Saturday, January 19, 2013

EXIT THE COLONEL by Ethan Chorin ✰✰✰✰

After my review of Tamim Ansary’s Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan (If you haven’t read it yet, you really, really must-it was my number two nonfiction book for 2012.), the publisher gave me the opportunity to review this work on Libya.  One would think that given the amount of media attention that Libya gets there would be a plethora of books on the subject, but as I began this book I realized that despite having read well in excess of a hundred books over the years on the Middle East and political Islam, a good history of Libya had slipped through the cracks of my reading list.
Ethan Chorin explained why.  Western journalists had always been rather thin on the ground in Libya during the Gaddafi regime, and therefore, modern histories of Libya are a very new literary phenomenon-literally since the fall of Gaddafi.  Chorin’s book, which came out in late October of 2012, and covers material he gathered as late as that summer, gives some of the most up-to-date information that readers can find in book form.

There are other books out there that will give you a more comprehensive history of Libya-that is not his intent.  Chorin does give some history-essentially what you need to know to understand how Gaddafi was able to maneuver himself into power from a cultural standpoint.  He does an excellent job explaining the duality of Libya as a country, the divisiveness that those of the eastern half and those of the western half have always felt towards one another, and the powerful effect that this has in her politics (not to mention her soccer matches-we are not talking friendly rivalries here!)

Obviously, politics plays a huge part in this book, and there is a massive cast of players; I would dearly love a roster at the front of the book listing them all.  That said, mine is a pre-publication manuscript, so it is possible that one was added at publication time.  A good deal of ink is spread detailing the role not only of Gaddafi, but also of his second eldest son, Saif al-Islam, who was believed by many to be the son whom Gaddafi most wanted to succeed him in power.  In addition, many power brokers on the Libyan, U.S., and European fronts are discussed.  If you don’t know about Gaddafi’s dealings with Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy, this book will be rather enlightening for you.  Mr. Chorin briefly explains the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired the Libyan rebellion that finally brought down Gaddafi after forty-two years in power.  He then goes on to cover about seven months after the fall of Gaddafi in October of 2011, and so the book includes the first faltering steps of the Transitional National Council. 

One area in which this book really shines is tracing Libya’s economic journey, both before Gaddafi, through his regime, and after.  Ethan Chorin has excellent sources, both inside Libya and outside, and he shows how Libya affects and is affected by global trade.  It is interesting to note that in Libya, unlike in Afghanistan and many other countries where the United States and her allies are involved in trying to assist in establishing democratic governments and stabilizing economies in the wake of civil unrest, we are dealing with a country that is well able to pay her own way, as Libya is very rich in natural resources and has the know-how and infrastructure in place to exploit them.

My one major quibble with this book, and the factor which kept it from earning a fifth star has to do with a writing and not a research element, which bothers me to no end, because I feel like it could have been solved so simply.  This book makes the most ridiculous overuse of acronyms I have ever encountered.  To the point that it renders the book almost unreadable.  I quite literally had to begin a crib sheet that I kept in the cover of my e-reader, because I could not remember them all.  These are not the acronyms that we all know, such as WMD for weapons of mass destruction-some of these were obscure acronyms for organizations that the average reader of this book is not going to have in their working vocabulary.  And the acronym was not just used several times within close proximity of each other; several chapters later an acronym might pop up again-one time out of the blue.  Without my crib sheet I would have been lost.  Seriously?  Would it really have been that difficult to type out the words?  It drove me crazy, and it was so unnecessary because simply typing out the unfamiliar names would not have been overly repetitive, as the list of acronyms was MASSIVE.  It almost felt like the author put in all the acronyms during his research process, as a form of short-hand, and then in the editing process everyone neglected to go in and write them out for the reader.  Or failing that, at least give the reader a list at the beginning of the book with all the acronyms and their interpretations.  So, reader, just be aware from the beginning, unless you have a prodigious memory for acronyms, I highly recommend making a list as you go along.  I must say, this is the oddest reason I have ever withheld a star from such an excellently researched and written book!  

On a more positive note-you needn’t take my word on the merits of this work-Professor Dirk Vandewalle, unarguably the most highly respected scholar regarding Libya, and a professor of government at Dartmouth, says of Chorin’s work, “Chorin's book will undoubtedly remain the best analytical work on Libya and its revolution for a very long time.”  Coincidentally, there is a first rate article written by Professor Vandewalle and published in the November/December 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, entitled “After Qaddafi: The Surprising Success of the New Libya”; it makes the perfect epilog to Ethan Chorin’s book.  On the advice of both Professor Vandewalle (you cannot get better than his, really!), and my own feelings from my reading, I recommend this one to serious readers of nonfiction political history.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo ✰✰✰✰✰ and a ♥

