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The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, a Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy
The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, a Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy
by Robert D. Kaplan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.36
209 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A Realist's Take on the World, August 15, 2003
Those familiar with Kaplan’s work know the author doesn’t exactly travel to the world’s vacation spots. When most Americans go abroad, they explore prefer to Paris or sip espresso in a warm villa in Tuscany. When Kaplan goes abroad he finds himself traveling in countries where underpaid soldiers shake him down for bribes to pass their checkpoints and people live in appallingly squalid conditions. “Ends of the Earth” will give the reader a vivid feel for life in the Third World.
Kaplan’s “Atlantic Monthly” article, “The Coming Anarchy”, is kind of a primer for reading “Ends of the Earth” (portions of it re-appear): much of the world depicted by Kaplan is nasty, brutal and harsh, as the collapse of law and order leads to a repeating circle of violence and chaos. The more the state collapses under the strain of violence, the more the violence increases. Environmental decay, in turn, makes natural resources scarce, which causes people to fight over these ever-dwindling resources. Kaplan concentrates on Africa in the original article but he has expanded on that point in “Ends of the Earth”, by pointing out that his thesis is applicable to other problems in the world: China, India, Egypt, Turkey, etc.
Kaplan basically backpacks around each of the countries, staying in slummier hotels and living with local families. Like any good travel writer, Kaplan gives the writer a vivid feel for the places he goes to. A lot of travel readers might find Kaplan’s focus on history uninteresting, but I appreciate it because I agree that where we’ve been is the closest indicator of where the world is going. Someone once said that a page of history is worth a volume of logic, and I think Kaplan illustrates how history and geography dictate what sort of culture, economy and foreign policy a nation has.
I particularly enjoyed the sections of the book dealing with Iran. I’ve long been fascinated by the Persian land, with its ancient culture. Kaplan presents a country that is misunderstood in the Western world: Iran is a land of rich culture and a deep appreciation of art and beauty. The picture that Kaplan presents to the reader is that, unlike the rest of the Arab world, with its spare and dogmatic adherence to Islam, Iran is a country with a deep appreciation of beauty and a great capacity for tolerance. Its people are intelligent and open-minded, its society is not rife with chauvinism and hatred and there is great possibility in Iran for a meaningful dialogue. The cultural observations Kaplan noted: how open-minded Iranian students were, how Iranian women were treated better and were more assertive than their Saudi counterparts, how tolerant the Shi’ite brand of Islam seemed compared with its more warrior-like Sunni counterparts, are all important clues to Kaplan that Iran is a nation far more willing to break bread with the U.S. and have some sort of partnership. The section on Iran is well-worth the price of the book.
One of the great things about Kaplan’s writing is his ability to smoke out trends or facts that escape the notice of the modern media. His comments about Iranian culture and society are an example of this. Also interesting is seeing how environmental scarcity and ethnic and religious tensions drive history: the growth of the Thai sex industry, for example, has much to do with deforestation in northern Thailand. (In the book Kaplan explains that logging by the Thai military means that rural villagers in the north can no longer make ends meet because their farmland is being destroyed, so many girls in their teens and twenties go to Bangkok to work in the massage parlors and the go-go bars.) Before reading “Ends of the Earth” I didn’t know that, and I doubt that people would make the causal connection between the two.
Liberals, I suspect, won’t have much to cheer from reading “The Ends of the Earth”, and most of Kaplan’s critics sit on the left. Kaplan sees himself as a classical realist, so he has no words of praise for idealists or those who bring their ideological causes to an analysis of the world. These liberals who think U.S. law enforcement customs are possible in the Third World are, Kaplan believes, getting the world wrong by bringing their own ideology to the table.
Unsurprisingly, Kaplan’s unsparing criticism of African politics and government has provoked many to roundly denounce him as a racist, a charge that simply doesn’t hold water. Kaplan is no racist: he sees disorder and writes about it, and he sees the lack of African development and freedom (as compared with Europe and America) as mostly being a function of environment and social factors. Unlike many liberals, Kaplan has actually bothered to try and travel like a native citizen would: no limousines, no private jets. The world that he sees is the world that people live in. There is nothing racist in that.
Critics also fail to note that Kaplan has criticized Western nations like France, England, Portugal, and Germany for drawing borders in Africa without any sort of concern for having them actually make geopolitical sense. As a consequence, Kaplan notes, often ethnic tribes are cut in half by European borders, contributing to the lack of unity and the social strife that has engulfed West Africa.
Finally, I wish that Kaplan had devoted a bit more time in his travels to India and Southeast Asia, instead of Central Asia. As Kaplan notes, he’s been to Pakistan ten times in his life, so he has written volumes about the country. I was fascinated to read about India, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand because they were so different from the places Kaplan usually goes culturally and politically. After I got done reading the final section on Indochina, I thought: “I want to know more!”
In the final analysis, “Ends of the Earth” is a terrific book. Those interested in the world around us will be fascinated. I highly recommend.


