These are some of the books that I've read over the last year. They are my favorites. I recommend each one. They are special to me and I hope you will try one of them and share my discoveries.
Last Updated: 12.14.2003
What am I reading now?
Enemy Aliens - David Cole
How the Federal Government is dealing with Civil Rights in its war on terrorism.
Everything and More _ A Compact History of Infinity - David Wallace
This may be utterly over my head. The last math class I took was in high school and I had to go to summer school to pass.
As wonderful as ever. A magical tour through the imagination.
Political Ethics in an age of Terror.
On the suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy.
The last years of the Roman Republic and its shift into Imperial rule.
The Dominion of The Dead
How do the living maintain relations with the dead? Why do we bury people when they die? In a literate tour de force he draws from Greek history, literature, poetry, biblical writing and writers such as Dante, Virgil, Nietzche and Vico. This is a humbling book, beautifully written, This is my Christmas Book. I sent a copy to a multitude of friends in the hope that they enjoy it as much as I have. The world of the living is indeed made up from the past. To be human means to come after those who have passed. When we see a six foot mound in the forest with a crude marker, we instinctively know that there lies someone who has died and we recognize the mortality of those who dug the grave and in ourselves. It is no accident that the Sema Greek word for sign is also the word for grave. His analysis of the power of the Vietnam Memorial is haunting. A humbling book to read.
Robert Pogue Harrison
Winning Modern Wars
I am a champion of Wesley Clark. He first came to my attention when Samantha Power sang his praises in her book on 20th century genocide - A Problem From Hell. I read his book, Waging Modern War last year - before the war in Iraq. I comment about it further down. This book was written after the war in Iraq and around the time that he must have started to consider running for president. He takes the Bush administration to task for its reckless disregard for international law and the accumulation of good will, principal and probity that the US had built. In a few short years all of this has been squandered. He is very clear about the errors made and equally clear about the paths that must be followed. Clark was taken to task over his support for the war in Iraq. This was always quite unfair. He was never against the war. Who could oppose the overthrow of a ruthless dictator who had slaughtered so many and continued to represent a threat? He is clear, however, that any unilateral solution would be a disaster. In an instant, the US lost a generation of international respect.
Complete Essays of Montaigne
The utterly rational and lucid writings of a soldier scholar that rings true 400 years after his death. Montaigne wrote about life, morality, mortality and practical matters in a way that few had ever attempted before. His words are sobering and often funny as well. A remarkable man for his time and for today. This is not a book in the conventional sense. It is merely a collection of letters and writings to friends and associates, but it is soothing and comforting. One can draw more comfort from this than any amount of therapy could. I recommend an essay or two whenever trouble looms.
Gulag: A History
What a horror story. This is not a pleasant book to read. Applebaum starts off with the observation that students peddle quaint Soviet Union badges and other soviet era memorabilia in Europe. It is cute a quirky no? What if they were selling Nazi memorabilia? What if students thought it was cute and quirky to walk around with SS Deaths Head badges? Of course we would be appalled. The story of the Gulag is almost unbearable in its duration, the suffering of those who lives through it or the national insanity that was required to endure it. The economy of the people's paradise was founded on slave labor. After a decade or two of constant slaughter, Beria had the incite that it might make more sense to feed the slaves of the Gulag at least enough to keep them alive if any useful economic result was to result. Most American's know the Gulag from Alexander Solzhenitsyn writings. It is worth remembering that this was radical writing championed by Khrushechev who also brought the horrors of the Gulag into the glare of public light and condemned the party and his peers for their participation. The Gulag started in the midst of the revolution. As the years passed, it grew more efficient. Driven by Stalins lunacy, hundreds of thousands died every year. The conditions were beyond description. The human toll must still be measured today, but Applebaum wrote this history to make sure that those who died might not be forgotten.
The Great Unraveling
Paul Krugman is a favorite columnist in the New York Times. I had to buy and read this book if only as a show of support. It contains very little original material. It is a collection from the past three years of columns. What is haunting is how accurately he predicted in years past the political, economic and even foreign problem that we face today.
A probing examination of what it means to be true to oneself and the multitude of ways that we fake it - either to ourselves or to others. Miller probes our efforts at good deeds, our perceptions of motive and the ways in which our own self doubt tortures us. He does this with great clarity and humor. This is a book on morality and practicality. He examines the differences between sincerity and humility. He uses examples from his own life as an often hilarious demonstration of his vision. What an interesting man. He teaches Law at the University of Michigan and writes about morality and mortal thought. His previous book Anatomy of Disgust sounds equally interesting. I plan on reading that soon.
William Ian Miller
The Peloponnesian War
The epic story of a savage war fought over three decades that ultimately tore the Greek world ass sunder. This was a war between empires dragged into conflict by minor squabbles between allies. It just isn't possible to tell summarize this complex story. Kagan weaves his tale with great psychological insight and gives the reader a sense of the frustrating decision making that drew these reluctant empires into conflict. 30 years of conflicts cannot include every player, but Kagan tells his story well. By any measure Athens was hopelessly outmatched on land and its economic empire at risk from a protracted conflict. Pericles rope-a-dope strategy could not be sustained in the long run. Athens reigned supreme at sea. Over the years, Athens destroyed Peloponnesian fleets and even out generaled Spartan armies. Despite the odds, they fought the Spartan Pelopennesian league to a standstill. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, Athens continued with absolute hubris and engaged in an utterly disastrous campaign in Sicily to support a minor ally. When things went amiss in this misguided venture, they sent the balance of their navy and army in all of its imperial splendor into utter disaster. The cream of its navy, army and its best leaders were destroyed in a needless venture. Despite this catastrophe Athens continued to stand against the Peloponnesians and swiftly rebuilt itself, In the end, Athens was defeated at home. Revolution and its penchant for draconian punishment and exile of its leaders in the face of any apparent misfortune denuded it of the administrative, political and military leadership that had enabled it to withstand and often humiliate a militarily superior foe for so many years.
It would be easy for Kagan to draw the obvious modern parallels. The economic and political forces that drove these two empires into conflict read like any period in the 20th century. I suppose those who forget the past are truly doomed to repeat it.
History can be told in many ways. The writer can catalogue events and overwhelm the reader with a torrent of data or a gifted writer like Kagan can give the reader a sense of the why behind decisions - the psychology behind each choice and the effects of individuals on the landscape of time. It is easy to tell history as a sequence of military conflicts and dates, but Kagan brings each character to life and tells his story as a passion play of economics, ego, fear , hubris and calculated risk. A conflict fought 2500 years ago is as fresh as the recent conflict in the Balkans.
Krakatoa - The Day the World Exploded
Winchester weaves a circular tale that is part geology, part history and part culture. To understand the effects of Krakatoa, one must understand how the Portuguese and then the Dutch colonized the South Java seas. To understand Krakatoa one must understand geology and the very recent recognition of the mechanics of the earth and such notions as continental drift and how these things came to be understood. The very notion of continental drift and the powerful forces that drive the continents took generations to fathom and those who first proposed them were seen as crackpots. The final proofs were not made until the 1960's. Winchester tells his tale in circles that drift in and out of these various disciplines. It makes for odd reading. In the end Krakatoa exploded with such force that the sound was hard 2 thousand miles away. The blast wave actually circled the earth 7 times before dissipating. Tens of thousands were killed by tsunamis and their bodies washed ashore all over the world for months. The dust thrown up by the eruption changed worldwide climate for years and for almost a year delighted people the world over with spectacular sunsets. Krakatoa blew itself to pieces, but is slowly growing again. It will explode again. The name Krakatoa is a telegrapher's typo.
Schlosser documents three parts of a vast underground economy that has grown up around puritanical laws and the consequences of greed. The danger of underground economies is that they cannot be measured and of course, cannot be taxed. It is well understood by the treasury that there is far more cash afloat than people are using in documented transactions. They know that it is used to fuel the various underground economies (mostly drugs). In fact, as the treasury continues to print large denomination bills in excess of documented economic use the international drug market and its use of American $100 bills gives us a vast interest free loan. FunnyÉ..
In a nutshell, the increasingly harsh marijuana penalties with extreme mandatory sentences have not reduced the market at all, but they have done two things. They have driven a vast market place underground and the mandatory sentencing (with unbelievably harsh penalties) has shifted the responsibility of judgment from the courts to the prosecutors who can pick the sentence by what charge they want to apply. The net result is an opportunity to bargain at knife point with the accused and life sentences for those who don't have anything to offer. There are people serving life sentences for minor possession sharing cells with people convicted of murder who will get out in three years with good behavior. In fact, there is often pressure to release violent felons to make room for those with mandatory sentences. One may have an opinion one way or the other about Marijuana, but the excessive penalties Schlosser discusses are pretty compelling.
Schlosser next examines the underground economy that surrounds the use and abuse of migrant labor. The financial mechanics are remarkably similar to the plantation economics of the antebellum South. The next time you eat a strawberry, keep in mind that it was picked by hand by an illegal immigrant hired at almost no pay performing back breaking labor that leaves them unable to continue past 40. This is mostly a California phenomenon and the laws there have been carefully structured to allow the growers to shift the blame and risk down to those who can least afford it.
The last market that Schlosser explores is that of Pornography. It has been around for countless millennia. It is well known that the VCR essentially came to life with the advent of pornographic videos available for rent or purchase at home. Anthony Comstock of the eponymous Comstock laws was given free rain for the first half of the 20th century to suppress what he objected to. In the end, pornography became a booming market. Nothing entrances like the forbidden and those countries such as Denmark and Holland with no censorship have found consumption and interest plummeting - except for the tourists. In the end, business is business. Most hotel chains make a substantial profit from showing adult videos and many large media conglomerates have a hidden interest or participation in production. So perhaps this is a happy ending. Here is an underground economy that was just too profitable not to go mainstream.
I saw Roman Polanski's The Pianist. I found it shattering. I saw it with my girlfriend who is from Poland. Szpilman's plight ends with the liberation of Warsaw. A lone truck moved slowly through an utterly shattered Warsaw playing music. It was the Polish national anthem and my girlfriend unthinkingly sang along with it under her breath. The Germans destroyed Warsaw brick by brick in a frenzy of vandalism and it was a Polish national exercise to reconstruct the city from old blueprints and photographs. She told me that she remembered seeing piles of rubble throughout the city as a girl. The movie was wonderful and the scene where Szpilman climbs a wall to look out on the snow bound utter ruin of what was once a beautiful city is a stark image that will remain forever and should become a classic film image. It was in this light that I casually picked up Szpilman's autobiography. His writing is clear and extremely unsentimental. After the war, he wrote the book as a healing exercise. It was published then but quickly suppressed because of his critical comments about the savagery of the Ukrainians. For those who watched the movie, one of the most awful scenes is where the handsome blonde jackbooted officer picks out every other prisoner in a work gang and one by one shoots them. We watched in horror as he paused to reload and continue his handiwork. In the movie we assume this was yet another Nazi officer, but in fact it was a Ukrainian officer and much of the savagery that we see in the movie was perpetrated by the Ukrainians working for the Nazi's. No wonder the USSR suppressed the book.
Szpilman writes with a dry and almost withering coolness. His own survival is a source of sardonic amazement to him. Still, he remained convinced that he would somehow survive and a great concern was that he might injure his hands and not be able to play after the war. The screenplay does a masterful job of turning a very personal first person narrative into a third person story suitable for a screenplay. The movie is wonderful. The screenplay deserved an Oscar, but it was all a sham and the movie is a crime. Dorota the polish woman with whom he flirted early on is a fiction. There was a couple that helped him at great personal risk, but Dorota can be chalked up to dramatic license. The real crime comes with the German officer who saved him in the end and there is a 30 page afterward written by a friend of Szpilman at the end of the book about him. In the movie we see this German officer as an enigmatic cipher that helped Szpilman almost as a casual and arrogant gesture. The promotional posters for the movie carry that image of this officer - handsome, young and arrogant. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a 55-year-old schoolteacher - too old for the front and put in charge of recreational faculties. He spent the war saving Jews. He hid them. He got them false papers. He got them work papers. He cut them out of barbed wire enclosures. At times he even stopped trucks carrying Jews off to camp and extracted under false pretense as many as he could. Throughout the war, he worked to save all that he could. When Szpilman asked Hosenfeld if he was German recoiled in horror, shame and embarrassment. Hosenfeld efforts to save Szpilman's life were not casual. It was what he had done throughout the war. This was why Szpilman made a point of telling Hosenfeld his name so that Szpilman could help him after the war. In Hosenfeld's journal he mourned the lost soul of his country and the horrors that he saw. He knew of the camps and the horrors that lay within. A few excerpts from Wilm Hosenfeld's diary:
We have brought shame upon ourselves that cannot be wiped out: It's a curse that can't be lifted. We deserve no mercy: We are all guilty.
When the Nazi's came to power, we did nothing to stop them; we betrayed our own ideals.
Our entire nation will have to pay for all of these wrongs and this unhappiness, all the crimes we have committed. Many innocent people must be sacrificed before the blood-guilt we've incurred can be wiped out.
This is not the man we saw in the movie. It is a shame, because it is a wonderful story. He died in a Russian POW camp. His widow never knew of his fate, but one by one dozens of the people whose lives he had saved took the time to seek her out and tell her what he had done for them. As a war widow she was impoverished after the war, but the families of those he had saved sent her food and aid packages.
It is really a crime that the character of Wilm Hosenfeld was changed so badly. He was a hero.
Two links with more about Wilm Hosenfeld:
The Language Police
What has happened to our nations schools? Political correctness from the left and right wing conservatism has stripped our schools, tests and textbooks of all soul and purpose. National tests are screened for bias. A profile of George Washington Carver is expunged because a student with a peanut allergy might be upset. Stories about someone in the snow are expunged because someone from a desert climate might not be able to relate. Pressures from all directions cleanse language and content to avoid all possibility of offense. Characters are scored and arranged to ensure an even balance of race, national origin and sex according to each census. Test scores are tested by DIF analysis to eliminate those that different groups score poorly on. Textbooks are selected by state committees and must pass through 100 page bias guideline reviews. Any challenge from any direction is most easily met by eliminating the offending item. Language is adjusted to conform to the world that we wish we lived in. What does this mean? History is stripped of life - it is a view of the world, as we would have liked it to be and not what it was. All cultures are viewed in an uncritical positive light. In fact, only Europe appears to be subject to criticism. Literature is avoided altogether. It is one of the colossal ironies that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 - a book about censorship was bowdlerized to eliminate offending material e.g.. Censored. The end result are text books written by committee, selected by state boards - not teachers - and subject to political challenge from all fronts. Publishers take the path of least resistance and eliminate offending material - to do otherwise is to lose state contracts and lose their business. Two states - Texas and California by virtue of their size essentially control the textbook business and the barren landscape that we offer our nations students. What they face is history without soul, context and perspective literature without art and an education without challenge. The list of banned educational books boggles the mind. Consider for a moment the idea that Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is banned. There are villains on all sides. This is not a right wing conspiracy nor is it only the fault of left wing political correctness. In our effort to strip education of the upsetting and unfamiliar we have stripped it of reality. How are we supposed to learn about the present if we reformat the past? Ravitch has some suggestions: School texts should be subject to the same review process that commercial book market uses. Incredible as it sounds - historians do not review history books. Textbook purchases should be made at the school level and not the state level. This would enhance competition and reduce the opportunity for small and vocal groups from all spectrums to turn our nation's education materials into the pabulum that they are given today. No wonder they are not learning. Each chapter starts with a quote that perfectly tells the story.
