Category Archives: Non-fiction

Book Review: “Tacky’s Revolt” by Vincent Brown

Tacky’s Revolt by Vincent Brown

Until this year, I knew very little about the history of Jamaica or the Caribbean in general, so this book was a lot of new material for me.

Tacky’s Revolt was one of a series of slave uprisings in Jamaica (and elsewhere) in the 1700’s.  Jamaica was the most profitable colony in the British sphere, and that profit was produced by slave labor.  Brutal, lethal work, mostly done by captives from Africa.  Surprisingly enough, the enslaved people were not happy with this arrangement, and, from time to time, rose up to take control of their own lives and fortunes.

Brown gives a complicated and nuanced history of these pivotal fights.  He is at pains to portray the multiple simultaneous conflicts in play, imperial transatlantic wars, African imperial wars, and “intimate” master-slave wars.

Within these conflicts, there were many parties on each side with competing interests.  The colonists feared foreign invasion and domestic slave rebellion.  Large planters and absentee owners sought maximum production, smaller businesses and workers needed security, the military forces needed to project power and to see to imperial goals not just commerce.

The slaves were recent captives from different parts of Africa, and different social strata, as well as island born “creoles”.  These people did not necessarily share anything other than the misery of bondage.

There were also “maroons”, descendants of escaped slaves who had achieved a temporary recognition and sovereignty from the colonial government, and worked as war time allies by treaty.

Over this diversity lay the politics and ideology of race, which was conceived to be linked to both ancestry (European versus African) and skin color.  In any case, as always, the concepts were messy, with many people falling into “mixed” categories, and increasing numbers of people born on island no matter what their heritage and skin tone.

The institution of slavery was messy, too.  While whites could employ arbitrary and unlimited violence to keep slaves in line, everyday life was more nuanced.  Slave owners were responsible for keeping their thousands of slaves in order, and this required both force and inducement. Some slaves were relatively privileged, and any who had a semblance of security might resist an uprising that risked what they had.

Relations between creoles and freed men in the cities and the maroons in the hills were complicated regardless of skin colors.

For that matter, the white colonists and government forces were governed by force as well.  The military forces were notoriously brutal, and  in times of uprising. martial law required whites to military service, at the cost of private profit.

If this sounds like hell, Brown will tell us that it was in fact continuous war.  Wars between European powers drove competition for colonies, which needed slave labor to be profitable. Wars in Africa fed the European slave trade, which both needed and sustained the overseas colonies.  Controlling thousands of slaves was essentially a continuous war of the masters against the slaves, one which only intensified over the years.

Phew!

The actual incidents recounted in the book aren’t actually that spectacular.  The slave rebellions were short lived and unsuccessful. The reactions were predictable and brutal. The stories told are predictably twisted and awful.

However, these unsuccessful uprisings were not without wider consequences.  The Jamaican revolt pushed London to reform the government of colonies, taking more control and demanding more revenue.  Applied to North America, this policy led to extreme consequences a few years later in the 1770s.

The uprisings also fed into the development of the ideology of racism, in part to justify slavery and the suppression of slaves.  Brown points out that the events also fed into the beginnings of the anti-slavery movement, demonstrating the costs and moral peril of the slave trade and slavery in general.

Prof. Brown is an academic, and he is pretty careful with  sources which are imperfect and one sided.  We learn quite a bit about how the Africans in Africa and America might have been thinking, though we have little firm evidence about much of this.  Brown interestingly juxtaposes African perspectives with the thinking of the colonists, who were ignorant, misinformed, and often projected their fears onto the unknown masses of slaves and native Africans.

I must say that much of this book is filled with peculiar fussing about geography and conceptual geography that he calls “spatial history“.   A lot of this seems to be over done, dressing up simple history with academic jargon.

Still, it’s an interesting and gripping story, regardless of these academic flourishes.


