On to the next Farewell 2020 post – this time about historical non-fiction books I read this year! As per usual, there are three nominees, one of them to be crowned the winner. Let’s get straight at it!
This book is set in the 16th century Ottoman Empire – the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire. It and follows an administrator – an Ottoman Thomas Cromwell, if you want – through his life of service in the budding imperial bureaucracy which emancipates itself from the noble military commanders and religious scholars on which the empire rested before. The author highlights how this development of a civilian imperial bureaucracy is similar not only to what was going on in Europe, but also Persia and India at the same time. Another trans-continental trend is how both the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburgs used their wars against each other to claim leadership over Islam and Christianity respectively. It is thus a truly Eurasian history and a very insightful read.
If you have recently played the Ottomans in Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games) or Virgin Queen (Ed Beach, GMT Games), read this to gain a better understanding of their domestic development and the half of their foreign politics beyond the eastern edge board of these games!
We’ve just gone through one heckuva election in the United States. If you need a book to help you cope, this account of the ratification of the 19th Amendment on women’s suffrage might be it: On the one hand, it’s comfort reading – you know that eventually, the amendment will pass, and women in the US will get the right to vote nationwide. And yet, it’s a total page turner. I, for one, was nailed to my chair until I was done. Weiss manages to weave together all the strands, personal and structural, local and national, moderate and radical, suffragist and anti-suffragist, to flip back and forth between the pivotal events of July and August 2020 in Tennessee and the background stories (like the positioning of the contenders for the 1920 presidential elections of the matter or suffragism’s relationship to abolitionism) and yet maintain a clear narrative. All of that comes together in poignant prose and with lots of ironic wit.
I read this one researching for my post on women’s suffrage in the US and UK and learned a lot from it. If you are looking for a book to go with The Vote (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele) or the upcoming Votes for Women (Tory Brown, Fort Circle Games), look no further than this one!
It was really close, but in the end, I chose as the winner:
The author modestly (and maybe a bit defiantly, as he is a journalist) holds that this account of the republican side of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is not a historical book. I challenge him and say that it is: First, Radden Keefe has worked deeply on a variety of sources from archival documents to personal interviews. Then, he uses these sources to follow the life stories of several IRA members as well the family of IRA victim Jean McConville, and employs this biographical approach to highlight the structural factors at play in IRA terrorism, the shift to a political strategy, and finally the politics of memory after the Good Friday Agreement and the Belfast Project of interviewing former paramilitaries.
Radden Keefe grapples with the views of his protagonists. The book is sympathetic to the Northern Irish Catholics who have to live under discrimination and gives much space to the motivations of the IRA members, but also to the suffering endured by the victims of their terrorist acts. This ability to see several, often conflicting, sides to the same issue is especially fascinating in the third part on the politics of memory: Much of it is made up by accounts of former fellows of Gerry Adams who have become estranged with him. On a personal level, Adams is a villain in the book. (It might also have contributed to this portrayal that Adams, true to the book’s title, chose not to talk to Radden Keefe.) However, as much as one might understand the reasons why the former IRA fighters are cross with Adams, Radden Keefe makes it clear that politically, Adams’ strategy to forgo armed struggle for voting is the better one (both for Irish republicanism and all the people in Northern Ireland).
Besides the deep research and the nuanced assessments in the book, it also shines in its smooth prose. If you are looking for a companion book to the upcoming game The Troubles (Hugh O’Donnell), this might just be it. Or an excellent book in general. Read it.
What were your favorite historical non-fiction books of 2020? Let me know in the comments!