Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Documentary Review: Dear Albania

This short, but enjoyable, film is the perfect thing to watch while doing laundry, dishes, and other household chores. It's informative and interesting, but not so academically complex that you need to give it your whole attention.

Image result for dear albaniaProduced and narrated by American-Albanian actress Eliza Dushku, Dear Albania documents the visit of Eliza and her brother to Albania, the homeland of their grandparents. It looks at Albanian culture and people from the lens of a semi-outsider--someone who is at once part of the culture, but has been geographically removed from that culture for most of their lives.

It starts in the capital city of Tirina, where Dushku and her brother track down some family. From there they explore the lovely beaches, as well as the vibrant city of Tirina. However, they don't stay in one place for very long. From Tirina they explore other large cities in Albania, as well as several large cities with significant Albanian communities in the neighboring country as well.

To be entirely honest, there wasn't a lot of substance in this film. There were stunning visuals, small amounts of tourist information, along with a large amount of Dushku family history. This movie gives just enough of a taste of Albania to get the watcher interested, but the lack of actual information leaves you dissatisfied at the end. It was more of a travel diary than a proper documentary, though it tried very hard to fit into the documentary category.

Overall, it was a mildly entertaining film to have playing as background noise while I performed household tasks. While it might have been light on information, it has left me with a burning curiosity to learn more about Albania, as well as ideas for a few research topics, so keep an eye out for more Albanian history in the future!

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Documentary Review- The Irish Pub

So I was scrolling through the search results on Netflix for Michael Palin. There was absolutely nothing streaming by Michael Palin (or Monty Python for that matter), but I did find an interesting number of travel documentaries, including this one.

Image result for the irish pub'The Irish Pub' is about, well, if you can't guess what this documentary is about from the name alone you may wish to go back to school. It's about pubs. In Ireland. This documentary visits several historic and still functioning pubs from around the island. Interviews with the proprieters and long time staff members give a view into the cultural importance of the pub in Irish society.

The pub, in Ireland, is just as much a community gathering place as it is a place to purchase and imbibe alcohol. It's a place to talk with old friends, meet new ones, and listen to some good music. Several of the pubs shown in the documentary are centers of culture as well. De Barra's, a pub known for it's musical excellence, was shown, as was the pub where the famed Irish writer, James Joyce wrote parts of Dubliners and Tipperary Tales.

History is as much a part of pubs as alcohol and culture is. Many of these pubs seem to be a curious sort of local museum, filled with objects donated by locals that showed the history of the area. A couple of items of note were a traveling alter- a throwback to the times when Irish Catholics had to practice their religion in secret, and a door bar that had been bent by English soldiers during the black and tans occupation.

Image result for de barras pubThere was also a lot of discussion about how the pub, as a fixture, is being threatened by modernization. Tales of people ripping out historic doors and bars to replace them with plastic and stainless steel, as well as stories of movie studios offering to literally buy the stone floor right from underneath a bar. It is clear that a lot of these pubs are disappearing and being replaced by fancy nightclubs and American style bars. Most of these pubs exist only in small towns in the countryside, and this documentary is an attempt to revive interest in these establishments, and provide a reason as to why they should be restored.

Overall, it was a good documentary. It wasn't terribly exciting--you can only look at so many pubs before they all start to look the same--but it was interesting enough. Watch this if you're in the mood for something calming, and for something that isn't too taxing on the brain.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Documentary Review- The Polar Sea

Something you may not know about me is that I am in love with the arctic. I think it's beautiful, and completely improbably that people manage to survive there. And for someone who starts complaining when the temperature drops below 73 degrees Fahrenheit, I want to go there a whole lot. So when I saw this documentary on Netflix, naturally I watched most of it in a day.

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"The Polar Sea" chronicles the adventures of Richard Tegner and various companions as he sails through the Northwest Passage. It chronicles his journey as an 'arctic hitchhiker' from Reykjavik Iceland to Dutch Harbor, USA.

