Category Archives: History

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville

When my book club chose China Miéville’s October: The Story of a Revolution as our November selection I was a bit surprised. You see, our club only reads nonfiction. Miéville’s body of work encompasses science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels.(His writing has been labeled by some as “New Weird”) He’s definitely a writer of fiction. But when I went to buy a copy of October I was surprised to learn it’s not a work of fiction but nonfiction. Yes, the multiple award-winning author of Perdido Street Station and Scar has truly branched out.

Published in May of this year, October is a month by month account of the tumultuous events of 1917, beginning in February when an unlikely alliance of workers, soldiers and women (many of them war widows) drove out the Romanovs and ending in November when the shaky Provisional Government was overthrown by Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks.

I thought I knew more than the average person when it came to the Russian Revolution but after reading October I learned the surprising degree of my ignorance. Heck, the stuff about Lenin alone could make for an interesting book in the hands of a gifted writer like Miéville. Perhaps most important of all, as several member of my book club pointed out how quickly these events unfolded and considering the contingent nature of those developments how easy it could had been for someone other than the triumphant Bolsheviks to have seized lasting control of Russia. General Kornilov and his conservatives, the Mensheviks or the teetering Provisional Government with only a lucky break or two could have wound up masters of Russia. All while the German Imperial Army stood a stone’s throw from Petrograd poised to deliver the final knock-out blow.

As I mentioned earlier, of all the historical figures portrayed in October, I found Lenin the most fascinating. (Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky could be a close second.) Fortunately for me, on this 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution two books about Lenin recently hit the bookstores, both by talented authors. Some of you might remember a few years back when I reviewed Catherine Merridale’s 2006 book  Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945. Her new book is Lenin on the TrainLast March I reviewed Tariq Ali’s novel A Sultan in Palermo. His latest book The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution was also released this spring. After reading October I can’t wait to get a crack at these two new books.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

The Magdalen Girls by V. S. Alexander

I know I’ve said it a million times but Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges. Because the rules of the challenge state each book must be by a different author and set in a different country it inspires participants to read books set in countries from across Europe. I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty cool.

I’ve made pretty good progress up to this point, reading and reviewing about a dozen books representing countries from the United Kingdom to Russia and everything in between. However, there’s still plenty of work to be done before the challenge wraps up on January 31, 2018. Last weekend, while searching my library for books to apply towards the challenge I came across a novel set in Ireland. Published late last year, The Magdalen Girls looked like a nice departure from the “deep thinker” diet of books like Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present and Peter Watson’s The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century I’ve been reading of late.

The year is 1962 and the place is Dublin, Ireland. After 16-year-old Teagan Tiernan is wrongly accused of having improper relations with a young Catholic priest she’s promptly sent away to the Sisters of the Holy Redemption’s laundry house. Forced to work in the laundry as “penance” for her “sins” she and the other imprisoned girls endure malnourishment, back-breaking labor, and physical and emotional abuse. Teagan soon realizes she needs to escape before she’s reduced to a broken shell of a human being like the rest of girls in the laundry. Passionately proclaiming her innocence she secretly conspires with two of the girls to escape.

Sad and maybe a tad melodramatic at times, nevertheless I enjoyed The Magdalen Girls. I found it fast-paced, decently written and possessing a few plot twists that I never saw coming. I needed something light and entertaining and The Magdalen Girls did not disappointment me.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan

You can probably tell from one of my earlier posts, I have weakness for Iranian writers. The crazy thing is even though I’ve read lots of Iranian writers, I’ve read few who write fiction. Clearly, if I’m to widen my exposure to Iranian writers I need to read more Iranian fiction. Therefore, when I came across Parnaz Foroutan’s novel The Girl from the Garden at the public library I figured it was an excellent opportunity to read some Iranian fiction.

Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran. After spending her childhood there her and her family immigrated to the United States, where she currently resides in LA. Her debut novel is set in the Iranian town of Kermanshah sometime in the first third of the 20th century and follows the lives of family of Iranian Jews. It’s told from the perspective of the sole surviving daughter Mahboubeh, now an elderly woman living in LA.

