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Review: Mary Boleyn, Alison Weir

mary boleynLike many of the women who are the new focus of popular history, Mary Boleyn has left a very slim paper trail. There are entire periods of her life where no one is quite sure where she actually was, let alone what she was doing or feeling. Only two of her letters survive, to our knowledge, and our ideas of her as a legendary whore are based mainly on much later opinions of her. With very little to work with, Weir attempts to reconstruct Mary’s life and, in several cases, set the record straight.

In a lot of this book, Weir engages in one of my favourite things, evaluation of other historians. I love historiography, and she does a good job picking apart others’ arguments and showing what was based on actual source and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, a number of the historians she chooses to engage with were working a considerable amount of time in the past, rather than those who are working now and would be more likely to follow current standards for documentation and analysis. Saying that, I’m not sure how many historians are presently working on the Tudors and Mary Boleyn, as popular culture is not necessarily connected to academic culture, so it’s possible she didn’t have much more recent to work with; her main focus is revising people’s opinions of Mary as an infamous whore, and I did enjoy her investigation  of how that reputation came about.

Unfortunately, because of the scarce information, some flaws pop up in Weir’s work; it’s extremely repetitive, as she has the need to make an assumption about Mary’s past, then treats it as fact and tells us about it over and over again. Her reputed affair with the French king is constantly discussed, for example. I’ve definitely appreciated some of Weir’s other works more than this one in this respect. There just isn’t much here. I felt like Mary’s life would have been much more suited to a longer article or inclusion into a collection, instead of a book on its own. I failed to really get a sense of who she was; the most affecting and interesting part of the book, for me, was when Weir actually quoted a letter that she wrote. I understand that there are only two letters, but the difference really demonstrated to me how little I’d felt for Mary up until that point.

Mary Boleyn was a book I didn’t mind reading; it may be considered dry by others who aren’t particularly used to reading history and expect it to be more like a novel (there are pages of speculation about Mary’s birthday, for instance), but if you do enjoy biography you won’t have any trouble getting involved here. Unfortunately, I found the end result ultimately disappointing, and I hope Weir chooses a better documented subject for her next full-length work of popular history.

I received this book for free for review. All external links are affiliate links.

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Review: If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley

if walls could talkHome is probably the most cherished place in the world for most of us. We spend huge chunks of our lives cleaning, decorating, organising, and simply enjoying our homes, but how has the house change throughout history? What would our houses tell us about what went on in them before? Lucy Worsley tackles this topic by exploring the history and evolution of four different kinds of room in an English house, from the medieval period right through to the present. The living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedroom are Worsley’s subjects, but the people who populate them truly make them what they are, and this is a fascinating journey.

I must admit a little bit of bias and prior knowledge of this book. The series, hosted by Worsley, was actually televised here in the UK over four episodes, one for each room. So I already knew that I was interested in the subject matter (although that wasn’t a surprise) and I’d picked up many of the facts previously. If you have seen the show, though, the book adds bits and pieces and draws more conclusions from Worsley’s experiences living certain aspects of old-fashioned lives.

Social history, for me, is completely addictive; I love finding out why there might be a shoe hidden in my attic or how recently some British homes actually got proper bathrooms and plumbing. There are Victorian ash-midden privies in my little garden and, even though now they’re considered “outbuildings”, that little slice of history is one of the things I love about England. Worsley gives equal time here to the ordinary and the aristocratic, particularly because in many cases developments made for the wealthy finally trickled down to the poor.

Worsley’s writing style is also very engaging and the book is a pleasure to read. There are plenty of endnotes, but this is not dry history at all. It’s full of facts that I’m sure I will regale people with for weeks to come, lots of curiosities about how our homes actually got to be the way they are and how differently people treated them. Consider the bedroom, once simply integrated into the main living space with little to no privacy, which slowly migrated to becoming one of the most private places of all, especially as the living room took its place.

