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Ministers, Mandarins, and Metafashion

25 September 2013

The suits of Yes Minister is a delightful assessment of sartorial choices (and precisely what coded messages they convey, through the characters who wear them) in my beloved series. Who would have thought that a four-in-hand vs. Windsor knot contrast would reveal so much?

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Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

4 September 2013

It’s been far, far too long since I posted a book review to this blog. To encourage myself to get back in the spirit of things, I’m planning to tackle a series of reviews about Trollope’s Barsetshire novels (which I have just finished) and his Palliser novels (which I am still working my way through). Ideally, I suppose I should start the reviews with the first of the Barsetshire novels, since they technically come before the Palliser novels in chronological order, but apparently I have strong enough feelings on the first Palliser novel to want to make a start with it here.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

The general plot of Can You Forgive Her? revolves around the love and matrimonial choices made by three women: Alice Vavasor, her aunt Arabella Greenow (née Vavasor), and her cousin Lady Glencora Palliser (née M’Cluskie). Alice is engaged to the quiet, kind, and dependable John Grey — whose name almost summarises his general character — but she is faltering at the thought of subsuming her personality and interests to her husband’s opinion of what a good wife should be. Lady Glencora, a young heiress who at her extended family’s insistence was all but shoved into marriage with the colourless Plantagenet Palliser, still finds herself in love with her former beau, the handsome but dangerously spendthrift Burgo Fitzgerald. Only Arabella Greenow seems to find some enjoyment in her life — as a rich widow just on the point of middle age, she keeps up an almost theatrical level of mourning for her late husband even as she stakes her claim to the affections of two rival suitors. As all three women teeter on the edge of making and un-making up their minds about their relationships, and risk placing themselves in the hands of men who might not be best suited to their temperaments or positions in life, Trollope shows the financial and political effects of their choices and their struggles to make the best of their varied (but not entirely dissimilar) situations.

This book, the first in the Palliser series of novels, sets up the personal and political milieu that will span the full six-volume series. As a reworking of Trollope’s unsuccessful play The Noble Jilt, Can You Forgive Her? is comparatively light on politics, at least when it comes to the substance of parliamentary debates and Cabinet-level wheeling and dealing, though it does touch on the difficulty of securing a Commons seat without ready money to spend on courting the voters. All the same, the Houses of Parliament overshadow many of the characters’ actions and decisions, particularly when Plantagenet Palliser must make a bold decision to save his marriage at the (possible) cost of his rising political career. (Of course, since this is only the first book in the series, the modern reader will know that the decision is not quite so life-or-death as it seems to the characters.) And it touches on a theme that will recur, with variations, in later novels: the role that women have in political life, and the spheres in which they can attempt exercise their power to help or hinder the men in their lives.

Though it’s plain that Trollope doesn’t think well of his three heroines’ attempts to stake some claim to personal independence and self-determination, it’s worth noting that the meaning of the book’s title can be read two ways. On the most obvious level, “Can you forgive her?” may be asking the reader to pardon his heroines’ faults, to forgive their trespasses because of their weak, womanly natures. But on a more subtle level, “Can you forgive her?” asks the question “Can you blame these women for wanting to find their own happiness, for seeking out more than the restricted domestic life that awaits them, and for rebelling at being subject to the whims of their bullying or neglectful families?” Can we forgive Arabella Greenow for stringing her suitors along for as long as it takes to judge their characters, taking refuge in the respectability of wealthy widowhood to avoid ending up in another marriage to an uncaring, domineering man? Can we forgive Lady Glencora, under severe domestic pressure to produce an heir, for wanting to run away and give her husband an excuse to divorce her so that he might find a woman who can give him a son? And can we forgive Alice Vavasor, a victim of wanting more control over her own life than a woman of her time and social position might expect to have, for accepting her eventual husband’s proposal almost out of exhaustion with her increasingly unwelcome options? The modern reader may be more likely to ask and respond to the second question, for all that it overlaps the first. And even for a book where Trollope-the-Author voices his objections to his own heroines’ actions, Trollope-the-Writer has created a far more sympathetic portrayal of them than he might have understood.

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Commentary: A very un-Canadian Caper….

27 September 2012

(I originally wrote this on another online journaling site, but after consideration I feel that it’s worth re-posting here as well, with a few minor edits.)

I know that I shouldn’t let myself get too upset about Hollywood’s usual approach to history, because if I did then I’d likely never do anything with my time but froth at the mouth. But I feel rather strongly about this most recent bit of history that Hollywood’s taken on: the Canadian Caper, which will shortly air as the new Ben Affleck picture Argo.

