Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist

This week I'm talking about another economic history book, although this one goes back into the very late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century. Specifically the economics of slavery and its spread through the United States until the treasonous rebellion of 1861 was crushed and millions of men, women, and children were set free from the chains of human bondage.

cough I may be a rabid Unionist and Abolitionist.

Anyway, The Half Has Never Been Told actually seeks to deconstruct long-standing historical myths surrounding slavery in the United States, specifically two. The first, which doesn't stand up to very close scrutiny, is the myth that slavery was a benign, paternal institution where white masters ''civilized'' and ''took care of'' black slaves. This argument is absurdly and blatantly racist, assuming that African-Americans needed the institution of slavery to ''tame'' them in some way. During the more overtly racist eras of American history, up until the 1960's, this lame excuse was accepted as a matter of dogma. And I hate to say it, but some parts of the United States still believe slavery was a benign institution.

Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence of the ruthless brutality of slavery: the horrors of the internal slave trade, the breaking of families for profit, the many ingenious tortures utilized by whites to extract even more work from slaves. Rape, intimidation, and murder were all a part of daily life for African-Americans in the slave labor camps of the ante-bellum South. Truly it takes an act of willful denial to say slavery was in any way good or gentle and I think we're getting to a point where this argument can't be taken seriously anymore.

The second big argument, which is slightly more subtle, also carries the tones of historical determinism. There has been a long-standing assumption that slave labor is inherently less efficient than free labor, mainly because free labor usually gets to enjoy the rewards of their hard work providing motivation that simply isn't there in a slave labor system. This historical argument has been that slavery was economically inefficient in the American South, simply could not have kept up with the rapidly industrializing North, and would eventually have been doomed to extinction.

Baptist, however, goes to great lengths to prove how slavery very likely wouldn't have gone extinct in the near future and possibly could have expanded beyond the cotton belt. Baptist begins by pointing out that the cotton boom in the American South actually changed the institution of slavery in the New World. Slavery had previously been utilized for two crops: sugar and tobacco. Both were high profit and extremely labor intensive crops in areas which had chronic labor shortages, which prompted Europeans to cause the forced migration of Africans to the Americas as slaves. By the late 1700's, though, there was a surplus of slave labor in the Americas and the landed gentry of Virginia and the Carolinas were becoming increasingly concerned that a revolt would be likely if their numbers continued to rise.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1794 dramatically changed the nature of slavery in America. Cotton was truly big business and the textile mills of Britain and later New England had an insatiable demand for the fiber. However, once again, demands for labor in the prime cotton-growing territory was high and the supply was extremely low, which prompted a growing internal trade of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. And as the country expanded, slavery expanded wherever cotton would bloom. An inhuman institution that was becoming redundant once again became a major source of profit.

But how can we tell that slavery wasn't economically inefficient? It seems to go against all common sense. But Baptist makes a very convincing argument by pointing at simple numbers. From the 1790's up until 1859 the amount of cotton harvested steadily increased, well beyond increases in the population of slaves forced across the South. Although there were some drop offs because of economic panics, overall the increase was tremendous. However, after the war when forced labor is no longer used, the amount of cotton harvested decreases significantly, despite continued demand. In fact the record levels of 1859 would not be reached until much later, with significantly more people working in harvesting cotton. Baptist rather successfully in my opinion, argues that the use of whips and other implements of torture actually made forced labor more efficient than paid labor, but at tremendous human cost.

Furthermore, if you look at the actions of southern planters leading up to their treason of 1861, they clearly didn't expect slavery to go away any time soon. In fact the political maneuvers of the 1850's made it abundantly clear Southern planters wanted to expand slavery wherever they could, whether it be Cuba, California, or Kansas. They even began making constitutional arguments that slaves could even be held in free states, making the term free state a mockery and driving free state whites into a panic. By 1860 the northerners had been pushed around long enough and finally put their foot down with a resounding no to the expansion of slavery and the election of Abraham Lincoln. And we know the rest of the story from there.

I've really only covered a fraction of what's talked about in this book. Baptist provides a lot of anecdotal evidence, biographies of specific slaves that have survived and give remarkable inside views into the institution of slavery. Personally I think this is the weakest part because Baptist tends to embellish, turning these narratives almost into historical fiction rather than history, supposing what many of the people might have done during their lives. Being the cranky historian I am, I wanted him to stick to the facts rather than editorialize, but it certainly gives slavery a very human element which is important in telling the tale.

