Saturday, 1 December 2012

Gabor Mate, "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts" (2008)

Subtitled, "Close Encounters with Addiction." Winner of the 2009 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.

Mate is the child of Jewish, East European immigrants, who works as a doctor for street-people, addicts, and other marginalized persons living in Vancouver's notorious East Side. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts differs from other books of its kind for two reasons: 1) Mate's professional experience as a doctor is compelling, but 2) his experience as an addict has given him unique insights into the struggles of his patients.

His book lays out a challenging, compelling, and clearly-written thesis regarding the causes of addiction, and thus offers a new understanding of how addiction works and thus what types of treatment addicts might best respond to. Essentially, Mate suggests that addiction stems in large part from thinking patterns developed in our very young, formative years, and that these thinking patterns significantly help shape the ways our brains come to process information.

Part of Mate's book outlines the physiology of the brain - how serotonin and similar chemicals are used in the brain to convey information and trigger responses - and how experiences and drugs can change this physiology. The other part discusses how personal factors such as life experiences, particularly in childhood, can affect brain chemistry and brain functioning. The combination of these two factors leads Mate to explore concepts such as neural plasticity, and to recommend treatment paths such as cognitive behaviour therapy (although he doesn't actually name this approach, and his programmatic recommendations differ somewhat from the CBT practices I've read about).

For addicts, one of the most useful sections of Mate's book will be a chapter entitled "The Four Steps, Plus One" (pgs. 353-361 of the paperback edition). Mate is not a twelve-stepper. While he has positive things to say about this approach, he has not worked one of those programs (such as AA, etc.) himself. He offers, however, a program developed by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, at UCLA's School of Medicine, for helping addicts interrupt what Schwartz refers to as "brain lock"; those unthinking responses and actions that help to maintain addictive habits.

For the sake of you, my reader, the four steps are briefly summarized here:
1) Re-label:
Recognize that what seems to be an imperative, desperate 'need', is actually a temporary, false feeling. This step might be understood as 'apply conscious awareness'.

2) Re-attribute:
Recognize that the message you identified in Step One is a flawed, or false product produced by an addicted mind in situations when that addiction is triggered. It is, in short, a symptom of an illness, and should not be mistaken as - or given the power of - anything more.

3) Re-focus:
Recognize that the message sent by the addicted mind is a temporary phenomenon. It will pass, and is more likely to pass without being acted on if the addict can work to put some time between recognizing the message and choosing to act on it. The key here is to "teach your brain," as Mate says, "that it doesn't have to obey the addictive call." (359).

4) Re-value:
This step involves recognizing the cost and reward of acting on the ideas produced by the addicted mind. Addicts have come to associate false value/reward to seeking and achieving the substance of their addiction. The key here is not to establish some kind of blame or guilt, it is to attempt - as realistically and critically as possible - a sense of what the addictive impulse is actually generating in terms of rewards and benefits, and what the costs of trying to achieve the rewards and benefits the addictive impulse actually result in (NOT the ones the addict believes they might produce).

5) Re-create:
The fifth step is one introduced by Mate. It is a particularly useful and intriguing one. After the 'corrective' steps in understanding identified above, Mate suggests the addicted person undertake to identify what their goals are, what rewards and benefits they seek in their life, and consider alternate methods and activities to pursue them. If, for instance, taking hard drugs does not stop painful memories of childhood abuse, perhaps writing or drawing might help to put these memories in a more manageable perspective. This step offers the addict not only negative or 'corrective' actions, but the ability to envision an 'escape hatch' that offers hope for the future.

More about the book can be found on Dr. Mate's website. There you can also read the 'Introduction' and 'Chapter One - The Only Home He's Ever Had.'

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Deborah Lipstadt, "Denying the Holocaust" (1993)

The subtitle of this book is "The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory." My summary of it is clunky, to say the least. My apologies.

For those interested in the topic of Holocaust denial, this book is already likely familiar; if not its content, for author David Irving claiming that Lipstadt's discussion of his ideas was libellous. More on this case can be found at Emory University's Holocaust Denial on Trial site.

Lipstadt begins at an interesting point, by looking at First World War 'revisionists', trained historians who sought to diminish the idea of German guilt and share the problem out among all of the countries who participated in the war. Some also sought to pin a larger part of the blame on the Allies, particularly for their post-war conduct that almost guaranteed another war.

