A Year of Books
H. Bradford 1/13/17
One of my favorite things to do in read. However, I don’t always find enough time for it. In 2016, I read 24 books (not counting books that were assigned during my last semester of my teaching program at CSS). It seems that I read far less than my friends but far more than the general public. Still, I think that a goal of reading two books a month is probably fine enough, as it leaves me time to pursue my other hobbies. At the same time, I hope that I read more books in 2017 than I did in 2016. Thus, my New Year’s Resolution is to read 28 books. In the meantime, here is a brief overview of the books that I read in 2016. About fourteen of the books were written by men and ten by women. Overall, 95% of the books were non-fiction, as I have a strong preference for non-fiction. About 16% of the books were about animals. 8% of the books were about plants. Approximately 33% of the books were related to histories of people of color. 16% of the books were specifically about Africa. Based upon this, it can generally be said that I sought to increase my knowledge of plants, animals, Africa, and sexuality.
- Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers by Simon Winchester (2015).
I read this book about a year ago, but I generally liked it. There were some chapters which engaged me more than others. For instance, I found the information about the atomic bomb tests in the Pacific interesting since I was not aware of how this impacted the indigenous people of Bikini Atoll. The information about China’s claims to various islands in the Yellow Sea was also interesting. On the other hand, I was less interested in the chapters on radios and surfing. With that said, the book was a hodgepodge of Pacific history. It wasn’t a heavy, hitting theoretical work, of course. Rather, it was a fluffy pop history that was engaging enough to capture my attention
2. Socialism and Sexuality by Sherry Woolf (2009)
I wrote a review for this book last January. I devoured the book within a day. Highlights of the book included the history of sexuality after the Russian revolution, the failure of the Democratic party to be a consistent ally, and a critique of biological determinism. My review can be read at: https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/sexuality-and-socialism-book-review/
3. The Witches by Stacey Schiff (2015)
This book was extremely detailed, but rather dry. I slogged through it, not particularly interested in the book-despite what should have been an exciting topic. I think that it did not capture my attention since the history was not held together by a central theory or argument as to the cause or purpose of the Salem Witch Hunts
4. Warrior Nation by Anton Treuer (2015)
This book was a history of the Red Lake Nation. I am going to be honest and say that I did not enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. One reason that I probably did not enjoy it as much was because I am not versed in Minnesota history. The book was very detailed, but became repetitive. Of course, that is the nature of the history. However, it was a bit of a challenge to slog through broken treaty after broken treaty. Another challenge was that the book put emphasis on the leaders of Red Lake. I tend to shy away from histories of great individuals and lean more towards social histories. Anton Treuer visited Duluth last year and gave a talk. He was engaging to listen to, extremely informed, and had a great sense of humor. He also signed my book. Perhaps one of his other books would be more accessible to me.
5. The Beast Within by Joyce Salisbury
I found this book at the Superior Public Library book sale and wrote a review of some of the highlights. The thesis of the book is that throughout the Middle Ages, people came to view animals as less different than humans and humans as less different than animals. A flaw was that the book tried to condense a long period of history and large geographic area into a few hundred pages. Still, it was a fun read with many memorable anecdotes- such as the avoidance of eating the meat of hare because they were viewed as extremely sexual animals that grew a new anus each year of their life.
6. Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin (1994)
This book was another find from the Superior Public Library book sale. I also reviewed it earlier last year. The book was not what I expected (a diatribe against eating beef). Rather, it was a history of beef. The book did make me feel angry about beef and how it is historically connected to patriarchy and genocide. It is nice to find a book that creates an emotional response and food for thought.
7. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich (2006)
Once again, I wrote a review of this book earlier in the year. I am actually a little surprised that I took time to review some of the books that I read. Thanks past self for helping me remember what I read and what I thought of it! Anyway, this was a beautifully written book of interviews with survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
8. Apartheid: A History by Brian Lapping
This book was a forgettable history of apartheid, which I picked up from the Duluth Public Library book sale. I was looking for books about African history and it was one of the few that I could find. The book was written in 1986, so it was pretty outdated and the book ended before the end of apartheid. The only positive is that it was an easy to read introduction to the basic history of apartheid.
9. Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future by Martin Meredith (2009)
This book was pretty interesting, as I knew little about Robert Mugabe going into it. The history is well written, detailed, and engaging. A person could know nothing about Zimbabwe and still easily read this book. The author was sympathetic to the white farmers who lost their land during the 1990s. He also seemed to have a negative opinion of how this land was subsequently managed. This seems to be the mainstream opinion on white landownership in Zimbabwe. Thus, a person needs to think against the book and its narrative and consider what right do white people have to stolen land or ill-gotten land? Weren’t they always living on borrowed land and borrowed time? Also, the reader should think against the narrative that Black people can’t govern themselves. Perhaps the land distribution and management has had negative consequences, but leaving it in the hands of the white minority diminishes the autonomy and power of Zimbabweans.
10. Traveler’s History of the Caribbean by James Ferguson (2008)
Another easily forgettable history. I don’t have much to say about this book other than I read it before travelling to the Caribbean to brush up on the history. It reads like a long Wikipedia article, so it isn’t terrible, but also isn’t memorable.
11. Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, The Boers, and the Making of South Africa by Martin Meredith (2008)
Of the three Martin Meredith books, I found this one the least interesting. However, the book provided me with a pretty solid overview of South African, Zimbabwean, and Namibian history from the 1800s. The book was full of colorful characters with a lot of attention given to Cecil Rhodes. This in itself made the book interesting and visiting his grave more meaningful to me. Rhodes embodied capitalism in so many ways. Capitalism and capitalists are abstract things that exist somewhere in the world. The 1% is hardly imaginable. Cecil Rhodes embodied the economic, political, and military mechanisms of capitalism. Perhaps the only area of capitalism that he did not represent was the ideological aspect of its existence, since he wasn’t an intellectual or philosopher. In any event, that was the main thing I took away from the book.
12. Fate of Africa: The History of Africa Since Independence by Martin Meredith (2011)
This was the most interesting of the three Meredith books that I read this year. The book is a great overview of the entire modern history of Africa. It is a story of the struggle for independence, hope for the future, descent into dictatorships, and shaky futures. As a Marxist, it is certainly disheartening to ready the story of how socialism failed so spectacularly across the continent. But, to be fair, capitalism hasn’t been much better. The book doesn’t really offer an explanation of why this is. Or, if it does, the blame is placed on corrupt individuals. This is true of all of the Meredith books. The engine of history tends to be centered on individuals or events, rather than economics. Theoretically, the books are weak, as they offer a mainstream journalistic style which masquerades as unbiased but is pro-capitalism and pro-West. In any event, each of the countries inherited faulty mechanisms of governance and underdeveloped economies from their colonial masters and were expected to develop within the context of global capitalism in a Cold War. Was there much hope to begin with?
13. Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa by Ashley Currier (2012)
I wanted to read a book about sexuality in Africa and this is what I found. The book was short and read more like a research paper or thesis project than a book. The book studies LGBT groups in South Africa and Namibia and uses interviews and observation to identify some of the struggles of LGBT organizing in these countries. Both countries have struggled with the influence of Western NGOs and how these can de-legitimize their organizations and shape policies. For instance, Western NGOs can provide funding and support to African LGBT organizations. However, in doing so, the countries are encouraged to adopt the language and worldview of Western NGOs. Thus, indigenous beliefs about gender and sexuality may be ignored or mislabelled. Another challenge was inclusivity. In South Africa, there were organizations specifically for Black lesbians. However, this excluded whites, Coloured, and gay individuals. Exclusive organizations were often established for the safety of participants. I think this is a very relatable social movement question, especially in terms of domestic violence shelters, which are gender segregated- and often in the interest of safety. This is a perennial problem that social movements must face, since various groups of people may demand exclusive spaces- such as lesbians and women have in the past. These groups may have special experiences or needs, which lead them to organize autonomously. At the same time, exclusion narrows the pool of participants and reifies differences. The book contrasted some of the differences between LGBT organizing in these countries. In South Africa, there has been state support of LGBT rights, whereas in Namibia, the state has been hostile. This has caused the LGBT movement in Namibia to be smaller and more underground.
14. Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky (2001)
This is a fun history of one of Europe’s most unique and ancient ethnic groups: the Basques. The book contains recipes, cultural tidbits, economics, and history. Everything from the most authentic Basque cherry pie recipe to Basque independence is covered. I learned that anyone who speaks Euskera is considered Basque, which allowed ETA to recruit people after their language and culture were suppressed by Franco and diluted by immigrants to Basque regions. I was also unaware that Guernica was a Basque village (I thought it was a generically Spanish village). Basque whaling, cod fishing, shipbuilding, and tourism are also discussed, along with the development of written Euskera, Basque literature, and national identity. I found nothing boring in the book, as it moved along from topic to topic in an exploration of all of the facets of Basque history.
15. Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by Cindy Ott (2012)
I read this book in October to get me in the mood for Halloween. I gleaned quite a bit from this book, which I used to inform my blog post: The Sociology of Pumpkins. https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2016/09/25/the-sociology-of-pumpkins/
I can’t imagine that there are many histories of pumpkins, so as far as plant histories go, it was a pretty good book.
16. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1998)
This book has the unique distinction of being the only piece of fiction that I read in 2016. It was lent to me at a meeting of Books and Beer (which I attended one time). I was hesitant to read it because I don’t enjoy reading fiction as much as non-fiction. I was also squeamish about it because it was a feminist version of a Bible story. While some feminists might enjoy imagining God as a woman or the secret feminist lives of Biblical characters, I am atheist with little time for invisible masters, male or female. With that said, I actually liked the book. It brought me back to my childhood. I remembered the old Bible stories from Sunday school and was amused with the narrative from the women of what “really” happened. The book was a little bit sad (since it went through the entire life of the character), but also satisfying.
17. Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan (2006)
This book was so-so. I found the information about the culinary history of acorns to be rather interesting. However, the focus on oak being used in shipbuilding and architecture did not capture my imagination in quite the same way. The book is probably more interesting to someone with an interest in carpentry or ships. As for myself, I would have been more interested in the ecological and symbolic history of oaks.
18. Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis (2016)
This book is the story of a woman who travelled solo, on foot, across Mongolia, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Along the way, she is met with many perils and challenges. She does not speak Mongolian, she must protect herself from sexual assault, her health and gear sometimes fail her, her beloved dog dies, and she has difficulty navigating the social expectations of Mongolia. I enjoyed it because it is a travel story. While it is certainly a dramatic travel story, I think that anyone who has ventured anywhere can relate to the themes of missing home, leaving things behind, making sacrifices for the adventure, and feeling afraid. To me, the book captured my imagination of what is possible. Some people test their limits by biking across the country, doing the Appalachian trail, running marathons, etc. I was left wondering, what can I do? What are my own limits? Of course, she is extremely privileged to be a white woman who has the time, money, and physical ability to travel across very poor countries without invitation or sufficient knowledge of their customs and language. But, this is also the story of almost all travelers, who come from a place of privilege to indulge in some sort of escapism or self-actualization.
- Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the present by Neil Miller (1995)
I found this book at the Duluth Public Library book sale. This is a wonderful source for books! The book was pretty interesting. It covered the LGBT movement and individuals from the mid 1800s onward, beginning with the invention of modern notions of sexuality and the stories of Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. The origins of biological determinism in sexuality can also be tied to this early history. The book explored the sexual histories of many famous individuals such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia, though it was mostly focused on U.S. and British history. There were many fascinating nuggets. For instance, the Canadian government was extremely homophobic and even invented a “fruit machine” to detect homosexuality amongst government employees. The book covered the LGBT movement in its various organizations and incarnations, ranging from Uranians, Stonewall, and the HIV crisis. As a whole, the book was very gripping. My main complaint is that the history actually did include some transgender and bisexual history, though these are not specifically spotlighted in the title or chapter headings. While it might be difficult to write a book about all sexual and gender minorities, their absence in this history is an example of erasure.
- Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James Baker and Peter Gomes (2009)
Just as I tried to get in the mood for Halloween with a book about pumpkins, I tried to get into the spirit of Thanksgiving with this book about Thanksgiving. This book was much more sociological than the pumpkin book. The book argued that there was no original Thanksgiving, as there were many Thanksgivings in many places by many people. The Plymouth Thanksgiving was one of several and accompanied by fasts. Just as Thanksgiving is socially constructed, Pilgrims and Indians are. Pilgrims are depicted wearing dark colors and buckles, but this came from the Victorian imagination of the Pilgrims as quaint and austere. The Native Americans that accompany the Pilgrims are often shown in the clothing of Native Americans from the Great Plains and inaccurately dwelling in teepees. The vision of a shared meal between this group only appeared in American culture after the wars against Native Americans had been completed and it was possible to imagine them as a sympathetic, pacified group of people. Even the long shared table and outdoor feast were invented in the literature of the late 1800s rather than off of actual historical events. The holiday itself was selected by FDR as the third Thursday in November in order to bolster the Christmas shopping season.
