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Elizabeth the Queen

I’ve read quite a few of Alison Weir’s historical biographies and am a big fan of her writing. Elizabeth the Queen has been on the shelf for a long time. Well, most of the books I reading have been; either they get read straight after being bought or they go in the pile only to surface years later. Anyway, still largely reading non-fiction. I’m currently 30,000 words through my 120,000 word work-in-progress so I think the non-fiction streak will continue for a while.

I enjoyed this a great deal. The writing is engaging and the court around Elizabeth comes to life quite vividly. I read this shortly before I read Fools and Mortals so I enjoyed having the real background to the setting. One of the interesting themes of the book is Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and the various factors that may have influenced that. In reality, Elizabeth had very little choice about who she might marry – there were few men equal in status to her, and most of them were Catholic. Of course, she showed little inclination to give up being supreme ruler of England. If she’d married her husband would have been her superior and she does not appear to have really believed that women were inferior to men. The prevailing opinion that women should not rule meant that she could never openly express that opinion so it must be inferred from her letters. Weir also posits that given the fate of her sister Mary and several of her father’s wives, Elizabeth may have subconsciously associated marriage with death. In her lifetime there were rumours of affairs and illegitimate children but they seem hardly credible in hindsight. I came away from the book thinking that she may have been asexual. Elizabeth clearly enjoyed flirting with men, as evidenced in her letters and contemporary accounts, and she had several emotional intense relationships, but did not seem to have to work terribly hard to repress her sexuality.

There’s a lot more to the book than speculation about marriage, even though this is tightly bound up with her diplomatic relations with other countries. It gives a lot of information about the court and the characters present, about Elizabeth’s finances and the corruption inherent in the system of patronage that was the 16th century economy. There’s a lot of detail about how Elizabeth negotiated her way between her powerful neighbours, France and Spain, and cleverly avoided wars she couldn’t afford. War wasn’t always avoidable, but a different ruler might have gone to war much more frequently given the circumstances.

I would highly recommend it. Informative, entertaining and very readable.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet

The Sutton Hoo Helmet is the second of the British Museum Objects in Focus series that I’ve read. There’s seven of them in the series so far.

It is an in-depth look at an iconic object in the Museum’s collection, and is another of my favourites. The Sutton Hoo helmet is a finely crafted helmet, both fully functional as armour and exquisitely decorated with gold and garnet.

The book talks about the excavation of Sutton Hoo, which was not straightforward, and the effort involved in discovering the treasure hoard. The helmet was in many tiny pieces and putting it together took years. Indeed the first attempt was later decided to be wrong and it had to be taken apart, carefully, and reconstructed again. Putting the helmet in context with similar finds across Northern Europe, based on the decoration and shape, gave the scientists a better idea of what it would have looked like.

And, of course, the best bit is the model of what it is now thought to have been, made by the Royal Armouries in the 1970s. This is also in the Museum alongside the reconstructed original.

Finally, the book covers the candidates for the occupant of the tomb. It is made difficult because dating the helmet can only give an approximate date within a hundred-year range. These are fascinating little books and I’ll be getting another one as soon as I next get to the Museum.

 

The Queen of the Night

The British Museum has a series of small books focusing on a single object. One of these is on my absolute favourite object in the museum, the Queen of the Night plaque, from Babylonia.

The Queen of the Night by Dominique Collon spends a little time talking about where and when the plaque was found and its history with the museum. Most of the little book (they’re only about 40 pages) discusses what the plaque might represent. Given the location of the find the Queen of the Night is likely to be a goddess and there is some debate whether she is Lillith, Ishtar or Ereshkigal. The symbolism seems to point to the latter, but there’s actually no way we ever know what the plaque really depicted or what it was for.

 

The plaque has microscopic traces of paint on it and so a reconstruction of what it would have originally have looked like has been created. Which is very cool. I imagine it would be quite striking in a dark temple lit only by candles.

Prisoners of Geography

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. Let’s just say 2017 was a challenging year and leave it at that.

I’m starting with Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, lent to me by a friend. The book looks at ten areas of the world and how the geography affects foreign policy and strategic interests. Tim Marshall is a foreign affairs correspondent with a lot of experience.

The book is wonderful to read. It’s engaging and brilliantly written. The content is interesting. Much of it was familiar to me but plenty was new, and the stuff I knew was presented in a way that opened up another level of understanding. It was crazy to think about how much of Russia is uninhabitable. I liked that Marshall considered both the historical effects of geography, such as how the Himalayas have kept India and China apart, as well as how technology might overcome those effects. What happens once one of those nations can realistically prosecute a war across the mountains?

