Thursday, October 10, 1996

Letters On England

by Voltaire
translated, with a rambling introduction and rather sporadic annotation, by Leonard Tancock

This book is a series of epistles to no one in particular, comparing the relatively tolerant and free atmosphere of England of the time (1734), as well as its great men of letters and science (Newton and Locke) to that of France, for the benefit of the French public. The book was banned in France. At the same time, Voltaire satirizes certain foibles of the English nobility, the Quakers, English poetry, etc, so he really hits two birds with one stone. Actually, three, because the last letter is a criticism of Pascal’s Pensées it doesn’t have anything to do with England, but it’s the best section, composed of a few brilliantly cutting and logical rebuttals to some of Pascal’s notes.

Although short, this book took me an inordinately long time to read because I had to look up a great number of historical and contemporary references Voltaire made. I enjoyed it where it was witty and sharp, notably the beginning and end.

four stars

Thursday, September 26, 1996

The First World War: A Complete History

by Martin Gilbert

This very long work is essentially a chronology of the war, from the rapid escalation of tension before August 1914 to the problems of armistice in 1918 and how they affected state relations in the 1930s. Gilbert, the official biographer of Churchill, brings home at many points the reality of the 9 million military dead of WWI through use of poems, quotes and letters written home by the men who died, as well as graphic recollections by nurses who served at the front (one image that stays with me is the room full of amputated limbs).

It’s fascinating reading and broad in scope, but it does have its problems. First, the endless litany style does grate after a while. Second, Gilbert is intensely pro-Anglo-American. Thus he ignores all the fighting out of Europe, and while he mentions Japan once, fails to dwell on why Japan entered the war, how her people felt about it, what her success or losses were, etc. Thus, too, he dwells on German “atrocities” during the war but mentions several instances which make it quite clear that barbarism and selfishness were aspects of both sides. Finally, while arguing that superior Allied force was the deciding factor in the German capitulation, he fails to convince that internal revolution played a small part. Despite these flaws, an impressive and engaging book.

four stars

Sunday, September 1, 1996

The Days of the French Revolution

by Christopher Hibbert

Another well-told history “written for the general reader,” this book was perhaps a bit too general. That is, it flew over its horde of major and minor characters and ruck of events, only seldom pausing to clarify things by, for example, setting out the main points of difference between the revolution’s political factions, or to give the reader a brief reminder of the identity of a person last mentioned 100 pages earlier. Nevertheless, the narrative of events, from the first rumblings against the tailles and corvées to the coup by Napoleon, was cohesive.

I knew generally of the bloodiness and fickleness of the revolution, but was still repulsed by some of the more grisly details of the massacres (especially the cannibalistic episodes). I would have liked the book to attempt to answer why the leaders were so sadistic and cruel. Did they really think they were protecting freedom? Were they being cruel to save their skins? Were they, in the end, just bloodthirsty maniacs who saw their moment and took it? Hard questions to answer. A dizzyingly bloody period of history.

three stars

Thursday, May 9, 1996

The Stranglers: The Cult of Thuggee & its Overthrow in British India

by George Bruce

An informative work on William Sleeman's efforts to destroy Thugee from the time when no one cared about it to his long overdue promotion to Major-General.  There were long excerpts from Sleeman's writings and transcriptions of actual conversations with captured Thugs; these were very revealing.  Besides describing the Thugee dialect, philosophy, superstitions and customs, the book portrays Sleeman as a selfless, tireless man who always put duty first: ahead of his health, his wealth, even his desire to be with his children.

It was an exciting story, not because of Bruce's rather dry style of telling it but because of its inherent thrills.  At times, the narrative could have used more detail (explaining how a specific gang was captured, for instance, instead of just mentioning that it was "luckily" done). All in all, though, a fine book. 

four stars

Monday, April 29, 1996

100 Greatest Boxers of All Time

by Burt Randolph Sugar

A self-descriptive title; this book gives short, often not all that informative bios of 100 fighters throughout the ages. It was written in 1984, when Mike Tyson was just a wee lad scoring his first KOs, so it's a little out-dated. Sugar writes well, with humor and his own loose style, though he gets repetitive at times.

