In this ‘Bookshelfie’ blog, we are delighted to feature book recommendations from Mrs Susie Donald, a St Mary’s Calne current parent.
Following a degree in history, I focused on law and subsequently practised as a solicitor, firstly in the City and latterly in industry, specialising in shipping and aviation finance. I have searched the memory banks to come up with five books on a historical theme that have captured my imagination over the years. I hope you enjoy them!
Toby’s Room – Pat Barker
Choosing just one of Barker’s novels was tricky but I eventually settled on this, the second book in Barker’s Life Class trilogy which works just as well as a stand alone novel. I found it to be a fiercely honest exploration of the ways in which different people cope with devastating events. Set in the shadow of the Great War, the novel revolves around Elinor and her reaction to the death of her brother, Toby, on the front-line, which is complicated by a shared experience which continues to haunt her. As with her Regeneration trilogy, Barker seems to weave fact and fiction together effortlessly and does not shy away from striking descriptions of the brutal reality of war. She introduces us to refreshingly flawed characters and considers the effects of human emotions which may not conform to society’s expectations. Pat Barker is a brilliant novelist and for anyone who has not yet had the pleasure, Toby’s Room is a great place to start.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer
I find medieval history fascinating and this book remains one of the most refreshing approaches to the subject I have come across. Built on the premise that the past is something that is happening, rather than something that has happened, it opens a door to an era often perceived as alien and inaccessible. Written in the present tense, and taking a thematic rather than chronological approach, Mortimer draws on sources such as the Paston Letters and Chaucer to transport us to the mindset and everyday experiences of the people of 14th century England. It appeals beyond facts and figures but to our senses and emotions and provides us with a platform with which to empathise with our forebears and understand their choices, beliefs and reactions. Described by one reviewer as ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail with footnotes‘ it is lovingly researched and retains its historical integrity whilst being tremendous fun.
The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
An all-time favourite, which I could read again and again without it losing any of its appeal. It is a sublime and compelling novel set in the midst of the political upheaval of Italian Reunification and Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily in 1860. It charts the decline and fall of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, who to my mind is the perfect personification of a lost world, the passing of time and the disintegration of the old order. It is both a loving portrait of a vanishing society and a critique of its limitations and small-mindedness. Every word appears to have been chosen with meticulous care and it is packed full of sumptuous descriptions of the Sicilian landscape. I found myself rereading passages just to fully absorb the impact of the language employed. It also contains one of the most perfect melancholy endings of any book I have read; in essence it is simply a beautiful piece of literature.
The Warrior Queens – Antonia Fraser
Born out of the author’s love for the semi-legendary figure of Boudica, this book captured my imagination as a teenager for being the first real nod to a depth of powerful and remarkable female historical figures that I had previously not encountered. It examines the careers of exceptional female leaders who have led armies and empires and inspired the awe and veneration of their people. It consists of a series of biographies, from Zenobia to Margaret Thatcher, all cleverly linked to the themes of Boudica’s patriotism and femininity. It successfully dispels the mythology which often surrounds female rulers and works equally well as a book you can dip into from time to time to access and contemplate figures from world history. I would recommend it to all aspiring female leaders out there!
I, Claudius – Robert Graves
This is a superb account of the survival and accidental rise to power of an outsider. Set amongst the political machinations of the early days of Imperial Rome, it is a sophisticated, and brilliantly imagined, account of Roman history. It has plots, counterplots, vast spectacles and reveals the cruelty, depravity, decadence and splendour of the Roman world. Written as an autobiography, Graves charts the life of the vastly underestimated Claudius: generally despised as a crippled stammerer and regarded as weak and idiotic he is in fact a keen observer of the world around him. This is a novel where some of the most astonishing characters in world history come alive to brilliant effect. The depraved Caligula, the machiavellian Livia and the mad Nero to name but a few. The number of family members and names can be quite confusing on first reading but persevere, it is worth it!
Susie Donald – Current Parent