Category Archives: History

About Time I Read It: Pacific by Simon Winchester

Years ago my local newspaper featured a glowing review of a book whose author up to then had been a complete stranger to me. Judging from that review, Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary sounded like a heck of a book. Not long after it was released in paperback (and hearing some great word of mouth) I purchased a copy at Powell’s. From start to finish, Winchester’s 1998 book never ceased to entertain me. Who would have thought a book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary would make such wonderful reading?

Sadly, as much as I loved The Professor and the Madman I’ve read only one other Simon Winchester book. Back in 2011 I read his The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom and while I might not have enjoyed it as much as I did The Professor and the Madman nevertheless I found it an enjoyable read. Recently, I decided to give one of Winchester’s books a shot. Bestowed with the brief title and lengthy subtitle of Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, sounded like a book I could sink my teeth into. And believe me, I did.

Pacific is a kind of hybrid travelogue combining history, geography, geology, climatology and international relations. In his book Winchester show readers the diversity, greatness and rising geopolitical importance of the region encompassing the world’s largest ocean. Much like science historian, broadcaster and fellow Brit James Burke, for each chapter Winchester focuses on two seemingly unrelated historical events. But in the end, after showing both their connectedness and vital significance he ties the loose ends together thus creating an informative and entertaining book.

However, I’m concerned Winchester’s book might possess a few factual errors. Early on he calls the island Guam a republic, which according to Wikipedia is “unincorporated and organized territory of the United States in Micronesia.” Later in the book, when describing the 1975 Fall of South Vietnam he describes Saigon being surrounded by Viet Cong army units as opposed to North Vietnamese troops. Lastly, he includes Germany as one of the European nations possessing colonies in South East Asia. With the exception of a few South Pacific islands and the settlement in Shandong, China Germany had no territories even close to South East Asia. (Unless of course you want to count German New Guinea.)

Lapses in fact-checking or not, Pacific is a pretty good book. It also makes a worthy companion read to Robert Kaplan’s 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American PowerWith Pacific under my belt, I think I’ll finally tackle Winchester’s 2010 offering Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. If that’s the case, get ready to see yet another Simon Winchester book featured on my blog.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, History, Japan

Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

It was hard to resist Jonathan Rabb’s novel Among the Living when I came across a copy last week at my public library. What could be more intriguing than a 30-something Holocaust survivor thrust into the Jim Crow world of Savannah, Georgia?

Among the Living begins in 1947 with the arrival in Savannah of Czech Jew Yitzhak Goldah. After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust he comes to live with his American relatives, Abe and Pearl Jesler, a middle-aged childless couple. Despite their initial awkwardness the Jeslers welcome Yitzhak with open arms, not only providing him with employment but also introducing him to their friends, business associates and fellow members of city’s Jewish community. Thankful nonetheless for the Jesler’s hospitality and with it a chance to restart his life, Yitzhak soon learns the city is riven both racially and religiously. As an outsider who’s experienced firsthand the racist atrocities of the murderous Nazis he must learn how to navigate the circumscribed worlds of white and black. If that isn’t challenging enough, even Savannah’s Jewish population is fractured with the city’s Conservative and Reform communities having little, if anything to do with each other. This animosity becomes apparent when he attracts the attention of an intelligent and beautiful young widow from the city’s Reform congregation.

Overall, I enjoyed Among the Living and now I want to read more of Rabb’s fiction, especially his historical thriller Rosa. (Come to think of it, for that matter his entire Nikolai Hoffner series.) It’s also rekindled my interest in reading Ghita Schwarz’s 2010 novel Displaced Persons because it also features Holocaust survivors. Perhaps sometime in the near future you’ll see a few of these novels featured on my blog.

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Filed under Fiction, 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’s” 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