Only a casual fan, I don't know enough about boxing to disagree vehemently with his selections, but I do think he should have given the early black fighters an edge, since no one gave them a chance to prove how great they really were. Also, there are a few questionable calls: for example, Mysterious Billy Smith, that out-of-shape dirty fighter with a 28-19 record, ranked one ahead of Wilfredo Gomez, 40-1 with 40 KOs? Hard to know what the thinking is there.

three stars

Friday, April 12, 1996

India: An Introduction

by Kushwant Singh

Just what the title says, this book is an informative, lively account of India, from a few paragraphs on the Indus Valley civilization to the final chapter on Indira Gandhi.  I learned a lot from reading it, and perhaps not only what Singh intended.  Through his writing, I gleaned some information on how Indians feel about politics and so on: for example, he calls the leaking of information that a public official had not paid income tax in ten years a "personal attack."  A very different mind-set from the typical American's.  Singh is objective and fair in describing even hot topics like British rule and Pakistan, and so is probably trustworthy as a historian.  An interesting, rarely dull summary of history. 

four stars

Friday, March 29, 1996

The Fabulous Riverboat

by Philip José Farmer

This one is a little better written than the first.  Mark Twain and a prehistoric giant find a meteorite and built a vast metal boat, the only one on Riverworld.  Still no women characters, and in my opinion, too many invented characters when he has the entirety of history to play with.  The dialogue in this book is more realistic.  Still, I think Farmer is one of those writers who is incapable of having characters speak in any way and with any mindset other than his, Farmer's, own.  Thus there is little real ideological conflict, which is a gaping absence in a place like Riverworld.

three stars

Monday, March 25, 1996

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

by Philip José Farmer

A brilliant idea, a momentous brainstorm – everyone who ever lived is resurrected on a new world by mysterious and powerful beings – but some dull, flat writing.  No women characters to speak of, and some of the dialogue is completely misplaced, as if Farmer has no real interest in how people actually speak and act in given situations.  Too much analysis in the wrong places.  Maybe he was just in a hurry to get his idea out.  A good cast of characters, though: Richard Burton, Goering, an alien, a science fiction writer.

three stars

Thursday, March 21, 1996

The Hunted

by Madra Rakshasa

This Hindi novel describes the steadily burgeoning tensions between untouchables and landowners in a tiny Indian village.  The focus of the book is not so much the actual conflict, which is brief and not at all significant, but the history and development of the characters.  It's not a simple novel at all, despite taking a stand, of course, against the greed and oppression of the landowners - some of the peasants are unsympathetic, and some of the landowners are decent people.  It's a real psychological novel with political significance as well.  I liked it a lot.

four stars

Wednesday, March 13, 1996

Into India

by John Keay

The anti-Naipaul, sort of.  This Britisher is a real India-lover and has a lot of fascinating things to say about the land, its history and above all its people.  It was interesting to go back to Naipaul's book and compare their interpretations of similar experiences or events.  I identified with a lot of the things Keay described.  The end, when he left India, was especially demonstrative of his love for the place – he speaks disparagingly of the insincerity, "gracelessness" and "sameness" of the West.  A different take, certainly!

four stars

Thursday, February 29, 1996

The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon

by Jim Corbett

An account of Corbett's experiences hunting tigers and in one instance a leopard.  The man personifies the typical pulp hero – utterly without fear, nonchalantly heroic and replete with amusing foibles, like absolutely craving a smoke and a nice hot cuppa tea even while waiting on a tree branch with rifle in hand in the dead of night for the man-eating tiger to come that way.  If these stories hadn't been true, they wouldn't be worth reading, but as it is, I was impressed, to say the least.

four stars

Wednesday, February 28, 1996

The Firm

by John Grisham

Now a major motion picture.  A lawyer is snared in a web of corruption and tries to work his way past both the mob-controlled firm and the feds. I suppose it was suspenseful.  It certainly wasn't boring, derivative or typical in plot or characters.  Just not very well-written.

