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New books from the Univ. of N. Carolina Press (Spring 2016)

Posted in African, American, Blogs, Imperialism, Podcasts, Politics, Storytelling by Alex L. on January 11, 2016

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Today let’s look at a small selection of upcoming new history titles from the University of North Carolina Press (UNC Press). Again, these are works that struck my curiosity from their catalog rather than books I have already read.

First up is The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century by Jon Grinspan. This one is interesting because we are in an election season, and young people of my generation don’t vote (but they should! though I am sometimes guilty of this myself) as often as their elders. I never would have thought that this was not the general trend in earlier times.

The next original work is The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina by Sean M. Kelley. The events described in the book took place in the mid-1700s and explores an overlooked segment of African-American history: the first-generation slaves brought to the American continents.

Finally, for anyone interested in podcasts and the new upsurge in popularity of talk radio, this work by Jeff Porter could be a worthwhile read: Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling. Today’s great podcasts have their roots in the shows of storytellers who honed this craft on the airwaves when radio first became widespread in the early 20th century. This is their story!

Thanks for “tuning in” to these new blog posts. I will continue to look at new history works from other university presses as well as from popular publishers in the days to come.

New history books from Knopf (2015)

Posted in American, Ancient, Books by Alex L. on January 9, 2016

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Knopf is one of my favorite publishers because of their consistently high-quality printing and selection of titles. Here are a few books that stood out to me from their new history releases in 2015. I should also mention that in these types of post, I’m not reviewing the works (I have not read them) but rather indicating which ones have caught my eye among their list of newly-minted works.

The first is Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh. Although I am somewhat of a religious man myself, I recognize that religion in history has often been an oppressive and reactionary force. During such times, atheists and agnostics have done a lot to help move society forward. This work interestingly takes a look at philosophers and others who went against the grain of the theism of their times during the ancient epoch.

Next up is Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History by Bernard Bailyn. I know Bailyn from his highly influential work of scholarship titled The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1968). Unfortunately, I was bewildered by the dense writing style of that latter classic when I tried to read that work in college, so hearing what Bailyn has to say about the artistry of history writing would be interesting indeed.

Finally is Joseph J. Ellis’s work, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789The presidential campaign season in the U.S. always funnels me back into political inquiry, just as it is doing in 2015-16. The U.S. Constitution is frequently evoked by the presidential hopefuls, often in ways that are false in relation to the historical context. Reading about the time when the Articles of Confederation were in effect before the Constitutional Convention–which Ellis’s book focuses on–would shed some light on the true context of the issues that inspired the U.S. Constitution.

Tomorrow, I hope to take a look at some of the new offerings from the University of North Carolina Press, a powerhouse of classical studies.

New books from the Univ. of Wisconsin Press (Fall 2015)

Posted in African, American, Books, Culture, Imperialism by Alex L. on January 8, 2016

History off the Book header

Today I’m going to briefly look at a selection of the Fall 2015 offerings related to history published by my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There are three books that particularly caught my eye. Two of them are related to African-American Studies and the third is about colonialism.

The first, called A Mysterious Life and Calling by Crystal J. Lucky, is an autobiography of a female ex-slave who later became a minister and civic leader during and after the Reconstruction era. This memoir–the first of its kind since most female slaves were forbidden from learning to read and write–was also discovered very recently buried away in a dusty archive. This is always exciting: unearthing new first-hand accounts that may have otherwise been lost to history.

The second interesting work, Living Black: Social Life in an African American Neighborhood by Mark S. Fleisher, debunks the stereotype often peddled by the likes of Fox News that “[poor black neighborhoods are] dysfunctional ghettos of helpless and hopeless people.” It’s particularly interesting for me because the author studied a neighborhood in Illinois, my home state.

Finally, Richard L. Robert’s Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks: African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africa analyzes what to me has always been somewhat of a mystery. That is, how the European powers were able to govern vast swathes of continents — their empires — with only a relatively small amount of Europeans (compared to the local population) actually living in the colonies. Roberts’ work looks at the network of locals in colonial Africa that staffed the lower rungs of the European-made bureaucracy.

