Sep 11, 2014

A History of Poland

Last night 17 of us held a fascinating discussion based on Adam Zamoyski's book, Poland: A History. As usual, we were hosted by Eli and Al, the proprietors of the Kensington Row Bookshop. A member was even tasked by his wife to bring snacks, enjoyed by all. We noted that this year is the 25th since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps a good moment to look at the history of a  country that was so much a pawn in that Cold War.

One of our members brought in materials printed from the Internet, describing author Zamoyski's family background; though born in the United States and educated in England, he is of an aristocratic Polish family whose members held many positions  in government over the centuries. Zamoyski's family escaped Poland in 1939 and was stranded in exile during the Communist era. He speaks Polish and his books include biographies of Chopin and Paterewski, several books on Polish history, and a guidebook to Poland. A map of Poland in the 16th and 17th century showed that the Zamoyski magnates held huge estates in several parts of the country.

This was an unusual meeting in that we had an expert present. She was from a Polish family, with a graduate degree in Polish history, specializing in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. She had spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Poland, and had extensive visits subsequent to that year -- all during the Communist period. Moreover she had been a legislative contact for a Polish-American organization at the time of the emergence of the Polish Third Republic in the 1990s. Thus much of the evening was based on questions formulated from our reading of the book and responses from our expert. Of course, several others in our group had ancestors who had come from Poland, and at least one other had visited Poland as a tourist.

It was pointed out in the discussion that Poland during much of its history was a very stratified society. The Zamoyskis, who took their title from a town that they owned, like other magnates were very wealthy, and sufficiently powerful to own hundreds of villages and have private armies. These were of the class that attended the universities and traveled abroad; they were the ones who brought the arts and architecture of the Renaissance back with them to Poland. On the other hand, the mass of peasantry were very poor, poorly educated and lived a very restricted life style. One of our members pointed out that we seldom hear from the peasants in history books. It was also suggested that it is sometimes hard for members of a family that has had leadership in a country for centuries to recognize how different is their families culture from that of the mass of their countrymen.

The Rise and Fall of the Polish Empire

A number of Slavic tribes inhabited the area south of the Baltic in the late middle ages. From these the Polish and Lithuanian people emerged as holding large amounts of land, and in 1386 the Duke of Lithuania married the widowed Queen of Poland, combining the two into a single domain. Poland became the largest country in Europe, and the ruling Jagiellon family came to rule not only Poland but Hungary and Bavaria as well.

Occasionally during the discussion we mentioned aspects of the ethnic diversity of the Polish empire. Thus, for many years, ethnic Ukrainians were mostly peasants serving on lands owned by Polish and Lithuanian aristocrats, paying rents to Jewish administrators. (The attitude of the recipients of the rents toward the Jewish intermediaries were described as probably different than those of the people paying them. Indeed, the attitude of the Polish aristocrats towards Polish Jews may have been much more positive than those of the Polish peasants.) We wondered about the relations between Lithuanians and Poles during the long period of their joint state.

For the time this was an unusually progressive country. There was a parliament, elected by the aristocracy, with thousands participating in the choices of the king. There was a tradition of open debate, which did not end until consensus was reached. As will be discussed below, this was a society less traumatized by religious conflict than many other European countries.

Yet by 1800, Poland had been partitioned among Prussia, Russia and Austria; the country of Poland no longer existed. We discussed how so great an empire could so rapidly fail and disappear. Our expert pointed out that this has been a topic of active debate for many years, especially between the historians of Krakow and those of Poznan. Clearly the answer is that the Germans, led by Prussia, the Russians, and the Austrians developed more powerful states and economies, and were able to impose their will on the Polish, formalizing the partition of Poland in a series of treaties in the late 18th century.

We thought that one of the reasons that this came about was that the magnates and the aristocracy of Poland would not grant power to the monarch, fearing that to do so would threaten their own positions. The result was a weak state, with a small standing army, and a small tax base. Thus the Kings of Poland could not force modernization as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great did in Russia.