Baptist also points out how slavery allowed the South to dominate the United States politically in the early years, until increased immigration starting in the 1830's dramatically shifted the population to the North. And he also makes strong arguments that slavery and the cotton it produced allowed the Industrial Revolution, kick-started by Britain's textile mills, to take off and create our industrialized world. It's a lot of material to cover, but I think aside from a few problematic portions Baptist does a pretty good job. And this is a story that doesn't just deserve to be told. It needs to be told. Definitely worth the read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Double Cross, by Ben MacIntyre

This week I'm looking at another bit about the history of espionage during World War II, although in this case from the British perspective and MI-5 and MI-6 with the Double Cross system. Which quite frankly is one of the most astounding and incredible stories of World War II and, considering how many bungles seemed to happen with espionage during World War II, by and far the most successful example. This book focuses specifically on five of the more fantastic spies, although the Double Cross system included dozens of people working to bamboozle the Germans into thinking they had a functional spy system within Britain. When in fact every German spy in Britain was under British control, one way or another.

A Yugoslavian playboy, a bisexual Venezuelan good-time girl, a Polish military veteran, the French daughter of a White Russian emigre, and a Spanish chicken farmer. It sounds like the lead-in to a fantastic joke, and considering they fooled the entire German intelligence apparatus it kind of was. Of course these weren't the only agents in the Double Cross system but MacIntyre focuses specifically on these five, who are probably the most interesting and in a couple cases they were the most influential in shaping German opinions of Allied strength during the war. But before I go further, some context.

The Double Cross system was an initiative put in place by the British, who have a long history of spying and were probably the best spies during World War II, to capture and control German spies. Thanks to the breaking of the Enigma code by researchers at Bletchley Park, MI-5 had advanced notice of every German agent being sent into the country and they were quickly captured. Many were imprisoned, some were executed, and a select few were chosen to become double agents to feed information back to the Germans and convince them they had a strong enough intelligence network on the ground that they didn't need to send any more spies into Britain. Perhaps most interestingly numerous people were initially recruited by the Germans to spy for them and then, whether out of idealism, greed, self-preservation, or other motivations these spies then immediately turned themselves in to British Intelligence and offered to become double agents in service to Britain. Or in the case of Juan Pujol, the Spanish chicken farmer, he attempted to get recruited by the British numerous times and, having been rebuffed, signed on with the Abwher and began fabricating information wholesale. The British, alarmed by this spy they didn't control, soon recruited Pujol into their ranks which was his goal the entire time and he continued to deceive the Germans.

The most amazing thing about the Double Cross system was that it worked for so long as well as it did. Up until the end of the war there were numerous Germans who were convinced they had functional intelligence networks in Britain. But in a way, we have the Abwehr to thank for that success. The Abwehr was Germany's intelligence arm during World War II and was absolutely filled with people who were gullible, incompetent, corrupt, or just plain lazy. Joining the Abwehr was an easy way to avoid active military duty and pleasant postings such as Madrid or Lisbon were especially desirable. Many Abwehr agents indulged themselves with the finer things in life rather than getting involved with the actual work of spying, which made Double Cross's job that much easier. On top of that there were numerous people within the Abwehr who were actively working to undermine the Nazi regime. This includes perhaps even its chief director, although his motivations were never truly known before his death. The Double Cross plan was audacious and ultimately successful, probably in no small part to the Abwehr's disinclination to do any actual spying work.

The ultimate plan came with Operation Fortitude, a plan of deception to keep the Germans from correctly surmising where the inevitable Allied invasion of Europe would begin. In concert with military counter-intelligence teams, the Double Cross team created the illusion of two entire armies located in the south east and east of England, threatening Norway, Denmark, and the Pas de Calais across the Straits of Dover. If any information about an attack at Normandy was leaked at all, the Germans were made to believe it would be a diversionary attack in prelude to the main thrust at Calais. Amazingly, despite numerous problems right before D-Day in June of 1944, Double Cross was able to convince the Germans that this was merely a diversion for several weeks, tying down numerous German reinforcements that could have smashed the Allied beachhead before they could consolidate. By the time Germans were sending reinforcements to Normandy, the Allies had already secured their position and were advancing into France.

