Anders Winroth delivered exactly what I expected in his book The Age of the Vikings, but he also delivered a little something more, and it was the surAnders Winroth delivered exactly what I expected in his book The Age of the Vikings, but he also delivered a little something more, and it was the surprise of that that little something more that filled me with a hint of wonder, rekindling my dreams of my career that never was.
Winroth's overview of the Viking Age was broken up into precisely the categories I hoped, addressing the stereotypes and our shared knowledge of what the Vikings were with a desire to dispel the myths and mistakes embedded in the knowledge we think we have. For instance, his discussion of our vision of the Vikings as bloodthirsty raiders takes on the witnesses who have passed this image down to us by analyzing much of the overlooked evidence that points to countless motives that go beyond mere bloodlust, and uncovering the many times the Vikings turned their ships around and went home when they were paid off by the "targets" of their raids. Then he takes his argument a step further, pointing out that much of the reports of Viking savagery come from the priests living under the incredibly bloody -- and genocidal -- reign of Charlemagne (a man celebrated today for his enlightenment despite the enormous death toll he amassed).
This deconstruction of our perceptions is at the heart of Winroth's history of the Viking Age, and it reveals that theirs was a culture of complexity, flexibility and durability that was much, much more than a band of violent raiders, pillagers, and plunderers.
But then there is that extra little thing that Anders Winroth delivers in The Age of the Vikings. It has to do with a commentary on history (and the places from which history draws its evidence -- archaeology, literature, religion, anthropology. Winroth's unstated thesis is that ultimately we just don't know the way things were, in any age, and we can't. All of our sources are biased, or speculative, or flawed, and that maybe the best any historian can do is eliminate things we know a time was not. That and give the best guess without pretending it is an absolute truth.
This idea brought me back to my sideways love of archaeology, of my desire, long held but never acted upon, to become an archeologist. And right here, near my home, I have one of the richest Viking finds connected to a school I love's archaeology department, and maybe 45 is not too old to just go ahead and start digging in the wet, cold soil and turning my speculative mind to the evidence of a thousand years ago. I like that. I like being reminded of those paths long overgrown but always waiting to be returned to....more
It's been a long while since I read a book about the First World War, but I've read many and was always going to find my way back to its histories inIt's been a long while since I read a book about the First World War, but I've read many and was always going to find my way back to its histories in this Centennial period of the conflict. The one book I had long wanted to read but had never gotten around to was Barbara W. Tuchman's The Guns of August.
I have heard of its excellence from many folks I trust, and their praise was mostly borne out --especially when it came to The Guns of August's two major strengths.
First is Tuchman's decision to focus on the leaders who brought the world to war, and the generals and decision makers who fought the war during that fateful August. It was a decision that turned The Guns of August into a dramatic character piece. It was told, at times, with a fiction writer's flair for her characters' strengths and weaknesses, their passions and foibles, their hatreds and loyalties. Ludendorff and Hindenburg loom large on the Eastern Front for the Germans; King Alfred of Belgium takes on heroic proportions as he saves his nation in the first weeks of the conflict; Franchet d'Esperey and Gallieni are the decisive figures that pull France back from the brink; John French, the commander of the BEF, comes off as a man out of his depth; while Joseph Joffre sits above them all as the calm, unflappable saviour of the Allied cause. It's all wildly entertaining, satisfying the craving to read about great people doing great things.
Second is Tuchman's microscopic focus on a tiny period of the First World War. No grand overviews for The Guns of August. This is, as the title states, a look at that first August of the war. We see how many (but not all) of the pieces fit together to lead inexorably to the conflict, and Tuchman delivers an thrilling account of all of August's engagements -- from Germany's almost victory and near capture of Paris to France's almost repulsion of the Huns and their near ending of the war in only a month. It all takes place before the trenches that have become synonymous with WWI are dug, before the war is mud and gas and horror and attrition, before hindsight could clarify and taint the decisions made by the great decision makers. As with her focus on great men, Tuchman's narrow focus lends itself compelling narrative, and reading this book is a thrill.
For all of its quality, however, The Guns of August has flaws, and the flaws are also rooted in the books strengths. Tuchman's focus on the great leaders makes perfect sense to her history book, to the history it's trying to tell, but it also leads too easily to her own biases (which is something I find myself saying about nearly every historian. Sorry historians). It is too easy to tell who the people are that she most admires (a KitKat of French generals top the list), too easy to tell whose side she is on (England's) and which side she despises and blames (the Germans). These biases lack subtlety, and once they are put together with her narrow focus, their lack of subtlety are compounded by a tendency to oversimplification -- and increase of black and white, of contrast, and the decrease of shades of grey.
