Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Show Review: Trit95 & Shanghai Beach @ Rubycon Records

Show Review
Trit95 & Shanghai Beach
@ Rubycon Records
Los Angeles, CA.

  I wanted to see Trit95 (from San Diego) last night because I'm hoping to put out their record.  Negotiations have been slow.  Despite interest on both sides, Trit95 have done pretty well distributing their own music digitally-  47k monthly listeners- which is pretty incredible for a fully self-distributed act, and not bad for a fully established indie artists with national and international tours as well as several albums under their belt.  As I've told Mario, my partner, many times, maybe Trit95 don't want or need a record label.   I run into those sort of folks all the time in my job as a criminal defense attorney.  People will call about hiring me for a case and ask me whether I will promise to get the case dropped or whether I can guarantee a win after a jury trial.  Frequently people will ask me, a criminal defense attorney, whether it is "worth it" to hire a criminal defense attorney. 

  Something I've noticed about artists and bands is that they ALWAYS know better than the labels etc they are talking to.  Not just unsigned artists, all artists, all bands, all musicians.  I have observed that essentially all artists/bands/performers believe that they are entitled to be succesful, so any help in that direction is simply taken as something that is due them, and any potential impediments are the fault of others.    How can a label/manager/booking agent respond?  Three ways:  First, you buy compliance.  This is the major label route.  Second, you lie.  This is the traditional route for indie labels, who seek to obscure their lack of resources by offering fulsome promises.  Third, you offer a partnership with transparency- this is the typical "DIY" approach- which obviously works better in theory than in practice.   The essential problem is that 90% of records that get released by record labels lose money, and the 10% that do make money invariably subsidize the 90% that do not, and the 90% also do not make any money.  That is not a recipe for a happy business relationship and it never will be.

     Last night I didn't get to Rubycon till 10 PM, missing the opening act- also a touring artist- sorry.  I saw Shanghai Beach- from Brooklyn.  It was one guy with a sequencer/keyboard/drum machine type set up.  The vocals were strong, he reminded me of John Maus but the backing music was more upbeat. It was crowded but not sold out and people were definitely into it.

    The crowd thinned a bit for headliner Trit95.  They were playing as a three piece with live guitar and bass (I think?) and a drum machine.   The mix was off- I'm pretty sure the Rubycon sound system has trouble with live instruments.  About four songs in an announcement was made that the wife had broken and the show was over.   I didn't stick around to see what happened after that.  Trit95 was good- the first real "band" I've seen since The Serfs show last fall.  I'm surprised that they haven't already been snapped up by a record label, but everyone has been pretty dormant for the past couple years, so I probably shouldn't be surprised by anything as it relates to bands getting signed to record labels.
  It would be great to see these acts at more established venues in town- clearly they meet all the criterion for opening for larger, touring acts in that they are good and have their own local fans who might buy tickets.  I'm talking about Trit95 and Secret Attraction here. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Collected Writing on World History to 2022

  If there is one "catch-all" label I've used on this blog it is "world history" which encompasses a broad swathe of posts. Many of my all-time top 10 posts come from this category, but they never fit, either with the original identity of a "local music blog" or the subsequent focus on books, films and live music.  That makes them a good candidate for consolidation- not the first time- there are at least four other posts that have consolidated prior posts tagged with the world history label.


Published 5/11/10
Jamaica Sugar Plantation circa the 17th century: fun place.

Sweetness and Power:
The Place of Sugar in Modern History
by Daniel Mintz
Penguin Press (Non Classics Division)
p. 1986

      I think the central question concerning this blog is, "How does taste change?"  That concern links all the main subjects on this blog.  Until perhaps last week I would have defined "taste" in a cultural sense, but after reading Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, it seems appropriate to include sensory taste as an additional area of inquiry.  It seems to me that sensory taste is extraordinarily elastic.  Sweetness and Power is an interesting departure point for a consideration of the change of sensory taste.  Specifically, this book looks at the history of sugar in western Europe between 1000 AD and about 1800 AD.  Even more specifically, the data on consumption is gathered almost exclusively from within the United Kingdom.

      Although the United States is not discussed, the author makes the fair assumption that analogous trends occurred in the United States during the 19th and 20th century.  Sweetness and Power limits it's definition of "sugar" to sugar derived from sugar cane, mostly grown in slave plantations in the West Indies.

       Mintz places a great deal of emphasis on the growth of slave labor to feed the calorie needs of the urban proletariat in places like Liverpool during the 18th and 19th century.  I would hardly dispute the point, but it seems to me that the emphasis is rather misplaced.  What is there left to say about slavery?  That it was bad?   Mintz also perceptively notes a blind spot in 19th century Marxist economic analysis, for what it's worth (In that they failed to take account of the pre-capitalist Slave/Factory conditions of sugar manufacture in the West Indies.)

    More interesting is Mintz's discussions of the mechanisms for change of taste in the United Kingdom during the 17th and 18th century.  The United Kingdom in the 17th century was becoming "modern" in the sense that we are modern today.  During this period the consumption of sugar quadrupled.  This book is basically trying to explain why that happened.  Mintz notes that the first plantations in the west indies were in the 16th century, and then Great Britain captured some of them, and started growing sugar in different parts of the Caribbean. Sugar was also being planted in Brazil, also using slave labor.

   Sugar was first introduced into Great Britain during the Middle Ages, where it was imported from Venice in a manner similar to valuable spices.  Sugar was used to cure stomach ailments, etc.  In the 16th century, English wealthy were able to buy sugar, but it was first used ceremoniously by kings to make sculptures and between course displays.   In the 17th and 18th century, changes in the economy began to effect the dietary habits of the working class, in that they were eating outside of the house more, and had a greater need for quick energy.  For wealthier people, the simultaneous introduction of hot caffeine drinks (tea, coffee) led to a growth of demand for the product among the middle class.

     Although interesting, the class based analysis of changing tastes for sugar seems overly complex.  It seems to me that you could write a much more interesting book simply chronicling references to sugar in contemporary media, spare all the analysis.  Taste spreads through communication by individuals.  Capitalism is unique in world history because 1) it creates growth and demand 2) it cares about what people want.  You can talk about good and bad effects of this process, but it is how capitalism actually functions.

   An interesting twist on this is Mintz's discussion of the introduction of sugar into products where the consumer is not expecting to find it.  This "industry" sugar amounts to 50 pounds a year for a United States citizen in the 1980s.  My understanding is that soft drinks are the main component of this source of sugar.  Mintz also notes how the sugar industry will (falsely) distinguish sugar can/sucrose for high fructose corn sryup (in other words: they will exclude consumption of high fructose corn sryup in statistics about consumption of cane sugar.)

   It seems fairly obvious that society has to act to lower sugar consumption among the population.  This raises the consequence of the impact of artificial sweeteners on human health, and I suppose the answer to that is "PUT DOWN THE BOX OF CHOCOLATES!!!" and it's also obvious that the use of sugar in stuff like bread and ketchup and those sort of products should be kept to a minimum.

   Sweet and Power was what I call a "consciousness raiser" but it's also pedantic and the 80s Marxist analysis is dated.  Fun to read, but take the theory with more then a grain of salt.

Map of the Aztec Empire at its greatest extent.

Published 8/5/11

The Flute of the Smoking Mirror
a portrait of Nezahualcoyotl- Poet-Kings of the Aztecs
by Frances Gilmor
University of Utah Press

    I was reading a different book about the Aztecs, and the book mentioned how one of their legends mentions that early in their history, they made some treaty with another city state, and arranged for a dynastic marriage.  The other city sent the kings daughter, and the Aztecs sacrificed her, flayed off her skin and then at the "marriage dinner" the high priest walked out in front of the other King dressed in his daughter's skin suit.  Yikes!

    So at the time, I discounted it, because I don't like to be in the habit of judging cultural/religious practices I find distasteful, even dancing around in skin suits like a f****** serial killer.    So anyway, I finally got around to reading this Flute of the Smoking Mirror, which is an assemblage of sources about this historic, pre-Contact King of the Aztec people.  It's been said of Nezahualcoyotl that he is the only "real person" in Aztec history and that's borne out by this narrative.

    Basically, Nezahualcoyotl lived in the early 15th century, and he was the son of the Aztec King.  His Dad lost a battle to a neighboring city state, and Nezhualcoyotl was young enough so that he escaped across the lake, and was able to grow up relatively unmolested, though occasionally harassed by the usurper.  Then he grows up puts together a coalition of forces with the help of other cities and they go and take back the Aztecs main city.  Emboldened by their success, the winning coalition (let by Aztecs though including other Nahuatl speaking city-states, expands their influence beyond the valley south and east.

    The "themes" of the Flute of the Smoking Mirror once Nezahualcoyotl is on top (though ruling together with Montezuma, the grand father of the leader that the Spanisn encountered) deal with the vagaries of being a King in the Valley of Mexico tradition.

   One problem he faced was the Aztec's tough laws against adultery.  It comes up three times: First, he kills one of his sons for adultery.  Then, he imprisons a second son for years until he's proved innocent.  Finally, he falls in love with the young wive of a trusted veteran soldier, and basically orders the soldier to sacrifice himself in the "War of Flowers" tradition so that he can marry the wive (avoiding adultery because the husband is dead, you see.)

   Also, and I feel I would simply be remiss if I didn't point this out, there is ANOTHER reference to a different occasion where the Aztecs would flay off the skin of a sacrificial victim and wear the skin as a suit.  Now, you PC types can call this an allegory or a metaphor or whatever, but the fact remains that the Aztecs had a god- Xipe Totec and he was depicted as:  wearing a flayed human skin, usually with the flayed skin of the hands falling loose from the wrists.  So I'm going to go ahead and say that this actually happened with the Aztecs, they actually wore flayed human skin as part of their religion.  That is some fucked up shit, that's all I'm going to say.  Fucked. Up. Shit.

   No wait- one more thing- this was only six hundred years ago- that is like an eye blink.  You can say whatever you want about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, but they did not flay off the skin of human sacrifice victims and then wear the skin as a suit.  Some might say, torturing people and burning them at the stake was pretty mean spirited and gross, too which I would say, 1) the Aztecs tortured people and burned them AS WELL and the Spaniards did not rip the hearts out of live people to make it rain and run around wearing skin suits for days on end.  Does saying that make me an imperialist?  More like an empiricist. 

  All I'm saying is that if you want to understand Mexico's present, and by "Mexico's present" I mean the never-ending drug war that is killing tens of thousands of Mexican's every year,  you have to understand Mexico's past and to understand Mexico's pre-Spanish past, you have to understand the role of ritualized violence in their religion. 

         Just as you can describe Europe in the Middle Ages as "Christian" in character, so you can describe the Aztecs.  The human sacrifice element was emphasized, even as it compared to their predecessor and coalition cultures- the Aztecs emphasized the human sacrifice and the skin suit.  They elevated it to hithero unimagined levels in the same way that the Nazis developed genocide.   Human Sacrifice probably varied in significance through the pre-Contact history of MesoAmerican but when the Spanish showed up it was at it's height, and it was at it's height because of the Aztecs specific version of the larger MesoAmerican religious system.

    You can think of the present policies of the Mexican government as a kind of updated version of the human sacrifice- they know people will die, but are dedicated to the belief system that leads them to make the sacrifices regardless.

Gabriel Byrne as Earl Haraldson in Vikings on the History Channel
Published 3/4/13
is on the History Channel
like every night forever because
it's the biggest thing they've ever done.

  I don't write about TV on this blog but I  DO write about the history of the middle ages.  If there is a chance to talk about a popular television so about the Viking invasion of the British Isles then I am ALL IN.  The pitch for Vikings is "Boardwalk Empire, meets Sopranos, meets Game Of Thrones."  Starring Gabriel Byrne as Earl Haraldson and Travis Fimmel as the main protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok.

Travis Himmel as Ragnar Lothbrok: A Star is Born

  It's not a documentary- it's a television show that is seeking to emulate shows on other Cable channels- specifically the historical dramas that Showtime has favored and people don't watch: Spartacus?  Borgias? If anyone should be watching those shows it's me and I don't.  But there is something about Vikings, perhaps the fact that Gabriel Byrne is playing the Tony Soprano character or maybe it's the combination of Byrne with relative unknown Travis Himmel as main man Ragnar Lothbrok.

  It looks like that the action moves over to England which means there will be Anglo-Saxon English characters and Christian churches. One question I had watching the first episode was "When does Vikings take place?"  Which century, etc.  The main plot point in the first episode is that Gabriel Byrne doesn't believe that there is any land to the west at all.

  According to Peter Hunter Blair's An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, " When the Icelandic historians of the 12th and 13th centuries wrote the history of the country where their ancestors had come to Iceland from the 9th century, they attributed the migration of Norwegians to their spirit of independence which made them unwilling to submit to the domination of Harold Fairhair... for some 50 years from c. 800 raiders came across the North Sea with the easterly winds of spring and returned home with their loot before the westerly gales of autumn."

  I think the part where Gabriel Byrne's chief literally doesn't believe in the existence of the west either means that part of it is fantasy or the story is set really, really "early" in the Middle Ages- maybe as early as 500 AD?  Earlier?  But I think they are trying to set it in  800 AD because the characters in England seem "English" and not "Anglo Saxon" I don't know I guess that will get cleared up.

  Maybe I will dust off the old copy of Peter Hunter Blair's An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England- sure to be in demand if Vikings becomes an equivalent in popularity to a Games Of Thrones.  You should give it a shot. I'm sure the first episode will be on every night this week or On Demand.

Published 3/11/13
Vikings Invade England On TV

Ragnar Lothbrok as depicted by Travis Fimmel

  I watched "Vikings" on History Channel again this week- that would be the show I've described as "Sopranos meets Games Of Thrones meets shitty Showtime history based hour long drama of your choice."  But as good as the first two (potentially.)  You can never tell until later if a television show is actually good or not because of all the explaining that goes on within the context of a first and second episode.

Gabriel Byrne as Earl Haraldson of the History Channel's Vikings

 The awesomeness of Viking begins (as I expected) when they actually get to England, or the Kingdom of Northumbria as it was called back then, and sack the shit out of a Monastery and murder all (but one) of the Monks.  I had my copy of Peter Hunter Blair's, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England in one hand and my DVR controller in the other so when they flashed a subtitle with the name of the to-be-sacked Monastery  I cross referenced it in the index of An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England and discovered that Viking is not just some quasi-fictional "any Viking" saga but actually purports to depict the initial Viking invasion of England in the late 8th century.  According to Blair, the sack of the Lindisfarne Christian Monastery in 793 represents, a "fundamental chang[e] in the course of English history."

 "The attack on Cuthbert's monastery on Lindisfarne in 793 marks the end of a peiod of about two centuries during which the shores of Britain seem to have been wholly free from attack.  Bede's church at Jarrow was sacked in the following year and in 795 Columba's monastery on Iona was plundered."
This map depicts the route of the sack of Lindisfarne in 793 by Viking raiders.  Viewers of the show will note that the characters in the television show only talk about heading "west" which would be more accurate if they were attacking from Denmark, but the geography of the homeland of the television Vikings is clearly Norway- with fjords, a scarcity of farming lands and notable mountains.

  So there you go- this is it, people: The actual invasion of England by the Vikings.  Grab your hat, and hold the fuck onto it because I am positive there are more elaborate depredations of the Vikings against the Anglo-Saxons to come.

The Maya of the Yucatan

Published 1/8/15
Landa's Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan,
 Edited by Alfred M. Tozzer
Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
Published by the Museum, 1941
Reprint by Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1966

     Diego de Landa (1524-1579) was a priest who often plays the heavy in simple minded Spanish vs. Maya narrative about the conquest of the Yucatan Maya. He is often held responsible for burning vast amounts of Mayan literature, and was largely the man-on-the-ground for the attempt of the Church to suppress indigenous believes in the area, particularly human sacrifice and idol worship.  He also wrote the best history we have of the period before and after the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan.  Even so, it's a pretty terse document, which is why having access to the incredible annotated Peabody monograph translation is so critical.  This book sells for 150 bucks on Amazon, and it is well worth it for the definitive (for 1941) answers given to the questions raised by Landa's sometimes confused descriptions.   The Peabody annotation has over 1,000 detailed footnotes (which often occupy almost the entire page of text) and a detailed index.

    The combination of Landa's translated text and the detailed annotations give the reader a clear picture of the history of the Yucatan Maya in the period prior to and just after the Spanish conquest.  The major detail that emerges from the notes is the role of the Mani area Maya in collaboration with the Spanish, and the opposition of the other Conquest era Maya powers- the Itzas (who would eventually retreat south) and the towns of the Cancun/Quintana Roo Pacific coast.

   Mani, a town which exists today, is the closest major settlement to the ruins of Uxmal, and the local Mayan elite played an outsized role in integrating Spanish and Mayan cultures. The general idea of the period before the Conquest is that there was an indigenous Mayan population who were "conquered" by elite groups and their followers from outside the area- either Mexican influenced Mayans from the South and East, or Mexican groups themselves.  These groups, in either guise, brought distinctly Mexican cultural practices to the area, most notably the art of the human sacrifice and intense idol worship (vs. the worship of natural geographic features like mountains and cenotes.)

   My sense is that the Mani area Maya don't get enough credit for their early acquiescence to Spanish rule.  After all, Mani is still there and, occasional 16th century inquisition inside, hasn't seen a lot of drama.  I'm not sure you could even say they were colonized, because it doesn't seem like much development has taken place in the area.

Published 8/23/17
The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (2013)
Emblems of Antiquity Series by Oxford University Press
by G.W. Bowersock

I'm very interested in the history of the ancient (i.e. before Christ) world and the time after that until the emergence of Islam in the 700's.   The history of the ancient near east after Rome and before Islam is obscure on a number of levels.  First, the super powers of the time, Byzantium and the Sassinian (Persian) Empire, aren't themselves particularly well known in the West, and any kind of English language historical interest is essentially non-existent.

  The story that The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam, takes place on the fringe of that Byzantium/Sassanian opposition, in what is today Yemen and the horn of Africa.  The time period describe is the mid 6th century.  The players include a Greek-Ethiopian speaking Christian King who invaded an Arab-Jewish state who were oppressing their own Arab-Christian minority.   The fact that any of this places of things existed in this time and place might well come as a shock to anyone familiar with modern day Yemen and the horn of Africa.  In fact, scholarly consensus on the existence of the Arab-Jewish state located in modern day Yemen is itself a matter of some controversy.

   Bowersock treats this Arab-Jewish state as historical fact.  It was called the Kingdom of Himyar and the population- not just the rulers- converted to Judaism around 380 AD.   Other inhabitants of Himyar converted to Christianity at the same time.  The Jewish state was concentrated in the south, and the Christians in the north.  Meanwhile, what we would call the "Ethiopian" Kingd Com in Africa was Christian, but a different kind of Christian then the Byzantine's, so they had an awkward relationship.  The Jews of Himyar were a proxy for the Persians- the Persians being perceived as the historical "good guys" (vs. the Bad Guys of Rome and Byzantium).

   The point of this book is to assert the historical truth of the massacre of hundreds of Christians at the hands of the Jewish ruler of Himyar, Yusuf, in 522, which ultimately provided justification for the invasion of Arabia  by the Ethiopians in 525.  The point of this book is to point out that all this actually happened.  Bowersock stitches together the evidence from a variety of disparate and obscure sources- basically stuff that is just impossible to look at and often written in other languages.  Bowersock is also trying to make the point that this geo-political situation MUST have influence Muhammad and the development of Islam, which took place north, in the still pagan tribal areas of mid Arabia.

Image result for bengal people map
The area of the Bengali people is in present day Bengladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.

Published 9/5/17
History of Bengali Literature (1960)
by Sukumar Sen
Published by Sahitya Akademi

   What do you know about the Bengali people?  Did you know they are the third largest ethnic group in the world (300 million) behind the Han Chinese and the Arabs?  They speak Bengali, the Eastern most Indo-European language.  They've produced one Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Rabindranath Tagore, in 1911- for poetry- but still.   In Classical times, Bengal was the center of a Hindu/Buddhist Empire, in the Middle Ages they were conquered by Turkish-Persian Muslims and spent centuries as the "Bengali sultanate" during which time many converted to Islam,

  Calcutta, the capital of Bengal, was also the head of the British Raj.  After independence, half of Bengal ended up as the Indian state of West Bengal, where they promptly elected Communists to run the government for half a century.  The Eastern Half- the Muslim portion- became first, East Pakistan and later declared independence, fought a brief war and became the independent nation of Bengladesh.  

    The Bengali people are unusual in terms of their relatively positive experience with being the victims of conquest and foreign invaders.  Their Muslim rulers were largely Sufis- the most tolerant of Islamic faiths, the British put their headquarters inside Bengal, and were instrumental in "de Persian-fying" the Bengali language after centuries of being forced to use Persian as the language of government.  The language of Bengali was historically viewed as a vernacular in comparison to Sanskrit, the literary language of India.  The comparison is similar to the relationship between Latin and English/French/German.

  The literature of Bengal can be broken into two major parts- what came before the British, and what came after.  The literature before the coming of the British is basically religious poetry and puppet shows. Bengal was the center of the "tantra" movement, but the tantrics weren't much for leaving written material around for posterity.   The poetry revolves around the mythological themes that are common to the Indian subcontinent, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

    In terms of literature as we know it, i.e. the novel, it came with the British Empire.  Calcutta quickly developed an educated middle and landowning class- families that had served the Sultanate and were largely pleased with the Justice obsessed British Empire.  The novel and contemporary literature developed alongside the nascent Nationalism movement.  The Tagore family- who produced the Nobel Prize winner- played an important role both in developing Nationalism and Bengali literature.

  By the early 20th century, Bengali literature was drifting in the more familiar currents of world literature, the last chapter describes a surfeit of early 20th century "realist" fiction concerned with the lives of everyday Bengali's and Sen also brieflly discusses a Bengali "modernist" movement.  My sense though is that little, if any of this literature has made it to the United States- to the point where the books listed simply had Bengali titles- no English translations (this book is written in English.)

  I can now rest easier knowing that I haven't missed anything the whole world knows about, unless you count Tagore's Nobel Prize Winning verse, and I don't.