She also chronicles early efforts - primarily by Frenchmen (such as Rassinier) - to diminish or challenge the severity of the Holocaust. As she notes, early challengers did not attempt to deny the reality of the Holocaust outright, but instead to play down numbers, intentions, and how widespread a phenomenon the institutionalized slaughter was. Additionally, she notes that early claimants also attempted, in what was often a parallel effort, but that was also connected to Americans who were bitter about the US having joined the war, describing Allied practices as being just as bad as those carried out by Nazi Germany.

She also considers the role played by historians within the German historikerstreit; arguments waged over the 1980s regarding the degree of German guilt that should be carried for World War II, and how exceptional the development of national socialism and its values were within Germany.

Lipstadt develops – gradually and yet inexorably – two primary theses: firstly, that over 60 years, Holocaust deniers and their ideological predecessors undertook their efforts as part of a desire to rehabilitate fascism and advance anti-semitism, and secondly, that over the same period Holocaust deniers have worked to have their claims accepted not as hatred or historical falsification, but to generate sympathy for the idea that they are not being accorded access to free speech and open debate, and that their claims are not being assessed with healthy academic objectivity.

Lipstadt reveals how deniers, particularly leading lights such as Harwood, Butz, Ernst Zundel, and the Institute for Historical Research, as well as those functionalized by them, such as Fred Leuchter, have actively trod upon, rejected, and worked directly in the face of the foundational requirements of credible historical scholarship, such as objectivity, careful weighing of evidence, and careful attention to context.

An equally valuable contribution is Lipstadt’s close analysis of how various American universities dealt with attempt during the early 1990s for a revisionist organization to print several ads questioning the reality of the Holocaust. It is through these efforts that we see the flawed logic of citing First Amendment constitutional rights as a rationale for allowing promulgation of anti-semitic faux scholarship regarding the Holocaust. Nonetheless, it is this exact concern that led many institutions and university campus newspaper to allow the ads to be published, even often with the idea that the ads were patently anti-semitic and false, but that they needed to be seen and discussed. As Lipstadt points out, however, the First Amendment does not force anyone to allow someone space to advance views, it simply guarantees that the government’s ability to stop someone from attempting to advance their views is limited. Similarly, she offers that willingness to dispute the reality of the Holocaust with deniers – whose track record is not one of abiding by professional popular rules of conduct when it comes to historical research and debate – gives their stance more credibility and attention than it deserves. Instead of debating deniers, Lipstadt carefully assesses the methodology and motivations of the deniers. Removing their ability to set the terms of debate, she wisely forces deniers to defend their record of scholarship, not to attempt to prove the obvious.

Notes for self:
- Willis Carto was a member of John Birch Society in the late 1940s/early 1950s. This would be about the same time that Ben Klassen was a member of the same organization. (144)

- Lipstadt claims that the ADL sees Carto as the “most important and powerful professional anti-Semite in the United States” (145)

- Francis Parkey Yockey’s Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics (1948) called for a new 'imperium' of Western 'Aryan' nations that would rule using the values of Hitlerian National Socialism (146/7)

- Yockey described as “Culture-Distorters” those who mixed races, were egalitarians or believers in human rights, participatory democracy, and Jews. (148)

- In 1975, the Liberty Letter, published by Carto’s Liberty Lobby, was folded into the Spotlight, a tabloid newspaper published by the same organization. The Spotlight contained a wide variety of content, such as Bible analysis, conspiracy theorizing regarding the likes of the Center for Foreign Relations and the Tri-Lateral Commission, as well as advice on avoiding taxes and fighting the IRS. (150)

- Other conspiracies are investigated as a means of attempting to legitimize and popularize the idea that our perspective on historical events can result from falsification or miseducation. (154/5)

- Speaking of the turn to academicizing Holocaust denial, Lipstadt writes, “They attempt to project the appearance of being committed to the very values that they in truth adamantly oppose: reason, critical rules of evidence, and historical distinction.” (217)

For more on Lipstadt, see my discussion of her 2011 book, The Eichmann Trial.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Phyllis Goldstein, "A Convenient Hatred" (2011)

Goldstein's 'History of Anti-Semitism', published by Brookline, has been received by respected and knowledgeable reviewers as an informative, objective, compelling overview of a particular type of persistent, irrational hatred.

