The redoubtable detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police is back; he is becoming more immersed in Buddhist teachings and less intereste...moreThe redoubtable detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police is back; he is becoming more immersed in Buddhist teachings and less interested in the maneuverings of his boss, hyper-corrupt Colonel Vikorn in his constant turf warfare with the military. Vikorn sticks Sonchai into the middle of the international trade in organs for transplant patients, activity that would create eons of bad karma and uncountable millennia of Avici hell until one could finally be reincarnated as, if lucky, a one celled parasite in the gut of a worm. In other words something to avoid at almost any cost.
Sonchai isn't able to avoid getting involved and his mordant wit and realistic outlook on life serve him well in his travels among buyers and sellers of parts of humans who have stopped breathing a few seconds ago.
Burdett may be tiring of his Thai detective but "Vulture Peak" is less engaging than the previous books in the series. The whacky police procedural aspects are still there--and still hilarious--but with Sonchai traveling to India, Nepal and the south of France he looses some of his character--he is a part of Bangkok and Bangkok is part of him. Still worth reading but not as the first book one encounters in this series. (less)
Having read and enjoyed Colin Cotterill's series featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun, the eighty year old national coroner of Laos I thought his new series wou...moreHaving read and enjoyed Colin Cotterill's series featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun, the eighty year old national coroner of Laos I thought his new series would be worth a try. It is and I am looking forward to the next book with Thai crime reporter Jimm Juree. She and her family are in a southern province of the Land of Smiles although not one of those close to Malaysia that are experiencing armed clashes between minority Muslims and the Thai police.
Cotterill has to cover a lot of ground since "Killed at the Whim of a Hat" introduces many of the characters, conflicts and themes that (one assumes) will be part of the next few books. Jimm Juree is the center of the action and of our interest. Her family includes her mother who slips in and out of dementia, her irascible but loveable grandfather, retired from the Thai police after 40 years of directing traffic and her brother, a very muscular but painfully shy bodybuilder. The four of them live in a ramshackle resort that Mom bought after selling the family home in Chiang Mai, a resort that attracts few paying customers. Jimm's sister, formerly her brother, lives in Bangkok and is a skilled hacker which comes in very handy for our heroine. The local police force includes a lieutenant who is easy to get along with and a major who is not.
There is plenty of what used to be called local color--Buddhist monasteries, saffron robed monks and nuns, even the unrest in the capital that the army had to put down in 2010 although that is introduced and then dismissed as something happening a long way off.
Cotterill's style is full of puns, word play and satirical asides. The plot whips along although the way things end was a bit too fantastic for me. Whether he is accurate in describing Thailand, its people and the way they think and act is less important than creating a believable story with sympathetic characters which is what you will find in this book. (less)
I chose "e-book" since goodreads doesn't have a "Nook" category.
Phineas Finn is an intelligent and very ambitious young man the only son of an Irish...moreI chose "e-book" since goodreads doesn't have a "Nook" category.
Phineas Finn is an intelligent and very ambitious young man the only son of an Irish doctor. While studying with a London barrister so that he can be admitted to the bar himself Finn is approached by an acquaintance at his club and asked to stand for Parliament in the small borough where his family lives. Through a stroke of good luck he is successful and goes back to London as a member of Parliament.
He woos and loses several women, fights a duel over one of them (having to go to the Continent since dueling is illegal in England) and, most importantly, discovers just how insignificant and unimportant one member of the House of Commons can be. This is the story of his political and social awakening told against the backdrop of political reform and continued agitation in Ireland.
Finn is a likable sort--he wants to do what is right for his country, his party and for Ireland but he can't quite figure out how to go about it. He wants to be married to his first love, the delightful Mary Flood in Ireland but is attracted by the sophistication and connections of Lady Laura Standish and the immense wealth of Mademoiselle Max Goesler, the widow of a diamond merchant.
He ultimately stands on his principles (once he figures out what they are) both in Parliament and with the women in his life.
Trollope makes Finn a man on the make, one who wants to accomplish great things but who still worries about what people will think of him. After a career in the Civil Service in both Ireland and England (he is credited with inventing the pillar box for the Royal Mail) Trollope was familiar with people like Finn, his family, his political opponents and allies and the women around him. Trollope isn't a major English novelist but is not unimportant and well worth reading. Like Dickens and other mid to late 19th Century writers Trollope's long works were serialized in a popular magazine before being issued as a three volume novel--there was no reason to be brief and many to be prolix. (less)
This is an amazing book--I haven't been this enthused about a social science text since I read Braudel's "The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean Worl...moreThis is an amazing book--I haven't been this enthused about a social science text since I read Braudel's "The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II" about one zillion years ago.