Published 9/29/17
The Fall of the Roman Empire (2006)
 by Peter Heather
Oxford University Press

   The Fall of the Roman Empire is the book that historian Peter Heather wrote before his wider ranging book, Empires and Barbarians (2010).  Both books seek to up end the conventional (circa 18th century) explanation that the Roman Empire fell because of the failure of its leading citizens and a descent into decadence.   This explanation, promulgated by Edward Gibbons in his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  was so compelling that it continues to hold sway, and variations on his 18th century themes are frequently recycled today in the context of the "Decline and Fall of the American Empire."

  Not surprising is that Peter Heather vociferously disagrees with this 300 year old explanation.   Less surprising is that it literally took over 300 years for Gibbon to get his full come uppance.  Heather is both imaginative and creative in drawing on resources to elaborate his account, which squarely blames the fall of Rome on barbarian outsiders.   He draws from the familiar written (i.e. Roman) resources, but also incorporates archaeological findings- much of them from the period after World War II, to support his argument.

  That argument is this:   In the third century AD, the Sassanian Empire united the Near East and, after delivering a crushing defeat to the Roman Army (and actually capturing a Roman Emperor), became the foreign affairs obsession of the Roman elite.  From the 300's through the end of the Western Empire, Rome devoted a substantial amount of it's very finite resources to creating a strategic stale mate with the Persians, and this reality limited the ability of Rome to defend the West.

  Meanwhile, in the West, Barbarians tribes had been drawn into the orbit of the Western Roman Empire.  These Barbarians got the short end of the stick from the Romans for centuries, but they also learned about the Roman Empire, and many emigrated into the Empire and joined the Roman Army.  The bottom line is that when events between the Romans and western barbarians came to a head, Rome didn't have the resources to do much except fight the Barbarian armies that made their way onto Roman soil.

  This dynamic resulted in several Barbarian incursions into the West, culminating in the attacks of Attila the Hun, which devastated the Western Empire and created a diminished level of tax revenue, which further lessened the ability of the Western Empire to handle the increasing barbarian problem.  The Roman Empire was huge, but from a governance perspective it was very unsophisticated- basically- they taxed agricultural produce and used the money to pay the army.  Wealth was in land, so when things started to fall apart, Roman elites basically had to deal with it, or lose the source of their wealth.

  This prevented elites from mounting any sort of resistance- and unlike feudal Europe, Roman land holding elites did not maintain their own armies.  In the end, Rome kind of faded away, leaving behind elites that still considered themselves Roman, and barbarians who were mostly influenced by the Roman example.

Image result for alan roman horseman
Alan horseman from the steppe region settled in France during the late Roman period.
Published 10/2/17
A History of the Alans in the West (1973)
by Bernard S. Bachrach
University of Minnesota

   One of the most common misconceptions surrounding the late Roman Empire is imputing our own racial hierarchy to ancient times.  The familiar racial schematic of "white = good", "brown = not as good", "black = bad" did not apply in Roman times.  Rather, there were good Romans and bad Barbarians.   Bad Barbarians could and often did become good Romans, and there were no racial restrictions on that elevation.  It follows that the Roman army made use of whatever forces it could find- especially at the end.  Almost all of the late Roman generals were either full or partial Barbarians who had assimilated into the Roman army.

   Many of these groups are familiar- the Goths/Germans, the Gauls, Burgundians, etc.  These were peoples who were living in Western Europe when the Romans arrived, and they are typically considered to be the ancestors of the current native populations in those areas.  However there were also groups like the Alans, a multi-ethnic group of Central Asian steppe nomads who were pushed west in the early 3rd century AD.  Alans fought on horseback, at a time when the Romans didn't typically use calvary- see photo above.  They fought for and against the Romans, but eventually many were settled in and around Southern France and Switzerland to serve as guards for the roads- then under threat from a variety of internal and external forces.

  The Alans spoke an unknown, Indo-Iranian language- still in the Indo European family but on the opposite side of the family tree. It's unclear what, exactly, happened to the settled Alans in the west after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but as a horse riding, elite cavalry military force, they bear a striking resemblance to the Knights of the Middle Ages- and they were in the right place (France) to participate in the creation of the feudal system.

  Bachrach puts together using a variety of Roman sources and contemporary place names- many variations on Alan in Southern French place names- and in Brittany/Breton. Bachrach notes that the native Gauls and Bretons didn't even have horses, let alone ride them into battle carrying lances. 

Published 10/9/17
An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe
 (2016) by Benjamin Madley
Yale University

  I went to law school at UC Hastings in San Francisco.  While I was there, I worked for Professor Jo Carrillo.   Among other subjects, Professor Carrillo teaches American Indian law, or as it is now called, Laws Concerning Indigenous and Native Peoples in the United States.  I also clerked at California Indian Legal Services, a Legal Services Provider for the Native Californian community.   I
never had the opportunity to practice in the field- it is a tough, tough gig to get, but I've maintained my interest.

   Benjamin Madley isn't the first to make out a case against the United States for genocide- his own ample bibliography makes that clear.  But I think it's the first academically serious attempt to make a legal case that 1) California Indians were a victim of a genocide  2) The United States bears responsibility for abetting that genocide.   It is a case that is fraught with issues ranging from the documentation of the potential facts of genocidal acts (many happened far away from white civilization, Native practice was to cremate dead bodies,  to the identity of the perpetrators of those genocidal acts (some United States army troops, but also many informal volunteer vigilantes), to more typical legal questions like whether one can consider the California Indians a single "people" for the purpose of the analysis.

  In many ways, Madley's attempt to make a legal case for genocide, which, in my opinion, he fails to do, helps to obscure what is simply the best available history of the conflict between White settlers and Native Californians in far North California.  Genocide or not, surely a fuller reckoning of the crimes committed against the Native peoples in California is due.

     The major crimes delineated by Madley are simple: Wholesale extinction level murder, supported by state and non-state actors at all levels of white society between California independence/accession  to the United States, through the end of the Civil War.  For the white people trying to settle in the Gold Rush areas and throughout Northern California, the continuing presence of the Native Peoples in "their" territory was like a personal affront, which could only end in the extinction of those Natives.

  Madley does a great job of extracting genocidal rhetoric from the newspapers of that time.  Although these newspapers weren't state actors, they do an excellent job of conveying the "inevitable extinction" discourse that dominated this time period.  Tied to this rhetoric, the actual acts that Madley described, which typically involved a largish group of non-combatant Natives being massacred by whites with guns- seem logical.

   My opinion, both before and after reading this book, is that the Native people's in California were the victim of war crimes, or crimes against humanity but that it didn't rise to genocide unless one is inclined to define a "people" as an individual tribe or band of Native people's.  Crimes against humanity were very much par for the course.  Take the Modoc tribe of Oklahoma, originally from far Northern California.  After a brief rebellion, an entire group of Modoc's was relocated to Oklahoma, where they remain.  If that ain't ethnic cleansing, I don't know what is.

  To me, the most incredible part of this story is that as of 2017, the whole area where these atrocities occurred- California north of Sacramento- is hardly desirable property.  Most of it is held by the Federal Government in the form of National Parks and Forests.   Why not give some more land back to those tribes directly affected by the crimes against humanity discussed in this book?
Published 10/22/17
A History of the Peoples of Siberia;
 Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (1992)
 by James Forsyth
Cambridge University Press

  The Russian settlement of Siberia, still called the "conquest" of Siberia in places like, I don't know, Wikipedia, is on any top 10 list of poorly understood historical events.  It's obscured, first, by the lack of first hand accounts by the People's of Siberia, who were largely illiterate nomads (though not all of them). Second, by the fact that the Russian Empire was a pretty shitty place and it didn't produce many settlers who were interested in documenting their experience.  Third, by the Communists, who had a vested interest in obscuring the excesses of the Empire and their own failures to further their goal of discrediting the mistreatment of Native People's by the United States.  You could probably add a fourth level to the post-Communist regime in Russia, strident nationalists that they are, any criticism of the type contained in A History of the Peoples of Siberia by Scottish Professor James Forsyth, is likely to evoke disbelief and condemnation by modern Russians.

   So the Russian settlement of Siberia is a big blank space in historical consciousness, by Forsyth does much to redress this with his excellent history, one that focuses on the experience of the Native People's who were settled over.  Forsyth methodically works his way through the various regions and peoples.  You've got Western Siberia (main area of settlement), Eastern Siberia and the Russian North east. 

  Much of the initial push was driven by the desire of Western European markets for Russian furs.  The Czar sent Coassacks into Siberia, and they forced native tribes to pay a kind of protection fee (or tax, if you will) in fur, due and payable every year.  This dynamic of Russians collecting furs from the native is the dominant motif in Eastern Russian/Siberian history from the very beginning all the up until AFTER World War II, where the Russian Communist government finally began to exploit the ample mineral resources of the area.   A secondary motif is the often forced migration of Russian peasants into Siberia to "Russify" the area.   Forsyth, with his focus on the impact of Russian intrusion on the lives of Native Peoples, has little to say about  these Russian settler.
  If there is a discovery to be made among the Native Peoples of Siberia it's the Yakuts, a Turkic speaking people who control a vast area of territory shown above- today known as the Russian Republic of Sakha.  The Sakha Republic is the largest sub-national territory in the world- as big as the Indian subcontinent, and the Yakuts are the only ethnic group that both held their own and expanded their territory.  For centuries, the language of the Yakuts was the colonial language among the less organized nomadic tribes of the region.  Their isolation off the main path of Russian peasant settlement, along with their possession of a written language and a native ruling class and intelligentsia meant that they were able to stay on top of the Russians all the way up to and past the Russian revolution.  Unfortunately their heroic Russian revolution generation of leaders, like many others, were liquidated during Stalin's purges during the 1930's.   In this, the Yakuts did no better or worse than any of the other groups who suffered under Stalin.

  Ultimately, there are many direct comparisons to be made between the Russian settlement of the Far East and the American settlement of the West, at least in terms of their treatment of Native Peoples.  Both events are shocking to the modern conscience, and even without Forsyth often observing that a direct comparison exists, you can see the similarity of the cultures in the pictures of the Peoples that are part of the book.  If anyone tells you the Russians did a better job with their Native population, they are incorrect.

Book Review
Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016)
by John Mack Faragher
WW Norton & Company

John Mack Faragher is one of America's foremost popular-academic historians, serving as a history Professor at Yale University, and also writing top shelf narrative history on subjects ranging from the explosion of the Arcadians (today's Cajuns) from Canada and a biography of Daniel Boone.  Faragher is more than a synthesizer of academic history journals, if Eternity Street is any indication (and I'm sure it is) he (and his research assistants) are also doing original research based on primary records.  Here, Faragher draws heavily on the written court records of 19th century Los Angeles.  In doing so he has written an extraordinary work of popular history and illuminated a little known but important time in California, and by extension American, history.

  Even if you know California history, Los Angeles in the 19th century is a bit of a blur.  You could be well conversant in the subject and forgiven for knowing, essentially, nothing about the 19th century history of Los Angeles, let alone even the broad outlines of the development of Spanish/Mexican Southern California.   Faragher's narrative, which extends back fully into the mid 19th century, is a rich depiction of a violent border community, with a combustible mix of domesticated and wild Native Americans, a land owning class of "gentes con razon" (people of reason) and an underclass of "gentes sin razon" (people without reason) that contained Spanish/Mexicans, both types of Native peoples, African-Americans (free), mixed race Mexican/Indians and increasing numbers of Anglos, most of whom came from the South, but who also contained an important minority of Boston based traders, some of whom became Mexican citizens and married into the existing land owning class, others of whom maintained their American citizenship and resisted integration.

  Although the path that the history takes is of course familiar to anyone on the planet, the details of that path are what concerns Faragher, particularly the difficulty of establishing the rule of law as we understand it in the United States, a process that was not fully complete for decades after California became a state.  The meat of Faragher's narrative concerns issues with lynch mobs and vigilante violence, and the difficulty that the state had establishing control of that behavior.

  In this way Faragher is plugged in to larger trends in American history outside the history of the West- books that point out the incredible comparative lawlessness of post-Civil War America.  Faragher makes it clear that yes, mid 19th century Los Angeles was an incredibly lawless place, with a per capita murder rate that ranks it among the most violent societies of all time.  He documents examples with court records, from testimony and coverage of the press.  Frequently the stories end with the perpetrators being dragged out of their cells and lynched just outside of downtown.

  I could go on for pages about it- and the other subjects.  Faragher is from Southern California- he went to UC Riverside for undergraduate, and Eternity Street is a rich and valuable contribution to the history of this area.

Published 11/5/17
Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016)
by John Mack Faragher
WW Norton & Company

John Mack Faragher is one of America's foremost popular-academic historians, serving as a history Professor at Yale University, and also writing top shelf narrative history on subjects ranging from the explosion of the Arcadians (today's Cajuns) from Canada and a biography of Daniel Boone.  Faragher is more than a synthesizer of academic history journals, if Eternity Street is any indication (and I'm sure it is) he (and his research assistants) are also doing original research based on primary records.  Here, Faragher draws heavily on the written court records of 19th century Los Angeles.  In doing so he has written an extraordinary work of popular history and illuminated a little known but important time in California, and by extension American, history.

  Even if you know California history, Los Angeles in the 19th century is a bit of a blur.  You could be well conversant in the subject and forgiven for knowing, essentially, nothing about the 19th century history of Los Angeles, let alone even the broad outlines of the development of Spanish/Mexican Southern California.   Faragher's narrative, which extends back fully into the mid 19th century, is a rich depiction of a violent border community, with a combustible mix of domesticated and wild Native Americans, a land owning class of "gentes con razon" (people of reason) and an underclass of "gentes sin razon" (people without reason) that contained Spanish/Mexicans, both types of Native peoples, African-Americans (free), mixed race Mexican/Indians and increasing numbers of Anglos, most of whom came from the South, but who also contained an important minority of Boston based traders, some of whom became Mexican citizens and married into the existing land owning class, others of whom maintained their American citizenship and resisted integration.

  Although the path that the history takes is of course familiar to anyone on the planet, the details of that path are what concerns Faragher, particularly the difficulty of establishing the rule of law as we understand it in the United States, a process that was not fully complete for decades after California became a state.  The meat of Faragher's narrative concerns issues with lynch mobs and vigilante violence, and the difficulty that the state had establishing control of that behavior.

  In this way Faragher is plugged in to larger trends in American history outside the history of the West- books that point out the incredible comparative lawlessness of post-Civil War America.  Faragher makes it clear that yes, mid 19th century Los Angeles was an incredibly lawless place, with a per capita murder rate that ranks it among the most violent societies of all time.  He documents examples with court records, from testimony and coverage of the press.  Frequently the stories end with the perpetrators being dragged out of their cells and lynched just outside of downtown.

  I could go on for pages about it- and the other subjects.  Faragher is from Southern California- he went to UC Riverside for undergraduate, and Eternity Street is a rich and valuable contribution to the history of this area.

Published 12/9/17
The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017)
 by Yuri Slezkine
Princeton University Press/Oxford University Press
Published August 27th, 2017
1126 pgs.

  I went back and looked at all the books I read this year to see if there was anything I liked more than The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.  Finishing the first volume of Rembrance of Things Past by Proust was a real milestone, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses were all top 10 type titles.  I liked Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the National Book Award and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sunders, which one the Booker Prize.  I also read four titles by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguo, and I felt like his most recent book,  The Buried Giant was sorely misunderstood by critics and audiences.

   But it was The House of Government, which is a history book- not even a novel- which is my favorite book of the year.  The House of Government is nothing short of a revelation, one of those history books that only comes along once or twice in a generation.  I would compare it to Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer in terms of the impact on our understanding of the subject matter.  Slezkine deserves recognition on every level: For his research, his construction of the book, his writing style and technique and the persuasiveness of his thesis, which is that Bolshevism was a millenarian religion like many others, and it's followers were like all millenarian followers.

   The House of Government was a literal place, a bespoke apartment building for the elite of the revolutionary government.  Slezkine traces the lives of the apartment dwellers: early days of prison, exile and revolution;  a "heroic" period where the residents were deeply involved in cementing the success of the Russian revolution, the post revolution hangover and finally the extermination of the entire "old" Bolshevik elite during the Red Terror.   Each period gets full attention.  The House of Government clocks in at over a thousand pages with another 200 pages of addendum's and notes.  It's researched like an academic history book but reads like a novel.  Ultimately, it is a must for anyone interested in the subject, or advances in the discipline of history.

Published 12/19/17
The Lost City of the Monkey God (2017)
by Douglas Preston

  The Lost City of the Monkey God is a strange combination of true-life archaeology and true-life thriller written by Douglas Preston, who has hit the best seller list a number of times both for non fiction and Dan Brown style adventure fiction.  Anecdotally located in the mountainous south of Honduras, the Lost City was traditionally known as the "lost city" by a generation of American funded non-academic explorers and adventurers. 

  The impetus for this particular expedition to find this legendary lost city was the success of LIDAR- a plane based radar device that can penetrate ground cover to see human made objects hidden in dense jungle, it had already scored notably successes in the Arabian peninsula and Cambodia.   Much of the first hundred pages is devoted to a summary of past attempts to discovery the city, a survey of the literature surrounding the site and many pages on the logistics required to get a team into the most likely site, not to mention the process of flying the LIDAR plane to find the ruin in the first place.

  Spoiler alert, they find the Lost City, located in the prosaically named valley T1. As it turns out, it is a lost civilization- not Mayan but with heavy Mayan influence, with a hey day of 1000-1400. The third act plot twist involves almost the entire expedition contracting a horrific jungle disease called "white leprosy" and their attempts to seek medical treatment.

  There is also some amusing material about Preston talking to academics angered by the publicity generated by the (admittedly publicity hungry) expedition.  So it's interesting, fun to read, not that deep.  There was a lost civilization down there- not Mayan- but Mayan influenced.

Published 2/12/18
Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007)
by Colin Renfrew

  There was a point in time, maybe eight or nine years ago, when I seriously considered doing a version of this blog that focused on history instead of literature, something like an attempt to cover all the history in a set number of books, but I abandoned the idea, because it's just too much- particularly before I figured out the library request system and starting picking up books for free- buying state of the art history books from academic presses is likely to cost you thousands of dollars a year, subscribing to academic journals is just as much, or it requires a trip to a specialty library.  Writing about history books isn't very fun.   Ultimately, much of a what a wider audience considers "interesting" in terms of history subjects are 1) wars 2) presidents.  If you are interested in world history, good luck!

  But I like to dip in and out, particularly when it comes to ancient civilizations and current thinking about the development of modern consciousness in that context.  Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind is particularly rare in that it is a general interest title that addresses that very subject, published by the Modern Library and under 200 pages long- a readable synthesis of work into the area up till about 2005-2006. 

  Of course, since then the major development in this area has been the development of LIDAR- ground searching laser technology- which has revealed gigantic cityscapes in the densest jungle, and vastly expanding our level of knowledge which have lagged in understanding.  Renfrew spends much of Prehistory recounting the history of the study of Prehistory, making the very obvious point that the study of prehistory has been dramtically shaped by colonialism and an over-emphasis on theory developed based on findings made in Western Europe, with Franc playing a particularly important role.

  For Renfrew, it's the intersection of radioactive dating technology and the emerging science of genetic pre history which draws his greatest attention in the chapters that cover current developments in this area.  He makes the emphatic point that one subject that genetics has settled is that, genetically speaking, all humanity is genetically very, very, similar, in that we all descend from a small group that left Africa sixty thousand years ago.  Thus, differences between human populations can not be explained genetically, especially in terms of "superior" or "inferior" genetics for particular groups.  The difference we observe- skin color- for example, represents a very recent, minor, difference.

  Renfrew, writing with his general audience in mind, makes it clear that a real "comparative prehistory" is still being formulated.  The study of prehistory from an archaeological perspective carries the clear influence of "area studies" with a particular intrusion from ideas surrounding nationalism or the aforementioned colonialism.  The expansion of interest in hithero under explored areas like Amazonia, South East Asia and Central America is to be applauded.

 The development of LIDAR technology has proved most important in those areas that are precisely those most neglected- Amazonia, South East Aisa and Central America- all areas with "jungle" type land cover making exploration from the ground impossible.   The major problem that Renfrew leaves unresolves is the contrast between peoples that have All Powerful leaders who create massive monumental architecture and those that create those same structures without putting forward a dynastic leader.  The Egyptian Pyramids vs. Stonehenge, for example. 

Published 3/5/18
A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (2002)
by Donald Merlin

    The field of consciousness-studies is fraught with inter-disciplinary peril, starting with the fact that the "mind/body problem" is central to the field of western philosophy and the answer to just that question has occupied over two millennia worth of highly complicated thought (see Western Philosophy, Eastern Philosophy.)   In only the past decades, the study of the brain, loosely called "neuroscience" has progressed in leaps and bounds, and has resulted in the formulation of a theory that denies consciousness exists, or rather, that consciousness is some kind of an illusion generated by brain chemistry.   In A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, Donald Merlin seeks to take on the opponents of the existence of consciousness on their own turf, wielding the latest (circa 2000) in brain science and cognitive psychology to show that Consciousness is demonstrably a product of evolution, and that consciousness exists BECAUSE of evolution and not as some kind of freak one time exception.

   Merlin's argument works on multiple levels, but the crux is that consciousness is a function of human interaction and is essentially impossible without human community. In other words, consciousness is social, and the very idea of a human developing consciousness in the absence of community is impossible.  He develops the scientific side of his thesis by carefully comparing the human brain to animal brains, and by examining examples of non human 'consciousness' in detail.  A Mind So Rare is not exactly general audience reading.  I took a couple of survey course in brain chemistry and college and was able to follow along, but I'm sure I missed details. 