three stars

Thursday, February 22, 1996

Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot

by Al Franken

A hilarious little time capsule, especially the first chapter that names the book.  Franken – Stuart Smalley on "SNL" – satirizes the breakdown of civility in modern communication brought about by Rush and his ilk (thus the title), and at the same time points out the hypocrisy of major conservative figures by using real facts and figures.  He's kind of an anti-P.J. O'Rourke: very clever, extremely funny, doesn't take himself too seriously.  The index of the book, which is unrelated to its actual material, is merciless and drives the point home like a straw into Rush's Big Gulp.

four stars

Monday, February 19, 1996

India: A Wounded Civilization

by V.S. Naipaul

Naipul explains India, sort of.  A horribly critical book, quite racist (in the sense of making broad, derogatory generalizations about an entire people, using small amounts of evidence or even just hearsay), bordering on the vitriol of a KKK pamphlet.  And yet, a lot of what Naipaul points out seems correct.  He's an extremely sharp observer and doesn't have to make a big production out of how absurd some Indian policies are; he makes their absurdity come across by just describing them.  So he does make his point, and yet he does it so smugly, so self-assured, without reservation, that the criticism comes too hard.  The section where, for example, Naipaul is comparing individual Indians' thought to children's thought, on the basis of what some Uncle Tom of an Indian psychiatrist has reported to him, is repugnant.  But when Naipaul tells about an Indian attempt to "modernize" the bullock-cart or peasants' tools, he makes it clear why he called that chapter "A Defect of Vision."  He must have had a bad time in India.

three stars

Tuesday, February 13, 1996

Slowly Down the Ganges

by Eric Newby

Supposedly a tale of how he and his wife traveled down the Ganges in a variety of boats.  More like how he and his wife traveled along the basic course of the Ganges in a variety of buses and trains.  A very patchily written book, at times it would be fascinating – whether describing ancient history, the author's own reminisces, or the events of the voyage (which were also at times hilarious) – and at times it would just be page after page of pure description of ruined forts or the banks of the Ganges (cliffs, forest, silt, sandbars, ho hum).  The last chapter was particularly boring, being in toto a run-down, a bare litany, of all the landmarks on the Ramganga down to the Bay of Bengal.  Too bad; it had a lot of potential. 

three stars

Friday, February 9, 1996

Uncle Fred In the Springtime

by P.G. Wodehouse

A tale of Uncle Elmsworth, the Efficient Baxter and Uncle Fred. It was brilliant in its execution, but not as funny as the Bertie and Jeeves chemistry. Also, the incredibly complex plot strained even the Wodehousian limit of credulity: a man is convinced he is crazy because three of his friends pretend not to know him (and he accepts their flat denial of their identity). But this type of silliness is best when not looked at too closely and simply enjoyed, eh?

four stars

Monday, February 5, 1996

Myths and Legends of India: An Introduction to the Study of Hinduism

by J.M. Macfie

This book told many tales from the Puranas, the Ramayana and mostly the Mahabarata.  I remembered quite a few from my readings of the two latter, but many were new to me.  The trouble is that, although the author takes a lot of pride in his supposed impartiality and fairness in depicting Hinduism's strengths as well as weaknesses, he takes quite a racist or at least a haughty, pedantic view in his descriptions, calling - for example - the presence of Shiva lingams "revolting and obscene"; calling Indian thought "arrested"; claiming that India's caste system constitutes "the most rigorous and cruel" color bar in history (a dubious claim, perhaps); and just generally adopting a mocking tone when describing inconsistencies in the stories and so on.  But they are told well and I enjoyed the book anyway for the information it contains.

three stars

Friday, January 26, 1996

Hindu Gods And Goddesses

by A.G. Mitchell

Not aptly named, this was a very short work on Hindu iconography: 50 photographs of bronze statues of gods and heroes crafted in the south of India in the 19th century, accompanied by short captions to each. Nevertheless, it was well-written and informative.

three stars