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review 2018-10-15 18:48
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies - Jared Diamond

This is an interesting and influential book that in its broad conclusions makes a lot of sense, though I have doubts about Diamond’s reasoning on some of his smaller points. It’s longer than it needs to be, but largely because it is thorough and takes the time to break down academic subjects to be accessible to intelligent but non-specialist readers.

First published in 1997, this book sets out to explain why Europe was able to colonize such a large part of the world in the last few centuries. Europeans’ possession of “guns, germs and steel” was an immediate cause, but why did they have these things when people on many other continents did not? Diamond’s answer comes down to the environment in different parts of the world. In essence, all of these advantages come down to agriculture. In a hunter-gatherer society, population is kept relatively small, people have to focus on acquiring food, and (unless they live in an especially bountiful area), small groups typically need to move from place to place, such that they can’t have too many belongings, especially if they have no domestic animals to carry them. A society built on farming, however, tends to be much more populous, can support a class of people who do something other than farm (an elite class of nobles, but also specialized trades), and can accumulate belongings, which makes developing new technology more worthwhile. So, parts of the world that had a head start on farming also had a head start on developing technology, such as metallurgy.

Meanwhile, European germs played probably the most decisive role in their conquest of the Americas, as well as some other parts of the world; given the size of the native population (an early European visitor to the east coast of the modern U.S. wrote that there didn’t really seem to be room for colonies because the area was so heavily populated) and the difficulty of getting even small numbers of people across the ocean on wooden ships, one can imagine that this could have turned out much more like the English conquest of India, or might not have happened at all, if not for the epidemics that killed some 90% of the population. Why were the Europeans the ones with the germs? Well, human epidemics have come from domestic animals (think swine flu and avian flu today), and epidemics need a large population to stay alive; otherwise they will simply kill everyone they can kill and then die out with no new hosts. Therefore, epidemics evolved in places where people lived in close quarters with domestic animals, and stuck around in populations large enough to produce a new crop of children before the epidemic died out (this is why diseases like measles were once considered “childhood diseases” – not because children were more susceptible, but because the diseases were so prevalent that children would almost inevitably catch them before growing up). Both individuals and populations exposed to these germs would eventually develop immunity if they survived.

But the opportunity to domesticate animals wasn’t spread evenly around the world. Asia and Europe (referred to throughout the book as “Eurasia” since it’s really one landmass, considered two continents for political rather than geographic reasons) had lots of options, including horses, cows, water buffalo, sheep, pigs, and goats. As far as domesticable large mammals go, the Americas had only the llama (which didn’t spread beyond the Andes), while sub-Saharan Africa had none. It isn’t that people didn’t try – people will keep almost anything as a pet – but numerous factors influence whether a large mammal is a good candidate for domestication. It needs to live in herds, to tolerate its own herd’s territory overlapping with others (or you’d never be able to bring in a new cow that wasn’t related to your current cows), to not be overly or unpredictably aggressive toward humans (this is why the zebra has never worked out), to not panic, bolt and throw itself against the fence until it dies, and more. Eurasia had a couple of major advantages here. Being the largest landmass, it had the most animal diversity. And, as modern humans evolved in Africa and Eurasia, animals evolved alongside them, presumably learning how to deal with human hunters’ increasing skills; on the other hand, most large mammals went extinct in the Americas and Australia shortly after people arrived.

With agriculture, too, Eurasia had an advantage, causing it to kick off there early. Again, there was a greater diversity of plants, only some of which make sense to domesticate and begin to grow. The Fertile Crescent (roughly modern-day Iraq and Turkey), perhaps the first site of agriculture in the world, had it particularly easy: wheat already existed in a form quite similar to its modern equivalent, and grew bountifully, so the idea of taking it home and growing it wasn’t much of a leap. On the other hand, with corn – a staple crop of Mexico and eventually the eastern U.S. – there isn’t even agreement on what the wild ancestor was; the plant that might have been the original corn produced husks only about an inch long with tiny kernels and other disadvantages. People had to work on it for a really long time before it became a suitable staple crop for large swathes of the continent.

And then too, you wouldn’t switch from hunting and gathering to farming for just one crop. While hunting and gathering seems like a precarious lifestyle to us, it can actually be better than subsistence farming. Farmers worked harder – which makes sense, since they had to nurture their food every step of the way rather than simply finding it and bringing it home – and based on their skeletons, early farmers’ nutrition was worse than that of hunter-gatherers. So it’s the total package that counts; in areas that provided a nutritionally-balanced diet of domesticable plants, plus domesticable animals to supplement that diet and also provide labor and fertilizer, farming made a lot more sense than it did in areas without such a bounty. Essentially, the sort of lifestyle people had depended on the food options available, and some places supported agriculture much more than others. Nobody’s building a densely-populated empire from a desert like the Australian outback.

