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review 2020-09-05 18:45
White Mughals by William Dalrymple
White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India - William Dalrymple

I have a lot of admiration for this author’s Nine Lives, and The Anarchy is highly informative. But this book is supposedly a love story, which isn't actually all that well-documented and for which the author puts on heavily rose-tinted glasses to ignore the fact that the participants were aged 35 and 13 and that we know almost nothing about her life, thoughts, or feelings. In reality, the book is in part a biography of East India Company official James Achilles Kirkpatrick, and in part a very detailed and heavily footnoted account of the British presence in India from about 1798-1806.

So. Kirkpatrick was a Resident of the East India Company in Hyderabad, essentially an ambassador to the princely court there, a position from which he built himself a monumental residence and negotiated treaties that strengthened the British and weakened the Hyderabadis (at times he felt bad about this but not bad enough to resign). He wrote a bunch of letters which from a modern point-of-view look awfully patronizing (referring to the Nizam, or local ruler, as “old Nizzy,” or giving himself credit for “convincing” the Indian authorities to do any useful thing they did); it’s hard to parse this stuff because the author never addresses it.

Kirkpatrick also, at the age of 35, slept with a 13-year-old girl from an aristocratic Muslim family, whom he got pregnant and then married. Now, I know that conventions about age and sex were different in many historical time periods, but rather than talking about that at all, Dalrymple seems to hope readers won't notice. In fact his description of the early years of this “romance” entirely obscures the age issue by stating vaguely that Khair un-Nissa was “probably in her early teens” and then quickly moving on. That uncertainty was apparently cleared up in Dalrymple’s own mind by the later chapters, at which point he states without ambiguity that she was 19 when their oldest child was 5. Dalrymple further tries to paper over the consent issue by emphasizing the fact that Khair un-Nissa’s male relatives, and Kirkpatrick himself—when accused of rape by a third party for what Dalrymple insists were purely specious and political reasons, to drive a wedge between her male relatives and the British—portrayed her as the initiator. Which in my mind just makes it worse (most of us would be pretty disgusted by a 35-year-old man excusing himself with “but the 13-year-old totally initiated!” regardless of whether it was true, in part because this is such a common line in the sex offender playbook), especially since Khair un-Nissa’s own voice is entirely absent from the book. None of her letters survived, and she’s viewed almost entirely through male eyes.

The couple go on to get married and have a couple of kids whom he insists on shipping off to his relatives in England at the tender ages of 5 and 3, at which point they’re forbidden from corresponding with their mother or her relatives. We don’t actually know much about their marriage because Kirkpatrick didn’t write much about it, but the author infers a lot. Both parties then die young. Dalrymple insists on viewing Khair un-Nissa as a tragic heroine throughout, based on what seems to be pretty scanty evidence. In a place and time when medical knowledge was still quite basic and a doctor even feeling a woman’s pulse was reserved for serious circumstances, I wouldn’t infer that she died of a broken heart from the simple fact that the doctor couldn’t pinpoint the cause.

At any rate, Dalrymple never reckons with the fact that his supposedly beautiful true love story involves a middle-aged man and an adolescent girl, and has little to say about the fact that we don’t hear her voice at all. But then, the relationship is only a focal point of a book that is largely comprised of the author squeezing in whatever bits of history seem to have caught his fancy. Someone goes to a festival, and we get a 6-page history of the festival and description of relevant buildings. Someone visits Calcutta, and we get 6 pages describing its society. Someone remodels a building and we get endless discussion of architecture and the hiring of workmen. It can be pretty interesting, but it also makes the book quite dense, especially with all the tiny footnotes, which I think are overkill for a non-academic work. The publishers could have made the book much more readable by actually naming the chapters and sections (and making sure to space out section breaks more evenly) to make it easier for readers to find what interests them. Instead it’s a wall of text full of tangents and extraneous details; no wonder many readers were frustrated. I nearly gave up on it myself.

Despite all its flaws, though, I did find the book interesting, and in the end did read it all. I do appreciate details and specifics and this book has them in abundance. It seems well-researched and the author’s basic thesis, that in the 18th century the British in India did far more to assimilate than their hoity-toity 19th century successors, is also quite interesting. Those looking for a detailed picture of an era would be well-advised to pick this up, though those expecting a love story might do better to avoid it.

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review 2020-08-25 21:20
Madame President by Helene Cooper
Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - Helene Cooper

I picked this book up primarily because I loved the author’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, about growing up in Liberia until political instability and terror forced her family to leave. This book, though, is a biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018 and the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa. It’s a good biography, readable and engaging as all the best journalistic work is, and certainly informative though it lacks the humor and personal touch of Cooper’s memoir.

About the first quarter of this relatively short biography (290 pages) covers the first approximately 50 years of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s life, spending a few pages on her childhood before moving on to her marriage, higher education, subsequent divorce from her abusive husband (even though it meant no longer being able to raise most of their children), and her career as a financial bureaucrat. The second quarter focuses more on Liberia’s civil war and the years of coups and atrocities. Johnson Sirleaf was absent from Liberia for much of this time working for financial institutions abroad, but the reader needs to understand something of what was happening in the country to put her presidency in context. Finally, the last half covers her elections and presidency, though the book ends in 2015 and was published in 2017, before she actually left office.

