bookspluslife

October 26, 2017

Book: A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:13 am

imageI hate overly preachy or overly fawning accounts in the name of non fiction. I mean books like Beyond the Last Blue Mountain or, perhaps surprisingly for you, The Life of Pi.  From the book’s title and the subject matter, I feared that this is perhaps one in the latter category. Thankfully, this is not the case.

 

The full title of this book is :  A Problem From Hell : America and the Age of Genocide. Sounds like a literature Ph D thesis and I would have not touched the book with a ten foot pole if it had not come with high recommendations. As it is, I am glad I did. It is a well written and gripping book and the author’s passion for the oppressed comes out as is her frustration and anger at successive US bungling of each crisis.

 

The book covers a broad canvas. Covers all mass killings, effortlessly moving from the Armenian genocide by Turkey to Pol Pot massacres to Nazi Germany and Iraq’s attempts at the eradication of their Kurd population.

 

An Armenian kills Kamal Pasha, who is living in retirement in Germany for all the atrocities the latter committed against Armenians when he was a Turkish general in the Ottoman army.

Tehrlian, the assassin, in his young days saw his whole family raped, tortured and killed by the Turkish soldiers who were accompanying them in a forced march “in order to protect them”. He himself was left for dead after a hit on his head knocked him unconscious.

 

The massacre is not condemned by Germany, which is an ally of Turkey against the Allies in World War I but the Allies themselves are too busy to win the war to make a big protest.

 

The valiant efforts of Morgenthau, the US ambassador to get US to intervene is of no avail. He asks for a transfer in disgust and is never appointed again as an ambassador by an irate President Wilson.

 

Samantha writes passionately and very well, keeping what is a rather difficult subject well.

 

Another advocate for stopping extermination of a whole ethnicity (the term ‘genocide’ was not used then) was a Polish lawyer called Lemkin. He tried to propose, in UN, that this should be made illegal, and even specifically talked about dangers such as the (future) rise of a ruler like Hitler in Germany. The motion was defeated and the UN panel said that there was no conceivable way anything like the Armenian massacre “can happen again”. Remember that Lemkin was a Polish Jew and that the year was 1939 and the irony is supreme!

 

Lemkin tries to persuade the Jews to leave as soon as Germany invades Poland but no one, not even his family, wants to leave the place where they have ‘everything’. Tragic. He immigrates to the US and his efforts to bring the plight of Jews under Hitler also fall on deaf ears. He coins the word genocide to denote attempts to exterminate a whole people.

 

Zygielbojm was so frustrated with the lack of attention to the Jewish plight and the indecision of the Allied powers that he killed himself to bring their plight to the world’s attention.

 

Lemkin makes himself a pest making people run the other way when they see him but succeeds in getting genocide outlawed by a UN charter. US turns against the vague wording of the act and refuses to ratify it. Lemkin goes nearly nuts and complains against Human Rights Act of UN! He dies a weird man to the last.

 

Proxmire takes up the cudgels for genocide law afterwards.

 

The author complains that during Khmer Rouge atrocities US did not step in and do something. I agree that a nation’s rulers should not be allowed to murder their own population or part thereof with impunity but think about it. US was just walloped in Vietnam and evacuated Combodia and were war weary. To go back in again against Khmer Rouge would not have been easy as they needed Congress approval to do that and the whole country was up against foreign adventurism due to the Vietnam war effect. Rather like the post Iraq fatigue of US in Syria, for example. The debate then (as it is now in the Middle East) is whether the suffering of a citizenry justifies a foreign power to intervene against the government’s will.

 

Excellent coverage is provided of the reasons of the Pol Pot takeover of Cambodia, including the corrupt administration of Prince Sihanouk, the womanizing gourmet who called himself god king or ‘deva raj’ (Interesting use of Sanskrit there, of all things).

 

Nixon administrations to install the totally ineffective regime of Lon Nol as the prime minister, in a coup and the author describes how it exacerbated the problem and how his army was not even furnished and how US gave 80% of the revenues in aid which went straight to the pockets of the ruling politicians. Fascinating. It is ironic how Sihanouk became the front for the Pol Pot regime when they won the civil war. The subsequent brutality was covered much more graphically in the other book we reviewed earlier – Pol Pot: A History of Nightmare by Philip Short which gave the inside view. But this one is a good outsider’s summary.

 

The Cambodian story from the perspective of US and world inaction in the face of mass atrocities by Pol Pot regime is also beautifully told. The struggles of lone Senators to get the Carter administration or the UN to do something substantial without much to show for it is also heart rending.