After a bit of a challenge from a friend, I decided to finally take the plunge and reread Les Miserables.  I last visited this work some twenty odd years ago and could scarcely remember the basic rudiments of the plot, only knowing that I had to have read an unabridged version because the infamous Waterloo chapter had been included in my version-in all its lengthy glory.
In the event that there are readers unfamiliar with the plot (movie hype does miss some people), Hugo’s iconic novel is said to be the quintessential tale of forgiveness and redemption.  The story revolves around Jean Valjean, who begins life as a simple peasant, a young man struggling to help his widow sister care for her family.  He steals a loaf of bread and is caught, sentenced, and imprisoned.  Due to multiple escape attempts, his original sentence compounds into nineteen years imprisonment, and a bitter man with a crushed soul is the result.  After release he finds the world a cruel place to an ex-convict, until he meets one gentle bishop; baffled by his kindness, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver.  When Valjean is caught by the police and brought to confront the bishop, the bishop’s response changes the direction of Valjean’s life forever.  Valjean goes on to live a successful life, raising an adopted daughter, who loves a young man who becomes involved with the battle at one of the Paris barricades in 1832.  As the reader follows Valjean through the novel, you watch a convict turn from hate and bitterness to the deepest kind of love and honor.  There really is no greater example in all of literature than Jean Valjean for a broken man made whole through the example of another man’s love and kind example, who then goes on, through the strength of his own character to become a man of honor, and who never falters, no matter how dire the circumstances become.

The novel covers the years from 1815 through 1832; however, Hugo refers often to the barricade insurrection which occurred in 1848, and finally toppled Louis-Philippe, the monarch at the time of the barricade insurrection which is fought by the novel’s characters in June of 1832.  Until I understood that this was actually a projection into the future and out of the plot and context of the novel, I found this very confusing, so I mention it here hoping to save others the same issues that I had.  This “novel” very often has the feel of two books, one a fiction story with the characters about whom Hugo is writing, and another, in which he extemporizes upon various nonfiction subjects, as an author to his reader, from religious communities to the structure of the Paris sewer system.  In addition to complete chapters and sections set aside specifically for this purpose, he often expounds upon his subject matter and thoughts within the text of the “novel” portions as well.

So how do you decide whether the abridged or the unabridged translation is right for you?  Ask yourself, “Am I reading this book because I loved the musical or the movie and I want to know a little more about the characters, or do I want to go much, much deeper?”  Hugo was given to bouts of philosophizing, lengthy histories, and tangents that at times could get very off topic.  That said, if you are willing to follow where he leads, you will experience some of the most beautiful prose, conveying some of the most truly profound sentiments.  As a writer, Hugo was able to break down society to its most elemental level and serve that up to his readers, giving us, a century and a half later, a clear picture of the political and social milieu of Paris in the early nineteenth century.  I am not saying that taking on the unabridged version doesn’t tax the reader’s patience at times.  It most certainly does.  There are definitely things that could stand to be edited out, or clarified, or better integrated into the flow of the plot.  However, sometimes baring with his eccentricities pays off later on, when the added knowledge the reader has gained helps to clarify and enhance your enjoyment of further sections of the novel.  Perhaps the knowledge was not one hundred percent necessary, but it does add in some way to the overall picture.

I do not regret a single one of the 1,232 pages that I read.  For this read, I read the Norman Denny translation, which I highly recommend, as the prose is gorgeous, and scholars say that reading Denny is very close in tone to reading Hugo in the original French.  It is an unabridged version, but two sections have been moved into appendices in the back of the book; they are clearly marked so that the reader who wishes to may easily flip to them and read them at the place in the novel where Hugo intended them to be read.  Interestingly enough, the online classics group in which I am a member is going to do a group read of Les Mis over the coarse of this year.  For that read through, I am going to read Julie Rose’s translation, which appears, according to my research, to be a little more “letter of the law” in her translating, so not quite as flowing, but which includes extensive footnotes, which Denny’s version does not contain.  Footnotes would be a great benefit in this novel, as Hugo was constantly making references to historical figures and events with which I am not familiar.  I will come back here after reading that version and give a comparison of the two translations.

This is definitely not a book for everyone, at least not in the unabridged format.  It is a wonderful story, and if you love the movie and musical and want to get to know the characters better, but do not want to get really vested in a great deal of history and philosophy, I strongly urge you to read the abridged version (gasp!...did I really just say that?!!).  Hugo offers fabulous rewards, but I just do not know that everyone is willing to put up with what you have to put up with to mine for the diamonds.  I loved every minute of the book, even his tangents, because the sheer beauty of the language and my fascination with all the history carried me through when he wandered down the mine shaft.  Only you can know if you are willing to strap on a head lamp and go down that shaft as well.

