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Book Review: Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped by Tony Perrottet

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It seems there is a new subgenre amongst history books: “that which they don’t teach you in school.” It’s no wonder, really. The seamier side of life is always hidden – but it shouldn’t be. Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped by Tony Perrottet is a quick, engaging read delving into some of the more notorious stories, rumors, and anecdotes about some of the most famous historical figures.

Perrottet’s writing style is engaging and delightful to read. With subject matter such as this, there are two ways that it normally goes: one is stuffy and professorial; the other, juvenile and silly. Perrottet walks that line beautifully, offering informative essays and anecdotes that are annotated with academic research, while still being lighthearted.

Some of the tales Perrottet delves into I’ve heard of, like the eponymous tale of Napoleon’s withered genitals being sold from collector to collector. Others I did not know of, like champagne goblets modeled after Marie Antoinette’s breast. Other good stories include: the truth behind Caligula’s orgies (they were not as debauched as Bob Guccione would have you believe); the theories behind what happened to Hitler’s missing testicle; dispelling the rumors of Catherine the Great’s death by bestiality; when masturbation went from harmless vice to mortal sin; some of the more intriguing recipes in a 1920s Futurists’ cookbook; Britain’s sex clubs of the 1700s; the facts that point to Abraham Lincoln’s supposed homosexuality; and many, many more.

Several chapters are broken down into charts, like where are they now – celebrity body parts and the lunacy of the Impressionist artists. These chapters are the sole low point in the book. They are poorly formatted, making it annoying and difficult to read. There is too much info jammed into three columns. Sometimes only two or three words would fit per column line. That, combined with the nightmarish shorthand, makes Napoleon’s Privates almost unreadable. But that is the only dark spot in this otherwise sparkling collection.

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