The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding - Justice Louis Brandeis
Do you know that NewSpeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year? - George Orwell:1984
There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches - Ray Bradbury Coda to Fahrenheit 451
Any writer who follows guidelines ought to be in advertising - Nat Hentoff
Historians in free countries have a moral and professional obligation not to shirk the difficult issues and subjects that some people would place under a sort of taboo, not to submit to voluntary censorship, but to deal with these matters fairly, honestly, without apologetics, without polemic and of course, competently. Those who enjoy freedom have a moral obligation to use that freedom for those who do not possess it. - Bernard Lewis - Other People's History
Don't you see that the whole aim of newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. - George Orwell: 1984
Many quotes from Orwell - yet another banned book.
Khrushchev - The Man and His Era
Khrushchev was a part of my own childhood. I remember my parents rushing me to the country during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember him banging the table at the UN and screaming, we will crush you! These are the things that I remember. Was he the raging Cold Warrior of my childhood? Was he the crude and sometimes bumbling peasant that many view him as? Perhaps he was all of these things. Like all of the titans of history, he was a complex man whose mortal flaws helped him achieve power and like a Shakespearean tragic figure these same qualities caused his downfall. His life spanned the tumultuous years of Russian history from before the revolution and into the cold war. The early years of Russian revolution are a nightmare of slaughter, deceit and panic. Only the even wilder excesses of Stalin stemmed the early years of execution purge. Most people have little idea of the lunatic asylum in which Soviet politics swirled. Khrushchev was a rural working class, peasant with a powerful intellect. Throughout his life, he was frustrated and embarrassed by his lack of education. In fact, all of the early soviet leaders labored under this self imposed cloud. Khrushchev became one of Stalin's inner circle. Energetic and enthusiastic, he was nevertheless viewed by his peers as a buffoon. In that sense, he was not perceived as a threat. To serve under Stalin was to serve in a madhouse. They sent hundreds of thousands of to death or the Gulag. Even Khrushchev's own daughter in law spent 20 years in the Gulag. Could he have saved her? Possibly not, but any attempt to do so would have spelled his doom. It is important to remember that this is the world that the soviet leaders grew up in. To serve under Stalin was to serve with Satan and to turn aside was to doom oneself and one's family. Friend viewed friend with suspicion. Friends turned against friend. This was madness. This was the world that Orwell, Bradbury, Huxley were really writing about. Stalin died of a stroke. His acolytes and attendants were so terrified of him that they tarried in seeking medical help - lest he recover and be annoyed at the unnecessary medical attention. Was Khrushchev complicit in Stalin's terror? Most certainly - but could he have done differently without suffering the same? At best one can say that he participated with less abject enthusiasm than his peers. Upon Stalin's death, Khrushchev did not so much come to power as the voice of the committee. He was the least threatening of the inner circle and not considered a threat. Then he did something that nobody really expected. Although the other inner circle members helped to draft the 20th party congress speech, Khrushchev felt especially honored to be chosen to give the speech. He did something that he would do over and over. He skipped some of the text and shocked the world. Khrushchev came out and condemned Stalin, Stalinism, the cult of personality and bared the excesses and crimes of the past 30 years. His speech was met with shocked silence. He condemned Stalin, his peers and even himself. The communist world was shocked. He was met with stunned silence. The representative from Romania had a heart attack and died. Soviet Satellites staged insurrections. Khrushchev's problem was that he could not control his energy or his emotions. He was in over his head - just has Stalin had sneered to all of his inner circle that even together they would be unable to run the country. Stalin desperately wanted peace. He cut military spending and bluffed the American's with phantom missiles. He desperately wanted Berlin to be made an open city and de-politicized, but the Americans were unwilling. He begged the American's for disarmament agreements, but his own missile bluff terrified the American's into a cold war posture. The US put Missiles in Turkey - a direct threat to the USSR and in turn Khrushchev started to ship missiles to Cuba. What did he expect to achieve by doing this? Even he wasn't sure, but this crisis shows two things - His recklessness, impulsiveness and inability to think forward and also the Russian lack of intercontinental missilery that necessitated positioning medium range missiles in Cuba. What did he achieve? He withdrew the missiles, terrified the world, shook his peers to the core and wrested an unwritten agreement from the Kennedy's that they would not attack Cuba (remember the bay of pigs?). As Khrushchev consolidated his power, his own hubris and limitations became his undoing. Toward the end, he would have liked to retire, but this was not an option in Soviet politics. He desperately wanted peace. His own military hated him for the cuts in military spending that he imposed (he thought a missile shield would serve well enough). The realities ad US cold war hysteria and his own clumsiness frustrated his efforts at reform. In the end, he was ignominiously ousted and pushed into obscurity. With his ouster, Brezhnev came to power and began to undo the de-Stalinization process that Khrushchev had started - but it was too late and the process Khrushchev had started finished with Gorbachev. So who was Khrushchev? Perhaps the most interesting legacy is his championship and efforts to see the publication of Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". Perhaps this is Khrushchev's greatest legacy. In the world of Stalinism, Khrushchev's ouster would have meant his death and that of his family.
It speaks volumes of his legacy that his own ouster allowed for quiet retirement.
Generations of Captivity - A History of African American Slaves
The history of American Slavery spans 300 years before Lincoln's wartime emancipation of Southern Slaves. Berlin shows how American evolved from a society with slaves into a Slave Society and discusses how the two differ. It is illuminating to see how the nature of slavery and the relationship between slaves and their owners ebbed and flowed and evolved over the centuries. The treatment of and relationship to slaves and slavery is different in a Society with Slaves. Slavery was a part of American culture and economy long before the revolution. What is interesting to see is how slaves struggled to build lives under bondage - both in family and economic life. Before the end of the 18th century there was always some meaningful percentage of free colored people who participated in many parts of economic life. The Spanish and British hired many groups of free blacks (I just can't use the term colored) as militia and police. Slaves negotiated their own time and earned independent incomes and accumulated property. Some were able to purchase their own freedom through their secondary work. Pre-plantation slaves worked along side their owners in farms and factories and often lived in the same rooms. It is sobering to see how emancipated slaves - those who were freed, purchased their freedom or born free were in some cases anxious to participate in the American economic process and themselves owned slaves. This is an especially disturbing notion to the modern reader and doubtless not a welcome notion.
Slave life evolved from forming to tobacco and indigo which involved varied and substantial skill to rice which was back breaking, and required less skill into its final meat grinder phase of King Cotton.
With the advent of the American revolution and the liberal humanistic thinking behind revolutionary doctrine and writing as well as the declining economic viability of slavery in the Northern states (e.g.. the revolutionary states) slavery waned in the North. Slaves who were used as skilled artisans - which also enabled them to supplement income (so to speak) and acquire property were freed, but no longer employed. As the Coastal plantations lost the economic need for slavery, the plantation owners (Washington for example) sold their slaves further south to the next generations of plantation economy - first rice and then cotton. Rice farming was brutal and deadly, but it was cheaper to import new salt water slaves than to maintain the existing ones. As cotton became a more valuable commodity crop, the rice plantations were able to make an economy out of selling their slave inventory further in-country to the final 19th century purgatory and death machine of the cotton plantations.
Slavery in America is a national shame that cannot be forgotten and the modern reader is unable to conceive the moral logic behind it. I certainly cannot. The notion that some free 18th century blacks owned slaves themselves adds to the moral quagmire. What makes Generations of Captivity so interesting is how it shows the complex cultures that developed inside slave society, between slaves and owners, how slaves struggled to create their own lives in the context of slavery, how complex the actual economics of slavery were, how multifaceted the relationships were - both economic and social and how the lives of slaves ebbed and flowed over the centuries until the final horrors of the 19th century. As a final example - as slaves became christianized, slavers and owners shared churches and slaves were sometimes deacons and even preachers to a mixed race audience of owners, slaves and free blacks. It boggles the mind.
Terror and Liberalism
Berman starts off by trying to establish his liberal credentials. He then goes on to show how liberal thinkers failed to appreciate the threat of both extremes of totalitarian political forces - Fascism and communism. In Europe the haunting specter of the First World War made liberals reluctant to recognize or accept the dawning threat of National Socialism. In the same way, many liberals refused to or could not bring themselves to acknowledge the horrors being perpetrated by Stalin under the guise of communism. He sees this as a failure to believe in the unbelievable or to accept that people, systems or organizations can behave badly. Its comparable to the Western unwillingness to accept the anecdotal information coming out of Cambodia under Pol Pot until the regime was overthrown and the vast fields of bones were irrefutable. From here he discusses the many differences between the two principal political forces in the contemporary Muslim world: radical Islamism and secular-nationalist despotism. Indeed, he writes in great detail about those differences in his long discussion of Sayyid Qutb, the mid-century guru of Islamism who was imprisoned, tortured and eventually put to death by Egypt's secular pan-Arab Nasser. But despite their points of divergence, for Berman there is something essential that makes the fundamentalist rage of bin Laden and the secular ethnic ambitions of the Ba'ath party "two branches of a single impulse": a shared and extreme antipathy toward liberalism. Both of these branches are antidemocratic, intolerant and authoritarian to the core. He outlines their celebration of death and martyrdom. It is terrifying and sobering to read the hard-core vision that Islamic Fundamentalists have. In the 20's Atakurk suspended the Islamic Caliphanate and moved Turkey into secular government. This is a betrayal that motivates and drives Islamic Fundamentalism to correct. He draws a haunting picture of a religious/political doctrine that sees glory in any amount of human sacrifice to return the lands to their proper fundamental Islamic vision. He shows how Islamic Fundamentalism considers the separation of church and state immoral. He then goes on to show how Western politicians have failed to recognize or understand the true import of what Islamic Fundamentalists have been saying. The attacks on 9.11 were no accident and should have come as a surprise to nobody. One had only to listen to what they were saying all along - much less to recognize the import of the terrorist attacks in the years before WTC, much less the abortive first WTC attempt or the thankfully aborted attempt to destroy the NYC tunnels. How could anyone have been surprised? It was because people did not want to believe the unbelievable. He also takes to task the Western Liberal writers such as Chomsky who persist in seeing Islamic Fundamentalist movements in a benign, naive and optimistic fashion - just as so many did of the Totalitarian movements of the first half of the 20th century. Ultimately, he argues that Islamic Fundamentalism is yet another form of totalitarianism that too many people are unwilling and unprepared to recognize. The book was written at the dawn of the second Iraq war and while he sees political and moral logic in bring the Ba'ath regime down, he takes Bush to task for his clumsy handling of international public opinion that squandered all good will and muddied the waters.
If for no other reason, this book makes for an interesting read in its nuanced analysis of Sayyid Qutb and the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic Fundamentalism. It would be the equivalent of discussing the impending threat of National Socialism without actually reading Mein Kampf.
Its taken me two week of thinking to try to explain this book and I am afraid that I have barely done it justice or scratched the surface of what he discusses.
How did we arrive at the modern notion of Cruelty? One might think this a constant, but it evolved over time. In the middle ages there was simply no notion of cruelty, as we now understand it. In the summer of 1210, the Crusaders captured the Albigensian town of Bram. The Crusader leader Simon of Montfort, described as a kind and gentle man who did not enjoy the suffering of others had their noses cut off and all but one of their eyes gouged out. One was soldier was left with one eye so that he could kind the remainder back to their ruler in mockery to their ruler. To the modern reader this is an astonishing atrocity. But this goes to the core understanding of Cruelty in the middle ages. Cruelty did not have the same meaning as it does to us now. Cruelty was equated with tyranny. Pedro of Spain was - depending on whose side you were on, Pedro the Cruel or Pedro the Just. To one side, he was the legal king and ruler and so all his actions were legal and proper. To the other he was a usurper and all actions were cruel. Cruelty related to legitimacy. The victor writes history and so we know Pedro has the Cruel. The murder of Thomas Becket was cruel because it was unjust. The way in which he was killed was irrelevant.
From this perspective evolved a more complex understanding that included the Cruelty by the Other. Things we did were just. Things done by others were cruel. The other Vikings were cruel and performed all manner of savage acts that were inhuman and would include cannibalism. In fact, cannibalism was routinely described to other groups as further proof of their cruelty. Jews fell into this other category and similar crimes ascribed to them (followed up by Just Pogroms). To put it simply the others are cruel. We are not. There was also a distinction between the spiritual and corporeal self and acts on the physical self did not reflect on the spiritual. Punishment of heretics was not cruel. They were unjust. Heretics were the Other. In that context, burning heretics at the stake however cruel it may appear to us now, was not cruel.
Cruelty was an important cultural issue in Imperial Rome. Seneca discussed it at great length. Much thought was given to its meaning. The transition to early Christianity seemed to mark a declining interest in the issue of Cruelty that was further exacerbated by an anti-classical backlash in late Christian antiquity. In addition, influential Christian thinkers such as Augustine held disparaging attitudes toward the body. This further discouraged early Christian authors from dealing with the issue.
The calamitous invasion of the Mongols brought a greater sensitivity to the meaning and nuance of cruelty. The evolution of cruelty in the middle ages was marked by constant debate as notions of justice, degree, and intent vs. result were considered. Proportionality was added. Cruelty of the other became less of an issue. People or groups no longer belonged to binary categories of cruel and not cruel. Latin and classical writings came back into vogue and considerable thought and attention was applied to the notion of cruelty. In time, the medieval thinkers came to see the actions of Montfort as cruel. They thought of cruelty in an increasingly abstract and objective form and new constructs were developed. Cruelty could be graded. From a medieval perspective, killing one person for pleasure was cruel, but killing 100 for heresy was just. Still it was the medieval period that helped give us the understanding of what we now think of the cruel middle ages. As we further refined our notions of cruelty and justice, we come to think of medieval punishments in the same way. Burning heretics seems a bit much, but then again or descendents may think the same of us when they look at modern penal codes, capital punishment and the like.
Of Paradise and Power -America and Europe in the New World Order
This is an essay first published in the summer of 2002 in Policy Review. Kagan examines how Europe escaped its bloody past and come to a new set of transnational beliefs about power and threat while the United States has evolved into a guarantor of that post modern paradise. He sees this as the contrast between the paradise envisioned by Kant supported and enabled by the power required by Hobbes. Europe has essentially disarmed and the United States now functions as Hobbes Leviathan for the rest of the world. Neither view is wrong, but he shows how the two are built from each other. This goes a long way to help understand the conception that Europe is from Venus and America is from Mars conception. After millennia of near constant bloody warfare, Europe is finally at peace. Kagan tries to explain how this came to be and the role that the United States had in this. I especially liked his quote from Truman. When Kissinger asked the aging Harry Truman what he wanted to be remembered for, Truman answered: We completely defeated our enemies and made them surrender. And then we helped them to recover, to become democratic and to rejoin the community of nations. Only America could have done that. So Europe's new Kantian order (rule of international law and cooperation) could only flourish under the umbrella of American power exercised according to the rules of the old Hobbesian order. American power made it possible for Europe to believe that power was not important.
This book has been making a lot of waves in Washington and should be read by anyone who wants to try to understand the international dynamics that we will all continue to make. I found myself reading this book, pen in hand underlining passage after passage.
Solitary Sex - the Cultural History of Masturbation
Why are you snickering? Here is something that everyone does and nobody admits to. The Romans and Greeks understood it as part of life, albeit a lesser version of the real thing. Nothing wrong with it when you can't get satisfaction from your wife, girlfriend, concubine, slave or friend. The English term wanker really applies here. Early Christian thinking was concerned with Masturbation in the abstract as much as it was nocturnal emission but spoke little of it. Early ages generally thought that release of pent up semen was a good thing and unhealthy to let accumulate. There was some thought that it was not as helpful as the real thing but there was no great notoriety associated. Some renaissance Italian towns sponsored brothels as a handy source of semen release. The Greeks pretty much understood that when the men were away at war, their women would entertain themselves and there are plenty of Greek depictions of women using dildos. Up until the early 18th century it was generally understood that not having some sort of sexual release was unhealthy for either sex. Masturbation was considered a sin in terms of contraception, but not of such consequence that it was worth much mention or the subject of much hand wringing aside from celibate priests tormented by their own thoughts. With the enlightenment came greater concern for masturbation as a solitary vice. Teachers and ministers were afraid to talk about it for fear of giving ideas. This corresponded with the age of reading. The interesting thing here is that the opprobrium toward masturbation grew as our notion of self and society became more complex. The real start of Masturbation as a major medical issue came with an anonymously published tract warning of the devastating effects of Onanism around 1712. This is taken from the crime of Onan who spilled his seed in the dirt rather than impregnate his dead brother's wife so that his brother's line might continue (not quite the same thing is it?). Onan was punished for his disobedience, but his act became a metaphor for masturbation. Interestingly, spilling in the dirt is also an ancient allusion to anal sex. At any rate, Onan was punished for his disobedience and not for his on the spot contraception. The writer of On Onanism also handily had a ready supply of potions for sale to correct the problem. For the next 200 years, western culture endured a medical hysteria about the causes and consequences of masturbation. This also corresponded to the growth of the Novel and fiction as literature. The general idea that using the imagination instead of the real thing was really socially bad and many of the same moral judgments were made to both Fictional literature and Masturbation. Remember that this is solitary sex. It was anti-social. The masturbator disconnected from society and used internal imagination to satisfy. Where is society in that? Where is the need for society? Rousseau especially thought this one of the greatest violations of social contract. For 200 years medicine assigned all sorts of mental and physical ills to masturbation. Just about every medical ill could be blamed on masturbation - until proven otherwise. One tormented young man who could not stop himself resorted to castration to correct the problem. As more guilt and consequence was associated with Masturbation, the tortures of guilt increased as well for many. Eventually medicine began to find the real causes for consumption, other physical ills (including syphilis) as well as a variety of better-understood mental illnesses. Its interesting that Freud grew up during the transition from medical hysteria about masturbation to an understanding that it was not physically bad for you, although not necessarily a good thing. He carries this legacy with him as he writes about masturbation as a natural part of growing up, but something that the healthy individual grows out of. The women's movement in the 60's as well as the Gay liberation movement turned the tables and made masturbation a liberating and fruitful activity. So here is the issue. We all do it. A few people will insist that they don't, but more often out of guilt. We are still carrying the social burden 18th and 19th century hysteria.
Waging Modern War
I made a point of reading this because Samantha Power wrote in her book A Problem From Hell about his experiences in trying to stop the Genocide taking place in the Balkans. This is a profoundly sad and frustrating book, but Clark seems to find conclusion in the end that is quite different from the way that I read the book. After a distinguished military career, he was promoted to Supreme Allied Command Europe e.g.. Military Head of Nato. In this role he wore many hats. He answered to the general secretary of Nato Javier Solano, the join chiefs of staff at the Pentagon, the secretary of defense and the president. This is not a military story in the familiar context. This is not about guns and tanks and military tactics. Its about diplomacy at its most frustrating and maddening and Clark seems to have recognized that this was his real task. While the Serbs under Milosevic slowly ground through Bosnia and subsequently Kosovo, Clark wheedled and bargained with his many masters to stop the genocide in Bosnia and then again when Milosevic continued on into Kosovo to cleanse it. He had to deal with Nato allies that each had different perspectives on what needed to be done and avoided as well as different factions in the American military which wanted to avoid at all costs a ground war because it would take away resources from a war against Iraq that they knew they would have to prepare for (remember this is in the 90's under Clinton). He navigated the contours of Nato diplomacy as well as the internal politics in the American military (Power describes him as badgering the Pentagon). We remember these efforts as an unpleasant and unpopular bombing campaign. The Serbs played up the civilian collateral damage from the bombing even as they continued to cleanse Kosovo. In the end, the bombing forced Milosevic to surrender and pull his troops out. Even at this juncture, Clark had to contend with competing Nato members as well as the Russians who maintained their own agenda. After Milosevic surrendered and the Serbs began to withdraw, Clark, Solano and other Nato heads met to celebrate. Clark got a phone call from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he was fired and would be retired. Thanks very much.
General Wesley Clark
Reading this was humbling. A true Diplomat, Clark manages to say something nice and complimentary about everyone he worked with (except for Milosevic). Again and again I realized as I read through this frustrating roller coaster ride that I would not have the stomach, equanimity or diplomatic skills for what he had to contend with. He was getting conflicting demands from different masters and could satisfy nobody. I could only scream in frustration, but he seemed to accept it as part of the job. One might expect that he would be bitter at his own outcome, but instead he was quite optimistic and pleased with the success of a complex international operation. It took many years to stop Milosevic and push an unwilling Nato and American military to some kind of action. In the end, hundreds of thousands still died and almost 1 million Albanians were refugees, but he sees the success in Nato finally taking action and finally stopping things. As to his own fate, ever the diplomat, he simply sees it as part of the game and no fault to anyone. This is what he means by Waging Modern War
This is the local in which Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York takes place. All but forgotten today, this was the cesspool and hell pit into which English lords shipped their starving Irish tenants during the Potato famine. This was home to America's most wretched, Impoverished African Americans, Irish, German and Italian immigrants sweated out their existence here. Located in what is now Chinatown, it saw more riots, scams, prostitution, and drunkenness than any neighborhood in America. It was such a threat and den of iniquity that our downtown courts and city hall buildings were built there as an excuse to raze parts of it. Even some of the street names were changed to blot out the memory. This is where the term slumming came from. The more well off would come down, handkerchiefs at their mouths to witness the appalling conditions. Dickens came to visit and ran in disgust. At the same time, it was the font of creative energies, theatre, dance and home to meeting halls, political clubs and machine politicians who would come to dominate not just the city but in the end an entire era of American politics.
Why Buildings Stand Up
Years ago I read a book called "Why Buildings fall down" by the same author. It was a fascinating review of engineering failures over the years and the underlying mistakes in design, materials or construction that caused the failures. I loved it. This book is the corollary to that book. It explains the basic principals of engineering, materials and how buildings and structures work. This is not the dry technical book that one might imagine. It's a lustrous voyage through the imagination of man.
Wealth and Democracy
With careful detail and analysis, Phillips chronicles the slow accumulation and stratification of wealth in America. In simple terms, he follows the path through the last 200 years as the Rich got richer and the middle class occasionally benefited. The danger as he clearly lays out is how this accumulation of wealth in an increasingly smaller set of hands has a dangerous effect on American Democracy. Paul Krugman wrote a wonder piece on this subject last fall for the Sunday Times Magazine. It is essentially a subset of this book. It was depressing to see how democracy turns and how easily the game can be played. Over the years, the same names make the list of the wealthiest Americans. From time to time as a new technology bursts on the scene, which inevitably brings with it a new economic bubble, new names appear on the list. It is important to understand how these economic forces work. I gave at least 4 copies of this book to people as Christmas presents.
A Problem From Hell - America and the Age of Genocide
This book simply changed my life. This is the awful history of genocide in the 20th century and the history of inaction and lack of response. We are all guilty and complicit in these events. In one sense, this is the story of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish scholar who made it his life's work to put forth the radical notion that genocide is a crime that transcends borders and which all nations should be obliged to stop. He is the man who coined the phrase for a crime that had never before been seen as such. The book is more than that and the history of Lemkin is a small part, but I think it's the most touching. People do not know the magnitude of the horrors that have visited mankind in the 20th century. Governments have killed more than 100 million of their own people. The real shock is how little has been done to stop it. Everyone is responsible; everyone is culpable. 800,000 were slaughtered in Rwanda in less than 100 days. The world new this was going to happen. The UN pulled its troops back lest they become involved. The pattern repeats itself. More than 200,000 Armenians in Turkey were slaughtered. As he planned the final solution Hitler laughed and said who remembers the Armenians? And he was right. Nothing was done to stop the holocaust. A Polish diplomat in New York committed suicide in protest. The allies refused to even bomb the tracks carrying victims to their ovens. 2 million (out of ten million) were killed in Cambodia. Nothing was done by anyone to stop it. The sad story goes on, but after ten years of active Genocide in Yugoslavia and Kosovo, the US and its reluctant Nato allies interdicted - albeit from the air only (and without UN support). This is the first time that Genocide was stopped - even though it took ten years of hand-to-hand butchery to make the world to wake up. Sadly, even this effort was done from afar and only served to slow down the slaughter of the remaining victims. This book left me shaken and forever changed.
The Threatening Storm - The case for Invading Iraq
Pollack makes a compelling case for a confrontation with Iraq. He puts it in the perspective of 30 years of history and covers the long and complex history of Iraq and Saddam's relations with neighbors and the world. He explores in careful detail the various options available - including doing nothing - and explores the consequences of each option. The truth is, anyone can read this book and find ample ammunition for any case they want to make. Pollack takes pains to cover each perspective with great care. Anyone who is concerned about recent and future events owes it to himself or herself to read this and then make a judgment.
The Blank Slate - The Modern Denial of Human Nature
A fascinating and well-written discussion of the nature of man. Where does our human or "wired" nature start and end and where does our socialized nature begin? The Ghost in the Machine, The Noble Savage and the Blank Slate. The ghost in the machine would be the religious notion of the soul as something that transcends our corporeal selves. The Noble Savage comes from Rousseau's idea of primitive man as an innocent corrupted by society. He debunks both and puts forward the idea that we are a combination of wired predispositions and cerebral or cognitive learning. He explores in amazing detail the miracle of how the human mind builds itself on the fly and what parts are wired such as our facility for language. Once you accept the notion that there are parts of human nature that we are wired to show (language for example), and more importantly - behavior that we are wired to display - how do you construct a moral society? Some critics of criticized Pinker for over stating his case, but either way its one of the most fascinating books I have ever read and it is his efforts to describe a moral structure with his idea's on human nature that make this such a compelling read.
Warrior Politics - Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos
This short book - you can easily read it in two days is one of the most thought provoking books that I have come across. I have a very hard time explaining what it is about. Kaplan tries to put together a pragmatic recipe for leadership and government. He quotes copiously from Livy, Thucydides, Sun-Tzu, Machiavelli, Hobbes and others as he weaves his tale showing the evolution of our understanding of Utopian man and what it takes to govern man. In the end, his pragmatic view takes into account the idealistic notions that we wish for and the cynical recognition in what we need from Hobbes and what drives us from Machiavelli. It helps to understand our own constitution and the checks and balances built into it as he shows that the authors were classically educated men who were well versed in this evolving understanding of man, his nature and how we can best create a practical functioning society. I have spent more time thinking about this book and its implications than I did reading it and it continues to resonate.
A Mind of its Own - The Cultural History of the Penis
The title alone drove me to buy this. Friends at the office referred to this as the Penis book, but it's really a wonderful history of the social context of male sexuality. Its much more convoluted than one might imagine. Semen has evolved from a magic elixir to a vile poison to the draining of a man's essence (anyone remember Dr. Strangelove?) to - well - reproductive fluid. The penis is a paradigm for how cultures deal with sexuality. It has represented everything good and bad about mankind. In ancient times, people would swear truth or promise by putting their hand on their penis or testicles. It's a bit odd to realize that this oral tradition remains with his 4 thousand years later when we testify in court.
This is the story of the evolution of sexuality from Greece to Rome through St. Augustine and the sin of Onanism to the modern male phenomenon of performance anxiety. The ebb and flow of sexuality, the human form, our feelings about our form, function and our bodies tells so much about our sense of self and our relationship to the world around us. This is history and anthropology told from a new perspective and one of the most interesting books I've ever read.
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz - Living on the Brink of Disaster of Mobutu's Congo
Mobutu Sese Seko was president of Zaire. He ran the most corrupt state in the world, seducing his allies with participation in a government best described as a Kleptocracy. Positions of power were offered as a license to steal and everyone did it. Mobutu made corruption and the seduction of participation in this massive government of theft a key component of his power. He seduced foreign powers obsessed by cold war competition to pump him up with billions of dollars in loans and investments. Out of this Zaire (now once again Congo) was left with - nothing - An impoverished shell of its former self. The entire world colluded in this corruption and when the cold war ended and the need faded, Mobutu's reign ended. Who is Kurtz? Remember Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad? Zaire/Congo has been the landscape for more than a century of European cruelty, manipulation and corruption. This is such a sad story about a country that has suffered so much.
Reflections of Osiris- Lives from Ancient Egypt
We usually study history through the lens of Tyrants and Kings. This is history from the ground up. This books spans several millennia of Egyptian life from the ground up. Using a collection of biographies of Egyptian citizens from all walks of life, we get a different perspective on life. Listening to the letters by a well to do country farmer complaining about his children, admonishing others to pay respect to a second wife and all the petty peeves to which we all succumb, life becomes real. At the same time, we are able to see the astonishing breadth of Egyptian history. One of the oldest pyramids is called the Step Pyramid. It was considered a lucky place and a tourist spot throughout history. Caesar and Cleopatra visited the Step Pyramid and it is humbling to realize that this great landmark was older to them - an object of mysterious antiquity than Caesar and Cleopatra are to us.
Xenophon's March - Into the Lair of the Persian Lion
This is one of history's greatest adventures and an object lesson in Greek history, culture and the power of democracy. In 401 BC, 10,000 Spartan mercenaries went off to fight in the service of Cyrus the Persian pretender to the throne. Cyrus is killed in battle, the Spartans betrayed by their allies and yet they manage to march out across more than a thousand miles of hostile territory facing constant attack by superior numbers and continued betrayal as an intact military unit managing itself according to democratic and Greek political principals - electing leaders and replacing them as needed. This is not a clash of arms, but of civilizations and it tells much about Persian and Greek culture and politics. This is an epic story that makes the Odyssey a casual waltz by comparison and one of the greatest military epics in all of history.
American Scoundrel - The life of the Notorious Civilk War General Dan Sickles
Who was this man? Tammany Hall political hack, Rou, brilliant military leader or incompetent general? He kept many mistresses and shot his wife's lover Barton Key (Grand son of Francis Scott) across the street from the White House and escaped conviction. This was a complex man and in examining his life, we can get a better sense of the wild politics and events of American in the early 19th century.
Harmful to Minors
I loved this book about child sexuality and the horror show of our inability to cope with, acknowledge and recognize the normal behavior of people in general and children in particular. This book was misunderstood by critics and condemned by the ignorant and quick to judge. I bought several copies of this book and gave them as gifts in part as a gesture of support for the author. Ms. Levine chronicles the horrors of over reaction in our society. Its strange to realize that there is actually less sex education now than there was in the less enlightened 50's. Her key point is that children are sexual beings and have the same feelings, needs and desires as adults do.
Cicero - The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician
This is the history of Rome's greatest orator and one of history's greatest political weasels. The complexity of Roman political life is the backdrop to this complex man. Reading this is not much different than reading the Congressional Journal e.g.. some things never change.
The Six Days of War- June 1967 and the making of the modern middle east
This is the history of the complex events leading up to the very brief 1967 war whose after effects have shaped middle eastern politics ever since. We have all forgotten Nasser and the UAR and how the various Arab nations egged each other on to destroy Israel. In the middle of this is European apathy and enormous American efforts to stay the war and avoid involvement and helpless UN ineptitude. The shape of the Middle East today was defined by the events in 1967.
Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked - Sex, Morality and the evolution of the fairy tail
This simple fairy tail is a powerful lense into society and the changes in social and sexual culture. The story evolves from period to period to tell a different lesson and sometimes. The ways that this story evolves and mirrors out own social dynamics can best be understood by a joke mentioned in the book:
aha! Little Red Riding Hood! says the Big Bad Wolf, upon finding the girl in the woods. Now I'm going to take off your little cape, lift up your little red skirt, pull down your little red panties and fuck your brains out!
Oh no you're not, Mr. Wolf, Red Riding Hood retorts, pulling a pistol out of her basket and drawing a bead on the wolf. You're going to eat me just like the book says!
Warriors of God - Richard the Lionheart and Saladin and the Third Crusade
This is history at its most exciting and detailed. Reston is a wonderful writer. The image of Richard wading out of the water in an amphibious attack, his huge sword in his hand, armor gleaming and the Arab defenders fleeing in terror is the stuff of movies. Richard is a complex character as full of flaw and heroic nature. Saladin is the wise and cultured leader who realized an enduring Arab dream of uniting Egypt and Syria and whose conquest of Jerusalem not only sparked the third crusade but turned Saladin into an Arab hero of epic proportions that Arab leaders such as Saddam Hussein even today try to emulate. This is the clash of civilized Arab culture and a savage but evolving Europe.
James Reston, Jr.
The Last Apocalypse - Europe in the year 1000 A.D.
I picked up this book because I enjoyed Reston's other book - Warriors of God so much. I knew anything else by him would be a good pick. Here he covers an interesting period in history. Europe at the first millennium was largely pagan. The northern countries were running rampant over much of Europe and in particular a helpless France and England. This was the age of the Vikings. The papacy was utterly corrupt and the remains of Charlemagne's Empire were crumbling. Hungarian Magyars were laying waste to Germany and Italy. At this apocalypse in time and history, European kings converted their kingdoms to Christianity - usually at sword point. The passions and wild characters described here make for history as a sweeping adventure with personalities so rich that no screenwriter or novelist would be taken seriously. This is history as an adventure. Reston covers the wild gyrations taking place across all of Europe in religion, politics and culture.
James Reston Jr.
The Road To Verdun - WW1's Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism
This was the worst most horrific battle in World War One. The years long carnage makes all other battles pale by comparison. French soldiers marched off to a hopeless endless meat grinder battle with the absolute certitude that they would die horribly and fight in trenches whose walls contained the semi- exposed remains of their predecessors. Awful, awful, awful stuff. What drives men to march into such certain and horrific death? Ousby looks at the formation of the French and German nation states and how their development helped to define their national characters. France - a nation defined by geography and Germany defined by a common language. These create subtle differences in character. The battle in all its relentless horror reflects these national characters and World War One was the first truly racial war.
Bloody Mary's Martyrs - The story of England's Terror
In 1553 Mary became queen of England and saw it as her duty to restore Catholicism to England. In the short 5 years of her reign, more than 300 people willingly chose to die horrifically - burning at the stake rather than recant their beliefs and embrace the papacy. Many went out of their way to put themselves at risk and the manner of their deaths is more awful than can be imagined. Burning at the stake is not execution. It is torture so awful that it cannot be believed. Only a few years before, England had violently converted from Catholicism and now the same judges who condemned those who refused to turn away from the Pope now condemned those who refused to embrace it again. An awful time in English history, but at the same time an epic story of faith and political fortitude.
Royal Babylon - The Alarming History of European Royalty
The history of 1000 years of inbreeding combined with bizarre child rearing and an endless series of monarchs who were insane, stupid, syphilitic and cruel. The competent monarch was the notable exception. This is a riot of bad behavior.
The Way of the Gladiator
This is not an account of life as a gladiator. It is an amazing account of the vast and complex culture that revolved across the gladiatorial games. In the end, more than 11,000 people and 10,000 animals were slaughtered. Whole species were wiped out to feed the hunger for more entertainment. Roads throughout the empire, feeding stations and more were built to support this vast entertainment empire. An amazing account.
The Reel Civil War - Mythmaking and the American Film
The end of the civil war brought with it a racist mythology about the purpose and actions of the war. As time went by, literature and especially film skewed further and further from reality. The noble southern gentleman is an example. Birth of a Nation by DW Griffith is sometimes known as the first great American film, but it is also so vile and racist that it is now almost impossible to show it publicly without causing riots in protest. Subsequent films like Gone with the Wind are more notable for the mythology and fiction that they promoted about the South than anything approaching reality. Gives voice to the shame of America.
The Universe, The Gods and Men - Ancient Greek Myths
We think of Greek mythology as religion. Vernant shows how the pantheon of Greek mythology evolved to describe the complex personalities in man, culture and sex. This is better psychology than any book written to teach it.
Jean-Pierre Vernant - Translated by Linda Asher
We wish to Inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our Families
This is the story of Rwanda. This is the story of unspeakable barbarism, where husband killed wife and life long friends slaughtered one another with machetes. Throughout this shameful event - sparked by colonial manipulation - the European powers stood by and did nothing. In less than 100 days almost 800,000 people were slaughtered at the hands of their neighbors. The UN had peacekeeping troops on the ground and actually withdrew and disarmed them in anticipation of the events to follow. This should be taken as an object lesson on the consequences of inaction.
The Graves are not yet Full - Race, Tribe and Power in The Heart of Africa
This is a horror story - man at his most savage. This is a short history of cruelty and unbelievable raw savagery. This blame is shared by everyone and is very much the legacy of European cruelty and exploitation in African for centuries. These things are terrible to read about - depressing, but we have an obligation to remember and understand. The political battles taking place throughout Africa; the battles for power and control of resources squander resources, destroy whatever infrastructure is left in Africa and leaves behind it a withering swath of dead African civilians.
The Mummy Congress - Science, Obsession and the Everlasting Dead
The history of how we care for our dead. Sounds creepy, but this is a fascinating view of culture and history from the Bog people in Northern England, to the 5000 year old blond mummies found in China, to the Egyptian mummies collected in the 19th century who were ground up into powder to make the unique gray color that painters at that time used by the name Mummy (I swear this is true). Every culture (including our own) tries to preserve its dead. How they do it tells much about it and allows us to see into life as it was.
Nigger - The Strange career of a troublesome word
Imagine how hard it was for me to ask for this book. That alone speaks volumes about the power of this word and how it has evolved from cruel epithet to inclusionary term. Here is this simple word that could inflict terrible pain. This is a word casually used in the highest reaches of government. Behind this word is a history of racism.
At the Hands of Persons Unknown - The Lynching of Black America
This quite simply recounts 100 years of national shame and 100 years of brutality. For much of this time, at least one lynching a day took place in the United States. These were not midnight lynchings taking place in secret. These were public burnings, hangings, mutilations and acts of extreme cruelty. These were events recorded and often announced in advance by local papers. Even into the 1950's, the phrase States Rights in the Senate stood not so much for segregation but for the liberty to continue this oppression without federal interference. The southern states battled well into the 50's against any federal legislation against this vile activity. At the turn of the century, one American protester took postcards of lynchings to England to drum up worldwide protest. The English dismissed them as fakes because they showed children proudly standing with their parents in front of maimed and burned bodies. They could not believe that any civilized people could do such a thing. Every American should read this narrative of shame. This is history that should not and must not be forgotten. I wish every American student would read it.
In the Wake of the Plague - The Black Death and the World it Made
In a few short years almost half of Europes population died a horrible death. Statistics are misleading. Some towns lost a few people and others were wiped out. The plague did not distinguish between the good and the bad. There were actually two forms of plague so that the scientists and doctors of the time (such as they were) could not even understand the epidemiology of this scourge. Out of this apocalyptic event Europe was changed: The status of women evolved, religion became more mystical in attempt to make sense of this madness and children made a game of this horror show - Ring Around the Rosey, Pocket Full of Posey. Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down
Guns, Germs and Steel - The Fate of Human Societies
This is not an easy book to describe. Diamond asks the question - why do some countries prosper over others? Why did Eurasians conquer, displace or decimate Native Americans, Australians and Africans instead of the reverse. He approaches this in a compelling and fascinating thrust - as evolutionary biology. No- not that some humans are superior to others, that is silly. Here is a brief overview: There are differences in animals and plants from continent to continent. Not all plants can be domesticated as an effective crop. Not all plants produce the same number of calories for unit of labor calorie. In the same way, not all animals can be domesticated as useful aids to the production of food and other activities. A good example is the Zebra. It looks much like a horse, but it is completely wild and cannot be used as a domestic animal. In a nutshell, different lands were blessed with plants that could be manipulated into domestic crops and different animals that could be domesticated. Better plants, better animals - more food. With more efficient the food production, more labor can be devoted to other pastimes and efforts. In a similar way there is a climatic arc to consider. Geographic changes of 500-1000 miles makes for vastly different climate and food growing activities. Plants have to be tuned to the seasonal cycles of temperature and humidity. Climate remains more consistent East/West than North/South so the Eurasian arc had a tremendous advantage in terms of using the same crop types across a wider range. This inequality in food production and alternate use of labor is the fuel for civilizations. Another subtle issue: The presence of domesticated animals breeds disease. Rubbing elbows with animals allows disease- virus and bacteria to make the jump from species to species. In the Eurasian arc this led to repeated plagues and death, but out of this scourge survived a people who were somewhat resistant to these diseases. We all know what happened to native peoples in South America, North America and Australia - none of whom were fortunate enough to have local species that were amenable to domestication. More death and more domination by default. The above is a very simplistic overview of a fascinating and complex book. For Jared Diamond this is probably the synthesis of a lifetime of study and research. This is one of my favorite books.
Carnage and Culture - Landmark battles in the Rise of Western Power
A simple description - Why have western powers triumphed? Why do Western armies dominate more often than not? Why have Western values, ideas and practices spread so easily across the globe? By Western he really means Greco-Roman. We all know that there have been plenty of Western military defeats, but they are more notable as the exception than the rule. He looks at 9 critical military confrontations between cultures and looks at how cultural and political differences set the outcome. The values of consensual government, freedom, individualism, notions of democracy and discipline makes such a difference. The Greek sailors who triumphed over overwhelming odds at Salamis were free men against slaves, conscripts and subjugated people. Disease and Toledo steel weapons aside, why did a handful of Spaniards under Cortez triumph over a vast civilization so superior in numbers that it defies description? These outcomes are not always moral and the hindsight of history is not always pretty. Why do free men support each other in battle? Why do free men willingly put their lives to the test? I think the best example of his argument is made by a notable Greco-Roman defeat. The death of 300 Spartans in a holding action against a massive Persian army at Thermopylae stands as one of the great achievements and triumphs of Greek culture. 2500 years later. They died to a man, but at the site of their defeat is a simple 2500-year-old monument that still inspires. Go Stranger and to Sparta Tell Faithful To Her Laws, here, We Fell. Greeks were all citizen soldiers - free men all and they were the most disciplined fighting force in the ancient world. The only sure way to defeat a Greek army was with another Greek army. This is the tradition that Hanson's story evolves from.
Victor Davis Hanson
The Wealth and Poverty of Nations - Why some are so Rich and Some are so Poor
I struggled for a long time to try to describe this fascinating, wonderful and complex book. It is really a tour de force. It is a must read for anyone who loves history. He melds economic history, technological history and cultural history, along with religion and geography. In the end, I decided to give up and leave a quote from Publisher's Weekly. Landes undertakes an economic and cultural history of the world during the past five centuries. His well-written, sometimes witty analysis is the kind of work one wants to pause over and reflect upon at each chapter before moving ahead. Landes's principal argument is that the richest nations continue to prosper while poorer nations lag behind because of their relative ability or inability to exploit science, technology and economic opportunity. In every case from ancient China to modern Japan he maintains this is largely the result of national attitudes about a myriad of cultural factors. Landes traces the story of England's industrial revolution and America's system of mass production as indicators of the West's superiority over the rest of the world. Some of his historical illustrations are thought-provoking: for example, the importance of air conditioning to the development of the New South in the U.S. or the invention of spectacles that could double the working life of artisans who had to work up close with their hands. Most of all, Landes stresses the importance of cultural values, such as a predisposition for hard work, open-mindedness and a commitment to democracy, in determining a nation's course toward wealth and power.
Last Modified 03.15.10