The book is highly readable and offers a lot of explanation to readers who may not know anything about Liberia; Cooper is clearly adept at bridging two cultures. It is an admiring biography, and as far as I can tell an authorized one—Johnson Sirleaf allowed Cooper to follow her around and was interviewed for the book, though Cooper didn’t share her drafts—but Cooper also highlights areas where Johnson Sirleaf made poor or questionable choices. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about all her female supporters who stole their adult sons’ voter IDs to prevent them from voting for her clearly unqualified male opponent, for instance—interestingly to me, Liberian women seemed far more likely to vote for a candidate because of her gender than their American counterparts. But I was glad to see Cooper really dig into Johnson Sirleaf’s achievements in office: the chapter about how she managed to persuade other governments, multinational institutions and private companies to forgive Liberia’s $4.7 billion debt is fantastic and highlights a huge accomplishment that few others could possibly have achieved.

Meanwhile, other reviewers have mentioned that the book deals with some dark subject matter around Liberia’s civil war, and this is true though it isn’t the primary focus of the book. The last 35 pages mostly focus on the Ebola pandemic, which was interesting to read during another pandemic: there was a lot of initial denial around Ebola too, though once people accepted that it was real they seemed to do a good job of taking necessary precautions to wipe it out.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of good information in this book, but there’s more distance from its subject than I would have expected in a semi-authorized biography of someone who’s still alive: I didn’t get much sense of Johnson Sirleaf’s personality, what makes her tick, how the people close to her view her, etc. Maybe she didn’t want her personal life in a book, her family didn’t want to share, and Cooper decided to respect their wishes—hard to say. But while I still blew through the book in just a few days, I think I would have liked it even better with more personality. Cooper credits several people in the acknowledgments with making her ditch her “flip tone” and I wound up wishing she’d kept it. There are a few humorous bits, which were welcome.

But I’d certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject, and Johnson Sirleaf is without doubt a tough and impressive woman, though (like everybody else) imperfect. Those who would like a more personal, in-depth and at times humorous story (with some overlapping subject matter) should check out the author’s memoir.

Only time will tell how to interpret events after the end of this book: Johnson Sirleaf stepped down in 2018, allowing for Liberia’s first peaceful transition of power in decades, but then the winner of that election was George Weah (the soccer player), whose vice president is Jewel Taylor (ex-wife of Charles Taylor, the war criminal). Hmm. I hope Cooper will keep on writing books about Liberia; I for one will be happy to keep reading them.

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review 2020-08-17 09:49
German: Biography of a Language by Ruth H. Sanders
German: Biography of a Language - Ruth H. Sanders

TITLE: German: Biography of a Language

 

AUTHOR:  Ruth H. Sanders

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DESCRIPTION:

"Thousands of years ago, seafront clans in Denmark began speaking the earliest form of Germanic language--the first of six "signal events" that Ruth Sanders highlights in this marvelous history of the German language.

Blending linguistic, anthropological, and historical research, Sanders presents a brilliant biography of the language as it evolved across the millennia. She sheds light on the influence of such events as the bloody three-day Battle of Kalkriese, which permanently halted the incursion of both the Romans and the Latin language into northern Europe, and the publication of Martin Luther's German Bible translation, a "People's" Bible which in effect forged from a dozen spoken dialects a single German language. The narrative ranges through the turbulent Middle Ages, the spread of the printing press, the formation of the nineteenth-century German Empire which united the German-speaking territories north of the Alps, and Germany's twentieth-century military and cultural horrors. The book also covers topics such as the Gothic language (now extinct), the vast expansion of Germanic tribes during the Roman era, the role of the Vikings in spreading the Norse language, the branching off of Yiddish, the lasting impact of the Thirty Years War on the German psyche, the revolution of 1848, and much more.

Ranging from prehistoric times to modern, post-war Germany, this engaging volume offers a fascinating account of the evolution of a major European language as well as a unique look at the history of the German people. It will appeal to everyone interested in German language, culture, or history.
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REVIEW:

 

Interesting and informative, but too repetitive.

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review 2020-08-17 00:02
Parallel Lives
Parallel Lives - Arthur Hugh Clough,Plutarch,John Dryden

Roughly 1800 years ago, a biographer and historian decided to compare the great men of Greece and Rome to one another to give his readers inspiration to follow their example or what to avoid.  Parallel Lives by Plutarch chronicles the lives of the greatest men of the ancient world and the times they lived in.

 

To show the influence of character—good or bad—of the great men of more remote past of Greece and the more recent past of Rome was Plutarch’s main aim in his biographies of these great men especially when he compared them to one another.  Yet throughout his writing he shows the times these great men lived to the benefit of readers today that might know the overall history, but not the remarkably interesting details or events that general history readers might never know about.  The usual important suspects like Alexander, Julius Caesar, and their like but it was those individuals that one never heard of today especially those Greeks between the end of the Peloponnesian War and its takeover by Rome save Alexander.  This revised edition of the John Dryden translation contains both volumes in one book resulting in almost 1300 pages of text thanks to the fact that they added four lives that Plutarch wrote independent of his parallel pairs which included a Persian monarch, yet this printing is of poor quality as there are missing letters throughout which does slow reading down for a moment.