Regardless of its flaws, The Guns of August is an excellent piece of work, especially if you are knowledgeable about the First World War, but have taken a break from studying this decidedly depressing period and need a way back in.
p.s. Nadia May's narration of the audio version is perfect. She delivers light versions of all the accents, which work beautifully without any silly attempts at impersonation, and she sounds just like Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey's Isobel Crawley (amongst other roles), which is a blast for any fan of Downton who loves Matthew's Mum. ...more
Stanley Karnow was a journalist before and during America's war in Vietnam, so he comes at his subject with all the biases of his era, his job and hisStanley Karnow was a journalist before and during America's war in Vietnam, so he comes at his subject with all the biases of his era, his job and his country (and admits as much in his Prologue), yet he still manages, for the most part, to present a balanced view of the history he is undertaking -- a history of Vietnam's wars rather than America's Vietnam War.
The title suggests that the book is going to be a history of Vietnam, an informative overview of its entire history. The title is misleading. Karnow has written an overview, it's true, but it is an overview of conflict. Once the minor disappointment over the focus of the book passes, however, it is easy to appreciate what Karnow has done.
I think this is a great starting point for anyone really interested in understanding how South East Asia become one of the most important moments in the history of a country so far removed from its shores. By tracing Vietnam's long history of warfare, from its attempts to dominate its Laosian and Cambodian neighbours and its prolonged attempt to hold off the influence of the menacing Chinese power to the north, to its disdain for French Colonial dominance and their ultimate war against (or use of) US Imperialism, the Vietnamese history of conflict shows us that wars, all of them, were likely inevitable, and that anyone taking the fight to them in their land was doomed to failure.
Karnow's best moments, however, are when the book leaves behind the jungles and cities and towns of South East Asia and returns to the machinations of the US politicians during the Vietnam Era. He addresses Kennedy's shortsightedness and belligerence (suggesting, to me at least, that his unsavoury role in Vietnam is one in a series of shortcomings his assassination have mystified for the public), Johnson's morass, Nixon's downright villainy and nuclear sabre rattling (which is a form of mental terrorism if there ever was one, and it was standard Nixon policy, actually called the "Madman" policy), and all the fucking about the other US players engaged in to prolong or fight or avoid or pull out of a war that should never have been engaged in but could not be avoided.
A good read. And a good start for anyone interested in understanding an important moment in time. ...more
My opinion of Robert Bothwell is based off of this one book, so if there are other works that disprove what I am about to say I am more than willing tMy opinion of Robert Bothwell is based off of this one book, so if there are other works that disprove what I am about to say I am more than willing to stand corrected. From what I can see, however, Bothwell is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to historians: he is actually a good writer (shock of shocks) -- too bad he is such a poor historian.
Now I know this man is Harvard educated, has a significant body of work, heads up a department at a well respected Canadian university, and in our Voltaire's Bastards culture of venerating "expertise" these qualifications put him above reproach or criticism, but fuck all that. He deserves criticism.
I came to The New Penguin History of Canada looking for a decent overview to help direct my more in depth future reading. I got what I came for, but because Bothwell's voice was compelling I let my expectations rise, and early on those raised expectations seemed warranted, but by the books end I was deeply disappointed. Now to the point: it is not what Bothwell chooses to discuss but what he omits that most taint his History of Canada.
Yes, he does go on and on about tariffs and Canada's complex economic relationships with first England then the US, and there are times when he drifts away from Canada's boundaries to talk about other leaders and other places, but the former is surely an expected bias of an economic historian, and the latter can be forgiven because those he chooses to talk about have a direct influence at what is happening in Canada.
The problem is that while Bothwell spends his languorous time on these topics he completely fails to address important issues at home, and I mean completely. Not a single mention anywhere of the Japanese Internment. No mention. Not one. But there is plenty of discussion of WWII. There is plenty of discussion about economics during WWII as well, but the removal of property (economics anyone?) and liberty of a significant section of the Canadian population -- the entirely innocent Japanese-Canadians -- is nowhere to be found.
Another glaring omission: the Aboriginal people. They are rarely spoken of, and when they are spoken of they are even more rarely named, and then Bothwell is mute when it comes to Canada's disgusting Residential School policy -- another non-event in the Canada of Bothwell's History of Canada. He says nothing. Not even an aside to suggest that the provinces and territories might have done something not so nice at some point somewhen in our history. The omission is despicable.
And there are plenty of other omissions, although the others are much more forgivable and far less disgusting than the omission of Japanese Interment and Indigenous Residential Schools. For instance, not once does Bothwell name a leader of Canada's NDP party (unless one counts his mention of Tommy Douglas before Tommy was NDP). He talks about the party when he has to, especially when they become the official opposition in Parliament, but he never names Ed Broadbent, never names Audrey McLaughlin, never names Alexa McDonough, and since it would have taken only a few extra characters after "the NDP leader" one can only imagine this is his own peronal bias showing through. And there are plenty of other ommissions of this lesser offensiveness.
If you are Canadian and you know of the things Bothwell is omitting, you will probably still enjoy the way Bothwell writes despite his dubious choices; if, however, you are not Canadian and you are looking for a place to start your journey through Canada's past, I don't know that I can recommend Bothwell's History of Canada. His vision is skewed and riddled with holes, and I fear that you will come away thinking Canada is something it is not.
