Monday, August 31, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ROBERT HUTCHINSON'S ELIZABETH'S SPY MASTER

Much of this book reads with the pace of a well-written novel.

But it suffers from Hutchinson’s excessive use of quoted passages, a practice I regard as pernicious, one often used to pad the size of books.

Hutchinson’s book suffers, too, from his own motives in writing it.

“By right, he should rank with Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and even Sir Winston Churchill as one of the great patriotic defenders, against all-comers, of this island state, its monarchs, governments, beliefs and creeds.”

I cannot agree. Here we have a man who said more than once that he could not be effective without torture, one who used the worst forms of torture extensively. He was also a man who plotted the downfall of great figures, including Mary Queen of Scots, with elaborate and devious schemes much in the style of what we would today term “entrapment.”

I am more in agreement when Hutchinson writes of “the numbing fear of that sudden Gestapo-like knock at the door from Walsingham’s questing pursuivants.”

Walsingham was an extraordinarily intelligent man and very talented at what he did. Those who are familiar with Elizabeth I know she did not suffer fools gladly and had a group of advisors and servants of extraordinary ability, so Walsingham’s skills are as we would expect.

But Walsingham was, like so many Puritans, a true fanatic, relentless in his pursuits, reminding the modern reader in many respects of dark figures in the Cold War or of the immortal and horrible, Inspector Javert.

Hutchinson’s greatest fault is overstating the importance of Walsingham’s contribution, crediting him, among other things, with England’s success against Spain’s Great Armada. This, it seems to me, is both a misreading of history and a dangerous error for people’s understanding of parallel situations in today’s world, the War on Terror having many similarities with the Elizabethan crusade against a re-establishment of Catholicism.

Elizabeth’s period has been a favourite of mine for years, and I believe strongly that it is a serious misreading of history to say that Walsingham’s intelligence was crucial to victory over the Great Armada. The Armada project was doomed from the start for the simple reason that Philip II of Spain did not have the resources to carry it off.

Philip was spending his treasure in every direction – fighting Turks in the Mediterranean, fighting a war in the Netherlands, running his inquisitions, and many other vast expenses - a treasure that was under constant attack by magnificent rascals like Sir Francis Drake, and he simply never had enough resources to succeed with the Armada. The Pope failed to deliver any significant resources, offering only talk and a fairly modest reward – modest in relation to the size of the project – payable upon the actual invasion of England.

The key to the invasion was landing the forces of the ferocious Duke of Alva from the Netherlands on the coast of England. Philip never had the beginning of enough ships for the secure passage of 30,000 heavily armed troops. The Armada’s main naval force, launched from Spain, was to meet up with Alva’s men on small boats launched from the coast of the Netherlands, an impossible task, especially given England’s naval forces, daring tactics, and superior naval technology, both in fast and manoeuvrable ships and in more accurate cannon.

Indeed, first class intelligence – intelligence of the purely information-gathering and analysis kind, as opposed to the intelligence of dark operations – would have concluded that.

It is creepily interesting to read of Walsingham’s career and exploits – interesting, that is, removed as we are by centuries of progress in human freedoms.

You will see here, in the events of more than four centuries ago, the kind of thinking and fear and paranoia we have experienced again in recent years under Bush’s War on Terror, although I think it safe to say that the intensity of fear and hatred was greater in Walsingham’s day.

Definitely worth reading, so long as readers are aware of its limits.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN'S THAI CURRY SHRIMP & CHUCKMAN'S THAI-INFLUENCED SPINACH SALAD

CHUCKMAN’S THAI CURRY SHRIMP

I love Thai food, but is there any Asian cuisine I don’t love? This dish is not authentic, but it will please lovers of Thai food, and it will please lovers of shrimp, especially those who love shrimp done with hot sauces – it is one of the tastiest shrimp dishes I know.
INGREDIENTS:

Shrimp – About 20 Large - never use pre-cooked which heat to rubberiness – use uncooked, fresh or frozen

Red Curry Paste – 1 Tablespoon - either store-bought or make your own – found in most Asian grocery stores and many supermarkets

Red Pepper Flakes – A generous sprinkling depending on how hot you want the dish

Pad Thai Concentrate – 1 Tablespoon - available at most Asian grocery stores

Thai Fish Sauce – 2 Teaspoons – available at most Asian grocery stores and many supermarkets

Lemon Juice – Juice of ½ a lemon – the equivalent in lime may also be used

Coarse Black Pepper – 2 Teaspoons

Coarse Sea Salt – 1 rounded Teaspoon

Oil – A few Tablespoons – enough to make a thick marinade - Canola is ideal

NOTE: Ingredient proportions are approximate because I cook this dish without measuring. Adjust to your taste.


