New books with alternate views on history (Spring 2016)

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

History off the Book header

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 revolutionary Russia, part 1 (2015-16)

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

History off the Book header

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 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.

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.

New history books (June 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Culture by Alex L. on July 24, 2012

History off the Book header

U.S. intellectual history

Mansion-of-HappinessWell-written books about intellectual history are rare, but I had high expectations of Jill Lepore’s new work, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Lepore is not only an academic historian (she is the Chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard) but also a regular writer for The New Yorker. Her latest book is a collection of her essays about how American ideals about life and death have changed over the past several hundred years. “[M]y argument,” Lepore writes in the Preface, “is that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the space age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy” (xi).

Of all the essays in the collection, the ones that stuck with me the most were her first and last. She begins the book with a blunt and powerful metaphor: life (the board game, that is). LIFE was part of my childhood collection of pixel-less games, which also included Stratego, Risk, Clue, Parcheesi, Thin Ice, and Go to the Head of the Class (all of which have recently been rescued from a mildewy corner of the crawl space in my parents’ house). But LIFE has a much more extensive genealogy than I realized before reading Lepore’s book.

The first board game of life in America was called The New Game of Human Life, and enjoyed popularity during the Revolutionary period. It reflected a much different view of living than the game that I played as a boy. “The [New Game of Human Life],” writes Lepore, “is a creed: life is a voyage that begins at birth and ends at death, God is at the helm, fate is cruel, and your reward lies beyond the grave. Nevertheless, to Puritans, who considered gambling the work of the devil, playing a game of life was, itself, an immoral pursuit” (xxi). (more…)

History off the press (September ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Christianity, Culture, European, Islam, Music by Alex L. on October 21, 2011

New history books, September 2011

Below the fluorescent lights of an auditorium, a professor lectures to students about current historical ideas gleamed from countless of hours of collective research and collegiate debates. A journalist, after decades of reporting on current events in a foreign land, publishes a book about a historical subject she deems particularly important to understanding what is happening there today. A popular film gets released about the past that lights up the public imagination to a certain era of history.

Public recollection of the past happens in many ways. To follow every one of these events, which occur daily, is almost impossible. But patterns emerge from observation, though understanding why they occur is sometimes difficult. In the following previews of new books, I hope to draw attention to trends in the public discourse about history. A more detailed look at the context and causes of these dialogues, though, requires further research.

Fighting to the last

Ever since I first heard the lyrics of Alexander Gorodnitsky’s song “Atlases”, the Siege of Leningrad has become elevated in my mind as an eternal symbol of people’s remarkable ability to endure suffering and emerge victorious. The symbols and metaphors of the song are ingenious. In the famous Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, there are sculptures of Atlas from Greek mythology that act as structural columns for a portico . The Soviet men and women who died to stymie the advance of Nazi warriors before Leningrad are, to Gorodnitsky, like the Atlases of the Hermitage, “up-holding the sky / with arms of stone”. (more…)

Reed-Turner Woodland

Posted in Culture, Stories by Alex L. on June 4, 2011

Close-up of nature photo courtesy of Dustin M. Ramsey (accessed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Morton_Arboretum_woodland.jpg)I have been watching reruns of Man vs. Wild lately. So when I saw the crumbling heap of a burned-down tree, my first reaction was to squirrel away some bits of its charcoal in my pockets. In a survival situation, these would be a valuable source of tinder to make a fire. But being twenty paces from my Ford Escort (and five minutes’ drive from the nearest Starbucks), I decided that I was not in a predicament to start hoarding the essentials.

Rather, I was in Reed-Turner Woodland, a small nature preserve in Long Grove, Illinois. It was early morning, and by whim I had turned into the woodland off of Old McHenry Road on my way to work. I parked my car in the empty gravel lot and decided to look around before resuming my commute.

Most of the forest preserves in this part of Illinois are bleak and dull. They usually occupy small plots. One gets the impression that there were no natural forests here before European settlement, or at least none worth saving. The trees leaf sparsely, and the new vegetation on the ground seems to struggle every spring and summer to overcome the decaying matter of the previous fall. If the municipal caretakers did not regularly remove dead trunks and carve channels into the riverbanks, then one can’t help but imagine that the streams would dry up and the forest itself would wither until the entire crumbling mass would finally be swept away in a prairie fire.

But Reed-Turner seemed different somehow. It was my first time there, and I decided that I had half an hour to explore the forest trails before continuing on my way to work. The trail started at the parking lot and sauntered along the edge of the woods. I hiked past the burnt-down tree – most likely culled by the village authorities because it grew too close to the road, I thought. Heading deeper into the small preserve, I heard occasional shuffling noises coming from left and right. This made me uneasy. The last time I hiked more than a day in real wilderness was five years ago. I was out of the habit and my mind feared the worst. Was that branch breaking a sure sign of a prowling coyote? Skunks and raccoons, too, would be unpleasant characters to encounter. (more…)

World War I and the unconscious

Posted in Culture, European, Psychology, Reading by Alex L. on April 9, 2011

Photo of an iceberg (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iceberg_Antarctica.jpg)I was in Barnes & Noble earlier today and, intrigued by the cover of the latest Time magazine (which oddly featured a full-page photograph of Abraham Lincoln), I realized that the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War is coming up in three days (April 12, 2011). Such numerically-significant anniversaries are rare occasions for the national discourse to turn and (briefly) examine the significance of history to contemporary life. I always seem to miss these kinds of precious discussions. Currently, I’m working through Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and am still on the early-20th-century wavelength (oh! where was the 150th anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter when I was reading Paul Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and was on my Civil War “kick”?).