But if you must read this first, make sure you go searching for more depth elsewhere....more
I felt like brushing up against the '60s last week, more as a way to uncover some more serious places to start reading than to truly inform myself aboI felt like brushing up against the '60s last week, more as a way to uncover some more serious places to start reading than to truly inform myself about the period, but I was pleasantly surprised by John Robert Greene's willingness to criticize the sacred cows of the generation.
Whether discussing JFK's poor legislative record (before and during the Presidency), MLKJr's lack of support from the Black activist community who felt he wasn't doing enough and was too quick to capitulate to the Man, LBJ's war mongering, Ike's diplomacy or Nixon's supposed crookedness, Greene suggests -- quite explicitly -- that the myths of oru expectations and memories are very different from the realities of these men and their mark on their times.
It makes me want to read more, more than I already did. Job well done, Dr. Greene. Your "further reading" sections already have me adding to my list of to-reads. ...more
I finished this book a while back, but I needed to let it sit and marinate before tackling my review. I'm not sure why that is exactly. It's not for fI finished this book a while back, but I needed to let it sit and marinate before tackling my review. I'm not sure why that is exactly. It's not for fear of bias getting in the way of my review (I've long ago lost any pretension of objectivity when reviewing anything); it's not because I didn't have things to say. Perhaps it is simply that my enjoyment of the book and its quality don't match, and I needed to reconcile that in and for myself before sharing it with others.
My enjoyment -- I run a comic review website. Clearly I am a comic nerd. So I am of this book's target audience, and it serves me and my brethren well. It is, essentially, a history of the creators and writers and artists and bureaucrats and greedy bastards and corporate villains who made Marvel the biggest comic book company of all time, and nearly drove it into the ground over and over and over.
It's the story of Stan Lee maybe co-creating most of the big characters with Jack Kirby, and Jack Kirby maybe creating the big characters on his own, and Marvel the entitiy screwing Jack Kirby royally regardless of the role he had (Lee likes to claim he was in the same boat as Kirby and that he understood all along that his creations weren't his own, but then Lee was working for the family in the family business when he created the big guns. Hardly the same boat, is it?).
It's the story of psychedlic trippiness, cosmic tales, and LSD inspired deadline pushes. It's the story of creative infighting, of creative teams coming together and splitting apart. It's the story of how Marvel's liberal politics were always -- and quite by mistake -- at the forefront of social change and then pulled back when things got too hot. It's the story of selling comics to kids, and ringing as much money from the wet towel as they possibly could in every way they possibly could.
And that's all the fun stuff.
The quality --I know I've been implying that the quality isn't all it could be, and it isn't, but it is important to note that it isn't Howe's writing that is lacking quality. He writes fine. It is his courage that is lacking.
We are left -- in those moments I mentioned where Howe discusses the behind the scenes drama -- with a sense that there is more, much more, that Howe knows that he's not telling us. This book is touted as an "unvarnished" and "unauthorized" take on Marvel Comics and when a book take that's stance it has to be braver by far than Marvel: The Untold Story.
Surely Howe discovered more about the Kirby/Lee battle over character creation. Where are the interviews with their colleagues? Howe mentions these folks, mentions that they know things or don't know things, but he never tells us what those things might be. Where is his investigation into the controversy? Where is his opinion? Where are his conclusions? Not here, that's for sure, and this isn't the only time he steers away from controversy. There's no discussion of how John Byrne's Canadian super-hero, Northstar, a character of the 80s, was a gay man becoming mysteriously and gravely ill, of how we, the readers, all knew that Northstar was suffering from AIDs, and how Byrne's plans were tossed aside right at the moment he fled to DC and took over Superman. These and other stories like them are where the real "untold" stuff sits, and Sean Howe simply didn't do enough to fulfill the promise of his title. So ... quality lacking.
But there is one more quality issue, and that's that this book will do very little for anyone with a passing interest in comics and nothing for people with no interest. It is for fanboys and no one else.
I wish it had been for everyone as I think it could have been. Perhaps that task will fall to someone else (or to Sean Howe once the players he's protecting have passed away)....more
What a fantastic way to consume an overview of an historical period. Ian Mortimer's decision to create a guide for tourism shifts the focus of historyWhat a fantastic way to consume an overview of an historical period. Ian Mortimer's decision to create a guide for tourism shifts the focus of history from the "Great People of History" to the "People You'll Meet while Walking by Shitbrook," and that turns out to be far more fascinating -- at least to me.
Want to know how to avoid prosecution for murder in case you slip up during your travels? Mortimer lets you know. Want to know what sports you can expect to enjoy? They're all here. Want to know what drinks to avoid, what to look for in foods, what roads to take, what protection you'll need while travelling, what to wear, what to read, what to carry with you? Look no further than this fantastic guide.