Published 5/3/18
Empire of Guns:
The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution 
by Priya Satia
Published April 10th, 2018
Penguin Random House Publishing

  If I could, I'd fill this blog with reviews of newly written history books, but that is a tall order. Fields like "18th century European history" don't pull much shelf-space at the remaining physical book stores, and there isn't a ton of popular interest in anything older than the American Civil War with book buying audience in the United States, period.   When I read about Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, I thought, "This is a new book about 18th century European history- I simply must track down a copy."  I finally found an Ebook through the Los Angeles Public Library.  The Ebook appeared intimidating with a near 600 page length, but about 180 of those pages were the end notes and index.  The end notes aren't included in the text of the Ebook, so it reads as an incredibly detailed but none the less non academic  take on her subject.

  Empire of Guns takes heavy cues from John Brewer's 1989 classic in the field of 18th century history, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State 1688-1783.  Satia doesn't hide the ball, Sinews is cited in her very first footnote.  She and her publishers are no doubt relying on the lack of familiarity with Sinews among the contemporary American audience for books about gun control.  Like Brewer, her thesis explicitly relies on documenting the close ties between gun manufacturers and the British Empire.  Unlike Brewer,  Satia extends her analysis all the way up the present day and seems to be making the point that the United States needs to move away from his history by limiting the right of Americans to buy guns.

  That, of course, is a controversial thesis, and it's possible to take issue with some of her analysis.  For example, she dismisses the seminal United States Supreme Court decision in Heller, which held that the 2nd amendment contained a personal right to own guns, in a sentence.  I wouldn't credit those who call Empire of Guns overlong or too dense for general readers, unless they are general readers uninterested in 18th century history. 

Published 7/10/18
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
by James C. Scott
Published August 2017
Yale University Press

  I've been familiar with James C. Scott, currently a professor of political science at Yale University, since I majored in political science at The American University in the mid 1990's.  My thesis, about political participation among "straight edge" punks in the Washington DC area, was couched explicitly in terms he laid out in his earlier work, about the passive resistance of slaves and peasants to overwhelming authority.   Honestly don't remember how the two things tied together. College was a bit of a haze in that regard.  But the name stuck with me, but when I saw he had a new book out about the deep history of the earliest states, I leapt at the opportunity to read Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.  Almost one year later, I got the copy I had placed on hold in the LA library system and yes, it was worth the wait mostly if you are interested in a) the history of the earliest states b) the theories of passive resistance to authority Scott has advocated in his career-making work. c) pop culture takes on these very same subjects by best-selling authors, who Scott clearly acknolwedges in his forthright preface, where he admits he is not an expert in these fields (ancient political science, you could say) and is relying on the work of others, probably leaning heavily on graduate students.

     Scott brings his distinct perspective to the relatively staid world of ancient political science.  Most specialists on ancient civilization are either linguists or archeologists, and both practices have deep roots in the days of European empire, colonialism, etc.  Scott, on the other hand, comes from the very cutting edge world of major American research universities with their own publishing houses and potential for celebrity generating publicity into fields like film and television.  It kind of looks like what Scott, in his own highly intellectual way, is doing here: Making a play for something more than the adulation within the political science community.  Considering how progressive and innovative his ideas are, about how ancient government is at heart an exercise in slavery, and how human kind has not benefited particularly from the rise of agriculture and it's role in allowing the growth of the first political states.

   His argument is intellectual ammunition for those who would role back the clock on human innovation and technology in many different respects, and it isn't hard to imagine a world where Against the Grain was embraced by a dangerous crowd for the wrong reasons.   At the same time, his arguments are just so interesting, and so well constructed, that is difficult not to get swept along- and is also a characteristic of his more specialist centered earlier work. 

Published 8/2/18
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (2017)
\ by  Sujatga Gidlla

  A major frustration for any reader seeking familiarity with contemporary Indian society through literature is the scarcity of books written by the "untouchables" of India, a permanent underclass who face pervasive discrimination that is many ways worse than what African Americans faced after the Civil War.  The tenacity of caste in modern India is, along with the lack of modern sanitation, the dirty secret of modern Indian life.  From the perspective of the ruling Brahmani upper classes, there have been feverish attempts to legislate the caste system out of existence, through the aggressive use of quota hiring and anti-discrimination legislation. At the same time, little has changed at the local level.

  Sujatga Gidla, who obtained an impressive level of professional educations despite her caste origins, tells the story of her own extended family and their experience in modern India as upwardly mobile untouchables.  Such a phrase is not an oxymoron, both due to the aggressive quota system instituted by the government, and also by a quirk of fate by which middle and upper castes rejected Christian missionaries, who taught literacy as a matter of course, leaving untouchables as the only formally educated individuals in many rural areas of India.

 This is the position of Gidla's family, who despite their status had already achieved multiple generations of college educated individuals in the time of this narrative, roughly from the birth of Gidla's parents to her own birth.  The story she tells bears many similarities to the plight of African Americans in the mid 20th century, when they were supposedly equal under the law but suffered at the hands of unsympathetic fellow-citizens.

  Gidla's narrative includes dozens of shocking examples, including that of her mother, who managed to receive the equivalent of a teaching civil service position only to be turned away- on sight- by the Brahmani administrator of her new post.  Gidla also delves deeply into the history of post-independence Marxism, her uncle being a formative figure in that movement within her families part of India.   What you read here should shock you.

Published 8/3/18
The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from Freemasons to Facebook (2018)
 by Niall Ferguson
Published January 2018 in the USA by Penguin Press

  There are no more than a handful of authors who can can get away with publishing grand historical works of synthesis, where they develop a theme and then use all the resources of the modern university system (notable components: amazing libraries and amazing research assistants) to write lengthy thematic tracts about their subject, by necessity a broad one, about  The History of Europe in the 20th Century, as a generic example, or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to use an older example.  Because of the lack of original research, this particular category of books can almost be read as literature: The writer is developing a specific viewpoint via his or her narrator, supported by research, and there is usually a broad resolution at the end.

  Here, Ferguson, a broadly conservative historian, is co-opting the literature of the social science discipline of "network theory"- human network theory- which has been developed by left leaning social scientists almost exclusively, and then traces through a half millennia of western history to show that networks ain't always good and that hierarchies are also a kind of network, and that hierarchies aren't always bad, neither.

  His method involves the metaphor of a sandwich, which two eras of network freedom: One beginning with the dissemination of the printing press, with a hierarchical reaction that extended through the 19th and 20th century, and then a new era of network power, brought about by the personal computing revolution of the mid 20th century.   This broadly reflects the thesis/antithesis/dialectical approach that has been a favorite of both right and left historians, and lends an air of guidance to an otherwise wide ranging discussion.

  Ferguson is best in his grasp of mid level world history- he develops the history of freemasonry, the Rothschilds and has a memorable chapter where he contrasts the British Empire success in Borneo to the American fiasco in Vietnam as the example of how a hierarchy can adapt to a network approach with great success or, as in the case of Vietnam, fail to adapt with great failure.   

Published 8/6/18
The Case Against Sugar (2017)
by Gary Taubes

  The problem with arguments based on science is that they require evidence, so if the conclusion you support is resistant to the creation of such evidence, it becomes impossible to establish scientifically. What, then is a writer like Gary Taubes, who has made a best-selling career out of attacking "big sugar" and the substance itself, to do.  In The Case Against Sugar he makes a "prosecutor's case," which allows him to supply both direct (not much) and circumstantial (alot) evidence that sugar is in fact a poison and responsible for a variety of ills ranging from the familiar, diabetes, obesity to less so, cancer, for one.

  In America, feelings about sugar cluster around two poles: those obsessed with it and not in a good way and those who don't care to think about it. People who "don't care" about sugar tend to be obese, people who do care tend to be incredibly annoying.   Either way, it's hard to have a conversation about sugar without using arguments that were developed by "big sugar" to combat the decades long attempt to refashion processed sugar into a type of poison along the lines of cigarettes.

  Whether Taubes is right or not about his scientific suppositions, his chapters about the role that big sugar has had in supporting pro-sugar research and public relations are based on solid evidence, and I found the most enlightening portions of The Case Against Sugar to be those pages where Taubes recounts how various pro-sugar arguments have filtered into the mainstream and are often used- even by people who think sugar is a poison.

  Taubes also is careful to refine his target, not all sweeteners, but specifically refined sugar, and more specifically the use of refined sugar in processed foods and soft drinks.  To use the example of soft drinks, which are probably the biggest single target of the case against sugar, Taubes starts from the point that you can put an incredible amount of processed sugar into a soft drink.

  The amount of sugar in ONE "full strength" soda is equivalent to eating yourself sick on fresh fruit and is worth a thirty five minute run to burn off the calories.  Big sugar has successfully introduced a variety of arguments to mitigate the grotesque amount of sugar added to soft drinks: that sugar calories are the same as other calories and perhaps most nefariously- that diet soda is itself a threat to public health.  For me, the idea that the sugar industry itself was behind attempts to discredit diet soda was a real mind fuck.  Basically, that is the sugar industry targeting it's own biggest client.

    After soda, the next most substantial target is the introduction of sugar into processed foods, which are themselves a huge problem.  It is here that Taubes makes his most difficult arguments, equating the rise of "western diseases" with the rise of processed food, and pointing to sugar as the reason that the rise of processed food has caused the rise in diseases.

   Taubes most substantial argument not tied specifically to a use of sugar is the role that big sugar has played in pinning the rise in "western diseases" on fat, and specifically saturated fat.  This appears to be an argument that has largely been won- with the low fat diets on the decline, and oodles of counter research showing that there is nothing wrong with a diet high in saturated fat, so long as one remains active and not sedentary, etc.

  It's a compelling case in mind, particularly if you actually travel to parts of the "west" where people consume sugared soda.  People there are just fat. Super, duper fat.  You can notice the difference between Los Angeles and Nashville, let alone San Francisco and Iowa. People in one place are fat, people in the other are not.  People in one place drink two liters of coke with their children, people in the other do not.  Maybe that isn't a scientific argument, but it's all the evidence my eyes need to know that it is best not to drink sugared soda, and best to look at the labels of the foods you buy at the grocery store.

Published 10/23/18
Asperger's Children (2018)
by Edith Sheffer
Published May 2018 by WW Norton & Company

   The Nazi eugenics program, which resulted in the murder of thousands of so-called 'defective' children and adults, is a less flamboyant cousin of the more famous Holocaust.  Although all aspects of the Holocaust are remarkable for the full assistance and ingenuity they received from a variety of highly trained professionals: Chemists to synthesize the gas, engineers to design and build the gas chambers and the many trained lawyers and executives that populated the Nazi SS ranks, the eugenics program stands out for the leading role that medical professionals played in the design, selection and implementation of this facet of Nazi organized, state sponsored murder.

   By contrast, the Holocaust itself was imposed by fiat from the very top, over the objection of many active Nazi's who favored alternatives like deportation and simple confinement.   The Eugenics program aroused sporadic opposition from "the people" but none from within the Nazi's themselves, where the murder of so-called defective children was seen as a positive good for the "volk culture."

  Enter Hans Asperger, who is today best known for lending his name to "Asperger's Syndrome" which is a broader label for the range of behaviors generally called Autism.  Asperger's didn't fully emerge until the 1990's, and the decision to give Asperger's it's name was made by a female English academic working a half century after the events of Asperger's Children.  It seems likely that a renaming is in order, particularly since Sheffer's argument: That Asperger was wholly involved with developing the criteria by which the Nazi's murdered children, seems uncontroversial in light of the matters of public record reported by Sheffer in her book.

   Those facts are as follows:

1. Hans Asperger directly participated in the creation of the criteria which himself and others used to designated children as "ineducable" and thus fit for state sponsored murder.
2. Hans Asperger never protested against this program, and in fact used it to advance his career.
3. The children who were murdered by the Nazi's were often non even severely handicapped, and included many who might be termed juvenile delinquents in other similarly situated societies.

   It seems an open and shut case to me, not even particularly controversial.  Obviously, the academics working in the 1990's who gave his name to Asperger's Syndrome did not know about his Nazi work history.

Published 11/5/18
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic (2016)
by Sam Quinones

  The road to hell is paved with good intention, and I was reminded forcefully of that proverb reading Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones.  In this case, the good intentions were a group of doctors who overturned a century of anti-pain medication bias in the medical profession.  In the past, American doctors had been reluctant to prescribe adequate levels of pain medications, often for entirely non-scientific reasons having to do with early 20th century bias against narcotics.

  Dreamland begins with those doctors, and their efforts to help people like war veterans, cancer patients and the dying manage their sever levels of pain.  Of course, this book would not have been written if everything had gone to plan.   What began as a genuinely good hearted attempt to rectify non scientific reasons for keeping people in severe pain was quickly taken advantage of by a handful of pharmaceutical companies who ended up earning billions of billions of dollars selling pain medication to the non-sick.

 The dramatic increase in market size of Americans addicted to opiates in turn opened doors for heroin traffickers.  In Dreamland, those traffickers are the Xalisco boys, a loosely affiliated consortium of heroin manufacturer/distributors who pioneered lo-conflict telephone ordering of heroin in dozens of regional cities in the United States during the past two decades.   Two years after the publication of Dreamland, the dynamic which Quinones describes:   People start with getting addicted to pain pills and gradually migrate to heroin, is even more advanced, as the spigot of "legally" prescribed pills has been turned off by the Feds, while the amount of heroin, and deaths caused by said heroin, continues to spiral upward.

   Quinones takes 400 pages to tell the story, but it can really be summed up in the paragraph above, just add your own memories of news stories or things you've read on the internet.   One of the amazing facets of the current opiate crisis is that it is inside out- affecting those places which have typically been hit hardest by new drug epidemics, i.e. the inner cities of the major coastal metropolises.  The reasons for this are almost as interesting as those that underlie the crisis itself.

 The new Mexican heroin distribution groups avoided places with already existing networks of heroin dealers- New York City, Baltimore, instead focusing on less travelled areas like Ohio, Portland Oregon and the northeast. Also, Mexican dealers simply refused to sell to African-Americans out of prejudice.  It's a crisis that is barely visible where I live. If I wasn't a criminal defense attorney who practices in Federal Court an represents people caught trying to smuggle heroin into the United States, I wouldn't see any evidence of it all here.   However, in many parts of the country, it is the leading cause of death. Period.  This book tells you how that happened.

The Northland- from the artist's own Kickstarter page.
Published 11/26/18
Northland  (2018)
by Peter Fox
Published by WW Norton & Co.
July 3rd, 2018

   Borders are one of my non-fiction subjects of interest.   Not simply in a theoretical sense, but practically.  Part of the interest stems from my day job working as a criminal defense attorney in the San Diego area, where the border, and crimes taking place on or near the border constitute the bulk of my day-to-day work, but also it's just a native interest of mine, part of a larger interest in what you might call psychogeography, the study of the interaction of mind and place.

  In recent years, I've been spending some time closish to the northern border: multiple trips to mid-coast Maine and a trip to the Duluth/Bayfield Wisconsin area, and those visits have drawn my attention to what Porter Fox calls our neglected Northland. Enormous in terms of physical size, but minute in terms of the role it occupies inside the American weltanschauung.  Fox seeks to rectify this, adopting the breezy combination of personal narrative and fact based research that should be intimately familiar to anyone who delves into travel based popular non fiction or PBS/History channel type documentaries about trips.

  His material involves many canoes, many conversations with educated but cantankerous locals, and a good amount of historical research about the creation of the border itself.  Nothing, it turns out, is particularly mind blowing, and Fox never gets too crazy with his back and forthing between the United States and Canada, this being a post- 9/11 northern border.  In fact, if there is a central theme of Northland, it is the way that the recent intensification of all American borders has negatively impacted the lives of the people who live and work there.

  Northland is 100% focused on the American side of the border, which seems almost as arbitrary as the border itself.  Surely, the story of one side of a two sided border is a story only half told.

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Journalist Catherine Nixey, author of The Darkening Age, about the negative impact of Christianity on classical civilization

Published 12/20/18
The Darkening Age
by Catherine Nixey
Published April 2018 by Houghton Miffin Harcourt

   It is not often that a work of popular history delves into the period now known as "late antiquity," covering "the time of transition from classical antiquity to the middle ages" in Europe as well as the greater Mediterranean.   This is a period of history largely associated with historian Peter Brown who wrote the standard work on the subject, The World of Late Antiquity in 1971.  He has mostly focused on the development of Christianity in this period- his biography on Augustine of Hippo, one of late antiquities most important characters remains the standard work on that subject. 

  Author Catherine Nixey is not a professional scholar, rather she covers cultural affairs for the Times of London. The Darkening Age essentially takes the narrative about late antiquity developed by a generation of post-Brown scholarship and inverts it, using this book to formulate a devastating critique of the impact that the spread of Christianity had on the intellectual achievements of classical society.  She points out, quite rightly, that scholars have continued to defend Christianity for generations after the west developed a tradition of secular scholarship.

  Nixey ably develops her thesis, but The Darkening Age is a work of synthesis, with no new research to share (not that a reader would expect that from a work of popular history.)   Few people who have read Brown and his generation of scholarship will be surprised by anything Nixey has to say, rather it's a question of her looking at the other side of facts already discussed in the specialist body of literature.   Readers without this background may be shocked by the excesses of early Christianity, or maybe not.  

Published 2/10/19
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (2018)
 by David Quammen

   The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life is a must fro anyone looking to come terms with the new scientific developments in genetics, and the way those developments have changed the way scientific thinkers evaluate Charles Darwin and the Darwinian theory of evolution.

   It's a story that the moderately well informed will have heard in bits and pieces.  The development of CRISPR and the ability to manipulate individual genes and pieces of DNA is one of the last chapters in the story that Quammen is seeking to tell, and also a story that has been heavily featured in the news.   Much of the service that Quammen provides in The Tangled Tree is to trace the pre-history of the science that has led to the CRISPR.  It is a story that largely takes place in the margins of big science- the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (I think that is the main University of Illinois) plays a critical role in nurturing the scientists who discovered, essentially, that the tree of life as described by Darwin and his followers is more like a tangled bush.

  Specifically, scientist Carl Woese plays a central role in the extremely complicated (and uncompleted) story that Quammen is trying to tell.   Woese discovered Archea- a third form of live- neither Eukaryote(multi celled organisms) and Bacteria(single celled), and to summarize about five hundred pages of descriptive text, it was HELL OF hard to look at DNA in the 1970's, when Woese started down his path.  The other facts you need to know about Woese is that he never won a Nobel Prize, which made him very sad and angry, and he spent much of his later career railing against Charles Darwin in an increasingly personal tone, while science rocketed beyond Woese's discoveries (although his discoveries made later breakthroughs possible).

  The Tangled Tree loses momtentum towards the end, as Woese lapses into irrelevance and it becomes clear that the story is far from being finished.  What is most amazing is the restraint with which the CRISPR technology has been deployed- you'd think people would be having their babies genetically altered in the womb, which we can do.  But it seems like it isn't happening- except for that one time in China- or maybe it's happening on the DL.

Illustration of the Anglo-Scottish border with the Debatable lands highlighted, circa 1552

Published 2/3/19
The Debatable Land (2018)
by Graham Robb

  Graham Robb is an interesting writer, specializing in French literature but with a burgeoning career writing about the lost history of Great Britain. In 2014 he published The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, which appeared both in the UK and the US, and he follows with this book, about the Debatable land, an anarchic ungoverned anomaly that Robb believes is the oldest political border in the United Kingdom.

  The Debateable lands are located between England and Scotland, close to the west coast.  The nearest significant city is Carlisle, in England and if you go today you will encounter distinct English and Scottish accents on either side of the border- with the author noting that schooling tends to determine the accent. Twas not always the case!  For generations, this area was home to so-called reivers, or raiders, who were "above the law" in that they were not subject to Scottish or English law.  Prominent families bore surnames that made it to America- the Nixons, for example, with the Armstrongs being the leading clan for most of the relevant period.

   The highlight, or lowlight, from the perspective of the inhabitants, is the period in the late middle ages when the Debatable Lands were frequently burned in an attempt to keep the area unoccupied.  Other tactics included mass deportations to Ireland- England's own "trail of tears" centuries before the United States inflicted the same fate on the Cherokee.

   Although Robb doesn't press the point, it seems like the Debatable lands and its inhabitants have an argument as the first victims of colonialism.  Forced destruction of homes and government sponsored mass deportation are both very colonial things to do to a population.  A major theme of this book is the extent to which this interesting history has been essentially erased from the history books but Robb has a light touch, and The Debatable Land is written for a general reading audience, not people interested in the Foucaultian analysis of the uses of power on the body.

Published 3/24/19
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019)
 by Daniel Immerwahr

  Popular history has what I call a "Dad History" problem.  Basically, if you want to sell a non academic history book in the United States you have the following subjects available:

1.  Presidential biographies
2.  Civil War
3.  World War II
4.  General studies of the United States

  Everything other subject in the entire history of the world is either marginally or not at all commercial.   Even in great independent book stores, world history might take up one or two shelves.   How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is interesting because it is in one of those four categories, but is not boring or repetitive in the way that the most recent biography of John Adams might be.   Immerwahr seems to be taking thematic cues from popular social science writers like Malcolm Gladwell, writing about a wide range of subjects unified under a theme that might alternatively be called, "The Secret History of the Greater United States." 

  By great United States Immerwahr is talking about Puerto Rico, the Philippines before independence, Guam, Alaska and Hawaii before statehood, and an intriguing group of possessions he calls "the guano islands."   At one point, the idea of the Greater United States was generally accepted, before the 20th century made it deeply unfashionable as the United States defined itself in opposition to European imperialism.

   The United States has used a variety of techniques to obscure the history of United States empire.  Primarily, though, the major technique is to deny a Greater United States exists through the dexterous deployment of terms like commonwealth and associated territory.  Immerwahr demonstrates the country-wide schizophrenia via our continuing Puerto Rican adventure, but his strongest chapter is on the Phillipines, where we "liberated" a country from a colonial power, only to immediately fight a bloody proto-Vietnam style conflict for half a decade, up to and including well publicized episodes that read like stereotypical war crimes. 

   Immerwahr is being kind by sticking to the "confused" theme, because certainly many of the episodes- the war crimes in the Philippines, unauthorized medical testing in Puerto Rico, the atomic bombing of occupied South Pacific islands, seem more like the actions of a fascist dictatorship than a global democratic super power. 

