Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hot to trot, yet cool as a cucumber

now finished: The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini
now reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

And I must say, reading those two books together is meant to be. Remini even quotes Moby Dick about Jackson, as indicative of the country about which Melville was writing, a country where a concept of populist democracy was taking shape, thanks in large part to that "'ruffian' in the Hermitage." And the intro to my edition of Moby talks all about how Melville grew up in the land Jackson and Van Buren were redefining.

Andrew Jackson is a complex man and I had complex feelings about him while reading this book. First of all, he was a no-holds-barred war hero, and while he demonstrated all sorts of qualities that are widely praised, courage, and sacrifice, and quelling a mutiny, and all that, it's all so - violent! And don't even get me started on the frickin' duels. Jeez. I've been dealing with this while reading the first six U.S. president bios, too, and I've got to say, I find it appalling that these "honorable" "gentleman" would find it necessary to arrange a freakin' DUEL when one has been wronged, and they called the Native Americans savages? Hello?!

That said, you can't argue that Jackson was beloved of the people, and he probably would have been totally fun to have a drink with. There is in fact a scene in the book where he's just kickin' it in a pub in West Virginia while he's the President and talks to all the people who talk to him, including the drunken Irishman who staggers up and pronounces his verdict: "Folks say that you are plaguy proud fellow, but I do not see as you are." Doesn't get much better than that.

Of course, I also liked the scene where James Buchanan, who was minister to Russia, is in Washington preparing to present a noble lady to President Jackson. Buchanan wants to do it all proper royal-style, so he drops by the White House, only to find Jackson kicking back in old clothes with his feet on his desk smoking a corncob pipe. Buchanan tries to gently suggest how refined the Lady is, etc., and Jackson tells him, "I read about a man I was much interested in. He was a man who minded his own business and made a fortune at it." Naturally, Buchanan scurries away, and when the Lady arrives at the White House shortly thereafter, of course Jackson is dressed perfectly and distinguished as ever, and impresses the Lady as the most elegant gentleman she'd ever met.

So that's the Jackson who comes through in this book. As much as he pisses people off, he also gets a lot of stuff done, some of it rather well. Can I fault him for living in a violent time, especially in the volatile "western" states of Tennessee, Louisiana, and such? It's not like our generation has learned to be any less barbaric (see e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the daily jingoism spewed from the idiot box about one "hero" or another).

The only thing is, Jackson hated my boy JQA. I mean, they just did not get along. I learned this when I read my John Quincy Adams bio, of course, but that was when I was discovering that JQA was my soulmate. Now, reading about someone who hated my new BFF at all times and in all things -- well, it was like Jackson hated me, in a way.

And did I mention Jackson walked around with a bullet in his arm for a good portion of his life, because it lodged there after one of the stupid duels, and they couldn't remove it until decades later when it worked its way closer to the surface one day?

All in all, this wasn't the best or the worst of the prez bios I've read, but it was good and I would recommend it. And Jackson, while not part of The Crew (Jeff, Mad, Mon) or my BFF JQA, was an interesting fellow in his own right, ushering in the next generation of politics. He totally helped and was helped by his alliance with Van Buren, to whom we turn next.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dirty Deeds Done at Quite a Price

now finished: Dirty Diplomacy by Craig Murray (aka my new hero)
now reading: The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini

And to think that I almost had no idea who Craig Murray even is! It was in seeking out information about Tajikistan* that I stumbled upon his Dirty Diplomacy, or Murder in Samarkand as it was called in Britain before being published in the U.S. I'm not sure why the name changed for the U.S. edition: perhaps they thought we needed a more salacious, scantily clad title? Because god forbid we pick up something that sounds so worldly and international-affairs-like? We're burned out about all that, right? So they tell me. Books and movies about the wars we are waging don't go over well. Now, gee, why is that do you suppose?

Well, this book reminds you that United Statesians' "burned out" attitude may be exactly where Dubya and friends want you. Craig Murray shows up in Tashkent in 2002 as the British ambassador to Uzbekistan and is promptly horrified by the way the U.S. runs the show. To wit, the "Americans" have set up a military base, declared Uzbek president Karimov an ally in their war on terror, and proceeded to ignore his insidious, corrupt regime as it routinely totures, imprisons, and executes hundreds of its innocent citizens. Not to mention the squelching not only of dissidents but pretty much any flow of information.

You one of those anti-Commies? Well, the Uzbeks tell Ambassador Murray over and over they long for Soviet times -- that's how corrupt this regime is. When Craig Murray confronts the U.S. ambassador about all the Uzbeks in jail for their religious beliefs, the American replies, "Oh, well they're mostly Muslim."

It's surely no spoiler to tell you how this story ends: with Craig Murray pushed out of his job for daring to tell the truth, and the U.S. still merrily slaughtering people and turning the other cheek when our allies slaughter people as we all "fight terror" together.

I can't think of anything better you could be doing with your time right now than reading Dirty Diplomacy, with the possible exception of watching the documentary The Good Soldier. As for bonus fun times, Dirty Diplomacy will take you on a whirlwind tour of Uzbekistan. It features everything from bureaucrats sleeping on the job to secret-entrance strip clubs, from gigantic mining operations to the logistics of throwing a party for the Uzbek rich and famous. Plus, I learned about the Battlefield Band, a Scottish group who happened to be playing here in Chicago last Friday; Brian and I attended their fabulous concert. I wouldn't have known who they are either, but for this book. See how eye-opening learning about the world can be?

*For those who haven't heard why I've been seeking out information about Tajikistan, please click here to help Habitat provide homes in Tajikistan!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Upcoming Things!

now finished: Dirty Diplomacy by Craig Murray
now reading: The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini

I've been oh-so-busy but meaning to post about the amazing Dirty Diplomacy (U.S. title) aka Murder in Samarkand (Brit title) by Craig Murray, who is my hero forever. Dirty Diplomacy report coming soon! Since it was my desire to learn more about Tajikistan that led me to stumble upon his book in the first place, have a look at this page about my Tajikistan trip in the meantime.

For now, I'm wrapped up in the world of president #7, Andrew Jackson, who is a little on the crazy and complex side. I'll write about that soon, too.

Don't forget we're going to start (re-)reading Moby Dick in just about a week!! March 15th is the witching hour whaling day!