The Romanovs

The Romanovs
Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Russian ruling dynasty of the Romanovs (1613 – 1918) has always provided dramatic material for popular history. This really helps here, because Simon Sebag Montefiore, whatever his other virtues as a historian, is a dry, undramatic writer. He reminds me a bit of Ian Kershaw, an even duller and more exacting writer who is a bestseller because he writes about Nazis.

The Romanovs tries very hard to make its subject uninteresting. There’s little in the way of synthesis and far too much in the way of involved footnotes cataloguing secondary and tertiary figures. One would like to skip all of these, but they are in some cases integral to the main text. In at least one case the main text even refers back to one!

Despite these hundreds of not-so-tiny anchors some of the excitement of the dynasty still comes through. It helps a lot that much of the story is filled with sex and cruelty. Then there is the drawn-out final act: the tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra, which makes up a quarter of the book despite Nicholas’s reign running for less than 25 years out of the Romanov’s grand total of just over 300. Seeing as this will likely be the most familiar part of the story for most readers, I’m not sure this much attention was necessary or advisable, but by the time I’d made it to this point I was relieved at the slower pace, which came like the cool-down at the end of an exhausting workout.

Overall, however, I can’t say The Romanovs is a book that works particularly well either as a reference or as old-fashioned narrative history. It falls somewhere in-between, which is a long way to fall.

Who Rules the World?

Who Rules the World?
Noam Chomsky

While the nation state is still the primary political actor on the world stage, the true rulers of the world are the institutions of the “masters of mankind,” an expression Chomsky borrows from Adam Smith to describe the commanding heights of corporate capital. The masters of mankind, in turn, rule the world in accordance with certain doctrines, which broadly fall under the category of neoliberalism, or class war waged by the rich on the poor.

Chomsky’s method here is consistent with the rest of his political writings, being mainly an exposé of the hypocrisy of America’s imperial ideology, of the sort disseminated by the mainstream media. It’s not new, but then we’re still being lied to.

Revolutionary Russia 1891 – 1991

Revolutionary Russia 1891 – 1991
Orlando Figes

Historians love defining historical periods, and in the absence of clear markers will happily make up their own. So here we have a history of “Revolutionary Russia” that takes us not from the Russian Revolution in 1917 but rather from 1891, when a famine crisis set the public “for the first time on a collision course with the autocracy,” and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Orlando Figes calls this “a single revolutionary cycle” but I don’t know how cyclical it is, and I don’t buy the starting point at all except as an excuse to make said cycle a neat hundred years.

Matters of periodization aside, this is a decent overview of Russia in the twentieth century, though it’s much stronger on the early days of the Revolution than it is on what happened after Stalin. On the failed reforms of Gorbachev (meaning they failed to achieve what he intended them to achieve), the coverage and analysis is particularly thin, and there is only the briefest of nods to the Revolution’s aftermath. This is disappointing, as we still need to come to grips with what the legacy of Communism was, and what it might yet turn into.

Deliverance

Deliverance
James Dickey

The survivors will be safe because the CSI state (“stupendous filing systems, IBM machines tirelessly sorting punch cards, one thing being checked against another”) isn’t yet fully developed and because nobody talks about fight club (i.e., what happened on the river). Though Ed is telling us the story, which may make us wonder.

In any event, the inspiration for Palahniuk’s novel is hard to miss. Lewis is Tyler Durden, so muscular he has veins even in his gut and obviously a focus of homoerotic attention for the narrator. He offers a kind of violent salvation. The city men are stuck in “the long, declining routine” of their lives. Ed, stricken with apathy and looking for a way out of his professional rut (sliding, or “living by antifriction”), is also an American type, like Thoreau looking to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. The canoe trip will be his release, his deliverance from a fake reality.

Does it still resonate nearly fifty years later? I would have thought the men’s movement’s return to the woods (Iron John, etc.) would have dated it more, but I guess given the success of Fight Club we’d have to say part of it very much still works. The river is gone, but it’s like a primitive, submerged stream of unconsciousness even in our digital minds.

Dark Ambition

Dark Ambition: The Shocking Crime of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich
Ann Brocklehurst

What makes a crime of special interest to the wider public? A combination of the unique and the particular. The murder of Tim Bosma by Dellen Millard and Mark Smich struck a chord because of its randomness and the sense that it could have happened to anybody.

Bosma was a target literally pulled off of the online classified ad site Kijiji, where he had posted a truck for sale. Anyone could relate. At the same time, homicides committed by total strangers are very rare. Also very rare are homicides in the commission of a robbery where the killer has no need to steal anything in the first place.

Ann Brocklehurst’s account of the case and subsequent trial is well-paced and informative, though she’s limited both by the need to be first to press (Millard has two trials yet to come, which should fill out the back story considerably), and the still mysterious matter of motivation. No psychological profile is attempted. Presumably Millard — who was clearly the mastermind and instigator, whatever Smich’s culpability — was a wealthy thrill killer, on the Leopold and Loeb model though with less intelligence. We may think of such evil people as falling into two categories: the abused and the enabled. We make a big mistake if we don’t pay equal attention to the bad seeds of privilege.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte
Alan Schom

Alan Schom’s biography of Napoleon is infamous for being a biographical takedown of epic scope. This part I don’t mind, and if Schom wants to consider Napoleon as a war criminal, a psychopath, “the most destructive man in European history since Atilla the Hun,” someone to whom “the memory of Genghis Khan paled in comparison,” that is his prerogative. Where I have problems is with his lack of engagement with the sources (primary and secondary) and his slighting of the beginning and end of his subject’s life, the two areas that I find of greatest interest. Then there are the maps, which are entirely inadequate as aids for understanding the complexity of the canonical battles. In many cases troop locations and movements aren’t even included. As a result, I can hardly recommend this as the first book to read on the subject, or give it a place in the top ten. It is, however, of some interest as a document in the ongoing interpretation of Napoleon and his mythography.

The Hellmouths of Bewdley

The Hellmouths of Bewdley
Tony Burgess

I wonder if at one point Tony Burgess thought he might become a writer of tough-guy, dirty realism: adopting an approach that is popular among the (male) bards of Ontario’s backwoods. In The Hellmouths of Bewdley, his first book, you can definitely see leanings in that direction, especially in the stories dealing with the pretty town of Bewdley’s down and out. A more powerful pull, however, is felt toward the transformation of the rawest physical experiences into poetry, and in particular the transformation (metamorphosis? apotheosis?) of dead bodies into hallucinogenic, lyric visions. The end of the story “Winter” is a good example of this, and shows where Burgess would soon be heading, leaving Bewdley behind and jumping down the hellmouth into an anti-Bewdley where there is no law but the law of the jungle and everyone is either executioner, victim, or witness.