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Book Reviews - New Book Reviews

Spring 2011

Cook, T. (2010). The madman and the butcher: The sensational wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie. Toronto: Penguin.

Sam Hughes was a domineering populist Ontario politician who “shot from the lip”. He became a powerful minister in Borden’s WWI cabinet because of his enormous energy and bullying behavior. As Borden remarked about his champion recruiter, “On matters which touch his insane egotism, he is quite unbalanced. On all other matters able and sometimes brilliant.”

As the war dragged on, Hughes appeared more and more unbalanced. The British war office thought him quite mad. He attempted to promote his favourites and cronies to generals, meddled in army decisions, and unflaggingly pursued lost causes, like the Canadian-made Ross rifle (that was prone to jam). He became an inveterate Monday morning quarterback who advanced naive schemes that he believed would turn the tide. Gradually, many of the rank and file turned against Hughes. Borden at long last emasculated him and insulated the rest of the war effort from him.

Hughes, however, was a very good hater and adept at spreading innuendo and outright lies about people he had come to despise for causing his political demise. Among these were former favourites, like General Arthur Currie. Currie had risen from obscurity in the peacetime militia on account of his indefatigable labour and attention to detail. Currie was a very fast learner who benefited from his mistakes on the battlefield. He was a staff man, beloved by those who worked closely with him. Unfortunately, he didn’t look like a general—he was blimpish (and became more so as all he did was desk work) and lacked a moustache—and despite being socially skilled, was stilted and aloof with the troops. Currie became one of the most successful allied generals of the war by assiduously adopting newly developed tactics. He accepted but attempted to minimize the casualties that were required for victories. For Currie, preparation was everything.

The casualty rate and horrors of trench warfare embittered many Canadian soldiers and civilians. How to account for the “butcher’s bill”? Rumours that Currie had kowtowed to the British and needlessly sacrificed Canadian soldiers at the end of the war to advance his own career began to fester. A declining Sam Hughes circulated these rumours and eventually included them in a bitter tirade in the House of Commons. No one in the shocked House sprang to their feet to defend Currie.

So, instead of returning to a hero’s welcome, Currie was given a distinctly subdued reception and then offered a largely ceremonious position. McGill University saved the day by offering Currie (who had never attended university) the principalship. It was an inspired choice. Not only was Currie a great fundraiser, he used his formidable organizational talents to McGill’s great benefit. Less importantly, but remarkably, Currie quickly learned most of the students’ names.

It wasn’t, however, a fairy-tale ending. Currie, even after he shed his weight, had health problems and suffered from what is now known as post-traumatic stress. And the rumours continued. In 1928 (14 years after the war!!), the old charges were rehashed in the newspaper of the small Ontario town of Coburg. Currie sued for libel. In a sensational trial that left Currie totally exhausted, his reputation was finally vindicated.

A good book—much more readable than Cook’s previous books.




Frank, T. (1997). The conquest of cool: Business culture, counterculture, and the rise of hip consumerism. University of Chicago Press.


Here is the central thesis of this interesting but disconcerting little book. “Not only does hip consumerism recognize the alienation, boredom, and disgust engendered by the demands of modern consumer society, but it makes of those sentiments powerful imperatives of brand loyalty and accelerated consumption.” P. 231.

The book provides a number of examples of cool marketing strategies, accompanied by some good pictures. Here’s one of the examples: “Pepsi’s strategy was obvious. It would imbue its model consumer, its Pepsi Generation, with characteristics that were at odds with, if not outright antagonistic to the paradigmatic personality of the Coke order: noncomformity, daring, enthusiasm for the new, and a passion for individual liberation through product choice. Pepsi would identify itself with cultural dissent. As Volkswagon had just a few years before, Pepsi took up the cultural cudgels against mass society for hard-headed corporate reasons. And in its attack on the cola of conformity, Pepsi soon gained an ally in the social ferment then taking place.” P. 172.

Even though short, some of the book has the repetitious ponderousness of the thesis the it came from.




Kershaw, I. (2004). Making friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s road to war. Toronto: Penguin.

The Marquess of Londonderry was one of many right-leaning English aristocrats who were partial to Hitler and Mussolini. These individuals, most of whom were traumatized by the first war, of the belief that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair to Germany, and annoyed at France’s vindictiveness and obstruction, thought to promote Anglo-German friendship through their personal informal connections. These approaches, in fact any diplomatic approaches, were doomed by Hitler’s territorial ambitions and duplicity.