There is a lot more to the book of course, but I think it’s the central thesis that’s the most convincing. Many of Diamond’s other points – ancillary to his main argument – don’t work so well. For instance, he’s very interested in how a Spanish force of about 150 managed to defeat and capture the Inca emperor Atahualpa, who was supported by thousands of troops. Certainly the Spanish weaponry played a decisive role, particularly since it was the first time the Inca had encountered guns or cavalry. But Diamond claims that we know well what happened based on the (likely self-serving) accounts of several Spaniards, without apparently realizing that the Inca would probably have told a different story, and then makes a big deal of the fact the Inca lacked writing, arguing this is why they weren’t aware of prior Spanish conquests in Central America and therefore walked into a trap. But this ignores the fact that people who can’t depend on storing information in written form tend to have far better memorization skills than people who write everything down (Homer was not unusual in being able to recite epic poems from memory), and the fact that “they’re going to try to kill you with terrible weapons” is a simple message that could certainly have been transmitted intact had the Inca had envoys in Central America, all while assuming that Atahualpa didn’t know it was a trap. Without contemporary Inca sources, we have no idea whether perhaps he did know, but being new to the throne of an empire destabilized by epidemics, had to go anyway or risk looking weak to his subjects and promptly being overthrown.

There’s some other questionable reasoning here: that it makes sense that the wheel, while invented in Mexico, wasn’t actually used for transportation because there were no animals capable of pulling carts. (So what? People too can transport far more weight on wheels than they can carry.) That New Guineans are probably smarter than Europeans because their society has a higher homicide rate. (A society with lots of murder and warfare would select for strength, skill with weapons, and ability to maintain strong social ties far more than it would select for abstract, creative, or analytical thinking. Plus, an anthropological study of a New Guinea tribe found that those typically targeted for murder were the elderly, who would have already passed on their genes regardless.) And the 2003 epilogue, attempting to apply principles of societal development to how corporations should organize themselves to best promote innovation – apparently inspired by business leaders writing to Diamond about the book – even if true, has nothing to do with the contents of this already-long book.

Obviously there’s a lot to chew on here, hence the long review. I do think the book is worth reading, though it’s unfortunate that Diamond doesn’t cite sources for individual facts, and only includes generalized “further reading” lists. The book has some repetition that makes it a little longer than it needs to be, but overall I think it does a sound job of explaining some of the broad strokes of human history.

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review 2018-10-15 14:59
A useful introduction, but one lacking in broader analysis
Women and Achievement in Nineteenth-Century Europe - Linda L. Clark

For women living in the West, the nineteenth century was one of considerable achievement. Though most lived lives defined by gender norms enshrined by class and tradition, a determined few sought to breach the barriers before them to gain greater opportunities across a variety of fields. This effort and its accomplishments is the subject of Linda Clark's book. In a series of chapters she surveys women's advancements across professions dominated by men, from the creative fields of art, literature and music to the increasingly professional realms of education, law and medicine. Though their numbers were limited, Clark credits them with making possible the careers of the hundreds, then thousands, of women who followed them in subsequent decades, making possible the opportunities heretofore denied them.

 

Clark's book is an informative account of the campaigns for women's rights at a pivotal point in European history. Her focus is almost exclusively on women at the upper ends of society, which is understandable as they were the ones with the means to wage such efforts. Yet their more clearly delineated lives can hamper her text, as at several points her text becomes little more than a series of biographies of remarkable individuals, with little in  the way of analysis that draws out broader conclusions. This focus on the specific rather than the general extends to her coverage of national restrictions; while an understandable approach, rarely does she break from this to offer any overarching assessment that justifies such a Europe-wide approach. This makes her book a useful introduction, but one that leaves readers to draw their own conclusions as to the broader factors behind the march of women towards greater rights and equality of opportunity in the West.

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review 2018-10-13 02:41
The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party
The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War - Michael F. Holt

The antebellum period saw the formation and destruction of the second party system in U.S. politics between Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, which survived to the present, and their rivals the Whigs that did not.  Michael F. Holt’s magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, details how the Whigs emerged from all the anti-Jacksonian forces to their disintegration in the mid-1850s due to the factional and sectional divisions.

