Good History Reads For Your Springtime

I find myself in a really pleasant place with the current history books I am enjoying, and as often the case on Caffeinated Politics, wish to call them out for my readers. As usual, I have a number of books ‘underway’ at the same time, making it easy to pick up a chapter or two based on the mood of the day.

If you are looking for a book that is ‘timely’ and just well-constructed, then The Romanovs would be a grand idea. With the past few months of Russian military build-up and aggression, I have turned more attention to Russian history. (Russia has long been a region I love to read about.) An online friend gave me this book idea, and it is a very compelling read. As I write today Peter the Great has sent his half-sister, Sofia, far way—oh, to have such power (LOL). Simon Sebag Montefiore’s writing is excelled only by his research. Masterfully done on all counts! The narrative is tight yet expansive with tidbits and pacing of the kind I find to be superb. However, if you are squeamish about being thrown out a castle window onto a pike……

Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power was high up on my shelves for a number of years, just waiting to come down. Jon Meacham is a wonderful historian and writer, and while the Founders are a great interest of mine there always seemed to be another book that made for the ‘top of the pile’. The latest unnecessary dust-up over the naming of a Madison school was what brought out my footstool to reach up and start the book. I am to Part Five, 1785, and his journey to Europe as a diplomat. What attracts me now, as always to Jefferson and the whole of the Founders, is the ability to have ideals and yet know that pragmatic reasoning must be undertaken to achieve forward progress. History always bends towards modernity, then as now. Just never at the pace, we desire.

Prisoners of Geography is a short, and snappy around the world read with some background, that while not necessarily new information, is compacted and presented in such a way as to connect the ten maps that Tim Marshall presents.

For the meat of international relations, however, I head to the master. I find Henry Kissinger essential to understanding our world. Some revile him, and I understand that. But for pure realism about not only how the world is constructed with complex relationships but why that is so, there is no one better to explain it. Or pose the questions we need to ponder moving forward. One reviewer for World Order stated the book should be read by every new member of Congress. Presently am at The Multiplicity Of Asia, after Kissinger expounded on the irrationality that is present-day Iran.

Whatever book(s) you pick up to read…the main thing is to read books. I am troubled with too much of our world reading nothing more than what can be typed for a Twitter posting. The knowledge we need, the questions we should wish to be posed and answered, demand books in our lives.

Happy reading.

And so it goes.

Words About Loving Maps From Ludovico Ariosto

I love maps.  Always have.

As a young boy after school I would lay down on our dining room floor and open a large hard-covered atlas.  Then I would get out our daily newspaper and locate names of places around the world I did not know and search for their locations.   That amusement with maps, and the information they impart has never diminished.

Today while reading The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester I came across a poem written by Ludovico Ariosto in the 1400’s which spoke to me with clarity and beauty.

Let  him wander who desires to wander.

Let him see England, Hungary, France and Spain.

I am content to live in my native land.

I have seen Tuscany, Lombardi, and the Romagna, and the mountain range that divides Italy, and the one that locks her in, and both the seas that wash her.

And that is quite enough for me.

Without ever paying an inn keeper I will go exploring the rest of the world with Ptolemy, whether the world be at peace or else at war.

Without ever making vows when the heavens flash with lightening, I will go bounding over all the seas, more secure aboard my maps than aboard ships.

Trump And The Local Bookstore

Needing a new world atlas I headed tonight to a local book store. A woman showed me the shelves where I could browse for what I wanted. “Anything else I can do for you?” she asked.

Being in my usual good mood I said “Yes, where would I find your alternate facts section?” Her face went blank for a moment and then smiling broadly responded, “Oh my, I will have to think about that.” She laughed as she walked away.

For the record I bought the National Geographic Family Reference Atlas Of The World.  I know the whole world uses their handheld gadgets for everything but James and I like the traditional way of opening a large atlas and locating this mountain range or river.  Combined with my Atlas of World History which I have had for much of my adult life I am set for a while with maps.  (I think).

This week I was looking for a better view of St. Petersburg when the U.S.S.R arched over what is now Russia.. It was then I knew two things to be true.

  1. I get value from my books as I seem to keep them forever–or until political boundaries change.
  2. I will use almost any excuse to head to a bookstore to buy something else.


What Did World Map Look Like When Jesus Was Born?

Another fascinating map.


Two thousand years ago, around the time that Jesus of Nazareth was born, the second Holy Temple was still standing in Jerusalem. The Great Pyramid at Giza was already 2,500 years old, but the Library of Alexandria was still around. In Rome, the Colosseum hadn’t been built yet.

