Sunday, December 19, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ROY JENKINS' CHURCHILL

This is a biography by a writer who admires Churchill, yet it notes many critical points in Churchill’s career. It is also a biography by a politician-scholar, a man who always has a deep grasp of his subject (he has written about twenty books, many of them notable biographies) and of the inside details of political life, something absent in some biographers, particularly William Manchester’s.

Both Jenkins and Manchester admire Churchill, and I always favour biographers who have a positive view of their subjects. Yet differences between these two substantial biographies are remarkable. In the real world, especially in a real world arena like politics, admiring someone does not exclude criticisms and disagreements, nor should it.

Roy Jenkins’ work may be viewed as almost a required antidote to William Manchester’s romantic epic. There is a realism and balance in the Roy Jenkins’ book missing from Manchester’s. Of course, one pays a price for this pull back to realism: also missing is the vibrant sense of adventure, the Boy’s Own galloping story pace, communicated by Manchester, especially in his first volume.

Here are just a few topics where Jenkins provides a counterbalancing view to Manchester. Jenkins spends little time on Churchill’s childhood, a topic which engrosses Manchester and which heavily colors what follows. Jenkins agrees that Churchill’s mother was a sexual adventuress, but does not accept her sleeping with the Prince of Wales and future king.

Churchill’s beloved wife, Clementine, is a more forceful figure in the Jenkins’ book, including her substantial and lengthy argument with her husband over his relationship with Prime Minister Asquith: she was for a far more accommodating face than Churchill was ready to show.

Lullenden, the forerunner to Chartwell as Churchill’s country estate, was hardly a “cottage” as Manchester calls it. Indeed, Churchill’s constant need for luxuries of every description is better covered by Jenkins, although Manchester does give us the silk under-shorts Churchill insisted on wearing.

Jenkins also provides a better assessment of Churchill’s manner towards Parliament and colleagues, his rather high-hat leaving so often after he had himself spoken, not staying to hear responses.

One of Churchill’s rather dark aspects, his insistent demand for India to retain her colonial status in the 1930s, hardly smacks of heroic democratic values. His views on India at the time also alienated many in his party.

Along a related line is Jenkins’ revelation of Churchill’s rather intense admiration of Stalin, even though he always opposed the Soviet system. Churchill always regarded himself as a superior man, and he responded to those who had similar, tested qualities.

Of course, Churchill was such an extraordinary character, he well deserves many quality biographies, and it has always been my view that you cannot begin to understand a major historical figure without reading several. The truth, as it were, cannot be captured by one observer, much as all the characteristics of an atomic particle cannot be stated by an observer. Truth about people and their motivations and decisions can never be fixed, only suggested or approximated, and we do that best by several attempts.

This book will be of interest to Churchill admirers, students of British and European history, students of politics, students of human psychology, and lovers of good biography.

Friday, December 17, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ADAM ZAMOYSKI'S MOSCOW 1812

The first half of Zamoyski’s book is truly top-quality narrative history, it is written lucidly, and it is packed with interesting facts and observations. A coherent picture emerges of all the many forces at work in that vast and terrible enterprise, the invasion of Russia.

Zamoyski does an especially good job of explaining Napoleon’s reasons for invading Russia, and I think adds new clarity to them. The author also has wonderful passages in which we see Napoleon’s view and considerations at certain points and then those of various Russian commanders facing him. He does something similar with Tsar Alexander, an intelligent and ambitious man, but not a leader to assume command in battle. He does a deft job at giving the reader some appreciation of the massive, complex preparations necessary for the campaign, almost exhausting a reader’s imagination of how one man could put all of it into motion. His other great strength is the description of the battles for Smolensk and Borodino: these are remarkable passages.

The second half of the book declines from that high level, in my view, not in the quality of the writing but in the subject matter. There is an awful lot of graphic detail of individual deaths and perils on the ghastly march out of Russia. Some of this is of course necessary to give readers a full appreciation of a situation where climate and the weather played greater roles in Napoleon’s defeat than the Tsar’s armies, but I think there is too much, becoming effectively padding.

The trouble with those kinds of anecdotes is that they cloud the true sense of what is happening. First, they may or may not represent the experience of the army as a whole, and what we really want to know is more along the lines of statistical truths in a book of this nature, not peculiar anecdotes. Second, one actually loses some sense of what is happening with too much of this sort of thing. After reading of terrible events, men frozen like statues or hands freezing to muskets, when the author returns to a new battle or action, you just ask yourself, how was it even possible for them to fight?