METHOD:

Thaw Shrimp if frozen, leaving a short while in cold water, then peel.

Mix all other ingredients – except for Salt and half of Pepper – and stir into shrimp as a marinade. Let marinade at least an hour.

Oil sauté pan and heat to high, sprinkling with reserved Salt and Pepper. Quickly sauté shrimp, tossing as you cook. Remove from pan when shrimp are nice and pink.

These may be eaten over rice noodles or as is.
___________________________

The following Spinach Salad is excellent with the shrimp.


CHUCKMAN’S THAI-INFLUENCED SPINACH SALAD

INGREDIENTS:

Dressing:

Thai Hot Chilli Sauce – 3 Tablespoons - this is the sweet/hot bottled sauce Thai people use as a condiment

Rice Vinegar – 2 Tablesppons

Pepper Flakes – light sprinkling

Oil – Canola is excellent – enough to make a dressing

Fresh Ginger – about a thumb-end - finely chopped


Salad Greens:

Fresh Shredded Spinach or Baby Spinach - always wash spinach well

Sweet Red Pepper - sliced thinly or into matchsticks

Red Onion – sliced thinly

NOTE: some fresh bean sprouts would also be nice.


METHOD:

Shake dressing ingredients in a capped bottle. Toss greens together in a bowl. Dress when serving.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF JAMES DOUGLASS'S JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE

Let me make my perspective clear in reviewing this book: I am a complete sceptic of the official story of Kennedy’s assassination . As well, I have been a fierce critic of the Warren Commission whose work was riddled with flaws and whose only investigation was wholly adopted from J. Edgar Hoover, a man who loathed the Kennedys and had several motives for hiding the truth, including Oswald’s (almost certain) embarrassing work as a paid FBI informant right up to the end.

It always amazes me when I confront the reality of a whole new generation of readers who appear, from their embrace of books like this, to be so completely unfamiliar with what has gone before. But of course that perspective is true in so many things: the Vietnam War, a pointless bloodbath which determined much of the course of my life and that of millions of others, is almost unknown to young people today if polls are to be believed.

That said, James Douglass’s book was a great disappointment. I had expected from some reviews, including one by Oliver Stone, as well as from the fact that Douglass is an experienced author, albeit of religious books, a significant contribution to the assassination literature.

But no critical mind familiar with the assassination literature could possibly regard this book as a contribution.

Every witness ignored by the Warren Commission or those whose testimony was twisted by Hoover’s FBI (and there were many) has been heard from in nearly forty-six years of books and articles. I accept the validity of a number of these witnesses, and, very importantly, I embrace Bertrand Russell’s profound question on the assassination: "If, as we are told, Oswald was the lone assassin, where is the issue of national security?"

Douglass, in his most successful passages in terms of suspense (undoubtedly, part of his appeal) presents once again a relatively small selection of these, letting readers assume they are getting these stories as new revelations. What is most regrettable is that Douglass includes and emphasizes a couple of the least credible witnesses, while leaving out other interesting, far more credible ones.

Douglass takes the idea of an Oswald double to new heights, quoting the more far-fetched witnesses, as seeing a man who was virtually his double. For those who’ve read the assassination literature, there is no doubt that there was at least one individual vaguely fitting Oswald’s description who was used by the conspirators as a means of spreading legends about Oswald’s activities, but we know from several pieces of evidence that he was no actual double.

Douglass offers nothing new on any of the most critical events around the assassination, including the remarkable activities of George de Mohrenschildt, former-FBI Agent Guy Banister’s operations in New Orleans, and Oswald’s supposed trip to Mexico City, absolute keys to understanding. He sorts out nothing new on these or other vital topics.

