Sunday, April 23, 2017

My Amazon Review of Michael Sims' "Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Sherlock Holmes"

When Dr. Doyle Became Sherlock Holmes

Michael Sims has written a very long biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle centered around his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes. It is a book that I wanted to like. The beginning of the book is terrific discussing Doyle’s as an avid reader with an alcoholic father and his medical school training at the University of Edinburgh medical school. There he comes under the sway of Professor Joseph Bell, a very shrewd diagnostician with dominant personality.  It is Bell along with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin that the Sherlock Holmes character is molded.

Also of interest are the original illustrations for the Sherlock Holmes series. It is those illustrations from the 1890s that for our image of Holmes and Watson today. Moreover Holmes’ dear stalker hat is a creature of the illustrator, not Doyle himself.

This is all to the good, but the book goes on and on dealing with Doyle’s medical practice, his life in Portsmouth and the problems of getting published. For me the book is way too long. Thus I can only recommend Sims’ book to a real Sherlock Holmes geek.

For the complete Amazon URL see:

Monday, April 17, 2017

My Amazon Review of Richard Haass' "A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order"

A Foreign Policy for Clinton, not Necessarily for Trump

Richard Haass, a person I like (From TV) and respect has written a very long Foreign Affairs article on a foreign policy for the United States. It would be very appropriate for Hillary Clinton, not so much for Donald Trump. After all Haass is a pillar of the establishment, being president of the Council on Foreign Relations for the past fourteen years.

He is a student of Henry Kissinger and, as such, he goes back to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which represents the beginnings of the nation state system as we know it. He believes that system which is based on the non-interference of the internal affairs of a state is inadequate for the 21st Century. He believes that states have the “sovereign obligation”, to reign in terrorism, fight drug trafficking, prevent nuclear proliferation, and deal with climate change. This is a far cry from the Westphalian System and it necessarily breeds suspicion of the established powers trying to enforce their codes on smaller states.

He is rightly critical of the Obama policies in Syria, Libya and Iraq. And in the 1990s he was prescient in proposing a preventive strike against North Korea’s then nascent nuclear program. The Clinton Administration failed to hear is warning and we are now suffering its consequences.

Haass opens his book with the Brexit vote. However, there is no real follow through. This is a real failure of his book because in my opinion the foreign policy challenges are not external, but rather internal. There is a revolt going on against the global elite of which Haass is an exemplar and I am a mere plebian. It is that revolt that is reordering foreign policy: witness France, Turkey, Hungary and above all the election of Donald Trump. Thus as Dr. Kissinger has taught us, in order to be successful a foreign policy has to have domestic support. I fear Haass’ ideas have yet to convince the general public. It is here where work has to be done.

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Monday, April 10, 2017

My Amazon Review of Catherine Merridale's "Lenin on the Train"

Riding the Locomotive of History

One hundred years ago this month V.I. Lenin boarded a train in Zurich that would take him through Germany, Sweden and Finland to ultimately arrive at Finland Station, Saint Petersburg, Russia. As history professor Catherine Merridale describes, Lenin arrives in a city racked by three years of war and rapt in the chaos of a new revolutionary government struggling to govern and a Bolshevik Party torn between participating in governing and advocating another revolution.

Merridale vividly describes the collapse of the Czarist regime at home and on the war front and Lenin’s life in exile in Switzerland. It is the German government who seizes upon the idea of transporting Lenin into Russia with the goal of fomenting a revolution that would take that country out of the war. The plot succeeds brilliantly. The go between was a Bolshevik/ speculator Alexander Helphand also known as Parvus, who is quite a character. With the deal orchestrated Lenin and his entourage occupy three rail cars as they travel through Germany and beyond. Although it was known as a “sealed train” it was far from sealed and passengers actually disembarked on occasion. It was quite a menagerie and the passengers included such luminaries as Karl Radek, Grigory Sokolnikov and Grigory Zinoviev. All three would later die in the Stalin purges of the 1930s.

