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The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War One
The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War One
by Ben Macintyre
Edition: Hardcover
95 used & new from $0.01

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chercher la femme, February 28, 2002
The woman being searched for could be either THE ENGLISHMAN'S DAUGHTER herself - an old French woman named Helene, whose father - Pvt. Robert Digby, is one of the central characters of this true story. Digby was an English soldier serving in France in 1914 during WWI. Or the author could be looking for the identity of the woman in the French song known by all the people of Villeret. A woman "so jealous and wicked" as one verse says, that she betrayed Digby and three other allied soldiers to the Germans. All four men were promptly executed. Three others managed to escape to Britain.
The villagers had initial success in hiding these seven soldiers, first in the nearby forest then in outlying buildings. The author - Ben Macintyre - clearly shows that the villagers had contrasting emotions. Honor and pride in hosting and looking after their guests, yet also trepidation and fear from recognition of the great risk that they were taking. As time passed it was decided to cease hiding the men and to try and incorporate them into village life. Macintyre creates an almost palpable sense of danger when writing that the villagers "set about the courageous but daunting task of turning these English and Irish soldiers into northern French peasants." Danger only grew as time stretched to two years. The year 1916 saw an increase in the German presence and the harsh rules of occupation enforced by the German commandant Major Karl Evers made the situation very trying indeed.
Poignancy enters by way of the ultimately doomed romance between Digby and Claire Dessenne, a beautiful young villager. Helene was the result but the cost was great. The relationship put a strain on the inherent kindness of the populace, the war was taking its toll, and the eagerness to continue hosting the soldiers began to wane. The outcome was the arrival on the morning of May 16th of a group of Germans at the sleeping quarters of Digby and three others. Their roundup and execution by month end in the neighboring village of Le Catelet provides the sad denouement of the romantic story but the end for Villeret came a year later when the Germans destroyed every building in the village as they withdrew.
We began with a quest and Macintyre ends the same way. The woman who betrayed the Englishmen may have been Claire's mother but there is reason to suspect others, most prominently Villeret's acting mayor, the postman, and the baker. Perhaps in keeping with the sadness of the story it is appropriate that in the final outcome we never know who.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 28, 2014 3:21 PM PDT

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
by Adam Hochschild
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.49
598 used & new from $0.43

