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I love history. That’s a rather broad statement to make, consider that there is between 5000 years of written human history and 13 billion years of universal history. And I’m not choosey. I like it all. Though I am particularly drawn to those corners of history that tend to be forgotten, are a little absurd, and don’t fit neatly into textbooks. That is the history I like.

 

Luckily, there are more than a few authors out there who share my love of the strange, almost forgotten, and frankly unbelievable. These are the books I would rather curl up with, rather than another remembrance of Churchill or Caesar. It’s the bits of history that have fallen through the cracks, and deserves to be vacuumed up and recycled. How else will we remember the likes of Mary Patten, who at the age of 19 and pregnant became the first female commander of an American ship. Mary was travelling between New York and San Francisco when the commander, her husband, developed TB and collapsed. Mary took command, fended off a mutiny, taught herself medicine to keep her husband alive, and personally piloted the ship into port. I think if anyone deserves to be remembered, it’s Mary Patten. Also, where’s her movie, eh?

 

It is in the spirit of these lesser known moments of history that my personal bookshelf is cluttered with books like Fox Tossing: And Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games by Edward Brooke-Hitching. This compendium of forgotten “sports” largely played by the Victorians or Edwardians, also by the super rich and clearly bored. The titular Fox Tossing was an event when Victorians would place a fox in the centre of a sheet, and standing in a circle, pull the sheet tight. The fox would be launched high into the air, to the apparent delight of the crowd. If there were rules, or points, or a goal to this, it has been lost, as were most of the foxes who were tossed so maliciously into the air.

 

Other forgotten sports weren’t as cruel as that. Take Aerial Golf, which was just golf, except played via hot air balloon. Hot air balloons play a large role in the forgotten and many would say stupid sports of the uber rich and in-need-of-distraction.

 

Equally rich and occasionally bored were the many Presidents of the United States. And while some of these men were great statesmen, a few were alcoholics, and one got stuck in a bathtub once. Only one book dares pose and then answer the greatest question of all: which could you take in a fight? How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country by Daniel O'Brien is a biographical breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of the 19th and 20th century presidents, and how the average person might fair in a brawl with the Chief Executive. Do not, for instance, take on Andrew Jackson, whose security once had to pull him off a would-be assassin; for fear that Jackson would beat the man to death with his cane. This event happening when Jackson was 68! And 68 in 19th century years!

 

Much more likely to be vanquished was Ulyssess S. Grant. Despite his mythic persona, Gen. Grant (on top of being a resolute alcoholic) was afraid of the sight of blood. So if you can land a punch, he’d probably be on the ropes. Then you can just kick him a bunch, because it’s also important to remember that there is no such thing as a fair fight when fighting the shadows of history.

 

After your victory over the leaders of the free world, it would be appropriate to celebrate. A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization by Robert Evans is the perfect guide to what you should drink or ingest for said celebration. It is also a recipe book for potentially doing physical harm to your friends and loved ones. Robert Evans, a current war correspondent, has a long history with inebriation, and in his history of vice, he walks the reader through the history of man’s attempts to get drunk or stoned at all costs.

 

And because his journalism isn’t theoretical, Evans follows each historical description with a recounting of his attempt to remake the substance in question. From the coffee brewed by strapping the beans to your body and wearing them for weeks while your body heat and sweat ferment them (surprisingly good, according to the poor friends Evans makes test the substances) to the ancient beer recipe he brewed in college and accidently exploded once. If you’ve got ten minutes and want to watch Evans force his friends try some of this stuff (including some unexpectedly powerful hallucinogenic), there is a helpful and hilarious video.

 

Rot-gut drinker and former presidents aren’t the only figures that dot history. Like Mary Patten, there are many thousands of forgotten badasses who marauded, pillaged, or innovated their way through history. And Ben Thompson has been chronicling them for years on his website Badass of the Week. He has also written a series of books starting with Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live. These are not figures who took time and circumstance lying down. These are souls gilded in iron and have insanity pepper hot sauce for blood. People like Khalid ibn al-Walid, a 7th century military commander who helped recapture Mecca and was given the title Sword of God by Muhammad himself.

 

Or Adrian Carton de Wiart, who served in the British Army during the Boer War, World War One and World War Two. Over the course of his career, he lost his left eye, his left hand (removing two fingers himself), was shot down in a plane, escaped from POW camps on multiple occasions, and was also shot through the ear, hip, leg, and ankle. He later wrote "Frankly, I had enjoyed the war," and died in 1963!

 

Many badasses of history straddle the line between real and mythic, and one of my favourite books that examines this line is The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. Mayor examines the history of the various nomadic peoples who lived in the Eurasian Steppe. A peoples who treated men and women as equals, were fearsome fighters and archers on horseback, and whom Bronze Age Greeks viewed as monstrous foreigners. Mayor's thesis is that these historical Steppes tribes, -the Scythians primarily - were the origin of the Greek myths of the Amazons, the all-female barbarians whom Hercules and Theseus fought for Greek honour, and from whom Wonder Woman descends. Mayor’s journey into the lives of these real tribes, who also invented pants incidentally, is a fully realized depiction of a culture just out of frame to our accepted Western version of the Ancient World.

 

Also out of frame of our Western perspective are the ancient lost civilizations of Central and South America. A duo of books, Lost City of Z by David Grann and Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston do not only recount the great adventures of old. While they spin the tales of mutton chopped colonialist attempting to find these lost cities of treasure deep in the untamed jungles, they also see their authors follow in the footsteps of the Victorians. Breath-stalling action and suspense are on every page, enough that Lost City of Z was adapted into a film a couple years ago.

 

These are but a few of my favourite books that peak under the rock of history and pay closer attention to what remains in the shadow.

 

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Yours, Fictionally

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