I love reading books about history and culture.

Thanks to the wonderfully talented photographer, Grant Harvey, for the beautiful images created for this post. Thanks also to Quintessential duckeggBLUE for the loan of the fabulous timber printers’ letters.

The Book of Tea - portrait‘The Book of Tea’ by Alain Stella, Gilles Brochard and Catherine Donzel (Flammarion; Rizzoli) I bought this beautifully produced large-format book whilst shopping in T2. From the endpapers to the selections of dramatically-lit still lives of tea-related items to photos, paintings and the overall layout, this book is a stunning celebration of tea in its myriad of forms. Divided into chapters written by each of the authors, we travel to the major tea gardens (plantations) around the world and read about the different tea plants, harvesting, production and therefore taste of each region and it’s tea. I was fascinated to read how important tea has become to many cultures; the original teas of China, the Japanese tea ceremony, the offering of tea as a sign of hospitality and the basic quenching of thirst to many cultures and the British love of tea and teatime as well as the way tea has been intertwined into history such as the Boston Tea Party (which was no party!). Pages are peppered with exerts from novels such as ‘Peter Pan’, Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, Edith Wharton, Simone de Beauvoir and gorgeous paintings, photos all involving tea and images of architecture such as Mackintosh’s beautiful Tea Rooms in Glasgow and the Japanese tea houses. The benefit of each tea; green, black and white, the different ways of making tea, equipment and the debate of tea or milk in first were discussed in a great conversational style. A listing of tea blends, recipes and tearooms around the world complete a fascinating reference. Not being a coffee-drinker, I enjoy fruity and also florally scented teas and this book helped me analyse what I liked most about teas and how to increase my repertoire of teas to try and enjoy.

Brief Encounters - portrait‘Brief Encounters; Literary Travellers in Australia 1836 – 1939’ by Susannah Fullerton (Picador; Pan Macmillan) I loved this book about eleven renown authors who visited Australia between 1836 – 1939 and what they thought of it. Featuring Charles Darwin, Anthony Trollope, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Jack London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, D.H. Lawrence and H.G. Wells, we get a great sense of what each of these authors did in Australia, their thoughts about their visit and the characters and landscape features that were inspired by Australia that made their way into their books. This is the book which first peaked my interest in Mark Twain’s sense of humour. He gave fifty talks around Australia and his punch lines were delivered as if there was nothing funny about them at all. In his ‘languid monotone’, he was a wonderful storyteller; ‘I could remember everything, whether it happened or not’ he told the audience who ‘held their sides, in stitches’. Mystified about the system of different rail gauges for different states he quipped ‘Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth’. He’d also been told that in the Queensland heat ‘hens laid fried eggs’. I also loved reading about Agatha Christie’s visit and interest in the Shepparton Fruit Preserving Company (SPC). She apparently ‘ate twenty-three oranges, straight from the tress around her, in one sitting’. “The most delicious things you can imagine”, was her verdict’ and described rosellas and lorikeets in flights as ‘flying jewels’. Fullerton says that ‘if this book encourages you to go and read their [the authors discussed in this book] works, then I’ve achieved my purpose’. She has certainly enthused me, especially to seek out books by Trollope, Kipling and Twain next. Signed copies of this book can be bought directly from the author for $25 each copy, plus postage, by contacting her at: fullerton@bigpond.net.au

Read my interview with Susannah Fullerton here.

Visit Susannah Fullerton’s websites here and here.

Four Sisters - portrait‘Four Sisters; The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses’ by Helen Rappaport (Macmillan; Pan Macmillan) This new release was a great read about the Romanov dynasty. As a teenager, I was fascinated to read about the Romanovs, Russian history and culture and this interest has remained strong for me. Rappaport starts the book by basically saying that we know the tragic ending of this family in 1918, so she won’t go there and will end the book just before and that the various claims as surviving sisters is a lot of nonsense. Having got that out of the way, we enter into a wonderful history and culture of the Romanovs from the romance of Nicholas and Alexandra, to their growing family, their love of Russia and it’s culture and their host of tormenting fears. A glossary of names at the front of the book is a helpful reference. What I loved about this book was that it gave an intimate approach to a family life; what they ate, did, saw through their various diaries, letters, documents, photos and witnesses. It was a respectful view of a loving family who enjoyed enormous privileges and endured torturous situations. We see history through the lives of the four sisters; Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. The sisters are given a voice and we see through their eyes their family situation, friendships, hopes, dreams and trauma of the revolution and its terrible consequences for them. Published almost a century after their deaths, this book was a fascinating and heart-breaking read. I am now keen to read more of this prolific author’s books.