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The horror!, the horror!", February 22, 2002
These dying words of Mr Kurtz were first read in 1899 when HEART OF DARKNESS was published. Twain's KING LEOPOLD'S SOLILOQUY came out in 1905 and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote THE CRIME OF THE CONGO in 1909. Additionally, the Congo Reform Association (in support of which both Twain and Conan-Doyle wrote their books) began operating in 1904 with the sole purpose of bringing to public attention the terrible situation in the Congo Free State under the rule of Belgium's King Leopold II. It's obvious then that the horrific treatment of the Congolese as described in KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST was known about and well documented. The issue here is not one of a lack of awareness. In fact Hochschild says there was "a storm of righteous protest" and moral outrage in England and America when the facts became known. No, the issue is more to do with why this genocide of 100 years ago remains such a relatively unknown story and is rarely ever mentioned when the topic of discussion is man's cruelty to man. It's not because the carnage was insignificant. In terms of numbers the death toll stacks up well with other holocausts. Hochschild estimates the number of Congolese that died between 1885 - 1920 from between 5 to 10 million.
In attempting to come to terms with this and explain why there seems to be so little present-day consciousness of what took place, the author admits to his own lack of knowledge prior to his research. A partial answer is that in the Congo today, there is very little information available on this period. More significantly though it is because of the special nature of the Congo and its colonial history. But it seems to me the book shows that most importantly, in a country that has known only paroxysms, death is a constant and numbers are merely matters of scale on a continuum. The special characteristic of the Congo is that it is incredibly blessed with natural mineral wealth - coal, cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold, manganese, offshiore petroleum, silver, tin, uranium and zinc. Not even mentioned yet are the products that this book talks about and what King Leopold was greedily ravaging the country for - rubber, ivory and timber. Against this background, and with interests in Belgium, France, Germany, and England eyeing this and other African wealth, who really is surprised to learn that economic considerations and international political deliberations have in the past swept human-interest issues under the carpet.
Hochschild does an admirable job of highlighting the human rights context of his story. For him the heroes are the two founders of the Congo Reform Association - Edmund Dene Morel and Roger Casement and the villains are of course King Leopold and the man whom the King initially depended upon to organize the Congo Free State - Henry Morton Stanley. Morel's "flash of moral recognition" that something was terribly wrong in the Congo is how we begin this book. While we can see some of the colonials as illustrative of the heart of darkness, and Hochschild's description of some of the massacres is indeed gruesome, this book is far more than a simple, sensationalist, expose on the evils of the white-man and colonialism. There are some interesting sub-texts here. While white missionaries were instrumental in bringing much of the attrocities to light they were also not above dark deeds. Initially the Belgian church in the Congo portrayed criticisms as an attack on Roman Catholicism by protestant missionaries. This may have also been due to the fact that some were American, and black - George Washington Williams and William Sheppard for instance. Both catholics and protestants were also initially fooled by Leopold's pious pronouncements and believed that he was unaware of what was being done in his name.
The Congo is a huge country. It has an ancient history and culture and it is populated with various different ethnic groups including pygmies. It was visited by Arab traders and slavers long before Europeans arrived and now, decades after independence, still struggles with issues related to political, economic, and social cohesion. KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST only covers a part of this history and therefore only offers a limited answer to the puzzle that is today's sorry state known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However even as a partial answer, it is well worth reading.

The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention That Changed the World
The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention That Changed the World
by Amir D. Aczel
Edition: Hardcover
75 used & new from $0.01

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pointing in the wrong direction, February 18, 2002
It's my own fault I'm disappointed with THE RIDDLE OF THE COMPASS. I know I should never judge a book by its cover, but the image of the compass, and the idea that reading this would be like a quest to solve some puzzle, was just too appealing to leave alone. The book however doesn't deliver on its promise.
It starts well enough with a visit to Amalfi, Italy where we stand with the author and peer at the bronze statue of one Flavio Gioia, hailed in those parts as the inventor of the compass. However, when Aczel reveals that the man is most probably fiction and has nothing to do with the compass, the riddle really begins. The problem though is that it's the reader that remains puzzled througout. The town is where the first seaworthy, boxed, compass was developed but what's the point of Gioia? Marco Polo is mentioned and we are told about his adventures. It's interesting reading but the trips have nothing to do with the compass, except that they were to China where the instrument is generally agreed to have been first invented. The main area of focus in the book is the history of navigation from early times to our modern technological age with the importance of the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system. But why this emphasis on navigation if as Aczel himself says "the compass did not enable navigation - navigation across the seas took place long before the compass was invented..." Puzzling. He does go on to make the point however that the compass made navigation more efficient and opened up seaborne trade routes.
There really is not a lot here about the compass at all. Nothing much on it's scientific importance or on it's technical undepinnings. His descriptions about his boyhood years navigating in the Mediterranean provide a personal touch but don't tell us much about the tool. There are so many other scientific digressions that would have been more to the point. In discussing earth's magnetic properties why no mention of birds inbuilt compasses that let them migrate thousands of miles? There are other Earth energies besides magnetism; what is a diving rod but an ancient compass?