It was also suggested that in the 18th century as western countries were beginning to industrialize, Poland's economy remained based on agriculture and mining. Poland did not develop the manufacturing industries nor the cities and large towns comparable to those in other countries.  In part, it was suggested, this was due to the culture of the magnates. They preferred ostentatious displays of wealth in the forms of jewels and palaces to investments in industry. As a result, Poland did not have the economic power to compete militarily with its rival powers.

Polish Nationalism in Search of a Polish State

There was a rise of nationalism in Europe in the 19th century, and the Polish having lost their state continued to militate for a Polish state. Many went into exile, and so many of the Polish military went into exile that they were formed into Polish or Foreign legions in the several European countries. They managed insurrections and ultimately succeeded in achieving a Polish Republic at the end of World War I. Unfortunately, the country was devastated during the war and by reparations and ran into a global depression, and its people had no experience in governance.

The Polish exiles of the 19th century had amazing life stories. One member read what he described as his favorite paragraph from the book:
Typical is Alexander Ilinski, a wealthy nobleman who fought in the 1830 insurrection and then went into exile. He took service in the Polish Legion organized by General Bem in the Portuguese army, then fought in the Spanish Civil War (developing a sideline as a successful bullfighter), and for the French in Algeria, winning the Legion d'Honneur in the process, followed by service in Afghanistan, India and China. In 1848 he was at General Bem's side in Hungary, whence he made his way to Turkey. He converted to Islam and fought in the Crimean War as General Iskinder Pasha. He later became Turkish governor of Baghdad before dying in Istanbul in 1861.
When the Germans and Soviets again partitioned Poland in 1939, Polish nationalism again took the stage. as exiled Polish troops fought with the Allies against the Germans, and as insurgents became active at home.

The Polish experience as a people fighting for a state resonates with current experience of people such as the Kurds or the Palestinians. Understanding Polish nationalism might help us better understand these others.

A Hard 20th Century and the Emergence of the 3rd Republic

The Polish  people suffered more than most as Germans and Russians fought over their land in World War I and in World War II. They were dominated by the USSR and badly governed by communists for decades. When the Cold War ended in 1989, the Polish economy like that of other Warsaw Pact nations was in a terrible state. Again the Polish people opted for democracy, and again were faced with managing a democratic government of which its people had not living experience.

Among the first efforts of the country were to join NATO and the European union. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted to NATO in 1999 and Poland was admitted to the European Union in 2004. In part, the Polish government must have approached NATO and the EU as part of its effort to obtain financial aid from the west. We danced around the issue, without explicitly saying that membership in NATO provided protection from military threats posed by the Russian Federation, and membership in the EU offered help not only in privatizing and liberalizing the Polish economy, but also in opening markets in the west that had been denied for the previous decades.

We noted that as the Russian incursion in Ukraine and the reported increase in Russian presence in Belarus are taking place, it is useful to think about Poland. Understanding Polish experience in the 20th century and the efforts of the Polish people to achieve a truly independent democratic government and a successful free market economy is similar to those of other countries freed after the break up of the Soviet Union. Understanding these experiences helps to understand the desire of these nations for a strong NATO to guarantee their continued self government.


The King of Poland accepted Christianity in 966. While that may have been a political act, without much immediate impact on the actual beliefs and practices of the royals and aristocrats, it determined the religion of the common people.

Christianity was brought to Poland by the Latin Right church of Rome. It was brought slightly earlier to the Kievan Rus by the Greek Right church in Constantinople. The Russians accepted the Cyrillic alphabet with the religion, as the Poles accepted the Latin alphabet -- a difference that has had serious repercussions to this day (we noted how it played out between modern Serbs and Croats). The schism between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches in the 11th century led divided religious loyalties between the adherents of the two religions in Poland, especially during the time when the country was at its largest size.

During the Reformation, Poland saw significant introduction of Protestant thought and beliefs, especially in its ethnic German population. It also remained largely Catholic and Orthodox. There was not the militarized religious conflict that marked much of Western Europe. In part this was the result of the religious tolerance of the kings. (One king was cited as stating that he ruled the land of his people, but not their consciences.)

During the counter reformation, however, Jesuits were very active in Poland and succeeded in their efforts to restore the importance of Roman Catholicism and reduce that of the various protestant religions.

