Sunday, May 22, 2022

Waterloo Sunrise: London From the Sixties to Thatcher (John Davis)

“Swinging London” was a term applied in the 1960’s to London as the city built a reputation for creative music and vivid fashion. This was in contrast to the “stiff upper lip” London that lived in austerity after World War II. London’s youthful swag and confidence belied a city that was undergoing a transformation, losing its industrial character, and becoming more white-collar. This transition, which slowly undermined that “swinging” city’s swagger, is detailed in John Davis’s Waterloo Sunrise: London From the Sixties to Thatcher.

Waterloo Sunrise: London From the Sixties to Thatcher traces roughly a twenty year stretch of fashion, vices, urban blight, and attempts at renewal, race relations, and local politics and how they influenced events on a national level, including the eventual rise of Margaret Thatcher to the Prime Minister’s office in 1979. Davis’s book has wonderful detail and bounces between serious and lighthearted. One section explores the changing tastes of London’s culinary scene; another chapter dives into the seedier side of London nightlife.

All in all, Waterloo Sunrise was a joy to read. Many of us in America know of 1960’s Britain through Austin Powers, the musical “British Invasion”, or James Bond. Thankfully, Davis gives us a deeper look at a city that shared a lot of the same struggles and issues as our cities did on this side of the pond.


Thursday, May 12, 2022

Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War (Roger Lowenstein)

Much has been written about the economic differences between the North and South during the Civil War and how the North’s advantage in population, industry, and commerce were factors in their eventual win. The financial management of the North and South is a topic that is less known about. Roger Lowenstein’s Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War addresses how the two parts of the country attempted to finance and govern their war efforts.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, the government had no authority to raise taxes, no federal bank, and no official currency. The South’s secession and the subsequent war required both the Union and the secessionists to finance their war efforts. Each camp took vastly different approaches. Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, developed a taxation strategy and financed bonds while battling to keep inflation in check. The South embargoed its main cash crop, cotton, and watched while inflation and poor fiscal decision-making drove runaway inflation and gradual starvation of the Confederacy.

Lowenstein also devotes a part of Ways and Means to the change in the federal government’s involvement in the lives of Americans. Pre-Civil War America was a state-driven enterprise, with the federal government a weaker federation having less direct control and influence in policy. The Republicans of the Civil War era were modernizers, permitting the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the formation of land grant universities, and increased government involvement in agriculture and eventually immigration policy. These reforms helped sustain and push the country along after the Civil War’s conclusion. Lowenstein smartly points out that much of those reforms and efforts helped push the North and West while the South lagged for decades to come. The country’s internal economic disparity remained significant between North and South until cities such as Houston, Atlanta, and Dallas began to attract large numbers of residents and immigrants, helping the South to shed its agrarian way of life and leave the Jim Crow era behind.

Ways and Means is a great account of how fiscal policy can guide a country in tough times and how Chase’s creativity and resourcefulness helped in large part to save the Union.


Friday, May 6, 2022

After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War (Helen Rappaport)

Russia’s historical love for Paris dates back over 300 years, to when Czar Peter the Great traveled to Western Europe to learn about European customs. He sought to modernize Russia and draw it closer to a more technologically and economically advanced part of the world while also drawing Europe closer to Russia. While his trip wasn’t a total success, he did begin a long-standing fascination with Paris for many Russians. A number of Russian elites and artists had residency in or visited Paris frequently. As the Romanov czar era reached its tumultuous end with revolution in 1917, many Romanov family members and others who were anti-Communist sought refuge and survival in Paris.

Helen Rappaport’s After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War is a richly detailed chronicle of the remnants of the Romanov family and other Russian elites and how they tried to rebuild their lives in France after the Bolsheviks took power and stripped them of their wealth and fame. Those that survived made difficult journeys by boat or land during the last stages of World War I, often while battling the influenza outbreak or other calamities along the way. Paris’s Russian immigrants faced challenges, including xenophobia, and often ended up in hardscrabble conditions during the 1920’s and especially the 1930’s. 

Rappaport’s book gives the reader a voyage into the Russian influence in Parisian art, dance, theater, and culture during the post-czar era. She also dives into how these expats hoped, plotted, and tried to influence the downfall of the Communists in the Soviet Union and how the Soviets worked to divide and subvert the anti-Communist movement.  After the Romanovs is an enjoyable, well-researched book.


Monday, April 25, 2022

Index: A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (Dennis Duncan)

The index, or that part of the book in the back with an alphabetized list of items and associated page numbers, is given little thought on many occasions. I was always uniquely curious about how the index evolved and the work that goes into it. Organizing all of the pertinent information in the pre-computer age was a rather laborious undertaking, but thanks to the work of researchers and librarians, a gradual system and standard for how indexes look today came about.

Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age is Dennis Duncan’s account of the cleverness and wordplay that occasionally goes into a book’s index and how something that is a tool of reference, and occasional narcissism for those wanting to see if they are mentioned within a book’s pages, came about. The index has served a useful role for scholars and researchers as well over the centuries, helping catalog and organize information. It wasn’t until the 19th Century when standardization began to take shape in indexing, and it wasn’t until the mid 20th Century before a modern professional association was codified to help train indexers.

The index’s useful role is evolving - beyond books, it now takes the form of #hashtags on Twitter and other social channels, providing a way for social media users to group themes or topics together. Google’s search index is a beast unto itself, helping organize the world’s websites that can be accessed with a quick, index-like query. Duncan’s book also highlights the role technology will have in indexing going forward.

Index, A History of the has moments of insight and humor woven within a topical history book. Its subtitle, A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age, is poignant and accurate. It is bookish, occasionally wonky, but enjoyable if you’re into history.


Monday, April 11, 2022

The Burning Girls (C.J. Tudor)

In C. J. Croft's The Burning Girls, strange things are happening in Chapel Croft, England. Martyrs, visions, deaths, missing girls -- Chapel Croft has it all. A little too much.

Reverend Jack Brooks moves to Chapel Croft with her daughter, Flo, to take over the running of a chapel.  She hopes to get away from what happened at her last assignment, but instead, she finds a village with a dark history. Martyrs were burned five hundred years ago, two teenage girls, went missing, and the chapel's previous vicar committed suicide. This is just the past -- the current inhabitants of Chapel Croft also have secrets of their own. 

In my opinion, The Burning Girls just has too much going on. Things weren't wrapped up satisfyingly enough, and the ending was implausible enough to detract from my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I seem to be in the minority here, though, so if you like dark books, you might enjoy this one.


Monday, April 4, 2022

Seven Games: A Human History (Oliver Roeder)

The games of Chess, checkers, Go, Scrabble, poker, backgammon, and bridge have been played by billions of people over the centuries. From novices playing for fun to professionals playing for money to computer programs playing for a quest of perfection, the games have societal importance. Oliver Roeder’s Seven Games: A Human History charts the origins of these games, their historical importance, and how technology has been used to not only compete against humans but also to help improve humans in their gameplay against each other.

Seven Games introduces us to more than just the games themselves; we also get to know the cast of characters involved in them. These characters include poker players at the World Series of Poker, an IBM engineer creating a program for backgammon, and a man who lost only three games of checkers in 40 years. These stories fuel Seven Games to be more than just a history of games. Roeder’s use of personal stories is augmented by showing the reader how technology has impacted each of these games in various ways, like Scrabble (computers can help players figure out “bingo” words) and even bridge, a game whose popularity is on the wane.

Roeder’s book is a wonderful exploration into play, competition, risk-taking, and how technology is fueling how humans can take risks more effectively in these games. 


Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs (Marc David Baer)

The Ottoman Empire controlled a vast swath of the Middle East, Southeast Europe, and parts of North Africa before reconstituting itself as the modern nation of Turkey in the early 20th Century. At its apex in the 17th Century, the Ottomans marched on the gates of Vienna and controlled millions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a large, diverse territory. While many European accounts of the Ottomans look upon the empire as backwards, the truth was more complex. Marc David Baer’s The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs offers a very authentic look at a multicultural empire that brought innovation, technology, and diversity throughout its centuries in existence.

The Ottomans traces the empire from Turkish and Mongol origins, to its conquest of the remnant of the Byzantine Empire, to its heights in the 17th Century as a global trading and military power. It also shows the Ottomans in reform, decline, constant struggles with itself and, eventually, with ethnicities within its realm. While for much of its history the Ottomans were tolerant of other faiths, they converted millions to Islam in Southern Europe and in parts of Asia. As the empire aged and eventually waned in influence, its tolerance gradually gave way to a militaristic, ethno-nationalist state that eventually committed ethnic cleansing and genocide of Armenians.

Baer’s account is informative and well-researched. We learn about how the Ottoman government functioned and how its thinking often overlapped with European thought. At its best, the Ottomans were a modern empire for the times that had economic might and controlled much of the commerce between Europe and East Asia. At its worst, the Ottoman Empire fought itself and its own people. Baer’s book helps challenge conventional thinking of “East” and “West”, while showing us a vivid account of an empire that fell apart through losing sight of what made it successful for centuries.