For those of you who are unaware, the Northwest Passage is a sea route that stretches from Baffin Bay to the Aleutian Islands. It weaves its way through the many islands and ice floes of Canada's northern territories: Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and Yukon. The Northwest Passage is frozen for most of the year, and when it's not frozen it has some of the most treacherous waters in the world.

Tegner, originally from Sweden, was persuaded by a friend to undertake the journey. An inexperienced sailor, Tegner departed with his friend on the Dax, a small sailboat. Sailing from Iceland, the Dax broke down around Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Tegner's friends returned to Sweden, while Tegner decided to stick it out, and hitch a ride through the passage.

Image result for northwest passageAt first, I was really worried for this dude, because hitchhiking is known to be notoriously unreliable below the arctic circle, and I would think that it would be even more so above, but Tegner made it work, hitching a ride first with a Russian cruise ship, then with a Swiss catamaran, which, I take, is a type of boat.

(It is a type of boat, and that particular catamaran was the first boat of its kind to sail the Northwest Passage, sailed by the youngest sailors to make the journey)

Along the way they stopped at multiple Inuit communities and research stations. One of the biggest focuses of this documentary, or really, the main focus, was how global warming has changed the arctic.

It's climate change that made Tegner's journey possible. The ice in the passage has started melting earlier, and freezing later every year. This has had a bad impact on the Inuit who live in the arctic regions. While this does open up streams of ecotourism to boost the Inuit economy, it is driving the local wildlife from the region. As the Inuit have traditionally relied on hunting to survive, this is something of a problem.

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Narwhal are real?? And they live in the arctic?
Additionally, erosion is threatening Inuit communities. The ice melting leaves their communities vulnerable to the explosive autumn storms. The documentary focused on the town of Kivalina in Alaska, which experienced extreme flooding in 2004, but a quick google search turns up dozens of other towns with the same plight.

If you've ever doubted that climate is changing, this is a good show to watch. If you've ever wondered about Inuit culture, and the history of the Inuit in the arctic, this is a great show to watch. If you just really like the arctic, this is a good show to watch. It can be a bit of a bear to get through, but it's well worth it.

If you want to learn more about the show, and more about Tegner's arctic experience, you can visit their website here.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Documentary Review-Secrets of Westminster OR Why I Now Wish To Become a Janitor

I usually get good ideas of things to write about from documentaries, it's one of the main reasons I watch them. This documentary was no different. I got an idea for at least a couple of posts, as per the norm. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was for the documentary to leave me with an intense desire to examine every nook and cranny of Westminster.

Image result for secrets of westminsterYou probably noticed in the title how I said I wanted to become a janitor, well, that's only half a joke. While I enjoy cleaning, I don't want to do it professionally. What I do want is the unparalleled access to places that janitors get, because there are so many treasures of Westminster that aren't open to the general public.

I should first note that this documentary got permission to film in a lot of these restricted areas. I tell you this, because the documentary will mention this at least once every fifteen minutes. The camera crew takes you into some pretty amazing places though, so it's well worth the annoyance.

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Westminster Abbey
The documentary starts off at Westminster Abbey, the place in which every British monarch has been crowned for hundreds of years. Notable parts of the tour included showing the throne on which every monarch is crowned, and the place underneath where the stone of destiny sat for hundreds of years.

The Stone of Destiny was the stone upon which every Scottish monarch was crowned. The English stole it from the Scots, and kept it in Westminster Abbey until it was stolen by Scottish Nationalists in the 1950s. One of the fantastic parts of this documentary is that it has a short interview with the man who stole it. He explains in detail how he and his friends managed to steal the stone, and smuggle it over the border into Scotland.

Next they go to the Houses of Parliament. The documentary explains the quite frankly ridiculous pageantry that the queen has to go through before she can formally open parliament each year. Guy Fawkes' attempted destruction of the Houses of Parliament is mentioned too.

Lastly, the documentary takes us up inside Big Ben. One of the first things that's explained is that, much like how Frankenstein isn't the name of the monster, Big Ben isn't the name of the clock. Big Ben is the name of the bell, and, interestingly enough, the bell is named after a favored prizefighter of the bellsmiths who made it. The documentary interviews one of the clockmakers in charge of maintaining the bell, and he explains his process for adjusting the clock to keep it running exactly on time.


