Wednesday, May 14, 2008

History of Airplane Reading:

  • David A Wilson's Thomas D'Arcy McGee. Big, terrifically readable, tremendous confidence, no fear of detail. This is only Volume One, and it never actually gets McGee to Canada, so a lot of us will be waiting for Volume Two. But One is the most successful launch I've seen in years of the big two-decker authoritative biography. (Okay, David's a friend of mine, too.) What a sinkhole Irish nationalism has been for 150 years!
  • Late Update: Now I've finished the book, I'm struck by what a ... well, what a ninny young McGee was. (Born in 1825, he was barely 30 at the end of this first volume.) He had an astounding capacity for being absolutely, loudly, publicly committed to one public-policy stance, and then for adopting its polar opposite a year or so later -- over and over and over. He had an endless ability to absorb new ideas, it seems, but no bottom at all, no grounding in a set of principles. Living in Ireland, he barely noticed the Famine until he saw its potential as a stick with which to beat the English. Campaigning for Irish freedom in the United States, he vigorously supported American slavery, because southern Americans seemed likely allies for his projects. None of this makes the book or its subject less interesting. I look forward to David's second volume to see if McGee really matured in his Canadian phase... or simply found some causes that worked longer.

  • Tom Holland's Persian Fire. It becomes a retelling of Marathon and Salamis and Thermopylae and the salvation of "the West" and all that. But Holland's actually interested in those Persians who provided the invading hordes, and they turn out to have a pretty interesting history too. Memo to self: read Xenophon. Tom Holland, not previously known to me, is one of these Brits who take a double first at a posh university and then become freelance historical writers like it was a respectable career choice. That kind of thing that never happens here. Not that we don't have freelance historical writers, but they are all journalists first (and, yeah, it shows). Anyone with a history degree sinks into the tenure pits.
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