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Robert J. Crawford RSS Feed (Balmette Talloires, France)

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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
by Manning Marable
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.09
98 used & new from $7.05

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Corrects misleading stories, deepens with context, supplements with retropective detail, June 20, 2016
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Many boomers view Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X as a seminal step in their journey to understanding the realities of life in the US - it certainly changed my life. For years, I have been hoping to find a bio that would confirm what was right about Haley's account, critique it where necessary, and add context from the vantage of the nearly 50 years since it was published. This is exactly what Marable set out to do and, in spite of some things I find debatable, I think it is a complete success. Of all the delights one can find in a great book, in this one I felt I was in a personal dialogue with a brilliant researcher and writer.

Malcolm's early life was difficult, from a childhood of tragic losses and passing from con to pimp, criminal and addict, then straight into prison. While Marable confirms that much of this is true, he proves that Malcolm often exaggerated for the sake of building a compelling narrative for his career trajectory. He wasn't a major criminal, but he did rob some houses and was careless and stupid enough to get caught. Of the interesting things I learned on his early background was the political activism of his father as a follower of Marcus Garvey, an early black nationalist who argued for separatism and even negotiated with the Klan, whom he saw are "more honest" than Northern whites in their true intensions. One of the more questionable claims that Marable advances is that Malcolm also served briefly as a homosexual prostitute to a rich white benefactor, who later helped him get parole; Marable doesn't prove this with direct evidence yet references it throughout the book as fact. (Malcolm's marital problems were also new to me. Though glossed over in the Autobiography as a story of true love, Malcolm and Betty were in reality ill matched in the myriad ways that a marriage can go very, very wrong.)

Marable next covers Malcolm's prison conversion and initiation into Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, which he portrays as a fundamentalist cult with a "bizarre theology". This too I think is accurate: they were radical separatists who sought to set up their own nation (never specified as to where), viewed Caucasians as literal spawns of the devil in Yakub's history, whereby an evil scientist created white men on a Mediterranean island in 8400 BCE. They also had a paramilitary force that enforced their ideology by violence, predominantly against its own members. A big part of the story is Malcolm's realization, as stimulated by his international travel experiences, that this was in fact heretical to orthodox Sunni Islam, which he discovered is universalist and welcoming of all races.

The most interesting and important section for me was on Malcolm's rise to Elijah Muhammed's chief lieutenant and their subsequent estrangement. Not only was Malcolm instrumental into turning the Nation of Islam into a major force during the 1950s, but their relationship developed serious tensions that ultimately led to his murder. I had assumed the rivalry was one of power, but Marable makes the case that it was essentially political in nature. While Elijah Muhammed's theology was inwardly oriented in an almost myopic manner, Malcolm was overty political, seeking ties with other groups and faiths, venturing into controversies about race, religion, and decolonization. Though it may have been in the Autobiography (and passed over me due to my own ignorance at the time of reading), I had no idea that Malcolm related well to communists, including Che, the non-aligned movement, and was highly critical of capitalism - he represented an integral part of the intellectual currents of the time. Elijah Muhammed wanted none of this. While he was angry that Malcolm challenged him on his bevy of illegitimate children, this was only the last straw in a much more fundamental ideological conflict.

Finally, Marable is very good on Malcolm's legacy. Rather than the integrationist that many imply he was becoming, Marable argues that he was the seed of the black pride movement - more inclusive to be sure, but solidly in the column of the angry, active critic of mainstream white America who would forever stand apart. His charisma and intellect rightly placed him at the center of the black consciousness movement, the persistent opposite of the integrationists and their hopes of making race irrelevant. While I feel uncertain that one can argue this as forcefully as Marable does - if only because Malcolm was assassinated as his views were in a kind of volatile flux - I see his point. His death at 39 was a loss to us all, his true potential will never be known.

I found several elements of the book rather dry. There is too much about Malcolm's organizations and associations, which much be covered but not in such detail, at least for me. Furthermore, there is an awful lot about the assassination and its botched investigation, none of which can be definitive. That being said, this is a wonderful reading experience, more or less riveting the whole way. This book is clearly a labor of love based on many newly available sources, making it a must read. Warmly recommended.

