a fist full of prosciutto

A guide to better living through cured pork products

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

NYTimes Interview With Myself

Historiann has posted a self interview inspired by the James McPherson Interview in the NYTimes Book Review. Historianns' interview can be found on her blog here: Historiann the New York Times Book Review Interview

See her scathing review of that interview here whered-ya-go-chip-hilton-our-historical-imagination-turns-its-lonely-eyes-to-you

I've accepted her challenge and decided to dust off the old blog. Here is the AFFOP NYTimes Book Review Interview in all its glory. 

--> What books are currently on your night stand?
Stanislaw Lem, Tales of Pirx the Pilot; Karl Marx, Capital vol 1, and David Harvey’s Guide to Reading Marx’s Capital. Marx is my breviary if you will. 

What was the last truly great book you read?
For my area specialization in history, Modern Central and Eastern Europe, its got to be Martin Mevius, Agents of Moscow: The Hungarian Communist Party and the Origins of Socialist Patriotism 1941-1953 (oxford 2005). The book really changed how I understood the wartime and late Stalinist communist parties of Eastern Europe. A revelation. Those bastards at Oxford only have it as a print on demand hardback for 117 quid.

Another book I stand in awe of is Derluguian, Georgi M. Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Totally mind blowing. It canvases everything from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wars in the Caucasus, to late Soviet politics on the regional level. The interpretive framework is unique. The sources and fieldwork are incredible. A unique book. 

Who are the best historians writing today?
In my specialization, Holly Case, Nancy Wingfield, Katherine Verdery, Tara Zahra, Larry Wolff, Keely Stauter-Halsted, Michael Palairet, John Lampe, and Mary Gluck among others. 

What’s the best book ever written about American history?

I have no clue about American history. My knowledge does not go beyond the anecdotal and trivial.

The best book in my field is really hard to say. I think Robin Okey has written the best survey history of the Habsburg Monarchy, but it isn’t exactly Friday night pleasure reading.

Okey, Robin. The Habsburg Monarchy: From Enlightenment to Eclipse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

Sorry–I didn’t realize.  Maybe I should ask if you have a favorite biography?

How about Litván, György. A Twentieth-Century Prophet: Oscár Jászi, 1875-1957. Budapest ; New York: Central European University Press, 2006? It’s a nice look at an intellectual whose career spanned three states and both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Plus I reviewed it for H-net. 

What are the best military histories?
Most Americans are woefully ignorant of World War Two as it was fought on the Eastern Front and in China. I can’t recommend any off the top of my head about the later, but for the former everyone should read: Bartov, Omer. The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. I hear that Timothy Snyder fellow wrote a good book about Eastern Front as well. 

During your many years of teaching, did you find that students responded differently over time to the history books you assigned?
Marx and the Communist Manifesto. When I started teaching we were in the throws of Post-Cold War Triumphalism. My students were very dismissive of Marx and I had to work hard to make a case for why he was still relevant for understanding contemporary European politics. After the 2007-2008 recession, I find students somewhat more receptive, but he is totally alien to their mode of thought. 

What kind of reader were you as a child?
A voracious one but almost exclusively non-fiction. My best remembered summer was in middle school when I would bicycle down to the public library every other day and check out as many books as I could fit in my book bag. I would read them, sometimes two or three a day, until I ran out. Then I would go back to the library and get some more. I read the requisite (for young males) American Heritage History series on the Civil War and everything on World War Two. My favorite book was about the history and technical development of Dutch windmills. I wish I could find that book today.
The only fiction I read outside of the required readings for high school was Alistair McLean novels, Sci Fi (especially Isaac Asimov), Tolkien, and the Encyclopedia Brown mystery series. 

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
One book is tough. I guess it would be Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. New York: Vintage books, 1981. Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is another influence. I am ashamed to admit it, but everything I wrote starting out as a graduate student was a pale and failed imitation of either Carl Schorske or Walter Benjamin. You are what you eat, or read, in this case. Fortunately, I learned not to be an imitator of Schorske. The Benjamin habit is proving harder to kick. It remains mostly in remission. 

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
???Mine, if I finish it???

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Since this is imaginary, its OK that they are all dead, right? Richard Kapuczinsky, Stanislaw Lem, and Doris Lessing. These writers have all made me weep when I didn’t want to. 

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I refuse to say that a book is not any good. That is such a gossipy question, asking someone to dish like that. But there is a book I haven’t been able to finish it since I started reading it this summer. Edwards, Elizabeth. The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885-1918. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. It’s a shame, because this book is in my wheelhouse in terms of time period and subject matter. I have not been able to get a handle on it.  I’d say that just because a book is hard to read or demands our undivided attention or stretches us in an unexpected way, that doesn’t mean that it is automatically bad. We might just be bad readers.  

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Lieberman, Alicia F. The Emotional Life of the Toddler. New York : Free Press, 1993.
My kid has just moved from toddlerhood to preschool and I have not been able to keep up with the relevant literature. In terms of the history books I should be reading, I suppose I’ll get around to those when I need to for a paper or for a class. 

What do you plan to read next?
I don’t know.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Review!

This is just a quick post, to a book review I did for H-net.

