A Student of History

November 23, 2007

Top Books

Filed under: Great books,New books — John Maass @ 4:35 pm

Below are the non-fiction selections in the “Top 100 Books” list from the NYT Book Review:

AGENT ZIGZAG: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal. By Ben Macintyre. (Harmony, $25.95.) The exploits of Eddie Chapman, a British criminal who became a double agent in World War II.

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE: A Life. By Hugh Brogan. (Yale University, $35.) Brogan’s combative biography takes issue with Tocqueville’s misgivings about democracy.

ALICE: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker. By Stacy A. Cordery. (Viking, $32.95.) A biography of Theodore Roosevelt’s shrewd, tart-tongued older daughter.

AMERICAN CREATION: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. By Joseph J. Ellis. (Knopf, $26.95.) This history explores an underappreciated point: that this country was constructed to foster arguments, not to settle them.

THE ARGUMENT: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics. By Matt Bai. (Penguin Press, $25.95.) An exhaustive account of the Democrats’ transformative efforts, by a political reporter for The New York Times Magazine.

ARSENALS OF FOLLY: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. By Richard Rhodes. (Knopf, $28.95.) This artful history focuses on the events leading up to the pivotal 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. (Review will be available Friday evening, Nov. 23.)

THE ART OF POLITICAL MURDER: Who Killed the Bishop? By Francisco Goldman. (Grove, $25.) The novelist returns to Guatemala, a major inspiration for his fiction, to try to solve the real-life killing of a Roman Catholic bishop.

BROTHER, I’M DYING. By Edwidge Danticat. (Knopf, $23.95.) Danticat’s cleareyed prose and unflinching adherence to the facts conceal an undercurrent of melancholy in this memoir of her Haitian family.

CIRCLING MY MOTHER. By Mary Gordon. (Pantheon, $24.) Gordon’s deeply personal memoir focuses on the engaged and lively Catholicism of her mother, a glamorous career woman who was also an alcoholic with a body afflicted by polio.

CLEOPATRA’S NOSE: 39 Varieties of Desire. By Judith Thurman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.95.) These surgically analytic essays of cultural criticism showcase themes of loss, hunger and motherhood.

CULTURAL AMNESIA: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts. By Clive James. (Norton, $35.) Essays on 20th-century luminaries by one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals.

THE DAY OF BATTLE: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy. By Rick Atkinson. (Holt, $35.) A celebration of the American experience in these campaigns.

THE DIANA CHRONICLES. By Tina Brown. (Doubleday, $27.50.) The former New Yorker editor details the sordid domestic drama that pitted the Princess of Wales against Britain’s royal family.

THE DISCOVERY OF FRANCE: A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War. By Graham Robb. (Norton, $27.95.) Robb presents France as a group of diverse regions, each with its own long history, intricate belief systems and singular customs.

DOWN THE NILE: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff. By Rosemary Mahoney. (Little, Brown, $23.99.) Mahoney juxtaposes her solo rowing journey with encounters with the Egyptians she met.

DRIVEN OUT: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. By Jean Pfaelzer. (Random House, $27.95.) How the Chinese were brutalized and demonized in the 19th-century American West — and how they fought back.

DUE CONSIDERATIONS: Essays and Criticism. By John Updike. (Knopf, $40.) Updike’s first nonfiction collection in eight years displays breathtaking scope as well as the author’s seeming inability to write badly.

EASTER EVERYWHERE: A Memoir. By Darcey Steinke. (Bloomsbury, $24.95.) A minister’s daughter confronts her own spiritual rootlessness.

EDITH WHARTON. By Hermione Lee. (Knopf, $35.) This meticulous biography shows Wharton’s significance as a designer, decorator, gardener and traveler, as well as a writer.

THE FATHER OF ALL THINGS: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam. By Tom Bissell. (Pantheon, $25.) Bissell mixes rigorous narrative accounts of the war and emotionally powerful scenes of the distress it brought his own family.

THE FLORIST’S DAUGHTER. By Patricia Hampl. (Harcourt, $24.) In her fifth and most powerful memoir, Hampl looks hard at her relationship to her Midwestern roots as her mother lies dying in the hospital.

FORESKIN’S LAMENT: A Memoir. By Shalom Auslander. (Riverhead, $24.95.) With scathing humor and bitter irony, Auslander wrestles with his Jewish Orthodox roots.

GOMORRAH: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System. By Roberto Saviano. Translated by Virginia Jewiss. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) This powerful work of reportage started a national conversation in Italy when it was published there last year. (Review will be available Friday evening, Nov. 23.)

THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty. By Wilfrid Sheed. (Random House, $29.95.) A rich homage to Gershwin, Berlin and other masters of the swinging jazz song.

