Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Creator of crime fiction and that ace crimestopper, Sherlock Holmes

I'm re-reading some of Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" adventures, including several that are new to me….yes, yes, of course I read "The Five Orange Pips" again, doesn't everyone?
This time I tried "The Adventure of Lady Frances Carfax" and "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" and a few others.

Basil Rathbone as Holmes
I first read some of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes when I was too young to be entertained by anything but the action. With that constraint, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" was somewhat boring, and "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" was simply pedestrian. The Complete Sherlock Holmes languished on my "To Read" list for years.

Now I am an older, more aesthetic fancier of the agile mind and the haughty generosity and the dimensioned humanity of Sherlock Holmes. Time after time, Holmes austerely allows Lestrade to claim a vaunted reputation that is too often boosted by the singular and covert prowess of Holmes himself. Holmes always takes the opportunity to be genteelly solicitous to the frightened widow. Despite his loveless bachelorhood, he is charmed by young lovers and easily condones their righteous excesses. He can be excited by discovery, and clap at each revelation, with the innocence of a child.

And yet, the fabulous boarder at 221B Baker Street has no fear of the nastiest brute….Holmes will leap—leap!—onto the back of an escaping felon….he will defy the powerful and the villainous alike, in defense of the letter of the law and in obedience to humane justice….

Jeremy  Brett as Holmes
Holmes is a good man.

His adventures are good reading, time after time.



The yin and yang of productivity

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book review: John Adams


Book review: John Adams
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001
751 pages

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you don’t think the biography is the best way to do history. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winner is a reason to change your mind a bit.


John Adams is simply a really good book. McCullough helps you to warm up to the man and to his personal experience in leading the Revolution and the first formative years of the American republic. 

Adams, our first vice president and second president, was among the few who were in the thick of it from the beginning, and he never shrank from doing what he expansively viewed as his duty to his new country.


McCullough’s prose is a delightful experience for the serious historian and the armchair dabbler who likes a good read. From cover to cover, this is a lush, genuine presentation of a man, his loved ones, his career, his commitment to do good works and his never-flagging appreciation that the object of government should be to do the people’s business and make possible a decent life for all.



John Adams was savaged by the earliest manifestations of partisan party politics, but he never stooped to play that game.

Too bad we don’t have someone like John Adams in a leadership role today.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter

Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter
Introduction by Dr. Joan E. Cashin
M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, New York, 1996
191 pages

This is a workmanlike treatment of a subject that is a hardly imaginable foundation of early America: slavery.

It’s more a documentary than any modern understanding of a novel. Brown does a good job of character development for a limited cast of characters, including Clotel, the “mulatto” daughter of a black slave mother and a white father. The story of many aspects of slavery—disruption of families, cruelty of masters, the abolition movement, the economic importance of slave-based agriculture and production, the moral, philosophical and political debates about the “peculiar institution”—is written in a style that is manifestly journalistic and prosaic, not literary.
  

Clotel is a high impact read. Brown was born a slave in Kentucky circa 1818. He escaped, became an abolitionist and a writer in England, and was purchased by friends and freed in the middle of the 19th century. He published Clotel in 1853 as the first “novel” written by a black American.

It isn’t good reading. It’s harsh reading. It’s a terribly candid condemnation of a despicable fact of American history. It’s a catalog of shame and endurance and human spirit.

By the way, the subtitle acknowledges Brown’s unabashed reference to the story, well known in the mid-19th century, that Thomas Jefferson dallied with his slave, Sally Hemings, and had children with her.

Here are a couple items:

Prof. Cashin notes: “Historians estimate that perhaps 10 percent of the four million slaves living in the South in 1860 had some white ancestry.”1 Too many white owners forced themselves on their female slaves. In some parts of the South, a person with white lineage except for a black great-great-great-great grandmother could legally be sold as a slave.

Brown underscores the hypocrisy of slave owners who professed political, philosophical or religious convictions that were nominally opposed to slavery. For example, Brown states that in the middle of the 19th century, more than 660,000 slaves  were owned “by members of the Christian church in this pious democratic republic.”2

Slavery died hard. Writers like Brown helped to make it happen.

1 -  p. xiii
2 -  p. 187







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States



Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014

This is a book about the history of the United States, and the concurrent histories of the indigenous peoples who lived in North America before there was a “United States.” Surely you already know, deeply or vaguely, that these are violent histories of conflict, betrayal and subjugation.



