Bartolomé de las Casas became briefly internet famous late last year thanks to this Oatmeal comic. Which is great - it's a fascinating story and the m...moreBartolomé de las Casas became briefly internet famous late last year thanks to this Oatmeal comic. Which is great - it's a fascinating story and the more people know about ugly history of New World imperialism the better. I read sections of the Destruction of the Indies back in college, but the full text is available for free from Project Gutenberg so I checked out. (Interestingly, the translation posted on PG dates from England in the 1600s and has a few lines of anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic propaganda appended to the beginning. Because of course the British Empire would never, ever mistreat the native people in their colonies.)
It turns out that reading selections from the book is probably adequate. It's more interesting as an important historical document than as, you know, a book that you read. The account is quite repetitive and consistently gruesome. Spaniards arrive to a region in the New World, the natives are unfailingly polite and welcoming, their generosity is repaid by brutal murder and robbery. Rinse. Repeat. But at least it is short, as advertised. At a more general level, it is fascinating to consider the life of someone who was so counter-cultural, and who managed to stand up for the basic tenets of justice in an environment of such impunity.(less)
Moises Hassan is a ex-Sandinista politician of some note. A U.S.-educated physicist, he was a member of the five-person junta who assumed control of t...moreMoises Hassan is a ex-Sandinista politician of some note. A U.S.-educated physicist, he was a member of the five-person junta who assumed control of the government in 1979 after Somoza fled, and was later mayor of Managua. However in 1988 he became the first high-level Sandinista to publicly break with the FSLN, accusing them of corruption and a general betrayal of the revolution. His exit from the party was a precursor to the schism that happened after their loss in the 1990 elections, when many former comrades broke with Daniel Ortega. Hassan's prescience bolstered his reputation as an independent and principled voice in Nica politics. He has played a Ralph Nader-like role in the decades since: honorable, but marginal, with a couple of doomed presidential runs under his belt.
He's an interesting guy, so it's too bad that he's not very good at writing books. Actually, it's not too surprising - most people aren't very good at writing books. His memoir reads a lot like what you would expect from the un-edited musings of an amateur writer. For starters, the book is almost comically disorganized. The chapters have no discernible themes and meander through recent Nicaraguan history, sometimes bouncing back and forth by decades. He belabors minor points for pages on end, but neglects to add in the necessary context that would make the book more readable. In other words, this is a book in desperate need of an editor.
More problematic is the book's tone and its framing device. Hassan takes the colonial-era folk-theater of El Güegüense as a metaphor for all that is wrong with Nicaraguan political culture: the acceptance of lies and deceit as a way to personal gain. Hence the "curse" of the book's title. With this metaphor in hand, Hassan indicts every major Nicaraguan politician, not just Somoza, not just Ortega and Alemán, but Violeta Chamorro, Enrique Bolaños and so on down the line. In the end, he concludes that the fault is not in the leaders but in the quality of the citizenry that lifts those leaders up. Although corruption is indeed a serious problem, this strikes me as bad sociology that seriously undersells the strengths of the Nicaraguan people. He is raising serious questions, although he admits he doesn't know the answers.
At times he writes as if he were the only honest man in the country, which lends his writing an unpleasant bitter aftertaste. His version of the revolution is a series of endless meetings between government functionaries in sterile offices where someone says something corrupt, or mendacious, or cowardly. In short the book is too disorganized to be read as history, too impersonal for a memoir, and too defeatist to serve as a manifesto. A better organized and edited volume would certainly be worth the effort.(less)
A highly readable popular work on encryption, from the earliest substitution ciphers up through the Enigma machines of WWII, modern public-key encrypt...moreA highly readable popular work on encryption, from the earliest substitution ciphers up through the Enigma machines of WWII, modern public-key encryption, and the possibility of quantum computation. Singh's book is really a textbook piece of popular science writing. Pick a topic that is (1) highly technical, but also (2) romantic and exciting. (3) Identify an organizing scheme (here: the arms race between code-makers and code-breakers) that you can return to periodically and use that principle to lay out the (4) history *and* (5) provide a pedagogical introduction to the concepts. The author hits all highlights and unless you're already an expert you're very likely to learn something. This is of course not the first or necessarily the best book on cryptography, but it's a fun intro.(less)
Kinzer's book on Nicaragua in the 1980s, Blood of Brothers, is one of the best and most engaging histories I've read in recent years. (Seriously, if you're at all interested in Latin America or US foreign policy, you should pick it up). But where that book was a panoramic look at revolutionary Nicaragua seen through the lens of a reporter's experiences, Bitter Fruit is much narrower in scope, an intensely detailed analysis of a brief period of time in a small country, much of it based on diplomatic cables and internal documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
The precipitating event for the coup was the agrarian and land reform undertaken by the Arévalo and Arbenz governments, attempting to address the vast social inequalities that had existed in Guatemala since the time of the conquista. In particular, Arbenz sought to take the vast tracts of unused land owned by the Boston-based United Fruit Company and redistribute it to poor farmers. (In an ironic twist, Arbenz offered to pay the greatly undervalued price that UFCo had submitted as its tax evaluation.) The fruit company had enjoyed decades of monopoly, virtually un-taxed profits, unenforced labor laws, compliant governments and full ownership of the country's only Atlantic port and railway. It was practicing capitalism at its most primal, and it had earned an unsavory reputation in most of Central America. Pablo Neruda even wrote a poem about the company's influence.