One of the most interesting aspects of a book like this, for me, is how the home can highlight just how much society has changed. Just one part of this is obviously the presence of servants in our lives. Not that long ago, a huge proportion of the population was employed in service, a respectable occupation and one that had a huge part to play in the development of the home. Some things certainly wouldn’t have been possible without servants – older kitchen ranges, for example, required daily cleaning and blacking, not to mention the issues surrounding the chores of actually preparing and serving food. The monumental shift away from servants, along with the inventions and innovations that replaced them, have played a role in the development of the home today.

All in all, If Walls Could Talk is a fascinating journey through the home, a joy to read, and a trove of worthy little details for those interested in the history of ordinary people as well as royalty. Definitely recommended.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this ebook for free for review.

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Review: The English Village, Martin Wainwright

the english villageMost of us, especially those of us who are literary, have a cozy image of a typical English village in our minds. Mine has definitely been imparted through reading, but has only been strengthened over the time I’ve lived in England. Uneven rows of thatched roof cottages, wide expanses of farmland, the rectory, and maybe even the manor house on the hill – it depends what historical period your mind works best in. Our ideal of the English village is more myth than any kind of reality, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still love them, and that is the contradiction that Wainwright explores in The English Village.

It’s clear from the start that Wainwright loves the ideal of England as much as the rest of us do. The book is broken down into chapters concerning different aspects of the village, from those cottages I mentioned to the festivals that the villagers used to celebrate. The book concludes with a chapter on the potential future of the English village and the changes that have happened recently, namely a revival in village life and a determination to conserve the bits we have left for the future. Each chapter also contains black and white drawings of, usually, buildings mentioned in the text to give us a good idea of what we’re reading about.

At the core this was really a delightful book. I loved the way that Wainwright pulled history into the idyllic vision that so many of us cherish – not to remove the dream, but to add a layer of realism to it. One of my favorite parts was when he mentioned that some cottages which are now valued at over one million pounds used to be houses for the poor. It’s this dichotomy which sums up that contradiction; the now pretty villages had an underside which has mostly moved to the cities, leaving much of the countryside for the wealthy.

The English Village naturally also covers the history of the village and how it has evolved through time, starting with the Norman Conquest and ending with the people who are keeping the dream alive, either through pubs or restoration. The industrial revolution effectively ended the need to live in cottages scattered across the countryside, but that way of life was common throughout our history until that point. The shift was monumental, although also incremental, and given that I am always a person who is fascinated with those fundamental changes, I was hooked by this in particular.

For anyone who has ever imagined having a little house in the countryside – perhaps a timber-framed, plastered house with a thatch roof, as I’ve wished – The English Village is truly the perfect read. And it would make a great Christmas gift, too; if you’re in poking around the shops this weekend looking for last minute presents, look no further.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from Amazon Vine.

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Give the Gift of History: Non-fiction

On Monday I published a little gift guide to historical fiction books for you, so today I’m going to talk about actual history – you know, the non-fiction variety that I adore. Some excellent history for the general reader was published in 2011; here are the recommendations that I think would make beautiful gifts.

cleopatra

Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff

Okay, I lied already; this book wasn’t published in 2011, it was published in 2010. But now it’s out in paperback, which means it is the perfect gift for anyone who has enjoyed any manifestation of Cleopatra. This book was sold a bit strangely in that many people thought it was closer to historical fiction, but as an actual biography which peels back the layers to reveal a little bit more of the real Cleopatra, it is an amazing choice.

she wolves

She-Wolves, Helen Castor

I’ve read both of Castor’s published popular histories and they are both fantastic. This one is a choice for the feminist on your list. It looks back at medieval women in power and examines how history changed to allow Elizabeth, England’s first fully fledged female queen, to reign in peace at last. It demonstrates that women have not been simple chattel throughout history while at the same time acknowledging the difficulties they had and still have in being in power without becoming a man. Brilliant.

blood work

Blood Work, Holly Tucker

Not a book for the squeamish, this goes into depth about the history of blood transfusions and a curious mystery surrounding one of the principal players. It’s one of those books I love that uses a single case to illuminate a whole era of history, which is why I recommend it highly. And, like She Wolves above, it doesn’t hesitate in demonstrating how history is still incredibly relevant to our lives today.