Published 4/22/19
I Am Dynamite! (2018)
 by Sue Prideaux

  I Am Dynamite! is an up-to-date biography of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  Despite the fact that the thought of Nietzsche underlies much of the western philosophical tradition of the past century and a half AND that he was also a favorite of the Nazi regime of the Third Reich.   This association with the Nazis has made him a figure of fun among the middle brow, but if you ask any serious litterateur or philosophy student the principal figure of the western philosophical tradition over the past hundred and fifty years and they are likely to point to Friedrich Nietzsche or a philosopher directly influenced by him.

  In case you are wondering, rescues Nietzsche by blaming his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. This involves writing a separate mini-bio of Forster-Nietzsche, with an entire chapter about her role in the ill-fated National Socialist-inspired Nueva Germania that was launched by Foster-Nietzsche's husband, Bernhard Forster, who was one of the first Germans to espouse the "pure aryan" philosophy that was adopted by the Nazi Party.

   Elisabeth returned to Germany after the death of her husband and installed herself as the caretaker of Nietzsche, who had descended into the utter madness, of mysterious origin, that marked his final decade.  Nietzsche, when coherent, was not a fan of his sister or her proto-Nazi husband.  He also disagreed with his long-time hero-mentor Richard Wagner on Wagner's antisemitism, and with the antisemitism of his sister.   To be clear, Nietzsche wasn't a huge fan of Judaism but only as it related to his mortal enemy, Christianity.  Friedrich Nietzsche's primary critique was on the impact of Christianity on western civilization.  This was not a widely held opinion outside of small circles of radicals in France and England, and Nietzsche was friends with none of them.

 Prideaux memorably describes Nietzsche discovering the writing of Dostoevsky in French translation, in an Italian book shop, and excitedly reading through his oeuvre, excited to find a common philosophical spirit.  Nietzsche was stark raving mad when the world finally came around to his prophetic utterances, rendered more ironic by the fact that it was Nietzsche's own ranting about his prophetic status that got him committed in the first place.

   I listened to the Audiobook- it was a great choice- really made the text come alive, but I also think the book would make for good reading.  Prideaux is a skilled writer of narrative biography, and I came away from I Am Dynamite! with a better understanding of what Nietzsche was, and more importantly, what he wasn't.   I am sure that had he remained competent, he would have resisted co-option by the Nazi party, and probably wouldn't have lived in Germany.

Published 5/2/19
Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philips War (2018)
 by Lisa Brooks

  Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip's War won the Bancroft Prize this year.  I had never heard of King Philip or his war until a couple years ago during a trip to East Booth Bay, Maine, which has a King Philip's Trail.  Funny, I thought to myself when I saw it on my map, England never had a King Philip.  Turns out, King Philip was a nom de guerre of a Native chief named Metacomet, and he was the purported leader of the Native forces during what was the first Indian war between English settlers and indigenous groups.

  New England isn't a hotbed of revisionist native history, although this isn't true for the role of New England in revisionist natural history, where books like Changes in the Land by William Cronon were at the forefront of the new eco-history.    Brooks is a more conventional historian, very much in line with the times as she seeks to reconstruct "submerged voices" using a variety of techniques, including italicized passages which are written as fiction, from the perspective of various native actors.

   I'm familiar with this school of Native-American history, and I appreciate it.  A major take-away for non specialists is that the idea that Native North America was an uncivilized wilderness was only true so far as whites moved into territories that had very recently been devastated by white spread diseases.  Native tribes in the northeast didn't cultivate land the same way as English settlers, but they did cultivate the land, and they were far from naive about the difficulties of their situation.  They also shared the kind of inter-group social relationships that characterizes "western" civilization.

  Another revelation from Our Beloved Kin is the extent to which Native's who converted to Christianity were not spared from depredations, indeed, they were often singled out as proxies for the anger of English settlers who were angry at other natives.

Published 5/14/19
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019)
by Shoshana Zuboff

  This is the first time I've listened to an Audiobook and then gone out and bought the physical book after listening to the Audiobook.  Zuboff's must-read exploration of the development of "surveillance capitalism" as pioneered by Google, Facebook and Microsoft is filled with references to fascinating books I've never heard of, and over the course of the 25 hour Audiobook I found myself moaning in frustration over not being able to look at the end notes.   Basically I bought the hard copy so I could look at the end notes and pull the sources that Zuboff relied upon in writing her book.

   The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is because Zuboff is giving a name to the previously unnamed, "surveillance capitalism" and using a variety of familiar techniques, unmasking, speaking truth to power in such a way that the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and in doing so, gives a concerned reader a template for further action at a personal, group and societal level.   It is clear, at a very basic level, that Zuboff is against surveillance capitalism in a way that many people- even educated, sophisticated consumers, are not, and I would guess that the very length and complexity of her argument, combined with the fact that her two main targets (Google and Facebook) control an immoderate share of our attention, will conspire to prevent The Age of Surveillance Capitalism from receiving the attention it deserves.

  It's also true that trying to recite the arguments Zuboff makes in casual conversation with friends makes you sound like the type of person who wears a tin foil hat to keep out alien radio waves.  To keep the analogy going, Zuboff would argue that not only are the aliens trying to control our minds with radio waves, they are making a ton of money by doing so.

   The depth and complexity of Zuboff's analysis make it difficult to summarize, but a major point she makes is that the architecture of the internet, which consumers perceive as being free to use, is not free to use, because using the internet allows many, many, many people to gather information about us that we leave behind when we use the internet, and they then use that information to make money.   They take what is left behind- our digital information- and make billions of dollars from it, and fight and scratch (and spend millions of dollars) to hide what they are doing from us.

  Fortunately, it seems as if authorities are catching on, at least in Europe, where the European Union issued the General Data Protection Regulation, which seemingly overlapped with the research and writing of this book, and has since led to massive fines and promised reforms.  Even the United States has begun to take notice- perhaps because the current administration is no fan of Silicon Valley.   

Published 7/22/19
The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970)
by Michel Foucault

  I was reading in what you might call a systematic fashion long before I started writing about it.  Before I started the 1001 Books project over a decade ago, I was mostly reading history, especially medieval history, as well as philosophy.  I abandoned both areas, more or less, because it was hard to keep a constant supply of unread books on hand, and the subject matter in both areas tends to be dry- not good for the lifestyle of more casual reading I wanted to embrace.

  Only now am I getting back into it, by "it" I mean philosophy.   I found a used copy of The Order of Things at a used book store down the street, and I thought Foucault would be a good place to resume: He's challenging, but not super challenging, and incredibly influential on the current generation of scholars both inside and outside philosophy.   One of my take-aways from reading The Order of Things is that I might be better served by going and finding the works of English language authors who have been deeply influence by Foucault.

   The major point of The Order of Things is that knowledge, and specifically categories of knowledge, are contingent and rely on a variety of environmental factors to gain their meaning.  It is one of the core teachings of the "relativism" which has been embraced by educators first, and later by politicians and normal folks.

  Foucault's method is to SHOW the manner in which scientific discourse emerged from earlier, non-scientific discourse by focusing on three disciplines: biology, linguistics and economics.  He does this by going back to the 18th century or thereabouts and performing heavy textual analysis.  The lack of familiarity that any modern, English reader has with any of his source materials contributes to the difficulty, but there is also the problem of Foucaltian analysis itself, which seems purposefully obscure.

Published 8/1/19
Genetics in the Madhouse: the Unknown History of Human Heredity (2018)
by Theodore M. Porter

  I was reading a Michel Foucault book recently, really not understanding very much, when I had the idea to find an American disciple of Foucault, someone heavily influenced by his thought, but a native English speaker and someone who was teaching at a major university in the present day.  Enter Theodore M. Porter, who cites Foucault as a major influence and has a tenured professorship at the University of California Los Angeles in history.  Simply reading the title recalls the title of Foucault's Madness and Civilization, and this book is rooted deeply in the Foucauldian analysis of the malleability of what we call knowledge, and the boundaries and categories of knowledge at various points in history.

    Genetics in the Madhouse is largely about the pre-DNA world of Mendelian heritability of various undesirable traits, children inherited traits from parents in various combinations, expressed in fractions and combined in different ways.  What Porter describes is the increasing systematization of the quest for unraveling the parentage of men and women who were confined to Asylums, with a focus on curing OR determining that a cure was impossible.   The scientists of these institutions, called Alienists, were pre-Freudian and not always medical doctors.   Their ideas have been entirely discredited in the past century, but Porter makes the point that they were trailblazers in trying to use genetics to "solve" mental illness- using genetic knowledge to cure human sickness.

  Whether that gives you pause about current efforts to help humanity with "real" genetic knowledge probably depends on your pre-existing feelings about the subject.  I'm all for it, as a Professor memorably exclaimed in an undergraduate literature class I attended, "They are already making clones in secret underground labs in Switzerland! In Saudia Arabia!"  He later took a job teaching in Dubai.  

Published 10/15/19
Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2015)
by Sven Beckert

    Sven Beckert, a Professor of History at Harvard University, won the Bancroft Prize in 2015 for Empire of Cotton: A Global History, which explores the role of the cotton industry in the advance of what we call "global capitalism."   Beckert is a Professor of International History, the study of history that crosses temporal and geographical barriers ("American History," "19th century history.") to provide a larger perspective on global events through a focus on international forces like capitalism, colonialism and communism/socialism.   It's both economic and social history, and it owes something to the "Annales School" of French history which focuses on normal lives and larger trends at the expense of the traditional "great man" school of biographical history. 

   Beckert is himself not clearly a socialist, though he describes capitalism in terms derived from that world.  He is clearly not a fan of "free market" capitalism of the Chicago school, and if the Empire of Cotton stands for anything, it is to refute the idea that global capitalism somehow exists independent of state power.  Quite the opposite, as Beckert shows again and again, the cotton industry could not have expanded in the western United States (United States government expropriated Native land) or Central Asia (Russian military invasion) or China without the heavy handed and direct intervention of Western military power.

   Empire of Cotton: A Global History is a must read for fans of the history of international capitalism and economic development.  I listened to the Audiobook, and it was a good fit- I've seen reviews mentioning the density of the text, but as an Audiobook it was an easy listen, even at double speed.  

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Young Margaret Mead
Published 12/1/19
Gods of the Upper Air:  How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (2019)
by Charles King

 It's no exaggeration to call "cultural relativism" the border of the liberal/conservative divide in the west.  On the one side, you've got people- both religious (Christian) or not religious (Market Capitalists) who think that the west is the best, and the rest of the world needs to get with the program.  On the other side you've got people who actively disagree with the first group, and generally argue that diversity needs to be embraced, elevated, etc.  The first group- conservatives, if you will, hate cultural relativism and for the other group- liberals- cultural relativism is the starting point. 

  The basic tenet of cultural relativism is that different groups of people can handle their issue in different ways, and one way is not superior to the other.  In this viewpoint, there is no inherent advantage to being a sophisticated westerner over an uncontacted Amazonian tribesman.  To the extent that the former exceeds the later in objective measurements of physical or mental wellbeing, it can be ascribed to the exercise of "privilege" not the objective superiority of one way of life over the other.

  Gods of the Upper Air is a survey of the evolution of cultural relativism by American based academics.  The story starts with Franz Boas, a German from the non-differentiated 19th century German academic tradition.  He emigrated to the United States and became the founding father of American anthropology.   Boas spent most of his professional career at Columbia University, where he nurtured a second generation of largely female students, including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Deloria.    King alternates between mini-biographies of the main actors and chapters that situate the growth of cultural relativism within the consciousness of the larger American public.

  Margaret Mead proves to be the star of Gods of the Upper Air, with a biography that would make for a great multi-part quality television/streaming series:  Early marriage to a clergyman, liberation in the academic atmosphere of New York, lesbian affairs, field work in the farthest reaches of the Pacific islands, best-selling books that introduced the very idea of cultural relativism to the non-academic reading public, divorce, remarriage, divorce.   Any reader will quickly see the connection between Mead's desire to escape the sexual mores of 20th century American society and the direction of her fieldwork.

 These findings directly inspired the 1960's counter-culture, and cultural relativism continues to be a vital argument in global thought: widely accepted in many places, and also widely rejected.  I subscribe to a mild ideology of culture relativism that recognizes value in diversity for its own sake, and rejects the idea that there is some kind of global human perfection that can be achieved.  Gods of the Upper Air did nothing to convince of the need to adopt a more radical ethos of cultural relativism- in her lesser moments Mead in particular can appear ridiculous, but it supports the idea that before cultural relativism, the public didn't see a value in preserving non-western culture, and that afterwards, it did.

Published 12/18/19
Maoism: A Global History (2019)
by Julia Lovell

    Anyone who considers themselves interested in world affairs needs to take an interest in China, periodt, as they say.    And if you are going to take an interest in the history of China, in its people, and the issues that face it today, Chairman Mao is a great place to start.  No one is more responsible for China in 2019 than Mao.  Lovell, rather than turning out another biography, takes a look at the movement he spawned, Maoism, and the underappreciated role it has played in various, often extremely bloody third world revolutionary movements (and some extremely strange and non violent first world intellectuals) in the 20th century. 

  Her project requires going to some less-understood places of the globe- with substantial chapters on southeast Asia, Peru and Nepal.  Somehow, Albania doesn't make the cut, but she does include chapters on Africa and the west.  Often times, the historical irony lies close to the surface, as in the case of the Shining Path from Peru, a peasant glorifying intellectual-hating Maoist movement 100% founded by a group of university professors and largely populated by urban elites.   Lovell is providing a useful service in that China itself has done everything possible to obscure this earlier, activist history in favor of the current stance of being a benign, non-judgmental of friends of governments everywhere, left, right and center.  

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Map showing the location of the Lamalerans, the tribe described in The Last Whalers by Doug Bock Clark
Published 1/4/20
The Last Whalers:
Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life (2019)
by Doug Bock Clark

  Doug Bock Clark travelled to a remote island in southern Indonesia to spend a year among the Lamalerans, a tribe still practicing whaling as a subsistence hunter/gatherers, probably one of the last such groups left in the world.  The Last Whalers reads/listens like a novel- listening to the Audiobook I frequently forgot that I was listening to a work of non-fiction.   The most incredible aspect of The Last Whalers is that the Lamalerans were essentially left alone by the larger world until well after World War II, so Clark is there to see an encounter between hunter-gatherers and the wider world that rarely happens anymore.   The second level of interest is the fact that the Lamalerans ride out into the ocean in tiny boats and bring down huge whales with harpoons that are deposited by hand, from said tiny boats.  

   The portions of the narrative involving the actual whaling could not have been witnessed unless Clark was on the boats with these guys, but he is careful to avoid self-aggrandizement, and drops a post-script where he discusses methodological concerns, making it clear that he was conscious that his own presence had the potential to be greatly disrupted to the traditional life of the Lamalerans.  

Richard Nixon presidential portrait.jpg
Richard Nixon, President of the United States
Published 1/18/20
Richard Nixon: The Life (2017)
by John Farrell

   This 2017 Richard Nixon biography won the Zalaznick Book Prize- given out by the New-York Historical Society for the best annual work in American history or biography.  Richard Nixon: The Life was also a Pulitzer Biography finalist in 2018, losing out to Caroline Fraser's Laura Ingalls Wilder bio.  I've been thinking alot about Richard Nixon in the context of the Trump presidency- there's the Roger Stone connection- Stone was part of the CREEP group- Nixon's sleazy re-election committee, and a long time friend of Trump.   Trump also used lawyer Roy Cohn for decades- and Cohn was McCarthy's chief counsel during the Communist-hunting era, and Nixon first rose to national prominence alongside McCarthy in that period.

  So when I saw mention of this recently published prize winning biography, I checked out the Audiobook from the library.  It clocks in at 30 hours, roundabout, and that is without the endnotes, which I would guess would run hundred of pages.  The paperback version is 750 pages.   The argument must be that if you only have to read one book about Nixon, then this is that book. 
The Richard Nixon story is very much an "only in America" biography.  Nixon, the second oldest of five sons born to a Quaker couple living in the wilds of rural Southern California, was smart and ambitious enough to make it to Duke University for law school, but failed to find a job and ended up returning to Southern California, where he was a below-average lawyer before being rescued by World War II.  He served in a logistics capacity in the Far East, and returned to take a government job in Washington DC, before being recruited to run for Congress.

  He started running for Congress at the age of 35, and took office after defeating Jerry Voorhis, your typical hapless liberal stooge that Nixon spent a lifetime eviscerating.   Nixon the Congressman was young, energetic and fiercely anti-Communist.  He connected with the small town electorate that was heavy on returning World War II veterans, and had a pro-business outlook that convinced the monied oil interests and Los Angeles based Republican operatives that he had a shot. 

    Only three years later he ran for Senate against Hollywood leftist actress Helen Douglas, labeling her the "pink lady" and running the kind of bare-knuckled campaign that earned him the sobriquet "Trick Dick" and the lasting enmity of leftist California elites in Los Angeles and San Francisco.   Throughout this time he continued his leadership of the anti-Communist wing of the Republican party, although he gradually distanced himself from Joe McCarthy.    It was the combination of youthful energy, fierce anti-communism and geography that drew the attention of Dwight Eisenhower, drafted for his succesful 1952 Presidential campaign.

   That campaign was mostly notable for being the backdrop to Nixon's famous "Checkers Speech," an early use of television by a political candidate to end an incipient scandal.  Here, the scandal was the (then standard) use of a "slush fund" by Nixon for his own benefit during political campaigns.   Defying Republican leaders who asked him to use the television appearance to resign from the ticket, he instead appealed directly to the audience, asking them to write the Republican Central Committee in his support.  It was an audacious, and succesful move.

    Then he lost to Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential race, and then he lost to Edmund Brown in a race for Governor of California two years after that- before settling down to a comfortable exile in New York City, where he networked and waited.   He sat out the 1964 campaign (seeing Goldwater get slaughtered by Lyndon Johnson) before returning and winning in 1968, winning re-election- by a landslide in 1972 and then resigning in disgrace two years later.

   It was... a wild ride, for a self-appointed square.   Despite a reputation as a conservative it is clear that as a President, at least, he was a center-to-liberal force, going so far to introduce wage and price controls in his second term, a WTF moment that puts him slightly to the right of the Soviet Communist party, but well left of any contemporary Republican or even Democrat.  Nixon opened China, a crowning achievement, and presided over a decrease in global nuclear tension with the Russians.   Nixon enforced the liberal Warren court's rulings on school desegregation- muscling southern governors even though he had run a "southern strategy" in his presidential campaigns.

  But ultimately you get to Watergate, where Nixon ended up taking the fall for a half-century of government spying on it's own citizens.  Nixon, like all the political elites, was aware of this secret chicanery, and it is clear that he viewed it as permissible for a President to engage in the same behavior on his own account.  His ultimate justification that "if the President does it, it is lawful" has been echoed by President Trump in his own defense, but ultimately Nixon resigned rather than face an impeachment trial that he knew he would lose.

  Trump has clearly learned from that lesson- Nixon alienated his base in such a way that they were glad to abandon him when push came to shove.  Contrast that approach to Trump's base first governing which has seemingly ensured that he will survive the upcoming Senate impeachment trial. 

Published 1/21/20
Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti (2019)
 by Johnhenry Gonzalez

  I agree with the author- a professor at Cambridge University in the UK, that there has been a lack of attention to the importance of the Haitian revolution in the area of Atlantic studies: that field of history that devotes itself to discussing the interlinkages across the Atlantic ocean, with a particular interest in Anglo-American issues.  After all, the Caribbean, the sugar trade, that is a cornerstone of Atlantic studies, and no Caribbean colony produced more sugar than Haiti.  Likewise, the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) was one of TWO succesful colonial rebellions in the 18th century, the other one being America, and the Revolution was made possible by developments in Europe.  The absence of stand-alone interest in the events of the Haitian Revolution can probably be explained through a combination of conservative racism and liberal queasiness at the sad results.   Gonzalez introduces a new dynamic to the "sad Haiti" narrative by introducing the ex-slave population of Haiti as a bunch of subsistence level anarchists who would rather live off the land then subject themselves to the merciless (even post-revolution) conditions on the sugar plantations.

    I wasn't surprised to see that this volume is part of the Yale University Agrarian Studies Series, and that the editor of that series is political-scientist James C. Scott.  Scott emphasizes "bottom up" perspectives with particular interest in the ways that various people resist modern forces- capitalism- mainly.  The unspoken point in much of Scott's bibliography is that succesful strategies against top town capitalism and state power require reviewing the successes and failures (mostly) of the past.  Perhaps that way one might construct a series of strategies that would actually work.

   Thus, it is notable that the Haitian proletariat/ex-slave population resisted their new overlords demands that they return to the sugar plantations, instead abandoning the state and all of its demands. From this perspective, it seems like they made an intelligent choice, and the failure of the Haitian state falls squarely on the shoulders of a succession of feckless leaders.  

Image result for clovis point
Examples of Clovis points, the first continent spanning culture group in North America

Published 2/26/20
Atlas of a Lost World (2018)
 by Chris Childs

  I'm unsure where or how I heard about Atlas of a Lost World by "adventure travel" writer Chris Childs.  The description I read promised that Childs would revisit the paths of entry to the "New World."   Like many of the "facts" that people thought they new about pre-contact North America, the very routes of entry and time of entry are being contested using newly available evidence and techniques of analyzing that evidence.    For example, linguistic evidence suggests three separate entries over a thousand years.  As Childs develops the argument, the archeological evidence suggests multiple entries- the conventional Siberian land-bridge entry, but also a separate entry, perhaps by a Austronesian population, that went down the Pacific coast, all the way to Chile.   There is also strong, but controversial evidence that the "Clovis" culture came from the Iberian peninsula, all of them between fifteen to seventeen thousand years ago.

  Several chapters recount his efforts to recreate these efforts- trekking across an Alaskan glacier near the Bering strait, kayaking down the coast of British Columbia, and hiking through a swamp in Florida, in all of them trying to put himself in the position of the first humans in North America. A major theme that cuts across the entire book is the role of megafauna- enormous examples of modern animals, who were, it appears, hunted to extinction by the first Americans.  Within the category of megafauna, the mammoth appears as the central figure of interest, with Childs devoting substantial pages to the hypothesis that the clovis culture was a mammoth obsessed death cult. 