The first chapter of “Seeing like a State” is a brilliant tour de force of how James C. Scott approaches his thesis and his method for analyzing it. Looking at the “acknowledgements” page of the book gives one indication why this chapter is so good: it has been worked and reworked a number of times, appearing as an article in a learned journal, an essay in a book edited by the author, a public lecture sponsored by the Centre for Asian Studies, a chapter in a textbook and a paper delivered at a conference. While it might be possible to say that Scott has dined out on state simplification, the establishment of cadastral maps and population registers, the invention of freehold land tenure, the standardization of language and the widespread use of family names, it would be selling this book very short. All of these things and more made the population and its natural and built environments more legible, rational and standard than it had been before the rise of the centralized state. The needs of the state: conscription, taxation and prevention of rebellion, could only be served if there were central planning and control over what had been the anarchy of rural and village life.
Taken to extremes—a not unusual occurrence, the failures of which never lead to appropriate lessons learned by those in power—the drive for centralization has led to famine, mass death, the collapse of formerly great civilizations and widespread destruction of culture and the ability of the population to reproduce itself. “Seeing like a State” examines the ideology and practice behind some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.
Scott sees four elements that must be present for state power to be unleashed in such destructive ways:
1) The centralized, transformative organizing of nature and society and subjecting it to administrative rules;
2) A high-modernist ideology that is overly confident about scientific and technological progress, expansion of production, mastery of nature and rational design of the social order;
3) An authoritarian state willing and able to use the full weight of its power to bring designs into being; and
4) Crippled civil society with no capacity to resist. War, revolution, economic collapse and national liberation struggles make populations more receptive and weaken traditional power centers. Examples are the collectivization of Soviet agriculture in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the resettlement of millions of Tanzanian peasant farmers into Ujamaa villages in the 1960s and the imposition of European/American monoculture, quasi-industrial agriculture on farmers in West Africa and Central America. The war by the new Soviet Russia against the invading western armies, the decades long struggle for independence in Africa and the undermining and overthrow of elected (or at least popular) Third World governments preceded these ecological and human catastrophes.
Scott has no shortage of villains. Among them are Vladimir Lenin, Julius Nyerere, the architect Le Corbusier and, most likely, anyone who has drawn a mid-six figure salary from the International Monetary Fund. Good guys (actually good gals) are not quite as abundant. They include Rosa Luxemburg, urban planner Jane Jacobs and agricultural theorist Albert Howard.
Scott writes elegant prose—he makes several closely reasoned chapters concerning agriculture interesting for their content and fascinating for their style. (less)
I chose "ebook" as the format since Goodreads doesn't have a "Nook" format.
A lot of great narrative nonfiction is long. “The Right Stuff”, “The Best a...moreI chose "ebook" as the format since Goodreads doesn't have a "Nook" format.
A lot of great narrative nonfiction is long. “The Right Stuff”, “The Best and the Brightest” and “The Executioner’s Song” are doorstops. “Hiroshima”, “Salvador” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” are much shorter. One thing is true of all of them, though—none are long enough. The reader wants the story to continue, wants to hear more of the author’s voice and the people he describes. “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson is such a book.
It tells the story of the great migration (actually the Great Migration) of black people from the South to the North and West from 1915 to the 1975 and does so by focusing on the stories of three people: a doctor from Monroe, Louisiana who drove to California because he couldn’t get privileges at any hospital in his native state, a sharecropper and his family who rode the Illinois Central from Mississippi to Chicago to get away from the system that kept them tied to the land like serfs and a fruit picker who got on a train from Florida headed for New York City just ahead of a lynching party made up of growers who were outraged that he was organizing crews to insist on honest counts.
It is a heartbreaking, thrilling and ennobling book that I ripped through in a couple of days, marking long sections to be reread. Wilkerson never loses sight of the big picture, the movement of millions of people from the hell the knew to an unknown and frightening future, while making her characters as real as if they were our neighbors. This is history with an emotional punch and psychological depth.
The Promised Land was far from perfect but the real story was the journey itself and its lasting effect on the individuals who made it and the nation they helped to make. This is a brilliant book. (less)
Joan Didion's nonfiction/reportage can be tough to read; "Salvador" is no exception. My difficulty isn't with her subject matter, although it can be g...moreJoan Didion's nonfiction/reportage can be tough to read; "Salvador" is no exception. My difficulty isn't with her subject matter, although it can be grim as it is here or simply excruciating as in her two most recent books covering the deaths of her husband and then her daughter. It is because she produces such beautiful, fully formed and precisely balanced sentences that one (at least this one) can get bogged down in marveling at their perfection. She portrays the sense of anomie, fear and dread that accompanied one everywhere in El Salvador in the 1980s so well it could cause post traumatic stress in anyone who was there.