La Révolution française - Version intégrale - Les années lumière & Les années terribles
La Révolution française - Version intégrale - Les années lumière & Les années terribles
DVD ~ Klaus Maria Brandauer

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Who did what to whom, but little about why it went the way it did, June 12, 2016
This is a nice dramatization of the French Revolution, but it only portrays what happened to a handful of characters, i.e. the most important actors (the King, Marie Antoinette, Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, a few others). It gets the events right and the acting is quite good. Unfortunately, if you want a wider portrait of the society, including some explanation of why things took the courses that they did, this mini-series has almost nothing to offer.

The story centers around the friendship of Desmoulins and Robespierre, who went to the same school. Once they are grown, Danton joins them as things reach a boil while the French monarchy repeatedly proves itself incompetent. Once overthrown, the revolutionaries take over, becoming progressively more violent and perhaps insane as the terror ensues for the sake of preserving the "purity" of the revolution. Threats come from outside and within. The ending is abrupt, as the Robespierre-dominated committee turns on itself as the excesses escalated.

I know the history somewhat and was disappointed there was not much historical depth. What goes unexplained is how the new government structures functioned, what motivated the various actors, and the impact it had on the wider society and indeed on Europe. Sure, aristocratic privilege was swept away, opening an era of equality and opportunity, but the viewer gets little more than that. Instead, it is much more a melodrama.

Also, it is in French with subtitles in English only, though it was shot in both languages. Please note that the format is Region 2, i.e. not American.

This is fun, but I can't say I learned anything from it. Recommended with these reservations.

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
by Ross King
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.00
26 used & new from $4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The perfect companion to the popular film, The Agony and the Ecstacy, May 24, 2016
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If you want a fluid and quick read on the Sistine Chapel, this is the perfect book for it. King describes the entire process with particular vividness, from Michelangelo's struggle with the Pope and with himself to the military battles that were occurring all over Italy at the time. It is a uniquely successful description, panel by panel, of the evolution of this greatest of works in historical context.

Michelangelo had just entered his prime when Pope Julius II essentially ordered him to paint the enormous ceiling of arguably the most important Chapel in Christendom. In terms of ego and ambition, they were well matched: both irascible, full of arresting visions, and with such strong wills that it is a miracle they did not kill each other. Michelangelo had just completed David and was designing the Pope's tomb when Julius decided that he should be a painter, a medium he had abandoned as a student 15 years before. Instead of complying, he fled to Florence, fearing execution or imprisonment for his impudence. He grudgingly began the work, which necessitated that he school himself in fresco techniques as he went along.

The political context of the time was perilous. While trying to expand the Papal state, Julius had alienated many potential allies in Italian city states and was preparing for war with France. In an unprecedented move, he led the military forces himself, a conglomeration of Swiss mercenaries, allies from Spain and elsewhere, and rag tag groupings from local areas. Moreover, the Protestant movement was inchoate, though Henry VIII was still a fervent ally. In his mid-60s, he was also in frail health, often on the verge of death. These developments constantly threatened to derail Michelangelo's commission.

For his part, Michelangelo was operating in difficult circumstances. He was the breadwinner for his entire family, most of whom put on aristocratic heirs and harassed him for money while refusing to work independently. In addition, a highly talented competitor, Raphael, was at work next door on competing commissions. It added up to extraordinary stress and obsessive labor, leaving Michelangelo chronically exhausted, unhappy, and unhealthy. In spite of all of this, the work progressed. Where King is best is when he is explaining the imagery and how it may have referenced current events. Raphael's work is also explained, with many comic references to the difficult Michelangelo.

I cannot do justice to the subtlety of King's elucidation of the art itself. Suffice to say, Michelangelo revolutionized the possibilities of the painting medium, developing techniques and themes that were copied by all of the great artists to follow. He also offered novel interpretations of the Biblical scenes, which were particularly fascinating to me. It was, of course, an immense success, pleasing even Julius II, who put Michelangelo back to work on his tomb once it was completed.

I do have some criticisms. King presents too much technical detail for my taste, such as how paint pigments were mixed and even their sources - I was not looking for such academic detail in a popular narrative. At the same time, I felt that much of the historical context was too light. These are personal taste, of course, other readers may be looking for just this balance.