I'll be leaving for London 1362 tomorrow, just after one of the outbursts of plague has cleared up. That way I can take advantage of the decreased and depressed population, and hopefully avoid the buboes.
I am feeling quartered over Two Generals. In one quarter, I dig Scott Chantler's art with reservations; in another, I am impressed by his portrayal ofI am feeling quartered over Two Generals. In one quarter, I dig Scott Chantler's art with reservations; in another, I am impressed by his portrayal of the Nazis, when he happens to portray them at all; in another, I am simultaneously disappointed with his propaganda of Canadian excellence and pleased that he shows Juno beach, the least talked about beach in the Normandy invasion; in another, I am disappointed that the two parts of the Two Generals are all there is.
His art: Chantler's illustrations are beautiful. There is a delicacy at odds with their perfect linear geometry that makes the illustrations surprisingly emotive. I didn't expect such emotion to be conveyed by a graphic illustrator whose style is simplicity, but I was wrong. Moreover, Chantler's use of close ups and repetition, mostly used in quiet moments, added a gravity that I appreciated. There was a problem for me, however, and that was that everything was too clean. Chantler shows limbs blown off and a foxhole full of Canadian dead, but even those moments are clean. I am not sure that Chantler's style can ever be anything but clean, which makes it a poor style, ultimately, for the portrayal of war. See, I am torn.
His view of the Nazis: The Hollywood view of Nazis as buffoons or Nazis as pure evil is both inaccurate and, I believe, dangerously reductive. Not recognizing that they were regular people, living regular lives, who engaged in terrible things (or tacitly agreed to letting terrible thigns happen) makes it much easier for us to believe we could never do such things, which makes it much easier for such things to happen. Chantler doesn't go the Hollywood route. His Nazis are, indeed, regular folks. Fervent believers, but regular folks. Until, that is, he comes to Rommel and Hitler. The former is the accepted stereotype of the good and honourable German soldier trapped by circumstance, and the latter is the magnetic cult leader of our nightmares (a little more Manson that Hitler, actually). These portrayals, though, are as they are because these historical figures only appear on a couple of pages. I'd like to see Chantler write another of these historical graphic novels about Rommel. I wonder what that would be like?
His propaganda: Living in Canada, having been raised by a Canadian Mum in amongst Canadians, having been educated by Canadians, I know how unappreciated Canadians feel for their contributions to victory in WWI and WWII. They feel very unappreciated. It makes sense then that Chantler, whose grandfather, Law Chantler (the protagonist of Two Generals) fought in the Normandy invasion, would write and draw about Canada's D-Day beachhead, Juno Beach. Furthermore, it makes sense that he would be writing to inform us all of Canada's WWII military excellence. But it bothers me just a little bit. I agree that Britain and the U.S. underappreciate the contribution of Canada (and England's other colonies for that matter), but I have a hard time with the desire seek appreciation for contributions to war. And when my reservations are coupled with Chantler's none-to-subtle suggestions that Canadians were the most poorly supplied, the biggest underdogs, and still made the most important contributions at every step of the D-Day invasion -- the crucial contributions that made victory possible -- I can't stop myself from squirming in my chair.
My disappointment: Yet I find myself, despite how I am torn by this book, wishing that it was much, much longer. I didn't want this to end. I wanted to see more of Law Chantler's time in Europe, and I wanted to see much more of the Canadian contribution (minus the bias) to the entirety of the war. I hope Chantler continues to write personal histories of people and events. He has a gift. ...more
This review was written in the late nineties (just for myself), and it was buried in amongst my things until today, when I uncovered the journal it waThis review was written in the late nineties (just for myself), and it was buried in amongst my things until today, when I uncovered the journal it was written in. I have transcribed it verbatim from all those years ago (although square brackets indicate some additional information for the sake of readability). It is one of my lost reviews.
What a personally powerful book. A Man on the Moon is such a wonderful reminder of what we are capable of as a species and what wonderful things we can accomplish when we work together. I hope to see a man on the moon in my lifetime, although I doubt it will happen, which is a shame.
It never ceases to amaze me that true life figures are so impressive when their stories are told -- whether they are really impressive or not. Is this all just spin? Is it the grandeur of their accomplishments? Whatever. I love hearing tales of Crazy Horse and Custer, of Henry V or Julius Caesar or Cleopatra. But right now I most love to hear the stories of the Astronauts and Cosmonauts.
Apollo 12's tightly bound crew of Conrad, Bean and Gordon were inspiring with their camraderie; Apollo 13's near fatal accident couldn't have been dreamt up by the greatest of screenwriters; then there's my favourite, the Apollo 17 crew of Cernan, Jack Schmitt and Ronald Evans. The finest scientific achievments of the program, and a fitting end to one of the world's greatest pursuits. Chaikan's book allowed me to take part in the Apollo adventures -- for that I am grateful. ...more
Nicholson Baker himself intended it as a memorial to “Charles Pickett and other American and British pacifists. ThHuman Smoke is many things, I think.
