The Books of 2017, #2: The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, by Mark Levinson

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When I was very, very young, the A&P was our corner grocery. Since we didn’t have a car, we walked down to that A&P a lot. It quickly converted into a Butera and now is a Supermercado of some sort, but I remember the A&P logo on it most strongly.

When I mentioned I was reading this book to a buddy about 10 years younger than me, it was made clear that he had never even heard of A&P. Given that A&P was the world’s largest company for 43 straight years, I find this kind of amazing. They were the Wal*Mart of America for a very long time.

So I grabbed this book when it popped up on my radar. In The Great A&P, Mark Levinson does yeoman’s work in describing how A&P came to occupy such a domineering position and why they fell so hard, so fast, that adult Americans today can credibly say they’ve never heard of them even though there were thousands of A&P stores across the country in living memory.

Telling this story is complicated by the fact that a) A&P wasn’t a publicly-traded firm and b) the men of the Hartford family who ran it were notoriously private. Therefore, I can appreciate the archaeology the author had to do to bring this story to light with any level of detail.

The rise of A&P in the late 19th and early 20th Century consumes the first half of the book, where the reader is given a lovely look into the frankly disgusting world of pre-refrigeration grocery selling. A somewhat predictable tale of effective utilization of economies of scale plus advertising mastery thus follows, with the rapid advances of transport and refrigeration technologies playing a strong role in the changeover of America’s food shopping habits from being primarily conducted at tiny corner stores run by independent owners to the chain store-dominated landscape we’re all too familiar with today.

Where the book gets particularly interesting is in the government’s rather persistent attempts to curb A&P’s growth, if not destroy them outright. Thanks to one particularly stubborn Southern Congressman who made his nut latching on to the issue of chain stores being bad for America (just in case you thought idiot populism was something new in our culture…), A&P found itself fighting the Federal Government from about 1930 through to the Eisenhower presidency nonstop. And while I’m generally in favor of strong government regulation of just about everything (because almost all entrepreneurs are also raving psychopaths who should be prevented from having unlimited funds to push their agenda in all possible arenas but I disgress…), Levinson makes a very, VERY strong case that the government’s arguments against A&P were entirely baseless from any economic or consumer-protectionist perspective.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, both for the history aspect of how shopping for food, something every person has to do on a regular basis, changed over time, with a lot of that change pushed by A&P’s innovations in its own business in ways that quickly reverberated through all retailers of food in the country. I further enjoyed the bizarre history of the government’s attempts to take A&P down for literally being TOO GOOD for consumers, by lowering prices too much. It’s a clear case of the kind of almost vindictive government overreach that leads far too many people to assume that ALL regulation is bad, and is precisely the sort of thing those of us who believe in strong but careful government regulation need to look out for.

The last bit of the book covers how, after finally putting the government’s crusade against it to bed, mostly successfully, a change in previously-entrenched leadership quickly led to the rather rapid demise of America’s largest chain. While those of us who have been living in the Age of Disruption (rolleyes) are unfortunately used to seeing legacy industries with tens of thousands of workers suddenly go under in disturbingly quick fashion, A&P might’ve been the first to go through this process, and it did so before Silicon Valley was around with its life mission of murdering traditional companies for profit.

I would’ve liked for Levinson to spend more time on this process, but it’s presented more as an epilogue to the story than an integral part of it. I guess it would be hard to spin a dramatic, engaging narrative out of bad managers consistently making wrong little decisions (and avoiding making any big ones) day after day for years until younger, more aggressive and more nimble competitors are eating your lunch and you go under.

So, in the end, I can recommend this book to anybody interested in the various topics covered within. It’s a deep look at a by-gone era of American business and government, with a side order of weird, private bachelor dudes running a company together for many, many decades with very little in the way of outside input and doing it damned well. Levinson obviously saw something uniquely American in The Great A&P and told that story here well.

The Books of 2017, #1: The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, by Robert Gerwarth

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Started off the year with a fun one, I did…

Wars are exhaustively covered in Western literature. No human being can read all of the books, even just in English, much less in other languages, that have been written about World War II, for example. That war is covered in many excellent volumes that cover the war as a whole, from a nice high overview, down to increasingly specific topics like the experience of individual German squads on the Eastern Front in 1943.

The point being, when it comes to wars, particular of the “modern” era, you can probably find at least one, if not many, books that speaks to whatever about that war you wish to know about in greater detail.