 

Beginning in the mid-1820s, Holt explains the origins of the anti-Jacksonian groups that formed and later coalesced to form the Whig party in the winter of 1833-4 in Washington, D.C. then how it eventually branched out and formed in states.  Through thorough research from the national down to the state, county, and local levels Holt explored how the Whig party was planted and grew throughout the country and competed against their Democratic foes.  Yet this research also exposed the intraparty feuds within state parties that affected conventions on all levels, platform fights, and Election Day enthusiasm.  Exploring a political relationship between state politics and national politics that is completely different than that seen in the second half of the 20th-century and early 21st, Holt shows how this different political paradigm both rose up the Whigs and eventually destroyed them.

 

With almost 1300 pages of text and notes, Holt thoroughly explored the 20 year history of the American Whig party from the national to the local level within every state of the Union.  Throughout Holt’s assertion that the Democrats always controlled “the narrative” of the Whig’s history and how that played on the Whig intraparty feuds which eventually was one of the main three causes of the party’s disintegration.  The focuses on Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, party traitor John Tyler, party destabilizer Zachary Taylor, attempted party savior Millard Fillmore, and slew of other prominent Whigs gives the stage to historical actors who shaped history.  Throughout the text, the reader sees how events if changed just slightly might have allowed the Whigs to continue as a national party and the effects that might have had going forward but ultimately who personalities and how some decisions out of the party’s control resulted in fatal wounds occurring.

 

The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party is not for the general history reader, this tome is for someone dedicated to an in-depth researched book that shifts from the halls of Congress to the “smoke-filled backrooms” of state conventions in states across the nation to election analysis in various congressional districts across the young republic.  The work of an academic lifetime, Michael F. Holt gives insight into political party that ultimately lost in history but that still had a lasting impact to this day in modern American politics.

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review 2018-10-12 08:03
Par for course (it's Holmes by ACD)
The Valley of Fear - Arthur Conan Doyle

Despite never having read this one before, I called it soon enough.

 

Second part, as is par for course with Holmes novels MO, was a narration of the history (on a far place and piquant circumstances for the edifice of London society), spawning the issues at present. Was mislead nicely for a bit, but called too by the letter.

 

I have to say though that both instances were very gratifying conclusions.

 

The epilogue was an interesting partner to the third chapter in a way.

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-10-11 17:52
Author's Agendas Overwhelm an Interesting Tale (Review: Boudica #1- Dreaming the Eagle)

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(This review also contains an overview of the entire quadrilogy.)
 
As a fan of historical fiction I have no problems with creative license and exploring ideas, especially when there is a shortage of reference material on a topic- in this case regarding the woman known as Boudica, who led a rebel campaign against the Roman legions in Brittania in the 1st century AD. Though we know the eventual outcome, as the saying goes: it's the journey that matters, not the destination.
 
This journey feels like a family vacation you're forced to go on with your new step-parent/siblings, so you brought your stash...
 
There's not a lot of factual info on Boudica herself so author Manda Scott flexes her worldbuilding muscles admirably and fashions a layered Celtic society that starts out exploring themes but quickly turns into pure propaganda. Which is a shame, `cause it coulda been a contender.
 
It's easy to see why Manda Scott is considered one of the better crime drama authors in the UK: multiple story threads weave together creating at times a compelling drama but at others can be obtuse, but not overly so.
 
Real characters and events get submerged beneath the author's iron-willed agenda. There's a clear metaphor of Rome as the Great Western Male-Dominated Ordered Society trying to bring the Celts as the Groovy Bisexual Spiritually-Free Goddess-Loving Individuals to heel. Given that the author is openly lesbian and an advocate of Dream Interpretation, you understand why you're being hit over the head.
 
Instead of Druids and Bards we're treated to Dreamers and Singers- and Dreamers never seem to be wrong... about anything. Along with this comes page after page of spiritual mumbo jumbo centered on animal symbolism, mystic interpretations, moonlight reflections on water, hair in every imaginable hue of yellow- pass the bong, please.
 
The main problem I had with the Dreamers is the lack of explanation for their skills. Yeah- there's some divine power at work here, but for three plus books they're infallible, and only at the end when you know things go wrong do their interpretations suddenly become ambiguous- it's like being at the George Lucas School of Revisionism.
 
