Category - Book Reviews

The Year 2013 In Books

TruthI’m trying something different this year with my book list. I’m going to make a short comment after listing each book.

But first, the usual questions: are there any themes from this year? Any intellectual currents present in my reading list that I didn’t realize at the time but see now that it’s complete?

First, I read a great deal of Late Classical history, including late Rome, Byzantine, and the early years of the Arab/Muslim Empire. My reading in this area got very granular and specialized. I seemed to know, subconsciously, that I would be studying this stuff in grad school in the near future, although at the time that decision was a long way off.

Second, I read a lot of fiction this year. More so than I do most years. Going forward I am trying to keep the ratio at 3 non-fiction for every 1 fiction. I found fiction to be refreshing and also helped me to make better connections between the non-fiction works I was reading because my mind was fresh and cleared out. There is a place for reading popular fiction.

Third, I read a lot of poetry this year as well. And when I say read a lot of poetry, I mean, I bought a book of poetry and read the entire book. Not straight through, but I’d read a chapter at a time, read something else and then come back to it. This is another habit I hope sticks around. Poetry is good for the soul. It connects us to the longings and shortfalls and loves and desires of others. This remains essential to being human.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Right to Be Wrong (Redux)

Gian P. Gentile reviews Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents: “The story of Petraeus’ triumphalism has become the stock narrative for many writers on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars”:

 Mr. Kaplan’s The Insurgents is a peculiar book. At the end of the book he points out “the modern age itself has reduced much of the whole Coin concept to folly.” This, as Mr. Kaplan notes was the “dark side of counterinsurgency” Petraeus and his crew of dissidents helped to put in place with the Surge of Troops in Iraq and then carried directly over to Afghanistan a few years later.

Mr. Kaplan is exactly right: It has been “folly” to think a bundle of methods derived from unsuccessful counterrevolutionary wars of the 1960s could be applied by the American army to transform Islamic societies at the barrel of a gun.

The peculiarity of The Insurgents is that Mr. Kaplan raises this fundamentally correct criticism in the concluding handful of chapters of the book, but the preponderance of the book is nothing more than a paean to Petraeus and the Coin experts.

As they say, read the whole damn thing.


Update: As JDP notes in comments, Col. Gentile has been a longtime public critic of Petraeus & US counterinsurgency policy. Whatever one’s personal feelings about COIN and the cult of Petraeus, a book review shouldn’t be used to further sharpen an already well-ground ax without full disclosure (and even then it is still poor form to essentially commission a hatchet job).

Book Review: Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons

5 Myths
Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons

Ward Wilson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 196 pages

On sale January 15, 2013


Nuclear weapons will always be with us, right?

Ward Wilson disagrees. That’s not explicitly one of his five myths, but it might be a corollary of Myth 5, “There is no alternative.”

Wilson has written a gem of a book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. The clarity of its arguments sparkles. The purpose of the book is to encourage people to rethink what they believe about nuclear weapons. Read More

Writerly Reads

What is the relationship between the physicality of books and the act of reading? How important is the first to the second? Pretty damn important, says Andrew Piper in a recent article at Slate.

As someone who needs and enjoys solitude I found this article about the uses of solitude by John Burnside fascinating.

The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik reviews two new books about the connection between geography and history: Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, and Why Geography Matters: More Than Ever by Harm de Blij.

Jack Shafer’s essay slash review on the subject of George Orwell’s newly published diaries is a great read in and of itself.

A few months ago, I reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady; the experience was all the more delightful for the fact that I had read it so long ago that reading it again was like reading it for the first time. Now, Michael Gorra has written a book about the book: Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. Of course, it’s going on my To Read list. James Wood has a long but very much worth reading literary critique (of the novel) at the London Review of Books.

Finally, if you have enjoyed reading these essays, you might also enjoy Simon Schama’s extended ode to the essay genre (at the Financial Times, of all places).

Tereska Torrès, 92, Writer of Lesbian Fiction, Dies

New York Times, By Margalit Fox, September 24

Tereska Torrès, a convent-educated French writer who quite by accident wrote America’s first lesbian pulp novel, died on Thursday at her home in Paris. She was 92.

Her family announced the death.

Though she wrote more than a dozen novels and several memoirs, Ms. Torrès remained inadvertently best known for “Women’s Barracks,” published in the United States in 1950 as a paperback original.

The book is a fictionalized account of the author’s wartime service in London with the women’s division of the Free French forces. Though its sexual scenes appear tame to 21st-century eyes, the author’s forthright depiction of the liaisons of the women in her unit with male resistance members — and with one another — scandalized midcentury America.

Originally published by Gold Medal Books, “Women’s Barracks” has sold four million copies in the United States and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. It was reprinted in 2005 by the Feminist Press in its Femmes Fatales series, which features pulp, noir and mystery novels by women of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.


It was not homophobia that caused Ms. Torrès to find her book’s canonical status peculiar. Quite the contrary, she said: because affairs with barracks mates were so much a part of ordinary wartime experience the hoopla seemed simply prurient.