Nicholson Baker himself intended it as a memorial to “Charles Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right,” and to some extent he intended it as an argument for peace –- more likely peace as pacifism.
It is a chronicle of the worst war criminals that we’ve ever seen, specifically Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt (and their lackeys), with cameo appearances by some other nasty criminals like Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, and Tojo. It shows how their actions and decisions continue to reverberate into today, and how the positive or negative mythologies that have sprung up around them don’t even begin to tell the truth. Moreover, we’re still fighting the fights they started, and seem doomed to keep fighting them.
As I write this the “Blue Angels” and “Snowbirds,” those dazzling, acrobatic show offs of American and Canadian aviation military might are streaking over my home to the delight of my militarized neighbours. Their delight and my disgust. Their delight and my shame.
But back to Human Smoke. It is an anecdotal history that uncovers the ugliness of us all. There are contextual gaps, there are omissions, there is spin, but it is a powerful book and an important one. I, in my dilettante historianism, knew most of what Baker was offering already, but he surprised even me at times, and I’ve never seen the dirtiness of WWII presented in quite so powerful a way.
As I closed the cover, though, I didn’t end with a new dedication to pacifism as so many have before me. If anything, Baker’s moments spent with Gandhi merely underlined the failings of pacifism. Gandhi’s non-violence would have been for nought if England wasn’t busy bombing and being bombed by Germany. England would have rolled over Gandhi and Nehrou and we'd have forgotten all about them and their desire for independence. I didn't heed the call to pacifism, nor was I filled with a new dedication to war as an answer either.
What it did leave me with was a desire to dedicate myself to imagining a new way. Militarism doesn’t work. We know that. Pacfism doesn’t work, even though it makes those engaged in it feel better about themselves (and superior to others). But we seem incapable of finding another way. What good are our minds if we can’t imagine another way? I am positive there must be another way. I want to find it.
My gut tells me it has something to do with forgiveness. For now I will go with my gut and see where it takes me. Thanks for the kick in the ass, Nicholson Baker. I hope you do the same for many, many others. ...more
I came away with five things from the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s incomparable Trotsky biography -- The Prophet Unarmed. Some of these thoughtsI came away with five things from the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s incomparable Trotsky biography -- The Prophet Unarmed. Some of these thoughts are new to me, some of them are solidifications of ideas or opinions I already had, but they are what I leave this book with and, I think, worth sharing.
5. Stalin destroyed the promise of Engels, Marx and Lenin. He stained communism. And he provided capitalism with the ugliness it needed to vilify communism in the minds of their own, potentially dangerous, proletarian ranks. His need for power, the way he achieved it, his authoritarianism -- none of these things a feature of genuine communism -- all came to represent communism in the minds of the capitalist west. Stalin’s very existence was capitalism’s best propaganda tool against communism. And this man who was neither a Bolshevik nor a true Communist remains the best tool to this day (with neo-Stalinists Mao and Pol Pot a close second and third).
4. The U.S., England and their European lackeys should be ashamed of themselves -- as usual -- because it would have been vastly more difficult (if not impossible) for Stalin to have achieved power if it weren’t for their meddling in the earliest days of the Soviet Union. Arms and advisors sent to the White Guard during the Civil War, isolationist policies, boycotts, etc., etc., worsened already terrible conditions in post-Tsarist Russia, forcing the early Bolsheviks into compromising their principles to ensure survival, and once those principles were compromised the situation became easier and easier for Stalin to manipulate. While the west’s support of the counter-revolution failed in the short term, it certainly succeeded in condemning the Soviet Union to totalitarianism in the long term.
3. The methods, tactics and controls of Stalinism are not all that different from contemporary North America. Our right wing engages in fear mongering, disinformation, media manipulation, vilification of dissenters, purges, and claims to moral superiority and historical loyalty; they’re tactics are so commonplace as to be almost unnoticeable to everyday citizens. Worse still, our left is as apathetic and conciliatory as most of the Left Opposition that Trotsky tried in vain to rally in his day. Our liberals clamour on about how “nice and polite and correct” they are, about how “stupid and racist and misogynistic” the right is, but they’ve not learned the lesson that their “enlightenment” is a minority “enlightenment” that can only be turned into a majority “enlightenment” through hard work and a conscious effort to negate their tendency to condescension. History repeating itself. Again.
2. Trotsky was a great man. Some can be great revolutionaries. Some can be great thinkers. Some can be great leaders. Some can be great diplomats. Some can be great warriors. Some can be great writers. Some can be great winners. Some can be great losers. Some can live great lives. Some can die great deaths. But very few can be and do all of them in their lifetime. Trotsky was great at every single one. In the annals of socialism only Marx and Lenin can match him (although Engels and Che surely deserve honourable mentions). The hatchet to the brain was a great loss to us all.