Recommended warmly. King is a truly splendid writer with great erudition and an enthusiasm that he can transmit to great effect.

The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece
The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece
by Paul Cartledge
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.83
158 used & new from $0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Worthy to be studied, but not read for pleasure, May 18, 2016
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As a history enthusiast, I was hoping for a popular narrative that would serve as a reminder and update of what I once studied. Instead, what I got was a very dry academic treatment with virtually no narrative, minimal references to related events, if good coverage of the basics at a high undergraduate level. It is more of a slog than a fun read, but there are many interesting nuggets to be found throughout.

The history of Sparta starts with Lycurgus, a semi-mythic law giver who is credited with setting up a uniquely militaristic state around 8C BCE. First, all the conquered peoples in the surrounding area were essentially slaves (Helots) to the Spartan elite. Not only did they carry out all menial tasks, freeing both men and women to pursue martial excellence, but they served as infantry cannon fodder (hoplites). Second, from the age of 7, Spartan boys were trained in the Agoge, a kind of survival school that was designed to toughen them up; they were supposed to find ways to eat by stealing and not get caught, spent their time fighting and enduring pain, etc. Third, by the age of 18, they were farmed out to mentors for further training, who they also served with sex. Fourth, once they came of age, they applied to a communal eating group, to which they must be accepting unanimously; these groups were like fraternities, but also competed. If anyone failed to be accepted into one or was kicked out, he lost almost all status and was called an inferior. Fifth, women were expected to participate. Unlike in all other Greek city states, Spartan women were educated, could own property and pass it on as inheritance, and directly contributed to decision-making. They could even take on lovers when men were on campaign without placing themselves in legal jeopardy.

As strange as it sounds, this created a fighting machine without equal from about the 6th to the 3rd C BCE. At that time, Greece was organized into hundreds of city states, which perpetually waged small wars against each other for parochial gain. The Spartans were superior because they were organized as professionals rather than amateurs who doubled as farmers and estate managers. Supported by a large group of slaves in contiguous areas, their sole business was warfare.

There were bigger empires in the neighborhood, namely the Persians. When they attempted to conquer Greece, the city states united and a force under Sparta's king, Leonidas, delayed the Persians just long enough at Thermopylae (480 BCE) for the others to regroup and beat them back. The other power that emerged was Athens, which headed up the Delian League in the 50-year aftermath of the war, leading to the era of Perikles. Soon, the two of them were at each others' throats, which brought nearly all of the Greek city states onto one side or another. After 27 years of war (431-404 BCE), Athens lost. But both states were so depleted that their time as great military powers was done. Other states had learned Spartan fighting methods and so Thebes and then Macedonia emerged as the new powers.

Of course, the bases for Spartan power has also been in decline for decades. Their elite fighting force was too small for the larger wars that were coming, it took too long to replenish the losses of the elite warriors, even if they were unequaled in hand-to-hand combat. They also eschewed certain fighting techniques, such as the use of archers, which they thought "effeminate". Their conceit of never building a fortress to protect their capital city - they said that men were their walls - proved a deadly mistake once they were weaker and under siege. Their slaves also revolted often, a constant threat to the foundation of their state. Finally, in the battle of Leuctra (371 BCE), Sparta suffered a catastrophic defeat from which it never recovered, shattering its reputation for invincibility. Then Alexander, after his father, created a vast Empire that was split into the Hellenistic states. Rome became the great Mediterranean power soon thereafter.

The book covers many of the personalities in frustratingly sparse detail. As I said, a narrative never really develops and the story is presented less as a chronological progression than as a series of topical essays. You get a chapter on religion, a historiography of Leonidas (too cursory to be of much interest), etc. It comes off as disjointed and often somewhat dull, though the prose is not too bad. Unfortunately, the wider context of the times is only referenced, i.e. a lot of knowledge is assumed. For example, the author mentions the Hellenistic Empires, but does not explain who was who and where they were. If the reader does not know about this, the text will be confusing, even turgid.

I would recommend this book in spite of my disappointments. I liked the content, if not the style.

