Friday, August 22, 2008

Books, Books, Books

Vacation was good for ripping through a ton of material.  Here's a quick review, and some recommendations.

1) The Pirate Queen (***): Interesting. This is about Elizabeth I and England's use of state-sanctioned piracy to stay a viable nation in the 1500's.  It gives you a great feeling for how tenuous a grasp England had on their independence from Spain (and France) during this period.  Lop about 100 pages off this thing, and it's four stars.

2) The Scarlet Pimpernel (**): Fun. At the time it came out, this must have been something.  You can almost watch the blockbuster period-piece adventure movie in your mind.  The downfall is the glaringly obvious plot - it's quite obvious who the Pimpernel is about 50 pages in.  Nevertheless, worth reading just to say you've read the original.

3) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (****): Excellent. Le Carre at the height of his abilities and the book just pulses with tension, despite the fact that almost nothing actually happens. You start to feel paranoid just reading it, and it is one of those few books in which you never notice the page numbers. Definitely worth reading, and I'll be getting the follow up "Karla" novels soon.  Also, it reminded me that the BBC did a great version of this with Alec Guiness - hello Netflix.

4) Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (**): Intriguing. Relatively recent archaelogical findings allow you to find out more about the youth and rise to prominence of Ol' Ghengy.  The author points out a number of interesting facts about the Mongol Empire, and how civilized it was relative to common perceptions. He goes way over the top in trying to make claims about how important this Empire was for subsequent development, so that loses him some marks.  Another book that could lose about 50 pages and be better for it.

5) A Dangerous Nation (** 1/2): This is the first volume in a proposed two-volume history of American foreign policy.  The first section of the book is excellent.  It dispels much of the myth of isolationism that has surrounded Washington and other founding fathers. The U.S. was from the start concerned with the world, in particular its importance in creating an example of a functioning republic. The isolation, in terms of avoiding big tangles with Europe, was more a consequence of circumstances (Napoleon occupying Europe, the U.S. being small and powerless) than of choice.  Once you reach the second part of the book, though, it becomes a much slower recitation of treaties and incidents. My advice, read up to about page 200 closely, then skim.

6) Balzac and the Little Seamstress (**): Novel by a Chinese man who was "re-educated" in a village during the Cultural Revolution.  He and his friend do lots of manual labor, travel up and down a mountain a lot, find a stash of forbidden Western books, meet a cute girl, and eventually have their hearts broken. The only book on this list that was exactly the right length. Interesting inside look at re-education.

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