**SPOILER ALERTS**
 
There's also the subject of sexuality. Lots of evidence has surfaced regarding Celts and their casual attitudes towards homosexuality, and while I expected it as a sub-theme and incidental to the story it almost overshadows it. Boudica herself is bisexual: her first love is her best friend Airmid, whom she's already having sex with when they're both in their early teens. After endless passages about their longing gazes and vows of eternal devotion there's a teenage breakup spat after which she starts to notice boys, especially Caradoc, son of Cunobelin, the most powerful king. Skip to young adulthood and we suddenly meet Ardacos, who becomes a prominent supporting character and happens to be her first male lover, except that she's already kicked him to the curb... No need to bother with all that messy `coming of age character development' crap while your girlfriend is still hanging around!
 
Marriages are deliberately replaced with sexually open relationships regardless of how many children a couple has- it's entirely up to the woman as to what happens. If it weren't for the historical fact that Boudica did have children, I seriously doubt she would have been given any male lovers in this story. The fate of the children's father shows this- the aforementioned Caradoc- another historical figure whose true final fate is uncertain. His removal from the story, while factually based up to a point, honestly felt like the author didn't know what else to do with him, but needed him to leave. You can hardly run back to the arms of your one true gay love with the father of your children hanging around, now can you?
 
'Tagos, a member of the Eceni (read: Iceni) tribe who grows up with Boudica, turns coward in battle and eventually loses his sword arm and the respect of his peers. His emasculation is forgettable until you realize that he's actually Prasutagos, who is historically known to be the Roman client king of their tribe and whom Boudica is known to be married to (here they only shack up for political purposes) and whose death triggers events that lead to the final assaults against the legions. This ham-handed hack job and attempt to shade his identity from readers is a clear author manipulation to facilitate Boudica's rise to power later in the story: no more weak male rulers, here's a real woman to lead us! 
 
Then there's Cartimandua, a queen who likes to play both sides and another pivotal historical figure who's mentioned and never seen. Needing her support the rebels send emissaries, firstly Caradoc, whom she holds captive for the winter. Caradoc never elaborates about his captivity, though there's lots of innuendo. Venutios tries to use his influence to sway her and marries her to cement ties to the rebels, though she still does as she pleases. Given the significance of these events, it would've helped to see them unfold instead of being referred to in passing... but that would've been heterosexual.
 
I read through the entire series and can't recall one single healthy, nurturing straight relationship that survived the story- if someone doesn't die, it just plain ends badly. Whereas every gay/lesbian pairing is of soul-friends and soul-mates and... well, you get the idea. Case in point: Dubornos, an old friend and rival, likes Airmid, Boudica's lifelong lover. After that disaster there's Cygfa- Caradoc's daughter from another woman- who wants him, yet he doesn't reciprocate. When Dubornos finally develops deep, abiding, lifelong feelings for her, she's long over him and well into... wait for it... a lesbian relationship! You can't make this stuff up... but Manda Scott did!
 
The characterization of children of this story had them so far beyond precocious, I had to laugh. Repeatedly. As another reviewer pointed out- are these kids five or forty-five? A pre-teen boy defeats a grown man at a chess-like game like he's a master strategist instead of playing against one. Boudica herself displaces Venutios, a man over twice her age, as the pre-eminent warrior of the times... because she had a good day of hunting. Boudica's young daughter at the tender age of eight is so wise and prescient that the legendary warrior princess actually defers to her judgment on multiple occasions! Trees died for this shit!
 
The final battle was very poorly handled: in the book the Celts outnumber the Romans by about five to one, and have them hemmed in a valley... and they still lose?!? Even though the Romans had to win, this fight simply made no sense!
 
Lastly, there's the death scene that wasn't. Boudica's final fate is open to conjecture- Roman historians claim she poisoned herself to avoid capture (the author argues that this could be a conceit, as that's what a proper Roman woman would do). Here we get another all-too confusing battle scene to save her daughter's life resulting in a fatal, self-inflicted injury(!). After all, no true heroine could ever be beaten in honorable combat by the male enemy, oh no- far better that they die stupidly! We're not even given the payoff of a final scene: after a hell-ride to reach a final resting place for her all we get is another vision where Boudica bequeaths her legacy to her young daughter before crossing over. Pfft!
 
I know it doesn't seem like it, but there's a lot to recommend here. There's a wealth of detail, flavor and feeling to the story and I always enjoy a different take on a subject. And there's times when the imagery is amazing: in the final book there's a symbolic moment involving a hare that was simply a stroke of genius! I just wished there were more moments like that- less propaganda and proselytizing, and more prose.
 
2.5/5 Stars
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