Goldstein begins with the occupation of Samaria and Judea approximately 700-500 years before the Common Era. Even at this early date, tensions existed between the Jews and populations such as the Egyptians and the Greeks, primarily stemming from religious differences. Jews, of course, are monotheistic, while at this time neither the Greeks nor the Egyptians were. As the policy-makers in their respective domains, both groups expected respect for - if not wholehearted worship - of the gods recognized by the dominant power. In the observation of the Sabbath and other unique religious practices, the Jews not only stood out as 'different' but also flouted the authority of the state.

The rise of Christianity presented a new set of problems for Jews. While Christians were monotheistic, and the figure they respected as their spiritual leader was Jewish, their relationship with Jews hinged on the question of how that leader felt about Judaism (was he a reformer or the Moshiah?), and how the Christians understood the role of Jews in the Christ's death. From early Christianity into the Middle Ages, the response to both questions suggested that Jews were in the wrong (they didn't accept Christ as the Moshiah, their absence from state/imperial power made them easier to blame for their role in the Crucifixion than the Romans, and it was easier to recruit adherents from around the Mediterranean to a de-Judaized version of the Christ's teachings).

Particularly fascinating - at least for this reader - is Goldstein's discussion of how Jews fit into Europe's social order (perhaps better written as 'orders') during the period between the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Competition for economic advantage, and at times protection of what was identified as the 'domestic' advantage of non-Jews, led alternatively to charters of limited but clarified and usually expanded social privileges for Jews - whether in terms of their ability to engage in economic, social, or religious activities - and at other times, repeal or disregard of these charters, and often persecution within or ejection from kingdoms or city-states.

Self-organization by Jewish communities - led in particular by kehillot (something like community councils, but not democratic) - allowed Jews to sometimes exercise their growing numbers and economic power. In particular, Goldstein relates how during the 1550s, Jewish importers organized a boycott of the Adriatic port of Ancona, within an Italian papal state, supported by notable figures such as the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The boycott, and pressure from the Sultan, resulted in the release of Spanish Jews who had converted to Christianity, but had nonetheless been imprisoned by the Papal representative (it should be noted that by the time some of the prisoners were released, others had been killed).

Also fascinating was the history of relations between Jews and the Polish kings during this period. Within Poland, the early embrace of rights for Jews within the Kingdom of Poland is often held forth as a significant accomplishment. It cannot be overlooked, however, that these rights were not entrenched in any way, were repealed several times as rulers changed (within the Kingdom, and within territories within the Kingdom), and that pogroms and other forms of persecution still occurred.

The weakest coverage - in the humble opinion of this author, of course - is given to the post-1945 period. It is easy to argue that our familiarity with the concerns and events of recent decades allows us to be more critical of anyone's explanation and summary of them. It is this familiarity, however, that leads me to see what I think is deft management of information and careful phrasing of observations to lend support to Goldstein's position. For instance, in describing the beginning of 1967's "Six Day War", Rosenstein states, "By mid-May, Nassey was convinced that war was inevitable and began making plans for the coming conflict. He closed the Straits of Tiran to ships coming to or from Israel... Those acts, in turn, convinced the Israelis that war was inevitable. On June 5, 1967, war began." (329) Never mentioned is that Israel carried out the first, overwhelming air strike on Egypt that saw the formal outbreak of hostilities. (See, for instance, .) While Rosenstein might claim that aggressive border skirmishes had already occurred, and that the closure of the Straits of Tiran was an aggressive action against Israel, none of these were enough to begin a war in and of themselves.

This criticism in mind, Rosenstein's book is tremendously useful, and does provide an insightful, interesting, compelling read. It is certainly full of value as an generalist overview to one of the most entrenched, persistent problems of human behaviour of the last two thousand years. Not without shortcomings, these are likely more the result of trying to narrate more than two-thousand years of history in 360 pages than a conscious attempt to falsify history or propagandize.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Ron Graham, "The Last Act" (2011)

The full title is, The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada.

Graham's summary of the Canadian political zeitgeist between the 1960s and the early 1980s is succinct, clear and compelling. Complex issues are generally made understandable, and I very rarely felt that Graham was giving any of the contending positions or players short shrift. Frankly, this book represents a model for how to write popular political history.