  Atlas of a Lost World is part adventure story, part geography, part archeology but almost no anthropology.  His worst chapter was a visit to the Navajo nation, where he tries to argue with a Navajo elder who insists that the Navajo came from the ground, and did not immigrate to their present location.  Linguists would disagree, the Navajo language being the best known example of the language family generally thought to correspond to the major wave of Bering strait immigration.  Childs lamely tries to argue, before catching himself.

 The idea of a wave of immigration from the Iberian peninsula seems well supported by the archeological evidence, but I've never heard of any other link, genetic or linguistic, for example.  Childs isn't an academic, and Atlas of a Lost World  is a good pick for the intersection of rugged outdoor adventure and New World pre-history.

Image result for underland robert macfarlane
Cover image from Underland (2019) by Robert Macfarlane
Published 3/4/20
Underland (2019)
by Robert Macfarlane

  Trying to stay current on the hard sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Physics or the soft sciences: Economics, Psychology, Anthropology is tough because on the one hand you've got the journal articles and books that are pitched to the academic audience for those sciences, and on the other you've got the kind of broad popularizations where the science is worthless.  The journal articles and specialist level books are hard to come by, and the broad popularizations are a waste of time.

   Underland by Robert Macfarlane represents a happy middle ground, a book that delves deeply into the geology of the "underland" but intertwining the science with doses of adventure journalism and literary essay style musing on the nature of Our relationship to the world beneath.   Memorable expeditions including tunneling deep beneath the English channel in a potash man, going to the ice sheets of Greenland and travelling an underground river on the Italian/Croatian border.  At the same time Macfarlane guides through the how of the different fissures in the earth's surface and the ways humans have interacted with them.

Published 3/13/20
The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape (2019)
 by Suzannah Lessard

   I have a soft spot for non-fiction books about landscapes.  Landscapes as a metaphor, and books that are straight up about topics like geography and geology.  I would trace it to the amount of time I spend driving in the southwest,  looking out my windshield at the desert and contemplating.  Lessard is New Yorker contributor, and her series of linked essays about landscape as a metaphor for changes in America reads like a series of New Yorker articles.

   Highlights include her investigation into Civil War monuments that white-wash the issue of slavery, and the rise of southern plantation tourism that commemorates a very specific type of southern landscape that was pioneered by northern carpetbaggers.   She also gives attention to the landscapes of urban and suburban decline, a favorite of mine, since I enjoy discovering decrepit mini-malls in the inland empire (Riverside and San Bernardino county).

  Although not entirely centered in New York, New York does involved a plurality of her subjects, with lengthy portions on her upstate New York present and New York city past.  

Published 3/13/20
The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity(2019)
 by Eugene McCarraher

   If you want to know what kind of book I buy instead of checking out from the library, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity by Eugene McCarraher, is a good example.   Enchantments is the kind of broad, sweeping history that cuts across disciplines and stretches over a half millenium of time to make the point that Capitalism, far from being a force of "disenchantment of the world" is actually the opposite, a religion, more or less, that is just as enchanting as any conventional religion.

    McCarraher reminds me of English author E.P. Thompson, and Enchantments reminds me of his The Making of the English Working Class:  No original research, but source absorbed from far and wide, with hundreds of pages of endnotes to support his claims.   McCarraher starts out at the end of the middle ages.  Part one is called, "The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things: Capitalist Enchantment in Europe, 1600-1914.   Chapter 3, "The Poetry of the Past: Romantic Anti Capitalism and the Sacramental Imagination," proves to be especially important in McCarrather's analysis, since it is romantic anti capitalism, rather than Marxism or Socialism, which proves to be capitalism's bête noire.

   The first two sections of the book, which deal with Capitalism before America, are interesting, the rest of it, which proves to be more or less standard recapitulation of a half century of "American Studies," is less so.  Anyone who is familiar with books like The Incorporation of America by Alan Trachtenberg or The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx will find little original thought to digest, but as a summary of the past half century in American studies, The Enchantments of Mammon is especially useful.

Published 3/17/20
The Birth of the Modern (1991)
 by Paul Johnson

  I've had English journalist/academish's epic (1200 pages!) The Birth of the Modern on my "to-read" shelf for over a decade, so I actually jumped at the chance to listen to the 50 hour plus Audiobook, on the theory that this was the only way I was actually going to get to this book, which, mind you, is not an academic treatise but rather a treatment of this broad subject meant for a GENERAL audience. 1200 pages OR  a fifty hour Audiobook.  What do you get for your time investment: A state of the art survey (circa the late 1980's) of world history between 1815 and 1830, basically, with a heavy emphasis on great men and international affairs.  Johnson is not one of those popular historians who, trained by the annales school of french language history, dwell on society from the bottom up. 

 In fact, American general and President Andrew Jackson is the star of The Birth of the Modern- Johnson opens AND closes with him.   Within Johnson's particular career arc, The Birth of the Modern was his follow-up to his breakthrough, Modern Times, a popular synthesis of 20th century history that found a broad popular audience on both sides of the Atlantic.    The tone is generally consistent with "New Yorker Lit"- book length versions of subjects that would find a sympathetic audience of readers of the New Yorker.

  I don't regret the decision to listen to the Audiobook, but I feel like a lot of the value of a broad synthesis like this is lost if you can't review the end notes, which contain all the original research that Johnson relied upon for his glib narrative. Most theorists of the modern would blanch at the prospect of placing such a rough periodization on a subject like "The Birth of the Modern" but at the same time it is that breathtaking ambition that makes The Birth of the Modern bearable for a general reader.

 Special shout out to the narrator, Wanda McCaddon, who does an amazing job on such an unbearably lengthy text.

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Dominguez-Escalante Trail from the 1776 expedition 
Published 3/18/20
Escalante's Dream On the Trail of the Spanish Discovery of the Southwest (2019)
by David Roberts

  At the same time that the United States was declaring independence from the United Kingdom,  Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez set out from Santa Fe, New Mexico in an attempt to blaze a trail to the Spanish mission in Monterey, Ca.  It was a risible goal, especially because the first method to properly calculate longitude wasn't invented let alone publicized until after the expedition had departed.   They also picked a comically difficult route, heading north into the mountainous Mesa Verde region.

   They obviously failed in reaching their objective, and as Escalante's Dream: On the Trail of the Spanish Discovery of the Southwest, their pioneering, and in many ways admirable, adventures in the intermountain west have been relegated to footnote status in the history of America.  Roberts, well known for his fearsome adventures as a mountaineer, is in his own twilight- much of the "personal" section of this travelogue style book involves the aftermath of his continuing fight against cancer.  The combination of personal musings on what it is like to live with the aftermath of throat cancer (bland foods only!) and period detail, mostly drawn from a scattering of sources ranging to a contemporaneous journal of the expedition, to a mimeographed binder published in the 200th anniversary, meshes well together.

The Coldest Centuries in 8000 Years: The Little Ice Age Causes and ...
The Little Ice Age of the 17th century

Published 3/30/20
Nature's Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present (2019)
by Philipp Blom

    Man, remember when climate change seemed like a pressing issue?  These days, the major benefit to the virus responsive economic shut down has been visibly cleaner air and less pollution.  Scholars searching for insight into our present situation have focused on the "Little Ice Age" as a 17th century as an example of how modern society reacts to world-wide climate change.  Specifically, how Europe responded, since the historical record is relatively complete for western europe in the 17th century and spotty for the rest of the world.

   Nature's Mutiny is interesting, but there is no original research, and most of the book is mini-biographies of different historical figures, mostly scholars and intellectuals, and how they responded to the sudden change in circumstances.   From an economic viewpoint, he draws heavily on Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi:

   In 1944, when Polanyi’s study was first published, historical horizons as well as available data have changed. But while some historical examples might be seen differently today, the thrust of his argument remains valid. It runs as follows: In premodern, feudal societies, the goal of economic activity was directed not toward wealth accumulation and social climbing, but toward maintaining status in a rigid social hierarchy in which every individual had a more or less clearly defined role and in which social capital—prestige, honor, respect—was deemed more important than financial capital. The “great transformation” changed that. It was an economic revolution, but its implications affected all aspects of life.

     Blom also touches on military and cultural transformations- most of his examples drawing from Belgium and the Netherlands.    Ultimately though there is little, other than the Dutch heavy set of examples, that a reader can't find elsewhere. 

   It doesn't seem to be uncommon to include serious personal details in this sort of book. In  Atlas of a Lost World (2018), author Chris Childs hints at a nasty divorce and child custody fight without ever actually describing what happened.   Atlas of a Lost World is about recreating the entry of humans into the New World, so when Childs start talking about how a trip down the Canadian/Alaskan coast was the "last family trip" he is in similar territory.

Map of Bulgaria/Greece/Turkey border- Svilengrad and Edirne feature prominently in Border (2017) by Kapka Kassabova
Published 4/1/20
Border (2017)
by Kapka Kassabova

  Border is a fun non-fiction title about the corner of south eastern Europe where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey meet, written by a Bulgarian expat who now lives in Scotland.    Kassabova does an excellent job weaving together personal stories with recounting the complicated history of the area.  Just recounting the events of the 20th century alone contains enough history for a thousand years.   Bulgaria, for example, gained independence from the Turks after World War I, were World War II allies of the Nazis, became a heavy Stalinist Communist state after World War II and then expelled close to half a million Muslims in the closing days of Communism- a little noticed ethnic cleansing that presaged the much gorier events to the west in Yugoslavia.

   The expulsion of the largely Muslim population of the Bulgarian border region, coupled with the post-Communism economic collapse has left the areas Kassabova visits as ghost towns, thinly populated by a remnant population of hold-overs,  Christian refugees from Turkey and insane expatriates, drawn to the region for reasons unknown and usually unexplained.

  Any general reader- likely starting from a knowledge base of zero, is going to learn tons about this area, and given the paucity of Bulgarian anything in western popular culture, this book might be the only chance you get.

Movie Tourist: Chinatown (1974)
Jack Nicholson in Echo Park, scene in Chinatown

Published 4/3/20
The Big Goodbye (2020)
by Sam Wasson

  Chinatown is generally regarded as one of the best films of all time.  Depending on who you ask it might be number one.  It is certainly one of my favorites, probably a top ten movie for me, personally. I've watched it a half dozen times, including in Echo Park, outside, with the Echo Park setting from the film behind the outdoor screen.   I was excited when I read about The Big Goodbye, journalist Sam Wasson's deep dive into the making of Chinatown.  Towne did a lot of original interviews for this book- which- considering that the main principles are dead (Producer Robert Evans) in permanent semi-criminal exile (Director Roman Polanski) or in their dotage (Star Jack Nicholson)- is pretty impressive.

   There's an aspect to any book or article about a specific work of art where you risk diminishing it as you take it apart, but at the same time, any great work of art is more than the sum of its parts- certainly the case in Chinatown.   At the same time, the parts of Chinatown are exquisite.  The Big Goodbye is also an excellent portrait of the hey-day of late 1960's, early 1970's Hollywood, where cocaine was handed out like party favors, and fucking a 15 year old was an understandable error in judgment. 

   Judged by contemporary standards, everyone involved sounds like a me-too era monster- writer Robert Towne excepted.   The Big Goodbye is a must for readers who are serious about Los Angeles as a subject, others might find the macho behavior pretty indefensible. The last third of the book- everything that takes place after the movie comes out- doesn't measure up to the making of the film.  In particular and entire chapter on the forgettable and forgotten sequel, The Two Jakes, is comical in comparison to the events of the rest of the book. 

Aztec Civilization - Ancient History Encyclopedia
Map of the Aztec "empire" on the eve of the Spanish arrival
Published 4/6/20
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (2020)
by Camilla Townsend

  The past couple decades have seen a wealth of new materials for scholars interested in pre-Columbian history.  Many of the achievement have been archeological- including rapid advances in jungle-piercing LIDAR technology which has allowed archeologists to see beneath the thick jungle canopy of Central America.  This has led to the discovery of multiple significant "lost" sites.  There has also been growth in the area of traditional scholarship, with a renewed interest in history written by the losers- mostly the mixed-race children of Aztec elites and Spanish conquistadors, who continued to write Aztec history AFTER the conquest, in a way that was simply ignored by the first several generations of pre-Columbian scholarship.

  Camilla Townsend arrives on the scene to synthesis these materials- drawing heavily on this little known post-conquest but still recognizably Aztec voices to tell a novel version of Aztec history.  The first order of business for Townsend is debunking the persistent myths of Aztec history: That Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, was cowed by Spaniards they thought were literal Gods is a big one.  Townsend also explains the whole idea of an Aztec empire is misleading, rather the Aztecs were an agressive, late arriving people in an already "civilized" area.:

The element of central Mexico’s way of life that seems to have spread more easily than any other was the notion of a central town square surrounded by pyramidal structures, where people gathered and shared cultural events, and where there was almost always a ball court with slanted walls on two sides. There, athletes played before their people, using their hips to keep a rubber ball aloft, until finally they scored a point by causing it to hit the ground on the opposing team’s side. Often there was a stone ring carved on each side of the court; only the most skillful could send the ball through such a hoop. The crowd yelled with excitement and frustration while watching the dramatic games. Later, when empires arose, there would be occasional games played to the death, with the losing team sacrificed.

   The arrival of the Aztecs into Mexico bears some resemblance to the arrival of Germanic barbarians to the Roman Empire, they drifted in from the north, serving as mercenaries for stronger groups, and eventually ended up running the place.   Their weakness would have been the same as any new world Empire the Spanish might have encountered in the new world: Aztec dominion was brutal and exploitative, and their demands of tribute and sacrifice caused most if not all of their subjects- many of whom spoke the same language and were the same ethnicity as the Aztecs- to hate them.  Thus, when Cortes showed up, they were eager to fight.

  Townsend also defends the Aztecs against some of the more colorful claims regarding their well-established practice of human sacrifice:

   Horrendous misconceptions have grown around the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. In novels, movies, and even some of the older history books, hundreds of people at a time were made to climb the narrow steps of the pyramids to the top, where their hearts were cut out and their bodies hurled downward, while the people screamed in near ecstasy below. In reality, it seems to have been a gravely quiet, spellbinding experience for the onlookers, much as we suspect it was in other old worlds, like that of the ancient Celts.

   She leaves aside equally colorful claims about the cannibalism that was said to surround human sacrifice, but it stands to figure that the valley of Mexico- a place where dogs were raised for meat in the absence of larger animals- wouldn't waste so much good protein.   Honestly, the more I read about pre-Columbian empire, the less I mourn its passing.  True, the Spanish weren't great colonial overlords, but the Aztecs were dicks and their own people didn't mourn the passing of their ineffectual aristocracy.

Published 4/22/20
Detroit 1967: The Year that Changed Soul (2015)
by Stuart Cosgrove

     1967 was a hell of a year for Detroit, and if you are looking for a "turning point" when the 1960's began to "go bad" you could do worse than picking the 1967 Detroit Riot, a nadir for race relations and the police state.  The 1967 riots featured a rumor that black snipers were going to target to police, and it resulted in multiple people being shot inside their homes by the police and national guard- children, drunks, the elderly.... A real low point.

   For Motown, 1967 was a tumultuous year, but also succesful.  Despite the pressures of success and the growing instability of Florence Ballard, Barry Gordy managed to keep the Supremes on an upward trajectory while continuing to expand the Motown brand.  Cosgrove bounces between chapters covering the intriacies of running Motown in 1967- mostly boring contract disputes (and I'm saying that as a reader who is actually interested in music industry contract disputes) and the riotous events in the streets. 

  A weakness of the concept is that Gordy and Motown remained above the fray, leaving Cosgrove to write in the origins of MC5- a group much closer to the social unrest, to connect the music scene to the social unrest.   It's hard to argue that MC5 constitutes soul or is even soul adjacent, and their outsized role in the unrest undercuts the very premise of the book.   

Published 4/27/20
Hidden Valley Road (2020)
by Robert Kolker

   What happens when a family with twelve kids, ten boys, two girls, has six schizophrenics?  It sounds like an elevator pitch for a particularly hard-to-watch film, but  it is the real life of the Galvin family of Colorado Springs and the subject of Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family.  The Galvins are the hook for Kolker's broader subject: the difficulty of treating and curing schizophrenia.   No disease has proven harder to understand then schizophrenia, to the point where some question whether it is actually a disease or just a umbrella terms to describe a set of generally extreme symptoms/behaviors, often times delusional speech, confrontational behavior and inability to do anything required of a normal, functioning member of society.

  Kolker takes as his point of departure the adoption against the then commonly held, Freudian-derived assertion that schizophrenics were the victims of cold, domineering mothers:

   AS EARLY AS 1940, Fromm-Reichmann had sounded the alarm over “the dangerous influence of the undesirable domineering mother on the development of her children,” calling such mothers “the main family problem.” It was eight years later, the same year that Joanne Greenberg became her patient, that Fromm-Reichmann came up with a term that would stick to women like Mimi Galvin for decades: the schizophrenogenic mother. It was “mainly” this sort of mother, she wrote, who was responsible for the “severe early warp and rejection” that rendered a schizophrenia patient “painfully distrustful and resentful of other people.”

   Within Hidden Valley Road, that Mother is Mimi Galvin, a stay-at-home mom and Catholic convert, who tries to impose order alongside her husband, an Air Force officer.   Mimi, alongside her two daughters- the youngest children in the family, emerge as the main characters.   Kolker gradually develops his thesis: that schizophrenia has genetic roots, and the role that the Galvin family- with their unique circumstance of six schizophrenics in one generation of one family, played in the science that led to the "breakthrough."

  Unfortunately, the insights gained from the genetics of the Galvins came too late for the Galvin sons themselves, who range from the dramatically insane (Donald, who wraps himself in a blanket most days and wanders the streets preaching an extremely personal brand of Catholicism), to the criminal (Andrew who molests his two younger sisters and another brother who murders his wife and himself) to the sad (the other three).   Incredibly, Mimi turns her back on none of her sons, and she ends up taking care of them for her entire life.   Even more incredibly, one of the two daughters- who marries and has children of her own- continues to care for the schizophrenic brothers after her mother passes away.


North America in Lakota – The Decolonial Atlas
Map of the Lakota nation at it's greatest territorial extent in the early 19th century.

Published 5/20/20
Lakota America (2019)
 by Pekka Hämäläinen

    Pekka Hämäläinen is the most exciting voice in the field of Native American studies.  It is ironic, considering that he is also a Finn who teaches in England (Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University.)   His reputation is based on his 2008 hit, Comanche Empire, which won the Bancroft Prize and offered a new take on Western History that places Native Americans at the center of 19th century American History.   Comanche Empire was bold on a number of levels.  First, there was the thesis- embodied in the title- that the Comanches had an Empire in the first place.  Second, there was the more subtle attempt to write Native American history as something to stand alongside classic "western" history, big narratives, big personalities, etc.  This approach contrasts to the "micro-history" and diversity history favored by a generation of Native American focused scholars who were heavily influenced by French post-modernism.

  I loved Comanche Empire- I have a hard back first edition on my book shelf at my law office, and I was excited to see an Audiobook edition of his follow-up, Lakota America, freely available through the Libby app for the Los Angeles Public Library.     Hämäläinen handles his task of writing a centuries long narrative history about the Lakota people with panache, and the early and middle chapters contain revelation after revelation about their early recorded history, which took place near the Great Lakes and not on the northern plains, where they ended up.

  This move west constitutes the central concern of Lakota America, the how and the why of it.  The narrative peaks with his recitation of the Sioux wars, of course with the sympathy lying with the native tribes, and the 20th century is basically an afterthought, reflecting the diminished role of the Lakota after the defeat at the hands of the US Army.

   The great achievement and, I suppose, the danger of Lakota America is that Hämäläinen refuses to treat the Lakota as woeful victims, rather emphasizing that for literally centuries the Lakota were THE major player in their area of North America.  Hämäläinen is the author to read when it comes to current Native American history, I highly recommend both Lakota America and Comanche Empire to anyone interested.

Map of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, c. 1300 BCE ...
                                                     Map of the Ancient Near East

Published 6/3/20
1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014) 
Eric H. Cline

   I have what you could call a casual interest in the field of ancient near eastern history.  There is a big overlap there with archeology, where the ancient near east, and Egypt in particular, are disproportionately important to the field relative to its position.  That's how you get who is both a historian and archeologist, writing a book like 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, a history book about a place and time where "history" had not yet been invented.

   Outside of Egypt itself, the hot topic in this field is "what happened in the Eastern Mediteranean in the late 12th century BC?"  Within a matter of decades, every major culture in the Near East experienced a dramatic collapse.  The best known example is Egypt, where the so-called "Sea People" sacked Pharonic Egypt, but Cline details many other examples, from Mycenae to the Hittite Empire to Ugarit , where scholars have argued about causation for decades.   Close to the end of 1177 B.C., Cline summarizes the different arguments to explain the widespread collapse:

  Discussion of Possibilities There are a number of possible causes that may have led, or contributed, to the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age, but none seems capable of having caused the calamity on its own.
 A. Clearly there were earthquakes during this period, but usually societies can recover from these.
 B. There is textual evidence for famine, and now scientific evidence for droughts and climate change, in both the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, but again societies have recovered from these time and time again. 
C. There may be circumstantial evidence for internal rebellions in Greece and elsewhere, including the Levant, although this is not certain. Again, societies frequently survive such revolts. Moreover, it would be unusual (notwithstanding recent experience in the Middle East to the contrary) for rebellions to occur over such a wide area and for such a prolonged period of time.
 D. There is archaeological evidence for invaders, or at least newcomers probably from the Aegean region, western Anatolia, Cyprus, or all of the above, found in the Levant from Ugarit in the north to Lachish in the south. Some of the cities were destroyed and then abandoned; others were reoccupied; and still others were unaffected.
 E. It is clear that the international trade routes were affected, if not completely cut, for a period of time, but the extent to which this would have impacted the various individual civilizations is not altogether clear—even if some were overly dependent upon foreign goods for their survival, as has been suggested in the case of the Mycenaeans. 

