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Books & Reviews

Archive | Books & Reviews

The Monuments Men Reviews: Book and Film

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A scene from 'The Monuments Men.' Claudette Barius/Columbia Pictures

“This story isn’t about the Kronenstrasse Synagogue, the internment camp at Dachau, or even the Holocaust against the Jews. It is about a different act of negation and aggression Hitler perpetrated on the people and nations of Europe: his war on their culture.” – Robert M. Edsel

A scene from ‘The Monuments Men.’ Claudette Barius/Columbia Pictures

Artistic license can take many forms when applied to historical narrative, and it is my hope that in reading my reviews of the book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, and the film adaptation, The Monuments Men, the reader will get a full picture of the heroic men and women who rescued European art from the Nazis – the Monuments Men, and how they have been portrayed in print and on the silver screen.

Book Review

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter, takes the reader into the World War II war theater through the stories of ten of the brave men and women, the Monuments Men, who rescued art that had been stolen by the Nazis in Europe. The book is chronological, and the author cleverly weaves in historical anecdotes to show the importance of the preservation of art and culture during times of mass destruction and genocide. Edsel’s powerful, moving narrative emphasizes the role of humanity in protecting the artifacts of antiquity, and stresses the non-monetary value of those artifacts which represent human possibility, creativity, and intellectual achievement. The storyline allows the reader to travel with the Monuments Men on their journey to the front lines on a treasure hunt through Europe to find, identify, and return stolen art.

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Karl Kraus, the Press, and War

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English soldiers are seen in a trench in France during the First World War

Reviewing Jonathan Franzen’s book The Kraus Project, the German poet Michael Hoffmann argues that people call the Austrian satirist, Karl Kraus, brilliant, “though it’s sometimes said with a there-now-go-away-please undertone.”

English soldiers are seen in a trench in France during the First World War

By that Hoffman implies that people all too freely bestow the title of genius on the fin-de-siècle Viennese journalist, because they do not fully comprehend what he is trying to say with his intricate, quotation-drenched, and aphorism-dominated prose. After all, partial comprehension is often a prerequisite for mantled brilliance. If we could comprehend Kraus in his entirety, the title of genius might become superfluous. To many, therefore, to this day, Karl Kraus remains a distant mystery.

To read Karl Kraus is to wander a vast labyrinth. He himself stated, “A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.” With his magnum opus, The Last Days of Mankind, he appears to be fulfilling this declaration. Described as a “faulted masterpiece” by the historian Edward Timms, this documentary play—written between 1915 and 1922, and dealing with the First World War from Austria-Hungary’s perspective—is filled with bizarre apothegms, outdated vernacular, vitriol, and obscure references to contemporaries often only familiar to diehard historians of the Habsburg Empire. It starts off as a realistic satire observing the reaction of average Viennese to the outbreak of the war and ends expressionistically with talking gas masks, flames, dead horses and a murmuring ‘dead forest.’

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Review of The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency

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‘The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency’ by Matthew Aid. 432 pp. Bloomsbury USA

Thanks in part to US fugitive, Edward J. Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) is again in the spotlight.

‘The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency’ by Matthew Aid. 432 pp. Bloomsbury USA

According to the former US intelligence contractor, not only is the NSA eavesdropping on foreign telecommunications, it is also monitoring the electronic communications of Americans. Like Jihadists, foreign leaders, international aid organizations, multi-national corporations and even ordinary citizens are allegedly monitored by America’s leading signals intelligence agency. Needless to say, Snowden has brought much unwanted attention on the secretive NSA. Besides complicating the spy agency’s work by revealing sensitive espionage methods, Snowden’s revelations also forced the Obama administration to introduce measures ending NSA surveillance of close US allies. This is of course not the first time the NSA found itself in the limelight.

