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Queen's University

Book Reviews - History and Biography

Ackroyd, P. (2006). Shakespeare: The biography. London: Vintage.

This is much better than other books I have read on Shakespeare. The emphasis is on the political and social context of the plays and on how differently Shakespeare and his colleagues acted and thought from us.

The playwrights thought of themselves in the main as craftsmen, as opposed to artists. Theatrical effect, audience appeal, and the political and financial support of patrons was all. Shakespeare was an actor as well as author and an investor in his acting company. This was a communal venture in which plays underwent repeated revisions based on audience reaction and actors’ suggestions. Different versions of the same play were staged according to the venue (outside or inside performance), the time available, and various current
events that might be profitably alluded to.

The Elizabethans loved spectacle, costumes, dancing, special effects, and music—they weren’t particularly interested in actors acting like normal everyday people. The actors in fact had to project their voices while speaking quickly and communicate a great deal with their bodies because few in the audience could actually see the details of their faces. There were traditional postures and arm gestures to assist them.

Shakespeare was not university-educated and not nobly borne, although from a somewhat prosperous family. His family of origin was covertly Catholic. Shakespeare maintained his interests and his wife and children in the small town of Stratford while he pursued his career in London. Most of his plays were composed more or less anonymously until he became better known, his growing renown was partly based on his publication of some very popular poems under his own name. In any case, Shakespeare became moderately wealthy and quite famous early in his career. He wrote his inspired work at incredible speed. Shakespeare’s characters are in some sense real in themselves and stand apart from their creator. Shakespeare’s peculiar genius for character and his amazing facility for language remain a mystery.

Ackroyd, P. (2004). Chaucer. London: Random House.

A brief life of Chaucer for non-specialists. Chaucer was an urban man of the world and a successful senior servant of the crown. He was married but he and his wife seldom lived together—it makes you wonder about how the nature of his marriage was related to the many views that his characters expressed on the relations between the sexes. Many of Chaucer’s works appear to been meant for reading to small groups of people he knew, yielding many opportunities for ironic expression.

Ackroyd, P. (2001). London: The biography. Toronto: Doubleday.

I thought I would like this book because I greatly admired Ackroyd's biography of More. I didn't much like this biography of London though. It does have some interesting vignettes and many odd facts, but this giant tome grows tedious and prompts the fatal question "Why am I reading this?" The author tries mightily to provide some underlying themes to motivate the book but they fail intellectually and are somewhat tiresome. Unless one knows the London streets very well, I don't think there is a reason to read this book.

Ackroyd, P. (1998). The life of Thomas More. London: Random House.

A very fine biography of the clever, loyal, and admirable "man for all seasons." Ackroyd attempts to convey the strangeness and credulity of the mediaeval mind. More is portrayed as a mediaeval intellectual fighting a dogged rearguard action against the floods of the Reformation and modernism. Highly recommended. I plan to find more of Ackroyd's work.

Adams, M. (2006). Napoleon and Russia. NY: Hambledon Continuum.

A detailed account of the famous ill-fated French invasion of Russia. The strategies and the personalities of the combatants are nicely laid out. Napoleon appears to have been losing his edge (either because he wasn’t as good as he was formerly or because his opponents were getting better). Nevertheless, this war of attrition was a close run thing and the Tsar could have negotiated a settlement instead of letting Napoleon sit in Moscow waiting in vain for battle.

My favourite line from the Napoleonic wars (I don’t think in this book though) was in a letter from Napoleon to Josephine--“Home in four days, don’t wash”.


Adams, I. (1999). Agent of influence: A true story. Toronto: Stoddart.

The title says that this book presents a true story. Indeed, the historical facts about the death of the Canadian Ambassador to the Soviet Union, John Watkins, during an 1964 RCMP interrogation and its subsequent coverup appear to be historically accurate. Similarly, the attempts of the counter-intelligence division of the CIA, under the directorship of its paranoid ultra-rightist chief James Jesus Angleton, to remove "KGB operatives" such as prime ministers Lester Pearson and Harold Wilson seem to have really happened. If it is true, as alleged in this book, that Prime Minister Pearson abandoned his friend Watkins in order to protect himself from a CIA plot directed against himself, we have a sorry and sordid bit of history indeed.

The wooden writing style and juvenile embellishments in the semi-fictional body of the text reduce the book's credibility; in fact, the fictional dialogue and invented characters get in the way of our understanding what we know for sure about what happened. An epilogue clarifies things somewhat but cannot rehabilitate the fictional part.

Akenson, D.H. (1998). Surpassing wonder: the invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

The latest book from the master of the Irish diaspora. Akenson wrote an earlier book that I liked very much about the Irish Protestants, Israelis, and Afrikaners (all people who have a convenant with God). This book is about the parallel development of Christianity and Judaism from the Yahwehist beliefs of the late second Temple times (pre-CE 70).

Akenson writes with grace and authority. He loves these texts. However, he is very critical of the majority of biblical scholars (basically he believes that they do not rigorously and objectively enough apply historical methodology). Although much of what Akenson says is sound, my sense is that he is a bit too critical of biblical scholars, such as those represented in the Jesus Seminar. For example, he severely criticizes the Jesus Seminar’s measurement and use of inter-scholar agreement. Akenson’s basic point that agreement cannot establish historical accuracy is well taken, if elementary, but misses the value of this sort of exercise. By establishing what scholars agree not to be veridical and, more importantly, by presenting the evidence that supports this consensus, a great deal of progress can be made.

Akenson describes the method of religious textual invention that characterizes Christianity and Judaism (never say it’s new, always say it’s an old part of the original Yahwehist tradition; attribute it to an authoritative source, and so forth). Both religions are convincingly interpreted as essentially being responses to the final destruction of the temple.

A good book, although a bit repetitious. Lots about the Talmuds that are unfamiliar to most people raised as Christians. Ultimately, I didn’t like this book as much as some others on similar topics, such as the shorter but riveting Who Wrote the Bible? 


Alexander, C. (2009). The war that killed Achilles: The true story of Homer’s Iliad. Toronto: Penquin.

Alexander presents a readable but extensive review of the Iliad, adding her own retranslations where appropriate. One would think that everything that could be said has been said about one of the most famous books in the world but, it turns out, not so. In the not so distant past, the Iliad was used to glorify the heroic martial tradition in support of imperialist wars. The author shows, however, that this glorification was achieved by very selective quotation. Homer’s epic, she argues, subverted traditional martial epics.

Homer was in fact anti-war. For example, Achilles complains in his quarrel with Agamemnon—“What am I doing here--the Trojans never did anything to me.” A sentiment echoed centuries later by Muhammad Ali in his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. As for eternal glory and renown achieved by dying bravely in battle, Homer implies that most warriors are in fact not remembered forever. After his death, Achilles concludes the epic by remarking to Odysseus in his visit to Hades that he would rather be a live landless ploughman than a dead king of the dead. Ultimately, Homer depicts both Greeks and Trojans as big losers in the big war.

I fundamentally do not understand the minds of bronze and iron age Greeks. As depicted by Homer, the gods are quarrelsome, duplicitous, amoral, and above all, capricious beings who control human events on earth despite people’s best efforts, usually in a sneaky manner.  Human commanders are generally vain and incompetent. Military leaders constantly argue bitterly over trivial slights and the division of spoils. Human life is portrayed as essentially tragic. So, why didn’t the Greeks commit mass suicide in a fit of existential depression? Perhaps, because after death, they can only look forward to perpetual sorrow and darkness.

Alexander, R.M. (1995). The 'girl problem': Female sexual delinquency in New York, 1900- 1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 

Describes a number of case histories from a girls' training school. Lots of unwed mothers. In part, this is a tale of thwarted mating effort and it is clear that not all of the fallen wanted to be saved. Not nearly so good or so revealing as Bartley's book reviewed below. Part of the problem is the limited amount of data available in the training school records.

Alperovitz, G. (1995). The decision to use the atomic bomb and the architecture of an American myth. N.Y.: Knopf.

A wealth of old (suppressed) documents pertaining to the decision to bomb Hiroshima and, even more inexplicably, Nagasaki, has recently come to light. The author presents them in excruciating detail so that the reader knows, minute by minute, when folks like Truman were lying. And lie they did. If you have a flicker of faith that democracy is a superior form of government or that the Western powers are well intentioned and you want to maintain that faith, this is not the book for you.

Why did Stimson (who was Secretary of War, a position that included that of National Security Adviser at the time) become chief apologist for the decision? Here was a guy who pressed upon Truman and that snake in the grass, Byrnes, the consensus view of the joint chiefs, the scientists, and the American government before the bomb was dropped that the bomb was unnecessary to win the war quickly; that if it were to be used, a demonstration would suffice, that it would set a poor moral example, and would create an unparalleled arms race. If you have the patience to wade through this mass of detail, a more or less satisfactory answer awaits you.

Ambrose, S.E. (1996). Undaunted courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West. N.Y.: Touchstone.

A very detailed account of the Lewis & Clark expedition by an outdoorsman who is well acquainted with the route that was taken to discover the Northwestern US. Despite the commonplace irony of explorers "discovering" an area filled with people, Lewis's detailed journal provides a sense of what the land was like before European settlement and how bloody difficult the journey was.

A modern reader, well this modern reader, had the uncomfortable sense throughout the book of how everything that was being described would soon be ruined or swept away by "civilization". Already, patterns of Indian settlement had changed: Tribes who had access to guns chased their less well armed traditional enemies into the mountains. Soon after the expedition, the populous tribes to the West of the Rockies would be wiped out by smallpox and similar diseases. Remnants of the abundant game in the prairies would hang on in the mountains.

There is a sense of incredible naivete about the Lewis and Clark expedition. As the party killed and ate its way into the West, Lewis practised diplomacy with the various tribes. He lectured the Indians about peace and how they should stop making war on each other. The young Indian men couldn't figure out how they were supposed to get wives if they couldn't go on raiding parties. Lewis, of course, was not only naive, he was also more than a little disingenuous. The plan was to pacify the tribes in order to make them junior partners in the fur trade. When the furs ran out, the area would be settled by miners, farmers, and ranchers and annexed to the US.

None of the explorers, or anyone else at the time, had any sense of conservation. The idea was to exploit the land and when done, move on. This was as true of tobacco farming as it was in the fur trade. The expedition itself, as it shot its way across the land, was a harbinger of things to come.

Anderson, J.L. (1997). Che Guevara: A revolutionary life. N.Y.: Grove Press.  

A very absorbing biography. Even though the book runs 768 pages and we know how it turns out, it is difficult to put down. The author has interviewed just about everybody concerned who is still alive, covered a vast store of documentary evidence, and organized this mass of material into a readable and even suspenseful account. The pictures are well selected.

Che was a physically fearless, honest, romantic, photogenic, and ambitious young man. He very gradually adopted a revolutionary strategy and its ideology to combat colonialism and dictatorship in South America. Che embraced communist ideology with an awesome thoroughness and consistency. This consistency, his willingness to sacrifice himself and his friends for the revolutionary cause, and his personal magnetism would have made him a saint in a Catholic era. Instead, he ended up a secular revolutionary, squandering his life and those of his comrades in an amateurish and ill advised attempt to export the Cuban revolution.

This account of Che's life leads one (or at least me) to the depressing thought that idealism is just the flip side of naivete. Despite all of Che's experience of the world, he really believed that an altruistic socialist man (as Che himself assuredly was) could be created through force of arms and bloody struggle. "Abandon self interest or I'll kill you" could have been his motto.

The success of the Cuban revolution depended not only on the failures of the Batista regime and the near-sightedly selfish colonial policy of the United States but on incredible blind luck and the ruthlessness of the guerillas in their dealings with the peasants (this was sure as hell not any spontaneous uprising of the peasantry). Unfortunately, it takes more than luck, ruthlessness, hard work, and good will to run a country successfully.

The description of the interactions of Fidel and Che with the Soviets is perhaps the most interesting and least well known part of the Cuban revolution. Interesting, but not something to inspire confidence in the competence of world leadership.

Andrew, C. (2009). The defence of the realm: The authorized history of MI5. Toronto: Penguin.

This is a very fat history of the MI5 branch of the British Secret Service. MI5 dealt with German spies in WWI and WWII, post-war communist spies, Irish terrorists, and Arab terrorists. By far, MI5’s greatest success was during the second war, when it successfully turned virtually all German spies in England into double agents. A remarkable coup, that unfortunately couldn’t be turned into political capital for use in inter-agency competition for money and status because MI5’s activities and, even existence, were secret.

The covert nature of intelligence work inevitably causes problems for intelligence agencies. When should one believe the statements of an agency part of whose mandate is duplicity? There are thus endless conspiracy theories and mistaken notions about MI5—indeed, the book documents a very large number of occasions when the public and many politicians had quite wrong ideas about a variety of contemporary events. One of the most surprising and unnerving of these was the MI5 discovery in 1985 that the Soviet Union was convinced that Reagan was planning an imminent nuclear attack.

Intelligence work tends to attract and, in some cases, create individuals with paranoid and fanciful ideas. Peter Wright, an MI5 employee, became convinced that the DG of MI5, Peter Hollis, had been a Soviet spy. This conviction was spawned by the decades-long failure to find the identity of the last member of the “Cambridge 5” group of traitors in MI5—he eventually was found to be a minor spy named Cairncross. The more important spies were already known: Philby, Burgess, MacLean, and Blunt. Wright’s accusations were widely publicized and caused great embarrassment. Of course, many people still believe them.

Successive British governments intermittently pressed MI5 to do something about often nonexistent threats, to transgress restraining laws and policies, and to gather information that could be used to improve their political fortunes. MI5 required personal influence with government ministers to provide reassurance, to resist unlawful extensions of its practices, and to obtain the funding to do the job it was actually supposed to be doing. All difficult—if there are no incidents, is it because of successful counter-intelligence or because there is no threat? Many of the incidents described in this book sound like they were lifted directly from episodes of “Yes, Minister”.

The problems of interpreting intelligence data appear to be worse in totalitarian regimes. The spies from these regimes are very reluctant to report facts at variance with the beliefs of their political masters—to do so invites suspicion that one has been “turned” and leads to getting oneself shot. There is thus a big barrier that prevents government leaders from learning something new or different about their opponents.

In sum, there is much of interest buried in this tome. It’s too long, however, and too much of it is devoted to detail that only bureaucratic insiders would find of interest.

Anonymous; Boehm, P. (Translator). (2005). A woman in Berlin: Eight weeks in the conquered city. A diary. Picador.

This is required reading for anyone interested in sexual coercion. These matter-of-fact memoirs put flesh on abstract theories concerning the differing sexual strategies of men and women. A compelling story and highly recommended.

Barber, M. (1978). The trial of the Templars. Cambridge.

This is the history of mind-boggling, even magnificent, cynicism hard at work creating the modern state; a lovely complement to the similar story of the crushing of the Cathar heresy in Southern France. The Templars were a holy order of crusading knights. After the failure of the crusades in the 1100s, they retained their lands and banking activities, particularly in France. The tragedy of the Templars was caused by their riches and the King of France’s chronic inability to fund his political and military ambitions. Since the Templars were wealthy and helpless, why not accuse them of something, torture them to induce confession, and take what they had?

This is a timely tale because the Pope so recently decided that the Templars were not guilty after all of such sins as kissing each other on the buttocks and spitting on the cross. Contemporary observers, particularly outside of France, had reached the same conclusion because the financial motivation of the accusations was transparent and the Templars did not confess until after they were abused, terrified, and/or tortured (even then, they recanted when they got the chance, even though such an action often led to burning at the stake).

Barbero, A. (2007). The day of the barbarians: The battle that led to the fall of the Roman Empire. (trans. J. Cullen). NY: Walker.

The beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire happened in the East, at Adrianople in Thrace (now Western Turkey), where an eastern German tribe, the Goths, defeated the Romans. The year was 378 and it would take another hundred years for the Empire to unravel.

It didn’t happen quite the way one might expect. The Goths, particularly their leaders, were partly Romanized and they had supplied troops for the Roman army for generations. The Goths had suffered a series of defeats by the Huns and wished to emigrate. They, like all barbarians, were poor, and wanted to settle within the empire. Now, because of the encroaching Huns, they were starving and panic stricken. The Romans had a policy of admitting barbarians and resettling them in under-populated areas—they needed farmers, cheap labour, and soldiers.

The admission of the Goths across the Danube was badly bungled. Delays were deliberately created by government and army contractors who stood to profit by selling the Goths provisions that had been provided by the government as free relief. The sheer numbers of the Goths combined with lack of preparation for their resettlement led to further debacles and Goth rebellion. The rest, as they say, was history.

One interesting aspect of the post-Adrianople treatment of the Gauls is that the Eastern (Greek) part of the Empire encouraged the Goths with each new treaty or agreement to travel further west. This turned out to be a winning strategy for the East.

Barbero (wonder who he descended from?) has written a very fine little book.

Bartlett, W.B. (1999). God wills it! An illustrated history of the crusades. Somerset, U.K.: Sutton.  

Give these folks some AK-47s and they would feel right at home in the Mideast today, committing a great deal of religiously and monetarily motivated murder and mayhem. An interesting book because it shows that the conflict was not only between Muslims and Christians but among Muslims and Christians, leading to cross religion alliances. Not a period, however, within which to search for admirable causes or characters, although Saladin is a cut above the rest. I think it is best to conceptualize the majority of the leaders as a cross between bandits and war-lords.

The legendary Assassins often allied themselves with the Christian side, using their terrorist techniques against their co-religionists. Eventually, however, they went a bit too far when they assassinated the son of the invading Mongol Huns. The Huns were not amused and wiped them from the face of the earth.


Bartley, P. (2000). Prostitution: Prevention and reform in England, 1860-1914. NY: Routledge. 

A very nice account of the efforts to protect and reform girls of the lower classes. As in the Alexander book, not all of the girls wanted to be reformed and a lot of other people (like the police) thought criminalization of the sex trade was a misplaced and sometimes counterproductive policy. The redemptive efforts were made by organizations comprised of pious middle class women. Ironically, the money made by the husbands of these women allowed the husbands the leisure and resources to philander with young girls of low socioeconomic status and their wives the resources and leisure to try to prevent it.

On the one hand, there was very real economic and sexual exploitation of poor girls and, on the other, very paternalistic and heavy handed interventions designed to render fallen girls fit for domestic service. In the end, the reader appreciates that there really wasn't a neat solution to the problem at hand. Much of this history is reminiscent of other attempts to deal with crime, mental illness, and alcoholism during the same and slightly later period (see particularly D.J. Rothman's fine book, Conscience and convenience: The asylum and its alternatives in progressive America, 1980, Harper Collins).


Beevor, A. (2006). The battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. London:Weidenfield & Nicolson.

This book could be described as magnificent on several levels. After reading a number of Beevor’s books, I imagine him as a man with a head the size of a mutant giant pumpkin. The level of detail at his command is truly astonishing even though he tries manfully not to burden the reader with trivia.

As is often the case, political polarization led to irresponsible rhetoric in which both sides of the political spectrum were radicalized. This radicalization spiralled Spain into an incredibly destructive civil war—the principal actors were like sleep walkers moving toward a cliff. Or, as Beevor suggests, people took their apocalyptic political visions so seriously that they thought it was better to see the country ruined than to have it go over to the other side.

Essentially all of the data on the Spanish Civil War are now in. The publication of secret Soviet documents and relentless investigations of Spanish historians allow us to see clearly the lies, half-truths, and propaganda in the contemporaneous context of the war and the republican-dominated historical accounts that followed. Beevor treats all this with studied even-handedness. As a result, one is at a loss as to whom to despise most—the ruthless, duplicitous, and vicious left, the nutty, callous, and brutal right, or the hypocritical and impotent middle. The hopelessly romantic and impractical anarchists did predictably poorly in this mix while the criminal elements (many “liberated” from prisons) did rather better.

There is a very perceptive selectionist explanation of how the newspaper accounts were shaped. For example, in places where the reporters spoke no Spanish, the news stories were shaped by the upper classes because only they (not the peasantry) spoke the reporters’ languages. Because reporters were “imbedded” usually on the republican (left) side, they naturally slanted their stories from that perspective; they did so as well because of prior conviction—a number were communists, sometimes secretly, sometimes openly. There was a great deal of media manipulation on both sides. The republicans eventually won the global propaganda war but the nationalists had already won over the constituencies that really mattered—the conservative elite of America and England.

The backwardness of Spain relative to other European countries at this time is remarkable. As just one pathetic example, the Spanish were too proud and too dumb to dig trenches!! There was boundless incompetence, petty infighting with tragic consequences, and a lot of corruption on both sides. The German, Italian, and Russian “advisors” treated Spain like a banana republic governed by idiots.

Beevor, A. (2004). The mystery of Olga Chekhova. N.Y.: Penquin.

Some folks are luckier than others. Olga and her brother, composer Lev Knipper, survived the Russian Revolution, the civil war, the Stalinist purges, and the Second World War. Olga traded on her family name in Nazi Germany, becoming Hitler’s favourite movie star. Her brother likely recruited her as a “sleeper” spy for the Soviet Union. After all this, Olga returned to Russia and was not shot!!

Beevor, A. (2002). The fall of Berlin 1945. London: Penguin.

This is bleak reading. I now understand the black quip that a woman who survived the fall of Berlin told me was circulating at the time-"if you're going to be raped, you might as well lie back and enjoy it." The corresponding Russian joke, recounted by Laurie in his biography of Sakharov, concerns a soldier who can't get an erection with his wife after returning from the war. He instructs her to stand up and put on her clothes-when that doesn't work, he says "fight!" The Russian soldiers had become more discriminating in their victim choice by the time they entered Berlin. They went into the bunkers and cellars with flashlights and chose their victims according to the appearance of their faces.

Probably the most macabre scene is that of the young children amusing themselves by spinning the corpses hung on lamp posts. The most interesting aspect is the self delusion practiced by the fanatics among the Nazis.

Beevor, A. (1998). Stalingrad: The fateful siege: 1942-1943. London: Penguin.

A tale too horrible to contemplate. The numbers of dead boggle the mind. More people died in Russia during the second war than live in Canada in the present day. Stalingrad is about starving in the cold as a prisoner or under fire. It didn't make much sense to surrender on either side, regardless of how hopeless and miserable one's situation. I suppose that it's one's duty to know about the largest battle ever fought and one that changed the course of the war.

Bellonci, M. (1939/2000). Lucrezia Borgia. London: Phoenix Press.

A very interesting biography of Lucrezia Borgia. It reminds us that the history of the Borgias was written by their enemies and they were really no different from the rest of the conniving nobility who strove mightily for themselves and extended families using whatever resources they could. They were also very young as a group because so many died early from plague, poisoning, or combat.

Berg, A.S. (1998). Lindbergh. N.Y.: Berkeley.

A gripping and satisfyingly long biography of a man who had a truly remarkable life. It is a tragic story on several levels: the horrible kidnap of the Lindbergh' first child, Lindbergh's political naivete and frankness that led to his association with the Nazis in the public mind, the growing emotional sterility of his once close marriage, and his embrace of the ecological movement toward the end of his long life. A conversion that inexorably led him to the conclusion that his enormously successful lifelong support for aviation had been fundamentally misguided.

Lindbergh was as incredibly lucky in his early flying career as he was hard working in his private life. He went from being a nobody to being the most famous and celebrated person on earth literally overnight. No one else in history has attracted the attention of ordinary people and the paparazzi as did Lindbergh. For all of his personal qualities and amazing experiences, the most memorable part of the book is the depiction of the endless crowds and their behavior towards him both when he was perceived as a hero and a villain.

Bergreen, L. (2007). Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. NY: Knopf.

“In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…” Marco Polo discovered for the West what exactly this 13th century pleasure dome was like. Kublai Khan had a very good time living in luxury with his six very carefully selected and frequently replaced concubines (the Khan did more than his share to further Genghis’s Y chromosome). It could be argued that the Khan should have paid more attention to affairs of state in his declining years then to sexual gymnastics. In any event, a couple of disastrous naval expeditions were a sign that the dynasty was in decline.

This is an excellent account of Marco Polo’s incredible journeys and subsequent life. Marco was brave, smart, ambitious, and very, very lucky. After a period of genteel imprisonment in Genoa (where he dictated his stories), he ended up old and well-off in his native Venice.

Bernstein, W.J. (2004). The birth of plenty: How the prosperity of the modern world  was created. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.

Pitched at a high school level but interesting nonetheless. In a nutshell, the argument is that four factors—property rights, scientific rationalism, effective capital markets, and efficient transport and communication—are necessary and sufficient conditions for the development of wealth in a nation. The four factors first came together in 16th century Holland, followed by English speaking countries about 1820. This argument, long familiar to economists, has not been assimilated by those outside the field so that its implications are often missed or misunderstood. The example of historical Spain, impoverishing itself in spite of, or perhaps because of, its vast quantities of plundered gold is a compelling example of how states that depend upon military conquest and/or raw materials fail economically. The rapid rise of the German and Japanese economies after their devastation during the Second World War are stunning examples of how robust economies can be when the four factors are in place.

All this makes it interesting to contemplate the effects of globalization on the world economy and how the wealth-producing institutions might best be exported to those nations that presently lack them. One also wonders whether great concentrations of wealth can undermine the very conditions that created the wealth in the first place.

Want some déjà vu—how about this quote?

“Thomas Bonham, a physician, practiced in London. Henry VIII had authorized, and Parliament had confirmed, the right of the London-based College of Physicians to license doctors in the city. Although Bonham was clearly competent to practice, it was his misfortune to have trained in Cambridge. The College exercised its monopoly power and excluded Bonham. The College then fined and imprisoned him.

In 1610 Bonham brought a charge of wrongful imprisonment against the College. Coke presided and ruled in favor of the doctor. Although Coke agreed that the College had a duty to license physicians in order to protect the public from incompetent practitioners, he ruled that the College had unjustly deprived Bonham, who was clearly well trained, of an essential liberty—the ability to make a living. By so ruling, Coke asserted almost two hundred years before Adam Smith and three hundred years before the Sherman Antitrust Act, that free markets, unencumbered by monopoly power, were also an essential right. Ruled Coke, ‘Generally all monopolies are against this great charter, because they are against the liberty and freedom of the subject, and against the law of the land.