That’s it for today! Tomorrow, I hope to look at some interesting history titles recently put out by the publishers at Knopf.

Eddie Rickenbacker: A very interesting life

Posted in American, Books, Technology by Alex L. on March 25, 2014

I’ve always found the historical figure of Eddie Rickenbacker very interesting. In one person, in one life, he combines a lot of the things that really stir my imagination: aviation (he was the leading U.S. ace in WWI), Indy car racing (he was one of the earliest competitors in the Indy 500), airliners (he was an executive of Eastern Air Lines), and the entrepreneurial spirit (he had other business enterprises, including an automobile company).

Back in Chicago, I have a book about the exploits of Rickenbacker’s 94th Aero Squadron called Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War. I began reading it before coming to Edmonton and thought it was really good. Unfortunately, they don’t have it at local libraries here so I picked up W. David Lewis’s biography (Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century) instead.

Lewis, an elderly professor of history, combines years of scholarly experience with a childlike fascination with the figure of Rickenbacker that dates to his youth. He seems to provide a balanced view of the man, revealing his positive and negative qualities.

Belarus and WWII remembrance

Posted in Russian, War by Alex L. on March 11, 2014

I’m taking a course this semester about the historical memory of World War II. Today we focused on Belarus in particular and how the Lukashenko government has fostered a constant remembrance of the war as a political tool. This topic is of particular interest for me as I myself am from Belarus.

The readings and discussion today made me realize my own biases about World War II, having first learned about it while growing up in the Soviet Union. The Lukashenko narrative of the war, which is similar to the former Soviet narrative, ignores the multiplicity of Belarusian experiences of the war – there were Soviet Communists but also Belarusian nationalists, ethnic minorities, Nazi collaborators, and people who were neutral during the war and were only trying to live through it.

These new perspectives are challenging for me because I grew up on the black-and-white, good vs. evil perspective about the war. But I’m coming to realize that especially in the “borderlands” of Europe – places like Belarus and Ukraine – the clash of nationalism with imperialism created a really messy set of choices and circumstances for the common people during the 1940s. And judging by recent events in Ukraine, the same general trend still seems to apply today.

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An insider’s view

Posted in American, Books, Foreign Affairs, War by Alex L. on September 5, 2013

The Way of the Knife coverI find current events much more interesting when I feel like I have an insider’s view of the news. I think it comes down to having a certain sense of comprehension or even control of what’s going on in the world. Sometimes I lapse into a mindset of believing that the forces that move events around the globe are incomprehensible to those that are far from the centers of power. At that point, I begin to lose interest in current events and politics for a while.

Then certain experiences snap me out of this apathetic stupor. Once, it was watching the excellent movie Blood Diamond. More recently, it was watching the show Homeland and then reading Mark Mazzetti’s work, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. Mazzetti is a journalist for The New York Times that has really dug deep into the foundations of several powerful institutions to create an insightful story about America’s new way of waging war.

In my opinion, The Way of the Knife is superbly written. It reminds me of perhaps my favorite work of nonfiction, The Metaphysical Club. Both books follow a kind of formula which has the effect of gluing my attention right to the narrative. And that formula is:

  1. Chapters that can stand on their own as individual pieces of excellent writing;
  2. Brief but revealing biographical stories of the characters (even minor ones) mentioned;
  3. The threads of each chapter tied loosely together into an overarching thesis or general idea.

My goal is to get better at this style of writing myself. When done well, I think it can make almost any historical topic interesting to read about.

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The first restaurants

Posted in Books, Culture, European, Reading by Alex L. on August 29, 2013

Invention of the Restaurant coverAcademic writing does not necessarily have to be boring. I was reminded of this while reading Rebecca L. Spang’s book on a specific subject in French history, titled The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. I picked this book up at the library because I have been interested in cooking lately, and one of the best ways for me to sustain my curiosity in a topic is to learn about its history.

One of the first recipes in a cookbook that has inspired my recent culinary adventures, Classic Techniques for Fine Cooking, is a beef consommé. This meal, if prepared correctly, takes many hours to make and produces basically a light appetizer of delicious broth with a few veggies thrown in for substance. It seems almost like a waste of time, but I found out that these clear soups have a special place in the history of French cuisine.