 

Due to cold war considerations, it is appalling to see US side with the ousted Khmer Rouge government even after the genocide is well known and not only get them a seat in the UN but also supply arms for it to recapture Cambodia from Vietnam? All because Vietnam was aligned with Russia and US was trying to curry favour with China, a Khmer supporter? It is terrible to read!

 

What a powerful indictment on the US policy! First, unreasonable reluctance to even acknowledge Hitler’s mass executions, then support for Cambodian regime (even aid and arms after they were ousted) to unseat Vietnam which had finally “liberated” the place, then overt support and blind denials of Saddam’s employment of chemical weapons against his own population of Kurds. When you read the stubborn refusal of US government to recognize overwhelming evidence from its own senators and journalists for the sake of geopolitics, you are truly horrified.

 

Samantha then turns her razor sharp analysis to the Bosnian problem. Clinton the Presidential Candidate is full of passion and outrage for the Bosnians but Clinton the President turns out to be a totally different one, not taking any action at all while Bosnians are massacred with seeming impunity by the Miloslavic regime. Ironic that an author vilified as a war monger ended up in the advisory council of one of the tamest Presidents of them all, Obama.

 

Rwandan massacres come in next and her explanation of the riot in personal terms of what individual groups did makes, again, for a powerful description of the madness that prevailed. The chilling “instructions” given to Hutus is terribly stark.

 

Samantha covers the Bosnian and Kosovo crises too, in a similar vein.

 

The last portion of the book is a rehash mostly. There are some moving vignettes. This focuses on the remedial measures taken and compares the Human Rights commissions set up in various countries (Cambodia, Rwanda with the International Court of Justice). You can safely skip most of this without any loss of information.

 

In all, a great book, better than I anticipated.  7/10

 

–  –  Krishna

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October 23, 2017

Book: Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:04 am

imageScience books are getting better all the time. There are many authors who write exhilaratingly well about science, and Simon Singh is also one of them. Some of the others we have reviewed already are A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Ancestor’s Tale.

 

This is a well written book. It is a book about how Fermat’s Thoerem/ Puzzle, a mathematical enigma so great that it defied the world’s  best mathematicians’ efforts to provide a proof for three centuries after it was stated was finally solved by an unassuming, shy, scientist Andrew Wiles.

 

But first, by way of a great introduction,  Simon Singh takes us to the ancient Greek times and starts our journey with Pythagoras, who is famous for the Pythagoras Theorem. And his style is fluid and fascinating,  which tells you why his science books are so famous in the literary world. He shows how, even though ancient Egyptians knew how to calculate hypotenuse of a triangle using the same rule as Pythagoras, how the latter proved that it is true of all triangles, thus launching the concept of a rigorous mathematical proof that changed the scientific world forever. In addition, he mixes in some personal anecdotes of the man to keep our interest high. Nicely done.

 

The surprising section about the perfect numbers and how squares also have one surprising fact about their factors is all fascinating.

 

And surprising tidbits about the life of major players keeps coming and keep you fascinated. For instance, we learn that Pythagoras was killed in a riot engineered by an applicant rejected entry to his secretive school twenty years earlier and had nursed a grudge all that time.

 

He talks about the Dark Ages putting paid to all progress in the West for hundreds of years and the destruction of that great library in the seat of Alexandria, not once, not twice but three times and how some of the volumes survived all that – though a great majority were lamentably destroyed.

 

What is nice about this book is all the tangents Simon gets into. A straight narrative of Fermat’s rule and how it was proved may have been an interesting read but when he goes into Euclid’s contributions to the solution, he also goes into other things that Euclid did, his life, his loss of sight in one eye, and even the asides – the political scene and Catherine the Great inviting “the mathematical Cyclop” back – make this a brilliant story. (He loses sight in both eyes thereafter). The female mathematicians (Hypatia, who was killed as a witch in a mob lynching, xxx who married for convenience so that she can travel, why no one would marry female mathematicians and how they stayed single all their lives) are also well covered.

 

The extent to which lady mathematicians had to go in order to gain recognition is fascinating.

 

What is interesting is the presentation. The story is told well, and flows on, and the additional mathematical details, for those interested, is moved to the Appendix and simply referenced in the main text. Nice.

 

In addition you learn about the craze created by simple puzzles of Sam Lloyd, and the game theory and Truel problem with Mr Gray, Mr Black and Mr White in a truel. (Duel with three folks). Mr Gray is the worst shot, hitting opponent once in three times; Mr Black is better, hitting once in two shots and Mr White is a perfect shot, hitting every time. Being the weakest, Mr Gray gets the first shot. Who should he aim at? The answer is very surprising.