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World
Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World
by Noel Malcolm
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.47
68 used & new from $18.97

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Late 16C geopolitics in the Mediterranean, as told in the portrait of an Albanian family, May 9, 2016
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While I was surprised at how academic this book was - I was expecting something more popular - it is an absolutely excellent read. The context of the book is the period immediately following the apogee of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. The "plot", if you will, is an extended family over 2 generations of nobles from Albania, who make their careers involving virtually all the great powers of the Mediterranean.

There were a number of powers operating the the region at that time. By far the most powerful, the Ottoman Empire was master of about 2/3 of the Mediterranean, combining man-power rich infantry and an enormous navy. Though Suleiman was turned back at Vienna and Malta, his Empire was regarded as unstoppable. His sea-based enemies included Venice, Spain, the Vatican territories, and the Habsburgs, who controlled southern Italy; they occasionally allied themselves, however suspicious they were of each other as their interests conflicted. For its part, France was more or less allied to the Ottomans, a tactical advantage to counter its enemies. One of the most interesting forces were the semi-autonomous forces that existed on the fringes of the empires, who paid some fealty to their superiors but were able to take actions under their own initiative and profit; these were the corsairs (kind of like pirates with a code, allied to patron states, e.g. the knights of Malta), nomads on the plain (Tatars, Cossacks, and many others).

To put it mildly, this concatenation of forces made the Mediterranean a cauldron of intrigue and opportunity. Into this stepped the Bruti family, nobles who were not of the highest aristocracy. They were educated, energetic, and ambitious. Unfortunately for them, just as they were coming of age the Ottomans conquered their native region, which had been under Venetian suzerainty or outright control, depending on circumstances. It was a semi-savage area with many dangerous, autonomous tribes, one of those nexus points at which Slavic, Greek, and Albanian cultures met and mingled. In the beginning, there were 3 brothers: one a merchant spy for Venice, one a Knight of Malta (a military expert), and the other a Catholic bishop. The brothers dominate the first half of the book, which is framed around the decisive naval battle, Lepanto, marking the beginning of the decline of the Ottomans.

The second half of the book is less focused as it covers the activities of their offspring, culminating is a rather obscure accomplishment of an influential pamphlet on the Ottomans written by one of them, making for a muted climax to say the least. (The pamphlet served as the original reaosn for Malcolm to discover the family.) Nonetheless, their careers offer truly unique insights into the kind of lives people led at that time. One of them started as an apprentice dragoman in Istambul, insinuating himself into the court with a family connection with Sinan Pasha, an Albanian cousin who was Grand Vizier several times; he reached the pinnacle of power in Wallachia as a kind of deputy viceroy, only to be deposed and murdered by the next voivod. The others are less spectacular, but almost always interesting as notables in their adopted town, Koper.

This doesn't offer a general introduction to events or the biggest people, such as Suleiman the Magnificent, Philip II or Francois Premier. It also completely neglects culture. What the reader gets are details about the careers of more normal people, which makes for fascinating reading as they wend themselves into the great events of the day. You find the rise of the Jesuits from the inside; the Counter-Reformation wars in France from the point of view of a commanding participant; the rise and fall of Ragusa as an ally of Spain, to mention a few. So, if you are interested in anything from the grittiness of naval engagements, the political economy of corsaire organizations and institutions, and educational reforms to the intrigues of the Ottoman Court and the vagaries of courtier power in client states, this book is for you. Each chapter contains a story of how this family participated as major players.

The book is not for everyone. There are a few dry patches in the book and it starts out rather slow. Beyond specialists, I would recommend it for history buffs who already know the outlines of the history. The writing is clear and often compelling.

Bitter Moon [1992] [DVD]
Bitter Moon [1992] [DVD]
DVD ~ Peter Coyote
Price: $25.99
7 used & new from $8.10

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Polanski at his worst, May 4, 2016
This review is from: Bitter Moon [1992] [DVD] (DVD)
I am a big fan of Polanski, but some of his films do not come together well. This is one of his films where something was simply off, like Frantic or Pirates. The premise is fun: a crippled man tells the story of a passionate love gone horribly, catastrophically wrong; the audience is a staid British couple, whose marriage is stalled in affluent mediocrity. Things get out of control, supposedly titillating the audience with revulsion to quickly follow.

