For many of us August is “book month,” a time of the year when we can kick back at the beach or in the back yard with the guilty pleasure of a page turning mystery or a door stop of history or biography. I personally lean to the door stop, so here are my half dozen best reads so far this summer.
1913: The World Before the Great War
The best book I’ve read in a while is the work of a British historian Charles Emmerson called 1913: The World Before the Great War, a sweeping survey of 23 of the world’s cities in the year before the world was plunged into the awful war that created the political, cultural and economic contours of the 20th Century. Emmerson is the engaging, historically fascinating travel guide as we visit the places like London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Vienna and Constantinople, cities that will be at the center of the war to come. But he also takes us to Detroit, Winnipeg, Tehran and Buenos Aires, growing cities in the first years of the century where optimism about the future soon gave way to the horror of The Great War.
As Ian Thomson noted in his review of 1913 in The Guardian: “The great cities of the world grew strong and rich by being open to foreigners. Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, united Serbo-Croats, Greeks, Bulgars and Transylvanians under the double-headed eagle of Emperor Franz Josef. The cosmopolitanism could not last, however. With a few deft strokes, Emmerson conjures an air of looming catastrophe in Vienna as Archduke Franz Ferdinand is about to be assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 and the calamity attendant on the break-up of Habsburg crown lands breaks out. If the coming war dispersed and murdered people, the Austro-Hungarian empire had at least sheltered Jews and non-Jews alike in the multi-ethnic lands of Mitteleuropa. By the end of the conflict, from the eastern border of France all the way through Asia to the Sea of Japan, not a single pre-1913 government remained in power. The once mighty German, Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman empires had collapsed.”
The year before The Great War was the beginning of 20th Century globalism with the world having one foot in the new century and the other in a simpler past. Writing in the Washington Post Michael F. Bishop said, “Millions were soon to die on the fields of France, but in 1913 Paris was ‘the quintessential city of seduction, sensation and spectacle.’ President Raymond Poincare still brooded over the German conquest of his native Lorraine in 1870, but his fellow Parisians were more exercised about the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This modernist masterpiece seemed a harbinger of things to come, as a lusher and more ornate past ceded to a harsher but more dynamic present.”
This is a great and important book that opens a window on the last year before the defining event of the 20th Century changed almost everything. Emmerson says simply of the world that will be ushered in through the bloody trenches of Europe, “Somehow, somewhere, the world of 1913 had gone.”
The American Senate
For 30 years Neil MacNeil was Time magazine’s Congressional correspondent. From that perch MacNeil – some of you older PBS viewers may remember – was a regular in the early days of Washington Week in Review and wrote a delightful biography of one-time Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen. MacNeil died in 2008 before he was able to finish his sweeping history of the United States Senate and the project was taken over by long-time Senate historian Richard A. Baker. The result is a cozy, well-sourced review of the unique and critically important role the Senate plays in the scheme of American government.
The American Senate deals with the origins of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” through the days before the Civil War when the Senate, with names like Webster, Clay and Calhoun in power, came to dominate the presidency. All the great and not-so-great moments of Senate history are covered usually more by subject than chronology. We also get inside looks at effective leaders in Senate history like Joseph Robinson in the 1930’s, Lyndon Johnson in the 1950’s, Dirksen in the 1960’s and Howard Baker in the 1980’s. I’ve read much about the origin and history of the filibuster, which has come to dominate all the Senate does or tries to do, but I’ve not read a better assessment or history of the tactic of the filibuster and what its widespread use has done to diminish the Senate than in this book.
MacNeil and Baker also offer priceless stories, including how the mellifluous Dirksen came to be called “the Wizard of Ooze.” They note at one point that “some senators came to believe that their speeches were not just speeches, but action itself.” In one case South Carolina Sen. Ellison (“Cotton Ed”) Smith made “an astonishing claim.” When he began his Senate speech, Smith said, “cotton was ten cents. When I finished four hours later, cotton was twelve cents. I will continue to serve you in this way.”
While the book is mostly a history of a great political institution that is currently in decline it is also a measured, responsible call for a better Senate with better leadership and Senators focused not on the next election, but the next generation. Who could disagree with that?
The Great Gatsby
The release of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “great American novel” was my prompt to pull down from the high shelf and read again my dog-eared paperback of the 1925 classic. It was worth it. Most of us read Gatsby in high school or maybe in college. Forget the movie and read the real thing. As we get a little older the last line of Gatsby – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” – takes on even more meaning.
1940 and Those Angry Days
Both of these books – 1940 by Susan Dunn and Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson – deal with the period immediately before the United States became involved in World War II. Dunn’s book is conventional but solid history of the historic election when Franklin Roosevelt won his third term. Olson’s book, highly readable and a page-turner, is marred by a number of silly errors that can cause a reader to question her, at times, overly simplistic conclusions. Still, I recommend both books as good, if not always nuanced, contributions to the history of a pivotal moment in the 20th Century.
What’s a beach read without a cocktail? In his introduction to Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking the late and brilliant essayist Christopher Hitchens, who knew something about booze, says that Amis, novelist and writer of short stories and non-fiction, was “what the Irish call ‘your man’ when it came to the subject of drink.”
This funny, opinionated, how-too guide to spirits, wine and manners is the kind of slim book you can pick up and open to any page and be entertained and informed. There is even a section with various quizzes. (I’d recommend leaving it on the back of the toilet tank for easy, quick reading, but that would be so not Kingsley Amis.)
One reviewer had this advice. “Under no circumstance should [Everyday Drinking] be read in one go. Not even with a pitcher of dry martinis at hand. You’ll do Amis’s work proper justice, as even he suggests, by reading it at the rate of, say, one chapter a night. You may even try reading it out loud at bedtime. Or not.”
Amis covers history, hangovers, recipes and almost everything that is put in a bottle behind a label and often in just a few paragraphs. He writes, for example, of Champagne as a drink that will “go with any food and one can theoretically drink it right through a meal…in practice it is suppose to be a splendid accompaniment to a cold summery lunch of smoked salmon and strawberries. Best of all on its own, I have heard its admirers say, about 11:30 a.m., with a dry biscuit. Which leaves plenty of time to sneak out to the bar for a real drink.”
There you have it – a half dozen good reads for August. Grab a drink and a book and have at it.