Extraordinary book from a great American author. (less)
The term banana republic seems odd in the 21st century. They must be small, odd places tucking into strange corners of the world, perhaps something li...moreThe term banana republic seems odd in the 21st century. They must be small, odd places tucking into strange corners of the world, perhaps something like the republic of Fredonia (Duck Soup) or the Grand Duchy of Fenwick (The Mouse that Roared). Sixty years ago “banana republic” meant most of the countries of Central America and the Caribbean basin; Guatemala was the best/worst example.
Formerly a colony of Spain, Guatemala became the property of the United Fruit Company. In addition to millions of acres of farmland (three-fourths of which were kept fallow) United Fruit owned the only port on Guatemala’s Atlantic coast, every mile of railway in the country and controlled the postal, telephone and telegraph services. The company used the unpaid labor of indigenous people—Indians “owed” large landowners 150 days of debt labor each year in lieu of taxes. A peasant could be jailed if his labor card didn’t show he had contributed the proper amount of days of forced labor to the plantation he was tied to.
The numbers are striking but don’t tell the whole tale. Company policy required “all persons of color to give right of way to whites and to remove their hats when talking to them”. Labor and peasant unions were essentially outlawed; the company decided who would work and for how long—an attempted strike at a company banana plantation when a seven day a week work week was announced was broken up by the national police. Workers were paid in company scrip—indeed, one of the reforms of the 1944 constitution was that workers be paid in legal currency.
The images of democratic states defeating fascism and militarism in World War II resonated throughout Central America and particularly in Guatemala. Juan Jose Arevalo, a philosophy professor returned from exile to great acclaim and was elected president in 1944. The new constitution, which attempted to create the legal structure for capitalist democracy was passed. It was based on Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and referred specifically to the Declaration of Independence of the United States and the preamble of the Constitution. Arvelo considered himself a “spiritual socialist” with a sense of cooperation and concern for the common welfare as opposed to doctrinaire Marxists who emphasized class war and the triumph of the proletariat. Guatemala had a tiny urban working class and a mass of illiterate, landless peasants ruled by an oligarchy of plantation owners—clearly not a base for a revolution. The planters, particularly United Fruit, felt threatened by the social and economic reforms Arevalo championed—there were several coup attempts during his six years in office.
He was succeeded in 1950 by Jacobo Arbenz Guzman whose land reform plans struck at the very heart of the political and financial power of the elites. Government owned land was ceded in small plots of peasants and land held by the largest landowners that had been fallow was seized. In a sharp piece of economic judo the plantation owners were compensated for the value of the land they had declared for tax purposes, almost always far below its actual value.
“Bitter Fruit” begins with a finely detailed description of the 1954 coup against Arbenz then recounts the history of Guatemala and United Fruit including the corporate history of the company. It is a polemical book, narrowly focused on the role of the CIA and the State Department. The authors have United Fruit at the center of the action, pulling strings with policy makers in Washington (Allen Dulles) and Boston (Henry Cabot Lodge). It is beyond dispute that the elected government of Guatemala was overthrown by a group of military officers that was funded, equipped, encouraged and managed from the United States. American ambassador John Peuifoy was indispensable in Guatemala City keeping Arbenz loyalists off balance while making sure the coup plotters knew they had the support of the United States.
However there was much more involved that the lobbying of United Fruit. It was during the height of the Cold War when it was believed that the Soviet Union, either directly or through front organizations, was behind organized opposition to American corporate interests. The world was divided into good and evil, for us or against us. This attitude made it easy to confuse nationalism with communism and a middle class reformer like Arbenz with a Soviet sponsor revolutionary. A year earlier the CIA's success in toppling the nationalist regime of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran influenced the Eisenhower administration’s approach. "Quick fix crisis management" was the hammer and false analogy the rationale against Arbenz.
This is an important book but its tight focus on United Fruit obscures the greater truth of entire nations that were ancillary casualties of the Cold War. (less)
The most recent of Bill James' idiosyncratic Harpur& Iles mysteries. I have read most of the previous 27 books--this one is a continuation of "I a...moreThe most recent of Bill James' idiosyncratic Harpur& Iles mysteries. I have read most of the previous 27 books--this one is a continuation of "I am Gold" and the aftermath of the shocking murder of the wife and child of a drug baron, one of the people that Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles counts on to keep the peace; as long as the drug dealers kill only themselves their lucrative business won't be interrupted by the police. However with what seems to be a hit gone wrong and the arrival of a new Chief Constable keen on ending the drug trade everything is at sixes and sevens.
The usual mordant wit, razor sharp social commentary, hyper-articulate gangsters keep thing moving.