    Cline's central argument is that by using the idea of "systemic collapse" it should be easy to see that the most likely explanation is some combination of all these factors, with different causes in different places, but all of them reinforcing one another in a negative fashion:

       We must now turn to the idea of a systems collapse, a systemic failure with both a domino and a multiplier effect, from which even such a globalized international, vibrant, intersocietal network as was present during the Late Bronze Age could not recover. Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University, one of the most respected scholars ever to study the prehistoric Aegean region, had already suggested the idea of a systems collapse back in 1979. At the time, he framed it in terms of catastrophe theory, wherein “the failure of a minor element started a chain reaction that reverberated on a greater and greater scale, until finally the whole structure was brought to collapse.”

   Renfrew noted the general features of systems collapse, itemizing them as follows: (1) the collapse of the central administrative organization; (2) the disappearance of the traditional elite class; (3) a collapse of the centralized economy; and (4) a settlement shift and population decline. It might take as much as a century for all aspects of the collapse to be completed, he said, and noted that there is no single, obvious cause for the collapse.

  Cline also brings the reader up to date on some of the minor subjects in the field of Ancient Near Eastern History: the status of historical investigations into the Biblical story of Exodus, recent trends in reading the Ugaritic tablets, developments in investigations to the fall of Hattusa (capital of the Hittite Empire) and recent scholarship about the pre-Greek palace cultures of the Cyclades Islands.


The Thirty Years War

Published 6/9/20
The Thirty Years War (1938)
 by C.V. Wedgwood

     One of my new post-pandemic coping mechanisms is looking up different publishers (here it is the New York Review of Books) on the Libby app, sorting it by "recently published" and then just adding titles that way.  This is the method I used to find The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood, originally published in 1938 and then republished by The New York Review of Books in 2005.   I found The Thirty Years War while I was reading Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, which is set during the depths of the Thirty Years War and features many of the real historical players, notably Elector Frederick, his English wife Elizabeth and King Gustav of Sweden.

   Wedgwood's prose is truly a model of narrative history- a reminder of the values that "post-modernism" has abandoned in favor of the inscrutable pronouncements of theory inspired French academics.  Renowned for it's incomprehensibility,  Wedgwood consistently amazed me with her ability to provide a cogent, coherent narrative.    

   The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had it's roots in the reformation, specifically the decision by some German area Princes to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism OR Calvinism.  This decision was opposed by the House of Hapsburg, specifically by the Emperor of Austria, though the Emperor of Spain, also a Hapsburg.   The House of Hapsburg stood for Catholicism, especially in the beginning, and any decision by a German area Prince to convert their population to Protestantism of Calvinism was a problem.

  Enter Elector Frederick of the Palatinate, a relatively minor Elector (there were several) without his own "Kingdom."  Bohemian Protestants (present day Czech Republic) rebelled against their Austrian Emperor appointed Catholic King, and offered the crown to Frederick, a Protestant.  The idea is that Frederick, the husband of Elizabeth, the daughter James I of England/Scotland, would be able to involve the United Kingdom in a war of liberation against Austria.

   This happens in 1618- Frederick taking the crown of Bohemia and sets into motion the events of the next 30 years.  That period can be divided into two parts, each roughly 15 years in length.  The first part can be considered the "domestic" part of the war, where the foreign armies were working with German Princes in common cause based on religion.  The major events are early victories won by the armies of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria- not Austrian armies but armies of mercenaries run by private generals.  These early victories- including the defeat of Danish King Christian, are followed by the entrance of King Gustavus of Sweden as the Protestant champion.   Gustavus turns the tables on the Hapsburg forces, before dying on the battle field.  His death roughly marks the end of the first part of the war.

   The second part, after the death of Gustavus, sees France and Spain stepping in- France- a Catholic country- backs the Protestant cause out of concern over the Hapsburg Spanish Emperor, Spain comes in to back up Austria and for their own interests in the "lowlands"- where Spanish/Catholic Belgium is in perpetual conflict with the Protestant Dutch.  Compared to the disaster of the second 15 years, the first part seems positively Arthurian- with a clear villain (Austria) and a clear champion (Sweden).

  What stands out is the horror- which caught my eye in Tyll, and rivals anything you can imagine from the horrors of 20th century conflict:

  The imperialists had slaughtered children in the cellars, thrown the women out of the upper windows of the houses and boiled a housewife in her own cauldron. The Swedes had sprinkled gunpowder on their prisoners and set fire to their clothes, the Bavarians under Werth had shut the citizens into Calw, fired the walls, trained guns on the gates and shot at the people as they tried to escape the flames. The stories were exaggerations but based on the increasing and now general barbarity of the war.


In Alsace the bodies of criminals were torn from the gallows and devoured; in the whole Rhineland they watched the graveyards against marauders who sold the flesh of the newly buried for food; at Zweibrücken a woman confessed to having eaten her child. Acorns, goats’ skins, grass, were all cooked in Alsace; cats, dogs, and rats were sold in the market at Worms. In Fulda and Coburg and near Frankfort and the great refugee camp, men went in terror of being killed and eaten by those maddened by hunger. Near Worms hands and feet were found half cooked in a gipsies’ cauldron. Not far from Wertheim human bones were discovered in a pit, fresh, fleshless, sucked to the marrow. 

What about:

in Bavaria there was neither corn left to grind nor seed to sow for the year to come; plague and famine wiped out whole villages, mad dogs attacked their masters, and the authorities posted men with guns to shoot down the raving victims before they could contaminate their fellows; hungry wolves abandoned the woods and mountains to roam through the deserted hamlets, devouring the dying and the dead.[195] At Nuremberg, shut in between Wallenstein and the Swedes and crowded with fugitives, they had buried close upon a hundred daily.[196] 

  I remember in Tyll there is a scene where Frederick goes to meet Gustavus and he sees a pile of dead babies- which isn't in The Thirty Years War but certainly could be- that would have been something that happened in the first part of the war and the examples above are for the second part.

What is a Clipper Ship?
This is a Yankee Clipper ship- lots of sails!

Published 6/16/20
Barons of the Sea (2018)
 by Steve Ujifusa

  I saw this book for the first time in the gift shop of the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine, when I visited last summer.  I added it as an Audiobook because, let's face it, general economic histories written about the clipper ship trade between New York, China and San Francisco don't get published every year.  I'm not sure how far you'd have to go back in time to find the last book to cover this territory- it's possible that there aren't any written for a general reading audience.

  Economic history can be tough to pin down, since most history consists of biographies of "great men"(now includes women!) or "high history" of war and nation-state type politics.  On the other hand you've got the every-day history inspired by the annales school, in which economics beyond what effects the working class just doesn't exist.   Economic history exists in between these common categories, and added to the difficulty is the fact that economics itself disdains historical narrative in favor of equations and statistical analysis.

  That makes Barons of the Sea, which is a first rate narrative history of particular value.  The reader gets to hear about the genesis of several great American fortunes- including the family of Franklin Roosevelt and the Forbes family- in the Chinese opium trade, and their subsequent efforts to build the sleekest, fastest ships to carry tea from China to the East Coast of the US and to London.  Later on, clipper ships become a favorite for the pre-Panama Canal "San Francisco" trade.

  The capitalism practiced by the ship builders wasn't particularly sophisticated- many eschewed investors and would build the biggest ships without buyers, sail the ship on one voyage themselves, and then sell it.

Maps of the Arab world |
Map of the Middle East circa 1979

Published 7/2/20
Black Wave:  
Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East(2020) 
by Kim Ghattas

    For a variety of reasons: lack of information, prejudice, language barriers, government restrictions on the flow of information, it can be tough for educated westerners to gain an understanding of the contemporary Middle East.   Many of the basic facts required to build an understanding: the relationship between Sunni and Shia Muslims, for example, are not commonly taught in western schools or discussed by the media.    If you start from the premise that the current brand of religious extremism is "bad," finding a "good" group from a western perspective is near impossible, since the western leaning activists and politicians that preceded the Saudi and Iranian revolutions of 1979 were mostly socialists, making them just as "bad" as the religious extremists. 

  Regardless of the difficulties involved, author Kim Ghattas has done an excellent job of unraveling the events of 1979: The Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia, and how they have impacted events since.    Ghattas also includes important events in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Iraq, giving the reader a solid perspective of the how and the why of the Middle East since 1979.

  The story starts in the 1970's- the Shah of Iran has exiled many Shia religious activists, many of whom have traveled to Lebanon, where the Shia are a rural religious minority, not exactly oppressed, but  largely ignored.  Enter the Palestinian Liberation Army, a largely secular organization who, after a series of defeats in Israel, have relocated to Southern Lebanon- home to- you guessed it- the Shia minority of Lebanon.  It is here where a pivotal alliance occurs: between activist Shia mullahs- who are closer to civil rights activists in the beginning, and leftist radicals espousing a pan-Arabic socialism.

   Training camps are set up in Southern Lebanon where Palestinians train Iranian shia's in military tactics. Ayatollah Khomeini emerges as a distinct voice, not limited to Shia's, and his sermons are disseminated via audiotape with the help of French educated leftists.  Eventually Khomeini returns to Iran, where, with the help of leftists, he dislodges the Shah and immediately turns on his erstwhile leftist allies- who look like the biggest fools in the entire book- has them all killed, renounces the idea of himself as a pan-Islamic leader in favor of  a Shia specific identity  and soon gets Iran embroiled in a lengthy, devastating war with Iraq.

  Meanwhile,  Sunni religious extremists seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca in November of 1979, causing the wealthy Saudi's to refocus their attention on their longtime alliance with the Wahhabi's, a Sunni extremist sect.  The Wahhabi's in turn, become worried about the Iranians, while, at the same time, a generation of Sunni activists takes its cues from the Iranians- changing the approach of Sunni groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), Al Qaeda (Saudi Arabia) and the military dictatorship in Pakistan, which is quick to adopt (Sunni) sharia law in a largely secular environment.
  From here, most westerners should be familiar with the ensuing events:  The Russians invade Afghanistan,  Al Qaeda moves there to fight them and the west supports the effort.   The Taliban win in Afghanistan, the Russians get kicked out, the Iranians start fomenting dissent outside Iran through their Hezbollah proxy,  the first Iraq War, the Second Iraq War, the rise of Isis and the emergence of Iran as a regional power, fighting on behalf of the post-invasion Shia government of Iraq and the Allawis of Syria.  Saudi Arabia finds itself in the awkward position of denying responsibility for Isis, even though they are directly responsible.    Black Wave ends with Iranians and Americans finding "side by side" against Isis in Iraq.

  What a wild ride!

Cover of Empires of the Weak by J.C. Sharman

Published 7/6/20
Empires of the Weak (2019) 
by J.C. Sharman

  A major theme in early modern history is reconsideration of the relationship between colonizing European nations and the native polities who they encountered.  The conventional wisdom is encapsulated by the Jared Diamond book, Guns, Germs & Steel, which not only contains the modified "military revolution" thesis in its title but also is itself the most recent update of this thesis in its most widely popular form.   The basic idea is that there was a military revolution in Western Europe in the early modern period- starting form the mid 19th century, which led directly to the victory of European colonizers over the natives everywhere in the world, starting upon contact and lasting until after World War II. 

    J.C. Sharman sets out to demolish this thesis and manages to do so in a tidy 216 pages, leaving the so-called European military revolution in the dust- in the ash bin of history, you could say.   His major innovation is separating the period from the mid 19th cenutry to the early 20th century- when European powers did actually manage to conquer large swathes of the globe, from the early modern period- basically 1500 to 1750. As a threshold manner, Sharman points out that Europe, did not, in fact, come even close to "conquering" large parts of the globe until after 1750 and most historians have essentially projected the mid to late success of the 19th century back to the earlier world, overstating the degree that Europeans, were, in fact succesful, and also pointing out how early occasions of success had nothing to do with the military revolution. 

   A major recurring point of his is that much of what he says is obviously true, and the only reason the military revolution theses hasn't been overturned earlier is simple ignorance of non-western polities by western scholars.  I found his logic compelling and it certainly comports with my own understanding of the early modern period- a time when European colonization efforts were often dramatically unsuccessful only to see those events wiped out of "recorded" history- see, for example the Portuguese experience in Africa, the European experience in East Asia, basically everywhere in the world besides Meso-America, before 1800.  Like many other historical "truths" the military revolution has become a self fulfilling prophecy, even among scholars who would nothing better than to dispute the European colonization effort. 

  Sharman doesn't even mention Pekka Hamalainen, who has performed a similar re-conceptualization of the American West in Comanche Empire and Lakota America.    Empires of the Weak  is a major achievement in the field of international history.

Map of the Ottoman Empire in 1566 WHAT EUROPEAN DOMINANCE???

Published 7/10/20
Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants  (2010) 
by Mathias Enard

    It has been desperate times for me here in Los Angeles since the coivd-19 inspired library shutdown. Libraries recently reopened after months for curb-side pick up, and I'm finally getting back up to speed on that front- I like to keep ten books on hand.  In the meantime I've been relying heavily on my the link between the Libby library app and my Amazon Kindle- sync those two programs and you will never want for Ebooks.  The method I ended up using to keep stocked involved using the search function for publishers and simply organizing them in order of most recently released.  I've been doing this for all the "major" publishers but I've found the most joy one step below:  The New York Review of Books Classics imprint, New Directions and Verrso. 

  Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants- originally published in France in 2010- where it won the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens- basically the Pulitzer Junior in France- got an English translation in 2018, and New Directions published it.   It falls generally into a category of literary fiction of great interest to me.  That category: Historical fiction set in non-West European locations.  Basically, literary fiction, historical subjects, not set in England, France or Germany.  I'm particularly interested in areas where ACTUAL English language history is lacking- so the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empires, Mughal India, pre- European contact East Asia, etc. 

    Tell Them of Battles is a brief book- almost a novella- 144 pages- and it is a taut tale about a possible trip that Michelango took to Constantinople in 1506 at the behalf of the Sultan, where he was asked to design a bridge.   Enard presents it as a possibly true tale- including drawings and an afterword discussing a fire which destroyed the in progress bridge- I gather from some very loose research on Google that the story is entirely fictional- you could have fooled me!  I found great value in the depiction of the Ottoman Empire at its height- a period when it matched and exceeded ANY European competitor. 

  After reading Empire of the Weak by J.C. Sharman- where he argues that Ottoman success inside Europe and on the borders- South East Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa- provides a strong counter argument that the so-called "military revolution" in Europe in the 16th century had anything to do with later European dominance.

Chile Map | Infoplease
Map of Chile, subject of Travels in a Thin Country by Sarah Wheeler

Published 7/12/20
Travels in a Thin Country (1999) 
by Sarah Wheeler

    Travels in a Thin Country is a travel book about the experiences of the author in Chile.  I'm not a big fan of the genre- Paul Theroux is an exception.  When I did read travel writing, i.e. Paul Theroux, it was when I was in college and after and more actively travelling the world.   Now, at the age of 43, I've knocked off all of the easily accessible places and have a real lack of will to tackle the rest of it.  I made an exception for Travels in a Thin Country because I actually wanted to learn about Chile, and reading a history book didn't seem like a good fit for a land that is best described in terms of natural, not human history.  Wheeler is English, and while it isn't an English specific audience she has in mind, her Englishness does color her experiences to the point where it is impossible to ignore the fact that you are reading a book by an English travel writer.

  Chile has got to be the oddest shaped country on the planet, 2600 miles long and 110 miles wide (at its widest point) it encompasses a full gamut of environments, most of them fairly unique- the high desert of the Atacama and the frozen expanses of Patagonia, to name two- as well as a vibrant presence in Antarctica.   Wheeler hits them all- she also wrote a separate book about her travels to Antarctica-  and it makes for interesting reading.   Wheeler has a literary bent, and interweaves the literary history of Chile into her book:

On the third day we took a bus up to Monte Grande through more of these vineyards and made a pilgrimage to the grave of Gabriela Mistral, among Chile’s finest poets and the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (only four others—Asturias, Neruda, Márquez and Paz—have won it since). She was born in Vicuña and went to school in Monte Grande, where they had restored her classroom, a polished wood abacus in the corner and a six-foot long relief map of the country on the wall, the tips of the Andes worn away by children’s fingers.

    She also tracks down the sites associated with Neruda:

Decently dressed for the first time in two months, I made an appointment to visit La Chascona, once a residence of Pablo Neruda, the colossus of modern Chilean literature and the best-known poet ever to emerge from South America. He was also a Communist, a diplomat and a committed bon viveur with roots in the green and fecund south;

    But most of Travels in a Thin Country is split between her descriptions of places like the Atacama, Patagonia, travelling between the different places she visits and stories about the people she met- strictly PG.   Wheeler basically skips the capital- Santiago- she left me convinced that the reason to visit Chile are the wild places- Patagonia sounds particularly alluring, and not the city.

   Strangely, Wheeler skips Easter Island- which she defends by saying it is a distraction, and I guess I get the argument, but she does go to Antarctica, which technically isn't even a part of the country of Chile, and is just as far away from the center as Easter Island.

Map showing Indian tribal lands in the American Southeast

Published 8/1/20
Unworthy Republic: 
The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (2020) 
by Claudio Sant

  In the 1830's, the United States was faced with a problem.  Much of the present southeast, northern Georgia, northern Mississippi, a large swath of Florida, was occupied with Native American tribes, who having survived the initial extinction level events of the 18th century, had begun to build democratic nations in the model of the United States.   The American response to that phenomenon was devastating, often referred to as "Indian Removal" by historians, the impact was closer to 20th century ethnic cleansing and genocide:

There are several striking similarities between the expulsion of indigenous peoples in the 1830s and the state-sponsored mass deportations of the twentieth century in Turkey, Greece, Germany, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. In both periods, administrators described the inevitable march of “civilization,” the “necessity” of deporting populations that could “only with difficulty assimilate,” and the “grandiose” plans that they had devised to address the situation—arrogant language that masked the brutality and disarray of their efforts.

  It is almost never remarked upon by American historians that this particular chapter in American history was an inspiration for the genocidinares of the 20th century- both the German Nazi party and the Turks cited the American removal of Native American tribes in the 1830's as an inspiration for their own cleansing activities against Jews, Gypsies, "anti-socials" and Armenians.   That is because Americans- mostly the states of Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi but also the Federal Government, used the existing machinery of a 19th century democratic government to extirpate a group of native people's who sought justification for their existence in the language and action of said 19th century democracy, all to no avail.

   A major point of Sant in Unworthy Republic is that Indian Removal was not a "foregone conclusion" in 19th century America, but rather it took the determined effort of dedicated racists to eject the tribes from their land. And while it is true that there was never a systematic effort to exterminate the tribes, the removal efforts, and the post-removal efforts to "cleanse" the land- which worked everywhere except Florida, came pretty close to the 20th century definition of genocide. 

In 1838, Missouri witnessed the “Missouri Mormon War”
The death of Joseph Smith at the hands of an angry mob.

Published 8/11/20
Kingdom of Nauvoo:
The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (2020)
by Benjamin Park

  Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area as a Jew, my understanding of "Christianity" was focused on Catholics and Mormons- it wasn't until I reached college in Washington DC that I understood the cultural difference between Catholicism and Protestantism in America.  For example, my private, non-religious high school, which lacked a gymnasium, practiced at the Oakland Mormon Temple.  I always went to school with Mormons, and the Mormon presence in Southern California is even stronger- my ex wife worked for one of the oldest law firms in Southern California, from Riverside, founded by Mormon lawyers.  Mormon roots in the swath from San Diego up to Riverside, outside of Orange and Los Angeles county, is strong. The major old timey trail in San Diego is the "Mormon trail" because they built it.

  As an adult, a more sophisticated understanding began with Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven- about a double murder linked to a Mormon splinter faith (of which there are many.) and continued with Fawn Brodie's Joseph Smith biography.  The Saints are understandably touchy about their historical legacy, and their physical isolation from any check on their privacy is vast. But that is changing little by little, and Park claims to be working with hitherto unanalyzed historical documents from the ill-fated town of Nauvoo, a Mormon settlement in Illinois, founded after the Mormons were chased out of Missouri. 

 Spoiler alert: It ends with Joseph Smith being murdered by an angry mob while he awaited trial, Nauvoo is destroyed as a Mormon town and the remaining Mormons, led by Brigham Young, decamped for Utah.  But it is the last time that they were lead by their original prophet, so this time period seems particularly crucial for any historical understanding of Mormonism.

   Soooo, as it turns out, Joseph Smith was obsessed with polygamy and it quite literally let to his murder at the hands of said angry mob.  The whole evolution of the Mormon policy of polygamy is the center piece of Kingdom of Nauvoo and it is a must for any reader seeking a serious, historical understanding of the Mormon religion.

File:Map BEIC 1857.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Map of India circa 1857

Published 10/7/20
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (2019)
by William Dalrymple

  I waited close to a year for the opportunity to read the hard cover edition of The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by Scottish historian William Dalrymple.  For my money, Dalrymple is the foremost English language historian of what you might call South Asia, currently Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the Himalayan states of Nepal and Bhutan.  His latest book is an absolutely necessary volume- and one written for a non-specialist- I should ad- about the course of Empire in India.  Specifically, he tells the story of the British East India Company, which started out as an early capitalist corporation in London in the late 16th century, only to become the de-facto ruler of one of the largest empires the world has ever seen before handing over its conquest to the English government.

   It is an extraordinary story, made more so for the fact that it is unfamiliar to the vast majority of well-informed English students of history.  Perhaps because the narrative of corporate conquest doesn't fit in with dominant ideas about imperialism, either the early/mid 20th century apologists OR those who criticized that group.  Both have focused on a handful of western nation-states cum empires, with Great Britain being the preeminent example.  The only problem is that the English government had little to do with its eventual sovereignty over most of south Asia.

  Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your feelings about the history of the British Empire, the story itself is about as radical as Dalrymple gets when it comes to revising accepted understandings of historical events. The Anarchy is notable for his ability to bring in several previously untranslated sources that represent the path of conquest from the perspective of the Mughal Empire and its intellectual elite, but there is no denying that in the end, The Anarchy devotes most of its length to descriptions of English merchant-princes and their triumphs on and off the battlefield. 

