In The Six-Point Inspection, Zócalo takes a quick look at new books that are changing the way we see our world.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen R. Platt
The nutshell: University of Massachusetts-Amherst historian Platt brings China’s 19th-century civil war to life through the stories of its key figures-both Chinese and Western. He ties the Taiping Rebellion into global historical currents, from the 1848 revolutions that rocked Europe to the U.S. Civil War.
Literary lovechild of: James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Dragon.
You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You’re a Civil War buff who speaks Mandarin.
Cocktail party fodder: Lord Elgin, Britain’s High Commissioner to China during the Taiping Civil War, led the British troops that looted and burned Beijing’s Old Summer Palace-just as his father, the Earl of Elgin, looted Greece’s Parthenon 60 years earlier.
For optimal benefit: Drop Taiping tidbits into your next conversation about colonialism.
Snap judgment: Platt’s narrative history is so deeply textured, bolstered by rich primary sources, that it reads like a novel.
The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century by R. Douglas Hurt
The nutshell: This social history of the 20th century in the Great Plains from Purdue University historian Hurt traces the region’s physical and political development, with a focus on race and class relations and the environment.
Literary lovechild of: Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl and James McPhee’s Coming into the Country.
You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: Your curiosity about that big patch of nothing between California and New York wasn’t sated by Little House on the Prairie.
Cocktail party fodder: Local black teachers didn’t support the NAACP’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka desegregation case. They feared they’d lose their jobs, because white parents wouldn’t want them teaching their children. Unfortunately, the teachers were right.
For optimal benefit: Give it to the friend who’s proudest of his or her Great Plains roots.
Snap judgment: Hurt challenges monochromatic views of a surprisingly complex and diverse region.
Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder
The nutshell: Before Lou Gehrig’s disease took the life of NYU historian Judt, he and Yale historian Timothy Snyder spent nearly a year in conversation. Part biography, part intellectual history, this account of their discussions moves from Judt’s lower-middle-class childhood in London to pre-World War II fascist intellectuals and Marxist critiques.
Literary lovechild of: Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and Richard Rorty’s Achieving our Country.
You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You’re a Timothy Garton Ash fanboy.
Cocktail party fodder: France has had six Jewish prime ministers; the U.S. still has not had a Jewish president or vice president. When Judt published this fact in The New York Review of Books, he was deluged with mail from readers assuring him of France’s continuing anti-Semitism.
For optimal benefit: Read at a library, or at least with Google Books handy, so you can check out the many literary references.
Snap judgment: Judt is clearly bombastic, but deft editing by Snyder gives the astonishing depth and breadth of Thinking the Twentieth Century a smooth flow.