That is, unless what you’re interested in is: What Happened After?

Fortunately, this genre has been picking up steam in recent years. For World War II, there’s the excellent Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe, which tells the sad but necessary epic of the decade after VE Day, when an entire continent basically smashed to bits had to try and rebuild and also have a reckoning with what they had done to each other for a second time in a generation now. In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia by Ronald Spector does the same thing for the Pacific Theater. There have been many volumes rethinking the “Fall of Rome” and going into great detail regarding the century after 476CE in Europe.

And now, it’s The Great War’s turn.

The immediate postwar era of World War I is even more fascinating due to how those five or so years made the Second World War basically inevitable. And this is the ground The Vanquished covers.

From the “end” of what we refer to now as World War I in November of 1918 until about 1923, everything from the Rhine to the Pacific coast of Russian, from Finland south through the Balkans and into Mesopotamia, experience further violent conflict. Even the victors, with the sole exception of France, suffered additional violence and chaos (Britain with the Irish uprisings and Italy thoroughly enmeshed in the former Austro-Hungarian littoral on the Adriatic as well as suffering internal convulsions).

Gerwarth walks the reader through this tangled muddle as best he can, grouping events like revolutions, civil wars, interstate wars, irredentist conflicts, etc., together, in an admirable attempt to make sense of it all. To give an idea of the difficulty of the task, Wikipedia (not an authoritative resource but, again, to just give an idea) lists SEVENTY distinct violent conflicts in Europe from the end of 1918 through 1922.

The Vanquished tries to avoid descending into just an unending narrative of violence and cruelty, even though this is what the period was about, and instead tries to show the causes of the violence and the longer-reaching effects. I’m not personally certain that there was any result other than the breakup of the four empires that ended World War I and directly resulted in the chaos of the aftermath covered here that was possible, but Gerwarth makes a fairly convincing argument that it would have been difficult to fuck up the details and implementation of those breakups any worse than the Allies actually did.

Worse, the mismanagement of the “peace” contributed directly to the fall of democracies across this entire region and the resulting, even worse conflict of World War II. A lot of folks are aware of the correlation between the harsh Treaty of Versailles and its effect on the defeated Germans, but Gerwarth gives equal time to the equally harsh Treaties of Sevres and Trianon, each of which also carried great weight as contributing causes to World War II.

Trying to make sense of all of the horror that happened in the immediate half-decade following World War I is a tough task for any author, but Gerwarth manages it well here and this is a great one-volume overview of the entire period. If you wish to dig deeper into any specific aspect of it, I’ll just mention here that, per my Kindle, the narrative ends at 60% of the book. The remaining 40% is just to cover all of the documents and other books referenced in said narrative. Yeesh.

 

 

The Books of 2016: Non-Fiction

Welp, due to the usual causes of laziness and poor follow-up, I’m waaaay behind on reviewing the books I read in 2016. So, we’ll just do a Greatest Hits type thing this week to wrap that up before I fall behind on 2017 as well. Which I will. Because I suck.

Anywho. These are the best non-fiction books I read this year.



The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India
 
by John Wilson

Wilson’s case here is simply that the entire British experience in India was an orgy of unplanned violence and accidental conquest that cared solely about perpetuating itself. So, a revisionist take for sure, but a much-needed one, even if Wilson often commits the authorial foul of ascribing the worst possible motives to English agency at all times while excusing/diminishing those of the Indians themselves.

I’m not sure that Wilson makes his case entirely, but it’s enjoyable regardless to wade through the reams of evidence he piles up to make his point that the entire British legacy in India amounts to little more than a bureaucratic predilection towards writing things down and never referring to them again, alongside an almost incalculable pile of bloodshed and death via, if not outright violence and racism, then criminal administrative indifference to the fate of the governed.

Taking or leaving agreement with the author’s thesis, the book works well as a single-volume history of Britain and the subcontinent, a solid achievement in and of itself as such volumes aren’t exactly in abundance.


The Fall of Paris: The Siege and The Commune 1870-71 by Alistair Horne

Even the French admit that Horne, an Englishman, is one of the best historians of France ever to exist. I love every book of his that I’ve read (his Seven Ages of Paris will forever remain one of the most enjoyable works of history I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading through), and figured it was high time to start in on the trilogy that he made his name with back in the 60’s.

