Globalising Hatred – Review

9780297844730 Denis MacShane  China.png

Phoenix (2010), 208 pages

Book Value Liffey St. – €3

Globalising Hatred: The New Antisemitism is a polemic against contemporary antisemitism.  MacShane accurately portrays a rise in antisemitism across the globe but, at times, implies that those opposed to Israeli policies are simply another side of antisemitism.  All anti-semites are anti-Israeli but all those opposed to certain Israeli policies (especially in the Occupied Territories) are not antisemitic.  MacShane is at his strongest when condemning Western governments duplicity when dealing with antisemitic governments.  The Iranian government is rightly condemned for its appalling antisemitism (although there are some Jews in Iran) whereas the virulent antisemitism of the Saudi Arabian government (where public practice of non-Muslim religions is banned) is rarely mentioned by Western leaders. MacShane also accurately notes that, “The denial or trivilisation of the Holocaust remains a key object for anti-semites.” (p.xvii)  While hardcore anti-semites might secretly revel in the murder of millions of Jews they recognise that such incomprehensible suffering undermines their insidious aim of spreading antisemitism in the modern world.  David Irving is a classic example of the attempt to place a respectable face on deadly ideology.  However I would disagree with MacShane when he criticises British universities for allowing people like Irving or the British National Party leader Nick Griffin to speak at debates on their campuses.  The views of Irving and Griffin might be repulsive but it is up to saner people to challenge their discredited views.  Censoring speech, especially in the internet age, does not work and risks eliciting sympathy for the censored. There is a risk of increased anti-semitism in Europe and it comes from the increased popularity of far-right parties in Europe.  Parties such as the National Front in France have become more centrist and moved away from overt extremism but their simplistic ideology seeks to dehumanise those who do not fit into their monochrome and fearful worldview.  It is no coincidence that European antisemitic groups are also racist, homophobic, Islamophobic,and favour traditional roles for women. The greatest physical threat to the lives of Jewish people (and also the lives of many Muslims and non-Muslim minorities) comes from Islamic extremists.  They are a threat to the lives of Jews living in Israel (although some of this violence is more political than antisemitic in nature just as Israeli violence in the Occupied Territories is anti-Palestinian not anti-Muslim) and across the world.  Violent attacks by Islamic extremists have killed numerous Jewish people in, amongst other places, Argentina, France, Morocco India, and Turkey.  The only reason these individual Jews were killed was simply because of the religion they believed in.  The scapegoating of Jews for other people’s issues must be challenged at every opportunity.  The Holocaust is a grim reminder of what can happen when poisonous ideologies flourish.


Related Links

The Telegraph review (positive review)

The Guardian review (positive review)

Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs review (mixed review)

New Statesman review (negative review)


The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Review


Joan Aiken  China.png

Red Fox (2004 – originally published 1962), 192 pages

Charity Shop – €1

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase when I borrowed it from my primary school library at some stage in the mid-1980s.  I couldn’t really remember the plot but did remember the eerie atmosphere created by thought of bloodthirsty wolves roaming across the British (or indeed Irish) countryside.  I saw a copy of the book in a charity shop and couldn’t resist re-reading it.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is based on a fantastic alternate history where a channel tunnel has allowed wolves to cross into Britain.  As with many children’s books you are required to suspend disbelief.  Bonnie’s parents leave her with a complete stranger and leave on a long voyage.  Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia’s friend Simon lives alone in a cave with his geese on Sir Willoughby and Lady Green’s (Bonnie’s parents) land.  Being a children’s story the bad guys get their comeuppance and everything is happily resolved (although the wolves there in the background even if they have moved north for the summer).

Reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase critically there is plenty of interest for those looking to read the book from a gendered, Marxist, or political point of view.  The relationships between the sexes are fascinating.  The women in the book, especially Bonnie and the evil Ms Slighcarp, are strong characters who are seen to be more intelligent than most of those around them.  However Bonnie and Sylvia always defer to Simon’s superior knowledge of the outdoors and Sir Willoughby is the dominant person on the Willoughby Estate (until he foolishly leaves it in the hands of complete strangers).  The class relationships are also interesting.  Sir Willoughby is portrayed as a benign form of landed gentry.  Impoverished Simon (he literally lives in a cave on the estate with his geese) is presented as happily independent despite having packs of wolves roaming around his home.  The working class servants on the estate are also presented as kindly simple people.  It is the middle classes in the form of orphanage owner Mrs Brisket, Ms Slighcarp, and Mr Gripe who are the nastiest characters in the book.  Although set in the 19th century The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was published at the height of The Cold War (in the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis).  The wolves in the book originally came from Russia and wreak havoc in the British countryside.  It is interesting to speculate if Joan Aiken used the wolves as a code for the potential dangers of Soviet infiltration of Britain and the certain destruction of landed aristocracy such as the Willoughbys.