The only weakness I could identify in this book - and that in itself is a revealing indication - is that occasionally the minutiae of constitutional proposals, and the debates stemming from them, were difficult to keep track of. This is more likely a result of the topic, however, than Graham's eminent ability to keep challenging material readable for a general audience.

Here's a brief Q&A with Ron Graham, as published in Samara.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Annie Jacobsen, "Area 51: An Uncensored History..." (2011)

This book averaged a solid premise. Jacobsen essentially posits that much of the mystery attached to Area 51 is its use as a testing ground for atomic and nuclear explosives, and as a centre for testing new spy-oriented aircraft.

Near the beginning she also suggests that the Russians may have been making flyovers (or at least wanted it to appear they were making flyovers of US territory) using advanced aircraft developed from prototypes the Nazis had in development.

While much of the book is well-documented, cogently presented, and plausible, the theories surrounding the Russian craft seem to dwell in the twilight that most of the theorizing about Area 51 has. As any claim to dispel the myth of Area 51 will have to do, Jacobsen's claim isn't grounded in enough verifiable, multiple unrelated sources to convince me.

Jean-François Nadeau, "The Canadian Führer: The Life of Adrien Arcand" (2012)

I wanted to like this book. I was hoping for something that mixed the research quality of Stanley Barrett's Is God a Racist? with the engaging narrative of Warren Kinsella's Web of Hate. The Canadian Fuhrer offers neither.

First off, what's with this title? It seems a cheap attempt at generating sales, particularly when, as Nadeau notes in the book, Arcand's interest in fascism was more influenced by Mussolini than Hitler. Losing sight of this element helps to confuse some of Arcand's values, such as his granting Catholicism an essential role in his world view.

Nadeau does provide a useful overview of Arcand's thinking, and makes a significant contribution by providing an in-depth description of Arcand's political, personal, and career trajectory. Unfortunately, the narrative and analysis seem to peter out by the middle of the Second World War period. Perhaps this is a personal desire, but I think it would be quite fascinating to see the level of analysis given Arcand's pre-war thought and activities applied to his post-war output. Nadeau intimates how Arcand how ideologically managed the fall of Nazism and Italian fascism, but we don't get much sense of how his post-war thinking really coalesced. Maybe it didn't. Maybe Arcand was simple too old, or too ill, or too disillusioned to worry about formulating an adapted world view. If so, this interpretation needed to be fleshed out. As it was covered, it seemed more that Nadeau simply lost interest in what Arcand was doing after his stay in an Ontario detention camp during the second half of the war.

Aside from this weakness, the book suffers from some editing issues that are perhaps a result of poor translation or rushed production. For instance, a sentence is almost repeated verbatim on pg. 267 (of the hardcover version).

Similarly, some pictures are missing credit lines. I raise this as an issue because most of the pictures are culled from a ‘private source’. It would be useful to know the archival location of any others.

Finally, some some of the commentary is questionable. For instance, a photo of two men standing in the entrance to a store (?) suggests that people were able to openly wear swastikas in public even during the late 1930s. While this may be true, some wider context for the image could clarify that it was a special event, or even a photo staged to normalize wearing of this type of symbol.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Sherene Razack, "Dark Threats & White Knights..." (2004)

The full title of this text is Dark Threats & White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism.

The sad events associated with the activities of the Canadian Airborne Regiment before they were deployed as part of a UN force in Somalia, as well as the reprehensible conduct of some of these soldiers while in Somalia are difficult to understand. Racist hazing rituals carried out by white soldiers on a black soldier in Canada, video recordings of racist epithets used to describe the mission in Somalia and Somalians, and photographs of hooded, manacled, and beaten Somali youth beside grinning, shameless Canadian soldiers are images that deeply conflict with the modern Canadian perception of ourselves as tolerant, helpful, peace loving intermediaries between conflicting parties. The government (in particular the national defence apparatus), the national media – not to mention most Canadians - were able to make sense of the shameful episode by believing that a few soldiers who got out of control produced the problems. Few asked deeper and more probing questions regarding the complicity of the military leadership, and the core beliefs that allowed the country to engage in a foreign country with its military.