The first time the NSA ever came under intense public scrutiny was in the mid-1970s when it was investigated by the Church Committee for alleged abuses. Thanks to that public hearing, many Americans came to learn for the first time that the country had a spy agency called the NSA. Then in 2005, the New York Times again called attention to the NSA by revealing that the spy agency was monitoring the electronic communications of hundreds of Americans as part of the US War on Terror. That exposé too created a firestorm not least because the NSA was engaged in warrantless domestic surveillance possibly in violation of US laws. Now almost a decade later, thanks to Snowden, the NSA is again in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

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Alternative Commemoration of Mao, Review of Mao’s Great Famine

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‘Mao’s Great Famine’ by Frank Dikötter. 448 pp. Walker & Company

In light of the 120th birthday commemoration last year for Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party continues to elevate him to emperor-like status. Indeed, there are over 2,000 statues in Chinese cities commemorating the controversial leader.

‘Mao’s Great Famine’ by Frank Dikötter. 448 pp. Walker & Company

It might be pertinent for the government and the people of China to scrutinize the actions of the revered figure. Since such scrutiny seems implausible in the one party state, the enlightening work of Frank Dikötter will have to suffice. Although not afforded access to sensitive documents, this has not stopped the Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong (only one of many prestigious accolades) on publishing several books on contemporary China like The Age of Openness: China before Mao (2007). Mao’s Great Famine (2010) must be considered his masterpiece because the work compiles a massive variety of statistics, records and other scholarly work on the Great Leap Forward.

Dikötter reasons that those killed between 1958 and 1962 are close to 45 million people through agrarian collectivisation (compared with a range of 15-35 million from previous researchers). The book is structured into six parts and it seems there is no coincidence that the book is clearly divided into two distinct sections. The first section (comprising parts one and two) focuses on the party’s relationship with its own people and with the outside world. It describes how the party has operated in the past and gives readers an insight into the bureaucratic functions at work and how a heavily idealised figure can blind the party and population to the realities on the ground.

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A Book for Black History Month: Devil in the Grove

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‘Devil in the Grove’ by Gilbert King. 434 pp. HarperCollins Publishers

Last year featured a strong slate of Hollywood films on anti-black discrimination in America: 12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and 42.

‘Devil in the Grove’ by Gilbert King. 434 pp. HarperCollins Publishers

Someday soon, theaters will show what will surely be a powerful new entry to this genre; Lionsgate Entertainment has bought the film rights to Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (2012), winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Devil in the Grove narrates the underexposed but dramatic early career of American icon Thurgood Marshall. In the book, the brilliant lawyer and his NAACP colleagues travel to central Florida to defend four black boys from accusations of abduction and rape in the small citrus town of Groveland. From 1949 to 1955, the defense battles a Southern system of injustice, bigotry, and incompetence.

Before the boys are even charged, the scene of the alleged crime—central Florida’s Lake County—erupts in violence and hysteria. Rioting forces the governor to call in the National Guard. Henry Shepherd, the father of one of the defendants, loses his home to arson. Despite mob gunfire, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall refuses to make any arrests. The Orlando Morning Sentinel publishes an editorial cartoon of four electric chairs with the title, “No Compromise!” With the Ku Klux Klan gathering, one of the defendants flees Groveland and is killed by a posse. The other three are beaten by law enforcement officials at the county jail.

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Review of Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan by Klassen and Albo

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‘Empire's Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan’ by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo. 432 pp. University of Toronto Press

“There is a growing consensus among international relations experts that the war in Afghanistan has reached an impasse or possibly a terminal point of crisis.” – Jerome Klassen

‘Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan’ by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo. 432 pp. University of Toronto Press

Americans tend to think of Canadians as politer and more sensible than their southern neighbors, thus the joke: “Why does the Canadian chicken cross the road? To get to the middle.” Oh, yes, bit of a muddle there in Afghanistan, but like Dudley Do Right, the Canadians were only trying to develop and tidy up the place. Not in the opinion of Jerome Klassen and a formidable stable of academics, researchers, journalists, and peace activists who see Canada’s role in Central Asia less as a series of policy blunders than a coldly calculated strategy of international capital. “Simply put,” writes Klassen, “the war in Afghanistan was always linked to the aspirations of empire on a much broader scale.”