It’s an exciting true-life story, I’ll admit. At the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA operative is given the task of rescuing six Americans who managed to escape the storming of the Tehran embassy and are hiding in the homes of two Canadian diplomats, one of whom is Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. So the CIA fakes an entire film production company, Studio Six, and gets into Iran under cover of scouting locations for a new film called Argo. When the fake film team leaves the country shortly thereafter, the six Americans (having been given Canadian passports with CIA-forged Iranian visas) leave under their cover as the film crew, reaching the safety of Switzerland before travelling back to the States. The remaining Canadian diplomats evacuate the country shortly thereafter, and when the press breaks the story of the daring ‘Canadian Caper’, Iran breaks off diplomatic relations with Canada in retribution. Lots of room for action, adventure, and dramatic tension in a story like that. It’s a nail-biting suspense flick if I ever heard one.

But now we come to Argo, the film based on these events.

According to the IMDB cast list, as best I can tell the only Canadian figure given reasonable billing is Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber (thankfully, Canadian himself). Taylor’s wife Pat is also included, further down the cast list. But there is no mention of John and Zena Sheardown, the Canadian immigration officer and his wife who also sheltered three of the six Americans for more than two months. No mention of either Prime Minister Joe Clark or Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald, who originally pushed through the Order in Council that issued six Canadian passports to be used for the rescue attempt. Yes, Tony Mendez and the CIA organised the actual rescue, faking the visa information and going into Iran as the exfiltration team. But for those two months, Taylor and Sheardown put themselves and their families at great personal risk to hide the fugitive Americans, living with the constant fear that someone would find out what was going on and let it slip to the hostage-takers at the American embassy. Why are the Canadians so conspicuously absent from a film about the Canadian Caper?

Granted, I understand that the film is based on Tony Mendez’s book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which naturally focuses on the CIA’s part in the rescue of the six Americans. Unlike Canadian historian Robert Wright’s book Our Man in Tehran, which centres on Ambassador Taylor’s role during the hostage crisis, Argo plays up the successful, hands-on American action — such a contrast to the months of waiting endured by the hostages, and the shambolic failure of the Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt. Nonetheless, by all but writing the Canadians out of the Canadian Caper, Argo suggests that Ben Affleck has taken all the wrong lessons about creating historical drama from his heavily panned role in 2001′s Pearl Harbor.

I will probably see Argo, just so I can critique it on its own merits or lack thereof rather than on what I’m seeing from the trailers and the cast list. I’m particularly interested in how the Iranians themselves are portrayed, and if even the slightest nods are given to the history of American meddling in Iran and its less-than-honourable support for the shah. But I’ll be fighting my own blood pressure the whole time.

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ADMIN: A timely note for readers of this blog.

13 May 2012

I have been shamefully neglectful of this blog of late, but I do still keep an eye on the hit counts and other statistics for it. Not long ago, I was reviewing the specific lines of search text that led visitors to the blog…and I noticed a peculiar pattern. Instead of the usual queries with the name of a book or author, I came upon several queries that searched for phrases and even entire sentences from one or two of my reviews. The searched-for sentences had no strong relation to the book in question — they didn’t include a title or author, certainly — but they were word for word from my reviews. And most of these queries came within the span of a week or two.

How strange, I thought.

And then I thought a little more.

Are students plagiarising my book reviews in their final papers, and then being caught by their professors or teachers who track them down by Googling or using other search engines to locate suspicious strings of text from said papers and finding my blog and its book reviews in the search results?

If this is indeed the case, I have only two things to say:
(1) Students: The full citation information for my blog is here. Please do use it, along with quotation marks as appropriate, especially if you intend to pull certain uncommon turns of phrase or other text directly from my blog and insert it into the text. Your instructors are not stupid: if you know how to use search engines to find my blog, they almost certainly know how to use search engines to find out the source of your copied text.
(2) Teachers and professors: If you come upon my blog in your searching and discover your students plagiarising my book reviews, you have my full blessing to give them a zero for the paper or fail them from the course, or whatever punitive actions your administration permits.

This has happened for two academic semesters running; I will be very interested to see if it continues for a third. And to be truthful, I’m not actually angry. If anything, I’m rather proud to have been plagiarised — as long as the plagiarists are caught and punished appropriately.

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A Brief Update

29 July 2011

I haven’t abandoned this blog, though various other commitments have prevented me from writing more in-depth reviews of the books I have been reading. However, I’ve dusted things off long enough to tidy up my Publications list, which should now be fully updated with all of my current and forthcoming publications.

I hope to have more pertinent content soon. No firm promises on what sort of content it will be or when it will appear, but I do have quite a few books in the queue!

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Commentary: Sir Humphrey on Newsnight

29 April 2010

As part of Newsnight‘s Election 2010 coverage, Yes, Minister co-creator Sir Anthony Jay has written a set of three new sketches featuring the quintessential civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Henry Goodman (who will be portraying Sir Humphrey in the new Yes, Prime Minister stage play opening in May at the Chichester Festival Theatre). According to the BBC’s description: ‘In three episodes we will see him flick through the main party manifestos and offer his unique advice for any incoming minister on handling, or getting around, aspects of potential future policy.