Razack offers a probing analysis of what she characterizes as a distinctly Canadian form of imperialism – peacekeeping – investigating not only how its character shaped the behaviour of Canadian soldiers serving in an African nation, but how the character of this imperialism also relates to the domestic realization of imperial sensibilities.

Razack also does not avoid the difficult questions regarding the role of Aboriginal and/or mixed heritage soldiers in the Canadian Forces UN contingent, and carefully considers their unique location within Canadian imperial efforts.

Additionally, much to her credit, she does not leave unchallenged the tidy excuses that blame the panoply of transgressions carried out by Canadian soldiers on a few ‘bad apples.’

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Tim Lahaye & Jerry Jenkins, "Left Behind" (1995)

I was drawn to Lahaye’s book primarily because I wanted to gain a glimpse into what evangelical Christian fiction would be like. I expected it would be read like most propaganda; offering an educational view into the core philosophies of the movement it advocated for, but in its prioritization of ideology offering little in the way of compelling narrative, character development, or plot. In this case, I was absolutely correct.

Left Behind begins a few hours before millions of devout Christians and ‘innocent’ babes mysteriously and suddenly disappear. The world descends into chaos, with those left behind struggling to understand what happened. Focusing on the search by an airline pilot and his daughter, the solution arrived at is that the Biblical stories of the ‘end times’ described in the Book of Revelation are coming true. Parallel to, and intertwined with the disappearance story is the parallel rise of a mysterious but compelling East European politician to a position of unprecedented global power.

Warnings aplenty are offered. ‘Sunday Christians’ are left behind. The surviving converts are convinced that they must aggressively proselytize to save whomever they can within the time they have left. Of course, the messages here for Christians in the real world are obvious: anything less than total commitment to evangelical Christianity might pose the risk of eternal damnation.

The pilot, a married father who was tempted to have an affair with a stewardess, is plagued with guilt. The stewardess, meanwhile, who is less stricken, succumbs to the charms of the man pointed to as the Anti-Christ. Here the woman is the weaker sex, and the similarity to the Adam and Eve story – with its tale of temptation, failure, guilt, and punishment – is clear. The pilot, of course, finds evangelical Christianity, and converts his daughter, who joins a burgeoning ‘action group’ called the Tribulation Force.

An accomplished, analytical and critical journalist converts to Christianity almost purely it seems by the emotional force of the pilot’s argument (and the wiles of his daughter). A description of his past exploits allows Lahaye to tell some backstory of how Israel has become a global power, and rescued from a Russian military attack by apparent miracle. Here, too, we see how even clever, cynical liberals can be brought to Christ by the virtue of conviction, power of belief, and the innocent and unintentional allure of Christian heterosexual innocence and purity.

Lahaye’s book has some solid portions. The backstory element is interesting, and descriptions of the journalist’s activities are generally plausible. The characters are not well-developed, however, with their decisions rarely being very well set-up or explained, but clearly being driven by the need to carry a particular plot turn to fruition. Attempting to make sense of a confusing and deeply symbolic text, Lahaye incorporates some elements that are so fantastic as to challenge even the most well-suspended disbelief. A reader might be willing to consider that millions of people disappear simultaneously, but as miraculous dropping of hundreds of Russian jets from the skies of Israel (without, of course, harming any Israelis), the utter and complete willingness of global leaders to hand over control of their military forces to the United Nations, and the folding of the world into three financial zones within the very near future taxes the imagination of the most forgiving readers.

As I read Left Behind, I couldn’t help but consider how it compared to The Turner Diaries (which I have reviewed on this blog), a similar attempt at prophetic fiction by an adherent to a significantly different set of beliefs. Perhaps because the author of The Turner Diaries knew that their prophecies were very unlikely to come true, and because they were not tied to a pre-existing narrative, this work is a more compelling story than Left Behind. To my mind, that’s saying something. The only reason I can offer for the success of Left Behind is the large constituency of evangelical Christians searching for entertainment that reinforces their values, their ethics, and their understanding of texts they believe to be prophetic. As far as I know, there is not an overwhelming number of texts that blatantly and unashamedly appeal to this market.