Full disclosure: this is not an easy book. If you are an American historian or a student of American history, you should read it. Don’t expect to enjoy it. Dunbar-Ortiz frankly admits that she had “grave misgivings” about her mandate to “write accessibly so it would engage multiple audiences.”  She uses the word “genocide” a half dozen times in the first few pages, and repeatedly thereafter, and this sets a tone for the entire book.





Here are selected chapter sub-headings—they’re not a representative sample, but they are illustrative:
  • White Supremacy and Class
  • Roots of Genocide
  • Settler-Parasites Create the Virginia Colony
  • Career Building Through Genocide
  • The Genocidal Army of the West
  • Greed is Good
  • North America is a Crime Scene
Dunbar-Ortiz concludes by endorsing a Native American historian’s observation that “…while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.” The author argues for “honoring the treaties…restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks…[restoring] all stolen sacred items and body parts…payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations.”

That is a conclusion of historic proportions that engages multiple audiences. Dunbar-Ortiz had grave misgivings before she wrote this book. I think many readers will feel the same.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Book review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus


Book review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
By Charles Mann
2011, Vintage Books

Everything you never knew about civilized people in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and killed most of them (OK, many died in battle, but it was European diseases, mostly). Maybe close to 100 million "native" people died within 100 years or so of the "discovery" by Columbus…..but hold on, this book is not about Wounded Knee-type criticism or ex post facto self-flagellation.

Mann beautifully describes the marvelous sophistication of cultures, cities, agriculture, arts and science that blossomed in North America, Central America, and South America thousands of years ago, in many cases predating achievements and growth and civilization in Europe. Yes, the Incas never used the wheel except for children's toys. And yes, the Mississippian city of Cahokia was a bustling port and a trading center with population equal to Paris in France---and that was 500 years before Columbus sailed.

Beautiful downtown Cahokia
And yes, there were grand cities in the Americas before there was pyramid-building in Egypt. And yes, the Olmec culture in what is now Mexico invented the zero whole centuries before mathematicians in India did the same.

My recollection of learning about the history of the Americas is that the dates and events were tied to discovery and conquest and colonization by Europeans. The implication was that, before the white men with guns, germs and steel arrived, nothing much was going on in whole continents characterized more by "virgin land" and "endless wilderness" than by people who had agriculture, city life, art, trade, commerce, religion, science, kings and philosophers.

For me, the joy of reading this book is learning about the multiplicity of cultures that flourished in the Americas, and learning how they tamed and managed and very greenly conserved their environment…and for me, the sad revelation of this book is understanding that the peoples of the Americas were human beings whose achievements were noble and notable, and yet, lamentably, their legacies are largely lost and the losses are barely mourned.

In 1533 Pizarro and his conquistadors at Cuzco precipitated the decline of the 300-year-old Inca empire in Peru. Fifty years later, the Spanish colonial administrators in Peru ordered the burning of all the Incan "khipu" knotted string records because they were "idolatrous objects." Khipu were the Incas' only form of writing. The smoke from the burning of the books gets in your eyes, forever and ever.

Khipu knotted strings



Charles Mann's website:    http://www.charlesmann.org/Book-index.htm

Some other book reviews:







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book review: Girl With A Pearl Earring


Book review: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

slim offering of historical fiction about Johannes Vermeer's enigmatic portrait of an unknown young girl, circa 1665.

It's a breathtaking, tantalizing love story….tantalizing because Vermeer and the maid, Griet, almost embrace their passion, each stepping over the line without transgression, but not without hurt:

Vermeer, the worldly one, the master, tempted to the edge of the precipice…


Griet, the child innocent, heedless of her woman's heat, trespassing unaware and ever nearer to the mystery that she barely understands in the beginning….

She feels the lush weight of the earring, his fingertip sears her skin, she inclines toward his touch, trembles with a disembodied, virginal start of pain….

Quickly stilled, she sits for him.



He trembles—a long moment—with the rush of desire, masters it, and steps back to his easel, granting her a little more time in the childhood she is leaving behind, giving her a peace that will become a bereavement, a keening memory….

They look at each other, mute, apart yet bound, in flagrante delicto, withering, without joy….


