June 14, 2009
November 21, 2007
I finished Empire last night. I was glad to be done with it for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I started reading it the day my dad died, when I went over to my parents’ house in the morning to stay with him until my mom got home to take him to his doctor’s appointment. I continued to read it throughout the initial mourning period when I was spending a lot of time at my mom’s house without much to do, then took a break for a few weeks when I went back to work. I started up again when I decided to spend less time reading blogs, and when I bought a bunch of new books I began to accelerate my reading of it to finish it and move on to those.
Additionally, though, it’s just not a very good book. There are a lot of books on the subject of the Spanish empire, and while this is the only one I’ve read, I’m quite sure it’s not one of the better ones. Its premise, that the Spanish empire was totally dependent on the contributions of non-Spaniards for its survival, is interesting enough, but the way it’s presented is not very focused and oddly adversarial, assuming a bit more familiarity with the “traditional” scholarly approach than I think is warranted in a book aimed at a general audience. It’s not entirely clear who Kamen is taking aim at here, since he names no modern scholars by name in the text and his footnotes are spare, but from the way he phrases things it seems that his main target is the perception of the empire among the historical community within Spain (he lives in Barcelona). In a book written in English and published by a large trade house it might have been better to spell this out a bit more clearly.
The question of who the potshots are aimed at leads me to a more fundamental problem of the book, namely that it’s written and organized rather confusingly. The prose is plodding and repetitive, and Kamen has an annoying tendency to make general statements that seem to be directly contradicted by other general statements a couple paragraphs later, with no attempt to explain what he means and how he sees the differing statements as compatible. As for organization, while the overall progression of chapters is roughly chronological, within each chapter sections are organized primarily thematically, and it is not always clear where straightforward narrative ends and discussion of specific themes begins.
Another broad problem is that the topic of the book is perhaps overly ambitious, or at least not sufficiently focused. Basically it seems like Kamen could have written two or three shorter, more focused and more interesting books using the material in this one: one on the importance to the empire of Italian bankers, one on the interactions between the Spanish and the peoples they “conquered,” and perhaps one on the unlikely support given to the empire by the rival European nations that are usually thought of as its enemies. Of these, I think the first would have been the most interesting, as this seems to be a woefully under-studied aspect of the imperial system, and is the part of Kamen’s actual book that I found the most interesting and informative. The second has been done many times, but Kamen makes some interesting observations about it and a full book on the subject would likely have been worth reading. The third, though Kamen only makes occasional reference to it in this book, might also make a good book on its own if more fully fleshed out. Empire itself, however, largely treats these three phenomena as aspects of the same general issue, which leads to a great deal of vague pontificating and unnecessarily general conclusions, as well as enough repetition to make for tedious reading at times.
What I’ve said so far sounds pretty harsh, but it’s not a terrible book. The subject matter is interesting, and Kamen does have some thought-provoking observations to make about it. One of the reasons I like reading nonfiction is that even if a book isn’t all that good, if it’s on a subject I’m interested in I’ll still usually learn enough from reading it to consider it in retrospect a good use of my time, and this is a good example. I wouldn’t really recommend Empire, but I don’t regret reading it.
Next up: 1491, which I’ve just started. I like it a lot so far.
June 28, 2007
It seems there’s a shortage of attractive straight men in book publishing.
May 23, 2007
At the risk of pissing off my readership (such as it is) with even more low-value-added linking to Gawker, I just couldn’t resist drawing everyone’s attention to recently incarcerated racist lunatic Kenneth Eng’s book proposal and resume. Some highlights:
Chapter 2, Why I Hate Whites – This will be a 30-page doctrine of documented evidence and a few anecdotes that delineates why white people, to put it bluntly, suck. Reasons include the fact that they are obsessed with conformity, their women are sluts, they are physically smaller than Asians, and they take abuse very easily. It will include anecdotes about my fistfights with white students at NYU.
This paragraph speaks for itself, I think.
Chapter 3, Why I Hate Italians – This will be another 30-page section in which I show why Italians are enemies of the Asian race. Reasons include Sofia Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Jon Favreau, Jay Leno, and a number of other “big name celebrities”. It will also describe why Italians are an inferior race despite their technological achievements, and include personal recollections about my encounters with Italians (I did grow up in an Italian neighborhood).
Yes, for Eng Italians are apparently not white. I’m also not really sure what “technological achievements” he’s talking about. Radio?
Chapter 7, Why I Hate Asians And Yes I Am Being Sarcastic – As the title of this chapter implies, I do not really hate Asians. Nonetheless, this chapter will point out the silliness of civil protest and why whites, blacks and Italians should not be treated with any kindness. It will include anecdotes of my attempts to use peaceful protest in NYU.
Note that, as the chapter title indicates and he helpfully reiterates, Eng does not actually hate Asians, which leads me at least to wonder what the hell his article “Why I Hate Asians” (mentioned in his resume) was all about.
Epilogue – This will summarize the fact that I am not a sexist, homophobic lunatic. It will also be a preemptive strike against expected criticisms.
Good to see he’s thinking ahead. Note, however, that he apparently makes no effort to deny charges of racism.
The “Marketability” section contains more gems:
1. To my knowledge, there is only one existing book about anti-Asian discrimination. This book will be the second, and believe me, it will be more extreme than its predecessor.
Oh, we believe you.
2. You may be thinking this is too controversial and will turn off all white and black audience members. Here are a few words to remember – CHINA. 1 BILLION PEOPLE. 60% ATHEIST.
All of them fluent English speakers, of course, and intensely interested in Eng’s fistfights at NYU.
5. Bill Maher and Ann Coulter are very hated. That does not stop them from being bestselling authors.
Hmmm, he may actually have a point here. Score one for Eng!
The resume is somewhat less entertaining than the proposal, but the “Notable Attributes” section is worth quoting in full:
Fastest novelist in America (Dragons: Lexicon Triumvirate finished in a month and a week)
Youngest SF novelist in America (contracted at age 20)
Extensive knowledge in quantum physics, metaphysics, mathematics, evolutionary biology and genetic engineering
23 years old
Hardest working guy on the planet
Completed 20 feature-length screenplays and 8 novels (not first drafts, but COMPLETED SCREENPLAYS)
Young, fast, and the hardest working guy on the planet? Sounds like he has a great future ahead of him. Or would, at least, if he would just stop threatening to kill people and stuff.