Literary history compressed into capsule-size that goes down like a charm.

SELKIRK’S ISLAND

THE TRUE AND STRANGE ADVENTURES OF THE REAL ROBINSON CRUSOE

Acclaimed literary biographer Souhami (Gertrude and Alice, 1997, etc.) profiles the island and the individual whose story inspired Daniel Defoe’s novel.

The author begins her narrative not with the man but with the place: Isla Juan Fernandez, “The Island,” a volcanic crag off the coast of South America teeming with flora and fauna in the early years of European exploration. She then turns to the world of late-17th and early-18th-century seafarers, in particular one William Dampier, a privateer able to con respectable Londoners into financing his semi-legal operations in the South Seas. Highest on any pirate’s list of targets was the legendary ship known as the Manila galleon, which plied its trade between ports in the Philippines and Mexico. Dampier engineered a two-ship voyage whose primary goal was the capture of this galleon; a seaworthy Scotsman named Alexander Selkirk signed on as master of the second ship. The expedition met with little success. Their pursuit of the galleon became an exercise in frustration, the few spoils that were seized caused divisions among crewmembers, and Dampier’s ineffectual leadership turned the other officers against him. In the fall of 1704, Selkirk was accused of inciting mutiny and abandoned on The Island; he remained there over four years. In 1709, he was rescued by a scouting crew from yet another Dampier-led voyage. Readers back in Europe could not get enough of the firsthand narratives about such disastrous voyages; Dampier himself wrote several about previous trips, and two men from the expedition that saved Selkirk wooed the public appetite with books about his tribulations and theirs. Robinson Crusoe, the fictional version Defoe wrote in a matter of months, appeared in April 1719. Souhami’s account is brief yet dense with catalogued arcana. Her speculations about Selkirk’s thoughts may be her own, but she brings the man and his shipmates to life.

Literary history compressed into capsule-size that goes down like a charm.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-15-100526-5

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2001

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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