The book was eventually adapted into a feature-length film, in which Kirk Cameron appears as one of the stars. I can only imagine how the film struggles to give the characters a little more depth, or whether it is carried along as well by the need for message over believable plot.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, "Cinematic Saviour" (2006)

The sub-title for this book is: Hollywood's Making of the American Christ.

One of the primary characteristics of this book might be regarded as a mixed blessing. On one hand, the author's casual tone and presumption of significant knowledge on the part of the reader makes for a breezy, light approach to assessing a swath of important films depicting aspects of Jesus' life.

On the other, the presumption of knowledge the book is based upon, and the witty references this presumption allows, would likely be alienating for those who don't come to the text with that knowledge.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Hannah Arendt, "Eichmann in Jerusalem" (1964)

The full title of this influential but controversial book is Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It had sat for many years on my 'to read' list. In short, it is a record of the 1960 trial and hanging of Adolf Eichmann, a fairly high-ranking bureaucrat within the political apparatus created in Nazi Germany to manage, and subsequently dispose of, Jews, Gypsies, and other 'undesireables'.

I must admit that for much of the book I could recognize why it was regarded as such an important philosophical and historical reference point. As an early, well-informed and thoughtful assessment of an upper-middle bureaucrat's responsibility within the Nazi extermination apparatus, it is certainly interesting. Of course, in the intervening fifty years or so since the work was published, there have been voluminous materials produced, drawing on more archival materials and interviews, and that give a much more detailed and comprehensive understanding of the historical and political dimensions of the Nazi Germany's racial and politically-motivated concentration, expulsion, and extermination policies.

Where Arendt's text remains particularly impressive and thought-provoking (if only, perhaps, for this author), is in the final chapter discussing the rendering of the court's decision regarding Eichmann's fate, his appeal, and the carrying out of his death sentence. Even more impressive is the 'Epilogue', which considers the legal precedents and ramifications for Israel's kidnapping of Eichmann from Argentina, and Arendt's summary and assessment of the legal arguments of the prosecution and defence. Once again, although many other texts have now been written about both aspects of this case, as an early, concise, and influential document, casual readers who have a good knowledge of Holocaust history could skip forward to these two chapters to gain a good sense of what Arendt was attempting to do.

As I read these final two chapters, I couldn't help but consider the United States' assassination of Osama bin Laden within the context of Arendt's discussion of the criminality of organized mass slaughter and the illegal kidnapping of someone to force them to face trial for their involvement of this crime.

Essentially (spoiler alert!), Arendt's argument might be summed up as resting on two pillars. Firstly, she suggests that Israel should have either had Eichman tried by an international court, or after trying him in their own court, turned him over for carrying out of the sentence to an international body.  Secondly, she suggests that what is essential to keep in mind - and that Eichmann's case provides an ideal example of - is that in the case of crimes against humanity we are far more likely to have to deal with 'banal evil'; rather ordinary people who do terrible things based on some flawed but functional rationalizations, than truly sick, cognizant, anti-social and "evil" people. In the case of Germany, the execution apparatus was populated by many, many people, sometimes even including those who were targeted by that machinery. Many of these people 'went along' with the criminal activities simply because the flow of history and morality seemed to be moving in that direction, and so they acquiesced, or believed what they were told was right. As the court commented regarding Eichmann, it was quite likely that in different circumstances he might not have ever been motivated to do what he had done.

In this regard, as Arendt decries Israel's kidnapping of Eichmann from Argentina, as well as their decision to single-handedly try and kill Eichmann, I find myself comparing these conclusions to the treatment of Osama bin Laden by the US. Of course, there are some critical differences: bin Laden did not represent or act in the name of a state, and bin Laden's acts were not therefore not the carrying out of a state's policies. Nonetheless, why the United States did not seek Pakistan's permission to seize bin Laden, and why they unilaterally decided to assassinate someone within another country's sovereign territory without respecting that country's sovereignty over their own space, and without the individual in question having recourse to trial, remains a deeply problematic and vexing aspect of this case. In the case of bin Laden it seems to me, in some respects similar to the case of Eichmann, the country's acting in the name of justice and vengeance (two very different to reconcile motivations) undermined the very foundation of the beliefs that they seemed to be so offended someone else did not respect.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Bart Ehrman, "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code" (2004)

The subtitle of this book is: "a historian reveals what we really know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine."