 

The life of Galois, who is a genius in maths but a total rebel and a republican in monarchist France is touching. He gets repeatedly arrested, his contribution “lost” or rejected, and finally he dies foolishly in a duel prompted by the infidelity of a woman betrothed to be married to the best shot in town who had an affair with him and the husband challenges him to a duel and kills him.

 

Andrew Wiles’s first effort at revealing the proof which caused worldwide headlines are well narrated. When his colleagues find a flaw, he tries for months to fix it and his refusal to publish the work so far earns him scorn and enmity of the people. Finally, he gets the full proof ready, his reputation reinstated.

 

Nice work, pleasant reading on a subject that some would consider dry and pedantic. Well done. Of course, Simon now is a famous science author and has published many more books.

 

7/10

–  – Krishna

October 22, 2017

Book: A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:53 pm

imageAn American author writing in a British setting in itself is unusual.

 

An shabby priest (Father Hart)  is talking to a very old but sprightly lady in the train and she silently disapproves his generous outpouring of nose fluids, spittle etc when he is very close to her.  He is traveling to London. He is going to the Scotland Yard to report a murder.

 

Wembley and Hilliar are senior detectives there. Wembley, the junior is shabby in his desk but brilliant in work.

 

Barbara Havers, a plain looking detective, is not suited to any partner, and causes trouble. She is now put on this case, which is one of a series of what looks like a serial killer’s work.

 

To her dismay, she is paired with the detective she hates most, Inspector Lynley. He is a womanizer and her being paired with him is a testimony to her ugliness (‘Even Lynley will not make a pass at her…’)

 

She grabs Lynley from a wedding reception he is attending with his current mistress. They discover that the person killed had no head and his daughter,Roberta admits to killing him. An open and shut case, right? Wrong.

 

Back story on Barbara. She lives in a squalid home with her useful mother and thieving father, and they have a “shrine” for her brother Tony who passed away.

 

They puzzle over the first murder. Why was the axe cleaned? Why was the dog killed? If Roberta did it and also admitted to it readily, none of this made sense.

 

They go to the village to be received by a beautiful innkeeper who gives them room in a castle like hotel. they go and visit the nephew who inherits everything and go see the place where the murder took place. Roberta has been confined to an asylum with no proof of insanity.

 

In the meanwhile, they discover that a sister to Roberta existed, a pretty version of their mom, and also that Roberta may have had a food stash to cheat on her diet.

 

Erza Farmington the town artist is sleeping with Danny. (who is she?)

 

Havers and LInsey find out about the verbal fight between Richard and Thomas before he died and meet Tessa, the wife who ran away. She was exposed as a bigamist and had a motive to kill Thomas, as did her husband who discovered the huge issue. She explains how she married a very older man when she was 16 and after Gillian’s birth, he got religion and was intolerable and was not allowed even to go near her own child (and near Roberta when the second kid was born after eight years) and had to leave.

 

Gillian also runs away, increasing the pain of Thomas, who obliterated all photos of Gillian.

 

Nigel Parrish, the musician who inexplicably prefers the pub far away from home and also seems to hang around where his talents are not appreciated is a strange character. Erza and he have a flaming row.

 

They get invited to a party where Lynley meets his ex love again.

 

meanwhile he hears conflicting reports of Gillian. Richard swears that she is a slut and their neighbour the old woman who was a teacher to both Gillian and her mother Tessa, swears that Gilly was an angel.

 

How Barb rails often at Lynley every time mistaking his intentions as that of a roving cowboy and how she finds Gillian in her new hiding place and how it turns to a disaster when Lynley asks her to go fetch her are very well told. A good read, even if it is pure fluff.

 

The final meeting between the sisters Gillian and Roberta and the revelations that come out are astounding. The twist is something that you probably can guess but the descriptions and how it impacted both Gillian and Roberta are told in a phenomenal way. The shock is stunning. One of the best climactic scenes in a semi light fiction, the scene in itself elevates the book several levels above other mysteries, in my opinion. Great writing. And to consider that this is a debut novel!

 

Where the book falls flat is in too many knots and the author trying to unravel them all. And there is no explanation of how many things are found out. How did he know so many things about the life of Stepha (the innkeeper) ? A lot of things are simply “revealed” by Lynley the great detective with no explanation at all. Another example is how he knew who hid the murder weapon and cleaned the axe of fingerprints. No clues, no pointers. Suddenly Lynley says “you did it” to the culprit and that person says “yes” and sobs. Give me a break!

 

Though some scenes are fantastic, the above takes much away from the book , so let us say 6/ 10

–  – Krishna

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