György Litván. A Twentieth-Century Prophet: Oscár Jászi, 1875-1957. New York: Central European University Press, 2006. 570 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-963-7326-42-4.

A small success. I will post more once I have my journal article done and in print.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This blog is on hiatus

In case you haven't noticed, there has been precious little activity on this blog in the past few months. I have drafted some entries, but then failed to post them for a variety of reasons. The main one being forgetfulness but the second is more philosophical: I am afraid this blog has veered from its intended beat. I have posted on history, politics and other topics of the moment, but I have relatively few on the themes I set out to explore, namely food, travel and the life of the bon vivant scholar.

So, I will require some time to put things back on track. I anticipate a pork related posting in a couple of weeks. I am getting ready to make homemade tacos al pastor this weekend. I hope to post the results shortly thereafter. Ideally with photos and a recipe.

At some point, I'd like to inaugurate a different blog, dedicated to politics and the practice of history, but my cyber publishing will be limited until I publish more history between the covers of a peer reviewed journal. That will not happen until this summer.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day... 2008

Its the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War One. The peace process would spin itself out into the summer of 1919, but November 11th became the day Europeans use to commemorate the end of the war. Americans used to celebrate Armistice day to, but in 1954 it became Veterans Day to honor all those who had served in the US military. In a sense, the American social memory of World War Two has eclipsed that of the Great War.

What is interesting is that the Europeans still choose to commemorate the First World War as a separate event. Arguably World War Two was a disaster of greater magnitude in terms of military and civilian casualties. Certainly, European social memory would be justified in reducing WWI to the status of a prologue or preview of WWII. But this is not the case. Instead, World War One has served to delineate the end of one era and the beginning of another. The 'long nineteenth century' begins in Paris in 1789 and ends on the Somme in 1914.

Due to World War One's status as a historical turning point, there are still scholarly debates about who started the war. It seems like the arguments boil down to the same propositions. One side suggests that a general European war was an accident sparked by nationalism in the Balkans facilitated by an interlocking system of alliances. In this explanation, a regional conflict between Serbia and Austria Hungary becomes exacerbated by a system of alliances that tied the diplomatic hands of the great powers. After 1918 some statesmen from both sides made this argument in their memoirs, perhaps because they were anxious to wash their hands of any responsibility for the preceding four years of indiscriminate slaughter. If you spread the guilt around nobody has to take too many lumps.

The other proposition is more straightforward and in a way its more emotionally satisfying in the Anglo-Saxon world: the Germans did it. This argument goes something like this: the Austrians would have never fought a preemptive war without the explicit backing of the German government. Kaiser Wilhelm II could have restrained Franz Joseph by refusing to declare war on Russia and her ally France. Instead the German government gave the Austrians a blank check. This version of history was written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Again, this explanation avoids examining the culpability of allied statesmen like Lloyd George and Clemenceau while dumping the problem in the lap of the fledgling Weimar Republic.

This question of World War One war guilt was even more important after WWII. It shaped the allied response to a defeated Nazi Germany and its allies. For example, the Moscow Declaration of 1943 declared that Austria was the first free country to fall to Nazi aggression and voided the Anschluss of 1938. This partially exonerated Austria of its participation in the war. The idea was to encourage the Austrians to throw off the Nazi yoke by promising them different treatment after the war. Similarly the allies planned on treating Italy differently after Mussolini had been overthrown in a coup. The assumption here was that the Germans were the main aggressors and that their partners in crime could be peeled off if given the right incentives.

The 4 D's (Denazification, Decartelization, Demilitarization and Democratization) of the German Occupation also reflected the Versailles interpretation of World War One. These policies placed an emphasis on curing the Germans of their autocratic and militaristic habits. The allies saw a continuity between Nazi and Wilhelmine war aims. Later, in the 1960s, a German historian named Fritz Fischer would develop this tacit assumption into a fully articulated historiographic argument in his book, Germany's Aims in the First World War. Fischer's book was revolutionary and provided an important jumping off point for a reinvigorated and more rigorous reappraisal of the Kaiserreich era (1870-1918).

There is a pretty good recapitulation of the "Germany Did It" argument to be found in a November 8th Guardian article by the British military historian, Gary Sheffield. Personally, there is a lot I like about the Sheffield article and his interpretation. But as a historian of the Habsburg Monarchy, I can't help but think blame should be allocated elsewhere. I have some sympathy for the 'accident thesis.' The system of alliances and the general atmosphere of competition between the great powers provided ample tinder for a general European conflagration, but it was the choice of Franz Joseph, the Austrian General Staff and the political leaders of the Dual Monarchy to wage a preemptive war on Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm did not push the Austrians into war, they went there of their own accord. But frankly, that's another post for another day...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


A few weeks ago, well back in October, I went over to my friend's Matt & Jeniffer's house to partake in bacon smoking and pancetta rolling. She has posted the results on her blog: Sew and Slow.

I got to take the bacon home that day, but the pancetta had to air cure for about four weeks, so the Sunday before the election, Jennifer stopped by and dropped off a hunk of the rolled porky goodness at the house. So far I have used it to make and omelet, pasta carbonara, and a BLT. The results were fantastic and rolling your own pancetta is pretty satisfying!