Why on earth does Douglass in the early part of his book spend time on an obscure a monk named Thomas Merton? It seems Merton inspired Douglass’s thoughts, but if you read between the lines of Douglass on Merton you find something close to ridiculous, a monk whose hobby was writing long letters to very famous public figures and who published a collection of these.

Douglass carefully avoids dealing with the fact of whether any of these people read Merton’s letters, or even opened them, or ever responded. The picture that emerges is one of a highly eccentric man one would not want to quote in the beginning of a book on a serious subject.

Again, of all the past books on the assassination, Douglass quotes some of the least interesting and credible, including the ponderous and, for me, seemingly delusional, The Man Who Knew Too Much, the supposed experiences of one Richard Case Nagell. Douglass never mentions the most important investigative book ever written on the topic, Anthony Summers’ Conspiracy, a work of immense credibility.

I have often written, when criticizing the many dishonest anti-conspiracy books which have appeared over the years (many of them undoubtedly financed or at least juiced-up by the CIA and its American media allies), that until we have new evidence, we are unable to make the kind of pat conclusions such books make.

We know only to a near certainty that Oswald did not shoot at Kennedy, that Oswald found himself (as an FBI informer) caught up in a series of elaborate plots with which he was not familiar, that no assassination of this nature takes place without considerable resources and planning, that Kennedy’s key wound was inflicted from the front, and that the official agencies, for whatever reason, have hidden what truth they know and certainly some key files.

This book is simply unsatisfying on many levels: read it only if you enjoy carnival side-shows.

Readers interested in my analysis of the assassination may find it in the published pieces, Forty Years of Lies and Lincoln Was Wrong. You’ll find both of them on any of several sites, including Chuckman’s Words On Wordpress.

Monday, June 15, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN'S SUKIYAKI

CHUCKMAN’S SUKIYAKI
I love Japanese food in general, but this dish is one of my favourite meals from any cuisine. It offers a complete, delicious meal from one pot. It’s all preparation and little cooking.


INGREDIENTS:

1 ½ pounds of Beef – decent steak like top sirloin is good – sliced into very thin strips – Tip: slice steak when partially frozen to get best results, or use a good long scissor

Shirataki Mushrooms – about 6 to 8, depending on size – caps sliced thinly, stems not used - fresh or dried – if you use dry, soak in warm water for half an hour before cutting

Bok Choi – 1 large stalk or equivalent Baby Bok Choi – Greens sliced thinly, leave white bottom for a future recipe

1 pound soft Tofu – break up with fingers until little chunks like cottage cheese

Scallions – 4 large – sliced very thinly

Onion – 1 large – sliced very thinly

½ cup Soy Sauce – Kikkoman’s distinctive flavour is best for this

½ cup Sake

1 Tbsp sugar or sugar substitute

Togarashi – Japanese Red Pepper powder – available in any decent Asian grocery and even some supermarkets

Soba (Japanese buckwheat) Noodles – 3 or 4 of the little bundles as they typically come packaged

Oil sufficient for cooking a stir fry


METHOD:

Prepare sauce, combining Soy Sauce, Sake, and Sugar and set aside.

Place Noodles – remove little plastic ties first - into a medium pot of boiling water. Cook just a couple of minutes – they are very thin - and drain. Oil very lightly to keep from clumping and set aside.

Lightly oil large frying pan and cook Onion slices until translucent. Add Beef slices and Mushroom slices, cooking an additional minute or two stirring as you fry. Add Bok Choy and cook briefly until reduced by water loss. Add Tofu and Scallions and Sauce. Simmer briefly.

Add Noodles, stirring into mixture.

This ready to serve as soon as well mixed except for the Togarashi powder. I consider it essential, but some do not use it. By leaving it until last, you can customize plates.


NOTES:

Traditional Japanese people eat Sukiyaki with a raw egg on top.

Soba Noodles are not the noodles traditionally used, but I like them very much, and they are much easier to find than the more exotic noodles made from sweet potato which even many Asian grocers do not carry.

Togarashi is zesty but not hot.

