Just a few years ago, I did not know who the Kurds were. The Kurds play only a supporting role in Middle East history, and that largely hidden (who knJust a few years ago, I did not know who the Kurds were. The Kurds play only a supporting role in Middle East history, and that largely hidden (who knew Saladin was a Kurd?). The Kurds probably first appeared in American news when they suffered Saddam’s chemical terrorism. They resurfaced when the US invaded Iraq again. Joe Biden suggested splitting Iraq in three, giving the Kurds their own polity, but like most things Joe Biden says, people didn’t give it much credence. The Kurds reappeared as defenders of northern Iraq against ISIS, giving a much better showing than the Iraqi army.
The Miracle of the Kurds is mostly popular history with ample personal anecdote thrown in. Mansfield did aid work in Kurdistan and later came to know a number of Kurds who fled to, of all places, Nashville, Tennessee. He returned to find a very different Kurdistan after explosive economic growth post-Saddam.
Why did the Kurds prosper when the rest of Iraq’s challenges are so well documented? We can started with the Investment Law of 2006, in which foreign investors granted equal status to indigenous investors, given large tax breaks, and given full rights of ownership and profit. It’s basic economics but nonetheless an unpopular approach around the world. As Mansfield puts it, “[a]s the new millennium dawned, Kurdish leaders took stock of their situation. They had little to offer but land, rights, and freedom.” Kurdistan (like Texastan) has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. Subsequently, Kurdistan has experienced economic growth rate vastly outstripping the rest of Iraq (which also has oil, it should be noted).
So why? What makes the Kurds so different? As it turns out, the Kurds have a long and very difficult history. Unofficial motto: “The Kurds have no friends.” “The Kurds themselves are more likely to say, ‘we have no friends but the mountains.’” 3/5ths of Kurds are Muslim, but the Kurds due to geography and cultural intransigence never Arabicized so it is a particularly Kurdish version of Islam. The Kurds are better on women’s rights than most of the rest of the Middle East. Saddam hated the Kurds and tried to wipe them out, using weapons chemical and conventional, and may have succeeded but for a no-fly zone enforced by the US and the western world. They survived, and entered the post-Saddam era with a belief that they must protect themselves.
Mansfield is unorthodox, to say the least, as a strong critic of the elder Bush limiting the scope of the first Iraq War. Whatever the merits of that decision, the Kurds were abandoned by the US and they bled and died for it. Today, they’ve long since proven they deserve our full support.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-copy of The Miracle of the Kurds through NetGalley....more
James Monroe natural suffers in comparison to his predecessors, who each tower above him in one form or many (even if not necessarily in merit as presJames Monroe natural suffers in comparison to his predecessors, who each tower above him in one form or many (even if not necessarily in merit as president). Monroe gets somewhat unfairly lumped in with the Founding Fathers, but he was much younger than Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison (albeit only a year younger than Hamilton). He has a somewhat shorter (or at least less interesting) early career, which is thankful given Cunningham’s format.
Squeezing a presidency into not only a single volume, but a short one, Cunningham covers Monroe’s pre-presidential life and career in well under 30 pages, and similarly gives short shrift to his personal life, including, notably, his relationship with his wife and his slave ownership.
That allows Cunningham the space, however, to passably address the major events of Monroe’s presidency. Monroe juggles a prickly General Andrew Johnson and a decaying Spain during the war that led to the annexation of Florida. We see a president working hard behind the scenes to bring Virginia to a compromise on slavery on the territories, apparently driven by national-interest (Cunningham isn’t interested in playing amateur psychologist). Cunningham shows how Monroe struggled to get anything done without a viable opposition to hold his party together. He gives Monroe perhaps too much slack for not perceiving a major recession during his presidency.
Monroe is, of course, best known for the doctrine that bears his name. Monroe, like Jefferson and Madison before him, served as Secretary of State before ascending to the presidency, and he played an active role in foreign policy as president, often to the annoyance of his very able Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. And while Adams was a major contributor to the Monroe Doctrine, it was truly Monroe’s. Most interesting is just how anti-colonial it originally was. Jefferson and other proponents saw it as, unfortunately, relinquishing possible future claims to Cuba and Texas (Monroe still envisioned a United States that stretched to the Pacific). It wasn’t that important at the time (Great Britain’s was the real opinion that mattered), but in retrospect it marked a turning point. It was also notable for being rooted in principle. Colonialism was wrong because, as Adams put it, people were entitled to Liberty and Independence.