Zamoyski treats Tolstoy’s hero, Kutuzov, as a buffoon, braggart, and a poor general, and I am inclined to agree with that view. Napoleon, despite his errors in the campaign and despite what has generally been characterized as his declining abilities – a disease the author appropriately speculates – remains capable of striking fear into the hearts of most opponents and of inspiring his soldiers to endure hardship.

Napoleon surely was one of the most extreme examples in history of Freud’s great discovery, the principle of human ambivalence. Was he a true son of revolution, ready to destroy encrusted old ways and privileges, the start of a new more enlightened age in which talent mattered more than birth? Or was he just one more in a line of gifted soldier-conquerors – Alexander, Caesar - ready to use others for his own gain and glory?

He was in fact both of these things, and he was both at one and the same time. In the end, I think we can only understand stories like his in those terms. Napoleon cannot be reduced to H.G. Wells’ view of him as a mere cock crowing on a dunghill. Napoleon was simply one of the most extraordinary people who ever lived, and he was that from several perspectives.

This book is excellent reading for all students of European history, lovers of biographical insight, military campaign buffs, students of human psychology, and those who just love a gripping story.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF SIMON MONTEFIORE’S STALIN THE COURT OF THE RED TSAR

This book is not a complete biography of Stalin: rather its subject is just what its subtitle says it is, the court of the Red Tsar. Naturally, the period of Stalin’s having a court covers the most important part of his life.

The author spent years gathering documents and remembrances from survivors in Russia. As well, he had unprecedented access to the Stalin archives. His patient collection of new information shows in the book’s many fascinating anecdotes, ranging from bizarre to horrifying.

For those familiar with the career of Stalin, the book has no great shocking revelations. Rather it is in its anecdotes we gain grim new details of this almost unprecedented tyranny. The contrast in court life before the first great terror, 1937, and after; Stalin’s intense interference with the personal lives of his colleagues, whom the author nicely terms the magnates; Stalin’s endless lists of names carefully checked off; certain glimpses of Stalin’s wartime behaviour; and details of Stalin’s death – all these and more are new stories and add detail and nuance to our understanding of one of history’s greatest monsters.

Stalin, by the reckoning given here, was the second greatest mass-murderer in human history, surpassed only in the sheer volume of victims by Chairman Mao, but such counts are never accurate even with good archives because so many of the events in those horrifying regimes were disguised or unreported.

When Stalin wanted a prominent person killed, often the act was disguised as something like an automobile accident. Beria, one of his chief killers, sometimes employed poisons, reminding one of a prince in the court of the Borgias, and he may have done so in the end with the Vozhd himself as Stalin became obviously senile and busied himself with still new terrors in the early 1950s, ones aimed at doctors, Jews, and Mingrelian speakers from Georgia – the last including Beria himself. All of the magnates in the last days feared another great wave of murder and torture, as they also feared Stalin’s failing mind carelessly risking war with the West.

Stalin believed the government needed regular shaking up. In that he reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s belief that the tree of liberty needed new blood every fifteen or twenty years. Stalin also, I believe, simply tired of some of the people with whom he worked for any time. He had such a severe set of standards of behaviour and performance – Stalin was a workaholic - that he grew tired of magnates who, with success, assumed manners that suggested being at odds with his deeply rooted concepts of Bolshevik standards. Above all, Stalin was paranoid about anyone who doubted him or anyone who might challenge him, and his extraordinary ability to read human beings made it close to impossible for anyone to hide their doubts. His relentless intelligence apparatus also fed his doubts or fears about people. Everyone of consequence was bugged, and it only took one casual suggestive remark at home to start Stalin’s thinking about the end of someone’s usefulness.

Stalin’s human-intelligence operation abroad might well have been the greatest ever assembled (it included Kim Philby and the other Cambridge spies in Britain, Richard Sorge in Japan, someone unknown high in the German government, and important people in America’s Manhattan Project) and it provided him with many important tips, but Stalin’s paranoia often caused him to reject the information in a bizarre twist on the Cassandra legend.

