Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman

Duty, Honor, Country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

douglas macarthurIn his preface, Herman discusses previous biographies of General Douglas MacArthur, some sycophantic in their admiration, others dismissing him as everything from vain to incompetent. His hope is that by the end of the book the reader will be able to decide which description is the true one. Herman has ranged widely in his search for accurate source material, including China, Japan and Russia; and has also had access to newly opened archives within the US.

I start by saying that, prior to reading this book, I knew absolutely nothing about Douglas MacArthur and very little about the events in which he was involved. I am, therefore, in no position to judge the accuracy of either the history or the portrait Herman paints of this clearly divisive American hero. I decided to read it because I have greatly enjoyed several other of Herman’s books, finding him a great storyteller who brings history vividly to life. And from the prologue of this one, where he gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

douglas macarthur pipe

In his conclusion, Herman suggests there are three main aspects that are crucial to understanding Douglas MacArthur – the degree to which he was influenced by his father’s life; the relationships with the various women in his life, his mother and his second wife Jean in particular; and his “brilliance as a grand strategist – perhaps the most incisive the American military has ever produced.” This serves as a fair summary of how Herman approaches his subject throughout the book.

To explain how influential Arthur MacArthur was on his son’s life, Herman gives the reader a mini-biography of the elder man – his early career as a Unionist hero of the Civil War, and his later fascination with the East, becoming convinced that the Pacific rim would be of more importance to the future America than its old attachments to Europe. So interesting does Herman make this story that I was left hoping that perhaps his next task will be to do a full biography of Arthur, a man whose life sounds as eventful and interesting as his son’s.

Arthur MacArthur - commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father's achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.
Arthur MacArthur – commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father’s achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.

Herman goes into Douglas MacArthur’s relationship with his mother in some depth, suggesting that she was something of a driving force behind her son’s career not just in his youth but right through till his late thirties and forties. A late bloomer in the romance stakes, MacArthur’s first marriage failed quite quickly. His second marriage to Jean, however, brought him the kind of support his mother had provided and Herman shows how important this domestic stability was to MacArthur when dealing with the various military crises of his life.

Douglas and Jean MacArthur
Douglas and Jean MacArthur

While talking about MacArthur’s career between the two world wars, Herman praises MacArthur’s achievements both as head of the US Olympic committee and for forcing the Army to face up to the need to modernise the training of its young officers while he was in charge of West Point. He also discusses in depth the apparently infamous breaking up of the Bonus Army camps, when MacArthur used troops to drive out army veterans who were protesting over the government’s refusal to bring forward payment of their promised bonuses. Since this was an episode I had never heard of, I was totally reliant on Herman’s version. It seemed to me that he very much took MacArthur’s side, perhaps too much so, almost absolving him of all responsibility for the matter.

Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.
Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.

However, he also put the opposite case clearly enough for me to consider the question of bias at all, and that’s one of the main reasons I like Herman. In the past, I have always found him to be sympathetic to his subjects, and so he is in this one. But although he can come across as biased in his conclusions, it seems to me he always presents the other side of the argument, leaving the reader to follow his bias or argue against it. Since it is a rare author indeed who can write without bias, my preference is for open bias of the Herman kind, rather than the kind where only one story is told with no indication that there may be another version.

MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines - a picture his detractors claim he staged.
MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines – a picture his detractors claim he staged.

But the real meat of the book is, as it should be, MacArthur’s military career. So involved was MacArthur in most of the important events of the time, so well told are the various episodes, so clearly does Herman lay out the background and consequences of each, that the book is as much history as biography. From MacArthur’s leadership of the Rainbow Division in WW1, through the often horrific story of the Philippines, Japan and the Pacific arena in WW2, and on to MacArthur’s successes and failures in Korea, Herman thoroughly explains the politics, domestic and foreign, that impacted on each campaign, and provides clear and often very moving stories of the military battles, showing how narrow is the dividing line between heroic success and tragic failure. Herman also delves into the period after WW2 when MacArthur spent some years as the ‘American Shogun’ ruling almost monarchically over a defeated Japan, and paints him as someone who chose not to exact revenge, but rather to try to change the culture and structure of the society to prevent future wars. Herman in fact gives MacArthur credit for sowing the seeds of the Japanese economic miracle of the latter part of the century.

General MacArthur, in behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945
General MacArthur, on behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945

Throughout all this, Herman doesn’t shy away from criticising MacArthur’s decisions on occasion, but always puts his mistakes into context. The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable. I shall leave it to the MacArthur buffs on both sides to argue over its bias or otherwise.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Gandhi & Churchill by Arthur Herman

gandhi and churchillCometh the hour, cometh the men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.

Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel...
Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel…

Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.

Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.

Churchill with his beloved cigar...
Churchill with his beloved cigar…

Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.

And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.

Arthur Herman Photo credit: Beth Herman
Arthur Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Martin Luther by Scott H. Hendrix

The road to ‘true religion’…

😀 😀 😀 😀

martin lutherIt’s nearly 500 years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by criticising the practices of the Roman Catholic church and refusing to accept the Pope as the sole arbiter of the meaning of the Bible. What started as a fairly straightforward dispute over the sale of indulgences grew into a theological war that first split the church and then splintered the Reformers themselves into different factions, arguing over some pretty esoteric points of interpretation of the gospels.

Scott H. Hendrix is Emeritus Professor of Reformation History, Princeton Theological Seminary, and tells us in the preface that he struggled during his teaching years to find a full and well-researched but readable biography of Luther to recommend to his students, so decided to write one. Unusually, the problem for Luther biographers is one of too much, rather than too little, information, making the biographer’s task one of deciding what is true and relevant. Although this isn’t the chunkiest biography in the world, its 290 pages plus notes give a thorough account both of Luther’s personal life, at least as much as is known about it, and of the various steps that led him from monk to leader of the Reformation. He explains the main points of Luther’s theological insights clearly enough for this atheist to understand, including the finer points where differences of interpretation arose amongst the Reformers. Hendrix also gives enough information about the prevailing political situation in Germany and further afield to put the Reformation into its historical context, particularly in explaining the level of protection Luther and his colleagues gained from the need of the Emperor to keep the various reformed Princes onside.

The book is in a fairly straightforward linear style, starting with a quick run through of what little is known about Luther’s early years, and then going into more depth once he became associated with the Reformers. Hendrix makes it clear that, though Luther is the one whose name became best known both at the time and to later generations, he worked closely with colleagues at all stages, and that much of what is attributed to Luther, such as the translation of the Bible into German, was in part a collaborative effort involving various scholars and theologians, a fact that Luther himself emphasised. However, Luther became the figurehead of the movement, and to a large degree the arbiter of the direction the early Reformation would take.

I am in my usual position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of the facts or of Hendrix’s interpretation of them, but the book is clearly well researched and it’s obvious that Hendrix knows his subject inside out. He takes a fairly neutral stance on Luther – at least it feels that way – being willing to give both praise and criticism.

Luther Before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner

Luther comes over as a man who genuinely believed that he was doing the work of God and who worked hard all his life to bring people to ‘true religion’. Of course, like all these people who think they are God’s chosen, he appeared to become more arrogant and self-satisfied as time went on, and made it clear that he believed that anyone who took a different approach was being influenced by Satan, a figure that to him was as real and nearly as powerful as God himself. In fact, in his later years, Hendrix gives the impression that Luther felt that Satan was out to get him – either true, or a real sign that he was letting his opinion of his own importance get a little out of control.

Luther also appears to have been what could be described as either pragmatic or hypocritical, depending on one’s viewpoint, changing direction on occasion to fit the prevailing political situation. For example, although against bigamy, he would cheerfully make an exception and find ways to justify it theologically when one of his powerful backers decided two wives were better than one. Apparently he also felt that it would be better if Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn bigamously rather than divorcing Katherine of Aragorn. (One wonders if he would have felt Henry should also marry Jane, Anne, Catherine and Katherine simultaneously – that would have made for some fun dinner parties.) Luther’s views on violence were subject to similar changes over the years depending on who wanted to be violent to whom. (One odd side effect of the book was that my opinion of John Knox improved when I compared the two – miserable old misogynist though he was, Knox seems to have stuck rigidly to his beliefs in the face of all opposition, even when it meant he made dangerous enemies of some powerful people. While rigidity of opinion isn’t always a trait I admire, there’s something to be said for not reinterpreting one’s spiritual beliefs every time the wind changes direction.)

Hendrix also discusses Luther’s anti-semitism, but puts it into the context of the times when anti-semitism was almost universal in Europe. Luther advocated the burning of synagogues, but Hendrix clarifies that he did not call for the killing of Jews. Hence, Hendrix dismisses the Nazis’ later adoption of Luther as some kind of justification for their actions in the Holocaust, but it seems this has left a lasting stain on Luther, possibly even more in modern Germany than elsewhere.

Scott H. Hendrix
Scott H. Hendrix

Hendrix writes clearly and well, making the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. He rarely left me in a position of needing to look elsewhere for explanation of terms or ideas and while there are the usual notes at the back of the book, I was happily able to ignore them – always my desire when reading history and biography. Hendrix made one decision that really grated on me and that I’m baffled to understand – he decided to anglicise all the names. Thus Johann and Johannes become John, he drops the ‘von’ from von Staupitz, etc. I can’t accept that these names are hard for any reader and see no benefit in me now having no idea of the real names of many of the major players. It seems to me a hideous example of ‘dumbing down’ and is the main reason why I can only rate the book as four stars. Otherwise, this is a very good biography that sheds a lot of light on Luther without engulfing the casual reader in unnecessary information overload.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas

being nixon“Rock ’em, sock ’em”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Evan Thomas tells us in his introduction that he is not attempting to “weigh the success and failure of Nixon as a policy maker” or to solve the “many mysteries” of Watergate. Instead, his aim is to understand Nixon as a person or, as he puts it, “to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon”. The book is very well written in a style that makes it accessible to the general reader. It’s a linear biography that follows its subject from birth to death, and is well balanced in that the bulk of it concentrates on Nixon’s political career, with just enough of the before and after to shed light on Nixon’s character.