HOW DOCTORS THINK. By Jerome Groopman. (Houghton Mifflin, $26.) Groopman takes a tough-minded look at the ways in which doctors and patients interact, and at the profound problems facing modern medicine.

HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. By James L. Kugel. (Free Press, $35.) In this tour through the Jewish scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament, more or less), a former professor of Hebrew seeks to reclaim the Bible from the literalists and the skeptics.

HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ. By Pierre Bayard.Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. (Bloomsbury, $19.95.) A French literature professor wants to assuage our guilt over the ways we actually read and discuss books.

IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. By Rajiv Chandrasekaran. (Knopf, $25.95.) The author, a Washington Post journalist, catalogs the arrogance and ineptitude that marked America’s governance of Iraq.

THE INVISIBLE CURE: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS. By Helen Epstein. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Rigorous reporting unearths new findings among the old issues.

LEGACY OF ASHES: The History of the CIA. By Tim Weiner. (Doubleday, $27.95.) A comprehensive chronicle of the American intelligence agency, from the days of the Iron Curtain to Iraq, by a reporter for The New York Times.

LENI: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. By Steven Bach. (Knopf, $30.) How Hitler’s favorite director made “Triumph of the Will” and convinced posterity that she didn’t know what the Nazis were up to.

LEONARD WOOLF: A Biography. By Victoria Glendinning. (Free Press, $30.) Glendinning shows Virginia Woolf’s accomplished husband as passionate, reserved and, above all, stoical.

A LIFE OF PICASSO: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932. By John Richardson. (Knopf, $40.) The third, penultimate installment in Richardson’s biography spans a dauntingly complicated time in Picasso’s life and in European history.

LITTLE HEATHENS: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. By Mildred Armstrong Kalish. (Bantam, $22.) Kalish’s soaring love for her childhood memories saturates this memoir, which coaxes the reader into joy, wonder and even envy.

LONG WAY GONE: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. (Sarah Crichton/-Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22.) A former child warrior gives literary voice to the violence and killings he both witnessed and perpetrated during the Sierra Leone civil war.

THE NINE: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. By Jeffrey Toobin. (Doubleday, $27.95.) An erudite outsider’s account of the cloistered court’s inner workings.

THE ORDEAL OF ELIZABETH MARSH: A Woman in World History. By Linda Colley. (Pantheon, $27.50.) Colley tracks the “compulsively itinerant” Marsh across the 18th century and several continents.

PORTRAIT OF A PRIESTESS: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. By Joan Breton Connelly. (Princeton University, $39.50.) A scholar finds that religion meant power for Greek women.

RALPH ELLISON: A Biography. By Arnold Rampersad. (Knopf, $35.) Ellison was seemingly cursed by his failure to follow up “Invisible Man.”

THE REST IS NOISE: Listening to the Twentieth Century. By Alex Ross. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.) In his own feat of orchestration, The New Yorker’s music critic presents a history of the last century as refracted through its classical music.

SCHULZ AND PEANUTS: A Biography. By David Michaelis. (Harper/ Harper-Collins, $34.95.) Actual “Peanuts” cartoons movingly illustrate this portrait of the strip’s creator, presented here as a profoundly lonely and unhappy man.

SERVICE INCLUDED: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. By Phoebe Damrosch. (Morrow, $24.95.) A memoir about waiting tables at the acclaimed Manhattan restaurant Per Se.

SOLDIER’S HEART: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. By Elizabeth D. Samet. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.) A civilian teacher at the Military Academy offers a significant perspective on a crucial social and political force: honor.

STANLEY: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer. By Tim Jeal. (Yale University, $38.) Of the many biographies of Henry Morton Stanley, Jeal’s, which profits from his access to an immense new trove of material, is the most complete and readable.

THE STILLBORN GOD: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. By Mark Lilla. (Knopf, $26.) With nuance and complexity, Lilla examines how we managed to separate, in a fashion, church and state.

THOMAS HARDY. By Claire Tomalin. (Penguin Press, $35.) Tomalin presents Hardy as a fascinating case study in mid-Victorian literary sociology.

TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton. By Sara Wheeler. (Random House, $27.95.) The story of the man immortalized in “Out of Africa.”

TWO LIVES: Gertrude and Alice. By Janet Malcolm. (Yale University, $25.) Sharp criticism meets playful, absorbing biography in this study of Stein and Toklas.

THE WHISPERERS: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. By Orlando Figes. (Metropolitan, $35.) An extraordinary look at the gulag’s impact on desperate individuals and families struggling to survive. (Review will be available Friday evening, Nov. 23.)