  1. Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Cambridge, Harvard, 2020.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean

The Library Book (2018) by Susan Orlean

This book recounts the story of the 1986 Los Angeles public library fire.  The cause of the catastrophe was never proven, though a man was accused but never tried for arson.  The story of the fire and the heroic recovery and rebuild is inspiring to everyone who loves their library—and most people do.

Part of the story is the mystery of what happened, and specifically whether the accused man, Harry Peak, did commit arson.  Peak was a story teller who seemed to tell a different story every time he opened his mouth.  It still is impossible to really know if he was involved, even if he did everything he could to make people think he was.

Orlean portrays the horror of the loss for the librarians and the people of LA.  As often happens, the catastrophe brought out the best in people.  Volunteers rushed to the aid of the library, money was raised, the building fixed and expanded, and books replaced.

Along the way, Orlean tells the history of the LA library.  Public libraries and librarians tend to be quirky, but this is Southern California, so things are really, really quirky!  The founders and leaders of the LA public library have been Californian to the bone, and odd even for LA, so this is a fun read.

This is also a paeon to libraries, librarians, and the LA public library (which is now her own ‘local’).

The LA library is “a model of the modern major general” of a library, growing and thriving far beyond the stacks of books.  In the age of the Internet and homelessness, every public library is innovating, and we love our library even more every day.

Orlean also recalls her childhood experience at the library, as well as similar experience of others. She found abundance, and also of personal agency in her childhood library.   She immediately finds this glorious, glowing feeling in every library she visits.

Me, too.  And lots of other people, too.

There is so much to find in the library, and no one is going to tell you what you can and can’t discover and enjoy (or abhor) there.  We love it, and we find a community of others who love it, too.

As we dig out from the pandemic, we will do everything we can to reopen and reboot our local libraries.  It will be hard, but we will not be denied.

We will have our libraries back!


  1. Susan Orlean, The Library Book, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2018.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Lives of Bees” by Thomas D. Seeley

The Lives of Bees by Thomas D. Seeley

Professor Seeley is a bee guy, a professor of bee-ology, and a bee-o-phile for sure.  This book is a summary of important things he has learned over the past umpty-ump years.

In particular, he has studied how honey bees live in the wild.  Beekeeping is like any other agricultural enterprise, bending a wild species to human needs. But honey bees are only semi-domesticated, and still exhibit many ‘wild’ behaviors.  And, as we learn in the book, there are colonies of wild honey bees all around us.

The bulk of the book is a pretty detailed discussion of the natural history of these wild bees, as well as their semi-domesticated sisters.  Seeley is the real deal, and this material is definitely footnoted.  He knows what he is talking about.  And, when appropriate, he tells us what we don’t know.

These chapters are surprisingly readable, considering the level of scientific detail.

But the true heart of the book, and probably the reason he wrote it, is the last chapter, a mere 10 pages, titled “Darwinian Beekeeping”.  What he means by this is bee-friendly bee keeping, which lets the bees live more closely to how they live when they live on their own.

(I have no idea why this is termed “Darwinian”, since most of it has little to do with any sort of natural selection, per se.)

“Darwinian Beekeeping” comes from the main finding of all the studies of wild bees in the book.  The bottom line is that human bee keepers have imposed extremely different conditions from what bees seem to prefer in the wild.  These conditions stress the bees, and make them much more vulnerable to disease and mischance.  At the same time, Seeley’s research shows how wild colonies thrive, by living the bee way rather than the human dictated way..

Everything from the size and design of bee hives (too big, poorly insulated, smooth walls, too close together) to interventions (artificial insemination, preventing swarming, moving hives long distances, limited diets, and just plain bothering them); humans stress out their little helpers.  It may be good for profits, but it’s bad for the bees.  And, sooner or later, stressed out bees will be less profitable, because they will be dead.

Seeley’s science-based suggestions amount to doing things a lot more like bees do.  So—use smaller hives, spread them out, don’t drag them all over the continent. And so on.

