Thursday, January 14, 2010


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.


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


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.