Sunday, January 1, 2023

Thwap's Post Wherein He Shall List the Books He's Reading in 2023


Apparently there was a series called "The Librarian."

In October 2021 I started a post: "Latest Reads."  About a month later I decided to make it my one-stop shopping post for all the future books that I'd read.  The post's title was amended to "Latest Reads: [NOW THWAP'S GIANT BOOK DEPOSITORY!!!!] I continued it into 2022.  But that eventually became too unwieldy to edit.  By Autumn 2022 I decided to start another post for the year's book readings in 2023 and here it is.


I finished a collection of short stories from Kurt Vonnegut Jr. a day or two ago.  Welcome to the Monkey House.

There's a story about a right-wing Republican loudmouth who hates the Kennedy's.  There's a story about decent, upstanding US-Americans being forced to be human chess-pieces with a deranged Asiatic warlord and his amoral, inhuman Russian overseer.  Seems Vonnegut was something of a Cold War liberal.

There were a few stories similar to the one novel of his I recently read (Cat's Cradle) about a breakthrough scientific discovery that goes causes unforeseen outcomes.  There were a few stories about people learning to let their hair down.  I found it entertaining.


I'll post some titles, links and images of covers and then maybe say something later.

The Hero's Way: Walking with Garibaldi from Rome to Ravenna by Tim Parks (2021)

I really enjoyed this book.  Parks has an eye for important details.  Both for human behaviour and the physical landscape.  As you would be able to tell if you'd seen my Giant Book Depository post, I've been doing some reading about 18th and 19th Century Europe.  Italian Unification was one of the big things I wanted to know about.  And my hazy knowledge of Garibaldi's importance to that subject made me want to learn more about it.

In this book Parks and his wife follow (as best they can given the scanty source material and the changes to Italy's roads since the 1860's) to follow Garibaldi's retreat from the failed Roman Republic to eventual escape from the Austrian, French and Naples forces chasing his small band of followers.  You really get a sense of the desperation of the flight as well as a sense of the changes that have happened to the world since then.

Twelve Stories by Emmet Grogan (2018)

For all I know the BMV employee who recommended the book (since I was already buying Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle) was Emmet Grogan himself.  It's available at BMV outlets.  It's about a guy who grew up in the 1970's in small town Northern Ontario.  Lot's of drinking and weirdos.  The protagonist's transformation from drunken ne'er do well to successful gallery owner and seller of counterfeit Native art seemed a trifle hurry.  As was his transformation from drunken imbecile to sensitive Torontonian man of the world.  Still, the stories never let up.  The mystery of where him and his friend were the weekend that "Star Wars" came out had a totally unexpected conclusion.

Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England by Charles Firth (1900) 

I was surprised that my e-book from the Toronto Public Library had actually been written in 1900.  Anyhow, I pretty much agree with the review.  Firth's was one of the first scholarly reevaluations of this controversial figure.  Cromwell genuinely thought that he was doing the work of his imaginary God.  He was a bizarre figure in many respects.  He was also an impressive military man.  Leading charges against enemy counter-attacks personally while in his mid-fifties.  He made England a major European power.


I forgot to add that I've been reading The Stories of John Cheever.

I'd read his famous short story "The Swimmer" in college and read an interesting article about him in Harper's, so when I saw this book on the shelf of a beautiful, smart, funny and talented young lady who I'm crazy about I asked if I could borrow it.  That's when I found out the pages were on very thin paper and that there are more than 50 stories in it.  I've only read twenty and the book is starting to fall apart in my hands.  So no more.  These are mostly sad stories.  Some of 'em are damn tragic.


Yesterday I finished Mark Zuelhke's The Liri Valley: World War II Breakthrough to Rome.

This is part of Zuelhke's Canadian Battle Series about the CAF in WWII.  I've read a few of them already.  Not in order.  Just whenever I see one in the library. I started with his book about "Operation Husky" which was the invasion of Sicily. I remember in that one a moment when a small number of Canadians hiding in the cliffs beside a road saw a German army truck with about ten soldiers sitting in the back driving past them and one of the Canadians tossed a grenade in with them killing most of them and badly wounding the rest.  I thought what an insane thing it was to have done that.  Then I remembered that they were fighting a war and such murderous behaviour is expected.

I have read a few books about detailed battles but not too many.  So I don't know how unique Zuehlke is in conveying the insanity of war.  In The Liri Valley there's a part where some Canadian tanks are sitting behind German lines and a number of German soldiers walk past them and, thinking they were German tanks, waved at them before stopping for a second look, whereupon the Canadian tanks opened up with their machine guns and killed them all.

Zuelhke makes it very clear how Canadian military leadership's lack of experience and training made things like "Operation Chesterfield" the needless, bloody clusterfucks that they were.


I recently finished Odd Arne Westad's The Cold War: A World History.