The Plantagenets, Derek Wilson and The Age of Chivalry, Hywel Williams

I’ll admit that I haven’t finished either of these books yet, but I’ve been dipping in ever since they hit my mailbox, and in truth they seem to suit that method. These large, beautiful, coffee table books are absolutely perfect for the person who loves history and who wants to show it off. They are both full of beautiful illustrations and provide a surface, top layer view which is excellent for someone who perhaps enjoys World War II history but has never felt the desire to go further back. They are completely gorgeous gift choices – so I couldn’t omit them from this list!

What histories would or are you giving as gifts this year?

I received some of these books for free for review.

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Review: Rome, Robert Hughes

Rome, the Eternal City; a place where Roman emperors have paraded, painters have worshipped God with their art, and ordinary people have lived. Robert Hughes touches on all of these aspects with his massive book on Rome, which is a mish-mash of history, art, and politics that spans the thousands of years that the city has stood upon its seven hills.

It’s non-fiction heavily filtered through Hughes’s own lens; he doesn’t provide any footnotes or endnotes, so I decided not to take anything he said for absolute truth and just enjoy the ride – although there is a lengthy bibliography for those who would like to learn more (as I would).

The book follows the history of Rome in chronological order, but it switches around between different areas of focus. It shifts around mostly with what was happening in the city at the time. So, while it takes place during the Roman empire, the focus is mostly on the history and the emperors, because for the most part we know a good amount about that. There’s less about individual artists, simply because there is less about them. The book moves on to the Middle Ages and devotes a lot of time, naturally, to Renaissance artists, and then straight up to the present day. In the 20th century, though, we move away from art and back into history and politics with Mussolini.

It also seems as though Hughes focuses less on art when he’s less interested in the art – he is an art historian after all – so when Rome is mostly influenced by Greece, and when Rome is in the modern period, there is far less art history and more just ordinary history.

Unsurprisingly, the narrative is actually most interesting when Hughes is talking about art. He’s clearly an expert and reading his opinions and views on the many different works of art that I actually saw was enlightening. It also made me really want to go back, but in the meantime my hardcover edition had a lot of photos inside so I could get an idea of what he was talking about in the parts of Rome I didn’t see. Reading more about Michelangelo, Raphael, Caraveggio, and Bernini, just to name four, was fascinating for me. If nothing else, this book will make you crave a really good art museum like little I’ve ever read before.

Unfortunately, I do think the book fell down somewhat in areas that aren’t Hughes’s expertise. He also gets very pessimistic about modern Rome and mass tourism – and given that I just engaged in mass tourism, I know that it is ridiculously overcrowded, but still felt a bit insulted that he could wish to deprive everyone of the sights he so gloriously describes – which was off-putting, and right at the end of the book as well. But Rome is the Eternal City, and even if we can’t see where it’s going, it’s hard to criticise modern Romans. After all, their ancestors took pleasure in watching lions tear humans apart; you can’t really get much worse than that, in my view. People throughout history have decided that their era is the worst of all of them; this sort of tired attitude was quite frustrating, in the end.

Still, Rome was a fascinating if uneven work – it really shines when Hughes is talking about his clear expertise. I’d recommend it for anyone who is particularly interested in the art of the city, but be aware that it isn’t a perfect book, and certainly can’t fit the whole of Rome’s history, art and political, in the space of a 500-page hardcover. You’ll find it hard to resist a trip after this read.

All external links to book sites are affiliate links. I bought this book.

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Review: Sugar: A Bittersweet History, Elizabeth Abbott

sugar a bittersweet historySugar is ubiquitous in Western cooking these days, but this wasn’t always the case. Abbott explores the history of sugar with us, from its earliest discoveries and uses to the exploitation of slaves in its cultivation down to the current explosion of sweetened drinks and fast foods. Enlivened with a number of pictures and copious sources, Abbott takes us through a journey that definitely is bittersweet, and which continues to be exploitative in countries around the world today.