Thomas shows the child Nixon as a high achiever at school, despite being naturally shy. His background was one of hardship, though not poverty, which prevented him from attending one of the Ivy League colleges. This meant that after graduation he wasn’t able to get into the top law firms, and Thomas suggests that this left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, always declaring he wouldn’t have Ivy League graduates working for him, though in fact he put many of them into top jobs. This small example in itself shows a trait that is repeated again and again throughout his life – a disconnect between what he said and how he acted. Even at this young age, Nixon is shown as pompous and humourless, and something of a loner. Despite his Quaker background, when America entered WW2 he joined the Army, though he was never directly involved in the fighting.


His introduction to political campaigning came after the war when he was invited to stand for Congress in California. Dirty tricks were rife and accepted as pretty much the norm by all sides. Again this is something Thomas emphasises all the way through, that dirty campaigns were not unusual and that each side expected the other side to be as devious as they were.

In recounting Nixon’s pre-Presidential political career, Thomas highlights most those features that he feels shed some light on Nixon’s personality, character and political beliefs. Politically, even at this early stage Nixon’s interests lay more in foreign than domestic affairs. He made his name by going after Alger Hiss on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee, refusing to give up until he achieved success. Thomas suggests this experience was important in forming Nixon’s approach to politics in general – at times when he faced difficulties he often referred back to the Hiss affair as a way of insisting that his tactics were the way to get results. He also served on the committee that pushed through the Marshall Plan and was genuinely fearful of the communist threat to a destroyed and poverty-ridden Europe. Later, when serving as Vice-President, Eisenhower would use him as a kind of travelling diplomat, in which role he had some significant successes. At home, he was used as Ike’s attack dog against his political opponents. Reviled by the Press and despised by the social and political elite because, Thomas suggests, of his comparatively humble background and lack of social savoir-faire, Nixon nonetheless had the common touch, and when Ike considered dropping him as running mate in ’56, it was popular pressure that kept him on the ticket.


In the ’60 election, Thomas suggests that the Kennedy camp ran a huge dirty tricks campaign, pretty much buying JFK’s way in to the Presidency with blatant bribes and backhanders. I have no way of knowing how accurate that is, but given that underhand and devious methods seem to have been the norm on both sides, it doesn’t sound unbelievable. However at this point for the first time Thomas gave me the impression that he was being too soft on Nixon, building excuses for his later behaviour. He suggests Nixon vowed after this never to be beaten in the matter of dirty tricks again.

Once the book reaches the stage of Nixon’s Presidency, Thomas provides a believable picture of a rather isolated President, not personally close even to the people who worked most directly with him. The concentration on Nixon’s personality leaves the book a little light on actual policy matters, I felt, assuming a familiarity with events that some non-American readers and even perhaps younger US readers might not have. But I thought Thomas gave a really good picture of the social unrest of the late ’60s and of how Nixon reacted to the ongoing questions of race, social liberalisation and, of course, Vietnam.


Thomas delves into the background and events of Watergate in some detail, and I was left with the impression that it was a combination of paranoia and the belief that as President he was untouchable that led Nixon to become so heavily implicated. He also is shown to have had a kind of mistaken loyalty, or perhaps it was just weakness, that prevented him from getting rid of people as they fell under suspicion. Though he was clearly responsible for setting the tone that led to the prevalence of dirty tricks within his office, he probably wasn’t aware of the actual Watergate affair in advance, so could probably have escaped the worst of the scandal had he been more decisive and brutal about sacking people at an earlier stage.

Thomas finishes with a look at Nixon’s life after the Presidency, when he gradually became a kind of elder statesman, giving advice to a succession of Presidents.

If Thomas’ portrayal is accurate, then it all seems like a rather sad waste of a man who clearly had great talent and intellect, but whose personality weaknesses took him along a path that led to his own downfall. If there was really as much corruption in politics as Thomas suggests, then one can’t help feeling that Nixon was merely the one who got caught. Though it seemed that just occasionally Thomas went a little easy on him, I felt overall that this was a fairly balanced account and certainly provided a credible portrait of Nixon’s complex character. An interesting biography.

The apology…


NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye

losing israelHome is where the heart breaks…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In this beautifully written and thoughtful book, the author, a British-born Jew, muses on her troubled relationship with the place she thinks of as ‘home’ – Israel. Her parents were kibbutzniks there, but emigrated to Britain before Donahaye’s birth. Donahaye made the first of her many visits to Israel at the age of ten, a visit that had a profound effect on her when she saw her mother blossom amongst the places and language of her youth, becoming someone other than the person Donahaye knew. This not altogether positive experience was followed by other trips during which Donahaye came to love and admire her mother’s country deeply, absorbing from her extended family the Zionist version of the history of the State of Israel as it has become mythologised by those who have lived, fought and died there since its foundation. For many years, Donahaye didn’t question this version of events.

Two sides to every story... Israeli soldiers in Gaza Photo:Israeli Defence Forces handout/Reuters
Two sides to every story…
Israeli soldiers in Gaza
Photo: Israeli Defence Forces handout/Reuters

However at the age of forty, on discovering that her grandfather had been involved in the driving out of the Arabs from their villages in 1947, Donahaye started a journey that led her to learn the other history of Israel – the one that talks about ethnic cleansing of the Arabs, that explains the refugee camps, that suggests that the Palestinian Arabs saw this land as home as much as the Jews, either of Palestine or from the diaspora, ever did, and had as much right to it. This book is the story of that journey, as Donahaye takes the reader through her gradual awakening to the full complexities of the history of this troubled region and her agonised process of reassessment of the country she still loves and feels inextricably drawn towards.

Two sides to every story... Members of the Palestinian Al-Aqsa brigade at the Qalandia checkpoint on the Separation Wall Photo: Al-Jazeera
Two sides to every story…
Members of the Palestinian al-Aqsa brigade at the Qalandia checkpoint on the Separation Wall
Photo: al-Jazeera

I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first because, though not unflawed, it is in many ways an exceptional read, whichever side of the Zionist debate the reader might tend towards. The book is short, but in truth I felt it was also a little too long for its subject matter. The tone is unbrokenly melancholic and this made it quite a monotone read. There are too many divergences to describe bird-watching experiences, although these passages are often beautifully written and she frequently uses them as metaphors for the migrations of both Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

I also felt Donahaye must have been remarkably unaware of politics if she had managed to live for forty years without being conscious of the other side of the Palestinian question. I could perhaps have understood that more had she lived in Israel, where the atmosphere of constant threat from outside might encourage a national blindness to other viewpoints. But living in the UK where there are at least as many critics of Israel’s stance towards the Palestinian Arabs as supporters of it, then one would have to have no interest in the subject at all to remain ignorant of at least some of the arguments. While her investigations did uncover some small facts that are not generally known, the big picture that seemed to shock her so much is one that has been debated and argued over for decades. As such, I didn’t find that the book really added much to the debate – though perhaps it would in Israel, if it is an accurate picture Donahaye paints of it as almost a police state where anyone who tries to find out about its history is immediately suspect and subjected to state surveillance.

Photo: @Majdi Fathi/NUR Photo/Rex
Photo: @Majdi Fathi/NUR Photo/Rex

Bearing that in mind then, for me the chief interest in the book was in seeing how her discoveries affected her emotionally, as she gradually changed her mind about the unarguable rightness of the Israeli position. Torn between her love for the nation and her horror at finding out how the Palestinian Arabs had been treated by it, she describes her struggles eloquently, using some beautiful, almost poetic language, even if just occasionally I found that in her new-found awareness she was veering perhaps a little too far towards the maudlin end of liberal political correctness. She talks not just of the politics and history of Israel, but of the land itself – its beauty, its wildlife and the lack of water which, she suggests perceptively, may in the end be a crucial factor in determining how the future pans out. When she speaks of her family in Israel, we see how the fear and anxiety they live with daily affects their opinions and attitudes. She writes emotively of how her researches upset the elder members of her family, challenging the foundations of their loyalty to their nation.

Jasmine Donahaye
Jasmine Donahaye

The book is at its most profound, I feel, when she discusses the ways histories are made by those with a vested interest in ensuring their version is accepted. Renaming of Arab villages after they had been cleared of their occupants, to give them Hebrew names and to, in some cases, suggest links back to the Biblical era, is shown as a means both of legitimising the Israeli State and of obliterating the long history between that earlier time and the present and, with it, obliterating the suggestion of any other occupants having legitimate claims to the land. Donahaye describes how the older members of her family still tend to use the old Arab names that were current in their childhood, while young people are forgetting not only the old names, but the very fact that they ever existed. And, in parallel with this, she shows how easy, and perhaps necessary, it can be for the people on one side of a conflict to dehumanise those on the other.

An emotional exploration of one woman’s journey, this might not change the terms of the debate, but it certainly casts light on it. And is an eloquent testimony to the heart-rending that can be caused when the nation one loves acts in ways one finds hard to bear.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Seren.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone

Romping royals…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the rival queensIt’s little wonder that Nancy Goldstone has chosen to use quotes from Machiavelli to head each chapter in her romping history of her rival Queens, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens, though maybe not quite so great for their subjects. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame.

Goldstone sets the scene well by beginning with Marguerite’s wedding to Henry of Navarre, a marriage she didn’t want since she was a devout Catholic and Henry was one of the leaders of the Protestant Huguenots. But Catherine didn’t much care for what her children wanted, on the whole – especially her daughters. From her perspective, they were simply pawns to be pushed around on the dynastic chessboard of Europe. To be fair, that was how she had been treated herself, so hardly surprising that she dealt with her own children’s wishes as cavalierly. But to then massacre the bridegroom’s friends and relatives during the wedding celebrations might have been a little over the top even for Renaissance royalty!

Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet
Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet

Goldstone then takes us back to Catherine’s early life as Queen to Henri II of France. Throughout, the tone of this hugely readable history is light. This early section in particular is full of some fairly ribald humour, as we learn of Catherine’s difficulties in becoming pregnant, and the helpful bedroom tips she is offered by Henri’s long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In truth, by page 25 I had tears of laughter streaming down my face and my only regret is that if I were to quote the passages that made me howl so much I’d have to re-rate my blog as ‘explicit content’! Suffice to say, this book has the honour of containing the funniest footnote of all time and my Google search recommendations may never recover…

After this rocky start, Catherine managed to produce ten children (Diane’s advice must have been spectacular!) before Henri’s death left her poised to become regent for her young son Charles IX. After years of playing second fiddle to Diane and being sidelined as Queen, there might be some slight justification for Catherine’s desire to grab power when the chance arose. And she soon proved there was nothing that she wouldn’t consider, including murder and war, to hold onto it. Unfortunate for her that this was the time of the Reformation, meaning that the country was almost constantly either in civil war or in danger of it. The Huguenots were numerically hugely outnumbered in the general population, but had some influential people at their head, while the Catholic Guises were constantly on the prowl, looking for opportunities to gain control over the throne for themselves.

Diane de Poitiers - mistress of Catherine's husband Henri II and provider of spectacular bedroom tips!
Diane de Poitiers – mistress of Catherine’s husband Henri II and provider of spectacular bedroom tips!

Catherine started out willing to conciliate the Huguenots, hence the betrothal of her young daughter to Henry of Navarre. But by the time of the marriage, Catherine’s attitude had changed, not for reasons of religious conviction (of which she had none, it would seem), but mainly to try to get in the good books of Philip of Spain. Having gone through with the marriage and then been horrified by the massacre which followed, Marguerite found herself in an uneasy alignment with the Huguenot husband she didn’t love and the brother, Francis, whom she did, and at odds with her mother and the King. From there on, the story is one of plot and counter-plot, shifting allegiances, betrayals and lots and lots of romping! Unloved by her husband, Marguerite took comfort in a succession of affairs throughout her life, seeming to be fairly indiscriminate on whom she bestowed her favours. In and out of her mother’s favour at different times, always for reasons of politics rather than any kind of familial love, the rivalry was finally resolved only by Catherine’s eventual unlamented death. Marguerite’s husband later ascended to the throne of France, at which point he promptly divorced the childless Marguerite (if only Diane had still been around to advise, eh?). But they got on better after that, and Marguerite ended her days as a sort of favoured aunt to Henry’s children with his second wife, and loved by the populace for her charitable works.

Chenonceau - my favourite castle. So I can see why Catherine was a bit peeved when her husband gave it to his mistress...
Chenonceau – my favourite castle. So I can see why Catherine was a bit peeved when her husband gave it to his mistress…

Despite the light tone, the book feels well-researched, although I give my usual disclaimer that I’m not qualified to judge its historical accuracy. Goldstone handles all the personalities well, making it easy for the reader to keep up, despite the fact that almost everyone is called either Henri or Henry. I felt that she was very biased in Marguerite’s favour and against Catherine. As often as not, the source material that she quotes is Marguerite’s own memoirs – again, I can’t judge, but I’d have assumed these would not be an unbiased account of the period. My own view was that Catherine was indeed not a shining example of motherhood, or Queenhood for that matter, but that Marguerite wasn’t exactly blameless either. Both women seemed willing to use their subjects as dispensable pawns in their own struggle for power and wealth and both seemed to have a pretty superficial view of what was important in life – money, sex, money, power and money. Goldstone remarks on Marguerite’s devotion to Catholicism frequently, but her moral behaviour suggests she was pretty relaxed about following the Church’s teachings only when it suited her.

Goldstone just stops short of claiming that Marguerite’s sexual adventures showed her to be an early feminist, demanding the same sexual freedom as the men. This seemed like a fairly ridiculous leap to me – historical characters must surely be judged by the standards of the society in which they lived rather than by those of today, and there seems little doubt that Marguerite was more promiscuous, or at least less discreet, than was considered acceptable at the time. And Goldstone is fairly harsh on Catherine for remaining in control (emotionally and politically) each time one of her children died – again I felt this was projecting today’s sensibilities backwards. Early death was much commoner then and therefore something that had to be coped with. I wondered if Goldstone would have expected a King to fall apart in similar circumstances. It seemed a bit unbalanced that Marguerite’s behaviour was a sign of feminism while Catherine’s was a sign of unwomanliness.

Marguerite de Valois
Marguerite de Valois

A biased history then, I think, but a highly readable one. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela. It concentrates entirely on the machinations of those in power, so there is no feeling for the social history of the time beyond mentions of the disruption caused by the religious wars. For me, this was a limitation although clearly an intentional one, and it undoubtedly made the book easier to read and more enjoyable. However sometimes I felt the subject matter perhaps deserved a rather more serious treatment – one feels somehow that the French people probably didn’t have as much fun living under these awful monarchs as I had reading about them. A great starter book though for someone who, like me, knows very little of that period of French and European history – a very palatable way to learn some history.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfield & Nicolson.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Khlevniuk jkt ks.inddGood ol’ Uncle Joe…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Josef Stalin’s 24-year reign as the supreme power in the USSR resulted in the deaths of millions of its citizens, either directly, as a result of repression, or indirectly, as a result of the famines created in large part by the policies his government pursued. In this new biography, Oleg V Khlevniuk sets out to sift through the massive quantity of documentation available to historians, including material newly released from the archives, with a view to understanding the dictator – his personality and motivations. Khlevniuk claims that many previous biographies have given inaccurate portrayals of Stalin, either because of lack of information or because the biographers were apologists for the regime, or sometimes because they repeated inaccuracies from earlier sources that have passed into the historical mythology. Despite the huge amount of material, Khlevniuk makes the point that there is still much more not yet released by the Russian government. One bonus for historians is that, because Russia was somewhat backwards technologically, Stalin continued to communicate by letter rather than phone until well into the 1930s.

I give my usual disclaimer that I am not qualified to judge the historical accuracy of the book. It certainly appears well researched and gives a coherent and convincing picture of the period. Khlevniuk has used an unconventional structure that I think works quite well. The main chapters provide a linear history of the period, while between these are short interludes where Khlevniuk tells the story of the Stalin’s last hours as he lay dying, using this as a jumping off point to discuss various aspects of his life, such as his relationships with his family and the other men at the top of the regime, his reading habits, his health issues, how he organised and controlled the security services, etc. These are not just interesting in themselves – they provide much-needed breaks from what might otherwise be a rather dry account of the facts and figures of his time in power.

The young Stalin Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX (3827290a)  Joseph stalin sitting at a table in 1918.  VARIOUS
The young Stalin 1918
Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX

Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Georgia in 1879, Stalin was the son of a cobbler, but had a relatively privileged upbringing and education for someone of his class. As a student, he began to associate with the Bolsheviks, gradually rising to a position of prominence. Although he was initially a moderate, believing in a gradual evolution towards socialism, he was clearly a pragmatist, willing to change his views when politically expedient. So when the Revolution kicked off in 1917, he threw his lot in behind Lenin. During the war he had his first experiences as a military commander, at which he failed badly, and it was at this early period that he first developed his technique of ‘purging’ opponents that he would use with such brutality throughout his life.

After Lenin’s death, Stalin became even more ruthless in pursuit of power, eventually emerging as the de facto head of government, though the Socialist committee structures remained in place. He seems to have been bull-headed, forcing ahead with policies regardless of advice to the contrary, and completely uncaring about the consequences of them to the people. He appeared to hate the rural poor, considering them a ‘dying breed’, and they suffered worst throughout his dictatorship. But he would occasionally do an about-turn if circumstances required, using what we now think of as Orwellian techniques for distorting the past so that his inconsistencies would be hidden. These distortions of course make the later historian’s job more difficult in getting at the real truth, hence the ongoing debates around just how many people were imprisoned or died under the Stalinist regime – debates which may never be fully resolved.

Stalin poster

Khlevniuk looks in some depth at the Great Terror of 1937-8 when Stalin’s purges reached their peak. He tells us that it has been suggested that Stalin must have been going through a period of madness (it’s hard to imagine a completely sane brutal murdering dictator somehow, setting targets for the numbers of people each district must purge). But Khlevniuk suggests that the root of his paranoia lay in fear of the approaching war. Stalin remembered that the upheavals of the previous world war had created the conditions for civil war within Russia and wanted at all costs to avoid a repetition of that in the next. This, he suggests, was also the reason that Stalin tried hard to keep the peace with Nazi Germany. However this led to him being unprepared for the German invasion, and as a result the country suffered massive losses of both men and territory in the first few years of the war, while famine, never far away during Stalin’s experiment in collectivisation, again reared its ugly and devastating head as the war ended.

Khlevniuk gives an overview of Stalin’s relationship with his unlikely war-time allies, Churchill and Roosevelt, and describes his frustration at their delay in opening a second front to relieve some of the pressure on the hard-pressed USSR forces. It was at this time that Stalin was portrayed in the west as Uncle Joe, good ol’ friend and staunch ally, suggesting perhaps that the American and British governments were pretty good at Orwellian propagandising too. Of course, when the war ended, so did this uneasy relationship as the ‘Great’ Powers haggled over spheres of influence and political ideology.