The Communists sought to repress the Catholic religion. One member pointed out that author Zamoyski failed to represent the intensity of the effort, since in fact priests were executed by the Communist regime. Catholic mothers resisted Communist efforts to reduce the exposure of their children to the Catholic faith, and even to resist military service for their sons if the army did not provide Catholic chaplains.

Poland is a largely Catholic country now. Pope John Paul II, who was Polish, saw millions attend his public masses when he visited Poland.

We also discussed the history of Jews in Poland. When the Jews were expelled from Spain, many immigrated to Poland and Russia. In Poland the immigrant population eventually were granted limited self-rule under their own laws. Jewish culture thrived, especially in Lithuania. Indeed, over time many Jews from the communities in Russia also immigrated to Poland. By the beginning of the 20th century, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, amounting to millions of people.

The Polish Jews were a major target of the Nazi Holocaust, and the vast majority were killed. Synagogues were destroyed in much of the country. After the war there has been some return of Polish Jews to Poland, and the Chief Rabbi of Poland is an American. There apparently is some interest expressed now by the Christians of Poland about the history of Jews in that country.

Polish Immigrants in America

There has been an immigration of ethnic Polish into America for many years. Someone mentioned Kosciuszko, a hero of the American Revolution. However, even in our lifetimes there was significant prejudice against Polish-Americans; "Pollak" was an ethnic slur, and there were Polish jokes (often anthologized in books by Polish Americans). We concluded that the Polish who came as immigrants to the United States in the past were often poor, working in menial jobs; they were the subject of discrimination much as the Germans or Irish were before them. We also noted that that discrimination has largely disappeared. Some 10 million Americans share Polish ancestry, and while there are still "Polish neighborhoods" in some cities, the Polish Americans are generally well integrated and respected in American society.

Polish Americans have been important in raising American support for the Republic of Poland. For example, they helped educate members of Congress about the long history of Polish support for democratic institutions, and encouraged American support for Poland's entry into NATO. Since the United States is not a member of the European Union, this country was not active in the EU decision to admit Poland.

Final Words

The members liked this book, finding it easy to read and able to keep our attention in spite of the amount of material covered. It seems to fill the need for a single volume history for the intelligent lay reader. The club has read Adam Zamoyski before, and continue to find him a satisfying author.

Here is a review one member posted on his blog.

One of our members wore a black sweatshirt in honor of the occasion.
Slightly different than this, it also had the Polish eagle emblem.

Sep 10, 2014

Possible Books for December 2014

Here are a couple of books that we discussed reading in the August meeting, and members asked that we retain to consider again.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre (4.7 stars, 384 pages, 2014) This book is available in Kindle, Hardback ($17.08) and large print paperback ($20.15). Here is the review of the book in the New York Times.
Kim Philby was the greatest spy in history, a brilliant and charming man who rose to head Britain’s counterintelligence against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War—while he was secretly working for the enemy. And nobody thought he knew Philby like Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s best friend and fellow officer in MI6. The two men had gone to the same schools, belonged to the same exclusive clubs, grown close through the crucible of wartime intelligence work and long nights of drink and revelry. It was madness for one to think the other might be a communist spy, bent on subverting Western values and the power of the free world.

But Philby was secretly betraying his friend. Every word Elliott breathed to Philby was transmitted back to Moscow—and not just Elliott’s words, for in America, Philby had made another powerful friend: James Jesus Angleton, the crafty, paranoid head of CIA counterintelligence. Angleton's and Elliott’s unwitting disclosures helped Philby sink almost every important Anglo-American spy operation for twenty years, leading countless operatives to their doom. Even as the web of suspicion closed around him, and Philby was driven to greater lies to protect his cover, his two friends never abandoned him—until it was too late. The stunning truth of his betrayal would have devastating consequences on the two men who thought they knew him best, and on the intelligence services he left crippled in his wake.
From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 by Pauline Maier (4 stars, 368 pages, 1992, $12.63) Here is the Kirkus review of the book. Here is a streaming video of an in depth interview with Pauline Maier.
"An intellectual interpretation of the American revolution that raises it to a new height of comprehensiveness and significance. A superbly detailed account of the ideological escalation . . . that brought Americans to revolution." —Gordon S. Wood, New York Times Book Review
In this classic account of the American revolution, Pauline Maier traces the step-by-step process through which the extra-legal institutions of the colonial resistance movement assumed authority from the British. She follows the American Whigs as they moved by stages from the organized resistance of the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 through the non-importation associations of the late 1760s to the collapse of royal government after 1773, the implication of the king in a conspiracy against American liberties, and the consequent Declaration of Independence. Professor Maier's great achievement is to explain how Americans came to contemplate and establish their independence, guided by principle, reason, and experience.
Cathy suggested that this book might bring an entire era in U.S. history together for us:

Presidents' War: Six American Presidents And The Civil War That Divided Them by Chris DeRose (4.6 stars, 392 pages, 2014) Not yet available in paperback but hardback $19.21. Here is the Kirkus Review of the book. Here is the Book TV program featuring the author speaking about the book.
The story of the Civil War's record number of living former and current presidents, and how the ex-Presidents’ Club--for and against Abraham Lincoln (but mostly against)--maneuvered, seceded, plotted, advised, and aided during the Civil War while Lincoln navigated the minefield they created. 
“When Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, five former presidents were still alive—a fact unique in American history. In this discerning book, Chris DeRose shows that all of them had opposed Lincoln’s election, none supported his determination to resupply Fort Sumter, John Tyler became a Confederate and Franklin Pierce a Copperhead, Martin Van Buren’s and James Buchanan’s support for the Union war effort was lukewarm, and the three men still alive in 1864 (including Millard Fillmore) opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s re-election. In effect, Lincoln presided over the preservation of the Union and abolition of slavery without the support of his predecessors in the presidency.”
          —James M. McPherson
We have not read a book on American Indians in some time, and this seems to be an interesting one.

West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 by Claudio Saunt (4.1 stars, 288 pages, 2014) The book is not yet available in paperback; hardback $17.04. Here is a review from the Los Angeles Times. Here is a streaming video of Claudio Saunt's talk about this book on Book TV.
This panoramic account of 1776 chronicles the other revolutions unfolding that year across North America, far beyond the British colonies. In this distinctive history, Claudio Saunt tells an intriguing, largely untold story of an immense and restless continent connected in surprising ways. 
In that pivotal year, the Spanish established the first European colony in San Francisco and set off a cataclysm for the region’s native residents. The Russians pushed into Alaska in search of valuable sea otters, devastating local Aleut communities. And the British extended their fur trade from Hudson Bay deep into the continent, sparking an environmental revolution that transformed America’s boreal forests. 
While imperial officials in distant Europe maneuvered to control lands they knew almost nothing about, America's indigenous peoples sought their own advantage. Creek Indians navigated the Caribbean to explore trade with Cuba. The Osages expanded their dominion west of the Mississippi River, overwhelming the small Spanish outposts in the area. And the Sioux advanced across the Dakotas. One traditional Sioux history states that they first seized the Black Hills, the territory they now consider their sacred homeland, in 1776. "Two nations were born that year," Saunt writes. The native one would win its final military victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn one hundred years later. 
From the Aleutian Islands to the Gulf Coast and across the oceans to Europe’s imperial capitals, Saunt’s masterfully researched narrative reveals an interconnected web of history that spans not just the forgotten parts of North America but the entire globe.
The book we read on the War of 1812 focused on the northern theater of operation. It has been suggested that we might also read a book on the campaign in the Chesapeake and/or the burning of Washington -- which relate to our local history.

