Book Review: Tulipomania by Mike Dash

Tulipomania by Mike DashTulipomania: What it is about

From the publishers: “In the 1630s, visitors to the prosperous trading cities of the Netherlands couldn’t help but notice that thousands of normally sober, hardworking Dutch citizens from every walk of life were caught up in an extraordinary frenzy of buying and selling. The object of this unprecedented speculation was the tulip, a delicate and exotic Eastern import that had bewitched horticulturists, noblemen, and tavern owners alike. For almost a year rare bulbs changed hands for incredible and ever-increasing sums, until single flowers were being sold for more than the cost of a house.

Historians would come to call it tulipomania. It was the first futures market in history, and like so many of the ones that would follow, it crashed spectacularly, plunging speculators and investors into economic ruin and despair.

This is the history of the tulip, from its origins on the barren, windswept steppes of central Asia to its place of honor in the lush imperial gardens of Constantinople, to its starring moment as the most coveted–and beautiful–commodity in Europe. Historian Mike Dash vividly narrates the story of this amazing flower and the colorful cast of characters–Turkish sultans, Yugoslav soldiers, French botanists, and Dutch tavern keepers–who were centuries apart historically and worlds apart culturally, but who all had one thing in common: tulipomania.

Tulipomania: What I thought

I may be a little biased, being Dutch (and having many generations of Dutch ancestors), but I loved this book! I love stories about the 17th Century Netherlands (which didn’t quite exist as such yet). Add in some national madness about a bulb, and you get a great book.

The book deals with the extreme speculation in which tulip bulbs were traded for ridiculous prices. Whereas at first, actual bulbs were traded, later on, bulbs that were still in the ground were bought and sold and a form of futures dealing was invented (where people sold bulbs they didn’t own yet).

The story starts with wild tulips in Turkey and how they are introduced into the Netherlands, and cultivated. Then it moves on to the tulip trade. There is some background on the 17th-Century Dutch people too, which I found particularly interesting as I recognised a few names (including that of the 2nd richest man of Amsterdam at the time, who was the father-in-law of a cousin of mine many, many, many times removed – yes, before blogging, I spent many years researching my family tree).

It tells the story of some individual traders and what the rise and crash of the tulip trade did for them, and about the process of actual dealings, in pubs, where copious alcohol consumption helped people become enthused about the bulbs even more.

At the end of the book, we’re back in Turkey, where the tulips originated. The gardens at the Turkish court were full of them.

A very accessible story about a crazy time in the history of the Netherlands.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Number of pages: 274

First published: 1999

I got this: from bookmooch (a book swapping site)

Genre: non-fiction, history

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Book Review: Norse Greenland by Jared Diamond

Norse Greenland by Jared DiamondThis e-book is an excerpt from a longer book by Jared Diamond, Collapse, and deals with medieval Greenland and the Norse settlement there. The subtitle of Norse Greenland is A Controlled Experiment in Collapse.

Norse Greenland: What it is about

For almost 500 years (from around 900 AD to 1400 AD), about 5,000 Europeans, mainly Icelanders of Norwegian ancestry, lived on Greenland, in two settlements, a few hundred miles apart from each other.

Jared Diamond discusses the factors that led to the demise of the Norse society in Greenland. He argues that there is no single factor per sé, but a combination of factors that was important here. For instance, the temperature was mild (relatively speaking) when the settlers arrived, but 400 years later, the temperature had dropped significantly, making it hard to grow enough grass for their cows (who spent 9 months a year indoors, living off hay that was harvested at the end of the short summer). But also, having successfully lived in Greenland for several hundred years, the settlers did not want to change and adapt to their changing environment. For instance, they did not adopt any of the ways of the Inuit, who had much better means of surviving the harsh climate.

Norse Greenland: What I thought

As I have a particular interest in the lives of the Norse in Greenland, I loved this book, soaked it all up. The writing is a little dry, and you need a certain interest in the topic, or in the wider topic of medieval societies, or the collapse of societies in general, in order to appreciate the book.

My interest comes from a novel by Jane Smiley, The Greenlanders (1988), which follows the lives of several generations of Norse Greenlanders while their society is in decline. I loved this novel and have been interested in the topic ever since. Smiley did a lot of research and her novel is based on what was known 30 years ago about the settlements in Greenland. Diamond has used newer research information but from what he describes about the settlements, I think the novel by Smiley is not too far off and still makes an interesting read.

Norse Greenland deals with the Viking expansion over Europe, the discovery of America around 1,000 AD by the Greenlanders, the climate in Greenland, rules of society, influence of Norway, trade with Europe, non-Viking inhabitants in Greenland (by the way, the Inuit were not native, they arrived in Greenland hundreds of years after the Norse did!), geographical issues, lack of resources such as wood and iron.