The definitive history of the Cold War and its impact around the world

We tend to think of the Cold War as a bounded conflict: a clash of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, born out of the ashes of World War II and coming to a dramatic end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in this major new work, Bancroft Prize-winning scholar Odd Arne Westad argues that the Cold War must be understood as a global ideological confrontation, with early roots in the Industrial Revolution and ongoing repercussions around the world.

The Cold War, Westad offers a new perspective on a century when great power rivalry and ideological battle transformed every corner of our globe. From Soweto to Hollywood, Hanoi, and Hamburg, young men and women felt they were fighting for the future of the world. The Cold War may have begun on the perimeters of Europe, but it had its deepest reverberations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, where nearly every community had to choose sides. And these choices continue to define economies and regimes across the world.

Today, many regions are plagued with environmental threats, social divides, and ethnic conflicts that stem from this era. Its ideologies influence China, Russia, and the United States; Iraq and Afghanistan have been destroyed by the faith in purely military solutions that emerged from the Cold War.

Stunning in its breadth and revelatory in its perspective, this book expands our understanding of the Cold War both geographically and chronologically and offers an engaging new history of how today's world was created.

Westad is a Yale historian.  The book is okay except, as is to be expected, he is a little too understanding of the motives of US policy makers.


I try to read most of a book before I say that I've read it here.  But I've decided that I want to read seriously about democracy and revolution for a personal project of mine and I'm going to have to return these two books unfinished.  I'm going to post about 'em here to potentially remind myself about them and maybe I'll finish them in the future.

First up is Insel by Mina Loy. I've only read a quarter of it.

The Loy-like narrator, Mrs. Jones, is a middle-aged writer in Paris, employed acquiring art for a New York gallery, and is interested in Insel's work. That their relationship combines business and personal elements is possibly the only conventional thing to be said about it. They are immediately drawn together by an ineffable nonsexual attraction; they "see" each other as others do not. As the book proceeds through a Spartan plot—they hang out; they talk; she washes his laundry—the drama that develops is not a conflict between the two characters but simply Mrs. Jones's quest to understand and articulate the supernatural qualities of this "Surrealist" man, Insel, and the inexplicable effect his presence has upon her.


"Insel" could certainly be called a difficult book, with the proviso that its difficulties are always at the heart of the matter. Although Loy can be wonderfully simple in her strangeness—"I have always presumed that hair with its electric properties will not remain unutilized in a future evolution of the brain"—the novel's pleasures require exertion, such as wrangling with bizarrely gymnastic metaphors. Describing Insel's speech, Loy writes: "In his unusual liveliness, words, like roomy cupboards, dipped into the reservoir of excited honey and flapping their open doors spilled it all over the place as they passed."

The greatest linguistic challenge, however, is the one that Mrs. Jones faces as she works to find words to describe the otherworldly qualities that Insel holds for her. Here Loy invents or cobbles together a terminology, much of it borrowed from Christian Science—words like "rays" and "magnetism"—out of which she builds an aesthetic cosmology all her own: "Some infrared or there invisible ray he gave off, was immediately transferred on one's neural current to some dark room in the brain for instantaneous development in all its brilliancy. So one saw him as a gray man and an electrified organism at one and the same time." The inclusion in this edition of "Visitation," a later ending that Loy had purposefully left off the finished manuscript, is a mixed blessing. Though an interesting piece and of scholarly value, it suggests a literal explanation for Insel's peculiarity—that he was a morphine addict—which works against the rich ambiguity that Loy took pains to create.

Second up is France in the World: A New Global History.  I've read about half of it.

The bestselling Histoire mondiale de la France (2017) conceives of France not as a fixed, rooted entity, but instead as a place and an idea in flux, moving beyond all borders and frontiers, shaped by exchanges and mixtures. As a  “discontinuous” history, this book rejects traditional periods and spatial confines; as a popular history, it articulates a new way of writing about the past; as a civic endeavor, it invites readers to trace their own routes across the past; as a political gesture, it intervenes in debates about the contours of national identities. 

I found the introduction to be a bit of a slog.  But the chapters themselves are nice little vignettes of segments of France's history.

2023 - 03 - 26

Finished Eleen Meiksins Wood's Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy.  (I had no idea that I was reading a book by a York University professor who later married Ed Broadbent!)

Meiksins Wood argues that the assertion that Ancient Athens embraced a "aristocratic" culture that despised manual labour, with even poor citizens claiming subsistence payments for political participation and jury duties and the like, and that this was made possible by the massive use of slave labour, is a false assertion.

She says that, actually, democratic Athens was made possible by freeing peasants from the obligation to support a royal government and a bureaucratic state with a standing army, a mass of artisans and officials, first by the reforms of Solon, and later Cleisthenes.  What she calls "bureaucratic states" like Egypt or Babylon, put enormous demands on peasant labourers who were compelled by law to give over much of what they produced to a state which then dispersed this wealth to its minions.  All political and legal power resided with the kings and their officials or a hereditary aristocracy.

