Oct 23 2011

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

“What do I think about the legacy of Atatürk, General? Let it go. I don’t care. The age of Atatürk is over.”
Guests stiffen around the table, breath subtly indrawn; social gasps. This is heresy. People have been shot down in the streets of Istanbul for less. Adnan commands every eye.
“Atatürk was father of the nation, unquestionably. No Atatürk, no Turkey. But, at some point every child has to leave his father. You have to stand on your own two feet and find out if you’re a man. We’re like the kids that go on about how great their dads are; my dad’s the strongest, the best wrestler, the fastest driver, the biggest moustache. And when someone squares up to us, or calls us a name or even looks at us squinty, we run back shouting ‘I’ll get my dad, I’ll get my dad!’ At some point; we have to grow up. If you’ll pardon the expression, the balls have to drop. We talk the talk mighty fine; great nation, proud people, global union of the noble Turkic races, all that stuff. There’s no one like us for talking ourselves up. And then the EU says, All right, prove it. The door’s open, in you come; sit down, be one of us. Move out of the family home; move in with the other guys. Step out from the shadow of the Father of the Nation.
“And do you know what the European Union shows us about ourselves? We’re all those things we say we are. They weren’t lies, they weren’t boasts. We’re good. We’re big. We’re a powerhouse. We’ve got an economy that goes all the way to the South China Sea. We’ve got energy and ideas and talent – look at the stuff that’s coming out of those tin-shed business parks in the nano sector and the synthetic biology start-ups. Turkish. All Turkish. That’s the legacy of Atatürk. It doesn’t matter if the Kurds have their own Parliament or the French make everyone stand in Taksim Square and apologize to the Armenians. We’re the legacy of Atatürk. Turkey is the people. Atatürk’s done his job. He can crumble into dust now. The kid’s come right. The kid’s come very right. That’s why I believe the EU’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us because it’s finally taught us how to be Turks.”

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, pp. 175-76

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/10/23/the-dervish-house-by-ian-mcdonald/

Oct 22 2011

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

This is a marvellous book chronicling the history of science. The journey is fraught with heartache and tragedy, as it is an oft-repeated theme that scientists who have made great discoveries were never properly recognized in their lifetimes and died broken and unhappy. It is also an expose of the scientific world that debunks its reputation for cool impartialities; the scienctific world is in fact rife with ego, pettiness, and cutthroat competition. And while the author acknowledges how little we know about the origins of things, like most atheists he never questions the assumption that the universe popped into existence out of nothing or that life randomly assembled itself by pure accident. This book is not just a history of science, it is also a deconstruction of the scientific personality, which seems to be a combination of brilliance, dogged devotion, and sheer pig-headedness.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/10/22/a-short-history-of-nearly-everything-by-bill-bryson/

Oct 22 2011

The Cold War by Martin Walker

Read this book years ago, but it was worth rereading. This is mostly told from the Western and American side, chronicling the steps and missteps that American policy makers took to counter the threat of communist expansionism. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan all get their share of due credit, but ironically the President on whose watch the Cold War ended, George Herbert Walker Bush, is described as “sleepwalking through history” during the critical moments of the unraveling of the Soviet Union. There is indeed some evidence that Bush saw the demise of the Soviet Union as a threat to stability and the established order and actually sought to slow down the process somewhat rather than aid and abet it. But it is Gorbachev and not any Western leader who really emerges as the key actor in this phenomenon, although what he brought about was surely not what he intended. This was a good book, opinionated but fairly evenhanded, definitely at the top of the list on CW history.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/10/22/the-cold-war-by-martin-walker/

Aug 20 2011

The Most Beautiful Woman in Town and Other Stories by Charles Bukowski

These stories are not exactly edifying, but they are certainly not dull. Bukowski’s writing is remarkably uninhibited, and many of the things he writes about seem to have escaped censorship only by virtue of the fact that the respectable literary establishment takes no notice of him. A few of these stories are outstanding examples of the great man’s genius and originality; the rest are merely exercises in gratuitous obscenity. In these stories one can still hear Bukowski’s eternal “F**k you” to the world from beyond the grave. He lived and wrote like the lowlife derelict that he was, but he did it with incomparable class and style.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/08/20/the-most-beautiful-woman-in-town-and-other-stories-by-charles-bukowski/