I've reviewed two other Ehrman books on this blog: Forged (2011) and Jesus Interrupted (2009), and read yet more before this blog was started (such as Lost Christianities (2003), Misquoting Jesus (2005), and his commentaries on the Gospel of Judas [2006]).

Truth and Fiction... is, as the title communicates, is an attempt to clarify and challenge claims about Jesus and early Christianity offered in Dan Brown's popular fiction book The Da Vinci Code.  Brown's prefatory statement that much of what he discusses in his book is factual deserves challenge by a historian.  Ehrman is the historian to do it.  His books are readable, straight-forward, sensible, and rarely make radical claims that haven't been already made in peer-review academic literature. With the benefit of the books Ehrman has written since Truth and Fiction... , this one doesn't really offer any new material.

For those who have not read anything by Ehrman, or who would like an introduction to critical Biblical history, this is a short, easy-to-read option. I would more highly recommend some of the Ehrman's other books, such as Misquoting Jesus or Lost Christianities, however.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Christopher Hibbert, "Benito Mussolini" (1962, rev. 1972)

The sub-title for this classic is "The Rise and Fall of Il Duce."

Hibbert's book appears to be one of those great British cheap paperback reprints about facets of the Second World War that seem to have been produced in great scads during the 1970s.

I don't know nearly enough about Mussolini, other than that he is presented as the somewhat buffoonish Italian parallel to Hitler. Of course, he came to power before Hitler, and was really the leading Fascist politician (hence the name for the ideology that derives from an classic Roman reference) before Hitler began to pursue his search for German lebensraum.

I was somewhat surprised to learn of his early socialist ideological roots, ideas that to some degree stayed with him even to his death. Much like Hitler, however, the allure of power spoke loudly to Mussolini, leading him to increasingly radical solutions where political success to priority over other values. Upon rising to power, Mussolini's desire for grandeur and power led him into a series of ill-advised foreign military adventures: against Egypt, Albania, France, and Greece. The unequivocal disasters that these invasions were compelled Mussolini to repeatedly seek out the assistance of Nazi Germany, diminishing Mussolini's capacity to debate, question, or redirect Hitler's political visions for Europe and the Mediterranean.

Hibbert's book, particularly in its last third, looks at Mussolini from a far more personal perspective than political. This makes sense given that he fell from grace - was rescued by the Nazis and returned to power as the head of the puppet Salo Italian government - and then captured again, and killed with his mistress.

Lauren Kirshner, "Where We Have To Go" (2011)

Kirshner's book is one of the rare forays I've made into fiction in the last year. I must admit, at the outset, that I know Lauren, I know her partner, I've hung out in her apartment and played with her cats. So... I won't offer much of a critical assessment, in large part because I feel ill-equipped to comment on the quality of fiction writing outside of my own gut response to it.

Essentially, the book tells the story of a teenage girl, Lucy Bloom, who lives in Toronto with her fractious parents (for at least part of the story). I couldn't help but wonder, given the 'girl coming of age-type narrative, whether the protagonist's name was a nod to Judy Blume, author of 'preteen girl-books' such as Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret. I've never read Blume's books, so I could be far off the mark here.

As someone who grew up male, in a rural environment, it's intriguing to think about how the city where I live now might be seen by a teenage girl living twenty-five years ago. By that time I was coming here as a wide-eyed teenager, thrilled at the glass and steel, second-hand record stores, and roti shops.

The most troubling aspect of the book was the handling of time. The narrative seemed to move in fits and starts, leaping over periods with little warning, then dwelling for what seemed inordinate periods on stories that did not seem to be resolved. Perhaps this is part of the post-modern turn in fiction that I'm simply missing. As an infrequent fiction reader, I found it distracting.

The German edition cover is way cool.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Philip Roth, "Our Gang" (1971)

Roth has written very, very thinly veiled political satire. His novel focuses on US President Tricky Dixon, who has been preceded by Lyin' B. Johnson, and John F. Charisma. The first few chapters outline 'laugh-out-loud' policy discussions regarding the need for, and benefits of, extending voting rights to yet-to-be born children. An unforeseen consequence of the President's policy decision is a violent riot by Boy Scouts who have taken offence at Dixon's advocacy of sex (how else could babies be conceived?). Faced with a difficult decision, Tricky's advisors debate the best solution for the riot, and decide upon sending in the military, and shipping off the Scouts to a camp in Arizona. In the end, Tricky is assassinated, but bounces back to campaign in hell for the position of Devil.

