Atatürk, by Andrew Mango

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

Atatürk

9/10

9/10

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.”

-Atatürk

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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The Difficult Relationship, by Richard Aldous

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

4/10

4/10

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) (, , )

8/10

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) (, , , )

7/10

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.'”

-AK-47

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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From October to Brest-Litovsk, by Leon Trotsky

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

4/10

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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Hiroshima, by John Hersey

February 29, 2012 at 17:36 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

8/10

This book shines as a piece of primary-source history, and is elevated to excellence by the sterling work Hersey did in editing it. Published immediately after the end of the war in 1946, it contains very little of the sort of analysis or wider political context that many straight history books do, but also manages to veer away from gutter press journalism (despite the fact that these accounts were indeed published in The New Yorker). The story was sensational enough, and Hersey evidently saw no need to sensationalise it any further.

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki…had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

-Hiroshima

Instead, he captured the voices of his interviewees respectfully, without embellishment, and simply, editing the stories into compact and powerful narratives that somehow become as cohesive a tale as though he had invented the stories himself. His arrangement of the witness accounts in such a masterful way is impressive, especially given his constraints of telling the story through the eyes of his interviewed subjects.

For obvious reasons, this book is rather shy with statistics and wider analysis, and while that limits its usability in historical study, it does help the reader to see things more through the eyes of the victims, and helps transmit some of the emotional helplessness and fear that otherwise might have been lost by a more comfortable and more distant view. An excellent human-interest book, and an invaluable and unique historical document.

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A Journey, by Tony Blair

December 4, 2011 at 13:33 (Biography, Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

7/10

One of the first things that everyone in the world either loved or utterly loathed about Tony Blair was his hokey, jokey, everyman persona: which was either just that, a carefully and cynically constructed persona; or else a genuine dislike for the airs of power and tradition, and a refreshing and frank openness hitherto unseen in politics. Whether genuine or not, this book is written in a voice that matches Blair’s manner immaculately. Presumably, this has garnered it praise and poison in equal amounts; but that is the first thing any reader will notice. Stiff and awkward, like an older person talking to a teenager about the fashions and bands of five years ago; inoffensive and dreadful jokes that will be laughed at for their daring in being told at all; the confident aside whispered knowingly after any particularly salient point; ready and good-natured self-effacement throughout. Whether Blair penned this biography entirely on his own (he is certainly a capable enough communicator) or worked with a ghostwriter, the very essence of his personality was captured acutely. Whatever else that means, it suggests that this book is written much better than it seems at first glance. It is difficult to write (or act, or paint) well; it is considerably harder to do so–not badly–but just noticeably worse than you are capable of.

“Hadn’t we fought a great campaign? Hadn’t we impaled our enemies on our bayonet, like ripe fruit? Hadn’t our strategies, like something derived from destiny, scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts?”

-A Journey

Weighing in at nearly 700 pages, it is remarkable that Blair covered only his career as leader of the Labour party. There are a few scanty passages about his early life, a handful of reminiscences of his legal career (when germane to the political story) and a little about the ’80s under Neil Kinnock; otherwise almost the entire tome is strictly business, and strictly focused on his tenure as (brief) leader of the Opposition, and of the country. This allows a rare comment to be made. Rare to be said about any biography or history. Blair covers his material comprehensively, and without any area of omission. It is honestly difficult to conceive what of his political career might have been unfairly or unnaturally truncated. Some of his comments are brief (terse, even); but even with these he cannot be said to have left anything out.

His treatment of colleagues and competitors, enemies and acquaintances, and all manner of human beings in between, was always going to be a key talking point about this book. One can almost imagine feverish teams of newspaper hacks hunched up outside Waterstones in the early hours of release day, taking a chapter each and scraping each last ounce of nuance from Blair’s every word, his every pronouncement and judgement of every character, searching for scandalous rivalry or sour grapes. He is a gentleman throughout–although sometimes a snide gentleman with a great deal of subtext. When the time comes to censure someone, he employs like clockwork a patronising, “so-and-so is an excellent and peerless MP, but has an unfortunate tendency to shortsightedness, and doesn’t understand the way the Civil Service works.” Or some variation of the formula. Rupert Murdoch and Ed Balls in particular come in for a regular savaging, but Blair always attempts to justify himself, and never in this book is there an unpleasant taste of bitterness or bile. Seldom, anyway.

“Ed Balls was and is immensely capable intellectually, and also has some of the essential prerequisites for leadership: he has guts, and he can take decisions. But he suffers from the bane of all left-leaning intellectuals. As I have remarked elsewhere, these guys never ‘get’ aspiration…truly muddled and ultimately damaging…”

-A Journey

As far as his honesty goes, an odd curiosity is his clear and conscious attempt to prove that, while he is certainly a master of persuasion, and incredibly good with words, there is more to it than that. A great deal of the effort in this book is given to bolstering his verisimilitude as a politician, and therefore as a writer. If his chief intention is to be believable, then he works like a Trojan, and puts every argument to work in his favour. He parries countless thrusts at his personal and political integrity, and does so with masterful flourish and disarming frankness. While this does not, of course, prove his character or nature (the devil can quote scripture to suit his purpose), it does at the very least provide a challenge to the reader. Listen to what he has to say, and weigh his words with an open mind. His strong insistence that he relies on more than just showmanship and “spin” is powerfully backed up by his record, and together his facts and his rhetoric make for a heady mixture.

