Category Archives: History

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life by Vivian Gornick (Yale Univ. Press)

Emma GoldmanI’ve read about Emma Goldman in passing and wanted to read more about this feisty anarchist, “Red Emma,” a woman reviled, jailed, and ultimately deported from the U.S. in 1919. Vivian Gornick’s compact biography, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, is part of the terrific Yale Univ. Press’s Jewish Lives Series.

Goldman was born in Lithuania in 1869 and came to Rochester, New York as a teenager to live with her older sister; the rest of the family joined her a year later. She was desperate to accomplish something, to change the world, and was galvanized by the Haymarket Affair, a workers’ protest in Chicago that was disrupted by an anarchist’s bomb. It was a defining moment in U.S. labor history and she wanted to be part of it.

Goldman, too volatile and rebellious for her family, left home with her sewing machine and a few dollars, headed for New York City’s Lower East Side, where she found radicals of every stripe meeting in the cafes. The very first day, she met her soulmate, Alexander Berkman, the first in a series of lovers, mentors, and partners. She became a fiery, riveting speaker, traveling around the country talking about worker injustice.

Gornick gives us the outline of the life Goldman led in service to the anarchist movement, but what’s so fascinating about this biography is the insight Gornick offers into Goldman’s motivations and personality. Unlike most biographers, Gornick is right there with the reader, commenting on Goldman’s behavior, adding asides, and digging, digging, digging into who Goldman was, why she acted as she did; all the messy contradictions of her life (and loves). The energy of Gornick’s writing is terrific; a great match for Goldman’s single-minded drive to change the world.

Fierce AttachmentsIn conjunction with Goldman’s bio, I read Gornick’s own memoir Fierce Attachments, probably for the third time. Each time I read it, I’m hooked again, drawn into her childhood world and tangled relationship with her mother. It’s a feminist classic for good reasons, but also a startling evocation of the conflicted, haunting relationships we have with our childhood influences.

Heir Apparent

Heir ApparentI’m hoping to read more European history this  year and have just finished The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley, the new bio of  Queen Victoria’s philandering son, who gave his name to the Edwardian era, the first decade of the 1900s.

It’s a huge book, and my thought was that I’d start reading and maybe not finish it, but I was riveted. Ridley has the wonderful facility of making masses of detail fascinating. She’s also managed to let you know that she’s there with you as you’re reading without really interposing herself.

There’s a cast of hundreds, since Bertie had a wildly active social life, and the reader can only turn the pages in disbelief as “Wales” (as he’s often known) gets into one scrape after another, rescued and shielded by his loyal staff. Even the Prime Ministers protected Bertie from disgrace. I was unaware how much anti-royal sentiment there was in Britain of the late 1800s; Queen Victoria wasn’t sure that the monarchy would survive her and it’s not clear that she cared. She didn’t believe that Bertie would make a suitable king and he never received the appropriate education and training. She was unwilling to relinquish an iota of power or monarchical privilege to him and was jealous of any success he had with the British public or overseas.

But when Victoria died in 1901  he rose to the occasion, although he regretted that the great opportunity came so late in life. Part of the fun of the book is re-visiting the convoluted relationships among the royals in Europe and Russia–so many were Victoria’s descendants and it affected late 19th and early 20th century politics in very interesting ways. For more about those relationships, I recommend reading King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay.

Savage Continent

I’ve been reading about European history–it helps to understand the news, especially now as I watch Russia expanding its interests in Eastern and Central Europe, trying to recover influence in the old Communist bloc countries.

Savage ContinentLast month I read Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. As Lowe points out in this excellent book, Europe after the war was a dreadful place. Infrastructure was gone: roads, bridges, canals, railroads, and buildings had been destroyed. Governments were non-existent in many places. Partisan groups that fought the Germans were fighting each other, eager to become the new rulers. Borders had been re-configured forcing  millions of people to uproot their already impoverished lives and move elsewhere. Collaborators and suspected collaborators were tortured and killed, especially women suspected of consorting with Germans. Many cities were filled with the rubble of destroyed building; for example, Lowe reports that in Budapest 84% of the buildings were damaged, 75% of Caen in France was obliterated. and 1000 villages in Greece were burned and became uninhabitable.

