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.
Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds is the exhibition book from the British Museum‘s Sunken Cities exhibition. I went to the exhibition in 2016 and picked up the book in the sale somewhat later. It has been my breakfast book for the past couple of weeks. The ones with lots of photos take much less time to read.
The cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion were important trading and cultural centres on the Nile delta for hundreds of years. Then a series of disasters between 200BC and 800AD meant they were lost to the sea. A combination of rising sea levels (1.5m over the last 2000 years), earthquakes and liquifaction caused the cities to sink. Liquifaction is what happens when you build massive stone temples and colossal statues on water-logged clay. Eventually, it’s just going to collapse. Over the last twenty years there has been extensive underwater archaeology off the coast of Egypt to recover them and to understand how the inhabitants of the cities lived.
The book is beautifully presented and is full of the most amazing photography of the underwater excavations and the objects in situ. There’s a good chapter on the techniques of underwater archaeology and the challenges of working in this way. The book explores the mentions of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion in historical writings and gives some political context for the time the cities were thriving. Much of the book is photographs of objects and explanations that put them in context. It’s essentially the text that is on the labels when you go to the exhibition. Which for me is good, because I don’t really read the labels when I go to exhibitions. I just wander around and look at things and absorb the visuals. Occasionally I might read about something that particularly catches my eye, but mostly I get bored with shuffling along reading every single label. In book form, it’s much more accessible for me. It was nice too, to read the book with the memories of the lighting and sensory effects of the exhibition.
Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck is an examination of the media treatment of female celebrities (mostly celebrities, always women) when they go off the rails. Starting from the contemporary examples of Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan (the book was published in 2016 but draws extensively from Doyle’s journalism over the preceding ten years) Doyle examines what might really be happening. The stories created by the media take the same narrative: somehow these women have broken the rules and deserve the judgemental, voyeuristic treatment meted out to them.
First Doyle puts the contemporary examples in a historical context by comparing them to treatment of similarly transgressive women such as Mary Wollenstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte and Billie Holliday. Women who have expressed their humanity by refusing to be nothing more than objects for men to project themselves on to are labelled as crazy and hysterical. All their genius and work is erased by a focus on their sexuality and emotionality. It is, of course, a double standard. Men who have behaved in exactly the same ways are rarely punished for it and Trainwreck provides a number of examples of men whose careers have flourished despite addiction, or mental illness, or even merely expressing grief and anger.
What is it that we are supposed to learn from these examples? They perform the same function as girls in folklore such as Red Riding Hood, showing the dangers that will befall us if we stray from the path. The impossible, conflicting standards women are supposed to maintain are policed by the fear of what will happen when we stop trying to comply. When we speak up instead of remaining silenced.
This is a powerful, erudite and informed critical analysis of a pervasive part of our culture written in an entertaining and accessible way. It will make you re-think how you feel about the women dragged through the press and maybe have more compassion for them. Read it and allow it to make you angry.
The Bear and the Serpent is book 2 of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Echoes of the Fall series. Maniye now has three shapes she can step into and, with the aid of her champion form, has learned to work with all of them. The power structures in the north are shifting and re-aligning and Maniye finds herself the leader of a warband of misfits and outcasts, amongst them her natural father Takes Iron. She doesn’t really know how to handle this or where she fits in, so she takes her band south with Asmander so he can fight in the civil war.
Meanwhile, Loud Thunder is trying to draw together all the peoples of the North to meet the threat that the world faces: the plague people, who have no animal souls, and the strange capacity to destroy the human side of person. Anyone who meets them or is struck by their bullets finds themselves trapped in their animal soul, unable to step and unable to communicate. There are more clues that the plague people are the peoples from the Shadows of the Apt series and I am fascinated to see how the two connect. Loud Thunder’s struggles with the representatives of all the tribes he has gathered together are undermined by his unrequited romantic obsession and his lack of confidence in himself. Eventually he overcomes his insecurities and leads the tribes in an attack that pushes the plague people back into the sea. It is done at great cost and with the sense that they will come back stronger and the tribes will not win next time.