'The Big Three': Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945. NAM 236 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION
‘The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Stalin was to live another eight years after the war ended, during which time he continued his firm grasp on power by periodically purging anyone who looked as if they might be getting too powerful. Khlevniuk paints a picture of Stalin’s somewhat lonely death that would be rather sad if one didn’t feel he deserved it so much. The most powerful men in his government had secret plans already in place for after Stalin’s death, and quickly reversed some of his cruellest policies along with some of his extravagant vanity building projects. A rather pointless life in the end – so much suffering caused for very little permanent legacy. Such is the way of dictatorship, I suppose, and Khlevniuk ends with a timely warning against allowing history to repeat itself in modern Russia.

Oleg Khlevniuk Research Fellow, Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation (1994-present)
Oleg Khlevniuk
Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation

Overall, this is more a history of the Stalin era than a biography of the man. Despite its considerable length, the scope of the subject matter means that it is necessarily an overview of the period, rarely going into any specific area in great depth. And I found the same about the personalities – while Stalin himself is brought to life to a degree, I didn’t get much of a feeling for the people who surrounded him, while often the suffering of the people seemed reduced to a recital of facts and figures. It’s clearly very well researched and well written, but it veers towards a rather dry, academic telling of the story. I learned a good deal about the time, but in truth rather struggled to maintain my attention. One that I would recommend more perhaps for people with an existing interest in and knowledge of the period rather than for the casual reader like myself.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

If you’re interested in how the arts were dealt with in this era, you might enjoy Lady Fancifull’s fabulous post on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, composed at the height of the Terror in 1937. She compares different performances to show how it can be interpreted as either a piece of patriotic triumphalism or as an edgy, almost manic, commentary on the time. Brilliant!

Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford

fortune's foolPlaying the villain…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

As a Brit, the total extent of my knowledge of the Lincoln assassination was that some guy called John Wilkes Booth shot him in a theatre. This biography sets out to examine the whole life of Booth with a view to seeing what brought him to that point.

Booth was one of a family of ten, son of the famous actor Junius Booth, and destined for the stage from an early age. His father was a drunk who had spells of drink-related violence. Often away from home because of his career, much of the children’s upbringing fell to their mother, who seems to have been a loving but rather ineffectual soul. When John was thirteen, it came to light that his parents’ marriage was bigamous, his father having been married before to a wife still living. The book tells us about young John’s education and early attempt at running the family farm after his father’s death, before finally accepting that he couldn’t make a financial go of it and going into the family tradition of acting. While it’s interesting to speculate how much these early experiences may have affected John, speculation it must remain. The accounts of his character at this time, and later, come mainly from people speaking or writing after Lincoln’s assassination, so it’s hard to know how much their views are coloured by hindsight. While some people seem to have seen him as a nice, polite young boy and a good friend, there are conflicting stories of him being a bully and torturing cats. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.
Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.

The section on his early acting career is better documented as far as the facts go – where he performed, what roles he played, etc – but the confusion surrounding his character remains. Being handsome and athletic, he became a heartthrob, with legions of admiring female fans, but he clearly felt overshadowed by his father’s reputation, and perhaps his elder brothers’, choosing at first to drop Booth from his name and to be billed as John Wilkes. Alford looks at contemporaneous reviews and later reports to try to determine how good he was as an actor, concluding that though he showed a great deal of promise, his career wasn’t long enough for this to fully develop. At this young age, his general fitness enabled him to be a very physical performer, specialising in realistic swordfights, in which he sometimes took it so far that he injured his opponents. His signature role was Shakespeare’s Richard III, and his opponents in the fight scene would sometimes have to remind him to ‘die’ before he wore them down completely.

John with his actin brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar
John with his acting brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar

The real interest, of course, is in trying to get at the roots of why Booth developed such a hatred of Lincoln. Although not really a Southerner, Booth came to love the South, especially Virginia, and was violently anti-abolitionist. He was present at the execution of John Brown, having begged to be allowed to join the Virginia militia who were sent to Charlestown to ensure peace during Brown’s incarceration. But when war broke out, his mother made him promise not to join the Confederate army, and Alford suggests that this may have been part of the reason for his later actions – guilt at having played no active part in the fighting. His family lived in the North, and his brother Edwin was pro-Union and a Lincoln supporter. At first, John also was pro-Union, but held Lincoln and the abolitionists guilty for causing the secession of the Southern states. As the war dragged on, reports suggest that Booth became more extreme in the expression of his views, putting himself at risk of unpopularity, if not worse, in the Northern states where during this period he was spending most of his time. At this stage, some people were beginning to describe him as ‘crazy’ (though again, how much of that is hindsight isn’t totally clear).


Alford goes into great detail over the plot, which was originally to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the freedom of Confederate soldiers held prisoner in the North. Delay after delay, however, meant that the war ended before the plan was carried out. While it’s clear from the plotting that Booth wasn’t quite the ‘lone gunman’ I’d wrongly supposed, he certainly seems to have been the main mover and in the end it appears he alone decided to change the plan to assassination. The description of the assassination and Booth’s flight and eventual capture is detailed and well-told and, whatever people felt about his actions, it appears that in the end Booth died bravely, winning the admiration, sometimes grudging, of those who witnessed his death. Alford interestingly looks at the heroic roles Booth had been steeped in from an early age and speculates on the influence they had on Booth’s actions – in particular the role of Brutus and his assassination of Julius Caesar. It seems clear that Booth expected to be the darling of the South for his actions, and he died disappointed that the general feeling in the South was that he had made the post-war situation even tougher for them.

lincoln memorial

Alford concludes by debunking some of the mythology that grew up of Booth having escaped and made a new life for himself elsewhere. He follows the body, so to speak, from the barn to its final resting place, showing how Booth’s corpse was identified by family members and people who knew him well.

Terry Alford
Terry Alford

There are two fundamental things that are required to make a great biography – a well-researched, well-written narrative and an interesting subject. This one certainly meets the first criterion; Alford has researched his subject thoroughly and has a flowing, accessible writing style. Unfortunately though, apart from shooting Lincoln, Booth’s story is only moderately interesting and, despite Alford’s best endeavours, many things about his character and actions remain clouded, relying on hindsight rather than contemporaneous reports. For what it’s worth (not much), my own conclusion is that Booth was an attention-seeking nutcase, determined to go down in history at whatever cost to himself or those around him. And since we’re still interested in him 150 years on, perhaps he achieved part of his aim – though in the end playing the villain rather than the hero.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

joan of arcMore history than biography…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Helen Castor begins this retelling of the life of Joan the Maid by explaining that, although her story is better documented than most from this period, it isn’t always possible to take the sources at face value. Since her legend was being created while she was still alive, and since so much hung on the idea of which side in the war had the support of God, then an inevitable bias has to be expected in the various accounts of her actions and words. So Castor has set out to put Joan’s story into the context of the times, and to do that she starts fourteen years before Joan appears, taking us back to Agincourt, and then working forward.

This is a fairly short book, actually more history than biography. It’s well-written and therefore easy to read, and Castor explains the various alliances and enmities clearly – having very little previous knowledge of the period, I was able to follow the various shifting loyalties without too much difficulty, and undoubtedly feel better informed about the events and personalities of the time. She describes the background to the feud between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs which split the French resistance to the English claim to the throne. And she shows how the English policy towards any final peace was circumscribed by the infancy of the King (after Henry V’s death), with his regent in France, the Duke of Bedford, feeling unable to reach decisions to which young Henry VI might object when he came to power. (Unfortunately, from my perspective, she also thoroughly explained the Scottish involvement in the war – on the side of the Armagnac French and against the English, of course – which could briefly be summed up as ‘We came, we saw, we got slaughtered’. Oh well, at least we tried…)

Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orleans by William Etty
Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orleans by William Etty

By taking this approach, by the time of Joan’s arrival on the scene, Castor had built up enough of a picture of the near desperation of the Armagnac faction that it made it slightly less inexplicable why they would have been willing to give credence to this young girl, claiming to have been sent by God to lead an army and ensure the coronation of Charles VII. But only slightly. Though Castor does make clear the importance of religious symbolism and signs at the period, I felt that the crucial point of how exactly Joan got access to the French King remained a little vague. Castor tells us the events – when it happened, who accompanied her, etc., – but left me with no real feeling of why initially any of the important men around the King took her seriously. However, once having rather shimmied past that bit, Castor’s descriptions of Joan’s involvement in the war and subsequent capture and trial are very well told, with the various political pressures on all sides being clearly explained.

So as history the book works well, especially for someone like myself coming new to the period, though I did wonder if it was in depth enough to add much for people with a reasonable existing understanding of the people and events. I didn’t feel it worked quite so well as biography however. Perhaps there isn’t enough information available to make it possible, but I didn’t come away from it feeling that I really understood Joan as a person. There is little about her background prior to her arriving at Charles’ court, and after that, although the events are well described, somehow her personality didn’t seem to come through.

Coronation of Charles VII by Lionel Royer
Coronation of Charles VII by Lionel Royer

There only seem to be two possibilities about Joan – either she actually was God’s emissary on earth or she was mentally ill. Castor rather oddly doesn’t seem to take a view on that. On the one hand, I felt strongly that she was implicitly ruling out the possibility of Joan being visited by angels telling her that God was on France’s side, or more specifically on the side of the Armagnacs. But, on the other hand, she really gave no other interpretation. Not that I’m a great fan of retrospective diagnosis of mental illnesses, but I felt the possibility at least needed to be discussed. The result was that she remained a rather nebulous figure, to me at least.

Helen Castor
Helen Castor

Happily Castor doesn’t end the story with Joan’s death. She continues with the history of the war up to the point where the English were finally driven out of France – she doesn’t delve into it in depth but covers it well enough so that it provides a satisfactory overview. And she also continues Joan’s story after death, with the various reviews of her trial that eventually led to her being declared innocent of heresy. The epilogue tells the final chapter in her story – her canonisation as a saint in 1920.

