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New books about women in history (2014-16)

Posted in African, American, Books by Alex L. on December 14, 2016

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In the past, women have not often been the focus of historical studies. The following books shed light on their role in past struggles and events.

The first work is by Rebecca Traister and is titled, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Women in the United States are waiting longer to get married today. But the phenomenon of “single ladies” traces its history back to at least the 19th century, where the history of single women was intertwined with struggles such as temperance and abolition. It’s worth looking at this history to understand demographic changes today.

The second book is Cokie Roberts’s Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868, released in 2015.  After a war, women have often gained more independence throughout modern history because of their important role on the home front during the conflict. From Southern women leaving Washington, D.C. at the outbreak of the Civil War to the flood of Northern women coming to the capital to help out with the war effort, Roberts examines the changing place of American women during these tumultuous years.

Finally, we have The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney, which was published in 2014. This is the story of ancient Egypt’s longest-ruling female pharaoh, who cross-dressed the part of a king. Cooney looks at the political power plays that helped Hatshepsut rise to power (and stay there) and seeks to solve the mystery of why those that followed her sought to erase her from public memory.

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New books about early U.S. history (Fall 2016)

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

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Today we take a look at a selection of new books about U.S. history before the 20th century.

First up, we have Daniel K. Richter’s work titled, Trade, Land, Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America. From what I can tell, there are relatively few works being published about early colonial history. Richter’s book examines the different conceptions of trade, land, and power between Native Americans and Europeans on the North American continent, and how these different conceptions played out as the Europeans began to dominate their neighbors. In October, the paperback version of this book came out, which was originally published in 2013.

Next is Angelic Music: The Story of Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Armonica by Corey Mead. Have you ever rolled your fingers over the rim of a wine glass to produce a tone? Benjamin Franklin invented a musical instrument based around this idea–the glass armonica–that became so popular that the great composers of the day (such as Mozart and Beethoven) wrote music for it. Published by Simon and Schuster in October, this is a work of popular musical history, which makes it unique in my eyes.

Also published this October but by Knopf is Peter Cozzens’s The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. As one Amazon reviewer put it in writing about this Amazon Best Book of November 2016, “the Indians weren’t all good and the white people weren’t all bad.” The history of the American West is complicated, and this comprehensive (at 576 pages) new work picks it apart in a fresh way.

New books with unique approaches to religious history (2015-16)

Posted in Ancient, Books, Pagan by Alex L. on July 18, 2016

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Today’s selection of interesting new books ponders the origins of religious impulses and also their detractors. These works look interesting enough to read, in my humble opinion.

The first book is Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity, by Peter T. Struck, and it’s being published tomorrow, July 19. There has been a renewed interest in historical scholarship in what was once dismissively labeled as “magic” in history, and this book provides a deeper examination into divination–the reading of signs–as perceived by ancient philosophers. The thesis, in a nutshell, suggests that the philosophers saw divination as a form of human intuition and took it seriously, unlike academic scholarship until as of late.

In February of this year, Susan Jacoby published her book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Her approach looks at a slice of religious history related to the changing of faiths of various prominent people. Since faith exerts such a powerful influence in people’s lives, the locus where a person decides to accept one path over another seems like a worthy area of study.

Finally, published by Knopf last year, we have Tim Whitmarsh’s book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. The central theme of the work appears to be that atheism wasn’t invented during the Enlightenment but rather has its roots even in classical antiquity. As a religious person myself, such a book would be challenging (in a good way) to read, but I think it is important to remember the complexities of religious experience as well as the adherents of atheism that profoundly changed our world even for the better (such as Democritus, who posited the atomic theory of the universe).

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New books with alternate views on history (Spring 2016)

Posted in Books, Culture, Reading, Stories, Storytelling, War by Alex L. on May 28, 2016

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I’m always on the look-out for interesting perspectives on history. The books I will feature today are just such finds. I again have not ready them yet, but they do look intriguing enough to spend a few evenings with.

The first one is Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Author of The Perfect Storm, Junger in this later work–which came out on May 24–examines humans’ instinctual tribal affiliations and the powerful alienation that happens when modern society fails to organize itself into meaningful and productive tribes. I think that “tribe” is an interesting category with which to study history, and personally agree with the general points made about the importance of tribes to human life that are mentioned in the book’s synopsis.

The second book is Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World?, which was released on May 10. Chomsky is one of my personal heroes because, though I don’t always agree with him, he argues his points dispassionately and always buttresses them with hard facts. Although he usually takes an axe to established modes of thinking, I think there has been a growing awareness in society that America is not in the best of shape. Perhaps his and society’s views are converging. Either way, his perspectives are always provocative of thought.

I heard about the third work on the radio–fittingly, since it was published in April by StoryCorps. This is Dave Isay’s Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. I’ve been on a longish search for my own “calling” in life, so philosophical works such as this are appealing to me. It seems to be a collection of stories describing everyday people’s relationship to their work–some as humble as a popcorn seller at a baseball game (this is the one I heard about on the radio). It promises to be an inspiring look at human creativity in even the unlikeliest of places.

