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Crisis

I started reading Crisis by Henry Kissinger as Covid-19 lockdown started in the UK. It seemed… appropriate, given that it’s a record of a group of people trying to respond to a situation that is changing on a daily basis with limited information.

Crisis covers the Yom Kippur war and the last days of the Vietnam war. Most of the book is dedicated to the Yom Kippur war in 1973. It is largely transcripts of phone calls between Henry Kissinger and the various other actors involved. It is fascinating to read actual transcripts because people don’t speak in proper sentences, context (which we don’t have in this book) is what makes everything make sense and simply from the words on the page it is impossible to know what is going on. Not really. You get the impression that differences in opinion in the US government – between the executive, the various committees, Congress and the Senate – mean that stuff isn’t getting done. Kissinger finds himself making promises that others don’t fulfill. Then people don’t tell the truth, or change their minds, or are relaying the best information they have but it’s just wrong.

Kissinger calls out that some of his colleagues found it hard to let go of the belief that the Israeli army was so superior to the Egyptian army that the war would be over in a couple of days, even when the evidence clearly showed the two armies quite evenly matched. He notes how assumptions impeded decision-making. Although it’s also clear, especially in the section on the Vietnam war, that he doesn’t examine his own assumptions. Trying to work out what’s going on – especially as it’s a long time since I read anything about that war – without any context is challenging: however, lacking the context meant I was more focused on the content of the verbal communication. It is really amazing how randomly we speak and yet manage to understand each other. And really clear how easy it is to misunderstand.

The section on the Vietnam war is shorter and has more commentary around the transcripts. It focuses on the last days of the war when the US is trying to get people (US military, US civilians and Vietnamese people who had worked with the Americans) out of South Vietnam before the North Vietnamese arrive. Kissinger allows himself to show much more emotion in this section about the responsibility the US had to get people to safety and his frustration with the US government failing to agree sufficient budget.

Crisis is an interesting book, both for what is intentionally revealed and what is unintentionally revealed.

The Balkans 1804-1999 Nationalism, War and the Great Powers

Misha Glenny’s The Balkans has been my breakfast book for the last year. Breakfast books are the many large, heavy books I have on my shelf that I can’t commute with so they get read in twenty minutes stints while I have breakfast. Sometimes twenty minutes is enough time to read a reasonable chunk. Other times, when a book is densely packed with facts and ideas, then twenty minutes gets me about five pages. If I’m lucky and really paying attention. The Balkans was very much the latter.

The book is very insightful. Glenny has spent much of his career as a journalist working in the Balkans and is most knowledgeable. The structure of the book is chronological, taking a span of years and addressing what is happening in each of the areas of the Balkans. I hesitate to say countries because, although nationalism has been a driving force behind much of the conflict in this part of the world, the experience of colonialism over this period has meant that the areas known as Bulgaria or Greece or Albania or Serbia (or others) have grown larger and smaller at various times. What becomes evident because of the structure of the book is the near constant experience of war for people living in the Balkans between the mid-19th century and the 1950s. The social and psychological legacy of that is appalling.

Glenny’s lens is one of imperialism. The start of the period he covers is the wane of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The ways in which they sought to undermine each other or to retain power at the edges of their influence had a destructive effect on the peoples of the Balkans. Interference from the other great powers, Britain, France and Russia, made things generally worse. The great powers only sought to extract the wealth of the area as they did all around the world. Nazi Germany’s interest in the region was marginally more positive in that it had an economically beneficial impact, but following classic colonial policy agriculture was encouraged and manufacturing denied. When the Balkans (mostly) become part of the Soviet Union, it looks much like more imperialism to Glenny. The Balkan countries are treated as bread baskets for Russia and state terror follows a similar pattern to that of earlier empires.

Only a handful of pages at the end are devoted to the events in Yugoslavia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, which was a little disappointing (but it seems Glenny has written more elsewhere on the subject) but the threads of history and the interference of the great powers (preferring to call themselves the international community now but still playing the same game of putting their strategic interests over the lives of ordinary people) are visible.

This was a compelling and often disturbing read that inspires me to learn more about the Balkans. I remain convinced that nationalism is one of the stupidest ideas humanity has ever had. And there’s some stiff competition.

 

The Gayer Anderson Cat

The Gayer Anderson Cat by Neal Spencer is part of the British Museum’s Objects in Focus series. So far, I’m enjoying the series immensely. There’s something very satisfying about a short book packed full of stuff I didn’t know before.

The Gayer Anderson Cat is the familiar, well-known cat statue from Ancient Egypt. I was surprised just how much isn’t known about the statue. It was acquired by Gayer Anderson, an art and antiquities collector in the early 20th century, who purchased objects from dealers on a regular basis but no information about where it came from or what it was for came with it. Thousands of cat statues were created in Ancient Egypt: there is evidence of workshops churning these things out and the book covers the excavations of some of these workshops. How they were used and who by is more mysterious. The Gayer Anderson Cat is the finest example of the type in existence so an assumption is made that it was paid for by someone wealthy and dedicated in a temple, but that is still conjecture.

