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Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Retracing the Oregon Trail…

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My reading Rinker Buck’s book The Oregon Trail was a product of serendipity. What I thought was a classical 19th-century work by Francis Parkman is, in fact, a very engaging and wonderful book that beautifully melds history, travel and adventure, and memoir.

Rinker Buck is a journalist who decides to recreate the torturous journey taken by pioneers – most of whom were immigrants — to settle the uncharted American West. Pioneers took a huge risk at a time when going anywhere west of the Mississippi River was a dicey proposition. For many, the Oregon Trail began on the western frontier of Missouri, traversing Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and, finally, Oregon. There was not one Oregon Trail, but many; and not all pioneers were heading for the Pacific Northwest. Included among them were gold prospectors making their way to California to, hopefully, make their fortune.

As the pioneers went so did Rinker Buck. He took the journey in a covered wagon pulled by a team of mules. To make it into a family affair, Rinker brought his ornery brother Nick along, as much as for company as for his expertise. Nick is not only an experienced carpenter, but has an encyclopedic knowledge of mules and covered wagons, which we will find later proved to be quite handy.

For Rinker, the decision to recreate a 2,000-mile overland journey from Kansas to Oregon was not a light one, but deeply emotional and personal. Recently divorced, and in middle age, he wanted a way to reconnect with the fond memories of his youth. Rinker frequently recounts the trips he and his siblings took with their father, a restless adventurer. They, too, traveled in a covered wagon, but they only went far as Pennsylvania from their home in New Jersey.

I’m still reading the book, but it’s so absorbing, and Ruck is such a great storyteller, that I had to share my thoughts right away. It has also inspired me to want to take a similar journey.

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Written by niraj

March 9th, 2017 at 2:54 pm

Posted in books,history

Books: Recent Acquistions

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I’m slowly acquiring all the books written by late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. I have three of his brilliant books in my possession:

  • Another Day of Life
  • Shah of Shahs
  • Travels with Herodotus

I’ve only read Shah of Shahs. A brilliant piece of literary journalism about the fall of the Shah of Iran during the 1979 revolution. After I read it, I said to myself: I want to write like him. Even though these books are English translations (Kapuscinski only wrote in Polish), his genius shines through. Like many writers, his power is the economy and elegance of his prose.

I highly recommend him.

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Written by niraj

July 1st, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Review: Marx for Beginners

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Rius. Marx for Beginners. New York: Pantheon, 2003. 160pp.

Many people know about Karl Marx and what he stood for, but how many people, including his many admirers and critics, actually understood the man and his revolutionary ideas? In my opinion, not many, including those who unabashedly call themselves “Marxists.’ Not surprisingly, Marx’s ideas are impenetrable by even the most intelligent of people. Very few understand Marx, and even fewer who successfully translated his thinking to the general public: reading and comprehending Marx is simply beyond the ability of mere mortals. Marx’s ideas are a knotty mess of philosophy and economics, written in the turgid, confusing prose that is the hallmark of many intellectuals. So a book like Marx for Beginners is a welcome antidote, as it explains Marx in the simplest way possible—through cartoons.

The book is illustrated and written by Rius, a pseudonym used by famed Mexican cartoonist and left-wing political activist Eduardo del Rio. The book is only 160 pages or so, but Rius encapsulates Marx’s ideas in a tight, unsparing format, not wasting time on ephemeral matters but focusing on main ideas that made Marx an icon of the left. Rius gives us a biography of Marx, his influences, explains the philosophical underpinnings of Marx’s ideas, and Marx’s blueprint how the proletariat (the “working” class) can seize power. Naturally, Marx was no lover of democracy, which, for him, was a bourgeoisie concept.

Though this edition was published in 2003, the book was originally published in 1975. This explains the many references to Chile and snide attacks on the United States. Obviously, the author was bitter about the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and American imperialism in South America in general. Never mind that Allende was planning to turn Chile into another Cuba. But that’s a debate for another day.

Marx for Beginners is not intended to be a comprehensive, or even an exhaustive, look at Marx. That is just not possible. This book is a primer, of sorts, a kind of jumping off point. Because to understand the man there is no going around reading the man’s various works. A bit of a warning: reading Marx is only for the heartiest of souls and not for the faint of heart. And I’m not writing this review as a supporter of Marx. Hardly. But you cannot deny the man’s influence on history; and to understand the world today you have to understand Marx.

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Written by niraj

October 22nd, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Never, Ever Forget

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It is hard to believe that eight years have passed since the attacks of 9/11. Like many anniversaries, it is a good time to take stock of what happened, what is happening, and what will happen.

I am dismayed by the fact that 9/11 has quickly become ancient history for many people, especially the pundits, bloggers and the rest of the commentariat. Many are complaining about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The war in Iraq, whatever its outcome, is a boondogle and never should have been undertaken. There was no al-Qaeda or weapons of mass destruction; so whatever its supporters say, it was a strategic failure. There is no arguing this point.