In hindsight this book is kind of short, talking only about five major characters and the people who interact with them, as well as some other examples of deception by the British during World War II which influenced German decision making. But overall I think it's pretty good. You definitely get a sense of just how downright amazing this program was and how surprising it is that it managed to last for as long as it did. It's definitely a very broad overview rather than going into specific details, but I like general overviews as a rule so I ended up liking it. I also was absolutely astounded at how lazy, incompetent, or just stupid the Germans were and was glad we really lucked out when it came to that. It's an interesting part of World War II that doesn't get talked about terribly much and definitely worth reading.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher

This week I'm taking another look at the Dresden Files series, although strictly speaking I'm taking more of a listen instead. I looked at Storm Front a pretty long time ago so I really have only a vague recollection of the events of the book. Which kind of hampered me when I started listening to Fool Moon. However, I did remember some of the important bits and the book managed to bring me back up to speed so it worked out all right.

Harry Dresden, as you might remember, is a professional wizard and sometime-consultant for the Special Investigations unit of the Chicago Police Department which deals with the unofficial magical cases in the Chicago area. After the events of Storm Front, Lieutenant Murphy has come under scrutiny from Internal Affairs and she's distanced herself from Dresden. But in the fall Murphy finally calls Dresden in on a very strange murder case. Which looks like it's been committed by a werewolf. But as Dresden soon finds out there's more than one type of werewolf in Chicago, and not all of them need silver bullets.

Overall I think this book was okay, and most of my issues probably came from me having read the first book so long ago that I'd gotten foggy on details. There's an important character arc for Dresden in this novel, and it sets up arcs for later story lines which are tempting enough to want me to keep going with the series. I really do hope that Dresden actually develops as a result of this arc and becomes a better character because his own self-conscious actually called him out on a lot of stuff in this book. And honestly? I think I have to agree with his subconscious. But if there's a sort of reset between this book and the next I think I'll justifiably be a little annoyed. So if the previous book did the job of establishing the world, its characters, and rules, then Fool Moon definitely helps the world grow and expand, while leaving plenty of room for exploration.

Otherwise? It felt kind of like a popcorn book for me. It's a little silly at times, a little scary, and a little sexy. I certainly didn't piece the mystery together before Dresden managed to do so himself, but I'm not very good at piecing mysteries together on a regular basis so I don't feel very bad about that. It's just good entertainment. There might not be a lot that's terribly substantial to the book beyond Dresden's own character arc, which makes up a fairly small part of the book, but it's pretty good entertainment.

And you know what? Sometimes that's okay. Not every book has to be super serious and deep and meaningful. Sometimes you just want to watch giant robot tanks fight. Or in this case watch werewolves fight. And quite frankly I was pretty well entertained by the book so I think it did its job.

I do want to make a note with the audio book edition I listened to, I think James Marsters, the narrator, did a pretty good job as well. He does a lot of the reading in a very tired voice, which I think works well for Dresden considering how much he gets beat up, dragged through the mud, and forced to stay out all night trying to catch werewolves. I think it was a very nice touch, especially since Dresden's basically a private eye but with magic.

Entertaining, if not terribly substantial, and I rather enjoyed it. If you like urban fantasy definitely worth reading if you haven't already.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Double Star, by Robert Heinlein

This week I'm taking a look at another Heinlein book, Double Star, which is one of his earlier books so it's fairly short and has less of the obnoxiousness people tend to notice in his later books. I say less of his obnoxiousness because there are still some problems but that comes more from a literary perspective rather than him shooting his mouth off on philosophy. I'm also wondering, as I'm finally looking back at Heinlein after years of having not picked up any of his books, if maybe I've grown out of them so to speak. I may want to go back and look at a couple of my favorites, but it may simply be a case of my tastes changing with time and what I thought was super interesting when I was in high school seems somewhat passe as I've grown older. It's hard to say.

The plot of Double Star is described very literally by TV Tropes as ''The Prisoner of Zenda in SPACE!'' Basically an important political figure has been kidnapped and there is an important event coming up where that individual absolutely must be in attendance. In Zenda it's a coronation, in Double Star it's an adoption into a Martian clan. Fortuitously another individual who looks remarkably like the kidnapped individual has been located and recruited to substitute for the kidnappee in the all-important political event. Shenanigans ensue. It's a pretty decent plot that's been used multiple times in literature and recycling it in space is a totally legitimate strategy so I don't really have any problem with that.

The biggest problem I've noticed about this book, and this goes throughout the book, is it suffers so much from telling instead of showing. Important things are told to us rather than being shown when they really, absolutely, should be shown. And I understand it. It makes for much easier writing. It's much easier to say the Martian adoption ceremony is super important and wonderful and full of symbolism rather than spending hours over your typewriter trying to come up with actual events to show how it's actually wonderful and full of symbolism. And there are some good showing passages in the novel, but it's almost entirely told from a telling perspective.

