Nov 28 2006

Stephen Maturin, Drug Fiend

From The Commodore, pp. 187-88

Yet [Maturin] had some faults [as a physician], and one was a habit of dosing himself, generally from a spirit of inquiry, as in his period of inhaling large quantities of the nitrous oxide and of the vapour of hemp, to say nothing of tobacco, bhang in all its charming varieties in India, betel in Java and the neighbouring islands, qat in the Red Sea, and hallucinating cacti in South America, but sometimes for relief from distress, as when he became addicted to opium in one form or another; and now he was busily poisoning himself with coca-leaves, whose virtue he had learnt in Peru.

An open thread for considering Patrick O’Brian.

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Oct 23 2006

Under the Frog

Novermber 1955:

Tired of trying to crack the problem of the informer, Gyuri settled down to think about being a streetsweeper while he gazed out of the window at the countryside that went past quite lazily despite the train’s billing as an express. The streetsweeper was a sort of cerebral chewing gum that Gyuri popped in on long journeys. A streersweeper. Where? A streetsweeper in London. Or New York. Or Cleveland; he wasn’t that fussy. Some modest streetsweeping anywhere. Anywhere in the West. Anywhere outside. Any job. No matter how menial, a windowcleaner, a dustman, a labourer: you could just do it, just carry out your job and you wouldn’t need an examination in Marxism-Leninism, you wouldn’t have to look at pictures of Rakosi or whoever had superbriganded their way to the top lately. You wouldn’t have to hear about gambolling production figures, going up by leaps and bounds, higher even than the Plan had predicted because the power of Socialist production had been underestimated. Being a streetsweeper would be quite agreeable, Gyuri reflected. You’d be out in the open, doing healthy work, seeing things. It was the very humility of this fantasy, its frugality that gave the greatest pleasure, since Gyuri hoped this could facilitate its coming to pass. It wasn’t as if he were pestering Providence for a millionaireship or to be handed the presidency of the United States. How could anyone refuse a request to be a streetsweeper? Just pull me out. Just pull me out. Apart from the prevailing political inclemency and the ubiquitous shittiness of life, the simple absurdity of never having voyaged more than two hundred kilometres from the spot where he had bailed out of the womb rankled.

The train went into a slower kind of slow, signalling that they were arriving in Szeged. This was, he knew from his research, 171 kilometres from Budapest.

Early November 1956:

Gyuri threw away his empty gun. If he needed another gun, he could pick one up off any street-corner, and carrying one didn’t do you any favours. ‘The Red Army won’t forget about its outing in Budapest,’ said Kurucz. ‘It’s been … well, people will write about us.’

Clinging to walls al the way home, Gyuri crashed into the British military attache, recessed in a doorway, observing the proceedings. The way Gyuri greeted him in English made the attache realise they were acquainted, though he obviously couldn’t place Gyuri. ‘Awesome, these new tanks,’ he said gesturing at a herd on the other side of Hosok Square, ‘those new guns, too, formidable rate of fire.’ Gyuri nodded because he was unable to add anything to the conversation. He merely smiled politely in the way one does when one’s country has been invaded by interesting new tanks. The attache was carrying an umbrella, Gyuri observed, as all Englishmen should. …

It was colder than usual for November, and it seemed much blacker at six than it should have been, as if the Russians had imported extra darkness with themselves and dawn had given up. There weren’t many trains running, but the Keleti Station had a train, greatly over-subscribed, getting ready to leave. It wasn’t a train taking people anywhere in Hungary, although nominally it had a Hungarian destination. Although no one said so, everyone knew it was the slow train to Vienna.

The centre of the city had quietened but as the train chugged out of Budapest, passing Csepel Island, explosions could be heard. Csepel, always referred to officially as ‘red’, since it was inhabited exclusively by industrial workers, was the last part of Budapest to hold out. They had a munitions factory. They had anti-aircraft batteries so powerful they could be used to turn most tanks into Swiss cheese. Their own leaders had told them to give up. They had been instructed to go to hell. Huge columns of smoke had hung immobile over the island all day as if pinned there. People who lived in Csepel had a reputation for tenacity, toughness and an implausible level of violence second only to Angyalfold.

