The Last Days of the Incas, Kim McQuarie – A little way into this, I realized that the conquistadors were, in fact, a D&D party. They travel into a land of unknown empires and strange creatures in search of as much silver and gold as they can accumulate. Their main tool is gratuitious violence. They wear plate armor and massacre hordes of not-quite-human (from their perspective) enemies. Their group is made up of fighters, clerics, and thieves. And “We kidnap the Emperor and hold him to ransom!” is something many a party has tried over the years.
Anyway, excellent book, which covers Incan imperialism fairly while also emphasizing how much more more tolerable it was, for ordinary people, than the Spanish replacement. The record of squabbles and murders among the Spanish is also good. That’s what happens when you pick evil characters, you know; heap up the loot and the player-on-player violence starts straight off.
The Captured, Scott Zesch – Great book about “white Indians” taken as children and raised among the tribes, concentrating on Texas in the 1870s. One interesting thing is how quickly these German-American kids (for the most part) learnt “Indian” skills; it reminds me of the cultural flexibility you always get on borders, such as the exiles and displaced people who ended up becoming “Cossacks,” who mastered horsemanship within a generation and, when they hit the Black Sea, became expert pirates. It comes, I suspect, in part because of the lack of clear hierarchies and the culturally marginal status; contrast, for instance, the Viking colonies in Greenland, who, at least by Jared Diamond’s account, basically tried to replicate the old country ways as closely as possible.
Also, I hadn’t realized quite how many Germans there were in the 19th century US. (Though I did know that a bunch of towns used German as their main language right up to WWI.) There’s probably a good PhD to be written on the influence of Wild West stories back in Germany itself, especially on the conceptions of the Eastern frontier; Karl May sold a zillion copies and was often recommended by the Nazis.
“Look at what the Americans did to the Indians” was one of the standard Nazi talking points – it comes up at the Nuremberg trials almost as often as “What about the Soviets?”, “We couldn’t break our oaths,” and “It was all Hitler’s fault,” but it was used in internal Nazi dialogue too. The Wild West thing also had some influence on SS training, which drew heavily on German romantic outdoor traditions – like Woodcraft Folk* but with submachine guns – that in part stemmed from notions about “Indians.” “Indian” camps are still popular in Germany and Denmark.
*Founded in part by neo-pagans in the 1920s, according to Ronald Hutton, which would explain why, in my experience, it was so fucking tedious.
Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zuckoff – My grandfather spent his childhood and adolescence in small-town Transylvania, a third-rate British public school, and an Australian internment camp, before ending up a clerk in the Australian army in Papua in 1944. (He got jaundice and failed to get laid; he once assured me “There is no chance you have any Papuan cousins.”)
So I have a certain family interest in stories of that time, and this is a very well-done, often funny popular history of an American plane crash in a remote valley, culminating in one of those ridiculous, amazing, and ludicrously expensive technical feats that the military sometimes pulls off. Does a fine job of bringing wider issues (the Philippines’ relationship with the US, Papuan culture and war, cultural arrogance) into the story without overwhelming the reader with information, though I sometimes wished for it to go just a bit deeper.
The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber – Very good, and only about 100 pages too long, which is a remarkably achievement for a novel of its size. Even managed to overcome my initial skepticism about having a gamine, super-intelligent teenage prostitute for a protagonist, which seemed a little bit like the “Dragon Tattoo” thing of “I totally respect women, and here is my uber-hot genius heroine who loves bonking middle-aged journalists to prove it.” I did think of Alan Moore’s FROM HELL, though, which is the best depiction of the Victorian underclass I know, and in which the prostitution is about as unerotic as you can get.
War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Lawrence H. Keeley – Surely the perfect Blood and Treasure book, dedicated as it is to “primitive” people doing horrible things to each other, and how it compares to “civilized” people doing the same. I especially like the bit where he calculates how much worse 20th century casualties would have been, given the same number of people, in a state of primitive warfare. Good hard statistics and archaeological/anthropological evidence to back up his claims, too – one of the entertaining parts about archaeology is how it can suddenly turn into CSI: Ice Age. One of the things he finds is that increased trade contact leads to a higher rate of conflicts and therefore wars, which I’m going to trot out the next time I hear a “globalization means no-one can go to war anymore!” argument.
(Also, The Psychopath Test, very entertaining but I always find with Ronson that I want more detail than he gives, Transitions, which is the weakest Iain Banks for a long time – it’s depressing when a story of dimension-skipping assassins is both didactic and lifeless - Rivers of London, surprisingly good London urban fantasy, emphasis on the urban, genuinely funny, The Perfect Nazi, which Jamie’s already written on – I particularly like the stormtrooper song blaming bad weather on the Jews. How do you even sing that? Seriously, or as self-parody that’s also threat? -, The Last Wish, not bad gritty Polish fantasy (I’m told the author, now the doyen of the Polish fandom scene, has to be kept away from drink and girls at conventions), Write More Good, mildly amusing, The Simpsons: An Uncensored History, crap, not least because while an oral history format might be good for punk, where people were doing vast amounts of drugs and killing each other and other interesting things, the petty squabbles among producers and comedy geeks aren't anywhere near an entertaining, Land of Marvels, entertaining but not Unsworth’s best by a long stretch, The Battle of Britain, short and interesting but nothing new, and Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind, wonderful, though the ending of The Other Wind is abrupt and weak.)