Overall, I found this an interesting and informative read which, while it perhaps didn’t wholly satisfy me as a biography, worked very well as an introduction to the history of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber and Faber Ltd.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynne

The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

“Draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.”


😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

rebel yellI’ll start with my usual disclaimer that I can’t speak to the accuracy of the history in this book. In fact, my prior knowledge of Stonewall Jackson, and indeed the whole Civil War, could fairly be described as non-existent. But Gwynne has clearly done a huge amount of research and, assuming the accuracy, the only word that I can find to describe the book is superb. In terms of the quality of the descriptive writing, the structure and skilful use of language, and the depth Gwynne brings to the characters of Jackson and his comrades and friends, the book stands not just as an outstanding biography but as a very fine piece of literary writing.

As Jackson and his force of cadets set out to war, Gwynne tells us of his pre-war life as a rather strange and awkward man, deeply religious, suffering from poor health and perhaps a degree of hypochondria. Having overcome his early lack of education to scrape into West Point, he took full advantage of the opportunities on offer there, dragging himself up from the bottom of the class to graduate in a fairly high position. The first signs of his heroism were seen in the Mexican war when his courageous – some might say reckless – actions against a much greater enemy force were crucial to the success of the assault on Mexico City. But after this war, Jackson had taken a position as professor at the Virginia Military Institute, a job for which he seemed remarkably unsuited. Unable to control his unruly classes and an uninspiring teacher, he was seen as something of an oddity by his pupils. Gwynne shows how that all changed as he became one of the Confederacy’s finest leaders, with many of these same pupils ending up willing to follow him anywhere and die for him if necessary.

Jackson's Foot Cavalry
Jackson’s Foot Cavalry

To them, Jackson’s movement east with his vaunted Army of the Valley meant that he was coming to save Richmond, which meant that he was coming to save the Confederacy. And the soldiers of the beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia believed to the bottom of their ragged, malnourished rebel souls that he was going to do precisely that.

This is very much a biography of Jackson and a history of his military campaigns, rather than a history of the Civil War itself. Therefore Gwynne doesn’t go too deeply into the politics of why the war came about, nor does he make any overt judgements about the rights or wrongs of it. Although in the course of the campaigns, we find out a lot about some of the commanders and politicians on the Unionist side, the book is rooted within the Confederacy and the reader sees the war very much from their side. As we follow Jackson through his campaigns, Gwynne, with the assistance of clear and well-placed maps, brings the terrain to life, vividly contrasting the beauty of the country with the brutality and horrors of the battlefields. He gives such clear detail of the strategies and battle-plans, of troop numbers and movements, of weaponry and equipment, that each battle is brought dramatically to life. In fact, my lack of knowledge was something of an unexpected benefit since I genuinely didn’t know the outcome of the battles and so was in a constant state of suspense. And found that I very soon had given myself over completely to willing Jackson onto victory. The image of this heroic man mounted on his favourite horse in the midst of mayhem, the light of battle in his eyes, one hand held high as he prayed for God’s help while the bullets and artillery thudded all around him, is not one I shall soon forget.

Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia  by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume
Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia
by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume

On the way back to headquarters Jackson, riding now with McGuire and Smith, said nothing until they neared their camp, when he suddenly said, “How horrible is war.”

“Horrible, yes,” McGuire replied. “But we have been invaded. What can we do?”

“Kill them, sir,” Jackson said. “Kill every man.”

From the beginnings of the creation of the Jackson legend in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, then on through the series of battles where he snatched victory from what should have been certain defeat, till his final stunning achievements as the right-hand man of General Robert E Lee, Gwynne shows the growing admiration and even love of his troops for this man whose total belief in the rightness of his cause and God’s protection led him to take extraordinary risks. He drove his men brutally hard, marching them at unheard-of speeds, on half rations or worse, and he threw them into battle even when they were exhausted and weak and hugely outnumbered. But his personal courage and strategic brilliance turned him into a figurehead – a symbol for the South, whose very name could make the Unionist commanders tremble. Cheered and adulated by soldiers and citizenry everywhere he went, he consistently insisted that all praise for his victories was God’s due, not his, and remained awkward in the face of his growing celebrity to the end.

Men were fixing dinner and taking naps or relaxing, listening to the distant music of a regimental band, or perhaps discussing the Confederate retreat, when suddenly all nature seemed to rise up in revolt around them. Through their camps rushed frantic rabbits, deer, quail, and wild turkeys, then there was an odd silence, and then Jackson’s massive, screaming, onrushing wall of grey was upon them.

But amidst all the warfare, Gwynne doesn’t forget to tell us about the man. We see the other side of Jackson – the family man, grieving for the death of his first young wife and then finding happiness with his second, Anna. Through extracts from his letters, we see the softer, loving side of Jackson and also learn more about his deeply held conviction of God’s presence in every aspect of his life. We learn how the war divided him from his much loved sister who took the Unionist side. And we’re told of the efforts he made to nurture religion amongst his troops. A silent and somewhat socially awkward man to outward appearance, we see how he opened up to the people closest to him, taking special pleasure in the company of young children. A man of contradictions, truly, who could hurl his men to their almost certain deaths one day and weep for the death of a friend’s child the next.

Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J "Stonewall" Jackson
Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J “Stonewall” Jackson

A biography that balances the history and the personal perfectly, what really made this book stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. As Gwynne recounted the final scenes of Jackson’s death and funereal journey, I freely admit I wept along with the crowds of people who lined the streets in wait for a last chance to see their great hero. And I wondered with them whether the outcome might have been different had Jackson lived. If only all history were written like this…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

When in Rome…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

“…as military dictators go, Caesar Augustus was not such a bad one.”

augustusGreat-nephew and principal heir to Julius Caesar, Augustus was just nineteen when Caesar was murdered, but it seems he was never in doubt of his right to take over the honours of the older man. His early career was as a warlord, using the wealth he had inherited and borrowing extensively to ensure that he had the largest army as the Roman republic descended into civil war. He was also helped by the loyalty of Julius Caesar’s troops – a loyalty they were willing, on the whole, to extend to his heir. Having at length achieved internal peace, Augustus’ later career was as a (fairly) benevolent military dictator who brought stability to Rome and enabled it to extend and, to some degree, pacify the empire.

Adrian Goldsworthy is a recognised scholar of ancient Rome and has a doctorate from Oxford University in ancient military history. Although this is a period I know nothing about, it quickly becomes clear that the book has been thoroughly researched. While concentrating on Augustus himself, Goldsworthy takes time to set his story well into the period, giving plenty of information about the period before Augustus rose to prominence, so that the newcomer gets a real feeling for the society that he was operating within. As always with histories of so long ago, the source documents are limited and often even they were written a considerable time after the events. Goldsworthy acknowledges this and reminds the reader of the effect of contemporary and later propaganda on the picture left behind of such a prominent figure as Augustus. As he says “As always with the ancient world, it is easier to say what he did than it is to understand the man’s inner thoughts and character.” He also remembers that not all of his readers will have a grounding in Roman history, so takes the time to explain things that can be confusing, like the naming conventions for both men and women or the structure of the army. This meant that I found the book very accessible and only very rarely felt that I was floundering a bit.

Anthony and Cleopatra - Hollywood style
Anthony and Cleopatra – Hollywood style

Personally there was a bit too much concentration on the military side of things for me. Obviously as a military dictator, the army was an important part of Augustus’ story, as were the various rebellions, battles and conquests. It certainly isn’t a criticism of the book, therefore, since I can’t see how Goldsworthy could really have left any of it out, but I did find it all got a little tedious after a while. He shows Augustus as a slick political operator rather than a heroic warrior – in fact, there is a clear suggestion that Augustus tended to fall conveniently ill and retreat to the rear whenever the fighting hotted up. However he seems to have been ruthless in pursuit of his aims, willing to change allegiance whenever he thought it would benefit him and displaying a high degree of brutality towards his defeated enemies – behaviour all the more remarkable, perhaps, given his youth. Goldsworthy covers the Cleopatra/Mark Anthony episode in some depth, but rather suggests that Cleopatra has been given more importance by later historians than she really deserved (somewhat disappointingly for any Liz Taylor/Richard Burton fans out there).

Augustus and Livia (Brian Blessed and Siân Phillips) - BBC style
Augustus and Livia (Brian Blessed and Siân Phillips) – BBC style

I found Augustus’ later life of more interest, especially his attempts to ensure that he had ‘trained’ heirs to take over after his death – attempts that were constantly thwarted by the tragedy of early deaths within his extended family. Names familiar to anyone who watched the BBC’s I, Claudius (or, indeed, who read the original book by Robert Graves) have their context and importance thoroughly explained, and Goldsworthy weighs up the evidence for and against the suggestions of Livia (Augustus’ wife) as murderer of more than one of her relations – and tends to come down in her favour on the whole.

Adrian Goldsworthy
Adrian Goldsworthy

Considering the difficulties of lack of source material, I felt Goldsworthy gave a fairly rounded picture of Augustus – a man whose behaviour seemed, as Goldsworthy says, to improve as he got older. The man who in his youth cheerfully proscribed his enemies and had them killed seemed willing to show a little more tolerance in his old age – though not always to his own family. I got the distinct impression that Goldsworthy was being kinder to Augustus than some of his critics may have been over the years.

Overall, this is a well written book, accessible enough for a casual reader with little or no pre-existing knowledge of the period; but with enough depth and detail to be interesting to people more familiar with this part of history too.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

the zhivago affair“To drive men mad is a heroic thing.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Russian poet Boris Pasternak wrote his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, he knew that its criticism of the Soviet revolution, though mild, would be enough to ensure that the book wouldn’t get past the censors. So he decided to give it to an Italian publisher to be translated and published abroad despite knowing that this would be severely frowned upon by the authorities. However the CIA decided it would be a propaganda coup if they could have the book printed in Russian and smuggled back into the USSR. The Zhivago Affair is billed as the story of that CIA campaign and of the impact it had on the Soviet regime and on Pasternak himself.