The College of Physicians had attempted to cloak its monopolistic behavior behind its status as a guild. The public face of the medieval guild was that of guarantor of high professional standards. In reality, guilds were cartels that restricted entry into a trade or profession and kept prices high……No judicial body, he [Coke] ruled, should be allowed to preside in a matter involving its own interests.”

Biagioli, M. (1993). Galileo courtier: The practice of science in the culture of absolutism. University of Chicago Press.

When they used to say "It's not who you know, it's who you blow" in Thunder Bay, they must have been talking about Renaissance Europe. In the period around 1600, the patronage of princes made the world go round. Galileo and contemporary scientists were intimately involved in a world of ritualized sycophancy that makes sense but is hard to empathize with. A different world.

Biagioli is a bit heavy handed and repetitive in pressing his argument but he does illustrate the manner in which scientists marketed themselves and were marketed in this system of patronage. Galileo was the master at this delicate and high risk business.

Blaise, C. (2000). Time lord. Toronto: Knopf.

An exposition of 19th century scientific and bureaucratic efforts to standardize time. Of course, various countries had difficulties in agreeing about where the Prime Meridian should be on nationalist grounds. Historical precedent with American brokerage eventually won over French objections. The vehicle for this history is the life of Sandford Fleming. Fleming exemplified the practical Victorian man of science and was a major force in the planning of the Canadian railways. Unfortunately for the plan of the book, Fleming's role in the time standardization debates petered out before its resolution. A moderately good read. The most interesting part is the commentary on how railroads changed everything.

Bodansky, Y. (1999). Bin Laden: The man who declared war on America. New York: Random House.

Imagine the pecuniary advantage of writing a book about September 11th just before it happens! This book is rambling and repetitious and it is unclear to me how sound its political analysis is. However, the broad outlines of the book, arguing that there is lots of cooperation among intelligence forces and Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Kuwait, assorted emirates, Pakistan, Chechyna, Bosnia, and Somalia, appears to be correct, if not very encouraging. Certainly, this analysis seems to be accepted by the American government.

Bostridge, M. (2008). Florence Nightingale. Toronto: Penguin.

Not quite the lady of the lamp I had expected. Florence was a very ambitious upper class woman stifled by convention—there were no useful social roles for unmarried upper class English women in the 1840-50s. Reading books aloud, knitting, and tinkling on the piano in the bosom of one’s family each evening could drive one balmy, and in Florence’s case, almost did. Florence longed to be useful and was motivated by quasi-religious feelings of duty to the poor and sick.

Florence’s role in organizing better treatment for the wounded in the Crimean war made her an English heroine. Her reputation continued to grow through the years.

Florence was very smart and played an important, sometimes crucial, behind the scenes role in reforming the army after the Crimean debacles and reforming hospitals (for most of her life she was not a believer in germ theory—but she wanted cleanliness and lots of ventilation). She also worked tirelessly to establish a nursing profession independent of (male) doctors. Although she was very ill and irritable a lot of the time (probably because she picked up some bug in the Crimea), she continued for decades to exert her mostly anonymous influence on the English government through various parliamentarians and bureaucrats who relied on her statistical work. Ironically, her most important influence occurred long after the public believed her to be dead or incapacitated.

Long, but very readable.

Bowler, P.J. & Morus, I.R. (2005). Making modern science: A historical survey. University of Chicago Press.

A model of clear exposition but frequently off-putting nonetheless. The agenda of these authors is to show that earlier accounts of scientific discovery are not only Whig History but mythical. Their modus operandi is to describe a scientific revolution (such as the Newtonian or Darwinian) and then inform us that it wasn’t really a revolution (because it was anticipated, some scientific contemporaries didn’t buy the new conception, and so forth). These authors prefer some sort of less “rigid” holistic approach to reductionist methodologies. In the end, I didn’t trust their scientific judgment.

The frontispiece of this book could have been a New Yorker cartoon in which a devil comes up to heaven to claim a forlorn looking angel who is told by a senior angel “Sorry, Ed, but the revisionist historians finally caught up with you.”

The descriptions of continental drift theory and ecology are the most interesting, possibly because these (non) revolutions are more seldom described.

Boyko, J. (2010). Bennett: The rebel who challenged and changed a nation. Toronto: Key Porter Books.

Bennett (1870- 1947) became the prime minister who personified the “progressive” in the oxymoronically named Progressive Conservative Party. He created the CBC and the Bank of Canada; he improved old age pensions and unemployment insurance. The author argues strongly and in the main, persuasively, that history has given Bennett a bum rap. All that most people know about him is that he set up the notorious work camps for unemployed young men during the depression and is associated with “Bennett buggies”—cars that were drawn by horses because people couldn’t afford gas.

Bennett had an incredible appetite for work, in addition to a very unhealthy appetite for food and aversion to exercise. He had a formidable intellect and was extremely well read. He became a lawyer and used his mental gifts to make money, a lot of money, wheeling and dealing and representing large corporations.

Bennett was an anglophile, like his life-long best friend Max Aitkin (later Lord Beaverbrook). He eventually retired to England, purchasing an estate near Beaverbrook’s and receiving a peerage, becoming Viscount Bennett of Mickleham, Calgary, and Hopewell. Mickleham was where his English estate was located, Calgary, where he spent most of his career, and Hopewell, the area in New Brunswick where he spent his childhood (home of the famous rocks). Bennett made a large contribution to the war effort in his adopted home.

Surprisingly for a corporate lawyer and successful investor, Bennett was generally on the side of the little guy. His view was that finance and business had to be regulated in order to preserve capitalism and its attendant economic benefits by protecting the public from the avarice and short-sightedness of capitalists. Bennett understood and deplored the scams in which the economic and political elite colluded. Coupled with his views on public policy was his practice of philanthropy—often secret, philanthropy. It was no secret, however, that he often financed the campaigns of the Conservative party out of his own pocket.

There was also a darker side to Bennett, a character flaw that, as in a classic tragedy, led to his political, and to some extent, social downfall. Bennett was not only among the richest person in most gatherings, he was almost always the smartest, and he did not suffer fools gladly. One of the reflections of this is a series of radio broadcasts he made while prime minister, explaining his decidedly left and progressive policies to the nation. Amazingly, Bennett, with his complete command of finance and economics, did not talk down to the electorate but forthrightly explained his set of Keynesian ideas. It’s hard to imagine a politician seriously trying to explain important and complex issues to an entire country.

Bennett did not delegate much to his intellectual inferiors and this cost him in his own party and provided the opposition liberals under Mackenzie King an opportunity to pillory him as an autocrat. Bennett also had a mercurial temper and, once angered, held a grudge. Over time, some prominent conservatives became disaffected and a revolt split the party, leading to its defeat. Bennett got blamed for the depression but his progressive agenda, first decried, was later adopted by that master politician, Mackenzie King, and his successors.

Braun, A. & Scheinberg, S. (Eds.). (1997). The extreme right: Freedom and security at risk. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

There is a rightist international conspiracy that threatens to take over Western civilization. Well, maybe not a conspiracy or at least not a widespread conspiracy. Well, maybe not an immediate threat but they're dangerous. Not sure just how dangerous....... It's more dangerous in the Soviet Union, well, then again, maybe not....

A whole book to tell us what anybody could learn by reading the newspaper once and a while. Sure a let down after books like Enemies of Freedom and the Authoritarian Spectre.

Brown, F. (2010). For the soul of France: Culture wars in the age of Dreyfus. NY: Knopf.

As you probably know, Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who was wrongfully convicted of spying for the Germans on the basis of fabricated evidence and sentenced to Devil’s Island. He eventually was granted a retrial, raising a controversy that split France.

This is a very good read with topical relevance—the anti-Dreyfusards sound something like the Tea Party people of the United States but even more like the National Socialists in the Weimar Republic. Catholic priests in particular were prone to offer bloodthirsty recommendations for solving the problem of the (amazingly tiny) Jewish minority. I won’t spoil this story by summarizing it further but offer a few choice quotes.

“The flood of foreigners, the unproductiveness of wombs, the immolation of aristocrats, the triumph of secularism, the shaming of the army, all figured as portents of decadence in radical right-wing lamentation. How could a country sapped from within and deficient in numbers wage war, win back its lost provinces, and bulk larger among nations? To unreconstructed anti-Dreyfusards that was the question, and the future might never have looked bleaker to them than on August 30, 1898, when Colonel Hubert Henry killed himself after confessing that he had fabricated the documents used to incriminate Dreyfus. But, as we have seen, belief trumped evidence. The suicide soon inspired a fable according to which Colonel Henry, far from soiling his uniform, had, almost alone, braved a Jewish world conspiracy.” Pp. 248-249.

“While priests tended increasingly meager flocks, charismatic priests who specialized in the conversion of ‘distinguished minds’ flourished. To Zola’s way of thinking , these conversions suggested a revival of the Romantic mal du siècle. “Pessimism twists people’s guts, mysticism fogs their brains.”……. “The charge of ‘bankruptcy’ or ‘decadence’ was commonplace among writers disposed to portray science as a small, desert kingdom bordering the wide, lush expanse of the ‘unknowable’. Pp. 252.

Brumwell, S. (2006). Paths of glory: The life and death of General James Wolfe. Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

It’s strange that all I knew about Wolfe was that he was a British general who was killed on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 during the siege of Quebec and the words to the song “Brave Wolfe”. Wolfe has an important part in Canadian history, so important that even children know about it—my once five year old asked my daughter about her marriage to a French guy: “Why do you want to live with someone who attacked us?”

Wolfe was a somewhat sickly, skinny, and homely boy from a military family. His ambitions and sense of efficiency were continually thwarted in the anachronistic and class-ridden British army. Eventually, he got his chance to shine in the successful siege of the fortress at Louisburg. Wolfe came to represent bravery, concern for the common soldier, modern efficiency, and an emerging meritocracy. Of course, he was also the target of jealous gossip.

The siege at Quebec was a close-run thing and for a long time things went poorly for the British. Wolfe became seriously ill but recovered sufficiently to lead the successful surprise assault on the Plains of Abraham above the city of Quebec.

Wolfe’s death at a young age in the most successful campaign of the Seven Years War ensured that he achieved the glory that was his childhood dream. He became as famous a military figure as his childhood hero, Nelson. Wolfe’s reputation, however, fell victim to historical revisionism in the wake of the Quebecois separatist movement.

This is a good read.

Brittlestone, R. (2005). Odysseus unbound: The search for Homer’s Ithaca. Cambridge University Press.

A coffee table sized book with many illustrations. Brittlestone is an amateur in the best British tradition who has a theory that the home of Odysseus is located in the islands off the West of Greece and is not the island presently named Ithaca. Brittlestone relies on a close reading of the Odyssey in the original Greek and geological data (much of it gathered from the internet) to identify an island that meets all of the criteria specified in the Odyssey story line.

There turns out to be a surprising amount of relevant data and these are used to support the tentatively identified candidate island in a closely reasoned argument. It all sounds convincing to me but, as with many such books, most readers will, like me, be unable to evaluate the argument independently of the author making it.

The geology of the Western Greek islands is quite interesting as well is what we can learn from a careful reading of the Odyssey. The book becomes a bit tedious and repetitious toward the end—it is after all one big argument.

Burtt, E.A. (1939). Types of religious philosophy. NY: Harper.
I recently re-read this book 40 years after I first read it! In my senior undergraduate year, I had asked a favourite philosophy professor to recommend a few of the philosophy books he thought were the absolute best. He recommended this one and Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being, which I also recently re-read.

The purpose of Burtt’s book is to outline the philosophy of the great Western religions. The text is wonderfully clear and well-organized. Burtt is scrupulous in first sympathetically and convincingly describing each type of religious thought—he includes fundamentalist Protestantism, liberal Protestantism, orthodox Catholicism, as well as some forms of atheism and agnosticism. One would swear he believes each religion or philosophy he describes. Then he deftly and succinctly presents the weaknesses and problems in each. I liked this book as much as I did the first time I read it. However, I didn’t remember quite how devastating Burtt’s critiques were. No wishful or fuzzy thinking here.

Butterworth, A. & Laurence, R. (2005). Pompeii: The living city. London: Phoenix.
This is a fine book. It is the best at describing what the lives of the ancient Romans must have been like that I have read. Lots of information on the economy of Pompeii from the abundance of information gleaned from successive excavations. Freed slaves became entrepreneurs and craftsmen, struggling to scale the social ladder. Couples with property had few children in order that their estate not be partitioned among their offspring (as legally required). Because infant and child mortality was very high, many couples were forced to adopt heirs, who were sometimes not their kin and even sometimes former slaves.

The urban Romans had bad teeth and used a lot of an awful sounding fish paste (garum or rotted fish intestines) in their recipes—their breath was probably lethal at close range. Because they didn’t have access to the internet, they put their pornography up on walls--there was a lot of it that would offend today’s family values big time.

Here’s a quote describing a fancy dinner to give a flavor of the work:

“Next, to stimulate conversation once the salty morsels had been gulped down whole, the paraphernalia for the first entertainment of the evening may have appeared: a sloshing vessel of water from which a flapping surmullet was lifted, placed on a polished surface, and then covered by a glass dome, which rapidly starved it of air while ensuring that its death-throes remained visible to all. For it is the curse and wonder of the surmullet that, as it asphyxiates, its scales pass through a whole spectrum of subtle colours to signal its passage from life. And for what nobler purpose could a fish die than to elicit the hollering, mocking delight of a Neronian dinner.”

“Although most of the slave household were busily employed behind the scenes, the sedate start to the night’s drinking gave the wine waiters an opportunity to reflect upon the spectacle they had witnessed and the cruel and capricious appetites of their masters. Standing slightly apart from the diners, watching anxiously for the moment when the cup of their master or assigned guest might need refilling, the fate of the surmullet was a warning to these pretty young men—and the occasional older one who was forced to maintain a semblance of youth—to steel themselves for what lay ahead. Smooth-skinned and long haired, some only recently acquired at market to add erotic luster to this special evening, wine-waiters were often viewed as little more than sexual playthings. Long before they were required to drape the slack arm of an inebriated guest over their shoulder and drag him to his bed—a squalid scene that is depicted in one Pompeian painting—they would have had to submit to endless verbal abuse, humiliation, and drunken violence along with all manner of lascivious petting and predation. Seneca remarked of these beautiful unfortunates that,’their slightest murmur is repressed by the rod; they pay a huge penalty for the smallest breach of silence; all night long they have to stand around, hungry and dumb’”.

All was not fun, however. Pompeii suffered a serious earthquake some years before the final catastrophe. It is a bit sad to read of the people’s strenuous efforts to repair the damage and get life back to normal when you know how futile it would turn out to be.

Byock, J. (2001). Viking age Iceland. Toronto: Penguin.
This book is fairly interesting but repeats a fair bit of material from the 1982 book. I'm not sure that I buy the author's analysis of the sagas in terms of narrative units used by the authors like Lego blocks.

Byock, J. (1982). Feud in the Icelandic saga. Berkeley: University of California Press
Disputes over land holdings were common in early medieval Iceland, particularly when kinship was tangled (as when a man had old and young families by different wives). These frequently led to killings, each of which would be avenged. Widows would save keepsakes of their dead husbands (preferably something with blood on it) to arouse their sons' anger when they were old enough to fight. These feuds could easily escalate. To Byock, the sagas illustrate how civil wars were averted by a mixture of litigation, mutual intimidation by rival kinship groups, exile, and a limited amount of killing.

Caesar, J. (trans. 1982). The conquest of Gaul. Penguin.
It appears that those darn Gauls were just asking to be conquered. Although this book was apparently written by Caesar in an attempt to justify his conquest of Gaul to a Roman audience, by the time one gets to the end, the motive for conquest of the Gauls appears to be simply because they were there.    

I was unaware that the practice of taking large numbers of hostages to guarantee good behavior of potential enemies that was common in medieval times was often practised by the Romans as well.

This book consists primarily of a laconic description of many battles. What a modern reader would like is more of an ethnography. We do find out that Gauls are fickle and inconstant but brave (for savages) and can learn military technology by imitation.

Cahill, T. (1995). How the Irish saved civilization. Toronto: Doubleday.
A charming little book. This guy knows how to make history come alive. Almost all the information here has been well known to scholars for a long time but it is very artfully presented. The title is only a bit of an exaggeration.

Sometimes, the obvious has to be spoken as it occasionally is in this book. Ever wonder why there were hordes of German barbarians trying desperately to get into the Empire? Why didn't they just stay at home? It turns out they were starving. They were starving because they had switched from hunting and gathering to farming and suffered the attendant population explosion. With the new large population and inevitable crop failures, they were willing to take their chances with the Roman army.

Cameron, S. & Cashore, H. (2001). The last amigo: Karlheinz Schreiber and the anatomy of a scandal. Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter, and Ross.  
This is a well written, infuriating book about how financial grease shmoozily applied to politicians' hands makes the economic world go round. Schreiber is currently in Canada fighting extradition to his native Germany with the help of his Tory friends Frank Moores and Elmer MacKay and Liberal amigo, Marc Lalonde. Schreiber was intimately involved in the Airbus scandal and closely associated with Mulroney and his associates in this and other business dealings. It was the Canadian end of the Airbus scandal investigation that led, insanely, to the debacle of Justice Minister Allan Rock's public apology to Brian Mulroney and the humiliating and shameful spectacle of the Canadian taxpayers covering Mulroney's legal fees.

The only worthwhile thing to come out of this mess so far was a CBC skit presented by This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The skit depicted two goofy mounties rubbing their hands with glee about the Mulroney investigation. An interviewer inquires as to how they could be happy with this obvious and very expensive failure. They reply that it was really a bargain because even the briefest thought by the Canadian electorate that Mulroney would be brought to justice was priceless.

The German side of this investigation, involving Airbus, arms deals, and influence peddling, has brought down many Christian Democratic politicians. It's a little late in Canada but the investigation continues.

Canduci, A. (2009). The greatest lies in history: Spin, doublespeak, buck passing, and official cover ups that shaped the world. Pier 9.
This is a catalog of various lies. It starts with an account of the “victory” over the Hittites at Kadesh in 1275 BCE (written by the losing Egyptians), and ranges through the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the propaganda that justified the American annexation of Northern Mexico in 1846.

The book is long on survey and short on analysis but it’s an easy read and there are lots of good illustrations and pictures. It would be great for a high school student who is keen on history. It does make one wonder, however, what lies one would choose for such a catalog—such an embarrassment of riches!

Carman, J. & Harking, A. (Eds.). (1999/2004). Ancient warfare: Archeological perspectives. Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton.
There are methodological problems in studying ancient warfare—in particular, the absence of obvious battle sites is difficult to interpret (no warfare or just none discovered?). Similarly, certain building structures may or may not be fortifications.

The beginning section has some amateurish theoretical chapters dealing with aggression but most of the chapters interpret archeological sites. The extensive work in the American Southwest is alluded to but not dealt with in any detail. This is a pity because the evidence of warfare and its variation through time seems better documented there than in Europe, which is the focus of this book. Nevertheless, it does appear that the prevalence of warfare did vary over time.

The history of ancient warfare is very difficult to figure out from archeology alone. If there is some written history to go with the archeology, a rich picture emerges. Consider this quote from Victor Hanson’s chapter concerning sixth and seventh century BC Greece entitled Hoplite obliteration: The case of the town of Thespiai.

The history of the Greek city-state cannot be understood without considering the histories of hoplite battles. It is no exaggeration that the fate of entire communities literally depended on where, how and against whom their landowning hoplite soldiers were deployed in particular engagements… because of the decisive and horrific nature of the conflict, and the uneasy nature of coalition armies, [an] entire generation of farmers could be lost and their homes and families left vulnerable for decades—the experience of Classical Thespiai is an especially good example. In some sense, that city-state’s entire history is the story of little more than three tragic hours of fighting at Thermopylai, Delion and Nemea. Hoplite obliteration on those days led directly to the demolition of the city itself.”

Carter, S. (1997). Capturing women: The manipulation of cultural imagery in Canada's prairie west. Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen's University Press. 
Carter documents several cases in which women were abducted by "wild Indians" and how their accounts of their treatment were altered and changed over time to suit the political agenda of disenfranchisiney were g and marginalizing Aboriginals in the prairies. Covered in most detail is the Frog Lake incident. In 1885, nine White and one Métis man were murdered at Frog Lake by Wandering Spirit, war chief of a group of Plains Cree led by Big Bear. Two of the widows of the men killed were taken with Big Bear's group and lived with them for two months before their escape with a sizeable party of Métis. The women's initial descriptions of how thtreated markedly changed (or was changed for them by ghost writers) in a manner most unfavourable to the Cree and those who had helped them in Big Bear's camp.

The racist treatment of the Métis and Aboriginals that grew with White settlement in the prairies is documented by changes in marriage patterns. While it was common for Whites to marry Aboriginal women earlier, it became less and less common with time, although cohabitation remained common. White men would frequently live with Indian women and then abandon them and their shared offspring. This pattern is most clearly seen in the relations of members of the North West Mounted Police with Aboriginal women. However, marriages still occurred in small numbers. For example, my grandfather, a member of the NWMP, married a Métis woman who had been adopted by a Scot who was the Hudson's Bay Factor at Nelson House in Northern Manitoba.

Carter is somewhat less convincing in her argument that the status of women was not appreciably less than that of men among the Aboriginals of the West. Contemporary accounts predating the period covered in her book, such as Alexander Mackenzie's, paint a different picture.

Some interesting and somewhat mind-boggling hoaxes concerning children being kidnaped by the Aboriginals are also described. In all, an interesting exploration of racism in colonial environments

Cassidy, D.C. (2005). J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century. NY: PI Press.
On the one hand, one feels that Oppenheimer is picked on (the tall poppy syndrome?)—One can imagine people saying “he didn’t win the Nobel you know, he frittered his time away learning Sanscrit and drinking too much.” However, Oppenheimer does, even granting envy, come across as a less than heroic figure during the post-war American communist hunts. I think that people are disappointed that an apparently left-leaning and urbane scientist failed to protect science from the politicians, failed to protect his friends and himself from right-wing opportunists, and failed to move nuclear policy in a more sane direction. Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty were extremely ambitious. In the end, his reputation suffered because of what he was willing to do to satisfy this ambition.

The cynicism and the aggressive imperial nature of post-war American foreign policy and the complicity of leading American and European scientists (cf. Simpson, 1998) does not at first appear to be the focus of this book but emerges gradually from Oppenheimer’s biography. Big science as a tool of big business and the big military, coordinated in a short-sighted way by a reckless, ignorant, and amoral government. What a mess and what a legacy!


Simpson, C. (Ed.). (1998). Universities and empire: Money and politics in the social sciences during the cold war. NY: Norton.

Cesarani, D. (1998). Arthur Koestler: The homeless mind. London: Heineman.
Koestler led an unusual life. He was by turn a Zionist, a communist, an extremely influential anticommunist, a popularizer of science, a popularizer of mystical thinking, and a crusader against capital punishment and the British practice of lengthy quarantines for immigrant dogs. He was a reporter and novelist but preferred to be thought of as a scientist. His last great cause was parapsychology. Koestler moved constantly over space, living in Hungary, Israel, Germany, France, England, and the US, and across the political spectrum from left to right. He was on the run from the Nazis, was interned in a Spanish prison, and, towards the end of his life, heaped with honours, including an honorary doctorate from Queen's University.

Koestler may be best remembered for his novel Darkness at noon, based on the Moscow show trials of the thirties, his own experience in the Soviet Union as a visiting communist, and his Spanish prison experience. This book was extremely effective in undermining the growing communist influence in Western intellectual circles and is a cold war classic. I highly recommend it.

The biography is very long and the moral that Cesarani wants us to understand (Koestler must be understood as a Jew) is needlessly repeated throughout. Nevertheless, this book may increase your self esteem. If you worry that you drink to much, bully your spouse, don't think at all clearly, alienate your friends, misrepesent your past and current life, make a fool of yourself in public, drive recklessly, neglect your child, are disloyal, are rude, are racist and sexist, are promiscuous, a spendthrift, and fail to benefit from experience, you will gain comfort from the understanding that your sins and pecadilloes pale in comparison with Koestler's. Koestler was a chronic drunk driver, I lost count of the accidents he was in, and a serial rapist. He was way in over his head in the science end of things but maintained his intellectual reputation anyway. He was, in sum, incredibly selfish. Perhaps the real moral is that once one establishes a big enough reputation, one not only gets a large harem but the privilege of being able to get away with publishing junk.

Champlin, E. (2003). Nero. Harvard University Press.
A nice political counterpoint to Butterworth and Laurence’s book on the economic and social life of Pompeii. Nero’s reign was contemporaneous with Pompeii’s last days. Nero was quite as wacky as portrayed in the movies but his life on the stage was somewhat more politically calculated than it at first might appear. As well, Nero only murdered individuals, such as his mother, because they were a political threat to him. Amazingly, the author concludes from contemporary sources that Nero probably did have Rome burned. I had always thought it was just a silly story. Nero’s life was melodrama all the way to his pathetic end.

Chancellor, E. (1999). Devil take the hindmost: A history of financial speculation. Toronto: Penquin.
There are remarkable similarities among the periodic collapses of speculative bubbles from the sixteen hundreds onward: Investments are made in riskier and more exotic ventures, insiders generally profit at the expense of outsiders, people often think that the government cannot afford to let some capitalist venture fail, and so forth. The development of new financial instruments that I cannot understand, like derivatives of derivatives of...., and trading on the internet will inevitably lead to greater financial instability and more pervasive effects of speculative bubbles.

It is hard to see the financial market as a rational way of valuing things (as often argued) in this little history..

Chang, I. (1998). The rape of Nanking: the forgotten holocaust of World War II. N.Y.: Basic.
Definitely not for the weak of stomach. The best estimate of the number of murders is about 330,000 in 7 weeks. Very ironically, the chief hero to emerge from this godawful mess is a German nazi!!!

There was a story about two crazy kids in the army reported in the Japanese newspapers. They were having a high spirited and good natured competition to see who could behead 100 prisoners first. It was reported like a soccer game.

The general in charge of the invading army became severely ill shortly before the fall of Nanking. He had circulated orders prohibiting looting or abusing the population. One wonders whether it would have made a difference if he had been present but also what he knew that would have motivated him to write such a memo.

The Japanese have never apologized for this massacre, although the number murdered dwarfs the number killed in both the atomic explosions.

If you have sexually sadistic interests, you will enjoy this book.

