Archive for the ‘USA’ Category

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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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Publications: Scope Book Review

26 June 2009

The June 2009 issue of the online film studies journal Scope contains my review of What Have They Built You to Do: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America by Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González. It’s a bit longer than my usual reviews, but I do tend to go on a bit when it comes to Cold War film studies.

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English as a Global Language by David Crystal

16 June 2009

Cambridge University Press’s Canto imprint has published paperback editions of many excellent works, including several books reviewed on this blog. British linguist David Crystal has been writing and commenting on the English language for many years; two of his books, The Stories of English (2004) and The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left (2006), have shown up in previous To Bed With a Trollope reviews. English as a Global Language was written several years before these books — it was first published in 1997 — and focuses on a much narrow scope.

English as a Global Language by David Crystal

The spread of English as a language has prompted much handwringing from most anyone who cares to comment on the matter, whether in support of a still more global role for English or in concern about the effects that the widespread use of English has had on other languages. In the preface to English as a Global Language, David Crystal states that this idea for this book came about as a project for U.S. English, an organisation that campaigns to make English the official language of the United States. The organisation was interested in a short, factual (and politically unbiased) account of how English came to be such a commonly used language, and because Crystal could not find a book that suited this request he decided to research and write one himself. The book, as he puts it, poses and addresses the following three questions: (1) What makes a world language?; (2) Why is English the leading candidate? and (3) Will it continue to hold this position? Rather than immediately coming down on any particular side of the current debate over the promise (or threat) of English as a global language, Crystal chooses to present an overview of the debate, showing its origins and flashpoints, and expresses a few thoughts on the possible futures of English as it is spoken and written worldwide.

English as a Global Language‘s brief introduction to the concept of a ‘global language’ opens with a simple statement: the spread of language is directly linked to the political (and accompanying military and economic) power of those who speak a particular language. Different spoken and written languages have taken it in turn to become dominant in certain spheres of influence, such as Greek in the days of Alexander the Great, Latin from Roman times through the Renaissance, and Russian in many Eastern European countries during the Cold War. One only need look at the most commonly taught second languages in primary and secondary schools to gain an idea of what languages might be contending for dominance in a particular area at any given time. Crystal takes this introduction a step further by providing a basic history of the spread of the English language around the world, hand in hand with the British Empire, and includes a lengthy table of countries to show where English is spoken as either a first or second language. He also gives short histories of areas of international communication in which English plays a dominant role, such as the very basic, standardised English that air and maritime traffic controllers use to issue instructions and warnings to airplanes in flight and ships at sea; the prevalence of English translations on road signs and maps; and, of course, the vastness of the English-languages offerings available on the Internet. However, he points out that there is no particular linguistic reason why English should remain the global language — and that as the language evolves and gains more native and second-language speakers, the ‘global’ English that eventually may be spoken by people around the world may bear little resemblance to the English we hear today, requiring even native English speakers to be ‘bilingual’ in their own mother tongue.

Readers who might accuse Crystal of taking the easy way out by seemingly refusing to engage in the ongoing debate will be cheered to know that this book is by no means his only contribution to the discussion of the problems of English as a global language. His book Language Death (2002), also available under the Canto imprint, is far more urgent in its call for countries (and even individuals) to be proactive and think on a long-term basis about the kinds of language policies and programmes that are worth supporting in the name of maintaining linguistic diversity. English as a Global Language merely attempts to establish a base point for future discussion; it is by no means the only book that one should read to gain a better understanding of the complexities of English’s place in an international setting.

(Other works about English-language policies and language death reviewed on To Bed With a Trollope include Robert Phillipson’s English-Only Europe? and Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.)

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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

17 February 2009

Another particularly good review of the following book can be found as part of the Institute of Historical Research’s collection of book reviews.

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

On 15 August 1945, nine days after the first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, the Japanese government unconditionally surrendered to the Allied powers and brought World War II — known to the Japanese as Daitōa Sensō, or the Greater East Asia War — to an end. For the next eight years, Japan would be occupied by the Allies, led by the United States under the supreme command of General Douglas MacArthur. As the general history goes, the occupying authorities issued various edicts and reforms to root out the oppressive militarism and fanatical emperor-worship of the war years, all in the name of bringing modern democratic ideals to Japan. The Japanese, for their part, seemed to accept the new social and political order with humble gratitude, as well as profound thanks for the victors’ benign guidance in building a democratic society on the ashes of defeat. Yet as in so many cases, this simplistic reading of historical events glosses over years of bitter political struggles and social upheaval, of little children mimicking their elders by playing ‘prostitute and GI’ and sly satirical poetry published in literary magazines and more than a few Japanese politicians committing suicide out of despair and shame. In short, the story of the occupation of Japan is seldom told from the perspective of the Japanese — an omission that John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II seeks to rectify.

