Slavery and Freedom in the Mid-Hudson Valley
Slavery is a stain on American history and a topic that can still bring about heated passion to this day. Most books on slavery in early American history look at wide areas or wide time frames. It is rare, and a joy, to get a book that looks at one specific area and one written by a historian as well. This book examines slavery, and freedom, in Dutchess County, New York, just up the Hudson River from New York City and before Albany. Michael Groth gives us an in-depth view of how slavery came to Dutchess County and how it evolved and grew across time as well as how slave owners responded the War for Independence and eventually New York’s law for emancipation. Professor Groth shows that life was not as easy for a rural slave as it was for an urban one, though neither was easy, and how after a slave earned their freedom life was still not easy.
For people wanting an close look at a particular region, this is an excellent book. The author takes the literature that covers the wide areas and helps bring it to bear on a specific county. In a way, it fills in a hole in the literature.
Michael E. Groth
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
For the Western world, cities in the East have difficult names, are exotic, perhaps backwards, and rarely considered to have an impact on Western politics and society. This book’s aim is to present a case that these cities, and the empires that once claimed them continue to have a real influence on today’s economies all over the globe. World histories typically suffer from two main criticisms: They do not take in to account all factors that lead to major world events, focusing instead on only a few main ones which they claim are relevant. The second criticism is that they do not take into account all world events, sometimes ignoring large portions of history especially if these historical narratives are at odds with the historian’s world view.
This book attempts to explain world events arising from events and attitudes along the Silk Road (defined as the network of trade routes from China to the Mediterranean). It also reduces the impetus for major events to economic motives. In the process it focuses unevenly on certain historical events and epochs – a criticism that can be levelled against virtually any historical account.
The narrative is chronological starting with the Persian Empire, and speculating about the future. Along the way the trade and transportation of goods along the Silk Road is discussed which brings in its wake other consequences. One such consequence is the evolution of religions along the Silk Road as they compete and trade ideas with each other. Another is the transmission of disease that brought the Black Death to Europe. The Atlantic Trade is also discussed and tied to trade along the Silk Road, as are major conflicts. In recent times, the world has looked to the West as a model of sophistication. This book predicts that current world events will move the center of the world back to the Silk Road – where it claims it has traditionally been. Readers may not agree with the views presented in this book. However it does provide an alternate viewpoint. For those who embrace alternate viewpoints, or are curious about them, this would be a good book.
Jewels of Allah
Is there any subject of which the average Westerner harbors more misconceptions and false assumptions than the role of the Middle Eastern woman? Dr. Nina Ansary tackles these misconceptions directly in her book Jewels of Allah, explaining that the history of women’s rights in Iran isn’t as simple as we assume. In fact, what is surprising is how women have found methods of liberation through their oppression. Two prominent examples are the mandated wearing of the hijab and the institution of single-sex education. Ansary explains that with the institutionalization of both the hijab and single-sex education, many conservative Muslim families felt more comfortable sending their daughters to school. Additionally, girls attending an all-girl school flourished more and were more comfortable voicing their opinions than they had been in the coeducational schools of the Pahlavi monarchy.
The Pahlavi era was one of rapid social progress. Too rapid, perhaps: Centuries of custom and tradition were ousted almost overnight, including the role of women. During the Persian centuries, women played a subordinate role, but with the advent of the Pahlavi era, women were allowed to hold political office, become lawyers, obtain divorces, and dress how they pleased. The hijab, however, was outlawed, and many Iranians believed the Pahlavi were mere puppets of the Western powers. In 1979 the pendulum of progress swung back with a vengeance, as the revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini ousted the Pahlavi regime and the era’s hard-won social progress. Women were once again forced to play a subordinate role. Yet as Ansary shows, there was and continues to be a thriving women’s rights movement despite the oppressive patriarchal laws and regulations. During the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, for instance, women filled many of the jobs left vacant by men fighting in the war, not unlike women during World War II. Ansary also cites the numerous women’s magazines and periodicals in post-revolutionary Iran as an impetus and outlet for women’s concerns, and devotes an entire chapter to the women’s magazine Zanan and its founder, Shahla Sherkat.