Cicero, M.T. (44BC/1972) The nature of the Gods. Translated by H.C.P. McGregor and introduction and commentary by J.M. Ross. Baltimore, Md: Penguin. 
By turns irritating and fascinating. Cicero wrote this book with incredible speed very late in life as part of his project to present Greek philosophy to the Romans. It takes the form of a dialogue between representatives of the various ancient schools of philosophy. The most interesting parts describe how much we now know to be true was known by the ancients-quite a lot. All of the familiar mediaeval Christian arguments for the existence of God are here as well as some very sharp refutations (mixed with some amazing credulity).

This book illustrates (if any illustration was necessary) how utterly dependent mediaeval Europe was on the legacy of the much more advanced Roman civilization.

Collins, A. (1988). In the sleep room: The story of the CIA brainwashing experiments in Canada. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys.  

This is kind of an update/branch plant version of John Mark's (1979) book The search for the "Manchurian candidate": The CIA and mind control: The secret history of the behavioral sciences. The careless and radical tinkering with the lives of the mentally ill by the charismatic and ambitious Dr. Ewen Cameron of the Alan Memorial Institute who happened to be president of the American Psychiatric Association was secretly funded by the CIA during this period. Pretty good for a guy who started out at the Brandon (Manitoba) Psychiatric Hospital. His therapy involved lots and lots of shock treatments, endless sleep induction, and autosuggestion. All evaluated with a protocol that could better have been designed by a child.

Outlandish treatments? I can remember as a boy psychiatric hospital attendant being told by a psychiatrist that the young high school principal we had just admitted because of an acute psychotic episode would be given multiple regressive shock treatment and then retrained. I remember wondering who ran the retraining program at the hospital because I'd never heard of it. Unlike most of the stories involving Cameron's patients, however, my story does have a happy ending--the principal did get enough shock treatments to put him in a wheel chair for awhile but when they stopped he rapidly got better (the curative effects of a wheel chair? Spontaneous remission? You choose--(note that retraining is not one of the alternatives)..

The book presents a very nice portrait of psychiatric attitudes towards women in the fifties and the colonial relationship between Canada and the U.S. Some interesting snippets of Hebb's view of his famous sensory deprivation experiments and his opinions of his colleague Cameron.

Cook, T. (2008). Shock troops: Canadians fighting the Great War 1917-1918. Vol. 2. Toronto: Viking Canada.
425,000 soldiers served as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, about 61,000 died during the war. Of the 345,000 men who served at the front, about 7 out of 10 were killed or wounded. Given Canada’s population of less than 8 million at the time, the losses were proportionate to what the Americans suffered during their civil war. These figures do not include the many soldiers who died after the war’s end from their wounds, particularly lung damage from mustard gas. The war is generally credited with creating a Canada independent of Britain.

This was the first industrial war. Because massive artillery, machine guns, barbed wire, and shovels gave an extraordinary advantage to the defenders, a stationary front developed, such that the major battles were fought in a charnel house made of mud. The horror was beyond belief.

Currie was the lead Canadian general. He was competent and very hard working, although not appreciated by his troops. He was seen as lazy (he was fat) and too willing to sacrifice his men to impress his superior, Haig (the ill-fated) British general. It appears, however, that Currie and his fellow-officers were very much in the forefront of reforms in organization and logistics that were conducive to greater battlefield success. Regrettably, this success led to the Canadians being given ever more difficult assignments and in the end, the Canadian infantry was pressed too hard—to the breaking point.

The magnitude of the sacrifice, the “butcher’s bill,” later seemed not to be justifiable by any possible result. The contemporary saying was that “Britain would fight to the last Canadian”, despite Britain’s own horrific losses.  One is reminded of the “stab in the back” rumours among the defeated Germans that contributed to Hitler’s post-war ascendancy. There is even the remarkable spectacle of Currie defending his war record in a libel suit against a small town Ontario newspaper many years after the war.

Although the reader can’t possibly keep the various army groups straight, the battles are clearly described and their results linked to the changing tactics used by both sides. The book quotes extensively from letters that soldiers wrote home during their time in the trenches and consequently, it is very, very sad. The letters do convey, however, what the front was actually like.

As children, we used to sing the smutty songs that the soldiers had sung in France—I still recall some of the endless lyrics to “inky dinky, parlez vous.” I was born in 1944, so many of the men of my father’s generation had served in the Second War. But there were lots of old guys still around who were veterans of the First War and even a few ancient guys from the Boer War. It was natural for us boys to not only play war with toy guns and toy soldiers but to practice marching. I often used to wonder whether I would be brave enough to do my duty when my time game. Thank God I never got to find out.

Cordingly, D. (1995). Under the black flag: The romance and the reality of life among the pirates. N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, & Co.
Very young out of work sailors enjoyed usually brief careers as pirates. They had a well developed MO: The basic idea was to have a very fast ship, scare the hell out of the victims so they would comply (they really used the “jolly Roger” for this purpose), torture those suspected of having hidden treasure into revealing its whereabouts, and force essential tradesmen, such as coopers and ship carpenters, into service.

There are some good pictures of scary pirates. It turns out that Robert Louis Stevenson accurately portrayed pirates. It was, for example, common for sailors in the British Navy who had lost a leg in battle to be made into cooks, just like Long John Silver.

Crews, F. (2001). Postmodern pooh. NY: North Point.
A series of papers from a fictional post-modernist English literature conference. It starts out a little slow but the later papers are quite funny. Crews is very sharp—showing a good grasp of sociobiological thinking in Renee Francis’s contribution Gene/meme covariation in Ashdown Forest: Pooh and the consilience of knowledge in which the emerging and rigorous field of biopoetics is presented. One can discern the individual identity of some of the targets of Crews’ satire even from outside the field; there is, for example, a hilarious caricature of Harold Bloom, the octogenarian literary critic (who seemingly produces a weighty tome a fortnight). A very funny little book.

Cummins, J. (1995). Francis Drake: The lives of a hero. New York: St. Martin's Press.

The first part of this book is more interesting than the remainder, which tends to drag a bit. The account suffers from a lack of documentation on Drake's early life. Most interesting is the combination of English state and private enterprise in both piracy and war.

Poor Drake died in a completely unsuccessful attempt to relive his earlier spectacular success against the Spanish.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Dawkins debunks the intellectual and moral arguments that have been used to support belief in God. Dawkins argues that atheism is the only defensible position and that agnosticism results from a failure of moral courage, political correctness, or confusion. While it is true, as Dawkins asserts, that the supernatural aspect of religion, in particular the belief in an anthropomorphic being, is simply childish and that the historical effects of religious belief have been primarily negative, it cannot be proved that some sort of a God doesn’t exist. Part of the problem is that there are many definitions of God. In the end, I just don’t think that notions of God and religion are of any substantive interest—although they are of cultural and historical importance. I think that makes me an agnostic.

Dawkins writes entertainingly but works in very well trodden ground. Most of the arguments for the existence of God and their refutations were well known in antiquity. In the twentieth century, for example, Bertrand Russell provided a lucid summary of these arguments in Wisdom of the West (for high school students) and Why I am not a Christian and A History of Western Philosophy (for the adults). The most sophisticated evaluation of familiar Western beliefs that I have read is in Burtt (1939). Types of religious philosophy.The familiar arguments for atheism achieved the most notoriety when advanced by Madalyn O’Hair, who was for a long time the most famous American atheist.

There are only so many arguments for the existence of God and only so many fallacies that can be found in each. It’s a pity that a large portion of the world is not educated enough to want to move on. Pardon my elitism.

Dean, T. (2001). Crime in medieval Europe 1200-1550. Toronto: Pearson.

Here’s the bird’s eye lowdown: At the beginning of the period, trials increasingly replaced vendettas and the ordeal was dropped as a mode of proof. Serious crime patterns varied little across time or rural versus urban location, the states relied on unpaid judicial officers, punishment was selective and increasingly focused on the poor, shaming punishments declined, out-of-court settlements declined, and imprisonment grew more common. At the end of the period, the state curtailed clerical immunity and the right of sanctuary.

This is a text-bookish volume and definitely not popular history. As you can see from my little summary, there isn’t enough theory of any consequence to motivate the exposition.  

Debré, D. (1998). Louis Pasteur. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (translated by E. Forster).

Written by an admiring but not sycophantic insider. Pasteur, a tanner's son, became a chemist who turned to biological matters and then medical topics later in his career. Despite saving the wine industry and the sheep of Europe, he got less than respect from some quarters. There were those who based their careers on opposition to his ideas on microbes, some who were opposed on philosophical grounds (primarily believers in spontaneous generation), some foreigners who were nationalist chauvinists, surgeons who resented an outsider telling them that they were killing their patients by infecting them, those who had financial interests in current practices, and then there were the simple nuts. Some surgeons ostentatiously kept their persons and instruments dirty to show their contempt for Pasteur and his microbes. Pasteur personally wrote rebuttals to these many attacks in scientific journals and the popular media. He was also regularly attacked in the Academy of Sciences. He took big worrisome risks in conquering rabies. Little wonder he had a stroke.

Pasteur worked incredibly hard and ran a strictly hierarchical lab. Unfortunately, sometimes this meant he missed valuable advice and information that his subordinates could have offered him. But in the end, as we all know, complete triumph was his.

Defourneaux, M. (1970). Daily life in Spain in the Golden Age. Stanford University Press. Translated by N. Branch.

A marvellous piece of history writing about Spain from 1556 to 1665. The book is very well written, entertaining, and consistently informative. Academics will enjoy the portrayal of university life, economists and moralists will like the description of the effects of New World gold on Spain's economy, and anti-clerics will particularly enjoy the descriptions of the Inquisition. Of course, everyone is interested in the topic of sex and romance, ably dealt with here. The book provides the cultural and political context to Cervantes' Don Quixote. Highly recommended.

Deichmann, U. (1996). Biologists under Hitler. Harvard University Press.

A much more genteel story than Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (no killing babies or any real messy stuff) that is entirely consistent with Goldhagen's thesis. German biologists welcomed the culling of their Jewish colleagues for their own advancement, pitched their research toward racist goals (not necessarily opportunistically because they were on-side in any case), and, in general, did their research and science as usual right to the end of the war.

The quality of the science did suffer, partly because of the isolation of German scientists during and after the war.

Konrad Lorenz was an enthusiastic collaborator. Tinbergen, in Holland, was traumatized but brave and, if not forgiving, was committed to working for the good of post-war Europe; he appears to have been a thoroughly admirable man.

Most of this book reads like a PhD thesis but there is a letter printed as an epilogue that is particularly moving.

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Toronto: Penguin.

Diamond has done it again. This is a worthy successor to Guns, Germs, and Steel. Not much of the material is new but I have not seen it put together before and the effect of the whole is much greater than that of its components. The style and organization of the book make it engaging reading.

Much of the book is about the Malthusian dilemma and the determinants of soil depletion and renewal. Diamond reviews instructive cases of dismal failure and others of sustained success. The potential for disaster on a world-wide scale is greater with globalization because nobody has anyplace to move to if things go badly in a global sense, although in the shorter term local disasters can be dealt with more easily because resources can be taken from elsewhere. Diamond manages to maintain a sense of optimism but I’m not sure how many careful readers of this book will share this view.

Dowling, L. (1994). Hellenism and homosexuality in Victorian Oxford. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

It is interesting how close homosexuality came to being accepted in upper class Victorian England. Hellenism was presented as an alternative to Christianity to the upper classes at Oxford and Cambridge. Part of this Hellenism was homosexuality or homosexual pedophilia. The Uranian poets celebrated homosexual love more and more openly. Within Oxford, the tutorial system was designed to foster attachment between the students and their tutors--if not platonic attachment--still innocent attachment.

Not surprisingly, all was not innocent and there were several anticipations of the Oscar Wilde tragedy that brought the whole Hellenistic edifice crashing down. Dowling knows her stuff and presents it with a sure touch. First rate.

Dubinsky, K. (1993). Improper advances: Rape and heterosexual conflict in Ontario, 1880- 1929. University of Chicago Press.

Although the author tries mightily to illuminate heterosexual conflict in Ontario around the turn of the last century, the quality of the data available is such that one ends up primarily with a series of anecdotes from court records and newspapers, with no idea how representative these vignettes are of what actually went on. Nevertheless, worth a quick read, if only to document the similarity of sexual coercion of a century ago to what occurs today.

Dunk, T.W. (1991). It’s a working man’s town: Male working class culture in Northwestern Ontario. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Kingston.

This book is about working class guys who work steadily in paper mills and grain elevators, or more seasonally in construction and lumbering. Although later than my Thunder Bay cohort and of less antisocial and more employable propensities than many in my old circle (of admittedly younger) friends, these guys, self-styled “the boys”, were certainly recognizable to me—the bar fly behavior, anti-intellectual dismissal of things bookish and embrace of things “common-sensical”, the norms of easy reciprocity, and the style of humour are exactly as I remember them.

Dunk attempts to explain the nature of this male working class culture using Marxist theory. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything Marxist and I found the approach very interesting. Marxism isn’t really scientific in the sense of attempting to produce and evaluate falsifiable predictions. It is nevertheless, a highly disciplined and intellectual world-view that allows one to understand or at least feel that one understands a very wide range of social phenomena. Not history, not science, but something else—maybe a cross between ideology and philosophy.

Durschmied, E. (2002). The hinges of battle: How chance and incompetence have changed the face of history. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that military incompetence is an adaptation designed to keep one from getting killed, but that isn't the kind of incompetence being discussed here. There is a very interesting discussion of Stalin keeping secret from the Germans and his allies an enormous army in the East that was unleashed at Stalingrad. Here, as in Beevor's book, the superiority of the Russian T-34 tank is stressed.

In all, an entertaining romp through history. Durschmied covers Attila's last great battle in 451, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the first use of cannon, Napoleon's 1805 victories, the English debacle in Afghanistan in 1842, Custer's last stand in 1876, the Zulu defeat of the English in 1879, the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin, the faked 1939 Polish attack on Germany, Stalingrad in 1942, and the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu.

Dylan, B. (2004). Chronicles. Volume One. Toronto: Simon & Schuster.

Clearly written by a bright guy lacking a university education and editor, as illustrated by the awkward organization of this book and its occasional misuse of big words. Dylan, as he has often pointed out, is a musician, not a philosopher or an academic social critic. However, the artlessness and lack of organization of this book is somewhat appealing because it makes it appear as if the reader is getting the straight goods on what Dylan thought over his long career. The book is much more interesting when describing his early life and career than his later career, making one think of how autobiographical memories are more vivid and densely laid down in late adolescence and early adulthood. I had known how fans relentlessly invaded Dylan’s privacy but was nevertheless surprised by the extent of it.

Dyer, G. (2004). War: The new edition. Toronto: Random House.

The first edition of this book was originally written to accompany a 1985 CBC documentary. It is an unsentimental and chilling description of the evolution of warfare from small groups of men fighting over food and women through total warfare. Dyer knows something about evolutionary psychology, economics, and history. We learn, for example, that officers in all armies must be willing to spend their men to achieve military objectives. Not too many men though, because after a certain proportion of men are spent, the fighting force becomes ineffective through “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” and outright mutiny or desertion. If potential recruits were to read this book, the armed services would get precious few volunteers. Written to the same end as Shaw’s Arms and the Man but modern social science rather than a play.

A well-written, fast paced narrative with excellent photographs.

Eduardo, L. (2005). Mistresses: True stories of seduction, power and ambition. London: O’Mara.

Not as titillating as one might desire but I found it of some interest anyway, partly because I had heard the names of some of these women but really didn’t know anything about them. There are some real adventuresses in this group and the story of some of their lives wouldn’t be believable if presented as fiction. Many also went through one hell of a lot of money and died broke. Women covered include Lola Montez (adventuress with a whip) and La Belle Otero (the suicides’ siren).

Elliott, J.E. (2009). Strange fatality: The battle of Stoney Creek, 1813. Hamilton: Robin Brass Studio.

The war of 1812 was described by an historian as “a succession of timorous advances and hasty retreats, of muddle-headed planning and incompetent generalship, interspersed with a few sharp actions and adroit manoeuvres which reflected credit on a few individuals and discredit on many”. Such was the case in the series of engagements culminating in the battle of Stoney Creek. The Canadians had been driven out of Fort Niagara and were allowed to escape toward Hamilton. The Americans finally got their act together and were poised to annihilate the remnants of the British regulars and win the war.

The Canadians launched a surprise bayonet attack under cover of darkness that, in a confused but deadly action, drove the Americans from the field. Although the battle was a close run thing, the Americans began a confused retreat and in the ensuing weeks suffered more serious losses. The invasion of Upper Canada was over.

Part of the reason for the precipitous retreat of the American army was their fear of attack by the Canadian’s Indian allies. The Indians, however, were sitting on their hands waiting to see who would be on the winning side and did not join the Canadians in any numbers until after Stoney Creek.

The story illustrates the deplorable state of leadership on both sides. The Canadian general “went missing” during the Stoney Creek battle and only turned up the next day when all was over. The American general, whose appointment was a disastrous product of partisan politics, was far too ill to leave Fort Niagara.

This book is very crisply written and has a lot of good pictures and maps. As a bonus, there’s a brief and clear account of the naval war on Lake Ontario. Highly recommended.

Ellis, J. (1998). One day in a very long war: Wednesday, 25th October, 1944. London: Random House.

I’m sure you have often wondered exactly what was going on in the month of my birth. Of course, my parents had to return to the village of Flin Flon to be taxed, three wise guys came from down east following the aurora borealis..... but this book is about the war.

The idea of describing a single day around the world during the war works very well as an expository device, although in order to be understandable, the author actually has to describe the entire month. One gets a much better feel for what a staggeringly enormous enterprise the war actually was from this approach as opposed to much larger volumes covering smaller theaters of action. Imagine how long a list of those killed during the war would be.

Some interesting information that I didn’t know. For example, the Canadians fighting near Antwerp in the Battle of the Scheldt lost 3,650 men killed, missing, or wounded in 29 days from one division (111 men per day). This is almost as high a casualty rate as the infamous Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in 1917 where four Canadian divisions lost 15,654 men (119 men per division per day). Although this is a high casualty rate, one must remember that most of the dying during the Second War occurred on the Eastern front. For example, the Soviets accounted for 90% of the German Army’s killed and wounded during the entire war.

There was a lot more graft and profiteering going on than I was aware of previously. Big time stuff on the Western front.

All in all, a good book.

English, JH. McLaughlin, K., & Lackenbauer, P.W. (Eds.) (2002). Mackenzie King: Citizenship and Community. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio.

An edited book with chapters on various aspects of King’s life. King came of age in Berlin, Ontario, and had strong ties to the German community there. These ties gave him faith that Germany and the British Empire would, in the end, be friends. Well, during WWI, Berlin renamed itself “Kitchener.”

In 1897, King went to the University of Chicago to do graduate study in activist sociology. He was heavily involved with Jane Addams’ Hull House settlement in working class Chicago. King also became romantically involved with a nurse. His mother disapproved of the nurse and his social activism, writing: “I have built castles without number for you. Are all these dreams but to end in dreams? I am getting old now Willie and disappointment wearies and the heart grows sick. Sometimes when I hear you talk so much [about] what you would do for those that suffer I think charity begins at home.” After this King became more emotionally attached to his mother and never had a girlfriend again. He gave up his activism for a more conventional political career and, after getting his Harvard PhD in economics, a more conservative worldview.

Many years later “King could see in his own behaviour that he had “sold out”: he had become a lackey of the capitalist class he had once ridiculed, the Rockefeller family in particular. His retreat into the spirit world is probably best understood as his way of dealing with the failure he knew he had become, by the standards of the man for whom he was named.” (p. 207). The latter being his maternal grandfather, William Lyon MacKenzie, the leader of the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada.

F.R. Scott of McGill University summed it up thusly:


How shall we speak of Canada,
Mackenzie King dead?
The Mother's boy in the lonely room
With his dog, his medium and his ruins?

He blunted us.

We had no shape
Because he never took sides,
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape.

He skilfully avoided what was wrong
Without saying what was right,
And never let his on the one hand
Know what his on the other hand was doing.

The height of his ambition
Was to pile a Parliamentary Committee on a Royal Commission,
To have "conscription if necessary
But not necessarily conscription,"
To let Parliament decide--

Postpone, postpone, abstain.

Only one thread was certain:
After World War I
Business as usual,
After World War II
Orderly decontrol.
Always he led us back to where we were before.

He seemed to be in the centre
Because we had no centre,
No vision
To pierce the smoke-screen of his politics.

Truly he will be remembered
Wherever men honour ingenuity,
Ambiguity, inactivity, and political longevity.

Let us raise up a temple
To the cult of mediocrity,
Do nothing by halves
Which can be done by quarters.

(F.R. Scott)

Dennis Lee was briefer in Alligator Pie.

William Lyon Mackenzie King

William Lyon Mackenzie King
Sat in the middle & played with string
And he loved his mother like anything—
William Lyon Mackenzie King.

(Dennis Lee)

When all is said and done, however, it should be remembered that maudlin and ostentatious attachment to mothers was not at all uncommon among middle class men, that belief in the spirit world was widespread in Europe and North America, and that a number of historians consider MacKenzie King, for all his caution and warts, to be among the greatest of Canadian Prime Ministers.

English, T.J. (2007). Havana nocturne: How the mob owned Cuba and then lost it in the revolution. NY: HarperCollins.

The mafia, like other American corporations (such as United Fruit and Freeport Sulphur), bribed Cuban officials in order to obtain permission to exploit the country. Of course, the chief Cuban colluder was Batista. The mafia invested a great deal of money in building up gambling and prostitution enterprises to serve the American tourists who flocked to the new luxurious Havana hotels. It was just like Vegas, but without meddling from the American government.

Meyer Lansky, the brains behind the Cuban venture, was less bloodthirsty and more averse to publicity than his colleagues but nevertheless willing to benefit from their brutality. Business people love monopolies.

There were some trickle down economic benefits for Havana and, in particular, musicians and entertainers had lots of work. Lansky’s crew even trained up some locals as card dealers (no cheating was allowed because it was both unnecessary and bad for business). The countryside, however, remained desperately poor. Revolutionary acts, such as bombing, were increasingly frequent and were bad for business.

Lansky and his colleagues believed that either Batista would remain in place or, once the unpleasantness was eventually over, that the new regime would see the benefits of money flowing from tourism and graft. Not only were they wrong, the revolution succeeded suddenly, almost overnight. The mafia lost a lot of money.

A very nice evocation of a vanished era and a great read for a Cuban beach.

Etzioni, A. (1999). The limits of privacy. N.Y.: Basic.

An unbelievably boring read. Etzioni argues that privacy is often over-valued in comparison to other societal goods. He presents very convincing arguments on issues like the desirability of revealing the results of AIDS testing of neonates to their mothers and the dangers of computer encryption. But, even if convincing, the book is just so tedious. It would make a fine pamphlet.

Evans, R.J. (2008). The Third Reich at war 1939-1945. London: Penquin.

Exceptionally well done and readable. Despite all that has been written, there are still surprises. For example, Hitler was told by his economic advisors in 1942 that the Axis powers would lose the war based solely on a comparison of the number of tanks and planes produced monthly by the combatants. However, Hitler, like many in high Nazi circles, persisted in wishful thinking that was close to delusional.

Extensive quotes from the diaries of Germans from disparate backgrounds provide interesting insights. Most Germans, in contrast to the completely indoctrinated (usually younger) people, knew the war would be lost early on. Many viewed the allied bombing as a sort of just world retribution for the crimes that Germany had committed in the east (you can’t keep crimes of that magnitude a secret because far too many are involved). For similar reasons, Germans were afraid of what the Soviets would do to Germany after their inevitable victory. The ideological fanatics believed that the Fuhrer would either produce the promised secret weapons or finally convince the Western allies to unite with Germany to fight the Soviets.

Fagan, B. (2008). The great warming: Climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations. NY: Bloomsbury.

Written in the spirit of Diamond’s Collapse and covering some of the same ground (pun intended), this book documents the effects of world-wide warming in the tenth to fifteenth centuries. The chief effect of the “Medieval Warm Period” was widespread drought resulting in millions of deaths and the destruction of a number of states. These effects were caused by only a few degrees of temperature change.

Fagan’s thesis is that the Medieval Warm Period is a gentle warning of what’s coming. Although a lot of this material has been described before, it is of interest that quite a bit more has been learned recently.

Fiest, G.J. The Psychology Of Science And The Origins Of The Scientific Mind. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

As indicated by the title, this book has two parts, the first is a plea for a new discipline, the psychology of science, and the second explores the origins of the scientific mind--where does the ability to do science originate? With respect to the first part, although one can debate the question of whether there should be a formal psychology of science to complement the extant major science studies disciplines of history, philosophy, and sociology, it is clear that psychology can make contributions to the selection and recruitment of successful scientists and to understanding the nature of scientific thinking. There are, for example, instructive similarities in abilities, motivations, and training experiences among elite scientists, chess players, musicians, and athletes.

In the second part, Fiest traces the origins of the scientific mind back through prehistory. Unfortunately, in so doing, the issue of the origin of the scientific mind gets swamped by a lengthy and sometimes speculative discussion of the origins of the mind per se.

The book ranges widely over different areas of psychology, the philosophy, history, and sociology of science, and hominid evolution. In fact, the principal difficulty with this work is that the author has cast his net too widely in both sections, resulting in an unfocussed exposition that often reads like an introductory undergraduate survey text as opposed to a work designed for professional scientists and academics.

Fletcher, R. (2002). Bloodfeud: Murder and revenge in anglo-saxon England. London: Penguin.

This is a detailed and interesting story of the endless intrigue and murders in a balkanized land where life was nasty, brutish, and short. My favourite Viking, Egil Skallagrimson, sets the tone when writing a poem about Eric Bloodaxe's Northumbrian kingdom:

where the king kept his people cowed
under the helmet of his terror.
From his seat at York he ruled unflinchingly
over a dank land.
One of the more interesting historical tidbits in this book is a discussion of how incredibly lucrative Viking intimidation could be around the year 1,000. The Danegeld (a tax raised to pay the Vikings to go away for a year or so) amounted to a 100 percent level of taxation in one year; this was followed by a levy to raise an army to fight off the Vikings in subsequent years. People who couldn't pay lost their land to other parties who could cover their taxes. The unfortunates often had to sell themselves into slavery.

Unfortunately, the story of the particular feud around which the book is structured is incompletely documented and this leads to a bit of frustration for the reader.

