Another month, another pile of book reviews. In addition to two books on the rulers of (and from) the Hapsburg Empire in 18th century Europe, I devoured a pile of first-person narratives on slavery in the American South and another pile of accounts of defectors from North Korea. At first glance these two topics may seem fairly separate, however the more I read accounts both of life as an American slave on the plantations of the South and human existence within North Korea’s regime–and the struggles to adjust to life outside those institutions, the more they seemed aligned in their horrors and evils as well as the difficulties to assimilate to a more democratic and free-thinking society. More to come on that, I feel. I’m still ruminating on it. (Yes, I ruminate. Like a cow. What of it?)
Also, a note: I have tried to cut this post down to, you know, something less than 3,000 words. But it just isn’t happening. That being said, each book is linked to my review on Goodreads, most of which are longer and more expansive and possibly a little rantier; you know, if you’re in to that sort of thing.
Maria Theresa & The Hapsburg Empire
Maria Theresa, by Edward Crankshaw (4 stars). Maria Theresa was one of the last rulers of Austria’s ancient House of Hapsburg and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and her territory covered vast tracts of Eastern and Central Europe including Austria, Hungary, Germany, Czech Republic (then Bohemia), and a number of other smaller provinces and districts and states. She was crowned Queen and Empress (and a bunch of other titles) in 1740 at age 23 after the death of her father, and reigned for 40 years, a contemporary with King George II, Catherine the Great, and Louis XV. She led several wars, and had massive reforms enacted throughout the continent including small pox vaccines/inoculations, increased civil rights, primary education for peasants, and religious reforms. Maria Theresa had a gift for selecting men who knew more than she did on any given subject and then trusting them to help her make decisions. She brought stability to her empire in a time when most of Europe was rocked with revolution and civil war. She also gave birth to 16 children, the youngest, Maria Antonia, would become Marie Antoinette in an ill-fated marriage trying to create an alliance between France and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Crankshaw’s biography can be a little dry and textbooky, but I specifically wanted to know more about Maria Theresa and there aren’t many books about her. Crankshaw includes a lot of info about the rest of Europe, including the wars and leaders of France, England, Russia, and Prussia, and entire chapters devoted to culture, architecture, and music of Bavaria, Vienna, and Prague and the masters who came from that era (Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, etc), and I appreciated being able to place some of these more familiar-to-me characters into a broader historical arena.
In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa, by Justin C. Vovk (3 stars). Of Maria Theresa’s 14 surviving children five became rulers in their own right across Europe. This book follows their stories, their children, the history and political landscape of a revolutionary Europe including the French Revolution and Napoleon’s campaigns. I loved learning more about Joseph II, Maria Theresa’s successor and Holy Roman Emperor; Leopold II, Duke of Tuscany and Holy Roman Emperor after Joseph’s death; Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma in Italy, Maria Carolina/Charlotte, Queen of Naples; and Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. I was astounded at how the children and grandchildren of Maria Theresa and their political alliances and strategic marriages eventually covered over a third of Europe. The history was fascinating and new-ish to me, I loved learning more about the different kingdom/queendoms and how they played nicely (or not) with each other. All this being said, this author needs an editor with a BIG red pen; minus two stars for lack of proper editing. Vovk always calls these five rulers “Maria Theresa’s five special children” and after the second mention of “special” in the intro I started scribbling out that particular word, it just grates on my nerves. Special? Really? Is that the best you can do? They are not a supermarket bargain!
Additional Recommended Reading: Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund.
