Practicing History – 4/5 Stars
This is a collection of essays, mostly about history writing, by the American historian Barbara Tuchman. This is my third Tuchman book, and the least “history” one. Her other two books, The First Salute and March to Folly, were both history driven, but also argument driven. This book’s essays cover a wide ranging set of essays, some specifically focused on historical questions like Mao and figures connected to WWI, while the bulk (or at least it feels this way) were mostly about the researching and writing of history. Tuchman’s biography feeds into this set of essays in some interesting ways. She graduated from college in 1933, and did not go to grad school after undergrad. This could have been for a lot of reasons, but a woman graduating in 1933 might not have the clearest path through grad school, even one of her talent. Instead, she took a job with a publication owned by her father, and began writing small factual pieces, eventually leading to larger projects. There’s some clarifying essays about this path here (especially as she’s addressing college audiences), and this most plays out in her defining professional historiography. She discusses the impreciseness of the terms as professional can mean both defined by the experts in a field, or someone who works for money. Sometimes there are both at once, or one at a time. For her, she is a professional in that she writes history as a profession, but she acknowledges that her work is meant to be read by a wider public, and is narrative driven, and therefore not “professional” by way of academics. She’s cheery on this question because it comes across as a defining of terms and not in a creation of hierarchies. And she prides herself so clearly as a writer (and she’s a very entertaining writer) of historical narrative. I’ve read great history written by non-academics and I’ve read great history written by academics. It’s a solid question that because it covers such a long period of writing career can be a little repetitive. I don’t fully agree with her on several points, but she’s thoroughly engaging.
A Bend in the River – 4/5 stars
An “African” novel by the Trinidadian novelist VS Naipaul. I call it an “African” novel because he consistently refers to the continent rather than specific countries. It’s a novel about post-colonial spaces, and especially the financial vacuum that opens up after decolonialization of an area in which enterprising individuals (and not necessarily criminally inclined ones) can take advantage and corner a market. The story itself is not super compelling or even all that memorable, but Naipaul is a strong writer, and his ability to create a plot around a complete understanding of a context is on full display here. I don’t think it’s as fully realized as the books of his that I’ve loved (both fiction and nonfiction) and the tone is less compelling than say A House for Mr Biswas, a chaotically perfect novel, but his breakdown of this part of the world in this particular moment in time feels right.
Deadlock – 3/5 Stars
This is a second of the VI Varshawski novels and my first. This series of mysteries takes place in Chicago in the 1980s and involves a Polish-American private investigator, the working class, small town/big city dynamics etc etc. This feels very similar to Laura Lippmann and Sue Grafton novels where the mystery and world being created are held pretty close to the chest, the big city feels like a small town, and the smallness of the world folds in upon itself.
The mystery here involve VI Varshawksi’s cousin, a well-loved and well-known retired hockey player for the Blackhawks. He’s been working as a manager for a shipping company and while inspecting a ship, he falls into the water, and is pulled under the screw and killed. Because of the personal nature of the death, and some kind of inkling of wrong doing, VI takes on the case, and finds out that shipping is a cutthroat industry, so to speak. There’s a lot of season two of The Wire here (this came first by 20 years of course) and that ran through my brain through all of this one.
Great pun in the title, I have to say.
The Sweet Science – 4/5 Stars
This is not the book that coined the term “the sweet science” and according to this book, that goes back to the mid1800s. This is a boxing book. And it’s a curious one, because as a historical artifact, it’s great. It details the pro (and very high end) boxing scene of the late 1940s through the mid 1950s. This covers fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson, Jersey Joe Wolcott, Joe Louis, and Rocky Marciano. There are others mentioned here, but these are the main characters. It’s a cataloguing of major fights of the era, breakdowns of the scene, a philosophy of boxing, and a dissection of boxing writing.
It’s a great book all around. The fight descriptions are superb and since I know a little, but not much about boxing, it’s like reading an action book. But the other essays about writing, the scene, and other topics really shine through too because they give insight into the time period in some really interesting ways, give an insider’s take on the topics, and create a time capsule of a kind of lost art. Boxing is still big in a way, but it’s been eclipsed by the big sports leagues, but also by mixed martial arts too.
Sister Carrie – 3/5 Stars
This is a curious book for me because even though I have read American literature pretty extensively, this chunk of time from 1890s through WWI (and this is true in British and Irish literature as well) is a bit of list period in my own reading, but also in terms of output. There’s some identity crises, a saturation of the writing market perhaps because of journalism. But anyway, this is one of those books that passed me by. I mostly enjoyed it, but it’s both way too long and repetitive, and the plot, as there is one for large portions of the book are pretty blah.
But the basic thrust of the novel, where Carrie, who really hates working in a factory (I think she ends up working there one day) gets involved with a bit of a roustabout who turns her on to acting. She also gets involved with an older married man who plans on leaving his wife for her. Both of these relationships are, well, not traditional, and neither is a)working at all, but especially b) working in theater. So when she moves to an apartment with this formerly (still?) married man, and money starts running out, she gets involved with a theater company and starts bringing in more money. He’s out of work and starts moving in on her money, so she leaves him!
I kept expecting this book to be one of terrible tragedy, and it just wasn’t. The characters even mention reading Hardy, and Carrie mentions she was worried about being a Tess. But well, everything kind of works out. Life is a little dreary and sad, but she finds a way to make steady money and get a little fame. And while her “man” doesn’t, well, that’s on him.