Mark Bowden, “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War” (1999) – this is an accomplishment, story-telling wise: telling the story of a chaotic battle, with dozens of characters, a number of key turning points, coherently and in a way that gets across the distinct fuck-up quality of Task Force Ranger’s trip into Mogadishu. Moreover, until the end (where things get a little sappy and patriotic), Bowden refuses to moralize, presenting both the Americans and the Somalis as people with admirable qualities (not the least among them courage, on both sides) and flaws (not the least among them a desire to prove themselves through killing). I’ve read a lot of War on Terror (the battle in Mogadishu pre-dates the WoT by a while but you can see a lot of the same concerns and tropes) books and it’s rare an American author can avoid either sanctifying or demonizing. I think Bowden knew he had a good story already. So he mostly sticks to the granular, ground-level reconstruction of battle, and when he does, it’s pretty good. ****’
Geoffrey Roberts, “Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953” (2006) –
All the major figures of WWII have been mythologized to such an extent that it’s hard to get a real read on them. This is only in part because of the glamor of the myth- for me, more troubling is the chaff thrown up by multiple generations of historians challenging the myths or restoring the myths or challenging others’ restorations or restoring others’ challenges, blah blah. In this book, Roberts challenges two layers of myth about Stalin during WWII- the first that he was an incompetent who nearly doomed the Soviet effort, the second that he was a genius who was the major reason the USSR won. The picture that emerges from Roberts is Stalin as a competent, ruthless leader of large enterprises, someone capable of making mistakes — like those that nearly led to German victory at the beginning of the war — but who could learn from them (a capacity Hitler seemed to lack). This coincides with my gut sense of things- that much of what happened in the war by 1942, when people had their bearings, was basically a matter of optimizing, maintaining, and sending into battle giant, ungodly complex war machines (and angling for the postwar period). But I don’t know enough to really know. Same goes for my knowledge of Russian sources- I don’t know them enough to know if Roberts is on the right side of various arguments he makes about long-standing debates about Soviet plans and intentions. They seem to more or less check out with my image of a big, crisis-prone power led by a ruthless, paranoid, clever but somewhat unimaginative man, and it seems to color within the lines of historical practice, but ymmv as they say. ****
Elena Ferrante, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (2013) (translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) –
Three books in to the Neapolitan Quartet; what can I say? One easy way of getting my point across is simply to say that the praise for the series is entirely justified. Ferrante works several miracles that would each be impressive on their own, never mind all at once. There’s the world of fully-realized, consistent, but often surprising, characters drawn from the Naples neighborhood where the characters start (and from the academic and political worlds the narrator finds herself in). There’s the way she encapsulates the broad sweep of the last sixty years of history and a lot of sophisticated ideas about politics, gender, the family, etc. in a narrative where it never feels forced. The prose is forceful and lucid throughout, no “writerly” bs, and Ferrante can write a twist or a cliffhanger like the best pulp writer, a welcome treat. And at the core, the story of the two friends, Lenu and Lila, is… just very good. Sorry, out of superlatives. Basically anyone who has had a serious friendship will recognize parts of it in theirs, but with a clarity and force that’s almost resentment-inducing.