An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future
An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future
by Robert D. Kaplan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.47
131 used & new from $0.01

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars America the Beautiful!, August 15, 2003
Robert Kaplan is a writer for whom I have much admiration. I have followed his work for a while and I eagerly read his dispatches in “The Atlantic”. His writings about the third world- the Balkans, Asia and Africa -is stunningly good work. He brings a critical eye to these regions and reports little known or appreciated facts about these places.
“An Empire Wilderness” is about Kaplan’s travels through North America’s faster-growing Western regions. Along the way Kaplan reports on what he sees as being the big cultural and economic forces at work in these places: immigration from Mexico and Asia, the collapse of America’s urban centers, the globalization of American business, the spread of the new type (post-urban) suburbs, etc. Along the way, Kaplan makes a number of startling statements and discoveries:
Kaplan’s declaration about a bus trip that American buses were less safe than ones he had been on in the third world did startle me. The notion that America has some of the forces acting upon it the same way Kaplan saw those forces acting on the Third World societies he has visited probably terrifies most Americans and explains why Kaplan is on record as being frustrated at what he perceives to be an inaccurate assessment of “Empire Wilderness” by newspaper reviewers as a tract pessimistic about the future of the United States. Kaplan sees the future as bright . . . for most people. With the decline of the middle class, those who are in the upper-middle class bracket (with advanced degrees) are the ones who will prosper and succeed. Ethnicity will not entirely matter. Many- or maybe even most -East and South Asian immigrants will make far more money than do middle class or poor whites. And in any case, white racism is rapidly dying. (As Kaplan points out in Vancouver, white men *do* like Asian women.)
The city is also dead. This is an observation of Kaplan’s that I can verify just by looking out my window. (I live in Pittsburgh: after seven at night this city’s downtown section is utterly deserted. Few people live here, and even fewer live here by choice. Middle-class and wealthier workers flee for the suburbs. Eventually the city’s taxes on business are going to drive businesses out to the suburbs.) Across the country, communities are springing up around the black hole that is the city. Thus, the spider-web of little autonomous communities outside of St. Louis that Kaplan saw is hardly unique. Everyone wants to preserve their independence from urban mismanagement. Nobody wants to commute anymore either, which is why the quasi-urban business districts in Orange County are so important as well. The growth of industrial parks will eviscerate cities.
What is interesting is to see is how Kaplan grapples with where America is going. Kaplan is a classical realist who believes that ancient history is the clearest indication of where a society is going. Throughout his travels in the Near East Kaplan refers to ancient historians like Livy and Herodotus and to classical works of history like Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” to chart the future path of the nation he is in. The problem with America is that our history is without a paradigm to fall back on. Kaplan refers to Gibbon a few times in the text, but mostly I get the sense that he ignores the past and believes that history, here in the Americas, is still being written. Kaplan envisions North America as a massive region of free trade, movement of peoples, immigration, wealth and prosperity with regional city-states that form the hub of American enterprise. To that end, Kaplan envisions America in the next century as being a loose Confederation than a closely controlling Federal government. The old rules don’t apply because America is a young country. Second and third generation immigrants from Asia and Latin America hardly consider themselves as citizens of China or Mexico as their parents might. They are Americans.
One of the things that I love about Kaplan’s books is the wealth of little-known information that he gives the reader. I found the chapter on the tensions between the Hopi and Navajo in the Balkanization of Arizona to be fascinating. Kaplan’s keen eye picked it out, remembering tensions between the Serbians and Croatians in Yugoslavia and comparing them to the Hopi and Navajo. Is he correct? Maybe. Maybe the Hopi and Navajo have more in common than Kaplan thinks, but at the same time, maybe the people who look at the Hopi and the Navajo and see “Indians” without seeing the distinctions between their cultures are the ones who are wrong.
In general I found Kaplan’s cultural observations rang true. America is getting more multi-cultural and our national identity is becoming internationalized. E.g.: My parents in suburban Philadelphia recently got an upscale grocery store that heavily features ethnic foods from France, Germany, Thailand, etc. That sort of thing didn’t exist a decade ago, or even five years ago, but it is the wave of the future because Americans are hardly nationalist in their culture. Americans want to embrace the outside world and make it a part of our own. Inter-marriage of the sort Kaplan observed in Vancouver between whites and Asians is progressively more and more a part of America’s cultural mosaic and will ultimately make us a stronger and more cohesive nation. America’s paranoia about immigration from Mexico in the 1990s and our post-9/11 fear of Middle Eastern immigrants is both silly and ultimately destructive to America. Immigrations built America into the colossus it is, and immigration will continue to maintain America as a powerhouse.
Out of all of Kaplan’s books, I found this one to be the most different and the most interesting. Kaplan’s keen eye sees a new and different America. I highly recommend.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 3, 2008 1:39 PM PST


Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus
Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus
by Robert D. Kaplan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.28
113 used & new from $0.01

7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Mysterious Land . . . A Terrific Book, August 6, 2003
I’ve been eagerly reading Kaplan’s sociopolitical musings in the pages of “The Atlantic Monthly” for the last three years. Kaplan, a self-described “classical realist”, blends his impressive knowledge of history with a cold, dispassionate eye when looking at the world. While Kaplan has written about the United States and Mexico (I highly recommend his excellent “An Empire Wilderness”), his typical focus is on the East rather than the West.
In “Eastward to Tartary”, Kaplan seeks to write about the Near East: the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Caucasus, and finally Central Asia, an area the Victorian British called “Tartary”. (The book was published in 2000, but I believe that Kaplan wrote much of it in the Fall of 1998 and then in the Spring of 1999.)
Kaplan has long been critical of the post-Cold War consensus that believed that the world was getting smaller and smaller and safer and safer thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of globalization. To Kaplan, ethnic and religious rivalries are being exacerbated by globalization and are making the world a far more dangerous place. Indeed, ethnic rivalries and religion defeated Marxism, and (may) prove to have a more staying power than capitalism. “Eastward” contains some proof to buttress these arguments, as Kaplan travels to countries and interacts with the local citizenry, many of whom are angry and xenophobic, some of whom have simply given up hope of a better life. Stability, Kaplan shows, is typically not met by economic liberalization and western investment. One astute example Kaplan presents is the failure of Orthodox churches, which were not bulwarks of the democratic opposition to communism like the Catholic Churches in Poland and Hungary, to bring stability. Without the root of belief that the Catholic Churches bring (encouraging people to see God in themselves, as opposed to Orthodoxy seeing God in the church and nowhere else), these Eastern Christian states have largely stagnated and declined. It is a fascinating little example likely ignored by Western observers.
All of this is mostly new information to Americans because we (mostly) live in a postmodern society that embraces cosmopolitan/international values over ethnicity and religion. Kaplan feels that because the media is a thoroughly cosmopolitan class- worldly and affluent â€"they largely ignore these trends. I think he has a point. “Eastward to Tartary” performs the valuable lesson of educating Americans about these forces at work in the two regions of the world that are going to occupy American attention for the next decade and beyond: Central Asia and the Middle East. Most Americans don’t have any sort of notion of the types of ethnic and religious forces that swirl in Syria or Romania or Azerbaijan.
Kaplan’s chapter on Syria and Lebanon are well worth the price of the book alone. When the media starts talking about Syria today they present the country as a unified Muslim state full of tyranny that supports terrorism. In other words, Syria is the basic equivalent of Iraq. However, Syria is fascinatingly different, thanks to the multitude of ethnic rivalries that engulf the nation. Before I read this book I had never really even heard of the Alawiites, the ethnic group to which the ruling elite and many members of the Army’s officer corps belongs. Their success and control of the Syrian army is important and astutely understood by Kaplan.
The development of the city of Beirut in Lebanon is also a vastly under-reported development. A prosperous state like Lebanon, with a growing middle class, could have huge implications for the Middle East. Who would have known about these things? The media doesn’t bother to tell us. Thank goodness Kaplan does.
Another example of unknown information is Kaplan’s sojourn through the Balkans. Little is known about Europe’s “Third World”, but its importance looms large, as Kaplan shows because of the imminent admission of Bulgaria and Romania to NATO and the EU. These states will form an important part of the new world: providing the U.S. and NATO forward bases to the Middle East (I would note that- though it was ignored by the media â€"Romania provided the U.S. valuable support in the Second Gulf War), and moving Europe eastward. The stark differences between Hungary and Romania are interesting to consider because one has to wonder if absorbing these nations will harm the EU economically and politically. Kaplan astutely points out that the EU is far more important an entity than NATO because the EU deals with regulations, taxes and laws, whereas NATO is rapidly becoming an irrelevant entity.
Readers of The Atlantic Monthly can see portions of articles Kaplan had written for the Atlantic about Israel, Bulgaria, Romania and the Caucasus reappear, but there is *plenty* of new material and Kaplan provides it with uncanny insight. Those who read travel books expecting pleasant stories about artistic and cultural journeys will be disappointed because there is little pleasant about the places Kaplan goes to, and Kaplan’s writing bent is clearly geo-political rather than social. He observes these nations not as a college-age back-backer, but as a quasi-insider: his books are read in particular by the military, to whom he often lectures. Typically Kaplan is assessing the stability of this part of the world and considers the prospects for investment by western corporations and possible western military intervention. Those who enjoy his work will not be disappointed. Kaplan’s writing style is journalistic, with an eye towards classical history. To Kaplan it is here in the East, more than anyplace else, where the past holds the key to the future. Still, Kaplan appreciates the physical surroundings and gives his reader a vivid description of the world he sees: the hot and dusty deserts of Turkmenistan, the green Mountains of Georgia, and the dark forests of Romania. All-in-all, reading this book is a worthwhile trip.


Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus
Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus
by Robert D. Kaplan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.28
113 used & new from $0.01

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Mysterious Land . . . A Terrific Book, August 5, 2003
I’ve been eagerly reading Kaplan’s sociopolitical musings in the pages of “The Atlantic Monthly” for the last three years. Kaplan, a self-described “classical realist”, blends his impressive knowledge of history with a cold, dispassionate eye when looking at the world. While Kaplan has written about the United States and Mexico (I highly recommend his excellent “An Empire Wilderness”), his typical focus is on the East rather than the West.
In “Eastward to Tartary”, Kaplan seeks to write about the Near East: the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Caucasus, and finally Central Asia, an area the Victorian British called “Tartary”. (The book was published in 2000, but I believe that Kaplan wrote much of it in the Fall of 1998 and then in the Spring of 1999.)
Kaplan has long been critical of the post-Cold War consensus that believed that the world was getting smaller and smaller and safer and safer thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of globalization. To Kaplan, ethnic and religious rivalries are being exacerbated by globalization and are making the world a far more dangerous place. Indeed, ethnic rivalries and religion defeated Marxism, and (may) prove to have a more staying power than capitalism. “Eastward” contains some proof to buttress these arguments, as Kaplan travels to countries and interacts with the local citizenry, many of whom are angry and xenophobic, some of whom have simply given up hope of a better life. Stability, Kaplan shows, is typically not met by economic liberalization and western investment. One astute example Kaplan presents is the failure of Orthodox churches, which were not bulwarks of the democratic opposition to communism like the Catholic Churches in Poland and Hungary, to bring stability. Without the root of belief that the Catholic Churches bring (encouraging people to see God in themselves, as opposed to Orthodoxy seeing God in the church and nowhere else), these Eastern Christian states have largely stagnated and declined. It is a fascinating little example likely ignored by Western observers.
All of this is mostly new information to Americans because we (mostly) live in a postmodern society that embraces cosmopolitan/international values over ethnicity and religion. Kaplan feels that because the media is a thoroughly cosmopolitan class- worldly and affluent â€"they largely ignore these trends. I think he has a point. “Eastward to Tartary” performs the valuable lesson of educating Americans about these forces at work in the two regions of the world that are going to occupy American attention for the next decade and beyond: Central Asia and the Middle East. Most Americans don’t have any sort of notion of the types of ethnic and religious forces that swirl in Syria or Romania or Azerbaijan.
Kaplan’s chapter on Syria and Lebanon are well worth the price of the book alone. When the media starts talking about Syria today they present the country as a unified Muslim state full of tyranny that supports terrorism. In other words, Syria is the basic equivalent of Iraq. However, Syria is fascinatingly different, thanks to the multitude of ethnic rivalries that engulf the nation. Before I read this book I had never really even heard of the Alawiites, the ethnic group to which the ruling elite and many members of the Army’s officer corps belongs. Their success and control of the Syrian army is important and astutely understood by Kaplan.
The development of the city of Beirut in Lebanon is also a vastly under-reported development. A prosperous state like Lebanon, with a growing middle class, could have huge implications for the Middle East. Who would have known about these things? The media doesn’t bother to tell us. Thank goodness Kaplan does.
Another example of unknown information is Kaplan’s sojourn through the Balkans. Little is known about Europe’s “Third World”, but its importance looms large, as Kaplan shows because of the imminent admission of Bulgaria and Romania to NATO and the EU. These states will form an important part of the new world: providing the U.S. and NATO forward bases to the Middle East (I would note that- though it was ignored by the media â€"Romania provided the U.S. valuable support in the Second Gulf War), and moving Europe eastward. The stark differences between Hungary and Romania are interesting to consider because one has to wonder if absorbing these nations will harm the EU economically and politically. Kaplan astutely points out that the EU is far more important an entity than NATO because the EU deals with regulations, taxes and laws, whereas NATO is rapidly becoming an irrelevant entity.
Readers of The Atlantic Monthly can see portions of articles Kaplan had written for the Atlantic about Israel, Bulgaria, Romania and the Caucasus reappear, but there is *plenty* of new material and Kaplan provides it with uncanny insight. Those who read travel books expecting pleasant stories about artistic and cultural journeys will be disappointed because there is little pleasant about the places Kaplan goes to, and Kaplan’s writing bent is clearly geo-political rather than social. He observes these nations not as a college-age back-backer, but as a quasi-insider: his books are read in particular by the military, to whom he often lectures. Typically Kaplan is assessing the stability of this part of the world and considers the prospects for investment by western corporations and possible western military intervention. Those who enjoy his work will not be disappointed. Kaplan’s writing style is journalistic, with an eye towards classical history. To Kaplan it is here in the East, more than anyplace else, where the past holds the key to the future. Still, Kaplan appreciates the physical surroundings and gives his reader a vivid description of the world he sees: the hot and dusty deserts of Turkmenistan, the green Mountains of Georgia, and the dark forests of Romania. All-in-all, reading this book is a worthwhile trip.