There is a real danger that this blog is going to become an Adrian Tchaikovsky fansite. Once again, I found myself completely absorbed. This is a middle book in a series of three and often middle books don’t resolve anything in the story as they are busy setting up book three. In The Bear and the Serpent Asmander’s story is resolved. He finds a way between the twins at war that ends the conflict and faces up to his manipulative father. But the plague people are in the south too. The Bear and the Serpent is brilliantly balanced between telling a complete story within the novel and forming the middle act in a trilogy. It is very accomplished. I can’t wait to read book three.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is about a crew of space tunnellers who are offered the biggest job they’ve ever had: to travel to the edge of civilized space to a small, uninhabited planet that is pretty much entirely made up of the fuel used to power spacecraft and tunnel their way back. The trip to the planet takes about a year and creating the tunnel will reduce that trip to a day.
This is very much a character driven novel and the bulk of it is spent on the year travelling to the small angry planet and using that as a vehicle to explore ideas about relationships. Those relationships are personal, cultural and societal. The crew is multi-species and the relationships are multi-dimensional; interspecies, same-sex, human-AI, friendship, sexual and romantic. There are a lot of ideas in the book about gender, sexuality, sentience and love. Mostly they are handled well, creatively and vividly realised, and it is refreshing to read sci-fi that is actually addressing the possibilities of connection rather than just treating contemporary norms around relationships as though they are biologically determined (and therefore unchangeable) rather than cultural.
On the larger scale, there are ideas about how people fit into societies and the tension between collectivism and individualism. This is in the background and provides context for the personal relationships. There are themes about conflicts between and within cultural groups and when the crew reach the small angry plant, we see big politics at play that reflect colonial histories and current world dynamics. Some of this is less well handled than the personal relationships.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was a little slow for my tastes. There’s a bit of action at the end when the crew are attacked when they start to tunnel but most of the book is about people relating to each other. It’s worth a read for the ideas explored in it and those who prefer more character-driven fiction may well enjoy it more than I did.
There have been twenty four Jack Reacher books. Amazingly, I’m still not bored. Amazing because I have a fairly low tolerance for this kind of character-based series and usually give up after three or four.
In Blue Moon, Jack Reacher gets himself in the middle of a territorial war between two organized crime gangs on behalf of an elderly couple who are in debt paying for their daughter’s medical bills. The daughter has cancer and was screwed out of her insurance by her feckless entrepreneur boss who ran off with millions and left his employees with nothing.
Blue Moon is darker than previous Jack Reacher books, with a level of violence and a body count some way in excess of the norm. Other reviewers on Goodreads have said that the plot is inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, a plot that’s been used many times over, most notably in A Fistful of Dollars. Which maybe drives the perceived change in Reacher’s character, but I think there’s something else going on which gives a bit more credit to Lee Child. In the last installment, Past Tense (which I read last year but didn’t review), Reacher went back to the town his father was from and decides to research his family history. He discovers his father, who he thought was called Stan, was William Reacher, who stole the identity of his cousin Stan Reacher and joined the marines after beating someone to death. Everything Jack Reacher thought he knew about who his father was is called into question. The style of the Reacher books doesn’t allow for a lot of internal monologue and the character of Jack Reacher is one given more to action than emotional processing. It makes sense to me that the next Reacher adventure might see him in a darker place: less all-American hero saving the little people from bad guys and more using violence as an expression of his emotional state. I’m interested to see where it goes in book twenty five.
The Eye of the Tiger is an account of the trips of the wildlife artist and environmentalist Pollyanna Pickering and her photographer and business partner Anna-Louise Pickering to India in search of tigers. There were two trips, one in the late 1980s and the next ten years later. The first expedition was to Nagarahole National Park and Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Park to look for wild tigers and then to visit tigers rescued from a UK circus and rehomed in India. The second expedition was to visit a Project Tiger reserve and included trips to Rajasthan and the foothills of the Himalayas.