This wouldn't be a good place to start if one isn't familiar with the characters and their idiosyncrasies--almost all of the action takes place in the first couple of chapters while Iles, Harpur, the villains and everyone's wives and children plus the usual hangers-on seem even more hyperarticulate than usual, never using one word where ten would do. (less)
The Cold War wasn't fought only between the United States and the Soviet Union; Latin America was a battleground from the 1950s to the 1980s and not o...moreThe Cold War wasn't fought only between the United States and the Soviet Union; Latin America was a battleground from the 1950s to the 1980s and not only in Chile, Cuba and Nicaragua. Guatemala, the unfortunate locus of a thirty-years long civil war characterized by the slaughter of entire villages, including the machine-gunning of peasants gathered to petition the government and the pioneering use of untraceable death squads for the extrajudicial murder of political activists was a theater of the Cold War in which Communism was defeated by the genocidal massacre of unarmed civilians. Since most of the dead were Mayan Indians, Guatemala today has the only military in Latin America accused of genocide by a U.N. sponsored truth commission. It is almost impossible for any United Nations organization to come to a definitive and damning conclusion we can be sure that the evidence of genocide was stark, shocking and impossible to miss. Which it was.
Guatemala's coffee elite prospered by using workers tied to the land through debt peonage that was little different than the serfdom of Tsarist Russia in the nineteenth century. State power backed the economic control by the planters--it was illegal for a peasant to run away from the job to which he and his family were bound and was a criminal offense to organize opposition to compulsory labor.
Inspired by the anti-fascist campaigns of World War II and the Popular Front Jacobo Arbenz was elected President in 1950. He was overthrown in 1954: his program of educating the peasantry was as dangerous to the plantation owners as was his ideas of land reform. According to Grandin, an author I have come to respect and trust, a combination of land owners, Catholic bishops, the military and the U.S. trained central political intelligence service made sure that the experiments of the early 1950s wouldn't be repeated.
The last colonial massacre referred to in "The Last Colonial Massacre" took place in 1978. It harkened back to the original Spanish conquest of the isthmus but was also as modern as today's headlines. Indians gathered in a town square to petition the mayor against the most ruthless feudal rules of the plantation owners; many were shot down by the army, the rest dispersed in what seemed to be a repeat of hundreds of military responses to political demands. In this case, though, they were led by left-wing organizers and coordinated their activities with unions in the cities, attempting to bring their grievances to a national constituency.
Grandin suggests that the greatest defeat of the Cold War in Latin America was of the United States and our belief in the principals of liberal civility, tolerance and pluralism. It is hard to disagree with him particularly after reading this meticulously researched and well written book.(less)
Growing, harvesting, processing and exporting coffee has been the main economic life of Central America for the past one hundred years. The families w...moreGrowing, harvesting, processing and exporting coffee has been the main economic life of Central America for the past one hundred years. The families who make up the “coffee elite” control much of the financial power and social organization of El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Those nations were in very different political and economic situations at the end of the last century. Costa Rica, the country that never really hits the headlines, is a social democracy with a functioning civil society, a decent social safety net for its citizens, particularly when compared to other countries with similar population and economic output. Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the hemisphere, is retreating from its attempts at revolutionary nationalism. El Salvador is home of the death squads of Roberto D'Aubuisson and his ARENA party and was the first place where “to disappear” was used as a transitive verb as in “they disappeared him”. It was under military rule from 1931 to 1979.
Jeffrey M. Paige was invited to teach and do research by Segundo Montes, the chairman of the sociology faculty at the University of Central America located in San Salvador. A month before his arrival, Montes and his Jesuit colleagues at the university were murdered at the Jesuit residence on orders from the high command of the San Salvador military. While there is no direct evidence that the generals consulted with their allies in the upper classes or the government it was assumed at the time that the army was doing the bidding of their political and economic masters since this had been the case in scores of high profile extra-judicial murders throughout the region. Paige interviewed plantation owners and financiers thinking that the same people might have ordered the killing.
The coffee elite controlled the land where coffee was grown and the people who produced it. In Nicaragua and El Salvador the elites expropriated the fruits of the labor of the peasants and workers through systems of debt peonage, one sided labor contacts and authority over their daily lives. Trade union organizers were intimidated or killed, political parties were outlawed or severely restricted and the army was used to enforce civil contracts.
Paige found a lot of class friction among the elites: landowners who controlled growing and harvesting were in conflict with the agro-industrial barons who ran the processing and export side of the coffee business. The processors were “progressive”—they were interested in modernizing their operations, using mechanization to replace human labor wherever possible while the “reactionary” growers wanted to continue the traditional methods that necessitated a large, mobile and hungry workforce. There were national differences as well. El Salvador was efficient and forward looking and produced higher yields per acre with a streamlined export system. Nicaragua was slow to adopt any new technology; the elites there were satisfied with lower but cheaper production.
One of the main strengths of “Coffee and Power” is the meticulous analysis of the leading families in each country that have owned the means of production since, in some cases, the nationalist revolutions of the 1820s and 1830s. Paige has contributed a new way of looking at Central America as the nations there struggle toward durable popular rule. (less)