How Few Remain (Southern Victory)
How Few Remain (Southern Victory)
by Harry Turtledove
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.99
190 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Better than the sequel, an interesting read . . ., August 3, 2002
Alternate history is a fun topic. Even people who are bored by history's "who", "what", "when", "where", "why" and "how" are intrigued by "what if" of history. It is a lot of fun to argue about what *might* have happened. What if America lost the Revolutionary War? What if Germany won World War II? (The subject of Robert Harris' outstanding "Fatherland".) What if JFK hadn't been assassinated? There are numerous scenarios that are possible. Alternate history/timelines are frequently the subject of movies and TV shows. The number of "Star Trek" episodes devoted to changes in the timeline are simply too numerous to count. Alternate history makes a fun parlor game.
Harry Turtledove is the master of Alternate History novels. His "Guns of the South" is a classic and his Worldwar series about aliens invading the Earth during World War II is well-read by fans. After reading his "The Great War: American Front", I picked up "How Few Remain" to read how the Great War series began. (I was introduced to Turtledove's work when I saw the cover of "The Great War: American Front", showing the U.S. Capitol Building shrouded in smoke while soldiers fought nearby. I was intrigued by the image, as I was working as an intern on Capitol Hill at the time.)
In a nutshell, "How Few Remain" and the corresponding Great War and American Empire series posit the same question: what if the South had won the Civil War in 1862? What would the world be like? The answer is intriguing to read.
As "How Few Remains" opens in 1881, the Confederacy is an independent state consisting of the eleven states that succeeded in 1861 as well as Kentucky and Cuba. Confederate President James Longstreet decides to buy two Mexican states, which prompts the United States, led by President James G. Blaine, to declare war. The two states would give the Confederacy a link to the Pacific Ocean. The war begins . . . While the Confederacy inflicts bloody defeats on the United States in the West and in the City of Louisville, the United States must put down a revolt in Mormon Utah and deal with attacks from British-controlled Canada . . .
In contrast to the book's sequel, Turtledove's "How Few Remain" has a much more unified and coherent story-line. The sequel reads too much as disjointed episodes. You never get a sense about what is actually going on. "How Few Remain" has a terrific story. The characters are well-written and the action crackles. In the ensuing war a number of figures from history make cameos: Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, Stonewall Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Jeb Stuart, etc. I found Turtledove's treatment of Col. George Armstrong Custer to be the best of the book. Custer really comes across as an interesting and entertaining character.
My sole criticism of the plot is Turtledove's explanatory prose. A character will say something and Turtledove must insert an explanation for why this is such an ironic comment or why it foreshadows a future event. It may make the book more readable, but it makes the narrative flow too unwieldy.
On the balance, "How Few Remain" is a terrific book. I can't wait to see where Turtledove takes his readers next in the saga.


American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
by Joseph J. Ellis
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.94
468 used & new from $0.01

22 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The First American, July 6, 2002
What does it mean to be an American? I suspect this question is what has been driving the proliferation in books on our founding fathers over the last few years. "American Sphinx", the author's subsequent "Founding Brothers" and David McCullough's recent biography of John Adams are all part of a larger trend to examine our identity as a country by looking at the men who created this nation some 226 years ago. You could even throw in Mel Gibson's film "The Patriot" as an effort to explore our nation's creation by Hollywood. (With all of the films on the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam, one would think that the Revolution would be ripe for Hollywood.) After 9/11 I suspect this interest to explore the birth of our nation has been enhanced by criticism at home (by a shrill minority) and abroad of America as an imperialist power. If you want to start by examining the soul of America start with Thomas Jefferson.
I found "American Sphinx" to be an outstanding biography of our third President, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State, tireless inventor, voracious reader and Virginia landowner. Complicated, brilliant, troubled, Jefferson might be one of the most interesting human beings to have ever lived. Ellis does a magnificent job exploring Jefferson's faults and abilities without resorting to hero-worship. In particular, I enjoyed how Ellis broke up the narrative of Jefferson's life to particular focal points: Philadelphia, Paris, his Presidency, his retirement, etc. The focus on how these times in Jefferson's life impacted him and show what sort of man he was is a welcome relief to a more exhaustive biography.
One factor that continually impressed me about Ellis work is his treatment of the Sally Hemmings question. Our obsession with sex and the personal lives of our leaders (a focus thankfully on the wane these days) has led Jefferson's accomplishments to be marginalized by the odious speculation about whether or not he fathered children with Hemmings, a slave in his household. Mercifully, unlike the PC warriors who want to strip Jefferson of his standing in history (despite the murky historical evidence), Ellis is resolutely fair. He presents the evidence that the liaison did and did not exist and reflects about the meaning of the controversy.
Thankfully, "American Sphinx" isn't 400+ pages of Hemmings material. It isn't dull either. This isn't the standard "President X signed the bill at a Rose Garden Ceremony on_____"-biography. Ellis has a keen sense of prose and has a knack for highlighting Jefferson's life and translating his thoughts and feelings to people 200 years later. Jefferson's grand vision of an America of rural farmers seems so vivid and powerful thanks to Ellis' writing. Unlike our current President, who seems to take pride in his limited intellectual capacity, Jefferson was an astonishingly intelligent and well-read man even for his day, when men prided themselves on their intellect. I think that people will gain a better sense of what a brilliant and original thinker Jefferson was after reading "American Sphinx". The Louisiana Purchase, for example, was a bold and aggressive decision that did more to end European dominance in the Western Hemisphere and make America into the leviathan it is today than any other decision made by any President since. Jefferson's bold thinking shows what bold, innovative thinkers our founding fathers were compared to their risk-adverse, poll-driven contemporaries. None more so than Jefferson.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the story of our past.