A Bend in the River
A Bend in the River
by V. S. Naipaul
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.12
302 used & new from $0.01

71 of 75 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Africa has no future", February 17, 2002
This review is from: A Bend in the River (Paperback)
Naipaul in one of his typically politically-incorrect interviews said these very words about the continent. A BEND IN THE RIVER is therefore a gloomy book and offers a pessimistic view of Africa. If Conrad had not already taken the title, then this book could easily have been called HEART OF DARKNESS. That's not a coincidence either as Naipaul is frequently compared to Conrad in terms of literary style and theme. The setting is the same also. Although A BEND.. takes place in a fictitious African country it can be read as either Congo or Uganda as it is based on his visits to those countries in the 1960's.
The principal character and narrator of the story is Salim, an Indian and Muslim. Indian merchant families like his have been living in the coastal area of the country for generations. The blacks live inland. Salim decides to move to a small, formerly-quaint colonial town in the interior to set up shop and sell cloth. He is immediately at a loss, in conflict, confused - a man in search of an identity in a country in search of itself. Salim must contend with the rapidly changing social, economic and political environment of the newly independent country while at the same time sort out his own world view in the face of the contending opinions of the other characters. There is the influence of the Big Man - and simply because he is president for life - his interests must be served. There are others: a Belgian priest; Raymond, the white speech writer for the Big Man; Yvette, Raymond's wife; Mahesh, a disillusioned Indian, and finally, the most unlikey important character - Ferdinand. He is a simple boy from the "bush", who, in this upside-down country, becomes Governor of the town after the nation is "radicalized" by the Big Man.
The newly-independent former-colony and the various cultural and political influences of the inhabitants are the foils for two of Naipaul's favorite themes. First is his affinity for, and identity with, dispossessed persons. Dispossessed in the personal sense of the word - no home, no country, no identity - a nobody. Following from this personal sense of rootlessness and anomie is Naipaul's un-romantic and oftentimes very critical assessment of the ability of developing countries to sustain the hopes and dreams of their people. This is ably summed up by Ferdinand. "We are all going to hell, and everyman knows this in his bones...everyone want's to make his money and run away. But where?"
Naipaul's prose is direct, not symbolic, so many students of Post Colonial literature have had a field-day dissecting Naipaul's various literary allusions and castigate him as a conservative and supporter of neo-colonialism. If that's your area of interest and particular world-view then you will definitely not enjoy A BEND.. If on the other hand you simply like well written, slightly satirical novels with finely-detailed characters and are inclined to not take writers or your reading material too seriously then this is a book you'll definitely enjoy.

Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo
Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo
by Pagan Kennedy
Edition: Hardcover
72 used & new from $1.14

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The author presumes, February 13, 2002
Stanley's presumption that the white man he stumbled upon in the wilds of the Congo must be the lost Dr Livingstone was at least based on some knowledge. The same however, can not be said about some of the assumptions that Pagan Kennedy makes regarding the thoughts and motives of Presbyterian missionary William Sheppard in BLACK LIVINGSTONE. As another reviewer has already pointed out there are too many instances of "he must have thought" "he would have believed" "perhaps he felt" and so on. Suppositions that because they are repeated so often only draw your attention to the reality that there seems to be an awful lot that the author doesn't know about her subject. It's also very distracting.
More research may have only helped a little as there does not seem to be a whole lot of information available about William Sheppard. Born in 1865 in Virginia he attended Hampton Institute and then entered the ministry in Alabama. After pastorships in Georgia, this young black man in the predominantly white Southern Presbyterian Church was offered a position as missionary to the Belgian Congo in 1890. He and a fellow missionary - 23 year old white Alabaman Samuel Lapsley set off for what would be a 20 year adventure for Sheppard. Lapsley on the otherhand lasted no time at all. He died from fever in 1892, eventually being replaced by William Morrison who came out in 1897.
Writing style and paucity of research material on the main subject notwithstanding, the book does a good enough job with the descrition of some of the adventures that Sheppard embarked on. Such as his journey to the land of the Kuba peoples "who lived at the end of a labyrinth of secret paths; anyone who told the way into the city would be beheaded." This was also Congo under the rule of the rapacious Belgian King Leopold II and one of the duties assigned to Sheppard following Morrison's arrival was to document the cruel exploitation of the locals by the Europeans. Sheppards' uncovering of a massacre of locals by a cannibalistic king working at the behest of the Belgians showed both his bravery and his ability to handle tricky situations.
In the end the man was undone not by tribal feuding, politics or Belgian revenge, but by subtle human failings. He was found guilty of adultery having taken a few African mistresses while on service and was called home to answer charges by the church. It is strange that in discussing this episode the author is not as forthcoming with proposing what Sheppard might have been thinking or feeling. Perhaps it is finally a recognition that we simply can't know.
William Sheppard comes through as a brave, enterprising, and intrepid person. More akin to adventurer than missionary. He certainly rises above his fellow church workers. If BLACK LIVINGSTONE had been simply a telling of his story rather than guessing his thoughts, then the book would have been as enjoyable as the man was interesting.