I’m always fascinated by these histories that take one subject and use them to explore bits of everything else. In Sugar: A Bittersweet History, the main focus was definitely on one thing; slavery. Most of the middle of the book was taken up by the horrors of sugar slavery in many different parts of the world. Like the American slavery I’m more familiar with, even after slavery was abolished, people were still treated virtually as badly with rights in theory only for years afterwards, and unfortunately this sad trend actually continues. I’m glad the sugar I’m buying is fair trade, but it does make you think about the origin of the sugar in other products.

I read this book over a period of two or so months, because I read it on my phone whenever I didn’t have any other reading material available. It was surprisingly readable in this format, mainly because it’s broken up well into different sections. The time periods are organized well, and even the very long section about slavery is compartmentalized into different places in the world. This was actually also very interesting, because Abbott goes around the world exploring the fate of these people and also the determination of those who eventually freed them. The British campaign to end sugar slavery played a particularly large part in the book.

The book ends with an exploration of our current sweetener culture and the origins of fast food around the World’s Fair. I found this history of various sweets around the world to be absolutely fascinating, and the most readable part of the book, if not perhaps the most important. Now, of course, with an obesity problem in the US and the UK in particular, the blame has come down on sugar and various other sweeteners, which may change sugar’s future significantly.

One part that stood out to me in this latter section was the association of women and sugar – how sweet things were often marketed at women who were the “weaker” sex and not particularly able to avoid temptation, even though both sexes (obviously) enjoy sugar. This is actually a salient point that still stands, as I feel like quite a bit of sweet marketing is still targeted at women. I’m not sure I like that now that it’s been pointed out to me, and it’s something I’ll be paying attention to in future, in addition to ensuring I only buy and use fair trade sugar.

Recommended for anyone interested in sugar slavery or the history of sugar.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

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Review: The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson

the ghost mapThis history of cholera focuses on one of the last, and most lethally quick, epidemics to strike London. It was one of the last because this time, two diligent men found what they believed to be the cause, and circumstances started to change. The first man, Dr. John Snow, was already a pre-eminent anaesthesiologist who even put Queen Victoria to sleep. The second was a well-meaning clergyman, Henry Whitehead, who was acquainted with many of the victims that got their water from the offending Broadstreet Pump. Johnson takes us through the history of the epidemic and describes precisely how these two men solved the cholera mystery and began a chain of reaction that would have an impact on public health in cities worldwide.

Cholera isn’t a problem that has gone away for us in the modern day world. It’s a disease we keep at bay with a supply of clean water. But before people realized it was caused by dirty water, they believed various theories, including that the poor brought it upon themselves, or that it was caused by noxious air. It’s remarkable to read how tenaciously people who were very highly placed in society clung to these theories, even as evidence started to prove them wrong. They did close off the Broadstreet Pump which caused the cholera, eventually, but they didn’t really believe it was the cause. Not until the “ghost map” was created – a map which outlined precisely who had died from the illness and where they lived – did the connection finally become established between the pump and the outbreak.

In history terms, this is a very compelling book; the end is full of notes and I certainly was keen to learn more after reading. Unfortunately, close to the end, the author starts to go off on some mysterious tangents that become less related to the actual history of the outbreak. He goes on about the new threats to cities, including things like terrorism, and even the advantages and whether they outweigh the risks. It all felt a bit unrelated. It was as though he was trying to connect the history with the modern day, but he didn’t particularly succeed for most of it; the only interesting bit out of this was when he discussed the threats of cholera now, rather than the various other aspects of city life. After all, while cholera did happen because of the cramped conditions in cities, I felt like the rest of the book was more about the illness and general sanitary conditions and less about the city.

Anyway, I still found The Ghost Map to be a very good, and quick, read, a thoughtful look into the sanitary conditions of Victorian London and an illness which still has an effect on many parts of the world today.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

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Review: The Band that Played On, Steve Turner

the band that played onEveryone who has heard about the tragedy of the Titanic, or watched the film, probably remembers that the band kept on playing even as the ship sank into the ocean. They gave their lives so that people would remain calm and get on the boats in an orderly fashion. Nearly everyone who survived remembered the band, and we know that none of them survived, so the story certainly seems plausible. In this book, Turner looks at the men in the band – W. Hartley, C. Krins, R. Bricoux, W.T. Brailey, J. Woodward, J.F. Clarke, J.L. Hume, and P.C. Taylor – and considers both their lives before the disaster and the role they may have played in the final moments of the ship’s sinking.