The interesting thing is that it was no secret. The Russian government knew, the British knew and the Bolsheviks knew that Lenin was coming. With his boisterous arrival he grabs the Bolshevik Party by the throat and with the force of his will he sets them on a revolutionary course. Lenin truly was the “plague bacillus” that Churchill described him as, because in his wake you can count the deaths in the tens of millions.

Although the book is slow going at times, Merridale tells the story with great verve and you get a sense of the drama building as the locomotive of history goes on its journey through northern Europe.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Reliving the 1930s - Part 4

Yet again it looks like we are reliving the 1930s as we watch the U.N. sit idly by as the Assad government in Syria continues to make war on its own people with poison gas. The Obama red line of 2013 has come and gone and now President Trump stated yesterday that Assad went well beyond it. We'll see what Trump's apparent reversal of U.S. policy actually means. Hopefully the leadership of U.N. ambassador Niki Haley will prod him in the right direction.

But what is happening is Syria has an eerie parallel from the 1930s. In 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and the League of Nations instituted sanctions. However in 1936 the British and French in the Hoare-Laval Pact chose to appease Italy and lifted sanctions. Meantime with the war on the ground not going well for the Italians, Italy resorted to the use of banned poison gas on the hapless Ethiopians. The war soon ended, but not before Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie made a dramatic plea before the League of Nations in Geneva. The delegates sat in silence because they knew that collective security and the League were dead. 

It looks like the U.N. is going down the same path unless America acts alone as we did with respect to the slaughter in Kosovo twenty years ago.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Bezos vs. Trump

Today's front page story in the Washington Post ( highlighting a meeting with Blackwater founder Erik Prince (brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) and an emissary from Putin in the Seychelles Islands deep in the Indian Ocean signifies the lengths to which the Washington Post is going to investigate the Trump Administration. With sources in the Seychelles and the UAE, which brokered the meeting, a four reporter team pulled together a story that began in December with Trump triumvirate of Flynn, Bannon and Kushner meeting with a UAE representative in New York. The result was a January 11 meeting in the Seychelles.

To do a story like this requires substantial resources and it demonstrates the commitment Post-owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has made to investigative journalism. Put bluntly Trump is in the cross-hairs of a multi-billionaire willing to go after him. However as the rivalry escalates do not be surprised to see Amazon in Trump's cross-hairs.     

Sunday, April 2, 2017

My Amazon Review of William Walker's "Danzig:A Novel of Political Intrigue"

To Die for Danzig

Cameron Watt in his “How War Came” devotes an entire chapter to Danzig: “Hitler Steps up the Pressure: “Die for Danzig.”” The events in William Walker’s book occur prior to 1939; more specifically the period between 1934 -1936 when Sean Lester was the League of Nations High Commissioner for the “free city” of Danzig. Walker places Danzig at the fulcrum of the growing struggle between Hitler and the rest of Europe.

The mostly German city of Danzig (pop. 400,000) was established by the Treaty of Versailles as a “free city” that would give Poland an outlet to the Baltic Sea. Today it is the Polish city of Gdansk. The League of Nations was responsible for maintaining its constitutional safeguards which would have worked well in more harmonious times, but with the rise of Hitler the German majority of the city moved sharply in the direction of the NDSAP (Nazi Party) thereby creating a crisis for the League.

Although this is far from the best written historical novel Walker integrates the actions of some very real people with his protagonist, Paul Muller an upper-class League diplomat of Swiss-English parents.  In the novel he is Lester’s chief aide and we find him fighting battles in Geneva, the League’s headquarters and on the streets of Danzig. He sees up close the role of Nazi thugs intimidating their opposition and the appeasement policy of Anthony Eden in Geneva as he continually sells out Lester. Eden would later break with that policy, but early on he was an appeaser.

Through Muller we become a fly on the wall in meetings at the League and in Danzig where Lester tries to negotiate with NDSAP leaders Arthur Greisser and Albert Forster who are following direct orders from Berlin and we also get a sense of the opposition Social Democrats who are fighting a losing battle. We also see which is timely for today, the very real risks diplomats and their families take in difficult environments.

I recommend William Walker’s book to those readers who want to get a sense of what dealing with the growing Nazi threat diplomats faced on a day-to-day basis as they struggled to maintain a semblance of collective security.

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