THE YEARS OF EXTERMINATION: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. By Saul Friedländer. (HarperCollins, $39.95.) Individual testimony and broader events are skillfully interwoven.

November 19, 2007

To Read or Not to Read

Filed under: Great books — John Maass @ 1:36 pm

A newly released 99 page study comes to a shocking–shocking–conclusion:  an increasing number of adult Americans were not even reading one book a year.  Some news is good, notably among 9-year-olds, whose reading comprehension scores have soared since the early 1990s.  But at the same time, the number of 17-year-olds who “never or hardly ever” read for pleasure has doubled, to 19 percent, and their comprehension scores have fallen.

Among the findings:

• In 2002, only 52 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24, the college years, read a book voluntarily, down from 59 percent in 1992.

• The number of adults with bachelor’s degrees and “proficient in reading prose” dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003.

More on this report is here.

October 11, 2007

What Hath God Wrought?

Filed under: Early America,Great books — John Maass @ 7:01 am

In January, I wrote a brief post on the slow pace of progress of the Oxford Univ. Press History of the United States series.

We now have another volume just off the press, Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.  At 928 pages it is a whopper!  I have yet to read it, but I do like this period and am very hopeful the book will be a great one.  Interestingly it covers much of the same ground as Sean Wilentz’s recent book on American democracy, so we will have to see if Howe is similar to it or not.

If a book reviewer at amazon.com is correct, the series’ Volumes 1 and 2, covering the Colonial Period (1672-1763) have “been assigned, in some order, yet to be made public (that I am aware of) to Fred Anderson (University of Colorado) and Andrew Cayton (Miami University of Ohio).”  These two historians previously collaborated on Dominion of War.  Gordon Wood is bringing out a volume on the period from 1789-1815.

Here is a description of Howe’s book:

The Oxford History of the United States is by far the most respected multi-volume history of our nation. The series includes two Pulitzer Prize winners, two New York Times bestsellers, and winners of the Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. Now, in What Hath God Wrought , historian Daniel Walker Howe illuminates the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, an era when the United States expanded to the Pacific and won control over the richest part of the North American continent.  Howe’s panoramic narrative portrays revolutionary improvements in transportation and communications that accelerated the extension of the American empire. Railroads, canals, newspapers, and the telegraph dramatically lowered travel times and spurred the spread of information. These innovations prompted the emergence of mass political parties and stimulated America’s economic development from an overwhelmingly rural country to a diversified economy in which commerce and industry took their place alongside agriculture. In his story, the author weaves together political and military events with social, economic, and cultural history. He examines the rise of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party, but contends that John Quincy Adams and other Whigs–advocates of public education and economic integration, defenders of the rights of Indians, women, and African-Americans–were the true prophets of America’s future. He reveals the power of religion to shape many aspects of American life during this period, including slavery and antislavery, women’s rights and other reform movements, politics, education, and literature. Howe’s story of American expansion culminates in the bitterly controversial but brilliantly executed war waged against Mexico to gain California and Texas for the United States.

Daniel Walker Howe is Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus, Oxford University and Professor of History Emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Political Culture of the American Whigs and Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln . He lives in Los Angeles.

September 20, 2007

No True Glory

Filed under: Great books,Wars — John Maass @ 8:35 am


I just finished reading No True Glory (2006), by Bing West.  It’s the story of the two attacks on Fallujah in 2004, the first by the Marines (which was unsuccessful) and the second one by Marines and Army units, which together crushed the resistance there in a week long attack.  The story is amazing, and West tells it very well, without glorifying the violence or the Marines.  He also does a wonderful job placing each attack in context, and pulls no punches in criticizing certain military and political leaders as he deems necessary.  (Paul Bremner does not come off too well here.)  West also brilliantly shows the reader what its like to be a young Marine, ordered to “clear out” a whole city, and go house to house and room by room, in violent, face to face combat.  I heartily recommend it.


August 22, 2007

1 in 4 Don’t Read

Filed under: Great books,The world today — John Maass @ 7:07 am

Sad but not surprising:  http://www.cnn.com/2007/LIVING/wayoflife/08/21/reading.ap/index.html

May 11, 2007

A Fun Dilema

Filed under: Great books — John Maass @ 6:53 pm

I’m going to be on my own for 8 days in Ireland again, starting Tuesday, and will have a lot of airplane time, and sitting in airports too.  That means–bring a good book.  However, I don’t want to lug around more than one, so I am deciding what to bring with me.