The book started off with such promise, but forty years after the fact, with Nixon dead, and with moral and ethical errors by politicians seeming to be the norm rather than the exception, the joke got stale before it hardly began.

This 1971 review captures the book well, although it is a bit more effusive than I would have been:

This review will give you a fairly good plot summary, in case you don't want to read the book yourself:

Monday, 13 February 2012

Max and Monique Nemni, "Trudeau Transformed: The Shaping of a Statesman 1944-1965" (2011)

The second-volume of this Trudeau biography series came as a bit of a surprise to me. I read the first volume (Young Trudeau, 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada (2006) - sheesh, what a title!), but frankly, have forgotten it almost completely. The approach in this second volume, however, strikes me as a departure from the previous one. It is, in many respects, an intellectual history; a record of the development of Trudeau's philosophy, arrived at through close analysis of his published, and some unpublished, writing. The Nemni's make a good attempt to place the material within the context of the political events within (and beyond) Quebec, as well as showing how Trudeau's ideas fit within or contrasted with philosophic trends, once again, particularly within Quebec.

The first few chapters are rather surprising. They offer a very close analysis of Trudeau's notes and letters from the late 1940s, when he was studying at Harvard, Paris' "Sciences Po", and the London School of Economics. What might be quite boring offers intriguing insights into the evolution of Trudeau's thinking has he is exposed to a variety of challenging thinkers and texts. The Nemnis suggest that popular characterizations of Trudeau's influences during this period (such as Keynes and Schumpeter) are inaccurate. While their explanations of each thinkers' ideas is a little off-putting, it is more or less required to help tie the concepts advanced by the thinkers to Trudeau's responses to them.

The most significant weakness of the book is that in an attempt to trace the development of Trudeau's changing (or consistent) position on issues such as Quebec nationalism, justice, and democracy, the authors have opted (and in a sense are required) to jump from period to period, from event to event, from article to article, and then, to jump back and forth again to trace development of some other idea. In a following chapter, they'll return to an event discussed previously, to touch on another aspect of Trudeau's thinking, or refer back to it to clarify how it relates to some other event from the period that they didn't discuss. This form of historical hopscotch is a little frustrating.

Additionally, the authors will engage in a few unnecessary asides that seem more suitable to an undergraduate essay rather than an opus on one of our most contentious Prime Ministers. These quips are not particularly stinging, however, and rare enough that they can be forgiven.

In conclusion, this volume is a particularly useful record of the development of Trudeau's thoughts. It places many of the essays in long-available compilation volumes such as Federalism and the French Canadians (1968) in their philosophic and political context, and is an enjoyable read. While the structure is awkward, this is an admirable effort.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Andrew Hussey, "The game of war: the life and death of Guy Debord" (2001)

I'm torn about this book. While reading it I was distracted by Hussey's interjection of personal anecdotes regarding his drinking interviews with Debord associates. These smacked of insecurity, as if Hussey was desperate to assure us that he was 'cool' enough to wander Paris' Left Bank, to share cognac with Alice Becker-Ho, and to mix comfortably and confidently with these notoriously catty theoreticians and revolutionaries.

On the other hand, his explication of Debord's theories at times was rather simplistic. For the common reader, this would be helpful, though I can't help but wonder how many 'common' readers were likely to pick such a book up?

In short, Game of War was akin to an extended Rolling Stone biography. Pithy, loaded with personal insights, and light on philosophical and political insights. I can say, however, that I had never known that Debord once opened a bar in Paris, and designed advertising for the bar before he became involved as a co-manager.

As an addendum, particularly given the title of this book I was disappointed to find that Hussey did not offer a translation (or really even a mention) of Debord's 1987 text that outlined the rules for the kriegspiel he invented (the only version of the text that I have found was the translation in Len Bracken's Guy Debord: Revolutionary, and frankly, the editing quality of that volume was so bad that I can't help but regard anything in the book as being a bit dodgy). As Hussey discusses Debord and Becker-Ho wiling away many days playing this game, and suggests the game was a metaphor in some ways for Debord's later thinking about politics and revolution, this oversight feels significant.