Between these stations, it’s a terrific and extraordinarily funny book. Also very good is The Bridge at Andau, by the young James Michener.

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Oct 13 2006

A Pocketful of Pamuk

The definitive(ish) review I’ve been meaning to write for months will obviously have to wait now that Orhan Pamuk has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here are the AFOE talking points on Pamuk:

Snow is the one book to read if you only have time to read one. Ka, the protagonist, is a Turkish poet who has been living in exile in Frankfurt. (His name is the inverse of the abbreviation of Turkey’s ruling party, AK, which is also the Turkish word for white. The Turkish title of the book, Kar, is also just a letter short of the name of the city where the novel takes place, Kars.) He returns to a provincial city to investigate why a number of local girls have committed suicide after being excluded from school for wearing headscarves. As he begins to make sense of the complexities involved, a blizzard strikes and cuts the city off from the rest of the world for several days. In this pocket world, a local coup takes place, Islamist radicals may or may not be agitating for rule, and reality itself gets much more uncertain in the drifts and blankets of snow. Pamuk juggles many different layers of meaning, many different possibilities of what is real, how peoples’ perceptions and convictions slip and slide, and some specifically Turkish elements of theater, politics and mutability. It is a great book, even if the ending only delivers on about 90 percent of the promise of the middle.

Istanbul: Memories and the City is the other book that’s being widely cited. It, too, is terrific, not least because the publishers have taken advantage of modern techonology and included many pictures from Pamuk’s personal collection in the narrative itself. The book is a memoir of growing up in one of the world’s greatest cities, and it gives you a sense not only of the author’s particularities–a sprawling, occasionally brawling family that’s well-to-do but fading; his interest in painting that becomes a career in writing; a characteristic melancholy; and more, of course–but also of the city’s personalities and how they change over time. People, neighborhoods, periods, moods–Pamuk captures them all.

The Black Book is out in a new translation, which I am led to understand is a big improvement. I was able to put the old one down for several years without much worry before finishing the book, so I think think it likely. In any event, the novel concerns one character’s search for his brother-in-law, a famous Istanbul newspaper columnist, who seems to have disappeared. This story is interspersed with columns, ostensibly written by the brother-in-law, about various peculiar events in Istanbul. As the book progresses, it appears possible that the brother-in-law is a fictional creation of the narrator, who may be a famous newspaper columnist himself; or he may merely have taken on the mantel left by his brother-in-law who actually has disappeared. Things merge into one another in this crossroads city.

I haven’t read My Name is Red or The White Castle, and only learned from the Nobel site that two more novels have been translated into English.

Pamuk insists that he isn’t a political novelist, and in my view he’s absolutely right to. Politics is too narrow to contain what he’s up to, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that unnerves authorities used to defining the limits of acceptable. The Black Book was apparently a break with dominant realist writing in Turkey, an early sign that Pamuk was headed for places that a conformist establishment would be uncomfortable in following. And while in this case it’s the secular Kemalist establishment that’s discomfited, an Islamist establishment would be much more unsettled. In both cases, that’s a good thing. Pamuk writes humane books, tells stories too full of ambiguity and uncertainty to support any dogma, too honest about his home city’s past to help partisan mythologizing, too committed to openness to prescribe one true path, and too aware of costs to be fully comforting to modernizers. But for readers, a feast, a delight, a glimpse into many worlds in and around the Bosporus, and beyond.

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Sep 26 2006

Ringworld by Larry Niven

I hadn’t read Ringworld in at least a decade, and probably closer to two, when I picked it up again a couple of weeks back.

Originally published in 1970, the book has held up terrifically. Not for Niven, one of those far-future societies that’s a replication of the author’s own era. The use of “men” and “man,” where, today, “humans” and “humanity” would be more likely stuck out as slightly anachronistic. And the invented swear words were odd, too, though they may also be a bit of a joke on Niven’s part. The things that humans swear by and about and with are pretty consistent across time and culture; inventing something in this department may have been the author thumbing his nose at residual prudery in the publishing of his era.

I was also impressed by a couple of science references, particularly neutrinos, but a little Wiki research shows they were first detected in the mid-1950s, so maybe that’s not so unusual. Still, for all that Niven has to engage in hand-waving to get faster-than-light travel, the rest of the science seems respectfully handled.

