Curiosity’s Cats

Research is a big part of my writing work day. In fact, I read far more words than I write in my constant search for a topic, a story,* and/or a telling detail. I have special glasses for the hours I spend on the computer, and eye drops that I generally forget to use. (Excuse me, while I pause and lubricate.)

More importantly, I have library cards for five local library systems, am an active user of Interlibrary Loan, and frequently max out my borrowing privileges. Because contrary to popular opinion, you really can't find everything on the internet.** Sometimes you need to browse the shelves, skim an index, read a primary source or an authoritative history, succumb to the allure of the archives, or ask a reference librarian for help. Some of the most satisfying moments of my career have occurred in libraries.***

Bruce Joshua Miller, editor of Curiosity's Cats: Writers on Research, makes no secret of his discomfort with researchers' increasing dependence on digitized sources. The 13 essays he commissioned for the collection share a common mandate: tell a story about a research project that required techniques beyond computer searches. The resulting collection could have been an extended Luddite shudder against technology or a simple exercise in nostalgia. It is neither, though several of the essays include a variation on "I'm not a Luddite, but..." and the final essay (Marilyn Stasio's "Your Research--or Your Life!") uses nostalgia to pointed effect. Instead, each piece explores the complicated and often personal relationship between writers and their research.

The essays, written by novelists, historians, journalists and a filmmaker, vary widely in topic, tone and method. Some give detailed accounts of methodology, like historian of science Alberto Martínez who gives a step-by-step account of the convoluted and creative process tracking down a single elusive fact: the date that Albert Einstein had the intuitive flash that led to the theory of relativity. Others, like essayist Ned Stuckey-French, who describes research as a way of life for his entire family, are more impressionistic. Despite the book's focus on non-digital discoveries, several also celebrate new opportunities of on-line digging.

Whether funny or poignant, describing the insights that come from getting lost in a strange city or the development of a research path over the course of a career, the essays in Curiosity's Cats celebrate the joy of research on-line and off.

* Topic and story are not the same. This is the first lesson any writer must learn if she wants to survive.

**Though you can find more than you may realize if you know how to look. I take a lot of pride in my on-learn search skills.

***Not to mention some of the most embarrassing. If you meet me in person ask me about the "sexist man alive" incident at Chicago's Harold Washington Library. Let's just say librarians don't always whisper.

Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Why Sarajevo?

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo

I'm sure I don't need to tell you that today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo--the long-tailed and tangled fuse that began World War I. And I'm not going to go through the details of the assassination itself--though it would be a nail-biting thriller, complete with close calls and bad-decisions if we didn't all know how it ends. Instead I'd like to spend a little time on the backstory.

Balkanization--Not Just a Metaphor

In 1878, at the end of the Russo-Turkish War, the Great Powers effectively forced the Ottomans out of the Balkans, which had been part of the Ottoman empire for centuries. The treaty signed at the Congress of Berlin gave Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria their independence. For many Serbs, independence was not enough. They felt that had been cheated of territory that should have been theirs, most notably Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had been part of Serbia in the distant past.* Serbia managed to seize more territory from the Ottomans during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Bosnia-Herzegovina remained out of reach.

Still officially part of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia-Herzegovina was occupied and administered by the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Control of the Slavic province was a mixed blessing for Austria-Hungary. On the plus side, it kept Bosnia-Herzegovina's largely Slavic population out of the hands of both the increasingly powerful kingdom of Serbia and the empire's major political rival, Russia. On the other hand, the addition of more Slavic peoples to Austria-Hungary's multinational mix threatened to unbalance the empire's uneasy pattern of ethnic rivalries.

Under Emperor Franz Joseph's Dual Monarchy, created in 1867 in an ill-conceived attempt to win over Hungarian nationalists, Germans and Magyars in the twin kingdoms of Austria and Hungary ruled over larger populations of mostly Slavic peoples. Inspired by the creation of the new states of Germany and Italy, Austria-Hungary's Slavic populations, including Serbian nationalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, demanded political concessions that ranged from the freedom to use their own languages instead of German or Hungarian to succession from the empire. Many sought change by legal means. Others resorted to terrorism. Romanians nationalists resorted to bombs in response to Magyar attempts to suppress the Romanian language in Transylvania. Italian extremists blew up a railway tunnel in Trieste. And Serbian terrorists made six attempts to assassinate Austro-Hungarian officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1910 and 1914.