John Adams
John Adams
by David G. McCullough
Edition: Audio Cassette
52 used & new from $0.55

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An American Leader..., July 6, 2002
This review is from: John Adams (Audio Cassette)
I find it difficult to evaluate books on tape vis-à-vis the books upon which they are based. (I listen to books on tape while I drive to and from my apartment in Pittsburgh to visit my parents' home in suburban Philadelphia. Try driving through Central Pennsylvania for five hours by yourself listening to the regional country music station.)When evaluating a book on tape one must not only evaluate the quality of the writing but the structure of the story and quality of the narrator's voice. Audio books are abridged and often result in baffling versions that delete the best parts of the book for no discernable reason. Putnam's audio version of "Red Storm Rising", for example, I found to be a terrible adaptation, Clancy's editors having dropped huge portions of the novel in favor of a quick thumbnail sketch of the story. Putnam's adaptation of "Patriot Games" was a good deal better. They preserved the story well and wisely chose Martin Sheen to lend his voice. Likewise, I found David McCullough's "Truman" to be a very enjoyable book- excellent structure to the story of Truman's life, an outstanding decision to have the author himself read, etc. "Truman" is the gold-standard for audio books for me. What of McCullough's latest effort?
Readers of McCullough's book will be happy to know that much of the book is preserved in part by the unusually long running time of 9 hours (typically audio books are just 5 or 6 hours). Edward Herrmann was ideal choice for narrator. His deep, crisp voice is a pleasure to listen to.
Adams himself was an interesting biography subject for McCullough: one of the key leaders of the Revolution, a deep thinker and a voracious reader, and one of America's most powerful politicians in the Post-Revolution era. Part of the boomlet of books on our Founding Fathers, McCullough presents Adams as one of the key figures in the movement towards independence. I am unsure that Adams quite deserves the distinction. (As an aside: with all of the books being written about Jefferson and Adams and Hamilton I'm perplexed that nobody of McCullough's stature has bothered to write a biography of George Washington. The father of our nation is sadly under-valued by historians and the public.) Jefferson, a man the author clearly despises, is probably the most important Founding Father in my opinion. Adams Presidency was markedly less successful than that of his predecessor or his successor. His contribution to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence is debatable. To put him before Jefferson or Washington makes scant sense to me.
That said, the tape is enormously interesting. I particularly found the passages discussing the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence to be a fascinating portrait of life in America circa 1776. Adams role in creating the American Navy is an interesting tale. Helping all of this is that Adams (in contrast to the cold, distant and somewhat duplicitous Jefferson) is an easy person to like: witty, charming, warm, full of character.
On the balance, I found "John Adams" to be quite enjoyable. Not as good as "Truman", yet still an enjoyable book to listen to.