The book is based on the journals of Anna-Louise Pickering and includes sketches, photographs and paintings from both authors. There are a few recipes. The trips are described in a very natural way. Not every day is covered and there are many days when there are no tigers to be seen anywhere. But there are several moments when tigers are close and visible. The final sighting is very dramatic and vividly expressed.
Tigers are beautiful creatures. There conservation doesn’t just preserve the existence of these incredible beings; when an apex predator is flourishing it indicates that the habitat and food chain is in good health. Ensuring the survival of the tiger ensures the success of many other species. The book provides a lot of information about the work of the Born Free Foundation and Project Tiger and the challenges faced from poaching and habitat loss.
Pollyanna Pickering’s art is stunning and books are lovely in themselves. The photos and art are gorgeously presented in a well designed book that is easy to read and easy to just look at for hours.
Published by Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Peterloo 200: The Path to Proportional Representation is a short report making the case for adopting PR in the UK.
The 200 year anniversary of the Peterloo massacre was in 2019. This report was published to highlight that the fight for democracy in the UK has a long history and is far from over.
The report covers the democratic deficit inherent in First Past the Post (FPTP) systems. Your vote may not count at all in a safe seat and the system incentivizes parties to spend nothing on many voters but loads on swing voters in marginal seats. What I didn’t quite realise was how few marginal seats there are, and therefore how few voters are really of interest to parties.
In addition to the democratic case for PR, the report covers a number of other reasons why PR is a better system for most people. Countries with proportional representation have greater economic equality, tend to elect governments that act in the interests of the majority (the real majority, not just a small section of the largest minority), are able to invest in longer term solutions to societal problems because there is much less policy reversal, are more stable societies, and less likely to go to war.
Lastly Peterloo 200 addresses some of the myths about PR, like that countries with coalitions have more elections and are unstable (they don’t, they aren’t) and that the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system means that UK voters don’t want PR (AV is not a form of proportional representation).
It’s aimed squarely at Labour members and voters but is packed full of research and facts and is very digestible. Before I read it, I thought that PR was a good idea but didn’t feel that strongly about it. Now, I am convinced this is the way forward.
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.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is fast becoming my favourite author. In The Tiger and the Wolf, the first book of the Echoes of the Fall series, Maniye is a child born to two tribes and beloved of neither of them. In this world, all humans have a totem animal and can shift into that shape whenever they like. Some people are born to parents of different tribes and when they hit puberty have to choose one shape over the other. Maniye can’t choose. She tries to choose the Wolf because that is the tribe she was raised in, and she nearly succeeds, but when she passes the trial she learns her father sees her as his pawn in his war against the Tiger. Maniye flees. She finds the Tiger people, and her mother, whom she believed dead, but realises they are as cruel as the Wolf and she is no more accepted there than she had been in the Wolf tribe.
Most of the novel is a chase, with both the Tiger and the Wolf seeking to capture Maniye and her learning to use both shapes to evade them. Over time the souls within her war with each other and her ability to shift shapes becomes unstable. The wolf and the tiger cannot co-exist. In escaping, Maniye has met people from other tribes, some of which have Champion forms as well as their tribe totem. With the help of a priest of the Serpent, Maniye goes in search of a totem strong enough to hold the tiger and the wolf in check.
Over and above the chase story and Maniye’s coming of age story, The Tiger and the Wolf is a story of a world under threat from a great peril. In the legends of the tribes there are tales of the Plague People and how the tribes fled from one land to this one to avoid destruction. Maniye meets many people on her travels because the priests of the tribes are gathering to share their portents. All understand that something terrible is coming. None know what it is.
I loved this. The writing is great and the worldbuilding is exceptional. It is pretty dark. Few of the characters have redeeming features, many of them are at the mercy of their family and tribe and not free to choose how to act. There are betrayals and reversals and deaths of characters that shouldn’t die. And there is an enormous world-destroying threat coming but the tribes are caught up in their local rivalries and politics to lift their heads up and take notice. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.