World War II
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan (4 stars). After multiple recommendations I finally picked this up for a church book club discussion; Girls of Atomic City follows the story of a half-dozen women working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a secret city built to enrich uranium for the atomic bomb. At one time 72,000 people were living in this government compound with no idea what they were doing, no real idea the materials they were working with, and unable to discuss their work with anyone else, family and friends included. I wanted more information about the women themselves, their stories–although Kiernan conducted dozens of interviews with them, and to be fair, they were not allowed to keep diaries or journals at the time. I wanted more information about the African-American experience, families not being allowed to live together, blacks were banned from schools and dances and swimming pools, segregation all over the place with African-American’s having substantially sub-par facilities in every possible respect. There is a lot about the science and technology that went in to discovering how to produce enriched uranium and then use it to fuel the atomic bomb, and that was interesting. I also felt very little was spent on the thoughts and emotions of the characters after the bomb was dropped, which is when they finally figured out what, exactly, they had been working on creating. At most there is 2 or 3 sentences from a couple of individuals. All in all, however, I really appreciated and enjoyed this book.
Additional Recommended Reading:Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin.
Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (4 stars). The North Korean gulag are prison work camps with unimaginable conditions. North Koreans can be sentenced to years of imprisonment for stealing a bit of rice, or for making a comment in passing that one of the Dear Leader trio is perhaps not 100% divine, or any other minor offense. The conditions inside the camps, and the mortality rate of prisoners, are as bad as the worst concentrations camps during WWII. But, consider this: Auschwitz existed for three years; the North Korean prison camps have been in operation for over 50 years. Shin was born in Camp 14, his parents had been sentenced to life in the gulag after his father’s brother defected to South Korea. Shin was bred to inform on his family and his fellow prisoners, public executions were commonplace, and starvation and physical torture were a way of life. Unlike citizens outside the prison camps, Shin did not receive the indoctrination and brain washing about the Kim family; he knew nothing about the outside world (not even basic things like that the world is round). At the time of it’s publishing (2012) Shin is one of only three people to escape from a prison camp and make their way to South Korea or the West and tell their stories. Three. In 50 years. Shin is the only one who did not have previous experience outside of the camp to help him escape and survive; he was born inside it’s electric fence. His escape is remarkable, he managed to find his way to China and then to South Korea without wealthy backers, without a guide and against all possible odds. He had an incredible amount of luck on his side, which only makes me wonder how many other people with just a little less circumstantial luck have failed their attempts to escape, only to be returned to the gulag for torture and execution.
Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot (3 stars). One of the earliest memoirs of life inside North Korea, I think. Kang and his family are sentenced to the gulag/prison camp when he is 10 and remain there a decade. Kang grows up starving and malnourished, he learns to swallow salamanders and catch rats, he forms a strange type of friendship with fellow detainees, carefully trying to sort friends from informers, and his stories about the violence, deprivation, executions and lack of humanity in the camp is gut wrenching. The writing is a little choppy with some strange circular wanderings in story and chronology, so minus a star for that. Escape from Camp 14 is definitely a better book, although Kang’s experience in the gulag is perhaps a little more typical of most Koreans who were sent there for re-education/reform.
Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, by Melanie Kirkpatrick (2 stars). Don’t even bother. I have a lengthier, rantier review on Goodreads, but the gist is this. Kirkpatrick only highlights those who help North Koreans escape, not the refugees themselves or their stories. She has serious views about Christianity being the only way to help refugees, she calls children of kidnapped North Korean brides sold to Chinese men “half-and-half” (they aren’t dairy products!), and she has no qualms supporting the idea that there needs to be some kind of moral qualification before an escapee deserves help and assistance. For example, the Christians she discusses refuse to help those “with blood on their hands.” Even if, say, a prisoner is “promoted” to guard–receiving MUCH NEEDED extra food or clothing–and then follows orders that result in beatings or even execution of fellow prisoners. It’s not like the guy had any choice, and it’s not like the DPRK has EVER made a habit of teaching basic morality or decision making skills to their citizens. You follow The Party and The Kim, and everything else can send you to the gulag with no trial and no warning, for an undetermined amount of time. Ugh. I was so bugged by this. Skip this book.
Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (4 stars). Did you know that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the exact same day? Authors Desmond and Moore incorporate a ridiculous amount of research in this book pulling from political and historical documents, vast correspondence between anti-slavery and pro-slavery advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, and hundreds of newspaper articles, journal essays, research publications, and books of natural scientists around the world. They explain in detail the history of the Darwin family’s fight against slavery both in the British Empire and the America’s, they carefully lay out the political and social landscape on both sides of the Atlantic in regards to buying and selling human beings. And to exhaustive detail they point out how during the mid-19th century scientists, scholars, and theologians were debating against each other on the truth behind race, creation, humanity, and our origins. SO. FASCINATING! I also realize that at nearly 500 pages it is not for the feint of heart or the casual reader. But I absolutely loved it. A book about Darwin AND abolition?! Sign me up. And if you could manage to add a few chapters about North Korea or volcanoes that’d be perfection, thanks.
Additional Recommended Reading: Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, by Adam Gopnik; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas; The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution & Future of the Human Animal, by Jared Diamond.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (5 stars) Read this book. Read it right now. There are very few first-person narratives from women who endured the tortures of slavery in the American South, Harriet Jacobs’ memoir tells the story unique to women, especially mothers, and their particular difficulty in escaping slavery and leaving their children. The plights of young women with regard to leering masters, jealous wives, and bearing half-white children who then “follow the mother” and become slaves on their white father’s plantation, sold as cattle at his whim. Harriet’s story of escape is heartbreaking, and in many ways mirrors that of Anne Frank and her family. Harriet is hidden for 7 years in a tiny garret of her grandmother’s house. She cannot stand up, she has no fresh air, no sunshine, and she does not come out. She lives above her family and children listening to them as they grow, listening to her master speculate on her whereabouts, watch her children and brother be thrown into jail for months in hopes of her returning to slavery…and she remains silent until there is a safe time for her to escape…again, SEVEN YEARS after she was in hiding. After Harriet is reunited with her children and her brother in the northern states she encounters a different type of racism, she is still viewed as less than white people and must navigate those issues, all the while worried that her master will come and drag her and her family back to the South. Seriously, read this book. Now.
Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup (5 stars). I had so many feels while reading this book! Published in 1853 the language can be a little cumbersome, but after a few pages I fell right into the rhythm and descriptions. This first-person account covers Northup’s life as both as a free black man in New York, and life as a slave in Louisiana. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery, beaten savagely anytime he protested that he was, in fact, a free man of the North. Northup’s sparse style lets the reader come to their own conclusions and feelings on the subject of slavery, and I appreciate that this was a very fact-driven narrative instead of an emotional treatise. I think the only way it could have been accepted in the literary world of it’s time would have been as it was, any additional elaboration would have been viewed as adding to the truth. This is a time when the vast majority of whites didn’t think Africans and African-Americans had feelings, intellect, or emotions; that they were, in fact, no more human than cattle or pigs. I kept thinking how many people today are kidnapped or tricked into some kind of slavery, whether indentured servant, sexual worker, or otherwise. Many of those first-person stories are written in a heartbreakingly sparse style, giving fact after fact with little elaboration on how that made the victim feel. Read this book, please. So very, very moving.
The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois (4 stars). This is a collection of long-ish essays Du Bois wrote about various aspects of life for the newly emancipated slaves in the South. Their difficulties in gaining any kind of economic freedom, their utter lack of civil rights and due process, and the laws and culture in both North and South that continued to set them as less-than. This is not something to sit down and read through, but read an essay and think about it, about the education opportunities and how that affected the former slaves who were not allowed to be literate, and the newly free young people who desperately wanted to learn but had very few opportunities due to such low economic circumstances in their families lives. This was so heartbreaking, and I saw the seeds and beginnings of so many of the issues we still grapple with today.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass (4 stars). This is a very quick read/listen, but absolutely worth it. In the same vein as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which I loved) this was one of the earliest books that gave the majority of free, white citizens some kind of idea that slaves may actually have their own feelings, emotions, and personalities. That they may love their children or their husbands and wives, that they may actually *want* to be free to govern their own lives and decisions. It is baffling to think that once upon a time these very basic ideas of humanity were completely absent. And, as I look at the news/media, sometimes it seems like we may not have come as far as a whole population as we like to believe.
Additional recommended reading: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas; Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela.