May 02 2010

Madame de Stael by Francine du Plessix Gray

The subject of this book is an extraordinary individual, yet I find myself disliking her. Mme de Stael was brilliantly eloquent, audaciously spirited, and a gifted writer, yet there is an overwhelmingly histrionic side to her personality that makes it impossible for me to take her seriously. There is much in her that seems to exemplify the French national character: wittiness, charm, and an endless capacity for love affairs. But she did not lack courage: she was an outspoken critic of Napoleon when it was dangerous to be one. This book also reveals a boorish, anti-intellectual side to Napoleon that is remarkably ugly. A good profile of an outstanding personality.

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Apr 24 2010

Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare

Never has misanthropy been so eloquently expressed. Timon’s reversal of fortune serves as a cautionary admonition to our craving for material prosperity, as well as a cynical lesson on the fickle nature of men. The cynic Apemantus emerges as the wisest character in this story of riches to rags, yet even he is not spared Timon’s caustic calumnies. The conquering traitor Alcibiades is given the last word, dictating terms to Athens and demonstrating that states and communities are subject to the same vicissitudes of fortune as individuals. This play was bleak but memorable, if only because Timon’s curses on humanity will be ringing in my ears for a long time to come.

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Apr 12 2010

A History of Europe by J.M. Roberts

This is a big book, but not quite big enough to adequately cover 3000 years of history. Ancient Greece is covered in twenty pages, the Roman Empire in forty. However, the later chapters on the hegemonic years of Europe, when Europe was the center of power, culture, and civilization in the world, are quite interesting. 1914 was the end of this hegemony, not just in the eyes of the world but in the eyes of Europeans themselves, and 1945 relegated Europe to second class status in the competition between superpowers. This book was written before 2001; with a remarkable lack of foresight and acumen, the author acknowledges that in the aftermath of the Cold War some on the West are coming to see radical Islam as the new emerging threat, then he proceeds to dismiss the radical Islamic threat as nothing but an irrational bogey. History frequently proves historians wrong. But this was a good single-volume European history, although not quite as good as the Norman Davies book.

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Mar 28 2010

Mugabe: Teacher, Revolutionary, and Tyrant by Andrew Norman

This book reminds me that biographies are often the best source of history. I recently read a book on the history of Zimbabwe, but it wasn’t nearly as informative as this book. The arc of Mugabe’s life reads almost like a Greek tragedy. He had very promising beginnings indeed. A brilliant scholar, a dedicated teacher, a courageous political activist who remained unbowed and unbroken after years of incarceration–in the early phase of his career there was little indication of the cruel and bloodthirsty tyrant he would eventually become. But the greater tragedy is for the people of Zimbabwe who have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of his despotic regime. Even the white colonial rulers were not as much of disaster for the people of this country as Mugabe has been. Is Africa truly better off for having gained its independence? As much as I have studied Africa, I am not sure that I can answer this affirmatively.

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Mar 13 2010

The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom by Sandra Mackey

This book is about what happens when a hopelessly backward society is suddenly flooded with wealth and forced to modernize overnight. Of all the Islamic countries that are facing a crisis of modernity, Saudi Arabia has been the hardest hit. The Saudis have a bottomless appetite for the material goodies the West has to offer, but they still for the most part totally reject Western culture and have gone to great lengths to insulate themselves from it. Paradoxically, while they are forced to acknowledge their educational and technological inferiority to Westerners, they still believe fervently that their rigidly conservative Islamic culture is superior, and they are deeply resentful of the intrusions Western culture has made into their society. Although this book was written in the ’80’s, it goes a long way toward explaining why fifteen of the nineteen 9-11 hijackers were Saudi.

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Feb 21 2010

Truman by David McCullough

This book is a case study in how extraordinary an ordinary man can be. Unlike his predecessor in the White House, Harry Truman was not a brilliant man, but he possessed character and fortitude that ultimately made him a successful president. At times the author seems to revel a little too much in how ordinary Truman was, at the expense of highlighting his outstanding qualities, but McCullough seems to see his subject as an embodiment of what is best in the American national character, a kind of virtuous American everyman. This thesis surely goes too far, but McCullough’s portrait is touchingly human, if not exactly the profile of a genius. This book was not as good as McCullough’s biography of John Adams, but it is still a landmark work of American history.

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Feb 15 2010

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe

This was a delightful memoir of growing up with D&D that brought back many memories of my own. Some of the author’s anecdotes are frankly hilarious, as when he recounts his adolescent attempts to pick up girls with lines like, “Did you know that trolls have five hit dice and regenerate?” Even more interesting is his probing into the psychology of fantasy and why so many young people are drawn to it. The book poses an interesting conundrum: is reality really better than fantasy? The jury is still out on this one, I think.

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Jan 27 2010

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb

Mostly in lieu of a proper review, excerpts from The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, the best non-fiction book I read in 2009. (Tough competition, too: In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak, Gold and Iron by Fritz Stern and To the Castle and Back by Vaclav Havel were all top notch.)

