Thursday, July 7, 2011

Summer Book List For Historically-Inclined

I spent basically the entire month of June recovering from spring term by vegging out in front of Netflix, eating kale chips, and reading Maeve Binchy novels. The entire month of June. I'm not even kidding. Thankfully for my brain cells, I'm fully recovered now, so it's time to start reading something mildly serious again to get my mind back in shape by September. Unfortunately, the things I really want to read (Two Essay: Chief and Greed, by Edmund Carpenter, who recently passed away; Who Owns Objects?: The Ethics and Politics of Collecting Cultural Artefacts, by Eleanor Robinson; and many books by Colin Renfrew) aren't carried by Central Massachusetts public libraries, but I have managed to find some things that have been on my book list for forever. (Forever being a year or two ago.)

Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum, by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

Felch and Frammolino were the two reporters who led a Los Angeles Times investigation that revealed the Getty Museum's illicit purchases of looted
Greek and Roman antiquities. This book chronicles the indictment of Marion True and the controversy surrounding the return of various pieces to Italy, including a statue of Aphrodite bought by True in order to put the Getty on the map. I have read about this controversy and Marion True in many articles, but am really looking forward to just getting it all straight in one sitting with one source.

Thieves of Baghdad, by Matthew Bogdanos with William Patrick

Matthew Bogdanos is a lawyer, student of ancient civilizations, and Marine Corps Reserve colonel who gave himself the mission of finding antiquities that had been stolen from the Iraq National Museum after the American invasion. Aka my hero. This book covers his mission and investigation into the illicit antiquities trade in Iraq.

Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust, edited by James Cuno

Earlier this spring, I read Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities, also edited by Cuno, and was about halfway through his introduction when I realized that this was the first book I'd ever read about the illicit antiquities trade that I really didn't agree with most of the time. Realizing this rendered me ecstatic. I will be using Whose Culture? quite heavily in researching my senior work, and so decided Whose Muse? looked like a great summer read to supplement my understanding of contrary opinions.

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell (I already read it, but I think you should too.)

Vowell's latest book chronicles the colonization of Hawaii by American missionaries in the 19th century, ending with the year of Hawaii's annexation in 1898.

I was lucky enough to be given a copy of this book by my friend Eric while we were still at school (thank you, Eric!), but only got through the first forty pages at the time because a) finals, man, and b) my first opinion of the book was heavily impacted by the review in the New York Times, which wasn't glowing. The reviewer, a Hawaiian, painted the book as slightly obnoxious, if entertaining, and lacking in scholarly merit. It may have been that finals had me feeling overly sensitive about everything, but the first time I tried to read it, I was a little uncomfortable about the way Vowell treats Hawaiian culture the same way she treats American culture in her earlier books; slightly mocking, full of that social criticism flavor, rife with comparisons to the cheaper aspects of pop culture, sometimes admiring. My gut reaction was that you're only supposed to do that to your own culture. Kind of like how you're the only one who's allowed to beat up your little brother. But yesterday I read a review of Unfamiliar Fishes by Alex Golub on Savage Minds; Golub, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii, compared two books on haoles, or white people in Hawaii, and declared Vowell's the winner. Unlike the NYT reviewer, he attests to the validity of her research, the depth of information, and the breadth of voices she brings in to flesh out her story.

So I decided to give it another go, and finished it today. I have to preface anything I say by telling you that I am one of Vowell's biggest fans. Her book Assassination Vacation changed my life by finally getting me interested in American history and giving me the validation I had craved as an adolescent for often liking really old things a little too much. Like, so much so that I was always singled out for it, just like Vowell. Unfamiliar Fishes didn't disappoint me, and I hope it won't disappoint you either. Though it lacks the utterly perfect combination of wit and fact contained in Assassination, it is not as dry and pedantic as The Wordy Shipmates. It strikes me as the most mature and even-tempered piece by Vowell as she continues her particularly unique brand of social criticism, history, and cool kid word smithing. Though it is incredibly entertaining, it does not treat the fall of Hawaii lightly. There is genuine admiration in Vowell's voice for the Hawaiian nation, and genuine sympathy as she discusses the factors that led to its annexation. Additionally, though there is quite a lot of information, it's a relatively quick and easy read. Perfect for a beach. I highly recommend it for your summer reading.

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