Stalin certainly suffered from some form of mental illness: his extreme paranoia alone attests to that. He was also a true psychopath, able to charm and disarm people even while planning to kill them. Stalin had a stare, with yellowy unblinking eyes, that he used often to question or discomfort or threaten people, sometimes terrifying those he was about to destroy. He enjoyed, like a cat with a captured mouse, toying with his victims. It was a significant sport for him during his campaigns against magnates or officials. His sense of humor was crude, and he enjoyed throwing bits of orange peel or wine corks at his dinner guests. He sometimes greeted officials or friends with questions like “haven’t they arrested you yet?” But, as Montefiore tells us, he was exceptionally intelligent and, like Hitler, he had a prodigious memory.

But of course, most of his killing was not competitors, their families, authors or artists who displeased him, but millions of ordinary people: the millions of kulaks (successful farmers, the beginnings of a Russian middle class) he arrested and tortured and killed, the millions of Ukrainians whom he deliberately consigned to starvation (on the order of 10 to 12 million), and various other national groups from Poles to Germans who were killed by the hundreds of thousands. Stalin had a godlike stance towards the suffering and deaths of millions of victims: what happened was simply necessary, like a gardener pulling weeds, in working towards the ideals of Bolshevism.

I believe the author has straightened out the conflicting tales of Stalin’s behaviour in the first days of Hitler’s invasion. There have been many conflicting stories in reputable books about whether Stalin crumpled into a useless drunken heap or kept his steely grip.
The author has given us more information about Stalin’s death, but the picture remains unclear in some details. Here again, reputable books have contained conflicting stories.

Rich with new information, the book is not without faults. Indeed, it has several significant ones.

The index, I realize in writing this review, is seriously inadequate to the size and complexity of the book’s subject matter. I recall specific events or descriptions, but when I try finding them in the index by several possible routes, there are no adequate references.

The book has an episodic nature in which years at a time on some subjects disappear. There is also the sometimes annoying practice of a very brief fact tacked on to a passage, almost a non sequitur, I assume just to employ material people had supplied the author.

The writing varies between quite good and not so good. For example, Riumin, one of his last killers, is described at the start of Chapter 56 as “…plump and balding, stupid and vicious….” Yet in the same paragraph, Riumin is said to have completed a good education (for that day) and qualified as an accountant, hardly the achievement of a stupid person, especially in those days of much more stringent school requirements. This kind of thing is fairly common through the book, and it is annoying, being the result I suggest of the author’s readiness to dash off colorful descriptions of new characters which later prove less than accurate as their tales are told.

Despite its shortcomings, the book is an indispensable source for students of the Soviet Union, Stalin, tyranny, modern European history, and psychology.

Monday, September 13, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF DAVID CECIL’S MELBOURNE

Here is that rare thing, a beautiful book, gracefully written and displaying genuine scholarship, Lord David Cecil’s biography of William Lamb, Lord Melbourne.

Melbourne was prime minister to the eighteen-year old Queen Victoria when she assumed the monarch’s role and had first to deal with the complex and perplexing demands of being head of state. It was a time when the monarchy no longer ruled but retained considerable importance in British society and political affairs. He became Victoria’s intimate advisor and friend, a role perhaps unlike that of any other prime minister in British history.

Cecil’s style perfectly suits his subject – graceful, learned, thoughtful - a rare harmony in biography. The author admires his subject, although well aware of Melbourne’s limitations, and I tend to favour biographers who are not hostile.

Melbourne was a controversial figure for a number of reasons, but especially owing to his role in the early years of Victoria’s reign. One can imagine the feelings of the opposition party over his special relationship with the Queen, and we read a fair amount about it here. Victoria had an unpleasant childhood with an intense and overwhelming mother, who worked to shape her daughter to her own purposes, and little contact with her father. Melbourne provided an advisor of matchless charm and understanding and sophistication, filling a place in her young life as something of a father figure, intimate friend, and truly expert political and protocol advisor.

Victoria filled an important place in Melbourne’s life too, for Melbourne was a man who loved the society of women. While as a young man he had many love affairs - behaviour typical of his Whig aristocracy class in the late 18th century and early 19th, a period called the Regency era and marking the transition from Georgian England to Victorian - he was not a Les Liaisons dangereuses type of character but a man who was perfectly capable of having happy and affectionate relationships with women. Indeed, he absolutely needed such relationships. When his government fell and he lost the Prime Minister’s access to Victoria, there was a haunting emptiness to his last years.