Although the CIA campaign is given plenty of space, most of the book really takes the form of a biography of Pasternak. Already a highly regarded poet when he began writing his novel, Pasternak was also already seen as potentially dangerous to the regime and therefore his work was closely monitored, as was the work of most writers. The Soviet regime pampered its authors and intellectuals in comparison to other sectors of society, but punished any disloyalty harshly, with imprisonment in the gulags or even death on occasion. So from the moment it became known that he was writing the novel, Pasternak ran grave risks of bringing retribution down on himself and the people close to him.

Pasternak's dacha in the Soviet Writers' village of Peredelkino
Pasternak’s dacha in the Soviet Writers’ village of Peredelkino

I expected to find that I admired Pasternak – that he was a courageous man standing up for his beliefs against a regime that could crush him. Sadly, I came away from the book feeling that in fact he was an arrogant egoist, who cared little for anyone but himself and had no purpose in writing his book other than self-aggrandisement. Well, I can accept that – writers should not have to serve a higher calling any more than the rest of us, but then they shouldn’t ask for special treatment either – and oh, how Pasternak felt that his amazing, unmatched genius (as he judged it) deserved to be recognised, honoured and lauded! He also felt that he was so special that he shouldn’t be expected to live within commonly accepted standards, so kindly moved his mistress and her family in just down the road from his wife and own family and divided his time happily between them. Happily for him, that is – one felt the wife and mistress weren’t quite so thrilled by the arrangement. But I think his level of self-centeredness is best shown by the fact that when he decided the only way out of the pressure over the book was suicide, he expected his mistress to kill herself along with him. To my amusement, the devoted but almost equally self-centred Ivinskaya was having none of it! And, denied his dramatically artistic and romantic exit, Pasternak decided to live on…

Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak

The CIA operation was dogged with incompetence from the outset (no big surprise there, I’m guessing) and also paid scant attention to the problems it may cause for Pasternak inside the USSR. However, they did in the end manage to smuggle some copies of the book in and, although the readership in the USSR was limited, the book became a huge bestseller internationally. This may have provided a level of protection for Pasternak since any severe action against him would have provoked international condemnation; and by the late ’50s and early ’60’s, the Soviet regime cared a bit more about their international standing than they perhaps had a decade or two earlier. However, they did subject Pasternak to a number of restrictions and humiliations that made his life increasingly difficulty – they forced his peers to publicly condemn him and suspend him from the writers’ union, which in turn meant that he couldn’t get work. With no income, he was driven to trying to smuggle the royalties from the sale of the book in Europe into the USSR at great risk to himself and those he involved in the plan. And again Pasternak’s selfishness and egoism can be seen at play here – too afraid to collect the money himself, he gave the task to the young daughter of his mistress, a task which later resulted in her spending time in prison – something Pasternak always managed to avoid for himself.

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the film of the book. Lara was based on Ivinskaya, Pasternak's long-term mistress.
Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the film of the book. Lara was based on Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s long-term mistress.

The book is well written and gives the impression of having been thoroughly researched. Despite my lack of sympathy for Pasternak, I enjoyed the biographical strand more than the CIA story and was glad that Pasternak’s story got more space than the spy stuff. In case I’ve made it seem that the book is very critical of him, I must say that the authors’ interpretation of Pasternak is considerably more sympathetic than my own, while not making any attempt to whitewash the less appealing aspects of his personality and behaviour. Overall, the book gave a clear picture of the difficulties faced by writers trying to operate under a regime of censorship backed up by fear, and some of the more moving moments were when the authors recounted the later thoughts of Pasternak’s peers, regretting how they had allowed themselves to be manipulated into turning away from him at the height of the affair. An interesting and thought-provoking read – recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne

The Counter-Revolution of 1776History or polemic?

😀 😀 😀 😐

In a simplified nutshell, Gerald Horne’s argument in this book is that the Revolution was in large measure a response to the colonists’ fear of London’s drive towards abolition of slavery.

Horne argues that slavery underpinned every aspect of the pre-1776 economy and as such was seen as crucial by the colonists, even while slave resistance was growing and slave revolts were becoming more common. The Royal African Company’s loss of monopoly over the slave trade in the late 17th century meant that free-traders had entered the slave markets, and the consequent uncontrolled rise in slave numbers led to fears that the slave owners did not have the capacity to stifle such resistance. While London was showing signs of beginning to think that the solution might lie in abolition, (with the added benefit that Africans could then be armed to assist in the ongoing turf wars with Spain and France on the American continent), the colonists feared a situation where Africans could be given some kind of equality or even superiority within the armed forces or, still worse, in civilian life. So, Horne argues, the Revolution was as much about maintaining the institution of the enslavement of Africans as achieving ‘liberty’ for ‘white’ colonists.

Horne makes two further assertions, both leading from this central argument. Firstly, he shows that Africans largely sided with Britain or one of the other European powers in the Revolution and prior to that had often looked to both Spain and France as possible liberators. From this, Horne argues that some Africans saw the war as not just a possible route to freedom but hoped that a victory could lead to some kind of league between themselves, the indigenous people of America and one of the European powers to form a government in place of the white colonists. Secondly, and leading on from that, much of the subsequent ill-treatment of Africans, as slaves or free citizens, can be attributed to them having picked the wrong side…

‘…the ongoing persecution of descendants of mainland enslaved Africans is – in part – a continuing expression of what tends to befall those who are defeated in bloody warfare: often they are subjected to a heinous collective punishment.’

Horne concludes therefore that the general view of the creation of the republic as a great leap forward for humanity is erroneous – an example of history being written by the winners, in this case the white colonists and their descendants.

self-evident truths

On the whole, I found Horne’s arguments partially but not wholly convincing. The book is a strange mix of history and polemic, written by someone who frequently lets his anger show through in the language he chooses to use – ‘…profit-hungry settlers were willing to sell the rope that might be used to encircle their pasty necks’, ‘the supposed trailblazing republic and its allegedly wondrous constitution’ etc; while his desire to avoid the use of the words ‘slaves’ and ‘black’ leads him at points into rather fanciful terminology, my favourites being ‘men of ebony’ and ‘the melanin rich’.

When reading a history of a period of which one has very little existing knowledge, written by a historian unknown to one, the challenge is to decide how much confidence to have in the author’s interpretation of the facts. Really the only way I can ever think to do this is to see what the author says about a subject I do know a little about. Very early on in the book, Horne talks about the influx of Scots to the colonies, and his description of the causes and effects of the Jacobite rebellions was so over-simplified and frankly misleading that it left me gasping and gaping. I was left feeling, therefore, that I would have to take many of Horne’s interpretations with a large dose of scepticism. I also felt strongly that, while obviously Horne was speaking specifically about the impact of slavery, he failed to give enough emphasis to the other causes that combined to bring about the Revolution; and I felt this tunnel-vision approach weakened his argument rather than strengthening it.

The style of writing is somewhat clumsy at times and Horne repeats the same information again and again throughout. He constantly jumps backwards and forwards in time rather than taking a linear approach. And he often refers to places or incidents without clarifying them, which can be problematic for a reader without an existing familiarity with the period and locations. All of these factors combined to make this a book that I somewhat struggled through rather than enjoyed.

Gerald Horne
Gerald Horne

However, despite all of these problems, I still felt that there was a basic validity in much of what Horne was saying, in particular with regards to his main argument. Certainly worth reading to understand why he has extrapolated the conclusions that he has from that, but should perhaps be treated with the extra caution that applies to polemic rather than history.

Gerald Horne is the Moores Professor of History & African American Studies at the University of Houston, and has published over thirty books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYU Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

All the Fun of the Fair…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes.

The Court of Honor (shame they forgot that pesky 'u' but otherwise quite impressive...
The Court of Honor (shame they forgot that pesky ‘u’ but otherwise quite impressive…)

In Larson’s hands, the story of the building of the White City is fascinating. The odds against success were huge – time was running short, the weather threw everything it had at the site frequently destroying half-built buildings, a financial crash began while the City was half-built, and unions and management were regularly at loggerheads. Although many men (and a few women) were involved in bringing the thing together, the whole effort was largely co-ordinated by one man, architect Daniel H Burnham, who as Director of Works was responsible for getting together the best architects, planners, engineers and landscapers, and inspiring them to believe in his vision of a beautiful city rising from a derelict piece of lakeside land. Larson uses all kinds of sources to bring Burnham and the other major players to life – newspaper articles, journals, official records and personal letters. He tells the story almost as if it were a novel, never revealing ahead and regularly leaving a chapter with a cliffhanger ending, as a storm approaches or a bank crashes or illness strikes.

Midway Plaisance - Eskimos, cannibals, belly-dancers - what more could you want?
Midway Plaisance – Eskimos, cannibals, belly-dancers – what more could you want?

The story of HH Holmes is told in separate chapters interspersed throughout the main narrative. To be honest, though it was interesting and also very well-researched, I mainly found it broke the flow of the much more absorbing story of the Fair. Apart from the fact that both events took place in Chicago over the same time period, there was very little to connect them. I wondered if the Holmes strand had only been included because the author felt that more people would be interested in a serial killer than in the building of the Fair – and I can’t argue with that, since it was the thought of the intriguing contrast that attracted me to the book. But when it came to reading it, I found I was rushing through the Holmes chapters to get back to find out how things were going on the building site.