The Dawn's Early Light by Walter Lord (4.8 stars, 400 pages, 1994) Apparently no longer in print but many copies available online. Here is a review from H-Net.
Walter Lord—author of such best-sellers as A Night to Remember and A Day of Infamy—brings to life the remarkable events of what we now call The War of 1812—including the burning of Washington and the attack on Baltimore's Fort McHenry that inspired the Francis Scott Key to write what would become our national anthem. Lord gives readers a dramatic account of how a new sense of national identity emerged from the smoky haze of what Francis Scott Key so lyrically called "the dawn's early light."
 When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington by Peter Snow (4 stars, 320 pages, 2014) Paperback apparently not stocked by Amazon, but available online. Hardback $16.43. Here is a review in the Washington Post. Here is a streaming video of a panel discussion on the Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of Washington in which Peter Snow participated.
In August 1814, the United States army was defeated just outside Washington, D.C., by the world’s greatest military power. President James Madison and his wife had just enough time to flee the White House before the British invaders entered. British troops stopped to feast on the meal still sitting on the Madisons’ dining-room table before setting the White House on fire. The extent of the destruction was massive; finished in wood rather than marble, everything inside the mansion was combustible. Only the outer stone walls would withstand the fire. 
The tide of the War of 1812 would quickly turn, however. Less than a month later, American troops would stand victorious at the Battle of Fort McHenry. Poet Francis Scott Key, struck by the sight of the American flag waving over Fort McHenry, jotted down the beginnings of a poem that would be set to music and become the U.S. national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” 
In his compelling narrative style, Peter Snow recounts the fast-changing fortunes of that summer’s extraordinary confrontations. Drawing from a wealth of material, including eyewitness accounts, Snow describes the colorful personalities on both sides of those spectacular events: including the beleaguered President James Madison and First Lady Dolley, American heroes such as Joshua Barney and Sam Smith, and flawed military leaders like Army Chief William Winder and War Secretary John Armstrong. On the British side, Snow re-creates the fiery Admiral George Cockburn, the cautious but immensely popular Major General Robert Ross, and sharp-eyed diarists James Scott and George Gleig.
 The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 by Anthony S. Pitch (4.2 stars, 336 pages, 2000, $17.80) Here is a review from History.Net. Here is a streaming video of author Pitch discussing the book on American History TV.
With all the immediacy of an eyewitness account, Anthony Pitch tells the dramatic story of the British invasion of Washington in the summer of 1814, an episode many call a defining moment in the coming-of-age of the United States. The British torched the Capitol, the White House, and many other public buildings, setting off an inferno that illuminated the countryside for miles and sending President James Madison scurrying out of town while his wife Dolley rescued a life-sized portrait of George Washington from the flames. The author's gripping narrative--hailed by a White House curator, a Senate historian, and the chairman of the National Geographic Society, among others--is filled with vivid details of the attack. Not confining his story to Washington, Pitch also describes the brave, resourceful defense of nearby Fort McHenry and tells how Francis Scott Key, a British hostage on a ship near the Baltimore harbor during the fort's bombardment, wrote a poem that became the national anthem.
Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay by Christopher T. George (4+ stars, 2001, 256 pages) The book appears to be out of print, but is available online. Here is an article on author George and the book.  Here is a streaming video of a panel discussion on the Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of Washington in which Christopher George participated.
For nearly two years during the War of 1812, the British treated the Chesapeake Bay as their private lake. But in 1814, as attention moved from the northern frontier to the Mid-Atlantic region, the Americans fought back and drove the invaders from the bay. Christopher T. George traces the abuses of the inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay by Royal Navy raiding parties under arrogant Rear Admiral George Cockburn. Cockburn’s burning and pillaging of bay communities proceeded the burning of our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., on August 24-25, 1814, by Major General Robert Ross. Cockburn persuaded Ross that the Americans could not stand up to Lord Wellington’s Peninsular War veterans. But he miscalculated when it came to attacking Baltimore, where citizen soldiers, strongly led by Revolutionary War veterans General Samuel Smith and John Stricker, and backed by U.S. Navy regulars, held the British at bay, killing Ross and reclaiming American pride.
Here are a couple of books on foreign policy and Richard Nixon. The first of the two was also suggested several months ago, but still seems interesting.

