Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

Synopsis: Young adult fantasy, the first in the Bartamaeus Trilogy, about a freedom-seeking genie ("djin" in the book) called up by a young boy wizard who wants revenge against other wizards who turn out to be more dangerous than suspected.
Analysis: Interesting and entertaining but I didn't like all the conjuring and demons. Magic in this series depends on one's ability to control the demonic (wizardry) and there a lots of demons. Medium-level YA fantasy.

The Tea House on Mulberry Street by Sharon Owens

Synopsis: A romance novel that investigates the lives of the owner and patrons of a Belfast tea shop. The good people live happily ever after and the bad people get exactly what they deserve and then move on with their lives and grow.
Analysis: Very satisfying and entertaining. The atmosphere is realistic drizzly Belfast, but still cozy and warm in the tea shop. Seems like most of the characters have affairs though, so I would be cautious in recommending it to others.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis: A best-selling author with a mysterious past commissions a young woman to write her biography. This author grew up in a wealthy but depraved home - the story focuses on two twin girls of this family. The biographer meanwhile struggles with her own grief remembering the loss of her twin.
Analysis: The story is dark and rather Gothic, but the ending is relatively positive and hopeful. The writing is what sets this book apart - it was rainy-day-with-a-cup-of-tea sort of book, totally captivating, definitely for book lovers. 9 out of 10. Would recommend to readers of The Historian and Jane Eyre. I adore the description of the library (p.41) and would love to have one like this someday with reading alcoves throughout.
Books Mentioned: The Water Babies, The Woman in White, The Castle of Otranto, Shirley, The Eustace Diamonds, Hard Times
Words I Learned:
  • detritus - debris
  • dilettante - one with an amateurish interest in the arts or other branch of knowledge
  • flaccid - soft and limp
  • pecuniary - of or pertaining to money
  • torpor - lethargy, inactivity
  • baize - a thick, felt-like cloth
  • semaphore - a system or apparatus for making visual signals
  • soporific - drowsy, causing sleep
  • ululation - howling, wailing
  • parterres - flower gardens whose beds form a pattern
  • macula - a discolored spot on the skin characteristic of small pox
  • sussuration - a faint sound resembling whispering
  • vertiginous - dizzy, having or causing a whirling sensation
  • fugue - amnesia-like episode after which a person may have no recollection of what they've done

Understanding Iraq by William R. Polk, Final

Ch. 5, American Iraq -
After the Kuwait invasion, the UN Security Council imposed a boycott of Iraq's overseas trade, so Saddam offered a proposal to end the crisis as did several other nations - the US and/or Iraq rejected all of them. Meanwhile, Iraq control over Kuwait was Nazi-like and brutal. The US begin its invasion of the Kuwaiti area along with UN coalition forces in mid-January with 88,000 tons of bombs and 300 guided missiles. Iraq retaliated by firing at Israel to compel Arab coalition members (mainly Saudi Arabia & Egypt) to withdraw and set 700 Kuwaiti oil fields on fire. A ground assault of Iraq began in late February despite world demonstrations and offers of peace from Iraq. Iraqi soldiers were slaughtered by the thousands as they withdrew down the main highway, the "Highway of Death" connecting Iraq to Kuwait. Saddam surrendered on February 27 after 30,000 soldier deaths and conflicting reports of civilian casualties (from 3,664 to over 100,000). On March 2, 1991, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 686 (which very much reminds me of the Treaty of Versailles in that it caused more problems than it started with) which required Iraq to:
  1. pay war reparations - with their economy shattered and moneyless (which motivated the war to begin with), Iraq was completely incapable of this
  2. release all prisoners
  3. return all looted property - also impossible as most had passed out of the country
  4. void all edicts on Kuwait
To this, the UNSC added Resolution 687 in which Iraq was charged with dismantling any weapons of mass destruction and their facilities, no-fly zones were declared at the north & south ends of the country, and worst of all, Iraq's international financial assets remained frozen, imports & exports were banned (minus medicines and food, but the UN committee had control over when and if even these were allowed), and sea and air transport were restricted. In other words, Iraq was settled with a massive bill and relinquished of any means to actually pay it. When Iraq couldn't pay, the US declared a necessary overthrow of Saddam's regime. Saddam, however, deflected the costs of the war onto the general population, shielding himself and any loyal supporters. Saddam used a classically Arab form of social organization - he recreated a system of tribal chiefs who owed their position to him. The US & Britain tried to overthrow Saddam by using the UN Special Commission to disguise CIA & MI-6 activities, but were discovered and forced to leave - these countries then retaliated with a bombing campaign. In 1996 the Iraqi economy began to recover thanks to oil exports; also Kurdish opposition ceased at this time due to inner conflicts.
In 2002, the UN sends an inspection group to monitor the potential WMD situation; Iraq cooperates fully to avoid more punishments. No WMDs were found but the Bush administration pressured US intelligence to say Iraq had them. The CIA & other agencies couldn't or wouldn't, so the administration established its own agency, the Office of Special Plans, to say there were WMDs in Iraq. Post-invasion inspections found no evidence of this whatsoever.
The second US invasion of Iraq began March 20, 2003 and by April the Iraqi army disintegrated. Instead the Iraqi populace took up the war to drive out the Americans. During the invasion, the Iraqis broke into arsenals, sold the weapons to relatives and friends, and thus, very quickly, nearly everyone was armed. With food running out, dirty water, and no possibility of payed work, looting became a necessity. Desperate poor formed gangs, police forces became non-existant with no backing government and cities became "free fire zones." When tens of thousands demonstrated demanding food and supplies, American troops fired on them, which then led to more organized attacks on US troops. While US officials blamed outside agitators (such as Iranians or Al-Qada), there is no evidence for such claims. In 2004, the US began attempting to recreate Iraqi military and police forces to maintain order, however attempts to put together a government of Iraqis have been rejected by the people. The people the US have tried to place in power were either unknown to the population or abused power during Saddam's regime and thus are not trusted.
Ch.6, Whose Iraq?
US occupation tactics have convinced Iraqis that America is promoting its own imperialism rather than democracy - they see of a replay of British colonialism. Edmund Burke, a British statesman in 1775, writing about the American Revolution said the following, "The use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again, and a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered."
Modern trends in Iraq include the following:
  1. Sunni and Shia beginning to work together against foreign occupation; the Kurds are also unifying.
  2. National uprisings against foreign occupation has led to a "habit of violence" and social incoherence which would allow only a warlord society or a dictatorship to gain power.
  3. The American quest for national security is still in conflict with the Iraqi aim for sovereignty.
Genuine participation in government should start at a grassroots level - this is still possible in Iraq thru its traditional neighborhood self-government structure.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Understanding Iraq by William R. Polk, cont.