Of course, many of these practices will result in less honey production and less profitable pollination operations for the humans.  And some of them, such as ‘locate near natural areas’ and ‘stay away from pesticides’ are difficult to achieve in heavily farmed areas (such as the corn desert of Illinois where I live).

But clearly, for hobbyists and home operations, these “Darwinian” principles could mean a much friendlier and healthier life for the bees.  I hope and assume that these ideas are stirring bee people to better ways.


  1. Thomas D. Seeley, The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2019.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Unworthy Republic” by Claudio Saunt

Unworthy Republic by Claudio Saunt

The history of the United States has many disgraceful incidents and dark periods, replete with racism, greed, and stupidity (usually all three).  But none are more dishonorable and disgusting than the “Indian Removal” of the 1830’s.

Saunt recounts the unseemly and horrible events whereby the sovereign, “civilized” tribes of the Southeast US were brutally robbed of their land and forced to relocate across the Mississippi River, in violation of treaties, legal principles, common sense and basic humanity.  The stolen lands were mostly converted to cotton plantations worked by slaves (“privately run slave labor camps” as Saunt puts it).

The story is ugly, shameful, and hard to read.  Greed and racism coupled with the power of the state were able to push through what today we would call “ethnic cleansing” (or, what today’s white supremacists would call, “replacement”).

Tens of thousands of peaceful Cherokee, Chocktaw, Creek, and Chickasaw were swarmed by invading whites, using every tactic from fraud, to threat, to outright murder;  backed by sherriffs, judges, and militias.

The US states asserted jurisdiction over the treaty defined homelands of these Indians, while also defining the Indian people as non-citizens.  This was essentially the same logic as applied to the enslaved people, and later in Jim Crow laws, and continues in various forms of legalistic disenfranchisement today.

This is twisted, unjust, and wrong; and I’d like to say that this is “Unamerican”, but for most of the history of the US, this has been the way things worked.

In the 1820s, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Federal government was powerless to enforce the treaties it had signed, since it did not have jurisdiction over the actions of the states. That’s right, the US government signed treaties, and then decided that it wouldn’t–couldn’t–actually enforce them. (This peculiar constitutional doctrine was mostly abandoned in the twentieth century, though “conservatives” seek to return to these very bad old days.)

The first tactic was a swap of lands out west for those who voluntarily ceded their land.  This was dressed up as humanitaria, swapping emperiled territory for a utopia out West.  It sounds too good to be true, it was too good to be true.  And not many fell for this nonsense.  Those who did suffered horribly on the trail, and found little but misery and starvation in the new “eden”.  (And things only continued from there.  And continued.)

When “voluntary” expulsion didn’t work, the next step was just plain theft.  Even in that period the gears of capitalism were very efficient at asset stripping, financial engineering, extortion, and fraud.  Vast fortunes were made investing in this stolen land.

Again, I’d like to say this is Unamerican, but, of course, the entire enterprise of the USA is based on taking over other people’s land.  This is as American as it gets, the founding principle of the country.

Even this chaotic land rush did not push out all the inhabitants fast enough.  So expulsion became extermination.  Those who stubbornly tried to stay and become US citizens were routed at bayonet point, herded into camps, and forcibly transported west.

It was brutal, dishonorable, and entirely successful.  Millions of acres were emptied of their Indian owners and replaced by cotton producing slave camps.  It was also a pattern for what was to come later in the century–out in the Western lands the Indians had been relocated to.

This book is somewhat timely because the heart of the story is how a determined US President can run roughshod over law, precedent, and fundamental principle; to the benefit of white supremacists allied to capitalist interests.  President Jackson was determined to evict the Indians he hated and promote slave owning white supremacy, and no amount of political resistance, morality, or even existing laws and treaties could stop him.

Again, I’d like to say this is not only “Unamerican”, but that “It can’t happen here”.  But it has happened again and again, and it is happening now.  So this is very, very American.

This is not a pleasant history.  But it is an American history, perhaps the American history.


