Because of the having to wake up early thing and not being able to get back to sleep and yet not wanting to do anything particularly active, I seem to have read a lot recently. With one or two exceptions, it was all history all the time. The good news is that I've continued to be (fairly) restrained in the new book buying (except curse you, Oxford University Press and your seasonal sales), and because my latest acquisitions haven't yet arrived, my ratio on my Big List of Shame
is now about 1:1 of books read to unread. Just don't ask me how many books that actually translates to. (And I think the pressure on the dam is at the breaking point--any day now I'm going to break down and end up ordering 20 books from Amazon.)
John Kelly, The Great Mortality.
It seems somewhat wrong to call a book about the bubonic plague "lively" but there you go. A well-written account of a devastating moment in human history.
Alexandra Fuller, Don't let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
. Fuller, whose parents left England to take up farming in Africa, grew up white in Africa during the Rhodesian civil war. Vividly drawn portrait of her eccentric family, the African landscape and racism through a child's eyes.
Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World
. Bought this on a whim when I was visiting my parents. The writing irritated me at times and some of the overblown narrative devices tempted me to throw the book against the wall; it is very much written in the "popular" history vein, but the story of Magellan's trip around the world can barely be made uninteresting.
Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God
. A sort of sequel to the more famous Things Fall Apart
, set in the same fictional Nigerian village about a generation later. The clash of a native priest of the traditional religion with Christianity and the colonial authorities. I think I liked this even more than Things Fall Apart.
I've been acquiring various books in the Modern Library Chronicles
series, which are short histories on various topics, supposedly written by top scholars in each field. I am nothing if not a history dilettante, so the idea behind this series appeals to me. It also doesn't hurt that the books are bound in fabric and feel wonderful in the hand, reminding me of the books I used to check out from library as a kid. The books themselves are of varying success. I read my way through a few more of them.
- Frank Kermode, The Age of Shakespeare. Not the best one. I would have liked more history of the time period and the theater, less speculation and less (necessarily superficial by reason of space) discussion of the plays.
- A.N. Wilson, London: A History. I was actually bored and had to force myself to finish. Perhaps the topic was too big and focus too broad. Perhaps the writing wasn't that interesting. I skimmed parts of this because it wasn't holding my attention.
- Richard Bessel, Nazism and War. This was quite good. Well written and succinct without feeling light weight. The chapter on German attitudes after the war was particularly interesting.
- Michael Sturmer, The German Empire. I also liked this, although I probably should have read it before Nazism, since it deals with Germany from the founding of Empire after the Franco-Prussian War through the end of WWI and the founding of the Weimar Republic. (But I always was the kid that flipped to the end of a book first.) I was reminded once more of how little I know about Eastern European history.
- Continuing on what appears to be a trend, Ian Burma, Inventing Japan. Excellently written short political history of Japan from the arrival of Perry through about 2000, which focuses on Japan's interactions with foreign powers and how the Japanese state developed from a feudal shogunate into the country that we know from WWII, and then the aftermath leading to the modern country.
- Peter Green, The Hellenistic Age. I actually read this after Cartledge (see below), so for once I followed chronological order. Since the Hellenistic kingdoms were pretty much ignored in my formal education, Green’s Alexander to Actium is another book I’ve always meant to read, but at nearly 1,000 pages, it’ll be a while till I get around to it. This seemed a good compromise. Green is one of the better academic writers, but the book was simply too short for its subject to be truly absorbing. But the dynastic, power-mad machinations of Alexander’s Successors and their heirs are never boring, with the unstinting mix of war, incest, grandosity and murder. (The closer the blood tie, the more enthusiastic they were to kill each other.) Green takes a bleak view of the time period, and it all ends with the increasingly enfeebled the Greek world subdued by the rising power of Rome.
I still have a bunch of the Modern Chronicle books left, but I'll get back to them some other time. Yeah.
Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth
. Basically an essay on mythology. It was fairly interesting but lacked any depth and seemed shallow. I wasn't bored reading it, but it was rather disappointing.
Richard Fletcher, The Cross and Crescent.
Well-written, readable short study on the early interactions between Islam and Christianity. Fletcher writes with what should not be remarkable even-handedness and lack of political agenda, but given that the book was published in 2002, it is
sadly worthy of remark. This was a topic I studied in undergrad, so the book was of particular interest to me. Recommended.
George Mosse, Fallen Soldiers
. I was bored with this one, I'm afraid. I'm not sure if it was because I was particularly tired when I read it, but I think not. The premise is interesting--the study of the cult of the war dead that arose from WWI, which the author argues was instrumental in leading to WWII--but it did not particularly hold my attention through its analysis.
Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Sea
. I've always meant to learn more about China's treasure fleet, and so picked up this book some time ago. A fascinating account of China's naval adventures during the Tang dynasty, when a massive Chinese fleet made expeditions to India, Arabia and down the eastern coast of Africa. The Chinese fleet was more technologically advanced than ships produced by Western Europe until about the 19th century. Interesting to think of what the world might be like if the Chinese had not completely abandoned their overseas explorations and trade routes just as Europe was gearing up for the Age of Discovery.
Susan Whitfield, Life Along the Silk Road
. I seem to be reading in themes. This was an interesting experiment melding together history and fiction. Whitfield uses historical records and tells tales of various figures who lived or traveled along the Silk Road between the mid-8th to the 11th century, focusing on the eastern side. She fills in fictional details to make narratives out of the lives of the characters--some (all?) of whom are real historical personages. The narrative technique is not always successful and the voice of the tales sometimes wavers and is inconsistent, but the tales (each given a name reminiscent of Chaucer--i.e., The Soldier's Take, The Merchant's Tale, The Courtesan's Tale) are interesting enough to over look that. And the historical time period is an intriguing one. It would have been more balanced if she'd dealt a bit more with the west and the Arabs, but, as she states up front, her expertise (her focus is Dunhuang) doesn't extend to that area.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
. This time, Ehrenreich turns her attention to the middle class. Nothing new, but an incredibly depressing account of Ehrenreich going under cover as a middle-aged professional trying to get a white collar job in corporate America. Despite about nine months of effort, which includes career coaches, seminars, networking events, job fairs, image consultants and more (all increasingly surreal), she fails to get a single legitimate offer.
Paul Cartledge, Alexander the Great
. Not a straight biography of Alexander and probably not recommended for someone who doesn't already know the very basics of Alexander's life, since Cartledge doesn't always spend time giving the details of the incidents he discusses. The book is written thematically rather than chronologically, although the themes roughly follow the chronology (i.e., the chapter Alexander and the Macedonians comes before Alexander and the Greeks which comes before Alexander and the Persians). However, very readable, if a little light weight, and the jumping around was more successfully done than in his The Spartans
, probably because the scope of the book is much more focused.
R.K. Narayan, Malgudi Days
. Yes, fiction! These are wonderful short stories, which I savored at a pace of one a day or so for most of the month. I've always meant to read Narayan, and have finally have gotten around to it. The stories, set in Narayan's imaginary southern Indian town of Malgudi, are deceptively simple and full of gentle humor and compassion. Each is a small gem.
Since I've now gone back to my slovenly ways, reading pace will no doubt be returning to normal.