Fowler, R. (Ed.). The Cambridge companion to Homer. Cambridge University Press.

The Odyssey and the Iliad were likely created in the form we know them around 700 BCE. Many of the practices referred to in these epic poems were, however, much older. Osborne points out in his chapter on Homer’s society that…”much in the world of epic would have brought an eighth-century audience up short. The palaces, the silver bath tubs, the chariots of war, the exotic armour, the treatment of iron as a precious metal, the existence of bride-price as well as dowry, the domination of the labour force by slaves: all of these will have served to distance the world described in the poems from that experienced by an eighth- or early seventh-century audience. And almost all of these find close correlates in the late Bronze Age archaeological record.” Nevertheless, Homer’s world was far closer to an eighth-century audience than it is to us. Although human motivations appear to be unchanging, how difficult it is for us to appreciate such a remote period. This edited book therefore attempts to describe what Homer’s world was really like, how he constructed his poems, and how later generations interpreted them. There is a Homer for every generation.

Fox, J. (2007). Jane Boleyn: The true story of the infamous Lady Rochford. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Wealth, land, and success could be gained by noble families in the court of Henry the VIII. All depended, however, on earning and keeping the increasingly irascible king’s favour. This was a hazardous enterprise. Jane Boleyn survived the execution of her husband, returning to court (after a brief disgrace) as a lady-in-waiting for the new queen, Catherine Howard. Catherine, not yet 20, and Henry, aged 49, had a happy marriage at first. But Catherine was incredibly foolhardy, despite having managed to capture the king’s heart. Revelations of her pre-marital sexual indiscretions led to the discovery of current infidelity. Jane was complicit in Catherine’s adultery (it is unlikely that she could have avoided complicity given her dependence on the queen) and paid with her head.

Very well done book. Entertaining and informative.


Frankfort, E. (1983). Kathy Boudin and the dance of death. N.Y.: Stein & Day.

Che Guevara had many imitators, such as Kathy Boudin of the USA.

Kathy was an underground weather person who almost got blown up in a secret bomb factory and was later arrested for participating in a Brinks truck robbery in which a number of people were killed. The police stopped the robbers who were driving a car pulling a U-Haul van. Kathy convinced the (black) cop to put down his shotgun, whereupon one of her accomplices jumped out of the van and shot him dead. Kathy ran off down a highway until stopped by an off duty correctional officer, whereupon she started screaming that she wasn't the one who had done the shooting.

Kathy, like many of her underground radical friends, had wealthy and influential parents. Kathy's father was a lawyer who spent his career defending well known leftist activists. Her upbringing on the affluent moral high ground is presumably responsible for her incredible sense of entitlement and self righteousness documented in this book.

Does Kathy maintain solidarity with her poor black criminal accomplices/freedom fighting colleagues? Well, to mix a metaphor--Does the pope shit in the woods? Nevertheless, there is some suspense in this book--Does daddy save the day?

Fraser, A. (2001). Marie Antoinette: The journey. Toronto: Doubleday.

A very interesting and enjoyable biography. Marie Antoinette was never a master of her fate and was an ordinary, if unfortunate, sort of person until ennobled by her response to her persecution during the revolution. The incompetence of the hidebound court of Louis the Sixteenth (talk about a somewhat less than ordinary man) overshadowed its wastefulness. Not that they deserved to be turned over to the Parisian savages.

There are some striking psychological and political similarities between the situation of the French royal family before their execution and those of the Romanoffs before theirs.

The most remarkable part of the book is the descriptions of the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary crowds, driven into a frenzy by a steady diet of outrageous, scurrilous, and implausible lies fed to them by the pamphlets of the day. I couldn't help but be reminded of some of the heatedly partisan paranoidal commentaries one hears on TV shows. Enthusiasm should have remained a term of abuse.


Funk, R.W. & the Jesus Seminar. (1998). The acts of Jesus. N.Y.: Harper Collins

This volume reports on the efforts of a large group of New Testament scholars to discover what Jesus actually said and did. They take each phrase in the New Testament and assign it a numerical rating according to whether it is definitely false, possible, probable, or almost certain. The averaged ratings are given corresponding colours: Black, grey, pink, and red.

Very little of the New Testament gets coloured red, a little more gets pink, mostly it's black

There is a lot here to interest nonspecialists. First, the sheer amount of knowledge gleaned from decades of biblical study and detailed translations of the New Testament texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other fragments found about the Mideast, historical studies of Hellenistic society during the period, and collateral sources, most notably Josephus's The Jewish Wars.

It was news to me just how Greek the New Testament is. It's not only that all of the New Testament gospels were originally written in Greek (as opposed to Hebrew or Aramaic) but also that the type of stories told about Jesus (e.g., the miraculous birth stories) were commonly written about other Greek heroes.

The most interesting parts of the book are the explanations of how the scholars know a particular passage is false. These reasons include the many contradictions among the different gospels (the temporal order of their composition is known, as well as who copied from whom), anachronisms, the impossibility of certain sorts of information being preserved in oral tradition (the gospels were written long after Jesus's death), evidence that the political motivations of the later gospel writers were imposed upon narratives from an earlier time, simple historical mistakes, the modelling of stories of Jesus's life on the stories about earlier biblical figures, and so forth.

It was highly likely that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist and that Jesus left John's movement, taking some of John's disciples with him. The John the Baptist sect was an important competitor of the Jesus movement after Jesus's crucifixion.

Although Jesus' brother later become prominent in the Jesus movement, there is pretty good evidence that his family (a mother, four brothers and some sisters) thought he was on the nutty side, at least early in his career.

The translations presented in the book are written in the style of the original Greek. If an author used a high-falutin' style of Greek, the English is lofty; if a street style of Greek, the English is written accordingly, with amusing results. So, the "verily, verily I say unto you" of the lovely King James Version becomes "If you got two ears, you'd better listen."

There's a lot more of interest in this very big book. For many readers who were raised as Christians, it will come as a bit of a shock to realize how much of the Bible they actually know, even though it is unlikely that many of them have ever studied it in a critical manner.

So what do we know? Jesus spoke in parables, was not a biblical scholar (he might not have been able to read but probably spoke Greek as a second language), was a charismatic healer, exorcist, and itinerant sage who preached the good news about God's or Heaven's Imperial Rule, and consorted with people from all classes (including the lowest of the low, the hereditary tax collectors). He was crucified by the Romans for some offense against the temple in Jerusalem but stayed dead.

Garth, J. (2003). Tolkien and the Great War: The threshold of Middle-earth. London: HarperCollins.

This is really a book for specialists-more than a bit tedious for the average reader. Tolkien wrote the Hobbit for his children somewhat late in life and was persuaded to write the trilogy after. Although this work was completed late, Tolkien had been interested in the fairy world and ancient languages from his childhood. The book documents the effects of the Great War on the romanticism (I recall 'romanticism' once being defined as the belief that the world was like an English country garden) of Tolkien and his small circle of public school friends. The wonder is, I suppose, that any of it survived to be expressed in Tolkien's books.

Gathorne-Hardy, J. (1998). Alfred Kinsey: Sex the measure of all things: A biography. London: Chatto & Windus. 

Strangely, the title of the book on the dustcover and cover does not agree with that on the frontispiece of the book. This is not a well written book. The author irritatingly takes great pains at every opportunity to inform his English readers how different trivial things are in far off America. Nevertheless, one can’t miss with a character like Kinsey. An inveterate collector-first of galls, then of sexual histories, then of sexual partners-Kinsey worked incredibly hard his entire life.

Kinsey was a sexually repressed youth who stayed involved with the scout movement well into adulthood (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). When he became sexually liberated, he really went to town..

One can’t help but admire Kinsey for his herculean efforts and his many kindnesses to strangers, although Kinsey did not countenance disagreement from colleagues or subordinates very well. Any resemblance between Kinsey and other entomologists who study human sex is purely coincidental.....

Gay, P. (1998). Pleasure wars: The bourgeois experience: Victoria to Freud. N.Y.: Norton.

Why I finished reading this book is something of a mystery to me. It is the last of a long series on the 19th century bourgeois experience written by one of the more credulous biographers of Freud (I definitely don't recommend the biography).

Maybe I finished it because it reminded me of books I read when in high school. I particularly remember reading Martin Eden by Jack London; a book that concerned the relationship of a (very juvenile and romanticized) "intellectual" to the uncomprehending and unworthy bourgeois. Martin Eden, having risen from the working class on the basis of pure intellect, kills himself because nobody understands the big ideas underlying his writings. Great stuff when one is a naive 14 year old. Apparently, 19th century fiction and high cultural writing is full of this stuff, much of it even more juvenile that I had imagined.

Gilbert, M. (1965). The European Powers 1900-1945. New York: New American Library.

A concise, somewhat moralistic, summary of this period. Because of its brevity, however, it shows nicely how the second war was a continuation of the first.

Glendinning, V. (1998). Jonathan Swift: A portrait. Toronto: Doubleday. 

A curiously unsatisfying biography. At the end of it, I couldn't decide whether I liked Swift or how important he was as a thinker. Part of the problem is that the information on Swift's life is either very detailed or non-existent, depending on the issue and the particular period. The other difficulty concerns biographers who depend on aristocratic patronage--they always seem to be waiting around for someone to do something for them. In Swift's case, an ultimately futile wait, although he did have his hour. Obviously frustrating for him and frustrating for us to read about.

Goldhagen, D.J. (1997) Hitler's willing executioners: Ordinary Germans and the holocaust. NY: Vintage.

I've read some depressing books in my day but this one takes the cake. Basically, the author argues that the vast majority of ordinary Germans wanted to be rid of the Jews, liked to terrorize them, and thought it was a real nifty thing to humiliate, abuse, and slaughter them. The Nazis do not appear on this account to be out of step with the rest of Germany at all. I can't evaluate the author's thesis about whether the Jews were victimized more than say, gypsies, the retarded, or the slavs but it hardly matters. This book bummed me out for months.


Goldstone, P. (2001). Making the world safe for tourism. New Haven: Yale University Press.  

This is a very uneven book about big business tourism. There are a few very funny vignettes that call to mind the phrase "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun". Unfortunately, large parts of the book somewhat pointlessly recount the author's travels and are accompanied by photographs too small to be worthwhile. Sad descriptions of the effects of tourism in Ireland, Turkey, and the Middle East. In all, a cynicism engendering read. The Middle East sounds hopelessly and angrily divided-after the demolition of the World Trade Towers, quelle surprise!


Goldsworthy, A. (2003). In the name of Rome: The men who won the Roman Empire. London: Phoenix.

This book describes the lives of Roman generals selected from various periods of Rome’s long history. Then, as now, war was as much about internal politics as foreign affairs. Often, it was unwise to be too successful a general (you could end up being killed by nervous politicians in the capitol). As well, even generals who literally saved the empire, like Scipio Africanus, did not receive the gratitude they deserved because military success had domestic political implications. In all, an interesting description of the strengths and weaknesses of Roman military tactics and technology.

Gopnik, A. (2000). Paris to the moon. New York: Random House. New Haven: Yale University Press.  

A charming set of sometimes very funny stories describing the Gopniks' two-year sojourn in Paris. Some of the stories reminded me very much of my two-year period of working in a French institution in Montreal.

Gotlieb, A. (2007). The Washington diaries 1981-1989. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Alan Gotlieb was a celebrity Canadian ambassador to Washington in the era of Ronald Reagan. He gave and attended zillions of dinners and soirées. According to his account, he was a tireless and effective advocate for Canada, particularly in connection with NAFTA, a device he considered Canada’s only defence against American protectionism. Although most Americans and government officials seemed to neither know nor care, Canada was by far the US’s largest trading partner and Canada was perennially in danger of having its various economic sectors inadvertently ruined in recurring fits of US protectionist sentiment. Gotlieb is convincing in portraying the American governmental system as without a centre of coherent authority—he uses the term “ungovernable”—perhaps the most striking symptom of this is the predominance of narrow, parochial, political concerns in congress. The Canadian government, however, was not far behind—there were dramatic policy shifts according to who was in power, and members of cabinet frequently pursued their own idiosyncratic political agendas. All of this reinforces the view that democracies are particularly ill-suited for achieving long-term objectives or policies, even those that are simply economic or political.

Through vivid examples, Gotlieb portrays the press in both countries as frequently sensationalist, spectacularly ill-informed, and occasionally vindictive. It’s a wonder anyone wants to serve in government. Sometimes, however, the press did have something real to gossip about, as when Sondra Gotlieb (Alan’s wife) slapped one of their servants when preparations for a big party went awry. This incident raises the issue of the behaviour of the elite (in democracies, elites generally try to disguise their eliteness). Gotlieb is enamoured with the powerful and famous glitterati, partly because he was paid to seek influence and partly because he shared the interests of most everyone else. The account of the endless round of receptions and dinners, however, does start to grate on the reader—it starts to sound like name-dropping and the participants begin to appear something like the French aristocracy before the revolution. Let them eat Manitoban golden caviar!

Gough, B. (1997). First across the continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. New Haven: Yale University Press.  

A terse account of Mackenzie's journey up the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean and across the Rockies to the Pacific (but not down the raging Fraser River). Mackenzie's successful journey was a stimulus to Jefferson's plans for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson wanted to secure the Northwest for the Americans instead of the British (or Russians).

Mackenzie showed that there was no easy passage across the continent for trade with China. He did, however, show that the area was great for the fur trade and died a rich man (unlike Lewis, who killed himself shortly after returning from his expedition). Mackenzie's scheme of trading furs directly from the West coast across the Pacific, although insightful and feasible, was never taken up by the British.

Granastein, J.L. (1993). The generals: The Canadian army’s senior commanders in the Second World War. Toronto: Stoddart.

The generals were recruited from the starving rump of a Canadian army that was barely allowed to exist between the world wars. Of course, one gets what one pays for. Nevertheless, the rump quickly became the nucleus of the formidable army that was so quickly put together—a remarkable achievement.

There were two principal difficulties with the generals. One was that few of them had any real experience in battle conditions or even in large training maneuvers. It is not surprising then that they varied considerably in their competence. The second problem is that they were old—old men simply don’t have the stamina or quickness of thought that is required in battle. Some of the generals (who had been heroes in the First War) tried to refight it.

It took awhile for the unfit to be weeded out. This process involved lots of gossip, backbiting, and political machinations. This all seems very familiar. Because it is difficult to measure competence in generalship (particularly in advance of real battles), there is frequent disagreement about who should be promoted or demoted, making “meeting well with others” more important than it should be.

Gray, C. (2006). Reluctant genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the passion for invention. NY: Arcade.

A page turning (but very detailed) biography the inventor of the telephone. Bell was a rather poor and health-challenged Scottish emigrant to North America who became interested in the prospects of the telephone through his and his father’s work on sign language for the deaf. Deafness as a result of infection was at the time (late 19th century) very common. Both Bell’s mother and his wife were deaf.

Bell was justifiably hypochondriacal but driven by mad bouts of creative energy throughout his life. A very complex person who, ably assisted by his wife, ended up being much more successful and happy than he or anyone else expected. As an aside, it’s interesting that the familiar controversy regarding the relative merits of sign language and lip reading was aflame so long ago.

Gregory, A. (1911/2001). Cuchulain of Muirthemne: The story of the men of the Red Branch of Ulster. Toronto: General Publishing

Lady Gregory translated and patched ancient Irish fragmentary stories together as a labour of love. What emerges is a fantastical, dream-like world of warring heroes. Everything is larger than life. The tales of Cuchulain (pronounced Kuhoolin) are about the head-hunting Irish and the warrior ethos is pervasive.

The date for the composition of the original stories is unclear but probably much earlier than the 12th century. They certainly seem earlier than the Icelandic sagas and likely predate Beowulf. The stories are a strange mix of heroic sentiment, magic, incredible exaggeration, glorification of ancestors, and stories about the origin of place names. Some of it is quite childlike. Nevertheless, the resemblance of these stories to those of the Odyssey and Iliad is striking.

Something about killing for revenge, women, and livestock appeals to the male psyche. The relationship of a fearsome reputation to the acquisition of the most desirable women is palpable in these stories. Of course, this relationship is found in many societies, as is head-hunting. The imperialist Aztecs, for example, were great head-hunters who displayed their trophies on skull racks (even the heads of the conquistadores' horses!). Aztec boys started to grow a lock of hair when they were about ten. They were not allowed to cut it off until they had taken a prisoner in battle. The female age-mates of these boys were given to mocking the "stinking" lock of hair. But I digress.

What was all the fighting about? As apparently everywhere among preliterate people, large mammals. For example, Sualtim’s head (Sualtim, Cuchulain’s father, had accidentally cut off his own head with his shield­go figure) tells King Conchubar of an invasion in which “Men are being killed, women brought away, cattle brought away in Ulster”. The king replies “…unless the sky with all its shower of stars comes down on earth…. I swear that I will bring back every cow to its own shed, and every woman to her own dwelling-house.” An Irish Helen of Troy sort of story that the Yanomamo would understand.

When did Cuchulain's oft repeated motivation, "It is little I would care if my life were to last one day and one night only, as long as my name and the story of what I had done would live after me," which he first expressed as a boy too young to bear arms, become Shakespeare's "pursuing the bubble reputation even in the cannon's mouth"?

Grosskurth, P. (1997). Byron: The flawed angel. Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter, & Ross.  

Byron was a crash dieter but ended up fat. He had a history of manic-depressive illness in his family and suffered from it himself. He engaged in a poorly concealed incestuous relationship with his half sister. The Westermark hypothesis survives disconfirmation because they were not raised together.

This book fails to answer the major question I have about Byron: Why is anybody interested in this guy? He appears from the biography to be petty, vain, politically and economically naive even for his class and time, snobbish, selfish, mean, unfaithful to his friends, associates, relatives, and lovers in many different ways, and, as far as I can tell, never accomplished very much. Nor did he have a particularly interesting life. I'm told his poetry is good and I'm no judge, although I wasn't impressed with what was quoted in this book.

This book is a little hard to follow and not well organized. The author has difficulty in emphasizing what's important (perhaps because in this case, nothing is).

Gurevich, A. (translated by J.M. Bak & P.A. Hollingsworth). (1990). Medieval popular culture: Problems of belief and perception. Cambridge University Press.

A very thoughtful attempt to discern the mentality of the illiterate majoritiy of people in medieval Europe from the penitentials, sermons, eschatological visions, and lives of the saints. The idea is to use written material that was about the people or for priests to use with the people as a guide to what the masses thought. Although the book moves a little too slowly, it is well worth the effort of reading. There are many contradictions in medieval thought, for example, it was simultaneously believed that there was an individiual judgment that occurred upon a person's death and a judgment that occurred at the end of the world. These two ideas can't be fitted together in a coherent account.

Gurevich argues that the peasant masses were never fully converted to Catholicism. The peasants were Christian in an instrumental and superstitious sense but neither understood nor were very intereseted in theological niceties. That turned out to be a blessing.

Gurevich describes the Elucidarium written by Honorius of Autun at the end of the 11th century in some detail. This book was intended to summarize complex theological thought for the ill-educated priesthood and was very popular over several centuries. It is difficult for a modern reader (me, at least) to understand how such a vicious set of beliefs could ever have commanded widespread acceptance. Honorius's beliefs make Sade's fantasies appear beneficent. Honorius believed that most people will be eternally tortured in hell (a few good priests and simple farmers will go to heaven where they can watch the torture - it will make them feel better, even if it's their relatives and friends who they are watching). God has always known who the elect (those going to heaven) are and those who are damned. Good works are of no avail. Getting the chance to do good works is of no consequence either (unbaptized babies for example go straight to hell). The damned have been created only so that the elect may rejoice more greatly. A crueler, more futile, and more unjust universe is hard to imagine.

Guttridge, L.F. (2000). Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The harrowing true story of the Greely Expedition. NY: Berkeley.

This true story of a once famous arctic expedition of the 1880s is a very long nightmare. It starts off badly (conceived by a fraud artist then heading up the US Signal Corps and implemented in the midst of inter-service rivalry and partisan politics), continues badly (the men hate each other and especially their leader, Greeley), gets worse when their relief ship fails to appear the following year, and then gets really bad when they head South and across the ice in an ill-fated and ill-thought out scheme. However, they discover that their troubles are just beginning when they arrive at Cape Sabine and there is no big cache of supplies waiting for them, their last relief ship having neglected to leave any and its companion ship having been crushed by the ice.

The pitiful few that survived were given heroes' welcomes, although these were soon tarnished by the discovery of cannibalism and continuing accusations of incompetence against many involved in mounting the expedition and the relief efforts. Amazingly, Greeley went on to a very successful career and lived into his nineties.

Compulsively readable and highly recommended.

Hajdu, D. (2008). The ten-cent plague: The great comic-book scare and how it changed America. NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

I loved comic books when I was a kid but I was aware that crime comic books had been banned and I avoided the creepier ones like Tales from the Crypt because they scared the be-Jesus out of me. Well, it turns out that there was a massive and largely successful campaign in the late forties and early fifties to ban the majority of comic books--those that catered to the eternal pre-adolescent/adolescent interest in violence, gore, weirdness, and sex (OK, OK, adult interest too). Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham wrote a book sounding dire warnings, entitled Seduction of the Innocents, that catalyzed the campaign. Although Wertham’s punditry was based solely on clinical anecdote, Catholic schools staged book burnings, there were congressional hearings in which comic books were asserted to lead to such ills as juvenile delinquency, and so forth. The comic book illustrators were shamed and lost their jobs. The episode sounds very similar to less successful later campaigns against TV, computer games, and rock and roll music, not to mention earlier ones concerning the evils of masturbation and newspaper funnies. The sole surviving spin-off of the comic books was a magazine—MAD Magazine. What, me worry?

Harpur, T. (2004). The pagan Christ: Recovering the lost light. Toronto: Allen.

This is an earnest plea for a kindly theology liberated from any dependence on the traditional Christian interpretation of the life of Christ. Harpur argues from academic comparative religion studies that early Christianity appropriated pre-Christian myths and beliefs, used them to fashion the account of Christ’s life presented in the Bible, and then lied about their origins. These notions are, of course, anathema to Christian fundamentalists but, for those who have abandoned a religious world view altogether, they appear somewhat quaint. I think one has to have some sort of religious faith (or perhaps very recently lost one’s faith) to have much interest in these kinds of arguments.

Heaney, S. (2000). Beowulf (a new verse translation). N.Y.: Norton.  

Beowulf 's continuing interest lies in the pre-Christian psychological context of the stories. Being a hero is admirable but it is grim work and one does one's duty entirely alone. The ravens start to circle as soon as the hero weakens, just as in the real lives of the poem's original audience.

Heilemann, J. & Halperin, M. (2010). Game change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the race of a lifetime. NY: Harper.

This is a very fast paced page-turner that follows the personal and political fortunes of the principals in the last presidential campaign. Much of what is described will be familiar to anyone who followed the contemporaneous news reports closely. As it seemed during the campaign, Palin was clueless; McCain was decent but cognitively very old; Biden couldn’t keep his mouth shut; Obama’s breath taking confidence in himself kept being justified; Hillary, probably the best prepared candidate, felt keenly that she was treated unfairly by the press and her ungrateful party, and, finally, Bill Clinton couldn’t refrain from meddling. On the other hand, it was a bit of a surprise to me what a total twit John Edwards was and what a nut case his wife turned out to be. This book, however, shows that the distinctions among the candidates were even greater than they appeared to be during the campaign.

The process of presidential campaigning is crazy. It is dominated by trivialities, is phenomenally expensive, incredibly stressful to the candidates and their campaign teams, and highly dependent on chance. That the process has not been reformed contributes to the perception that the US is essentially ungovernable. Despite it all, this book is essentially an argument that the best man won. Of course, it doesn’t always turn out that way.

Herman, A. (1997). The idea of decline in Western History. Toronto: The Free Press.

Herman traces the idea of the decline of Western civilization from Gobineau and racial pessimism through Nietzche and Burckhardt, the Adams brothers, DuBois, Spengler, Toynbee, the Frankfurt School (Adorno et al.), Marcuse, Sartre, Foucault, Fanon, the mulitculturalists, and the eco-pessimists. Herman’s treatise is that all of these intellectuals and philosophers falsely conceptualize society as a unitary organism, such that only total solutions will work.

This is a good book for those who like me can’t quite keep the big intellectual names straight like they are supposed to. I mean how many of us can remember or even ever knew what Heidigger said as opposed to Marcuse or Burckhardt?

Some interesting stuff. I’ve tried several times, for example, to read Foucault and could never get by the first page (I think he was a moron). Much to my perverse satisfaction, I learned in this book that he was certainly a moral moron, knowingly passing on AIDS in San Francisco orgies.

What struck me reading this book was how futile a lot of this thinking and writing was. More than a little of it seems downright silly and some of the writing, particularly that of the French existentialists, sounds a great deal like self-absorbed adolescent whining. Part of the apparent futility is that the intellectual currents shift back and forth from left to right, what are supposed to be eternal truths seem to be simply responses to current events, the grand predictions about the fate of society keep getting disconfirmed, but, through all this, the philosophizing just continues and people take it as seriously as they ever did.

If there is a lesson here (not quite the one that Herman intended I think), it is that thinking at the level of abstraction that much of this stuff is pitched at and mixing poetic metaphor, history, science, and ideology together results in just one dumb thing after another. These intellectual efforts are best viewed as ways to win friends, punish enemies, and influence people, not as ways to figure anything out.

A well written book. Reading it will make you sparkle at intellectual soirées (until you once again start forgetting who all these folks were).  

Hibbert, C. (1993). Cavaliers and roundheads: The English Civil War, 1642-1649. N.Y.: Scribner's.  

Thousands of deaths and enormous destruction was visited upon the British Isles by the civil war that ended with Cromwell's ascendancy and the Execution of King Charles the First. It all began with what appeared to be political arguments over taxation (the Ship Money Bill) among participants who shared a belief in England's ancient liberties, a hierarchical social structure, and the role of the King. But the traditional social order soon unravelled and religious extremists (Puritans and Catholics) were at each other's throats. In the process of winning the war, Cromwell's New Model Army became increasingly radicalized under the influence of the Levellers, as documented first in the Putney Debates and later in the Remonstrance of the Army (directed at Parliament's mistreatment of it).