The best chapter was the last one, on the Arctic. It was very enlightening, especially around the implication that some countries and corporations might want to see the ice completely gone.

Definitely recommend this one.

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

impossible-stateThe Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha
Published by Vintage in 2013

The Impossible State is an examination of North Korea and whether it will ever change. In the wake of the Arab Spring and the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, Victor Cha wonders if this might happen to the Kim dynasty of North Korea.

To do this, Cha looks at the establishment and construction of the North Korean state. It is a country with thousands of years of history and much experience of invasion and occupation. After the second World War the Koreas were split and two separate countries were created. The book gives the history of the Kim family and how Kim Il Sung came to be installed as the leader of North Korea, looking at his personal qualities, his experience and his relationships with the Chinese and Russian governments.

North Korea in relation to South Korea is interesting. For several decades, North Korea was richer and more advanced than South Korea. This was partly to do with financial support from China and Russia but also partly to do with chaos and mismanagement in the South. What’s worth noting is that the current situation wasn’t inevitable. Cha was foreign policy advisor to several US presidents and is well placed to understand North Korea and its place in the international system. It wasn’t always as isolated as it is now, with even China’s support hesitant and reluctant.

Much of the book is focused on North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the motivations behind it. Cha credibly argues that there is no way that North Korea will willingly stop developing nuclear weapons. It is the only leverage they have and the last twenty years have seen it work pretty well. They saw Qaddafi give up his nuclear enrichment programme only to be invaded by the US and the North Korean regime has a strong incentive to maintain its own development.

And finally, will there ever be a popular uprising? Cha thinks it’s unlikely. The control the Kim family has over the population and the way the cultural narrative has been manipulated has resulted in a people that have very little access to the outside world. Popular uprisings depend on the belief that life could be better, because it is seen to be better elsewhere. The North Koreans don’t have that belief. They have been told that life is much worse outside their own country and denied access to any information that might suggest otherwise.

This is a fascinating book. I haven’t read anything about North Korea before and much of this was new to me. I can’t tell you if there are better books out there, but if you want to know how North Korea became the impossible place it is now, then this is a good place to start. It’s a dense book with a lot of erudition but Cha’s writing style is light and pacy, so it never feels as heavy as it actually is. A surprisingly easy read and I enjoyed it.

 

Shake Hands with the Devil

shake-hands-with-the-devilShake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire
Published by Random House in 2003

I went to Rwanda last year on a work trip and it inspired me to learn more about the genocide in 1994. I visited the excellent Genocide Memorial and bought several books.

Shake Hands with the Devil is the memoir of the force commander of the UN mission to Rwanda. It starts slowly, with some time spent on Lt. Gen. Dallaire’s career and experience, but by the end of the book it is clear why this needs to be covered in such detail.

This is a book about the actions of the international community in response to the crisis, or, more precisely, the lack of action. As Dallaire describes his experiences in Rwanda and with the UN it becomes clear that there was a lot going on that he was not aware of until far too late. The politics surrounding the genocide – the relationships the Rwandan government forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Front had with France, the US, and other western countries independent of the UN, the domestic situations in those countries and the public tolerance for another foreign intervention, the under-resourcing of the UN – contributed to something truly terrible. Shake Hands with the Devil doesn’t exonerate the Rwandans who made this happen and the choices both sides made, but he does make clear how the structural, systemic issues in international relations supported and exacerbated those choices.

There is a tragic honesty in this memoir: Dallaire comes across as a man well and truly out of his depth. He lauds and celebrates the officers and soldiers assigned to the mission but doesn’t hide his own failings. Indeed, the early pages spent exploring his own experience serve to show how his lack of real conflict experience hampered him as well as demonstrating the abilities that qualified him for the role.

Shake Hands with the Devil is an eye-opening read. The exposure of the way the UN has to operate, and what that means for people it is supposed to help, is damning.

Sapiens

sapiensSapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Published 2011

Sapiens: A brief history of humankind is a very interesting book that challenges a lot of received wisdom about humans – what we are, why we do what we do, how we got to this point in history. Harari is a historian but this isn’t the history of a specific set of humans in a particular time and place. It takes the bigger picture view of anthropology and merges it with the storytelling of history. It’s a big, 500 page book covering some complex topics, yet it remains an easy read. I found it thought-provoking, amusing in places, and some of Harari’s theories are extremely plausible.

There was something horrifying and depressing about it though. As a species, homo sapiens sucks. We destroy everything we come into contact with and spend our time working out ways to do that even more efficiently. It didn’t leave me with much hope that homo sapiens can change.

Despite that, this is a fascinating book and I’d recommend it to everyone.