1. Communism can’t succeed. Not because of any bullshit about the superiority of capitalism. Not because communism is “inherently evil” as ultra-capitalists would have us believe. Not even because it is “unworkable.” Communism can’t succeed because it hard fucking work. To be a communist, to create a communist society, everyone must be dedicated to selflessness, to hard work, to action, to trust, to reason, to each other. But most humans are too selfish, too apathetic, too untrusting, too unreasonable, too lazy to achieve the requirements of communism, and so communism must fail.
But I’ve a crappy lance, a skinny horse, and a world full of windmills, so I’ll keep fighting....more
Zahi Hawass is an important guy when it comes to Egyptology. He knows it, and he wants us to know it too.
He spends a great deal of time in Mountains oZahi Hawass is an important guy when it comes to Egyptology. He knows it, and he wants us to know it too.
He spends a great deal of time in Mountains of the Pharaohs dropping names, asserting his authority when it comes to the possible readings of the artefact record, and sharing anecdotes about his own finds and discoveries. Yet amidst all this self-aggrandizement is some excellent information, and a reassuring vision of how healthy the debate surrounding Egyptian finds continues to be within the community of Egyptologists.
Mountains of the Pharaohs is at its worst when Hawass gives in to his imaginings of "what might have happened" to the Pharaohs and those close to them. These fictions -- containing emotion, action, and an off-puttingly omniscient narration -- might very well be rooted in facts about the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, but they are mostly silly and annoying, offering up a fanciful vision of Hawass' utopian vision of Old Kingdom Egypt. And this utopian vision doesn't dissipate when he leaves the fiction behind. Hawass tends to read the archaeological record with a romantic view of a near perfect ancient world that was mirrored in their near perfect monuments.
The book is at its best, however, when Hawass spends some time with the common folk. The closing chapters about the regular Egyptians who were engaged in building the pyramids discusses some exceptional finds, and brings Hawass to a more balanced place in his vision of Ancient Egypt. The common Egyptian is a perspective I've always felt was poorly represented in popular Egyptology, so it was refreshing to see it here.
Finally, the reading by Simon Vance (of whom I am a fan, having only ever listened to his audio recordings of the Aubrey-Maturin books) is suitably noble and weighty, impeccably matching the voice to the source material....more
Admittedly, my reading of The President of Good and Evil is a touch belated, but in many ways I am glad it is because I was able to appreciate Peter SAdmittedly, my reading of The President of Good and Evil is a touch belated, but in many ways I am glad it is because I was able to appreciate Peter Singer's work more for what it does than who it is was written about.
Singer's discussion of the failure of Bush's ethics came as no surprise to me. Indeed, there was very little in Singer's argument that I hadn't already considered. The hypocrisy, the lies, the fundamentalism, the arrogance, the vengeance, the stupidity, it is all covered in well argued and scholarly detail.
And Singer's conclusions speak for themselves:
"When Bush speaks about his ethics, he is either sincere or he is insincere. If he is insincere, he stands condemned for that alone. I have started with the opposite, more generous assumption: that Bush is sincere, and that we should take his ethic seriously, assessing it on its own terms, and asking how well he has done by his own standards. Even if that assumption should be false, the task has been worth undertaking, for we no know that, sincerely held or not, Bush's ethic is woefully inadequate."
Singer proves that Bush was a failure, and his presidency was an unethical mess. But that's not what makes The President of Good and Evil such a fascinating book.
The most compelling aspect of The President of Good and Evil is what it reveals about the importance of thinking and arguing critically. Singer takes all of Bush's statements about ethics and morals and applies them to Bush's actions, moving logically through every misstep to illuminate how those missteps prove Bush's ethical failure, regardless of whether Bush's ethics are individual, utilitarian, Christian or intuitive. It is an impressive critical analysis of Bush's first term as President (the book was written before the 2004 election) and an impressive survey of ethics in action.
Moreover, it provides a convincing argument that all of our leaders should, at the barest minimum, be capable of critical analysis themselves (and, really, so should we all). Bush was incapable of any analysis, critical or otherwise. Perhaps his inability was derived from his faith, perhaps it was merely from his inborn stupidity, but the fact that he was and is incapable of critical analysis was thoroughly proven by Peter Singer.
I would love to see Singer apply this sort of analysis to every American presidency. Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Obama -- just to name a few -- could all use a deconstruction of their ethics.
But all that aside, I think I will use The President of Good and Evil as a required text the next time I teach "The Principles of Literary Analysis" -- Singer has provided the perfect model of how to think critically.
China Miéville's theory of international law is easy to sum up. In fact, it's key to the title of his work. Taken from Karl Marx's Das Kapital vol. 1,China Miéville's theory of international law is easy to sum up. In fact, it's key to the title of his work. Taken from Karl Marx's Das Kapital vol. 1, the entire quote reads: "Between equal rights, force decides."