Eye of the Whale : Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia
Eye of the Whale : Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia
by Dick Russell
Edition: Hardcover
73 used & new from $0.01

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "That immense...intense and impeccable eye", February 13, 2002
Staring into THE EYE OF THE WHALE certainly seems to be a mystical experience. Unfortunately on the whale watching trips I've been on you get no closer to the whales than the deck of the ship. Not close up and personal (sometimes even rubbing and patting the "friendly whales")as is the case in Baja, California, with watching the Gray whales from small Zodiac boats. Perhaps you are like me then and (unlike the author) know nothing about the metaphysical powers of whales and their ability to bring about meditative and contemplative states in mankind while imparting transcendental wisdom. This book is therefore equal parts a journey of self discovery by the author and a natural history and scientific discourse on the Pacific Gray whale. For my liking there are just a few too many experiences here such as this one by a marine biologist: "It was a calf and I could see its eye looking into my eyes...I knew we were talking..." Mr Spock mind-melds with Gracie the Humpback a la STAR TREK: THE VOYAGE HOME.
Although the author and others see "whales smile by my fingertips" and get all "misty eyed" and believe that the whales are "trying to save us from our human side" these sentimental and lyrical asides are simply a matter of writing style. Overall they do not spoil the book. There is sufficient science and history here to satisfy those looking for something other than a "save the whales / save the world" soft-sell. The defeat of Mitsubishi's proposed salt-works at one of the whale breeding lagoons and the story of Charles Melville Scammon are themes that run throughout the book. Mitsubishi represents the modern day commercial threat to the whales while Scammon was an old-time whale-butchering sea captain. Scammons' conversion from hunter to benefactor (he ended up writing the definitive book on gray whales) is a tale well told. Perhaps, like the author, he too looked into the EYE OF THE WHALE.
"Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them" (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

by Ken Follett
Edition: Hardcover
437 used & new from $0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Something to crow about, February 3, 2002
This review is from: Jackdaws (Hardcover)
Going back to the era of his best work - WWII, Follett comes up with a winner this time. He knows the period well and the detailed descriptions of conditions in wartime England and France feel authentic.
JACKDAWS opens in 1944 just prior to the allied invasion of Normandy. Female English spy Felicity 'Flick' Clariet and her French Resistance husband Michel are participating in an sabotage attack on a German telephone exchange. The plan goes sour and they are the only two to escape. Michel is injured.
That's the setup for the story - the return of Flick to France to finish the job. We follow Flick as she develops her unusual plan which relies on cover as domestics and telephone operators. As such it's a small team she recruits, and they're all women. The only qualifying criteria is that they all be fluent in French and know something about engineering and explosives. Half the fun here is in their recruitment - "one flirt, one murderess, one safebreaker, one female impersonator, and one awkward aristocrat."
The plot is sufficiently well developed with the familiar Follett twists and turns. There is enough deception, duplicity, and danger here to make this quite a satisfying adventure ride. It's been a while but let's hope the famous Follett formula for entertaining espionage thrillers is back for good.