Daniel H Burnham - "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
Daniel H Burnham – “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Once the Fair finally opens, Larson gives a vividly credible account of what it might have been like to visit, including telling of some of the many attractions the fair had to offer – from orchestral music wafting ethereally over a moonlit lake to rather more earthy sideshows, such as the belly-dancers from Algeria. He tells us about Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, cannily sited just outside the Fair grounds and constantly competing with it for customers. And the crowning marvel of the Fair – the world’s first Ferris wheel, built as a result of a challenge by Burnham to America’s engineers to come up with something that would top the recently built Eiffel Tower in Paris. At the same time, Larson takes us behind the scenes to see the men responsible for the maintenance of the site, publicity, finance and the sheer logistical nightmare of feeding and cleaning up after the many thousands of visitors who passed through the gates each day. The Fair was so huge, Larson tells us, that it was considered that it took a fortnight to see everything it had to offer.

Herman Webster Mudgett aka HH Holmes
Herman Webster Mudgett aka HH Holmes

In a few chapters at the end, Larson tells us what happened to the men we’ve got to know so well in their later careers and shows how the Fair influenced architecture and fairs and even city-planning far into the future. And at the same time he concludes the story of the serial killer, but I won’t spoil it by saying whether he was ever caught or convicted in case you’re inspired to read the book and don’t know the outcome.

A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read. The only real disappointment is that there are very few illustrations, so I had to turn to the Internet to fill that lack. But Larson has put the Chicago World’s Fair close to the top of the list of Things I Want to See When I Get a Time-Machine – till that day comes, the book makes a most satisfactory alternative. Highly recommended.

The world's first Ferris Wheel - 250' in diameter and carrying 2,160 people at a time
The world’s first Ferris Wheel – 250′ in diameter and carrying 2,160 people at a time

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

Sympathetic, but still revealing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

days of fireFor those of us on this side of the Atlantic, US politics has only a marginal relevance in normal times, especially since the end of the Cold War. But following the atrocity of 9/11, Bush was suddenly thrust on to the world stage in a way he had not anticipated and overnight his pronouncements and actions became as important over here as those of our own leaders – especially since Blair instantly committed the UK to go along with the US wherever Bush might lead them. As a result, the Bush presidency is to me the most interesting of modern times.

In this book, Peter Baker, the Chief White House Correspondent of the New York Times, sets out to examine the relationship between Bush and Vice-President Cheney – an unusual relationship from the start since Cheney made it clear that he had no intention to run for the presidency at any point in the future. The received wisdom back in the early years was that Bush was a bumbling buffoon riding on his father’s achievements; and that Cheney, one of his father’s henchmen, was the power behind the throne – a shadowy and rather machiavellian figure – the puppet-master. Baker’s position is that Cheney’s influence was strong in the early years and that his support after 9/11 was crucial, but that ultimately Bush was his own man even then, and that Cheney’s influence gradually waned as time passed.

bush cheney banner

Baker’s account is very heavily weighted towards foreign affairs and the ‘war on terror’, particularly Iraq, presumably because this is the area in which Cheney was most involved. Although domestic policies are discussed from time to time, the coverage of them is nothing like as detailed or insightful. Again that works well for me, as a Brit, since it is the foreign policy that most interests me – however I felt it was a bit of a lack in the scope of the book. The other major weakness of the book, I felt, was a disregard of the influence of other world leaders on Bush’s position (and vice-versa) – we remember him trying to accommodate Blair’s domestic troubles over Iraq and we vividly remember the infamous ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ phrase hurled (though not directly by Bush) at a disobedient France (now apparently ‘America’s oldest ally’, since Syria). The attempt to gain the support of allies is discussed, particularly the whole UN resolution saga, but not with the depth that might have been expected, considering how much it damaged the position of the US in the eyes of much of the rest of the world. Interestingly Hans Blix doesn’t get a single mention in the whole book, while Jacques Chirac rates only two.


However, other than these omissions or weaknesses, the book is an extremely thorough and detailed account of the workings of the White House during a presidency hit by catastrophe and disaster – from 9/11 to Katrina to the economic meltdown. Overall Baker takes a sympathetic view of both men, though he doesn’t shy away from discussing the more unforgivable aspects of the period either – torture, water-boarding, Guantanamo et al. He does make the point, and makes it well, that such unconstitutional actions had precedents in previous presidencies at times of crisis, and shows how Bush pulled back from the worst excesses as the threat level decreased. Cheney however is shown as having developed an almost paranoid fear of another terrorist assault that led him to want to extend the power of the executive to extraordinary levels, and to justify almost any form of behaviour, no matter how morally repugnant, as necessary in the cause of security.


In the first half, the first four years, the book is very much about both men. However, in the second term, Cheney begins to fade away as Rice becomes the most prominent of the President’s advisers, and the book becomes much more of a biography of Bush alone. This tallies with Baker’s depiction of Cheney’s gradual loss of importance to Bush, but does mean that the focus on the relationship gets a bit lost somewhere along the way. But that doesn’t stop it being a fascinating record of a turbulent time in US history. I came out of it feeling that I understood Bush much better, but that somehow Cheney remained a bit of a shadowy figure.

Peter Baker
Peter Baker

In conclusion, this is a well written, detailed and interesting account, but not the complete picture of the period and I’m sure not the last word either on the Bush presidency or on his relationship with Cheney. The author’s sympathy is more for the men than for their policies, necessarily; and as such it is a good reminder of how we ask people to perform impossible jobs and then criticise them for mistakes or failures. Bush and Cheney made some serious mistakes, not lightly forgotten or forgiven, but this book gives a revealing picture of the almost intolerable pressures they had to deal with, and of the toll it took of them. Despite some weaknesses, the book is a major work that sheds a good deal of light on the time, and it therefore gets a ‘highly recommended’ from me.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman

the cave and the lightEnquire Within About Everything…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. And for this reader at least, his argument is a convincing one.

The book covers so much in terms of both philosophy and history that a full review would run to thousands of words. Happily that’s not going to happen here, dear reader. I will simply say that, from knowing virtually nothing about philosophy, I now feel as well informed as if I had done an undergraduate level course in the subject.


Herman starts way back at Socrates and brings us right up to the philosophers of the late twentieth century. He begins by giving a fairly in-depth analysis of the chief insights of both Plato and his former pupil Aristotle, using Plato’s metaphor of the cave and the light to show how their views diverged. He shows Plato as the mystic and idealist, believer in the divinity of Pythagorean geometry, advocate of the philosopher king, believing that the route to the light of wisdom is available only to some through contemplation and speculation and that these few should set rules for the rest to follow. Aristotle is shown as the man of science and common sense, believing that there is much to be learned from an examination of life in the cave itself and advocating that all men (sorry, women, you’ll have to wait a couple of millennia) should be involved in government with the family at the heart of society.

Herman takes these rival viewpoints (which I have grossly oversimplified and can only hope that I’ve got the basics approximately right) and shows how each has achieved ascendancy at different points in history. And what a journey he takes us on! The fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! At each step along the way, he discusses the leading philosophers of the time, linking the chain of development of the various schools of thought back in a continuous line to one or other of Plato and Aristotle – occasionally both – and showing how the thinkers of the time affected the politics of nations. To my personal delight, he pays considerable attention to the Scottish contribution to the Enlightenment.

Raphael's The School of Athens (
Raphael’s The School of Athens

This is not just a history of philosophy and philosophers though – like philosophy itself, it covers just about every area of human interaction. The book provides the clearest overview I have ever read of the rise and development of Christianity, the divisions and schisms, the beliefs of the various factions. Herman leads us through from the Old Testament, St Paul, St Thomas Aquinas, Abelard, Erasmus – well, you name them, they’re here. He tells us about the people as individuals as well as their beliefs, so we learn about their backgrounds, where they were educated, whom they were influenced by and whom they in turn influenced.

On politics, amongst many other things, Herman writes in depth about the philosophers of the French Revolution, the founding of the American constitution and the rise of Nazism and fascism. He convincingly argues that the twentieth century history of the parallel rise of democracy and totalitarianism was seeded in the divide between Aristotle and Plato over two millennia earlier. Again the links in the chain are carefully connected – from Plato to Karl Marx, from Aristotle to Karl Popper.


The third main strand is science, and again Herman leads us through the ages, showing the close interconnection between the development of science and philosophy, together with the influence of scientific advancement on religion and politics – and vice versa.

Herman’s writing style is amazingly accessible considering the breadth and depth of the information that he conveys. He doesn’t over-simplify, but explains clearly enough for the non-academic to follow his arguments. My review suggests that he treats each of the strands separately, but in fact he tells the story in a linear fashion, weaving all the strands together, so that a very clear picture is given of the different stages of development of each at a given point in time. At points where it might all get too confusing, he takes the time to repeat the basics to put them into the context of the period he’s discussing, meaning that this poor befuddled reader didn’t have to keep flicking back to remind herself of who believed what.

There is so much in the book that I found this review particularly difficult to write. If I have given any idea of how impressive I found it, then the review has worked. That’s not to say I didn’t disagree with Herman from time to time. On occasion I felt he was stretching his argument a bit too far, perhaps, and once or twice he would make a sweeping statement completely dismissing conventionally held views in favour of his own. And towards the end I felt he was perhaps allowing his own political viewpoint to show through a little too much, in favour of ‘Aristotelian’ capitalism as opposed to ‘Platonic’ socialism for instance (though he pulled that back a little in his conclusion). But the very fact that, by the end of the book, I occasionally felt in a position to question his stance showed me how much I had gained from reading it. Not the lightest read in the world, but for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy, highly recommended.

Photo credit: Beth Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

Arthur Herman has been a Professor of History at various universities in the US and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his book Gandhi and Churchill.

