The Civil War

Recently, I have been reading about and listening to lectures on the US Civil War. So I decided to watch the Ken Burns documentary about the Civil War. I have watched it off and on and in bits and pieces on TV before, but this time I was serious and borrowed the 5-DVD set from the library.

It’s a total of 11 hours. So it took me almost two weeks to watch it but it was worth it. The documentary makes the events of the Civil War alive in a way only a visual medium can.

I rate it 10/10 and recommend it to everyone interested in the United States or history.

The Battle of Algiers

It’s a classic and seems strangely poignant these days when we are all reading about insurgencies and counterinsurgency.

The Battle of Algiers is a classic movie about the Algerian War.

The topics — insurgency, bombings, terrorism, counterinsurgency, torture — seem strangely poignant and current.

I rate the movie 8/10.

When Victims Become Killers

This is an academic book looking in detail at the history of Rwanda and its neighbors and how that led to the 1994 genocide. Despite being difficult to read due to dry writing, I recommend it highly.

When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda by Mahmood Mamdani was recommended to me by Sepoy of Chapati Mystery.

It took me forever to finish this book because it is a difficult read. The density of information is good, but there’s also the dry, academic style of writing.

Mamdani covers the big picture of Rwandan history and how that led to the 1994 genocide. His central thesis is that Hutu and Tutsi identities are basically political identities forged over the years before, during and after colonialism. Mamdani also discusses the history of the whole region (Uganda and Congo etc.) and how that affected events in Rwanda.

Overall, it is a good companion to We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch which focuses on the genocide itself.

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857

This is a great book about Bahadur Shah Zafar, Delhi and the events of 1857. It makes everything come alive. If you are interested in Indian history, it’s a must read.

The Last Mughal is about the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. It mainly covers the events of the Mutiny (or War of Independence) of 1857 as seen in Delhi.

The 1857 war of independence was basically a mutiny of Indian soldiers in the Bengal Army of East India Company. Almost all of the Bengal Army rebelled and a lot of them ended up in Delhi, nominally under the flag of the last Mughal emperor. Bahadur Shah Zafar wasn’t at all eager for the rebellion, but he did give them his blessing when the rebels came to Delhi. Interestingly, most of the soldiers were high caste Hindus from the eastern Hindi belt and not the so-called martial races of India (an idea which probably came later). The British retook India with the help of Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims, Pathans and Gurkhas etc. (here come the “martial races”) and then came the massacres and the hangings. Ironically, the British blamed Muslims for the rebellion when actually it had the support of both Muslims and Hindus.

William Dalrymple is a good writer and the book is a fun read. He creates an image of Delhi in 1857 in your mind and The Last Mughal is worth reading just for that.

For a more detailed and academic review, read Chapati Mystery where there is a great discussion in the comments too. And William Dalrymple replies to that discussion.

The Third Chimpanzee

This is a good, though somewhat dated, book about the rise of Homo Sapiens. While eminently readable and full of interesting information, I found the focus on nuclear or environmental holocaust to be a hindrance.

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond is an interesting book.

I found out about Jared Diamond when Captain Arrrgh lent me his Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies many moons ago. I loved that book. So I was expecting something great here too.

The Third Chimpanzee is about human history and how we developed the way we did. It talks about sexuality and sexual selection, language, art, agriculture, drugs, and conquest. In many ways it is a very similar book to Nick Wade’s Before the Dawn. In fact, I should have read The Third Chimpanzee first since it was written more than a dozen years ago.

The first half of the book is a good exposition of several human traits and accomplishments and efforts to trace their origin. However, late in the book, Jared Diamond turns pessimistic. As he says in the theme for the book:

How the human species changed, within a short time, from just another species of big mammal to a world conquerer; and how we acquired the capacity to reverse all that progress overnight.

This last part is what worries Diamond and what makes the book so pessimistic in tone as he discusses world conquest, genocide and the environment. His last chapter titled “The Second Cloud” is about what he terms the environmental holocaust and the epilogue is titled “Nothing Learned, and Everything Forgotten?”

While I share some of these concerns with Diamond, I am a technophile and somewhat of an optimist. Also, I think The Third Chimpanzee would have been a much better book without this focus on future catastrophes.

At Canaan’s Edge : America in the King Years, 1965-68

This is the last book on the trilogy about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement by Taylor Branch. The whole trilogy is a must-read.

At Canaan’s Edge is the last book in Taylor Branch’s trilogy about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. I read Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire some time ago.

At Canaan’s Edge covers the years the Voting rights movement in Selma, Alabama in 1965 to King’s assassination in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. It also covers the Vietnam War and the protests against it during that timeframe.

The book is very engrossing and the history of that era very turbulent. It starts on the high note of the passage of Voting Rights Act but then things become more difficult when Dr. King tries to work for the betterment of African Americans in the north. Also, the nonviolence of the times covered by the previous two books is overtaken here by riots all over the US.

Reading this whole series, I was amazed at the very human but still heroic people who made so much progress on the civil rights front in a decade. One can see how far they have gone but at the same time I could sense that there was still a lot left to be done and that was the difficult task of changing social attitudes.

Taylor Branch is a great author and he knits together a great history in this trilogy. Despite the length of these books, they never bore you. He is also good at presenting an unvarnished picture of the real world, where the heroes are flawed like regular human beings.

I would highly recommend the trilogy to anyone interested in United States history or the Civil Rights Movement.