Peter the Great, by Jacob Abbott

September 15, 2013 at 19:39 (Biography, Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics) (, , )


There are few reasons to elevate this book above any other historical biography. In fact, it might be expected that a book about so colourful a character as Peter ought to make thrilling reading from start to finish. There are, therefore, two things that must be granted to Abbott before commencing. The first is the admission that in spite of such a colourful subject, he seldom succumbed to the temptation to indulge in creative writing, or really any sort of sensationalism whatsoever. Rather than seeking to either panegyrise or demonise Peter with a magniloquent pen, he does his level best to judge him as a seventeenth century monarch, and to give the dull but important scenes from his life at least equal footing with the rambunctious but trivial.

“The sending of a grand embassage like this from one royal or imperial potentate to another was a very common occurrence in those times. The pomp and parade with which they were accompanied were intended equally for the purpose of illustrating the magnificence of the government that sent them, and of offering a splendid token of respect to the one to which they were sent.”

-Peter the Great (Abbott)

Abbott’s second success lies in his crucial effort to offer his suggestions on the significance of Peter’s reign and life, both on Russia and on European history. He strikes a patient and pleasant balance between investigating the long-term effects of Peter’s reign, without overstepping his bounds as a reporter and analyst of a particular era.

With these bright spots acknowledged, it must be said that this book is neither groundbreaking nor controversial. It is a bread-and-butter history text, and while useful or even necessary for a student of Russian history, has little unique to recommend it, either in its facts or in its style. Again: it should be impressed upon the prospective reader that these two points in favour of Abbott’s history are issues that many, many other historians trip upon, and trip upon badly. Peter the Great is extremely useful, and it is even quite interesting. It isn’t thrilling, and if the author cannot really be faulted for this then he cannot either be lionised for a rather prosaic work. It is in many ways like reading a school textbook. Some very memorable hours can be whiled away in reading school textbooks, but when in school, even poetry textbooks are never poetic.

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Atatürk, by Andrew Mango

March 24, 2013 at 20:21 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century) (, , , )




Andrew Mango announces his rules clearly in beginning this book with a brusque and stern explanation of the Turkish grammar he intends on using, a hard rebuke towards prevailing racist western attitudes towards Turkey, and a firm reminder of his credentials as an historian who has searched exhaustively through sources Turkish and English for what, the subtext thunders, is a comprehensive, definitive, and especially serious biography.

This forbidding introduction then unfolds surprisingly into a spellbinding and rich tableau, and a deliciously-rendered summary of Turkish and European history ancient and modern; often straying, frequently magniloquent, always utterly and devastatingly pertinent. It is genuinely surprising how well Mango manages his charge: Atatürk bears all the hallmarks of a stiff and fatally padded book, wherein an author seeks to prove his mettle by including every anecdote, chasing down every family tree, dwelling on the minutiae of every source he can be sure nobody else has included in their biography. To borrow a phrase, this is indeed a loose and baggy monster, and while it would be difficult to claim that any particular event or period in a man’s life is irrelevant in the discovery of the whole, there are chapters that drag endlessly and which might have been truncated, particularly in Mustafa Kemal’s early life.

“Atatürk earned his place in history by directing the successful resistance of the Muslim inhabitants of Anatolia against the occupation and attempted partition of their country. Many others took part in the preparation, planning and execution of the struggle. But from the moment he was chosen chairman of the Erzurum congress in 1919 to the time when the victory of the Turkish resistance received international recognition at Lausanne in 1923, he was in charge of the forces of Turkish nationalism.”


Of all the books to compare this to, it might well be compared to Tolkien, but with a keener sense of purpose. The quality of the writing is impossible to condemn, but the grinding thoroughness with which Mango attends to each scene in the theatre of Kemalism is impressive, to say the least. As churlish as it is to say, there are moments when readers will grow relieved that Kemal’s life was not another twenty years longer.

It is difficult for a reader unaccustomed to Turkish history to manage the unfamiliar names littered prolifically through Mango’s history; particularly seeing that so many of the principle characters share titles or given names in common. The author’s parenthetical use of the surnames that Atatürk introduced late in his reign is a confusing anachronism that aids identification at the expense of interrupting the lucidity of the writing.