One structural question, though. Clearly the initial impetus for the book was the idea of the Ringworld itself. It’s not a character-driven novel; at most, it’s driven by the intersection of the characters with the setting. Given the setting, though, why tell the particular story that Niven does? Is it just that the first encounter story is the crucial one? Maybe it does work backward from there: setting, contact, what makes for an interesting encounter, and so forth.

I’ve changed a lot since I first read the book, and I like to think that I’ve gotten more sophisticated in how I read things, so I was all the more pleased at how well Ringworld withstood grown-up scrutiny.

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Sep 26 2006

Premature Evaluation: Khrushchev by William Taubman

Wish an 876-page biography could be longer? Not often, but definitely with this one. I don’t know the literature well enough to say for sure, but it sure feels like a definitive take on an important figure of 20th century history.

William Taubman combines the virtues of journalist and scholar in his biography of Nikita Khrushchev. The journalist has tracked down relatives, surviving contemporaries, former comrades and many other people with first-hand knowledge important to understanding Khrushchev’s life. He talked with them, a few only by phone, but many in person and repeatedly. For contentious questions, he’s tried to get all sides. He sifts the evidence judiciously and lets readers know his views. The end-notes are filled with citations that begin “Author’s interview with…” That Taubman did this mostly in 1991 and 1993, as the Soviet Union was collapsing with Russian and Ukrainian society both in upheaval, makes the achievement even more impressive.

The scholar was no less relentless. He’s used archival sources, diaries, letters, unpublished documents and other primary materials, along with a broad range of analysis and background in English and Russian. This is a study in getting things right.

But Taubman does more than that. He uncovers aspects of Khrushchev’s life only known previously to a small circle: Nina Petrovna was actually his third wife, and not his second, as was generally thought; Khrushchev’s son’s wife had a son from a previous relationship, and after Khrushchev’s son died in WWII and his wife’s arrest by the security organs, this boy became literally a street child in Moscow and Kiev. Taubman does not dwell on these potentially salacious stories, but he brings them out and describes what he thinks they show about Khrushchev’s character. The story of the second wife occupies just a page or two, one reason I wish the bok were longer.

Taubman also gives a sense of the environment Khrushchev operated in:

The full extent of Soviet unpreparedness became clear only after [the German invasion of] June 22 [1941]. The purges had demolished the officer corps, not just leading marshals and generals, but all military district commanders, 90 percent of district chiefs of staff and deputies, 80 percent of corps and divisional commanders, and 90 percent of staff officers and chiefs of staff.

Shortly after the war, Khrushchev sends a list of about 100 Komsomol leaders to the NKVD to find out how many of them had survived purges and war. None had.

I’m about a third of the way through, but as near as I can tell, Taubman’s book has everything one could want in a biography. It’s vivid, it’s exhaustively researched, it’s well paced. Still to come, Khrushchev’s final ascension after Stalin’s death, the Cuban missile crisis, his fall from power and his final years as a non-person in the USSR. Premature evaluation: terrific.

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Sep 20 2006

Baltic Framework

Our recent posts on governments in Stockholm and Schwerin are as good a reason as any to highlight Northern Shores, by Alan Palmer. (It’s published in the US as The Baltic.) I had intended to write a premature evaluation, but then I finished the book, which I picked up during a business trip to Helsinki, so this is slightly more considered.

Northern Shores offer a solid structure for building a working knowledge of Northern Europe. Who ruled what, when and, to a limited extent, why. Empires ebbed and flowed across and around the Baltic, and it’s easy to lose track. Palmer writes clearly on who owned what, who was related to whom, and he even has a decent go at the Schleswig-Holstein problem, which Palmerston quipped that only three people ever understood, one who was dead, one who was mad and one who had forgotten. (The Wikipedia article on the subject is, er, exhaustive.) Russians, Prussians, Swedes, Danes and Poles, with a smattering of smaller peoples, are the main protagonists. Or rather, the rulers of same, history in this case being the story of who was in charge of a given piece of property.