The Blood Telegram by Gary J. Bass (4.5 stars, 2014, 346 pages of text, $14.13) Here is a review in Foreign Affairs. Here is a streaming audio of an interview with Gary Bass on the book together with the review from The Economist.
This magnificent history provides the first full account of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s secret support for Pakistan in 1971 as it committed shocking atrocities in Bangladesh—which led to war between India and Pakistan, shaped the fate of Asia, and left major strategic consequences for the world today. 
Drawing on previously unheard White House tapes, recently declassified documents, and his own extensive investigative reporting, Gary Bass uncovers an astonishing unknown story of superpower brinkmanship, war, scandal, and conscience. Revelatory, authoritative, and compulsively readable, The Blood Telegram is a thrilling chronicle of a pivotal chapter in American foreign policy. 
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction; Winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize for Best Foreign Affairs Book; One of the Best Books of the Year at * The Economist * Financial Times * The New Republic * The Washington Post * Kirkus Reviews * A New York Times Notable Book
Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate by Ken Hughes (4.7 stars, 240 pages, 2014) This book is not yet available in paperback, hardcover $19.23. Here is the Washington Post review of the book. Here is a streaming audio of Ken Hughes talking about the last release of Nixon tapes.
The break-in at Watergate and the cover-up that followed brought about the resignation of Richard Nixon, creating a political shockwave that reverberates to this day. But as Ken Hughes reveals in his powerful new book, in all the thousands of hours of declassified White House tapes, the president orders a single break-in--and it is not at the Watergate complex. Hughes’s examination of this earlier break-in, plans for which the White House ultimately scrapped, provides a shocking new perspective on a long history of illegal activity that prolonged the Vietnam War and was only partly exposed by the Watergate scandal. 
As a key player in the University of Virginia’s Miller Center Presidential Recordings Program, Hughes has spent more than a decade developing and mining the largest extant collection of transcribed tapes from the Johnson and Nixon White Houses. Hughes’s unparalleled investigation has allowed him to unearth a pattern of actions by Nixon going back long before 1972, to the final months of the Johnson administration. Hughes identified a clear narrative line that begins during the 1968 campaign, when Nixon, concerned about the impact on his presidential bid of the Paris peace talks with the Vietnamese, secretly undermined the negotiations through a Republican fundraiser named Anna Chennault. Three years after the election, in an atmosphere of paranoia brought on by the explosive appearance of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon feared that his treasonous--and politically damaging--manipulation of the Vietnam talks would be exposed. Hughes shows how this fear led to the creation of the Secret Investigations Unit, the "White House Plumbers," and Nixon’s initiation of illegal covert operations guided by the Oval Office. Hughes’s unrivaled command of the White House tapes has allowed him to build an argument about Nixon that goes far beyond what we think we know about Watergate. 
Chasing Shadows is also available as a special e-book that links to the massive collection of White House tapes published by the Miller Center through Rotunda, the electronic imprint of the University of Virginia Press. This unique edition allows the reader to move seamlessly from the book to the recordings’ expertly rendered transcripts and to listen to audio files of the remarkable--and occasionally shocking--conversations on which this dark chapter in American history would ultimately turn.
There was interest expressed some time ago in reading a book about railroad history. Here are a couple of possibilities.

The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America by Christian Wolmar (4.5 stars, 360 pages of text, 2013, $12.66) Here is the Wall Street Journal review of the book. Here is an streaming audio of an interview with Christian Wolmer on the book.
America was made by the railroads. The opening of the Baltimore & Ohio line––the first American railroad––in the 1830s sparked a national revolution in the way that people lived thanks to the speed and convenience of train travel. Promoted by visionaries and built through heroic effort, the American railroad network was bigger in every sense than Europe’s, and facilitated everything from long-distance travel to commuting and transporting goods to waging war. It united far-flung parts of the country, boosted economic development, and was the catalyst for America’s rise to world-power status. 
Every American town, great or small, aspired to be connected to a railroad and by the turn of the century, almost every American lived within easy access of a station. By the early 1900s, the United States was covered in a latticework of more than 200,000 miles of railroad track and a series of magisterial termini, all built and controlled by the biggest corporations in the land. The railroads dominated the American landscape for more than a hundred years but by the middle of the twentieth century, the automobile, the truck, and the airplane had eclipsed the railroads and the nation started to forget them. 
In The Great Railroad Revolution, renowned railroad expert Christian Wolmar tells the extraordinary story of the rise and the fall of the greatest of all American endeavors, and argues that the time has come for America to reclaim and celebrate its often-overlooked rail heritage.
To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World’s Greatest Railroad by Christian Wolmar (4 stars, 320 pages, 2014) Not yet available in paperback, hardback $20.96. Here is a review of the book from Foreign Affairs. Here is a streaming video of an English language interview of the author on the book from Russia Today.
To the Edge of the World is an adventure in travel—full of extraordinary personalities, more than a century of explosive political, economic, and cultural events, and almost inconceivable feats of engineering. Christian Wolmar passionately recounts the improbable origins of the Trans-Siberian railroad, the vital artery for Russian expansion that spans almost 6,000 miles and seven time zones from Moscow to Vladivostok. The world’s longest train route took a decade to build—in the face of punishing climates, rampant disease, scarcity of funds and materials, and widespread corruption. 
The line sprawls over a treacherous landmass that was previously populated only by disparate tribes and convicts serving out their terms in labor camps—where men were regularly starved, tortured, or mutilated for minor offenses. Once built, it led to the establishment of new cities and transformed the region’s history. Exceeding all expectations, it became, according to Wolmar, “the best thing that ever happened to Siberia.” 
It was not all good news, however. The railroad was the cause of the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War, and played a vital—and at times bloody—role in the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War. More positively, the Russians were able to resist the Nazi invasion during the Second World War as new routes enabled whole industries to be sent east. Siberia, previously a lost and distant region, became an inextricable part of Russia’s cultural identity. And what began as one meandering, single-track line is now, arguably, the world’s most important railroad. 
This is very different than what we have been reading, but was recommended to me and looks interesting:

The Sultan's Shadow: One Family's Rule at the Crossroads of East and West by Christiane Bird (4.2 stars, 400 pages, 2010) Going out of print. Some copies still available from Amazon and new and used  books available online from other sellers. Here is a review of the book from The New York Times. Here is a streaming video of a talk by Christiane Bird on another of her books, A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts.
A story virtually unknown in the West, about two of the Middle East’s most remarkable figures—Oman’s Sultan Said and his rebellious daughter Princess Salme—comes to life in this narrative. From their capital on the sultry African island of Zanzibar, Sultan Said and his descendants were shadowed and all but shattered by the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century East African slave trade. 
“As shrewd, liberal, and enlightened a prince as Arabia has ever produced.” That’s how explorer Richard Burton described Seyyid Said Al bin Sultan Busaid, who came to power in Oman in 1804 when he was fifteen years old. During his half-century reign, Said ruled with uncanny contradiction: as a believer in a tolerant Islam who gained power through bloodshed and perfidy, and as an open-minded, intellectually curious man who established relations with the West while building a vast commercial empire on the backs of tens of thousands of slaves. His daughter Salme, born to a concubine in a Zanzibar harem, scandalized her family and people by eloping to Europe with a German businessman in 1866, converting to Christianity, and writing the first-known autobiography of an Arab woman. 
Christiane Bird paints a stunning portrait of violent family feuds, international intrigues, and charismatic characters—from Sultan Said and Princess Salme to the wildly wealthy slave trader Tippu Tip and the indefatigable British antislavery crusader Dr. David Livingstone. The Sultan’s Shadow is a brilliantly researched and irresistibly readable foray into the stark brutality and decadent beauty of a vanished world.
Do you think of the allies in World War II as the USA, the British Commonwealth and Russia? If so, this book might remind you how much of the burden the Chinese took in the war against Japan.

Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter (4.3 stars, 379 pages of text, 2013, $12.92) Here is the New York Times review of the book. There is a streaming video of an interview with Rana Mitter on the book as part of this review from The Economist.
An Economist Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year. “A book that has long cried out to be written.” — Observer (UK), Books of the Year 
In 1937, two years before Hitler invaded Poland, Chinese troops clashed with Japanese occupiers in the first battle of World War II. Joining with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, China became the fourth great ally in a devastating struggle for its very survival. 
Prizewinning historian Rana Mitter unfurls China’s drama of invasion, resistance, slaughter, and political intrigue as never before. Based on groundbreaking research, this gripping narrative focuses on a handful of unforgettable characters, including Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and Chiang’s American chief of staff, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. Mitter also recounts the sacrifice and resilience of everyday Chinese people through the horrors of bombings, famines, and the infamous Rape of Nanking. 
More than any other twentieth-century event, World War II was crucial in shaping China’s worldview, making Forgotten Ally both a definitive work of history and an indispensable guide to today’s China and its relationship with the West.