Londonderry persisted in promoting Anglo-German friendship long after most others had given up. To his credit, in the thirties, Londonderry did want Britain to arm so that it could pursue a diplomatic rapprochement with Germany from a position of strength. The Chamberlain government, of course, pursued diplomatic solutions from a position of weakness very late in the game.

Londonderry spent the remainder of his life involved in bitter recriminations (he wasn’t Hitler’s dupe, or a Nazi, and he could have saved the day).

This book would have made a great article. OK, I’m exaggerating but it is very repetitious. Nevertheless, it’s always fun to read about English aristocrats—their sense of entitlement, their snobbery, and the great life they must have had at lavish balls and riding to the hounds. I must revisit Brideshead.




Krentz, P. (2010). The Battle of Marathon. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Athens defeated the mighty Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC. Herodotus claimed that the Athenian hoplites engaged the Persians after a mile-long run. Many have been skeptical that the soldiers could have run that far in their armour and still have the wind to fight. Krentz argues that their armour was much lighter than has been believed. Furthermore, he maintains that the Athenians seized a fleeting opportunity by reaching the Persian infantry before the Persian cavalry could be brought out of the boats that carried them.

Always amazing how much is known about the ancient world. A nice little book.




Lawday, D. (2009). The giant of the French Revolution: Danton, a life. NY: Grove Press.


Danton was a bearish, homely man from the country. He loved to eat and drink with friends and was the opposite in temperament and appearance from the priggish Robespierre. When accused of conspiracy at his “trial”, Danton replied incredulously, “A conspirator? Why I bed my wife every night”.

Danton, although a lawyer in royal employ, was the favourite of the Parisian radical working class. He had a popular following greater than that of the murderous Marat and one that Robespierre could never attain. Danton was a fabulous orator (despite being dyslexic) and became the most powerful figure in the National Assembly. He sat with the radical Mountain faction on the left side of the assembly, although he was not a member of that group. Danton often got carried away with his own rhetoric, sometimes saying things like advocating violence, which he later regretted.

Robespierre’s tragic outmaneuvering of Danton is well known but splendidly recounted in this book. Danton said to the weary executioner as he was placed in the guillotine, “Show the people my head, it’s worth it”. He was 34.




Man, J. (2007). The terracotta army: China’s first emperor and the birth of a nation. Toronto: Bantam.

The book moves back and forth from a history of China’s first emperor, the discovery of the terracotta army in Mao’s era, and the author’s experiences in gathering information for his book. This expository scheme works very well.

Man finds resonances between the ancient conflict between the Confucian scholars and the Legalists in the political machinations in Maoist China. The former believed in tradition and honour, whereas the latter believed that might was right—because power came from the barrel of a gun (or, rather, from the business end of a cross bow), the emperor was justified in doing whatever it took to seize and maintain power. Kind of an extreme form of Machiavellianism—Mao, of course, was a Legalist.

I think the tension between these approaches lies deep in everybody’s mind. Not only among the ancient Chinese and the mediaeval Italians, but also delinquents in Thunder Bay fifty or so years ago. I remember when a friend asked me for advice about a conflict he was having with an acquaintance who was attempting to take away his girlfriend. I gave him legalistic advice (if you’re going to fight, make sure you arrange it so you win). This was, I concluded shortly thereafter, bad advice that came close to causing wider conflict. Although this story had a happy outcome (the guy got the girl and they’re still together), I still think that a more formal, even ritualistic, approach would have been better. 

 



McLynn, A. (2009). Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, philosopher, emperor. London: Vintage.


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) has fascinated philosophers and moralists to the present. This work has over time become the foremost exemplar of the stoic school of philosophy. McLynn nevertheless argues persuasively that stoicism is basically a logically incoherent and problematic philosophical system that deals unsuccessfully with issues such as free will and determinism. Notwithstanding the failures of stoicism as a philosophic doctrine, Aurelius remains a remarkable and, in many respects, admirable character. He succeeded as a general in his huge wars against the encroaching German tribes and many historians rate him as among the best of the Roman emperors. Unfortunately, his efforts ultimately failed--his abominable son, Commodus, succeeded him and caused the empire irreversible harm. Another philosophy might have allowed Aurelius to have his son dispatched before he had a chance to become emperor!