“The book spoke very delicately about the few matters of sexual encounters,” Ms. Torrès told in 2005. “But so what? I hadn’t invented anything — that’s the way women lived during the war in London.”

She added: “I thought I had written a very innocent book. I thought, these Americans, they are easily shocked.”

Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker

I’ve had the feeling that humans are behaving better ever since I started reading medieval history. The ease with which people accepted torture and public and bloody executions. Roving bands of knights raped, killed, and sacked. Later on, the genocide of Native Americans. Child labor in mines and factories. Lynchings. We don’t do that any more.

Even in my lifetime, there have been improvements. Civil rights for African-Americans, women, and gays. Hazing is no longer acceptable on college campuses. And no great-power wars for the last half-century.

Steven Pinker includes all that and more in The Better Angels of Our Nature, on how humans have moved away from violence since prehistory. That’s not to say that all is well and no more improvements are necessary; it’s a long process that is still going on. My view in the first two paragraphs is from a rather protected position in the United States.

Peter Singer nicely summarized the book in his New York Times review. So did David Runciman in The Guardian. Better Angels was published last fall, and those reviews are from then. I am frequently a little late in coming to new books.

So take a moment to read one of those reviews, and then come back, because I’m going to take off from those summaries. It’s important to understand the structure of Better Angels. Pinker amasses an enormous amount of data to support his contention that violence has decreased. Much of the criticism ignores that first part of the book to argue that of course we are more violent now than we ever have been: we have the technology to do it better. That’s the argument that Pinker refutes early on; he is quite aware that many people believe it.

Remarkably, most measures show that violence is decreasing. I was surprised at some, even with my optimistic outlook. Because of the large number of trends all in the same direction, Pinker’s argument is robust: several or most of these trends must be refuted to refute his overall argument. And the refutation must be in the same terms, using data from respected sources. I haven’t seen any of that yet. Most of the attempts at refutation, like John Gray’s, simply ignore the numbers and speak from personal beliefs as to whether violence has declined and the causes for that. Ross Douthat presents the same kinds of arguments.

As Pinker investigates (and supports) a thesis I’ve been interested in, he uses evolutionary psychology, a field I am extremely dubious of, to make some of his arguments. However, he relies on other evidence as well.

Evolutionary psychology depends on reconstructions of what primitive societies must have been like. Not much of psychology gets fossilized ”“ thoughts and brains don’t lend themselves to that, although as brains leave traces in the size and internal shape of skulls, so do thoughts leave traces in artifacts and graves. Unfortunately, this isn’t anywhere near enough information to reconstruct a society or how people participated in it. So the logic of various arrangements must be thought out. This thinking comes from modern people who have attained professorships or equivalent positions in today’s society. It’s obvious now that earlier reconstructions came from a male-dominated professional class’s mindset and expectations. In response to that, attempts are being made to make those reconstructions less vulnerable to justification of today’s inequalities.

I’m a chemist and uncomfortable with the nature of psychological proof anyway. I can usually think up multiple interpretations of the data and questions or procedures employed. I can see how, if I were an experimental subject, I might have problems figuring out how to respond to some of the experiments, providing data for opposing interpretations with varying moods, and suspect that others might do the same.

I’ve been particularly unhappy with the recent crop of books that glibly say we can’t trust our own minds ”“ subconscious elephants lumber in one direction or another, transforming our veneer of rationality into rationale. If that’s the case, and if we can’t do anything about that, then I can stop writing now and you can stop reading. We are stuck with our evolutionary needs and can’t be changed. I’m now reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and it doesn’t quite say that, but it’s close.

Pinker takes on this issue from a number of directions. Are humans evolving genetically? He examines the evidence and decides probably not ”“ the changes are awfully fast for genetic evolution. He also translates Haidt’s moral foundations into the outcomes of relational models. Relational models describe how people interact. Moral foundations are givens, whether of biology or some sort of divinity. Thinking about interactions versus givens makes a difference in the kind of conclusions you will reach.

In the first half of Better Angels, Pinker shows that people’s relationship to violence has changed. He tries to find the reasons for the changes he documents. One he puts forward is the increasing ability to imagine ourselves into others’ places. Wars have decreased as we have had the technology to broadcast their action immediately from the battlefield. As our imaginations are stretched by books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we become less willing to kill, torture, or humiliate others. He documents the ”œRights Revolutions,” civil rights and the decline of lynching, women’s rights and the decline of rape, children’s rights and the decline of spanking, gay rights and the decriminalization of homosexuality, animal rights and the decline of cruelty to animals.

Then, and only then, does Pinker go into possible explanations for these changes, including but not limited to evolutionary psychology. He is much more careful about invoking simple explanations for both the violence and its decline than other recent writers. He agrees with the general view that human history has molded us to a blend of individualism and cooperation, the two often in tension.

I’ll go beyond Pinker to suggest that we humans have been engaged in a long experiment in cultural evolution. Not by ”œmemes”, but we are changing our environment in ways that pressure us to act in less violent ways and lessen our support for the societal forms of violence. Our actions and expectations shape our environment, and then that environment shapes our actions and expectations.