I don’t know if comparing it to the other books is helpful, I tend to see them as one big book. This one covers the late sixties and early seventies, most of which sees Lenu in Florence and Lila in Naples, so the narrative is more bifurcated than usual. Both struggle with the turmoil of the Years of Lead, in Lila’s case through very granular, disorganized struggle at a factory, which was fascinating to read. So, uh, yeah… it’s good. Read the Neapolitan Quartet (start at the beginning) if you have any interest in novels qua novels. *****
James Ellroy, “Brown’s Requiem” (1981) –
I’ve already written pretty extensively on James Ellroy (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/06/a-red-with-an-fbi-badge). I think I was fair in my assessment of his major work — Underworld USA, the LA Quartet, and his autobiographical writings — but if I included his minor works the picture would probably be less flattering- he’s written a lot of confusing messes where his trollish qualities overwhelm his better aspects. Ellroy’s first novel, Brown’s Requiem, is pretty minor but you can see why people would’ve seen potential in him. He tries to do 80s Chandler and fails — he can’t do that kind of ironic distance — but you can see him exercising the instinctive knack for depicting power that would help make his major works so vivid. He grasps, better than any writer of this time that I’ve read, the relationship between small-scale personal domination — and he is, to put it politely, uninhibited in his depictions of such dynamics — and the social structures in which the characters are embedded. His plots aren’t generally tight (who remembers crime fiction plots after they finish, anyway?) and his characterization runs hot and cold, but his worlds rival the best scifi masters for granular reality (generally the granular reality of terror). There’s glimmers of it in Brown’s Requiem but it isn’t there yet. He was presumably trying to find his voice as a writer- among other things, his protagonist is clearly one of his wish-fulfillment characters: strong, strapping, self-contained, cultured. Whereas his villain is closer to the person he actually was: creepy, obsessive, hateful, weird-looking… and, amusingly, a golf caddy, as Ellroy was before his writing career took off. ***
Paul Thomas Chamberlin, “The Global Offensive: the United States, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order” (2012) –
This is a pretty respectable entry in the new global history. Chamberlin argues that the self-assertion of the PLO — a non-state actor on behalf of a non-recognized nation — prized open apertures in the international system in the 1970s that help lay the groundwork for the way international politics would go once the Cold War was over. There’s some illuminating stuff here involving the Nixon White House’s ambitions in the Middle East and the way they essentially tried to institutionalize their denial about the way the Palestinian question disrupted Kissinger’s little Risk board, and about the zillion threads (from Arab state rivalries to spiraling radicalization inspired by camp conditions) Arafat had to manage. Stuff like airline hijackings, which struck me as tactically foolish even leaving the morals aside, make some more sense now- airlines operate (legally) in the transnational space the Palestinian guerrillas did (illegally), the place where they felt they could get some kind of leverage, however tenuous.
The book has some of the disadvantages of the new global history, though. In many respects, it deploys breadth of archival research — the sheer “wow” factor of using archives from multiple countries and languages — in exchange for analytical depth. Most of these books are built-up dissertations, and it shows in terms of their argumentative tentativeness, even as the subtitles some publisher slaps on promises big things. There’s also a dissertation-esque kitchen-sink quality to the source usage- every time the PLO makes a splash, we hear what Tunisians thought about it and what Ghanaians thought about it and French and Indians and so on and so on. The global state of opinion about Israel/Palestine is important to Chamberlin’s story, but there have to have been more elegant ways of conveying that. One more little niggle- the Palestinians weren’t the first to do transnational insurgency. The Irish Fenians, the Armenian Dashnak, Macedonian rebels, and at least to an extent Zionists all had transnational resistance networks well before the PLO was formed… to say nothing about anarchist and communist groups. Still and all, worth reading if you’re interested in diplomatic history of the late 20th century, especially history that takes non-state actors into account. ***’
Yevgeny Zamyatin, “We” (1921) (translated from the Russian by Mirra Ginsburg) –
The three classic dystopias (We, Brave New World, 1984) all have such heavy overlays of Cold War literary politics and adolescent associations with them that it can be hard to look at them on their own merits. “We,” being the oldest and comparatively obscure, suffers the least from this. It’s also more daring, in an almost devil-may-care sense- characters with numbers instead of names, set a thousand years on the future rather than decades or centuries after. Much of the time, it pays off- the city of glass the “numbers” live in is compellingly envisioned, and the bog-standard “liberation through horniness” dystopian plot has more verve to it than most. Sometimes it doesn’t- Zamyatin still leans heavily on “notice how different this is from The Ancients” and sometimes the stylized, futurist-inspired writing style can be confusing. But plot is seldom the point of these dystopias. Less tightly tied to one or another agenda than Huxley’s or Orwell’s comparable work, “We” arguably stands up a bit better when unmoored from the Cold War context that first brought it to Anglophone attentions. ****