Embracing Defeat begins, understandably, with the defeat, and the earth-shattering effect it had on many ordinary Japanese people who had been prepared to give their lives for the emperor and for their homeland. Japanese society had been shaken to its foundations, and people had to reinvent their lives and reevaluate their ways of thinking even as they scrabbled for enough food to stay alive. Dower describes the various subcultures that sprang up under the occupation, from the illegal trades of the prostitutes and black marketeers to the growing influence of left-wing writers and thinkers, many of whom benefited from the fact that they had spent the war in prison or exile and could not be accused of sympathising with the wartime regime. The remnants of that regime also had to come to terms with the occupying authorities, whether in the war crimes tribunals or in the painful negotiations over the status of the emperor and the shape of the country’s new constitution. Dower devotes several chapters to analysing the various battles that Japanese politicians had with the occupying authorities over the details of the reinvented political system, even as General MacArthur’s subordinates seemed to go to inordinate lengths to curtail ordinary people’s attempts to express their opinions in a more free and democratic fashion — whether through strict censorship, strike-breaking, or other curbs on popular protest against the government. Embracing Defeat includes many similar incidents where the tensions between prewar Japan and occupied Japan had to be worked out in careful compromises, and Dower’s equally careful analysis shows how these compromises shaped the Japan that emerged from defeat and sought its own place in the postwar — by that point, the Cold War — era.

Perhaps because of the wider availability of documents from the Japanese national archives and the occupation’s Tokyo headquarters, Embracing Defeat dwells on life in Tokyo and a few other major cities at the expense of a more detailed look at life across Japan. (Granted, a survey of the particular circumstances of the occupation of Okinawa would require a separate book of similar length.) The jumps between social history and political history can also seem jarring at times, even though the wealth of insightful anecdotes helps to make up for the transition problems. Overall, Embracing Defeat is both far-reaching and thoughtfully written, especially when it comes to Dower’s familiarity with the subtleties of the Japanese language. Many of his most informative passages explore how a certain word choice or English-to-Japanese paraphrasing altered the effect of a notable statement or idea, whether it involved the concept of the Japanese imperial family’s descent from the goddess Amaterasu or the politically charged nuances of possible Japanese translations for the word ‘democracy’. In a sense, Dower’s emphasis on translation and word choices is central to the main themes of Embracing Defeat — the ability of language to shape political and social thought, the reinvention of old traditions and the creation of new ones, and the complex relationships between victors and vanquished that were never absent from everyday life in occupied Japan.

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Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

7 October 2008

Falling a bit behind in my book reviews, mostly because my writing energies have been devoted to preparing for the Film & History conference at the end of this month. I’ll post new reviews when I can.

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

It began with an attempt to purchase a birthday present for less than $20. Nancy and Larry Goldstone had decided to limit the amount they would spend on birthday gifts for each other that year, and so when Nancy managed to acquire a good used copy of a fine edition of War and Peace for $10, she considered it a brilliant find. That edition of Tolstoy, however, opened the door to the world of used and rare books, and the Goldstones soon found themselves drawn back to local used book stores in search of replacements for other books in their collection that were falling apart. In time, they go from being people who had never thought of themselves as ‘collectors’ to eager bidders for a first edition of James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr Chips at a Swann Galleries auction in New York City.

Used and Rare, as its subtitle suggests, reads very much like a travelogue, focusing as it does on how the authors slowly branch out from the offerings of the used book stores in their small corner of New England. The Goldstones rarely go farther afield than Boston or New York City, constrained as they are (most of the time) by the need to find a reliable babysitter for their young daughter. The emphasis of their story is less on the books themselves and more on their gradual awakening to the small details of the book trade, from the initial sticker shock at the cost of a complete set of Charles Dickens’ works to…well, mostly the sticker shock at the prices of the books they come across along the way. One small sour moment in their otherwise pleasant experiences occurs when they attempt to view the rare books held in the Boston Public Library, and are brusquely turned away by the librarian for not having a letter of introduction or a specific reason for requesting to look at the books, apart from simply wanting to see them. (Considering that this happened in the mid-1990s, before the widespread availability of the Internet, the Goldstones might be forgiven for not knowing the standard access procedures for rare-book collections in libraries.) Otherwise, though, they find much to enjoy as they look for books that interest them, and learn a bit about the history of book-collecting and what drives people to build a collection of their own.

Overall, Used and Rare is a quick and easy read, relaxed and light without being overly fluffy. The Goldstones freely admit that they are amateurs in the book world, and make no pretensions of being more ‘in the know’ than they actually are. In its own way, this very amateurishness gives the book a refreshing quality, as it allows the reader to share in the sense of wide-eyed wonder that the authors feel with each new discovery and each successful foray into small, dusty shops filled with potential treasures.

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The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

3 September 2008

I tend to review very specialised, subject-specific books, mostly because I am often dissatisfied with a lot of the broader survey books that are out there. So when a good example of a well-written survey book lands in my reading pile, it’s that much more enjoyable to review.