Any good historical text ought to be judged not only on its readability, but on its voice. Andrew Mango’s history is peculiar, in that he comes across as an unabashed Turkophile, but without a great deal of antipathy or admiration for any particular faction of the nascent Turkish Republic. Thus, he has no sympathy at all for the Kurds, British, or French; and treats the Greeks with something approaching open hostility. At the same time, it is difficult to tell whether or not he truly approved of the methods Atatürk used in silencing Kâzım Karabekir, or what he thought of the Young Turks. He does not even reveal whether he is a believer in Kemalism until the final chapter, Aftermath, which is a brilliantly insightful essay on the entirety of Atatürk’s life and government, and on Turkey through the Twentieth Century.

There are shorter books and easier books, and probably many which would confer similar benefits to Mango’s biography. But it is truly a joy to be in the hands of an author that the reader can trust, and then forgive for the length of the road and a handful of inconveniences along it. In delving into the recent history of Turkey, why start anywhere else?

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Angler, by Barton Gellman

February 23, 2013 at 14:13 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics) (, , , , )




Gellman does not really have much reason to coddle the subject of this biography. The notorious secrecy that he describes as innate to the Cheney Vice-Presidency extended past 2008, and it is clear from an examination of Gellman’s sources and his postscript that on matters of substance, Cheney’s office was generally cold and hostile towards him in the construction of an attempted intimate portrait of the Bush government. He puts a faintly transparent mask over his perplexity at Cheney’s intransigence, which leaks through readily when describing events that he considers to be indicative of Cheney’s worst moments. But it is important to note that it is perplexity, and not outrage or dismay. Gellman might be a rather emotive author prone to strong reactions, but he keeps carefully balanced on a plinth of professionalism, and takes great care not to tread on the narrative with heavy feet of approval or disapproval.

George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Karl Rove, and many of the other big-noise names from Bush’s presidency receive only marginal recognition in this carefully-focused book; obviously Bush himself is the most important peripheral figure, but surprisingly he is only studied when Gellman seeks to explain his oft-misunderstood relationship with his Vice President. In the hands of a poorer author, such a myopic focus might be detrimental, but Gellman is absolutely terrific at crafting context without stepping outside of a very tight circle. There is much that is missed, but few readers will complain for missing it.

“All hell was breaking loose at Justice. Phone calls and BlackBerry messages pinged around the senior staff. Lawyers streamed back to the building from the suburbs, converging on the fourth-floor conference room.

Barton Gellman has little or no patience with stupid questions, and when he is obliged to bring up accusations or issues without basis in fact, he does so brusquely and with marked brevity. He is unafraid of admitting a dearth of information with a particular subject, and purposely leaves some questions dangling for future authors to pick up, rather than neatly trimming them off. He clearly recognises that an unanswered question is sometimes of equal value to an answer, and his attention to detail and zeal for a comprehensive account are both commendable.

This book could never be described as a panegyric, but neither is it a bleak demonisation or even harsh criticism. When Gellman has (frequent) cause to be critical, it is not always because Cheney has done something “bad” that he ought to be punished for. Often it is because Cheney has done something that the author neither condemns nor lauds, but which led to certain consequences that are spelled out as far as is possible, and then analysed. Such an approach might be considered dry, but either to Gellman’s credit or because of the rich subject matter, even the most noncommittal verdicts read very fluidly. This will hardly be the last word on Dick Cheney, for better or for worse, but it is a valuable insight that succeeds on all of the goals that it sets out to achieve.

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American Patriots, by Rick Santorum

January 5, 2013 at 11:04 (Book Reviews, Historical, Politics) (, , , )




The striking thing about this book (one of only two that Santorum has written) is its pithy and generally amoral tone. Santorum himself has some decidedly outspoken views, and is a divisive figure in American politics, but one would hardly know it from reading American Patriots. He is loath to make strong statements, instead cataloguing a series of second-rate personalities from a war distant enough to be non-controversial with a milquetoast, ingratiating sort of voice. He takes great care to include chapters on ethnic minorities, different religions and denominations, and women; and on working-class men, merchants, and aristocrats–no matter how mundane their so-called achievements. Each chapter and each section is meticulously and clinically laid out to produce a disinfected and harshly scrubbed book that ought to appeal to any conscientious American voter. Santorum might not be seeking office right now, but he is plainly still a politician, and his ghostwriter (or writing persona) is much more of a sanitised middle-American than his more forceful image from the 2012 election.