Unfortunately, the actors - truly a stellar cast - don't give very good performances. I will try not to reveal anything of the surprises in the plot. Coyote is supposed to be a trust-baby artiste who settles for getting laid in Paris. Seigner portrays a sensualist with the simplicity of a child. At their core, they are both narcissists, unable to relate with true intimacy or work on a relationship like adults. Their sexual passion is visually explosive, but the descriptions are ridiculous (Coyote calls her hot spot a "carnivorous flower") and, even if they're meant to portray his mediocrity as a writer, it is out of place. Once they have explored all manner of humiliation and S&M, they run out of tricks and everything flips, so they try to hurt each other and yet can't let go. So they meet a couple on a luxury cruise and draw them in with their story and games. Scott-Thomas and Grant, who are wonderful actors, come off as bored and boring idiots, though she does surprise a bit in the end, again off kilter and strangely out of character.

The only thing I can say is, it just doesn't work. I couldn't believe in the characters, the situation is pretentious, the dialogue is silly, and the message about passionate love is superficial and overblown.

Not recommended.

Morjava®IHUB-10 Type C HUB USB TF +SD Card reader USB 2.0 Port USB +Type-C Port +Micro USB + charging adapter for Macbook, Google tablet, LETV phone -Silver
Morjava®IHUB-10 Type C HUB USB TF +SD Card reader USB 2.0 Port USB +Type-C Port +Micro USB + charging adapter for Macbook, Google tablet, LETV phone -Silver
Offered by Morjava Tech Limited

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars handy, attractive, useful, May 1, 2016
While I think this is a bit expensive given the product (I got it free as a reviewer sample), it has performed extremely well, is attractive, and conveniently light and compact. We really needed this, so it will get a lot of use. I do worry it is a bit flimsy, but so far, after a month of frequent use, it is holding up fine.

Recommended warmly

ECEEN®Solar Power Backpack, Solar Charger Bag Pack with Voltage Regulate Charging For iPhone, iPad, SAMSUNG, Gopro Cameras etc. 5V Device
ECEEN®Solar Power Backpack, Solar Charger Bag Pack with Voltage Regulate Charging For iPhone, iPad, SAMSUNG, Gopro Cameras etc. 5V Device

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars another winner, April 23, 2016
This is an excellent product, exactly what my wife needs for her work in developing countries, where there is a lot of sun and only unreliable sources of electricity. It is built from a sturdy canvass-like material, which we believe will last a long time. It is attractive enough, if somewhat plain, to use in any context, formal or in the bush. It also has an external battery, which is extremely useful and carries a good capacity.

I could not be more pleased with this. We now have a number of eceen products and they all meet the highest standards.

iMuto 20000mAh Compact Portable Charger External Battery Power Bank with Smart LED Digital Display and Quick Charge for iPhone 6 6S Plus 5S, iPad, Samsung Galaxy, Smart Phones and Tablets (Black)
iMuto 20000mAh Compact Portable Charger External Battery Power Bank with Smart LED Digital Display and Quick Charge for iPhone 6 6S Plus 5S, iPad, Samsung Galaxy, Smart Phones and Tablets (Black)
Offered by imuto
Price: $79.99
2 used & new from $29.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars sleek, reliable, rugged, April 23, 2016
This is an excellent, rugged battery. Well designed in appearance, it charges relatively quickly and lasts for a long time. We will use that a great deal, it will be particularly useful for my wife when she works in the bush in developing countries, where reliable power sources are needed.

Local Lion Outdoor Sports Hiking Daypack Camping Backpack Unisex, Blue
Local Lion Outdoor Sports Hiking Daypack Camping Backpack Unisex, Blue
Offered by Eshow Bag
Price: $59.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars excellent value, April 23, 2016
This is a really good basic backpack that is not from a western-branded company. In my opinion, it is just as good as anything you can get in a fancy sports store, just less expensive. Sure, it's a bit clunky, but I want to use it on the trail, not make a fashion statement (after all, fashion adds perhaps 30% to the cost, if not more). It doesn't have a huge number of pockets, which is what I prefer as I won't have to remember too much about where I put things (always a problem in my experience with overly complicated ones).

Recommended. I wager this will last me 5 to 10 years on the Alpine trails and via ferratae all over Europe.

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