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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.

Ancient Traces: Mysteries in Ancient and Early History

ancient tracesThis is another one of those books that wasn’t what I thought it was. I’ve had it on my shelf for a while. I thought it was an archaeology book about early humans. It sort of is, but mostly Ancient Traces by Michael Baigent is a conspiracy theory book.

The central premise is that evidence exists that suggests that humans evolved much earlier than is generally believed and didn’t evolve from apes. The academic establishment has systematically suppressed any evidence that doesn’t support the current dominant paradigm.

Baigent presents a number of related ideas: humans evolved much earlier than thought; we co-existed with dinosaurs; dinosaurs still exist in remote areas of the world; humans evolved from a sea creature rather than from apes.

I’m not sure how much I believe but I hadn’t heard many of these stories/theories before and it is all very entertaining. Baigent style does verge on the hysterical when talking about how evidence has been suppressed but otherwise it’s pretty readable. The ideas in the book are thought-provoking if not well-supported. It was fun.

Medieval Lives

medieval lives I read a lot of fantasy fiction (amongst other things) and write some too. Fantasy worlds are overwhelmingly based on medieval European societies and the genre does come in for criticism for its lack of diversity. I love to read fantasy with other sources of inspiration. And I love really good medieval Europe style fantasy, not least because I love that period of history.

Medieval Lives by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira is the book of the BBC television series. Each chapter gives a snapshot of what a person’s life might have been like based on the role they had: peasant, minstrel, outlaw, monk, philosopher, knight, damsel and king. The format enables the authors to draw distinctions about how position and wealth affected peoples lives. There’s a conscious effort to do some myth-busting and include some surprising facts.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on damsels and knights. The one on damsels makes the point that women’s status in society is not a straight line of progress and that medieval women probably had more equality than Victorian women. There’s a fun bit about women arranging their own abductions in a effort to game the system. The chapter on knights discusses the concept of chivalry as a attempt to control the extreme violence of what were basically warlords.

It’s all very entertaining. As it’s the book of the TV series it’s understandably lightweight. That makes it accessible and it’s ideal as an introduction to the subject matter. I was left wanting to read more in-depth books that I could really get my teeth into and I think that’s a good thing.