Japanese Ginger (Sushi) Pickles, for me, go with Sukiyaki the way a big dill pickle goes with a corned-beef sandwich. Serve them cold on the side.

You may also make Sukiyaki with chicken.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN’S FRESH CORN SALAD WITH MEXICAN FLAVORS

CHUCKMAN’S FRESH CORN SALAD
A delicious way to use fresh corn

SALAD:
4 Cobs of fresh Corn
1 medium Zucchini quartered lengthwise and sliced thinly
1 small Red Sweet Pepper diced finely
1 medium Red Onion finely chopped
2 Stalks Celery finely sliced

DRESSING:
1 Lime – zest and juice – use two limes if you want a strong Lime flavor
2 Tbls Rice Vinegar
1 Tbls Chilli Powder
Tabasco sauce – several shakes or to taste
Fresh Cilantro – several sprigs finely chopped
Oil sufficient for a dressing - at least 2:1 to acids

Sea Salt coarse

METHOD:

Cut corn off cleaned cobs. Combine with other chopped vegetables and set aside.

Mix dressing but leave until ready to serve salad so that Lime does not dehydrate vegetables. Sprinkle coarse Salt when serving.

NOTE: I use old glass spice bottles with screw tops to mix dressings, putting in ingredients, closing top, and shaking vigorously. Works nicely, and you can store any leftover.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF PETER GREEN'S ALEXANDER TO ACTIUM

Here indeed is a difficult book to review: it is so obviously a work of impressive scholarship, yet it has a number of notable shortcomings.

The comment has been made in other reviews that Green is an elegant writer, but I believe that only superficial readers or the author's friends and associates would say that. Green's writing has important and obvious flaws that prevent the book from being what it might have been.

While he sometimes offers elegant sentences, he too often offers convoluted sentences or sentences stuffed like long, fat sausages, sometimes even diverging from the subject in the course of setting down his words. He also maintains a rather superior gesturing in his prose. I know the effect Green likely hoped he was achieving - the majesty of Edward Gibbon or Thomas Macaulay - but he just does not succeed.

He is often an extremely pedantic writer, generously sprinkling his text with words and phrases not just from Greek and Latin but German and French, and always selecting obscure words or Latinisms where solid Anglo-Saxon words would serve better.

There are indeed times when a foreign expression captures the special sense of a concept that a translation may loose, and I have no objection to their use where that is true, but that is not the case here.

I very much object to the gratuitous use of foreign words and phrases to display an author's learning, something which makes the work less accessible to many while simply annoying others with a gimmick related to the use of "as the eminent, such-and-such prize-winner once said..." to bolster a quoted source's authority (something Green spares us). The effects are poisonous in a work of this nature.

Yet Green knows a great deal about his subject, and I certainly learned from him despite the faults. His interpretation of the Hellenistic world after Alexander as representing a decay and gradual departure from (reaching almost a bastardization of) Greece's true classical period is interesting, and he mounts some strong supporting evidence for the view.

The book is not properly understood as a history, because large portions of it are arguments of positions on historical or philosophical or esthetic or moral issues. There's nothing wrong with that, but potential readers should be aware of the fact.

There is such a huge cast of characters involved in the three great divisions of Alexander's conquests over a couple of centuries that one loses track of some of them in the narrative, many of course being minor or simply having left few records, but one might have hoped for a clearer, more sustained narrative of the truly important figures. There is a sense of fragmentation here which may be just the fault of a fragmentary record.

There is a considerable difference in Green's success in explaining some events. He sometimes leaves you mentally saying, "Yes, indeed," while other times he leaves you saying, "What?"

Despite the flaws, this is a significant book and one worth reading by anyone interested in the Hellenistic era and in the successors to the dead Alexander and in the rise of imperial Rome.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S ARCTIC CHILL

I am not a traditionally a reader of mysteries, but since my wife introduced me to selected writers, there are a few to whose new books I quite look forward.

Scandinavian writers of this genre appeal a great deal. After all, part of what we get from any novel is being taken into a world we do not know, and the place and people names of Scandinavia are exotic and fascinating. Also, there is a great touch of humanity in the stories coming from Scandinavian writers, quite in distinction to some well-known, hard-boiled American writers whose fiction I find almost unreadable.