The Fall of Paris is the first of three books dealing with pivotal events in the history of modern Paris (and, through its crown jewel of a city, France in general), the other two being about the Battle of Sedan in 1916 and the German invasion and defeat of France in 1940, both of which are on my docket to read this year.

This is a long book, because a fucking LOT happened in those two years. And Horne can almost make you feel like you were there, from the initial expectations of victory over the hated Prussians, through the agony of the following defeat, and then the increasingly bloody chaos of the Commune and the Republic’s savage reaction afterwards.

This is not a topic well-covered or even known much about by many Americans, but it’s one of the more-fascinating stories in Western history and this book is a fantastic way to learn about it. Horne loads the book with personal details about the events and all of personas dramatis that have roles in them; it’s a hell of a narrative as well as a history.


So, there ya go. Two great non-fiction reads I enjoyed immensely in 2016. There were others (Paper, by Mark Kurlansky, was oddly engaging for a book about, well… paper, so consider this an Honorable Mention), but these two, when I look back, are the ones that stood out most.

The Books of 2016, #13: The Gates of Europe, by Serhii Plokhy

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Hooooo boy… nothing says “light summer reading” like a history of Ukraine.

“The Gates of Europe” is a fairly traditional telling of the land and people that have, at some times, but not at others, been referred to as Ukraine and Ukrainians. I say “fairly traditional” as, while it’s mostly a chronological narrative of events that occur over time in a reasonably specific patch of geography, Ukraine has not been an independent, sovereign state for much, nay, most of that time, and the people we today identify as Ukrainians often weren’t in the past.

It’s a bit of a muddle.

Due to Ukraine’s anomalous status throughout most of history, its story is of necessity thickly intertwined with those of the other nations of which Ukraine has been part over the centuries. To his credit, Plokhy keeps a pretty tight focus on the Ukrainians and only brings in the Poles, Austrians, Russians, etc., as much as is needed to put the Ukrainian narrative into proper context. More importantly, he spends a good amount of time covering what each period itself thought it meant to “be Ukrainian”, going into detail on contemporary academic and literary trends and arguments that were completely unknown to the vast majority of peasants whose identity was being argued over. This detail spent on the arguments of tiny elites isn’t, I’m sure, by choice; as ever with history, nobody cared to write down much about what the vast majority of people felt about these things at the time. So Plokhy is just working with what he has here.

The book covers well the various bases on which a putative Ukrainian “nationhood” has been claimed over time; religion, language, Cossack-ness, the ancient Kievan kingdom of Rus… part of the difficulty in writing a book such as this is that there is not, even today, any agreement that characteristics X, Y and Z being present in person A makes them a Ukrainian as opposed to a Russian or a Belarusian.  There are diehard Ukrainian nationalists today who can only speak Russian, for example. Likewise, there are Uniate Church-adhering Ukrainian speakers who consider themselves fully Russian, and who would like their chunk of the nation-state of Ukraine to revert to the Rodina as soon as possible.

Plokhy does not place value judgments either way, an admirable locking down of whatever bias he may actually feel on the issue; it’s a pretty dry, straight-forward narrative that does not push a belief that Ukraine is a unique, distinct culture/nation/person-type separate from Russia in any overbearing fashion. That he wrote a book about Ukrainian history in the first place makes his point of view clear; overselling the point would probably just turn the rather intense partisans on either side of the divide off from the get-go (a point which online reviews of this book make sadly clear).

I enjoyed the book, though I found Plokhy’s studious devotion to detachment to have rendered it rather dry at times. There aren’t many English-language histories that cover the whole of the Ukrainian story in one volume without including a lot of non-Ukrainian narrative, so I’m glad “The Gates of Europe” exists. If you just want to try and wrap your head around Ukraine’s deal, you’d easily do worse than to pick this one off of the shelf.

The Books of 2016, #12: The Borgias: The Hidden History, by G. J. Meyer

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G.J. Meyer has a shtick. He writes “provocative” histories about “provocative” subjects that are mostly designed to help him stack cheddah by serving as the basis for “provocative”, historical-ish drama series on cable TV.