This was not altogether a particularly pleasant book to read (the depth with which Blair deals with every shade of issue, from foreign policy to economics, education to the media) makes that a foregone conclusion. And despite how genuine his charming everyman persona might or might not be, it grows tiresome after a while (his parenthetical, “Blimey, I thought to myself,” coming off as particularly cloying). Nevertheless, this is a powerful and persuasive book, and if not a pleasure to begin then certainly a pleasure to reflect on and digest.

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World’s War Events (Vol. I), by Francis J. Reynolds and Allen L. Churchill (Eds.)

August 19, 2011 at 20:04 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , , )

7/10

The pedantic and stuffy compendium World’s War Events is difficult to rate as a whole, chiefly because of the incredible variety of styles and penmanship in the various articles contained. These range from exciting journalistic accounts by men who write as though bullets were currently whipping over their heads, droll pulpy pamphlets of propaganda discussing very earnestly the ‘Hunnish character’ or the ‘excitability of Asiatic Mohammedans’, and at least a few dry and crusty accounts of the movements of this-or-that regiment, with dutiful accounts of near-identical death-or-glory charges into the teeth of machine guns. The account of the Invasion of Belgium or the two chapters on the Battle of Ypres are two of the worst offenders, whereas the articles on mountain warfare and the history of the Emden are deeply interesting and vividly written.

“But a victory by Turkish arms would probably instantly change the situation and might loose the pent-up fanaticism of the most intensely emotional of the Oriental races.”

-World’s War Events (Vol. I)

As a primary source (some of the articles were written during the War itself) this volume is deeply interesting; and readers will be amazed at the prescience shown starkly alongside jingoistic nonsense, and the unique mixture of pathos and insight with arrogant wrongheadedness. The book is poorly annotated, with very little said about either the individual authors of the pieces or their own histories, but to identify a strongly British bias would be generous in the extreme.

Even considering the staunch onesidedness of this history it ought not be written off as useless as a picture of the acts besides the thoughts. Indeed, some of the driest and most bureaucratic pages contain a depth of detail lost to many well-rounded histories, proving that this is one of those rare things indeed: a blend of the myopic fact and the fantastic theory. A very valuable tool, and at least the half of it very easy and pleasant to read.

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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, by Piers Brendon

July 24, 2011 at 12:31 (Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century) (, , , , , )

9/10

Piers Brendon writes with the sort of jocular and sardonic style that has become the form for modern histories; always gently mocking all that is positive in his chosen study, and phlegmatically acknowledging all that is negative, all the while maintaining a carefully constructed distance so as not to be sullied by the riff-raff he describes. This permits him astonishing liberties in both damning and lauding, but is a little frustrating due to the difficulty of pinning him down to an honest opinion: these he gives sparingly and reservedly.

While this book is an overview and a glossed account of some two hundred years of global history: in spite of–or even because of his title, Brendon spends very little time at all in the British Isles, and omits almost in their entirety such crucial subjects as the industrial revolution, the repeal of the corn laws, the liberalisation of the British Parliament and even the fierce battles of Disraeli and Gladstone for control of Bristish destiny. All of these subjects are admitted only insofar as they relate to Empire, and then only as they relate directly.

“They included Scottish Highlanders, bag-piped and red-coated, bonneted, plumed and kilted, who were variously thought to be women, eunuchs and demons with a keen appetite for ‘curried black babies.’ Certainly they were a terrifying array, once complimented by General Havelock for holding their fire until ‘you saw the colour of your enemy’s mustachios.'”

-The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Despite this selectiveness and despite his massive scope, Brendon manages to treat several intricate colonial stories with surprising detail. There are the ubiquitous anecdotes and personal recollections and slanders, following modern history’s trend of focusing a little myopically on the “common people” (whoever they were) at the expense of wars and acts and personages; but Brendon allows himself enough space and time to pause on occasion to actually question the causes and reasons for some very singular events. Seldom does he allow himself to give a definitive answer, but at least he ventures so far as to offer out definitive questions.

With prose both lyrical and perversely vernacular, this is not the sort of book where any committed reader will find himself bogged down in a syntactically murderous discussion of dusty manuscript or appalling old civil servants and their historical meddling. It is thrilling in parts, but not gratuitously so, and has a depth that is unexpected in such a casual treatment of such a vast subject. The book’s greatest omission is its apparent failure to contextualise its history, or to link its chronology in a dynamic way to the evolution of global politics and society: however, this omission is apparent only at the first glance, and only because of the sheer mass of material presented, which outweighs the clear comparative commentary that Brendon provides. This is not a flawless work, and it is certainly not the last word on the subject; but it is a pleasing introduction written with a fluent pen and a surprising amount of insight and detail.

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