Norway's Karin Fossum is chief among the Scandinavians, being a writer and storyteller of top quality, but I enjoy Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason too. His first books were not in the same class with Fossum's, but with Arctic Chill, he rises to a new level of quality. This is fine and gripping book, an interesting tale with many twists and turns.

Indridason weaves several plots together here and manages them with great skill. The two criminal cases - a murder and a separate missing person - actually nicely reinforce each other and are used to introduce some interesting complexities.

Indridason is always a clear writer, but this book introduces a new level of sophistication in his storytelling. We still have his intelligent, very human, and sympathic detective, Erlendur, a man with whom we feel it might be nice to spend some time discussing the human condition. We still have the wonderfully forbidding weather and brooding landscape of Iceland as major characters.

This is a book you will not want to put down. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 04, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN'S ZESTIEST LENTIL SOUP

MY ZESTIEST LENTL SOUP

1 Pound dry Red Lentils
2 Boxes Beef Stock
1 pound of Spanish Chorizo Sausage – Sweet – sliced thinly
1 large Onion - diced
1 large Green Pepper - diced
2 medium Carrots – sliced thinly
2 stalks of Celery – sliced thinly
Hungarian Sweet Paprika – at least two tablespoons, more if you like
Salt – to taste
Pepper – coarsely ground – at least 1 teaspoon

Bring a medium pot of water to boil and add Lentils. Boil for 5 minutes. Drain with a strainer and add to the Beef Stock in a large soup pan.

Saute Onions and Carrots until softened. Add Green Pepper and Celery to cook a briefer time. Add Paprika to vegetables and continue cooking a brief time to work in all the Paprika with oil and cook through.

Add Onions, Carrots, Green Pepper, Celery to pot of Beef Stock.

Add Chorizo slices to frying pan and briefly sauté. Then add to Stock. Add pepper.

Simmer for at least fifteen minutes, longer if you like something closer to a porridge consistency with much softened vegetables.

Great with yogourt.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF SEBASTIAN FAULKS' BIRDSONG

This is a difficult book to review, the reason being is that it has so many contradictory qualities. It has some good writing combined with material that is sentimental and even purplish.

It has some strong images, and it has a series of preposterous incidents. It is packed with improbabilities.

The author starts with a mini-version of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," oddly hybridized with Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover." While there is some nice writing here, it strikes me as self-consciously so, and the story lacks any freshness.

There are ridiculous improbabilities in this part of the book. Why would an English firm considering a business venture with a French firm send this young man, the protagonist, Stephen, to size up the opportunity? He isn't even educated in business. He is very young. And he proves emotionally unstable.

And why would the French proprietor - M. Azaire, husband of the beautiful woman, Isabelle, who becomes Stephen's lover - have Stephen spending time at lunches and other business of the floor workers in his plant? It's a genuinely silly idea.

The sentimentality begins shortly after Stephen and Isabelle become lovers, and, in cheap romantic fashion, Isabelle suddenly disappears with their young child, returning to her family.

When you get into the Great War, supposedly the real stuff of the book, you will wonder why you've had about ninety pages of rehashed Madame Bovary. You will find out towards the end, but it is a very unsatisfying idea of neatness and completeness that drives things.

Here and there in the war business, there are a few strong images and interesting stuff about the tunnel systems that were extensively used in the Great War.

But the author even manages to make the front sentimental and clichéd. Egad, there's even the proverbial friend who has never been with a woman and who is given the surprise present of a prostitute one night.

There's lots of hard drinking and calculatedly gruesome incidents - pure Hollywood. And the author has nothing fresh to say about the war we haven't all seen in movies or read in other books.

The end-of-war portion was clearly written with the hope of selling the book for movie rights. The idea of two men trapped in a huge tunnel far underground is gruesomely interesting, but the author draws it out to impossibly long time with an impossibly heroic series of efforts. People typically die after 3 or 4 days without water, but Stephen hangs in there for God knows how long.

Yes, he licks a bit of brackish water in a corner in his Herculean labors, but that just wouldn't do it.