Ch.3, British Iraq -
During WWI, on Nov. 6, 1914, the British began their invasion of Iraq (not involved in the war) which they justified with:
  1. They needed the Euphrates as a link to India
  2. They needed to keep the French & Germans from getting Iraq
  3. By doing 2. they would be protecting their Asian territories
  4. Oil
  5. They could use the Fertile Crescent for agriculture
The British attempted to rule Iraq as they did India, with a small military presence and a native police force. The Iraqis rebelled, using hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. The British decided to make Kurdistan part of Iraq due to oil deposits there. After WWI, the British attempted to set up a native-run Iraqi government with their own puppet-rulers in place. This established deep roots of mistrust in nationals, as well as a lack of ownership in political affairs. Religion played only a minor role in the formation of Iraqi nationality at this time - the Shiis continued to oppose British rule, while the Sunis were now associated with the British government and were in places of power - both more political than religious. At this time there was an increasing use of military intervention in civil affairs - sadly, an enduring legacy. The first American involvement came during WW2 - the US advised Iraqis to cooperate with the British, adding themselves to the nationalists' list of enemies. After WW2, the British continued to use the military against peaceful demonstrations, which helped Iraqis decide to sympathize with Palestinians, which they saw as yet another British-occupied Arab state taken away from natives and given to Europeans.

Ch.4,Revolutionary Iraq -
When the British finally left, there were numerous coups in the Iraqi government. "Democracy" was only understood by Iraqis in terms of British influence and the many Iraqi dictators who promised better times and always failed to deliver.
Baathists - starts as a qawmiyah (also spelled qawmiyya) - a pan-Arab nationality movements founded by the Syrians. Introduced to Iraq in 1951, they allowed army officers and educated professionals to join their membership. They discussed qawmiyah and the social inequalities that stemmed from British policies - Sadam Hussein was a member of this rising political party. In 1968 the Baathists stage a coup and overthrow the Arif monarchy. Hussein grew his base of supporters within the party by actually growing the party. He then began eliminating both real and imagined rivals. He united Iraqis to him by focusing attention on "enemies":
  1. Shiis - seen as non-Iraqi, Saddam used military forces against all their gatherings and individual leaders were killed off.
  2. Kurds - were driven out of their territory into Iran and destroyed Kurdish villages along the frontier then moved Suni Arabs into the area.
  3. Claimed there were spies for Britain and Israel (probably at least some of whom were real) in the country - would uncover "plots" and have everyone supposedly involved executed.
Saddam also won favor with Iraqis by releasing prisoners of previous regimes, restoring jobs lost during previous rules, and intensive national development with oil money - which he increased by nationalizing the Iraq Petroleum Company (previously managed by British Petroleum).
In 1980, things begin falling apart for Saddam with the Iran-Iraq war. Iran incited Iraqi Shiis to revolt, supported attempted coups, and were firing on border villages. Iran had US-trained military while Iraq had US weapons. The USA's official stance was to keep a "level playing field" between the two countries so neither could win and control all that oil. The US had a change in policy once it became known that Saddam was trying to develop nuclear weapons. The war bankrupted Saddam's regime and in order to stay in power, he needed more funds. Oil prices dropped dramatically due to Kuwait flooding the market with its own oil. In addition, Kuwait was demanding repayment of its war debts and was stealing Iraqi oil by slant drilling on border oil fields. Saddam moved troops to the Iraqi-Kuwait border, then asked if the US planned to defend Kuwait. He was twice told by the US they wouldn't, so on August 2, 1990, he invaded Kuwait and in 24 hours and taken over the country.

