History off the press (November ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Books, European, Russian by Alex L. on December 2, 2011


Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books, and these are previews not reviews).


Book coverMy parents’ generation grew up in the Soviet Union reading and owning volumes of classical literature. Despite my parents’ polemics, my friends and I somehow found playing “Sonic the Hedgehog” on the SEGA Genesis video game console when we were younger more compelling than reading James Fenimore Cooper. Where did this cultural gap come from? A new book by Katerina Clark examines how the Soviet fascination with world literature began in the 1930s as Soviet leaders and intellectuals tried to cast Moscow as a cosmopolitan beacon of secular culture for the world. This mindset during the Stalinist era must have, it seems to me, influenced my parents’ generation to become voracious readers.

Soviet life is still a rich field for contemporary historical study and literature. But the Western imagination is more captivated by an earlier time in Russian history: the dynasty of the Romanovs. Robert K. Massie has just published a book titled Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. His previous biography of a Romanov monarch, Peter the Great, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Catherine continued the project begun by Peter of making Russia one of the preeminent nations of Europe and was friends with the likes of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and even John Paul Jones. Massie’s new work about the most influential female ruler in all of Russian history will likely remain the definitive biography on Catherine for many years.

Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation. Donald J. Raleigh. Relying on interviews of my parents’ peers, this book describes customs of education and political cynicism peculiar to that generation.

Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts. David C. Engerman. What happens to an industry of experts—such as Islamic Studies today—when the threat that they were trained to analyze evaporates?


Book coverWhen I think of Italy, I imagine the creativity of Florence during the Renaissance, the unrelenting power of imperial Rome, the jaw-aching eloquence of Ferrari automobiles, and the sexual fiascoes of ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. That is, I have a surface understanding of the nation. Fortunately, there are resources to enrich my knowledge of Italian history and culture. David Gilmour, for instance, has just published a work that presents a sensible observation. He describes that the unification of the regions of Italy into a single nation during the 19th Century masks the regions’ vast diversity. They can almost (and have for most of Italian history) constitute entirely different nations.

It was during those creative centuries of Italian city-states that the legendary Medici family held power in Florence. But before Cosimo de’ Medici founded the family dynasty in the 15th Century, his grandmother, an impressively strong woman in a man’s world, was making a name for herself in Italy. There have been few books written about Caterina Riario in English, but her devotion to strength and art are equal to that of her progeny. Elizabeth Lev’s new biography of Caterina, titled The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici, would make an enlightening introduction to the society of Renaissance Italy.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Stephen Greenblatt. During the Renaissance, a man rescued the last manuscript of a 2,000-year old poem that went on to influence many modern thinkers.

Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. Robert Hughes. This work is unique because the author mixes his own personal experiences of being in Rome with historical facts to create an inviting narrative.

Material culture

Book coverI naturally gravitate toward abstract ideas when thinking about history. But reading Matthew B. Crawford’s excellent book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, and watching Pawn Stars on the History Channel has made me think more about artifacts, how we use them, and how we think about them. Crawford rightly says that humans often think more clearly and honestly when they are interacting with the physical world (compare repairing a motorcycle to managing office politics).

Paul Koudounaris’ new book, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, uses artifacts from the past to explore a subject that most of us are loathe to remember: death. The publication is peppered with stunning photographs of churches decorated with hundreds of human skulls, an uncomfortable reminder of former generations in Europe that were intimately familiar with the constant visitation of death in their communities. A cool book to contemplate an idea we’d all like to forget.

A History of the World in 100 Objects. Neil MacGregor. Written by the director of the British Museum, this gorgeously-printed book may help one realize just how many stories exist within mere artifacts.

Pilgrimmage. Annie Leibovitz. Leibovitz, an accomplished photographer, roamed to places that were symbolic for her—such as E. Dickinson’s home—and took pictures. “It taught me to see again,” she said.

Current events

Book coverI didn’t know you could ‘polish a turd’ until I read President George W. Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points. The former leader actually makes an administration that my peers and I had grown to hate sound fair and sympathetic. He reminds the reader that, though he may have been hated at home and in the Middle East, he was revered in Africa for his massive initiative to combat the AIDS epidemic. The book elicited complex emotions, and I realized that the decisions he was faced with (Bush was, after all, The Decider) were not as simple as I had thought of them in college.