Overall, this is a fantastic documentary. The 'Secrets of' documentaries usually are, and this one is no exception.  If you want to watch an entertaining film explaining the history and workings of some of England's most memorable landmarks, this is the movie for you.
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Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Documentary Review-Empire of the Tsars

My general feelings about documentaries is that they ought to be longer, and more in depth. Unless they're heinously boring, in which case I have several other feelings as well. But this fantastic documentary series is one that I didn't want to end.

Image result for empire of the tsars romanov russia with lucy worsleyNarrated by historian Lucy Worsley, Empire of the Tsars takes a close look at Romanov Russia from its tenuous beginning to its tragic end. Over three episodes Worsley gives a biography of the most famous, and infamous Romanovs-Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I, Alexander II, and, lastly, the unfortunate Nicholas II.*

I loved this documentary a lot. Not only is Worsley a great story teller, but she makes it easy for the viewer to visualize the sights and sounds of the history she's presenting. I had maybe a hazy (if that) image of what an 18th century boat looked like, so when Worsley brought out actual replicas (staffed by full time reenactors!) of the boats Peter the Great built, everything made so much sense. That's just one example. She also modeled the dress of the era, and took us inside the 'rooms where it happened'**. Ever wondered the logistics of Rasputin's murder? She walks you through it.

Most of all, I love that a thorough, well researched, in-depth, three part documentary on Russian history is available. Russian history is so fascinating, yet it so often gets overlooked (in the west at least). In my high school, as well as my college classes we only discussed Russia in the context of the Cold War, and a little bit about their contributions to WWII, and that's such a shame. Russia is a country with a fascinating history. It seems that the nation is in a perpetual struggle to join the future, pulled between their traditions of autocracy (or communism) and more western ideals.

Image result for empire of the tsars romanov russia with lucy worsleyBut this isn't the place to ramble about Russia, I'm telling you about a fantastic documentary that I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to finish watching. In case you haven't gotten the idea, I really liked this documentary, and I highly recommend it. Worsley was an amazing presenter, and a quick IMDB search shows that she has a dozen other credits to her name, and I have no doubts I'll be watching her other documentaries as soon as I can get my hands on them.

*There were like three other that she also talked about, but they were mostly to put the reigns of the actually important tsars in context.
** 'Hamilton' reference, in case you were wondering. But let's face it, if you're here, not only have you at least heard of the world's most famous history based musical, you probably know all the words.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Girl King

"The Girl King" is a 2015 drama focused around the infamous Queen Kristina of Sweden, and her love affair with the countess Ebba Sparre.

Image result for the girl kingFirst, it must be said, I LOVED this movie. Not only is this a film about a badass lady, but it's about a badass sapphic lady, one of my favorite types of badass ladies.

Now, in case you're confused about the term 'sapphic', let me explain. 'Sapphic' is a broad term used to describe women (including trans women) who love women (also known as wlw), be they lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, or any other sort of gay. In case you're wondering about the etymology, 'Sapphic' gets its root from Sappho, the famously gay ancient greek poet, whose island home of Lesbos also sired the word lesbian.

"The Girl King" opens on a dramatic scene. Kristina's arguably insane mother, Dowager Queen Maria Eleonora is weeping over the corpse of her deceased husband, King Gustav II. She imperiously orders her daughter to kiss her father good night. That's when Kristina's uncle, Carl, and the Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna burst into the room, and rescue Kristina from the clutches of her mother. The movie then skims over Kristina's childhood, showing brief scenes of her extensive education and grooming to become Queen of Sweden. There is particular focus on Kristina's indifference to Protestantism (the ideal her father died fighting for) and her admiration for the philosopher Rene Descartes.

The movie really gets going when Kristina is crowned queen on her eighteenth birthday. In the span of a single day she is crowned, announces her intentions to turn Sweden into an academic paradise, meets the love of her life, and turns down a marriage proposal. It's a busy day for the young queen, but that doesn't stop her from running around with a sword, and leaving quite the impression on the beautiful Ebba Sparre.