Although there is little historical about Thanksgiving, the authors are middle of the road when it comes to celebrating the holiday. On one hand, they are against Fundamentalists who insist that it is a part of American heritage, as clearly, the holiday has evolved over time. On the other, the authors are also against Native Americans who protest the holiday, as this is also viewed by them as ahistorical as Plymouth Thanksgiving did not mark the beginning of genocide against Native Americans. I think this misses the point that the history itself doesn’t matter so much, as it is still a symbol of genocide and colonization. In other words, I think that the authors were too dismissive of the Native American perspective on Thanksgiving.
- Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior by Beth Bartlett (2016)
We read this book through the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition book club. It is a must read for anyone engaged in feminist activism or non-profit/social work in the Northland, as it offers a comprehensive history of the major feminist organizations in the Twin Ports, such as PAVSA, CASDA, Safe Haven, AICHO, the Women’s Health Center, etc. One theme from the book is that many of these organizations began with a small core of dedicated people and few resources. Originally, these organizations were run with an egalitarian feminist vision, but over time this was compromised in the interest of growth, funding, and conforming to external restraints. It leaves the reader wondering what can be done to reinvigorate these organizations, the downside of the professionalization of social movement organizations, and how organizations are constrained by a larger context of capitalism.
- 50 Animals that Changed the Course of History by Eric Chaline (2011)
This book made a big promise! That is, it promised to tell me about 50 animals and how they changed history. However, the history was lackluster, childish, and sometimes inaccurate. It read like a children’s encyclopedia of animals and offered about two pages of basic information about each of the animals. It was a huge disappointment.
- Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenberg (2009)
I liked this book since it highlighted the importance of predators to ecosystems. We tend the envision the food chain from the bottom up, but this book had many examples of how things at the top of the food chain impact those at the bottom. It helped me to re-think a very basic understanding of ecology. It cited various examples of situations wherein predators disappeared and how this had a detrimental effect on the rest of the ecosystem- ranging from starfish to otters. I think this book would be useful for anyone who is against sport hunting of predators. On the other hand, the book did get a little strange towards the end when the author suggested “rewilding” the Americas. This does not mean re-introducing predators that have vanished in the last few hundred years- it means trying to turn back the clock 13,000 years by introducing lions, camels, and cheetahs to the Americas. While this is interesting, I think that working with the past few hundred years is more realistic.
- Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher Beckwith (2011)
This book was weird and boring. To be fair, I am not very knowledgeable about the “stan” countries. Hence, I am trying to brush up on them through my recent reading choices. Since the topic is not familiar, it is always harder to wade through the history. Nevertheless, the book attempts to condense several thousand years of history across a diverse region into a few hundred pages. As such, it reads like a timeline. I was not very engaged in the book and struggled to keep up with names, places, battles, empires, etc. Towards the end of the book, the author devotes two chapters to make a surprising argument against modernity. This perked me up a little. This did not come from a postmodern perspective either. Basically, the argument was that modernity failed Central Asia, as it lead to economic decline during the rise of capitalism elsewhere, communist rule, and religious fundamentalism. I suppose it was interesting to consider religious fundamentalism as an expression of modernity (which I associate with Enlightenment ideas like secularism and the separation of church and state.) To the author, the glory days of Central Asia were in the past. This isn’t entirely untrue, but begs the question, whose glory days? It wasn’t a glorious time for women or slaves. The author disdains mass culture, even taking the time to pooh pooh popular music. To him, anything produced for and by the masses is too easy and accessible, and therefore can hardly be esteemed as art. This weird ending seems out of place with what was otherwise a really dull history. It made me wonder if historians who are interested in the “stan” countries are conservative and elitist. Perhaps studying them is depressing and lends itself to embracing some bygone time when they were not collection of dusty, forgotten countries but centers of trade and culture.