  1. Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “How to Hide an Empire” by Daniel Immerwahr

How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr

Is the United States an “empire”?  Does it, or has it ever, had “colonies”?

And if the US has an empire, where is it on the map?

Immerwahr’s thesis, conveyed in the title and cover art, is that the US has sort of had it both ways.  By defining the states, the mainland, as “the United States”, and various overseas territories, bases, and zones as something else, the US has an empire, but it is not acknowledged.  Leaving overseas territory off the map and out of the conversation “hides” the fact that they are ruled by the US, essentially as colonies.

The book traces the history of this approach to empire all the way back to before the official independence of the US.  “Indian country” and the ill fated native inhabitants were treated as US territory, but not part of the US until statehood—generally after the removal, elimination, and suppression of the previous inhabitants.

This legal formulation carried forward from the late nineteenth century to claimed islands and land around the Caribbean and Pacific.  These places were under the authority of the US government, but were not part of the US.  And this meant, above all, that the people are not citizens (or at least have no representation) and US constitution does not apply.

Immerwahr argues that this pattern changed after world war due to technological changes that allowed global communication and transportation without occupying large territories.  “Baselandia” is the “pointalist” American empire today, consisting of hundreds of military bases governed by US law, but not part of the US polity.

This “empire” that doesn’t want to be an empire is an unusual political philosophy. It is logically inconsistent, and confusing to the point that most Americans don’t even understand it.  Frankly, it makes little sense, so how could we understand it?

Why does the US do it this way?

Immerwahr’s view is that historically, this stems from a “trilemma”.  The US has powerful interests pushing for republicanism (i.e., representative constitutional government), white supremacy, and overseas expansion.  He says you can have any two of these, but not all three.

Overseas expansion inevitably means acquiring non-white populations.  Republicanism requires that these people be citizens with equal rights and power.  And white supremacy demands that non-white people not have rights and power.  So you can’t have all three, something has to give.

You could have nonwhite colonies with no rights (white supremacy, foreign expansion), pure empire (a la Teddy R. et al.).  This comes at the cost of “republicanism”— colonies are subject people with few or no rights of citizens, an affront to the original meaning of America.

You could have republicanism and white supremacy, and eschew foreign colonies (a la populist anti-Imperialism circa Bryant et al., 1900).  This is a form of isolationism, keeping America a republic of white people, as many intend.  This America cannot be world power.

Historically, the imperialists won this argument, resulting in the two tiered US: (republican) mainland and (subject, non-white) possessions.

Of course, there is a third possibility: you could have non-white territories incorporated as territories and states with full equal rights (republicanism + expansion).  This is anathema to white supremacists, and is generally not on the board. It has only been done once, when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states, each outside the continental “mainland”, and each with non-white majorities.  The model has not been followed again in the ensuing six decades (though many parts of the continental US are becoming non-white majority—with great political consequence).

World War II was a historical inflection in many ways.  Immerwahr traces a number of technological and sociotechnical developments that together spelled the end of colonies—even as the colonized people rose up to win independence.  He shows how radio, aircraft, and synthetic materials all undermined the political economics of holding overseas territory.

Basically, it is now possible to move people, goods, and ideas anywhere without controlling the territory in between source and destination.  All you need are strategic bases.  And boy, does the US have bases!  Each installation is a kind of mini colony, though the formal legal arrangements vary.  And from a base, the US projects bombers, intelligence, and troops–and culture.

Immerwahr gives some interesting insights into the side effects of this archipelago of bases.  The area around a base is an interface, an economic and cultural exchange zone.  This has had dramatic effects in the last half of the twentieth century, mixing American money, technology, and culture with the local people in unplanned and wondrous ways.

How wondrous?  South Korea and Japan have vaulted to the apex of the world economy, boot strapped by US money, then copying and surpassing US technology.  Saudi Arabia has soaked up US money and developed a strong anti-American Islamic movements.