Kristina (right) and Ebba.
From there the movie details Kristina's struggles against the stubborn conservatism of Sweden in the age, and her attempts to educate the people, and broker peace between the warring Protestant and Catholic nations. Along the way her hero, Rene Descartes, arrives in Sweden, and along with the French ambassador and some unscrupulous churchmen, convince Kristina of the virtues of Catholicism. That's pretty worrisome to Kristina's nobles, but more worrying is her refusal to marry, and her suspicious closeness with Ebba.

And, indeed, they had cause to worry. Kristina and Ebba were in love, sharing a bed, kisses, and other more intimate moments. In a move spurred by politics and jealousy Axel's son arranges to have Ebba abducted and forcibly married. Kristina is less than pleased.

By this point Kristina has been ruling for ten years, and she's sick of it. Her love is gone, her friend Descartes dies, and Sweden resists her attempts to bring the Enlightenment north at every turn. Additionally, she's decided to convert to Catholicism, and leave Lutheranism behind. All of these things combine to make her realize that she can no longer rule Sweden. So she plans for her abdication. She adopts her cousin Carl Gustav, then abdicates in his favor. She leaves Sweden for a better life.

Now, as for historical accuracy, this movie does pretty well. Kristina did have a love affair with Ebba Sparre*, and she certainly struggled against the ignorance of Sweden in that era. She did adopt her cousin, and abdicate in his favor.

However, there are a few inaccuracies. One of the recurring themes of the movie is the philosophy of Descartes, and his friendship with the queen. In reality, Kristina couldn't stand Descartes, and they were, by no means, friends. Additionally, Kristina became queen at sixteen, not eighteen.

Overall, this was a fantastic movie about a fascinating woman. I highly recommend watching this, and this is, by no means, the last time I write about Queen Kristina.


*Anyone who wants to insist Kristina and Ebba were just 'gals being pals' can meet me in the Target parking lot at midnight, and we'll fight it out. I try to limit my personal biases, but I have no patience for queer erasure in history, so bring a knife.

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Documentary Review-Secrets of Henry VIII Palace: Hampton Court

So I've been studying Tudor history for a very long time, and there's not much you can tell me that I don't already know, which is why I was delighted when I watched this documentary, and learned several new things, including:

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The Great Hall
  • Palace servants were given 1 gallon of beer a day, except for the people who turned the spit in the kitchens, who got unlimited beer.
  • It could get up to 1800 F in the roasting rooms of the kitchen.
  • King Henry's court, at the beginning of his reign, was basically just a bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings partying it up.
    • Which makes me appreciate Cardinal Wolsey even more. He's the real MVP if you think about it. He basically ran the country while Henry and his dudebros played tennis and had sex.
  • There is a replica of one of the fountains that was filled with red wine on the Field of the Cloth of Gold in one of the courtyards of Hampton Court Palace.
  • Jane Seymour's heart and lungs are below the altar in the chapel. (Maybe that's why her ghost allegedly haunts the place)
And that's just the things about the Tudor era!

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The Tudor portion of Hampton Court Palace

This documentary spends a lot of time going over the details of the architecture, and the events in Henry's life that influenced those details. They pointed out the one remaining badge of Anne Boleyn, as well as the pomegranates of Catherine of Aragon. They pointed out the tapestries commissioned in honor of Jane Seymour (tapestries which cost as much as a warship, holy shit!), and pointed out the little wooden people whose heads poked over the rafters of the Great Hall. (Their purpose was to remind the courtiers that everything they said could be overheard, and to be decorative I suppose. It's these little dudes that inspired the term 'eavesdropping')

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Details of the ceiling in the chapel.
There was some general summary of Henry's life as well. Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr were both briefly covered, though they had no significant history with the palace. I don't mind though, because historian Suzannah Lipscomb also said the best thing concerning Henry and Anne of Cleves (my favorite of Henry's wives) that I've heard in my entire damn life. It's something along the lines of:

"Henry told everyone that Anne was fat and ugly, and that she couldn't possibly be a virgin. And it's true, there was one person in that room who was fat and ugly, and not a virgin. But it wasn't Anne."
Once again, not a direct quote, but damn. I've never heard another historian drag Henry VIII like that. I think I'm in love.

