periods of massive, revolutionary change. At each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting–or stealing–the most valuable resources, ideas, and people from the rest of the world.

The West was rebuilt on the ruins of an empire and emerged from a state of crisis and collapse to dominate the region and the world. Every sphere of human life and activity was transformed in the thousand years of Powers and Thrones. As we face a critical turning point in our own millennium, the legacy and lessons of how we got here matter more than ever.

A review

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The Land Before Avocado – Richard Glover

The Land Before Avocado – Richard Glover

I received this book as part of a book club christmas exchange, but in the end I ended up listening to it on Borrowbox (Richard Glover is the reader, so I recommend it).

Here’s the blurb …

The new book from the bestselling author of Flesh Wounds. A funny and frank look at the way Australia used to be – and just how far we have come. “It was simpler time”. We had more fun back then”. “Everyone could afford a house”. There’s plenty of nostalgia right now for the Australia of the past, but what was it really like? In The Land Before Avocado, Richard Glover takes a journey to an almost unrecognisable Australia. It’s a vivid portrait of a quite peculiar land: a place that is scary and weird, dangerous and incomprehensible, and, now and then, surprisingly appealing. It’s the Australia of his childhood. The Australia of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Let’s break the news now: they didn’t have avocado. It’s a place of funny clothing and food that was appalling, but amusingly so. It also the land of staggeringly awful attitudes – often enshrined in law – towards anybody who didn’t fit in. The Land Before Avocado will make you laugh and cry, be angry and inspired. And leave you wondering how bizarre things were, not so long ago. Most of all it will make you realise how far we’ve come – and how much further we can go.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Australia and I remember much of what he talks about. What I remember distinctly is how mean adults were to children – including parents and grand parents (and no one ever believed the child). Adults felt they could say (and possibly do) anything to children. I remember my neighbour always commenting on my weight. My mother trained my budgie to say ‘[my name] is a nuisance’. I have never thought it was better in the past. This book is both hilarious and sobering; no avocado or alfresco tables, the road toll and treatment of women and children (well anyone that wasn’t a white man).

A review

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1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – James Shapiro

1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – James Shapiro

I first heard about this book from the Baillie-Gifford Prize podcast (The Read Smart podcast). I found a copy at the library.

Here’s the blurb …

599 was an epochal year for Shakespeare and England

Shakespeare wrote four of his most famous plays: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and, most remarkably, Hamlet; Elizabethans sent off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, weathered an Armada threat from Spain, gambled on a fledgling East India Company, and waited to see who would succeed their aging and childless queen.

James Shapiro illuminates both Shakespeare’s staggering achievement and what Elizabethans experienced in the course of 1599, bringing together the news and the intrigue of the times with a wonderful evocation of how Shakespeare worked as an actor, businessman, and playwright. The result is an exceptionally immediate and gripping account of an inspiring moment in history.

This was fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the sections where Shapiro put the plays into historical context. It was very easy to read, Shapiro wears his wealth of knowledge lightly.

A review

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Filed under 4, Biography, History, Recommended, Serious

Embroidering Her Truth – Clare Hunter

Embroidering Her Truth – Clare Hunter

I have Clare’s earlier book Threads of Life and I have heard her speak at some events (Selvedge and Royal School of Needlework). I find her and her research fascinating.

Here’s the blurb …

An alternative biography of Mary, Queen of Scots through the textiles of her life from the author of Sunday Times bestseller Threads of Life

I felt that Mary was there, pulling at my sleeve, willing me to appreciate the artistry, wanting me to understand the dazzle of the material world that shaped her.

At her execution Mary, Queen of Scots wore red. Widely known as the colour of strength and passion, it was in fact worn by Mary as the Catholic symbol of martyrdom.

In sixteenth-century Europe women’s voices were suppressed and silenced. Even for a queen like Mary, her prime duty was to bear sons. In an age when textiles expressed power, Mary exploited them to emphasise her female agency. From her lavishly embroidered gowns as the prospective wife of the French Dauphin to the fashion dolls she used to encourage a Marian style at the Scottish court and the subversive messages she embroidered in captivity for her supporters, Mary used textiles to advance her political agenda, affirm her royal lineage and tell her own story.

In this eloquent cultural biography, Clare Hunter exquisitely blends history, politics and memoir to tell the story of a queen in her own voice.