As much as I wanted to love The Girl in the Garden for whatever reason(s) it just wasn’t my cup of tea. This is a shame because I was excited to read a novel about a family of Iranian Jews living in pre-Revolutionary Iran. (In all fairness while reading The Girl in the Garden I was also reading several other books. Based on my personal experience a distracted reader is frequently an unfulfilled one. It wouldn’t surprise me if those literary distractions adversely impacted my ability to truly appreciate Foroutan’s novel.) But this first time novel shows considerable promise. I’m confident before I know it I’ll be reading one of her future novels and enjoying the heck out of it.

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Filed under Fiction, History, Iran, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: Reappraisals by Tony Judt

Tony Judt is one of those writers I’ve wanted to read, yet never have. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always wanted start with his multiple prize-wining Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 but I’ve been scared to do so since it’s well over 800 pages. Even my attempts to read his shorter books like The Memory Chalet and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century ended in failure because I had to return both books to the library before even starting them.

As you might remember from my previous post, I’ve been hankering to read some quality 20th century history. Therefore, during my recent flurry of book borrowing I decided to once again give Judt a try. In my quest to greater understand the 20th century a few weeks ago I secured a copy of Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century from my public library.

Instead of a conventional history book devoted to a selected time period that proceeds in tidy chronological order Reappraisals is a collection of essays, mostly in the form of book reviews for publications like the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Rest assured, these are not puff pieces but thoughtful and intelligent reflections on the notable personalities and key events of the last century.

Reappraisals isn’t light reading. Judt was erudite as hell and his writing reflects a rich and sophisticated vocabulary. While one might expect to find chapters on Pope John Paul II, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair in a book like this, perhaps only the extremely well read weren’t surprised to see lengthy essays on the life and significance of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Austrian-French novelist Manès Sperber and Polish philosopher and intellectual dissident Leszek Kołakowski. But for readers who want to learn and be intellectually challenged this book is ideal. Judt’s chapter length discussions on pivotal events like the Cuban Missile Crises, Six Day War or Fall of France are done with considerable depth and opinion. Reappraisals is definitely the thinking person’s guide to the 20th century.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Europe, History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Immigrant Stories: The Day of Atonement by David Liss

I’m sure you know by now I’ve been searching high and low for historical novelists whose writing an Alan Furst fan like myself can happily sink my teeth into. After having a modicum of success exploring the fiction of Jenny WhiteSam Eastland and Jonathan Coe I kept searching. Last June, by a stroke of good luck I discovered Tom Gabbay’s novel The Lisbon Crossing. Set in Portugal during the early years of the World War II, I found his 2007 novel the kind of thing an Alan Furst fan could enjoy. But while I generally liked it, I kept wondering what else could be out there? Could there be another novelist whose kind of historical fiction I could get into, just like that of Alan Furst?

This rather quirky quest of mine would take me back to Portugal, and to a writer I’d sadly neglected to consider. During one of my visits to the public library I found of copy of David Liss’ novel The Day of Atonement. Picking it up to do a quick inspection, I was intrigued by the novel’s plot: a Portuguese Jew, after fleeing Lisbon years earlier as a child returns to the nation of his birth masquerading as an English businessman. Remembering how much I enjoyed Liss’ earlier novel The Coffee Trader, I figured I’d also enjoy The Day of Atonement. Come to find out I was right.

The Day of Atonement is a well-written and fast-paced novel set in mid-18th century Lisbon, a city as picturesque as it is dangerous. Our hero navigates the city’s dim alleys and cut-throat bars not to conduct business per se but to exact revenge. But will he pull off his bold plan before being unmasked not simply as an imposter, but also a despised Jew?

With 10 novels to his name there’s no shortage of stuff by David Liss for me to read and hopefully enjoy. I can’t wait to do so.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Over the last couple of years I’d read a ton of positive things about Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. When one of the members of my book club sang SPQR’s praises I decided to read it, thinking it would end up being our club’s next selection. Luckily for me, I had no trouble borrowing a copy from my public library. Luckier still, the following month my book club voted to read it.

A month later when we met to discuss SPQR, overall I think the club was pleased with our choice, even if one member was critical of the book because, in his opinion, Beard took too general of an approach when presenting Rome’s history. I on the other hand enjoyed her book and there’s a good chance it’ll make my end of the year Best Nonfiction List.