I’ve never heard anything much about the musicians on the Titanic beyond the fact that they died playing. Like everyone else of my age, I’ve seen the film (twice in theaters) and their story is certainly a sad and noble one. Turner takes us behind the scenes with this book and looks at how exactly each man got on the Titanic. Who was waiting for them when they returned from the ship? How did each man become a musician? Were they career musicians or were they just building experience for greater things? These are all questions he seeks to answer.

He also considers the day of the sinking itself, thinking about what songs the men played, how two bands fit together into one for the final moments, and why they might have chosen to play. They could have been ordered to by the bandmaster, or they might have decided to carry on as one, knowing that they were unlikely to have a priority place on the available lifeboats anyway.

Lastly, Turner also looks at the aftermath of the disaster, and how these particular men’s deaths affected their families. The White Star Line, who owned the ship, did have to pay money out to the employees’ families, but who it went to was a matter up for debate in many of the men’s families.

Overall, The Band that Played On was a worthy, deeper look at these eight men, and a very good choice of read for people who are interested in further information about the Titanic and the people who actually ran the boat.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: The Women of the Cousins’ War, Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin, and Michael Jones

For as long as men have been writing history, important women have been lost from its pages. Restoring all of them would be an impossible, lifetimes-consuming feat, but that doesn’t mean some historians can’t try. Building on the success of Philippa Gregory’s novels set during the Wars of the Roses (which she calls “The Cousins’ War”), she and two historians have written a book spotlighting three of the most important women during the war – The Duchess, Jacquetta, her daughter Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen, and Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, The Queen’s Mother.

While reading this review, it’s probably worth keeping in mind that I know a lot about the Wars of the Roses, even counting what I’ve forgotten since I actually finished studying it intensively, and have read many many books and articles on the subject, both popular and academic history. I have also been trained to write history myself. My experience may not match yours.

I love the idea of The Women of the Cousins’ War in theory, but I’m ever so wary of it in actual historical practice. Unfortunately, this book actually justified my wariness. The introduction, written by Gregory, is very appealing. Starting off first with the difference, in her mind, between history and historical fiction, and followed up by why she chooses to write fiction, was actually a fascinating glimpse into her head. I didn’t agree with everything she said about the writing of history itself, but I appreciated such a bold introduction that really argued her case. It had me looking forward to the book.

At that point, unfortunately, I began to be disappointed. None of the essays use footnotes OR endnotes, which left me wondering where on earth they’d actually got their information from. There is a list of sources and a messy list of acknowledgements and quotes at the end of each, but this is frustrating to wade through when looking for the source of any quote. Without knowing where each got information from, I hesitated to trust anything I was reading.

It didn’t help that it started off with Gregory’s essay about Jacquetta, the Duchess of Bedford who married a lower-class Woodville seemingly out of love and gave birth to the future queen of England, Elizabeth Woodville. To be perfectly fair to Gregory, she has very, very little to work with, but this is one of the fundamental flaws in this sort of “restoration” of some historical women. There just isn’t much there. It’s incredibly difficult to prise out anything about Jacquetta herself besides speculation. Gregory does a decent job of that speculating, but since I didn’t know where any particular bit of information came from, whether it was an original source or not, I had no way to judge for myself what I thought about what she was saying. This particular bit reads, as you would imagine, as a factual tale about the more recorded people in Jacquetta’s life without much genuine insight into who she actually was.

I also was frustrated by the fact that there is no engagement with the sources, particularly the primary sources. Instead of hearing “some say”, I want to know who said it and what their motivation was. I wanted this book to further historical study, to make some sort of impact, not to just flatly tell me what happened. Gregory says she consulted the original sources, but aside from a few notes in the end, they don’t feature.