It’s a bit uncanny to think about the political geography of a time and place that’s also the setting for a timeless story–the birth of Jesus Christ. Because that story is so often told, its context feels familiar. And, in the part of the world that Jesus lived in, the best knowledge about the rest of the world was, in some ways, thorough and accurate. But there were profound differences, too: most importantly, the Mediterranean Sea was still a geographer’s main point of reference, if not the center of the world

Atlas Of Cursed Places Makes For Pleasure

If you love maps and history as I do then this book is something you might care to pick up.

Curses are not all the same. Take it from journalist and sailor Olivier Le Carrer, who has explored 30 of the 40 perilous places charted in his new book—and lived to tell their tales. 

Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations is a beautifully bound volume with detailed maps in classic pastel tones, filled with stories of underground infernos, spiritual nightmares, hunted pirates, and killer crocodiles. 

The book, organized into eight geographical regions, chronicles sites across the globe that have been afflicted by a miscellany of misfortunes. Le Carrer explains that there are three major types of curses: those of a mystical order, those dealing with the preternatural, and, perhaps most tragically, those of places rendered uninhabitable by human activity. They’re all bound together by one common denominator: the terrible luck of all concerned.

In the book’s introduction, titled “The Hazards of Traveling,” Le Carrer states that since the time of the Old Testament, “humanity has found more effective ways of damning itself… devising an almost infinite number of hells that no god or demon would ever have dared to contemplate back in the day.”

Here is one example.


Oumaradi: Shipwrecked By Sands

The Harmattan is a wicked wind that blows across West Africa’s Sahel belt all winter long. For some reason, its nickname is the “doctor.” The wind blows the desert sand into massive dunes that, over time, can swallow entire villages. Oumaradi is one of many villages in Niger at risk of being entirely consumed by sand sent by the doctor. It becomes hard to breathe, and hard to survive.


What Russian Putin Thinks As Important As What He Does

Articles have been written during the past many years about the vision that Russian President Putin sees for himself, and what his country should once again become.

In the newspaper this morning it was reported that once again–the second time this year–Putin has used the term  “Novorossiya.”   When I read the word I sat up straighter in the chair.  The word will have  meaning for the combatants in Eastern Ukraine will know it very well.

The word literally means “new Russia”, and in fact it is a czarist-era term.  Since Putin fancies himself with the need to be czar-like and desirers a larger-sized and more bold and ‘out-reaching’ Russia means that the use of the term should alert all to his intentions.

Using the term “Novorossiya” underscores what might well be in store for Southern and Eastern Ukraine where ultra-nationalists wish want to re-conquer the area.  A map from the past might well be useful in gauging the wishes of Putin for the future.

If this were American politics I might liken the word to a ‘dog-whistle.’



This Is All We Know–In Map Form–Of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Incomprehensible. Baffling.  Mystifying. Perplexing.

Those are just some of the first thoughts I have as we enter another week of trying to discover what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

While there is much conjecture about a whole range of issues concerning this flight there are very few facts that can be pinned down.  When those few facts are placed on a map it looks like this.


Understanding Ukraine With Maps

I think these two maps are helpful in understanding some of the internal dynamics playing out on the world stage.

The Ukraine is a split country.  The eastern party is heavily ethnic Russian, while the west is primarily Ukrainian.  Moreover, the Crimea itself was given to the Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954, when it didn’t seem to matter what was actually in Russia.  13% of the Crimea’s population are ethnic Tartar, who were brutalized under Stalin and oppose being annexed by Russia.

To Russian nationalists, the Crimea is an integral part of “Mother Russia.”  Yes, Ukraine has internationally recognized borders, and allowing Russia to change them with force violates fundamental tenets of international law.  However, the alternative might be civil war and bloodshed, for a conclusion that probably is no better.   The Crimea has been part of Ukraine for only 50 years, has hardly any ethnic Ukrainians, and would be a small price to pay to get true independence and the capacity to move towards the West.

Still, hardliners in Kiev do not want to give up any sovereignty, and there is fear that this could spiral into other conflicts.  If other former Soviet Republicans disintegrate into ethnic fragmentation the result could be cascading instability.

Yet when Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke from Georgia in 2008, it ironically made it easier for Georgia to pursue its own path without constant crises with Russia.  A Ukraine without the Crimea may be “freed” to turn to the west.   If Ukraine resists to try to keep the Crimea, that could be an incentive for Putin to up the ante, and take more of Ukraine – the places where ethnic Russians still make up a large part of the country.   So would Russia be satisfied with just the Crimea, or might it demand Ukraine be split on broader ethnic grounds?

Compare these maps – it is clear that the vote followed ethnic lines, meaning that Ukraine is an ethnically divided state.  It is not at all clear that it will be possible to avoid some kind of division, given that there appears to be no compromise between tilting west to the EU, or east to Russia.