But most of all, Europe has absorbed not only money and technology, but American culture, and then responded with an explosion of new expressions.  The Beetles are from Liverpool, fifteen miles west of Burtonwood, the largest U.S. Air Force base in Europe.  That’s not a coincidence.

This is a sweeping and fascinating view of American history, chock full of tasty nuggets.  And it offers some real clarification about some of America’s most confusing policies.


  1. Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

 

Sunday Saturday Book Review

Book Review: “The Shadow of Vesuvius” by Daisy Dunn

The Shadow of Vesuvius by Daisy Dunn

Pliny the Elder and his adopted son Pliny the Younger were prolific writer in Imperial Roman times.  Known mainly from their writing, for many years, European scholars didn’t realize there were two Plinys.  The Elder wrote a hugely famous encyclopedia, and actually died in the Vesuvius eruption in 79AD.  The younger had a long career and is known from a vast collection of published letters, including a famous description of his escape from the Vesuvius disaster.

Dunn’s biography of “Pliny” covers both Plinys, and in many places jumps back and forth. Indeed, humanist Dunn jumps around between the two Plinys, other Romans contemporary to them, and later scholars who read or wrote about the Plinys.  It’s quite confusing.  (This is real history, by the way, with hundreds of end notes.)

Why Pliny?  Their writings have been hugely influential, especially during the Renaissance (including on Leonardo).  They were, as Dunn says, Renaissance men back in Roman days.

Being  extremely wealthy, both Plinys swam with the doers and shakers of Rome. Indeed, the Plinys knew and were friends (or enemies) with not only Generals and Senators, but Emperors.  So, they’re just a couple of ordinary Joe’s.

But despite the relatively copious writings that have come down to us, we know remarkably little about the actual men.  (This is why the book needed to be filled out with the writing and lives of others.)  What we do know seems relatively dull.

We know the Elder from his natural history, which was thoroughly researched and widely admired.  (At least until the late Renaissance when the bogosity of his “science” was recognized and deplored.)  He served in the navy in Gaul, and was an admiral at the time of his death at Pompei. But we know little of his family or private life, and have no certain portrait of him.

The Younger is known from his published letters, which are extensive but self-selected. He was a top lawyer, who seems to have been really into the details of Roman property law.  Present during many dramatic Imperial successions, purges, and assassinations, his political career was watery at best.  Sympathetic to Stoicism, he was calm in the face of turmoil.

But we know little about the man.  We don’t even know the name of his first wife.  He seems to have deeply loved his younger second wife (Calpurnia), but we do not know his early life, his date of death, or many other details.  And honestly, he seems like a dull and unimpressive guy, except for his massive wealth and privilege.

By the end, I was wondering “why bother?”  OK, humanists all know the Plinys, but why do I want to know about these wealthy Romans?  Dunn—the humanist—doesn’t seem to even ask this question.


  1. Daisy Dunn, The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo Da Vinci (2017) by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo is a perennial favorite through the ages, and I’ve read other biographies [2, 3].  Isaacson has made a career writing about “genius”, and this is his take on the quintessential Renaissance Man.

Leonardo was ”the epitome of the universal mind, one who sought to understand all of creation, including how we fit into it.” ([1], p. 51)

In matters animal, vegetable and mineral-ist,
He was is the model of the modern major general-ist.

This is obviously history with a contemporary point of view. Isaacson rejects the concept of a mystical, innate ‘genius’, asserting that Leonardo “was self-taught and willed his way to genius” ([1], p. 519).  He also emphasizes how important collaboration and cross pollination were to Da Vinci’s success.  (Isaacson also emphasizes and endorses Leonardo’s evident comfort with his own sexual preferences.)