His rescue would have been a good surprise - he is rescued by Germans digging in their own lines - had it been handled well. But we get an awkward effort by a couple of Germans, one of whom, we have explained at some length and repetition, happens to be Jewish. Why? Why is the author suddenly focusing on a man's religion? An intended irony about a good Jewish soldier in the German army? Whatever the intention, it simply does not work.

The ending is silly, the author bringing us what he regards as full circle.

I really do believe Faulks thought he was writing a racier, more action-filled "Gone with the Wind" for World War I in hope of a big movie contract.

I read this book wanting to like it, thinking from things I read that it might be another of those memorable books about people caught in the gears of war, but I found it impossibly flawed.

Monday, April 06, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF DAVID HACKETT FISCHER'S CHAMPLAIN'S DREAM

Not every historical character is so lucky in his biographer as Samuel de Champlain is in David Hackett Fischer. Fischer has tremendous good will and sympathy towards his subject, and that always makes a biography more pleasurable to read.

Champlain was an explorer, a mapmaker, an artist, a writer, a capable captain of people in difficult circumstances, an idealist, a seasoned soldier, and person of extraordinarily good temperament. In short, he was a French version of the fabled Elizabethan man, and with qualities of character superior to many Elizabethan men.

This is a very good book: it has a genuinely heroic subject in Champlain, and it tells a great story in vigorous language.

Fischer follows in part the example of Samuel Eliot Morison's "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," a venerable though somewhat dated biography of Columbus, by using his personal knowledge of sailing and the contemporary geography of Champlain’s New France to bring vivid life to his story and explain matters like the naming of certain places. Since I too know and have lived in some of these areas, I found this fascinating.

His treatment of the Indians of New France is refreshingly honest yet sympathetic, much in the spirit of Champlain himself, and by honest I’m including the very brutal aspects of aboriginal society sometimes overlooked today in sentimental history.

The book’s shortcomings are relatively small. Fischer is repetitive in small quantities at times, repeating some fact or observation offered not many pages before. This surely is the fault of a somewhat slack editor.

Another fault is in the somewhat poor reproduction of many illustrations, including a number of Champlain’s own drawings.

Fischer also does not tell us enough about certain matters such as Champlain’s marriage, a fascinating subject involving as it does a woman from a fairly distinguished French family who comes and spends time in New France. He briefly tells us how the marriage goes through ups and downs, but any reader will want a few more details filled in, if indeed such material exists in the records.

A significant book for Canadian history, the history of North American settlement and exploration, the history of North American aboriginal people, and all lovers of good biography and good yarns.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF RUSS BAKER'S FAMILY OF SECRETS

This is one of those books which, while not being great, is nevertheless of some value.

Baker takes the point of view that it is impossible to write a book about George W. Bush without writing also about his father. I agree: George Junior would not ever have amounted to more than a small-time failure at business in Texas without his father's friends and influence.

The dual approach has certainly been taken before, a favorite father-and-son biography of mine being Anthony Cave Brown's Treason in the Blood about master-spy Kim Philby and his remarkable father, Harry St. John Philby.

But the parallels do not continue. George Junior is not a figure of personal achievement or significant talent; Kim Philby very much was, whatever you think of his treasonous work. Harry St. John was almost a character from Shakespeare; Bush pere is a fairly uninteresting, but intelligent, government-service lifer from a wealthy family. Brown's book is masterly; Baker's only interesting and competent.

I think Baker failed to investigate some of these matters adequately. For example, I, along with many others, do not believe Bush Junior either bright or hard-working enough to have earned a place in the prestigious universities he attended, much less graduate. He was certainly what is called a "legacy" student: someone who does not make the grade but is given a pass in the hope his wealthy family will contribute generously to the endowment fund. This is a common practice at "ivy league" universities, one of whose constant aims is their own perpetuation as institutions.

The main fact about Bush pere Baker attempts to establish is that he has a lifelong association with the Central Intelligence Agency. He does not prove this, but I think he offers strong circumstantial grounds for a reasonable assumption.

