As usual, I have decided to compile a list of books that I have read over the past few months. With Christmas and Hanukkah right around the corner, now seems like an appropriate time to write up my book reviews. So, without further ado, here are the books I read this past semester.
How Wars End by Dan Reiter: I already wrote a more extensive review/synopsis of this book earlier in the year, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Nevertheless, I couldn’t fail to include Reiter’s work in this post because his scholarship is truly groundbreaking, and his book offers a novel and deeply useful approach for understanding war termination. Simply put, Reiter develops a new way of thinking about states’ propensity to surrender by building on work done by James Fearon on “credible commitments.” Reiter contends that, contrary to accepted wisdom on warfighting, countries do not determine whether to surrender solely from battlefield results. Instead, they also look at future projections of relative military power and assess the credibility of enemies’ commitments to peace. As long as continuing to fight is less dangerous to state survival than surrendering and potentially facing a newly empowered and unconstrained enemy, Reiter argues, states will choose to fight on.
Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy by David Stevenson: I’ll be honest. This is far from the best book I read this semester. The writing style is dry and, in my opinion, lacking. Moreover, I feel that there are just far too many typos for such a well-researched and informative work. That being said, I learned a massive amount of new information on WWI from reading this book, and I think that anyone seeking to acquire a better grasp of the conflict needs this book on their shelf. Stevenson does a superb job of capturing all of the salient parts of the war and presenting them in a coherent and effectively condensed form. From the domestic politics of the warring countries to the economic reforms designed to boost armament output to the enormous, hard-fought battles throughout the world, this book provides extensive information on every aspect of the war. As someone who has read a lot about the lead up to the war, I feel that this book is an excellent addition to my WWI collection because it has allowed me to better understand the war itself.
Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić: This book, unlike most of the books I read and review, is fiction. However, the entire plot focuses on historical developments in a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the book does an effective job of conveying the social and political evolutions that occurred in the region. Starting from the Ottoman occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1400s and ending with the outbreak of World War One, this book covers a long and fascinating period of time. As someone from the region, Andrić is able to effectively tell the story of the Bosnian people and show the enormous changes that occurred in the area. In many ways, the plot reminds me of the political and economic transformations happening now in the West: New technologies emerge and empires decline, but the people in the town largely stay the same, struggling to understand and adapt to the world around them. The book is great historical fiction, but it also provides a compelling social commentary on societies’ attempts to cope with a rapidly changing world.
Radetzky March by Joseph Roth: Another work of fiction, this book by Roth traces the story of the Trotta family. From simple peasants, they eventually rise up the political ladder of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and witness the onset of the First World War. What is particularly fascinating about the book is its focus on the ethnic tensions that existed beneath the surface of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Political elites like Barron Trotta view the Empire as a unified and cohesive unit that exists above the petty bickering of its constituent ethnic groups. The soldiers and citizens of the Empire hold a vastly different view, however, and they see the Empire as an unstable amalgamation of distinct groups that should not reside in the same state. This contrast is both historically accurate and also raises thought-provoking questions like would the Empire have been able to hold together if WWI hadn’t occurred? It also has parallels to modern American politics that focus increasingly on ethnic and race-based identity.
Give a Man a Fish by James Ferguson: In this truly amazing book, Ferguson offers an impressive and extensive survey of social welfare programs in southern Africa and presents a compelling case for increased economic assistance for disadvantaged groups. What I found particularly refreshing about Ferguson’s book is his ability to incorporate economic, sociological, and philosophical arguments into one coherent and well-written book. I also appreciated his highly reflective and non-ideological presentation of arguments. Ferguson is able to largely avoid the stale and tedious debate between the ideological extremes of complete neoliberalism and Marxism, and I think this makes his book far more relevant and far less polarizing than other works in the literature base. In an increasingly antagonistic world, Fergusson’s work offers hope that ideological rivalries can be healed and compromises created in order to generate real progress on issues of inequality and economic growth.