This is an excellent children’s book filled with vivid characters and emotions, a strong element of fantasy, and a gripping tale which is at times frightening and at times exhilarating.  I’m sure The Wolves of Willoughby Chase would enthral young readers today as much as it amazed me over thirty years ago.


Related Links

Pretty Books review

Ireland’s Wildlife – The case for reintroducing wolves to Ireland (the last wolf was killed in 1786)

Joan Aiken website

IMDb page for film adaptation

The Goldfinch – Review

GoldfinchDonna Tartt China.png

Little, Brown & Co. (2013), 784 pages

Book Signing, €15

Donna Tartt is one of my favourite authors.  The Secret History was a phenomenal debut and The Little Friend is one of the great American novels, a modern day To Kill a Mockingbird.  Tartt has the rare ability to combine beautifully drawn characters with a killer plot.  Her prose flows across the page so fluidly that before you realise it’s past midnight and you’ve read over a hundred pages. I had the great pleasure of buying the book after a public talk with Donna Tartt (in conversation with Sinead Gleeson) in Dun Laoghaire.

The novel centres around the acquisition of Carel Fabritius 1654 painting of a goldfinch.  The painting is a wonderful metaphor for life and for art.  The goldfinch tied by a thin chain is trapped.  The viewer (especially in a pre-internet age) could only view the beauty of the painting by physically standing in front of it.  The viewer, like the bird, is also trapped.  Fabritius was killed inFabritius-Goldfinch the Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 and in The Goldfinch it is a more modern explosion that results in Theo Decker acquiring the painting.  The explosion turns teenage Theo’s life upside-down and he begins a rollercoaster ride over the following years.  Tartt has a particular skill at writing about young people and she perfectly captures the emotional turmoil that is a part of growing up.  Of course Theo’s problems (including possessing a priceless painting) are greater than the average teenager’s issues.  The story is too long to summarise here but it is a gripping thriller.

Tartt is a rare novelist who has the ability to prioritise quality over quantity.  The Goldfinch is her third novel in 22 years and all three have been classics.  Admittedly the fact that her debut novel was a bestseller gave her the financial clout to resist unwanted pressures from publishers.  If you want a book you can immerse yourself in with intelligent characters and a gripping plotline then The Goldfinch is a must read.


Related Links

The New Yorker critical review

essentialvermeer.comArticle about Carel Fabritius

A View of Delft after the Explosion 1654 by Egbert van der Poel

Best Books of 2014

I realised that this post was sitting in my drafts folder and thought it would be better to publish it late than never…

These are the best books I’ve read in 2014, not necessarily published this year.

The GoldfinchGoldfinch
Donna Tartt  USA
Little, Brown & Co. (2013)

Another astonishing piece of page turning brilliance from Donna Tartt.  Wonderful characters and beautiful writing, and a compelling plot.

Ghost WarsGhost Wars

Steve Coll  USA

Granta Books (2010)
Ghost Wars is an indispensible book for anybody who wants to understand the rise of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the complex threads that came together on September 11 2001.

John Charles McQuaidMcQuaid
John Cooney  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg
Vintage (2010)
Although flawed, John Charles McQuaid offers a look at the political, cultural, and religious power of the Irish Catholic Church under its dominant and charismatic leader.  This book is an insight not just into one man but also into a pivotal era in modern Irish history.

Jonathan Franzen  USA
Fourth Estate (2010)
An epic look at the journey made by one family as they struggle to cope with the freedoms offered by modern America and the consequnces of their actions for themselves, their family, and society as a whole.

14931493: How Europe’s Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology, and Life on Earth
Charles C. Mann USA
Granta Books (2011)
A great look at the results of the Columbian Exchange, when the Western world came in contact with the Americas, Asia, and Africa for the first time. Written with Brysonesque flair this book is full of fasacinating facts and insights.

The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Amthe faster i walk
Kjersti A. Skomsvold  Norway.svg
Dalkey Archive Press (2011)
Shortlisted for the 2013 Impac Dublin Literary Award this book explores the life of an eldery woman with a wry sense of humour. A high quality debut that captures loneliness perfectly. Few novels deal with aging so sympathetically.

Ulysses and UsUlyssesAndUS: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece
Declan Kiberd  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg
Faber and Faber (2010)
This book is vital for anyone who has read Ulysses, is reading Ulysses, or will read Ulysses! Kiberd shows that Joyce’s book really is for everyone as well as offering countless insights and original readings of the book.