Governments were eager to embrace the enormous task of healing and reconstruction, so they supported the myth that there had been  a unified struggle against Germany. Anything that contradicted that interpretation was swept under the rug. Millions of people had been displaced during and after the war and were rounded up into DP camps where some stayed until the early 1950s, so enormous was the task of resettlement.

Lowe claims that this story hasn’t been told before in this detail and for all of Europe. It’s relevance is clear as I read about the way NATO and Russia are vying for influence in the old Communist bloc countries. It  makes me see Europe in a different light, with a longer perspective. This is a book that I’ll be reading a second time.

The Books I Loved in 2012–Nonfiction

I didn’t read any political books this year, even though there were so many published. Reading the newspaper or the online news was enough politics for me. The seven books listed below are either history, memoir, or biography.


The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain  by Maria Rosa Menocal. 2002. Menocal starts by telling about the young Arab, Abd al-Rahman, only survivor of the massacre of his family–the Umayyad caliphs–in Damascus in 750, by their rivals, the Abbasids. Several years later, he turned up in the Iberian Peninsula, or al-Andalus as it was called in Arabic. This dramatic event set the course for the history that followed–the Islamic Empire in Cordoba known for its tolerance and rich culture. Jews and Christians participated in Arab culture, each group enriching the mix, creating art, translating the classics, and creating fabulous buildings like the Alhambra and the Mezquita in Cordoba. Not only was this a fascinating look at medieval Spain, but it provided insight into later European history–political and intellectual.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. 2011. Boo immersed herself in this slum community next to the airport in Mumbai, where competition for food and shelter makes people into adversaries of their neighbors rather than co-competitors. It’s  a painful book to read but Boo’s attachment to the denizens of Annawadi makes for riveting characterizations. Your heart breaks for the young adults who yearn to escape. Winner of the National Book Award.

When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine by Monica Wood. 2012. Wood’s story of growing up in a company town in upstate New York doesn’t contain violence or addiction, just the insights of a good writer telling about a particular time and place, the 1950s and 1960s in a small town. Perceptive and rewarding.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour. 2008. I was intrigued by the reviews of this, but my local library never bought it so eventually I put it on my nook and was delighted with Seymour’s memoir of growing up in a beautiful country house in Nottinghamshire with a father who made her life miserable. Of course, he made his own life miserable too. Funny, sad, and very entertaining.

1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus Created by Charles Mann. 2011. The discovery of the New World had far-reaching effects, as species of plants and animals were transported from the Old World to the New and vice versa. This Columbian Exchange, as it’s called, shaped the world we live in today in so respects. Every chapter had an “aha” moment for me. Mann connects the dots, puts in perspective things that we may know as isolated incidents or events. Just a few of the things I found fascinating: that there was trade between South America and China in the 1500s; that there was a “Little Ice Age” in Europe from 1550-1750; that the glut of silver that flowed from South America to Spain in the 1500s made it easy for Spain to go to war in Europe; that until the end of the 18th century African slaves outnumbered Europeans in England’s American holdings by 2 to 1.  Mann repeatedly makes the point that 1492 was the beginning of globalization in so many areas, especially agriculture, which in turn led to massive cultural changes that we’re still experiencing today.

Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton by Sara Wheeler. 2009. If you’ve read and loved Isak Dinesen’s classic memoir Out of Africa, you’ll remember Denys, the romantic young Englishman that Dinesen loved and lost. The movie, with Robert Redford playing the role only made him more appealing and romantic. He was charismatic, but the truth, according to Wheeler, was somewhat different than the memoir and the movie would have us believe. Finch-Hatton was a charming, charismatic figure, inspiring love and loyalty in all he met, but he was a wanderer, never certain of what he was meant to do, never able to commit to anyone or anything. He left no diaries so Wheeler has put this bio together from the stories told by his contemporaries and her own astute surmises. She isn’t afraid to insert herself in the narrative, commenting occasionally on the process and I loved this informality.