In archaic Attica things were different.  There had been something like that there in the period known as Mycenaean.  This disappeared during the Bronze Age Collapse.  The Homeric Period (of the "heroes" Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Agamemnon, etc.,) were lesser rulers of a diminished economy.  By the time Homer's epic was written down population growth in this less centralized political-economy had produced intense rivalries between noble families that were not much stronger collectively than the masses of poor farmers they were exploiting.  Exploiting as in driving them into debt, debt-bondage and then, actual slavery.  Anger was running high and Solon's reforms were meant to dissipate it.

Solon's reforms didn't actually work but they started the process of increased democratization.  First, the middling peasants (like Hesiod from an earlier period) with their traditions of village self-government (This book pointed out to me that "villeins" came from "villages.") were more than capable of participating in democracy and law-making.

Meiksins-Wood spends a lot of time arguing that slaves probably didn't work much in agriculture.  Not like the giant farms in Imperial Rome (latifundia?).  The wealth in Athens weren't fabulously wealthy.  And they owned patches of land scattered about which would have made renting them to peasant proprietors a more economical proposition than slaves who would have to be supervised.  Much of the claims for the pervasiveness of slavery hinge on the way the aristocrats (the only people who had time to do a lot of writing) treated all manual labour as debased and who saw little difference between a farmer paying rent and a slave.

Later on, such things as the importance of the Athenian navy (especially at the Battle of Salamis) extended the claim to democracy on landless labourer-citizens, the thetes (who were crucial for rowing Athenian triremes).

I think the last thing I want to point out is where she has Homer saying that whatever the heroes decided was what got decided because that's the way things went, whereas Hesiod criticized the nobles for their corrupt legal decisions and said that they would eventually face justice.


I finished Federica Carugati's Creating a Constitution: Law, Democracy, and Growth in Ancient Athens.

A comprehensive account of how the Athenian constitution was created—with lessons for contemporary constitution-building

We live in an era of constitution-making. More than half of the world's constitutions have been drafted in the past half-century. Yet, one question still eludes theorists and practitioners alike: how do stable, growth-enhancing constitutional structures emerge and endure? In Creating a Constitution, Federica Carugati argues that ancient Athens offers a unique laboratory for exploring this question. Because the city-state was reasonably well-documented, smaller than most modern nations, and simpler in its institutional makeup, the case of Athens reveals key factors of successful constitution-making that are hard to flesh out in more complex settings.

Carugati demonstrates that the institutional changes Athens undertook in the late fifth century BCE, after a period of war and internal strife, amounted to a de facto constitution. The constitution restored stability and allowed the democracy to flourish anew. The analysis of Athens's case reveals the importance of three factors for creating a successful constitution: first, a consensus on a set of shared values capable of commanding long-term support; second, a self-enforcing institutional structure that reflects those values; and, third, regulatory mechanisms for policymaking that enable tradeoffs of inclusion to foster growth without jeopardizing stability.

Uniquely combining institutional analysis, political economy, and history, Creating a Constitution is a compelling account of how political and economic goals that we normally associate with Western developed countries were once achieved through different institutional arrangements.

I'll add that she says the collapse of the democracy following defeat in the Peloponnesian War produced an oligarchy that was enforced at the tip of Spartan spears.  But this fell apart when the clique at the center refused to extend power to other oligarchs.  The turmoil eventually restored democracy, but a democracy that was chastened and in which the demos and the oligarchs were both resigned to make work so as to end the period of chaos.

I also read The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles.

I'll copy and paste from the review the parts that dealt with the themes that were important to me:

This companion is divided into eleven chapters by eleven specialists and includes an introduction and conclusion by the editor, Loren J. Samons. The chapters are thematic and focus upon the social, economic, religious and political contexts of the age of Pericles (mid-fifth-century BC). There are endnotes after each chapter, as well as a list of suggestions for further reading. 


In the first chapter (“Democracy and Empire”), Rhodes traces the rise of the Athenian empire and investigates its connection with Athens’ democracy. R. contends that the empire strengthened the democracy by involving the mass of citizens, namely by adding ‘to the business which the citizens had to transact’ (28) and necessitating a high level of involvement from the lower classes ( thetes), who were the source of Athens’ naval power (30). Consideration is also given to ‘how far the Athenian combination of democracy and empire is to be attributed to Pericles himself’ (32). R. challenges Thucydides’ view that Athens was ‘in theory democracy but in fact rule by the first man’ (2.65.9) because ‘that is not how Athens worked’ (32). However, he concludes that, although Pericles cannot be responsible for everything that happened in this period, the Athenians largely chose to pursue Periclean policies (33).