Overall, we get an effective portrait of a presidency. Monroe doesn’t measure up to his predecessors, but it’s hard not to come away from the book without thinking he was a very good president....more
A World Overturned, as the title suggests, tells the story of the author’s childhood in Burma, including during the Japanese occupation of Burma durinA World Overturned, as the title suggests, tells the story of the author’s childhood in Burma, including during the Japanese occupation of Burma during WWII. If it is an ordinary story, it’s an ordinary story about an extraordinary time. It is simply and smoothly told. It is just a narrow window into a particular time in Burmese history, but the British colonial history and the Japanese occupation are key, I think, to understanding modern Burma. A World Overturned is also much more accessible to a neophyte than a more ambitious book like The River of Lost Footsteps....more
“No other intellectual movement, no other period in history, has attracted so much disagreement, so much intransigence, so much simple anger.”
Pagden a“No other intellectual movement, no other period in history, has attracted so much disagreement, so much intransigence, so much simple anger.”
Pagden avoids the common practice of focusing on the Scottish Enlightenment and French Enlightenment to the derogation of the broader Enlightenment and thinkers who were neither Scottish nor French (nor Kant). The Enlightenment was “most closely linked to France, the German-speaking lands, Britain and her American colonies.” That is, it in many ways sprung from Protestant roots (although I doubt Pagden would put it quite that way). It was in many ways a product of the Wars of Religion and the discovery of the New World.
He hits pre-Enlightenment thinkers like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, major Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, and a number of lesser known (to me, if no one else) Enlightenment thinkers like Pufendorf, Hutcheson, Shaftesbury, and Genovesi.
Regarding Christianity, Pagden starts out hyperbolic, dealing out invective. Nothing good, as Pagden tells it, could possibly come from religion. Any Enlightenment thinker who professed to faith was, in Pagden’s thinking, obviously only doing so to avoid censorship and persecution (or prosecution) for heresy (some, yes, but certainly not all).
The change comes rather abruptly. Pagden does admit that “the Enlightenment was an exclusively European phenomenon, shared only with Europe’s overseas settler populations, and it could never have arisen except in a broadly Christian world. It was, in a sense, a form of secularized Christianity.” But he shortly follows it with something more resembling a rant than philosophy or intellectual history (the words “simpled-minded” and “willfully deceptive” come up).
His position is curious and here, again, we see the problem with his failure to clearly delineate between his own thinking and that of Enlightenment thinkers. Sure, Voltaire could count up nine and a half million dead at the hands of “Christian barbarities” by his (surely generous) count, but the modern reader has the advantage of knowing that self-avowedly post-Christian isms would be responsible for the deaths of tens and hundreds of millions in a few short decades. Christianity now looks much better, if only relatively. His statement that “it was not generally atheists who committed the worst atrocities against their fellow men but, as the Wars of Religion had amply demonstrated, devout religious believers of one persuasion or another” well demonstrates the issue. One could make such an argument with only 18th century information (albeit susceptible to a charge of more than a little navel-gazing). No one can seriously make such an argument after the events of the mid-20th century.
For whatever reason, though, Pagden’s rantings lose steam in the latter part of the book and religion comes up less and when it does is discussed more sensibly. Pagden recognizes that modern racism is “largely the product of the development of the biological sciences in the nineteenth century” but is unafraid to criticize Enlightenment thinkers on their views on other races (most of which are depressingly retrograde). Perhaps his best contribution is the reaction to the Enlightenment. He covers the conservative reaction to the French Revolution (Burke and the less well known Rehberg), as well as nationalism, collectivism, and multiculturalism.
