Friday, May 2, 2008

This Week at the Library (2-5-08)

Books Included in this Update:
- Only Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen
- Since Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen
- The Appeal, John Grisham
- The Center Cannot Hold, Harry Turtledove
- The Victorious Opposition, Harry Turtledove
- Return Engagement, Harry Turtledove
- Drive to the East, Harry Turtledove
- The Grapple, Harry Turtledove

I've waited a while to write this, as it will be my last library-related post from the University of Montevallo. At 3 PM today, I will have to vacate Napier and leave Montevallo behind. While I did not read nearly as much during the school year as I did in the summer leading up to my return, I did read quite a bit. As you can see from the listed books above, my reading for the past month or so has been dominated by schoolwork or the Turtledove series.

The Frederick Lewis Allen books come from my historiography class, where we examined history as an area of study. One of our assignments was a book review, and I asked to review The Making of the Middle Ages by R.W. Southern. I did not find the book all that interesting, as it was mostly about the development of the Christian church -- and I have zero interest in that, really. So I asked my professor if I could switch to another book. He gamely agreed, and I read Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s is a book that I started reading last term, but never finished. (I did, however, mention the book in one of these posts.)

Allen was an amateur historian working for Harpers magazine: his book is not written for academics, but for popular consumption. As such, his style is informal. In the prelude this is mildly annoying, but as the book progressed I found I liked it. Allen published this in 1931, so it was fairly recent. You can read the book online -- which is where I read it -- here.

The book moves through the 1920s, topic by topic. Some topics include the rise of crime (thanks in part to Prohibition), the rising hemlines, and the Red Scare. The topics themselves are smartly arranged chronologically, and Allen is careful to refresh the reader's memory from time to time to ensure that she or he is getting the broader perspective. It's a nice touch, I think. It was this book that my first university-level history instructor recommended to me when I asked him for book suggestions regarding the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, and I pass the recommendation on to you.

I commented in my review for class that Allen's tone may have changed had he written this book ten years later, after the Depression was revealed to have been a long-term issue for the world and not just a temporary panic. In order to see if this was the case, I checked out Allen's sequel to the book, aptly named Since Yesterday. This book follows the same style and has the same inherent readability, so I again recommend it to those of you who have an interest in this era. The style is very informal, but not so much that the reader would feel insulted. The only dull part of the books I remember is a chapter on land speculation in Florida in Only Yesterday. The chapter about the Bull Market wasn't all that interesting, either, but then again I am not an economic historian or even a student of economic history. My favorite kind of history is social history, and these books provide that.

I received John Grisham's The Appeal for my birthday. Grisham is a favorite author of mine, although I'm not exactly alone in claiming that. The Appeal, as you might be able to guess from the title, is based in the field of law -- which is a return for Grisham. His early works (A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, etc) were all legal "thrillers", but then he started varying from that with titles like A Painted House, Skipping Christmas, and Playing for Pizza. That didn't hurt him, as far as I'm concerned. All of those non-legal books are well-written and entertaining as well. What follows is an introduction to the book, not a plot summary. The Appeal is principally about a chemical company that has been caught disposing of toxic chemical byproducts in ravines, poisoning the water table and giving the county the name of "Cancer County". The chemical company is sued by a married law couple, who nearly go into bankruptcy trying to afford the costs of the trial. The chemical company pins its hopes on a successful appeal -- to a friendly court. This is where the book's drama really begins, as people working on behalf of the chemical company will attempt to influence local elections to affect a change in the make-up of that court: specifically, attempting to replace a moderate judge with a conservative one. I'm not sure what Grisham's intention was with this book, other than entertainment. I personally think that it conveys a message about the power of corporations and the danger of easily-influenced voters.

I also continued reading the so-called 'Southern Victory" series by Harry Turtledove. Since Turtledove's style is about the same throughout the series, I won't bother commenting on each book one by one. Turtledove's style, you might remember, is to tell the story through the eyes of viewpoint characters. The characters in this part of the series are varied -- legislators, soldiers, sailors, dictators, death camp commandants, civilians caught in the middle, etc. The only comment I will provide other than a plot summary is that while there were sex scenes in the first three or four books, Turtledove eases off on them later on. Turtledove's sex could never match Jean M. Auel's caveman erotica, but it was still a bit strange. The later books are all about social history and military conflict. I left off at the end of the Great War. Considering the progress I've made since, it's pathetic that it has taken me this long to bother writing. If you plan to read this series and do not want anything to be spoiled, read no more.

Blood and Iron finishes the Great War. The United States and Germany are victorious, and inflict brutal peace terms on their vanquished foes. I rather enjoyed seeing the South get the same harsh treatment as Germany did in the real world, and seeing the same results -- the rise of radicalism, which is where The Center Cannot Hold probably gets its name from. As people living in France and the Confederacy deal with crippling inflation and the indignity of Versailles-like treaty conditions, they become easy prey for demagogues. Far-right conservatives seize power in Britain, France, and the Confederacy, and the world is pushed toward war.

Jake Featherston, Turtledove's answer to reality's Hitler, remilitarizes the south and prepares the Confederates for a war with the United States. There's a difference between the two, because the South (or Germany in the real world) could have rearmed without going to war. Turtledove's road to war follows the "real" road to war pretty closely. At the beginning of the 1940s (in Return Engagement) Featherston declares war against the United States and moves in, winning early victories. He fails to force the United States to capitulate, though, and is left with a war. (The Drive East, The Grapple). Even as he is fighting the United States, he is also engaged in a "final solution" of his own. During the Great War, a red revolution instigated by ill-treated blacks drained some Confederate troops from the front line. The United States would have emerged victorious regardless, but because of the "revolution", it was easy for Confederates to blame blacks for their woes. Finding a scapegoat is always easy.

The war is currently going south for the South. Every world power is trying to develop the bomb: the United States and Germany seem to be closest. I only have one book left in the series, and I believe I will be starting it this next week. I don't know what the result will be, but I'm rooting for the Confederacy's utter destruction.

Pick of the Week: Only Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen

Upcoming Reads:
- In To the Death, Harry Turtledove
- Daily Life in Rome
- The Roman Way
- Modern Germany
- France Since 1815
- History of the Ancient World

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