You may recall his earlier book, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty, (and, man, revel in the sheer clickbaitiness of that very title) which was the source material for the BBC series, much like The Borgias provided the basis for Showtime’s canceled series of the same name. I read that book a couple of years ago and found it entertaining, but also ludicrous. Entertaining simply because you’d have to work very hard to write a boring book about the Tudors. Ludicrous because of the second aspect of G.J. Meyer’s shtick: his books almost always go against the “conventional wisdom” and sport theses that make pure academic historians spit blood. For example, the gist of The Tudors was, really, that Henry wasn’t an absolute bastard of a monster. Somehow. When, in fact: he totes was.

Likewise, The Borgias: The Hidden History, in which Meyer tries to argue that the Borgias were not the monsters that almost all of history has made them out to be, but were rather just typical of any ennobled family of the time in how they used their wealth and power to reinforce each other and that, further, much of the horribleness attributed to them is outright false. To Meyer’s credit, I think he makes a much stronger case here than he did with The Tudors.

The book makes its case by alternating chapters between the main chronological narrative of the three primary Borgias (Rodrigo the Pope, Cesare the alleged inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, and Lucrezia, possibly the most vilified woman of the Middle Ages) and what I’d call “context” chapters. The context chapters are quite useful in terms of situating the reader in how, say, the Papacy worked during the era in which the Borgias were active with it. Likewise, he explains Italian politics, international diplomacy… basically any topic where the reader may have an understanding of how it operates _today_, but NOT how it operated then. So these chapters help educate the user AND reinforce one of Meyer’s main arguments: that while a lot of what the Borgias did may seem unsavory to modern mores, they were not at all out of line with contemporary standards (an argument Meyer makes, I think, successfully over the course of the book) and, actually, were near-saintly when compared to other major figures of the day (this argument, not so much).

At any rate, the framework is very solid and keeps the user properly informed on the context needed to understand the narrative events as they unfold.

As for that narrative, I wish the writing of it were more exciting. For being about an era positively brimming with strong personalities, amazing new art, sex, epic violence, etc., the book is a bit of a slog to get through.

Part of the slog is due to the voluminous chat about sourcing interspersed throughout. To Meyer’s credit, most of this is segregated from the main narrative in a way that makes it easy to skip over if source-talk ain’t your jam. I think this is partially an over-reaction to the eyerolls that greeted his thesis about Henry VIII in The Tudors being actually a nice guy, and partially the usual work of a historian going into detail about their sources to validate their interpretation of them. I found it interesting, and believe he did an effective job of highlighting how his sources (and, to be honest, primary sources on the Borgias are remarkably limited so he’s quite thorough about it), once analyzed for bias, actually rather strongly support his own arguments. You may disagree, but I didn’t have that sense of “wow, this author is really contorting things to make it work here” that I sometimes get when reading through a writer’s own analysis of their source materials as related to their argument.

Overwhelming sourcing chat aside, Meyer does move the reader along from the rise of Rodrigo from minor Castilian nobility to leader of the Church, through Cesare’s brilliant but notorious and violent rise and even more notorious fall, and finishes up with a good discussion of the whorification of Lucrezia. While the least “action-packed” part of the story, the sections focusing on Lucrezia were the most interesting to me, as they are basically a textbook for how shoddily any woman who rose to any sort of prominence could be expected to be treated both by her contemporaries and by later writers. Of the three main subjects of the book, I think Meyer makes his most compelling case regarding history having given these folks a bad rap when it comes to the unfortunate Borgia sister/bargaining chip/marriage prize.

So, yeah, I think Meyer does a solid job of making his case, if overselling it a bit with both Rodrigo and Cezare, in this book, but really wish he had somehow injected the spirit of the age he is covering into his writing on it. People and events this interesting shouldn’t turn into quite so much of a slog when set down on paper.

The Books of 2016, #11: Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict In Korea, by Sheila Miyoshi Jager

brothers_at_warThis book, frankly, exhausted me. In terms of the information presented, it’s very good; you’re not going to find a better English-language one-volume history of the entire period in which the Two Koreas have existed. She places the war itself in the proper context of the long-view of Korea’s divided history, and gives much more focus to Korean impetus and sources than you’d usually get in the American-centric histories that dominate the reading lists here. That said, though; it’s just a bit of a slog to _read_. The level of detail occasionally approaches overwhelming, and Jager doesn’t provide the best narrative flow in which to situate, comprehend, and retain that detail.