The Castlethe castle
Franz Kafka  Czech_Republic.svg  Austria-Hungary_1869-1918.svg  (translated by J.A. Underwood)
Penguin Classics (1926, first published as Das Schloß)
I think I preferred the Willa and Edwin Muir translation but this is still an astonishing work. Kafka’s vision of a senseless all pervasive bureaucracy is filled with black humour and is still as relevant in this century as the last one.

Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and MemoryParis 1961
Jim House & Neil McMaster  England
Oxford Universtiy Press (2006)
An astonshing book detailing the still little known massacre of Algerians in modern Paris. This book documents how parts of the French authorities lost their souls making Algeria and life for Algerians in France a living hell.

Berlin: The DownfallBerlin 1945
Antony Beevor  England
Penguin (2002)
This is the first Antony Beevor book I’ve read and he is a master at combining historical research with fastpaced narrative. Berlin has been criticised for being anti-Soviet but Beevor’s arguments are convincing.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never WillAtlas of Remote Islands
Judith Schalansky  Germany
Particular Books (2010, first published as Atlas der abgelegenen Insein in 2009)
This book brings out the inner child explorer in every reader. Beautiful maps of islands which have fallen between the cracks of history are brought to life with fascinating, and sometimes disturbing, tales.

100 Famous Views of Edo100 Views of Edo
Hiroshige  広重  Japan  (editors Melanie Trede & Lorenz Bichler)
Taschen (1856)
This is a beautiful book, from its wonderful binding to the beauty of its contents. The editors have done an excellent job in providing context and descriptions of each of Hiroshige’s fantastic woodblock prints.

The Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990-1990Diary of Edward
Miriam Elia & Ezra Elia  England
Boxtree (2012)
A hilarious look at the brief, yet sporadically productive, life of a rodent trying to search for a meaning to his life.  Be warned!  You’ll never look at a pet hamster the same way ever again.

Empress Dowager CixiCixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
Jung Chang  張戎  China
Jonathan Cape (2013)
Chang is a powerful storyteller and her historical subjects come to life on the page. It’s fascinating to see Cixi’s modernisation of China in a male dominated society in light of the current regime’s attempts to hold onto power through gradual reforms.

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939Battle for Spain
Antony Beevor  England
Penguin (2006)
A comprehensive and balanced study of the Spanish Civil War.  Beevor manages to make the key events comprehensible without resorting to simplifcation.  The Spanish Civil War’s shadow still looms large over Spanish society and this book is vital to anyone wanting to shed light on the subject.

Talking With Serial Killers – Quick Review


Chistopher Berry-DeeChina.png

Blake Publishing (2003), 349 pages

Dun Laoghaire Charity Shop €1

Talking With Serial Killers: The Most Evil People in the World Tell Their Own Stories recounts the author’s interviews with a number of (mostly American) serial killers.  This is a grim book which, even for a crime book, is difficult reading.  The sadism and brutal violence of the psychopaths covered in the book, especially against children, is hard to comprehend.  In the US cases it appears that the poor detective work of the American police often allows killers free to commit multiple crimes.

Despite the author’s understandable suspicion of his interviewee’s statements he falls for Aileen Wuornos’s version of events when she describes her killing spree.  Wuornos claims that her seven victims tried to rape her before she killed them.  Apart from her first victim (who was a convicted rapist) there is no evidence (apart from Wurnos’s own statements) that there were any rape attempts.  Berry-Dee isn’t the first person to fall for Wurnos’s tales.  Documentary maker Nick Broomfield in his documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer also chose to believe Wurnos’s version of events.  Perhaps it is Wuornos’s rarity as a female serial killer that engenders such sympathy.

Talking With Serial Killers is such a dispiriting read for the brutality of the crimes, the arrogance and self-serving narcissism of the perpetrators, and the missed opportunities to prevent some of the murders.  These factors make it difficult to recommend this book except to those not prone to nightmares.


Related Links

Site of someone looking for the author…

Spillover – Review


David Quammen China.png

The Bodley Head (2012), 592 pages

Chapters Bookstore €7

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic is an astonishing book.  If you’ve ever wondered how viruses such as Ebola or bird flu jumped from animals to humans then this is the book for you.  As Quammen explains, “When a pathogen leaps from some nonhuman animal into a person, and succeeds in establishing itself as an infectious presence, sometimes causing illness or death, the result is zoonosis.” (p.20)  There is a long list of zoonotic diseases including Ebola, bubonic plague, HIV/AIDS, Spanish flu, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, rabies, anthrax, Lassa fever, and Marburg virus.  Diseases which only infect humans (such as smallpox or polio) are easier to contain and eradicate as you only have to eradicate it in one species.  It is incredibly difficult to eradicate a disease such as Ebola which can pass between bats, primates, and humans.  How can you vaccinate or cull every infected bat population in high trees and deep caves?  Quammen suggests that the seeming increase in zoonotic diseases in recent decades has a number of causes including better detection and communication (in the past zoonotic diseases could have been mistaken for something else or hidden in a remote village), an increasing human population (which increases the odds of infection), and, perhaps most importantly, ecological destruction which has unknown consequences.