Miéville's argument is convincing. He traces the history of international law from ancient flirtings with pseudo-international law to the birth of sovereignty to mercantilism to the capitalist monopolies and colonialism to imperialism, globalization and human rights. He shows at every turn how international law has always been and remains a bastion of theoretical equal rights between polities while entrenching, in reality, violence and coercion in a system of ultimate inequality where "force" is the deciding factor that makes powerful polities "more equal" than weak polities.
Moreover, Miéville shows how the supposed "rule of law" exists -- like so much else in our capitalist world -- to convince the oppressed that they have "rights" that make oppression impossible, to convince the oppressed that they are not oppressed and cannot be oppressed. Meanwhile, the oppressors continue to do what they want, when they want, and use the process of international law, a process in which every action can be argued as simultaneously legal and illegal, to justify and/or rationalize their wars, reprisals, and thefts of natural resources.
In the end, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law is a damning attack on the rule of law in the international sphere, suggesting that we would all be much better off if we rejected the "rule of law," or at the very least started holding nations responsible for the "justice" of their actions rather than letting them claim legality for actions that are quite clearly unjust -- and this means all nations, not just those who are weak enough to be bullied. Miéville points out that law and justice are not the same, and so long as we tie them together we doom ourselves to serving under the yoke of a system in which violence inheres and property and economic expansion are more important than all other concerns.
If you're interested in international law, Marxism, capitalism, or just the writing of China Miéville (this text certainly informs his fiction writing) then this book is for you. It is an intelligent meditation on law, a well argued thesis, fair minded, and it is, more than anything else, thought provoking....more
Reading the documents that historian Lynn Hunt has brought together, I was struck by how many of the arguments and pleas being made by those seeking human rights are still being made today. They are being made to a new aristocracy of money rather than the old one of blood; a new aristocracy that is just as deaf as its predecessor. This modern aristocracy, the democratic governments and corporate lackeys of our new Christendom, uses the concept and entrenchment of human rights -- which remains unchanged since the late seventeen hundreds -- to maintain property and power.
All significant debate of what should constitute human rights raged during the American and French revolutions -- a period when monarchical government was being overthrown and a working concept of human rights was understandably important. But when the debate ended (a period of just under thirty years) the concept of human rights became suspended in a bell jar that has never been significantly added to or amended. Sure, there have been debates about who can claim these vacuum-packed "rights," and we've added groups (although never without controversy) who can enjoy the privileges we keep in the bell jar, but we have not tampered with the rights themselves, nor do we seem willing to tamper with them any time soon.
Our governments use a vague "human rights"-gauge to determine which nations are "good" or "evil." We gladly ignore our countries' most blatant human rights abuses and don't realize that there are handfuls of additional abuses they are perpetrating on us in the name of security or without naming the reason at all. Meanwhile the truths that should be "self-evident," the things that we really do have a Right to, remain ignored for great portions of the Earth's population, as well as most of its species, because the new aristocracy takes these things for granted while taking them from everyone else. If it is true "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," then those rights must be clean food, clean water and clean air, not "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," nor "Life, Liberty and Security of Person," nor even "Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance to Oppression."
While all of these so-called rights are noble pursuits that I fully support (with the exception of "Property") and would like to continue enjoying the privilege of, I am certain and believe it is self-evident that I do not have a right to any of them.
But we can't talk about that can we? No one wants to hear that human rights may actually be privileges because privileges are, by definition, assailable. No one wants to open up new discussions about what constitutes human rights, not really, because we in Christendom have pushed our concept of human rights onto the rest of the world, and those rights keep us living just the way we want to live. They provides us with a handy illusion of civil behavior, which allows us to love ourselves even when we become uncivil; after all, we can just blame the "other" for threatening our own human rights, thereby forcing our hands into taking away theirs.
Human rights, as we conceive of them today, ignore too many issues to stand unchallenged. They ignore the possible rights of other life forms; they ignore the possibility that communities are more important than or as important as individuals; they ignore the environment and sustainability; they ignore immigration and the global community; they ignore culture and outlook; they even ignore the basic importance of survival. Yet, for all that, the concept of human rights will not be challenged, debate will not be renewed, because human rights are THE dogma of freedom, democracy and capitalism, which provides the foundation of the richest societies in the world -- the bastions of the new aristocracy.
A new revolution could bring back the discussion, and perhaps reconfigure rights and privileges in a way that is more akin to reality, but I doubt I will live to see the day (and, no, I don't believe I have a right to life. I am alive, and I will die. My rights are born of those two realities, and my rights can support them both, but life itself is not a right, it simply is).
Anyway, I wish that Dr. Hunt had provided more documents in this fairly introductory book. I'd have liked much more to absorb. Still, this is an excellent starting point and a great way to fire me up onto my soapbox. I need my own private library of historical documents. That might actually be heaven for me. ...more
I took a strange road to Stuart R. Schram's compilation of the Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung. I bought my much worn copy for $8.00 dollars almostI took a strange road to Stuart R. Schram's compilation of the Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung. I bought my much worn copy for $8.00 dollars almost ten years ago in a massive used book store, then carted it across the country. I started it once or twice, never got far, then shifted it from bookshelf to bookshelf in my home to await my next aborted attempt.