Which meant that I did not like large parts of the book. The first quarter or fifth or so I enjoyed because it goes back to the earliest periods for which there is historical evidence, describes Viking links with Constantinople, addresses northern paganism and covers other elements that give a good sense of how far and how peculiar a past this distant are, and how long Europe has been linked across its length and breadth. I learned a lot.

But then the majority of the book chronicles which noble houses fought when for what land. There’s more to it, of course, but that’s the main subject. I like the histories I read to have more of an argument, to have more of a narrative and to give a better feel for the places and periods in question. I suspect that at least part of my objection is generational; if I read Palmer’s account of an event in 1939 correctly, then he’s nearing 80, and we should all be so lucky as to write a book this good at that age. (One nice turn of phrase has the French candidate abandoning the Polish-Lithuanian throne to become Henry III of France; Palmer writes that “Warsaw seemed well worth a miss,” echoing Henry IV’s more famous formulation.) Still, that means Palmer’s from a generation when it was simply understood that kings and battles were the stuff of history, and I suppose that in recounting what he does, he’s making the argument that rulers and their conquests are what history should be about. For historians of later generations, however, the political framework is a good place to start, but certainly not all there is.

Another irritation is Palmer’s apparent assumption that contemporary nation-states are the inevitable and natural result of the region’s history. This is particularly clear in his writing about the emergence of Sweden. Why is Sweden a single polity with Stockholm as its capital? That is not a question Palmer seems to think worth asking; he is impatient with regionalism on the eastern half of the Scandinavian peninsula and approving of royal centralism. Why the one prevailed over the other is precisely what I would have found interesting; history is contingent, and exploring those contingencies makes reading history interesting.

I did learn a bit more about the interwar Baltic republics, and I learned that Poland was the first country in the region to throw its democracy away. And the book picks up, as one might expect from a British historian, when it turns to the Second World War. Viewing the conflict and the postwar settlement from a northern perspective is different, and emphasized again how much where you stand depends on where you sit. Finland’s experience demonstrates this admirably.

Booklist’s review of the US edition says The Baltic should “enjoy longevity in libraries,” which I think is about right. It’s good that the book is there, and if you want to check on something, you can, but reading it all the way through as a narrative is not something I would recommend.

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Sep 20 2006

Noted With Pleasure: Reindeer People

One of the other books that I picked up while in Helsinki was Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia, by Piers Vitebsky. (US paperback coming in December.) He’s an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, and the reindeer people are his research specialty. The book, however, is an engrossing synthesis aimed at a general audience. More than that, though, it’s a personal account of living with nomads, clashes of cultures (ancient, Soviet and post-Soviet) and vivid personalities, all played out in a beautiful and harsh land. I picked up the book in part because I had just missed meeting some reindeer people when I was in northern Mongolia a few years back, and I wanted to learn what their way of life was all about.

I got much more: how reindeer are partially domesticated, what the coming of Soviet power meant to the far North, how people are surviving its ebb, how reindeer migrate, what Arctic cold means in practical terms, to name just a few. Vitebsky writes well, he’s chosen interesting ground to cover, he can sketch people, relate key anecdotes and sustain narratives about their conflicts. Layer upon layer, like the clothing the Eveny wear in winter, Reindeer People envelops the reader, imparting something of those distant lands.

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Jul 18 2006

Mr Commitment

Mike Gayle is a British novelist. He writes books that, if you were feeling snarky, you might call chick-lit that guys can read too. Less snarkily, he writes light contemporary drama. I’ll admit to a small weakness for the genre, at least in its British variant. Although the plots are wildly predictable, the details of melodrama in a separated-by-common-language culture fascinate me. Plus Gayle is good with dialogue and doesn’t go for cheap ploys.

And there’s another thing: Gayle’s black. As are his characters. Or at least they might be, though I had to admit I did not picture them as black at first. He chooses not to make much use of physical description, so it seems clear that he’s at the very least quite aware of the ambiguity he’s creating. On the other hand, I wonder if there aren’t subtler cues–neighborhoods where the characters live, other parts of their background–that would tip off British readers. Anyone else have this experience? Or more broadly, what would tip you off that a London-based character was black, without being a physical description or too much of a stereotype?

