Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Summer Reading in Review

Just a brief recap of what I've been reading over the last few months, before I forget my impressions.

China Mieville, The City & the City (New York: Ballantine, 2009)

I've always been a fan of China Mieville, in part because he is an LSE PhD who dabbles in international law, and in part because his prose is so admirably awkward. Several of his novels are quite good, certainly his Bas-Lag series (The Scar, Perdido Street Station, and Iron Council) but also newer material like Embassytown and Kraken. That said, The City & the City is probably one of his weakest efforts, alongside King Rat (which had a deus ex machina featuring drum'n'bass music IIRC).

Mieville's career conceit has been to write one novel in each genre. Embassytown was his hard sci-fi effort, for instance, while Railsea was a homage to Moby Dick. The City & the City is his attempt at the crime novel, and for the first third or so it zips along quite well per the typical murder mystery format. It's the ending that lets down the reader, with an anti-climactic twist reminiscent of The Scar.

Karl Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe, Two Volumes, Timothy Reuter, Ed. (London: Hambledon, 1994)

These two volumes had been on my list of to-read books for several years now, constantly being pushed aside during grad school. I had almost forgotten that Leyser was a historian, not a political scientist; I went into these two books expecting a more systematic treatment of the relationship between communication and power, but instead got a loosely connected series of essays from across Leyser's areas of expertise. Leyser taught during an era when the modern pressure to "publish or perish" was less acute, and as such many of the essays were only collated and sent to press posthumously.

Despite my initial misconceptions of the collection, I learned quite a bit about subjects with which I was less familiar. It is hard for me to pass judgment when I know so little of the modern literature in this field. Leyser was primarily an expert in the Carolingian through high medieval periods of German history, with a parallel focus on Anglo-Saxon England. The themes in the collection range from queens and queen mothers in Ottonian rule to the role of reversions to the Imperial crown in provoking the Saxon revolt against the Conradines in the mid-late 11th century (Leyser argues that this revolt was largely separate in origin from the Investiture Controversy - I had not known this). There is definitely much to learn for the uninitiated, and it helps that Leyser's writing is very easy to read despite a fair number of typos in what seems to have been a very lightly edited text.

Simon Winder, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

I saw this on the shelf at a local bookstore over the winter and got stuck into the first chapter before having to pull myself away at that time. I finally had a chance to revisit Winder's follow-up to Germania (2010), which I haven't had a chance to read, in July. Danubia is a five hundred year run through the Habsburg territories of eastern Europe, with a large focus on Hungary and the archducal lands in Austria. I have to say that it was a bit of a disappointing tome, despite many charming revelations. A broad criticism would be that by covering too much, Winder fails to give much depth to any one topic. A more petty criticism would be that his frequent digressions into travelogue narration adds little to the flow of the book while introducing jarring shifts in tonality--he swears a lot for no good reason, much like Stephen King (who I can't read, sorry).

That's not to say the book isn't worth a read. The Habsburgs are endlessly fascinating, yes, but the true value of this book is in illustrating the social dynamics that wrecked parts of Europe that suffered less glamorous fates during the early modern period. His accounts of war, devastation, and repopulation in Hungary and Galicia (the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, i.e. the hunk of the Polish state that Austria received in the former's dismemberment in the 18th century) are particularly moving and provided inspiration for my last blog post. While his accounts of his travels themselves are rather pointless, the art history that is linked into this narration can be enjoyable at times.

Catherine Merridale, Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin (New York: Picador, 2013)

I know less of Russian history than I would like, having only previously read a few of the classic novels and plays and Robert Massie's annoyingly superficial biographies of the Greats: Peter and Catherine. Merridale's Red Fortress was therefore very helpful for fleshing out my familiarity with the Muscovite state. Naturally, the book covers much more than just the Kremlin--the focus on the complex is largely an excuse to write a general history of the political development of Russia.

I took notes on Merridale's text, which is something I don't often do while reading for pleasure. She has a knack for snark:
"As one political scientist put it at the time [late perestroika]: 'too much freedom makes many Russians feel uncomfortable.' This sort of commentary flatters western prejudice, which is why it has persisted through so many complete changes of regime." - p. 7.
Her primary argument which ties the long history together is simple:
"the single genuinely continuous thread is the determination of successive Russian rulers to rewrite the past" - p. 16.
 Other interesting tidbits:
  • The "Third Rome" analogy began life as a warning in the 1520s that all great empires could crumble. (p. 56)
  • Zoe Paleologus' dowry was the Morea, which was actually controlled by the Turks at the time. Another flash of brilliance in Byzantine diplomacy. (p. 63)
  • The Italian poet Luigi Pulci described Zoe thus: "A mountain of fat...All I could dream about all night were mountains of butter and grease." (p. 64)
  • The wars in the mid sixteenth century nearly destroyed the Muscovite state. One statistic showed that acreage of land under cultivation in Vladimir, Suzdal, and around Moscow dropped by 90% in the decade after 1564. (p. 133)
  • The inquiry into the death of Ivan the Terrible's youngest son, Dmitry, a potential claimant to the throne, concluded that he had cut his own throat while playing with a knife. (p. 142)
  • In the period of turmoil between 1606 and 1612, there were eight self-appointed "true tsars" fighting each other for the Muscovite throne. (p. 161)
  • In 1610, the heir to the Polish throne, Wladislaw, had a real chance to be crowned Tsar with the support of the surviving boyars, but essentially blew it by waiting too long to arrive in Moscow and allowing the Orthodox church to drum up opposition to the prospect of a Catholic monarch. (pp. 164-166)
  • A Scotsman, Christopher Galloway, designed a clock for the Saviour Tower with seventeen hourly divisions that marked off time between sunrise and sunset. Erected in 1626, the face of the clock turned, rather than the hand. (p. 185)
  • Under Aleksei Mikhailovich, the second Romanov tsar, the importation of scientific equipment and literature from various German lands led to the first introduction of German technical words into the Russian language. (p. 205)
  • On Paul, Catherine's successor, and his aversion to reform: "he seemed to combine the worst qualities of a spiritual mystic with the sadism of a sergeant-major, while his Francophobia (which was at least as much about his mother as about Robespierre) was jarring to a court raised on the philosophes)". He banned words such as 'fatherland', 'citizen', and 'club' because of their supposed connections with the revolution. (p. 257)
  • In describing Paul's murder, "It ought to have ranked among the most popular crimes in Russian history (an interesting shortlist to compile), but instead it became another cursed regicide". (p. 258)
So lots of fun material.

Current Reading

I'm trying to read Diarmaid MacCulloch's history of the Reformation, but it is slower going than I expected. It looks like a solid piece although the chapter headings suggest a morass of sticky topics in the latter third.

I picked this volume up in a San Francisco bookshop way back three years ago, but again haven't had time to look into it. For a brief period in 2012-2013, I soaked up quite a few books on political aspects of the early modern period including a few histories of the Thirty Years War and large gobs of the historical sociology literature that followed Charles Tilly and so on. I am hoping MacCulloch's book will round out the purely religious aspects of my familiarity.

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