Recently, however, I was reading the list of the best selling books of all-time and discovered that Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung is second only to the Christian Bible for copies in circulation. This reminded me that somewhere on one of my bookshelves was my very own sliver of Mao Tse-Tung just waiting to be read.
So I did, and the read was a fascinating one.
While I've read much about the revolutionary struggles of the Soviet Union and Cuba, I knew and still know very little about China. Schram attempts to contextualize Mao's writings with an impressive introductory overview, but it is a mere skeleton, lacking the circulation and respiration and flesh that foreknowledge could have provided.
As I began to read Mao's words, I worried that I was missing too much, and I probably was, but I pressed on because once I was reading the Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung, in his own words, the book was too interesting to set aside.
Compiled by Schram in 1969, when Mao was still alive and at the height of his power, Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung is intentionally set up to present Mao's personality as "poetic rather than logical and rigorous," and this makes for palpable gaps in the thought presented (although I can't imagine any presentation that wouldn't leave palpable gaps in one direction or another) -- gaps coloured by Schram's agenda and likely deepened by my own ignorance.
I wouldn't recommend Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung for anyone who is coming to Mao with only a sketchy understanding of the Chairman's place in revolutionary history (like my own). I wish sincerely that I had started reading about Mao somehow and someplace else, but perhaps it isn't so bad; my curiosity about Mao and Chinese Communism is piqued, and I will certainly continue my studies elsewhere.
Besides, Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung does offer Mao's unique perspective on U.S. Imperialism from WWI to Vietnam, and that makes it well worth the read...whatever the gaps in the political thought presented might be....more
Cuba: the Making of a Revolution by Ramon Eduardo Ruiz was nothing like what I expected. I thought I would get a concise history of Fidel Castro's 195Cuba: the Making of a Revolution by Ramon Eduardo Ruiz was nothing like what I expected. I thought I would get a concise history of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution; instead, I got the context that led to the revolution, and that context revealed something to me that was totally unexpected: the supreme idiocy of US Foreign Policy.
As far back as the late 1880s the US was busy doing what they do so well today, enslaving other countries' economies to their own, manipulating those countries' politics, keeping those countries poor and dependent and generally sewing anti-Americanism everywhere they went. I had a sense that they have always done this, but I had know idea how little the methods have changed. The immense naivete of US thinkers is staggering.
The US made the revolution of 1959. They are responsible for communism in their own hemisphere just as they are responsible for Noriega and Hussein and the Taliban et al. I was always more than a little frightened that the US was the only country that had used an atomic bomb and that they maintain a massive stock pile. After reading this book and absorbing the reality of US stupidity in the wide world of national relationships, I am fully terrified for everyone's future.
But I'll get over it next week when the Russians win Euro 2008. ...more
I am not a believer in the conspiracy theory of the moon landings. There were just too many people involved, and that many people simply can't be counI am not a believer in the conspiracy theory of the moon landings. There were just too many people involved, and that many people simply can't be counted upon to keep their mouths shut for all these years.
Perhaps I am a little biased, though. As an expatriate Yankee, one who is shamed and saddened by much of what my country has done, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions are one of the few things my country did in the Twentieth Century (and so far in the Twenty-First) for which I am actually proud.
Andrew Chaikin does an exceptional job of recounting the Apollo missions, ensuring that it is not all about Neil, Buzz and "What's-his-name?" (Michael Collins, for anyone who's interested).
Indeed, the most appealing aspect of A Man on the Moon is how Chaikin puts a face on the missions and men that are far from famous, from the other astronauts to the mission controllers and even those people involved in the design and manufacture of the space crafts.
One of my favourites is the story of Harrison Schmitt, a geologist who joined the Apollo program as an astronaut in the scientist group and made his moon walk on Apollo 17. Schmitt was instrumental in the geological training of his fellow astronauts, helping to turn Gene Cernan, Dave Scott, John Young, Charles Duke and James Irwin into Lunar Field Geologists. None of the astronauts were dumb men, in fact many of them were geniuses (including a genuine rocket scientist), but turning them into geologists on top of all their other duties and concerns was a huge undertaking, and one that gave us a far better understanding of the moon's geology than we could have achieved any other way.
Another fine account is Chaikin's re-telling of the landing pad fire aboard Apollo 1, which killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. It is one of the saddest moments in the history of the Apollo program, and Chaikin manages to strike a balance between respect for the fallen and the investigation that came to see the accident as a "failure of imagination." He avoids the temptation of the maudlin, and the three dead astronauts would undoubtedly have appreciated that.
If you're a space buff, especially if you're a fan of the moon missions, A Man on the Moon is a must read; and if you are coming to that landmark moment for the first time, it is the perfect book to get you started....more