And I think that partly has to do with the nature of the book, which I have to keep in mind. This book was originally written as a serial in science-fiction pulp magazines and was later put into novel form. This was actually pretty standard for a lot of books written during the 40's and 50's and it influenced how sci-fi novels were written. You have a lot of decent-length chapters with interesting stuff going on to keep readers interested month after month in the story, but you don't want to let the story go on for too long before people start losing interest. And so I can understand how Heinlein and other authors, who are doing this for money and need to produce something within a certain time frame, may resort to telling instead of showing to make sure they meet deadlines. So I think I understand where it's coming from at least from a systemic standpoint.

However, at the same time I feel like it's still fair to judge literature, regardless of its form and origins, by certain yardsticks. Sure, literature is going to be one of those things that's highly subjective depending on people's personal tastes. A book might be the most exquisitely written thing in the world, but if it's got shirtless vampires brooding all over the place I'm probably still not going to like it. And if it has giant robot tanks? Well, I might tolerate certain stumblings as long as I get my robot tanks. But regardless, I think we can still look at things like characterization and showing versus telling to make judgements of books regardless of their content.

So where does Double Star fall? It's okay I guess. The plot's interesting and it comes with Heinlein's usual peccadillos that you can expect in a 1950's science fiction story. There's an author filibuster, but it's for interspecies tolerance which is something I think we can all get behind. The biggest weakness throughout this book though is its writing. Consistently there are things that should be shown but are rather told to us, something I'm beginning to realize in other space operas. It's okay, but I wouldn't go around calling it great literature. The ultimate irony is that this was Heinlein's first Hugo Award. So what the heck to I know?

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The End of Wall Street, by Roger Lowenstein


So this week I'm taking yet another look at the fairly recent economic crisis of 2008 which we're still, eight years later, working on recovering from gradually. In this case the book is from Roger Lowenstein who actually wrote the book on the Federal Reserve that I listened to a while back as well. Of course since this book also talks about similar subject matters as The Divide by Matt Taibbi, including the buyout of Lehman Brothers by Barclay's, there's going to be a certain amount of overlap. I will say however that Lowenstein doesn't dip into the polemics that Taibbi does and certainly doesn't stoop so low as to make fun of Dick Fuld for his name, a point I thought unbecoming of Taibbi.

To explain why the meltdown of 2008, which removed a significant chunk of the world's wealth, brought the world economy to a screeching halt, and almost smashed the entire delicate framework of modern high finance is...complex. Yes, you can blame bad mortgages and a collapsing real estate bubble in the United States for being the catalysts which precipitated a global crisis. But to say that it was only those two things that caused the crisis is to overlook larger systemic issues which allowed such things to happen in the first place. Lowenstein goes into a great amount of detail explaining the variety of factors which created the crisis, as well as explaining its effects and rationalizing why agencies such as the Federal Reserve made the decisions it did.

Did banks and other lending institutions make loans to people they shouldn't have? People who didn't have enough income to ever hope to pay off the mortgage? Of course. There's ample evidence that this happened. And was their political pressure from Congress to extend loans to Americans to promote the ideal of home ownership? Also true. However, despite what certain people believe and as Lowenstein points out, the crisis was not caused by the government forcing banks to loan against their will. Lowenstein explains that the securitization of loans and vehicles such as credit default swaps made mortgage-backed securities seem like the risk-free item to invest in and public demand for mortgage-backed securities helped fuel a race to the bottom among lending institutions to generate more and more mortgages to then package as Triple-A bonds. 

More than any one thing, Lowenstein argues that it was a combination of factors that enabled the crisis to reach the scale that it did. Low interest rates in the United States, a policy pursued by Alan Greenspan, made low interest rate mortgages and home equity lines possible, turning Americans from a culture of savers into a culture of borrowers. Lax regulation of markets, under the belief that markets were ultimately perfect mechanisms, enabled more complex, more opaque, and ultimately riskier financial instruments to proliferate on Wall Street. A lack of oversight from both the government and the main credit rating agencies, who many investors relied upon to provide information about instruments like mortgage-backed securities, meant investors lacked necessary information to fully understand what they were getting into. And of course the culture of Wall Street, emphasizing decadence, multi-million dollar bonuses regardless of actual success at a company, and highly risky behavior which was assumed to be entirely risk free. (Although Lowenstein doesn't attack with the same vitriol that Taibbi does, which I found to be a welcome relief.)