Read my interview with Helen Rappaport here.

Visit Helen Rappaport’s website here.

The Secret Rooms - portrait‘The Secret Rooms; A Castle Filled with Intrigue, a Plotting Duchess and a Mysterious Death’ by Catherine Bailey (Penguin) This book is a perfect example of fact being stranger than fiction. Planning to write a book about the history of the Dukes of Rutland, Bailey arrives at their ancestral home, Belvoir Castle in England and eventually uncovers many surprises; the result is this book. Without giving too much away (because it does read like a mystery story), the outrageously rich 9th Duke of Rutland died in 1940 in his cold, bleak servants’ quarters after months of manic, secret activity. After his death and burial, his son sealed the rooms he was working and died in and they were left sealed for sixty years. Through the subsequent generations Bailey is granted access to these rooms and it’s contents to write the long history of this family of Dukes, but unexpectedly unravels a complex and very surprising story. Illustrated with photos, maps and a family tree (always a welcome inclusion for reference) this was a very moving book. Bailey ends the book so poetically that everyone I have suggested this book to is touched. It really is a most remarkable story.

How Paris Became Paris - portrait‘How Paris Became Paris; the Invention of the Modern City’ by Joan DeJean (Bloomsbury; Allen & Unwin) This brand new book was an eye-opener as to why Paris came to be the city that it is now. DeJean opens by asking ‘What makes a city great?’ Historian Michel Félibien says ‘In 1597 there was nothing splendid about Paris’ and DeJean says ‘at the turn of the seventeenth century wolves roamed freely in the streets of the French capital’ and then that ‘between 1597 and 1700, that urban disaster was rebuilt and transformed’; this book is the story of how that was achieved. Paris became the first city to tear down its fortifications after military victories. Bridges, boulevards, man-made islands and purpose-built public recreational squares, public parks, sidewalks and paved roads defined the city instead of the usual sites; palaces and cathedrals. Paris was designed to hold a visitor’s attention with contemporary residential architecture and infrastructure. It made people want to be out and about and enabled them to do so, thus becoming Europe’s first great walking city. Speculating financiers in Paris meant that the King had access to much more money than his other European rivals. The availability of French products to many countries, yet taxes on all imports created an environment where French products were cherished by people both outside and within France creating a trade imbalance and establishing a strong fashion market. The use of elegant pierre de taille (ashlar or dressed stone cut and finished with square edges and smooth faces) is now synonymous with Parisian architecture. Fashion industries were enhanced by the city where delicate mules (shoes) and fine fashions were able to be worn because of the increasingly common sight of paved streets and places to go and be seen. Map-making and promotion was key to the city’s success; maps listed things people could do and see such as tailors and where to buy the best brie cheese. Books showed Parisians how to enjoy their city, to walk in it and make the most of it; they took possession of it and were proud of it. Here again advertising rather than the public cry of things to be sold established a quiet, refined streetscape whilst spreading the written word far and wide. Paris fostered entertainment such as opera and ballet and enjoyed the first public mail delivery system, earliest public transport and street lighting. A great read about a beautiful city.

Read my interview with Joan DeJean here.