Understanding Iraq by William R. Polk

Ch.1, Ancient Iraq -
Things that influence Iraq still today:
  • Religion-based patriotism & wars justified by religion
  • Poor always "tremendously exploited" - slave labor, military draft
  • The idea of paradise as a garden (due to climate, only the rich had gardens
  • The earliest known code of laws (Hammurabi) is from this area - this was a rigid code of conduct that paved the way for Islam
This was fascinating to me: Assyrians were in the north, Akkadians & Sumerians in the south. An Akkadian ruler, Sargon I, built a town to protect his followers, offering the promise of security & prosperity, grew an army and attack and conquered other towns one by one to unify the south, then they turned on the Assyrian north - Sadam Hussein gained power the same way.

Ch 2, Islamic Iraq:
Muhammad was born around 570 AD.. Much of society at this time is split into family-based factions of about 50 - the land doesn't provide enough resources for more. Factions are always fighting with others, but not within since everyone in your faction is your family. So Muhammad says all believers are "brothers" or family, and thus these smaller factions begin to unite - religious-based clans, rather than kinship-based clans, became larger than the family-based ones, so more joined just to survive. Thus it took only eleven years for Islam to swallow Arabia.

Shia Muslims - non-Arabs or of mixed Arab descent, disenfranchised by ruling Muslims of pure blood, minority that lived in southern Iraq & Iran.
Suni Muslims - pure-blood Muslim Arabs, majority

During the (European) Dark Ages, Baghdad had a thriving book trade. Merchants and craftsmen were organized into guilds - these would use the power of strike against taxes, they still use the same tactic today. Nizam ul-Mulk was a prime minister of sorts in the 900's - he established a college education system and planted the idea that governments are measured by the education of their people. In the 1200's there was a horrific Mongolian invasion (Hulagu Khan), which left its survivors longing for the comfort of spiritual things. Sunnism emphasized law & rationalism as the way of Allah - not something people found comforting, so Sufism, a mix of Islam & Zoroastrianism, spread rapidly. Shiism, already very mystical, became more popular as well.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Read this December 1st, 2006 - Beautiful writing style but very weird emphasis on the murdered character's ghost's desire to experience sex. Would not recommend this to anyone.

The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer

Fun Note: Bauer was my "Bible as Literature" professor at William & Mary!

Books Mentioned: How to Read & Why by H. Bloom, How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

Quote: "The good reader bases his opinion on intelligent analysis, not mere unthinking reaction." (p. 46)

Notes, mostly from Ch. 4:
There are three steps to reading books:
  1. Understanding
  2. Analysis
  3. Evaluation
Part One - When reading a book, worry about getting thru it rather than analyzing every detail as you go. Bauer strongly recommends buying very cheap paperback versions of classics and other "heavy" books and writing in the margins as you go. Use a journal to summarize chapter content, record questions, reflections, etc. Then start a second reading to further evaluate - reread difficult sections and your notes. Cite key paragraphs, ask why the book was written, and if it suceeds in the author's purpose. How does the writer influence you? Finally, discuss the book with someone else who's read it - Bauer recommends doing this through writing letters or emails.
Part Two - Don't worry about "correctly" evaluating a book - rather, use it as a tool for thinking intelligently and expanding your mind. To keep from being way off base, try looking thru published criticisms of the book.
Part Three - Several lists of classic books to read through to educate yourself - she recommends doing so in order of publishing date so you can see the genre develop: biography (first comes St. Augustine), fiction, poetry, history, etc.

Evaluation: This book would be good for anyone trying to give themselves a course in classics. The lists are helpful and her recommendations for how to go about this kind of deep reading are doable.