In Chapter 3 (“The Athenian Economy”), Lisa Kallet examines ‘the place of money, economic activity, and numeracy in the life of citizens from rich to poor, urban to rural’ (70). K. argues that the Athenians had ‘an economic mentality’. Challenging the view that Athenians had little interest in economic matters, K. provides evidence that ‘money, trade and market infuse the texts of diverse genres’ (71). The chapter is divided into two main parts with subsections. The first considers domestic economic activity (such as agriculture, mining and domestic taxation) and economic activity abroad (involving Athens’ empire). The predominant argument of the chapter is that Athens’ economy under Pericles was complex and unique and that the period was ‘pivotal in the development of economic behaviour, both public and private’ (91).

Kurt Raaflaub contributes Chapter 4, “Warfare in Athenian Society”. This comprehensive discussion is divided into 8 subsections, considering a range of topics, from Athens’ resources for the Peloponnesian War, Pericles’ strategy, and the role of the lower classes, to broader topics, such as the ideology of warfare, Athenian civic identity and the soldiers’ experience of war. The two questions central to this chapter are: ‘What had brought Athens to such a height of power and self-confidence that its leader could predict victory in a war with Sparta?’ and ‘Why was Pericles able to convince his fellow citizens to accept his “hawkish” policies?’ (97). Stressing that ‘we must avoid thinking from hindsight’, R. contextualizes the Peloponnesian War and the events leading up to it and argues that Athens’ empire was an essential factor in the Athenians’ decision to embark upon this ‘astronomically’ expensive war. The main conclusion is that the Athenians, with their lucrative empire, powerful fleet and strong civic pride, had every reason to feel confident at the outset, unable to foresee the lengthy ‘total war’ with ‘its untold miseries’ that the conflict would become (111).


Jeffrey Henderson discusses “Drama and Democracy” (Ch. 7). Although drama flourished under Athens’ democratic government, H. asks to what extent the development of Athenian drama can be related to the development of Athenian democracy and empire. The chapter focuses primarily upon tragedy, which, H. argues, has a more tenuous relation to democracy than the more political genre of comedy.4 Although H. allows that there were some democratic elements to tragedy and its production, he contends that ‘traditional practices’ were put above ‘democratic rules and ideology’ (185). H. concludes that, while comedy has ‘a fair claim to being a phenomenon related to democracy’, tragedy transcended the concerns of democracy, preserving older themes and ideas based upon the polis and panhellenism (188). This chapter is one of the more contentious. Ralph Rosen, for instance, provides a compelling contrasting view in his book Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition (1988) that some of the supposed “social functions” (which might be considered democratic) of Old Comedy actually predate the democratic period, such as “collective obscenity”.5 Moreover, H.’s conclusion that tragedy is little reflective of the democratic period contrasts with the more common view that tragedy was considerably influenced by democratic ideology.6

In Chapter 8, “The Bureaucracy of Democracy and Empire”, J. P. Sickinger provides an illuminating discussion of the important role that written texts played in maintaining Athens’ government and empire. After providing an overview of the history of the civic uses of writing at Athens, S. primarily surveys the functions of ‘non-lapidary texts’ since ‘inscriptions tell a very small part of the story of Athenian bureaucratic practice’ (198). The chapter stresses that the function of writing in fifth-century Athens should not be ‘downplayed’ or ‘minimized’ and provides convincing evidence that most writing was likely on perishable materials, such as papyrus or wood.


One of the more dense chapters in the companion is Sealey’s examination of “Democratic Theory and Practice” (Ch. 10). The chapter begins with a discussion of the development of the polis, then examines its political and judicial organs, and ends with an assessment of the relationship between Athens’ demokratia and its independent courts. S. holds the “new” view, based upon more recent scholarship, that early Greece did not have monarchies, but rather that power was private, organized around wealthy households and their dependents. As settlements grew larger, informal meetings organized by household were no longer satisfactory and assemblies and councils were gradually formed, giving rise to the polis-structure. S. stresses that traditional stories of early kings should not be taken literally but rather ‘were fictions invented in the fifth and fourth centuries’ by families wishing to align themselves with a more ‘distinguished ancestry’ (239).

Finally, I completed Anthony Everitt's The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest Civilization.  (With a subtitle like that you already know it's not a scholarly tome.)  

A thick, lively popular history that tells a complex story without dumbing it down or devoting more than a modest effort to distinguishing fact from myth.

