Welcome to Smugglivus 2016! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2016, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2017, and more.
Next on Smugglivus 2016, please give a warm welcome to Susan Jane Bigelow, SFF author extraordinaire and purveyor of great Smugglivus Lists.
Susan Jane Lives in the Past – A Smugglivus List of History Books to Help Us Cope with Now
We lost two of our cats three weeks apart, which had us staggering. They’d been with us since 2003. I still can’t quite believe they’re gone. Molly and Jenny were friends, companions, and family. I miss them desperately.
And of course, the election happened. I feel like everything I loved about my country was spat on and rejected by people who look like me, but think very differently. I feel like the future I’d been hoping we could have someday has vanished, popped out of existence by a tidal wave of hate.
So, I’ve been in mourning. I’ve never cried so much in my life.
When the present and future become too much to bear, I seek out the past. History is rarely reassuring, and it’s hardly calm, but it can sometimes provide me with… I don’t know. A sense of finality, maybe. It happened. We find out all the time more and more about what happened, who was there, and why things fell out the way they did. We also must face up to all of the monstrous things waiting in our past, and we discover more and more of those all the time. But at least all of the events of the past are a midpoint, and not an end. They were survivable. It gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, humanity can survive the present and the near future.
So here is my list of history books I’ve been reading and re-reading that may help us face the present head on. It is not a pleasant list, for the most part.
Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor
There is going to be a World War II theme, yes, but this book isn’t the usual “Nazis and Nothing More” sort of book about Germany that exists these days. It’s a complex historical tapestry of all of these different strands of culture and politics that eventually were woven together into a nation-state. In this is all of Germany’s contradictions, flaws, beauty, and more. It also has sown throughout the many, many different pieces of culture, politics, and history that eventually led to the rise of Hitler. But it also shows the laying of the groundwork for the modern, far more open and tolerant Germany, which is a place I know and love. There is much here that I see in my own country. There’s much that worries me, and much that gives me hope.
The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia by Richard Overy
This is a fascinating compare-and-contrast book that I found interesting not only for the portrait of the two monstrous leaders, but for the organs of state and party repression that they created in parallel. This book delves into what the apparatus of the Communist and National Socialist parties actually looked like, and how it functioned to keep watch on everyone. This book, when I first read it, was one of my primary inspirations for how the Confederation system works in The Spark. These days, though, it’s given me things to watch for and speak out against in the present.
Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes
Russia is somewhere I always wanted to know more about. When I was in Cub Scouts (don’t ask) one of our projects was to write to an embassy and ask for information about a country. I was a contrary little sucker living in a firmly patriotic environment, so I wrote to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They sent me a couple of books about science and Marxist thought in the USSR. I devoured them, because they were so different. I’ve read much about Russia ever since. This particular book has its flaws, namely that it’s mainly a history of the St. Petersburg elite more than a cultural history of the vast mass of the people, but there is some very useful stuff here that helps me understand what drives the Russia of today. After all, it looks like our countries are going to be… friends. Great.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
I’ve been trying to read more about China, because a while back I realized it was a huge blind spot in my knowledge of the world. I read a few books of Chinese history written by Westerners, which was nice as an introduction but had severe limitations. This book, written by the Chinese-born Londoner Jung Chang, is a revisionist history of sorts that tries to rehabilitate the image of Empress Dowager Cixi, the de facto ruler of Qing China for much of the second half of the nineteenth century. What I found most useful here, though, is the clarity of Chang’s description of the humiliations China suffered at the hands of ruthless Western powers, and how the shame and anger over those times has lingered into the modern age.
The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Anderson Bower
This book, along with former Chief Usher James B. West’s Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies, gave me a fairly good picture of how life actually runs at the White House according to the permanent staff who work there. It’s a fascinating exploration of the presidents and their families at home, but also of the staff and the amazing things they do to keep it all happening. There’s something reassuring about the book. The presidents come and go, but thethe mostly Black staff who work there remain, passing their experience down from one generation to the next. It suggests that no matter who is in charge, the people endure.
So here is to 2016, then, a year when we could all sense the nauseating, terrifying tide of history bearing us uncaringly along. Let’s hope next year is one that the historians don’t feel like they have to write too much about, shall we?
Thank you Susan Jane!