Bush pere's C.I.A. connection was not news for me: being in the past a serious student of the Kennedy assassination, I knew Bush pere's name came up in the long and costly secret war against Castro's Cuba. Also, the C.I.A.'s headquarters at Langley, Virginia, is named after Bush pere, and that kind of honor isn't granted for serving one quite short stint as Director.

I found the first half of the book a bit slow-moving. The pace picks up in the second half, and while Baker never achieves a consistent level of fascinating story-telling, some events are beautifully summed up. He does a handsome job, for example, with the story behind the story that cost Dan Rather his job at CBS News over documents purporting to prove Bush's shabby record with the National Guard in Texas.

There is a mistake or two here, but they are minor. Baker says Lewis "Scooter" Libby was pardoned, but, in fact, Bush only granted clemency on Libby's sentence. His conviction stands, despite the efforts behind the scenes of Dick Cheney, whose dirty work he did, to get him a pardon.

But then Bush never was one much for pardons, or compassion for that matter.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF NICHOLSON BAKER'S HUMAN SMOKE

This is an odd book: its format is less like a book than a research folder or elaborate clipping file for the writing of a more conventional history. Its subject is undoubtedly controversial for some because it makes strong statements about the nature of modern war and it questions the clarity with which we traditionally define the heroes and villains in that vast human enterprise in destruction called World War II.

The book consists of a long series of quotes from all kinds of documents and publications and from famous people. The quotes go in time sequence leading up to and during World War II, and they are selected and orchestrated to make important points about modern war.

The points made here are so difficult for some to accept that I believe the author wanted to use a method that excluded his own voice, offering only the actual words of those who lived the history. In the end, the book has a powerful impact and its title nicely captures what it is about.

As a student of history, I did not find eyebrow-raising facts here, although particular quotes were startling, but I know many will not have been exposed to the disgusting facts of modern warfare. I have long believed, and I wrote an essay on the subject a few years ago, that the methods of modern warfare render the term terrorism meaningless. America or Israel today routinely kills far more civilians than soldiers. You simply cannot use horrible weapons and methods like napalm, white phosphorus, cluster bombs, or carpet-bombing without doing this.

The author makes the point strongly - and I do think it an important one - that it was not Hitler who started the indiscriminate bombing of civilians but the British. He shows Churchill's history of advocating gruesome destruction for enemies of the British Empire. This part of Churchill was less than valiant and less than honourable and had little to do with the values of democracy.

More generally, the conclusion emerges inexorably that there are no heroes in the gruesome business of turning war into something that targets civilians more than armies.

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ALEKSANDR FURSENKO'S AND TIMOTHY NAFTALI'S KHRUSCHEV'S COLD WAR

This book is a gripping read, and it contains new insights into the Cold War, and the authors add some interesting brushstrokes to our historical portrait of Krushchev.

Khrushchev has always been a minor hero of mine. I call him a minor hero because one cannot talk about heroism in an unqualified way with a major figure of an absolute government. Beethoven angrily re-titled the dedication of the Eroica symphony, and I agree with his sentiments in doing it, yet it remains possible to admire some aspects of Napoleon's career.

All individuals must be judged with an appreciation for the constraints under which they operated, and Khrushchev did some very important things and maintained a kind of idealism, despite its rough peasant expression. Khrushchev did want his people to achieve a better life; he cared a great deal about improving agriculture; he was a sincere believer in the ultimate benefits of socialism; he did not want war; and he did want peaceful coexistence with the West before that phrase became commonplace. Above all, Khrushchev was and remains a very human figure, something that cannot be said of a great many absolute leaders.

Khrushchev's role in changing the operations of the Soviet government after decades of Stalin - perhaps the most terrifying dictator of the modern era - was heroic, something I believe he has never been adequately recognized for in the West.

But the same man was ready to crush revolt in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

The title of the book is absolutely accurate: this is Khrushchev's Cold War. Other actors enter and leave the stage, but Khrushchev shapes the story. In that sense, it is necessarily incomplete as a history of the Cold War.

The new insights in the book come from Soviet archives not opened until well into the 21st century. They include who knew what when; the impact of certain events on the Soviet leadership; the real reasons for certain Soviet positions in international affairs; and some of the misunderstandings of American analysts and leaders at the time.