All ancient histories begin with prehistory, and veteran British historian Everitt (The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire, 2012, etc.) describes the Homeric age before 1000 B.C.E. as Greeks themselves viewed it, an ingenious approach that emphasizes the many differences between ancient cultures and modern societies. The heroes of the Iliad were a surly, murderous lot. Lovers of Mary Renault’s classic The King Must Die (1958) may not welcome news that Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, raped any woman that took his fancy. After a dark age, classic Athens emerged around 700 B.C.E., a turbulent city riven by conflicts between the rich and the poor. The vaunted democracy that emerged after 600 B.C.E. inspired America’s Founding Fathers but also taught them what to avoid. Every male citizen gathered and voted, so it often resembled mob rule. An aggressive aristocratic class remained, and charismatic leaders became populist dictators. Yet it worked. Athens prospered and dominated other cities for two centuries until it tangled with rival city-state Sparta in 434 B.C.E. and lost. After 400 B.C.E. Athens declined into a more modest town, but its intellectual heritage—Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Aristotle, Archimedes, etc.—carried through its fourth-century conqueror, Macedonia, second-century conqueror, Rome, and, subsequently, the Western world. Though dense with incident, the narrative is highly readable, and the glossary and timeline are helpful additions.

Nearly 500 pages of names, plots, betrayals, battles, and murders may be more than some readers want to know about ancient Greece, but Everitt keeps the action moving, making this a worthy alternative to the classic doorstop, Will Durant’s The Life of Greece (1939).

That's all for now.


I read about 2/3rd's of The Secret World of Slugs and Snails: Life in the Very Slow Lane by David George Gordon.

I'm going to be writing a fiction piece that features giant, intelligent slugs as characters and I thought this book would be a good introduction to them.  Here's how my library described it:

A preeminent expert on the small wonders of the natural world, David George Gordon playfully and thoughtfully sheds light on the fascinating lives of slugs and snails. Covering everything from snail sex to the manufacture of synthetic slug slime, Gordon takes us on a journey through the languid and magical world of these charismatic invertebrates. From essays like Grow Your Own Escargot to indispensable gardening tips, this book is chock-full of information on the much-maligned mollusks. Whether removing non-native slugs from your garden or following a native snail as it meanders across the forest floor, you'll never look at these underdogs the same way again.

And here's from the link above:

Unlikely as gastropods may seem as a topic for a book-length study, naturalist Gordon ably enlivens them, combining facts with quotations, a colloquial style, and curious historical references, from Pliny the Elder and Roman snail farmers to 18th-century pharmacists. Fildes’s line drawings recall woodcuts and add a touch of whimsy, aiding the impression that soft-bodied creatures should be regarded as more than agricultural nuisances or "cogs in nature’s Grande Machine." In four chapters—divided with clever, occasionally tongue-in-cheek subheadings as well as informational boxes—Gordon offers a solid overview of these gastropods, beginning with their place in the animal kingdom; continuing with discussions that reveal medicinal and culinary uses; listing some of the common varieties; exploring their physiology (including the properties of their slime); and finally, providing environmental suggestions for balancing their populations in the average yard. A highly approachable read for the neophyte science aficionado and the gardening enthusiast and an entertaining take on the timeless adage, "the meek shall inherit the earth." 

Sounded good.  But what I read was mostly descriptions of various types of North American slugs and snails, some recipies and tips for managing them in your garden.  There was a part that told me they don't have brains but instead have five things that control various internal functions.  I returned it unfinished.

I also FINISHED Charles Allen Whitney's wonderful The Discovery Of Our Galaxy.

Whitney is a very accessible writer.  I was surprised that he was an astronomer and not a popularizer.  Because the writing was just so well done.  But towards the end he showed that he genuinely knew what he was talking about and wasn't just a science writer conveying the knowledge of others.

This is a book about the mystery and the passion, the imagination, religion, and poetry, the philosophy, the intellectual flights—and, above all, the people—that have created the science of astronomy, from Thales of Miletus predicting eclipses in the sixth century B.C. to today’s scientists probing the cosmic significance of the mysterious “black holes” discovered in 1970.  With authority and charm, the distinguished Harvard astronomer Charles A. Whitney here re-creates the lives and temperaments of the great astronomers and retraces the ingenious arguments, the feats of observation and deduction, and the leaps of intuition by which they have gradually unveiled a picture of the universe and have brought us to an understanding of our own planet’s place in it.

The book is from the early-seventies so it's a little dated, but much of what he's writing about is Ancient and Early Modern history so it's not that big an issue.  Plus, it's cool to read an astronomer talking about Black Holes when they had just become a respectable hypothesis.  The historical profiles of various astronomers were very well done.  Apparently Edwin Hubble was a bit of a bad-ass.


As a diversion I read Travis Elborough's Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World's Most Unusual Corners.

This atlas of weird and unusual locations from National Geographic unveils the strange-but-true history, trivia, and geography of our planet’s most intriguing and curious places. From deserted cities and strange settlements, to remote islands and underground labyrinths, this atlas features more than 50 unusual locations around the world—from San Juan in Parangaricutiro, a town entirely submerged by lava, to Leap Castle in Ireland, allegedly the most haunted house in the world. Inviting text by British cultural commentator Travis Elborough is paired with photos, artfully drawn maps, and illustrations. Over the course of five chapters, readers will explore floating worlds, utopian cities, deserted places, man-made oddities, obscure locations, mysterious underground realms, and more. Lyrically written and beautifully illustrated, this book will inform, enlighten, and intrigue you as it takes you on a journey to far-off, peculiar, and often unreachable parts of our world.