One of the most important revelations of the book is that there is not just one type of Iranian woman. Even within the progressive women’s movement there are differences. There are devout Muslim women who seek to reconcile and reinterpret the Koran more favorably for women, and there are also secular women who believe no such reconciliation is possible and work for a complete break with tradition, yet despite their differences both camps work together for the advancement of women’s rights. Nina Ansary’s book is a must-read for anyone hoping for a fuller understanding of the role of women and the women’s rights movement in Iran. It is a much-needed antidote to Western misconceptions
John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit
John Quincy Adams was the 6th President of the United States. He was the son of a President. A lot of people might stop right there and be inclined to write him off. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit does no such thing. John Quincy Adams lived an extraordinary life, he was a witness to the Battle of Bunker Hill at age 8 while his father John Adams labored in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia trying to mold this country together. His mother Abigail was his primary caregiver and shaped his mind. John Quincy’s teenage years would be colored by his time in Europe with his diplomat father. He would be influenced by his time there but also by his idol, Thomas Jefferson. The time spent in Europe would lead to future vocations as diplomat under President George Washington. In 1797, John Quincy would marry Louisa Johnson. It would be a marriage with times of great struggle, from financial imbroglios (Louisas father, John Quincy’s brother) to multiple miscarriages, but their union would never be broken. Meanwhile, John Quincy would go from lawyer to State Legislature then eventually Secretary of State. This position would put him in good stead for his run at the Presidency in 1824, which he would win but not without controversy. Quincy’s willingness to buck the system would hamper attempts at getting legislation passed. His defeat in 1828 seemed to sound the death knell of his career, but his political fortitude would lead to a career in congress that would span the rest of his life, where he would leave an indelible mark on the country.
James Traub’s biography of John Quincy Adams is an excellent telling of a life often overlooked. History books tend to brush Adams off after his one term in office but the truth is far more compelling. Traub mentions Adams’ battles with the slave holding South and his stubbornness in not going with the flow in pitched battles. Adams was a maverick before the term became fashionable and Traub makes his mark with this well told biography of a forgotten trailblazer.
The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention
The Paper Trail by Alexander Monro is described as an unexpected history of a revolutionary invention. It is all of that. Writing itself was a wonder but the limitations of clay, bark, split bamboo, or animal skins kept writing to an elite few. Papyrus was better but not until the Han dynasty, when paper was invented did the sharing of ideas begin to accelerate. Then paper comes into its own facilitating the spread of ideas, bureaucracy, religion, art, science, essays and revolution. Earlier religions are limited by oral recitation or limited written medium. Buddhism, a second resurgence of Daoism, Islam, Christianity, the Renaissance, and Revolution are all made possible by the burgeoning use of paper to share, spread, and import advancing ideas from far away. Literacy becomes the mark of status, the time from the invention of paper to our current day can be called “The Paper Age”.
The book is written well. It has a wealth of knowledge and anecdotes. This is not a general history and though the author touches on major events, his focus is how paper moved through history lubricating change. This is a book to read, to ponder, and to re-examine history using a different lens. It is enlightening and entertaining. I recommend it highly.
The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, A Brief History
When it comes to reading textbooks or primers on particular subjects, the key really is that the writing keep the reader’s interest, otherwise their mind is likely to wander and/or become bored with the subject matter they are reading about. Thankfully, Jack L. Schwartzwald’s brief history on the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome has an interesting and engaging voice that grabs the reader’s attention right from the beginning and keeps them going for the whole book.
This “brief history” is still a good 190-odd pages of informational text, along with an extensive bibliography and thorough index, giving the reader quick references at their fingertips. For those readers looking to read it cover to cover, the book is divided into three chapters: “The Cradle of Civilization: The Ancient Near East,’ “The Cradle of Western Civilization: Ancient Greece,” and “The Cradle of the Nation-State: Ancient Rome.” While it seems like heavy reading to digest the entire book with just three chapter breaks, especially on this none-too-easy subject, each chapter is subdivided into sections with titles to allow for breaks and digestion of the material. The shortest chapter is the first one at 30 pages, which is sad, because it is such an import period in history that lead to the foundation and creation of so much that came after, nevertheless it is clear that while Schwartzwald knows plenty about the ancient Near East, it is ancient Greece and Rome where he dedicates his true knowledge.
The history telling is straightforward, with lots of names and dates throughout the text, as the author lays out the history and events and happenings in succinct paragraphs. There is not a lot of discussion or synthesis here, as this is a “brief history” after all and nothing more. Schwartzwald is giving you the quick history of these times and places so that you can speedily digest and understand it. If you are looking for further, deeper material, that is what the bibliography is for. But in this way the book also serves as an excellent reference tool, along with the index, so that if the reader is tackling something in depth, but wants a quick refresher on a specific period in the ancient Near East, Greece or Rome, this book does the job well.
What is perhaps surprising about the book is that it is all text, with not a single picture, table, graphic, or depiction of a graphic source. While, again, it is a “brief history” and meant for a quick and thorough reading of the time period, one would expect maybe a photo or two, a Roman statue or Greek piece of architecture, or even Hammurabi’s code of laws; something to break up the text and help make it all the more real for the reader. Nevertheless, the book does its job of providing a “brief history” of the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome, where the reader will not become lost and overwhelmed by too much, but able to digest everything in titled sections. It is an ideal book for someone taking an ancient history class and looking to get a feel for the history they are about to learn about or for the average reader wanting to learn more about the period, but not having to absorb a heavy and overwhelming tome. The people, dates, and events in the book are all laid out in chronological order, allowing the reader to take it all in swiftly and comprehensively.