Writing a readable, learned and relatively concise book covering 500 years of Roman history is a thankless job. Kudos to Beard for pulling it. SPQR is sweeping in scope, beginning with Rome’s origins as sleepy village in central Italy and ends with that sleepy village an empire straddling three continents. But there’s also plenty of detail as you see Rome go through the many phases of its development. At the same time, Beard takes a revisionist approach to telling Rome’s history, by looking as best as anyone can based on the available evidence on the lives of what we today might call the 99 percent: slaves, working poor, non-aristocratic women and the like. She also advises us when it comes to Roman history to be critical and not blindly trust what we’ve traditionally believed about Ancient Rome.

With many pundits weighing in of late on the current state of American Exceptionalism in the age of President Trump, perhaps its no surprise my strongest take away from SPQR is the notion of what I might call Roman Exceptionalism. I see this idea as two-fold. One, starting with its foundation myths, ancient Romans believed the city was founded by Romulus and Remus, two orphans from the nearby town of Alba Longa or by prince Aeneas after he fled the fall of Troy. Either way according to the state-sponsored mythology Rome was founded by outsiders. Secondly, as Rome expanded through territorial conquest and acquired additional population, the vanquished peoples to varying degrees were granted citizenship, regardless of race, location, or religion. Speaking of religion, as Rome expanded outward the gods worshipped by those the Empire conquered were gradually added to the Roman religious pantheon. Later however, Christianity upset this balance. Whereas most pagan religions were area-specific, Christianity was a universal faith with adherents across the empire. But it was its monotheistic nature that gave Romans fits. With Christians worshiping what they believed as the one, and only true god to them all other gods were figments or worse demonic impersonators.Therefore, by not making offerings to the gods of the state Christians were abandoning their civic duty of seeking the gods’ blessings of Rome. Troublesome as well, Christians refused to view deceased or ruling Roman emperors as gods or demigods.

SPQR is a terrific book and a must read for history fans. It’s inspired me to read more books on Ancient Rome, including James Romm’s Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero. It’s also inspired me to read the classics of Roman literature. I now want to read some Ovid, if nothing else just to read his advice on how to meet women. While I’m sure I could learn much from greats like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, after reading SPQR I’m itching to read Polybius. Not only was the man an impressive historian, but judging from one of his sayings he was the Dale Carnegie of his day. According to Beard, he once advised a Roman “don’t come back from the Forum without making at least one new friend.”

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Absalom’s Daughters by Suzanne Feldman

A few weeks ago I grabbed a half-dozen or so library books and one of them was Suzanne Feldman’s 2016 novel Absalom’s Daughters. Much like Stolen BeautyThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and The Sleeping World I discovered it at my public library while poking around the shelves of newly published and librarians’ choice books. Not only did the book’s attractive cover art grab my eye, I couldn’t resist the novel’s plot: a pair of half-sisters, one white and the other black taking a long road trip across the American South in the mid-50s. I must have grabbed the right book because once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.

The novel begins in a backwoods town in Mississippi when two girls on the cusp of womanhood learn of their estranged mutual father’s inheritance. Cassie, black (specifically biracial) and Judith, white set out for Virginia in a sputtering jalopy to claim their respective part of the family fortune. Not only must the two girls make their interstate journey with little more than a few dollars, an iron skillet and a Civil War era pistol but also carefully navigate the restrictive laws and social mores of the American South.

Billed as a novel that’s part coming of age tale and part buddy film while lightly seasoned with magical realism, Feldman’s debut novel is a fresh, witty and jaunty trek across America’s mid-century Jim Crow South. Feldman’s crisp writing, much of it vernacular, vividly portrays the region’s poverty, fatalism and unbridgeable racial divide. But at the same time, it’s also a novel about two impoverished young women of different races who nevertheless share the same father. As they travel across the South the girls’ respect and fondness for each other grows and those barriers, at least on a personal level become less insurmountable.

I was pleasantly surprised by Absalom’s Daughters and therefore I’m indebted to my public library for bringing it to my attention. Right now I’m unsure if it’ll make my year-end Best Fiction List (considering the great fiction I’ve read up to now, 2017 should be a strong year) but I assure you, if any of you end up reading Absalom’s Daughter’s I’m confident you wont be disappointed.

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Filed under Fiction, History