Aug 12 2011

Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Celine has a way of writing about perfectly horrible experiences in a way that makes you laugh out loud. This book is a work of genius, although not quite as good as *Journey to the End of Night*. It’s too bad he didn’t write more. He has an uncanny way of finding humor in all the petty miseries of life, and humor is possibly the best antidote for such misery.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/08/12/death-on-the-installment-plan-by-louis-ferdinand-celine-2/

Jul 29 2011

Microbe by Alan Zelicoff

Like all the books I have read on infectious disease, this book is highly alarmist in tone. It recounts several recent outbreaks, adding a good dose of medical science for good measure, in order to advance the thesis that we need to be more prepared for the next outbreak. The author is not arguing for more research into drugs and treatment, but better organization and information resources to halt the spread of deadly disease as opposed to successfully treating individual cases. A book that makes you go, hm. The United States has been lucky for much of its recent history in avoiding epidemics, but the author argues persuasively that we must not let this lull us into complacency. The kind of measures he advocates would probably entail the Big Government that conservatives are trying to save us from, but if dealing with national emergencies is not the job of the federal government, what is? Informative and thought-provoking.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/07/29/microbe-by-alan-zelicoff/

Jul 28 2011

Neuromancer by William Gibson

This book came highly recommended, but it left me cold. Gibson’s vision is of a future in which there is more of the artificial than the natural, in which reality is effortlessly constructed by ubiquitous technology, and in which what you perceive is much of the time what some powerful person wants you to perceive. And that is about all I can say about this book. I read the story from beginning to end, and I still don’t really know what it was about. Maybe I’m just not smart enough for this kind of book. There was no character I cared about, and there was nothing that happened that I could relate to or that made sense to me. If this is an accurate prophecy of the future, it is neither utopian nor dystopian…just really, really weird.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/07/28/neuromancer-by-william-gibson/

Jul 25 2011

The Second World War by John Keegan

War is terrible to experience, but fascinating to read about. I have read this book before, but it was worth rereading. Keegan’s approach to the study of war is coldly technical and rather short on human feeling, but his tactical and strategic analysis is admirably thorough. For a snobby Brit, he is a great admirer of America’s military prowess and America’s performance in the war, and his portrait of Roosevelt is the most flattering of any of the wartime statesmen he profiles in this book. Nevertheless, the book has its defects: the human dimension of war is overlooked in favor of the technical, and Keegan has precious little to say about the Holocaust. But this book was intended from the outset to be a primarily military history, and as such it is worthy of study, even (and perhaps especially) for the cadets at West Point.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/07/25/the-second-world-war-by-john-keegan/

Jun 13 2011

Ancient Israel edited by Hershel Shanks

This book states at the outset that it is not anti-religious, but it clearly goes to great lengths to provide secular explanations for events that in the bible are attributed to divine intervention. In one chapter it states that the nomadic Jews, coming out of the desert armed with primitive weapons, could not possibly have taken a walled city like Jericho, completely ignoring what the bible says about this. Other chapters dealing with events not recorded in the bible give better treatment. The account of the Hellenistic period and the Maccabean revolt illustrates a dilemma for people like me who are both Christian and admirers of Western civilization: history teaches us to believe that Greek civilization was a good thing, but when this amounts to defiling and desecrating Jewish religion with Greek paganism, whose side should I be on? As Irenaeus put it, what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? This book in its secular approach seems to favor Athens over Jerusalem, but Jehovah lives on.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/06/13/ancient-israel-edited-by-hershel-shanks/

Jun 07 2011

Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver Bullough

Review in brief: Encounters between Russia and the peoples of the Northern Caucasus have not been happy ones, and have generally ended badly for the smaller nations involved. From the Nogai driven into the Black Sea in the 1700s to the Circassians mostly slaughtered or removed to the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s to the Chechens, who fought for 30 years in the 1800s, were deported en masse to Central Asia in 1944 and subjected to two wars since 1994, the overall picture is bleak. The individual stories are full of spirit and life, and Bullough goes to great lengths to find people and paints deft portraits. He’s a better reporter than analyst, but overall Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus is a splendid book.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/06/07/let-our-fame-be-great-by-oliver-bullough/