Disclosure: I received a complementary e-copy of this book through NetGalley....more
The best thing that can be said about Brown’s new biography of Tolkien is also the worst: it is very short. 192 pages (in paperback) isn’t much room tThe best thing that can be said about Brown’s new biography of Tolkien is also the worst: it is very short. 192 pages (in paperback) isn’t much room to tell the story of anyone’s life, let alone Tolkien’s. I haven’t read a book on Tolkien—other than Tom Shippey’s masterful Author of the Century—since I was in school, but Brown doesn’t seem to cover any new ground. As is to be expected of a book from a Christian publisher, Brown gives ample attention to Tolkien’s faith, but Tolkien’s faith is hardly novel. I did find the discussion of the trouble his mother’s conversion (and his along with her) to Catholicism interesting; it’s the sort of thing it’s easy for a modern American to discount. His friendship with C.S. Lewis is another expected focus, but despite the relative attention it gets the length of the book demands that it come off as cursory nonetheless. Tolkien’s crooked road to academia—he was initially a poor student because he spent all his time on Germanic languages rather than the Classics he majored in—is another highlight; his actual career in academia is barely mentioned. All in all, I enjoyed it and I’m glad I read it, but if you’re a hardcore Tolkien fan don’t expect much, if anything, new.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-copy of Tolkien via NetGalley....more
“Sydney Pearl” is a bearded college dropout who somehow lucked into a position with Southwest where her union contract would ensure a willingness to c“Sydney Pearl” is a bearded college dropout who somehow lucked into a position with Southwest where her union contract would ensure a willingness to continue to show up for work would trump any incompetence. Inexplicably, this left her pissed off, and she has written this book to let you. Let me be very clear, this book is not intended for your entertainment. Ms. Pearl thinks you are rude and disgusting—you can tell, because she uses these words over and over and OVER again—and she expects you to sit there and take it. Despite generous pay she is more than happy to brag about, Pearl is somehow under the impression that her customers exist to serve her and not the other way around. Not that I have any desire to defend travelers. A frequent traveler myself, Lord knows there are plenty of opportunities for complaint. And Pearl hits on many of these. Unfortunately, she has a rare ability to make the reader hate her, even when she should be in the right. The only thing positive I can think to say about this book is that I didn’t have to pay for it because I got a free copy to review. I still the worse for the exchange, though....more
Rebellion, which is evidently (I haven’t read the previous volumes) the third book in a history of England, covers not much more than a century. But iRebellion, which is evidently (I haven’t read the previous volumes) the third book in a history of England, covers not much more than a century. But it was a very important century of English history, spanned by the rules of two Jameses, two Charleses, two revolutions (one normal, one glorious), and two Cromwells. In the process Parliament firmly took a dominant position over the monarch and England finally came to grip with Protestant dissent.
It was a period during which the last heretic was burned in England, the Thirty Years War took place on the Continent, Shakespeare wrote many of his plays, the First and Second Bishop’s Wars were fought in Scotland, the Star Chamber was abolished, publication of pamphlets and tracts exploded, English soldiers put on red coats, coffee and tea hit the scene, and Whig and Tory entered the parlance of the time.
It is a period defined by the struggle between Parliament and King. The King is forever dissolving or proroguing Parliament, and Parliament is forever denying the King funds and chastising him, and being chastised in turn. We also see the beginnings of modern politics, with contested elections and parties. The tension between military and legislature during the Protectorate presages much of 20th Century history in many countries. The English Civil War was in part but not entirely a religious conflict, in part but not entirely a class conflict, and in part but not entirely a interregional conflict. The idea that all power springs from the people appears, and England briefly has a written constitution. A larger portion of the population perished than in WWI.
I remain somewhat conflicted as to Ackroyd’s treatment of religion. He sometimes makes statements downplaying its importance to the events covered that are contradicted by his own narrative. But there was obviously much else going on, and I’m left adjusting my view of the importance religion played downward.
The role of the law and the debates over it recede in prominence to the narrative after Coke’s time. That has less to do with a change in the role law played than a drawback to Ackroyd’s approach, which tends to emphasize individuals.
Rebellion can’t by any measure be regarded as a cultural history, but Ackroyd touches on culture on a regular basis, for color if nothing else. There is a distinct lean toward the bawdy.
My (selfish) remaining complaint is that the English colonies are largely absent from the story. This is unfortunate, for example, because of the effect events in England had on immigration patterns to America, which did much to establish a unique American culture.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-copy of Rebellion through NetGalley....more
Hoyland (or his publisher) chose a funny name for Hoyland’s book on the Arab conquests. So much of Hoyland’s thought-provoking and groundbreaking bookHoyland (or his publisher) chose a funny name for Hoyland’s book on the Arab conquests. So much of Hoyland’s thought-provoking and groundbreaking book downplays the role of religion and Islam. Any historian of the birth of Islam and the Arab conquest faces a basic problem—essentially all of the Arabic sources were written two centuries later. Hoyland adopts a sensible response that is otherwise avoided, I assume, due to academic siloing and language barriers. That is, he consults contemporary, non-Arabic sources.
These are frequently Christian sources, but another major theme of Hoyland’s work is that religious differences were not as important then as centuries later. Early Muslims tended to divide the world between adherents of Abrahamic religions and pagans. The Middle East of the time was pluralistic. Certain unorthodox Christian sects had been persecuted by the orthodox and welcomed a more forgiving Arab rule. Later Islamic sources see only Muslims and infidels, Persians and Turks; Christian and other contemporary sources show a rich tapestry of religions and ethnic groups. Islam only broke “away from the more narrow Judeao-Christian focus” after “east Iran/Transoxania provided a majority of the troops who would overthrow the Umayyad dynasty in AD 750.”
Hoyland pushes back against the idea that the Arab armies sprang forth from a desert nowhere. “Arab tribesmen had been serving in the armies of Byzantium and Persia in large numbers in the fifth and sixth centuries.” It is true that nomadic Arabs played an important role in the conquering armies (nomadic people can produce roughly twice the soldiers per capita) but there were a number of Arabs living in cities in the Levant and much of the early Arab armies were drawn from Yemen, which had been civilized for centuries. The Arabs were exposed not only to the Byzantine and Persians but also Ethiopians and Indians.
Hoyland also pushes back against the idea that the Arabs deserve all the credit for toppling the Persian Empire and crippling the Byzantine one. The Byzantine and Persian empires had conspired for their own demise through over a century of costly war. Those empires also suffered heavily from a plague that didn’t hit the more dispersed Arabs as hard. The Arabs co-opted a long tradition of cutting agreements with conquered peoples to respect life, property, and customs in return for submission and tribute.
Hoyland redefines the role of Islam. Islam was not the all-important factor as it is sometimes treated, but it played a key role. It helped the Arabs develop the strong organization necessary to conquer and govern their large empire. Islam’s initial tolerance “distinguished it from Christendom” and “enabled Christians and Jews to make a substantial contribution to the intellectual life of the Islamic world.” Conversion only took place slowly (in part because more Muslims meant more diluted spoils), and non-Muslims “formed the majority of the population of the Middle East for at least the first three centuries after the death of Muhammad.” It goes beyond the scope of the book, but of course it was religion that took Islam past the “natural barriers and well-organised states” that stopped Arab armies. On the opposite side of the coin, the lack of an organized clerical hierarchy robbed the Arab Empire of a potential source of imperial support.
Hoyland also redefines what it meant to be “Arab” at the time. It was already applicable to a number of non-ethnically Arab people in the Levant in Muhammad’s time who spoke Arabic, and became in the Arab Empire “a term like ‘American,’ applied to people with very different roots, but who have shared cultural values and a common language.” The Arabicization led to a cultural boom as texts from other nation-states “were translated into Arabic, studied, and made a part of the intellectual worldview of Islamic civilization.”
In discussing the decline of the Arab Empire, Hoyland covers geographic scope and exposure to nomads like the Turks and Mongols, but also touches on the vulnerability to climate fluctuations of the marginal, arid lands of much of the empire. That’s not a point unknown the literature, I think, but one less prevalent in popular histories.
The bulk of the book, which concerns the conquests themselves, suffers from sparse source material. Without accounts of tactics and weaponry employed, it inevitably turns into a tiresome string of dates and names. The section on the Islamicization and Arabicization of the Middle East doesn’t suffer the same weakness and is much stronger. This is a book from an academic publisher, but it doesn’t read like it. Hoyland addresses scholarly dispute without robbing the story of its narrative force.
Disclosure: I received a free, advance copy through NetGalley....more
Eaude explores Catalonia, the other great unSpanish region of Spain along with the Basque country, in this cultural history. He looks not just at tradEaude explores Catalonia, the other great unSpanish region of Spain along with the Basque country, in this cultural history. He looks not just at traditional art and architecture but also food, music, and sport. He also ventures far afield from Catalonia’s great metropolis, Barcelona, to the hamlets of the coast and mountains and everything in between. Eaude keeps the focus on Catalonia’s cultural history, but quite a bit of other history seeps in, especially of the Franco dictatorship....more
Pets are booming. Dog and cat ownership has quadrupled since the mid-60s and more households have dogs or cats than children. How we as a society viewPets are booming. Dog and cat ownership has quadrupled since the mid-60s and more households have dogs or cats than children. How we as a society view dogs and cats has changed rapidly as well. It’s that change, and the change in how the law views pets, that is Grimm’s focus.
Grimm starts with a short history of domestication. Not much changed in how we viewed pets, and animals in general, until the birth of animal rights in the Nineteenth Century. Even then, “[b]efore 1986, only four states had felony anticruelty laws. . . . Today, forty-nine states have felony anticruelty legislation on their books.”
