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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

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.

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New history books from Knopf (2015)

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

History off the Book header

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 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…)

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).

Russia

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). (more…)

New history books (March 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books by Alex L. on April 21, 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).

Soldiers’ stories

Book coverGreat books temporarily lend the reader a new set of senses to experience a different reality. Sometimes as readers we recognize the types of books that propel us into a world that we have learned to enjoy, and we crave this release. Often I want to read military memoirs and observe how courageous individuals dealt with extreme adversity in moments of intense pressure. Of course I am witnessing their stories from a comfortable distance (often from a comfortable couch too) but then again I wouldn’t want to actually go through what those soldiers did firsthand. I just finished reading Tom Johnson’s excellent memoir, To the Limit, about his service as a Huey helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. It gave me — a fixed-wing aviation buff — a newfound appreciation for the skill and warrior spirit of military helicopter pilots.

In February, Vietnam veteran Philip Keith published a book about a unit of tank troops in Vietnam — part of the Blackhorse Regiment — that responded to a distress call from an encircled company of American infantry. This group of men who fought through the enemy-held jungle to rescue their countrymen was not publicly recognized for their courageous deeds until 2009 when President Obama awarded their outfit the Presidential Unit Citation. Accounts of tank combat are inexplicably rare and Keith’s seems like an engrossing one. (more…)

History off the press (October ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Ancient, Books, Economics, European, War by Alex L. on November 22, 2011

New history books header, October 2011

Swords to plowshares

President Obama recently announced that the United States will recall all of its armed forces personnel from Iraq by the end of 2011. This is a strange outcome for those of us who remember the seemingly insurmountable setbacks created by the insurgency before the 2007 surge of American troops unraveled the extremists’ grip on the country. It was hard to see back then that the situation in Iraq could improve. But it did. The following books explore in a unique way the nature of organized violence in the contemporary world.

Book coverAlthough we may not realize it from all of the news dispatches dripping with depressing forebodings of disaster either due to economic or glacial meltdown, there are reasons to be optimistic about the current state of the world. Joshua S. Goldstein, in a new book called Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, makes the case that the human race is freer from war now than it has ever been. The facts tell a counterintuitive but inspiring story: there are currently no nations at war in the world (only civil wars are going on) and last year had one of the lowest death rates from armed conflict in history.

Along similar lines, Steven Pinker has just published a similar work. Pinker makes the same observation – “we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence” – but approaches the subject from the perspective of psychology, his field of study, rather than international affairs. Both of these perspectives are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear a pundit on cable news or a sensationalistic author prophesying apocalypse for Western civilization just to get your attention. (more…)

History off the press (August ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Christianity, Literature, Politics, Psychology, Reading by Alex L. on September 18, 2011

New history books, August 2011

Have your relatives ever told you stories about your ancestors that made you reevaluate your own identity? My grandmother once told me that her father (my great-grandfather) possessed a mellifluous voice and staged concerts for his fellow Allied soldiers imprisoned in a German POW camp during World War I. Hearing this story, it made me question how genetic quality could dissipate so quickly, for my vocal chords can’t produce a single melodic note if my family’s honor depended on it.

Like talking to our grandparents about departed relatives, reading history can change our perspective about our own selves or our community. I selected the books for August (remember, these are previews, not reviews: I have not read these books yet) that drew me in either because they addressed a need for self-knowledge or promised to inform me about the world around me. As a result, almost of them, I noticed later, have to do with U.S. history. But I think our subjectivity is what lights our interest afire. Our bias is our personality, and without it history narratives wither before us like dehydrated fruit.

New York City roots

For several months, I’ve had an itch to discover “literary” neighborhoods in Chicago. Seeking counsel, I asked fellow Chicagoans (full disclosure: I live in the suburbs, not the city proper) where writers live or congregate in the Windy City. No one had an answer, which made me despair that the only destination for writers in the United States was prohibitively-expensive Manhattan. (more…)

History off the press (July ’11 edition)

Posted in African, American, Ancient, Books, Middle Eastern, Storytelling by Alex L. on July 20, 2011

"America Walks Into a Bar" book coverOne of my favorite things about reading good history books is that it changes the way you see your environment. Familiar places become more exciting, strangers begin to seem more intriguing, traveling becomes a richer experience, and, if you’re lucky, some of one’s ignorant assumptions are challenged and replaced with insights. It’s like discovering again the sense of wonder about the world that we all had as kids.

The new history books published in late June and early July of this year promise to stretch our minds and offer us to look upon our world with new, unwearied eyes. As I mentioned in the first “History Off the Press” post last month, the books I will feature here were or will be published in late June or July; this list is neither exhaustive nor objective; and I have as yet read none of these publications (except for maybe a preview of the first few pages on Amazon.com).

Rivals of the ancient world

Without imagination, historical evidence seems dull and tragic. We can’t help but feel a patronizing condescension toward our ancestors, whose eroded remains of buildings look like something a child sculpted from sand on a beach and whose stories and myths sound like the imaginings of acid trippers or chauvinistic patriarchs or both.

What I like about Andrea Carandini’s new book, Rome: Day One, is his almost playful combination of taking ancient myths seriously and using colorful narrative writing to vivify the ruins of the ancient imperial city in Rome. Carandini uses the archaeological evidence to argue that the myth of the founding of Rome by Romulus is not far from the truth, that “a king whose name might have been Romulus founded Rome one April 21st in the mid-eighth century BC, most likely in a ceremony in which a white bull and cow pulled a plow to trace the position of a wall marking the blessed soil of the new city.” (more…)

History off the press (June ’11 edition)

Posted in Academia, American, Books, European by Alex L. on June 13, 2011

The Greater Journey coverThere are perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of books about historical subjects published every month. This is counting neither the books in foreign languages nor the voluminous scholarly and journalistic articles about history. Trying to follow almost any trend in our well-connected world is a laborious process, and keeping track of newly-published history books is no exception.

What helps me is keeping in mind that history books are not published in a cultural vaccuum. Behind almost every good history publication, there is a continuation going on of a fragmented communal dialogue about the subject. That is, the author is responding to some ideas and stories that previous authors had written about the same historical topic. Sometimes the author may present an argument that contradicts most of what other authors had written before him. At other times, history books are written more in an expository rather than a persuasive style. But all too many history publications are dreadfully boring because the communal discussion about a topic – especially in the community of professional historians – has taken a turn for the “who cares?”

Personally, there are two main qualities that I really prize in a book of history. These are when an author:

  1. Chooses in writing his book to respond to a historical discussion that is intriguing and insightful, and
  2. Writes in a style that makes a skillful and effective use of narrative.

In this post, I will feature some history books published in May and early June of 2011 that seem like good reads. I came up with this list by browsing the Web for new releases and then evaluating their quality based on the books’ description and reader reviews. I found samples from new books rarely available online, so admittedly some of these authors’ writing styles may actually turn out to be terrible. Needless to say this list is subjective and not comprehensive, but my goal is to add some kinds of grains of context to new first-editions of history. Let’s begin with books about a topic I’ve written about recently: travel and exploration. (more…)