After Cromwell's death, the monarchy was restored under Charles the Second, leading many to wonder what all the fighting had been about. I recall the following lines from somewhere (maybe about this war): "And what was the upshot of it all"? quoth little Peterkin. "Why that I cannot tell said he, But twas a famous victory."

Hibbert, C. (1978). The Great Mutiny: India 1857. Penquin.

England administered the fragmented Indian states with the help of British-trained Indian soldiers and the collusion of local elites. In the enervating heat, swarms of servants attended every need of the officers and their families. The British army needed all the help it could get because it was small, inefficiently organized, and led by frequently incompetent nobles.

Muslims objected to pig grease used in their new cartridges (they had to put them in their mouths to prepare them for firing). Rumours and unrest grew until the Indian soldiers mutinied in a number of areas. The insurgents killed all the Europeans they could find while looting, wrecking, and burning fortifications and homes. The British were totally unprepared. Those that weren’t killed fled to safer areas while some endured horrible sieges. All very awful. As were the bloodthirsty reprisals of the British when they put down the rebellion. The whole affair was much bloodier than I had realized.

It’s very interesting to read about what life was like in colonial India in the mid-nineteenth century. Most of the British were very bigoted and treated the Indians very poorly. This bigotry was a recent change and, of course, part of the reason for the rebellion. I was a little surprised by this, given British feelings about slavery as the 19th century wore on.

Hingley, R. & Unwin, C. (2005). Boudica: Iron age warrior queen. London: Hambledon Continuum.

The authors review what frustratingly little we know about Boudica. All of what we knew until very recently came from a couple of Roman sources and the sources disagree about some of the scanty details. It appears that Boudica was the wife of the leader of the Iceni, a tribe of partly Romanized Celts. In response to the Roman abuse of Boudica and her daughters, the Iceni led a rebellion, burning several towns and gruesomely slaughtering the inhabitants. A Roman army returned to the area and defeated the much more numerous Celts in a large battle. The site of the battle has not yet been identified but burned ruins of towns dating from the right time have been found.

Regrettably, the interpretation of the Roman written sources is far from clear. In addition to the discrepancies in the accounts, it isn’t known whether the tales were meant to be historically accurate or were more of a morality tale written to edify the Roman elite—viz., if you are nasty to native women, even they will rise up and bite you. The lack of historical knowledge has allowed lots of more or less fanciful modern accounts to be written in aid of supporting various ideological causes.

Hoffman, D.E. (2009). The dead hand: The untold story of the cold war arms race and its dangerous legacy. Toronto: Doubleday.

This is an important and timely book, masterfully presented. During the Reagan era, the aging Soviet leadership was convinced that the Americans were planning a preemptive nuclear strike. The Soviets had secretly constructed something eerily similar to the doomsday machine lampooned in the movie Dr. Strangelove. And so, totally unbeknownst to the West, the existence of civilization and perhaps multi-cellular life teetered on a razor’s edge. Response times to warnings of a nuclear attack were measured in minutes—false alarms, particularly on the Soviet side, were common.

Then, an off-course airliner was shot down over Siberian airspace. The duplicity of both the Americans (denying their flagrant provocations in the area in the form of aggressive spy flights and huge war games) and Russians (who denied shooting the plane down) worsened an already bad and very dangerous situation. Much of this was apparent to outsiders—I recall writing a letter to CBC radio at the time complaining about a news report of the airliner incident that sounded like it was a Pentagon press release. I pointed out that the suspicions of the two armed camps made this kind of incident inevitable. Mercifully, I didn’t know just how close to Armageddon we were.

We are not now in much danger of nuclear annihilation but the risk of small nuclear strikes by accident, religiously inspired fanaticism, or general nuttiness has become greater. The knowledge of nuclear technology is wide spread, there are poorly guarded decaying stockpiles of nuclear weapons throughout the former Soviet Union, and large numbers of impoverished, unemployed nuclear scientists and engineers. The latter have been the subject of large-scale clandestine recruitment efforts by North Korea and Iran.

The remains of the vast Soviet biological weapons program raise similar issues. Germ warfare capabilities are much more difficult to police than nuclear ones because the factories are cheap, small, undetectable by satellite, and easy to disguise as medical research facilities (after all, the Soviets successfully duped the Americans for decades).

Of course, that the Soviet system was consumed by deceit and paranoia is news to no one. Less appreciated is the participation of Western governments in the business of duplicity. Although on a smaller and much less successful scale than in the Soviet Union, Western duplicity was an important destabilizing force in world politics (the best documentation can be found in Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets). Neither is it news that the cold war antagonists pursued highly aggressive and reckless foreign policies—so much so, that it is apparent that we emerged intact from the cold war largely because of a long run of very good luck. What this book makes clearer is that governments of whatever kind are unable to control their military-industrial complexes, fall victim to their own propaganda, and base their foreign policies on a bizarrely myopic form of realpolitik. Regardless of the form of government (dictatorship or democracy, left or right), the degree of domestic freedom, and the individual characteristics of the leaders (smart or dumb, well meaning or not), the product has been a foreign policy that amounts to lethal buffoonery. There has always been this sort of buffoonery, but nuclear technology raised the stakes exponentially while requiring foolproof control procedures and apocalyptic decisions to be made in real times measured in minutes. Needless to say, states couldn’t and can’t manage any of this effectively. So…. what does one think when all systems of government have been discredited?

Highly recommended. Believe it or not, it reads like a spy novel. The portraits of the principal actors are entertaining and illuminating.

Hoffman, A. (1997). Inventing Mark Twain: The lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. New York: Quill.  

I bought this book because I knew nothing about Mark Twain. Now I know a good deal more than I wanted. There is an enormous amount of detail in this book, some of it amounting to trivia; clearly, the author had great difficulty in prioritizing his material. Nevertheless, there is much of interest to know about the man who invented his own persona and our modern sense of celebrity.

Early on, Samuel Clemens consciously decided to become a "moral phenomenon"-i.e., to become not only a humorist but a commentator on contemporary moral issues. In his later life, when his private views of mankind had become much darker, this strategy became somewhat problematic-writings by a cynical moral phenomenon are not terribly amusing.

Hollingdale, R.J. (1999). Nietzsche: The man and his philosophy. Rev. Ed. N.Y.: Cambridge University Press

Nietzsche's philosophy seems more sensible in this book than it is often portrayed. He was the first to rigorously pursue the implications of the "death of god" produced by Darwinism and other advances in science. Nietzsche was initially enthralled by Wagner (OK, his judgment wasn't perfect) but later broke with him. Nietzsche was in fact difficult to get along with and he never married (despite trying). His sister was a flaming anti-Semite (Nietzsche thought anti-Semitism was silly); she shamelessly profited by his disability and death. One of the reasons that Nietzsche's work has been underestimated is that, following his dementia, his sister published his discarded notes as if they were finished works intended to be published. Imagine what one's work would look like if it came out of one's waste basket or recycle bin. Oh, and Nietzsche was, like Lenin, a great walker-sort of an unhappy wanderer.

Horan, J.D. (1997). Desperate men: The James Gang and the Wild Bunch. (Rev. Ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.  

This is a reprint of a book originally published in 1949. Horan was the first author to have access to the Pinkerton archives. These archives proved a rich source of material and Horan's conclusions have fared well according to later scholarship. The book is well written and moves quickly.

The author is neither credulous nor romantically inclined and his portrayal of Jesse James as a genuinely "bad guy" is credible. Much of what was written about the James gang was either propaganda or sensationalized material designed to sell newspapers and books.

The Wild Bunch was certainly that. They managed to spend their money on prostitutes and drinking amazingly quickly. Like good desperadoes, they died young.

Hughes, R. (1993). Culture of complaint: The fraying of America. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

This book presents what has become the standard criticisms of multiculturalism and related excesses. The book is based on some lectures and magazine articles written earlier by Hughes (an Australian expatriate). Probably the lectures and articles were very good but there is not enough material here to sustain a book length treatment. I'd give it a miss.

Humphreys, R.S. (1999). Between memory and desire: The Middle East in a troubled age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

A sympathetic, well reasoned, and reasonable description of the contemporary Arabic political scene with an emphasis on the relationship of the Arabs with Israel and the West. It gets somewhat repetitious and less interesting toward the end but worthwhile anyway.

Hunt, C.W. (1995). Whiskey and ice: The saga of Ben Kerr, Canada’s most daring rumrunner. Toronto, Dundern Press.

Kerr was born into a wealthy Hamilton family in 1884. Always rebellious and headstrong, he left school at age 13, eventually becoming a plumber by day and a ragtime pianist at night. Kerr first achieved notoriety by facing down the police who were arresting and harassing the public during a bitter strike by the city transit workers. Kerr escaped arrest and later beat his charges at trial.

Prohibition created opportunities for liquor smugglers. Over a considerable time, Kerr made himself rich by employing very fast boats (often piloted by himself) to run liquor into New York State. He took the hazardous winters off and sponsored a local hockey team. More dangerous than the American coast guard, at least at first, was the local mafia, headed by the infamous bootlegger Rocco Perri. Kerr and Perri, however, eventually reached a modus vivendi.

The Americans put a large price on Kerr’s head and created a fleet of fast, heavily armed, boats to shut down the cross-lake smugglers. There was a mini-arms race on Lake Ontario in which, Kerr, always a risk-taker, was undeterred. He pushed his deliveries ever later in the winter, defying the danger of ice, in order to avoid the coast guard (who sensibly stayed in port).

Kerr’s belief in his invincibility eventually cost him his life in 1929. Ending a long mystery and rumours that Perri had had him killed, his boat was found in 1994. Kerr had almost got back to Canadian shore near Colborne when he became trapped in the ice. Eventually, he must have decided that he was close enough to shore to wade in. He wasn’t.

Irwin, W. Conard, M.T., & Skoble, AJ. (Eds). (2001). The Simpsons and philosophy: The D’oh! Of Homer. Chicago: Open Court.

Nice premise for a book. Most of the chapters present modern (post-Kantian) perspectives on ethical philosophy using examples from episodes of the Simpsons: For example, a chapter on how one should treat one’s neighbours, “Hey-diddily-ho, neighboreenos: Ned Flanders and neighborly love”. But some other philosophical topics are also covered—e.g., in “Homer and Aristotle” and “What Bart calls thinking”.

It is wonderful how much detail these authors know about the Simpsons. The best part of the book are the gags that are quoted throughout. A painless way for TV addicts to learn about philosophy.

Isaacson, W. (2003). Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Toronto: Simon and Schuster.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) had an amazing life. He knew everybody and seemed to be involved in everything. A journalist by trade, he was a great joiner and originator of clubs and voluntary associations, some of which, like lending libraries, survive today. He was a tinkerer and inventor (of, for example, the Franklin Stove and the lightning rod) and a more important scientitst than I had imagined. His work on electricity was fundamental - he, for example, was the first to recognize the polarity of electricity. Franklin played an important diplomatic role in the American Revolution, although it appeared that he really preferred to live in England.

This book also describes his personal life. Franklin had trouble getting on with his son (leading to some dramatic moments at the end of the revolution), lived apart from his wife for much of their marriage, and exhibited successful, although over-the-top, flirtatiousness throughout his long life.

Jenish, D. (1999). Indian fall: The last great days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy. Toronto: Penguin  

Interesting reading. It must have been an exciting and rewarding life for the young hunters and warriors of the plains. Their heroic ethos resembles that of many other peoples. In the mid-nineteenth century, Blackfoot boys, such as the future chief, Bear Ghost, were encouraged to become brave warriors. "'If you want to be somebody,' they would tell the boy, 'you must be brave and unflinching in war. You must not think it is a good thing to grow old. The old people have a hard time. They are given the worst side of the lodge. They are sometimes neglected. They suffer when the camp moves. Their sight is dim, so they cannot see far. Their teeth are gone, so they cannot chew their food. Only misery and discomfort await the old. It is much better, while you are young and strong, while your body is in its prime, while your sight is clear, your teeth are sound and your hair is long and black, to die in battle, fighting bravely.'" (p, 72).

As elsewhere, everybody lived surrounded by inconstant allies and hereditary enemies. Revenge was a way of life. Nevertheless, the pacification of the Blackfoot and Cree was an awful lot worse for them, not to mention more boring.

Jennings, P.S. (Ed.). (1983). Medieval legends, NY: J.K.&T.

There are 20 legends presented in the book. Some, like The Song of Roland,  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Death of Arthur, are famous, while the remainder are obscure. Many of the tales are cautionary, some poke fun at hypocritical clerics, and others deal with valour and chivalry. The proportion of tales that treat adultery, however, is remarkable. Love comes instantly on sight and unrequited love makes one ill to the point of death. All this is completely involuntary.

These stories provide some insights into the concerns of the age, particularly sexual conflict. In all a good read. There are also some very good illustrations.      

Jones, H. (2008). The Bay of Pigs. Oxford University Press.

This is a description of the Bay of Pigs debacle. The invasion never had a chance of success because it was “planned” not by three, but by many stooges. Just how stupid this intervention was is something of a revelation, it makes the Dieppe Raid look like a product of good judgment. Many of the same factors of the two botched raids appear to have been at work—too many cooks, frequent changes in plans, increasing commitment to a bad idea, group-think, careerism, internal rivalries, wishful thinking, avoidance of being the bearer of bad news, and so forth. To these must be added in the case of the Bay of Pigs, a total lack of secrecy!

I suppose the most instructive aspect of this story is that no one, from Kennedy on down, was ever held politically or morally accountable.

Kagan, F.W. (2006). The end of the old order: Napoleon and Europe: 1801-1805. Cambridge, MA.: Perseus.

This book concerns the links between diplomacy, military strategy, and battlefield tactics in producing the outcome of the middle series of Napoleonic wars. There is a great deal of detail in this book (there are more volumes coming) but it is on the whole interesting. Many of the diplomatic themes appear in subsequent European wars—Realpolitics, historical sentimentality, bungling, and nationalism . Interestingly, a longing for the restoration of Poland among some members of the Russian court plays a small part in this series of debacles. The principal problem among the allies (England, Austria, and Russia) was that they could not effectively coordinate their armies (there was a gross underestimation of the logistical difficulties) and they faced a united foe (Napoleon). Prussia ended up mobilizing but too late to get involved in the fighting. Napoleon was superb in the military and diplomatic game but also lucky. Too bad he never thought about the long-term consequences of his (temporary) domination of Europe.

I think it must be my declining orientation abilities (doubtless induced by vanishing testosterone) that caused me to find the many maps of troop movements very hard to follow.

In the end, the dominant impression is of vast numbers of more or less innocent men being killed for no particularly compelling reason.

Kagan, D. (2003). The Peloponnesian War. Toronto: Penquin.

A very fine account of the most analyzed war in history. The enormous tragedy that befell the Greeks in this completely futile war is brilliantly portrayed. The war was “a great turning point in history, the end of an era of progress, prosperity, confidence, and hope, and the beginning of a darker time.” This was the conflict that “inspired Thudydides’ mordant observations on the character of war as ‘a savage schoolmaster that brings the characters of most people down to the level of their current circumstances.”

All this is the more disturbing because it all sounds so modern to a contemporary ear. Democracy and tyranny were both hard to export. The practice of realpolitik and its seemingly inevitable inadvertent consequences seem to mock human agency.

Kapica, J. (Ed.). (1985). Shocked and appalled: A century of letters to the Globe and Mail. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys.

This collection of letters starts in 1885 and is designed to illustrate contemporary topics that concerned readers’ minds and trends in the style of letter writing. Some are included simply to amuse the reader—defenses of the flat earth hypothesis, for example. Included are some stunning examples of political acumen and modern thinking in old letters: For example, an 1885 globally informed critique of national policy and editorial pronouncements concerning the Riel Rebellion. Many of the letters, however, even the amusing ones, begin to appear to have been written primarily to advertise the cleverness of their authors. In the end, I don’t believe a book length compendium of letters can sustain a reader’s interest.

Kaplan, W. (2004). A secret trial: Brian Mulroney and the public trust. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

At times written in a stilted and even tedious manner, the author struggles to contain his moral outrage. Hell hath no fury like a lawyer publically betrayed. Kaplan had written a book defending Brian Mulroney against charges of corruption and then learned that Mulroney, upon stepping down as Prime Minister, had secretly accepted $225,000.00 in thousand dollar bills from indicted German arms dealer Karlheinz Schrieber.

The bulk of the book describes a bizarre secret trial in which it is at length discovered that Mulroney’s nemesis, reporter Stevie Cameron, was a secret RCMP informer. Both Cameron and Mulroney emerge from the trial and its aftermath totally discredited. The RCMP doesn’t fare much better. The high-priced legal helpers, of course, do rather well—doing their utmost to help the rich get a little richer and to avoid the rightful consequences of their betrayal of the public trust.

The Afterword, by Norman Spector, a former Mulroney aide, is a damning description of political corruption and moral decay (assuming that it used to be better) in Ottawa. Jesus, what a bunch.

Katz, I. (Ed.). (2003). Salam Pax, The Baghdad Blog. Toronto: McArthur.

“Salam Pax” wrote an irreverent web journal from inside Iraq just before and during the Iraq War. At the time, no one knew who this person was and some suspected he was a spy or a plant by one of the parties. He comes across as a likable, very funny, astute, and sophisticated young man in the blog that is reprinted in this book. In a sense, the story has a happy ending for Salam Pax in that he is neither caught and executed by Saddam nor blown up by the Americans--rather he starts writing for the Guardian. Too bad about his country.

Kay, D. (1992). Shakespeare: His life, work, and era. N.Y.: Morrow.  

An ambitious attempt at a biography of Shakespeare and an interpretation of his plays in the context of his life and times. Ultimately, the author is stymied and the reader frustrated because so little is known for sure about Shakespeare, particularly his formative years and his early career as a playwright. We know a great deal more about his later life and his business career. Despite its limitations, the book is worth a read, particularly if one wants to understand some of Shakespeare's plays a little better.

Kelly, J. (2004). Gunpowder: Alchemy, bombards, and pyrotechnics: The history of the explosive that changed the world. NY: Basic.

This is a very good piece of popular history writing. It's a page turner without extraneous detail but with lots of little known and interesting pieces of information. It starts with an intelligible explanation of how gunpowder works and how it was made (very, very carefully). Gunpowder underwent a slow evolution to make it more reliable, although it was never safe to manufacture. The process was perfected by the Dupont Company before further technological developments confined its use to firecrackers. In all, a fascinating story in which gunpowder is shown to have had an important influence on the course of history. One interesting observation relates to the almost unbelievable inaccuracy of early firearms and the slow adoption of more accurate ones. They could have dropped the "aim" from "ready, aim, fire!"

Kelly, J. (2005). The great mortality: An intimate history of the black death, the most devastating plague of all time. NY: HarperCollins.

This book recounts the story of the black death and is moderately interesting, although sometimes pointlessly repetitious. Histories of the plague constitute very well worn ground and very little in the way of new material is presented. OK if you haven’t read previous histories of the plague.

Kern, S. (2004). A cultural history of causality: Science, murder novels, and systems of thought. Princeton University Press.

In small pieces, Kern describes the major currents of Western European thought from Victorian times to the present and argues that they are exemplified in representative murder mystery novels written throughout this period. Thus progressively later novels increasingly interpret causes as more specific, more multi-faceted, and more complex.

The author is extremely well read and articulate and the short essays on how various intellectual traditions conceptualize causation are wonderfully clear. Nevertheless, this remains a somewhat strangely argued book. Despite the efforts of the author to convince us otherwise, the probative value of the causal interpretations in these novels is unclear. I don’t doubt that the conceptions of causation vary over these novels in the way that Kern asserts but what does this mean? Are the novelist consciously expressing causal conceptions that they learned from the intellectuals who developed them, do the causal conceptions come from the popular culture and influence intellectual and novelist alike, is it sometimes one thing, sometimes another, and sometimes both? One wonders about the sampling issues—what proportion of crime novels express notions of causality in these particular ways over time.

Kessler, D. (2001). A question of intent: A great American battle with a deadly industry. NY: PublicAffairs.

Tobacco farming made lots of money for the tobacco industry and it was gradually taken over by accountants and lawyers with predictable results. “Amoral” is far too weak a term to describe these people. For example, they stopped research on a nicotine delivery device (cigarette) that was less likely to cause cancer because such work would make them vulnerable to lawsuits by showing that they knew that cigarettes were carcinogenic. The goal of the companies was to addict adolescents to nicotine before they knew any better (“if they’ve got lips, we want them”).

Kessler, as head of the US federal Food and Drug Administration, led the battle to regulate cigarettes as a drug (the cigarette companies resisted strenuously, secretly, and without scruple). The difficulty of the battle illustrates the weakness of the American government as compared to wealthy corporations. The book is very entertaining, if infuriating, reading because it presents an insider’s view of big-time bureaucratic/corporate struggles and damns the companies by reproducing some of their private memoranda.

Kilzer, L. (2000). Hitler’s traitor: Martin Bormann and the defeat of the Reich. Novato, CA: Presidio Press.

The Third Reich was mind-boggingly porous. There was Ultra with which the British decoded most of the German military orders. But then there were also two important Russian spy rings that radioed information to “the Center” in Moscow. By far the most important of these rings received information from a person or persons code-named “Werther”. This person has never been identified and the Center did not itself know who Werther was. This book argues that Werther was none other than Martin Bormann, the de facto second in command of the Reich in the final months of the war.

Amazingly, Werther’s reports of Hitler’s meetings with the generals would be radioed to the Center within hours. These were not simply memoranda and orders but descriptions of the discussions themselves—who thought what, what disagreements there were, how firm the decisions taken, what options were considered, and so forth. The Center took to asking Werther specific questions about what the Soviets needed to know in the next few days and generally received detailed answers in time. Despite Stalin’s paranoia (he was prone to execute his spies because their jobs entailed too much contact with Westerners), Stalin came to depend on Werther.

Of course, I can’t evaluate the author’s claim that Bormann was the guilty party but he did appear to be in all the right places at the right times and one of his mistresses was a communist.

Kitz, J.F. (1989). Shattered City: The Halifax explosion and the road to recovery. Halifax, NS: Nimbus.

This is the sad story of the 1917 explosion in Halifax Harbour told from contemporary documents and interviews with aged survivors. Two ships, one of them carrying tons of munitions, gently collided. The boat carrying the explosives caught fire and everyone went to their windows or down to the docks to watch. Thus it was that the ensuing terrific explosion caused 1600 deaths and 9000 injuries, many of the latter eye injuries from shards of glass. The entire downtown was wrecked, much of it obliterated, and the damage extended well into the suburbs. To add to the misery, a blizzard descended on the city the next day.

Relief efforts began immediately and became better organized with time. A great deal of help came from the US, particularly Boston. The first tasks were to find all of the wounded, identify the bodies, repair hospitals, set up tents, and later, temporary housing. Help in the form of pensions continued for decades. Some of the stories are sad beyond belief, for example, social workers trying to find alternate living situations for children whose parents had been both blinded and physically disabled. Or, soldiers learning that their families had been killed back home while they lay in the mud of Flanders.
The cause of the collision appears to be human error made easy by some rather lax navigational rules and practices.

The book, however, is simply a chronicle of the tragedy, much of it consisting of stories about individuals and their families. It starts to read a bit like a sad catalog.

Knight, A. (2005). How the cold war began: The Gouzenko affair and the hunt for soviet spies. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Weeks after  WW II ended, Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet cipher clerk, managed with some difficulty to give himself up to the RCMP in Ottawa. Gouzenko’s revelations of spying made even the over-polite and trusting Canadians somewhat paranoid. South of the border they had profound effects, leading to the Hiss affair and the HUAC investigations. Interesting material on the start of the cold war.

Lacey, R. (2004). Great tales from English history. NY: Little, Brown.

This small book uses contemporary historical knowledge to relate what appears to have actually happened in a number of oft-described incidents in English history. Included are Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Newton, and so forth. There is no theme here but it’s kind of interesting for the most part. Light reading—it’s pitched at about a high school level.

Landes, D.S. (1998). The wealth and poverty of nations: Why some are so rich and some so poor. NY: Norton.

Sort of a Guns, Germs, and Steel without the anthropology and biology. Landes attempts to explain why some nations are rich and some poor (Switzerland, the wealthiest nation, is 400 times richer than the poorest, Mozambique). These great differences are very recent--previously the world’s nations were more egalitarian in their poverty.

The book presents a series of economic histories in an attempt to find patterns in changes in wealth (bad examples, Spain’s reliance on plunder, and good examples, Japan’s work ethic). Landes has clearly grown very tired of political correctness and ritual criticisms of Western thought and institutions. He identifies the roots of wealth in technological improvement, political stability, property rights, adherence to a work ethic, and so forth. All very sensible, with no hope of a panacea. The most interesting and compelling part of the book is his examination of when and where industrial revolutions occurred—e.g., why was England first?


Larson, E.J. (1997). Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's continuing debate over science and religion. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.  

Yet another account of the famous encounter between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Larson argues that the fundamentalists did not see this encounter as a failure and that the evolutionist cause was harmed by Darrow's unkind characterization of Bryan following his death soon after the debate. The victory of the evolutionists arose from Spencer Tracy's performance in the much later movie about the monkey trial.

The best part of the book describes how the Scopes trial was set up in a good natured attempt to lure some commerce and tourists to rural Tennessee.

Laurie, R. (2002). Sakharov: A biography. London: Brandeis University Press.  

This is a very well written biography-a real page turner. The author effectively communicates his admiration for Sakharov. And Sakharov does seem to have been a fine and incredibly bright man. He was also extremely lucky not to have been shot. As Stalin, with his inimitable humour, remarked to Beria concerning some uppity physicists-"never mind, we can always shoot them later." Stalin was a real card, he also said something like "a few deaths are a tragedy, a million just a statistic."

The context of Sakharov's life also provides a very nice overview of post-WW II political history, with compelling portraits of all the famous Russian rulers.

Sakharov shared the American physicists' opinion that their views on the use of the bomb should prevail because they knew how it worked and could calculate its effects. A combination of hubris and breathtaking naivete. Sakharov, for example, calculated the number of deaths that would be caused by each nuclear test (a surprisingly high number) and thought that the Kremlin should cease testing on this basis. The Russians, however, were only marginally more interested in this side effect than the Americans.

Sakharov recounted a wonderfully ironic story about an occasion when he got carried away with his weapons work and approached a naval officer about some issues concerning a multi-megaton torpedo upon which he was working. The officer was horrified by the very idea of the massive and indiscriminate slaughter the torpedo would produce and Sakharov suddenly found himself chastened and on the very wrong side of the issue.