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Jun 06 2006

Overdue Evaluation (The Prize, by Daniel Yergin)

There is not much market for reviews of books published almost a decade and a half ago, so without further ado, my thoughts on The Prize, by Daniel Yergin. This evaluation is overdue because I started reading the book when I bought it, back in 1997. I put it down around page 400 (which is a little more than halfway), so this review is likely, very likely, to be stronger on the second half of the book.

Yergin’s subtitle is The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, which gives both theme and thesis. The title, if I am remembering an early part of the book correctly, comes from a statement made about oil by Winston Churchill: “The prize was mastery itself.” The argument is that understanding oil is central to understanding the twentieth century and, by extension, the world today. To complaints that the war in Iraq is “all about oil,” the only proper answer is “Of course.” The last century’s major conflicts, and many of its smaller ones, were driven by oil, determined by oil, or both. Without an understanding of oil, much of the period will remain opaque.

Yergin paints (and not in watercolor) on a large canvas, but he is not content with broad strokes. Instead, he conveys many details, deftly chosen anecdotes and key quotations from important sources. For an 800-page book of history, it’s a page-turner. He starts with a detailed sketch of how the oil industry began, in the woods of western Pennsylvania, where “rock oil” was first collected, for medicines and then for kerosene, as a source of light, not fuel. The first successful oil drill led promptly to the first boom, and then the first bust. It’s a cycle the industry has struggled with ever since. Yergin soon introduces John D. Rockefeller, and he follows the creation, supremacy and dismemberment of Standard Oil in considerable detail. (John D., incidentally, was probably the biggest beneficiary of the breakup of the Standard Oil Trust. Another reason I thought breaking up Microsoft was the way to go, but that’s another story.) For the legacy of Standard Oil reaches down unto the present day, both in the companies that loom large in the business that were once units of Standard Oil (Exxon and Chevron, to name just two), and in the practices from integration to price-cutting that were pioneered by the octopus of 26 Broadway.

Another early center of the oil business that commands much attention is Baku, once in Imperial Russia, then the Soviet Union and now independent Azerbaijan. The Nobel fortune, Royal Dutch/Shell and other important aspects of the European oil industry either started or were shaped by events in and around Baku. (One Iosif Dzhugashvili got his start as a labor agitator in the Baku oil fields.) Soon, however, oil was a global industry. Gushers in Texas, Dutch explorers in Sumatra and speculators in the sands of Arabia are the springs of the world oil business as we know it today. Yergin gives a solid overview, laced with tales of the larger-than-life personalities the industry either drew or created.

The research is impressive, too. Much is drawn from period publications, personal papers, official archives and, for later periods, personal interviews with the people involved. The list of interview subjects covers the top league of leaders and policy-makers in global oil–president of Exxon International, Nigeria’s oil minister, deputy secretary general of OPEC, chairman of British Petroleum, and about 75 more at the same level. It’s an account told with an insider’s knowledge but a historian’s perspective.

History’s turning points appear, too. Churchill’s decision to convert the British navy from coal to oil. Rommel’s inability to get enough oil in North Africa. Eisenhower’s choice to give gasoline to Montgomery’s solidification of Allied lines in France, instead of Patton’s drive for a rapid crossing of the Rhine. Imperial Japan’s loss of oil supplies to American submarines. The Suez crisis. And on through the second half of the twentieth century.

There are interesting tidbits. Given current events, much is made of American involvement in the fall of Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh. One thing I did not know was how strong the communist party in Iran was at that time, and the fact that as Mossadegh became more erratic, the Soviets moved in a new ambassador, the same man who had been Soviet ambassador when communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. I had also only been dimly aware that the Soviets had occupied swathes of Iran after World War II.

I learned more about the formation of OPEC and the rise of the spot market.

The book was published at a particular moment: in 1991, after Iraqi forces had been dislodged from Kuwait, but before the coup against Gorbachev and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. This makes it an interesting artifact of perceptions at that time.

