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

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

History off the Book header

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

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 N. Carolina Press (Spring 2016)

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

History off the Book header

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 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.

On “The Cruel Sea” during WWII

Posted in Film, Reading, War by Alex L. on April 2, 2013

HMCS Regina, a Canadian Flower-class corvetteSailors who sailed on Allied corvette ships on the Atlantic Ocean during WWII had an interesting experience of war. Their days were filled with repetitive strain. Escort runs accompanying Allied convoys lasted several week at a time, each day being divided into four hour on-watch and four hour off-watch segments for the crew. The Flower class corvettes were the workhorses of these escort missions, but they were tremendously unstable in heavy seas. And in the North Atlantic, the weather more often found the sailors rocking and slamming against ship parts rather than enjoying leisurely calm waters.

This routine repeated itself endlessly for many servicemen for up to six years. The nature of the fight against their main enemy — German U-boat submarines — meant that they may only see their enemy face-to-face only a handful of times during the entire war. When the corvettes were alerted to the presence of U-boats, it was more often than not in the form of a merchant ship violently and suddenly exploding in the convoy. Then the rescue of survivors and the hunting of the U-boats would begin.

It was a lonely grind of a job. Most of the time, serving on an escort ship meant enduring the violent seas rather than fighting furtive German submarines. That is why Nicholas Monsarrat named his classic novel about two British escort ships in the Battle of the Atlantic The Cruel Sea. A movie was made in 1953 based on the book. I watched the movie first and then read Monsarrat’s novel. Both are excellent, but I enjoyed the film a little more. The latter, directed by Charles Frend, was a rare find for me because it’s the closest movie I’ve ever seen in terms of style to that other classic film of naval warfare, “Das Boot,” a personal favorite of mine.

For many years, I’ve been interested in submarine warfare during WWII. Reading and watching a film about the hunters on the other side of the periscope opened my eyes to the interesting experiences of the Allied sailors on corvettes, frigates, and destroyers who protected merchant convoys like shepherds against the wolves that lurked beneath the waves.

“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…)