My December 2019 Book List

I generally post a book list around this time of year: my favorite books of the past year, books I want for Christmas, books I’m reading or assigning for my spring courses, books I want to read over the holiday break. This list is all of that except for the first category: I haven’t read much this past year because I’ve been working so hard—writing myself, teaching, and reading to teach—and so I really can’t play favorites. This was not a leisurely year and there is very little fiction on this list, and even very little history unrelated to my teaching: very little American history in particular. To a certain extent, this blog has been an exercise in discovering the American history which I avoided from high school: I’ve learned a lot but now I’m kind of done—it seems a bit repetitive to me. Other worlds call, and new books in my own fields are piling up! I’ll never be done with the histories of architecture (structure and landscape) and material culture though—and folklore, though nothing of that genre caught my eye this year. So proceeding in chronological order, here are the books which did.



Book Elizabethan Globalism



These books are all for my courses and an endless writing project which I hope to bring to fruition in the coming year. Simon de Montfort is one of those guys like Sir Philip Sidney: a glamorous representative of his age, in this case the thirteenth century, who has a very dramatic story which students love and which can also represent the best (anti-absolutism) and worst (antisemitism) of the time. I’ve read everything about de Montfort, and this book, by University of Lancaster Lecturer Sophie Thérèse Ambler, is very good, full of details and analysis which will enhance my teaching. I will be reading Renaissance Futurities and Gardens for Gloriana for pleasure and for context for own work over the break, and I am considering Walter Ralegh and Elizabethan Globalism for sections and courses on European expansion in the early modern era, although the latter is also an absolutely gorgeous book that could double as a more casual coffee-table text. Climate history is absolutely essential right now, as as the periods I teach encompass both the “Medieval Warm Period” and the “Little Ice Age” I’m always on the hunt for fresh environmental perspectives: Nature’s Mutiny is a potential adoption for several of my courses but I have to read it over the break to gauge its accessibility.

Book Boston_edited


Books Folio Society

Book Sandition IMG_1504


Books 2

House Party

These are all books I WANT or want to read: I think Inventing Boston would inform my understanding of Salem craftsmanship in the same key era, Mark Girouard’s classic Life in the English Country House has been reissued in a stunning edition by the Folio Society this year with photographs from Country Life and a binding illustration by architectural artist John Pumfrey, and I collect Penguin clothbound editions by Coralie Bickford-Smith. I’m not sure I buy into Orlando Figes’ themes of European unity and modernity in the nineteenth century, but that is an era with which I need to engage, again. I’ve always been fascinated with Frank Lloyd Wright’s professional and personal life, and who doesn’t want to read about English Country House parties? Oh, and in addition to Sandition, I did want to read one other novel this year if only for the local reference in its title, but no, I cannot read Lucy Ellman’s 1000-page Ducks, Newburyport at this particular time: I just don’t have the ability (or the time) to dwell on a strung-out sentence of rambling thoughts, as experimental and interesting as it/ they may be. Maybe next year, or the year after.

16 responses to “My December 2019 Book List

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    I always like to read what others of like mind are reading, so thanks for the review of those books that you read last year and those that you plan to read.

    The cover of LIFE IN AN ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE reminded me of my visit to Kenwood House on the edge of Hampstead Heath in North London a few years back. Gorgeous and o easy to access on the Tube.

    Also, I love Orlando Figes work and may read THE EUROPEANS. His NATASHA’S DANCE, A CULTURAL HISTORY OF RUSSIA years back was a masterpiece. From a review:

    “Like the European-schooled countess Natasha performing an impromptu folk dance in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the spirit of “Russianness” is revealed by Figes as rich and uplifting, complex and contradictory-a powerful force that unified a vast country and proved more lasting than any Russian ruler or state.”

    Thanks for bringing Figes to mind again. So much to read, so little time…

  • Helen Breen

    Donna, as a footnote, I read that Figes, a Cambridge don I believe, is giving up his British citizenship for that of Germany. Truly a cosmopolitan European who is turned off by Brexit. Who knows?

  • Timothy

    Always interesting looking at your reading list. I always find it a challenge to try to find a balance between studying local history and more global history.