In a few cases, the authors indicate that materials are missing yet, so the book cannot be taken as definitive.

But the book is indispensable to understanding the Cold War, aspects of how the Soviet Union worked, and the Cuban Missile crisis. It is recommended to all with interest in these subjects and to anyone just wanting a good historical read.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN: ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF
























































JOHN CHUCKMAN'S SAVORY MIDDLE-EAST STYLE STUFFED PEPPERS

CHUCKMAN’S SAVORY MIDDLE-EAST STYLE STUFFED PEPPERS

INGREDIENTS:

2 Cups Dry Couscous (Whole wheat or regular)

2 Cups Chicken Broth for Couscous (You will obtain this from the Chicken you cook)

1 Cup or more Chicken Stock for Sauce (You will obtain this from the Chicken you cook)

2 medium Onions

1 or 2 Carrots

4 Legs and Thighs of Chicken

Chatta – Pepper Paste from the Mideast (This is not hot, it is savory - available at any Middle East grocer)

4 Large Green (or Red) Sweet Peppers

Oil – for frying

1 Tablespoon Corn Starch (dissolved in a small quantity of water – for moderately thickening Sauce)

Tomato - a handful diced

METHOD:

Simmer Chicken pieces in a large saucepan of water until flesh easily pulled off.

Take out Chicken and let cool a bit. Set aside liquid (your Stock).

To prepare Couscous, boil 2 Cups of Stock (liquid from cooking Chicken), add dry Coucous, stir together, cover, and remove from burner. Couscous is ready in 5 minutes.

When cool enough to work with, shred Chicken meat, removing skin.

Finely slice or dice Onions and grate Carrot. Saute in a frying pan. Add several Tablespoons of Pepper Paste. When Onion is soft, add shredded Chicken and just warm through.

Stir together Chicken, Onion, and Carrot mix into prepared Couscous.

Halve and seed Green Peppers. Place on small baking sheet (covered with parchment paper, or oiled), or use Pyrex casserole dish, oiled. Pile up with Couscous mix. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for about an hour.

Prepare Sauce on stovetop. Use desired quantity of Chicken Stock, adding several Tablespoons of Chatta paste, a quantity of chopped Tomato, and a generous sprinkling of dry parsley. Add Corn Starch and water mix. Simmer covered for half an hour.

Pepper filling will be lightly browned. Serve as is with Sauce on the side.

NOTES:

Also serve Yogurt on the side, if desired (very nice).

The Coucous/Chicken filling mixture is delicious on its own – a kind of West Asian fried rice.


OTHER INTERESTING INGREDIENTS:

For the Couscous/chicken filling include: pieces of thinly sliced lemons that have been quickly sautéed, sliced (canned) artichoke hearts, olives, or pistachios.

Monday, January 05, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF LAURA THOMPSON'S AGATHA CHRISTIE: AN ENGLISH MYSTERY

I enjoyed an interview with Laura Thompson on CBC Radio, and I thought her biography of Agatha Christie might well be good reading, even though I am not a fan of its subject.

I enjoy any first-rate biography, and the times Ms. Christie lived through are loaded with interesting events and people. She was moreover a remarkable literary phenomenon, becoming a house-hold name, setting record runs for plays, and creating two unforgettable characters - Miss Marple and M. Poirot.

Reading the first few pages of this book, I was sure that I had been right: this was going to be a fine book. In these pages, Ms Thompson creates almost a prose-poem around the idyllic time in Ms. Christie's childhood.

But my illusion gradually faded: the book is a weak one, having a number of faults.

First, Ms. Thompson uses a huge number of quotes from Ms. Christie, to such an extent I regard them as padding. I don't object to using quotes in the fashion Ms. Thompson does, I just object to the sheer volume of them.

Second, Ms. Thompson, time and again, refers to this or that old photograph, making some special observations about them, but virtually none of these photographs is included in the book's selection of photos.

Third, Ms. Thompson appears to have done a weak job of research on some topics, as for example the crucial one around Ms. Christie's first husband leaving her. I think the questions readers have around that event, and there are many, are left not answered.

Fourth, the sense and drama of history is largely missing from a book covering a remarkable era.

The book is a real disappointment.