Friday, August 21, 2009

Nonfiction update

I have made a few posts on nonfiction I’ve read this year (The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss and A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro), and thought I would add a few more nonfiction books I’ve enjoyed recently.

The biggest joy has been rediscovering Barbara Tuchman. I received A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century when it was released and had read most of it, lugging the book across the country, eventually selling it during one of my last moves. What a boneheaded move (nice to see ‘boneheaded’ passes the spellcheck function…while ‘spellcheck’ doesn’t). How on earth can history in schools be so boring (OK, an over-generalized statement) when the material is so rich? Highly recommended for a sweeping overview of the challenges faced by different levels of society during this era—war, plague, and schism are only the beginning. For those unfamiliar with the book, Tuchman starts by providing background leading up to the century, covering various aspects of life. As the century moves along, she focuses on one French noble who was near the center of many pivotal moments. One drawback to the book is the scale is so large that some areas don’t receive as much detail as I would have liked (for example, more on Italy during this period would have been helpful). Even so, Tuchman does not shortchange any area…that’s just my wish to have an expanded look under such an expert hand.

I also read Tuchman’s The Guns of August, her detailed look at the first month of “The Great War”. She details, day by day and sometimes almost hour by hour, military movements and political machinations that defined the positions combatants found themselves in by early September 1914. The mistakes and blunders made on both sides during August would have severe repercussions for the remainder of the war. For those looking for causes of the war or other usual approaches, you will need to go elsewhere. Instead, the focus is on military strategy and planning, both the nuts and bolts of it as well as the political environment various military planners worked in leading up to the start of World War I. The plans would provide the framework which would guide the operations during that first month and, again, define the situation faced by leaders for the next four years. Deviations from these plans, as well as the weaknesses inherent in them, would have far-reaching consequences.

One that deserves its own post is Elie Wiesel’s Night, a powerful and moving memoir. It captures the emotional and spiritual aspects of living in (as well as surviving) World War II’s concentration camps. I'm at a loss on summarizing this book in a short paragraph, so I plan on revisiting it soon and giving its own post.

All three books are highly recommended.

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