“Having represented the state of Pennsylvania and the Cradle of Liberty–Philadelphia–as a United States senator for twelve years, I wanted to share what I was blessed to be exposed to there: the rich history of the American Revolution”

-American Patriots

It is with this general blandness in mind that the precise nature of the heroes Santorum chooses to venerate falls into sharp contrast. His scattering of “forgotten patriots” is a seething nest of pirates, liars, perjurers, murderers, blackguards, slavers, and traitors. The pages are soaked with blood, and provide a grizzly litany of prisoners-of-war shot and hanged in cold blood, men worked to death in the fields of masters who are held up as shining examples of benevolent slaveowners, knives flashed in the dark, and all sorts of other unsavoury actions. Beside these stories, preachers and statesmen are unironically compared, and the question has to be asked: does America have no more worthwhile heroes, or does Rick Santorum display a stark and confusing hypocrisy in his application of his Christian faith to history?

“Benjamin thought they should simply shoot them all. Not Nancy. Shooting was too good for these redcoats; she wanted them to hang. So they strung up the five remaining soldiers on a nearby tree.”

-American Patriots

This two-faced nature of Santorum’s compilation contributes significantly towards a lack of purpose in this book. There is neither a strong moral message, nor indeed a central exposition: only a seemingly-random series of various historical footnotes, stretched nearly to breaking point to scarcely fill out a hundred pages. Admittedly in spite of the bowdlerised and offensively inoffensive editorialising, the writing is smooth and constructed with care and skill, but the simplest answer to the problems in this book is that it is not really intended to be read. It is a very pretty book, with an excellent cover design and some fancy printing in the pages, but this is a book made to be gifted and displayed upon one’s bookshelf to announce a political worldview, and perhaps to be idly glanced at to pass time. To say that it is an empty book written by an empty writer would perhaps be calumnious; but it might at least be close to the mark.

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The Difficult Relationship, by Richard Aldous

December 8, 2012 at 11:42 (Book Reviews, English History, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )



TheDifficultRelationshipThose readers who are not thoroughly tired of two-hundred page history books marketing themselves with sensationalist claims of the untold shocking story that will redefine the world – probably ought to be. At first glance, this book looks like more of the same. It’s not entirely true. But the title is subtle enough to provide a few misconceptions. A marriage (to borrow a metaphor often pasted onto the Reagan-Thatcher relationship) can be “difficult” because the couple are constantly at each other’s throats, or it can be “difficult” because they loyally and patiently endure difficult times, without ever turning on each other. Aldous does a rather good job playing with the two definitions, and seems to go back and forth between which one he prefers.

Predictably, he spends most of his time dwelling on the hardest parts of the relationship, but outside of the first few pages where he makes his initial case that Thatcher and Reagan were hardly wearing rose-tinted glasses he provides a very level and unambitious catalogue of the political crises that affected both leaders. Is this book weighted to emphasise the negative and entirely eclipse the positive? Of course it is. But not in a dishonest way. Any myopia is entirely appropriate to his context, and Aldous never claims to be giving a comprehensive view of events. He is simply doing what he promised, in laying out the difficulties faced by both parties; whether the difficulties were caused by differences in policy, differences in temperament, mutual misunderstandings, allies and enemies, or deliberate antagonism.

“For the first time it seemed in hours, Thatcher stopped talking. Even with her thick skin, impervious as she was to criticism or embarrassment, the prime minister understood that she had gone too far. Around the table, nobody moved as Reagan maintained eye contact.”

-The Difficult Relationship

Where this book falls slightly short is its failure to offer much in the way of complex explanations for what Aldous observes. Thatcher was angry with Reagan for his vacillating on the Falklands issue, for instance. That was due solely to Reagan’s concern for nurturing Argentina as an anti-communist bastion in the western hemisphere. So far, so good. But Aldous is content to accept this at face value. He rarely speculates, and while to his credit he does explain the agendas of certain figures like Shultz, this is done in a general axiomatic way, without any attempt to look deeper at the politics of 1980s America. Likewise, Thatcher is portrayed largely as mistress of her own destiny. Domestic troubles are occasionally noted when they impacted her transatlantic friendship, but for all intents and purposes both leaders are set in a vacuum that contains only each other, at their most intractable.

As noted above, this is the history that Aldous sets out to tell, and so he should not be judged harshly on what he omits. However, he slashes and ignores enough of real significance that it does begin to weigh against him in the end: and also, against his brash title. There is nothing groundbreaking or sensational in this book, and although he does highlight certain difficulties, they are rocky reefs in an otherwise navigable ocean. Of limited use to an historian, and even less use to those looking for an entry level guide to Anglo-American politics in the 1980s, this book is more of a general case study that might complement other books, but is just as likely to find itself repeating more thorough sources.