The Black Hand Makes A Fist

In 1911, Dragutin Dimitrijevic the Serbian army's head of intelligence, formed a secret society of extreme Serbian nationalist called Unity or Death, more commonly known as the Black Hand. Its goal was to re-unite the countries that had once been part of the medieval kingdom of Serbia. Terrorism was its preferred weapon. By 1914, the Black Hand had 2500 members, most of them junior officers in the Serbian Army. Only about thirty of its members lived and worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Early in 1914, Dimitrijevic decided to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Archduke wanted to reorganize the empire, replacing the Dual Monarchy with a federalist system that would give the empire's Southern Slav citizens, including those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, an equal voice with Germans and Magyars. Dimitrijevic feared political recognition of Slavs within Austria-Hungary would weaken their desire for succession and make it harder to gain support for a pan-Serbian state.

Historic Echoes on June 28
An opportunity for assassination presented itself that June. The Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia invited Franz Ferdinand to Sarajevo to observe the imperial army's annual maneuvers on June 28. The choice of date demonstrated how little the imperial bureaucracy understood or cared about Serbian nationalism. June 28 was an important date in Serbian history. Some would argue that it was THE important date: on June 28, 1389, a Turkish army defeated Serbian forces at the Battle of Kosovo, ending the medieval kingdom of Serbia and beginning five centuries of Ottoman rule.

From the perspective of the Black Hand, the Archduke's arrival in Sarajevo provided the perfect target at the perfect time.

*The idea that "It was ours once several hundred years ago, so it should be ours today" almost guarantees conflict between neighboring states.

Drowning In Books About World War I

trench warfare

It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least in the circles I hang out in) that major historical anniversaries are celebrated not only with documentaries, blog posts and re-enactments, but with the publication of Big Fat History Books. It makes perfect sense from the point of view of writer and publishing house: the centennial of World War I is a ready-made if slightly crowded PR hook for a new book about the war.

From the point of view of a historically inclined reader, blogger, and occasional reviewer, it can be a tad overwhelming. A solid phalanx of World War I books has taken over my TBR shelf, shoving their way ahead of all the other fascinating unread books piled up in my office.* Old favorites are demanding their fair share of attention. Then there are the novels. And the poetry. In short, I could spend the next year reading and writing about nothing but World War I until next June, when the Battle of Waterloo will demand its share of attention.*** But I won't. I'd get bored. And worse, so would you.

So I've decided on an interim step. Below are mini-reviews of three new WWI books that have caught my imagination. I've read enough of each of them to feel secure in recommending them to your attention--and enough to know I want to finish them.

Philip Jenkins. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.
Possibly the oddest the WWI books to appear in my mailbox so far, The Great and Holy War looks at the role religion played in shaping the course of the war--and the peace. Jenkins looks at how the powers involved-Christian and Muslim alike-used the rhetoric of crusade, holy war, apocalypse and Armageddon. He considers the Angel of Mons, the Christmas Truce, the legend that dead French soldiers rose to fight alongside their comrades, and the British push to conquer Jerusalem in the Palestine campaign. This is fascinating stuff.

Sean McMeekin. July 1914: Countdown to War.
This is a gripping account of more familiar ground: a day-by-day political history of the weeks between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I. I picked up July, 1914 with an initial feeling of "ho-hum", then was caught by the quality of the story-telling. It's a cliche to say that a work of history reads like a novel. In this case, it's true.

Geoffrey Wawro. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire.
I've been fascinated for a long time by the failed melting-pot of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A Mad Catastrophe is an in-depth examination of how the empire's decline at the end of the nineteenth century set the stage for Sarajevo and the impact of its weakness on the eastern front. If you're interested in the decline and fall of empires, this one's for you.

*Actually, they piled up in my old office. In my splendid new office they are arrayed neatly on shelves, alphabetized by the author's last name. This makes things easier to find if I know the title or name of the author. It's still a trick to locate a book when I know only that "memory" is in the title and the author's first name is Paul.**

**At this point a clever use of Google is the only solution.

***Save the date: June 18, 1815.