So when the bubble finally collapsed, it created massive sell-offs and formerly stable financial firms such as Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Bear Stearns became hopelessly insolvent in a matter of weeks. Which only precipitated greater sell-offs. Suddenly banks weren't willing to lend to anyone because they couldn't be sure an industry would be in business for another week. Lowenstein points out that day-to-day operations of industry in America had become so dependent on credit that General Electric, one of the biggest and most stable companies in the world, was unable to get short-term loans at rates of 25% because people were so unwilling to risk money in the private sector. Instead, money was flung into treasury notes to the point where the government was borrowing money at 0%, and eventually it would technically be able to borrow at negative interest rates. Clearly the myth that human being act rationally can be buried in the wake of such behavior. 

The Federal Reserve and other government agencies were put in an unusual position and in 2008 they engineered several bailouts of massive banks, as well as orchestrating mergers, to keep the financial industry from falling apart. There has been considerable criticism since then, especially considering how much went to executive bonuses, that perhaps the industries should have been allowed to fail. Taibbi certainly took the government and the Federal Reserve to task for such decisions.

Lowenstein, however, argues that the collapse of Lehman Brothers is largely responsible for the decision. Lehman Brothers was an example of a firm that almost certainly deserved to fail, having leveraged its assets to the hilt, and it was decided there would be no bailout for the investment bank. However, as Lehman Brothers went up in smoke, and the surviving assets were gobbled up by Barclay's, among others, markets continued a deep tailspin. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, considered an important marker of the state of the American economy, dropped by hundreds of points in a matter of days, in one case dropping a thousand points in one day. As more Americans saw retirement accounts and other savings invested in stocks completely lose all their value, the government was faced with the option of either bailing out banks that almost certainly deserved to fail, or watching the economy as we know it simply cease to exist. 

Lowenstein does briefly criticize some of the later bailouts, which seemed to be Ben Bernanke's favored method of rescuing at-risk companies in the United States during this time. But considering how fragile the economy was at the time, I don't know if I can entirely blame them for pursuing that course of action. I do agree with Lowenstein that new and stricter regulations needed to be put into place, rather than the fairly moderate reforms that did get passed.  

Overall I think this is a pretty good book that does a very good job of explaining the Crisis of 2008 and the ensuing depression which is a fairly complex subject. Granted, I pretty much agree with the statement that stricter and better-enforced regulations and oversight need to be in place, so my opinion is probably clouded on the issue.However, Lowenstein definitely avoids the vitriol and polemics that Taibbi all too often falls into so I think this book is a bit of an improvement. But I definitely recommend reading or listening to this book if you get the chance. 

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Sharpe's Rifles, by Bernard Cornwell

This week I'm reviewing Sharpe's Rifles, which is actually one of the earlier books in the series in order of publication date, but actually sixth in the series based on chronological order. Also I've come to the realization I'm six books into this series which is a little daunting to say the least. This book is also the first to take place in Spain during the Peninsular War which apparently is a majority of the series. Much like in the previous book, Shapre's Prey, Sharpe is currently a lieutenant in the 95th Rifles and is serving as a quartermaster rather than a fighting officer. This book basically shows us Sharpe's transition and the forging of his partnership with Sergeant Harper, who I strongly suspect will be a very important character in later books. (And for people who've already read them, I'm aware that might be an understatement.)

The biggest issue I had comes probably from reading this series in chronological rather than publication order. This book feels like the biggest reset within the series because we see Sharpe reduced back to being nothing more than a misfit officer promoted from the ranks who isn't respected by the men under him and isn't trusted by the officers above him. Also all the riches and spoils he gained from India are long gone, actually disappeared between Trafalgar and Prey so he's back to being dirt poor again too.

If you're reading the series in publication order than it's probably less jarring to see Sharpe at his absolute worst. After all he's got to build up from basically nothing to become the god among men as portrayed by Sean Bean he eventually becomes. However, if you read in chronological order with his campaigns in India first, it's very jarring to see Sharpe as distrusted by everyone. Despite being a common soldier, people still kind of saw Sharpe as one of the best damn soldiers in the entire British army and there were a few willing to look past his more unusual background. Heck, even in Sharpe's Prey there are powerful patrons who may actually influence Sharpe's career which only makes it that much stranger when he's in Spain as a quartermaster.