To start with, if you don’t already have a good grounding in the war itself, this book is not going to give it to you. For example, there’s much more in this book about the rebellion of POW’s at Koje-Do than there is regarding, say, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. The latter is covered, but not to the depth of events elsewhere. And that’s FINE; I believe her whole point is to restore the agency the Koreans usually lose in English-language histories of the conflict, and therefore she chooses to focus more on events that haven’t been covered well before. Arguably, in terms of KOREAN history, the rebellion at Koje-Do mattered more than the retreat from Chosin. Just know that going in, and read something like Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter” to get grounded on the war itself.

More problematically, even though she does present a lot of detail overall on the war era, it’s provided in a weirdly staggered way that makes it hard to follow the actual chronological flow of events. Or at least it was for me.

That said, the book also succeeds on a lot of fronts, particularly on the level of new information presented regarding the domestic South Korean front and the entirety of the Communist side. While again obviously focused on presenting the Koreans as their own actors with their own methods, she does not shrink away from showing that the Rhees and Il Sungs of the time had their actions strongly circumscribed by what their ideological big brothers would allow. For all of the loud trumpeting of the North Korean autarkic ideal of “juche” they have subjected everyone to over the decades, the historical record makes it clear that, at almost no times throughout its history, has North Korea been able to decide entirely on its own course. Rather, the South Koreans have had more success making their American patrons react to their own actions than the North Koreans ever did at getting the Chinese or the Soviet/Russians to theirs.

Jager also does well in presenting an honest picture of the economic race of each Korea in the post-war era; it sounds surprising to consider that North Korea was actually probably ahead of the South Koreans economically until the mid-1960’s, even after being bombed mostly flat by the American Air Force in the war, but the South Korean leadership was that bad at caring about or knowing how to improve the lot of the average citizen for quite some time.

I enjoyed Jager most when she discusses how the poor economic performance of early South Korean governments led to civilian dissatisfaction with western-style democracy and, instead, resulted in support for the Communist cause that seemed to be doing a better job of raising the standard of its people at the time. This carries into the reaction and repression that stripped away rights from the South, but also provided the stability necessary for genuine economic growth to finally occur. In turn, that increasing wealth empowered the people to where they were able to force a return of democracy. Meanwhile, throughout, the North simply became increasingly poor, isolated, and unstable.

Overall, I can give Brothers at War a qualified recommendation; if you’re well-versed in the war itself that is the dominating event of this entire era, and can deal with the occasionally confusing and meandering nature of the narrative, this book will fill in the periods before and following the war better than anything else you’re going to find in English today. If not, I’d recommend reading some dedicated histories of the war itself first, and/or waiting to see if anybody else decides to try and replicate Jager’s work here in the next few years in a clearer, more cohesive fashion.

The Books of 2016, #10: The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople, by Susan Wise Bauer

medieval_worldThis is a weird book to review as it’s not a standard, single-topic narrative history. Rather, each chapter focuses on a different slice of the world that makes sense to narrow in on topically, with the whole group of chapters slowly moving forward in time. So, for example, every fifth-ish chapter will revisit what’s happened in, say, Korea since the last chapter on that area.

Over the course of the whole book, you get a pretty damned good overview of everything that happened of note in every major civilization region across the globe over the couple hundred years this book covers (the same basic idea holds for the previous entries in the series as well). There’s an almost unavoidable weighting of text in favor of European civilizations, just due to the simple fact that there’s more written source material to work with for them (Bauer made clear in the intro to the first book of the series that she had to limit herself to civilizations that left written records; there’s no room in her scope for archaeology or trying to interpret, say, whatever the hell the Harappans were up to in India, or what the bulk of pre-Colombian America was doing). That said, she obviously cares to give as much weight to non-European civilizations as the material can allow for, and does that well.

Even as carefully as written a book such as this must, due to the vast scope of the topic being covered, be a wide but shallow pool. Bauer presents a pretty amazing level of detail on each cultural area over time, but if you’re looking for explosive new interpretations or thoughtful analysis of larger trends, you’re not going to find it here.

I like this series best as an accompaniment to deeper books I’m reading at the time; like, if I want a wider context on what all of Europe or the world was like during the time period covered by, say, the Third Crusade, I can get that from Bauer’s series.

So, for the well-read historian, the series will serve as a great refresher on areas the reader may be weaker on or have forgotten about. But it will work best for the novice; if you haven’t cracked a history book since your college World History AP course, but are interested in catching up, this is the first series I’d point you to.