Monday, October 26, 2015

Book review: The Financier


Book review: The Financier
By Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
First published 1912, Harper and Bros., New York.

It's just amazing that Dreiser wrote this gritty novel in 1912, before anyone even thought of derivatives, credit default swaps, sub-prime "liar loan" mortgages and no-fault (for bankers and brokers, that is) national financial meltdowns. Frank Cowperwood is the ethically-challenged "financier" whose star and fortunes rise so marvelously and then collapse with equal flare. He seems so absolutely convincingly contemporary that I had recurring transient episodes of reverse déjà vu as I followed his desperate ambition and burnout.


Frank is a first-rate villain. He burns his friends and enemies with equal disdain, he channels Gordon Gekko with suitably theatrical energy, and he is most deliciously unrepentant when his schemes go awry, his loans get called and his empire crashes around him.

I say "deliciously unrepentant" because, unlike the contemporary villainous free spirits of Wall Street, Frank promptly goes to jail for his crimes.

The Financier so obviously is the kind of novel that might be written by a baroque clone of Michael Lewis. If you'd like to work out a bit of the residual rage you feel about the man-made financial cesspool we  wallowed in for the last few years, try this American classic.

Dreiser

  



Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Book review: The Comanche Empire


Book review: The Comanche Empire
Hamalainen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.



This book will change your mind about how the West was won.

Hint: The Comanches got there first.

The Comanches arrived obscurely in the American Southwest in 1706. This book provocatively makes the case that the Comanches created an imposing Southwestern American empire that spanned 150 years. They blunted the 18th century colonial ambitions of the Spanish in Mexico and the French in Louisiana, and stalled the westward thrust of Americans and the U.S. government until the middle of the 19th century. A broad coalition of Comanche rancheria chiefs throughout the territory of Comancheria first dominated the Apaches, eventually turned against their Ute allies, and commercially or militarily subjugated numerous lesser tribes. 

Comanches managed a succession of peace treaties and conflicts with the Spaniards and completely blocked their repeated efforts to extend colonial settlements northward from Mexico. The political, commercial and military supremacy of the Comanches was based principally on their success in adopting and adapting Spanish horses for efficient transportation, military power and a thriving and lucrative trade in horses throughout the Southwest.


 Hamalainen's central argument invites—indeed it provokes—a reasonable dispute about the credibility of his claim for a Comanche empire. In classical political or geopolitical usage, the claim is untenable, at least in part; the Comanche empire had neither fixed borders, nor a single self-sustaining centralized supreme authority, nor a durable bureaucracy, nor a definitive political structure.

Nevertheless, the Comanches had a respected, recurring broadly representative council of chiefs that planned and organized extensive raids, trading and other commerce, and military operations. Their hunting, pasturing and trading territories had indistinct geographic borders that were never surveyed or adjudicated; Comanches never sought to occupy and permanently control any specifically delineated territory. Hamalainen says they were "conquerors who saw themselves more as guardians than governors of the land and its bounties." Nonetheless, the geographical extent of the their domains was well known, respected and enforced by the Comanches.

Each Comanche rancheria had its own geographic territory, rigorous socio-military culture and hierarchical organizational. The situational circumstances of Comanche military superiority, their control of trade  and their ability through the decades to repeatedly impose and maintain obviously favorable terms in their treaty and trade agreements are undeniable evidence of the Comanches' extended dominance of terrain, physical resources, culture and commerce, and, not least in importance, the Spanish and French colonial enterprises that sought to compete with them.

For decades the Comanches set the terms of their success; no competing power could defeat them, and no Indians or Europeans could evade the Comanches' dominance in their domain. Thus, the Comanches created a de facto empire. Ultimately, they were marginalized by a combination of drought that constrained their bison hunting and weakened their pastoral horse culture, disruption of trade which limited their access to essential carbohydrate foodstuffs, epidemic disease that repeatedly reduced the Comanche populations, predatory bison hunting by the Americans in the early 1870s that wiped out this essential food resource, and, finally, by the irresistible tide of U.S. government-sponsored westward migration that pushed American citizens into Comanche territory.

Too bad the Comanches left no accounts of their own. It would be fascinating to hear this story in their own words.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Book review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

A book that makes language an erogenous zone….

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Thursday, October 8, 2015

The history that didn't happen


Book review:
Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
261 pages

Dowd's A Spirited Resistance provides some examples of considering "history that didn't happen."
For every account of "history that happened" there might be a complementary book of "history that didn't happen."