What It Takes: The Way to the White House
What It Takes: The Way to the White House
by Richard Ben Cramer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.23
87 used & new from $4.49

34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece . . ., July 6, 2002
Think about the best dessert you've ever eaten. Remember how delicious it was? How it melted in your mouth and how you never wanted the experience of eating it to end? Remember that experience when you pick up Richard Ben Cramer's 'What It Takes". This is the literary desert that feels like it melts in your mouth as your read: a beautiful, lyrical tale about the lives of six candidates for President in 1988.
It is hard to describe Cramer's writing style. He seems to have an uncanny knack for getting into his subject's mind and giving you a vision of the world from their perspective. He seems to find what makes his subject unique and showcase it to the world. His Sports Illustrated piece on Cal Ripken, Jr.'s consecutive games streak in September of 1995 remains the finest article I have ever read in SI since I began subscribing back in 1989. Cramer's style of writing is a joy to read. You simply never want him to stop writing, even if it is about something as mundane as observing Bush traveling to a speech.
Needless to say Bob Dole emerges as the hero of Cramer's work. (During the '96 campaign Cramer later released a separate book with just the Dole chapters.) The wounded veteran comes across as a man of stunning drive, courage and loneliness. You can't help but think of the horrific pain and suffering he endured during those years rehabilitating himself and attending law school. The Dole of Cramer's book is easy to admire and quite likeable, despite his gruff demeanor and occasionally cold treatment of people around him.
Gary Hart, in contrast, comes across poorly. (Surprise, surprise.) So much of his portion of the book is devoted to attacking the media and refuting his public persona as either an odd loner or a serial adulterer. Hart's hardscrabble life in rural Oklahoma and journey to Yale divinity school gets pushed aside. There seems to be a huge gap between Hart leaving divinity school for politics in 1960 and his role as George McGovern's campaign manager in 1972 that Cramer doesn't explain.
George Bush takes it on the chin too. Our 41st President and the winner of the 1988 contest was probably the least qualified of the six to run. Bush comes across as a likeable guy (and a hero during World War II), but no leader. While Dole is tested on the campaign trail and works hard to master the machinery of the U.S. Senate, while Dukakis is weathering fierce political storms patching together Massachusetts runaway budget, while Biden loses his wife in a car accident and nearly dies of a brain aneurysm, Bush seems to sail through adversity by relying on his resume to get plum jobs (CIA director, chairman of the RNC, ambassador to the UN and to China). Bush's charmed life and patrician view of the world hurt his reelection campaign four years later when he didn't appreciate the suffering his citizens were enduring during the recession the way a Bob Dole would have. Dole seems to have learned, through his experiences, that life is hard and people need a helping hand. Bush, in contrast, seems to have learned from his life that a smile, a handshake, a spiffy resume and knowing the CEO of a Fortune 500 company will get you far.
What of Biden, Dukakis and Gephardt? Joe Biden, the Senator from Delaware, comes across as a real leader. Elected in an upset at the age of 29, the Senator suffered terrible heartache losing his wife in a car accident after the election. You cannot help but sympathize and feel for him as he struggled to put his family together again and to take responsibility for the poor choices he made as a law student at Syracuse University in the 1960s. After Dole, I found Biden's story to be the most compelling.
Dukakis? Gephardt? I think both men come across the same, as smart, driven, intelligent guys. The theme of Gephardt's chapters is that he has been and always will be an Eagle Scout: smart, popular with his peers and elders, a success in everything. In other words, Gephardt was the guy from from school your parents wanted you to be like in middle school. Dukakis comes across as even more flawless, more driven and more sure of himself. Dukakis, in other words, was the guy from high school that graduated with a 3.9 and still thought he could do better. Both men had to tough out difficult obstacles in their lives, however.
In the final analysis, this is a book you simply do not want to end. Cramer plays no favorites and gives all six men resolutely fair treatment. This is easily one of the three greatest books I have read in my life. (Along with "Thank You For Smoking" by Christopher Buckley and "Truman" by David McCullough). This book is the literary equivalent of desert.
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Raiders of the Lost Ark [VHS]
Raiders of the Lost Ark [VHS]
VHS
Offered by The Mixed Bag
Price: $5.48
312 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my favorites, July 6, 2002
I forget exactly when I saw "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Alas, it was not on the big screen but the movie made a dramatic impression upon me. I probably saw it when I was seven or eight, and for a kid that young with such big dreams of the world it certainly inspired a lot of imagination on my part. A movie really captures your imagination when you actually imagine yourself in it, you imagine yourself as the hero of the tale. Not until years later when I reflect on how much I wanted to be Indiana Jones did I come to appreciate the movie's impact.
I know most people who idolize George Lucas do so because of Star Wars. I personally get more of a kick out of watching Harrison Ford punch out a few Nazis than in watching Darth Vader rasp "A tremor in the Force..." Why? I like Indy better because I love Lucas' re-imagining of those old 1930s and 1940s pulp serials about heroic adventures in far-off lands that many Americans in that era had simply never heard of. There is a grand spirit of adventure in Indiana Jones that is sorely lacking in Hollywood these days. (The closest movie I have seen to come close to emulating the magic of Indy is the two Brenden Fraser "Mummy" films.) When Indy dashes through the deserts of Egypt or climbs out of a Mayan temple there is an exhilarating sense of journey and exploration. When we see Indy arrive in a new locale it is exciting to imagine what it must have been like.
Of the three Indy films "Raiders" is the first and probably the best (although not my favorite: "The Last Crusade" wins that honor. I still laugh uproariously at the scene where Marcus Brody arrives in Egypt pleading: "Does anyone speak English?") The story is straight out of classic pulp fiction: the mysterious hero must journey to exotic lands (the Amazon, Cairo and Tibet) to obtain the mystical artifact. Such a simple concept, yet it is so much more enjoyable than the multitude of confused and convoluted story-lines that Hollywood churns out into movies each year. (The "nuclear weapon stolen by terrorists" plot is a tad overdone in my opinion. E.g. "Bad Company", "Sum of all Fears", "Broken Arrow", "The Peacemaker".)
The movie's premise might be simplicity itself, but Indy is not a simple character. He's intelligent, savvy, has weaknesses and is an imaginative thinker. Indy has what so many other movie characters lack: charisma. After watching "True Lies" I didn't want Arnold to be the guy who saves the world. Who could root for that jerk? Indy is the guy you want to root for.
This was the movie that made Harrison Ford a star and rightfully so. Ford perfectly strikes the perfect balance in his acting. Unlike, say, Elisabeth Shue as a physicist in "The Saint", Harrison Ford is perfectly believable as a college professor and as an action hero. I doubt George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could have done a better job casting the part. People remember Steve McQueen as the epitome of "cool" in the 1960s and 70s. Harrison Ford has probably never been cooler than in "Raiders". He is everything an action hero should be.
From John Williams stirring score that provides the emotional backdrop to the story to the gorgeous cinematography (the matte painting scenes still standup well even in our CGI-dominated age), this is a terrific film that fires the imagination. It is hard for me to name a favorite movie or even a top ten. If I did sit down to think about what my favorite movie is, you can bet money that "Raiders" will probably win out.