Empire’s Ally asks the question, “Why did the Canadian government go to war in Afghanistan in 2001?” and then carefully dissects the popular rationales: fighting terrorism; coming to the aid of the United States; helping the Afghans to develop their country. Oh, and to free women. What the book’s autopsy of those arguments reveals is disturbing.

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Tale of a 1940’s ‘Tiger Mom’

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Amy Chua with her daughters at their home in Connecticut. Source: The Wall Street Journal

“Lulu was always trying to provoke me. Getting into an argument was a way of not practicing. That time I didn’t bite. ‘Okay,’ I said calmly. ‘How do you want me to do that?’ Giving Lulu control over the situation sometimes defused her temper.” – Chapter 9 (“The Violin”)

Amy Chua with her daughters at their home in Connecticut. Source: The Wall Street Journal

Amy Chua has attracted a lot of Internet heat for her chronicle of her drive for achievement at almost any cost in the child-rearing department in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom (famously refusing her daughter bathroom or water breaks until she mastered a tricky piano exercise). Chua recently squirted some gasoline on the fire by revealing that her next book will argue that certain “cultural” (they avoid the words “racial” or “ethnic”) groups succeed in the US. The list includes Jews, Cubans, Nigerians, Mormons, Indians, Iranians and Lebanese-Americans and the three traits they share, (the “triple package”) are, apparently, “superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control.”

Hmmm. Chua’s theories came to mind as I was reading Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker nonfiction pieces collected in Up In the Old Hotel. In “Evening with a Gifted Child,” written in 1940, Mitchell describes a visit with a beautiful nine-year-old child, Philippa Duke Schuyler. Philippa had an IQ of 185, played the piano superbly, and in Mitchell’s eyes appeared perfect in every way. Her father, George Schuyler, was African-American and journalist of note; her mother a white woman from Texas, Josephine Cogdell. It appears that the mother believed that hybrid vigor—the exceptional performance of the offspring of diverse genetic lines—might apply to children as well as corn.

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Hatfields, McCoys, and the Legend of the American Frontier Warrior

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The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story’ by Dean King. 430 pp. Little, Brown & Company

From the nation’s birth until the 1960s, American culture mythologized frontiersmen and glorified their violence in books, films, and other media.

‘The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story’ by Dean King. 430 pp. Little, Brown & Company

Two cultural narratives dominated. The first, espoused by historian Frederick Jackson Turner, linked the gradual settlement of the frontier with the rise of a democratic, civilized, industrial American society. Turner declared the frontier closed as of 1890 and warned that economic downturn could result. The second narrative, advocated by statesman and historian Theodore Roosevelt in The Winning of the West, emphasized violence to a greater degree. His ideal frontier was a deadly arena for racial competition and natural selection, where Anglo-Americans tested their spirit, patriotism, and manhood.

Contemporary historian Richard Slotkin called this phenomenon “regeneration through violence” in his eponymous 1973 book. Roosevelt further believed that an Anglo-American’s sustained endurance of the frontier life’s rigors could prepare him for leadership. Those brave enough to win against the environment and the Indian race would lead their frontier communities. Roosevelt lionized frontiersman like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Kit Carson. He revered Hawkeye, the Indian-savvy warrior protagonist of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.

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Dos Passos, Hemingway, and France

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John Dos Passos

In this 1969 video clip, a French TV crew interviews my grandfather, American author John Dos Passos, about his life and literature. The clip concerns Dos Passos’s earliest memories of his friendship with fellow American writer Ernest Hemingway.

Though the writers had initially crossed paths as early as 1918 during ambulance corps duty, they did not socialize at length until the early 1920s.

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Review of David Folkenflik’s Murdoch’s World

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‘Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires’ by David Folkenflik. 384 pp. PublicAffairs

The eruption of the News International phone hacking scandal has caused significant problems for Rupert Murdoch and his business empire.

