Monday, February 15, 2010

Recent History books

I'm rather behind in reporting on my reading. To that end, I've decided to streamline things a bit by offering much briefer and joined reviews of recent non-fiction books. Hopefully I'll be able to give the literature all a bit more due to catch up, but I figure with this category there's probably reduced interest in the finer nuances of my reaction.

Without further ado, all the post-Imperial Russia After 1861 history-oriented books I've read this year:

Through Russia, Katherine Guthrie.
A nineteenth century travel account by a British woman touring Russia. Used for my dissertation research. To that end, it's quite intriguing, taking a female author rather than most of her contemporaries, allowing a different type of gendered dynamic in engaging with Russian men and women. In particular the dealing with issues of costume and security have rather different stance, and I think the insights on wider social life will be worth tracking. If reading it purely for leisure I wouldn't be terribly interested--too much repetition and generalization--but for my area of research it's invaluable. Additionally, judged by the standard of nineteenth century travel accounts, Guthrie's is pretty good. It's fairly thorough in describing different environments and encounters, the level of detail feels deft and it's more restrained than a number of works in declaring what the essential Russian character is based on three days of tourism.
Similar to and better than: Oliphant's Russian Shores of the Black Sea
Similar to and worse than: Ralston's Songs of the Russian People

The Provisional Government, V. D. Nabokov.
A primary source, a hundred page account written by the father of Nabokov the author. Describes his sense of the challenges and failures of the post-tsar, pre-Bolshevik government that the author contributed to. Somewhat limited in its scope of examination and for the detail brought to verify it's main findings. Still, it's a pretty self-aware and quite interesting account, builds a lot of information on things going on in 1917 that aren't given much light in broader histories. In particular, it's interesting to note the struggles in organizing the bureaucracy and political elite faced by a revolutionary government that didn't have the coherent (possibly fanatic) ideology of the Bolshevik's to draw on. Instead their government was a series of compromises, reforms, accomodations with existing power structures, corruptions and mistakes, the case of a liberal reformist movement standing between autocracy and violent one-party rule. In that there are clearly a lot of wrong paths taken, but they were not completely inept, and it's interesting reading this to wonder what might have happened if they'd had more time. Also intriguing to see how harsh Nabokov is with Kerensky, calling him a narcissistic psychopath at one point. Intriguing for me, in any case.

Similar to and better than: Imperial Russia after 1861
Similar to and worse than: Isaiah Berlin's Four Russian Thinkers

Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, Noam Chomsky.
From the 1990s. Has some devestating, well-argued and well-documented arguments against free market capitalism, and the level of violence, imperialism, poverty and exploitation that runs with this. Also good in articulating some of the grounds for confidence in challenging this, rather than merely casting doomsday scenarios. However, suffers from the classic structural problem of being a collection of shorter articles joined into one book, which causes a lot of redundnacy and a focus that's over-focused at points.
Similar to and better than: Iain Banks The Steep Approach to Garbadale
Similar to and worse than: Richard Morgan's Market Forces
Both novels, but in terms of arguments and overall tone they're closer than a lot of the relevant non-fiction.

Short Oxford History of Germany: Nazi Germany, edited by Jane Caplan.
Highly effective anthology, collects a lot of great specific insights and methodological approaches. There are two pieces that wander a bit and are weaker with credibility of their main arguments, but out of ten that leaves a strong ratio. Very effective as an intro to studying different facets of Nazi Germany, or as a primer on some of the more effective recent scholarship. Also contains very effective bibliography and references for further reading.
Similar to and better than: When Biology Became Destiny, ed. Renate Bridenthal
Similar to and worse than: Germany's Colonial Pasts, ed. Eric Ames

Facundo: Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants, Domingo Sarmiento.
Nineteenth century Argentinean primary source. Some interesting detail and sense of energy, but highly peachy and both as a history in its own rights and in aesthetic value it gets pretty poor in the second half. For my purposes, it's most interesting and valuable in just how messed up it is, from the racist readings of indigenous barbarians, the odd connections drawn between a country's geography and morality and the extreme description he gives of some of the political disorder. So in ways this was a source that succeeded in being useful to me in the measure as it failed as an effective text by its own definition.
Similar to and Better Than: Livy's the Early Days of ROme
Similar to and Worse Than: Industrial Park by Patricia Galvao

The Nazi Seizure of Power, William Allen.
Examination of a specific German town to see the process of politics in the Weimar Republic and early Nazi Germany. Overall effective, but as an account left me somewhat dissatisfied. It's most interesting in describing the level of mid-range political activists in this town, both those that tried to oppose the National Socialists and those that facilitated them. This last explores a mixture of corruption, hatred and in some cases even idealism, pointing to how divergent and chaotic the political boundaries of this movement were. In its wider scale analysis, it feels less effective. There are some good points made on how a lot of elements traditionally seen as important in the Nazis rise didn't play a huge role here--in particular, Allen finds that party anti-Semitism was downplayed on the local level, since heavy anti-Semitic rhetoric was costing more votes than it gained--but the structural level feels unclear. Despite a fair bit of attention given to it, I don't see Allen as effectively addressing why the Depression benefited the Nazis more than any other groups, particularly the Communists, and the attitude of the middle class seems overdetermined in this account.
Similar to and better than: Gotz Aly's Hitler’s Beneficiaries
Similar to and worse than: Shelley Baranowski's Strength Through Joy

Food in History, Reay Tannahil.
Far too broad a period surveyed, amounting in many cases to little more than a laundry list of neat facts. Fundamentally deficient in its attempt at analysis, making for a throughly dated and not terribly helpful text.
Similar to and better than: Stephen Gundle's Between Hollywood and Moscow
Similar to and worse than: Daniel Roche's A History of Everyday Things

Colonial Masculinity: The 'manly Englishman' and the 'effeminate Bengali' in the late nineteenth century, Mrinalini Sinha.
Great on ideas. This traces a detailed, highly effective study of the role of gender in colonial power. Exploring four specific issues, Sinha traces ways that the representation of colonial women was crucial for the politics of self-justifying the exercise of white power over colonial men. The actual sentence to sentence writing was a bit grating for some reason, and the book was a bit hard to finish, but it's well worth the effort.
Similar to and better than: Manliness and Morality, ed. J.A. Mangan
Similar to and worse than: Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

A History of Russian Thought, Andrzei Walicki
Survey of nineteenth century Russian intellectual figures and movement. Thorough, effective in detail, good at tracing connections and discontinuities. Nice intro for this period.
Similar to and better than: Marshall Poe's The Russian Moment in World History
Similar to and worse than: Audra Yoder's Making Tea Russian

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