Another weird thing that it only took me about six books to notice is Sharpe seems to have a different woman he falls in love with every book. Seriously, it's at the point where I'm suspecting Cornwell had something written into his contract where Sharpe had to meet a beautiful woman and fall in love with her every book, with Sharpe only occasionally getting the girl. It's kind of believable at first, when he meets one or two ladies, but after the sixth it's kind of like, ''Oh, she's the love of your life? Really, Sharpe, you don't say? Mhm, do go on.'' I hate to say it because I'm stereotypically one of those not interested in romance sorts of people, but it's cropping up so much it's practically formulaic. I'm afraid this has the potential to just be incredibly annoying as the series goes on.

I think overall my biggest problem was that I read other books where Sharpe's more developed and becomes the best damn soldier in the entire damn British army and everyone knows it, where now he's basically a nobody. It's a big disconnect, but I think a result of prequels more than anything else. It's okay otherwise. Fairly standard battle scenes but not much else to write home about.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, by Susan Wise Bauer

This week I'm taking a look at another incredibly ambitious book, The History of the Medieval World. Although this week's book deals with only about seven  or eight hundred years of history, opposed to last week's two thousand years, it's still fairly ambitious in its scope as it attempt to talk about everything going on in the world rather than focusing on say, just the pope. And yet at the same time the book feels somewhat inadequate because it takes an almost shotgun approach. I'm left wondering if this was meant to be a textbook for classes rather than a historical monograph considering how broad and shallow its focus is.

The word that best describes this book is ambitious, and I think in trying to at least touch upon absolutely everything over some seven centuries of history is an incredibly difficult task. The result is I feel like Bauer has bitten off more than she can chew because the results feel a little muddled. There's also an argument that surfaces from time to time in the book that religion becomes just one more tool of the state to wield power, starting with Constantine's incorporation of Christianity in the Roman Empire and Bauer argues reaches its ultimate denouement in the First Crusade. Now, to completely ignore religion during the Medieval period, especially the spread of Christianity and later the birth and spread of Islam, would be to completely ignore a key aspect of social and political structures during this time period. However, I don't think Bauer spends sufficient time making her arguments coherently and the inclusion of India, China, Korea, and Japan only muddy the waters further.

One of the areas where I felt Bauer got too ambitious was trying to include Asia in her analysis and a very limited analysis of the Americas as well. To be fair, traditional histories which are almost entirely reliant on written records are largely blind when it comes to American civilizations whose writings have largely been lost, destroyed, untranslated, or never existed in the first place. Much of our understanding of those civilizations comes from archaeological research, which involves more than a little guesswork. However the cultures of Asia did have writings during this time period and extremely rich and detailed history. While Bauer goes into these cultures at various points, the lion's share of focus seems to remain in Europe and the Mediterranean.

Now, are Euro-centric histories a problem? Yes. Europe has dominated ''standard histories'' for generations and trying to include cultures from across the globe into more standard history curricula is an ongoing challenge. After all, I know infinitely more about Europe than I can tell you about almost any other place on the globe. But it definitely feels like Asia as a continent gets less attention than Europe and the Americas get practically no attention at all. The fact that sub-Saharan Africa is excluded entirely from this narrative is particularly jarring. I honestly think the book might have been better served by focusing on the main area of interest: Europe.

A challenge I did have was also the sheer amount of names and information included in this book. When you're dealing with dozens of geographic locations, scores of countries, and hundreds of people it can be very difficult to keep track of them all. Especially when you're listening to the book rather than reading. That being said, I learned quite a few things, especially about places like the Byzantine Empire that I don't necessarily know too much about, which was pretty interesting. It's a very shallow overview, but there are some good things to learn in here.

Overall, the book's okay but I think it has a few problems. The religion as a tool of government argument crops up a couple of times but I feel like Bauer doesn't articulate her argument well enough to make it really stick. The inclusion of non-European cultures is nice, but they're largely presented in isolation of Europe rather than how they or Europe may have influenced each other. The inclusion feels incomplete and as I said, the lack of anything about Africa is especially concerning in light of what else is included. I can't think of any good overviews that throw their nets as broadly, but I can think of some that stay far more focused.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Echoes of Honor, by David Weber

This week I'm talking about the...eighth. Wow, really? Eighth book? Didn't realize I was that invested in the series. Anyway, we're looking at the eighth book in the Honor Harrington series and I'm really starting to see where other people, such as Sursum Ursa, have some deep complaints about this series. Don't get me wrong, it's still a pretty fantastic series and there are some really awesome moments, but the book series seems to be growing increasingly exposition-y and with a fresh new crop of plotlines to make a patch of kudzu vine look tame by comparison. I still think it's a good series, but it's definitely lacking the tight character-driven science-fiction which made up the earlier books in the series and suffering, like some other space operas I've been either reading or listening to, from a strong need to show instead of tell.