For now, the clips are available here: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour [to be aired on 4 May].

Overall, I found the writing to be fairly clever, with some good turns of phrase in the best mandarin style. Though it is nigh-impossible to live up to the memory of Sir Nigel Hawthorne’s performance, I would say that Henry Goodman’s portrayal is well up to par — though I do wish he hadn’t said ‘Lib Dem’, which would be far too crude for the Sir Humphrey Appleby I recall. But my primary reservation about these sketches is that they would be a good deal more funny, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original series, if we weren’t told which party’s manifesto was actually being read.

One of the most prized aspects of the series was that it carefully avoided party-political issues in favour of highlighting the underlying conflict between government and administration, an approach that allows it to have continued relevance more than three decades later. It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to have Sir Humphrey, always so scrupulous about drawing the line between the sordid world of party politics and the tidy machinery of the Civil Service, offering commentary in this muddled grey area between the policy and the policymakers. Sir Humphrey himself would be the first to say that to the Civil Service, it barely matters what party is in power…or rather, in government, because no party is ever truly in ‘power’ in that sense of the word.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, so perhaps I’m somewhat protective of the original series and resistant to the prospect of its ‘modernization’ in this fashion — even when modernised by the creators. But even setting that aside and attempting to judge the sketches purely on their own merits, they seem somewhat lacking in the classic Yes, Minister message that first attracted my interest.

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Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

2 March 2010

My working knowledge of Britain’s African colonial history comes mostly from my research on Rhodesia before and after the UDI — a case with its own set of peculiar circumstances that do not exactly reflect the British colonial experience its other African possessions. So I’m always interested in books such as the following that may help to fill in the gaps in my education, particularly regarding non-European history.

The London Review of Books, as always, has another good review of this book in conjunction with Caroline Elkins’ more confrontationally named Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.

Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

Histories of imperialism and colonialism frequently run into the difficulty of finding and intepreting source materials in a way that balances the stories told by very local, personalised accounts (such as oral histories) and the much broader and more anonymous archival collections. Both aspects are equally crucial to the writing of history, but blending them into a single coherent narrative is no easy task — especially when the narrative involves a history of startling violence, brutality, and contradictory justifications from all parties concerned. So when a work of colonial history comes along that manages to combine excellent research with fluid storytelling, it more than deserves attention from both historians and general readers.

David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire is one such a book, a tightly-written, hard-hitting account of a particularly grim chapter in Britain’s retreat from empire: the Mau Mau conflict that wracked Kenya in the 1950s and left a trail of killings and brutal judicial and extrajudicial punishments in its wake. Anderson carefully marshals court records, archival materials, contemporary journalism, and other public and private documents such as published memoirs and private letters to shape his history of the conflict. This is no small task, because the Mau Mau conflict’s origins were complicated and multilayered, involving land disputes between and among Kenya’s white and nonwhite populations, an institutionalised regime of racism and tribalism, bitter religious disagreements that dated back many decades, and a general air of semi-benign neglect from the Colonial Office back in London. Anderson manages to pull all of these aspects together in order to depict how long-standing feuds within African communities fueled grudge-killings and guerilla warfare on a massive scale, and how the reactions of the white settlers and British officials only deepened and perpetuated the conflict. This focus on the origins and underpinnings of the conflict ensures that Histories of the Hanged is a highly readable book even for those who are not generally familiar with colonial history.

The Mau Mau conflict — or ‘uprising’, or ‘emergency’, or ‘insurrection’, or ‘civil war’, or ‘rebellion’, depending on who you talk to — eventually caused enough concern back in Britain that politicians as disparate in views as Labour MP Barbara Castle and Conservative MP Enoch Powell were united in their condemnation of the colonial authority’s handling of the situation. By the end of the hostilities, about two dozen white Kenyans and several thousand more black Kenyans had been killed in various random attacks and planned massacres, some of which encompassed the inhabitants of entire villages and towns. The justice system added to this number, sending more than a thousand black Kenyans to the gallows — about twice the number executed by the French during their own colonial crisis in Algeria — and rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others in squalid detention camps that more than a few historians have called ‘Britain’s gulag’. And yet even though David Anderson adds his voice to those who condemn the atrocities committed by both sides, Histories of the Hanged is not a book that spends all its time pointing fingers and searching for the guilty parties. Rather, it is more interested in examining the conflict of loyalties that created the political vacuum which allowed the Mau Mau to attract its followers, and the reasons why colonial authorities in Kenya were so quickly overtaken by events. It is a bloody and racially charged history, certainly, and it makes for difficult reading at times. All the same, it is a part of British imperial history that has been overlooked (in some cases, deliberately so) until very recently, and a book like Anderson’s is a welcome insight into the often-confusing background and battles of a bitter civil and colonial war.

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