Fussell’s book, though, is yielding too much nutritious food for thought to put aside. In the chapter titled “Adversary Proceedings”, Fussell quotes 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung for whom the First World War was such a such a strong influence that it crept into his dreams after (and, if we are to believe his enigmatic Red Book, even before) the war:

[Jung] dreamed that he was ‘driving back from the front line with a little man, a peasant, in his horse-drawn wagon. All around us were shells exploding, and I knew that we had to push on as quickly as possible, for it was very dangerous [. . .] The shells falling from the sky were, interpreted psychologically, missiles coming from the “other side.” They were, therefore, effects emanating from the unconscious, from the shadow side of the mind [. . .] The happenings in the dream suggested that the war, which in the outer world had taken place some years before, was not yet over, but was continuing to be fought within the psyche.’

Reading this quote by Jung made me think of something that has fascinated me about psychology for some years. Specifically, it’s been a mystery to me how widely the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and an iconic figure, were taken up by the Western world and how deeply ingrained some of them have become even though many of his theories were not very scientific. (more…)

The death of “high” diction

Posted in Culture, European, Reading by Alex L. on April 4, 2011

(Image links to Amazon.com) Photo of a soldier during World War ILike anyone who reads a lot of books written before one’s grandparents were born, the imaginary world of literature and history begins in the mind to contend with the perception of the immediate world of real life. Outmoded words begin to enter the vocabulary, and must be consciously prevented from escaping into the daylight of ordinary conversation. One instinctively knows that words like “valor”, “comradeship”, and “foe” have no place in everyday language (“How was your basketball game today?” “Oh, it was a great! My comrades and I vanquished the foe 3-1.”) though words such as these crop up in older writings all of the time. Like chivalry, these “high” forms of speaking are now dead. But what killed them?

This week, I started reading The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) by Paul Fussell, which describes the traumatizing shock that the First World War delivered to the Western psyche. To die with the millions of soldiers in combat was a European idea about the perfectibility of mankind and society. The effect of this collective experience lasts to this day, even in America.

The summer before the war, the summer of 1914, was memorable for its picnic-perfect weather. During these warm summer months, Europe (especially Britain, which hadn’t really seen war for a hundred years) breathed the air of chivalry, romanticism, and boundless self-confidence for the last time. The shock of the war to come contrasted so sharply with the idyllic season before it (Fussell describes at length in the first chapter how this dichotomy created a sharp and enduring impression of the irony of life on the Western psyche), that “the summer of 1914” would for many decades become synonymous with astonishing naiveness.

To illustrate how this change took place, Fussell relates a handful of the countless ironic (meaning, having one’s optimistic hopes about the future punished with exaggerated misery instead) experiences that soldiers witnessed during the war. Fussell quotes one instance from another author’s memoir: (more…)


Posted in Culture, Reading by Alex L. on March 30, 2011

(Image links to YouTube video) Screenshot from the Barats & Bereta comedic video, "To Do List"I used to get a lot more excited about goals that I set for myself than I do now. Now, I’ve grown to mistrust any kind of concrete goal to such an extent that, believe it or not, I still haven’t written down my New Years Resolutions for 2011 even though I fully intend to at some point (I like to tell myself).

This week, I’ve been reading Dave Goetz’s Death by Suburb, a study of how to improve a suburbanite’s “spirituality”. In his chapter titled “Inside Space”, Goetz discusses this idea of goal futility.

Not to echo here the disillusionment of Ecclesiastes (you know, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity”) but it seems impossibly hard to correlate happiness with goal achievement. The suburbs are a great illustration of this idea.

The suburban environment is one where individuals are cloistered into safe and sanitary housing units where each person creates goals, capitalizes on the abundant opportunities available, and then amasses the spoils of his labor in the form of goods or social status. It’s almost the epitome of “the good life”. And yet almost anyone who actually experiences this kind of lifestyle will feel some sort of dissatisfaction with goal achievement.

The new car just doesn’t seem so satisfying a few months after the purchase (but how much work went into affording it). The mansion seems a lot better as an idea than as a reality. Yes, the friends will be impressed, but why do I need to lord it (or anything) over them? And what do I admire about the thing itself – the spaciousness, the beauty of the woodwork and wall colors and flooring? The outdoors are spacious too and there are much more beautiful buildings to be seen in the city. I must just want to possess this immensity and this beauty as my own.

And yet these goals require so much – perhaps, all – of our work capacity to fulfill. For someone like me who always needs a plan to feel at ease with himself, it’s maddening that the things that really matter to us – love, vocation, relationships – we can’t really achieve by setting any kind of goals. Goetz thinks that relinquishing control and embracing silence can help a suburbanite find the peace of mind of which the achievement race robs us. I don’t know about this; I just think it’s maddening that we can’t goal-orient towards happiness.