Obligatory Warning for Dear and Gentle Readers: As we're eight books in it's almost impossible to talk about the book in some meaningful way without going into specific details. The above paragraph provides a good summary of my opinions if you wish to avoid spoilers. 

Echoes of Honor is the first book in this series to be subdivided into separate books, which I think is an organizational choice by Weber more than anything else. Half of the books focus on Honor Harrington and her adventures, while the other half focus on...literally everything else going on in the galaxy right now, albeit in fairly circumscribed manner. The book also covers about a year and a half of time which is a little strange because it doesn't feel that long reading it and I began feeling like maybe other things are happening that I'm just not aware of.

The book begins with a section focusing on literally everyone else, which is kind of weird because instead of focusing on the main character we're treated to an absurd amount of plotlines you have to digest, some of which aren't developed until presumably later novels. The book begins with Haven releasing video of Honor's execution and the response of Honor's parents, and her friends both on Grayson and Manticore and the sorrow both star kingdoms share at losing one of their best commanders. The loss is somewhat muted, however, as anyone who's come this far has probably read the last book and knows that Honor's alive and well. In fact, the very next chapter features the Havenite minister of propaganda gloating over what a good computer simulation job they did with Honor's execution. So while it's useful to see the sorrow and anger of Manticorans and Graysons, it feels a little weird knowing Honor's alive the whole time.

The first part of the book also spends an inordinate time talking about the space economy. Seriously, there are whole discussions and internal reflections on how the economy of Manticore is doing and how it's beginning to strain under the burden of wartime necessity. A large amount of resources are going towards military needs, putting civilian needs on hold although apparently it's not quite yet to rationing, and Manticore is considering the horror of a progressive income tax. (More on that in a minute.) And while it certainly would be a realistic argument that people in those positions of power would have, it's not exactly what I'm interested in when it comes to space operas.

The story is also turning into a patch of kudzu for me because there's so much going on that it's becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of everything. There are so many characters from so many factions that I'm about ready to start making dossiers for all the characters just so I can keep track of them. There's also the introduction of a plot revealing a secret to Grayson's genetic heritage which is played up as this really big deal but then...isn't talked about again. Which could mean it's being saved for a later book, but if it isn't it will ultimately be padding.

And let me take a moment, without getting too political, to state that the argument flat taxes and low government regulation of business is good for the economy. In the short term. In the long term...well it gets far more complicated. Basically members of the Manticore government attribute their great wealth, which had previously been attributed to their high industrial base and location on prime trade routes, to a flat income tax and low regulation. Granted, I seem to fall more in the Keynesian camp when it comes to economic interpretation, but there are problems with this argument. It's kind of been hinted at before, but we're getting to the point in the series where I'm starting to wonder if maybe the Manticorans actually are the plutocrats the Havenites keep accusing them of being. If this was intentional it's very interesting, but I have a feeling it might not have been.

All of this stuff that happened above, mind you, is before we get back to Honor and seeing what she's doing. I can greatly sympathize with Ursa's frustration and wanting to shout ''Where's Honor?!'' while reading the book. And seeing Honor is definitely worth the wait, but I kind of wish the series stayed more focused on one plot rather than drifting all over the place. Which ties into the problem where the book tends to tell rather than show in a lot of places. I'm wondering if this is a problem with space opera as a genre rather than just the Harrington and Dune series, but there are things I really wish they'd show rather than telling us about, especially in reflections by characters. When the book gets into the active tense, it's really enjoyable and Weber is a master at building up the tension to an emotional release point, but that doesn't happen enough in the book for my tastes.

Overall the book is okay. There are some really good parts and I, personally, am too invested in the series to be willing to quit now, but I can see where there are some problems which I suspect will only be exacerbated as the series goes on.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich

This week I'm talking about a book that covers the history of the papacy from its alleged foundation in the first century CE to the reign of the (then-current) pope Benedict XVI. To cover roughly two thousand years of history is no small task in and of itself. On top of that since the men who are elected pope are, usually, rather old men their reigns vary from in some cases a few weeks to equally rarely a few decades. The result is a bit of a whirlwind as Norwich attempts to give a very brief overview of the papacy over hundreds of years and also has to provide necessary historical context. The Great Schism, Investiture, the Italian Wars, and more are all mentioned at least briefly. And in the end I'm not sure if I'm satisfied with the result.