(Phew! Made it in less than 1000 words – just! Apologies!)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Enlightenment and why it still matters by Anthony Pagden

the enlightenmentEnlightening…but harder work than it need have been…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😦

Like most people, I have a vague idea of what is meant by Enlightenment values – scepticism, reason, science etc. – and could probably name, if pushed, a few of the intellectuals and philosophers associated with it. I hoped this book might give me a clearer idea of the history and development of the period and of the contribution of some of the main players. And to a degree it did. Pagden concentrates very much on the intellectual developments and how they impacted on the political sphere. There is very little in the book about the cultural aspects of the Enlightenment – the salon culture is mentioned, but mainly in passing, and although he refers to the emphasis placed by some of the philosophers on arts and music, he doesn’t go into what impact this had on the artistic culture of the time.

In the first couple of chapters, Pagden briefly discusses the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, showing how the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers grew out of and built onto these. In the following chapters, he takes us on a roughly chronological journey through the period of the Enlightenment, concentrating on the writings of the philosophers and highlighting how they influenced each other. Towards the end, he discusses to what extent the French Revolution resulted from Enlightenment ideas and shows the philosophical backlash following this period. And finally, he very briefly highlights the influence that Enlightenment thinking still has, particularly in the West, on national and international forms of governance.

There is no question about the amount of scholarship that has gone into this book and I undoubtedly feel considerably better informed about the subject. However, there are several problems that prevent me from feeling I could wholeheartedly recommend it. Firstly, Pagden’s writing style is often so convoluted that I found I had to read and re-read to be sure I got the sense of what he was saying. His sentences are full of asides and fragmentary quotes that, while relevant, make the process of reading much harder work than should have been necessary.

“Hamann, the “magus of the north,” of whom Hegel said that he was “not only…original…But an Original,” and whose writings “do not so much have a particular style, as they are style,” was something of a crank (whom Goethe, although he thought him the “brightest head of his time,” once shrewdly compared to Vico).”

Anthony Pagden
Anthony Pagden

If you strip the extraneous matter out of this, basically it says “Hamann was something of a crank” – there, isn’t that easier? By all means, follow this up with a sentence or two telling us what Hegel and Goethe thought of him. But this sentence also brings me to my second problem – the book would have been considerably helped by a list of the philosophers with a brief summary of their contribution and beliefs. There are so many names that I frankly couldn’t remember who was who or what each believed. So a comparison to Vico means nothing to me, however shrewd it may be. There is, of course, an index and a bibliography, but this meant I was constantly flipping backwards and forwards to remind myself of what had been said about someone four chapters previously, or, as became the case more and more, deciding I didn’t care enough to bother.

Then there are the inconsistencies. Taking the example of the Peace of Westphalia, both of the following quotes are taken from the same page (28):

“The “Peace of Westphalia”, as it came to be known, was the first treaty between sovereign nations which succeeded in creating a lasting peace and not merely a temporary ceasefire, as all previous treaties had.”

Frankly this sentence stunned me as I tried to remember a period when Europe had a lasting peace prior to 1945. But I didn’t have to remain stunned for long, since the very next paragraph begins:

“The treaty did not achieve an immediate, or indeed, in the end, a lasting peace.”

It does become apparent what Pagden means by this (that wars stopped being specifically about religion following the treaty) but it’s just one of many examples of how the scholarship of the work is let down by the lack of clarity in the writing.

And lastly, the book is absolutely chock full of typos, missed words and uncorrected errors – the proofreading is the most abysmal I have ever seen in an academic work.

In summary, I’m glad to have read this and feel considerably enlightened by it, but feel it was much harder work than it need have been. A book that I think would probably be very interesting for someone with an existing fairly good knowledge of the period and the people involved in it, but perhaps not one I would suggest as an introduction to the subject for a casual reader like myself.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Decision Points by George W Bush

Some interesting insights…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

decision pointsBush has structured this book around separate strands of his presidency rather than giving a linear account. This is a successful device in that everything relating to a subject – for instance, the financial crisis – is together in one chapter making it easy to read the book in sections. And this is just as well, because sometimes the saccharin tone Bush employs means that, like rich cake, a little goes a long way.

The first couple of chapters cover Bush’s early life and career prior to becoming president. I know it’s traditional for memoirs to cover this period but I felt, as I usually do, that I was only really interested in the chapters relating to his time in power. In fact, I really struggled to get past the early part of the book. His description of his battle with alcohol, his journey towards deep Christian faith and his love for his family was so cloyingly sweet I nearly gave up.

But either persevere or jump straight to Chapter 3. Once Bush starts talking about the decisions made in his presidency the book becomes very readable. Of course it’s full of self-justification – nearly all memoirs are – but nonetheless it does give insights into the thinking that lay behind some of the major policy decisions of the last decade. It’s not the most in-depth political book and it shuffles pretty rapidly past some of the more awkward decisions like Guantanamo but you do get a sense that he didn’t take the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lightly and that, agree with him or not, he genuinely believed he was doing his best not just for the USA but also for the Middle East. As I read I wondered how many presidential memoirs have been so heavily weighted towards international affairs – prompted by 9/11 the Bush presidency was forced to transform the USA into an outward looking country and to assess the impact it has and could have in the rest of the world.

george w

I can’t say this book changed my views of any of the political decisions of the time, nor did I come out of it feeling that Bush was a secret intellectual, but I did find the chapters on foreign policy interesting and to some degree enlightening. And overall, apart from his unfortunate tendency to descend into pure schmaltz on occasion, I found it an enjoyable read. Recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

In the Ring: A Commonwealth Memoir by Don McKinnon

‘It’s the best club in the world!’ Dr Hastings Banda

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

In the RingThe Commonwealth often seems like the invisible man of international organisations, especially when you compare it to the likes of the UN or the G20. In fact, I’ve often wondered if it serves as anything more than an excuse for leaders of small countries to get to schmooz with the Queen every now and again. So to this memoir by Don McKinnon, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth from 2000-2008 to see what the Commonwealth does and more importantly what, if anything, it achieves. My interest in the aftermath of Empire had also been provoked by my recent reading of John Darwin’s excellent Unfinished Empire.

McKinnon came to the job from a long career in New Zealand politics culminating in a period of 9 years as Foreign Secretary. As he says himself, this was the ideal preparation since he already knew many of the major players in world politics and generally speaking could expect them to take his phone calls. However, he makes clear there’s a tension within the Commonwealth between the developed nations (the ABCs – Australia, Britain, Canada and NZ) and the developing nations; and it was important for him to win the trust and support of both. His previous work in NZ gave him an advantage in that he had strong relationships already with some of the Pacific countries.

cw flags

McKinnon starts with a look at the history of the Commonwealth, formed initially in the main by nations that had once been part of the British Empire. Now made up of 54 nations, ranging from major countries like Australia to tiny states like Samoa, the Commonwealth is an odd grouping based largely on a historical quirk, and McKinnon clearly saw it as part of his role to ensure that the smaller countries weren’t constantly railroaded by the larger ones. Not an easy task since the HQ is in London and the Queen is its titular Head – McKinnon tells the story of Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, referring to it as the ‘British’ Commonwealth, a title it dropped in 1949, which gives some indication of the British attitude, at least, to it. (I’m pretty sure I thought it was called the British Commonwealth, too, to be honest.)

The next few chapters deal with some of the problems McKinnon was faced with during his time in office – Musharraf’s coup in Pakistan, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Fiji, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gambia. It’s clear that the bigger and more powerful the country, the less effective the Commonwealth can be in putting on pressure. McKinnon honestly admits that, on several occasions, despite their best efforts the Commonwealth achieved little or nothing. But then that’s true of the UN too as came across clearly in Kofi Annan’s recent memoirs Interventions. However, McKinnon did show how Commonwealth support for the principles of human rights, good governance and democracy was effective in some of the smaller states.

Don McKinnon
Don McKinnon
Overall, McKinnon convinced me of the usefulness of the Commonwealth for those small countries trying to get a fair deal in an increasingly globalised world. He also made a case for the big countries’ membership in that, handled well, the combined states in the Commonwealth can form a powerful voting block in bigger international fora such as the UN or World Trade rounds. On a personal level, McKinnon comes over as a no-nonsense, doesn’t suffer fools gladly man and I’m not at all sure I would have enjoyed working for him – but I guess if I was a small country facing serious problems, that’s the type of man I’d want in my corner. And he certainly convinced me of his willingness to go to bat for the underdog whenever required. An interesting and informative read – recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

History of the World in 100 objects‘This really was a discovery worth taking your clothes off for.’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is Neil MacGregor’s passion for sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge that makes this book such an enjoyable read. I heard a few of the programmes when he presented ‘A History of the World…’ on BBC Radio 4 and was surprised at how interesting he could make a discussion of objects that we couldn’t see. The same thing applies to the book. Although there are small black and white pictures of each of the objects and a few colour plates of some of them, mostly we have to use our imagination based on MacGregor’s descriptions. This doesn’t detract from the interest though because in reality the objects are merely jumping off points for MacGregor to discuss the various cultures that have arisen and faded during humanity’s reign over the world.

Each bite-size piece focuses on one period of time in one place but they are grouped into time periods and themes which show the different cultures which shared the planet and how they interacted, or didn’t, with each other. For me, this was a novel and very effective way of looking at world history. Like most Brits, I expect, my knowledge of British and European history far outweighs my knowledge of the history of the rest of the world. MacGregor uses themes such as The Rise of World Faiths and The First Global Economy to show the differences and similarities of what was happening across the world at roughly similar times, and to show how trade and commerce influenced almost every part of the world by disseminating ideas and values along with goods.

olduvai hand axe
olduvai hand axe
flood tablet
flood tablet
mold gold cape mold gold cape

At times I felt I wanted to know more about a particular subject and found that a little frustrating, but this book could be seen in some respects as a taster to inspire the reader to look for more extensive histories of the cultures and periods that most interested him/her. Enjoyable, educational and inspiring – what more could you ask from a history?

PS The title of the review refers to neither Mr MacGregor nor myself thankfully – but to George Smith, first man to decipher the Flood Tablet – Chapter 16.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. All pictures courtesy of the British Museum.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link