The book investigates the causes of the collapse of the Norse society in Greenland, and ends with the interesting footnote that the 450 years that the society did survive is still longer than the English-speaking society has survived so far in North-America!


Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

Number of pages: 113 (ebook)

First published: 2005

I got this: from the Publishers, Penguin, for review, via Netgalley

Genre: non-fiction, history

Book Review: The Starlite Drive-in by Marjorie Reynolds

The Starlite Drive-in by Marjorie Reynolds
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Genre: contemporary / historical fiction (1950s)
I got this book: for review from the publishers, William Morrow Books (HarperCollins)
First Published: 1997 (Paperback edition December 2011)
I read this in: English, the original language
Number of pages: 324
Rating: 5/5

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The Starlite Drive-in: What it is about

In the 1990s, the grounds of the old Starlite Drive-in cinema are being dug up in order to build houses. Some human bones are found, and Callie Anne Benton, a woman in her forties who lived in the area when she was a child, thinks she know who they belong to.

The findings bring her back to her childhood. When she was 12 years old, she was living at the Starlite Drive-in cinema, where her father was the projectionist and caretaker. Her mother suffered from agoraphobia and never left the house.

When her father is injured after a fall, a younger man, Charlie Memphis, is hired to help out. Both she and her mother take a liking to him. In fact, Callie Anne dreams of marrying him. But he is wooing her mother, who is being badly treated and taken for granted by her moody husband.

Callie Anne’s life is in turmoil when things come to a head.

The Starlite Drive-in: What I thought

5 stars (out of 5) This is a beautiful account of rural USA in the 1950s. The Formica tables are in place and the soda fountains not far away. Poor Callie Anne is living an isolated life in the summer that Charlie Memphis appears. School’s out and Callie Anne sees her school mates only when they come to see a movie in her father’s drive-in cinema, but they are not real friends of her.

The relationship of Callie Anne’s parents is difficult and this is noticeable for Callie Anne too. She doesn’t like the way her father treats her mother, but there is nothing she can do about it. She hopes to escape with Charlie, but when this doesn’t happen, she dreams of leaving with him and her mother.

I loved this window into the 1950s with its drive-in cinema, the quiet life, the father as head of the household who had to be obeyed, and also, Callie Anne’s first broken heart AND her first love.

The book is written solely from the perspective of Callie Anne, so that some things remain unclear until they are revealed at the end. It’s great fiction that will appeal especially to women.

What's in  a Name Challenge

Book Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis RidleyGenre: non fiction, history
I got this book: for review from the publishers, Broadway Paperbacks (Crown Publishing Group)
First Published: 2010 (Paperback edition December 2011)
I read this in: English, the original language
Number of pages: 304
Rating: 5/5

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The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: What it is About

This well-researched biography is about a French woman, Jeanne Baret, who in 1767 dressed as a man to navigate around the world on a ship that had 300 men and no (other) women aboard.

The story starts with the background of Jeanne, a rural (peasant) woman with a good knowledge of the medicinal use of plants. She is hired to teach Philibert Commerson, a botanist of some standing, everything she knows about herbs and plants.

She begins a relationship with him and later accompanies him around the world, when he is given an appointment to gather plants from everywhere, especially those that are commercially useful. She dresses as a man, as the assistant of Commerson, because women are not allowed on ships.

Although the crew is suspicious of Baret, when looking for plants on the islands and mainlands they come across, she works harder than many men would be able to.

Later, she’s found out and there are some contradictory stories on what exactly happens. The book also describes Baret and Commerson’s further life after they finish their travels.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: What I thought

5 stars (out of 5) This book is well-written and researched, to the extend that I almost felt I was watching a documentary with original filmed material. There are detailed descriptions of life as a poor worker in rural France, life as a rich man, what women could and could not do, Paris in the 1760s, travelling for months at a time on a ship with 300 others, encountering natives, and much more.

The information is based on log books, contemporary biographies by people who were present on board, as well as other contemporary writings from which the circumstances, behaviour and considerations of Baret and Commerson were deduced.

Because of this, some of it reads as (and is!) historical fiction.  I read this book a chapter at a time (about 25 pages each) which was a nice amount of time to be immersed in French/naval life of the 18th Century.

I you have an interest in history, botany, or shipping history, you will love this book! There is of course a good amount of discussion about why Jeanne dressed as a man, the rumours aboard that she might not be a man after all, and the later discovery that the rumours were right, as well as some conjecture of what may have happen after the discovery.

I enjoyed reading this book a lot, I learned many new things about the topics mentioned above. Although the writer has obviously done a thorough investigation in many of the topics, including the consultation of original (French) materials, the book is very readable for the average interested reader.

Extras: This was my first book for the Transcending Gender Reading Challenge.

Transcending Gender 2012 Reading Challenge A-Z Books Challenge

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