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England - portrait‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England; How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago’ by Roy & Lesley Adkins (Abacus; Little Brown) This book was recommended to me by my friend, Toni, who over the years has suggested books to me that are just wonderful – here is another one of her recommendations! Drawing from a selection of intriguing diaries, letters and documents we read how people lived in England around the time of Jane Austen. The Adkins link this information to the various Austen novels and the book is divided into chapters on Wedding Bells, Breeding, Toddler to Teenage, Home and Heart, Fashions and Filth, Sermons and Superstitions, Wealth and Work, Leisure and Pleasure, On the Move, Dark Deeds, Medicine Men and Last Words. There were many wonderful ‘Ah!’ moments for me reading this book when things were explained that I had always wondered about or were mystified by such as the fact that contemporary fiction referred to London as being ‘up’ (no matter where they were) as if the city was located on a peak, the fact that the season in London coincided with parliamentary sittings which in turn predicted rental prices, the shortage of men due to being away fighting at war, enormous war casualties and apprenticeship contracts, that girls wore whalebone stays from the age of about nine years old, it was not until 1875 that the barbarous practice of employing boys to climb up inside chimneys was banned, in 1801 80-90% of land was owned by the aristocracy or landed gentry who received ever-increasing rents from their farmers and often their other investments, explanations of the Corn Laws and Poor Laws, the origin of the term ‘Luddite’, that turbans became popular for women because Nelson won a battle in Egypt, that lunch hardly existed and the main meal dinner was between 2 – 5pm, that Grand Tours were halted by the wars, so people travelled around England such as the Lake District, the postal franking system and why letters were folded to create the envelope. A range of expressions are explained such as unwanted garments sold as rags (thus the term ‘rag trade’), ‘coals to Newcastle’ meaning a pointless exercise and ‘spinster’ being an unmarried female spinner. A fascinating read and reference about the era.

Read my interview with Lesley Adkins here.

Read my interview with Roy Adkins here.

Visit Roy and Lesley Adkins’ website here and blog here.

Buy a copy of this book here.

On Rue Tatin - partrait‘On Rue Tatin; Living and Cooking in a Small French Town’ by Susan Loomis (Flamingo; Harper Collins Publishers) This is a beautiful story of American cookbook writer and cooking school proprietor, Loomis, and her decision to move to Normandy, France. After training as a chef in Paris, she went to live in Normandy where she fell in love with a 300 year old house on Rue Tatin in the small town of Louviers. She covers wonderful stories of house hunting, the French law, becoming a mother, renovations, neighbourhoods, acclimatizing, acceptance, the schooling system and traditions. Loomis is an obvious lover of food and I found her depictions beautiful; describing the villagers’ skill in displaying food, ‘it may be that they hold a constant competition for the most appetizing window display for they seem to outdo each other’ and her loving anecdotes of the farmers’ market; delightful! We meet memorable personalities as she talks with local shopkeepers, chooses her produce and walks through the markets. The book is sprinkled throughout with over thirty recipes (Audrey’s Yogurt Cake certainly seems one to try!) Loomis’ love of the French culture, food and the light in Normandy is irresistible. It brings to mind my beautiful friend, Jennifer, who has just finished renovating her home in France with her husband who comes from Normandy.

Read my interview with Susan Loomis here.

Visit Susan Loomis’ website here.

The Dress - portrait‘The Dress; 100 Iconic Moments in Fashion’ by Megan Hess (Hardie Grant) I loved Hess’ earlier book ‘Fashion House’ and this one was also a delight to read. Each double page is assigned to a designer or icon and a memorable dress that has captured a moment in history. Hess writes in an engaging personal style, relating when she first saw the dress or what she thinks of it. Each description is then illustrated with one of illustrator Hess’ images in her iconic style. So we are treated to gorgeous dresses by Versace, Armani, Valentino, Prada, Dior, Givenchy, Pucci and the history and importance of each dress. Jacqueline Kennedy wearing the yellow and black dress, Diana Vreeland in red, The Supremes, Elizabeth Taylor wearing her ‘Cleopatra’ costume, Keira Knightley wearing her ‘Anna Karenina’ dress are all discussed and illustrated in a fun, informative and – of course – stunning style. This really is a beautiful book.

Read my interview with Megan Hess here.

Visit Megan Hess’ website here.