The Future of Life
The Future of Life
by Edward O. Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
154 used & new from $0.01

48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All the talk about diversity; it's biodiversity that matters, February 3, 2002
This review is from: The Future of Life (Hardcover)
Forget the nattering about cultural and religious diversity. Edward O Wilson makes a strong and compelling argument that biodiversity should take pride-of-place as the pre-emininent subject of discussion. THE FUTURE OF LIFE should be the topic that the diversity industry concentrates on.
The substantive subject here however is not the scientific underpinnings of adaptation, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology in general, nor does this book go into the moral and political debates surrounding these topics. It's a refreshing break from the 'Science Wars' and the concomitantly fought, but larger, 'Culture Wars.' A refreshing break yes, but this book is by no means breezy or full of cheer. You may very well come away depressed - how else can it be when the subject is man - "the serial killer of the biosphere." In the end though there is some room for cautious optimism.
The litany of woes is well known - destruction of tropical rainforests, overpopulation, pollution, desertification, and massive loss of plant and animal species. Indeed science is generally in agreement on the fact that we are in the midst of a Great Extinction event. They've been others. This is THE SIXTH EXTINCTION (as Richard Leakey put it a few years ago), but it's the first since hominids arrived, and as Wilson says [we have] "accelerated the erasure of entire ecosystems and the extinction of thousands of million-year-old species." Wilson wrote about this previously in THE DIVERSITY OF LIFE but it seems to me, he is following on from CONSILIENCE (where he offered a sythesis of knowledge) by reaffirming that for mankind today, what we know (and equally as important, what we do not know) about the environment is the only knowledge that really matters. He says "perhaps the time has come to stop calling it the 'environmentalist' view, as though it were a lobbying effort outside the mainstream of human activity, and to start calling it the real-world view."
Since we've not yet got that vision, the next best thing is to start using the sort of sythesis thinking that Wilson offers here. Economics is the science of rational man, so in appealing to reason, not emotion, Wilson blends biology with economics and shows the costs associated with a depleted environment. He mentions some "ecosystem services" such as pollination of crops, pollution control, climate control, and water purification, and mentions that a 1997 study by economists put the value of these services at $33 trillion per annum. A partial loss of even some of these naturally occurring, and therefore free facilities would severely disrupt our economic activity, and more importantly, we could never afford the replacement costs. He builds on this emphasis with examples of its practical applicability. "In 1992 a pair of economic botanists demonstrated that single harvests of wild grown medicinals from two tropical forest plots in Belize were worth $726 and $3,327 per hectare respectively, with labor costs thrown in. By comparison, other researchers estimated per hectare yield from tropical forest converted to farmland at $228 in nearby Guatemala and $339 in Brazil."
Although economics as practiced through industrialization and globalization is a large part of the problem, it must also be involved in the solution - "[making] conservation profitable." This book forces us to confront a dismal recent past and a less than rosy immediate future, but Wilson nevertheless ends on a guardedly optimistic note. He offers solutions such as immediate protection of the worlds most sensitive ecosystems or "hotspots", a ban on logging of old-growth forests and mapping of the worlds biodiversity resources.
Wilson does tangentially bring up his pet theory of sociobiology and briefly discusses our genetic wiring as a non-forest dweller as a partial cause for our antipathy towards wilderness. In the end though, the book is a direct appeal to our ability to change based on past environmental experiences, and Wilson demonstrates a philosophical belief in man's spiritual connectedness to nature. It's a sythesis of knowledge and life. It's actually the sort of view that his old scientific rivals - Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin - would probably offer a nod to. It will be interesting to see how they receive this book. Consensus possibly? Maybe biodiversity is indeed all that really matters.
"The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment" (Gaylord Nelson)

The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes
The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes
by Peter Matthiessen
Edition: Hardcover
107 used & new from $0.01