In terms of this being an overview, I think it's all right. I certainly haven't read many books on the history of the papacy, aside from perhaps the Investiture dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Crusades. So there are plenty of things I wasn't aware of that I learned about from this book. As I said, it's very much a whirlwind view because entire books can be written about just a short period of time or just one pope. So while Norwich doesn't go terribly deep in a lot of places, he certainly manages to be very broad throughout.

Plus it's pretty interesting to see, at least as Norwich argues it, how the papacy moves from being just a spiritual power to also being a temporal power because of the overall breakdown of government in the western Roman Empire as various Germanic tribes begin to move into the area. I definitely get the impression that it started purely as something out of necessity and then became a bit of a bad habit as time went on. Although it's also frustrating to see the papacy struggling to remain relevant in a changing world and as Norwich presents it, seeing it fail more often than not in that quest.

My biggest concern is I'm not sure exactly how impartial Norwich is during his writing of this book. He seems to veer very strangely between deep respect and unmitigated scorn for the papacy throughout the book, and weirdly enough he takes almost opposite positions on a couple of the more famous popes. What I first noticed was his almost absolute assumption that St. Peter was a real person and actually the first Bishop of Rome. Or at least he presents the tradition that assumes St. Peter was the first Bishop of Rome as close to historical fact, which makes discerning his own opinion difficult. Personally I cannot say for certain whether St. Peter existed or not, and whether he went to Rome and became Bishop or not. Or if, as tradition maintains, he was crucified upside down. (Fun note, an inverted cross is a symbol of absolute humility before Christ, rather than of the anti-Christ. Although considering people use it as a symbol for Satan/the anti-Christ/whathaveyou I guess you could debate it has become such a symbol de facto.) Anyway, as one of those pesky atheists I don't tend to swallow such traditions as absolute definite fact and it bothers me to have it presented as such. But that's just my own personal hold up.

Another good example is his section about Alexander III. For those of you who aren't aware, Alexander III was one of the Borgia popes and was well known for his immorality and extravagances, including numerous parties with the prostitutes of Rome. Jesus may have eaten with sinners and tax collectors, but I hardly think that was what he had in mind. Generally speaking, Alexander III goes down as one of the ''bad'' popes; regardless of how much art he may have sponsored, the man still had people assassinated. However, Norwich advances an argument that Alexander III wasn't all that bad. He points to the art as one example, and also points to numerous things Alexander III did to make the papacy one of the modern Italian states involved in the various Italian wars between France, Spain, the Austrian Hapsburgs, and Sicily. However I think this largely depends on whether you see this as a good thing or a bad thing. If you're merely looking at the Papal States as a nation, this organization of power and ability to influence big players certainly looks good. But if you're looking at the Papal States as the moral and spiritual leader of Europe, then this is a very bad case because the papacy becomes just one more state among many jockeying for power.

A more recent example is Pius XII, who was pope during World War II and after his death was put on the fast track for sainthood, although his case appears to have stalled at beatification. Pius XII has been the subject of some controversy because of his fairly muted indictment of the Nazis during the war, especially when there's strong evidence Pius XII was aware that atrocities and crimes against humanity were being committed. Norwich for his part takes Pius XII to task and boldly accuses Pius of anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. He also portrays Pius as a bitter reactionary, refusing to modernize the Church as society continues to develop in new and sometimes unanticipated ways. On the other hand, there hasn't been any strong arguments made by the Church against Pius which would prevent him from attaining sainthood, given sufficient miracles. People also tend to argue that while Pius would have liked to speak out against the Nazis, he simply wasn't in a position to do so, being surrounded by Mussolin's fascist Italy and effectively under siege. Honestly I don't know enough about the man to say one way or the other and I think I'm ultimately more confused than I was.

And getting even more recently, Norwich is not above calling John Paul II for a variety of his policies, such as his vehemence against birth control, his policy of anti-communism, and as Norwich describes it, his attempt to saint everything that moves. Norwich gets especially testy on the sainthood subject, pointing out that John Paul II created more saints during his term as pope than all the popes of the last five hundred years had done combined. Norwich seems to be genuinely offended that so many saints were created, and he seems to believe that it has cheapened the institution of sainthood. And criticizing John Paul II certainly comes with a fair amount of controversy, considering how well-loved John Paul II was in life despite his various shortcomings.

Ultimately I'm left with some serious doubts about this book. Norwich doesn't seem terribly unbiased as a historian which is probably shading his interpretations and narrative, but how much I can't really say because I'm by no means an expert on the subject. It's certainly ambitious in its scope and its attempt to cover the entire papacy, but I'm worried it falls short.

- Kalpar