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The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

October 13, 2012 at 10:29 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )


As a rule, polemics are nasty, complicated things. They exist to provide brief shoutable slogans, and to gather dust in libraries. They are not supposed to throb with such vibrant energy and impassioned rhetoric as Fanon’s last will and testament. They are not supposed to inspire strong feelings in readers decades removed from their context. Frantz Fanon makes himself a difficult man to like, trumpeting loudly in bifurcated absolutes, and frequently presenting conclusions before arguments (if he deigns to argue at all).

“The very same people who had it constantly drummed into them that the only language they understood was that of force, now decide to express themselves with force.”

-The Wretched of the Earth

His book is at its dullest when he describes the problems facing revolutionary groups transitioning into legitimacy, and the correct organisation of a progressive order. Here he becomes another coffee-room radical, prattling about bourgeouise and propaganda, the party, the meetings, the rallies, reactionaries, the doctrine. He is at his most convincing when presenting carefully chosen examples of colonial outrages, always slotted meticulously into his broader worldview, and always ready to support his fiery ultimatums.

“We are all in the process of dirtying our hands in the quagmire of our soil and the terrifying void of our minds. Any bystander is a coward or a traitor.”

-The Wretched of the Earth

As political science this is an imperfect work, but as an intelligent and furious response to the western world in the twentieth century, it is powerful and starkly relevant. Richard Philcox’s translation appears to do Fanon credit; the book’s fluency and inviting tone make it remarkably easy to read through even the most convoluted politispeak, and seize upon the pith of Fanon’s complaint easily. Quick to digest and quick to make an impression, there really is no excuse for avoiding this book.

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What to do with Japan, by Wilfrid Fleisher

August 20, 2012 at 17:38 (Asian History, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

What to do, indeed, with a book bearing such a deliciously arrogant and condescending title? There is something brash and daring about it: the refusal to wonder if anything might be done, but the decision what shall be done. As a piece of history in itself, What to do with Japan is a fascinating prospect, written as an opinion piece by a journalist from the New York Herald Tribune some time in 1945. But it is shocking just how prescient Fleisher’s insights into the allied nations’ looming post-war ordeal actually are. It is remarkable how sage and levelheaded he remains, with no emotional outbursts and few racially-motivated generalisations on the “yellow race”. Even when he does make cultural judgements, they are as much reflections on the Western mindset as they are descriptions of a foreigner. “We know them to be fanatical and vindictive…” he begins, setting the stage for a book in which what America (and the rest of the world) ‘knows’ ought perhaps to be re-evaluated.

“If we expect to be welcomed back in Asia with open arms as liberators, we may experience some rude shocks unless we are prepared to return with a new philosophy…we assume, perhaps too readily, that the conquered peoples are yearning to rid themselves of their Japanese masters and to welcome the return of the occidental Powers.”

-What to do with Japan

Starkly prophetic are his insights into the difficulty of managing a post-colonial world, and of occupying a foreign country in the modern era. From predicting grave trouble between Russia and China in the decades ahead, to warning that any American occupation of Japan must have a clear exit strategy and a roadmap towards responsible self-government, there are entire paragraphs that would not look out of place if they were transposed sixty years into the future.

There are moments where Fleisher makes inaccurate predictions, but these are none the less interesting for their errancy.  He utterly fails to predict the Cold War, and it is deeply interesting and even a little humbling to hear him use the words ‘united nations’ as an adjective and a noun more than as an organisation, several times evoking the sincere belief that the nations of the world would have general consensus throughout the rest of the century, only pausing to solve occasional disputes.

An interesting and manageably brief little book, that stands out from its competition by virtue of the tact, humility and conciliatory nature with which it is written. It is truly rare to find so much good sense packed into such an unassuming form.

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AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, by Larry Kahaner

August 4, 2012 at 17:09 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , )


It is tempting to mentally remove the title emblazoned across the cover of this book and replace it with the legend, “This is a book about guns!!!” If books are to be judged by their covers, then this one is a little embarrassing, a little bombastic, and not the sort of book one would feel comfortable reading on a train. Thankfully the interior is markedly less cartoonish than the jacket, although it is not a deep or penetrating historical work.

Kahaner has faced a great deal of undeserved criticism for his apparent aloofness and harsh verdict on what is unambiguously a weapon of the proxy war and of the criminal. He does not set out to write a technical manual, and he does a capable job in surveying both the history of the gun’s inception, the history of comparable weapons, and several case studies of the AK-47’s use, availablity and changing role. Incidentally, all of his case studies are soberly written and entirely germane to his topic.

“The army was enamoured of the complexity and promise of these smart weapons. ‘Despite all the sophisticated weapons we or the Soviets come up with, you still have to get that one lone infantryman, with his rifle, off his piece of land. It’s the damn hardest thing in the world to do.'”


