The Korean War 1950-1953 by Carter Malkasian

This was a more or less conventional history of the Korean War, focusing on Cold War strategies and policies. It notes that the Korean Was the first and only war in which the major powers…the Soviet Union, China, the United States, and its allies…actually engaged in direct armed conflict with each other. MacArthur is given more favorable treatment than he deserves, but the author argues that Matthew Ridgeway was the greater military leader. This book has a rather official military tone, understandable given that the author is a former soldier and professional military historian, but it is still a fairly good, concise treatment of a subject that more Americans should make an effort to understand.

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Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Celine has a way of writing about perfectly horrible experiences in a way that makes you laugh out loud. This book is a work of genius, although not quite as good as *Journey to the End of Night*. It’s too bad he didn’t write more. He has an uncanny way of finding humor in all the petty miseries of life, and humor is possibly the best antidote for such misery.

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The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop

This was a marvellous book, a concise introduction to a vast subject. There are many fascinating aspects to this period, all of which receive their due in this work. Yet I have to say that overall the Middle Ages were a low point in the history of Western Civilization, and I think the tendency to romanticize this period is entirely misguided. Medieval Europe was not enlightened…but it was certainly not boring, as this book attests. I like to think that if I had been born in the Middle Ages I would have been a monk, but more likely with my luck I would have been a serf. The lot of serfs was not enviable, but at least they had job security. The knights and nobles of Christendom were mostly a horrible lot who have been given more favorable press than they deserve. The record of the clergy is mixed. Remarkably, the bourgeoisie emerges as the true builders and pioneers of modern civilization. But this book makes me very glad to be living in this period.

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Premature Evaluation: Sundown Towns

An important story, very badly told.

Before and, more crucially, immediately after the American Civil War, African-Americans were widely dispersed throughout the country. By the 1940s, however, blacks living outside the South were concentrated in particular areas of the largest cities. In Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism James Loewen asks how that happened, and the answer is that white Americans drove them out. The book’s title comes from signs that were posted outside of many — just how many is one of the key preoccupations of the book — cities and towns that read (roughly), “Nigger don’t let the sun go down on you in Town-Name.”

Loewen’s research suggests that the vast majority of towns, counties, suburbs and cities that were all white, or nearly all-white, were that way by design, and were kept that way by a combination of restriction and violence. In the first state that he examined in detail, Illinois, Loewen found that more than 95 per cent of the lily-white towns were sundown towns. In neighboring Indiana, the rate was also above 90 per cent.

The repercussions of this hidden history shape the American culture and landscape to this day. And while obviously much has changed, towns that were sundown by policy persisted at least until the 1980s, and some probably remain that way even today. It’s an important story.

Unfortunately, as a narrator, Loewen is well-nigh insufferable. There is too much signposting, too much of him telling you what an idiot everyone else is for not knowing what he knows, too much condescension toward the reader. (An online example.) It doesn’t look like there’s a monograph that the book is based on, which is a pity, because Sundown Towns is a particularly bad sort of popularization. I may slog on towards the end, in hopes that the details make it worth enduring Loewen’s presence. If not, I’ll stick with the take-away: an all-white town in America is almost certainly not that way by coincidence, but rather the end result of state and private power to keep black Americans out.

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City on Fire

On April 16, 1947, the SS Grandcamp exploded in the harbor of Texas City, Texas. The ship was carrying ammonium nitrate as part of Marshall Plan relief for post-war Europe. Ammonium nitrate is both an effective fertilizer and a potent explosive, and the Grandcamp was carrying more than 2300 tons of the substance when a fire below turned into an explosion that produced a mushroom cloud reminiscent of an atomic blast. The Texas City waterfront was also home to chemical plants, and storage facilities for numerous petrochemical products. Many of these also caught fire and exploded in part. Several hundred people died; the exact total is unknown because of the completeness of the destruction at the explosion’s center.

City on Fire, by Bill Minutaglio, tells the story of the explosion with both verve and sympathy. Nor does he skimp on the structural factors that contributed the disaster: Texas City was (and most likely still is) run by and for the corporations who have built industry there; the habits of wartime and the fervor of the Cold War had left people deferential to the government. The companies, for example, fought hard to keep the city from annexing the land where their facilities were, which would have made them liable for local taxes. As it was, they did not even see fit to pay for the upkeep of a fireboat within the harbor. The port of nearby Houston had prohibited shipments of ammonium nitrate; Texas City had not.

Minutaglio follows about a dozen people from just before the disaster into the chaotic aftermath, with some follow-up about each one of them, or the survivors of those who perished. He keeps the book moving at a breakneck pace, writing in the present tense, and in a style somewhat reminiscent of period newsreels. This approach grated at first, and I was never fully happy with it, though I can see why he made the choice, as it is very effective for the dramatic events at the heart of the story.