After covering Henry VIII the documentary briefly touched on the palace's partial rebuilding under the reign of William III and his wife, Caroline. They explained how the palace worked in general, as well as pointing out the elaborate and ridiculous rituals royalty had to undergo.

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The Baroque part of Hampton Court Palace
My only complaint with this documentary is that it wasn't long enough! The film was an hour, but I would have gladly watched it for two or three. The historical research is solid, and PBS brought in experts from different historical fields (such as historical cooking and historical costuming) to give insight into aspects of palace life that usually go neglected when telling the history of Henry VIII. It's an A+ show, and I'll probably end up watching it again.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book Review-The Princes in the Tower

So this book has been near the top of my history book to-read list for several years. I'd started it several times, but never had time to finish (the curse of the public library). But recently I finally bought it, and sat down to finish. And, goodness, am I glad I did.


Image result for princes in the tower alison weirThe Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir is the sort of book that makes revisionists cry, and the Richard III Society sweat. Weir leaves no room for doubt that Richard III was responsible for the demise of the Princes in the Tower. She examines not only Richard's motives, but how he could have accomplished the black deed, and, in my opinion, comes to some pretty airtight conclusions.

Now, admittedly, it was written several decades before the skeleton of Richard III was discovered in a carpark, so obviously some of the speculations on the manner of Richard III's death, as well as the cause of his crooked shoulders have been proven incorrect, but overall this has no bearing on the conclusions that Weir draws about the demise of Edward V and his brother, Richard Duke of York.

In the book Weir examines the characters surrounding the court of Richard III (including the Duke of Clarence, our wine obsessed friend.), as well as the politics of the time. Even if you know absolutely nothing about the Plantagenet dynasty, you won't get lost reading this book. Admittedly, though the book is named after them, it doesn't focus too much on the princes themselves, because they're dead about a quarter of the way into the book. But you do learn an awful lot about their parents and sisters, and how they influenced the political environment of fifteenth century England.

And thanks to this book I finally, for the first time, understand where Henry Tudor fits into the whole mess of the War of Roses. This book explains the merits of his claim, as well as how Elizabeth of York strengthened his claim (or the claim of whoever she was considering marrying that week). I still don't quite understand the War of Roses, and quite frankly, I'm pretty sure I never will, but this book brought me one step closer.

Overall, it's a very academically sound and entertaining book. It's the sort of in-depth political history book you can read for pleasure (I did), and not want to kill yourself halfway through. And even if you know nothing about Richard III, this is a good starting point.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Documentary Review- China's Forbidden City

There's something about the name 'Forbidden City' that is just inherently interesting. It brings up all sorts of questions like, 'why is it forbidden?' and 'can I go there?'. Additionally 'what's inside that makes it so exclusive?', 'what will happen if I go there?' and 'what exactly are the rules surrounding this?'. While this lovely documentary put out by the Smithsonian didn't quite answer all of these questions, it gave valuable background and context for one of China's most beautiful historic sites.


Image result for china's forbidden city documentaryThis documentary has two parts, the first detailing the construction of the Forbidden City, and the general origin story, and the second telling the story of the Empress Dowager Cixi, and the fall of the Forbidden City in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

The first part is very detailed about the actual building of the city. It explains a lot of the symbolism behind the different features (the towers at the corners of the city, the number of pillars, etc.), and brings in historical architecture experts to talk about it. This part is very interesting if you're into architecture and building, but I personally did not find it very interesting.

The second part though, that was fascinating. As I mentioned before, it recounts how Empress Cixi rose from a humble concubine, to Empress, to eventually ruling China. It's a fascinating story of political intrigue and sexual scheming. And the story of one badass lady, who used the men around her to rule a country.

'But what does that have to do with the Forbidden City?' You ask. Well, it is an unfortunate fact that during Cixi's 'reign' the English came a-knocking, and, as any student of history will tell you, that never ends well for the people the English come to see. Though Cixi did her best to keep the English at bay, she was unsuccessful, and the court had to flee Beijing. The Forbidden City was destroyed by the invaders shortly after.