Executive Orders (A Jack Ryan Novel)
Executive Orders (A Jack Ryan Novel)
by Tom Clancy
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $8.99
537 used & new from $0.01

10 of 21 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Yeetch, June 17, 2000
When I began reading Tom Clancy's books I was enthralled with the author's exciting plots- my summers were usually devoted to reading and re-reading his books as I'd imagine myself in the thick of the action. Since Clancy wrote 1991's "The Sum Of All Fears", his books have become longer, duller and less interesting. I found "Executive Orders" to be his worst work to date. The slow meandering plot is pretty hard to follow- not because it's so complicated. It's not. The problem is that the plot takes so much time getting going that you lose interest as Clancy positions the pieces one-by-one. The actual plot is pretty derivative of all of Clancy's other books, so the ending isn't much of a surprise. The most basic problem with Clancy's work is in his characters. Clancy obviously envisions Ryan to be a blue-collar everyman, just one that slipped into the White House through extraordinary circumstances. Much is made by the author of his hero's status as an "independent". It's too bad that Ryan comes across, consistently, as a doctrinaire, by-the-numbers, straight out of the pages of The National Review, conservative. Clancy, who has always been injecting his right-of-center politics into his books (though more obviously and stridently of late), puts his politics out in front here. "Executive Orders" is more politics than policy. Clancy is on his soapbox and the plot too often gets shuffled to the back for President Ryan to give some loopy tirade about liberal "special interests" (and there aren't conservative ones?). First clue that non-conservatives won't be given equal time: the book is dedicated to Ronald Reagan, who "won the Cold War" according to Clancy. Give me a break. Too bad Clancy couldn't have made his case without his hero's preachy speeches. After hearing Ryan's 1,314th speech informing another character he "is not a politician!" the reader will want to yell back: "Then shut up already!" The character of Jack Ryan has always been a difficult one to judge- heroic by far in Clancy's other novels, Ryan makes the transition from preachy, sanctimonious hero to preachy, sanctimonious jerk in this novel. A Tom Clancy novel hits you hard and fast and the action takes your breath away, but when the plot slows down and we try to get character moments they sometimes seem painfully forced. Clancy characters are written like post-it notes: this is the Good Guy who is a conservative/soldier/CIA analyst, etc. This is the Bad Guy/Girl who is a liberal/Russian spy/terrorist/feminist, etc. Can you really tell me how much different the characters of Jack Ryan and John Clark are from one another, aside from their names and character histories? Not a whole heck of a lot. I'm sure Clancy thinks he's giving America the kind of leader (read: conservative) they want in this book, but Ryan comes across as a breezy, "I'm-doing-the-right-thing and people will see that" conservative whose politics and style bear a striking resemblance to Newt Gingrich. The old Goldwater-for-President slogan "In your heart you know he's right", is a favorite dream of conservatives and Clancy relies on it here. Why does the subplot with the "mountain men" militia group fizzle out so spectacularly? Probably because Clancy can't bring himself to make people whose political viewpoint he sympathizes with the bad guys. In the end the reader will sigh with relief when he or she finishes this monstrosity. I did. My advice to you, don't even pick this one up.


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