Sunday, January 20, 2008

Recent Reads

In recent months, I have resolved to purchase fewer books and read the ones I already have (with mixed results).

The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove.

The monk Theophanes was a Byzantine chronicler (they distinguished between a chronicler and a historian), who wrote of the period of anni mundi 6095-6305, our 602 AD through 813 AD. This was a low ebb for Constantinople--the waning years of the long struggle with the Persians, followed by the rise and sweep of Islam through much of an exhausted Empire, the iconoclastic controversy, the coronation of Charlemagne in the West, etc. Briefly put, things were in a mess. If Byzantium had a "dark age," this was it. Theophanes' account is one of those essential primary source document for the era.

Anthony Powell: A Life, by Michael Barber.

Powell is one of the least-appreciated great novelists. His 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time is in a class by itself. Since 1984, I've read through it 3 or 4 times. His style is cool and detached, as befits a slightly bemused observer. Powell takes a dim view of what passed for "progress" in the 20th century, but never in an angry voice. Unfortunately, he was, as he put it, non-croyant. Even so, there was no greater observer of the tragedy that was the 20th century.

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

This was a Christmas gift from my son. The highly-acclaimed biography lives up to its good press. This is generally not the type of history I enjoy, but the book is a real page-turner. Stalin was something of a monster, even from a young age. His legal father was the town drunk, his mother was promiscuous (at least 3 other townsmen were the reputed father of Stalin.) He spent some time in seminary, but this was just a ploy, he was never seriously interested in pursuing the priesthood. He quickly turned to banditry, and then anarchism in the name of Marxism. Amoral and immoral, he never forgot a slight, even decades later. His basic persona remained unchanged, until in time, he was the monster in charge of the largest empire the world has ever seen. One historical "what if" concerns his native Georgia. As the Russian empire was falling apart in 1917, outlying dependencies began declaring independence. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia broke away in 1917 or 1918 as the Trans-Caucasus Republic. Lenin was content to let them go, as he had with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But for the up-and-coming Stalin, this was unthinkable. A few years before, he had transformed himself from Georgian to Russian. Just as Hitler felt compelled to incorporate Austria into a Third Reich, a Russified Georgia had to be a part of the new Soviet Empire if Stalin was ever to have legitimacy as a ruler. The troops went in in 1921.

Michael and Natasha: The Life and Love of Michael II, the Last of the Romanov Tsars, by Rosemary and Donald Crawford.

Okay, okay, so this is a bit of a guilty pleasure. I'm a sucker for any Romanov saga that comes along. Michael (Michael II, for you purists) was Grand Duke Michael Alexandreivich, brother of Tsar Nicholas II. And as the Tsarevich Alexis' health was always precarious, Michael was never more distant than 2nd in line for the throne. The last generation of Romanovs in Tsarist Russia hardly inspires confidence in the monarchial principle. Nicholas was a simple, good man, but hardly equipped to be Autocrat of All the Russias. He was totally devoted to Alexandra, who had an increasingly tenuous grasp of reality. Nicholas's cousins were a problem, as well. Few were attached to duty, and most were more interested in making the circuit of European watering holes with their mistresses or morganatic wives. Michael, to Nicholas' consternation, was no different. He insisted on marrying one of the most beautiful women in Russia, a commoner divorced (messily) from two men, one of them Michael's close friend at the time. But the real interest in the book--that makes slogging through all the courtship chapters worthwhile, is its insight into the events of 1917 and 1918. Nicholas could not be forced to take action. Even at the very end of his rule, he dithered and did nothing, when action might have paved the way for a constitutional monarchy under the sympathetic figure of the Tsarevich, as Alexis II. Finally, Nicholas abdicated in favor of Alexis. Then before the day was out, changed his mind and abdicated for himself and Alexis in favor of Michael--hence the "Micheal II," if only for a day. But by this time, things were so muddled, that there was no chance of saving the monarchy, as the government crumbled into chaos. Michael and Natasha remained in Russia, to see how things would turn out. Months passed when they could have easily left the country without incident. Only after the Kerensky government fell and the Bolsheviks seized power did the couple start attempting to leave. But it was too late. Michael was placed under arrest, despite Natasha barging into Lenin's office and demanding his release. In time he was transferred to the Urals, and then shortly to a shallow grave in the woods. Natasha was able to smuggle the children out of the country with the assistance of the Danish embassy. Her own escape through Germany was a close-run thing. As his brother, Michael was another good man, of simple tastes. He was certainly more perceptive and attuned to the temper of the times than his brother, but then, as youngest son, he was never called upon to utilize it.

What I'm reading now:

The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, edited by Robert B. Strassler

Purchased with the B&N gift card I received from my nephew at Christmas, this is in incredible read! This particular translation is very accessible to the general reader. But as I am only 60 pages into the 850 page tome, it may be a while before I report.

Upcoming:

Nureyev, by Julie Kavanagh.

4 comments:

s-p said...

ummm... is book envy a sin? I was thumbing through the "History of Mad Magazine's Don Martin" cartoon book at Borders and seriously thinking about buying it. But it was pretty expensive. sigh....

John said...

s-p, of course it's not! It's much like sarcasm. Ha! In my defense, 2 of the books were gifts, and the others purchased at used book stores.

s-p said...

LOL! Sarcasm is not a sin?? YEEEHAAAA! And yes, Bookmans is a sacrament. :)

Mimi said...

I'm adding a lot of these to my PBS list, thanks!