I really enjoyed reading this, hearing about all of the sumptuous fabrics and the embroidery. And the symbolism of the embroidery, the cat and the mouse, etc. I also liked the parts about Clare’s own textile practice and her trips to various Marian locations. If you like history, women’s history, and textiles, then I think you will love this book.

I would have liked the book to have pictures/images, but perhaps that would have made it unaffordable.

A review.

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Ghost Empire – Richard Fidler

Ghost Empire – Richard Fidler

I bought this book solely for the cover and then ended up listening to it on Audible!

Here’s the blurb …

GHOST EMPIRE is a rare treasure – an utterly captivating blend of the historical and the contemporary, realised by a master storyteller.
In 2014, Richard Fidler and his son Joe made a journey to Istanbul. Fired by Richard’s passion for the rich history of the dazzling Byzantine Empire – centred around the legendary Constantinople – we are swept into some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilizations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. Turbulent stories from the past are brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son.

GHOST EMPIRE is a revelation: a beautifully written ode to a lost civilization, and a warmly observed father-son adventure far from home

This book is part memoir, history and travel journal. It has a lovely story-telling feel to it – made all the better by Richard Fidler reading the audio version. I listened to it while running, gardening, knitting and cleaning – I grabbed any opportunity to listen (in fact my house is cleaner than normal because I manufactured tasks so I could listen).

A review here and this is Richard Fidler’s web page.

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Filed under History, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Recommended

Heart: A History – Sandeep Jauhar

Heart A History – Sandeep Jauhar

A friend lent me this book said I would like it, but I wasn’t convinced. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I did like it – very much (apart from some of the experiments – sharing a vascular system with a dog?) and I learnt interesting things.

Here’s the blurb …


The spark of life, fount of emotion, house of the soul – the heart lies at the centre of every facet of our existence. It’s so bound up in our deepest feelings that it can even suffer such distress from emotional trauma as to physically change shape.

Practising cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar beautifully weaves his own experiences with the defining discoveries of the past to tell the story of our most vital organ. We see Daniel Hale Williams perform the first open heart surgery and Wilson Greatbatch invent the pacemaker – by accident. Amid gripping scenes from the operating theatre, Jauhar tells the moving tale of his family’s own history of heart problems and, looking to the future, he outlines why the way we choose to live will be more important than any device we invent.

Definitely worth reading if you like social history and have a bit of an interest in science.

Another review and another.

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The Queen’s Embroiderer – Joan DeJean

The Queen’s Embroiderer – Joan DeJean

I saw this in Dymocks and bought it based on the title (the cover is good too).

Here is the blurb …


From the author of How Paris Became Paris, a sweeping history of high finance, the origins of high fashion, and a pair of star-crossed lovers in 18th-century France.

Paris, 1719. The stock market is surging and the world’s first millionaires are buying everything in sight. Against this backdrop, two families, the Magoulets and the Chevrots, rose to prominence only to plummet in the first stock market crash. One family built its name on the burgeoning financial industry, the other as master embroiderers for Queen Marie-Therese and her husband, King Louis XIV. Both patriarchs were ruthless money-mongers, determined to strike it rich by arranging marriages for their children.

But in a Shakespearean twist, two of their children fell in love. To remain together, Louise Magoulet and Louis Chevrot fought their fathers’ rage and abuse. A real-life heroine, Louise took on Magoulet, Chevrot, the police, an army regiment, and the French Indies Company to stay with the man she loved.

Following these families from 1600 until the Revolution of 1789, Joan DeJean recreates the larger-than-life personalities of Versailles, where displaying wealth was a power game; the sordid cells of the Bastille; the Louisiana territory, where Frenchwomen were forcibly sent to marry colonists; and the legendary “Wall Street of Paris,” Rue Quincampoix, a world of high finance uncannily similar to what we know now. The Queen’s Embroiderer is both a star-crossed love story in the most beautiful city in the world and a cautionary tale of greed and the dangerous dream of windfall profits. And every bit of it is true

I thought it would be about embroidery and embroiderers (probably should have read the blurb). I expected sumptuous materials and social detail about the lives of embroiderers. I did not get what I expected – it is about the machinations of the Chevrot and Magoulet families. Having said that, I wasn’t disappointed. It is an incredibly fascinating story with an enormous amount of information life in Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was easy to read and by that I mean despite the obvious historical research there is no jargon and it has a nice narrative flow.

Here’s another review

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