Overall, it's a great documentary series. It's interesting, well paced, and the visuals are beautiful. Unlike many documentary series, this one doesn't lose momentum, and will keep you hooked until the very end.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Documentary Review- Vikings Unearthed

So after I finished the Cuba Libre Story, I needed something else to watch while I painted, so I turned to this Nova film. I wasn't expecting much, I was thinking it would be something along the lines of the Richard III documentary, or, heavens forbid the Druids documentary, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this film was so, so much better.
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This film focuses on the archaeological efforts surrounding the vikings. They briefly focus on digs in Greenland and Iceland, but the real star of the show is the excavation at Rosee, Newfoundland, Canada.

Now, the Vikings are known to have gotten pretty far west. The farthest west confirmed viking settlement is at L'Anse Aux Meadows, which is in the far north of Newfoundland. However, using satellite imagery, archaeologist Dr. Sarah Parcak was able to identify what could be the remains of a viking settlement at Rosee, which is significantly west (and south) of L'Anse Aux Meadows.

A lot of this film focused on the satellite technology used by Dr. Parcak, and how she used that technology successfully to locate other ancient sites. They discussed the difficulties in finding viking settlements as opposed to Egyptian or Roman settlements due to building materials, and took the viewer all over Shetland, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland to discuss what makes a viking settlement different from any other.

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Dr. Parcak at Rosee
As you may have guessed, I enjoyed this film. A lot. Vikings are pretty cool in general, so throw in Greenland and my favorite Canadian province, and you've got a home run. It was a very informative film, and it went much deeper than your average documentary about the vikings. It not only told you about the archaeological finds, but also put them into the context of viking society, so you could understand the significance of finding slag or a layer of compacted ash with stone underneath it meant. (Slag is a byproduct of iron working, the ash and rock combo is a floor. Cool huh?)

If anything, I wish that this film had been longer. The conclusions that Dr. Parcak and the other archaeologists came to about Rosee was about an 80% surety that the site was a viking settlement, but they were only able to dig for two weeks, so they weren't able to completely confirm their find, at least not by the end of the movie.

Overall, it was an amazing movie, and rekindled my childhood dreams of becoming an archaeologist. Too bad I'm crap at math and science eh?

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Book Review-Australia, A Very Short Introduction

So I've written a bit about Australia recently, and in the course of that realized that I know absolutely zero things about Australia. After reading this book I can say with some confidence that I now know at least three things about Australia.

Image result for australia a very short introductionAustralia, A Very Short Introduction by Kenneth Morgan, is a very small book, but you'll learn a lot from it. It provides a very good overview of the history, geography, economy, military (or more accurately, lack thereof), and foreign relations of Australia. Reading this is a bit like reading an expanded version of the CIA World Factbook. You get a little bit of information on everything about the country.

This book is, I think, a good place for starting your study of Australia. You get a little bit of information about everything, so not only will you be able to put anything else you learn in context, but you're able to find what you're interested in, and, using the sources and recommended further reading in the back, jump off from there.

The biggest downside to this book is that it's extremely difficult to get through. It's only 128 pages (Not including references, further reading, index, &c), but it took me a week to read, because it was incredibly dull. It's not easy to engage with intellectually, and I think a big part of this is because it goes from topic to topic so quickly. Every time I found something that interested me the information on it lasted for about a paragraph, then switched to something else. And I recognize that, to an extent, this is the point of the book, but I feel the author could have expanded just a little. Give me two paragraphs, or a few extra sentences. I wouldn't mind the extra length if the book was more interesting.

Overall though, I think it's a very useful book, especially for giving further context for anything else you read about Australia. I have a better idea now of what I want to study (and write about, stay tuned) in depth, and if anyone ever brings up Australia immigration policy at a family dinner, I'm set.* So, read this book to give yourself an idea of the continent, but don't expect to learn everything there is to know.

*This happens more often than you might think, meaning it happened once. It is important to note that my family and I are not Australian.

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