This is an archive of the books that have appeared, in the past, in the right sidebar of the blog.
Blood and Soil by Ben Kiernan. This is a massive account of genocides since 1400. While each has its own history, character and details, Kiernan identifies four common ideological features of genocides, and which we can use to recognize a genocide in the making: racism; cults of antiquity; cults of cultivation; and agriculture and expansion. If only understanding what underpins genocide were enough to stop it.
The Psychology of Pandemics by Steven Taylor. During the pandemic have you been surprised by people who refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated, quack cures, conspiracy theories, and panic buying? Steven Taylor was not. But you won’t find “COVID-19” in this book, because it was published before covid. Taylor, who teaches at UBC, is not a medical expert on infectious disease. He’s a psychological expert on how people feel about disease, specifically disease anxiety. So he was uniquely positioned to understand what would happen in a pandemic
First Russia, The Tibet, by Robert Byron. This is an obscure Byron text, written before he went to Mount Athos or Persia. He is in the Soviet Union in the 1930s to see what all the fuss is about. He has some excellent insights which are still worth reading in a post-Soviet world. Then he makes an impulsive journey into Tibet, via Sikkim, in November, and gives some excellent first-hand descriptions of both altitude sickness and severe sunburn..
The Big Red Train Ride, by Eric Newby. One of my favourite travel writers. Here riding the Trans-Siberian in 1977, trying to make it funny and erudite, and generally succeeding.
Yemen: Travels In Dictionary Land, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Another outstanding example of the I-moved-there-and-twenty-years-later-I’m-writing-to-tell-you-all-about-it genre. Mackintosh-Smith moved to Yemen to master Arabic and is a superb guide to (the male side, at least, of) Yemen. Different chapters profile different parts of the country, and there is a lot of history and language. Published before the present civil war, but it gives insight into the Zaydi heritage lying behind the Houthi rebels.
The Whispering Land, by Gerald Durrell. A 1960s memoir of collecting animals in South America. Durrell is kind of a James Bond zoologist: drinking, smoking, hanging out with beautiful women and driving in fast cars. Perhaps this is what was expected of a writer in the 1960s. Very entertaining.
On Persephone’s Island, by Mary Taylor Simeti, I so enjoyed this. It’s an outstanding example of the I-moved-there-and-twenty-years-later-I’m-writing-to-tell-you-all-about-it genre. Mary Taylor goes to Sicily as an American university student, stays, marries, has children and runs a farm. It’s all about Sicily, but it’s Sicily as she sees it, with a particular emphasis on food.
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran, by Michael Axworthy. A super-comprehensive history of Iran.
Buffalo Days and Nights, by Peter Erasmus. The account of the years from 1850s to 1900 in what would become the province of Alberta (western Canada) from a Metis interpreter, who worked for missionaries, government and indigenous chiefs.
A Journey to Arzrum,Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin’s account of his illegally slipping across the border in 1828 to accompany Russian troops (during the Russo-Turkish War) into the northwestern Ottoman Empire and the siege of Erzurum (“Arzrum”).
From the Bosphorus, Rhonda Vander Sluis. A wonderful account of what you see on the shore when travelling on the Bosphorus, all the way up to the Black Sea.