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Thread: Accessible history books

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    Accessible history books

    I don't normally read history books. I find they tend to get so bogged down in names and dates that I find it hard to stay interested.

    However, I absolutely loved Anne Funder's Stasiland. It focused more on personal accounts and her own journey through modern day Germany to tell the story of Germans under the watchful eye of the Stasi.

    I'd like to find more history books like this, preferably ones focusing on 20th/21st century events (especially the Vietnam War and Nazi Germany).

    Any suggestions?

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    Voice of Chaos & Anarchy
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    Good history isn't written until well after the events. There are no good histories of WWII that do not concentrate on the details, and the histories of the Vietnam War are straying further from the facts, as historians write what they wished happened, rather than what actually did happen. There are excellent hosistories of the renaissance, and Prescott's The Conquest of Peru and The Conquest of Mexico are quite good. There are good histories of Russia from 862 until about 1800, but it gets mushy after that, and it probably will take another two hundred years for that to be corrected.

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    Liberate Babyguile's Avatar
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    Given what you have said, I recommend highly Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. It records the short histoy of North Korea from the annex of the Korean peninsula by the Soviet Union and USA at the end of WWII, through to the regime of Kim-Jong Il and the food shortages/meltdown that followed. It also looks at his death and its aftermath. She uses information gained from her extensive interviews of North Koreans who defected to China and South Korea. The book focuses on the struggle to live and survive under one of the most repressive regimes of the twentieth century, and follows the lives of two families right to their conclusions (the fates of the individuals are mixed: it's not entirely a cheerful book).
    Last edited by Babyguile; 02-06-2013 at 09:55 AM.
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    You might like Colin Thubron or Sven Lindqvist. Although ostensibly travel writers they are very much focused on the histories of the places they visit.

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    II read it a long time ago but the memory remains. "The Great Hunger" by Cecil Woodham Smith. The story of the Irish Potato Famine. Also "The Sun King" by Nancy Mitford. About Louis XIV of France.

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    Registered User McGrain's Avatar
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    I'm reading The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund. People have gone a little crazy for this book. It is a history of WWI told from the persepctive of the people that lived it - an American who married into Polish aristocracy, a Hungarian cavalryman, a Scottish nurse and a German schoolgirl amongs around fifteen others, and draws upon their diaries and letters to tell these unique and insighful stories. Sounds like it is right up your alley.

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    Absolutely agree with Babyguile's assessment of Nothing to Envy. It was a very sobering read.

    I'm almost finished reading the entire set of Will Durant's Story of Civilization series. I recommend it to anyone who wants an entertaining overview of, well, civilization.

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    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Babyguile View Post
    Given what you have said, I recommend highly Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. It records the short histoy of North Korea from the annex of the Korean peninsula by the Soviet Union and USA at the end of WWII, through to the regime of Kim-Jong Il and the food shortages/meltdown that followed. It also looks at his death and its aftermath. She uses information gained from her extensive interviews of North Koreans who defected to China and South Korea. The book focuses on the struggle to live and survive under one of the most repressive regimes of the twentieth century, and follows the lives of two families right to their conclusions (the fates of the individuals are mixed: it's not entirely a cheerful book).
    My professor Once remarked on how difficult it is to get anything reliable out of north Korean refugees, As they arrive with coached answers most of the time. He noted that almost all we know of North Korea is guesswork from CIA sources.

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    Not your specified periods but you may find this interesting: The Face of War by John Keegan: it's about the ordinary footsloggers in three big battles, Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. The same author's The History of Warfare is also useful background if military history is your interest, as is Richard Holmes' Tommy and Redcoat.

    WWII - you could try Antony Beevor's Stalingrad and Berlin.

    (These are British authors, btw so you may not agree with the British point of view.)
    Last edited by kasie; 02-09-2013 at 12:47 PM.

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    Clinging to Douvres rocks Gilliatt Gurgle's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Insane4Twain View Post
    ...I'm almost finished reading the entire set of Will Durant's Story of Civilization series. I recommend it to anyone who wants an entertaining overview of, well, civilization.
    That is quite a feat ! I have the Durant series, but have not read the entirety of it.
    I do periodically refer to specifc parts on occasion and I agree; Durant's writing is entertaining.
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    Thank you for the suggestions.

    I've recently finished reading Dispatches (Herr), A Rumor of War (Caputo) and Stasiland (Funder).

    I think what makes them more accessible is the fact that they're written by journalists and they're at least partly autobiographical. The authors are more concerned with creating a compelling narrative that remains true to their experience of the events in question. This might not be as unbiased and detailed as a more traditional history book (dates, figures, timeline, etc.) but I think it makes for a more enjoyable read.

    Can anyone recommend any history books written by journalists or any autobiographies dealing with what would have been current affairs to the author at the time of writing? Perhaps the autobiography of a politician.

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    Voice of Chaos & Anarchy
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    You might want to read any of the travel and exploration books by Sir Richard Francis Burton.

    There is a great deal of fiction that tells the history with characters written in to make things interesting. When the first Flashman novel was published some historians believed that it was authentically from the notes of a Victorian military officer, because it was so well done. Fraser corrected them. That is just one of many fictionalized histories that are better than what is published as history.

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    You may enjoy Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. It's about the Rugby World Cup final of 1995 and how the newly released Nelson Mandela used the match to draw together the disparate elements in South Africa. As well as an account of the events leading up to the match, Carlin gives a succinct overview of the stages of the final months of Apartheid and the negotiations leading to freeing of Mandela and his return to the political scene. Carlin is a sports journalist and at times his written style reverts to Sports Report but if you can overlook these passages, you may find the eye-witness account of the event interesting. I am no sports fan but I found the background detail useful. (I believe the book was filmed under the title of Invicta.)

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    Why not read historical novels?

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    Tu le connais, lecteur... Kafka's Crow's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mal4mac View Post
    Why not read historical novels?
    This is the way I read my history. I read the mammoth Pillars of the Earth just for history although it has the unenviable status of the worst novel I have ever read. In the same category comes another big book, Sarum by Edward Rutherford. Absolutely rubbish novel but good historical details. Barbara Tuchman's books are good. One has to be extremely careful while believing in history books. There is a very fine line between history and propaganda. You expect the North Korean refugees or the CIA to paint a neutral picture of that country? Then there are historical facts which are buried but do come back to life after a few years. There were some facts about the vulnerability of Pearl Harbour, the British support of Hitler against Stalin or even the Falklands War which all got buried under official 'histories'. They will come back one day but not now. I don't read about the WWII. Ever heard of Wilhelm Gustloff? Obviously you have heard about the Titanic then why not about WG? All history is written by victors, specially recent history. Life is too short and there are too many great books out there that I'd rather spend my time on. I love reading about the Black Death, the al Andalusian empire, the Reconquista and the Renaissance but I have serious doubts about recent history. The Life of Samuel Johnson and Samuel Pepys's Diaries have more historical truth in them than any official history about the periods in which these books were written.
    "The farther he goes the more good it does me. I donít want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the sh1t the more I am grateful to him..."
    -- Harold Pinter on Samuel Beckett

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