42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birds without borders, lessons unlearned, time unwinding, February 2, 2002
If you've read any of Matthiessen's non fiction you'll know that when he's passionate about a subject he has the ability to bring feelings alive with his poetic and vivid command of language. Tie that in with his inclination to be a naturally introspective writer - literally seeking inner truths through nature - and you've got the threads that are woven together here to make THE BIRDS OF HEAVEN a beautifully written book. In describing a glimpse of three Japanese cranes on a misty early evening on the snow covered banks of a river, Matthiessen is at his evocative best. "Sun silvered creatures, moving gracefully without haste and yet swiftly in the black diamond shimmer of the Muri River - a hallucinatory vision, a revelation, although what is revealed beyond this silver moment of my life I do not know."
While Matthiessen is poetic and romantic as a nature writer he is a blunt and critical social commentator. Our species comes in for some stick. We neither stack up well in creation - look at the beauty of an African Crowned crane, the "red-black-and-white head crowned by a spray of elongated feathers on the nape, like spun gold in the bright wonderful it seems that even the boldest colors of creation are never garish or mismatched, as they are so often in the work of man." Nor do we do so well with what we create - China's Three Gorges Dam will destroy some pristine crane wintering lands and is, according to Matthiessen, "a grand folly of enormous cost." Worse still is that we are such a self destructive species. The dam, he goes on to say, will also cause "social and environmental ruin" in this part of China.
Poignancy, yes, even sorrow at the passing of so many of the last wild and unspoilt areas of the planet, but sentimentality, wistfullness, hopelessness, and inaction are not words that are in this author's vocabulary. Indeed the fact that cranes are the central focus here is cause for cautious optimism. Cranes have always been a vibrant part of our cultural history and remain evocative symbols of our spiritual and creative imagination and are seen as omens of good luck and longevity in many countries.
The fifteen species of cranes (eleven of which are endangered or threatened) have lessons to teach mankind. Matthiessen's recounting of the sectarian squabbling that took place at an international gathering of crane conservationists is illustrative. While economics, politics, and nationality remain common dividing factors among the human participants, more than half of the species of cranes are content to make the Amur River basin in central Asia their common gathering ground.
A powerful book for Matthiessen's writing, the beautiful paintings and illustrations offered in support, and the stories of the cranes themselves - Saurus, Crowned Crane, Brolga, Siberian and the rare Whooping and Japanese Cranes - two of the most endangered species that Matthiessen says are "heraldic emblems of the purity of water, earth, and air that is being lost." We need to conserve, appreciate, and learn from these birds of heaven, and heed the "horn notes of their voices, [that] like clarion calls out of the farthest skies, summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth."
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Salt: A World History
Salt: A World History
by Mark Kurlansky
Edition: Hardcover
94 used & new from $4.39

84 of 92 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth his Salt, February 1, 2002
This review is from: Salt: A World History (Hardcover)
Yes, Kurlansky is worth his salt as a writer, researcher and uncoverer of unknown facts about odd subjects. As he did with his previous non fiction books he has woven strands of information into an interesting tapestry, equal parts - enthralling history lesson and cultural voyage. The only problem is - at 450 pages and 26 chapters, with numerous visits to different cultures, countries, eras and rulers in an attempt to cover as many of the 14,000 uses that salt is known for - finishing SALT: A WORLD HISTORY leaves you in a brine of facts, but also very thirsty for a unifying theme or story and a more memorable read.
Certainly my knowledge of historical trivia is now seasoned with tidbits such as: the Anglo-Saxon word for saltworks being 'wich' means that places such as Norwich, Greenwich, etc, in England were once ancient salt mines; Ghandi's independence movement in India began with his defying the British salt laws, and the French levied taxes on salt until as recently as 1946.
A common theme in Kurlansky's books is that food is seen as a topic of historical interest. Here we learn about the role salt played in preserving cod, whale, ham, herring, caviar, pastrami, salami and sausage, and as it was with COD and THE BASQUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD this book is sprinkled throughout with recipes.
Salt is certainly an interesting subject; cultural history buffs will love this book and Kurlansky still has a humorous, easy, and very readable writing style; it's just that he probably could have salted away some of the facts without us missing much and he should have developed a flowing theme rather than one that was so saltatory.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 22, 2015 4:55 PM PDT

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