New history books (April 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Russian, War by Alex L. on June 5, 2012

History off the Book header

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 yet, and these are previews not reviews).


Book coverReaders of this blog may notice that my interests have lately been skewed toward the world wars (in particular the air and naval conflicts). When I was a boy my imagination was fired up by stories from my grandfather, who told me about his service as an aviator for the Soviet Navy during the Second World War. I suspect this was when I first became interested in history (I also remember my grandfather reading me a children’s book about the ancient origins of everyday objects, such as matchsticks and clothing irons). Stories about pilots during World War II were my Iliad and Odyssey: they helped me understand concepts such as friendship and courage when I was very young.

That’s why it’s particularly disappointing that there is hardly anything written in English about the air war on the Eastern Front during World War II. The struggle for dominance in the skies over Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945 was the largest and longest air campaign in history according to amateur historian Christer Bergström (whose two sets of books about this conflict — Black Cross/Red Star and The Air Battle series — are some of the only comprehensive histories in English on the subject). That’s why I was eagerly awaiting the release in late March of a new book by Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, titled Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II. An overhaul of a previous work, Red Phoenix Rising will hopefully do justice to the drama and significance of this struggle (Bergström’s works, if meticulous, are admittedly dry to read).

A Bride for the Tsar: Bride-Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia. Russell E. Martin. For two-hundred years, Russian kings chose their wives from a line-up of young aristocratic women they had never met before. This is the story of a strange and brutally pragmatic institution.


Book coverPossibly because Barack Obama is the first American president to be born in Hawaii, the state has recently been the subject of a small flurry of history books. In November 2010, Scott Ridley published a work about the late-18th-century voyage of John Kendrick to the Pacific. An overlooked explorer in U.S. history, Kendrick commanded an expedition to Hawaii and east Asia as one of the first unofficial American ambassadors to regions where America would steadily gain influence in later centuries. Julia Flynn Siler’s book, Lost Kingdom, published in January, focuses on the last monarch of Hawaii and her futile struggle for power with the white sugar-plantation barons.

Sarah Vowell is a quirky historian famous for such works as The Wordy Shipmates about Puritans in America. In March, she published the paperback edition of her book titled Unfamiliar Fishes, which looks at the history of Hawaii from the time when Europeans first landed there. Her funny and imaginative style of writing is a unique voice in the community of contemporary historians. If I were to read one book about the colonization of Hawaii, I’d read this one.

The health of nations

Book coverIt can be draining to observe the vast reams of current literature arguing the imminent downfall of America, western civilization, old-fashioned values, or other cherished institutions. Much of this writing, like a virus, just exists and gets reproduced for its own sake, living off of people’s fears and earning profits for its originators. But look beyond the sensationalist press, and you will find really valuable works of social criticism. An argument with some real bite has been recently presented by TV journalist Rachel Maddow in her new book: Drift. There Maddow tries to return the nation’s attention to America’s institutional predisposition toward long wars, what President Eisenhower famously called the “military-industrial complex.” This should be a subject of serious debate since, historically, empires such as the United States both underestimate the cost of prolonged imperial adventures and also cause populations of occupied countries great suffering in the process.

A new book I’m really excited about reading is Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. The authors, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, are economists with an eye for historical inquiry. They compare similar nations with one another to determine which factors cause failures and successes (e.g. North and South Korea). More than anything, I like that their approach questions the fatalism associated with such long-standing problem spots as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and the former Soviet states. Although several Amazon reviewers have criticized the authors for making too great theoretical leaps from the evidence that they present, I think Why Nations Fail should nevertheless be a worthwhile and thought-provoking read.

Detroit: A Biography. Scott Martelle. Prosperity does not last forever on its own. Places like Detroit and New York City present interesting case studies on how public policy may cause fortune to come and go… and sometimes come back again.

Notable mentions

The Social Conquest of Earth. Edward O. Wilson. This book presents a series of arguments about human evolution by an eminent biologist. Most interesting for me is this proposition: “history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology.”

Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization. Paul Kindstedt. You laugh, but this is the first contemporary book that I was able to find about the history of cheese. But, yes, I do happen to love cheese.

The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment. Forrest Bryant Johnson. Johnson’s is the first narrative of how the U.S. Army bought and shipped camels from the Middle East for travelling through the American West in the mid-19th century.

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Blaine Harden. This is a well-written account of how a young man born and raised in a brutal North Korean prison camp escaped to America.

Into Dust and Fire: Five Young Americans Who Went First to Fight the Nazi Army. Rachel S. Cox. Half a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, five Americans left the rolls of Ivy League schools to volunteer for the British army fighting to stop Nazi offensives in Africa.

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