Sep 17 2008

In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells

Wells was not a religious man, yet somehow this strikes me as a deeply religious book. He seems to have had a profound conviction that the world we live in is a fallen world that has gone horribly wrong, and he seems to have been equally certain that nothing short of a deus ex machina like a comet from outer space could ever set things right again. From a world of injustice, oppression, inequality, pettiness, and cruelty emerges a new utopia of peace and brotherhood and love. Yet the part of the book that describes this utopia is rather dull and anticlimactic; far more engaging is the earlier account of the narrator as an angry young man with a vendetta against society and a chip on his shoulder against fate. I identified with this bitter young man and his sense of outrage against Things As They Are; I was rooting for him to exact his vengeance when the vapors of the comet suddenly brought peace to the world. Not a great story, but a potent expression of Wells’ vision.

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Sep 06 2008

Caesar: Politician and Statesman by Matthias Gelzer

An excellent study of the crisis of the late Roman Republic, the Gallic and Civil Wars, and Julius Caesar’s personal genius. To put it as mildly as possible, Caesar was a man of remarkable ability, not the least of which was his extraordinary knack for never missing an opportunity, and he was born at the just the right time to take advantage of the festering political situation at Rome. Monarchy hardly seems to most of us like an improvement of the political system, but I would argue that the Empire was better off for the first two hundred years under the rule of the Caesars than it ever had been under the Republic. Caesar may have destroyed the Republic, but he undoubtedly gave the Empire a new lease on life. Modern Europe, which is the heir of the Roman Empire, can thank him for this.

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Aug 17 2008

A History of Nigeria by Toyin Falola

A good source of information, if not an exciting narrative, on the largest country in Africa. The story is typically African: colonial exploitation is followed by a brief and heady period of independence, which is followed by a long period of political corruption, ethnic violence, and economic decline. I personally remain as mystified by Africa’s continual failure to thrive as I am by the unparallelled success of the United States. Is Africa under some kind of curse? Nigeria has all of the resources necessary to make it a successful nation, except competent political leadership. I try to remain optimistic, but sub-Saharan Africa has had fifty years of independence in which to get its act together, and its record has not been impressive. Here’s hoping that Nigeria will soon break free of the evil spell it has been under.

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Jun 17 2008

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

Freud doesn’t get a lot of respect these days, but I found this book for the most part lucid and rational, if not exactly scientific. Part of Freud’s thesis borrows from Rousseau in arguing that civilization represents a compromise with the individual for the sake of preserving security, but for Freud this is problematic, because he sees civilized society as repressing the natural instincts of man and thereby causing unhappiness and neurosis. For Freud the conscience, or the “super-ego,” is merely the internalization of society’s condemnation of man’s natural but at times antisocial desires, and as such it is a source of constant anxiety, as these desires are for the most part impossible to eliminate. Freud does not seem to have made his mind up whether civilization is a good thing or a bad thing, but as a psychoanalyst he sees a clear and unfortunate conflict between civilization and the individual pyche. An interesting discussion, if a bit ponderous.

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Apr 21 2008

The History of Germany Since 1789 by Golo Mann

This was a beautifully written book that covered Germany from its earliest nationalist stirrings following the French Revolution to the postwar partioned Germany up through 1965. There were colorful portraits of German statesmen such as Bismarck, William II, Adenauer, and yes, the most famous one of all. The chapter devoted to the Nazi episode was thorough and spared no one, but the author goes to great pains to argue that the German people at that time were not as evil as the people who led them. The book concludes on the note that Germans have regained their prosperity and their prominent place in the world without being the threat to anyone that they were in former times. The author, by the way, is the son of the famous German literary figure Thomas Mann.

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Apr 09 2008

Napoleon Bonaparte by Alan Schom

This is a well written and well researched book, but it is the most anti-Napoleon book I have ever read. The author gives the devil his due, acknowledging Napoleon’s outstanding abilities as a battlefield commander, but other than that, he has nothing nice to say about the great man. And he takes the peculiar position that the traditional monarchies and aristocracies of Europe were actually honorable and benevolent, a most unusual position for an American historian. There is plenty of Napoleonic dirt to dig up, and Schom dishes it with a little too much obvious relish, but after reading this book one can only conclude that the Corsican was mostly a force for evil rather than good. Still, Napoleon was the outstanding personality in nineteenth century European history, and I think he deserves a little more respect from his biographer.

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Feb 22 2008

A History of Greece to 322 B.C. by N.G.L Hammond

This was a historian’s rather than a layman’s book, a bit more packed with details than I am used to, but it is a thorough one-volume treatment of a subject that has always fascinated me. I can’t do justice to it in 1000 characters, but one observation I would make is that the Spartans have been overrated both on their military and moral virtues. They were certainly formidable warriors, but they used their military prowess more effectively to dominate and oppress their fellow Greeks than to defend Greece against foreign invaders. Most of the credit for defending Greece against the Persians should go to Athens rather than Sparta. I would also argue that, while Athens was also guilty of imperialism and oppression, it would have been better for Greece and better for Western civilization if Athens had won the Peloponnesian War. And lastly, Alexander remains unequalled in the history of the world, unique for being a ruthless conqueror and a passionate romantic in one. That’s all.