While several of his conclusions are certainly up for debate, and are clearly written as opinions and not as facts, this book is neither an essay on the evils of guns, nor a statistics sheet for gun enthusiasts. It is a very general overview supported by some carefully chosen examples and a brief survey of one weapon’s use in selected twentieth century contexts. Considering that the author was compelled to summarise some sixty years of the history of declared wars, terrorism, criminal subcultures across four continents, and the legal and illegal traffic of firearms in general, it ought to be clear that he has successfully and skilfully distilled an immense amount of information in a very clear and professional manner.

Readers looking for a Tom Clancy sourcebook should look elsewhere; readers looking for a biography of Kalashnikov should read a biography of Kalashnikov; readers looking for a comprehensive and multifaceted study of every conflict and event Kahaner surveys have at least a dozen other books they ought to read. But for what it is, this is an excellent book.

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The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

July 4, 2012 at 19:25 (Book Reviews, English Language, Historical, Literature, Mediocre Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , )


The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been somewhat misrepresented of late, not least due to its immense impact upon so many authors and storytellers. But it is not a manual of story structure, nor an analysis of such; nor even is Campbell’s monomyth a blueprint for fictional writing. Campbell’s promise to distill and analyse the stories told across the world and through history is neither a scientific survey nor even a chronological view of the progression of literary heroes. Far too specific (and occasionally frustratingly myopic) to be very scientific, Campbell appears mostly as a somewhat slavish echo of Freud, and obsesses over a narrow selection of stories that apparently support his conclusions most convincingly.

His chapters (and the stages of the heroic journey that they describe) are peculiar things: vague and elusive enough to apply readily to the handful of stories he uses as examples, but strict enough to bear out some stern conclusions, and some strangely ubiquitous and overwhelming ideas about the universal human psyche.

“…the way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man…”

-The Hero with a Thousand Faces

In spite of its popularity, it is not an easy book to read. It consists of three types of writing: firstly, there are lofty and grandiloquent rhapsodies about the transcendent universal mind, and the evolution of the dream world, all of it very Freudian and fuzzy. Secondly, there are immense recapitulations and quotations of ancient and classical and modern stories, cleverly and neatly clipped and trimmed into the shape Campbell wishes for them to appear. Finally, there are occasional gems of insight, and throwaway lines nested within the reams of clunky, unattractive scholarly mess; not axioms, necessarily, nor even well-developed enough to be theories. These flickers of interpretation are often interesting, but seldom revelatory and never poignant enough to make up for the waffling that goes on all around them.

This book is as much a comparison of world religions as it is a survey of myth and mythology. It frequently feels like Campbell is ill-informed about everything except his incredibly bold assertions, and that he is simply making things up. It would be hoped that if he was, then he would write something a little more interesting. Largely uninformative, needlessly esoteric, and depressingly reliant upon early twentieth century psychology, this book does not deserve its reputation, although it might deserve a few hours’ attention from patient readers.

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From October to Brest-Litovsk, by Leon Trotsky

May 27, 2012 at 22:18 (Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )


Trotsky’s apologetic regarding one of the least popular pieces of Bolshevik policy is at times ludicrous, at times deeply compelling, at times simpering, but almost always rather dull. For all the man’s attested energy and rhetorical gymnastic ability, he wrote this pamphlet as an intellectual exercise aimed at his allies and enemies in the byzantine tangle of the fledgling Bolshevik government, not for the workers whose rights he constantly trumpets.

“…appealing to all the workers, soldiers and peasants. In this appeal we declared that under no circumstances would we permit our army to shed its blood under the club of the foreign bourgeouise.”

-From October to Brest-Litovsk

Consequently, the argument is convoluted and lumbering. A common ideological base is taken for granted, and as Trotsky attempts to defend an indefensible treaty, it is possible to see him tip-toeing through his precepts and conclusions, almost as if feeling his way as he goes, wary of stepping upon the wrong tail.

His recapitulation of the October Revolution is the most ponderous section of this treatise, and the hardest to wrestle through. Either in an attempt to honour his allies, or else tar his enemies with whatever brush they might use on him, he is positively promiscuous in his scattering of names through his account. Fascinating as an insight into the miasma of Bolshevik politics perhaps, but not thrilling reading. The account picks up considerably towards the end, and there are some genuinely fascinating windows into the three-way diplomatic tug-of-war between the Central Powers, the Triple-Entente, and the Russians; as well as the various puppets of each.

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