Thursday, May 7, 2015

Some Good Books From Graduate School...

I will soon hand in my last assignment for a class on global social movements, completing the coursework for a master's degree in history (major world, minor U.S.) at Georgia State University in Atlanta. All that remains is the oral and written exams I'll be taking this June and I'll have my M.A.

As part of earning a master's degree, one has to read a lot of books. I chose the non-thesis option, so I had to take ten classes instead of nine. And that means even more books. Luckily this is a subject I'm strongly interested in, so reading wasn't a chore at all.

Below are some of my favorite graduate-school books and the reasons why I enjoyed them.

Mao's Little Red Book: A Global History-Editor Alexander Cook oversaw an anthology of articles by different historians focusing on different situations using Mao's Little Red Book as the lens. And it's really interesting--you have the student left in 1960s and 1970s Germany, you have the Shining Path in Peru, you have the Maoist-ish regime in Tanzania, and China during the Cultural Revolution. Plus it's provided me with some choice dystopian bits like every village having a loudspeaker providing the population with the regime's guidance--and in some cases loudspeakers inside people's houses they can't turn off.

Before European Hegemony-This book describes the world system from the 13th Century until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean with armed warships. The bare bones of this world system are wool from England is made into textiles in the Low Countries, traded by Italians into the Middle East, and eventually from there goes to India, the East Indies, and China. But that's a massive oversimplification. My main problem with the book is that it understates the role of Islamic piracy in the Mediterranean in the Dark Ages (something the Pelican History of Medieval Europe points out), but that's a pretty small nitpick.

Killing for Coal-This book is about the big 1914 coal strike in Colorado. It's generally remembered for the Ludlow Massacre, but not for the fact that the miners proceeded to spend the week after the massacre beating the crap out of the Colorado state militia. Seriously, if things hadn't been headed off, there could've been some kind of statewide U.S. version of the Paris Commune. The book is a really interesting exploration of the coal industry at the time, the labor struggles wracking it, and just how darn important coal was for the U.S. at the time. This book played a major role in my decision to add more class-labor elements to the Wastelands series I'm working on, plus it was a source of really interesting information on what coal was used for. Fortunately most of Battle for the Wastelands (the first book, which is already written) takes place in a more rural area among soldiers scrabbling to maintain a limited technological base; it's the second novel, Battle for the Wastelands: Escape (formerly titled Escape from the Wastelands) where this influence will be felt.

Before Columbus-This book examines the Mediterranean antecedents of the Spanish settlement of the New World. There's a very interesting historical analogy involving the Reconquista. Parts of Spain the Christians conquered from the Muslims were like the British Empire in India, with a large number of Muslims ruled by a Christian/collaborator ruling class, while others were like the American West with a relatively small Muslim population and a much more arid landscape. I remember reading somewhere that Spanish kids play "Moros y Christianos" instead of "Cowboys and Indians" and that might be the inspiration for it. The Colombian Exchange, one of the books I'm reading for my exams this June, definitely compares the cowboy culture of the Spanish New World with Spain before the Muslims were expelled.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II-I first learned about this from an excerpt in the historiography book The Houses of History and ordered an abridged one-volume work for a paper on the influence of author Braudel. It's a good example of the "longue duree" type of history with a strong dose of environmental determinism. Very interesting.

White Flight-Although I question the argument that modern American conservatism emerged from specific policies intended to stymie integration (there are non-racist reasons to oppose expansion of mass transit, after all), this is still a very interesting history of Atlanta, the city supposedly "too busy to hate" during the Civil Rights era in the U.S. Lots of interesting stuff, including what happened to an American Neo-Nazi trying to keep blacks from moving into a particular neighborhood in the late 1940s. Seriously, antagonizing a prosecutor who's a WWII Marine veteran is a really, really bad idea. Also provides an interesting political history of Atlanta and the surrounding communities before, during, and after the civil rights era.

Birth of the Modern World-Another book I'm reading for exams this June. This is book is notable for introducing me to the "industrious revolution" paradigm that predates the Industrial Revolution and puts the American Indian wars in the context of Australian wars against Aborigines and the wars of the British and their Indian clients against tribal peoples in India. Growing industrial states finally suppressing tribal/nomadic peoples, basically.

Britons-A very interesting book about the origins of the British national identity. Some of the material early on really de-romanticizes the Jacobites (apparently they weren't even that popular in Scotland) and uses patterns of landownership and intermarriage to describe the growth of a collective "British" identity incorporating English, Welsh, Scots, etc.

American Babylon-I met the author while selling books at a conference and he was very pleased to know that I liked this book, which is about the growth and decay of Oakland, better than Origins of the Urban Crisis, which is about the growth and decay of Detroit. The latter is considered one of the best books in the field, but I thought American Babylon was written better and more detailed.

Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures-Chocolate and tobacco were used in sacred and political ceremonies by the indigenous populations of the Spanish New World. So how exactly did they become popular foods/products in Europe? This book explains how. It's also got some interesting stuff about how the Indians adapted to Spanish rule and how the Spanish colonists picked up a lot of indigenous culture in Mexico.

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