This is not a definitive biography, and it was certainly not intended to be one, but it tells us the main stories of Melbourne’s life, both personal and political. It is perhaps more than anything else a study in human character. Melbourne was an interesting man, highly polished and intelligent, and one of the last of the Regency era’s privileged Whig statesmen. To a considerable degree, he was already outdated by the time he was given great political power, although deep understanding of human nature is never outdated. There are wonderful glimpses here too of Queen Victoria as an uncertain 18-year old thrown into the role of official head of the world’s great empire.

Melbourne was something of a reluctant politician, being most comfortable with dinner parties, good company, and good books. The extent to which he was active in some reforms was not so much from his personal convictions in the matters but from his conviction that society changed and laws must accommodate the change. His greatest horror was civil unrest and the threat of a repeat of the French Revolution, and he believed in not creating any tensions or popular hopes which could not be fulfilled. Ironically, he lived through a time of tremendous unrest in England, the unrest that pushed a long series of reforms, from parliamentary representation to Catholic emancipation in Ireland and to the repeal of the Corn Laws, the last having been the very foundation of the Whig class’s privileged place in society.

Melbourne’s underlying strength of character is displayed in his relationship with his wife, a beautiful, frail woman who appears to have suffered from late-onset schizophrenia. Despite the many embarrassments she caused him, including a tempestuous and very public love affair with Lord Byron, he stood by her until the end. And just so with any friend or intimate companion, including the Queen, he stood by them, often taking blame for matters of which he was not the cause, rather than betray friendship.

Recommended for all students of British history, students of human psychology, those who love good biography, and those who simply love books.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF WILLIAM MANCHESTER’S THE LAST LION

William Manchester died before finishing his massive three-volume biography of Winston Churchill, having completed Visions of Glory - Churchill’s childhood, military career, and early politics - and Alone, covering the period of relative political inactivity from 1932 to the start of World War II.

This is a biography which covers both Winston’s personal life and political career.

The first volume of the set is gripping, Manchester having a subject of almost unparalleled interest, a bright but very difficult child who finally finds his place as a soldier and uses his family connections – his father being a descendent of the Duke of Marlborough – to gain assignments in zones of danger from fighting on the frontiers of Afghanistan to fighting the Boers in South Africa. His adventures in faraway realms of the Empire are absolutely absorbing, sort of Boy’s Own stuff for adults. Churchill was almost fearless and often extremely lucky. He also later served as a brave officer on the front in the Great War.

Manchester’s style is clear and direct, but there are times he enters into subject areas I prefer he hadn’t, as speculations on Winston’s sexuality or rather lack of it, but Manchester had a remarkable memory and did extensive research so that all kinds of interesting little facts are scattered through the text. He also follows the custom of periodically giving little vignettes of the kind of events which were happening at the time.

Churchill’s childhood was not one anyone would envy, despite the wealth and privilege and great connections with history. His father, who died fairly early, was one of the most promising men in Parliament, having been marked out as a future Prime Minister. However, he simply did not like Winston, and theirs was a cold and often unpleasant relationship. His mother was a handsome East Coast American from a well-off family, a woman who was regularly unfaithful to her husband and reportedly even slept with the future king. She simply had no time or even interest in Winston, although there was some change when Winston’s father died.

Winston had a temperament as a boy reminding me of several historical figures who simply could not get on well in school and yet were immensely successful later, Einstein coming first to mind. Winston’s brilliance was evident to teachers but his application was slim to non-existent.

I do think Manchester goes out of his way at times trying to justify some of Winston’s schemes such as the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in World War I, an event over which others have roundly condemned Churchill. He is clearly in his subject’s corner, something I generally prefer to hostile biographers, but still it is worth pointing out that he is at times a bit excessive in this.

The second volume is less interesting, and there are two reasons for this. First, it is simply a much less engaging chapter in Winston’s life, but, second, I think Manchester plays too strongly on the word “appeasement,” even offering up a definition early on. The word and its variants, such as “appeasers,” are repeated over and over in the text, communicating to me the chilling tone of Right-wing American language.

After all, Americans barely were scratched in World War I while Europe experienced what was to that time the greatest, most pointless carnage in history. Efforts to stop a repeat of that vast horror only twenty years later remain to me not contemptible. In general, too, it was less the appeasers that eased Hitler’s path than it was a French government, in possession of the strongest army in Europe by far during the early thirties, which was unstable and uncertain and failed in the simplest, almost bloodless acts such as opposing the re-occupation of the Rhineland.

The second volume does have some nice tableaux of Winston, from his painting, which became a major hobby, to his trudging around the estate in overalls building brick walls for his gardens.

