Sunday, January 15, 2012

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

This book was such an adventure and joy, I hardly know where to start.

If you have an interest in early American (north and south) history, malaria and yellow fever, the silver trade of Bolivia that went to China as well as Europe, Chinese trade with the Philippines, slave revolts and communities, privateering, the world-system of the early modern era--I could go on and on--then this is your book. Mann, a journalist, goes from topic to topic effortlessly, weaving personal observations with wide-ranging research in the scholarship of these topics. He interviews the scholars as well to add a bit of spice to his research into the scholarship on these myriad topics. Not limited by academic boundaries, he can take us from here to there. By listening to this book, I learned a huge amount in this period in which I am distressingly weak. I'm improving, but I have a long way to go. Fortunately, Mann has gotten me off to a great start.

The Columbian exchange, the first significant step in globalization, for good and ill, begins here. Europe, Africa, and China--human, animal, and botanical-- come to the Americas, and vice versa. It's a fascinating topic, and a story that is ongoing as you read this.

An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper by Adam Sisman

In my first semester of college, when I took Western Civ,I had had to read one of my first really grown-up history books, The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (an intriguing topic). Now, all these years later, I've read his biography. He's best known for his The Last Days of Hitler, the result of investigation he did immediately after the war for British intelligence. This journalistic endeavor boosted him immensely, and then he went into the history business at Oxford, and later Cambridge. He never wrote the big book, but he was the master of the essay. Alas, while Hitler made his career, the topic also caused him great grief when he mistakenly (and to his credit, preliminarily) authenticated Hitler diaries that were a fraud.

I enjoyed book. For a better reviews (and there are many), go here or here. A well-written biography of an interesting character (as interesting as an academic historian can be!).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The Movie

The acting and the casting is solid with fine performances. The script makes sense. The staging and setting are well-done in 70's Britain drab, and the score (except for the final piece) creates an appropriate atmosphere. But in the end, you feel like you've just tried to enjoy a 60-minute Hamlet. Yes, we see the plot, we see some of the characterization, we view the ending. But there's so much more!

I can say this not just because I've read the book, and I find LeCarre a rich writer who can use detail to set contemporary scenes in a world of bureaucrats and spies as well as anyone could imagine. In fact, even modest literary efforts can lose in translation to the screen. (An exception, I expect, is The Godfather, but I speculate because I've not read Puzo's book.). No, the reason that I hold this criticism against this film is because I've viewed--on multiple occasions--the BBC production of it from 1979. It's not that Alec Guiness's performance is better than Gary Oldman's--it is, but Oldman does a good job. No, rather, it's the time that the BBC took, about seven 45-minute episodes, allows the richness of the plot and relationships to come through.This allows you to absorb the intrigues and relationships much as what happens when you read a novel, which, at least in the case of this novel, will not occur in a single sitting. This film starts and moves slowly in the beginning, I think trying to capture that rich texture, but in the end, to get in all of the main plot elements, it has to speed up. There has to be a sacrifice and in this movie we lose the back stories of the other principals.

Thus, it's a good, solid movie, worth seeing. However, to give yourself the best experience, go Netflicks or your local public library and check out the BBC production. It's a terrific show. You'll appreciate the difference, and for this one occasion, television beats the movies hands-down for the quality of  the experience.