New technology can tell us a lot about how it was made from the casting technique to the effects of the chemical composition of the metal. It can also reveal more detail on the surface of the object than is visible to the naked eye. The book goes into this in some detail. X-rays have revealed that there are repairs around the head and show how they were made.

These books are delightful. I like the intense focus on one small thing and what it tells us (or what we have projected on to it) about the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago.

Non-fiction round up 2019

I have been a bit sporadic with posting to this blog for a while, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. What I have now is a backlog. An evergrowing backlog that induces procrastination. Because I am lazy, I am doing a round up post of the non-fiction books I read this year that I enjoyed enough to want to talk about.

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman: This book presents the case for imagining a better world for all the people who live in it and a way out of the trap of consumption. There are a few key ideas such as a universal basic income, paying well for jobs that contribute to wellbeing (like rubbish collection and caring jobs), and reducing the working week to two or three days. It was cogently argued, well-evidenced and easy reading. Just what you need to re-inspire you about the possibility of positive change.

London, the biography by Peter Ackroyd: Well, this was just lovely. Spanning from the origins of human settlement in the London area to the end of the 20th century it covers the development of London thematically. There are chapters on theatre, crime and punishment, rivers, food and drink, disease, and many other ways of seeing. It’s a big book and packed full of stories and connections. It perfectly captures the romance of London in all its corrupted beauty and compelling horror.

The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes: When I visited Berlin earlier this year, I was keen to learn more of the history of Germany beyond the world wars. Must be more to Germany than that, right? This book spends some time on the early history of the peoples of the land that would eventually comprise modern Germany, and some time on the relationship between catholic Prussia in the East and the protestant cities and states in the West. Most of the book though, at least half, is actually about the world wars and the eventual rise of the Nazis. Maybe this is because Germany as a country hasn’t existed for that long. It was interesting to see a longer perspective on the forces at play. It’s a perspective that goes some way to illuminating the same currents in evidence today.

The Rise of the Green Left by Derek Wall: A fascinating book on the relationship between socialism and environmentalism and the history of eco-socialism. This was really educational and gave me a much better understanding of eco-socialist movements across the world. One small element that was particularly enlightening was the discussion of eco-fascism. It seemed self-evident to me that environmentalism and socialism are naturally compatible, but there has also been a tradition of environmentalism allied with right-wing ideology and so the link should not be taken for granted.

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber: Bullshit jobs are jobs where no one actually benefits from what you do. So, jobs like being a carer, or a nurse, or teacher, or road sweeper, are not bullshit. We need to do those jobs and we’d all be a lot worse off if they weren’t getting done. Graeber identifies five types of bullshit job: flunkies, whose job it is to make someone else look or feel important; goons, whose jobs have an aggressive element, like lobbyists and corporate lawyers; duct tapers, whose job is to fix problems that shouldn’t really exist; box tickers, allowing a company to claim it’s doing something it isn’t; and taskmasters, assigning work to people and creating more bullshit jobs. It is full of anecdotes about the crappy jobs people have held and is a very entertaining read.

The Art of the Good Life by Ralf Dobelli: Sequel to The Art of Thinking Clearly, this is another collection of short essays on cognitive fallacies and the ways in which our thinking gets distorted. Always useful to have a reminder.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo: I love Marie Kondo. It’s not about decluttering or only having six books or whatever other nonsense has been said about the book and the tv series. Marie Kondo is about appreciating what you have and arranging your house so you get the most enjoyment from it. Her folding method is brilliant – I have found I can get lots more clothes in my drawers and still be able to see more clearly what I’ve got. Magic, indeed. I’m also a big fan of talking to my house, because I love my house. I think anything that encourages appreciation is a good thing.

The Inflamed Mind by Edward Bullmore: New science around the understanding of depression shows a link between physical inflammation and mental depression. This is a dense book, but really interesting and worth the effort. The research outlined in this book challenges conventional understanding of the links between physical and mental health, and challenges the categorisation of symptoms. I’ve long thought that depression is a catch-all term for very different experiences that don’t respond to the same treatment.

The Devil’s Doctor, Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science by Philip Ball: This is not the sort of thing I would normally buy. As it happens, I found it on a train. Paracelsus lived from 1493 to 1541, when magic and demons and gods were still very real in people’s lives, yet the scientific discoveries that would drive the Enlightenment were coming thick and fast. It is an insight into a period of great change, through the biography of a man that was both scientist and magician. Considered a key figure in the development of chemistry and medicine, he was also a charlatan and got run out of town several times. I’m glad I picked it up.

Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky: This is a must-read for anyone who consumes news. What happens and how it is reported is very important. This book highlights the disparity between the stories we tell about events depending on who the actor is and the values that actor wants us to believe they hold. If you’ve ever had the sense that how you’re being told to interpret world events is distorted and confusing, this book will explain why that is.

History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell: I’m not sure it’s true to say that I enjoyed this book. It’s certainly not true to say I understood very much of it, although I now have a much better understanding of what philosophy actually is. But I felt very clever and pleased with myself for having read it.

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.