Churchill was extraordinary, and this biography captures a good deal of the flavour or tone of the man. It is recommended for students of history, leadership, world affairs, politics, psychology, and those who love a good biography.

Apparently, Manchester, before he died, selected a writer, Paul Reid, to finish the third volume. The last I read it was due in 2011.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ALLAN BULLOCK’S HITLER A STUDY IN TYRANNY

I first read this book the best part of fifty years ago.

It stands up remarkably well, even when read with a subsequent background of many books about World War II, several biographies of Hitler and other major war figures, plus smaller specialized studies.

This is not a full biography, Hitler’s early years receiving fairly brief treatment. It is precisely what its subtitle says of it, a study in tyranny, and I don’t believe another book offers quite the same intense exploration of the subject.

Allan Bullock writes as a genuine scholar, albeit an unusually articulate one. When Bullock is uncertain about the factors contributing to a certain event, he says so, along with giving readers a clear explanation of the alternatives. Bullock had studied the vast literature available in his time and little of substance escaped his analytical mind.

Hitler surely represents three extraordinary historical phenomena.

First, the outline of his rise is remarkable, almost unparalleled in history, rising from a tramp, would-be artist, a man with limited formal education, to become absolute leader of Europe’s most important nation and then achieving a series of dazzling successes until megalomania struck, sending Europe into a ghastly spiral of horrors and destruction.

One of the few comparable rises I can think of is that of a man who shared none of Hitler’s dark obsessions and hatreds: I refer to Lincoln, a man who rose from life in a dirt-floor cabin and a year and half of formal education to become a successful corporate lawyer, president of the United States, and leader of what remains America’s bloodiest war.

Second, Hitler is, in a number of ways, the most important historical figure of the 20th century – not the greatest, not the most gifted, and certainly neither admirable nor heroic, but the most important as measured by his impact upon great events both in his own time and after.

Hitler’s career contributed to the rise or success of some of the century’s most able and heroic figures – Roosevelt, Churchill, and De Gaulle. And the gigantic destructive events Hitler unleashed profoundly affected the world to this day – the establishment of the Soviet empire, decades of Cold War, and the agonizing events following the creation of Israel.

Third, few people in all of history wielded such immense, unquestioned power over others as he did – Stalin, Napoleon, Henry VIII, Cromwell, Augustus, Genghis Khan, Attila, and a few others come to mind. Understanding the mind and methods of such a person is beyond question an important study of the human condition.

This is an essential book for students of history, statesmanship, World War II, politics, human character, and psychology. It is well enough written to hold the attention of those who are not scholars but interested in any of these subjects.

One of the most interesting qualities of Bullock’s book is his avoidance of what has now become an almost de rigueur, politically correct minimizing of Hitler’s skills and talents, very much a flaw in Ian Kershaw’s biography, and preaching about his evil, something which is apparent just in telling the true history.

Bullock makes clear that in every relationship and project Hitler ever had, the need to be regarded as final authority was an intense, overwhelming psychological drive. He also clearly had developed something of a Messiah complex, something not unknown in our own day among politicians and religious leaders. His vision of Germany’s expansion in the East was filled with ghastly concepts, yet the basic idea of a larger national landscape for Europe’s most technically and perhaps culturally advanced nation, similar to the space claimed by the United States on its rise or by the British Empire, was rational if not ethical.

We know from well-regarded psychiatric studies that Hitler was not mentally ill, yet he did more damage than any mentally ill person I can think of. That fact alone makes understanding him immensely important and should serve as a continued warning concerning those who seek power in our societies. The all-too-common “Hitler the madman” is not helpful and shows no genuine learning from history.

True madmen have little chance of gaining serious power anywhere: they are eschewed by democracies where the least evidence of experience with mental problems is an absolute disqualifier and they are not supported in tyrannies because, as Bullock shows, a tyranny requires many insiders to make it work.

Indeed, one of the most important aspects of the Third Reich that Bullock so ably brings out was the endless creation of special fiefdoms to replace older fiefdoms and new offices for ambitious lieutenants to balance off against other ambitious lieutenants. It is for this reason that I believe all true tyrannies, at least in otherwise advanced states, are doomed not to last: they are actually far more unstable and inefficient than people generally realize.

If you are reading about the Third Reich, this is, quite simply, an indispensable book.

