The Time Traveler’s Handbook: 18 Experiences from the Eruption of Vesuvius to Woodstock
This is your basic travel guide manual. Just like Rick Steve’s books or the popular Lonely Planet guide books, The Time Traveler’s Handbook outlines the optimal journey: where to stay, where to eat, where to seek out local knowledge, how to stay out of trouble, and what to see. The catch? It is, as the title suggests, a guide for traveling to some of the most influential moment in history. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see the opening night at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, or maybe you’d prefer something a little more adventurous. You could always opt for joining Marco Polo or exploring Pompeii during the most famous volcanic eruption of all time.
While this book is clearly satirical, there was a part of me that wished it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t a typical work of fiction as it’s formatted exactly like the information you’ll find on tour companies’ websites. It uses the same enticing details and paints a vivid picture that makes you want to take this trip. Despite the nontraditional style, it was very fun to read and I found myself lost in it just like I would have been if it were a collection of short stories about people who did take these trips.
Johnny Acton, David Goldblatt, James Wyllie
America’s Greatest Blunder: The Fateful Decision to Enter World War One
When I was in high school, the main narrative we learned concerning World War I was that Europe was falling apart fighting itself until America stepped in and saved the day. Our textbooks told us that America was compelled to enter the war because the Germans sank the Lusitania and offered to help Mexico in a war against us. America’s Greatest Blunder turns that version of story on its head.
Burton Yale Pines argues that America’s neutrality at the war’s outset was not really neutral at all; Washington heavily favored the Allies early on. He claims that America’s reasons for entering the war had very little to do with the safety of the nation and very much to do with increased ties to England and France. Most significantly, he argues that, had America not entered the war, the combatants would have been stalemated and forced to compromise. This would have ended the war on a more evenhanded note, and Germany would not have been forced to pay such astronomical war reparations, meaning that the Nazis might not have had the opportunity to rise to power. Without the Nazi party controlling Germany, there may not have been a World War II, and, without a World War II, there may not have been the Cold War. While this is all speculative, it is fascinating to think how many lives might have been saved if America had made one decision differently.
Pines lays out these ideas very meticulously, completely explaining each step in both actual history and potential history. His work is very well researched, with extensive notes and a bibliography that stretches across thirty-nine pages. It is also very easy to read. He does an excellent job of bringing the conditions and decisions of the war to life and of explaining the history in very clear terms. The primary focus of this book is the myriad tiny steps that led to the fateful outcome of the war, and Pines does a wonderful job of describing each tiny step and its importance while never veering into tediousness. America’s Greatest Blunder is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in World War I, American History, European History, politics, or warfare.
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.
China at the Center: Ricci and Verbiest World Maps
In the early 17th century, Jesuit priests, eager to spread Christianity, made their way to China; two of these, Matteo Ricci and Ferdinand Verbiest, became noted scientists and philosophers in the Chinese imperial court. They brought their knowledge of European cartography and drew important maps that impressed their hosts and influenced Chinese mapmaking for years to come. This slim volume concentrates on the history of these two priests and how and why they created the two maps known as the Ricci and Verbiest World Maps. The maps are reproduced in sepia print, and the accompanying essays explain some of the detail, noting important aspects such as the inclusion of scale, positioning of the continents, mythical creatures or fantastic facts, and so on.
The maps are very detailed, but small; the text on the maps, written for a Chinese audience, is also written in Mandarin, so English-speaking readers may be disappointed that there is not more explanation of the various writings included on the maps. However, this is an interesting and accessible introduction to this little-known aspect of cartography, and will encourage interested readers to seek additional sources to truly study these documents and enjoy their message and history.
ClanDonnell: A Storied History of Ireland
David McDonnell tells Ireland’s history through a unique lens, tracing the history of the original Clan Donnell (Donald in Scotland) and offshoot clans (McDonnells, McDonalds, O’Donnells, etc.) that dominated the Hebrides Islands, Highland Scotland, and much of Ireland, until the English subjugated the island in the 17th century.
McDonnell has a story-teller’s voice, though his richly textured and layered 900-plus-page book is factual. Familiar historic figures star in this story, but the author shows a Donnell, a Donald, or a McDonnell on the scene at every turn, including “The Troubles” of the 1900s. It’s a mesmerizing book that feels like a personal journey through Ireland’s history.
In the Clan Era, there was much travel between Scotland and what was Ireland at that time: not a nation, but an amalgam of small kingdoms headed by clan leaders chosen by their clan members and associated clans. The McDonnell clan was predominant in the north but migrated south as well. “Redshanks” and “Gallowglass warriors” (well-trained Scots mercenaries loyal to McDonnell clan in Northern Ireland) could be rented out to other clans in both places, which gave the McDonnells more power and land for their clans. (The English were terrified of these warriors.)
Early Scots who immigrated assimilated easily into the Irish clans. Viking invasions of the 8th and 10th centuries also assimilated into Celtic clans. The Celtic clan culture worked for more than a thousand years, and author McDonnell raises a good question: Who really is Irish? Ireland was invaded over centuries by many different groups — all of whom wove themselves into the culture and became part of the Ireland we know today.
A clan leader’s first concern was to provide what was best for the clan. That changed with the Norman and English invasions in the late 12th century. Clan leaders who made peace with the invaders became earls instead; their clan members became tenants. Later, English colonizers turned this to their own advantage: when these Irish earls were recalcitrant, they were replaced with English landlords, most of them absentee landlords. The subjugation of Ireland became complete under Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I (who encouraged Protestants from the Scottish lowlands to immigrate into what is now Ulster), and Cromwell, whose system of forfeiture reduced most Irish to subsistence or homelessness long before the potato blight of the 1840s. James I and Cromwell set the scenes for “The Hunger” and Diaspora of the 1840s, and the horrendous “Troubles” in the 20th century. At every event in this absorbing book, one meets a McDonnell or two — some on one side, some on the other. There were McDonnell landlords and earls, McDonnell members of the IRA. Some fought for England in WWI.
As promised, McDonnell doesn’t litter pages with footnotes, claiming they make for a tedious read. I do think the book could have benefitted from appendices in the back with more timelines and maps. An index would have been helpful, too. I had to do a lot of re-reading and page-turning to keep track of events. That said, this is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in Irish history.
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