The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
By: John M. Barry
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
At the height of WWI, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease.
Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, The Great Influenza is ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon.
People told me this might not be the best time to read this book given what’s going on around the world with COVID-19 but I thought there was no better time than now to read this book. There’s a lot of similarities mentioned between the two pandemics and it was something I didn’t read as much when I was in school, having always focused on the wider geopolitics.
Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin
By: Catherine Merridale
Format/Source: Hardback; my copy
The Kremlin is the heart of the Russian state, a fortress whose blood-red walls have witnessed more than eight hundred years of political drama and extraordinary violence. It has been the seat of a priestly monarchy and a worldly church; it has served as a crossroads for diplomacy, trade, and espionage; it has survived earthquakes, devastating fires, and at least three revolutions. Its very name is a byword for enduring power. From Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin, generations of Russian leaders have sought to use the Kremlin to legitimize their vision of statehood.
Drawing on a dazzling array of sources from hitherto unseen archives and rare collections, renowned historian Catherine Merridale traces the full history of this enigmatic fortress. The Kremlin has inspired innumerable myths, but no invented tales could be more dramatic than the operatic successions and savage betrayals that took place within its vast compound of palaces and cathedrals. Today, its sumptuous golden crosses and huge electric red stars blaze side by side as the Kremlin fulfills its centuries-old role, linking the country’s recent history to its distant past and proclaiming the eternal continuity of the Russian state.
More than an absorbing history of Russia’s most famous landmark, Red Fortress uses the Kremlin as a unique lens, bringing into focus the evolution of Russia’s culture and the meaning of its politics.
As the blurb states, the Kremlin is such a notable structure in Russia and so representative of the state that it makes sense that a book would be written looking at the structure itself and its place in Russian history and development. This isn’t my first encounter with Catherine Merridale’s research; I previously read another book of hers when I was in grad school and knew her work to be quite solid and unique in approach.
Germany: Memories of a Nation
By: Neil MacGregor
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
Whilst Germany’s past is too often seen through the prism of the two World Wars, this series investigates a wider six hundred-year-old history of the nation through its objects. It examines the key moments that have defined Germany’s past its great, world-changing achievements and its devastating tragedies and it explores the profound influence that Germany’s history, culture, and inventiveness have had across Europe.
I believe I first came across this book as it was reviewed on The Economist. I think. Anyway this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the topic of examining German history from its artefacts and cultural products; I first came across this approach in grad school when we were discussing Germany in the post-Berlin Wall period. The perspective is interesting, and in a way more tangible in determining the changes and character associated with a people’s history and identity. So I was pretty excited to check out this book.
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
By: Nicholas Ostler
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word is the first history of the world’s great tongues, gloriously celebrating the wonder of words that binds communities together and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it. From the uncanny resilience of Chinese through twenty centuries of invasions to the engaging self-regard of Greek and to the struggles that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe, these epic achievements and more are brilliantly explored, as are the fascinating failures of once “universal” languages. A splendid, authoritative, and remarkable work, it demonstrates how the language history of the world eloquently reveals the real character of our planet’s diverse peoples and prepares us for a linguistic future full of surprises.
I think I first came across this book…on The Economist as a book review. This was years ago. I was intrigued by the book because while language isn’t my strong suit per se, language’s importance in history and culture and just the overall development and progression over the centuries greatly interested me (perhaps the former moreso as that was the focus of my grad work, and something I realised was very important when studying national identity politics and culture). Fast forward to last year and I finally got my hands on the book 😀
Leonardo and the Last Supper
By: Ross King
Format/Source: Hardback; my copy
Early in 1495, Leonardo da Vinci began work in Milan on what would become one of history’s most influential and beloved works of art-The Last Supper. After a dozen years at the court of Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Leonardo was at a low point personally and professionally: at forty-three, in an era when he had almost reached the average life expectancy, he had failed, despite a number of prestigious commissions, to complete anything that truly fulfilled his astonishing promise. His latest failure was a giant bronze horse to honor Sforza’s father: His 75 tons of bronze had been expropriated to be turned into cannons to help repel a French invasion of Italy. The commission to paint The Last Supper in the refectory of a Dominican convent was a small compensation, and his odds of completing it were not promising: Not only had he never worked on a painting of such a large size-15′ high x 30′ wide-but he had no experience in the extremely difficult medium of fresco.
In his compelling new book, Ross King explores how-amid war and the political and religious turmoil around him, and beset by his own insecurities and frustrations-Leonardo created the masterpiece that would forever define him. King unveils dozens of stories that are embedded in the painting. Examining who served as the models for the Apostles, he makes a unique claim: that Leonardo modeled two of them on himself. Reviewing Leonardo’s religious beliefs, King paints a much more complex picture than the received wisdom that he was a heretic. The food that Leonardo, a vegetarian, placed on the table reveals as much as do the numerous hand gestures of those at Christ’s banquet. As King explains, many of the myths that have grown up around The Last Supper are wrong, but its true story is ever more interesting. Bringing to life a fascinating period in European history, Ross King presents an original portrait of one of the world’s greatest geniuses through the lens of his most famous work.
I read Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome a few years ago (review) and greatly enjoyed it; it was an informative book that left me with a new appreciation of the dome in Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore. I had been meaning to read more of his books so here we are 🙂