Sakharov's most remarkable characteristic was his independence of mind. Not completely independent of course, but remarkably free given his education, incentives to conform, and penalties for non-conforming. Extremely few would have done so well in similar circumstances..

There are many stories about the KGB in this volume. It makes one think that the secret police are the same everywhere-mean-spirited ideologues given to impractical, foolish, and expensive schemes. It's hard for North Americans to imagine living in a totalitarian police state-such a place inevitably becomes a land of hypocrites.

Le Beau, B.F. (2003). The atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. NY: New York University Press.

Madalyn O’Hair was once the most hated women in America—it all began with her lawsuit on behalf of her son that ended with the prohibition of prayers in the public schools. Madalyn was a publicity hound, somewhat eccentric, and often abrasive. She became the spokesperson for American atheists in the sixties, challenging “In God we trust” on American currency, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the tax exempt status of churches.

In 1995, God eventually got even. In a bizarre sequence of events, Madalyn, her son, and her granddaughter were kidnapped and murdered by some vicious ex-cons, one of whom Madalyn had formerly employed in her work for the American Atheists organization.

LeBeau’s book is pretty good but drags a bit at times, partly because of too much detail and partly because Madalyn is not that appealing or interesting.

Lindahl, C., McNamara, J., & Lindow, J. (Eds.). (2002). Medieval folklore: A guide to myths, legends, tales, beliefs, and customs. Oxford University Press.

The fact that I read this book from cover to cover is proof positive that I don't have a life. However, even though it is an encyclopedia, it is more interesting than reading the phone book. There are some interesting narratives and observations here-the medieval folk were much more scatological than I was aware-simply the nicknames are revealing, having to do with the size, cleanliness, and use of one's genitals for example. There's a fair bit of humour in many of the stories as well as the nicknames. For example, the East Anglian Godlef Crepunder Hwitel (Godlef Creep-Under-the-Blanket), a Monty Pythonesque sobriquet if I've ever heard one.

There is much effort expended in trying to identify the origin and evolution of the many overlapping folktales. Most of this effort is futile because evolution usually can't be distinguished from reinvention or borrowing from another tradition or copying from a classical written source. The problem is everybody talked to everybody.

Lovejoy, A.O. (1936). The great chain of being: A study of the history of an idea. NY: Harper & Row.

This is one of the great classics of intellectual history. I first read it 40 years ago when I had just received my undergraduate degree. It was a bit more tedious in spots than I remember it being (there’s more detail than necessary, I think, or maybe I’m just getting tired). It remains, however, a tour de force. The use of certain intellectual ideas or building blocks that originated in Plato’s writings is traced in philosophical and religious thought through the ages. The amazing thing is that the major idea (an infinite hierarchy of worth stretching from inanimate things to God’s omnipotence and perfection) and the attendant ideas (e.g., the principle of plenitude which asserts that all gradations must exist) held such great appeal across the ages despite the fact that the ideas are inherently self-contradictory. I think I was more impressed this time with the extent of the confused thinking at the core of European philosophical thinking that Lovejoy tries to get us to appreciate than I was the first time round.

Lukacs, J. (1990). The duel: The eighty-day struggle between Churchill and Hitler. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 

This book focuses on the brief time period when Hitler could have overrun England. A very dramatic bit of history indeed. Suspenseful reading even though you know what's going to happen.

Lundy, D. (2006). The bloody red hand: A journey through truth, myth and terror in Northern Ireland. Toronto: Knopf.

This is a personalized account of the long history of Irish sectarian violence. The author was born in Northern Ireland but immigrated as a child to Canada. He returns to his roots during the “troubles”. Lundy describes the history with a view to revealing how myth (or propaganda) has been used to keep the conflict going and how far the myths are from what actually appears to have happened historically. Well worth reading.

And the bloody red hand? The legend goes of future colonists of ancient Ireland heading for the Irish shore by boat. The first man there would get to claim the land. One man gave himself a leg up by cutting off his hand and throwing it ashore

MacMillan, M. (2001). Paris 1919. N.Y.: Random House

This exceptionally informative and interesting book should be required reading for anyone who watches the news. I occasionally had the sense when reading this book that I finally understood the polictical geography of Europe and it was somewhat different than what I had imagined.

I think that people of my generation perceive the political map of the world as it existed in the years before the Second World War as the default or natural state of affairs--later changes appear to be derivative and somehow less natural. It seldom occurs to us that political boundaries in Europe have been in a continual state of flux throughout modern times. Many of the European political boundaries that existed in the thirties were drawn in the Treaty of Versailles that was negotiated (and sometimes dictated) at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. this book is about the conferernce and how it dealt with the shrinkage of Germany and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, among many other territorial changes in other parts of the world.

The portraits of the principal protagonists (Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Vittorio Orlando) are entertainingly drawn, and there are excellent cameo appearances by lesser and sometimes exotic figures from around the world. The descriptions of the many peronalities are very entertaining

Here, in no particular order, are some of the conclusions of this work. Wilson's 14 points elevated the tone of moral discourse, increased nationalist aspirations, and was fundamentally unworkable. The patchwork and intermixture of ethnic, linguistic, and religoius groups around the world usually meant that political boundaries could not be drawn without making some groups unhappy. Small countries behaved as selfishly, greedily, and insensitively as larger countries; the same was true for minorities. The major powers adopted a eurocentric view of the world. The Treaty of Versailles represtented compromises among the national self-interests of the victorious countries (weighted by the amount of blood and treasure lost in the war, the importance of the particular issue at hand to one of the four countries concerned, and the amount of the particular country's post-war military power). The French were justifiably afraid of a recovered Germany and everyone was afraid of the Bolsheviks. The English threw in their lot with the Americans. As the conference continued, the amount of influence of its decisions steadily declined with the demobilization of the armies - decisions were sometimes made that were unenforceable or easily reversed by the locals.

The conferees were certainly conscientious. Nevertheless, the complexity of the very many decisions that had to be made defied the limitations of the human intellect. Decisions were sometimes influenced by wishful thinking, ignorance of local conditions, the propaganda of particular groups, the personalities of particular leaders, shocking publicized incidents, and sheer mental exhaustion. In the end, the leaders behaved like policitical and bureaucratic leaders do everywhere when making complex decisions under extreme time pressure - according to an informal mixture of expediency, unexamined preconceptions, mutual social influence and satisfiscing.

Maddocks, F. (2001). Hildegard of Bingen: The woman of her age. London: Headline.

Hildegaard, a twelfth century German abbess, entered a nunnery as a young girl where she lived for the remainder of her life. She became influential as a saintly mystic through her letters and books. Her book Scivias was dictated to her faithful amanuensis, Volmar, and contains descriptions of her strange waking visions. Some think she suffered from migraines of which the visions were auras. Her correspondence reveals a disputatious and opinionated theologian. Although we have letters and books that Hildegard wrote, there is a great deal more we would like to know about her. Despite the lacunae in her history, this book provides an interesting glimpse into a very foreign time and an indication that the social lives of these people were very similar to our own.

Maier, T. (2009). Masters of sex: The life and times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple who taught America how to love. NY: Basic Books.

A surprising cautionary tale on several levels. I remember seeing Masters and Johnson at a small talk I gave in New York, probably in he early eighties. I was struck by how uptight and insular they looked. Now I understand why.

Masters was a fiercely ambitious and brusque man with a very sad childhood (his father, suffering from a personality twisted by a brain tumour, disowned him early). Masters became a prominent ObGyn in St. Louis. He got university support for a medical study of sexual behaviour—a very different and far riskier proposition than conducting interviews like Kinsey. First, he used prostitutes for his lab work. Later, he recruited nurses, secretaries, faculty, faculty wives, and so forth.

Masters recruited Gini Johnson, a secretary without particular qualifications, as a research assistant. She was a twice-divorced single mother of two. Part of her job was to help Johnson understand the sexual response by having sex with him in the lab. Gini was spectacularly successful in procuring volunteers. As the work progressed, Johnson contributed more and more under Masters’ tutelage. She was promoted until she became co-director of the lab.

Masters’ research was very secret because of its controversial nature and inspired a great deal of gossip. It became clear that the university would neither give Masters full support nor Gini a faculty position after Masters presented the preliminary results of his research to the medical faculty. People were shocked by a film of a nude woman stimulating herself to orgasm.

Masters moved his research to a private institute. He consistently failed to get government funding for his research or to publish in refereed journals. The clinic was dependent on private donors—usually wealthy clients, grateful for having their sexual dysfunctions fixed by the two-week behavioural treatment developed by Masters and Johnson (mostly the latter), although Playboy Inc. was also a long-time contributor. The treatment was spectacularly successful for problems like premature ejaculation.

Fame came with the publication of Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy. Masters and Johnson treated wealthy and famous clients, went on speaking tours, appeared on TV, and hobnobbed with the rich and famous.

The problem was that Masters had to do a lot of lying to carry this all off. He lied to his wife and everyone else about keeping Gini as a mistress and he lied about using paid “sexual surrogates” for treating unpartnered clients. The use of surrogates was concealed because it simply raised too many ethical issues. This high risk enterprise could and almost did blow up on several occasions. When Gini appeared ready to marry another man and leave the clinic, Masters abruptly divorced his wife and shortly thereafter married Gini himself.

Because the clinic had little research money, basic research was largely replaced by clinical work. The treatment was expensive and labour intensive but Masters and Johnson resisted forming franchises. Gradually, everything unravelled. Masters and Johnson had become accustomed to fame and they wanted more “firsts”. They published a book touting successful alteration of homosexual preferences on the basis of scant, sloppily documented, and, to some degree, imaginary data. This book became and remains grist for the evangelists’ mill—homosexuality was a choice that could be overcome by treatment and, later, prayer.

Sex clinics sprang up around the country—some of the practitioners had been trained in the clinic—but most had not. Charlatans and untrained clinicians offered the usual mix of regular psychotherapy and flakey nostrums for sexual dysfunctions and some sexually exploited their clientele. Masters argued mightily for credentialing sex therapists but appeared hypocritical because the best therapist of them all, Gini, had no formal training whatsoever.

The denouement was sad. Masters developed Parkinsons and started dementing. Gini took care of him and protected him as best she could from professional embarrassment. In return, Masters suddenly asked for a divorce in order to marry his first and long unrequited love. Masters finally retired to Arizona and Gini sank into embittered obscurity.

A good read and not at all what I had expected.

Mallan, C. (1995). Wrong time, wrong place? How two Canadians ended up in a Brazilian jail. Toronto: Key Reporter Books.  

Che lives!!......... In Canada, in a pathetic Canadian sort of way. Christine Lamont, daughter of a British Columbia doctor and sometime student at Simon Fraser University became interested in Latin America and later an activist in the cause of the El Salvadorean revolutionaries. She teamed up with David Spencer, a budding left-wing activist from (of all places) Moncton, New Brunswick. They went to El Salvador and joined an international group of revolutionaries who organized a series of professional kidnappings of very wealthy Brazilians to raise money for the world-wide armed struggle against imperialism.

David and Christine were arrested with a bunch of South American revolutionaries and a very high profile hostage. The evidence against them was overwhelming, later including dozens of fraudulent Canadian identity papers bearing their photographs that was discovered after a bomb inadvertently went off in a Nicaraguan arms cache.

Christine's mother, Marilyn, began and orchestrated a campaign to get her "innocent" daughter out of the clutches of those nasty Brazilians. The campaign, subsidized by the good doctor's income (as was Christine's fulltime activism in Canada), was very successful, being adopted by some dumb and/or opportunistic Canadian politicians, such as Bob Horner, Sven Robinson, and Lloyd Axworthy. The Canadian government ended up pissing off the Brazilians and probably delayed the release of Christine and David. Funny how those Brazilians don't like being looked down on.

The Tory minister of foreign affairs, Barbara McDougall, is one of the few politicians who seems to have had some common sense.

All this is quite a tale and well presented.

Márquez, G.B. (1996). News of a kidnapping. N.Y.: Penquin (translated by E. Grossman).  

Of course, the memory of Che doesn't inspire all South American kidnappings. Unbelievable amounts of money in wretchedly poor Columbia can do the same. The awesome mark up of cocaine generated billions of dollars for the Medellin cartel, making them and their leader, Pablo Escobar, many enemies. This is the story of a number of journalists who were kidnapped by Escobar's minions and held for months before their release or execution.

This book is not at all well written but is of interest because of its suspense and its portrait of the peculiarities of Colombian society. The bad guys are devout (and simple minded) peasant Catholics. The good guys are wealthy agnostics. All the rich people know each other. Everybody loves American and British pop music. Life is very cheap.......

Marks, K. (2009). Lost paradise: From mutiny on the Bounty to a modern-day legacy of sexual mayhem, the dark secrets of Pitcairn Island revealed. NY: Free Press.

After the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, nine of the mutineers kidnapped twelve Polynesian women, six men, and one baby, and found their way to Pitcairn Island, literally in the middle of nowhere. Each of the mutineers took a wife and left three women for the Polynesian men to share. Over the first decades, the men murdered each other, one committed suicide, and one died of asthma. By 1800, only one man, John Adams, survived, with all the women.

Most of what people know about Pitcairn and the mutiny is derived from highly romanticized Hollywood movies that glorified the mutineers. The reality of the mutiny and subsequent life on Pitcairn was quite different. This different reality came to light when some contemporary women complained that they were repeatedly raped in childhood. The ensuing judicial and internet brouhaha went on for years. The Pitcairners closed ranks and many of the women recanted. This long story reveals a lot about post-colonial sensibilities, strongly biased interventions designed to save Pitcairn “culture”, and the types of exculpatory stories people in trouble invent.

Even more interesting, however, are the implications the history of the Island suggests. Basically, all of the girls on the island were fair game and were “broken in” way before puberty. Surprisingly, fathers did not protect their daughters (leading one to wonder about the degree of paternity certainty). Men of poor prospects sexually assaulted the younger girls, while men of better prospects monopolized the older girls and women. Not uncommonly, repeated rape led to longer-term liaisons. This Darwinian reproductive soap opera invites us to consider what life among our isolated bands of ancestors may have been like. Could it be that the sexual psychologies of contemporary men and women were forged under such circumstances?

Massie, R.K. (1991). Dreadnaught: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War. New York: Random House.

This great fat book is the best I've read in quite some time. I was very sorry to have it end. The narrative captures the flavor of the times. It documents the interplay of personalities, politics, and strategic constraints in bringing about history's greatest tragedy. The author is not afraid to express his admiration or disapproval for those individuals who, by his documentation, are deserving. The portraits of the key figures, particularly of Sir Edward Grey and the Kaiser, are unforgettable.

The greatest irony manifest in this account is that competence and strength of character were as instrumental as stupidity and childishness in creating the chain of events that swept Europe over the brink.

Because of the incredible amount of documentation concerning this pivotal period of modern history, there are a great many books for layfolk. Before reading Massie's book, my favorite historian had been Barbara Tuchman. I still recommend her books on this subject highly: The Proud Tower (the history of the prewar disarmament movement), The Guns of August (about the critical first month of the war), and The Zimmerman Telegram (concerning the entry of the Americans into the war). The Guns of August makes a great sequel to the Dreadnaught book.

For a more complete picture of the antecedents to the war, the Archduke and the Assassin: Sarajevo, June 28th, 1914 (L. Cassels, 1985, Briar Cliff Manor, NY: Stein & Day) fills out the picture on the Austrian Empire and Balkan side. The dying Archduke's exhortation to his already dead wife (it was a love match that had cost him dearly) "Sophie, Sophie, don't die! Live for my children!" makes a suitably pathetic beginning to the war.

Massie, R.K. (1995). The Romanovs: The final chapter. N.Y.: Ballantine.

Massie is a historian who wrote one of my favourite books, Dreadnaught: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War. I had been looking for his book on the Romanovs and instead found his brief post-Romanov book on what happened to their remains.

Much of this tale has to do with forensic anthropology and DNA evidence. It's quite interesting. At the human level, the villain of the piece is Dr. William Maples of Dead men do tell tales (which I didn't like much). The sin of hubris leads Maples to make a fool of himself.

The book also provides a glimpse into how screwed up Russia is. It appears almost anarchic.

McGoogan, K. (2001). Fatal passage: The untold story of John Rae, the arctic adventurer who discovered the fate of Franklin. Toronto: Harper.

John Rae was a truly remarkable man, sadly neglected by history. His neglect is largely because he came up with the politically incorrect answer about Franklin's fate-his men perished miserably as starving cannibals. Franklin's indomitable widow and the self-interest of the British Navy ensured that Rae did not get his historical or public due as discoverer of what happened to the Franklin expedition or of the long sought-after Northwest Passage.

Rae travelled Indian or Inuit style with small numbers of men, mostly aboriginal. He was a fabulous shot, enabling his men to live off the land while carrying few supplies, an excellent canoeist and small boat sailor, and probably the best snowshoer ever. In all his expeditions he only lost one man, and him to a freak accident. Rae thought nothing of travelling by himself from Hudson's Bay to Montreal to Winnipeg and back.

There is lots of interesting and little known history in this book and some useful nuggets of information should you do a little winter camping in the arctic. For example, if your roof is made of snow, your breath won't condense on it and drip on you.

McLaren, A. (2002).  Sexual blackmail: A modern history. Harvard University Press.

Attempts to legislate morality by criminalizing various sexual behaviours serve chiefly to support blackmailing as a cottage industry. Depending on the time and place, English and American blackmailers focused on alienation of affection, bigamy, adultery, abortion, and homosexuality. It is noteworthy how frequently police and lawyers were involved in blackmail.

There’s an interesting section on how homosexuals came to be viewed as security risks during the McCarthy era. It was argued without evidence that their vulnerability to blackmail made them ‘unreliable.” The irony of  the closeted J. Edgar Hoover’s focus on gays is duly noted. The book as a whole, however, fails to sustain interest. One problem is that there isn’t much in the way of theory or analysis and what there is, is presented repetitively. A bigger problem is that most of the book is simply a catalogue of cases.

McNab, A. (1993). Bravo Two Zero. New York: Dell.

An incredible story of endurance behind the Iraqi lines during the Gulf War. McNab is very lucky to have survived, even though at times he was probably wishing he wouldn't. The Iraqis are not nice captors. The special forces are remarkably well trained and well equipped. One gains an appreciation for the planning and preparation required for even a very small scale operation behind enemy lines.

Medvedev, Zh.Z. (1969). The rise and fall of T.D. Lysenko. Translated by I.M. Lerner. N.Y.: Columbia University Press.

I found this book by accident. What a find!!! Medvedev was a participant in the final phase of the Lysenko farce/tragedy. The first two parts of the book were refused publication and circulated in the mimeo underground of the USSR. When it became known, another, unrelated Medvedev was fired before it was discovered he was the wrong guy. Which says something about the efficiency of the system under discussion.

Lysenko, among other silly things, thought that new species were directly created in response to environmental conditions out of old, as well as by spontaneous generation. Genes didn't exist and organisms sacrificed themselves for the good of the species. Genetics was linked to fascism, racism, bourgeois science, and foreign influence.

Lysenko's opponents, such as the distinguished academician Vavilov, were first vilified in the newspapers and scientific journals as Menshiviking idealists, anti-Darwinists, Morganist-Mendelists, Trotskyites, and toadies of the Western scientific establishment, then arrested. Most perished, Vavilov from starvation.

The agricultural losses in the USSR were staggering. Lysenko developed the questionnaire method of measuring the results of his innovations. Agricultural workers generally gave the "right" answers but when there were problems, data were simply falsified. After the first war, the civil war, the second war, and the agricultural debacles occurring from the thirties on, one wonders that there are any Russians left at all. A triumph of the human will (or fecundity). In the never ending but good chronicle of the civil war (Lincoln, W.B. (1989). Red Victory: A history of the Russian Civil War. Toronto: Simon and Schuster), there is a picture of these starving Russians who were arrested for cannibalism--it looked like the pickings were slim indeed.

All this being said, the real interest in this book is how close it hits to home. I thought when I began reading it that it would be an account of something completely foreign and exotic, of anthropological interest. That expectation was strengthened by the pictures of these guys in the book--they look exactly like the slavic peasant immigrants that we Thunder Bay kids (many of whom were their children) used to mock, in our childish ignorance.

There are some quotations of Vavilov being questioned in a committee meeting by Lysenko and his comrades. I swear, you'd think it was taken from the HUAC hearings during the McCarthy era. It's uncanny. It would be an interesting exercise to read Ewald, W.B. (1984). Who killed Joe McCarthy? Toronto: Simon & Schuster and the Medvedev book back to back. Talk about a mirror image!!

Some parallels between the Lysenko scientific hegemony in the USSR and current controversies here are more uncomfortable.......

Meier, C. (1982). Caesar. New York: Basic.

A nice treatment of the end of the republic and the motivations of the principal political antagonists at the time of Caesar. Meier illustrates how the senate had become incapable of administering the Roman empire and how this led to their ambivalent treatment of their great generals. Not as fast paced reading as Michael Grant's many books about the same period but worthwhile in any event. Caesar reminds one of a cross between Pierre Trudeau and General Patton.

Merridale, C. (2005). Ivan’s war: The Red Army 1939-45. London: Faber and Faber.

This is a compellingly readable history of the Red Army in WWII based on many interviews with survivors and newly available documentary information, particularly contemporaneous letters. One is hard pressed not to weep while reading this heart-breaking story. The barbarous conditions and the scale of the catastrophe (about one third of the army were casualties) are essentially incomprehensible. But that is just the beginning. There were those who joined the army because they believed in saving the motherland from invaders, those who sought revenge for German atrocities, those who were essentially abducted at gun-point, those who were placed in the punishment brigades as a death sentence (primarily for imaginary crimes against the state), those who wanted to save the international proletariat from fascist capitalism, and those who simply hoped they would get food if they joined the army. All except those who only sought revenge were disappointed and all were ultimately betrayed.

Political interference with the military almost cost Russia the war—that and a whopping dose of mind-boggling incompetence at the war’s beginning. Bureaucrats and party officials did well on graft while the soldiers froze, starved, and were blown to bits at the front. Eventually many of the soldiers became resistant to the endless propaganda to which they were forced to listen (they were preoccupied by fear, cold, and hunger) and when they reached Europe wondered why the farms were so rich in capitalist countries and so poor in the collectivized farms of the workers’ paradise. They couldn’t understand why a country as obviously rich as Germany could possibly want to go to war to take poverty-stricken Russian territory. Because of this, the Party came to prefer dead heroes to independently thinking live ones. The stupendous soviet victory came to be shared among the glorious leader, the Party, and the dead. Returning veterans were not allowed to talk about the realities of the front, conditions in Europe, or to make suggestions for political change. They were sidelined, politically suspect, and, particularly poignantly for the many invalids, ignored. The army had destroyed one despotic regime, often with the loftiest intentions and always with great sacrifice, in order to save one that was, if anything, worse.

Ivan’s War is a wonderful counterpoint to A woman in Berlin because both deal with the atrocities of the Red Army from completely different, but equally valid and complementary viewpoints. One factor that I had not appreciated was that the political commissars strongly encouraged revenge on the fascist beasts and the total destruction of Germany. Although hardly the whole story, the rape, mindless property destruction, wholesale theft, and casual murder of civilians during the early part of the occupation was a logical consequence of these exhortations.

Mersey, D. (2002). Legendary warriors: Great heroes in myth and reality. London: Brassey’s.

A good account of nine legendary warriors: Arthur, Dracula, Achilles, Beowulf, Robin Hood, Hiawatha, Roland, Cuchulain, and Wallace. For each warrior, Mersey starts with the best-known legends and moves to what we know about the history of the time the warrior lived (or is alleged to have lived) with an emphasis on contemporary military equipment and tactics. There is an interesting dissection of the accuracies and inaccuracies of the portrayal of Wallace in the movie Braveheart.

Montefiore, S.S. (2003). Stalin: The court of the red Tsar. London: Phoenix.

This is the best book on Stalin I have read. The big surprise to me was how his extended family and large group of inter-related Georgians perpetrated, witnessed, and were victimized by the various waves of terror that Stalin orchestrated. The political elite were tireless workers who were terrorized by Stalin in grotesque mandatory drunken parties, night after night. The stamina of these folks was remarkable. The scale and brutality of the ethnic and political cleansings is on a scale too large for comprehension. The incongruous blend of socialist rhetoric, old-style prejudice, paranoid ideation, careerism, and spectacular incompetence is thought provoking, even mind-boggling. But I finally think I understand something of this tragic and bizarre episode of history.

Moore, L. (1997). The thieves’ opera. NY: Harcourt.

This is an entertaining description of the 18th century London underworld, enlivened by a number of Hogarth’s engravings (for example, Gin Lane). These are great but a little small.

There was widespread poverty in London, leading to a high death rate and rampant crime. Everybody seemed on the take, especially in the prisons. The book deals with two principal criminals: Jack Sheppard, a robber and jail breaker, and Jonathon Wild, a more complex and sinister figure. Wild was London’s Thief –Taker General (there was no real police force). He would return people’s stolen property to them for a fee, having often had it stolen earlier. Wild would turn in thieves who operated outside his authority or who displeased him. He controlled his associates through black mail because he could prove that they were guilty of capital offenses. In the end, both Sheppard and Wild were hung.

Moore, R. (2002). A time to die: The untold story of the Kursk tragedy. Toronto: Random House.

Fast paced and suspenseful, even if we know the outcome. Lots of little known details about submarining and diving. The most amazing part of the story is how soon the tragedy was known in the West and how the Russians (eventually) reached out to the private entrepreneurial diving community. Highly recommended.

Moorhouse, G. (2002). The Pilgrimage of Grace: The rebellion that shook Henry VIII’s throne. London: Phoenix.

Northern England half-heartedly rebelled, ultimately failing because of its own hesitations. Henry the VIII, in case you didn’t already know, was a thoroughly dislikable, relentlessly duplicitous guy. The pathetic truth is that the vast majority of the rebellious were loyal to the king, naively blaming his rapacious and often incompetent policies on the low-born ministers of the crown. The pilgrims wanted to set religious and economic things right by returning to the good old days. The rebellion was started by the commons but they forced various nobles to join them because they lacked credible leaders—these folks couldn’t escape their feudal psychology even in rebellion. The nobles that they coerced into joining had to make knife-edge calculations concerning whether they were more likely to be murdered in the short run or hung in the long run.

