Books to read

Apr 052010

Fascinating review of Ernest May’s “Strange Victory – Hitler’s Conquest of France”, by Alex Harrowell over at A Fistfull of Euros.

It turns out that that Hitler’s Germany was able to defeat France and Britain because Germany acted more like an egalitarian democracy, while France went in for authoritarian central planning. And then Germany lost the war because, after the first victories, Hitler insisted on tight control and central planning.

This story has a sort of tragic duality. The Germans won because they had been able to plan more like a democracy than democratic France or Britain – they constantly questioned their assumptions, criticised superiors, and threw out bad ideas – but they would never do so again, precisely because of their triumph over France. Hitler rapidly convinced himself it was all his own work, and the independent authority of the army was permanently destroyed.

Feb 032010

Here is something to read as soon as our university library gets it, or I can snag a cheap used copy. 19th century France is definitely a missing period in my historical understanding. It’s not that my college history classes didn’t cover it, or that I haven’t read accounts of, say, the Paris Commune. But this might help me make better sense of it:

For the Soul of France, by Frederick Brown. Knopf, 304 pages, $28.95

Here is some of what Michael Gurfinkiel, the WSJ reviewer, said:

Mr. Brown does not omit a single episode in this narrative, nor does he stint on the vignettes and human angles that bring the story to life. He is the author of noted biographies of Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, and “For the Soul of France” clearly benefits from his long immersion in the lives and works of these two great novelists, who flourished during the era he describes. Mr. Brown’s storytelling is vivacious and fluid, but he also keeps a firm hand on his chronicle, bringing order and perspective to these often chaotic times. …

Then again, Mr. Brown simplifies his task by operating with a single organizing principle: Most of the turmoil in France during this period stemmed from battles over the restoration of the Catholic Church as France’s main societal institution….

Nov 242009

This sounds interesting, especially since I am now engaged in the sad task of taking apart/destroying an old upright piano made a hundred years ago. It has a cracked soundboard as well as other defects, so there wasn’t a lot that could be done with it. But I’m learning a little about how those things were put together.

“Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano” by Madeline Goold. Reviewed by Alexandra Mullen


Nov 092009

This sounds like an interesting book:

“The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” (2009) by T.J. Stiles.

It’s about one of my favorite decades, the 1830s. And I’ve been wanting to read more about the rise of industrial corporations. I’m especially interested in the adjustments that people had to make in their lives and outlooks in order to become cogs in the industrial machinery. But a book about one of the industrial tycoons could be interesting, too.

I learned about the book from an article in the weekend Wall Street Journal by the same author: “Men of Steel: Billionaires, like little boys, have long liked to play with trains. With his latest purchase, Warren Buffett is on track to be today’s Cornelius Vanderbilt.”

But one statement in the article almost convinced me not to waste my time. It’s this:

With the meltdown of 008, the public’s attitude [toward Wall Street] switched from love to hate overnight…

This of course is nonsense. Certain newspaper people have been trying to peddle this line, but I don’t know why they’d expect anyone to believe it. Hatred and detestation of corporate America has been part of the air we breath for as long as anyone can remember. What happened in 2008 probably reinforced a lot of peoples’ opinions. It may even have changed a few, though I don’t personally know of anyone in real life or on the internet whose view of Wall Street and business corporations underwent any fundamental change because of the 2008 meltdown. Politicians and their media flunkies like to exploit a crisis, of course, but one has to allow for the fact that they have an agenda.

Oh, well. I’m hoping the book is better than that one statement.

Oct 082009

This book looks like it would be fun to read: “Histories Grecques : Snapshots from Antiquity” by Maurice Sartre, translated by Catherine Porter.

I learned about it from David Wharton’s review in The Weekly Standard. Here is the part that sold me:

Sartre proceeds more or less chronologically, but the subjects he chooses to explore at first seem random–for example, some Lydian coins, or a graffito on the leg of an Egyptian statue, or a fragmentary inscription from a jerkwater Macedonian town, regulating who can and can’t use the local gymnasium. The suspicion arises that Sartre is just taking us on an idiosyncratic tour of minor antiquities.

By his own confession, he follows his own interests instead of developing a grand thesis. But an overarching aim becomes clear soon enough: He wants to give us a detailed picture of life as it was lived in the polis by its many and varied inhabitants. Each chapter fills in a few more brush strokes.

Sounds like a man after my own Spokesriding heart. Maybe the example of his book will give me a few pointers on how to pull off such a thing for settlement-era history in the Great Lakes region.

BTW, I am not going to report to the FTC whether Sartre or the publisher paid me to say any of this.