The second essay didn’t improve much on the situation. Enough is known about Elizabeth Woodville to actually make for an interesting biography, and some biographies have been already written about her, including one by this particular author. She also features heavily in other books about this subject, naturally. The essay was fair, and does include more information about the sources, and would be appropriate for someone who knows almost nothing about the subject. For me, it didn’t help that this essay was the least well-written and I found it very difficult to keep my attention on the page, which is probably why I have little to say either way about it.

The last essay, however, was excellent. Michael Jones very obviously knows his subject, knows his sources, and is a wonderful writer. He rescues the whole book by actually backing up his speculation, thinking about where his information comes from, and considering Margaret’s family history as well as the present. There still aren’t any actual notes, but he amazingly separates the primary sources from the books in his source list (which neither of the others do) and makes it relatively easy to figure out what came from where, particularly since he’s actually engaging with the historical record.

In fact, I feel like the third essay justifies my criticisms of the other two, because it did a whole lot more of everything I wanted without unnecessary length and certainly without becoming as dry as academic history can be. Yes, the book is intended to familiarize readers with these women, not as an academic study for other historians, but certainly they can do so while also writing worthy history. He provided a much fuller, more comprehensive picture of Margaret herself, backed up by everything he knows, and had me eager to read his full-length book on the subject.

I don’t think I would recommend this book for anyone who has some knowledge of the period, as they’ll know most of what’s in it, but for newcomers and those who are looking for more information and a “popular” history this would suit. If you see it in your library and enjoy Philippa Gregory’s books, I’d certainly recommend you read at least the introduction, as I feel it’s really added to my understanding of the way she writes and considers historical fiction.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.

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Review: Blood Work, Holly Tucker

blood workBlood Work is a multi-pronged look at the history of blood transfusion during the Scientific Revolution in both England and France. Tucker mainly tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Denis, a physician outside the cult of Paris-educated noblemen, who in what could have been a world-changing experiment transfused calf’s blood into a madman in Paris. The madman died and Denis wound up framed for murder as a result. Tucker also looks at the race between the English and the French to transfuse faster, and their struggles to publish first and occasional glossing over of facts as they did so. The book is also a deeper look at the ethics behind blood transfusion; the many ways people questioned what they didn’t understand, tried to stop it happening, and eventually wound up slowing progress for hundreds of years.

Blood Work has been on my wishlist since well before it was published. I bought it almost immediately afterwards, but for some reason took a while to actually get around to reading it. I think my expectations were slightly too high. I needn’t have worried, as this is truly a riveting account of a story I’d heard little about. Blood transfusion is an essential for our modern day doctors. It saves lives every day. As a result, it’s somewhat shocking to read about the origins of it and the many crazy things people thought would happen. Would cow’s blood turn a man into a bovine? Would he start to baa like a sheep? If you transfused blood from people of different colours, what happened? These questions made people very nervous, some so much so that they would do anything in their power to stop the process.

I have to admit one of the questions foremost in my mind as I was reading this book was just how people and animals weren’t dying left and right from the transfusions. There was no idea of blood types then. These scientists thought they were transferring blood from all different species, including at the final experiment, and most patients seemed to have only mild symptoms. Tucker thankfully reveals the answer to this; there probably wasn’t actually that much blood being transferred. The technology wasn’t really advanced enough until the 20th century, when luckily blood typing was also discovered.

The philosophical issues surrounding transfusion were also fascinating. Tucker explains in the book that she was inspired by George W. Bush’s statements against stem cell research. Many of the same arguments we hear now against stem cell research were employed in the battle against blood transfusions. That treatment saves lives every single day. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but it certainly provides much food for thought.

I haven’t even touched on the historical mystery that Tucker explores within the book, but it also works quite well and the threads of the book fit perfectly together. My only reservation is that parts of the book made me a bit queasy – I’m not even good with this sort of thing written in words! For someone who isn’t particularly bothered by descriptive language about transfusions, this wouldn’t be a problem.

Blood Work is a very engaging, fast paced narrative work of history that will appeal to any curious about the Scientific Revolution, how blood transfusions began, or even the issues surrounding experimentation on human beings. Recommended.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

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