Although this big book is a bit repetitious and heavy-handed, its portrayal of the problems of the Roman Empire at the beginning of its long period of decline is thought provoking. Rome was beset with serious problems—some natural and others self-inflicted. First, horrific mortality caused by plague led to social disruption and labour shortages. Mortality was particularly heavy in the army and among the legions of slaves. The Romans didn’t help the situation by working slaves to death and disrupting slave families so they couldn’t reproduce themselves.

The Roman economy was unsustainable without the slaves and booty provided by the continuous military conquest of developed countries. War with barbarians, such as the Germans, provided only slaves. The problem was that the barbarians, even though partially Romanized through trade, service as mercenaries, and geographical propinquity, were poor. In fact, poverty caused the wars in the first place. Barbarians sought admittance to the empire in order to improve their economic status.

The Romans granted gifts and subsidies to the barbarian elite to keep the peace with Rome or to encourage the tribes to fight each other. This largesse in turn increased barbarian social and economic stratification; in effect, the Romans colluded with the barbarian elites to suppress the elites’ own people.

Throughout the empire, slaves working on enormous estates produced food more cheaply than small-time farmers working their own land. Because farmland was such a great investment, the price of land rose steeply, forcing farmers out. The farmers fled to the city, where their bread was subsidized and they were amused by chariot races and enormously expensive gladiatorial shows.

Rome had a humungous balance of trade deficit. The plutocracy loved to display silk, gems, and gold. Silk had to be imported from China but China would only accept gold in payment. Similarly, India would only accept gold for its spices and gems. Rome had no functioning gold mines.

All of these issues led back to the army. The army was increasingly made up of barbarian mercenaries loyal to their generals rather than Rome. Because of the economic problems, the army was increasingly difficult to fund and, because the army could and did depose emperors in order to promote their generals to the purple, there was increasing political instability.

Of course, if you’ve been following the American news, you already know how all of this works.




Martin, L. (2010). Harperland: The politics of control. “Toronto: Penguin.

This little book is a partisan attack on the prime minister. It argues that Harper’s policies are a fundamentally anti-democratic right-wing assault on traditional Canadian liberal values. Perhaps more than any other prime minister, Harper keeps not only his cabinet, but his caucus, and, to the degree he can, the civil service on a stranglingly tight leash.

Unfortunately, the book’s central thesis is likely correct.

 



Richards, R.J. (2008). The tragic sense of life: Ernst Haeckel and the struggle over evolutionary thought. University of Chicago Press.


Another fine book by Richards. This time he tackles the long misunderstood and often vilified Ernst Haeckel of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” fame. Haeckel is probably the most important evolutionary biologist after Darwin, whose valued collaborator he was. Haeckel’s books were extremely popular and the most widely read were written for an audience of educated lay people. Part of their popularity was due to Haeckel’s ability as an illustrator.

Less fortunately, Haeckel was a polemicist with a bitter tongue. He became more strident and bitter with the tragic death of his young wife, causing apoplexy among devout Christians and even managing to alienate many of his natural intellectual allies. Even, Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog” wanted him to cool it. All these polemics led to a great deal of controversy and venomous attacks from which Haeckel’s reputation has suffered to this day.

A somewhat amusing example is provided by Haeckel’s illustrations of the embryos of a dog, chicken, and turtle at the “sandal” stage of development in a popular science type of book. Haeckel wrote that one couldn’t tell these embryos apart. And indeed one couldn’t, because they were in fact duplicate prints. When his enemies discovered this, they accused him of scientific dishonesty, a charge that stuck forever. A more likely explanation, however, is carelessness because, in fact, it is difficult and often impossible to tell these embryos apart at this stage.

All of this was needlessly tragic. Haeckel was a superb biologist who contributed enormously to the scientific enterprise, particularly in his work on the radiolaria. And he was absolutely right—the best proof of evolution is in development.




Thomas, E. (2010). The war lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the rush to empire, 1898. NY: Little, Brown.

These men born to privilege were children at the time of the American Civil War. Lodge and Roosevelt were close friends and successful politicians. Hearst became the most powerful newspaper owner in the US. All of them wanted an American empire and worked indefatigably toward that end. Roosevelt also wanted to achieve personal glory and Hearst, not too dissimilarly, wanted to produce spectacular patriotic war stories, even some with him playing a role.

The foolishness and naivete of these mandarins is breathtaking. After a series of unfortunate events and misleading sensationalized press reports, America got the desired, yet pathetic, war with moribund Spain. Once the Americans conquered Cuba and the Phillipines, they had no idea what to do with them. Most of the war’s consequences were unanticipated—let the water-boarding and exploitation begin.

Very nicely done. 

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