There’s far too many names (like a Russian novel) and too much geographical detail in places for a general reader but it’s worth persevering.

Morrison, R. (2009). The English Opium Eater: A biography of Thomas de Quincey. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

I had to read this biography of my purported ancestor, De Quincey. De Quincey (1785-1859) was an English author who wrote for a variety of magazines—a kind of public intellectual. His most famous work was the “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”. And prodigiously eat opium throughout his life he did, in the form of laudanum mixed with alcohol. De Quincey developed an almost superhuman tolerance for both drugs despite his diminutive stature and, although the drugs made him sick and brought him bizarre dreams, seldom affected his lucidity.

De Quincey was born fairly wealthy and was extremely well read. His passion for book collecting rivaled his other addictions. He became a very early admirer of the Lake Poets, including Wordsworth and Coleridge (the latter also an opium addict). De Quincey introduced himself to the two poets and then moved to a cottage nearby Wordsworth’s.

Through a combination of generosity and the purchase of innumerable books and oceans of laudanum, De Quincey quickly impoverished himself. He spent the rest of his life borrowing from friends and associates, hiding from creditors, living in debtors’ prison, and causing his wife and children a lot of misery. All the while, he wrote because writing was his only source of income.

The book is long but pretty good.

Nasar, S. (1998). A beautiful mind. N.Y.: Simon and Schuster.

A well written book. It sure doesn't appear at first glance to be something that a hit movie would be made from. The unavoidable weakness in the book is that most readers (like me) have only the dimmest understanding of the mathematical insights which made Nash famous. One has to take it on faith. Nash comes off in the book as an exceptionally unappealing guy until he grows old. Perhaps the message is that there is hope for all of us.

Newman, W.R. (2004). Promethean ambitions: Alchemy and the quest to perfect nature. University of Chicago Press.

The author argues that modern worries over the relationship between technology and nature are anticipated by ancient and medieval debates about whether art can reproduce nature and whether alchemy resulted in real or only apparent changes in matter. Modern debates about the wisdom of cloning and my childhood neighbour’s worry that sending rockets into space risked “putting the light out” are continuations of historical arguments. Interesting enough intellectual history but this presentation is so pedantic and slow paced that I ended up skimming the last parts. Not recommended.


Newman, P.C. (2005). The secret Mulroney tapes: Unguarded confessions of a prime minister. Toronto: Vintage.

This book has been described as a hatchet-job betrayal of the former prime minister by one of his close friends. Newman, a reporter, recorded many phone calls from Mulroney. Mulroney knew he was being recorded and that Newman was going to write his biography. Mulroney told Newman he wanted him to tell it like it was but then was apparently unhappy with the result. My guess is that Mulroney was in part simply horrified by the unedited transcriptions of his casual and, sometimes before he quit drinking, drunken, conversations. Who of us would like to hear our conversations played back to us verbatim, let alone broadcast to the world?

But a hatchet job this is clearly not. Newman clearly likes and admires Mulroney and, even more, the astuteness and charm of his wife, Mila. In fact, the central issue of the book is how someone who was apparently so personally charming and well meaning as Mulroney could come to elicit such visceral hatred from a large part of the Canadian public. This is indeed an interesting question that raises issues concerning how partisan politics, the media, and personality conflicts interact to warp the perception of reality. Fatally, Mulroney looked stiff and stilted on TV. His fabled hail-fellow-well-met Irish gift for blarney and exaggeration in the service of compromise and negotiation that had served him so well as a labour lawyer, just appeared to be dishonesty when he was prime minister.

To me this book was a welcome reality check. What so clearly emerges is the absolute ordinariness of Mulroney and his family. Not evil, not brilliant, not incompetent. Ambitious, for sure, like many of us, and sometimes a bit deluded by self-serving perceptions, like all of us. To my great surprise, I ended up liking Mulroney and admiring his family.

I really am amazed after reading this book that any knowledgeable person would seek to be prime minister.

Nicolson, A. (2008). Quarrel with the king: The story of an English family on the high road to civil war. NY: HarperCollins.

The Pembrokes were among the first families of England from the early 1500s to 1650. The fabulously wealthy earls of Pembroke created an Arcadia in one of the most beautiful areas of England—Wiltshire, adjacent to Salisbury. A remarkable wedding portrait painted by Van Dyck in 1635 is reproduced in the book and gives the flavour of the whole. “At the top left, the dead children of the family float on clouds. Below them, the three youngest brothers…look up to heaven. In the center.… the bride in white. Two steps above her, the boy she is marrying…and his younger brother… with whom she is in love. Holding center stage, Philip, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, and his wife, Lady Anne Clifford” [who looks desperately unhappy, as if she grieved for her dead children or was disaffected from her husband and family]. “On the right, the earl’s daughter… and her husband, the highly glamorous Cavalier Robert Dormer, Earl of Carnarvon. Life for the Pembrokes would never again seem as complete.”

The Pembrokes started out as arriviste Welsh bullies but soon entered the high aristocracy because they attracted the favour of successive monarchs. As the monarchy became more centralized, there was increasing pressure on manorial magnates to become royal bureaucrats. The Pembrokes resisted such change, they were reactionaries, committed to upholding the liberties and customs of England that had existed since time out of mind.

Excellent book. Very reflective. The author paints a vivid picture of the lives of the earls and farmers in the Elizabethan countryside (there’s a lot more to customary practices than one might imagine) and the intrigues at court.     

Nicolson, A. (2003). God’s secretaries: The making of the King James’ Bible. NY: HarperCollins.

Surprisingly little is known about the men who wrote the King James’ version of the Bible and much of what is known is fairly recent. Nicolson does a wonderful job of telling us about these men and their times. There are excellent portraits of the personalities of the principal figures, including King James himself, who was very much in charge of this giant project. Much of the book concerns the choice of language in the King James Bible—these choices were made with extraordinary care by a series of committees who with great effort usually succeeded in producing the clearest meaning with the most magnificent sounding phrases (this bible was meant to be read aloud). It’s marvelous to think of how many of the best phrases of English come from this Bible.

Highly recommended.

Nielsen, R.F. (2000). Total encounters: The life and times of the Mental Health Centre Penetanguishene. Hamilton: McMaster University Press.

Of interest primarily to those who, like me, participated in the life and times of the Mental Health Centre. The author interviewed a great many people for this book and quotes them liberally. The book emphasizes the early history of the hospital and the later controversial developments in the Social Therapy program for psychopaths. Because a lot of ground is covered, there is inevitably a great deal of condensation. This condensation occasionally approaches caricature of a type that I suppose to be difficult to avoid in historical writing. From an insider's view, it appears both that the versions of events are coloured by who is doing the telling and that the actions and opinions of administrative heads receive a disproportionate amount of attention.

Nevertheless, a good source of historical material for the tiny but very interested audience for whom it is intended.

Ollard, R. (1966). The escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

This engaging little adventure story begins in 1651 after Cromwell defeated Charles the II’s Scottish army at Worcester. Charles had initiated the campaign in spite of the views of his advisors, with predictable results, and hardly endeared himself to his largely disaffected subjects by inflicting an invasion of barbaric Scots upon them.

Charles narrowly escaped after the battle and, with Cromwellian agents and soldiers scouring the countryside for him, lived an underground existence aided by brave Royalist sympathizers. Many of these were papists who were used to covert operations and maintained “pope’s holes” (places where priests could hide) in their houses. While sequestered in one safe house, Charles witnessed the joyous celebrations of the townsfolk occasioned by a rumour that he had been captured. Charles was fast on his verbal feet and talked himself out of a number of precarious situations. Some of these dangerous situations were caused by the fact that he had never been taught to do work of any kind—he didn’t know how to put a bridle on a horse, use common kitchen instruments, and so forth. This was a serious problem when he was going about dressed as a commoner.

Charles was on the run for about three weeks before his helpers managed to get him on a small boat (later renamed the Royal Escape) that returned him to France. Nine years later, Charles returned in triumph to resume his rule.

One of the most striking aspects of this book is the attitude of the royalists toward the king. It hadn’t been long before that people believed that scrofula could be cured by the king’s touch. People believed that the king was very, very, special. The rather ordinary acts of courtesy, foresight, and bravery of the king were remembered and cherished. If these acts had been done by anyone else, they would have been considered unremarkable. The author, in a muted fashion, shares this sense of the specialness of royalty. Lady Diana aside, I think that it’s a bit hard for many North Americans to really understand this perception.

Charles handsomely rewarded those brave individuals who helped in his escape, usually with pensions to the individuals and their sons. This was exceptional because Charles didn’t ordinarily show gratitude for past services. Remarkably, there remains a family today that continues to receive a pension from the crown stemming from Charles’ escape.

O'Shea, S. (2000) The Perfect Heresy: The revolutionary life and death of the medieval Cathars. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre.

When the walls of Béziers had been breached in the siege of 1209, soldiers asked Arnold Amaury, the monk who led the first Albigensian crusade how to distinguish Catholics from Cathar heretics. Amaury is said to have replied "Kill them all, God will know his own." The slaughter of 20,000 or so of the hapless inhabitants followed. Over the next 200 years, the Cathar heresy was extinguished along with the political independence of Languedoc in Southern France. The crusade was particularly thorough and barbaric: There is the tale of a long line of men wending their way toward a Cathar fortification, each man with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front. All had been blinded by the crusaders save the first, who was spared one eye.

This is a very worthwhile read. It is interesting because the nature of the Albigensian heresy is not widely known and because the sophisticated and brutal methods developed for its extirpation were later applied widely throughout Europe against heretics, such as relapsing Jews, and pernicious witches.

Ozment, S. (1996). The Burgermeister's daughter: Scandal in a sixteenth century German town. N.Y.: Harper

A very interesting read. It is remarkable how much correspondence, such as love letters, and legal documentation survives from a dispute between a father and daughter from so long ago. Neither party is particularly admirable but both very human. One of the fascinating aspects of this history is how it illustrates the detail and sophistication of sixteenth century German family law. The issues and many of the specific rules concerning the inheritance and distribution of family property are both sensible and very familiar. It does, however, require at least some good will to make things work and that good will was conspicuously absent in the soap opera described in the present work.

Paris, E. (2000). Long shadows: Truth, lies and history. Toronto: Knopf

A thoroughly depressing book about the possibility of reconciliation following oppression. It deals with efforts at reconciling blacks and whites in South Africa and the legacies of American slavery, the holocaust, and the war in Bosnia. On the one hand, one wants to have the historical record accurate and some sort of justice and, on the other, one wants peace and understanding between previously antagonistic parties. There is no solution offered in this book.

Paul, W. (1998). Herman Göring: Hitler paladin or puppet? London: Brockhampton Press. Translated by H. Bögler.

Not a smoothly written (or perhaps smoothly translated) book. It covers the biographical facts of Göring's life but does not offer a convincing explanation of his motives. It is clear that he was brave, vain, charismatic, smarter than the average member of Hitler's entourage (the only one who could actually read a balance sheet), and a greedy lover of luxury. His attitude toward the Jews was ambivalent. Hitler gradually lost confidence in his abilities during the war, despite having designated him his successor.

Payne, R.J. (1995). The clash with distant cultures: Values, interests, and force in American foreign policy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

This book illustrates the total vacuousness of the concept of culture as an explanatory vehicle. "Culture" is mentioned in nearly every paragraph and if it were to be removed, the book would be shorter, read a lot better, and lose absolutely nothing. The political analysis presented is OK, just that it is not aided by the ad hoc and insistent attempts to explain political events by invoking culture.

For example, the author wishes us to believe that states are more likely to war upon states that are culturally different from them. This causes real problems in explaining the history of warfare between, say, France and England, not to mention England and the US. or, even better, culture is used to explain why the US did not come to the aid of Bosnia but did attack Iraq (Muslims are more culturally different from Americans than Serbian Christians). Clearly, this book was written a little too soon. I am confident, however, that such slippery and vague explanatory devices could be made to postdict US support for Kosovo.

There clearly isn't a theory of this type that can actually predict political behavior. A case study of the worst kind of thinking in social science.

Phenix, P. (2006). Private demons: The tragic personal life of John A. MacDonald. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

This book, true to its title, doesn’t talk a lot about MacDonald’s political career but does talk a lot about his private life. Demons indeed, if I were more medievally-minded, I would conclude that MacDonald was cursed. First, there was his alcoholism. MacDonald was not a “problem drinker,” he was a full-blown alcoholic from his teenage years until almost the last years of his life. He was regularly literally carried out of bars and parties because he was too drunk to walk and incurred the costs of such heavy drinking (insulting his friends, missing work, massive hangovers, and so forth).

MacDonald was also chronically in debt and suffered recurrent anxiety about whether he would be able to somehow come up with the money he owed (it didn’t help that both he and his two wives were spendthrifts). His first wife was a dependent, manipulative opium addict. Their first son died very young for no obvious reason. Their second son was raised by MacDonald’s sisters and brother-in-law (who were constantly bickering among themselves) because his invalid wife finally died and MacDonald himself was too busy with politics and law to raise him (they were estranged while the boy was young—he was a real twit as a young man but seemed to improve somewhat with age).

MacDonald’s second marriage was better than the first but the daughter born of that union had severe cerebral palsy and mild hydrocephaly. Then MacDonald’s friends and relatives started dying—including his dear friend, drinking partner, and political ally, Darcy Magee, who was murdered by a Fenian near to MacDonald’s house in Ottawa (incidentally, the house was built atop a stinking sewer pipe). And so forth--if you didn’t know the story, you’d be waiting for him to kill himself (he did try once, however). The wonder of it all is that MacDonald had a great sense of humour, was extremely attractive to the ladies (he was a big flirt), and was one of the most successful Canadian politicians ever.

Power, S. (2008). Chasing the flame: Sergio Vieiro de Mello and the fight to save the world. Toronto: Penguin.

This book could have been titled Bureaucracy meets Godzilla, with Godzilla played by the aspirations of the right-thinking peoples of the world. Sergio is a Brazilian who is first a left-leaning philosophy student in France and then a career bureaucrat with the UN. Sergio cuts a dashing and womanizing figure while he occupies ever more senior positions in the world’s hotspots: Lebanon, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor, and Iraq. In Iraq, Sergio’s luck finally runs out and he is murdered by an al Qaeda suicide bomber because of his successful work in restoring peace to East Timor.

The UN is comprised of careerists, idealists, and mixtures of the two. At times, UN officials forget or disregard the purposes of the policies and directives they administer in favour of a stupid and self-defeating literalism. The UN is generally poorly served by the countries that sit on the Security Council and given impossible tasks to carry out under impossible conditions—generally, the various countries want to appear to be doing something but are not motivated to part with much of their blood or treasure. My favourite quote from the book: “Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” (Cohen, a US military analyst).

Sergio, while remaining a loyal UN bureaucrat, gradually gathers experience that enables him to be increasingly effective operator in chaotic and murderous field conditions. He was most successful in his penultimate assignment, East Timor. The book documents the replacement of his idealistic preconceptions with a more ruthless and effective pragmatism.

Radzinsky, E. (2005). Alexander II: The last great tsar. (trans. A.W. Bouis). Toronto: Free Press.

Radzinsky is a Russian playwright and TV celebrity. If this book is any guide, his plays are fabulous. After the death of his totalitarian father, Alexander II set controversial reforms in motion, most notably the liberation of the serfs (this is before the American Civil War freed the slaves). Alexander, however, dithered and compromised—he freed the serfs but didn’t grant them enough land to live on. He encouraged more liberal education, thereby creating a generation opposed to the monarchy, whom he then had to suppress.

All of this made him many enemies. His repressions radicalized the students, some of whom began the anarchist movement. The anarchists used bombs and terror in the naïve hope of toppling the government. The conservatives blamed the Tsar for the unrest. Then the court turned against him because he married the love of his life shortly following his first wife’s death. Would the aristocracy be forced to recognize this woman as the empress and her (previously bastard) children as heirs to the throne? People in high places, including the security apparatus, were no longer highly motivated to protect the Tsar. The fifth attempt on his life was successful.

Highly recommended.


Raffo, P. (2005). Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital 1934-2004: From institution to community: A transformation of psychiatric hospital services. Thunder Bay: St. Joseph’s Care Group.

Despite the brave title, this is a pathetic tale of the extended failure of a psychiatric institution in Ontario’s hinterland. From the decades of delay in its beginning caused by the imperialistic neglect of its Southern Ontario political masters and the inter-city rivalry of Port Arthur and Fort William, to the inability to attract mental health professionals (particularly psychiatrists and psychologists) that characterized the sixties to nineties period, to its demise in the confusion of Ontario psychiatric care policies of the nineties and beyond, it’s a litany of missed opportunities and stifled initiative. Its final demise occurred in a period characterized by anti-psychiatric rhetoric (patients became “consumer-survivors”), anti-institutional policies (essentially de-staffing), and weak attempts to develop community programs by a centralized, demoralized, and confused bureaucracy.

Could it be as bad as all this? The author, historian Raffo, apparently thinks so. Here’s the complete text of the Epilogue as witness of badness on several levels.

Pat Mitchell lived from her youth, first at the Ontario Hospital Port Arthur, and then at LPH. In recent years she has returned to the community of Thunder Bay, to a shared apartment in the south ward of the city. It is clean and brightly decorated. It has modern appliances, comfortable furniture and is fully carpeted. The apartment block itself is located on a busy main road, amidst a variety of housing units. It is within reach of a park and other social and commercial amenities. Pat has direct access to a resident nurse, on the premises.

Pat volunteered readily to be interviewed for this book. She talked at some length about her long experience of a variety of forms of mental health care.
When she came to describe her present circumstances, she beamed with pride. Pat Mitchell loves her new way of life, away from LPH. Nothing made her attitude to that old institution more clear than the moment when she was asked to sign a waiver that released the contents of the interview for possible quotation in the final text. Perhaps remembering the consequences of signing other documents during her long stay at LPH, she looked up sharply at me and said, with a note of alarm in her voice: “You’re not going to send me back there, are you?”

I lived in the neighborhood of LPH through primary and high school. My father was an attendant there from the early sixties until his retirement in the eighties. I worked as an attendant at LPH during the summers of 1964 and 1965 and from 1971 until 1988 I worked in another psychiatric institution in the Ontario psychiatric “system”. There is lots of nostalgia in this book for me, in particular photographs of people I hadn’t seen in more than thirty years.

Remnick, D. (2000). (Ed.). Life stories: Profiles from The New Yorker. N.Y.: Random House

This is a series of biographical portraits selected from the New Yorker. The quality of writing is extremely good. The people who are portrayed range from master conjurors through ordinary folk to tycoons and ballet stars. Some of the portraits are very funny, in particular a lampoon of the "baby tycoon," Henry Luce, written in "Time-speak" in which "backward rolled the sentences, until reeled the mind".

A summer vacation or bedside kind of book. Very entertaining.

Renshon, S.A. & Larson, D.W. (Eds). (2003). Good judgment in foreign policy: Theory and application. NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

A series of essays on what good judgment is, illustrated by numerous examples, mostly from American foreign policy. The essays are generally well written and always well-informed. The authors are aware of the fundamental epistemological problem in their effort but are unable to overcome it. How can we specify the necessary and sufficient conditions for good judgment that can be used by future decision-makers in any but the most obvious broad strokes? Be careful, don’t be too proud, consider the alternatives, get good advice, and so forth. An additional and equally fatal problem is that one can draw different morals from past debacles and successes—is this another quagmire, another Munich? Who the hell knows??

Reston, J. (2005). Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the defeat of the moors. Toronto: Doubleday.

This is a very readable book about an interesting, if brutal and mean-spirited, period of history. The rise of the Spanish Inquisition is described in the context of the final victory over the Moors in Granada, the expulsion of the Jews, and the competition with Portugal over trade with the Orient. A nice explanation of the motivation of Ferdinand and Isabella to (finally) fund Columbus’s voyage is provided. There are some very good pictorial illustrations of some of the practices of the inquisition but, strangely, their provenance is not made clear in the book (other than courtesy, Library of Congress). I tried to find them on the net and couldn’t. I did find, however, a whole bunch of sites of Catholic apologists who claimed that the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t really so bad, was largely a fiction of Protestant propaganda, was a good idea because it forestalled civil war, and so forth. Nothing’s ever over, I suppose.

Reston, J. (1998). The last apocalypse: Europe at the year 1000 A.D. Toronto: Doubleday.

An easy, pleasant read. A very good idea to write a book about various societies about the year 1000. A very good piece on Spain (more bloodthirsty than one might expect) and the Vikings (who are about as bloodthirsty as one expects). Lots of violence and intrigue.....

Richards, D.A. (2008). Lord Beaverbrook. Toronto: Penguin.

This is a short, well put together biography of a remarkably little known man. Lord Beaverbrook (née Max Aitken). Beaverbrook was a wheeler-dealer from New Brunswick who, after becoming a wealthy entrepreneur, emigrated to England and bought up newspapers. Beaverbrook made a major contribution to the WW II war effort as the UK economic czar—he played a role analogous to Albert Speer in Nazi Germany. Beaverbrook was never accepted by the aristocracy in England—despite his wealth, contribution to the war, and taste in art (his large and very valuable collection now resides in New Brunswick), he was regarded as a crass colonial noveau riche. Beaverbrook was sometimes tactless and always outspoken, but, nevertheless, extremely shrewd—to many of his contemporaries, not an endearing combination of traits.

I suspect that the worldly, unsavoury, and definitely non-aristocratic Canadian character of Rex Mottram (played by Charles Keating) in the wonderful British television series Brideshead Revisited is based on Beaverbrook.

Rhodes, R. (2004). John James Audubon: The making of an American. NY: Knopf.

A moderately interesting book on a mostly self-taught naturalist and artist working just before the Darwinian revolution. Audubon escaped being pressed into the French army or execution during the French revolution as a very young man, ending up in frontier America. He made and lost several fortunes, gradually becoming ever more dedicated to painting birds. This passion slowly and by dint of enormous effort led to success—especially in England. What a tireless worker he was. Audubon had a very strong marriage that survived his endless wilderness traveling. Audubon witnessed and participated in the wholesale slaughter of innumerable species of wildlife. As he grew older, this caused him increasing discomfort because he could see where it was leading.

Roller, D.W. (2010). Cleopatra: A biography. NY: Oxford University Press.

This is a very good book. Roller distinguishes between modern popular ideas about Cleopatra (69-30 BCE) and what the historical record shows. The book is very good at placing Cleopatra in her historical context. She was Queen of a country that had to come to terms with the expanding Roman Empire. To do so, She practiced what would now be recognized at Realpolitik in an attempt to get the best deal for Egypt that she could while advancing her Ptolemaic dynasty. What an eventful and dramatic life she had!

There is a wonderful (if fanciful) painting on the front cover of Cleopatra watching poisons being tested on her slaves.

Rosen, W. (2007). Justinian’s flea: The first great plague and the end of the Roman Empire. Toronto: Penguin.

Very nicely written history and the clearest description of the biology of the plague I’ve read. The author attributes the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of the Islamic states to the arrival of the bubonic plague from Egypt in AD 542. Although the author can only provide plausible interpretation of correlational historical data, the sudden demise of about 25 million people is unlikely to be without historical effect.

Ryback, T.W. (2008). Hitler’s private library: The books that shaped his life. Toronto: Random House.

Hitler is often thought to be anti-intellectual but he read for long hours every night. Most of his library still exists and some of the volumes contain the marks he made as he read. Hitler considered Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be at the forefront of great literature. He was a Shakespeare fan, preferring him to Goethe, and in particular admired the Merchant of Venice (guess why), Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. In addition to adventure novels, he read political tracts that he recommended to his followers. Among the most important of these was a German translation of Henry Ford’s The international Jew: The world’s foremost problem. Exclamation marks and heavy underlining mark late 19th century German books advocating the elimination of the Jewish “pestilence” from Germany. Unsurprisingly, Hitler had a book on Zyklon B and others on tank warfare. 

Saunders, F.S. (2005). The devil’s broker: Seeking gold, God, and glory in 14th century Italy. London: Faber & Faber.

John Hawkwood participated in the rape and pillaging of France under the Black Prince. In 1360, he and his band of marauders (the White Company) headed for richer pickings in politically fragmented Italy. Hawkwood, through many adventures and fluctuations in fortune, became successful and a political power there. His goal was to retire with enough wealth to be respectable and to finance his children’s entry into the nobility.

Nicely done history. It’s amazing how frankly mercenary these mercenaries were—they had contracts and such, just like the contemporary trading companies and other economic institutions. This book complements Unger’s biography of Lorenzo— but it’s written about the other (dark) side of the Italian city states.

Scahill, J. (2007). Blackwater: The rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army. NY: Avalon.

The American mistrust of government and faith in private enterprise came together in the Bush era to create a private mercenary force. In 2001, Secretary Rumsfeld addressed the Pentagon officials in charge of defense contracting:

“The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America,” Rumsfeld thundered. “This adversary is one of the world’s last bastions of central planning. It governs by dictating five-year plans. From a single capital, it attempts to impose its demands across time zones, continents, oceans, and beyond. With brutal consistency it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk.”

While these words were presumably spoken tongue in cheek, Rumsfeld proceeded to divert huge sums of money to the private sector by outsourcing an increasing number of military functions to the private sector. The result, a cancerous growth on the already bloated military-industrial complex, promises to eventually destabilize the American government. As the ancient Romans and the not so ancient Tsars of Russia discovered, a military force dependent directly on the executive acts entirely in accord with its own narrowly defined interests. The large group of mercenaries with headquarters and training facilities based not far from Washington (in Blackwater) can sooner or later be expected to depose leaders that fail to please them. Tail wagging the dog indeed!

Schele, L. & Mathews, P. (1998). The code of kings: the language of seven sacred Maya temples and tombs. N.Y.: Scribner.

This is a very disappointing book. The authors describe the various Mayan sites in great detail and present drawings of the murals that are too small to be seen without a magnifying glass. There isn’t much context setting or story-line and what there is was covered in their earlier books. Still, it is of interest to see how the ability to read the glyphs has progressed. Very gradually, the builders of these magnificent sites are being brought into written history.

The similarities among all of the early civilizations never cease to boggle my mind.

Serge, V. & Trotsky, N.S. (1975). The life and death of Leon Trotsky. (Translated by A.J. Pomerans). NY: Basic.