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF JOHN HORGAN’S THE END OF SCIENCE

It is difficult to know just how to treat this book. It has many serious faults.

It is well-written, was a best seller, but its very subject is to my mind a rather eccentric notion, and the author does some quite annoying things in writing about it.

By the term “end of science” the author does not mean a return to the Dark Ages but a time when all the large and exciting discoveries and theories all will have been established, leaving only relatively small subjects to science. It is the kind of notion that might pass through any thoughtful person’s mind, but I think it one that is quickly dismissed.

The interest in the book has to do with the eminent figures interviewed and not with the author’s speculations.

The author is not a scientist, but he is scientifically literate and does write pieces for magazines like Scientific American, and I am not automatically put off by the idea of inspired non-experts writing on any subject.

Perhaps the first serious fault is the way the author approaches the subject. What we have is a series of interviews with eminent figures, many of them scientists but many are social scientists or philosophers. A great deal is hidden in that word “interview.” These are relatively short interviews or conversations at conventions or discussions on the telephone.

With every live interview, no matter how brief, the author offers a concise description of the subject, some being amusing or interesting, but all highly colored and none strictly appropriate for a book on science or ideas. I regard this as padding, especially in light of how little of the subjects’ thoughts on the book’s theme the author captures. One also could fairly argue, in light of what we eventually learn of the author’s views, that these are used as devices to prejudice readers towards or away from interview subjects.

The subject is provocative, of course, thus perhaps giving the author entrée in some cases which he otherwise might not have been given, and, of course, it also helps sales

I do think, considering at least a half dozen of the world’s eminent intellects were interviewed, that the space allotted to each subject’s thought is sketchy at best. This perhaps stems from the author’s experience in writing relatively short articles but also likely reflects the effort to keep things zippy rather than genuinely thoughtful – what one might expect from most best sellers I’m afraid.

The author insists on using words that to my mind no longer are part of science, chief among these beings “laws” and “truth.”

Law is a genuinely outdated concept applied to science, although it is still somewhat carelessly used for theories of long standing. What we have in modern science are hypotheses or theories or conjectures which seem to describe our observations of phenomena but are subject to being endlessly tested against new observations and perhaps discarded.

Science is quite ruthless about ideas. When they cease working, they are set aside and replaced by others that work better. So long as a theory continues to fit new observations – and remember our scientific instruments are almost constantly improving in accuracy and scope of application and even in the measurement of things never before measured – it is viewed as useful and, in a strictly limited sense, valid.

But there are no laws in science truly today, even if phrases carrying over from the 19th century are sometimes used. Each time we rise to another perspective in looking at a phenomenon – as by the new acuteness of our instruments or building upon a new and very convincing theory or doing a kind of experiment never before done - we sometimes begin to see observations, including previous ones, in a new way. A new theory or conjecture replaces the established one, and the process continues so long as we are able to progress.

Einstein replaced Newton, but Newton still serves perfectly well under limited conditions to give the results he always did, and, as Einstein himself suggested, he will himself one day be displaced in the same way by an even more encompassing perspective.

None of these great men’s works is regarded as law: they are useful relationships which are valued and retained so long as they continue to be useful.

And none of these theories represents “truth” except in the highly limited sense that when under such-and-such conditions we may expect this-or-that.

Nothing in all of physics has any existence in reality – if we may posit such a thing as reality – neither quarks nor electrons nor electromagnetic spectra: these are our way of describing phenomena to ourselves in useful, consistent, and measurable ways, but they are not, as it were, snap shots of nature.

There is no reason known for this process ever to stop, unless we bump up against limits of perception or understanding, a possibility discussed briefly in the book but which is as utterly speculative and useless today as notions like the mind-body problem of philosophy.

I’ll leave it to readers to discover the intense experience of years ago that motivates the author: I would only suggest that someone dropped LSD into something he consumed.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN’S MEXICAN LASAGNE

Not an authentic dish, but very tasty

INGREDIENTS:

5 Large Tortillas (if you need to fit casserole pan, cut sides)

1 Large Onion - chopped

2 cans refried beans – Herdez from Mexico are my favorite

2 pounds ground beef and pork mixed

Frozen of fresh Corn kernels – several handfuls

Green Pepper – finely chopped – several handfuls

1 1/2 pounds Cheddar or Monterey Jack Cheese – grated

2 cans La Victoria Sauce (Hot) from Mexico – see bottom of recipe
for alternative with my Green Sauce

Red Spaghetti Sauce – leftover or bottled – about equal to half of
La Victoria Sauce

Green stuffed Olives – handful to decorate top

Soft Cream Cheese – Laughing Cow from Quebec is perfect – enough
to crumble over top with Olives

METHOD:

Saute ground Meat with chopped Onion.