 

Parallel Lives is a fascinating series of biographies of individuals that in the second century AD were the greatest men in history to those living at the time, a few of which have continued to our time.  Plutarch’s prose brings these men to life as well as the times they live in and influenced which history readers would appreciate a lot.

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review 2020-08-04 02:37
The political career of a liberal lion
Herbert H. Lehman: A Political Biography - Duane Tananbaum

Among the quotes printed today in American passports is one that reads: “It is immigrants who brought this land the skills of their hands and brains, to make of it a beacon of opportunity and hope for all men.” For Herbert Lehman, the man who spoke those words, this was more than just political rhetoric. As Duane Tananbaum makes clear in his deeply researched account of Lehman’s political career, it was one of the many sincerely held views that he fought for strenuously, even in the face of what often proved insurmountable opposition.

 

As the son of an immigrant Lehman knew well what it meant to be one. The son of a businessman and commodities trader, Lehman grew up in a well-to-do family. As a young man he enjoyed success as a textile manufacturer and investment banker, yet in his spare time he volunteered at a settlement house on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was here where he first met Lilian Wald, with whom he enjoyed a lifelong friendship. Tananbaum’s focus on Lehman’s partnership with Wald illustrates his approach in the book, which is to frame Lehman’s political career in terms of his relationships with the major figures with whom he worked. In this respect, Wald was the first of many with whom Lehman labored to address the social ills of his era.

 

Another was Al Smith. Though the two men came from very different backgrounds, they shared a belief that the government should use its authority to address society’s problems. Throughout the 1920s Lehman played a number of important roles in Smith’s political operation, spearheading his campaigns for governor and working for his selection as the Democratic Party’s nominee as president in 1928. Seeking to maximize the turnout of Jewish voters in New York City, Smith encouraged Lehman to run for lieutenant governor that year; though Smith lost New York in the Republican route that year, Lehman’s victory inaugurated a new career as an elected official, one that would engage Lehman for the next three decades.

 

As lieutenant governor, Lehman served under Smith’s successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This began a firm partnership that lasted until Roosevelt’s death in 1945. When Roosevelt was nominated for president in 1932, he encouraged Lehman to run to succeed him, believing as did Smith that Lehman’s presence on the ballot would help with Jewish turnout in the state. Lehman went on to serve as governor of New York for a decade, during which time he worked to emulate Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. In this he was frequently stymied by a Republican-controlled statue legislature, which may have contributed to his frustration with his post. Though Lehman aspired to a seat in the United States Senate and frequently announced his intention not to run for another term, his proven vote-getting abilities (which Tananbaum attributes to Lehman’s demonstrable sincerity and liberal politics rather than to any great oratorical or other political gifts) made him indispensable to Democrats, who pressured him constantly to run again.

 

Lehman’s tenure as governor coincided with the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany. The governor was not shy about using his position as the most prominent Jewish elected official in America to lobby for Jewish causes, notably the admission of Jewish refugees. As war threatened, though, Lehman longed to do more, and in 1942 he joined the Roosevelt administration as the director of foreign aid operations, first within the State Department and then as the first director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Lehman struggled throughout the war to ensure that his agency was not slighted in the battle for resources, a struggle that grew more difficult when his friend Roosevelt was succeeded by Harry Truman in 1945. Frustrated by the declining priority of aid in penurious postwar budgets, Lehman resigned from his post in 1946.

 

No longer in office, Lehman nonetheless remained active in politics. When Robert F. Wagner resigned in 1949, Lehman finally achieved his long-cherished goal of becoming a United States Senator. Lehman’s seven years in the Senate take up nearly a third of Tananbaum’s book, as he details his subject’s often frustrating battles on behalf of liberal causes. Though he emerged early on as a prominent opponent of Joseph McCarthy, Lehman’s greatest foes in the Senate were the conservative Southerners of his own party. Benefiting from their greater seniority, these senators used their positions as committee chairs to bottle up the reform measures Lehman fought for, such as civil rights legislation and measures to ease immigration restrictions. Tananbaum is blunt in his assessment of Lehman’s unwillingness to play by the rules of the Senate’s club, a decision which limited his effectiveness as a legislator but established him as the liberal lion of the Senate by the time he retired from public office in 1957.

 

Tananbaum notes that by the time of Lehman’s death in 1963, Congress was on the cusp of passing many of the measures he had championed. While he may be overly generous in crediting Lehman for his role in making it possible, Tananbaum nevertheless does an excellent job of recounting the political career of one of the great champions of New Deal liberalism. While his focus on Lehman’s political career to the exclusion of his personal life and business career is regrettable, his book represents a remarkable labor of research and analysis. It’s a fitting monument to a great and often underappreciated man, one that should be read by anyone interested in Lehman and his achievements.

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