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Feb 12 2008

Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Conrad Black

The author of this book has also written a biography of comparable length of Richard Nixon. I must say that compared to Roosevelt, Nixon comes across as positively principled and idealistic. Black portrays FDR as a bold and gifted but somewhat underhanded and unscrupulous leader. His portraits of all of the major figures of this period–Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, de Gaulle–are also quite memorable. I can’t really do this book justice in the short space allowed here, but this book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the history of the twentieth century.

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Feb 12 2008

Alexander the Great by Lewis Cummings

Many historians have fallen in love with Alexander, but Lewis Cummings remains cold-eyed and immune to his charm. Cummings sees him as a bloodthirsty tyrant, possessed of an impetuous and almost childish nature, whose military genius served only the evil purpose of conquest and imperialism. Yet not even the most hostile biographer can deny what an extraordinary individual Alexander was and the breadth of his grand if rather inhuman achievements. Not even Caesar or Napoleon were his equals, in my judgment. Yet I say this breathing thanks that there are no Alexanders on the scene today.

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Jan 22 2008

Taking Stock of 2007: Books

I read about as much in 2007 as I did in 2006, but I wrote far fewer reviews. One of the perils of full-time employment. It also looks like a year of consolidation, rather than a year of discovery. Having polished off the lucky thirteenth in Lemony Snicket’s set in December 2006, I reached the end of 20 books with Aubrey/Maturin in January 2007. While in the course of the year I only re-read four books, I went back to the well with a lot of authors I knew I liked. Even the Stalin biography was by the same author. And just one book in German the whole year. Schade.

Among what was new to me in fiction, Cory Doctorow and Paul Park made the biggest impression. Doctorow needs little introduction in the blog-world, but his fiction is strange and interesting, addictive and just a little unsettling. Park is fooling around with the tenets of fantasy in a way that I like, and as soon as part part three makes it into paperback, I’ll gobble up parts two and three. (If your budget runs to fantasy in hardback, don’t tell me how it ends!) The fun factor was highest in Naomi Novik’s four novels. Napoleonics with dragons, what’s not to like? A few things, but it’s a series with promise.

Many more new voices and one-offs in non-fiction. Tom Reiss, Fritz Stern (ok not completely new), David Hackett Fischer (though I do wish he’d written the promised additional volumes). The Race Beat is terrific on the civil rights struggle in the US and the crucial role of the media, which was understood clearly by both sides. Ivan’s War deserves a full-scale review, though the private Soviet soldier’s perspective is summed up in three brutal sentences: “They called us. They trained us. They killed us.” The River of Doubt captures not only Teddy Roosevelt but much about early 20th century America, exploration and Brazil.

Complete list (in order read) is below the fold. Links are to previous writing about the book or author on AFOE.

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson
The Hundred Days – Patrick O’Brian
Blue at the Mizzen – Patrick O’Brian
The Orientalist – Tom Reiss
Fevre Dream – George R.R. Martin
A Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin
A Feast for Crows – George R.R. Martin
Five Germanys I Have Known – Fritz Stern
Albion’s Seed – David Hackett Fischer
Iron Council – China Miéville
The White Castle – Orhan Pamuk
The Swords of Lankhmar – Fritz Leiber
Glasshouse – Charles Stross
Green Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Good Omens – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
The Atrocity Archives – Charles Stross
The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
The Race Beat – Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
Spin – Robert Charles Wilson
Salonica: City of Ghosts – Mark Mazower
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town – Cory Doctorow
The Armageddon Rag – George R.R. Martin
His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik
Overclocked – Cory Doctorow
Ivan’s War – Catherine Merridale
Toast – Charles Stross
A Princess of Roumania – Paul Park
Little, Big – John Crowley
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling
Innocents Aboard – Gene Wolfe
The Big Over Easy – Jasper Fforde
Castle of Days – Gene Wolfe
The New Life – Orhan Pamuk
33 Augenblicke des Glücks – Ingo Schulze
The Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi
The Fourth Bear – Jasper Fforde
The River of Doubt – Candice Millard
The Hidden Family – Charles Stross
Nature Girl – Carl Hiaasen
Europe East & West – Norman Davies
The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen
The Ladies of Grace Adieu – Susanna Clarke
The Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum
Throne of Jade – Naomi Novik
On the Field of Glory – Henryk Sienkiewicz
Black Powder War – Naomi Novik
Empire of Ivory – Naomi Novik
First Among Sequels – Jasper Fforde
The Dogs of Babel – Carolyn Parkhurst
Other Colours – Orhan Pamuk
Special Assignments – Boris Akunin
Young Stalin – Simon Sebag Montefiore
Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke
Dixie City Jam – James Lee Burke
Spook Country – William Gibson

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