This is the story of the communist revolution and its betrayal by Stalin told by true believers who witnessed the events. Interesting to read now as a testament to the limitation of human understanding—these folks really thought they had it all figured out. Tragic, the enormous sacrifices that are made for misguided causes.

Service, R. (2000). Lenin: A biography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lenin was a good deal more like Stalin than popularly believed. I was very surprised that he was not the rigorously logical intellectual I had thought him to be (who says propaganda doesn't work?). Lenin pursued power and his writings provided a justification of his actions, not a rationale. A worthwhile read.

Seward, D. (1978). The hundred years war: The English in France, 1337-1453. NY: Atheneum.

Seward provides a very readable account of what can be a very confusing period of history. The wonder was that tiny England nearly prevailed against giant France, mostly because of French disunity. The tremendous waste caused in France because of the scorched earth policy of the English, the omnipresent routiers (multi-ethnic groups of bandits), and English stealing boggle the mind. Whatever is said about the war, one of the primary motivations of the English was the economic advancement of individuals and the state through ill-gotten gains.

Shaffer, P. (2009). We’ll be here for the rest of our lives: A swingin’ showbiz saga. Toronto: Random House.

I had to read this book because Paul Shaffer is the most famous showbiz type to ever come from my hometown of Thunder Bay, even more famous than Bobby Curtola. Unfortunately, he’s from the Fort William part of Thunder Bay, not the vastly superior Port Arthur part, so, although we overlapped, I never met him.

The book is a collection of anecdotes held together by an autobiographical thread. Shaffer was star struck from the time he was a child and he still is. He loves celebrities, especially musical celebrities, and all entertainers, even lounge lizards who never made it. It’s all rather endearing. Happily, he ended up on Saturday Night Live and then on David Letterman, where he can live out his dreams of hobnobbing with the famous.

The book isn’t all that interesting if you’re not keen on celebrities but Shaffer seems like a nice guy.

Shanks, H. (1998). The mystery and meaning of the Dead Sea scrolls. N.Y.: Random House.

An easy read. Two aspects of this book are of interest. The first is the documentation of religious preoccupation and schisms up to the time of Christ. The various sects, such as the Essenes, were fundamentally divided over purification rites so arcane as to boggle the mind. One keeps wondering: Why didn't they have a life?

The second aspect of interest is the description of how the Scrolls were acquired (cloak and dagger derring-do sorts of stuff) and published. The publication (or lack thereof) is billed as the scientific scandal of the century and it seems that this is no exaggeration. I won't give this part of the book away but if you ever wondered why deadlines were necessary, this is a book you should read.

Sharpe, J.A. (1984). Crime in early modern England 1550-1750. Burnt Mill, Haslow, UK: Longman.

All criminology books begin with a tedious description of the fallibility of the measures of crime employed. After the ritual deconstruction, the authors go on to use what they have available regardless. This book is no exception.

I found this book a bit tedious but persisted nevertheless out of sheer perversity and lack of a real life. There were a few interesting things though. I was unaware how seldom the “bloody code” was actually used to effect executions. The bloody code made more and more minor offenses punishable by execution—it was enacted piecemeal over time—almost in fits of inadvertence and with no awareness of what was occurring. There were, however, many alternatives to the gallows, including the popular transportation to the colonies, but more importantly, character witnesses were generally sufficient to save miscreants from the noose. Only people who were universally despised, total strangers to the community, or extremely unlucky were hung for any of the many minor capital crimes.

Shuyun, S. (2006). The long march: The true history of communist China’s founding myth. Toronto: Doubleday.

This story had to be written now because the long marchers will soon all be dead. The author followed the route taken by the marchers (not starving, on foot, and being shot at, however) and interviewed all the survivors she could find.

The author is full of admiration for the heroism and idealism of the marchers but grows increasingly disillusioned as her investigations reveal the myth-making and lies of the Communist Party. There were a lot of secrets (for example, treachery in high places) that needed to be kept from the people and Mao, like Stalin with the Red Army, preferred his heroes dead.

This is a truly incredible story and is very well told.

Silcox, D.P. (2003). The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. Toronto: Firefly.

This is a large coffee table type book with many excellent colour reproductions of the Group of Seven's paintings. Like many Canadians of my generation, I imprinted upon these paintings of the rugged (near) north. For me, these paintings almost seem to be Canada. It is of interest that the Group of Seven had more formal "European" style artistic training than their publicists let on.

Siljak, A. (2008). Angel of vengeance: The “girl assassin,” the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia’s revolutionary world. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Oh my, this is a good one. Siljak is a Queen’s professor whose book placed second in the Canadian nonfiction competition this year (Cook’s Shock troops came first).

I have wondered off and on, when reading about the communist revolution and the show trials (e.g., Darkness at noon) where the peculiar communist rhetoric and ideas came from. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the vanguard of the workers, the “deed” that would ignite world revolution, the idea that everything must be destroyed before the new era could miraculously appear, the romanticized, selfless, monomaniacal, and amoral revolutionary who would bring the revolution about, the fetish of secret organizations, democratic centralism, and so forth. Did Marx and Lenin just invent these notions? If they did, why would anybody find them compelling? To an contemporary outsider, these ideas seem like they’ve been lifted from any of the dime a dozen paranoid conspiracy sites that one can visit on the web.

This book shows how these notions (notions are thoughts too small to be considered ideas) developed as a result of historical events,  politically evocative novels, and terrorist tracts during the 19th century. The radical students of the 1860s (nouveau-atheist idealists inspired by the suffering of the saints) initially attempted to educate the peasants to provoke an uprising—the peasants, still living in the dark ages, weren’t interested. The students, having no followers, determined on direct violent action. They would mobilize the masses by sacrificing themselves during the assassinations of various government officials.

There are stunning parallels between the Russian student radicals of the eighteen sixties and the student radicals of the nineteen sixties, including the concern for and romanticizing of the poor (none of whom were represented among the radicals), contempt for bourgeois conventions, and the affectation of workmen’s clothing.

The heroine, Vera Zasulich, was part of the early radical movement. Following a term of imprisonment, she unsuccessfully attempted to kill the Governor of St. Petersburg. Famously, she stood trial for attempted murder in 1878. But the government of Alexander II was so incompetent, it appeared to harbour a death wish. Nowhere was this clearer than in the outcome of Zasulich’s trial. Her tragedy was not only that she was denied martyrdom but that she lived long enough to see the catastrophic results of the ultimate victory of the terrorist movement.

Stape, J. (2007). The several lives of Joseph Conrad. Toronto: Doubleday.

Conrad was a Polish expatriate who was first an underemployed sailor and later a captain at a time when less and less labour was needed for merchant ships. He was a bit of a ne’er do well who was frequently bailed out by his uncle (he had no other family). It is surprising that he ended up becoming a master of English writing and a successful author at a relatively advanced age. Financial success, however, was very slow in coming and Conrad’s laboured writing was always motivated by money. He sometimes mistook his audience, particularly in his later years.

Sugden, J. (1997). Tecumseh: A life. New York: Holt.
Tecumseh was a warrior and political advocate of a cause that was lost before he took it up. Even the ancestors' unifying religious precepts advanced by his brother "the Prophet" were already a mix of European and aboriginal beliefs. Nonetheless, Tecumseh was a capable and admirable man. The book is hampered by the lack of information about Tecumseh's early life but he comes into focus in his prime as a political and military leader.

Swanton, M. (Ed. & translator). (1993). Anglo-Saxon prose. London: Orion.
Fairly short excerpts of surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Some interesting pieces on the ravages of the Vikings (oh the terror and expense!) and a large number of sermons and saints lives. The latter raise some interesting questions about the minds of the monks that originally wrote them.

Consider the obviously false tales in these hagiographies—birds and saints conversing, people raised from the dead, instances of precognition, long-buried bodies perfectly preserved, and so forth. One can understand the credulous people who accepted these childish tales as true because some one in authority told them they were, but what about the individuals who made the stories up? They knew for sure that the tales were untrue—what were they thinking?

As everyone knows, instances of people knowingly promulgating falsehoods abound—the lost golden tablets of the angel Moroni, accounts of socialist progress in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, corporate denial of the link between smoking and lung cancer, Hoover’s crusade against rampant communism in post-WWII America, and so on, ad nauseum. In each case, the assertions were certainly known to be false by the people who originally made them. These are not simply instances of mistaken judgments or credulous acceptance. Nor is it the case that these lies are associated only with totalitarian regimes, an ignorant populace, religious zealotry, or remote times and places. The phenomenon appears ubiquitous.

In the case of the saints’ lives, the lies were likely told by people who in fact believed in miracles. If they didn’t see one but believed that such things could, should, and occasionally did happen, did they take it upon themselves to make the story truer than truth?

Tetlow, E. (1992). Hastings. N.Y.: Barnes and Noble.
A nice little book about the Battle of Hastings and its political and military context. Quite an amazing series of events, chief among them, Harold's victory over Hardrada and Tostig at Stamford Bridge just before William's invasion. Tetlow is very sceptical about William's claim on the English throne, arguing that most of it is simply Norman propaganda.

Tomalin, C. (2002). Samuel Pepys: The unequalled self. Toronto: Penquin.
An excellent read. Pepys was an important bureaucrat in the navy of Charles the Second’s restoration monarchy but is remembered today for his compendious diary. The diary recounts in a compelling narrative the story of Pepys’s ascent to power and his navigating the shoals of his puritan and republican youth in the circumstances of a royalist and covertly Catholic government. Pepys himself had no interest in religion but had to appear to hold the religious beliefs in favour at the time.

Pepys was good at his job and made a handsome living by accepting bribes from navy contractors. This was officially frowned upon, although one couldn’t live on the tiny salaries these jobs provided, and the practice was ubiquitous. Pepys claims that he accepted gifts but did not allow them to affect his judgment. Amazingly, his diaries record many instances of shameful conduct, such as cheating one of his associates and forcing his sexual attentions on a variety of servants, wives of acquaintances, serving wenches, and so on. Pepys was fascinated by his life and presents it to us warts and all.

Unger, M.J. (2008). Magnifico: The brilliant life and violent times of Lorenzo De’ Medici. NY: Simon & Schuster.
This is a wonderful book. Surprisingly, Lorenzo (1449-1492) “the magnificent” really was magnificent and not just in comparison with contemporary rulers, such as his son and successor, Piero, “the unfortunate”. Lorenzo was smart, brave, civic-minded, a patron and connoisseur of the arts, a poet, and skilful in politics and intrigue. He inherited the Medici banking empire from his father and grandfather, along with the family arthritis.

Unger artfully portrays the constraints on Lorenzo as the “first citizen” of Florence, as well as the opportunities he exploited. Lorenzo was not nobly born and lived in a kind of republican democracy. This was a problem for Florentine rulers because there was no noble lineage to offer irrefutable legitimacy. Florentine political power and wealth was vested in extended families who in turn were embedded geographically in neighbourhoods and socially in clusters of clients and dependents (sounds a lot like ancient Rome!). Unfortunately, the government was legally organized in such a way that it wouldn’t work if the laws were actually followed. Power had to be exercised behind the scenes through cabals of cronies. Propaganda, and subtlety, not to mention a sound economic program, were necessary. And, one had to avoid assassination by rival families.

The goal of all of the intrigue and striving was not only to have the most stuff when one died, but to advance the fortunes of one’s kin, particularly one’s children. One way to accomplish this was to amass a fortune and then marry into the landed nobility. Lorenzo succeeded admirably--he became one of the ancestors of the Kings of France and two of his sons became popes (ironic, because he had to face down a pope to accomplish what he did).

Warner, J. (2005). The incendiary: The misadventures of John the Painter, first modern terrorist. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Very interesting little biography of a guy who tried to burn down several English shipyards during the American revolution. If he had succeeded, he would have had a big effect on the English war effort. Excellent historical details and well-fashioned. It’s marvelous how much the author could discover about this obscure historical figure.

Weber, E. (1999). Apocalypses: Prophecies, cults and millennial beliefs through the ages. Toronto: Random House.

Not a worthy successor to Norman Cohn's classic 1957 book, The pursuit of the millennium. There are two difficulties with this book. The first is that there are so many cults and millennial crises over the years that the reader is overwhelmed and the second is that the author doesn't seem to have a purpose in writing this book and presents no satisfying theory.

God knows, there will be many more books on the millennium in the next year (1999).

Weatherford, J. (2004). Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world. N.Y.: Crown.
One doesn't have to agree with the author's contention that the Mongo1 Empire was the first secular state to appreciate its importance in the development of the modern world. The Mongols were superb cavalrymen, conquering everyone that was not separated from Asia by water or living in heavily forested areas. At its height, the empire stretched from the Middle East to Korea. Unlike the Americans, the Mongols succeeded in conquering Vietman. It has been argued that the Mongols saved Chinese culture for the Chinese by retaining and promoting the best of what they had. As a matter of policy, when conquering an area, the Mongols killed all of the nobility, were totally indifferent to the fates of commoners, but preserved all those who had particular manufacturing, mining, or agricultural skills, were literate, or holy men. They used the skilled people they conquered where they needed them in their vast empire.

As a very young man of bleak prospects, Genghis Khan (1162-1227) rescued his new bride from wife-stealing abductors. The resulting uncertain parentage of Ghenghis's eldest son had polictical consequences but apparently little effect on Genghis's fitness. There is genetic evidence that one in two hundred men alive today owe their Y chromosone to Genghis Khan (Tyler-Smith et al., 2003, American Journal of Human Genetics). Though the "universal ruler" was happily married, the most beautiful women were reserved for him.

Westhues, K. (2004). Administrative mobbing at the University of Toronto: The trial, degradation and dismissal of a professor during the presidency of J. Robert S. Prichard. Queenston, ON, Edwin Mellen Press.
This strange book is fascinating on several levels. There is dramatic tension in the story of the dismissal itself and what slimy administrative memoranda will appear next. Dramatic tension in that one often can’t tell whether the protagonist, Professor Herbert Richardson, is really guilty or simply victimized—or even if he’s guilty of something else, so deserves dismissal anyway. As Beria used to say—“Everybody’s guilty of something.” Then there’s tension in trying to decide whether the author has been duped or is attempting to dupe the reader, while trying to ignore an obvious conflict of interest when evaluating the arguments and evidence. The (real or apparent) conflict is that Herbert Richardson owns the company that published this book. All this is made worse by somewhat overblown assertions that “mobbing” has emerged as an exciting new area of scholarly inquiry. I don’t think so—however, I can believe that it is an exciting new area of reportage. And there is nothing wrong with good reporting, particularly by someone who appears as well informed and humanistic as Westhues.

I highly recommend this book and won’t spoil it for you by detailing what I think. It takes a bit of getting into but I found that I couldn’t put it down thereafter. The book is worth reading for the quoted memoranda alone.

One of the questions that the dismissal of Richardson involves is whether the Edwin Mellen Press is or is not a “vanity press.”Hard to know how to evaluate this assertion when the bulk of academic publications (especially journal articles) are read by vanishingly few people. Is it “Vanity, all vanity”?

Wheatcroft, A. (1995). The Habsburgs: Embodying empire. London: Penguin.
An examination of the Habsburg dynasty from 1020 through the present. Some very interesting history and a penetrating examination of the symbolism that the Habsburgs used as propaganda for their family. Unfortunately for the historically ignorant, the author assumes the reader is familiar with all of the more famous political events in the Habsburg dynasty. A good book to read while one is in Vienna!

Williamson, E. (2004). Borges: A life. Toronto: Penguin.
I became interested in Borges when I stumbled across a quote in a statistics book that I thought was wildly funny—right up there with Oscar Wilde’s deathbed ultimatum—“Either this wallpaper goes or I do!” Here’s the passage—

An Ancient Chinese Classification of Animals
Animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k), those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, and (n) those that resemble flies from a distance. (Jorge Luis Borges, Other inquisitions: 1937-1952)

Borges, however, did not have a funny life. By all accounts, he emerged from an overprotected childhood to early promise as a poet and went from there to humiliation and obscurity as a low-level library worker in a very unionized shop. At one point a co-worker found a reference to a Jorge Luis Borges in a reference book and called Borges’ attention to the “amazing coincidence” of their names. All the while Borges was tormented by obsession over unrequited love, financial dependence on his parents, a morbid preoccupation with his faults, and a fear of falling into solipsistic madness.

About the time Borges was becoming blind, at age 60, his work was belatedly discovered when he was awarded the International Publishers’ Prize in 1961 (Borges initially thought it was a joke). In short order he became famous—visiting professorships at leading universities around the world (ironic because he never managed to graduate from high school), speaking tours, interviews, photos, and celebrity status. Borges was the most famous living Argentinian. So famous that casual remarks, such as, that the war between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falklands (Malvinas) reminded him of two bald men fighting over a comb, caused him lots of trouble. More importantly for Borges himself, he found reciprocated romantic love at long last with a very young and pretty Japanese-Argentinian woman of literary tastes and independent spirit.

Wilson, A.N. (2006). After the Victorians: The world our parents knew. London: Random House.
This is a history of the twentieth century from an English perspective. It covers the loss of empire and the two great wars and chronicles what it asserts are associated cultural trends. The book is easily read and a bit chatty. It is sometimes cluttered by the inclusion of many figures of modest importance and the author’s many opinions (sometimes they are sound, sometimes not, and sometimes one can’t tell). There is some interesting documentation on the persistence and pervasiveness of the English class system. The author believes in decency, the importance of ideological and religious tolerance, and the British National Health Service.

Of course, it is easy to be depressed by a history of the twentieth century. How many millions of deaths due to plague, war, and starvation were there? One is reminded of Sagan’s “billions and billions”. As Stalin famously remarked—a few deaths are a tragedy, a million, just a statistic.

The author argues that the allies in WWII were hardly morally pure (witness the pointless and perhaps counterproductive massive bombing of civilians in Germany and the American insistence on unconditional surrender that essentially (it is argued) led to the continued enslavement of Eastern Europe). Wilson also describes the unequal relationship of England and the US. He believes that the Americans used England’s predicament to effect the elimination of the remains of the British Empire and England as a world economic and political power.

Wilson, I. (2007). The Bible as history: Exploring the book that changed the world. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
A fascinating book on several levels. The author first deals with the archeological evidence for the history in the Old Testament. There is lots of new and interesting historical and archeological evidence and a good deal of it lends plausibility for several of the Old Testament stories. The illustrations are very well selected and complement the text admirably. I learned a lot—for example, when and why the Israelites dropped Hebrew for Aramaic. Then—POOF!—the author is suddenly bitten by the credulity fairy (or ingests something that affects his brain) when he turns to the New Testament. The treatment of Jesus’s life is essentially a religious tract that I couldn’t be bothered to finish reading. It does go to show you, however, that religious beliefs can be encapsulated in an otherwise perfectly sensible mind.

Winchester, S. (1998). The professor and the madman: A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. N.Y.: Harper Collins.
Interesting story detailing how the "madman", an American named William Minor, helped create the Oxford Dictionary from his confinement in Broadmoor Security Hospital. Minor had been a physician in the Yankee Army during the American Civil War before his breakdown. Subsequently he took a trip to England and murdered an innocent man as part of a psychotic delusional episode. Although a combination of schizophrenia and repressed sexuality ruined his life, he managed to achieve something worthwhile before his pathetic end.

Wineapple, B. (1996). Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
This is a very long book. It’s well written but contains too much detail for someone with no academic interest in either of the Steins. In fact, that was the main problem I had with the book: Gertrude Stein was not a particularly agreeable person and I, in my philistine sort of way, didn’t think she ever did anything very important. Her brother was nicer, less ambitious, and an art collector.

There is some interesting context to the biographies—for example, descriptions of painters like Matisse and Picasso early in their careers and the influence that William James had on his younger American contemporaries.

Winter, A. (1998). Mesmerized: Powers of mind in Victorian Britain. University of Chicago Press.

Mesmerism became wildly popular and very contentious in Britain during the mid-nineteenth century. Winter uses this phenomenon and the failure to establish a consensus about its meaning to illuminate Victorian epistemological difficulties. When should people defer to authorities when seeking to understand something and who were the authorities? Mesmerism formed an important part of the context of the establishment of scientific expertise and the exclusion of laypeople from meaningful participation in the professional specialists' domains.

Well written and worth reading. There are great 19th century illustrations throughout.

Woodward, B. (2004). Plan of attack. Toronto: Simon and Schuster.
A history of events leading up to the Iraq War from a well-known Washington insider. The characteristics of the principal protagonists seem much like what would be expected from the regular news. Bush, not a rocket scientist; Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Cheney sabre rattling; Powell cautious and a bit out of the loop; Rice, the president's loyal warrior princess.

From all that can be learned from this book, the war still seems strangely inadequately motivated. The author argues that the planning exercise itself led inexorably to war. The physical and political logistics of a modern overseas operation of this size boggle the mind.

I think that the best line concerning the Iraqi War so far comes from John Stewart of the Daily (fake news) Show. He reported Paul Wolfowitz's claim that the alleged torture of Iraqi detainees was actually only "freedom tickling."

Wroe, A. (2004). The perfect prince: Truth and deception in Renaissance Europe. NY: Random House.
This is the story of how a pretender to the throne, the fraudulent “Richard, Duke of York” attempted and failed to take the English throne from Henry the Seventh. Richard claimed to be the younger of the two pathetic sons of Edward IV who had been taken to the Tower upon Henry’s accession and never seen again. Richard was encouraged to varying degrees by various European kings and nobles for their own purposes but was supported in England only by the poorest and most marginal people. The tale is psychologically rich, involving deceptions, betrayals, naiveté, and pathos.

The author has a somewhat convoluted style that makes this book slow reading. In addition, the pace of action is glacial. However, the reader is sustained by the level of description of the background to the events of interest and the many asides describing what people believed and how they expected others to act in the 1450s to 1490s. All this context pays off in the second half of the book when the events come to have much greater interest and significance than they would have otherwise.

Yeatman, T.P. (2000). Frank and Jesse James: The story behind the legend. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland House.
As its title promises, this book tells the complete story of the notorious James brothers, a great deal of the context of their lives, and the wacky tale of the popularization and exploitation of their legend, involving bold and demented frauds, deceit, and con games.

As a case study in crime, there are no surprises. The James boys' career in crime began in vicious civil war struggles where they fought as part of an unofficial Confederate guerrilla cavalry and blossomed in the context of carpetbagging and oppression. However, their career of banditry and petty crime continued long after the course of history had made such rationales obsolete.

Jesse James letters' to the public, often embellished by a promotional reporter, reveal a litigious and vindictive man who viewed himself as the victim of circumstances and oppression. And there can be no doubt that the James family had been traumatized, first by their political enemies and later by the Pinkertons. Nor was there doubt that the scale of the James brothers crimes was tiny in comparison to the contemporary massive railroad frauds, influence peddling, and other scams.

Both the James brothers, but especially Jesse, had a love of risk taking in the form of gambling, horse racing, and defaulting on debts. Late in his life Frank James became involved with a sort of travelling circus that had more than its share of the gambling, fraud, and petty crime typically associated with such enterprises.

From an evolutionary perspective, it is of interest to see the respect and awe that a reputation as a killer provides.

We see in this history a public longing for a Robin Hood figure--the brave little guy fighting the system on behalf of the oppressed. Unfortunately, however, the public had to make do with sometimes murderous and always reckless "boys" who were out for themselves and their families.

Zimmer, C. (2004). Soul made flesh: The discovery of the brain - and how it changed the world. Toronto: Free Press

One of the most informative and interesting books I've read in some time. It is written in a very engaging fashion. The author succeeds in capturing some of the intellectual and phsyical atmosphere of the times and presents theories that may now appear ridiculous in a sympathetic and intelligible way. The book is a biography of Thomas Willis (1621-1675), the guy after whom the circle of arteries at the base of the brain is named.

Zimmer situates the famous Oxford Circle (including Willis, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Richard Lower, Robert Hooke, and John Wallis) in the polictical context of the English Civil War and its aftermath. The Members of the Oxford Circle were the intellectual heirs of William Harvey and Francis Bacon. They did not embrace the puritanical anti-royalist doctrines of Cromwell's protectorate. Nevertheless, they substituted empirical investigation for the received wisdom of Aristotle and Galen - potentially dangerous views in the restoration England of Charles II. Thus Willis and his friends would not go as far in their mechanism as Thomas Hobbes - they continually looked for signs of God's handiwork while unintentionally but systematically undermining the whole idea of spiritual purpose in nature.

At least one of the Oxford Circle, Boyle, seemed to be partly aware of the subversive nature of what he was accomplishing.

"For the rest of his life, Boyle would chase after grace and be tormented by a feeling that he was unworthy of God's love. He would relentlessly question whether he was pious enough, if he had actually committed some evil that he was unaware of. His uncertainty turned his life into an endless round of questions, a perpetual suspicion that he had not yet found Truth." (pp. 132-133).

None of what Willis learned about the brain had any immediate medical or practical consequences. Like all physicians of his time, Willis remained dependent on folk remedies, remedies devised by the ancients or promulgated by contemporary alchemists and astrologers. Willis nevertheless went from being an obscure "pisse prophet" (a doctor who examined urine samples to arrive at a diagnosis) to a well-connected, famous, and wealthy phsyician. Despite his financial and social success, Willis continued to provide free medical services to the poor throughout his career.

John Locke saw that no practical consequences arose from the anatomical investigations of Harvey and Willis. Locke concluded that, because it was vain or impossible to discover the true workings of the body, we should instead use more common-sense empirical methods of developing treatments for illness. Look at a lot of cases that have been treated in different ways and see what worked best. We need to deal with likelihoods, not essences. Locke won the day and neurology fell out of favour for generations, being replaced by a "black box" form of associationistic psychology. A psychology nevertheless infomed and constrained by Willis's discoveries.

Von Boeselager, P.F. (2009). Valkyrie: The story of the plot to kill Hitler, by its last member. NY: Knopf. (with F. Fehrenbach & J. Fehrenbach. Translated by S. Rendall).
A brief account of the plots to kill Hitler. I hadn’t realized that there were quite a number of these attempts and several came close. One of the problems is that the plotters wanted to simultaneously assassinate the SS leader, Himmler, in order to avoid a civil war.

Most of the plotters supported a German resurgence. These were conservative soldiers who shared the Nazi desire to restore the losses and remove the humiliation occasioned by the Treaty of Versaille. They were marvellously brave men who deserved to succeed. Nevertheless, one wonders about how much such memoirs are coloured by hindsight biases and self-presentational concerns.


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