I highlighted like crazy in this book, but here are just a few short passages (These are from Norman Denny’s translation/Penguin Classics):

“Darkness afflicts the soul.  Mankind needs light. To be cut off from day is to know a shrinking of the heart.  Where the eye sees darkness the spirit sees dismay.” (pg. 350)

“The sceptic clinging to a believer is something as elementary as the law of complementary colours...Grantaire, earthbound in doubt, loved to watch Enjolras soaring in the upper air of faith.” (pg. 565)

“A calm but passionate unknown, who seemed ready to take refuge in death, had sent to his absent beloved the secret of human destiny, the key to life and love.  He had written with a foot in the tomb and a finger in the sky.  The lines, falling haphazard on the paper, were like raindrops falling from a soul.” (pg. 806)

“Insurrection is a thing of the spirit, revolt is a thing of the stomach.” (pg. 889)

“What a sorry aim and sickly ambition it is merely to enjoy!  The animal enjoys.  To think, that is the real triumph of the spirit!” (pg. 1210)

“Are the duties of the historians of hearts and souls less exacting than those of the historians of external fact?  Has Dante less to say than Machiavelli?  Is the under side of civilization less important than the upper side because it is darker and goes deeper?  Can one know the mountain without also knowing the cave?” (pg. 1217)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2013 Challenges

In 2012 I failed to make about half of my challenges, but I learned something about myself along the way.  For one thing, I learned that I set way too many challenges for the number of books that I can possibly read in a given year!  Also, I learned that I use my challenge lists more as "selection" lists than as "I am going to complete these lists by the end of the year" lists.  For example, at the end of the year, I could have read a couple of very short, fluff books that were both on my physical shelf and published in 1995, and thus completed both my Pick a Year and my Trim That TBR Challenges.  Instead, I chose to read the 560+ page All Soul's Rising, off my Randomizer Challenge, which I didn't stand a chance of finishing, and finish a rather heavy nonfiction work on Libya that I had promised to review for a publisher.  In essence, I want my "challenge" lists to serve me, not to be my master.

With those thoughts in mind, I am still going to set many of the same "challenges", but with the idea that they will serve as my "selection lists" throughout the year.  I keep a virtual shelf of books on the online site "Shelfari"; my dream list there of book that I would like to read currently exceeds 1,100 titles, so having a smaller selection of books here to pick from is helpful when I am pondering that ever present query, "What shall I read next?"  So, here are my "challenge" lists for 2013:

Share-A-Shelf Challenge: (read 5 books selected off from each of the Shelfari shelves of four different friends-20 books total. This is the one challenge which I really intend to view as a "challenge" as opposed to a "selection" list.  These great reading friends invested a fair amount of time in helping me to put together these lists.  You can see all of their great comments and their suggestions for books that didn't make the cut on my Personal "To Be Read" Shortlist blog page.  Michelle and I are still working on her list at present.) (completion dates will be annotated)

My list from BooknBlues's Shelf:

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda
The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
Doc by Mary Doria Russell 
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
River of Doubt by Candice Maillard 

My list from Mary B.'s Shelf: 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
A Room with a View by E.M. Forester
The Traitor's Wife by Susan Higginbotham
The Greatest Traitor by Ian Mortimer
Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone

My list from Michelle G.’s Shelf: (these are tentative-still discussing with Michelle)

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
Canada by Richard Ford
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

My list from Regina's Shelf: 

Desert Queen by Janet Wallach
The Girl from the Coast by Pramoedya Anantya Toer
Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji
Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernières
The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander

Randomizer Challenge 2013: (These books are selected by taking the number of books on my virtual "To Be Read" shelf on Shelfari and entering it on  I matched the first thirty numbers generated with my books in list format on Shelfari, and these were the titles.  It is doubtful I will get all of them read, but it gives me a nice selection to choose from over the year.) (completion dates will be annotated)

The Wreath by Sigrid Undset
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailor
The Titled Americans by Elizabeth Kehoe
Them by Jon Ronson
The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin
Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Slaughte-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J.R.R. Tolkien
Making Toast by Richard Rosenblatt
The Measure of Our Days by Jerome E. Groopman
The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal
The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt
Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang
Whiteman by Tony D’Souza
We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
Sukkwan Island by David Vann
Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
McKinley Station by Tom Walker
Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
No More Words: A Journal of My Mother by Reeve Lindbergh
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr 

Long Book Challenge: (I would like to read at least 4,000 pages in books 600 pages or longer.)

Classics Monthly Group Read: (I would like to read all 6 group reads)
Jan/Feb North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (will fill in date when completed)

PBT Monthly Tag Read: (I would like to read at least one book for each monthly tag-if I read more, I will only record the first one here.)

This will be the format for my challenges page, which will be found as a tab from now on at the top of the blog.  I wish all of you the best of luck in your reading challenges and selections this New Year!