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review 2020-05-22 22:21
Bondage by Alessandro Stanziani
Bondage: Labor and Rights in Eurasia from the Sixteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries - Alessandro Stanziani

I picked this book up with the hope of learning about how serfdom actually worked in 18th century Russia and eastern Europe, and I did learn from it, though as with a lot of academic books it seems to have been written with the expectation that only about 12 people would ever read it, all of whom are other researchers in the same or related fields. The writing is unnecessarily dense and there are a lot of unexplained references to authors that this one is apparently refuting.

 

That said, the author’s thesis is an interesting one: essentially, that in the early modern era, Europe wasn’t so much divided between states where workers were free and states where they were serfs, as on a continuum. Workers in England and France weren’t nearly as “free” as you might believe, and labor laws were actually getting stricter at the time. Workers were often required to sign long labor contracts (a year was common, much longer was possible), and there were criminal penalties for leaving before a contract was completed, with the result that “runaway” workers could be jailed, fined, or even in some rare cases, whipped. Meanwhile, Russian serfs had more freedom of movement than some sources have given them credit for, with some going back and forth between town and the estates, and some areas of the country not sending back runaway serfs at all. Serfs could also initiate lawsuits against landowners, and some won their freedom this way (generally it seems because the landowners as non-nobles weren’t actually qualified to own populated estates), though as always the poor winning lawsuits against the rich was quite rare.

 

As someone unfamiliar with the literature the author is responding to, I found the arguments related to England and France (and the general descriptions of forced labor in Eurasia and in certain Indian Ocean colonies of the European powers) more coherent than the arguments about Russia. In some places it seemed like Stanziani was being overly technical, as when he points out that the laws establishing serfdom were all really about establishing who could own populated estates rather than delineating serfdom per se. I’m unclear on why this is important. He also seems to gloss over a lot of abuses described in other sources – granted, my other reading on this topic involves popular rather than academic sources, and this book is much too technical to engage with works of that sort at all. But while he states that Russian serfdom was nothing like American slavery, he doesn’t provide much basis for this conclusion.

 

At any rate, I’m clearly not the intended reader for this book, but I did get some interesting ideas from it. I’d love to see a book on this topic that’s a little more accessible for the general reader.

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review 2020-04-23 22:44
Chrysalis by Kim Todd
Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis - Kim Todd

This is a lovely biography of an early female scientist, by an author who clearly put a lot of care and interest into learning about Maria Sibylla Merian and her work. Born in Germany in the mid-17th century, Merian trained as an artist but was fascinated by the metamorphosis of insects from childhood. She continued to study them throughout her life, observing and creating gorgeous paintings of their life stages, and ultimately traveled from Amsterdam to Suriname in 1699 to study insects there, in one of the earliest European scientific voyages. She was a pioneer of ecology: studying life in its natural context rather than collecting dead specimens to observe under a microscope.

A challenge the author faces is that little material about Merian’s personal life survived, though she left lots of notes and artwork. So there is some speculation here, though Todd often suggests multiple possibilities where we don’t know the answer rather than pushing for a particular interpretation. What we do know about Merian’s life is so tantalizing that I wish we had more: what really happened in her marriage, which resulted in a divorce at a time when this was highly unusual? What led her to join, and then leave, the severe, cult-like Labadist sect, and what was life like in it? There’s a lot we don’t know, but Todd fills in many of the blanks with history, by researching life in Germany, the Netherlands and Suriname at the time Merian lived in these places. I’m surprised others have found the book dry; to me it had a quiet warmth that really drew me in.

Unusually for a biography, this book continues well after Merian’s death, which occurs on page 225 out of 282. It then follows her daughters, her scientific legacy, and recent developments in ecology and studies of metamorphosis, all of which adds a lot to the book. I’d love to see more biographies engage with the context of their subjects in this way. There are also black-and-white illustrations as well as some color plates, many showing Merian’s work, though for me reading this alongside the illustrated children’s book Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer was great because that one provides such a wealth of color paintings by Merian.

In the end, I enjoyed this a lot: it’s intelligent, accessible, and wide-ranging in its subject matter while telling what we know of the story of a remarkable woman. I love that Todd wrote this book at all: it’s surprisingly hard to find historical biographies (at least in English) of people who spoke languages other than English, and if they’re women without adventurous sex lives, forget it! But from these biographies Merian emerges as a fascinating person who deserves to be remembered.