    I admit when I was younger and being from Ohio I consider my area to be history-less I now realize how silly that is as I live on land bought by the Ohio company of associates from Massachusetts. I graduated from Ohio University the oldest college in Ohio. Live near Marrietta which doesn’t just have prehistoric Native American mounds but Cemeteries filled with revolutionary soldiers with heap loads of Historic buildings all around as well.

    I now have a rather eclectic mixture of East Asia, Early Modern Britain, and Early America, and Ohio history books scattered all around my house.

    • daseger

      So what do you think of McCulloch’s latest book from your local perspective—a lot of criticism from academic historians!

      • Timothy

        Can’t say anything personally about it yet as I haven’t read it yet or seen any reviews. I do know that locals from marietta are still quite proud of book for giving historical recognition to their small town as well as marietta college .

        For me it will probably depend on how large the mistakes in the book are . This place is still a pretty impoverished upper Appalachian region and I can forgive a book for some light faults and embellishments if it also gives some dignity to area that is downtrodden. With that being said I have a very long reading list and I’m already familiar with the period he dealing with from previous books so it will be a while before I get the time to go read his book.

  • Peg

    Are you familiar with “Houseboating on a Colonial Waterway” by Frank and Courtelle Hutchins? It’s a true story published in 1910 about houseboating up the James River around the turn of the last century. The authors frequented historically important locales where warm hospitality finds them. Pictures of the many plantations they visit along the way, indoor and out are included in this book. It illustrates in great detail the grand architecture, furniture, important documents, paintings, silver, and other accoutrements held within these lovely colonial mansions. The inhabitants were quite welcoming and eager to share their history and relics which the authors were eager to photograph. Tossed away in a drawer with other pieces of parchment at the Brandon Plantation on Chippoak Creek was the pre-pilgrim Martin Brandon grant of 1616. At Colonel Byrds’ Westover the authors were quite taken by the Hepplewhite sideboard with butler’s desk in the dining room and were enchanted by the current resident Miss Harrison wearing a ball gown which belonged to her colonial ancestor, Evelyn Byrd. While visiting Fleur de Hundred which survived the ravages of war and two fires, the authors discovered that many of the plantation’s valuable relics were saved from pillaging by being hidden in a hollow tree. This is such an amazing book, I could go on and on but better yet, you should just read it! As all excellent books should have, this one has a table of contents, list of illustrations, and and an index.

    Even though there are reproductions I would recommend one of the originals published by L.C. Page & Company, Boston. Abe Books has one just like mine in very good condition for $17.50 + $4.00 shipping.

  • Laura

    My favorite time of the holiday season! Your recommended books!

    • daseger

      Well this is kind of a serious list, Laura: I definitely need some tips for fun reading!

      • Laura

        The list is like a rich Christmas pudding, as compared to a sugary candy cane! I am always my own Santa Claus when it comes your December list. This year, Gardens for Gloriana, Elizabethan Globalism, and Inventing Boston! I had heard of Inventing Boston but had not heard of any of others, which, for me, is why I love the annual list.

        And then the next treat are your photos of holiday decorations!

        So, you see, your blog is very much a part of everyone’s holiday!

      • Laur

        Oh, and for fun, I can recommend holiday mysteries published by the British Library. You can see some of the offerings here:

        Some of them are awful, some great. This year, I’m enjoying Silent Nights: Christmas Murders. Edited by Martin Edwards.

        And then to be really, really cheesy, a couple friends and I read a completely idiotic Christmas murder mystery together. This year, The Knife Before Christmas

        So you see…. one can really get down in the ditch with holiday reading if one wants to… 🙂

  • abfabsweetie1

    I’m particularly interested in the choices of the English country house, the lifestyle and culture of an English country weekend, and the evolution of a (European) cosmopolitan culture.

    No guesswork I’m a veteran Anglophile, direct descendant, and unashamed fan of both Austen and Wodehouse–similar, but with myriad differences and tone! 😉

    • daseger

      Well me too—if it’s the text you’re after, you can certainly get cheaper versions of Girouard’s book—it’s a real classic so available at all the second-hand sites.

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    Thank you!! Tudor history is just a bit early for me normally, but I would read England, China and the Rainbow Portrait because Chinese porcelain was beautiful in its own right. Plus it certainly served as a symbol of how global trade led to a new urgency in learning about foreign cultures. Ditto the Silk Road.

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