The authors make the case that Arévalo and Arbenz were not Communists, but rather liberal reformers who admired FDR and wanted to bring the New Deal to Guatemala. Naturally, their reforms were portrayed as a "Soviet beachhead" in the Americas by McCarthy-era Washington, DC. UFCo's lobbying and public relations efforts soon attracted the attention of the incoming Eisenhower administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA chief Allen Dulles, quickly put together a small-scale but effective operation to isolate, weaken and ultimately knock Arbenz out of power. It's a pretty intriguing story, replete with phony radio broadcasts, disguised arms shipments, chartered Cessnas dropping leaflets and other 1950s-tech spy stuff.
In a way, it is grimly amusing to see how easy it was to show Arbenz the door. The CIA was even (mostly) able to keep their name out of the press accounts, which presented the coup as the work of anti-Communist Guatemalan patriots. Future CIA operations would not be quite so clean. However, the mendacity of this sort of work does take your breath away when you see it spelled out in all its cynical glory. I recall in particular a US attempt to fake a bombing just over the border in Honduras to better portray Guatemala as an aggressive nation who was a danger to its neighbors. Blame your enemies for your own worst sins, I guess.
As the book's final chapter shows, the 40 years following the coup offered neither stability nor democracy. The authoritarian Castillo Armas lasted three years before being assassinated. He was succeeded by a series of military leaders who oversaw the descent of Guatemala into a lawless right-wing state stalked by death squads. Unable to enact even mild reforms, the left and the indigenous groups retreated to the jungle to wage guerrilla warfare, while the generals hunted them down, along with trade unionists, student leaders, dissident priests and anyone who might pose a challenge to their authority. By the time the peace accords were signed in 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans were dead or disappeared.
All too often US foreign policy has mistaken the legitimate grievances and nationalist ambitions of other nations for communist subversion, and has acted to place US business interests above respect for democracy or human rights. Guatemala is an unusually clear and uncomplicated example of this. In addition to the tragic consequences for those affected, it's not even clear that this strategy succeeds on its own terms. The 1954 coup only looks like a US victory in the very short term. After that it's a bit of a disaster.(less)
Lots of books are described as labors of love, but Paul Dix and Pamela Fitzpatrick's somber, moving photo essay certainly qualifies. During the Contra...moreLots of books are described as labors of love, but Paul Dix and Pamela Fitzpatrick's somber, moving photo essay certainly qualifies. During the Contra War of the 1980s, Dix was a Witness for Peace photographer documenting the consequences of war for rural Nicaraguans living in the war zones. Decades later the authors returned to Nicaragua with a stack of 100 photos and criss-crossed the country in buses trying to track down the (usually unnamed) faces found there. Some people were found in the very same village, others had migrated across the country. The result is a beautiful but harrowing portrait of a nation in recovery.
To be honest, the book is fairly grim in places. The contras targeted civilians, especially those with ties to the Sandinistas - literacy volunteers, farm-coop members and the like. And so we meet orphaned children, widows and widowers, grieving parents and an overwhelming number of people who lost limbs to landmines or ambushes. Almost to a person the interviewees say they cannot forget or erase the moment in which violence changed their lives, and even those whose bodies remain whole carry scars. But miraculously, there is a lot of forgiveness found here too. Turning a shoulder to the past is a necessity, in part because contras and Sandinistas come from the same families, still live together in the same villages, and still congregate at the same churches.
By and large, the economic situation for the people had not changed much in the follow-up interviews and the neo-liberal governments that followed the 1990 elections had rolled back many of the Sandinista reforms regarding access to education and health care. The subtext of the book (as well as the subtitle) is the consequences of U.S. policy, and the authors often pose the question, "What would you say to the people of the United States?" More than one person connects U.S. involvement in Nicaragua in the '80s to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. (Many of the follow-up interviews were conducted in 2002 during the run-up to the Iraq war.)
The U.S. is seemingly constantly at war, but we always arrange to conduct those wars in somebody else's backyard. This book is a reminder of the terrible costs that war exacts on the locals. These sorts of books are typically published years after the war in question is finished, but they still carry important truths that we should keep in mind for the next one.(less)
A pretty entertaining read. Grann tells the tale of Percy Fawcett, an old-school British explorer who disappeared in the 1920s in the Amazon looking f...moreA pretty entertaining read. Grann tells the tale of Percy Fawcett, an old-school British explorer who disappeared in the 1920s in the Amazon looking for the titular lost city. He weaves this together with stories of other obsessives who have followed in search of Fawcett, including the author himself, whose interest in the story leads him to visit the same region where Fawcett disappeared.
For me, the most interesting subtext of the book was the shifting scientific perspectives on the Amazon and its inhabitants -- from the fantastical initial accounts of the conquistadores to the age of scientific colonialism and up through the fascinating recent archaeological discoveries indicating that the region did in fact support advanced, centralized farming civilizations in the centuries before the Spanish arrival.
As others have noted, the ending is a little ridiculous. Grann's considerable showmanship slightly outstrips the content of the story, giving it the occasional feel of a poorly-produced reality TV show that keeps over-promising a big reveal at the end that it can't realistically deliver on. Perhaps this has something to do with how the book started out as a New Yorker article, before being expanded for publication. It's too bad, since the reveal at the end is actually pretty cool, from a scientific perspective.(less)
A fairly dry academic treatise on U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean. Published in 1982, it's necessarily an incomplete history th...moreA fairly dry academic treatise on U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean. Published in 1982, it's necessarily an incomplete history that misses out on Iran-Contra, the Panama invasion and other notable variations on the theme. Still, it is a valuable piece of historical research, stuffed with information. The explanation and analysis of U.S. economic dominance in the region is especially valuable, since that often takes a backseat to the political and military interventions that normally grab headlines, but is in many ways more important to understand.(less)
Diamond's previous book Guns Germs and Steel was for me (and lots of other people, I think) a real eye-opener. There were 5 or 6 ideas in that book th...moreDiamond's previous book Guns Germs and Steel was for me (and lots of other people, I think) a real eye-opener. There were 5 or 6 ideas in that book that I had never even heard mention of before reading, but that seem so elegant and obvious upon reflection. To give just one example, the way the east-west orientation of the Eurasian continent facilitates travel and the spread of crops and ideas, in contrast to the north-south orientations of Africa and the Americas, which hinder that spread. Regardless of whether you fully buy into his overall argument, it was a masterpiece of popular science writing.
Collapse continues that high-level of quality, although the tenor of the work is different. Rather than a collection of diverse ideas supporting one theme, Diamond applies a set of 5 factors to explain the collapses of several ancient civilizations -- Easter Island, Pitcairn/Henderson, the Anasazi, the Classic Period Maya and the Norse in Greenland. This gives the book more of a repetitive feel than Guns, but the romance of ancient civilizations and his beautiful explanations are more than enough to keep you glued to the pages.
The second half of the book addresses collapses in the modern world (Rwanda, Haiti) or current societies that are probably unsustainable (China, Australia). In these sections you can sense that Diamond is a little out of his element. The chapter on China is an especially deadly litany of environmental statistics offered with little real insight into the complexity of that country. He closes the book with a generally interesting discussion of sustainability in the modern world.
Like its predecessor, Collapse is a synthesis of a very large body of scientific work, which naturally means that it is not the last word on any of these topics. He alludes briefly to some of the controversies found within the scientific communities that study these civilizations. The book has also spawned some pushback in the form of a collection of essays -- Questioning Collapse. I don't think it's a big knock on a work of popular writing, but it's important to note that there are other perspectives out there on these complicated questions.(less)
Dickey spent some time dodging bullets with the Contra comandante "Suicida" in the north of Nicaragua and his vivid recollections of that time form th...moreDickey spent some time dodging bullets with the Contra comandante "Suicida" in the north of Nicaragua and his vivid recollections of that time form the heart of the book. But his reconstruction of the creation of the Contras (the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces, or FDN) following the 1979 Sandinista revolution is just as fascinating. His thoroughly reported history is a glimpse into the murky world of CIA covert operations, touching on El Salvador's network of right-wing death squads, Cuban-funded left-wing guerrillas, and the ever-shifting alliances of Latin American politics. The narrative swashbuckles like a spy thriller, but, you know, in real life.
The picture that emerges of Suicida in particular and the Contras in general is not pretty. While many of the Contra footsoldiers were small farmers with legitimate grievances with the (often corrupt and/or incompetent) Sandinista government, the book makes clear that the Contras were birthed by exiled officers of Somoza's guardia, nurtured by significant funding from the CIA and given political cover from the highest reaches of the Reagan administration. It's no surprise that war turns out to be hell, and Dickey describes in detail the unrestrained violence of the contra forces: attacks on civilian centers, bus bombings, bridge detonations, land mines, forced conscription, execution of prisoners, even the mining of a civilian harbor.
The main message that emerges from the narrative is that conflict strengthens the hard-liners on both sides, making negotiation impossible. Reagan believed the Sandinistas to be a Soviet beach-head in the Americas, so he organized a Contra assault on the country. The Sandinistas responded by declaring a state of emergency and turning to Russia for support and arms. The ideologues on both sides were able to say to their more conciliatory colleagues, "See, I told you so."(less)
Blood of Brothers is a fascinating and highly readable history of Nicaragua written by the former New York Times bureau chief in Managua. Kinzer was a...moreBlood of Brothers is a fascinating and highly readable history of Nicaragua written by the former New York Times bureau chief in Managua. Kinzer was a first-hand witness to much of Nicaragua's turbulent '80s -- from the last days of the Somoza dictatorship through the Sandinista revolution, civil war with the U.S.-backed contras and the eventual ceasefire. Online consensus seems to be that this is the place to start if you're interested in learning about the country, but I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good recent history.
Like many good journalists, Kinzer writes with a lot of dynamic range -- he's good with both the grand historical sweep as well as intimate interviews with ordinary Nicaraguans. You get the sense that he is sympathetic to the Sandinista cause, but some of the book's most vivid scenes describe the economic shortages, petty tyrannies and general misrule of the comandantes. The result is big-hearted, fair-minded and never dull.(less)
Covering only six action-packed years -- from the Easter Rising in 1916 to his assassination in 1922 during the Irish Civil War -- Coogan's biography...moreCovering only six action-packed years -- from the Easter Rising in 1916 to his assassination in 1922 during the Irish Civil War -- Coogan's biography of the Irish nationalist leader is an undeniably exciting read. It also aspires to be the definitive word on Collins, and Coogan has assembled every last scrap of correspondence and interviewed seemingly every living participant to get the story down on paper.
It is clear that the author has a great admiration for his subject, and a strong dislike for his primary rival, Eamon de Valera. This noticeable slant did make me wonder a little about the author's treatment of some episodes where the historical record is sketchy, but he is also more than willing to point out Collins' faults and failures. Coogan also delves into the mythology surrounding Collins and his death, dispelling some pervasive rumors and providing ammunition for others.
The most striking passages illustrate the way the Civil War (and the continuing Northern Troubles) wounded Ireland in a way that is only now starting to heal. Although Collins was shot by IRA soldiers who opposed the treaty he signed because it gave Ireland only an incomplete independence from Britain, it seems clear that even his enemies held him in the highest regard.
My one complaint would be that the book could be more readable than it is. The prose style is both dryly academic and oddly colloquial, and the author assumes quite a lot British and Irish history. Nothing that a few quick wikipedia searches didn't clarify, but not as inviting as it could have been.(less)