Author Topic: What are you reading? (Non-fiction edition!)  (Read 3753 times)

Jubal

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What are you reading? (Non-fiction edition!)
« on: December 31, 2022, 09:30:19 PM »
Similar to What Are You Reading but for reading non-fiction. What have you been reading? Would you recommend it or not?
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Jubal

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Re: What are you reading? (Non-fiction edition!)
« Reply #1 on: December 31, 2022, 09:40:37 PM »
Today I read cover-to-cover my last book of 2022, James Boyce's Imperial Mud: The Fight For the Fens.

Long story short, I think it's really good and compellingly written. In particular looking at the role of Imperial ideology in the draining of the fens, and taking an unashamedly pro-Fenland view of the situation, are interesting to do, and the work he does looking at customs and views over time is really worth reading. He works well at exploring the connection between people and land, and making it clear that these relationships are developing, immediate, and human rather than static eternities simply ruptured by a single Imperial encroachment. I also like the way that he emphasises the importance of resistance in slowing things and allowing people to adapt, something I think is easy to miss for historians used to working back from the endpoint of certain processes.

I'm not sure I agree with all of it: he very much frames the Fenlanders as being in the position of an Imperial subject, indigenous people, and whilst I think there are strong parallels to take that are worth exploring, in my view he somewhat underplays the way in which displaced white people from Britain could be footsoldiers and architects of Imperial power abroad, and the differences in experience between Fenlanders and the ways in which other Imperial subject peoples were racialised. I think my other caution would be on the extent to which he sometimes overplays the longue duree of Fenland custom, especially the evocation of 'pagan' as an idea when discussing early modern continuations of traditions which I'm not sure is easy to justify given how relatively little time the book spends on the medieval fenlands, something that could probably have done with another chapter. I'd also have liked to see a bit more on traditions and culture generally to add some depth to the claims about community and the presentation of premodern community as very essentially un-individualist which Boyce sometimes brings up as quite a stark assumed contrast.

All told anyhow, definitely a really good read and one I'd happily recommend.
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Jubal

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Re: What are you reading? (Non-fiction edition!)
« Reply #2 on: March 22, 2023, 10:23:00 PM »
Today I finished a book that wasn't for work! Again! That makes, uh, two this year. Eep.

This one was The Lady In Gold, written by US journalist Anne Marie O'Connor about the tortured history of Gustav Klimt's painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, tracing it from the roots of intermingled Viennese elite families in the early decades of the 20th century, many of them Jewish, into the Nazi art thefts of the 1930s and early 1940s, and then through Austria's slow and never truly completed reckoning with its fascist past. It's very well written and deserves its many accolades, managing to mostly draw one through a hugely entangled cast of characters without skipping a beat and with surprisingly few times when I lost the thread of who was who. The things the book does very well include its portrayal of the horrifying complexities and choices some of its subjects were pushed through, humanising a dehumanising period of history very effectively. It also manages to keep the pace of a very human narrative despite a long time span, though at some cost in over-streamlining the story. The very human nature of the narrative is no doubt why it captured minds so well and got adapted for a very star-studded 2015 film.

At times it's possibly too well written, with figures and twists becoming a little heightened in the narrative. As a couple of examples, journalist Hubertus Czernin is given sole credit for revealing Austrian president Kurt Waldheim's past in the Nazi military, at the expense of other figures, notably Alfred Worm who does not get an appearance at all. Other elements are made to hit harder: we are introduced to Austrian socialist and politician Karl Renner attending socialist salons with Adele Bloch-Bauer in the 1910s, but his support for the Anschluss and stonewalling on recompense for displaced Jews are treated as shocking betrayals for characters who would have known him personally - in fact his anti-semitism was apparently pretty well known.

Its read on some of the issues of Austrian self-reflection ring fairly true to me as one of today's non-Austrian Viennese, though I think there might have been more to explore there. I wonder if some self-reflection from an authorial standpoint might have helped too at times: O'Connor turns up herself in the narrative very abruptly with no real explanation for her own presence, with the later sections of the book being interwoven interviews where her own position vis-a-vis the story is treated as an unspoken and unexamined axiom. Because of the nature of the story, it almost has to be an outsider's tale of Austria, and that's probably partly why I enjoyed it so much, but there's also something very American indeed about the narrative and not necessarily in a self-aware way. The coverage and engagement with questions around the art market that ultimately snapped up many of the Klimts and whisked them out of public hands is limited, and it's hard not to feel that America is seen as almost a neutral endpoint, a place where restituted art can be disposed of or displayed away from the tortured backstories and of a Vienna that she portrays as largely still failing to grapple with its past demons, its angels having long since gone.

A final thing I noticed, perhaps worth mentioning, is something rather inherent to an art story, namely that it is mainly a story of the high-end elite and the artisans they patronised. O'Connor is happy to examine the bonds between these people and those of lower station, but the latter group of people rarely speak directly into the narrative. The society bigotries of some characters are treated as foibles rather than symptoms of a wildly stratified society struggling to justify itself: the factories and businesses of its industrialists and barons are rarely examined for the impact they might have had outside the rareified circles of high culture Vienna. This is not, I think, irrelevant to the core of the story, one of whose questions is around how much the art restitution is an important symbol of general restitution for the crimes of fascism. Some more engagement with what displaced and broken Jewish families who did not have sizeable art collections to be stolen in the first place thought of it all might have helped set the story in context usefully.

Overall, the book should definitely be seen as a streamlined chain of events for a good narrative rather than the sort of analytical history that tries to properly discern why events followed as they did. With that said, it's a fascinating mine of information and a very good read on a very difficult bit of history, and I felt I learned a lot from reading it, so do recommend.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...