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1491 will let you see the New World that we're just starting to discover

Happy Europeans discover the New World even though none of the people who lived there then knew that they needed finding Day.

I don’t mean to disparage Columbus. As a history such as Hugh Thomas’ Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan (2005) makes clear, the man was an amazing sailor. Getting across the Atlantic in 1492 was no mean feat.

Ever since that “discovery” first European and then U.S. culture has struggled to see what Columbus found. The early European explorers wanted to believe that the peoples who lived in the lands that Columbus discovered were savages and cannibals. Those categories made it easy to see the native peoples as either subjects to be ruled or enemies to be exterminated.

We haven’t gotten a whole lot better at seeing in the last four hundred plus years. In school I was taught U.S. history in a way that made native societies background for the important actions that formed The Story of the American People. In college and after I learned how to see these native peoples as victims and to mourn their passing.

It hasn’t really been easy to understand the full inadequacies of those ways of seeing until the last few decades. It turns out that we didn’t know very much about these people and their societies and their achievements. That’s been gradually changing as scientists have chipped away at our profound ignorance about the world in this hemisphere before Columbus.

If you want to get caught up on the best of that science, in a story told with real passion for what we’re learning, then devote a bit of this Columbus Day weekend to starting 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

I dare you to read this book and not be moved, outraged, intrigued, and amazed by what we are now beginning to know that we didn’t know for so long.

What kinds of things? read more…

Did the United States prosper because of or inspite of its leaders?

The great stock picker and mutual fund manager Peter Lynch once advised, “Buy businesses so simple even an idiot could run them. Because one day an idiot will.”

After reading David S. Reynolds’s Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson (HarperCollins, 2008), I can’t help wondering if the same thing applies to countries.

Call it Manifest Destiny. Or the workings of God’s hand. Or the inevitable workings of capital and labor. Or an idea so simple even an idiot couldn’t mess it up.

But there’s got to be some reason why the United States survived the first half of the nineteenth century despite the rather shaky quality of its leaders. And the somewhat uncertain character of the average citizen, for that matter.

If you like your history strong on armies marching over the landscape or are fascinated by accounts of who skunked who in the smoke-filled back rooms, then this isn’t the book for you.

But if you read history because you enjoy the details that give a period character, that make the past different from the present, then this is your book. Because that’s exactly the parts of the story that Reynolds finds fascinating and brings to life.

Take, for example, the fact that the average American spent most of the years between the war of 1812 and the end of Andrew Jackson’s presidency in 1837 constantly inebriated if not outright drunk. read more…

The past isn't what it seems: The more you know about France the more this quirky history will amaze you

When we divide the world into developed and undeveloped economies, we should remember how very recent all of what we call development is.

When we marvel at—or doubt–the speed at which China or India or Brazil is becoming developed, we should remember that what is now called the developed world did it just as quickly.

That’s the message of Graham Robb’s amazingly quirky history The Discovery of France (Picador, 2007). Robb attempts, and large succeeds, at that most difficult of imaginative acts: he makes us see a history that we think we know as the story of a strange land full of marvels. (By the way the book is just an amazing amount of fun as well.)

The past, Robb points out, isn’t filled with people just like us. Indeed while the gap in years is small—just 250 years of so—the world of 1750 and 1850 and even 1900 is often unrecognizable to those who live in the developed economies of 2009.

Robb’s subject happens to be France. As a prize winning biographer of Balzac, Hugo, and Rimbaud, it’s a country he knows well and one he clearly loves. But the history he writes could be written of much of the now developed world.

And it’s a strange history indeed.

Consider that

  • The effort to draw first complete and reliable map of France dates back to just 1740. The first sheet of Cassini’s great map was published in 1750; the last was printed in 1815.
  • In 1777 it took 37,000 (unpaid workers) and 22,000 horses (presumably fed if not paid) seven days to build 22 miles of road in the Rouen region. read more…

Montalban's detective novels: Remembrance of Barcelona's past

In most mystery novels the detective is the star in the spot light and the city, country house, deserted moor, whatever is atmosphere, the source of clues, scenery.

Manual Vazquez Montalban’s detective novels reverse that relationship. His plots are almost non-existent. His detective Jose ‘Pepe’ Carvalho doesn’t do much of anything. At least not in the two novels I’ve read and recommend to you, Offside (1988) and An Olympic Death (1991). (Admittedly, a small sample out of the 22 Carvalho novels Montalban wrote.)

Ah, but Montalban has set his novels in Barcelona, the city where he was born in 1939. (He died in 2003.)

And who needs another star when he has Barcelona? read more…

Nobody has ever written about the world of debt like Thackeray and Balzac


 It may go down in history as America’s greatest product. Certainly no country has invented so many varieties of it. Or contrived to spread debt, once the property of only the upper class and those who would aspire to the upper class, so democratically across all economic strata. Once the poor couldn’t taste the joys of debt—they were poor, after all. Who would lend them money? Now, however, like the aristocrats of past centuries every American can owe more than he or she can pay.

 But even in the moment when we would triumph at building one of the greatest houses of cards in financial history, one that is now tumbling down about our ears, we must take off our hats, should they still be in our possession and not at pawn, to the great nineteenth century chroniclers  of debt, Thackeray and Balzac.

N o one has ever done a better job than these two novelists of describing the joys of spending money you don’t have, of anatomizing the tools of the debtors trade, and then of recording the ultimate descent into, not tragedy, but bathos .

Take a moment out of your summer, as I did last month, to revel in the human comedy of what Thackeray in Chapter 36 of Vanity Fair called “How to live well on Nothing a Year.” read more…

Death and power in Shanghai through the eyes of Inspector Chen

Mysteries are the quickest and most enjoyable way to get to the heart of a culture. Including today’s China.

As the fictional detective sifts through clues to track down the criminal, the readers experiences how that society draws the lines between morality and law, learns who in a society has (or thinks he or she has) the power to flout the law, and feels how heavily the dead hand of history weighs down the present.

You can learn all that about the United States from Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade or Continental Op detective novels. Or about South Africa under apartheid in novels by James McClure such as The Steam Pig. In the Swedish mysteries starring Martin Beck, Kurt Wallander or Lisbeth Salander/Mikael Blomkvist that I wrote about in my last “Jim recommends.”

The same is true for China and the series I’d recommend is the six Inspector Chen Cao books written by Qiu Xiaolong beginning with Death of a Red Heroine, published in 2001. read more…

Would you like cream with that red herring? More great crime fiction from Sweden

Has Sweden produced another series of great murder mysteries?

I’ve just finished the first novel from Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I’d have to say it’s a real possibility.

The book, published after Larsson’s death in 2004 at the age of 50, is a tightly plotted–until the last 100 pages or so anyway–page turner set inside the paternal world of the family business empires that dominated the post-war Swedish economy. In the last section of the book Larsson succumbs towhat I’d call  the William Gibson plausibility malady: give a hacker hero enough powers and anything is possible and nothing is very interesting.

Larsson’s fictional team of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander is a far cry from Martin Beck, the detective in 10 mysteries written by wife and husband team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo from 1965-1975, or Kurt Wallander, the detective in eight novels (and counting) from Henning Mankell beginning in 1991. read more…

Books on China

Want to understand China? (And what investor doesn’t these days?) Start with these two books. First, China Shakes the World by James Kynge, the former China bureau chief for the Financial Times. Second, China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy by Minxin Pei, director of the China program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Together they’ll give you a good feel for the realities of China on the ground today and for the limits of the consensus forecast of China’s future. read more…

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