Grimm’s most powerful and moving chapter is on Katrina. “Nearly half the Gulf Coast residents who didn’t evacuate during Katrina stayed because of their pets.” Story after story is told of residents who refused to get in the boat with rescue workers, who only agreed after promises regarding the pets were made, and who saw their pets tossed overboard. The aftermath forced policymakers to realize that emergency evacuation plans now have to account for pets.
Grimm touches on the dark side of animal rights activism, although he never quite throws the opprobrium at it that it deserves. The very first organized “animal rights” movement led to euthanasia on an industrial scale. The Humane Society of the United States supported the extermination of feral cats until 2006. I’m talking about the sort of people who “love dogs” but “if there were two dogs left in the world” wouldn’t let them breed.
Grimm also all too casually—and without any examination—repeatedly compares animal rights to the Civil Rights Movement. Setting aside the inherent racism, the comparison isn’t apt. Unlike blacks, animals can’t speak for or organize themselves. Children’s rights is a more apt comparison, although most children have some ability to give their own thoughts on the matter. As seen in the preceding paragraph, when animal rights activists take animals’ lives into their own hands they far too often value those lives far too cheaply. A modified traditional, property-based, approach to animal rights makes the most sense because it is owners that have better motivation and information to act in the best interests of their pets than anyone else. Grimm doesn’t seem to see this, though.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Citizen Canine through NetGalley....more
Fresh from a successful Knutsen case, and owning a college, film studies professor DeFino sets his sights on HBO, that behemoth of subscriber televisiFresh from a successful Knutsen case, and owning a college, film studies professor DeFino sets his sights on HBO, that behemoth of subscriber television that has so successfully straddled the divide between auteur and 13-year-old boy.
The cover implies something more along the lines of The Revolution was Televised and Difficult Men, but Mad Men is barely mentioned and The Sopranos hardly dominates. This is a book about HBO. It covers a lot of ground on that subject—technical and business, comedy and drama, history and present—and not much otherwise other than to provide context. It also has a distinctly academic cast.
DeFino does almost everything well. The business and technical history of HBO aren’t in his wheelhouse, but his history is as informative as it is succinct. There is a long discussion of comedy and HBO, especially of George Carlin. Its two big shows about women—Sex and the City and Girls—are far from ignored; nor are the gender implications of the sex shows and frequent appeals to purience. Punctiliously fair, he even makes a game attempt at conservatives in regards to HBO’s politically-oriented offerings and fantasy readers in regards to Game of Thrones, although you’re left wondering whether he knows anyone from either group.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-copy of The HBO Effect via NetGalley....more
Biographers of musicians tend to face the same basic problem: outside of their music and antics, musicians tend to be as boring as anyone else (and foBiographers of musicians tend to face the same basic problem: outside of their music and antics, musicians tend to be as boring as anyone else (and for many the music isn’t of much interest). Johnny Cash was different. He was an intelligent man, devouring books on history and religion. He was an iconoclast, when musicians’ views are more often as predictable and conformist as they are simplistic. He had a deep abiding love for and commitment to gospel music, despite resistance from the music industry and a spotty record of church attendance. He did, like so many musicians, have serious drug problems, but Hilburn doesn’t make that the focus of his biography. Rather, he keeps the focus exactly where it should be—on the music. It’s a testament to the strength of Cash’s songwriting that Hilburn can include so much of so many songs. They work as well as poetry as they do as songs, even the ones I wasn’t yet familiar with.
Cash was a titan of music. What other musician could you write a 700 page biography on that would feel shallow in parts. Cash’s career spanned across so many decades (from the 50s on) and trends in music (rockabilly to folk to outlaw country) and he interacted with so many other great musicians (from Elvis to Bob Dylan to Kris Kristofferson) and public figures (Nixon and Billy Graham) that inevitably something will leave you wanting more. Hilburn hits the most important points well, though, from the prison shows to Cash’s passion for the downtrodden to his drug addiction (at too great length, that, but that’s Cash’s fault) to his triumphant final act with Rick Rubin. The book is packed with vignettes, like Cash being one of only three musicians to write Steve Earle a note while he was in jail for cocaine and weapons possession. Hilburn writes it all well and with a deep knowledge of the music (if with = a hint of snobbishness).
Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-copy of Johnny Cash: A Life via NetGalley....more