It's a nice enough read.  Lil' inneresting vingettes.

I also read (but obviously didn't have time to write about it last week) David Cannadine's Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800 - 1906.

The opening of the book is page after page of superlative praise for it.  And I have to say it's pretty well deserved.  Cannadine is a very eloquent writer.  Paragraphs just flow by.  He deals with an enormous amount of of subject matter in a very efficient, eloquent manner.  He reads as if he's more sympathetic to the self-centered, blinkered assholes who governed the UK during the 19th Century than they genuinely deserve.  Still, he does acknowledge their flaws, including their self-delusions about their own moral probity and their self-worth.

One really gets a sense of how tenuous the British period of dominance was and how inevitable was the waning of its power.  This was something that many of the leading men of the time actually understood. (While others felt that God had placed them at the apex of human civilization.)  An excellent, comprehensive introduction to an important topic.


James Laxer's 2009 Democracy (A Groundwork Guide):

Nice little book.

James Laxer’s Democracy, the latest in the Groundwood Guide series, begins with a statement that may surprise young readers: “In the West, citizens assume that they live in a democracy.” He then lists some of the characteristics typically associated with democracy: the right to vote in free elections, the right to self-expression, and the quest for social justice. The “but” comes later, when Laxer, a prominent political science professor and commentator, explains how the rise of multinationals has widened the gap between rich and poor and has endangered our democratic process to such an extent that “unless it is effectively addressed, little else that is achieved will matter very much.”


Democracy is written at a fairly sophisticated level that may overestimate its readership’s grasp of recent history. At the heart of the book, however, is the message that we cannot take democracy for granted: “There is no compelling evidence that there is a universal yearning for democracy in all cultures and social settings, and we can dispense with the dubious proposition that democracy is an outgrowth of human nature.”

I'm tired.

I also finished Ramon Pacheco Pardo's Shrimp to Whale: South Korea From the Forgotten War to K-Pop.

Being an old fogey I know about K-Pop but it means as much to me as any other youngster's music.  I don't give a shit about the Oscars so the importance of "Parasite" winning Best Picture didn't register.  I was briefly on Netflix during the pandemic quarantine but I cancelled it because I hardly watched it.  I watched a couple of episodes of "Squid Game" but grew depressed as it just reflected the oligarchy's current victories while an impotent left-wing pats itself on the back about imaginary victories.

But reading this book made me understand just how far South Korea has come since it emerged as the super-impoverished former enslaved colony of Japan in 1945.

The book’s title is taken from an old Korean perception that Korea was a shrimp among whales geopolitically, surrounded by much larger neighbors like China, Japan, and Russia. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, this proved to be true as Korea was exploited, colonized, and then partitioned into North and South Korea under the influence of foreign nations. Then, a brutal three-year war between the two Koreas involving other nations like the US and China took place in 1950, caused millions of civilian and military deaths and destroyed cities. After the war ended in 1953, South Korea faced a bleak future, impoverished with a GDP per capita of US$67 (not a typo) and high illiteracy rate.


South Korea thus went from a democracy at its founding to an authoritarian state interspersed with elections and coups and protests, a rocky political history that in Pardo’s clear flow does not get bogged down in details. Each president of South Korea and an overview of his or her rule is provided, which enables readers to see a clear path in how the nation progressed gradually to a modern democracy while shedding its authoritarian past.


The book covers events up until 2022 during the Covid pandemic so it is quite contemporary, but its brevity means a number of events get condensed and there is often an extremely bullish tone. The author’s enthusiasm for South Korea certainly flows through the pages, but this also leads to a lack of rigor in comparison to other works with a more strictly historical or journalistic focus. While major political and societal scandals are mentioned, there is not much focus on the country’s significant challenges such as having one of the world’s lowest birthrates and substantial economic inequality.

It remains to be seen if the country can continue to shine as brightly as portrayed by Pardo, but Shrimp to Whale is an enjoyable read that does well to describe how South Korea became an improbable “whale” from its humble beginnings during the mid-20th century.

Maybe a little too rah-rah hooray, but a good read nonetheless.


I finished a short little book (69 pages) called Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie by Jon Ronson.

I saw the movie at a screening and was given a copy of the book as a prize.  The movie is great and the book is funny.

I also just finished Peter Bogucki's The Barbarians from Reaktion Books' "Lost Civilizations" series. 

The Barbarians examines the prehistoric cultures of Europe that existed before coming into contact with the Greeks and Romans as well as the societies that remained outside the frontiers of the Roman Empire.   Bogucki uses the archaeologist’s tools to demonstrate the sophistication of civilizations that are more typically treated as a backdrop for the story of Rome. Despite their skills in art, metalworking and farming, these cultures never developed writing. Because they left no written records, it is up to archaeologists like Bogucki to write their histories.