Mix the two Sauces.

In the bottom of a large glass oven casserole pan, rub a little oil, then drizzle a little mixed Sauce. Place a Tortilla. Spread Re-fried Beans over tortilla like frosting. Sprinkle a good layer of sautéed ground meat mixture. Sprinkle some Corn and Green Pepper. Sprinkle with grated Cheese. Lightly coat with Sauce.

Repeat with more layers. Stop with a Tortilla on top.

Over the top Tortilla, spread remaining Sauce mix. Crumble soft Cream Cheese pieces in roughly even spacing. Spread a little remaining grated cheese. Sprinkle Olives with roughly even spacing.

Cover pan with foil top and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.

Great leftover and re-heated (cover).

NOTE ON ALTERNATIVE SAUCE VERSION:

My Green Pepper Sauce – used for Fish Enchiladas – is also perfect for this recipe. Skip adding Spaghetti Sauce in this case, although I can imagine a thin drizzle of Spaghetti Sauce followed by a thick drizzle of Green Pepper Sauce being very good too.

Saute two or three finely-diced cloves of garlic in oil. Use this garic-infused oil to make a smooth White Sauce, mixing flour into Milk and then into warm oil. Use about one-quarter Light Cream or Half-and-half with Milk. Add a Knorr Chicken bullion cube or, if you have it, some heavily-reduced Chicken Stock. Add a generous amount of a Green Hot Sauce based on Jalapeno peppers, amount depending on taste. I use Mama Africa’s Zulu Sauce (Jalapeno) from South Africa. Any such sauce will do.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN’S FISH IN A MOROCCAN TAGINE STYLE

Not authentic but a delicious and easy-to-make dish.

INGREDIENTS:

Haddock or another meaty white fish, in large chunks – 1 ½ pounds
Oil – enough for lightly sautéing fish
Garlic – at least two cloves
Onions – one large, finely chopped
Chicken stock – 4 cups – if you do not make rice (below) with Chicken Stock, you need only 2 Cups for Fish
Olives – large green with pits – at least a cup
Lemons – two sliced very thinly, keeping rinds on

Rice for serving on – 1 Cup dry to 2 Cups Chicken Stock (or water)

SPICE MIX:

Black Pepper - ¼ teaspoon
Powdered Ginger - ¼ teaspoon
Cumin - 1 teaspoon
Turmeric – 1 teaspoon
Coriander – 1 teaspoon
Saffron (I use the cheap stuff) – pinch or two

METHOD:

Rub Spice Mix on Fish pieces and let stand for an hour.

Heat oil and sauté Fish pieces. Note they need very little cooking. Remove fish from pan and set aside.

Sauté Onion and Garlic in pan drippings.

Add Chicken Stock, add Olives and Lemon Slices,
and leave on high heat to reduce by a third of its volume.

Place Fish on a bed of rice and pour over the reduced sauce.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF DOUGLAS HURD'S ROBERT PEEL

Here is a fine biography of a politician written by another politician.

Robert Peel, while a figure of considerable importance to British history, led what many would regard as an unexciting life, and Peel was the kind of aristocratic figure many people today might find relatively unsympathetic. So it is a good measure of Hurd's success with the book that he makes it interesting, and it is very well written.

I use the adjective "aristocratic," because Peel was actually one of the "new men," a rich merchant's talented son, but his political alliances were necessarily frequently with the landed aristocrats who played a large role in the Conservative Party of that time, and his own views were not the stirring stuff of democratic principles and modern conceptions of human rights. Of course, he was given a title for his service, a practice which itself reflects the evolution of British government with the growth of the middle class.

What Douglas Hurd does exceptionally well is to show us the decent and sympathetic man Peel was. Peel was ready when his keen mind perceived that the world was changing in ways that warranted change by government to advocate the needed change, often finding himself opposed by the kind of conservatives who believes little should ever change. We get a nice feel for the stresses and difficulties involved in Peel's various efforts at reform, given his political world and party.