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review 2020-04-22 22:47
Old Man River by Paul Schneider
Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History - Paul Schneider

This is a quirky mix of historical anecdotes with a bit of the author’s personal travels, endearing if not particularly cohesive. The geographical scope is quite broad, encompassing areas of the Mississippi River basin quite removed from the river itself (40% of the U.S. is in the Mississippi basin, though the points Schneider writes about are either along the river or east of it). Early sections cover the river basin’s geological history, and then move into Native American history mostly via archaeology, and the section on colonial explorations and warfare is extensive; we’re more than halfway through the book before the United States as a country is born. Because the book is not long and the time period covered is, the author seems to just tell us the stories that suit his fancy, which produce an interesting mix. The portions dealing with Native American history have been done better in, for instance, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, though on the other hand I think this is the most in-depth treatment of the French colonial/exploratory presence in the future U.S. that I’ve ever seen, which speaks to their treatment in most histories as no more than nebulous antagonists off in the woods somewhere.

My favorite part was the 60-page “Life on the Mississippi” segment set between the Revolution and Civil War, covering boat travel up and down the river both before and after the introduction of steamboats, and also river pirates and the like. The Civil War section seems disproportionately long at around 40 pages, and was less interesting to me, and then the book wraps up with a couple of chapters on the extensive dams and other artificial changes made to the river since and their environmental impacts. Long story short, alterations to make the river easier to navigate and reduce yearly flooding also reduce the sediment settling at the mouth of the river to the point that Louisiana is losing a huge amount of land area every year, while major floods are even more frequent and destructive.

There are interspersed chapters about the author’s various travels on and around the river, which are not particularly eventful but are clearly meaningful to him, and add some emotional dimension to the book. Also, on one trip he takes his teenaged son and they run along the top of a train stopped by the side of the river, which makes him a super cool dad.

Overall, this book is kind of scattershot – the author is pretty clearly just relating whatever historical anecdotes are most interesting to him, without making any attempts at being comprehensive, and it would be easy to nitpick what’s included and what’s not. However, it’s pretty well-written and as light supplemental history and travel reading it’s perfectly fine.

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review 2020-04-06 21:29
The Anarchy by William Dalrymple
The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire - William Dalrymple

This is a very informative history of how the British East India Company colonized India. It begins with the formation of the company in 1599, but the crucial time period on which most of the book is spent is from about 1750 to 1803, when the British took advantage of the implosion of the Mughal Empire to take over first Bengal, then other Mughal territories, and finally other Indian kingdoms entirely, through a combination of war, financial maneuvers and diplomacy. In some ways the fact that it was a private company rather than a government doing all this feels almost incidental, as the East India Company was more or less a government (hiring its own armies, coining its own money, collecting taxes, etc.), with the exception that milking as much out of its subjects as possible was actually its overt goal, with all that wealth being taken back to England.

This isn’t a time period about which much has been written, considering the massive ramifications and the fact that English-speakers’ involvement would lead one to expect these events to be well-known in the English-speaking world. Dalrymple covers the many maneuverings, battles, atrocities, and personalities involved in detail. It’s very much a political/military/diplomatic history, giving little sense of what daily life in India was like, particularly for Indians, but even with a fairly narrow focus it’s a chunky read. Dalrymple draws from a wide variety of sources, including sources in Persian, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil, which makes the book feel much more complete than most stories of colonial takeover – although I think he might use slightly more, or more varied, sources in English, at no point did the book leave me in doubt about the goals, feelings or activities of the Indian rulers and their generals. There’s probably around as much information on Indian affairs as British ones.

All that said, I didn’t love this book. Perhaps because so many important figures drop in and out (between deaths and, for the British, retiring or being recalled to England, most leaders don’t seem to last more than about 10 years), and because there’s so much political and military ground to cover, the book is a bit dry even though Dalrymple is clearly doing his best to make an engaging narrative of it, and doesn’t ever get too bogged down in mundane detail. There’s a lot of atrocity: famines, war, and a great deal of torture. And perhaps most relevantly regarding the book’s quality, Dalrymple seems to take somewhat black-and-white views of the personalities involved. Most of them come across as villainous, which almost always seems justified by their activities, but I couldn’t quite get behind his admiration for Warren Hastings, or distaste for Philip Francis on the apparently sole basis of his enmity toward Hastings. No matter how admirable Hastings might have been in his personal life, or how much true attachment he felt toward India, he nevertheless presided over a part of its destruction.

In the end, this is a valuable book, very informative, professionally put together and well-sourced, with an extensive bibliography, useful glossary and many color plates showing relevant Indian and European artwork. All around, an admirable work. Nonetheless, I breathed a sigh of relief to be done with it.