Chasing the Rose - portrait‘Chasing the Rose; An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside’ by Andrea di Robilant (Allen & Unwin) This whimsical book is beautifully produced with illustrations by Nina Fuga throughout. In di Robilant’s earlier biography about his great-great-great-great grandmother, he describes a pink rose with a light peach-and-raspberry scent that grew wild on his family’s former country estate in Italy. This description peaked the interest of leading rose experts who wondered excitedly if this rose could be one of the long-lost China varieties. The ensuing research led to this book, thus ‘chasing the rose’. We travel back to the time of Josephine Bonaparte with her love of roses. Fascinatingly, the Empress had a close friendship with di Robilant’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Lucia, and suggested she take botanical classes. We follow Lucia through her classes, access to seeds and appreciation of roses. I loved reading about cuttings, gifts of roses, the travels and transfers of seeds and plants, the gentleman who retired to a place without gardens so he tended other peoples’ gardens, town squares, public roads and graveyards, the man who gave his wife 30 different rose bushes for their thirtieth wedding anniversary which had now gown to 1,485 different species which they tend to without outside help, the story of roses including the odes to Josephine, ‘Empress Josephine’ and ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ and David Austin ‘Constance Spry’. Recently we have added two scented rose plants, ‘Atomic Blonde’ and ‘Honey Dijon’ to our garden inspired by a visit to our friend Brigid’s inspiring rose garden.

Read my interview with Andrea di Robilant here.

Visit Andrea di Robilant’s website here.

Much Loved - portrait‘Much Loved’ by Mark Nixon (Abrams) What a great idea for a book! Inspired by Irving Penn and his photographs turning the everyday into works of art, photographer Nixon put out the call for much loved teddies – the more loved the better. He expected most people sending the teddies to be children, but he realized that this idea really appealed to adults. Nixon exhibited the range of photographs he had taken of these teddy bears. He then uploaded these images on to his website and from the popularity of the website came this book. Once a year Nixon travels to New York and Los Angeles to photograph much loved teddy bears. In his book some of the teddies have one eye, have been mended many times, many have been lost and found, many people talk about the smell of their teddy bear, there are some pretty scary looking bears, some unrecognizable, bears re-dressed, Mr Bean’s teddy bear owned by Rowan Atkinson, bears that have given comfort over the years, bears that like to take up so much room that their owners have to sleep on the edge of their beds and bears with strange names. At the end of the book is a place to put a photo of your own bear and write the age, height and who it belongs to like all the other entrants in the book. Interestingly my husband and I, although born 18 months apart, have matching blue and pink teddy bears (yes, we both treasure them still); Mr Bluey and Pinky. Our eldest daughter was given a ‘flat bear’ from a client of mine when she was born. When it arrived in the post I thought it was a hot water bottle cover! In wonderful sheepskin, it’s flatness means it didn’t roll away and each subsequent child and many friends’ children have received a beloved flat bear from us at their birth.

Read my interview with Mark Nixon here.

Visit Mark Nixon’s website here.

Read more of my reviews of books about design and architecture here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of classic books here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of books about art here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of biographies here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of books about history here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of books about fashion and beauty here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of non-fiction books here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Thanks to the wonderfully talented photographer, Grant Harvey, for the beautiful images created for this post.

Thanks also to Quintessential duckeggBLUE for the loan of the fabulous timber printers’ letters.


  • This entry was posted in: History

4 responses to “10 Great Books About History and Culture

  • Jan Wild says:

    Louise I love your blog, thank you for the two on France in this list and for Styling You in a recent list. The first two I am looking forward to reading, the last one I have used to great effect. BTW I met you at Media School earlier this year and thought you were very elegant then, I doubt you needed Styling You.

    • Louise says:

      Hi Jan, So good to hear from you. Thanks for your feedback and kind words. Really pleased you liked ‘Styling You’ and hope you enjoy the two books on France from this post. I thought the Media School was really helpful and a great mix of people.

  • Diana Morison says:

    You have just provided me with a Christmas Shopping list. Thanks Louise.

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