I admired Hurd's effort to give the modern reader some appreciation of the changing nature of Parliament and its rules, often giving comparisons with how things worked then to how they work now. The nineteenth century was a dynamic era of political change in Britain - driven by the forces of the industrial revolution and exploding world trade - as the country developed into a modern democratic state, and the book reflects that.

This is a fine book for students of British or European history or social change or the evolution of modern democratic government.

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF FRANK MCLYNN'S NAPOLEON

Another biography of Napoleon you might ask?

You could fill a small library with biographies of this remarkable and notorious man, quite a number of them significant works.

Yet Frank McLynn has managed the considerable task of adding something new and quite interesting to the literature.

Here is a gripping version of the life of one of history's great soldier-conquerors. It is well written, roars right along much as a good novel, is packed with interesting anecdotes, but it does come with some controversial interpretations of its subject. So you have every reason to read it.

McLynn spends some time on Napoleon's love life and especially on his immensely complicated and messy relationship with Josephine, surely one of history's stormiest and most perverse love stories. He also gives readers a terrific appreciation for Napoleon's genuinely grotesque family. This immensely talented man dragged his family through his career, almost like a great actor with a wagon full of noisy, grasping, bickering relatives always parked just outside the entrance to the theater. For me, at least, McLynn broke new ground on both of these subjects.

There is a good deal of analysis here of some of Napoleon's battles, but the book is never a mere military history. One of McLynn's controversial views is about the decline of Napoleon's once razor-sharp military abilities.

McLynn does an excellent job in giving readers an appreciation of how utterly ruthless and deceptive Napoleon could be, in personal relationships - his twists and turns with Désirée Clary - and in politics - his dealings with Barras - and in campaigning - his murder of prisoners in the Middle East and the abandonment of the army he brought needlessly to Egypt.

McLynn stresses what he calls Napoleon's "Oriental complex," reminding me of Mark Anthony, and I think he is right in that.

I think, too, in the matter of Napoleon's mysterious death on St Helena, McLynn gets the story right, pointing the finger at one of his retinue, Montholon, who likely acted as an agent for the Bourbons in administering periodic doses of arsenic.

All readers of good biography and history will enjoy this book, and each will likely find something new or interesting in it, and that's a pretty high recommendation.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF KATHY GANNON'S I IS FOR INFIDEL

Ms Gannon writes at the beginning of her book’s Acknowledgments, “This book is the culmination of eighteen years covering Afghanistan and Pakistan as a reporter.”

Well, I’m sorry, but you would never know it just from reading the main part of the book.

Here is a book by a seasoned journalist, although I’ve never read Ms Gannon’s reportage, and it is poorly written, repetitive, but most importantly, it just fails to give the reader the much-desired understanding of a complex situation.

Even more, her credentials would lead us to expect some genuine enlightenment concerning the desperate matters in Afghanistan, a sparkling narrative history of events so incompletely understood. We do learn some things here, but the quantity, quality, and the consistency are meagre at best.

Moreover, I was quite troubled to read passages of the book, which seemed to me, could well have been written by a CIA operative: their tone and the direction in which they take the reader simply do not ring true for the observations of a genuinely independent journalist, at least not a first-rate one.

Some while back, I heard Ms Gannon on CBC Radio as part of a panel of people commenting on the conflict in Afghanistan. It was because I heard her say a few striking things that I so looked forward so much to this book, her first.

But what a disappointment it proved. Ms. Gannon’s writing is so poor, something one does not expect from a seasoned journalist. She repeats herself many times in so brief a book, and there is a fair amount of padding which seems ridiculous in a book of about 160 pages.

But what I found most disappointing was the incompleteness and anecdotal nature of the story she tells. As just one example, she introduces al Qaeda well into the book with no explanation of its origins. Or for a time she is writing about the Mujahedeen, then the Northern Alliance shows up. There is an explanation of the rise of the Taleban, but in bringing in the role of Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI), there is confusion and statements made which are never expanded upon.

She attributes motives to Osama bin Laden for which she has no basis, at least she offers readers none. One should remember that to this day, we have never been given any genuine proof of bin Laden’s role in 9/11, and requests for his extradition by the Taleban government of day were rejected because the U. S. offered no evidence, a normal part of extradition requests by any country.

She brings Pakistan’s Musharraf onto the stage briefly and gives a highly slanted view of him.

No good newspaper editor would run with a story which contained the same kind of flaws this book does.

Because there are a few passages worth reading, I do not give the book the lowest possible rating, but neither can I possibly recommend it.