The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

Attempting to write a good general history book about Europe after World War II presents any number of challenges to a prospective author, the most common of which tends to be the prominence of the Cold War in that postwar history. Cold War-era histories cannot help but dwell on the roles of the superpowers, and depending on the author’s own nationality, many promising books on postwar European history end up giving the United States or the Soviet Union too much ‘screen time’ at the expense of their actual subject. A book that is able to keep the focus squarely on the European experience is worthy of note — and history professor William Hitchcock’s The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent manages this feat with alacrity.

The Struggle for Europe works hard to balance the little details and the broader themes of postwar European history, and as a rule it does not dwell too long on one subject, country, or historical figure. Both sides of the Iron Curtain are represented, and the often neglected countries of southern Europe — Spain, Portugal, and Greece — have a separate section devoted to the history of their respective transitions from right-wing authoritarianism and military governments to democratic participation in the European Union. Individuals like Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle, who can easily overwhelm historical writing by the sheer force of their presence, are prominent but kept in proportion — most often, in proportion to the amount of trouble they caused their neighbours. One of the more notable sections of the book is Hitchcock’s comprehensive coverage of events in the Warsaw Pact countries during the 1980s and 1990s, from the Solidarity strikes in Poland to the gruesome execution of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife in Romania, which avoids treating the end of the Cold War as a fait accompli in the way that so many other Cold War history books do. This leads nicely into an overview of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian wars, as good a place as any to bring a history of postwar Europe to a close.

Hitchcock’s writing style is smooth and flowing, not exactly conversational but nonetheless free from the stiffness that might make it sound too much like a straight classroom lecture. There’s little in the way of social history or commentary on demographic and other trends, which might make the history seem a little dry for some yet manages to prevent the narrative from meandering off on random tangents. (Personally, I would have liked a little more structure to the end-notes, but I know that some readers find end-notes off-putting and Hitchcock clearly has taken this segment of his intended audience into account.) Overall, The Struggle for Europe hits all of the right points that a basic, general survey history book should have. Those who are looking to brush up on the events they lived through and never appreciated, or learned about in school and never understood, likely would find it a very useful place to begin.

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The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph E. Stiglitz

3 August 2008

I’ve opened up a new tag for this review: economics. I have a few books in the queue that will fit nicely into this tag, and I’m looking forward to posting them.

The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph E. Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz, it might be said, knows a little something about economics. He was a professor of economics at Stanford University, served as a member and later chairman of the Clinton administration’s Council of Economic Advisers (a group of appointed economists who provide policy analysis and advice for the executive branch), went on to become chief economist at the World Bank from 1997 to 2000, and was the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics. Not only was he in a position to witness first-hand the economic boom of the 1990s, but he also bears some responsibility for both the boom and the subsequent fallout that later affected people all around the world. The East Asian financial crisis of 1997, the mass protests at the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999, the collapse of corporate giants like Enron and the tarnished records of major accounting firms like Arthur Andersen and Merrill Lynch — there are no shortage of incidents to consider in any book that seeks to blend historical analysis with coverage of current events. Stiglitz has been a critical commentator on international economics in the past, most notably in his 2001 book Globalization and Its Discontents which lambastes the IMF and the World Bank for aggravating poverty in many places around the world. In The Roaring Nineties, Stiglitz attempts to paint an economic picture of the title decade, exploring the reasons for the boom and subsequent bust that made the 1990s resemble the financial panics of 1890s in more ways than one.

The book as a whole is really an expanded version of an article that Stiglitz wrote for the October 2002 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. In both the article and the book, he points out that while the 1990s were undoubtedly a time of high optimism and growth in the business community, the foundations were being laid for the problems that were to come. Accounting standards were growing more and more lax, the greed of CEOs and other high-powered corporate figures remained generally unchecked, and deregulation of certain industries like telecommunications and utilities exacerbated existing inequalities to a degree that would not be fully felt until after the end of the Clinton administration. ‘Creative accounting’ and ‘crony capitalism’ are two of Stiglitz’s particular phrases to describe the practices of the decade. And he has no small amount of contempt for George W. Bush’s handling of the U.S. economy, which he claims worsened the fallout of the tech bubble’s bursting and only underscores the problems inherent in pandering to the very wealthy few at the expense of the far less wealthy majority.

The primary difficulty faced in expanding an article to a book is that you have to provide enough substance to add to or elaborate on your original ideas. The Roaring Nineties suffers from a tendency towards clunkiness and periodic heavy-handedness in the expansion that veers towards sanctimonious. Stiglitz almost can’t seem to decide whether he should be beating his breast or washing his hands of responsibility for the outcome of the 1990s — he tries to do both, and it doesn’t work very well. The economic history is certainly sound, and the conclusions are solid and well reasoned, but I wonder if the book might not have been improved by a co-author who hadn’t been quite so in the thick of things, as it were. Something to consider, at any rate.