My Society's Not Falling Apart, YOUR Society's Falling Apart
March 14, 2020 12:34 AM   Subscribe

Along the lines of a similar question asked here a while back, I'm interested in reading non-fiction accounts of what it's actually like day-to-day in societies undergoing radical transformations for the worse.

1. 1900 to present-day only.
2. No USA. No Europe during World War II, or the period that led right up to it.
3. Something between a memoir and an impersonal, macro-level historical account is what I'm looking for. Memoirs emphasize the experiences of a main character, but they tend to focus on person-to-person or family relationships, with the societal / institutional stuff as only a backdrop. On the other hand, more "historical" or "sociological" accounts tend to describe, in the aggregate, the changes a society went through, but don't offer a sense of how individuals perceived and adjusted to them. I'm interested in the changes in the person-to-society relationships—what big and small changes in everyday life individual people noticed, and what they made of them. How their assumptions about the way society works, practically speaking, were upended.

To make it a little more concrete:
Less "Father grew more distant as the conflict around us continued, and soon he never spoke to Mother at all." or "Three hundred auto workers were left without a job when their factory was bombed. Many of them chose to move out of the country."
More "When I tried to pay for my groceries, the clerk told me I had to use the new currency. I spent the rest of the day looking for a place that would exchange my money" or "After the university was shut down, it was left empty, so our neighbors set up a makeshift flea market there. It was strange to see knickknacks arranged on what was once a biology lab station."
posted by Rykey to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Stefan Zweig writes about living through the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in The World of Yesterday. I guess you can stop before the immediate pre-WWII period.

The perspective on some of the same events of an injured soldier returned to Budapest is presented in Bela Zombory-Moldovan's memoir The Burning of the World.
posted by praemunire at 1:02 AM on March 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

(Also, while I haven't read it personally, Chinua Achebe's There Was A Country, about living through the Nigeria-Biafra war and the collapse of Biafra, seems like it would fit.)
posted by praemunire at 1:22 AM on March 14, 2020

I really really wish I knew of a good memoir of the experience in Venezuela over the last 20 years because it is exactly what you want. I just know about it from following local news, twitter, and my family for the last 20 years...
posted by wooh at 3:02 AM on March 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Reading Lolita in Tehran
posted by evilmomlady at 4:33 AM on March 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Not a book, but a metafilter comment (the second-most favorited comment of all time here) about surviving the siege of Sarajevo. Written in a thread about survivalists and stockpiling.
posted by hhc5 at 6:07 AM on March 14, 2020 [13 favorites]

The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth is a good Depression-era account. Roth was a Republican lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, and wrote from a middle-class perspective that we, or at least I, don't normally associate with Depression-era writing.
posted by bright flowers at 7:47 AM on March 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

The first volume of Persepolis seems to be the sort of thing you're looking for.
posted by jackbishop at 8:35 AM on March 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

2. No USA. No Europe during World War II, or the period that led right up to it.

I'm going to ignore this filter and mention Alan Furst's Night Soldiers novels, because many of them fix their focus on so-called Eastern Europe (the Balkans etc), and the research is great, speaking to the MORE part of your question.
posted by philip-random at 8:52 AM on March 14, 2020

When I wrote my earlier answer I missed that you didn't want U.S. accounts. I'm sorry about that. I'm idly curious why you're excluding those but it's your Ask, your call.
posted by bright flowers at 9:21 AM on March 14, 2020

Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is a series of interviews with survivors of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and covers a great deal of how "the way society works, practically speaking, were upended."

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda is Roméo Dallaire's account of the events leading up to and during the Rwandan genocide from his perspective as the force commander of UNAMIR. There is also a documentary featuring a large number of interviews also entitled Shake Hands With the Devil, and a feature film by the same name.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:46 AM on March 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies so far, they're just what I'm after. Keep them coming.

The reason for the "No USA, no WWII" request is that 1) I've already read a fair amount on those particular places and times, and want to learn about other places and times, and 2) I suspected that if I didn't make those stipulations, the responses would be 90 percent about USA and WWII.
posted by Rykey at 10:12 AM on March 14, 2020

Barbara Demick’s Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighbourhood fits what you’re looking for.
Logavina Street was a microcosm of Sarajevo, a six-block-long history lesson. For four centuries, it existed as a quiet residential area in a charming city long known for its ethnic and religious tolerance. On this street of 240 families, Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats lived easily together, unified by their common identity as Sarajavans. Then the war tore it all apart.

As she did in her groundbreaking work about North Korea, Nothing to Envy, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick tells the story of the Bosnian War and the brutal and devastating three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo through the lives of ordinary citizens, who struggle with hunger, poverty, sniper fire, and shellings.

Logavina Street paints this misunderstood war and its effects in vivid strokes—at once epic and intimate—revealing the heroism, sorrow, resilience, and uncommon faith of its people.
I have already read Nothing to Envy, Demick’s previous book about ordinary citizens in North Korea, and it’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. You might want to read that one too—even though North Korea doesn’t start out as a place one would choose to live, the people in the book describe how their country goes from what they had always known, hard but familiar, to a relatively sudden and steep descent into famine and social chaos during the mid- to late-1990s.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:22 AM on March 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl might also meet your criteria. Because it compiles many different oral accounts of the disaster period, though, some are more immediately personal than others.
posted by praemunire at 12:22 PM on March 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić is a collection of essays written shortly after the break-up of Yugoslavia, about the process of redefining and inventing national identities, and the rewriting of history, that was the result/cause. From memory it doesn’t dwell much on the war itself, although it was written during and shortly after; it’s more focussed on culture and identity. But I was struck by the sense of the fragility of a nation state which had existed for 80 years and seemed stable to the people who had lived their whole lives in it.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:39 PM on March 14, 2020

Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov discusses living in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union. It does veer a bit much into USSR vs US comparisons, but does go into a lot of daily life. There's a decent description on his Wikipedia page.
posted by meowzilla at 3:41 PM on March 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Last Girl by Nadia Murad spends a good chunk of the beginning talking about life for the Yazidi in Iraq and then how it all went to hell, as well as telling her own specific story.
posted by gudrun at 12:08 PM on March 15, 2020

If you're okay with American voices, Emily Hahn wrote China to Me about living in China, then Hong Kong in the 1930's and 1940's. She talks about getting used to the bombs in the distance early on, later having to move out of bombed places, then in Hong Kong, about being under Japanese rule. I found it interesting to see what you could apparently get used to. It's worth reading, but does contain racist language when she's living under occupation and having trouble finding enough food every day.
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:46 PM on March 15, 2020

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