‘Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires’ by David Folkenflik. 384 pp. PublicAffairs

It forced him to close his big money spinner, News of the World, and to withdraw his takeover bid for the enormously profitable BSkyB satellite TV broadcaster. More recently, he’s had to split the mighty News Corporation into two companies. All of this has spawned a veritable tsunami of Murdoch books, including David Folkenflik’s Murdoch’s World. It’s a well written account of some of the most dramatic events surrounding Murdoch’s career and impact.

Folkenflik argues the hacking scandal reflects a corporate culture at News, a culture in which there is a contempt for rules which govern the rest of us. In Britain this took the form of no-holds-barred journalism in which cops were bribed and the law systematically broken. In Australia this culture of contempt for rules translates into a disregard for any balance when reporting certain issues or in targeting Murdoch’s enemies du jour.

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Review of Maajid Nawaz’s, Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism

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‘Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism’ by Maajid Nawaz. 296 pp. The Lyons Press

Maajid Nawaz subtly reveals much in his seemingly effortlessly titled, Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism.

‘Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism’ by Maajid Nawaz. 296 pp. The Lyons Press

The word radical, though often used in modern English to mean extreme, actually derives its meaning from the Latin word radix, meaning, “root.” Nawaz cleverly employs both meanings—the old and the new—to describe who he once was and who he has now become: a former leader of an Islamist organization who is now on the frontlines of a personal mission to rid Islam of the excessive, politicized ideology he once so firmly believed and forcefully preached.

Radical, recently released in the United States, is Nawaz’s riveting tale of conversion from a disillusioned British youth to an unremitting Islamist revolutionary. British by birth and Pakistani by descent, Nawaz was an unwary young boy who, during his adolescence, struggled to assimilate into the predominately Anglo seaside town of Southend. “A moving target,” he bore the burnt of discrimination and harassment at the hands of his classmates, and later and more intimidating, from ultranationalist skinheads. Lost and disgruntled, Nawaz found some solace in the revengeful lyrics and anti-establishment strain of 90s American hip-hop music. Professor Griff, an Islamic zealot and member of the infamous rap group Public Enemy, made a particular impression on the young, credulous Nawaz. His faith was now nothing to be ashamed of, but had now been “re-branded as a form of resistance, as a self-affirming defiant identity.”

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Review of Clan Cleansing in Somalia by Lidwien Kapteijns

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Clan Cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Legacy of 1991’ by Lidwien Kapteijns. 320 pp. University of Pennsylvania Press

The publication of Clan Cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Legacy of 1991 by Lidwien Kapteijns has triggered bitterness among Somalis.

‘Clan Cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Legacy of 1991’ by Lidwien Kapteijns. 320 pp. University of Pennsylvania Press

The reason is because the author argues that the Hawiye clan aided and abated by the Isaq clan adopted a policy that defined the Darod clan as an enemy targeted for elimination and expulsion from Mogadishu between January 28, 1991 and December, 1992. This argument shifts the taxonomy of the Somali conflict from “civil war” to “clan cleansing” which is used as interchangeable with “genocide” and defined as “those cases in which a perpetrator group attempts, intentionally and over a sustained period of time, to annihilate another social or political community from the face of the earth.” Stathis N. Kalyvas of Yale University argues that, as in the case of Somali civil war, rival factions intend to control rather than eliminate the enemy’s constituency from the new state.

As a matter of fact, Darod “representatives” were members of both the governments established in Mogadishu and Hargeisa immediately after the fall of Siad Barre regime. The author does not provide substantive evidence but rather uses a misrepresentation of poems describing the horrors of the civil war, fictional stories and one-sided information provided by anonymous victims. Lidwien Kapteijns uses the Somali civil war as a polemical argument and relies on Ioan Lewis for his scholarship on the Somali clan system. The author dismisses the clan grievances underlying Somali politics and discriminates against the Hawiye clan militia from other clan-based militias. The flawed and distorted analytical framework of Kapteijns could not explain the clan influence and dynamics in Somalia.

