Favourite history reads of 2019

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,953
Blachernai
2019 wasn't a great year for getting much reading done, but out of the 80-odd books that I finished cover to cover a few stand out. There's no ranking or anything, just a few favourites that I finished over the last twelve months and a few words why.

Galatariotou, Catia. The Making of a Saint: The Life, Times and Sanctification of Neophytos the Recluse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Definitely one of the best and most human books I've ever read on Byzantine history, and I've read a few. Neophytos was a thirteenth-century Cypriot holy man, and we possess a range of his writings. Galatariotou delves into Neophytos and shows us how his thinking about himself and his place in the world evolved as he came to see himself as a holy figure, and how the local community responded and interacted with him. Rarely does the source material allow for such a compelling portrait of an individual in Byzantium, and Galatariotou does a fascinating job in allowing us to get into his head. Byzantium did not have an official canonization process for saints like the Catholic Church did, and this book traces out the more localized and diffuse responses to sanctity in an fragmented empire.

Davey, James. In Nelson's Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
Davey's thesis is that the Napoleonic Wars did end at sea for Britain following their victory at Trafalgar, and that the navy was a lot more than Nelson. Rather, the navy had cultivated a skilled cohort of officers from a "middle class" background who had the requisite education to run a ship, which ultimately contributed to the British navy's effectiveness in this conflict. Davey manages to tell a good tale in a military history that is almost entirely devoid of major battle, showing how holding and running blockades and making small engagements in all corners of the world contributed in bringing down Napoleon's empire. To some extent, it's a logistical history without any actual number crunching. This is the nuts and bolts of empire and is a great approach to writing military history.

Hennessey, Peter, and James Jinks. The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945. New York: Penguin, 2015.
Why stop with one book on the British navy when there's a 700pp tome on submarines to read? I can't really explain what made this book so gripping. You would imagine that a dozen pages of description of how hydrogen peroxide propulsion systems functioned would be dull, but Jinks and Hennessey made it completely the opposite. The book covers both the people and the equipment of the submarine service, starting with an account of a Perisher course and bringing us back to the present. Procurement is a constant factor and how Britain managed to maintain a very expensive nuclear submarine programme from shortly after WWII brings politics into the picture. However, there is no shortage of gripping tales, especially in operations against Soviet submarines in the north. One wishes that a similar book existed for the Soviet submarine corps.

Tannous, Jack. The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society and Simple Believers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.
An enormous and detailed volume, Tannous raises the question about confessionalism in the late Roman and early Islamic Near East. Basically, we usually refer to various groups as Jacobites, or Nestorians, or Chalcedonians, etc., but all of these definitions rely on very fine points of theology that only a handful of highly literate elites had. Moreover, most of those points were made in Greek, but Syriac was the lingua franca. The reality on the ground is that there's a great deal of mixing despite the complaints of the religious elite and not a lot of concern about the specifics of theology despite the attention paid to it in scholarship. The next question arises when Islam comes on the scene. Some of this will not come as a surprise, but Tannous' answer for how the Near East gradually became majority Islamic is that most of day-to-day Islam was in no respects different from Syriac Christianity given that Islam grew out of Syriac Christianity. Late antiquity gets ever later.

What did everyone else enjoy reading this past year?
 
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Jul 2007
1,688
Australia
Mine was a mixed bag of reading (crime, espionage, historical fiction, non-fiction), but a couple of standouts for me include:

The True Story of the Great Escape: Stalag Luft III, March 1944 by Jonathan F. Vance
Jonathan Vance tells the incredible story that was made famous by the 1963 film, _The Great Escape._ The escape is a classic tale of prisoner and their wardens in a battle of wits and wills.The brilliantly conceived escape plan is overshadowed only by the colorful, daring (and sometimes very funny) crew who executed it - literally under the noses of German guards.

Odin's Game by Tim Hodkinson
AD 915. In the Orkney Isles, a young woman flees her home to save the life of her unborn child. Eighteen years later, a witch foretells that evil from her past is reaching out again to threaten her son.
- fiction


Final Witness: The Story of China’s First Crime Scene Investigator by Wang Hongjia, (trans James Trapp)
Thirteenth century China, and the Song Empire is crumbling due to endemic corruption and the incursion of barbarians from abroad. Ambitious men do what they must to get ahead, trampling the commoners who come in their path. Into the decaying ranks of the civil service, a young scholar called Song Ci is admitted. He soon gets the chance to prove his worth by developing an unmatched skill for interpreting crime scenes. In a series of complex murder cases that baffled his predecessors, Song is finally able to dispense justice to the relatives of those whose lives have been lost in the chaos.
- semi-fiction / non-fiction


Betrayal in Berlin: The True Story of the Cold War's Most Audacious Espionage Operation by Steve Vogel
The astonishing true story of the Berlin Tunnel, one of the West’s greatest espionage operations of the Cold War—and the dangerous Soviet mole who betrayed it.