To many minds, the clearest demographic distinction was not between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ but ‘Parisian’ and ‘provincial’. …
In 1801, more people lived in Paris (just under 550,000) than in the next six biggest cities combined (Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Rouen, Nantes and Lille). In 1856, Paris could have swallowed up the next eight biggest cities, and in 1886, the next sixteen. Yet Paris accounted for less than 3 per cent of the population until 1852 and, until 1860, covered an area of only 3,402 hectares (thirteen square miles), which is not even twice the size of the Eurodisney site. p. 14

Title of Chapter 4: O Òc Sí Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua

These beliefs thrived on the established Church like mistletoe on an oak. They had no religious institutions of their own, but they were consistent enough, throughout France and much of Western Europe, to be described as a form of religion. [I suspect this might also be true of Central and Eastern Europe as well, but think that Robb is hedging because he does not know the material well enough to say. – DM] The nameless faith borrowed elements of christianity but dispensed with most of its moral and theological foundations, and reorganized the hierarchy of sacred beings. The Virgin Mary was always more important than God. Like his son, God offered neither redemption nor forgiveness. He had been known to destroy towns and to cause serious road accidents just to make his point. He was no more popular than a bishop. In 1872, a woman in Chartres who was standing in the way of a church procession was asked to make way for ‘le bon Dieu‘. She retorted, ‘Huh! I didn’t come here for him, I came for her‘ (pointing at the Virgin).
The Devil was almost as powerful as God and far more accommodating. … Any stroke of luck — finding buried treasure, coming into an inheritance, not losing livestock to an epidemic, or a rockfall that conveniently bridged a torrent — was probably the Devil’s work. Despite his power, the Devil, who usually looked like a gentleman or a wealthy farmer, was notoriously gullible and had sometimes been tricked into building churches and abbeys. …
Jesus Christ was a relatively minor figure. In the not-so-distant past, he had walked the land dispensing practical advice. He was known to have been a beggar, which explained his resourcefulness and cunning. In pseudo-Gospel stories — told as tough they were local events — Jesus would try to beat some sense into his muddle-headed sidekick, Saint Peter.
God, the Devil and Jesus, like Gargantua and the fairy Mélusine, were the protagonists of folk tales who had been active in the recent past. … The main difference between the Christian figures and the pagan fairies is that the fairies were generally expected to return in the next century or as soon as Christianity came to an end.
These legendary or part-legendary figures were spectacularly outnumbered and out-performed by saints. Unlike God and the fairies, saints belonged to everyday life. On his own ground, a saint was more effective than God. As the curé of Étaples near Le Touquet reported to his bishop, referring to the local miracle-working saint, ‘There are two “Dear Lords” at Étaples: the real one and Saint Josse, and I’m not at all sure that Saint Josse isn’t number one.’ pp. 130-132

A century and a half after [William] Windham [Sr.]‘s expedition to the glaciers of Savoy, when cyclists were pedalling over the Pyrenees and the first cars were chugging along the dusty roads of France, it would be hard to believe that there was anything left to explore — though the fact that the grandest canyon in Europe somehow escaped attention until 1896, when it was discovered less than twenty miles from a departmental capital, suggests that the country was not quite as well known as it seemed to be. p. 300

A cyclist on holiday in the Vendée in 1892 found that a few disobliging remarks about Parisians ensured cooperation and courtesy from the local peasants, who had ‘an instinctive antipathy’ to the capital. The word ‘Parisien‘ is still uttered as an insult in many parts of France, and any visitor with derogatory things to say about Paris is always likely to be treated sympathetically, even by bureaucrats. p. 307

The remarketing of France was pioneered by local historians and politicians, provincial academies and geographical societies, railway companies and journalists. Parts of the country were unofficially renamed to make them sound more attractive: the coast of Provence became the C^te d’Azur in 1877. Then came the C^te Émeraude (Emerald Coast) of Brittany, the C^te Sauvage of the Vendée, and the C^te d’Argent (Silver Coast) on the Atlantic between Royan and Bayonne. Little Switzerlands sprang up all over the place, beginning with the unfashionable Morvan and the Limousin. It has since become almost obligatory for any region with rolling pastures to call itself Switzerland. At the time of writing, there are ten French ‘Swizterlands’, from the ‘Suisse Normande’ (fifty miles north-west of the ‘Alpes mancelles’) to the ‘Suisse Nicoise’ and the ‘Suisse d’Alsace’. [The Swiss phenomenon is not limited to France. I know of at least two in Germany as well, the fränkische Schweiz and the sächsische Schweiz, in northern Bavaria and Saxony, respectively. – DM] p. 331

Just over a hundred years ago, when Paris had a Métro and the Eiffel Tower was showing signs of age, one of the natural wonders of the Old World was known only to a few woodcutters and carvers who saw no reason to share their knowledge of the local inconvenience with the outside world. The Grand Canyon of the Verdon runs for thirteen miles through the puzzling limestone landscape of the Pré-alpes de Castellane. Many of the boxwood balls that arced through the air on the dusty malls of Marseille had begun life as gnarled sumps clining to the edge of the longest and deepest canyon in Europe. Men from the hamlets on either side of the canyon lowered themselves into the chasm to cut the best wood for making boules while, two thousand feet below, the metallic-green Verdon rushed through its narrow gorge, scouring the gravel bed and carving out new caves. …
A road along the south rim of the gorges, accurately called the Corniche Sublime, was opened in 1947. The north road was completed in 1973. Both roads form an exhilirating circuit of sixty-two miles. pp. 335-37

Discovering this book is nearly as good as discovering a whole new France.