On the other hand, the war in Afghanistan is a “just” war, which has been treated like a neglected step-child, especially by the Bush Administration and their misguided “War on Terrorism”. Underfunded and undermanned, the war in Afghanistan has been floundering for awhile now. The Taliban, it seems, is getting stronger by the day. Osama bin Laden has yet to be found. And our chief ally in the region, Pakistan, has been wishy-washy at best.

The time has come to rethink this war and the war on terrorism.

We can quibble over how to go about it, but leaving Afghanistan is not an option. We need to fight smarter. After all, the price of peace is eternal vigilance.

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Written by niraj

September 11th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Review: Inglourious Basterds

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Who hasn’t dreamed about killing fascists at least once in their life? I know I have. I want to massacre the bastards by the truckloads, moral and legal constraints be damned. But thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s new revenge fantasy flick, Inglourious Basterds, I can vicariously live the experience without getting my hands dirty or suffer moral qualms.

The movie is about a fictitious squad of Jewish-American servicemen whose sole purpose is to slip behind enemy lines in occupied France in order to kill (and sometimes torture) as many Nazis as possible. Body count is important here. Led by a Tennessee hillbilly named Lt. Aldo Raines, played by Brad Pitt, they rampage through the French countryside, ambushing German soldiers, scalping them like Apaches. No prisoners are ever taken, but a token survivor is always left behind as a living monument, with a swastika carved into their forehead, to scare the shit out of the Germans. And believe me, the Germans are scared shitless, including the Fuhrer himself.

Quentin Tarantino being Quentin Tarantino, naturally, this movie does not work as a conventional narrative, but in the patented Tarantino style of going forwards and backwards. His movies often read like novels, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception.

But in addition to the novel-like elements, Tarantino has added another storyline that complements, but does not compete, with the first. The movie opens up on a French farm, with a farmer cutting wood. He is met a by a charming German SS officer named Col. Hans Larda, who is called the “Jew Hunter” for his single-mindedness to rid France of all Jews. Col. Larda is played with such evil joy by Christoph Waltz; he alone is worth the price of admission. You want to like him but are reminded that his is a Nazi, and a ruthless one at that. Col. Larda suspects the farmer of hiding Jews. With wit and the interrogation skills of an experienced detective, Col. Larda manages to squeezes the truth out of the farmer. No violence is used in the process, but the Jews, on the other hand, their fates were sealed by a hail of bullets.

There was a lone survivor of the massacre, a young girl named Shosanna Dreyfuss, played by French actress Melani Laurent, who manages to escape to Paris, where she ends up running a movie theatre playing nothing but Nazi films. All the while, Shosanna nurses a grudge that eventually develops into full-blown homicidal rage: the targets of which, of course, are Nazis, a theatre full of them, in fact.

The film is derivative like many of Tarantino’s films and include his trademarks: long dialogue scenes about philosophical issues and meditations about German films of the 1920s, unconventional camera angles, and his trademark penchant for violence. It should be said, however, that Tarantino-style violence is not the cartoonish violence that are is found in bonehead Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris films. On the contrary, it is never gratuitous. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is that more than half the movie is in both French and German. For moments, I thought I was watching a foreign film. Surprisingly, it did not detract from the enjoyment of the film at all.

But why did Quentin Tarantino decide to make a film about a Jewish revenge fantasy in the first place? It this article published in Atlantic magazine, he explains why:

“Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims,” he said, plainly exasperated by Hollywood’s lack of imagination. “We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.”

It is true that most—some might even say all—films about the Holocaust focus on the persecution of Jews. The Holocaust was very bad for Jews; this is an immovable fact of history. But Tarantino isn’t wrong to suggest that the cinematic depiction of anti-Semitic persecution can become wearying over time, particularly for Semites.

I feel the same way any book I read or any movie I see on the Holocaust, Jews are always depicted as defenseless victims. They never fight back, accepting their fate because it is God’s will, for punishment of sins, real or perceived. It is so maddening. This is one of the reasons why I admire Israel, at least it fights back whenever it is attacked.

The problem, I suppose, is both a philosophical and religious one, so I will leave it there.. Nevertheless, Inglourious Basterds is a welcome addition to both World War II and Holocaust genres, if only for its cathartic effects. The thirst for revenge must be slaked once in awhile, in my opinion, even if it is only on the silver screen.

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Written by niraj

August 27th, 2009 at 4:44 pm

I’m Still Here Status

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Nothing new to report from my end. Of late, I’m on an extended hiatus. Not doing much blogging as you can see – not one post for May, in fact! I’m reduced to updating my Facebook status and an occasional post on Twitter. I have stopped reading blogs altogether; but I am reading a lot, reverting to printed materials. You can say I’ve gone old school.

But I’ve made an exception for the latest issue of Pragati, the history issue, which was edited by JK Nair. It is very good, and I highly recommend it.

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Written by niraj

June 14th, 2009 at 9:32 pm