It's important to emphasize that people and groups in the past continually faced decision options and critical choices and conflicting imperatives to act, as we do now. People and groups in the past continually made unique decisions in the face of uncertainties and competing exigencies, as we do now.

The "history" of an individual or a group is a distinct track, forward in time, of decisions and choices and events, some discretionary, some imperative, some unavoidably random. This process continues through a welter of known and unknown alternatives. This ever-changing process of life is unique in retrospect, but it is increasingly, incomprehensibly variable and complex as we consider the prospects for the future at any point in time.

Thus, the "history that happened" is one of the possible histories that could have happened. It never was inevitable. There is difficulty enough in reconstructing, analyzing and understanding the actual "history that happened." The discovery and illumination of the course of history, however well done, is profoundly insufficient for the student of history.

Any possible, speculative scenario of historical events is a "history that didn't happen." Any version of the "history that didn't happen" is potentially a compelling object of interest, and there are limitless different versions. There is an effectively boundless scope of interest in such histories, and a wide range of probabilities that they might have occurred.

To be clear, popular accounts of so-called "alternative history" or "what if?" history are not suitable exemplars of this theme. An historical treatment that focuses on a single, arbitrary "what if?" scenario for a known historical event or extended historical process is of course a "history that didn't happen," but it is a special case. For example, a speculative presentation of "The South Won The Civil War" can be entertaining overall, even instructive in detail, but it is flawed. The author has the benefit of hindsight and cannot avoid using it. Of necessity, the author must repeatedly, expansively and arbitrarily choose alternative versions of what actually happened; the probability of occurrence of such a single, massively multi-variable alternative actually is vanishing small. Why bother writing or reading it? One may imagine that simultaneous nasty influenza outbreaks might have sidelined all the generals in both camps on July 2 in Gettysburg. The probability of such a scenario is vanishingly small. This scenario may be entertaining, but it does not merit serious consideration. It is imaginable, but it adds little to our understanding of history. The popular "what if?" approach to history is almost always arbitrary, eccentrically narrow and overwhelmingly improbable.

A structured, exploratory consideration of "history that didn't happen" could be useful. Such a structured approach, for example, could include:
·                     examination of the knowledge, values and motivation of historical actors;
·                     identification of realistic, feasible alternative decisions and reactions that might have
                              occurred at specific points in time or throughout an event in process;
·                     analysis of decision factors that were considered or ignored by the historical actors.

This approach envisions a retrospective presentation of history that illuminates reasonably feasible alternative courses of action, and clarifies possible explanations of why the actors did not make such decisions or pursue such courses of action. This concept does not assume and generally would avoid any attempt to prove that any particular alternative decision or action would have been better or should have been chosen. The point of this essentially objective reconsideration of history is to clarify the motives and expectations of the actors, and to gain a broader and deeper appreciation—in analytical contexts framed by hindsight—of what they thought was happening, what they wanted to happen and what they thought was possible or probable, all without the benefit of foresight.

A poignant example is Jared Diamond's question in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It includes a chapter on the almost complete deforestation of Easter Island and the cultural decline of its people who had depended on the trees for canoes, construction material and fuel. Diamond asks: "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" (p. 114). By extension, what did the rest of the Easter Islanders say while he was doing it? Of course, with hindsight it's obvious that cutting down the last tree was not a good move. Was it obvious in the 17th century on Easter Island?  It would be interesting to attempt to reconstruct the ax-man's knowledge, values and motive: did he not know it was the last tree? Was he concerned about preserving his essential environment? Did Easter Islanders desire a tree-less landscape? 


Was the last tree worth a million bucks? Forward-thinking, environmentally sensitized Easter Islanders could have started planning earlier to figure out how to conserve a minimum number of trees or develop substitutes for transportation, construction and fuel. What are some possible elaborations about why that didn't happen? Was any such attempt actually made? Was tree-cutting strictly a commercial activity? Were there any social/religious/cultural imperatives regarding tree cutting? Was that ax-wielding Easter Islander a hero or a villain?