Two take-aways.  Some of those pre-historic Europeans travelled surprisingly long distances.  And Bogucki argues that the archaeological evidence says that the Barbarian Invasions of Ancient Rome were a much more gradual affair.  Oh yeah.  One more thing.  They can date things incredibly accurately.  They can tell where a last meal came from and what part of the world a person came from using science.


Finished Magna Carta: The Medieval Roots of Modern Politics by David Starkey.  (He's apparently a formerly centrist historian who became a right-wing fire-breather to obtain a television career.)

I liked it.

David Starkey is well known for his television programmes as well as for his books, especially on Tudor England. His focus here is primarily on the machinations behind the scenes and the differences between the original Magna Carta of 1215 and the subsequent Magna Carta granted in November 1216 following King John’s death the month before. The story is fascinating, not least because of the role played by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, Regent to the nine-year-old King Henry III.

Starkey’s book is scholarly yet accessible. Analytical yet clear, it is a pleasure to read.

The story of the Magna Carta is an example where the law of unintended consequences comes into play. What was a localised squabble and an ad hoc solution could have remained just that. But circumstances ensured that that was not to be. After granting the Magna Carta in June 2015, King John then appealed to Pope Innocent III in Rome, who declared the charter to be “not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust” since John had been coerced, and accordingly the charter was “null, and void of all validity forever”.

The pope ordered the king not to observe the Magna Carta and the barons not to enforce it under threat of excommunication, thus emboldening King John to fight back. The papal intervention, the subsequent war between King John and the nobles, and the deaths of King John and the pope the following year combined to set the scene for the granting of a new Magna Carta under the regency – and this time by agreement and not by coercion.

By setting limits on the king’s powers over the nobles, the historical actors were unwittingly over those two years laying the foundation for the principle that no person, not even the king, is above the law and for the concept of the rule of law.


“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

There is an Irish connection to the Magna Carta. One of King John’s advisers was William Marshal, a social climber if there ever was one. Landless and without money but a great swordsman and jouster, he had married well, as they say. In fact, he married Aoife and Strongbow’s daughter, Isabel de Clare. He was 43 at the time and she was 17. He eventually succeeded to the title of Earl of Pembroke, with vast estates in England and Ireland. By now he was 70 years old and appointed Regent for the young king, Henry III, when King John died in 1216. He had sided with King John and was his principal lay negotiator the year before. But he was politically astute and realised that the situation had changed, so he worked for a compromise, which was the Magna Carta of 1216.

Also: I just finished Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner.  It's a curious book.

From the CounterPunch link:

Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes”

In 1971 the New York Times published its edition of the Pentagon Papers, based on the government documents concerning Vietnam policy which had been borrowed by Daniel Ellsberg. In its preface to the book, the Times commented about certain omissions and distortions in the government’s view of political and historical realities as reflected in the papers: “Clandestine warfare against North Vietnam, for example, is not seen … as violating the Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the French Indochina War, or as conflicting with the public policy pronouncements of the various administrations. Clandestine warfare, because it is covert, does not exist as far as treaties and public posture are concerned. Further, secret commitments to other nations are not sensed as infringing on the treaty-making powers of the Senate, because they are not publicly acknowledged.”
In his new book, “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA”, New York Times reporter Tim Weiner also relies heavily on government documents in deciding what events to include and what not to, and the result is often equally questionable. “This book,” Weiner writes, “is on the record — no anonymous sources, no blind quotations, no hearsay. It is the first history of the CIA compiled entirely from firsthand reporting and primary documents.”(p.xvii)

Thus, if US government officials did not put something in writing or if someone did not report their firsthand experience concerning a particular event, to Tim Weiner the event doesn’t exist, or at least is not worth recounting. British journalist Stewart Steven has written: “If we believe that contemporary history must be told on the basis of documentary evidence before it becomes credible, then we must also accept that everything will either be written with the government’s seal of approval or not be written at all.”
As to firsthand reporting, for Weiner it apparently has to be from someone “reputable”. Former CIA officer Philip Agee wrote a 1974 book, “Inside the Company: CIA Diary”, that provides more detail about CIA covert operations in Latin America than any book ever written. And it was certainly firsthand. But Agee and his revelations are not mentioned at all in Weiner’s book. Could it be because Agee, in the process of becoming the Agency’s leading dissident, also became a socialist radical and close ally of Cuba?

Former CIA officer John Stockwell also penned a memoir (“In Search of Enemies”, 1978), revealing lots of CIA dirty laundry in Africa. He later also became a serious Agency dissident, and the Weiner book ignores him as well.
Also ignored: Joseph Burkholder Smith, another Agency officer, not quite a left-wing dissident like Agee or Stockwell but a heavy critic nonetheless, entitled his memoir “Portrait of a Cold Warrior” (1976), in which he revealed numerous instances of CIA illegality and immorality in the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia.