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Jan 24 2010

Taking Stock of 2009: Books

Instead of a straight-up best-of list, a slightly more eclectic look back at what I read in 2009. Best large Russian book, Tolstoy’s big one; best small Russian book (and most scurrilous of any nationality) Moscow to the End of the Line by Venedikt Erofeev. Best fantasy, parts two through four of the Princess of Roumania series. Most overrated, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Best SF, Brasyl by Ian McDonald. Best non-fiction, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. Most off-putting but finished anyway, Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming. Best surprises, The Final Reflection by John M. Ford (along with his How Much for Just the Planet, the first two Star Trek novels I’ve read in a quarter century) and Bleachers by John Grisham. Best look behind the scenes of history (also best dissection of a fellow national leader), To the Castle and Back by Vaclav Havel.

Complete list (in order read) is below the fold. Links are to previous writing about the book or author on AFOE. See also 2006 and 2007.

Now and Forever – Ray Bradbury
Georgisches Reisetagebuch – Jonathan Littell
The Tourmaline – Paul Park
Bleachers – John Grisham
Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood
The Emperor of Gondwanaland – Paul di Filippo
In EuropeGeert Mak
No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander M. Smith
The Spirit Wrestlers – Philip Marsden
The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
The White Tyger – Paul Park
The Tin Roof Blowdown – James Lee Burke
The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
To the Castle and Back – Vaclav Havel
The Night Watch – Sergei Lukyanenko
The Merchants’ War – Charles Stross
The Engines of God – Jack McDevitt
White Eagle Red Star – Norman Davies
Gold and Iron – Fritz Stern
Deepsix – Jack McDevitt
Visionary in Residence – Bruce Sterling
Omega – Jack McDevitt
München Leuchtete – Thomas Mann
Stalin’s Children – Owen Matthews
King Lear – William Shakespeare
Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry – Peter Nasmyth
Absurdistan – Gary Shteyngart
The Scar РChina Mi̩ville
How Much for Just the Planet – John M. Ford
Macbeth – William Shakespeare
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
The Final Reflection – John M. Ford
The Revolution Business – Charles Stross
Norse Code – Greg van Eekhart
The Discovery of France – Graham Robb
Henry V – William Shakespeare
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
Travels with Herodotus – Ryszard Kapuscinski
Victory of Eagles – Naomi Novik
Brasyl – Ian McDonald
Live and Let Die – Ian Fleming
The Hidden World – Paul Park
Reappraisals – Tony Judt
Moscow to the End of the Line – Venedikt Erofeev

2008, since I didn’t put up a list at the beginning of 2009
Dreams From My Father – Barack Obama (book of the year for me)
Ich dachte an die goldenen Zeiten – Bohumil Hrabal
The Princess Bride – William Goldman
Halting State – Charles Stross
Chindi – Jack McDevitt
Der Virtuose – Margriet de Moor
Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama
Iron Kingdom – Christopher Clarke
The Jennifer Morgue – Charles Stross
The Ghost of Freedom – Charles King
Casino Royale – Ian Fleming
The Clan Corporate – Charles Stross
Ali and Nino – Kurban Said
Playing for Pizza – John Grisham
The Children of H̼rin РJ.R.R. Tolkien
Black Garden – Thomas de Waal
Azerbaijan Diary – Thomas Goltz
Georgia Diary – Thomas Goltz
Nixonland – Rick Perlstein
The View from Stalin’s Head – Aaron Hamburger
The Turkish Gambit – Boris Akunin
Bread and Ashes – Tony Anderson
Shakespeare – Bill Bryson
New Europe – Michael Palin
The Tempest – William Shakespeare
The Girl from the Golden Horn – Kurban Said
City on Fire – Bill Munitaglio
The Lies of Locke Lamorra – Scott Lynch
The Android’s Dream – John Scalzi

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Dec 17 2009

The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius

Suetonius writes more like a gossip columnist than a historian. In this brief work we learn that Augustus was a compulsive gambler, Tiberius was a pervert, Nero was in love with his mother, Galba was a passive homosexual, and most of the emperors liked boys as well as women. From the introduction we learn that Suetonius also wrote a book called *Lives of the Famous Whores*; this work has not survived, but given the scandalous nature of these biographies it seems entirely plausible that he wrote it. Suetonius perfunctorily includes the facts that are of political interest in the lives of the Caesars, but it is clear that his real interest is in their sordid personal lives. The moral of these unedifying stories seems to be that if you’re an emperor you can get away with just about anything.

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