Now, back to Dowd and A Spirited Resistance. Apparently, a fundamental constraint to the success of the 18th century pan-Indian prophets on the East Coast was the persistent obstruction of many neutral or accommodationist chiefs who rejected their prophets' call for both violent and spiritual resistance to the Anglo-American authorities and settlers. These neutral chiefs sought to co-exist in relative peace with the Europeans. This internal division among the native Americans and the longevity of the ill-fated nativist movement suggests many questions.

In hindsight, it seems, at least superficially, that the ultimate dominance of the Europeans was inevitable. Did none of the chiefs in the late 18th century recognize this imperative? What arguments did both the nativist and neutral leaders use in their private councils to minimize their prospects for failure? How did their knowledge, values and motives sustain their doomed objectives for decades? Is it possible that the prophets might have been substantially successful if no internal Indian strife had existed?

Tenskwatawa
Dowd says the inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts in leadership actually bolstered the motivation of the nativists, who argued that the neutral chiefs' failure to respect Indian cultural and spiritual values was partly to blame for the degradation of their culture and way of life. Did the neutral chiefs make the same criticism of the prophets? By implication, Dowd suggests that most nativist and accommodationist chiefs were doing their honorable best for their people. This viewpoint should be challenged; can it be confirmed? What was the motivation of the prophets and nativist chiefs? Did Tenskwatawa share personal attributes with Martin Luther King? with Billy Graham? with Elmer Gantry?

What primary military, political, economic and cultural factors were important to the neutral chiefs and to the prophets? Was their strife righteously motivated and conscientiously implemented? How much of it, if any, was simply opportunistic, localized internal wrangling for political power and personal prestige? Did the warriors and the people and the clans who actively supported the chiefs fully understand the implications of their commitments? Did the warriors follow Tecumseh for glory or for their informed vision of a better future? Did any Indian chiefs believe there was a third version of doing "the right thing"?







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Book review: The Kingdom of the Kid

Book review: The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up In The Long-Lost Hamptons
By Geoff Gehman (b. 1958)
State University of New York Press, Albany, NY 2013
238 pages



I stepped outside my comfort zone to read Geoff Gehman's memoir about some of his childhood years in the "long-lost Hamptons." I'm glad I did.

If you have a particular point of view about memoirs, either for or against, try to forget it and pick up The Kingdom of the Kid, and just settle in for the ride.

This is more than a prosaic romp through childhood memories, it is a paean celebrating a child's-eye-view of life.

Gehman is a writer who likes to "linger over words," that's my kind of writer. His prose, his stories, his memories…sassy, salty and singular.

Gehman is a poet, too. Repeatedly, he offers lush insight into his industrious youth, his friendships with the young and the old, his affinity for the place, the "long-lost Hamptons" where Geoff and his pals spent the good old days.

He describes the scene as he observed mourners in the Wainscott Cemetery:
"…I sat on my bike in the school parking lot, shaded by grand sycamores, and watched visitors treat the cemetery with reverence. They placed flowers by graves, prayed on their knees, cried on their backs. They stared at the sky, held séances in broad daylight, eavesdropped on eternity.

"Those pilgrims taught me the morality of mortality. Without asking anyone I learned to walk around the stones, to respect the dead as if they were alive."

In every chapter he offers another little piece of his heart.

Good reading. Real good.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book review: Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

Book review: Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer
HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2008
406 pages

This is a book I could put down. I did.

I give it good marks for subject, elegant delivery of good information, prose style and the author’s literate assessment of primary sources.

Lincoln is the most written-about president, with good reason.

Kaplan offers a well-informed, systematic investigation of Lincoln’s reading habits and writing skills.

I know a published author who widely and deeply savored the exploration of Lincoln’s love affair with language and meaning. Likewise, I’m a writer and I was intrigued by much of what Kaplan offered in the first 100 pages or so.
  
I’m a historian. I am intuitively drawn to the longue durée concept of history and historical analysis, and its emphasis on the complex dynamics of deeply rooted, persistent structure underlying social, economic and political transformations.

I explicitly reject the “great man” theory of history and historical analysis. I am actually disinclined to give credence to a biographer’s undocumented assertions that his subject “might have given credence to” anything in particular, or that his subject “must have believed” something or other, or that his subject “embraced as his own the melancholy of [Gray’s] ‘Elegy,’ [but] did not share, as a young man, its dark stoicism.” 

Kaplan’s text is filled with statements like these. They aren’t to my taste. After 100 pages or so, I put the book down.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.