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review 2020-04-03 22:11
The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe
The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom - Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe is an excellent writer of journalistic nonfiction, and always picks great topics for books, which is why I’ve read all of them. Unfortunately, the quality of her books seems to me inversely proportional to how much she features herself in them, and The Newcomers falls on the wrong end of that scale. But this book has an even more basic problem, in which Thorpe appears to have committed herself early to a particular premise and clung to it even as it proved increasingly infeasible and even inappropriate.

The premise is that Thorpe spent a year embedded in a Colorado high school classroom in which non-English-speaking students newly arrived in the U.S. learn the fundamentals of the language. Most of these students are refugees, hailing from various war-torn parts of the globe, from the Middle East to Africa, Southeast Asia to Central America. Teacher Eddie Williams generously agreed to host her, and Thorpe shows up eagerly to class, hoping to write about the lives of these kids and the circumstances that led them to flee their homelands.

And here’s where the problems start. First, Thorpe was determined to write a book about a group of people, who, by definition, don’t speak her language, and she doesn’t speak theirs. Second, those people are traumatized, confused teenagers, with traumatized or missing parents who understand life in the U.S. no better than their children do. Gradually the book turns into Thorpe pumping for information on the personal lives of people who don’t actually want to share. Even the teacher, her entry point, doesn’t want to go there, which doesn’t stop her from highlighting more than once that he refused to talk about the circumstances of his having a child outside wedlock. (Good grief, it’s the 21st century. This is probably the least interesting thing about him.)

Okay, she can do without the teacher’s inner life. But the students are no more forthcoming, and no wonder. Throughout the book, numerous older students and interpreters, former refugees themselves, advise Thorpe against prying into the kids’ lives: they’re new, they’re traumatized, they’re not ready to discuss their worst experiences with anyone – let alone, one presumes, the general public. But instead of changing the plan and focusing the book on people who were ready, she substitutes by speculating about the kids’ inner lives, or by recounting mundane classroom activities as if they were freighted with deeper meaning than seems evident to me. She notes that when Jakleen, an Iraqi girl who is one of the book’s more prominent characters, started and then stopped wearing a hijab, “I was not sure how to interpret this statement, and she never cared to enlighten me”; when Jakleen stops talking to a boy, it’s “for reasons that remained unclear.” When Methusella, a Congolese boy also prominently featured, makes a collage in group therapy, it’s “one of the few times [he] had revealed himself all year.”

He only actually revealed himself to the school therapist, but she hastened to pass on details of his work’s symbolism to the author, in one of many moments that made me question this story both in terms of consent and storytelling. All but one of the kids agreed to “participate” in her project (perhaps feeling it would have been rude or pointless to refuse, when she was in their classroom every day regardless), but none of them ever tell their stories fully, the way the subjects of Thorpe’s previous books did, leaving their experiences rather opaque. Which means the book loses out on including any more depth than what Thorpe was able to glean by following the teenagers around for awhile, and that most likely all this speculation about their emotions and histories was published without their first having the opportunity to withdraw consent. I’m sure many worthwhile nonfiction books have made their subjects uncomfortable, but it’s one thing to do that to an informed adult, another to an underage refugee with limited English proficiency.

And then there’s just so much of Thorpe in this book. She seems determined to convince readers how important her friendship is to these kids, and to the two families – Jakleen’s and Methusella’s – to whom she becomes a regular visitor. Unfortunately in her interactions with the teens she comes across as stiff and hopelessly middle-aged, and the focus on her own reactions takes away from informing the reader. For instance, when Methusella’s father endeavors to explain the situation in the DRC to her, she writes, “Then we got into an alphabet soup of armed groups . . . I got lost somewhere in the middle, amid the acronyms and all the tribal stuff. I could not absorb all the details, but I came away with the notion of a jumble of allegiances and betrayals, mixed with a lot of weaponry.” Look, lady, I don’t care about your experience of learning about Congolese history. This is supposed to be a book about the refugees, not your memoir.

All that said, this book did engage me. It’s accessible and, especially as we get to know the families, the kids and their parents are very easy to empathize with. I enjoyed spending time with them and wanted the best for all of them. While there’s a ton of fiction and memoirs out there about refugee experiences, there’s much less popular nonfiction, so it’s a great idea for a book. And I learned a bit about the refugee resettlement process from it. The contrast between the Congolese family, which quickly seems to thrive in the U.S., and the Iraqi girls and their widowed mother, all of whom struggle quite a bit, is interesting and vivid. Thorpe’s brief trip to the DRC and meetings with Methusella’s friends and relatives there was a nice touch. But I suspect Thorpe would have produced a far better book if she’d regrouped and written about people willing and able to fully engage in the process, and kept herself out of it.

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