There’s also Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk, who provided his firsthand account in “My War With The CIA” (1974). Sihanouk is also a non-person in the pages of “Legacy of Ashes”.

Even worse, Weiner ignores a veritable mountain of impressive “circumstantial” and other evidence of CIA misdeeds which doesn’t meet his stated criteria, which any thorough researcher/writer on the Agency should give serious attention to, certainly at least mention for the record. Among the many CIA transgressions and crimes left out of “Legacy of Ashes”, or very significantly played down, are:

*  The extensive CIA role in the 1950s provocation and sabotage activities in East Berlin/East Germany which contributed considerably to the communists’ decision to build the Berlin Wall is not mentioned, although the wall is discussed.

*  The US role in instigating and supporting the coup that overthrew Sihanouk in 1970, which led directly to the rising up of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, and the infamous Cambodian “killing fields”. Weiner, without providing any source, writes: “The coup shocked the CIA and the rest of the American government.”(p.304) (See WILLIAM BLUM, “Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II”, p.137-8) Nor does the book make any mention of the deliberate Washington policy to support Pol Pot in his subsequent war with Vietnam. Pol Pot’s name does not appear in the book.

*  The criminal actions carried out by Operation Gladio, created by the CIA, NATO, and several European intelligence services beginning in 1949. The operation was responsible for numerous acts of terrorism in Europe, foremost of which was the bombing of the Bologna railway station in 1980, claiming 86 lives. The purpose of the terrorism was to place the blame for these atrocities on the left and thus heighten public concern about a Soviet invasion and keep the left from electoral victory in Italy, France and elsewhere. In Weiner’s book this is all down the memory hole.

*  A discussion of the alleged 1993 assassination attempt against former president George H.W. Bush in Kuwait presents laughable evidence, yet states: “But the CIA eventually concluded that Saddam Hussein had tried to kill President Bush.”(p.444) Weiner repeats this, apparently, solely because it appears in a CIA memorandum. That qualifies it as a “primary document”. But what does this have to do with, y’know, the actual facts?

*  Moreover, the book scarcely scratches the surface concerning the dozens of foreign elections the CIA has seriously interfered in; the large number of assassination attempts, successful or unsuccessful, against foreign political leaders; the widespread planting of phoney stories in the international media, stories that were at times picked up in the American press as a result; manipulation and corruption of foreign labor movements; extensive book and magazine publishing fronts; drug trafficking; and a virtual world atlas of overthrown governments, or attempts at same.

“A Legacy of Ashes” is generally a good read even for someone familiar with the world of the CIA, but it’s actually often rather superficial, albeit 700 pages long. Why has so much of importance and interest been omitted from a book which has the subtitle: “The History of the CIA”; not, it must be noted, “A History of the CIA”?

Whatever jaundiced eye Weiner focuses on the CIA, he still implicitly accepts the two basic beliefs of the Cold War: 1)There existed out there something called The International Communist Conspiracy, fueled by implacable Soviet expansionism; 2)United States foreign policy meant well.  It may have frequently been bumbling and ineffective, but its intentions were noble. And still are.

Weiner writes well enough about older topics.  The coups in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950's produced horrible, tragic results.  The Vietnam War was a crime.  The attacks on Cuba were a waste.  But the closer he gets to the present day the more Weiner becomes an apologist for US government policy.  Reading this book on the drive towards bush II's invasion of Iraq one gets the impression that the bush II regime was misled by the "Bad Intelligence."

The fact that the CIA's original analysis that Saddam Hussein had no WMDs and that Dick Cheney made unusual trips to CIA headquarters to emphasize his insistence that they find something isn't mentioned.

Colin Powell is presented as having total faith in CIA Director George Tenet's "slam-dunk" case for Saddam Hussein when he made his presentation to the United Nations.  In fact, Powell knew that some of the CIA's case was "bullshit" and he would therefore have no reason to trust anything else they were giving him.  He was deliberately concocting an excuse for war and he knew it.

If anything, the book's subtitle could be "Hope springs eternal."  No matter how many decades of (often incompetently performed) imperialism Weiner describes, it's always the case that the "talent" at the agency is burning out; and new recruits, the equals of the geniuses that Weiner has already shown were bumbling ignroamuses, are hard to come by.  The CIA turned towards "The Dark Side" when it introduced torture during bush II's GBWT.  Oh sure, there was the torture and murder in the Phoenix Program in Vietnam.  And the torture training for Latin American death sqauds from the 1950's to the present day.  But the Agency sullied itself in the GBWT.

I did learn the great extent that the CIA controlled Italian and Japanese politics in the 1950's and 1960's.  That was an eye-opener.

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