The key to reducing the potentially devastating effects of zoonotic diseases lies with medical science, education, and better care for the delicate ecosystems that operate in the world.  The effects of AIDS has slowly been reduced through antiretroviral drugs and educating people how to reduce their risk of infection.  Educating people in Ebola risk areas about the dangers of eating bushmeat (such as primates (Ebola has also had a devastating impact on gorillas) or bats), explaining why traditional burial rites may need to be modified, and explaining the cause of the Ebola virus to an, at times, extremely superstitious population is a good start.  Superstitious beliefs in sorcery or evil spirits have a logic of their own but often leave the believer poorly equipped to reduce their risk of infection (although some groups such as the Acholi of Uganda successfully modified their beliefs to reduce the impact of outbreaks of disease (p.88-89).

Spillover also covers AIDS in some depth.  Groundbreaking research has even identified the time and location of the first transfer of HIV to a human, “AIDS began with a spillover from one chimp to one human, in southwestern Cameroon, no later than 1908 (give or take a margin of error) and grew slowly but inexorably from there.” (p.427).  As with Ebola, the eating of bushmeat seems to have been a factor.  The Wikipedia page on the history of HIV/AIDS gives a slightly different account.  If there is one unsatisfactory part of Spillover it is a Heart of Darkness style imagining of the first HIV victim.  This section, featuring a murderous African man, sits uneasily in a scientific book.  Conjecture about the probable spread of HIV/AIDS from a rural setting to an African city (and subsequent movement by boat to Europe and the USA – although Quammen makes a convincing case that the major US AIDS outbreak was caused by imported Haitian blood plasma in the 1970s) is fine.  Imagining the type of dress the woman this African (named Voyager) sleeps with is somewhat ludicrous.  Spillover is a great book but this section should have been left on the editor’s floor.

Quammen covers a huge amount of ground in Spillover from Ebola, to SARS, to AIDS (and many more too) but as zoonotic diseases transfer from animals to humans in a similar way he is able to paint a coherent picture of the threat posed to humanity by these slippery diseases and highlight how their effects can be minimised.  Spillover (despite the cover of an irate baboon) is not sensationalist and carefully explains the causes of zoonotic diseases and why, if we heed the experts in the field, humanity is not doomed by these cruel diseases.


The Art of Political Murder – Quick Review

Art of Political Murder

Francisco Goldman China.png

Atlantic Books (2010), 416 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €5

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi? outlines the murder of a Guatemalan bishop and the search for his killers.  It is clear from the outset that, despite the bishop’s murder being disguised as a break-in, the most likely reason for his death is his involvement in the publication (two days before his death) of a report critical of human rights abuses by the previous military regime.  The report Guatemala: Never Again detailed regime atrocities and enraged sections of the military who were still a powerful force in Guatemalan affairs.  Goldman’s book is a detailed examination of Gerardi’s murder, an examination of the crime scene, the witnesses, motives for the murder, and the likeliest suspects.

Unsurprisingly for a country that spent so long under the rule of a right-wing military dictatorship Goldman unearths military collusion in Gerardi’s murder.  There is also the finger of suspicion pointed at Bishop Gerardi’s fellow priest and housemate Fr. Mario Orantes.  Fr. Orantes led a lifestyle unsuited to that of a priest, he had a gold Cartier watch, he had a collection of handmade designer shirts and other clothes imported from London, he owned a $2,500 dog, he also possessed a gun and ammunition.  These were all presents from his wealthy family.  It was also hinted that Fr. Orantes was not celibate and possibly was open to blackmail to enable the murder of his bishop.

Goldman’s book chronicles Guatemala’s bloody history, the malign influence of foreign powers, the vicious split between left and right, and brutal military dictatorship.  Gerardi’s murder happened at a time when democracy was replacing dictatorship but the military had (and arguably still have) the ability to silence opponents through violence or the threat of violence.  Thanks to the bravery of the investigators and the legal team prosecuting the case the perpetrators of Gerardi’s murder would eventually be brought to justice.


Related Links

How Mexico City Saved Me From Grief – Francisco Goldman article for The Guardian about the death of his wife.