One of the book’s virtues is that it does not read as if history were an arrow pointing to the writer’s present position. Yergin is too smart for that, and his knowledge of the cycles in the oil business too encyclopedic. Interesting, too, are the things that are not in the book. Global warming appears once, in the epilogue, as part of the challenges of the third wave of environmentalism. India does not appear after its independence. China is mentioned only in passing after its role as a battlefield in World War II. If Yergin were adding another 150 pages to bring The Prize up through the present, I suspect that all three would see a significant increase in importance.

There would probably also be a great deal more about Russia. Part of the gap is that the archives were surely closed in the mid- to late 1980s when Yergin was doing the research for the book. The history of Soviet oil was secret. He does cite the intentions of the Soviet oil industry as a likely shaper of the global picture in the 1990s, but it’s significant that he thinks about it as the Soviet industry. When the book was published, it had less than a year to continue in its Soviet form. Another reminder of how very few people recognized that the end was at hand.

It’s a thorough, thought-provoking book, one that delivers a convincing argument about part of how the world works, what that means for political leaders, and what citizens of the industrial world have to come to grips with. After sitting on my bookshelf for more than seven years, it rewarded renewed attention.

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Apr 18 2006

Premature Evaluation: The Hungarians

I suppose I should be happy that there is a recent, one-volume general history of the Hungarians. Their history is not exactly the stuff of bestsellers, even if Hungarians were crucial in everything from computers to the atomic bomb to Hollywood studios. Ten million people, give or take, speaking a non-Indo-European language in and around the Carpathian basin. Their exact origins unknown, their polity long divided, their armies prone to getting wiped out.

The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, by Paul Lendvai, does have much to recommend it. First, it’s written by a journalist for a general audience; that means it’s not as academic and cumbersome as one might worry. Second, it was published (originally in German) ten years after the collapse of Communism, so there is an open-endedness to the story that it might not have had if the book had been written a few years earlier. Third, Lendvai has lived outside Hungary a long time, so his perspective is not too insiderish. Fourth, it moves at a brisk pace and will wrap up in about 500 pages. (True to the title of this post, I’m about forty percent of the way through.) Fifth, it’s quite good on the early history, what is known about the migration, and it brings the early medieval period convincingly to life.

But I can’t shake the feeling that the book ought to be better than it is. In some cases, the virtues of the book bring corresponding vices. It is brisk and limited to one volume, but some parts feel hurried, as if the author knows he has to mention such and such a person or certain events, but does not take the time to put them in much context. For me, this was particularly true of the period between the fall of the Arpads (Hungary’s first ruling dynasty) and the Habsburgs’ firm establishment in the region. It’s a complex set of issues, but I’m not much smarter about them after reading this than I was before, which seems a shame.

Part of this hurry certainly stems from the choice to keep the history down to one volume. For me, Lendvai’s book stands in contrast to the two volumes of Norman Davies’ history of Poland, God’s Playground. Because Davies has more room to work with, he is free to delve into detail on complicated periods, and the story benefits. I’m sure it was a business decision as much as an aesthetic one, but I think Lendvai’s tale would be better if he had told more of it.

The second problem is translation. I say this with much regret, because I know very well how hard it is to translate 500 pages of German into good English. But goodness, the book needs one more thorough round of untangling syntax to make this into really nice English. I can tell from the sentences that the German is just fine–not overly ornamented or excessively academic. English, however, needs more movement and fewer digressions into dependent clauses. There’s also occasional antecedent confusion, where things that are artfully ambiguous in German just look unclear in English. Finally, there have been nearly a dozen typos in the first 200 pages. They’re almost all periods where commas are called for, but aren’t publishers supposed to take care of that sort of thing? (For readers of German, the answer to the stylistic questions is obviously to go to the original.)

One thing that Lendvai is good at is drawing connections between very early parts of Hungarian history and attitudes that are part of the culture today. He’s not just telling a story, he’s reflecting on contemporary society, and I like that aspect of the book very much. On the other hand, the story that he is telling is very much the tale of who ruled where, when and how. It’s mostly a top-level political history. There some culture and some society involved, but these are definitely secondary. Again, this is a choice made at the outset, and obviously not everything can fit into one volume. Greedy reader that I am, though, I would like to have a bit more of both.

It’s a good history, and it’s good that there is a recent and accessible history of the Hungarians, but at this point in the actual reading, I’m wishing it were a bit better than it is.

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