The Best History Books of 2006

Back to the Lists. I think I've got two more in me.

List Three:

The Best History Books of 2006
And again, it's a little hard to nail down dates sometime, but I think all of these came out in either hardcover or paperback this year.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
I read this book all the way through in one sitting (an airplane ride actually). The author (I think it's just a pen name) travels through Burma (Myanmar) in search of locations associated with George Orwell's time there. Orwell was born in Burma and his first novel was set there (Burmese Days). She also makes interesting comparisons between the current government and the books 1984 and Animal Farm. It's a quick read but very moving.

Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins
This was the Pulitzer Prize winner in Non-Fiction this year. I always try to read the Pulitzers, as they tend to be so well written. It was a major bonus this year that it also happened to be about Africa. Although it's about the time period of the Mau-Mau insurgency in Kenya, it focuses much more on the lives of the people who weren't fighting. Basically, since all the men were fighting, the British rounded up all of the women and children and placed them in horrible camps where torture, rape and death were daily occurrences. Many of the same ideas (and people) were involved in similar projects with the British in Malaysia and the Americans in Vietnam. It's an excellent academic study, but also manages to be readable and emotional.

A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland by John Mac Faragher
In keeping with the Ethnic Cleansing theme, I spent a lot of time in French Canada this year and also did a lot of reading about Canada's French speaking peoples, the Quebecois, the Metis (the French-Indian living in the west), and the Acadians, who originally lived around the Bay of Fundy (today's New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) but were expelled by the governors of Massachusetts and Nova Scotia just before the American Revolution. This is the story of the expulsion. Like most Ethnic Cleansers, the perpetrators of this crime kept excellent records (in their minds to show the justice of their actions).

The Acadians: In Search of a Homeland by James Laxer
This book, which has only been published in Canada so far, tells the next part of the story. It shows how the Acadians scattered to become Louisiana's Cajuns as well as reconstituted in northern New Brunswick to become a political force there. It's a pretty fascinating look at how a people group can survive culturally without a homeland (kind of like the Latinos in Aztlan?) Hopefully an American publisher will pick it up.

The People's State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker by Mary Fulbrook
I have to admit that I haven't finished this one yet, but it's been really good so far, so I had to add it to the list. Fulbrook is a sociologist from the London School of Economics. While discussing the DDR with many of her students who had grown up there, she found that it didn't fit her ideas of what Communist dictatorship was supposed to be. She gives the idea that we need to look more closely at how power was actually used instead of just using terms like Democratic or Authoritarian. Basically, she thinks that the DDR was what she has termed Participatory Authoritarianism, which basically means that although there was an authoritarian power structure, people were still active in decision making, especially at the local level.

Pol Pot by Phillip Short
I also read a lot this year about Southeast Asia, but most of the books were pretty classic. This is the only one that was actually published recently. Short does a very good job of telling the story of the Khmer Rouge leader and also has a very interesting idea that some of the responsibility for the Khmer Rouge period belongs on the shoulders of the French education system and the way that they still unflinchingly teach that the blood and gore of the French Revolution (which, as a percentage of population was actually the bloodiest revolution in history, far more then the Russian, Chinese or even Cambodian) was necessary for the creation of modern France.

The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself by Philip Fradkin
I read this one for my Urban Disaster class last summer. When I recommend it to people at work, I always tell that that if you want to understand what happened in New Orleans, this book is the best place to start. It shows, in great detail, how disasters effect the poor unevenly and how minorities are often mistreated and left out of disaster recovery. It was quite shocking how little things have changed between 1906 and 2005. There will be more on Katrina in the next list.

The Final List: Architecture, Planning and Urban Studies


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