Pinker’s book is well worth reading and thinking hard about. It will inform my thinking from now on. I’m hoping to find something that might help with the difficult situation of Israel and Iran.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner and Phronesisaical.


John Higgs: Illuminatus! vs Atlas Shrugged:

As has been wildly noted, the twenty-first century is strange, worrying and makes very little sense. Help is at hand, however, because the late twentieth century produced two huge novels which shed light on our current predicament. These two books are polar opposites, yet oddly similar – opposed twins, in other words, like Cain and Abel.

Both novels are ridiculously long. Both were largely ignored by the literary and educational establishments, due to their unmistakable whiff of madness (This fear of insanity is, of course, why the literary and educational establishments always miss out on all the good stuff.) They have both, however, found a devoted readership, been hailed as life changing, and have remained in print since publication. Between them, they explain much of our current twenty-first century world, from the underground anarchism of Anonymous and the shift from hierarchies to networks, to the Tea Party and neo-conservative hijack of American politics and the massive shift in wealth distribution towards the super rich.

With a helpful diagram.

Obviously, I’m on the side of Eris. Mmmmm, apples!
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What Thomas Friedman's Decade-Defining Wankery Really Means — and Why It's Dangerous

David Wearing at New Left Project reviews Belén Fernández’s recent book, The Imperial Messenger ”“ Thomas Friedman At Work, noting how Friedman’s banal pro-imperialist bloviation reflects — and helps to further — an all-too entrenched broader mentality:

Friedman puts the Iraqi public’s failure to appreciate the benefits of foreign occupation down to ”œthe wall in the Arab mind”. As Fernández notes, ”œthe Orientalist tendency to anchor Oriental subjects in antiquity, where they remain in perpetual need of civilisation by the West and its militaries, is viewable time and again in Friedman’s discourse”. Arabs and Muslims are ”œbackward”. Iraqis ”œhate each other more than they love their own kids”. Shortly after the invasion of 2003, he opines that ”œit would be idiotic to even ask Iraqis here how they felt about politics. They are in a pre-political, primordial state of nature”.

For the American missionaries, the noble mission of raising the savages out of the swamp is not without its dangers. ”œWhile we would like an Iraqi national movement ”“ building Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis ”“ to coalesce, we don’t want it coalescing in opposition to us”. Evidently then there is a limit to which even this staunch advocate of enlightened Western values will support democracy, the limit being whether the liberated people then bow before the might of western power.

All of this would be of limited relevance were Friedman an isolated figure, rather than the ugly face of ideas and assumptions which have a much wider currency. His complaint that American occupying forces in Iraq ”œare baby-sitting a civil war” is a direct echo of Barack Obama’s promise during the 2007 presidential election campaign that ”œwe’re not going to babysit a civil war”, as though the bloodbath engulfing the country was attributable to the infantilism of its people and not to the effects of it being violently invaded by a foreign power. Elsewhere, Friedman’s likening of the US occupation of Afghanistan to the adoption of a ”œspecial needs baby” bears more than a passing resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld’s description of Washington’s role in teaching Iraqis how to run their own country:

”œGetting Iraq straightened out was like teaching a kid to ride a bike: ‘They’re learning, and you’re running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you’re just barely touching it. You can’t know when you’re running down the street how many steps you’re going to have to take. We can’t know that, but we’re off to a good start.”

The flip side of this casual racism is of course the chauvinistic view of the nature of Western civilisation; the paternal figure to the Iraqi and Afghan infants. For Friedman, ”œwithout a strong America holding the world together, and doing the right thing more often than not, the world really would be a Hobbesian jungle”, a faith in the benevolence of Western power which is shared right across the spectrum of mainstream intellectual opinion.

Related: If you have not yet done so, please read–nay, experience–Matt Taibbi’s legendary takedown of The World is Flat. If snark were whiskey we’d all be shit-faced before breakfast.
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Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: The Best of Joe Bageant…,

6a00d83455c58569e2014e8a47666c970d-200wiis now available at Amazon…, and probably other places. Over at his website there is a post of the introduction to the book by Ken Smith.

”œI’m so damn average that what I write resonates with people”, Joe Bageant once told an interviewer in explaining how he had gained a global following for his essays published on the web. In 2004, at the age of 58, Joe sensed that the Internet could give him editorial freedom. Without gatekeepers, he began writing about what he was really thinking, and then submitted his essays to left-of-center websites.

Joe Bageant died in March 2011, having written two books, and 78 essays that were posted on his own website and also on many other sites. The 25 essays reproduced in this book were first published on the web. I’ve selected them based on many emails from readers, web traffic counts, and specific suggestions from his online colleagues. They appear here as Joe wrote them, apart from copyediting and light corrections agreed to between me and his book editor, Henry Rosenbloom, the publisher at Australia’s Scribe Publications.

That’s just a teaser…, read the rest at the link. And if you are like me and would rather read a book than a computer screen…, head on over to Amazon. That’s were I’m going now.