So now I am interested in learning more about the context of the tumultuous Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, has just published an autobiography, titled No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington. It’s a hefty 784 pages. By comparison, George W. Bush’s memoirs were 512 pages (half the length of Bill Clinton’s), and Rice appears to give the blow-by-blow decision-making details that I was futilely looking for in her boss’s book.

Awakening Victory: How Iraqi Tribes and American Troops Reclaimed Al Anbar and Defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq. Michael Silverman. A participant recounts the (seemingly unlikely) turning point of the Iraq War.

The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade. Andrew Feinstein. It doesn’t take a wild imagination to fathom the scale of corruption in this shadowy industry. Feinstein exposes the world of arms dealers.

United States before 1900

Book coverIn one of my college classes, a student once delivered a passionate presentation of why he thought James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, was a masterpiece. He handed out a piece of paper describing the plot and symbols of each chapter of this notorious slog of a book. My classmate’s heartfelt and skillful defense of Joyce’s greatness made me want to actually attempt to read Joyce. A writer who does this—enliven something old—well is Tony Horwitz, author of the acclaimed Confederates in the Attic. Horwitz has just published a second book about the Civil War whose subject is John Brown’s band’s ambitious raid on the Harper’s Ferry federal armory in 1859.

Like hearing about Joyce, reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book, Why Read Moby-Dick?, would possibly reduce my initial repulsion toward another great classic (I’ve unsuccessfully tried to read Melville on numerous occasions). Philbrick’s book, unlike Moby Dick itself, is immediately interesting from the first page. Melville, I find out, references himself as the author writing the novel (“fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1850”) in the middle of his whale story. Intriguing.

Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War. Eliot A. Cohen. Colonial wars around Canada shaped the U.S. military’s tactics and traditions.

Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, The Bill of Rights, and The Election that Saved a Nation. Chris DeRose. In a forgotten election, Madison barely won a congressional seat that allowed him to champion civil rights.

An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears. Daniel B. Smith. After Pres. Jackson force-marched the Cherokee Indians off their land, many of them tried to assimilate into white society. This is their story.


Book coverEver since reading Paul Fussell’s excellent work, The Great War and Modern Memory, I’ve felt an affinity for the generation that participated in World War I. Soldiers in the trenches, the “poor bloody infantry”, had to stare raw-eyed every sunrise and sunset to the other side of earth-churned no man’s land for signs of enemy movement. The dramatic colors of the horizon-hugging sun came to symbolize dread rather than beauty. The war destroyed centuries of Europe’s best ideas and aspirations. In a new book, Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the academy that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, retells the experience of twenty people from multiple backgrounds who lived and wrote during that war.

The flattening to the earth of Europe’s optimism preceded wildly experimental art forms like jazz and abstract art. The shattered soul sought redemption for years of suffering. One such hopeful enterprise was the race to be the first person to climb to the highest point on earth—the top of Mount Everest. In a new book, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis describes one expedition—comprised of an expert mountaineer and a novice 22-year old Oxford scholar—that left in June of 1924 and was never heard from again. Davis argues that such quests had their origins in European imperialism but also gave a nation shattered by the experience of World War I a new symbol of hope and achievement.

Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure. Tim Jeal. No one ever knew from where the Nile flowed until a stouthearted group travelled through Africa to find “the source”.

The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes. Scott Wallace. We’re still living among explorers. The book begins in the author’s Manhattan apartment and takes him to the frontier.

Notable mentions

Socrates: A Man for Our Times. Paul Johnson. Socrates is the protagonist in the writings of my all-time favorite author: Plato. This book tries to resuscitate yet again the memory of Europe’s greatest ancestor.

Guerrilla Leader: T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. James Schneider. Lawrence was tasked with inciting a foreign uprising. His story is a study in shrewdness and entrepreneurship (and also PTSD).

Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945. Max Hastings. This one-volume history of World War II is great because it incorporates epic conflicts often forgotten in the West: the wars in the Soviet Union and China.

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945. Neill Lochery. Neutral Portugal during WWII was host to a bizarre drama of Nazi and Allied spies living alongside exiled royalty and refugees.

George F. Kennan. John Lewis Gaddis. This is an intimate biography of the complex man who outlined the “containment doctrine” that led to American wars in Korea and Vietnam, both of which he opposed.

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