New books about colonial America, part 2 (2014-15)

Posted in American, Books, Politics, War by Alex L. on March 9, 2016

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Today we’ll look at an eclectic selection of books about colonial America in the second installment of this “series.” As I always like to mention, I have not read these books yet; I’m earmarking them rather as interesting works to check out later.

The first book is Revolution: Mapping the Road to American Independence, 1755-1783 by Richard H. Brown and Paul E. Cohen. This seems to be essentially an atlas for the Revolutionary War which uses the beautifully-designed maps made during that time period to tell the story about battles and other important events. In an era before photography, creative works like these help to better illuminate in our minds what happened during those important years.

Our second work is about perhaps as unique an individual as you can find in this era. Turk McCleskey has written The Road to Black Ned’s Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier. Ned Tarr was one of the first freed black landowners in America, was a community leader, decided to take two wives (both white women), and had to fend off efforts to reenslave him by his former master’s son. Sounds like a fascinating read about an individualistic personality in history.

Lastly, we have a work by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph J. Ellis, called The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, works like these about the Constitutional era, I think, are very important to dispel the myths that are thrown about by politicians about what ‘the Founders intended.’ Often those Constitutional era debates were as messy and varied in their arguments as any modern political discourse, so even grouping “the Founders” together into a single category can be a simplistic rhetorical trick that is not reflective of the variety of history.

New books about colonial America, part 1 (Winter 2016)

Posted in American, Books, Politics, War by Alex L. on March 7, 2016

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Today we’ll take a look at books about colonial- and revolutionary-era America that have come out this month or last.

First up is The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss. The tagline really caught my eye for this book — the events of 1721 prefiguring the revolutionary events of 1776. Also, in a fascinating twist, the author is neither a professional historian nor a journalist but rather works in marketing. Very unique, especially to be published by the likes of Simon & Schuster for his first book! This would be a good author to interview for my ever-elusive podcast.

Next up is Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution by Patrick K. O’Donnell. The work is about a single regiment during the Revolutionary War who fought a rear-guard action to protect and evacuate the rest of the Continental Army during the Battle of Brooklyn.

Finally we have The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government, written by Fergus M. Bordewich. I feel like books about the early American government are especially important today because “the Founders” are often invoked in an inaccurate way by our politicians to serve whatever agenda may be convenient for them. The truth is often more messy and complex than the mythologies and legends we may create about the past.

New books about revolutionary Russia, part 2 (2015-16)

Posted in Books, Russian, War by Alex L. on March 6, 2016

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After a hiatus, here’s finally the second part of the post I started in January, this time about the violence that befell Russia during and after the First World War. The books below are ones that sparked my curiosity; I have not read them yet.

The first is Joshua A. Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire, which was published last November. This work is particularly important because it was Russia’s failures in WWI that opened the door for the Bolshevik Revolution and hence subsequent developments (the Soviet empire, the Cold War, etc.).

Next up is a book for the enthusiast and specialist, The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 by David R. Stone. This work is valuable because scholarship about the eastern front conflict during WWI is scarce, and it essentially seems like a monogram about Russian efforts in that theater of war. Undoubtedly some of the recent works that have been published about WWI–even about the more obscure topics–are because right now is the centennial anniversary of that conflict.

Finally we have The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916-1926: Ten Years That Shook the World by Jonathan Smele, which came out last month. Speaking of obscure, the traumatic events of the Russian Civil War are not well known in the West, but they laid the foundation for Communist tyranny during the rest of the 20th century. The subtitle is a pun on the book, Ten Days that Shook the World, by reporter John Reed, a classic which sparked my interest as of late in the subject of the Russian Revolution after I read it a few months ago.

New books about revolutionary Russia, part 1 (2015-16)

Posted in Books, Culture, Politics, Russian by Alex L. on January 12, 2016

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Today and tomorrow we’ll look at recent publications about one of my favorite periods in history: Russia at the time of World War I. Part 1 will focus on books about society at that time, while tomorrow I will preview works about the war and revolution themselves. I have not read these books and am merely sharing here what looks interesting to me in recent scholarship and why.

The first work is called Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle and is by Alan Shandro. One of the most fascinating historical turns in my mind is how in 1917 a grassroots movement dominated by workers councils turned on itself through the hands of the Bolshevik leadership and stripped rights away that were promised to the workers in the early days of the revolution. This new work seems to shed light on how this was seen as politically necessary by the nascent Soviet leadership.

Next up is Rebecca Mitchell’s Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the Twilight of the Russian Empire, published merely a week ago on Jan 5. The German philosopher had very interesting ideas about music, believing it to be the one form of art that most convincingly created a ‘new reality’ in the mind of a person (from what I remember of my readings of Nietzsche). Mitchell’s book shows how Russia musicians took this to heart and yearned to find in music a different vision of life in contrast to the chaos going on around them in society.

Finally, the “heavyweight” of the bunch is the work, The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution by Dominic Lieven. The author is a leading Russian history scholar, but unfortunately the reviews of the book on Amazon seem a bit mixed between praise for original research and complaints about the style of the work. Nevertheless, I think the new ideas may be worth the slog if you’re interested in fresh scholarship about these historical events.

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

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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.