“Leonardo was a genius, one of the few people in history who indisputably deserved—or, to be more precise, earned—that appellation.  Yet it is also true that he was a mere mortal.” ([1], p.517)

You can’t write about Leonardo without talking about “creativity”.   Isaacson defines creativity as “the ability to apply imagination to intellect”,  “ to make unexpected leaps that related things seen to things unseen”.  Leonardo, he says, had a “facility for combining observation with fantasy.” ([1], p. 518)

Isaacson finds a lot to admire (who doesn’t?).  He’s not particularly critical of Leonardo, and he does tend to fawn a bit over the paintings and drawings which may be well done, but are not all that attractive to my own eyes.  (Of course, I haven’t seen them in person, so who knows.)

That said, Isaacson doesn’t do too much revisionism or hagiography.  He seems to give us Leonardo as he was, inscrutable, inconsistent, maddening.

Leonardo almost never published, and often didn’t finish his work.  Isaacson excuses this as the mark of a genius who could not stand anything less than perfection.  In this, Leonardo is a really bad example, and far from “genius” in this.  A tip to you kids at home:  it isn’t done until its published!  Finish your work, tell the world what you have learned.  Don’t be like Leonardo.

There are many details to be admired, especially Leonardo’s omnivorous curiosity.

“Leonardo’s to-do lists may have been the greatest testaments to pure curiosity the world has ever seen.” ([1], p. 523)

I knew about Leonardo’s automata and crazy machines [2, 3], but had not realized how these were driven by his love of theatrical performance.  Indeed, much of his work was deeply influenced by the Leonardo the  impresario. Now I can see that many of his devices, especially the ‘flying machines’ and ‘robots’ are really props, not real engineering, intended to wow the audience.  Also, I learned that the perspective and layout of The Last Supper uses common tricks from the theater. Indeed, it is a painted scene on a stage.

“All told, The Last Supper is a mix of scientific perspective and theatrical license, of intellect and fantasy, worthy of Leonardo. His study of perspective science had not made him rigid or academic as a painter. Instead, it was complemented by the cleverness and ingenuity he had picked up as a stage impresario. Once he knew the rules, he became master at fudging and distorting them, as if creating perspectival sfumato.” ([1], p. 290)

This aspect of Leonardo’s genius reinforces my long time thinking of the importance of theater for design and engineering. I think that live theatrical production is the most demanding user experience design there ever was.  And, obviously, fantasy is the fountain of innovation.

Leonardo’s theatrical career and fantasy designs also touches a chord with contemporary ‘demo’ culture, Steve Jobs’ ‘reality distortion field’ and all that.  There is nothing like a splashy demo to fire the imagination of the funding source!

I learned lots of other things.  I didn’t know about Leonardo’s close relationship with Machiavelli, or the competition to end all competitions with Michelangelo.  Leonardo and Michelangelo one-on-one.  Gentlemen, start your paint brushes!  There’s a scene to visit in a time machine!

Isaacson doesn’t side with art snobs who lament Lenoardo’s “wasting time” on interests other than painting, not to mention leaving works unfinished and unpublished.  He (Isaacson) tells us to ‘Procrastinate’, ‘Let the perfect be the enemy of the good’, ‘Indulge fantasy’, and ‘Create for yourself, not just for patrons’. ([1], pp. 519-24)

“Perhaps [Kenneth] Clark is right, in that our store of art does not include a Battle of Anghiari or other potential masterpieces. But if posterity is poorer because of the time Leonardo spent immersed in passions from pageantry to architecture, it is also true that his life was richer.” ([1], p. 393

In this, Isaacson strikes me as very New Orleans-ian to me!  (And what would L. have made of NO?)

Isaacson feels obligated to draw some lessons from Leonardo about how to be creative (pp. 319-24).  If you have to try only one prescription, let it be ‘Be curious, relentlessly curious’.

All told, this is a pretty good read, with a contemporary but not too preachy slant on the amazing life of Leonardo.


  1. Walter Isaacson, Leonardo Da Vinci, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2017.
  2. Charles Nicholl, Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, New York, Viking, 2004.
  3. Mark Elling Rosheim, Leonardo’s Lost Robots, New York, Springer, 2006.

 

Sunday Book Reviews