   The key to understanding the East India Company and their path to conquest is understanding the fact that the Mughal Empire were themselves a foreign conqueror, specifically, cosmopolitan Persian Muslims, who didn't speak the language and tolerated religious diversity for tax purposes (non Muslims were taxed, Muslims were exempt.)  Thus, the East India Company was one of a number of interests that worked for and against the existing conqueror.

   The second key is understanding the geography.  Essentially, the British effort started in Bengal, which is in the east of India- the northeast.  Bengal was historically an economically advanced area of the world- not just India- with active industry and agricultural.  Calcutta was the original British stronghold.  The Mughals, meanwhile were headquartered out of Delhi- which is northcentral India, and it makes sense, because they invaded from what is today Pakistan.   Thus, the East India Company worked east- Bengal, to west.  Most of the action takes place along this access, and both sides- Mughals and British had competitors in the rest of Indian as well, they just weren't as formidable as the Mughals, and crumpled after the Mughals gave up the ghost. 


Published 10/13/20
Fallen Glory (2019)
by James Crawford

   In the UK there is a niche for serious-minded creative non fiction about esoteric subjects, see, for example the genre of "psycho geography" which elevated the weekly walks of some English authors into the realm of literary fiction.  These books are very much in evidence if you walk through a London book seller, but the market doesn't quite translate into the United States, where books by Bill O'Reilly about the Civil War tend to occupy the same territory, from the perspective of the market for non-fiction. 

  Fallen Glory by Scottish author James Crawford is an exception- it was released in the UK in 2017, and late last year it got a US release, even an Audiobook, which I listened to over the course of the past- literally- six months.  Read by John Lee, my favorite living Audiobook narrator, the Audiobook version is an audacious 20 hours long.   Fallen Glory is a 640 page hardback, so we are talking a serious commitment, commensurate with reading a major academic treatise, even though Crawford dispenses a general audience level narrative for each of the chapters.  Each chapter is a different "lost city" from Babylon to GeoCities. Because each city gets one chapter, readers who are already versed on the subject of lost cities won't find many surprises, but there is some value in seeing all the lost cities being grouped together in one volume, instead of taking up a paragraph in a larger narrative history focusing on the geographic area involved.

    Looking back on the experience, some chapters provided more value than others.  Chapter 16 about Kowloon Walled City was the best description of the place I've encountered.   Other chapters fail to much more than recount the history of a place that is already well described- the chapter on the Bastille left me wanting to fast forward. 

Published 1/4/21
The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier (2018)
by Ian Urbina

  I am extremely prone to motion sickness and it is never worse than when I am at sea.  Not to the point where I avoid travel, but  it is hard for me to enjoy being a passenger in a car, flying on a plane or being on a ship without experiencing some form of nausea.  But I do love READING about the sea- the wilder the better.   The Outlaw Ocean, a non-fiction book by  New York Times journalist Ian Urbina, surpasses most contemporary fiction in terms of the exotic scenery.  No millennials whining in coffee shops in The Outlaw Ocean.  At the same time, this book is very much written from the perspective of a journalist working for the New York Times- the reporting transparently evolves out of different stories he covered on what might be called "the Open Ocean beat" and each chapter reads like a New York Times Magazine cover story with all the edits removed.  

 I listened to the Audiobook version, which seemed endless- it clocks in at a cool 18 hours.  It was a good listen for driving around, an hour here about the de factor slavery practiced by factory fishing boats, and hour there about Somali pirates, and it is hard to imagine that I ever would have bothered with the 576 page paperback version.  It is hard to complete The Outlaw Ocean with any enthusiasm for the future of our Oceans or, indeed, for the environment of our planet.  Urbina repeatedly references a two century old concept, the idea of the "tragedy of the commons."  This refers to the idea that property which is owned in common ("the commons" were shared fields in pre-industrial England) is ultimately depleted and despoiled because no one owns it.

 Factory fishing is his primary example in The Outlaw Ocean- ships travel thousands of miles to escape the prying eyes of national fishing regulations.  The people who work on these ships are protected by no one- no state, no international organization.  The people who own these ships are answerable to no one-abetted by the common practice of flagging ships in the least restrictive regulatory environment.  It's all very sordid, and it makes me think twice before buying seafood at the supermarket.

The Ottoman Empire after Selim the Grim
Published 1/6/21
God's Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (2020)
by Alan Mikhail

   One of my long standing areas of interest in the subject of World History is just, basically, the factual history of the area between Turkey and Iran from after the Mongol invasions to the 19th century.   It's not an easy thing to learn about in the United States- sources on the ground are few and far between.  At one time I contemplated buying a volume of the Cambridge history of Iran.  Almost everything in the general history category works from the modern nation state back, so you can read plenty of histories about Iran and Turkey, but that approach doesn't really work for an era that didn't really embrace the nation state until the early 20th century.

  Mikhail, a history professor at Yale, makes the point early and often that the Ottoman Empire has been excluded from Western History through a combination of ignorance, anti-muslim prejudice and malice.  The important role that the Ottoman Empire played in the discovery and settlement of the New World is entirely absent from world history- and I'm speaking as someone who has read widely in this era.  Among the many interesting points that Mikhail establishes in God's Shadow is that explorers in Spain, Portugal and Italy were forced to look across the Atlantic for a route to India BECAUSE of the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean littoral. 

  More than a worrisome enemy, the Ottoman's were the closest example of a large, succesful multi-national Empire in Europe, and they served as an example for policies that the Spanish and Portuguese would import into the New World- particularly the treatment of Natives.   Mikhail's hook for engaging the reader in such an esoteric area of World History is a biography of Selim the Grim, one of a series of three or four truly outstanding rulers that the Ottoman's boasted in the early modern period.   He overcame an early start as a disfavored younger son and provincial governor in the far east of the empire to become Sultan- defeating his two older brothers and father- the prior Sultan.

  As Sultan, he dramatically expanded the size of the Empire, see the map above- adding most of the modern day Middle East.  Via that conquest, he is also responsible for introducing coffee as a global commodity- before Selim coffee was grown in Yemen and only consumed locally.  The Ottoman's also invented the cafe around the same time.  It is a sorely underappreciated story in World History.

AH CHALLANGE: National State of Lotharingia |
Europe in 843
Published 1/19/21
Lotharingia (2019)
by Simon Winder

  Simon Winder, he would have you know, is not a professional historian.  He is actually a publishing executive at Penguin Books, responsible for their "Medieval" division.  He also needs you to know that he doesn't speak any other languages outside of restaurant/hotel situations.   How then, does he manage to pull off Lotharingia, the third of three books (GermaniaDanubia) that deal exclusively with the anecdotal history of Europe.   

   The basis for the title is the third of his empire that Charlemagne bequeathed to his son, Lothar.  Originally, the area went from present day Netherlands all the way down to Italy.  For the purpose of the book, Winder chops off Italy and stops at Switzerland.  So basically, Lotharingia comprises modern day Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, north eastern France (Alsace Lorraine), parts of Western Germany and the north western bit of Switzerland.    And while it may sound like much fun, Winder, with his breezy style makes it so- many readers are likely to know some of the history he is discussing, but few will know most of it, and I'm sure that no one could manage the achievement of  making a history of this part of the world something one could plausibly describe as "breezy." 

  Also, it's 500 pages long, so he doesn't stint on details.  It's great that it got published in America- I actually bought the American edition hard copy at a mall Barnes and Noble!

Southwest Indian - The Navajo and Apache | Britannica
Map of the Native Peoples of the desert Southwest, today New Mexico and Arizona. 
Published 3/1/21
The Three-Cornered War:
The Union, The Confederacy & The Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (2020)
by Megan Kate Nelson

   This welcome volume is another piece in the decades long jigsaw assembly of the construction of a history of the United States that does not exclude or diminish the experience of the Native Peoples.  It is so important for Americans to recognize that the very basic and simple facts of what actually happened have been suppressed from what I imagine is, at some level, shame.   To give a very local example, it is an established, non-controversial fact that Californians- I'm talking about white, American and European settlers who lived here BEFORE California was a state, hunted Native Tribes to extinction.  Bounties were set, and careers were made by bands of hunter-entrepreneurs, sometimes by governmental or quasi-governmental entities, sometimes by citizens.  Some of modern California- Big Bear Lake is one example, were "discovered" by packs of roaming Indian hunters- these were people who were just looking to round up and murder any Indians they found.

    The Three-Cornered War focuses not on California but rather New Mexico-Arizona focused on the years during the Civil War.  The title is a little deceptive, although I understand the reasoning- it's really more like two and a half wars:  War one is the American Civil War- which in the Southwest involved a brief invasion from Texas which was repulsed by Union troops from Colorado and California.  War two is the Kit Carson led "pacification" of the Navajo Nation, which happened to take place during the American Civil War and after the Union defeated the Confederates in New Mexico.  The half, or maybe a third, belongs to the United States and the Apaches, which extended before and after the time frame of this book, but enters into the narrative because of overlap.

   The Navajo portion of this book is fascinating, the Confederate part very much less so.  All of it is interesting for those who enjoy the writing of Cormac McCarthy and the "modern" Western.  I could think of at least a half dozen event inspired narratives that could come from the events described herein, and I actually went so far as to order some of the primary sources related to California from the library.

Published 3/2/21
Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings (2020)
by Neil Price

   I love an updated history of the Vikings!  If you follow the subject casually, you would expect an updated history of the Vikings to take narrative advantage of the past several decades of archaeological studies as they relate to Vikings, and indeed, the author is a Professor of Archeology in Sweden who specializes in Viking history.  Despite a clear general reading audience in mind, Children of Ash and Elm is very thorough- 576 pages in print, or 18 hours as the Audiobook I heard.  You can tell that the author is a Professor in the field from his reluctance to make observations that stray from actual evidence, even when such a book would seem to demand it.

  In addition to recent archelogy, Price draws on genetics as well as the established written corpus of Icelandic sagas, travelogues written by Muslim travelers in the early Middle Ages and the annals of English, French and German authors. Climate science also makes an appearance, with a particularly persuasive argument that the myth of Ragnarok can be traced to a historical series of volcanic eruptions in the mid 6th century that resulted in the death of half the existing Scandinavian population.

  Similarly persuasive, in that it is backed by evidence, is the contention that the Viking age proper did not begin in 793, with the assault on Lindisfarne, but rather started a half century earlier, in the Baltic.  He ties this argument to the discovery of a massive Viking funeral ship- with close to 50 bodies- that was discovered in the Baltic and dated to the 750's.   He also draws on sources that show that the English were already familiar with the Scandinavian traders before the Lindisfarne attack, and that it was the attack itself, not Vikings, that was unusual.

  Internally, he expands the understanding of the complicated Viking weltanschauung and a plea for a revised understanding of gender and sexuality within the culture- recent discoveries include a fully kitted out Viking warrior grave that is occupied by a biologically female body.  I was surprised that he made basically no forays into comparative Indo-European studies- no discussion of linguistics and a reluctance to engage with the corpus of thought surrounding Shamanism in north/central Asia.  

Northern Crusades - World History Encyclopedia
Map of the Northern Crusades, wherein the Germans and Swedes subjugated the Baltic pagans, with a little help from France, Spain and the Pope

Published 3/31/21
The Northern Crusades (1980)
by Eric Christiansen

   I wouldn't say that I'm fascinated by The Northern Crusades, which describes a several hundred year (1100 to 1400 more or less) effort by Christian knight orders founded by Germans, Danes and Swedes to subjugate the Baltic Pagans, but it does seem like a blank spot in the history of colonization.  When you consider how much attention is paid to "early" episodes of colonization by the west, you would think that The Northern Crusades, which you could argue are the earliest example of such, with a direct temporal link to the Crusades in the Middle East, would draw more attention from contemporary scholars. 

   Unfortunately, Christiansen's book, while serviceable, was written a generation ago, and thus he can't take advantage of recent advances in the scholarship surrounding colonialism. Still, if a reader is conversant with that body of thought, there are plenty of tantalizing moments in Christansen's book.   Despite the religious association with the "original" Crusade, The Northern Crusades contains strong arguments that this history belongs to the later story of western colonization of the rest of the world, rather than the earlier story of the west lashing out at the Middle East with limited territorial intentions.

   During the Northern Crusades, taking and holding land was the major point, and the Teutonic Knights, Brothers of the Sword and others, came not just to convert but also to govern land.  Settlers were brought in, converted locals were integrated into the larger regional economy.   There are also tantalizing hint of a more fully realized Pagan faith that, through centuries of resistance, grew to mirror the Christian church in terms of organization.  It would be nice to know more about that!  It would also be interesting to compare the Northern Crusades experience to the experience in the New World.  I'd love to see more interest in this subject.

Published 4/5/21
Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth (2019)
by Dan Richards

   I guess I've got an interest in travel and adventure/travel books.  I like to travel, or did, anyway, but I'm not a nut about it.  I don't see in the point of going everywhere, but I do like to know about remote places, blank places on the map, if you will.  I'm interested in filling in the map, both in terms of the literal Earth and a world map of literature.  I thought the part of the title promising a journey to the wild ends of the earth sounded interesting.  Unfortunately, Outpost wasn't that wild.  Richards opens by teasing a visit to Svalbard- the most northern inhabited island (by a lot!) but then goes to less wild places like the interior of Iceland, which sounds interesting, but I've heard about the exact place he visited from actual Icelandic people when I was there a couple years ago.  He visits Desolation Peak, where Jack Kerouac spent an interesting two months.  He also has a soft spot for writer's cabins. 

  Ultimately, the visit to Svalbard makes reading Outpost a worthwhile journey.  He goes to an abandoned Russian coal mining city that is "curated" by a local who keeps the spirit of Soviet Russia alive and runs a very rough hotel.  He also had a poetic take on driving the 405 South to Long Beach.

Published 4/20/21
Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World (2021)
by Simon Winchester

   I like Simon Winchester because one of those few authors who writes about history subjects for a general audience (I'm not including books about US Presidents, World War II and the Civil War) with a record of sales success.   He's not particularly original, and his subjects to change the way I view the world, but I do enjoy a stroll through subjects like precision engineering (2018),  earthquakes (2015 AND 2005), and of course, maps (2001)- and the way those things influence history.  

    Unfortunately, Land does not show Winchester at this best.  His cranky old white guy routine works better for the intersection of geographic phenomena and human history.  This book, which really should have been called Property, not Land is more about human attitudes towards nature than nature and its impact on human history.  Specifically, about the millennia that humanity has spent dividing up the surface of the Earth into parcels of territory and assigning said parcels to specific owners.  

  As Winchester repeatedly points out, the idea of owning the land is a very culturally specific idea that has managed to ensnare the entire world, it's not a natural phenomenon. He illustrates this point with a hodge-podge or more and less familiar episodes in the history of land ownership, with an emphasis on shameful episodes like the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the murder of millions of Ukrainians by Stalin's USSR under the guise of land reform and the slightly more upbeat attempts by New Zealand to come to terms with their colonial past.  For me, none of it was new information, just a new gloss on familiar subjects.

Published 4/30/21
China and Japan (2019)
by Ezra Vogel

  The most important dynamic to understand about the relationship between China and Japan is that for almost a millennium,  Japan imported almost every aspect of its culture from the more advanced Chinese.  In return, the Chinese, except for very brief period, entirely ignored Japan.  This pattern held up until the late 19th, early 20th century when Japan, adopted an aggressive form of military nationalism and invaded China.  China, of course, eventually fought off the Japanese and adopted Communism. Japan, meanwhile, lost World War II and adopted western style democracy, without coming to terms with their World War II experience in the same way that, say, Germany did. 

   China and Japan is full of incredible facts that will blow your mind, like, for example, the fact that the two countries did not maintain diplomatic ties for close to five hundred years.  Basically, the pattern is that Japan would periodically send over expert types to study Chinese practices, then those experts would return home to Japan and elite groups would meet and discuss ways to implement those practices.  If it sounds familiar, it should, because it's basically the same approach Japan took to the West, with notable success.  

   In fact, it is pretty incredible that the West has absorbed the story of Japan's integration of Western lessons without being widely aware that this was the second occurrence of that phenomenon in Japan's history.  The influence goes right back to the start of what you might call civilization, with Japan importing the Chinese style of writing.  Although Chinese and Japanese speak different languages, they wrote with the same characters, meaning that for centuries Chinese and Japanese officials would conduct "chalk board" conversations via writing back and forth to one another. 

  Ironically, Buddhism was imported originally, not from China but from Korea, though the Japanese quickly recognized that China was the home of East Asian Buddhism and spend centuries sending monks West to study at Chinese monasteries.  For centuries, travels between Japan and mainland China were difficult and dangerous- I've always had the idea that the separation between the two places was something like the way the English Channel separates England and France, but it is really more like travelling from London to New York (Tokyo to Beijing is on a plane is only half an  hour longer than London to New York City.)

   Japan's modern adventures in colonialism have parallels to both British and German experiences in the West.  In a place like Taiwan, the Japanese were largely benevolent colonial overlords who introduced education, industry and modern technology with a light footprint, echoing the more benevolent side of the British experience.  In mainland China, there was invasion and widespread atrocities which remain largely unacknowledged by the Japanese in their national historical narrative, closer to a German example a la World War I and II.

   Since the end of World War II, Japan has quietly served as an agent of technological transfer from the west, even in partnership with the Chinese Communist Part.  At the same time, the relationship has been fraught because of Japan's inability to fully come to terms with its behavior.  One underappreciated aspect of contemporary Japanese Chinese relations is that China actually appreciates Japan's close ties with the West, since the West has effectively removed Japan as an existential threat to China's existence.

Cahokia - Wikipedia
Cahokia Mounds
Published 5/6/21
Four Lost Cities (2021)
by Annalee Newitz

  The past twenty years have been revolutionary for what you might call proto-urban studies, the study of cities of the past.  The main development has been the wide spread use of LIDAR- radar based technology that can scan remote areas of the earth, discovering the location of ruined buildings and indeed, entire cities.  These scans inspire more traditional archeological investigation- digging and what not.  The impact has been to expand the traditional focus on ruined buildings to a focus on the urban landscape of pre and proto historical peoples.  Here, science journalist Annalee Newitz explores these developments in four extremely different environments.  First, there is the Neolithic hive city Catalhoyuk (Turkish diacritics omitted.)  Next is Pompeii, then Angor Wat and finally Cahokia, the ancient American city that was centered in modern day St. Louis (East Saint Louis, anyway.)

  The recent advancements in understanding are largely presented through interviews with different scholars, Newitz visits each of the sites and adds her contemporary impressions.  I read the Eversion, so I didn't take a look at her notes, but most of the insights simply summarized recent advancements in scholarship for the respective cities.  Most readers will be largely unfamiliar with Catalhoyuk, and her first section on that city is worth the price of admission.   Pompeii, is a bit of a come down after Catalhoyuk, thought Newitz does an able job with the Annales school inspired study of "life on the street"- Annales based approaches- on the quotidian and everyday, continue to generate insight decades later.

   The Angor Wat chapter builds on the many LIDAR inspired revelations about the complexity of the ground-works that the King built to manage water and the otherwise size of the city, which peaked circa 11-12th century AD.   From an American perspective, the most interesting chapter is the one on Cahokia, a large ceremonial center/city founded by an unknown group (though Newitz makes the case, based on recent scholarship, that they were the ancestors of the presen-day Osage tribe.) 

   There can be no denying that the great Native American sites of pre-contact antiquity have been grievously underappreciated by American scholars and students.  Again, the absence of large buildings makes the rise of LIDAR technology for determining "Where to Dig," which seems to be the biggest issue in archeology.  This is one of the first general interest books I've read that have gone beyond the gee-whiz of LIDAR itself to the insights that have arisen after LIDAR has revealed promising dig sites.

Published 6/1/21
Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind's Greatest Invention (2020)
by Ben Wilson

 Spoiler alert, Ben Wilson loves the city!  I'd never heard of Ben Wilson before this book.  My Amazon search of his prior credits reveals some interesting titles but no hits.  By his standards and the standards of the Amazon Best Sellers in Urban Planning & Development List (#22) Metropolis is a modest hit.  Like other books in this space, Wilson combines recent developments in the scholarship surrounding the history of cities- traditional archeology and LIDAR enabled research.  He proceeds in chronological order, so the early chapters  rely on archeology and the more recent chapters read like articles in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

  I found the earlier chapters more interesting, probably because the existing history of cities like Uruk, Babylon, Athens and Alexandria, are dowdy, following the principle that each city gets one or two books a generation that rewrite the existing book with an additional chapter added in to take into account the past thirty years.  Like many others who write about ancient Rome in the 21st century, he focuses on the everyday at the expense of great events. Later chapters swing between eye opening (Lubeck, who knew?), tedious (if I have to read another description of Dickens-era Manchester England or late 19th century Chicago I will scream!), and intriguing(His chapter on Los Angeles 1945-99 had me yearning for the street food I can buy down the block from my house.) 

   Metropolis made for a fun audiobook, though there were moments when I wanted to look at the notes to check his sources.   For those interested in the history of the city it's a must. 

Published 7/20/21
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (2021)
by Benjamin Friedman

   Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is a rare example of a general audience book written by a specialist- Friedman is a long time Professor of Economics at Harvard University, and this book can be broadly understood as an attempt by Friedman to explain the oft-observed phenomenon of voters in western democracies voting against their economic interests, the Reagan Democrats of the 1980's, or the more recent Republican coalition of rural American voters and billionaire oligarchs.  Friedman attempts to explain this phenomenon by delving back into the roots of capitalism and looking at the role of religious thought at the time capitalism was being "invented." 

  Savvy readers might well ask whether this is just a variant of Max Weber and his "Protestant Work Ethic," but of course Friedman is a contemporary thinker with access to vast resources, so his underlying research moves far beyond the central European examples that Weber cited in his work.  Specifically, his early chapter on the Scottish enlightenment, where much of modern capitalism was explained for the first time, shows very clearly the intertwining of religion and economic theory.