One choice is Bill Freehling’s second volume of his work on secession.  It is Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant.  It covers 1854-1861, a fascinating and exciting time and I am looking forward to getting lots of detail on this period.  I started to read it just to see how it flows, and it is….well, not so great.  I think his prose is too stilted, and he makes far too many anticipatory allusions with mildly tortured prose that I find it a little less than enjoyable to read.  Maybe I was tired when I tried it so I am going to give it another chance, but from what I have encountered so far, it is not a page turner. Here is what Oxford University Press says about it, underlines are mine:

It is one of the great questions of American history–why did the Southern states bolt from the Union and help precipitate the Civil War? Now, acclaimed historian William W. Freehling offers a new answer, in the final volume of his monumental history The Road to Disunion. Here is history in the grand manner, a powerful narrative peopled with dozens of memorable portraits, telling this important story with skill and relish. Freehling highlights all the key moments on the road to war, including the violence in Bleeding Kansas, Preston Brooks’s beating of Charles Sumner in the Senate chambers, the Dred Scott Decision, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and much more. As Freehling shows, the election of Abraham Lincoln sparked a political crisis, but at first most Southerners took a cautious approach, willing to wait and see what Lincoln would do–especially, whether he would take any antagonistic measures against the South. But at this moment, the extreme fringe in the South took charge, first in South Carolina and Mississippi, but then throughout the lower South, sounding the drum roll for secession. Indeed, The Road to Disunion is the first book to fully document how this decided minority of Southern hotspurs took hold of the secessionist issue and, aided by a series of fortuitous events, drove the South out of the Union. Freehling provides compelling profiles of the leaders of this movement–many of them members of the South Carolina elite. Throughout the narrative, he evokes a world of fascinating characters and places as he captures the drama of one of America’s most important–and least understood–stories. 

OUP calls it “A compelling, vivid portrait of the final years of the antebellum South,” but so far it ain’t.

My second possibility is a bit far out of my field, Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1609-1947 (Belknap, 2006).  At almost 700 pages, it is a whopper and that means quite a bit of time to invest in it.  However, the time span of the book makes me really interested, to show change over time on such a grand scale.  Moreover, I read Clark’s biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II (part of the “Profiles in Power” series) several years ago for a paper I did in one of Mark Grimsley’s courses I took at OSU, and was very impressed by it. 

Iron Kingdom

The press website describes the book as such:

There is also a NYT review of Clark’s book, which is favorable.

And to further complicate matters, I am supposed to receive on Monday a copy of John Ferling’s new book, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, also an OUP imprint.   This will be to review it for N.C. Historical Review.  So maybe I should bring that one along instead?  It is 700 pages too…..

March 24, 2007

Austen Portrain to be sold

Filed under: Great books — John Maass @ 4:21 pm

From Yahoo! News:

What many believe to be the only painting of Jane Austen will be auctioned in New York in April by Christie’s, a relation of the English author and owner of the picture said.

But Henry Rice, a “sixth generation descendant” of the writer of classics such as “Emma,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice,” believes the sale of a picture that has divided experts will not be without controversy.

In 1948, a leading Austen scholar dismissed the authenticity of the portrait, saying the style of costume the subject wears does not match the date.


‘The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen’ by English society artist Ozias Humphry in an image released by Christie’s on March 23, 2007. The painting, which measures about five feet tall and three feet wide and widely believed to be the only known painting of Jane Austen, will be auctioned in New York in April by Christie’s, a relation of the English author and owner of the picture said. (Christie’s/Handout/Reuters)

March 1, 2007

The classics are, well, classic!

Filed under: Great books — John Maass @ 3:37 pm

This truly warms my heart, from the Guardian:

In the poll for World Book Day today, the highest-ranking contemporary adult fiction novel is Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, which came only 17th.

By contrast, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte was third; Wuthering Heights by her sister Emily was seventh; and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens 10th.

A modern classic boosted by a film trilogy, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, came second, the Harry Potter books fourth, the modern US classic To Kill a Mockingbird fifth, and George Orwell’s 1984 equal eighth with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Is it a surprise that Pride and Prejudice came in 1st? 

The Bible is in sixth place, thanks particularly to over 60-year-olds. However it figures in the top 10 of every age group over 25.

The Complete Works of Shakespeare was in at 14, just before Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and two slots after Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

The most striking feature of the survey, the organisers said, was that “classics are still the most essential reads“.  (My emphasis, of course.)

The article goes on to note that “the top 100 bristles with provenly enduring quality, from Joseph Heller, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Kerouac, Lewis Carroll and AA Milne to John Steinbeck, Arthur Ransome, Joseph Conrad, Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day) and Conan Doyle. The last three titles to squeeze in are a characteristic mix: Hamlet, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Pride And Prejudice[Ms. Jane Austen]

The entire list is here.  I may try to read all of them by the end of the decade….except of course the titles that fall under the “fantasy” or “sci/fi genre.”

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