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John Dos Passos Remembered

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‘U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money’ by John Dos Passos. 1312 pp. The Library of America

“The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armour of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error.” – John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel

‘U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money’ by John Dos Passos. 1312 pp. The Library of America

American author John Dos Passos gained famed in the early 20th century for his pioneering, iconic descriptions of the modern societal divide. “All right we are two nations,” he declared in his U.S.A. trilogy. Today, these words have been repurposed to describe the ramifications of the Zimmerman trial. The time is ripe to rediscover Dos Passos’ intellectual life, in all its cycles. In a few months, the Dos Passos family will meet this challenge by launching the first official website for John Dos Passos—complete with a timeline, photos, video, audio, paintings, and quotes. Every effort will be made to accommodate scholars and artists seeking resources. A blog will provide updates on relevant conferences, films, and books. Dos Passos loved multimedia as art form; the internet is an ideal forum for learning about his life. Many know one or two facets of his life. The website will provide the full picture. Dos Passos leaves a legacy that gains in reflection.

John Roderigo Dos Passos (b.1896, d.1970) was a writer, painter, and political activist. He wrote over forty books, including plays, poetry, novels, biographies, histories, and memoirs. He crafted over four hundred drawings, watercolors, and other artworks. Dos Passos considered himself foremost a writer of contemporary chronicles. He chose the moniker because he was happiest working at the edge of fiction and nonfiction.

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Review of Steve Jonas’s The 15% Solution

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'The 15% Solution’ by Steve Jonas. 582 pp. Punto Press LLC

The title of Steve Jonas’s The 15% Solution might well be subtitled, “How to boil a frog” slowly, so he doesn’t notice.

‘The 15% Solution’ by Steve Jonas. 582 pp. Punto Press LLC

Jonas, a Harvard-trained MD, a professor of preventive medicine in the Department of Preventive Medicine Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University, has conjured up a book that is less fiction than contemporary politics wrapped in the form of a novel. Indeed, time after time, the “fiction” precisely parallels real life developments. While the book was originally written in 1996, a disturbing number of events—like systematic voter disenfranchisement—are now the rule in places like Texas and North Carolina. In a sense, the “fiction” is a fiction. While the book does examine a supposed 40-year period, during which conservative forces and rightwing Christians take over the United States, many of the speeches, quotes, and statistical materials are real (and meticulously footnoted at the end of each chapter).

In short, the only thing made up is the overthrow of the U.S. Constitution, the establishment of four “republics” based on race, and a “new” civil war. The title comes from a real-life strategy developed by the former Christian Coalition in the late 1980s to take over the country by locking down 15% of the vote. The idea is that many Americans never register to vote and, if they do, don’t turn out on Election Day. Hence, if you can control 15% of the national vote, you can elect presidents and the congress. And in low voter turnout elections, like state and local races, as few as 6% or 7% can end up determining an election outcome. State legislatures, in turn, draw electoral districts, which means that a dedicated minority can end up dominating the majority.

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Remembering Kenneth N. Waltz

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Kenneth N. Waltz

The study of jurisprudence and international relations is evidently far better for your health than actually practising them.

‘Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis’ by Kenneth N. Waltz. 263 pp. Columbia University Press

Kenneth N. Waltz was no exception, at 88 having left a mark in a field where jostling for primacy was conducted with as much ruthlessness as a civil conflict. Writers on international relations have always nursed various illusions and, when fitting, delusions. Mankind has been variously described as irrational or rational, warlike and peaceful. The temper of a nation or state can be gauged by the thermometer of scholarship. Analysis will show the way as to how states will react in any given situation. That such efforts have been futile, damned by the unpredictable pathways of history, has not stopped the venture.

It was understandable that international relations, abbreviated by its specialists to IR, would come into being as a study even as Hiroshima was being obliterated and the San Francisco accords were starting to settle. The second thirty years war, the term coined by E. H. Carr to describe the bloody period encapsulating both World Wars, brought the examiners out. Why had the species known as the human race been so engaged in the project of annihilation?

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