What I’ve been reading (or short book reviews for busy people)

  1. Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and Its Demise in Mexico, by Beatriz Magaloni. An enlightening book. In brief: how countries with elections but de facto single parties (like, for many years, the PRI in Mexico) maintain power and lose it. This is a useful book for understanding weak autocracies, and how a good many countries have democratized over time. Some of the best insights are on why hegemonic parties try to build super-majorities of mass and elite support, and how they’re vulnerable to both growth and leader transitions.
  2. Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, by Peter Sahlins. A history of one of the oldest borders in Western Europe. Some fascinating bits include the fact that “natural” barriers like mountain ranges are not so natural or clear after all; the slow means by which people took on French or Spanish identities across some of the more arbitrarily cleaved valleys (including the slow emergence of Catalan identity); and the resemblance between France’s strategies in the 18th century to assimilate its periphery and China’s strategies in its periphery in the 21st.
  3. Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin. Novelistic account of the Aeneid (an early Latin epic poem) by one of the great science fiction writers, all told from the perspective of a minor female character. Good but not great.
  4. Mating, Whites, and Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush. Mating and Whites are two of my favorite books written on foreigners in Africa by a foreigner in Africa. Brilliant, satirical, and must-reads for the modern neocolonialist. I mean aid workers. I believe Rush ran the Peace Corps program in Botswana in the early 80s, and the novels draw on his experiences with absurd people and circumstances, I assume. Read the collection of short stories, Whites, first. Subtle Bodies is a new work about a bunch pompous, unsympathetic people who reunite in upstate New York. I couldn’t quite finish it, but it made me go back and reread the earlier novels with pleasure.
  5. The Battle for Spain, The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, by Anthony Beevor. This was recommended by several poeple when I went looking for engaging Spanish history. The book was a gatling gun of names and dates. Completely bewildering. I put it down quickly. Any other suggestions? I like my history to have a coherent narrative.

13 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading (or short book reviews for busy people)

  1. Regarding the Spanish Civil War, I assume you’ve read _Homage to Catalonia_? It doesn’t really give you any sense of the locals point of view, but Orwell’s quite a remarkable writer. _Ghosts of Spain_ by Giles Tremlett is pretty impressionistic as well, but gives a very engaging overview of how the war still has an impact today.

  2. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, of course. For the airplane, Rebecca Pawal’s Death of a Nationalist (the second in the series was less good; I have not read the 3rd and 4th). Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War is a classic. He has books on earlier periods of Spanish history, too. And Richard Herr – An historical essay on modern spain (UC Press).

  3. I liked ‘The Sources of Social Power’ by Michael Mann, particularly Volume 1.

  4. Not all of Spain, not all history, but engaging and fascinating – and with some sort of narrative- Robert Hughes, Barcelona

  5. I second Hugh Thomas. But be warned, his book is a long gatling gun of names and places too.

    There’s a 1996 vintage BBC documentary series about the war which is quite good.

    Some recent Spanish movies with a war theme I can recommend are “Libertarias” and “Las bicicletas son para el verano”.

    Also check out Laia Balcells’ recent paper on Catalonia and Aragon.

  6. On the Spanish Civil War ? You could look at Stanley Payne’s book (amittedly the only book Ive ever read on the topic, though interesting)