The first restaurants were opened in France in the eighteenth century and served these clear soups exclusively. These restaurants capitalized on the popular beliefs of the time that those suffering from weak digestion or “weak chests” could restore themselves with cups of bouillon, which had all of the flavors of meat and vegetables without their actual substance.

Spang traces this development in The Invention of the Restaurant. Because she incorporates biographical information and cultural detail into her narrative, her work still appeals to the public even though it’s written in an academic style. I’m enjoying reading this book, and it inspires my experiments in both the kitchen and in the library.

“The Hunley” movie

Posted in American, Film, War by Alex L. on February 16, 2013

Close up of Mort Kunstler's painting, The Final Mission

Having moved back from New York City, I discovered  that my familiar public library in northwest Chicagoland got a facelift. The wall between the children and adult sections has been torn down, creating a pleasant sense of open space. While browsing there last week, I chanced upon a movie I had never heard about before: “The Hunley.”

A TNT movie from 1999, it didn’t win any awards for acting (though it did win an Emmy for sound editing). I enjoyed watching “The Hunley” because it recreates what it may have been like to serve aboard the first effective combat submarine in history. Starring Armand Assante, it has a bit of an action movie feel to it. For a film taking place inside of a weapons platform propelled by the underwhelming power of half a dozen men cranking away at the propeller shaft by hand, the high-intensity aesthetic is a bit of a mismatch. (more…)

New history books (August-December 2012 edition)

Posted in Books, Reading, Russian by Alex L. on December 31, 2012

History off the Book header

Below are new books published in the second half of 2012 that seemed to me like really interesting reads in my favorite fields (ancient philosophy and military history). This is a condensed version of my typical monthly books post, but I hope to return to my usual reviews and previews again next month.

December

Churchill and Seapower. Christopher M. Bell. Churchill was a leading naval strategist in both the First and Second World War. This is the first systematic study of his role in naval affairs and should be an informative read.

Aviation (rarities)

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander

Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal by Roger Letourneau and Dennis Letourneau

The North African Air Campaign: U.S. Army Air Forces from El Alamein to Salerno by Christopher M. Rein

Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton

Blue Moon over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis by William B. Ecker and Kenneth V. Jack

Notable mentions

Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy by Ronald Utt

Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece by Ian Worthington

The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken

(more…)

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‘Low work’ over the Western Front

Posted in European, Reading, War by Alex L. on October 18, 2012

Winged Victory book coverComedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that the mark of a great joke is that it stays with you long after the first hearing. There’s something about its premise or symbolism that makes you see the world — or some small part of the world — differently. A great poem functions in a similar way, wrote Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. I also feel this way about Victor Maslin Yeates’s autobiographical novel, Winged Victory. I will never think of aerial warfare during the First World War in the same way after having read this book.

It’s not just that Yeates describes the historical moment well. Tom Cundall’s, the protagonist, two flight commanders (Captains Beal and MacAndrews) seem to me like literary recreations of two of the Royal Flying Corps’s legendary aces. Their names even sound similar to the real historical figures. Captain Beal seems to represent Albert Ball, one of the RFC’s earliest heros. Like Ball, Beal is seemingly fearless in accomplishing his gruesome work. Thousands of machine gun bullets fired in his general direction don’t seem to faze him: he is a rare specimen in war. Both the historical and literary figure die in the war, unable to beat the odds against such reckless courage for too long.

The character of MacAndrews (“Mac”) seems to represent the British ace and winner of the Victoria Cross, James McCudden. After Albert Ball’s death, McCudden became one of the leading stars of the RFC. His tactics differed vastly from Ball’s lone-wolf gallantry. McCudden developed the principles of aircraft working in concert with one another to press their advantage against an enemy air formation. If the advantages were not there, McCudden would have no qualms with fleeing the field of battle to fight another day. Through these characters, Yeates gives us an insider’s view into the real-life heroes of the Royal Flying Corps. (more…)