  Later chapters will be more familiar to anyone with a working grasp of 19th and 20th century history, but to those without this book should be revelatory. It also should spur thought on the part of left leaning political thinkers about how powerful (or not) their ideas might prove to be among the western working classes they have sought (and failed) to win over for the past century and a half.

A mound diagram of the Mississippian culture
Eastern North American platform mounds
Published 10/1/21
Cahokia: Ancient Amerias Great City on the Mississippi (2010)
by Timothy R. Pauketat

  I'd read more history if there was more history to read, but if you chop out books about the Civil War, World War II and biographies of American President's you've cut about 90% of the popular history catalog from your reading list.  Generally though I'll read any book I happen upon on the subject of pre-Columbian North American history/prehistory.  Surprised then I hadn't read Cahokia: Ancient America's great City on the Mississippi, a relatively recent book published by Penguin Random House as part of their "Library of American Indian History."

   The post-contact story of the re-discovery of Cahokia is equal part colonialist horror show and genuine historical mystery.  The horror-show bit is easy to describe but it was fully enabled by the genuine historical mystery- the lack of acknowledgment of Cahokia, a genuine regional power in the American Midwest, West and Southeast for several centuries in the European Middle Ages, by any of the remaining Native peoples.  No tribe claimed Cahokia, and under those conditions it is hard to expect that the Euro-Americans would afford the same kind of deference given to the more imposing ex-cities of Meso-America. 

   Despite the rocky start to the exploration/archeological period in the 19th century, Euro-American archeologists, often working at the behest of the state in advance of their freeway building efforts (which destroyed many of the Cahokian mounds left standing in the mid 20th cenutry), have done much to better contemporary understanding of the Cahokia site.   Basically, the mounds were the sites for the ritual entombment of mass human sacrifice, similar to the vibe experienced in Mesoamerica by victims of the Aztecs and Maya.  A major theme of speculation that Pauketat advances in his book is the idea that the elite of Cahokia were inspired by Mesoamerican culture-religion, possibly triggered by a 11th century Supernova that was widely visible in most of North America. 

   The Cahokian elite- who are probably related to one of the present day tribes of the area, had a rocky relationship with their followers, many of whom were exploited by being to compelled to work on giant corn farms that fed the elite.  Cahokia was the scene of at least two North American native "cities" an Old Cahokia that dates to the 9th and 10th centuries, and the sudden efflorescence of the 11th and 12th century followed by exhaustion and collapse by 1350. 

    Pauketat turns away from environmental explanations of Cahokian decline to an explanation that I find compelling, that the elites of Cahokia exploited many different groups to get their way, and that those groups couldn't effectively be bound to be exploited and so they burned down the elite city cult site and left.    Whereas in the old world, the process of population concentration due to the introduction of settled agriculture and government power proceeded in a more or less linear fashion from the 4th millennium BCE until today, in the new world, that process seems to have stopped and started at least a half dozen times in different places within in North, Central and South America, with mixed results.

    The combination of archeological and post-contact evidence suggests that there was a consistent inability to keep subject populations in place and subjugated for longer than a century or two.   I found Pauketat's argument about a continuity between Mesoamerican and Eastern/Midwestern Native cultures to be persuasive.   The major argument contra- that no Mesoamerican trade goods have been found in any kind of quantity can be rebutted by the counter argument that there are plenty of examples of non-trade related exploration and proselytizing in pre-Columbian history.   


Published 10/18/21
The Boundless Sea (2019)
by David Abulafia

  Cambridge historian David Abulafia spent his career focusing on the history of the Mediterranean.  His career maker was his book The Great Sea (2011) which was a history of the Mediterranean written through the lense of the actual body of water.  He represents a larger trend in academic history to move away from area studies: histories focusing on the development of nation-states and the important people and events therein towards the study of various themes: every day life in the annales school, to which Abulafia undoubtedly owes a debt, and the Anglo-American dominated field of "Atlantic history," focusing on the cross-border history of migration and trade centered on the north Atlantic routes between the east coast of North America and the British isles.

  The Boundless Sea is a career capping attempt to expand his "bodies of water" first approach to the entire globe, assisted by the fact that Cambridge University has the best books on non-Western European history in the West.   The first half of the book (a 41 hour Audiobook I listened to over the course of months) is endlessly fascinating, as Abulafia draws portraits of the "unconnected" Oceans before the European age of discovery.  Here, each chapter is lovingly crafted with the most up to date historical information.  I found myself wishing for the hard copy of the book so I could see his footnotes in his chapters about Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.   

  Unfortunately, the same magic isn't present for the more familiar bit- what happened after the European voyages of discovery, culiminating in the "discovery" of North and South America by Europe in the late 15th century.  By the time Abulafia gets to the 19th and 20th century, he's just writing a garden-variety world history, reaching a low point in his late chapter about the rise of the container ship after World War II.    This was one of the longest books I've ever read- it's 1082 pages in print- and there is something exhilarating about completing a 40 hour plus Audiobook.  It seems like being the narrator would be enough to drive you insane.  41 hours!  That is a solid week of work, every minute of an eight hour day and more.

Iroquoia - The Eight Nations -
Published 11/11/21
Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier (2008)
(Penguin Library of American Indian History)
by Timothy J. Shannon

     The re-telling of the early history of North America is a work in progress, ongoing since the culture turmoil of the 1960's prompted a new interest in the point of view of underrepresented groups.   As far as the Native Americans go, they are mid-table when it comes to narratives of colonial dispossession.  For the most part, the Native Americans weren't victims of genocide (for the most part), but they most definitely were dispossessed.  The actual history needs to be told at the regional level, since Native groups were always loosely affiliated and subject to internal division.   But it should be said that there are several facts to keep in mind that run counter to the now conventional narrative of  "not quite genocide but certainly dispossessed."

    Unlike less sophisticated tribes, the Iroquois were not simply swept away by the tide of settlement, rather they spent centuries as a key power in the region, serving as a buffer between the English and French colonial empires.   They were sought after as allies and partners and benefited greatly from the arrangement, often at the direct expense of other native groups.  For example, it is very clear and uncontroversial that the Iroquois had a lengthy history of selling the lands of other, non-Iroquois groups, serving as a willing partner in the dispossession of Native Americans. 

   The conventional narrative, even one sympathetic to the Native groups, typically omits the period PRIOR to the American Revolution, or at best picks up after the British ejected the French from North America in 1763.  The Iroquois heyday was prior to 1763, and in fact it was this exit of the French as counter-balancing power to the English which foretold their doom, NOT the role they played as a buffer power between the British and French Empires.  The fact is, if you stopped the clock at say, 1760, you are talking about a century and a half where the Iroquois were holding their own against the European powers AND imposing their will over native rivals.   This pre-British dominance period is the focus of Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier, which shows the Iroquois confederacy as a genuine historical player.

    Taken with a grain of salt, both British and French sources did a reasonably good job of documenting the diplomatic process.  That generations of scholars of Early American History came and went without really caring about this process says something about the nature of oppression and colonialism.   

Published 12/4/21
Born in Blackness:
 Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War (2021) 
by Howard W. French

  I will be the first to agree with the underlying premise of Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, that the significance of the African experience in the role of the making of the Modern World (i.e. the West) is greatly underappreciated.   Start with the very idea of "African History" itself, which often starts with Europeans buying African slaves from amorphous or non-existent African polities, progresses to a period of European domination over natives (colonization) and peaks with the independence of said African nations in the middle 20th century.  In other words, from a historical perspective, Africa is a blank map both before and during the initial period of contact with Europeans.

   French demolishes this perspective (after quoting from a variety of mid-century American and European historians who baldly repeat the summary in the paragraph above without question) in the first part of Born in Blackness.    Of course, sub Saharan Africa had a history before colonization.  Leaving out the bonafide Ancient Empire of Ethiopia, which existed without European contact for millennia before being "discovered,"  west and central Africa had a millennium of contact with Arab and Muslim traders coming from the north.   These writers wrote first hand accounts of West and Central African governments over a period of centuries.  After Islam made it's presence known during what was the Middle Ages in Europe, there were pockets where many locals were literate (before the Portuguese wised up, literate black slaves were frequently brought to Brazil).   The fact is, most Western scholars are unfamiliar with the corpus of Arabic language historical accounts, so these sources were usually left out.

    The second hindrance to Western understanding of actual African history was the fact that it was the Portuguese, not the English, French or Spanish, who handled the first century of heavy contact with Africa.  Like Islamic accounts from the 12th and 13th century, Portuguese accounts of African relations in the 15th, 16th and 17th century are little read by Western historians.  Translations are few and far between.    

    As French moves the history forward, his major thesis is that the role that the exploitation of expropriated land in the New World, combined with the exploitation of enslaved labor on that land, was not a sideshow but in fact the central fact which lead to the "Economic Miracle" which is alleged to have occurred there, setting Europe on a "divergent path" of development which resulted in global domination by European and post-European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries.   Again, this seemingly simple argument has been systematically excluded, and even mocked, but generations of western historians who have argued that slavery was a sideshow, doomed to failure, which played a marginal role in the economic miracle of the West.

    French writes at a fevered pitch, on the border between academia and polemic, and it's inevitable that the energy dissipates as he moves closer in time to the present.  There's also an ellipsis over the transition from the horrors of the replacement heavy Caribbean and South American Plantations, were enslaved people simply died at a horrific rate and were replaced, and the horrors of slavery in the United States, were slaves were considered, essentially, valuable resources who were to be multiplied and resold.  Perhaps it's because that is a book in and of itself.

  French is a journalist, not a historian, and the hardcore history is mediated with trips he takes to all the key locations, often to observe how a place like the largest slave cemetary in the New World is completely deserted and unmarked, or to note how Native African tourists use European slave forts as set ups for social media photographs.

Published 1/12/22
The Shawnees and the War for America (2008) 
by Colin Calloway

  I was both surprised and delighted to find that Penguin Random House sprung for Audiobook editions of their Penguin Library of American Indian History (seven books).  They haven't released a new volume in the series in a decade, but hey, putting in Audiobook edition up there is something.  Calloway is a well regarded British-American historian who teaches at Dartmouth University, which has a historic connection to American Indian scholarship and education, and The Shawnees and the War for America is a straight forward modern telling of The Shawnees and their centuries long struggle for independent tribal autonomy/nationhood.  Like all books recounting tribes that met with defeat and sometimes extinction at the hands of independent America, the story of Shawnee extends back to the colonial period, and in fact, like those other histories, you can't understand what happened to the Shawnee in American without understanding the prior chapter of Shawnee/British/French relations. 

   Like many colonial episodes, the conventional wisdom surrounding the Shawnee is telescoped so that what happened at the end, subjugation at the hand of independent America, obscures prior chapters where the Shawnee experienced more success.  In historic times the Shawnee were residents of the Ohio river valley- present day central and southern Ohio and touching parts of Kentucky and West Virginia. 

Published 1/12/22
Islands of Abandonment (2020)
by Cal Flyn

  This is another title derived from my goal of achieving gender balance in my reading.  Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape is a work of non-fiction written by a woman.  One of the imbalances I discovered by actually keeping track of my reading habits systematically is that non-fiction books, history, nature, science, skew heavily towards male authors for no reason I can identify.  Flyn, a Scottish author from "the Highlands," has a track record in long form journalism, but Islands of Abandonment is her first book.   Islands is kind of a meditation on the theme of "ruin porn," an interest she casually disparages even as she makes the very same stops on the tour of post-industrial collapse: Detroit, the Salton Sea, Ukraine around Chernobyl. 

   Her point is that there are big environmental positives to the post-human landscape, that they often provide a healthy environment for recovering wild plants, animals and other living things.   Flyn is an excellent prose stylist, and part of the attractions for Islands is her ability to turn a phrase about places generally considered ugly or disgusting.  That is a quality I value personally and it was fun to see a writer with the same perspective. 

  A notable aspect of the Shawnee experience were their repeated, sometimes succesful, often not, attempts to create pan tribal coalitions to resist American encroachment,  with frequent attempts at collaboration between the Shawnee, Creeks and Cherokee.  These efforts were unsuccessful, but they represent another strand of indigenous "What if..." alternative scenarios of North American history.   For example, if you combine the able diplomacy of the Iroquois with the nation building of the Cherokee and the resistance fighters of the Shawnee, it is possible to see the outline of a force strong enough to staunch European invasion.  Alas, twas not to be. 

Published 1/18/22
Those Powerful Years: The South Coast and Los Angeles 1887-1917 (1978)
by Joseph O'Flaherty

   I was in a used book shop in Los Angeles for only the second time in the past two years when I spied this book in the local history section.  Usually when I go into a used book store these days I'm looking for books about the local area on regional/local presses or the lesser known works of canon level writers of literary fiction.  Those Powerful Years, when I saw it, I had to by it.  It's a 1990's vintage reprint of a book about LA that was originally published by something called Exposition Press of Florida, which sounds like a vanity press.  The reprint was issued by the Historical Society of Southern California.

  O'Flaherty was an amateur historian, he actually died shortly after the reprint came out, in 1993. I think it is interesting to read histories written by non-academics. Certainly when it comes to an area like Southern California, the history is recent enough that one need not be a specialist of any kind to do the required research.  Another reason amateur historians are worth reading when it comes to the history of Southern California is that such people are often tied to business and industry (O'Flaherty was an oil and defense industry executive) and really the history of Southern California is tied directly to 20th century capitalism in a way rarely encountered.   When you consider that even starting a history of Southern California in 1887 is generous- you could start it in 1900 or 1905 without losing much, it's like a place that was as barren as the remotest islands of the South Pacific or the densest jungles turned into one of the ten biggest urban areas on the planet Earth in under one hundred years.

   It is, of course, taken for granted, but if you even stop and think about it for sixty seconds, what happened in Los Angeles is completely bonkers in that there was, essentially, NOTHING beyond the Spanish/Mexican/Native Mission industrial complex, enormous feudal level ranches and a trickle of American entrepreneurs as last as 1870.

   One important fact to understand about the development of Southern California is that it was not, like San Francisco, the railroad that was pivotal but rather the capital earned by the men who built the railroads, men who then became key players in the movement to develop the infrastructure of Los Angeles.   Because of the background of the people doing the developing- railroad magnates from the top down, infrastructure was always central to property development in Los Angeles.  Prior to the automobile, this was accomplished by tying urban development to street-car lines. 

  It's a tired cliche that Los Angeles is a city built by and for the automobile, but one facet of that history that is little understood, and very well depicted by Those Powerful Years, is that it was the local of PRODUCTION of oil- which became insanely valuable because of the gasoline that could be extracted from petroleum- that funded much of the early wealth of urban Los Angeles.   Other infrastructure forward chapters of Los Angeles history that O'Flaherty tackles are the decision to build LA's regional port in Long Beach (over Santa Monica, can you even imagine?) and of course, the story of how Los Angeles got it's water. 

Published 2/3/22
The Dawn of Everything (2021)
by David Graeber and David Wengrow

   Surely this is the most important work of social science published in a generation, a broad and generous attempt to rewrite the pre-history of mankind to take into account a better understanding that has developed at the specialist level over the past two decades.  What is incredible to me, on a personal level, is that so many of the chapters and arguments that Graeber makes in The Dawn of Everything are based on sources that are well familiar to me.  He makes a broad argument of the impact of the breakdown of the Cahokia complex, tying it to the 18th century critique of European civilization made by Native people of the American North East- his repurposing of existing scholarly material is nothing less than break taking.

  I had to make sure I ran out and bought a copy just so I could then go through the bibliography and read the same books that Graeber read, since trying to find good, recent, available books about pre-history that don't cost over a hundred dollars is a challenge.  Ironically, pre-history is one of the hottest areas of academic history, and the point that Graeber makes is that this information needs to be more broadly disseminated to counteract the myths of our male dominated hierarchies of power and control.  Graeber stands against those things- he was an all out activist before his untimely death last year, and you get the sense that The Dawn of Everything is supposed to be an intellectual manifesto for serious critiques of contemporary late capitalist civilization.   I am very much down for the message, and I think The Dawn of Everything is a must for an quasi-serious thinker about contemporary civilization.

Published 5/25/22
The Search for Modern China (2012)
by Jonathan D. Spence

   I source a fair number of books from the Obituary section of the New York Times.  It's pretty good advice to anyone interested in the world around them to keep careful track of the obituaries of the New York Times for several reasons.  First, it's the one time when people who spend their whole lives trying to keep their wealth hidden can be exposed to the public- it's tough to control obituary content after death.  Second,  they are a great way to learn about intellectual history, particularly currents of thought that aren't particularly popular in the here and now.  Spence died a few months back, he was a stalwart Professor of Chinese History in the United States, and his 980 page late-career opus, The Search for Modern China, remains a standard text for survey courses in American Universities. 

  The reason I was able to tackle The Search for Modern China is that someone thought to make it into an Audiobook- including making the narrator read page long charts of economic production into the mic- making it a 60 hour endeavor. Listening took me most of April, and that was just finishing up from several earlier attempts to tackle it.   At close to 1000 pages, it's hard to write a succinct summary, but my summary would read something like this:

   For centuries the Emperor of China had little or no interest in the outside world. This attitude persisted across dynasties.  The Chinese Empire was amazingly cohesive but poorly managed until the 19th century, when it lost it's cohesiveness and continued to be poorly managed.  Western powers waded into the existing, complicated scenario and did nothing to improve the existing chaos and much to make it worse.  Ultimately, the combination of a lack of cohesiveness, poor management and western outrages gave rise to a move to modernize China.   This movement had many different strands but largely reflected a move towards nationalism, i.e. the awareness of China as a nation-state, not the subjects of an Emperor.  Eventually, the Emperor was deposed, but there was no good plan in place to replace the Emperor and the lack of cohesiveness and outside intervention (by the Japanese) in the early 20th century made the situation worse than it was before.   Through a combination of individual
 brilliance and luck, the Chinese Communist Party emerged as the unifiers of the nation-state of China.

    The "search" part of the title basically ends once the Chinese Communist Party assumed control.  Modern China is the Chinese Communist Party, just ask them, or anyone who lives in China.  The Chinese Communist Party has had its triumphs and excesses but as of 2012 (and indeed, a decade later) they are still firmly installed as the absolute rulers of an increasingly powerful Chinese nation-state.

  Personally, I think the biggest mistake that the American intelligentsia makes when it comes to China is a simple failure to understand the motivations of China BEFORE the Chinese Communist Party and how they have carried over to the modern area.  One excellent example of this situation is the reabsorption of territories like Hong Kong- which was simple, relatively speaking, and Taiwan, which remains unabsorbed.   The idea that the United States would go to war with the Chinese Communist Part over Taiwan is absurd.  China has never, ever had designs on "conquering the world" a la England, France of Spain.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Chinese history understands that the Chinese only want what they consider theirs, and that includes Taiwan.  It does not include places like Japan, Eastern Russia, or Southeast Asia, let alone places like Africa or South America.  The Chinese Communist Party could honestly not give two shits about the rest of the world despite their increased concern with their image on the world stage.  What I'm saying is, give the Chinese what they want, because that is all they want, it's not some kind of secret plot for world domination.  That's a Western thing.    

Graph of Venezuelans living abroad.  The number as of 2021 was 6 million.

Published 5/25/22
Things are Never So Bad They Can't Get Worse:
Inside the Collapse of Venezuela (2022)
by William F. Neuman

  This book is essentially a 300 page explication of the resource curse/paradox of plenty/poverty paradox, which is that an abundance of natural resources frequently results in a failed nation-state, where economic growth, functional democracy and various measures of social and economic equality are much lower than what one would expect from a place with such wealth.

  Venezuela is, of course, exhibit "A" in any discussion of the resource curse.  What's especially agonizing about the Venezuelan experience is that the non-functional government is leftist/socialist, and the resources being mismanaged is the oil industry that was largely founded by the American corporations who are villains to those on the left, the same crowd who would essentially love for a South American Socialist government to make good.  These are also the same type of folks who are journalists and write about places like Venezuela, so perhaps it is understandable why stories about the continuing meltdown in Venezuela are few and far between.

    Neuman has longstanding ties to Venezuela as a journalist, and his book is well sourced and not particularly either pro- or anti- the Chavez Regime.   I mean, factually speaking, Chavez and Maduro have been an unmitigated disaster from any conceivable standard.  The best single illustration of the level of disaster is the number of Venezuelan refugees.  The graph above shows 1.6 million, with a steep upward trajectory beginning in 2015.  As of the end of 2021 the comparable figure was six million plus Venezuelans living abroad. 

   Neuman does a great job explaining the back story- Chavez was no true socialist revolutionary but rather a media-savvy military caudillo (South American Spanish for strong man/dictator) who understood the relationship between a mass audience and socialist rhetoric.  The weakness of the Venezuelan state, which essentially only exists as a funnel to direct oil money to corrupt elites and/or "the people," preceded Chavez and inexorably continued under Maduro.   But, as Neuman fairly points out, there have been elections, and some of the most exasperating pages detail the efforts by the internal opposition and cack-handed Republican American politicians to force regime change.

  Anyone looking for a solid, real world example of what the term "failed state" means need look no further than Neuman's description of the Venezuelan power grid in the aftermath of the Chavezs' regime move to nationalize the huge hydro electric plants that provide most of the nation with its electricity.   Basically, in the aftermath of nationalization, Chavez replaced the foreigners and engineers in charge with political appointees who were always unqualified and frequently corrupt and incompetent to boot.
After that switch in corporate government, those unqualified, incompetent government appointees didn't know how to maintain their powerful, expensive, sophisticated equipment and fired everyone that could and would have told them.  Eventually the equipment failed, and when that happened they didn't have replacement parts or people to do the repairs.  And that is a good example of why government nationalization of important industries is often a bad idea.

    At the same time, if you are asking yourself, "How do we get the twenty largest oil companies to leave their oil in the ground?"  The idea that you simply liquidate them at the state level and pay off whoever owns the oil in the ground.  The Venezuelans managed to achieve that exact result through sheer incompetence. And if you are looking at other big oil producers that are already state owned- Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, Russia, Nigeria- one answer is to make the area so fucked up that they can't take the oil out of the ground.  Or like, make the terrain unlivable- maybe climate change will get us there the hard way. 

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