My Korean Deli: Risking it All for a Convenience Store by Ben Ryder Howe. 2011. What a great New York story this is! Ben Ryder Howe and his wife move into his Korean in-laws’  basement in Staten Island to save up some money but decide to use their savings to purchase a convenience store in Brooklyn for his wife’s mother, Kay.  Howe works at the convenience store by night, keeping his day job at the very highbrow Paris Review, where he works for George Plimpton. The contrast between the two aspects of his life is hilarious, as is Howe’s descriptions of life at the deli. Only in New York.

1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

My nonfiction book group just discussed this book–it was fascinating. More details about what was so great about it are on my book group page.


I was away for a few weeks, vacationing in Barcelona and Provence (pictures to come!), and of course I had to make the big decision about what to take along to read. A plane ride without a book is unthinkable. We were determined to travel with only carry-on bags, so that made the decision harder. I decided to bring my little MP3 player, which is always loaded up with audiobooks and podcasts.

I was already nearing the end of Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt, so Nicholas Hook and his adventures at the famous battle kept me company for the flight to Barcelona. A week later, when we arrived in France, Agincourt turned out to have been an ideal reading choice. Our first stop, after picking up our rental car in Montpellier, was Aigues-Mortes, a remarkably well-preserved medieval walled and fortified city.

Although the setting of the Cornwell’s novel is the northwest of France and not the south coast, Aigues-Mortes is contemporaneous with the walled city of Harfleur, the location of one of the battles Cornwell so vividly describes. At Aigues-Mortes, I could “see” what Cornwell was describing, a further reminder that the more we know about where we travel, the more meaningful the trip.

I don’t usually read war stories, but Cornwell has such a sterling reputation as a historical novelist that I thought I’d give him a try. He doesn’t spare the reader the descriptions of bloody warfare, but the characters he creates are real and compelling, their lives woven seamlessly into the beautifully realized historical setting. It also didn’t hurt that the narrator–Charles Keating–was superb, creating distinct voices for each character that captured the essence of their personality. It was a tour de force of writing and narration. I’m hoping that Agincourt is the first in a new Cornwell series–as the characters rode off into the sunset at the end, I had a strong feeling that Cornwell had more in mind for them.

Out of India

Indian SummerThe last book my book group read was Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. I had suggested it based on my own fascination with India. I started reading fiction about India when I was in high school, with Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve, a revelatory novel for me, a Brooklyn teenager living in a fairly sheltered world. I was hooked and have been reading about India  ever since, especially the great novels that deal with the British colonial period and its aftermath. I’ve created a reading list of some of my favorite fiction and nonfiction titles. 

So I was especially pleased to re-read Indian Summer for the book group and have a chance to discuss it with friends. Von Tunzelman tells the story of how the British government extricated itself from India after World War II, when the expense of maintaining the Raj was too great. Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, appointed as Viceroy in 1947, was charged with supervising the handover. Mountbatten may not have been the ideal politician for the job, which needed a statesman of Solomonic proportions. India was not a unified country where a transfer of power could occur with the lowering of one flag and the hoisting of another. Partition–the creation of East Pakistan and West Pakistan as Muslim states–which occurred simultaneously with Indian independence, was the signal for an onslaught of horrendous violence between Hindus and Muslims that still poisons relations between the two countries. Did the British haste to settle such a volatile situation create this permanent state of tension between India and Pakistan or was there no way to avoid a fiasco?

Von Tunzelman concentrates on the major characters in this political drama. On the English side, the social climbing, often clueless Mountbatten and his indefatigable wife Edwina, on the other, three very different charismatic Indian statesmen: Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah. So much of what happened is due to the confluence of these five people, who were caught up in a firestorm of political and religious fervor. Von Tunzelman, by blending the factual with the personal, enlivens the historical record and provides insight into the power of individuals to shape history. Indian Summer also reveals the seeds of current problems in this area, Afghanistan included. There’s plenty of food for thought here and a good story, too.