A little more background would not have been remiss. The book is just over 275 pages, with a very generously spaced layout; surely he could have said something more about the chemical itself, about how the city came to be built, a little more scene setting. In choosing to tell the story through the dozen people he selects, Minutaglio seems to have chosen not to give more context.

It’s too bad, because he writes that he had been interested in the tale for nearly 20 years. I was left wondering where the rest was. Another unfortunate aspect is that the book was published in 2003. It was being written (most likely) in late 2001, early 2002, and the cloud of 9/11 hangs heavily over parts of the story. Faced with writing about a devastating explosion that resulted in numerous casualties, Minutaglio could not have ignored the similarities; but it would have been a better book if he had found a way.

There are European threads to the story: the ship was French, and the fertilizer itself was bound for Europe. Major ammonium nitrate disasters happened in Germany in 1921, and later in 1947 in France. It’s well told. I also suspect that another book, which Minutaglio graciously acknowledges, might have been more to my taste. Not that it’s likely to be found in a Tbilisi library…

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Premature Evaluation: In Europe

Less than 10 percent of the way into the book (to be fair, my edition weighs in at just under 900 pages), I’m liking In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak a great deal, and looking forward to the rest.

In 1999, Mak was commissioned by a Dutch newspaper to travel around the continent at the cusp of the new millennium, and to take stock of both the present — particularly with enlargement of the European Union in mind — and the century just passing. In Europa was published in the Netherlands in 2004, and an English paperback edition came out in 2008.

So far, I most like the specificity. This is a clear advantage of having newspaper writing as a source material. He spoke with a specific person in a specific place who said one particular thing. From Paris:

At Opéra metro station I start a conversation with Pierre Maillot. With his grey beard and plain spectacles, he is standing in one of the corridors holding a tin can and a cardboard sign: ‘I beg your forgiveness. But I am hungry.’ This is how he earns about a hundred francs (roughly fifteen euros) a day, enough for a bed and a lonely meal with a quarter-litre of wine. The older people are generous, but the young ones tease him. ‘I have my only friend right here with me,’ he says, reaching into his inside pocket and pulling out a bible with a red plastic cover. Then he tells me a complicated story about prison, a divorce, problems inside his head, vanished unemployment benefits and other vagaries of a man’s life.

The art, of course, is in choosing the stories, and in the narration in between. Mak seems to have plenty of art.

I’m also not looking for new theses about the sweep of the twentieth century, though if he has some, I will surely be interested. It’s the details that I think will be interesting; how do his views (from roughly my parents’ generation) fit with the picture of Europe that I’ve built up? So far, so good.

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Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader

This book was an extraordinary combination of history, prehistory, geography, geology, and anthropology that greatly illuminated my understanding of this vast continent and its people. But precisely why Africa has failed to develop in pace with the rest of the world is left a mystery.

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

When I took Shakespeare in college the professor dismissed this play as silly, but he can’t have been reading the same play. The love story is touching, not just the romantic courtship between the gentlemen and the ladies, but also the friendship between the two gentlemen, and the play is only saved from being a tragedy at the very last minute. There is also a barely averted forcible rape–“I’ll woo thee like a soldier!”–that is rather shocking in an Elizabethan romance. This play is one of Shakespeare’s darker comedies.

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The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

This is a wonderful work of imagination on Wells’ part, but it is interesting to me for two reasons that are tangential to the story. The first is that it was written before the close of the nineteenth century, when Britain was thought of as the most powerful nation on earth, so it made sense at the time that the Martians would first attack Britain rather than the United States or Russia or China. The second is the long monologue made by a soldier that seems to profess that it may actually be good for humanity to endure such a cataclysm as an invasion of Martians, as it will toughen the human race and eliminate all the weaklings. This is consistent with the social Darwinist thinking that was prevalent in Wells’ time and is still prevalent with a certain crowd. The story itself is interesting enough, yet for all of Wells’ imagination and scientific speculation he cannot escape the rather provincial sensibilities of a Victorian English gentleman. But this is a book worth reading.

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Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Florence Dupont

The author is obviously enamored of the ancient Romans, and I suspect that she projects her own preferences and prejudices onto them. But this is a fascinating book that takes a look at what kind of people the Romans were, apart from the endless wars of conquest and political intrigues that historians typically dwell. Dupont makes them out to be virtuous to an extent that strains the reader’s credulity, but she also accurately describes them as a people whose lives were lived in public and who had very little sense of the solitary or introspective life. As with most classical historians, she tends to focus mostly on the habits of the upper classes; it would be refreshing to get a glimpse into the lives of the common people of Rome, who are mostly neglected by historians. I am probably more Greek than Roman in my attitudes and preferences, but the Romans have never failed to fascinate me, and this book adds much to my knowledge and appreciation of them.

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