The Caribbean Irish: How the Slave Myth Was Made by Miki Garcia
The Caribbean Irish explores the little known fact that the Irish were amongst the earliest settlers in the Caribbean. They became colonisers, planters and merchants living in the British West Indies between 1620 and 1800 but the majority of them arrived as indentured servants. This book explores their lives and poses the question, were they really slaves?
 
Nov 2014
1,687
Birmingham, UK
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Davey, James. In Nelson's Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
Davey's thesis is that the Napoleonic Wars did end at sea for Britain following their victory at Trafalgar, and that the navy was a lot more than Nelson. Rather, the navy had cultivated a skilled cohort of officers from a "middle class" background who had the requisite education to run a ship, which ultimately contributed to the British navy's effectiveness in this conflict. Davey manages to tell a good tale in a military history that is almost entirely devoid of major battle, showing how holding and running blockades and making small engagements in all corners of the world contributed in bringing down Napoleon's empire. To some extent, it's a logistical history without any actual number crunching. This is the nuts and bolts of empire and is a great approach to writing military history.
that's been my one overwhelming takeaway from my reading on the Trafalgar-era Navy, great point.
 
Feb 2019
1,137
Serbia
In Nelson's Wake is excellent and I would recommend it to everyone.

I very much enjoyed Campaigns of Napoleon by David G. Chandler, I read it with a good amount of prior knowledge so I probably didn't take as much as I could from it but I would still recommend it. A good, large work covering Napoleon's military campaigns from the beginning to the end of his career. Not necessarily in-depth but still has some moderate detail.

In my quest to find good books on Austerlitz I found Goetz's 1805 Austerlitz: Napoleon and the Destruction of the Third Coalition to be the most detailed I have read so far. Austerlitz 1805 by Christopher Duffy is another book I enjoyed, though it's far shorter and less detailed.
 
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Nov 2008
1,437
England
Mine was a mixed bag of reading (crime, espionage, historical fiction, non-fiction), but a couple of standouts for me include:
An interesting selection of books, Mel`, but no books on the Crusades which mildly surprises me. I know that the Crusades is most likely your favourite period of history.
 
Jul 2007
1,688
Australia
@Aelfwine - have finished Sharon Kay Penman's historical fiction tome (just shy of 700 pages) - The Land Beyond The Sea - set in the time of the Leper King, Baldwin IV.

I like her as a historical fiction novelist - and also read Helena Schrader's "Rebels Against Tyranny" - set in Crusader Cyprus at the time of Emperor Frederick II.

Not much new stuff out on the Crusaders - so went back to my crime and espionage roots this year!
 
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Sep 2019
3
Canada
And Quiet Flows the Don, Novel by Mikhail Sholokhov
This book is one of the masterpieces of world literature, A unique book that perfectly characterizes the characters of the story, The uprising depicts the people around Don from a political, social and historical point of view
And the novel, despite being long, is fascinating and full of great descriptions
I downloaded and read every 4 volumes ebooks of it from the Year 2019 of the Fidibo, which I consider being one of the best books I've read later this year.
 

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
23,557
SoCal
Tannous, Jack. The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society and Simple Believers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.
An enormous and detailed volume, Tannous raises the question about confessionalism in the late Roman and early Islamic Near East. Basically, we usually refer to various groups as Jacobites, or Nestorians, or Chalcedonians, etc., but all of these definitions rely on very fine points of theology that only a handful of highly literate elites had. Moreover, most of those points were made in Greek, but Syriac was the lingua franca. The reality on the ground is that there's a great deal of mixing despite the complaints of the religious elite and not a lot of concern about the specifics of theology despite the attention paid to it in scholarship. The next question arises when Islam comes on the scene. Some of this will not come as a surprise, but Tannous' answer for how the Near East gradually became majority Islamic is that most of day-to-day Islam was in no respects different from Syriac Christianity given that Islam grew out of Syriac Christianity. Late antiquity gets ever later.

What did everyone else enjoy reading this past year?
Out of curiosity--just how much did early Christian converts to Islam in the Middle East and North Africa actually know about Islamic teachings in regards to apostasy? After all, the idea of the death penalty being given to apostasy from Islam certainly sounds like an extremely huge turn-off for me to ever consider becoming a Muslim (I'm speaking about both in a historical sense and in the present sense, of course) even if I was actually religious (I'm not; rather, I'm an agnostic Jew) and actually interested in doing this.