Feb 02 2012

A Brief History of the Cold War by Colonel John Hughes-Wilson

The author argues that the Cold War’s beginning was not in 1945 but in 1917. Some of his other judgments are even more controversial. He reveals that the Cuban missile crisis was not the only time during the Cold War when the United States went on DEFCON 3 alert, he believes Diem’s assassination in Vietnam was a CIA operation fully authorized by Kennedy, and he even believes the JFK assassination was carried out by the Mafia and that Oswald was indeed a patsy. Other judgments are more conventional but equally memorable: Reagan was a brilliant Cold Warrior who deserves to be remembered for that if nothing else, Bush was an incompetent bungler who hummed and hawed indecisively as the Soviet Union unraveled before his eyes, and Gorbachev… “Gorbachev stands as an almost heroic figure, who did more to end the Cold War than any other individual, although perhaps not in the way he had envisaged.” This is the best book to date I have read on the Cold War, and the author is not an American.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2012/02/02/a-brief-history-of-the-cold-war-by-colonel-john-hughes-wilson/

Jan 09 2012

A History of Warfare by John Keegan

This is Keegan’s best work. In most of his works he analyzes the science of warfare; in this book he also analyzes the psychology and culture of warfare. He takes exception from the beginning with Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means, and shows with ample evidence from history that war often is destructive of the political orders that it is supposed to preserve. The scope of his survey of warfare is impressive, ranging from prehistoric primitive warfare to the nuclear age. He is clearly an admirer of the warrior class and the warrior ethic, but he is no idealist or romantic when it comes to war, and he ends the book with the hope that man’s warmaking days will soon be over. Alas, I do not share his optimism, but I do share his love of good historical writing, of which this book is a shining example.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2012/01/09/a-history-of-warfare-by-john-keegan/

Jan 07 2012

The Spanish Inquisition by Joseph Perez

The author is obviously a committed Catholic. In this book he soft-pedals the Spanish Inquisition, arguing that it was bad, but really not as bad as all that. He argues that originally the aim of the Inquisition was not to eliminate Jews but merely to eliminate Judaism…a distinction that Jews will probably not appreciate. He observes that Grand Inquisitor Torquemada was a man of the utmost integrity. He helpfully points out that in the sixteenth century the Inquisition did not burn witches but only Protestants. And he is dismissive of the argument that the Inquisition thwarted scientific and intellectual progress in Spain, although he acknowledges that it discouraged critical scholarship and even reading of any kind altogether. Moreover, throughout the book he seems more interested in the bureaucratic machinery of the Inquisition than in the suffering it inflicted on innocent people. He is not exactly an apologist for the Inquisition…who can be one?…but he comes close.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2012/01/07/the-spanish-inquisition-by-joseph-perez/

Jan 05 2012

The Reformation by Diarmaid McCulloch

The first time I read this book I didn’t think much of it, but on rereading it I found it a rich source of information, analysis, and commentary. If there is a single theme throughout this history, it is the way in which a passion for God usually leads to a ferocious hatred of anyone who has different ideas about God. The story of the Reformation is not an altogether inspiring story, with Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all exposed as rather less than saintly men, and it flies in the face of the New Testament doctrine that the church of Christ is supposed to be a unified body. But I believe that the Reformation overall was a positive development in Western civilization, although, as the author notes, its effect on Europe has largely evaporated as European religious faith has increasingly waned. The United States, I would argue, is largely a product of Protestant faith and continues to be so today. But in my opinion the Reformation is not finished and still has a long way to go.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2012/01/05/the-reformation-by-diarmaid-mcculloch/

Jan 04 2012

Taking Stock of 2011

Retconning, so as to have a copy of these online as well. This was the year of moving away from Tbilisi. 2666 and Hadji Murad are the books that remain most in memory from the year’s reading.

Thirty-four in total; one in German; none in electronic form, as I did not yet have an e-book reader.

The God Engines by John Scalzi
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
Zero History by William Gibson
The King of Vodka by Linda Himelstein
The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith
2666 by Roberto Bolano
The City & The City by China Mieville
The Making of the Georgian Nation by Ronald G. Suny
Yalta: The Price of Peace by S.M. Plokhy
The Caucasus: An Introduction by Thomas de Waal
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
Let Our Fame be Great by Oliver Bullough
What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe
Twilight Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith
A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
Crimea by Orlando Figes
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
No Way Down by Graham Bowley
Germania by Simon Winder
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog by Boris Akunin
The Clinton Tapes by Taylor Branch
12 Geheimnisse im Kaukasus by Essad Bey
What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
Trotsky by Robert Service
Meskhetians: Homeward Bound by Tom Trier et al.
Your Hate Mail Will be Graded by John Scalzi
The Revolution Business by Charles Stross
The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2012/01/04/taking-stock-of-2011/

Nov 03 2011

Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran by Elaine Sciolino

I cannot praise this book too highly. I have read other books on modern Iran, but this book gives a much more detailed, complex, and fascinating look at what life in Iran is actually like. The author paints a picture of a vibrant and spirited people struggling desperately against a hated theocracy, and a theocracy struggling equally desperately to hang on to power. The most fascinating and perplexing aspect of Iranian collective psychology is the ambivalent love-hate attitude toward the United States. There is still very much a “Death to America” chorus in modern Iran, but Iranians also see America as a place of hope and opportunity that is sadly lacking in their own country. And the booming youth of Iran have no use for the Revolution or for theocracy, presenting a tantalizing hint of what Iran might look like ten years from now. This is a wonderful, wonderful book that deserves to be read by more Americans.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/11/03/persian-mirrors-the-elusive-face-of-iran-by-elaine-sciolino/

Oct 25 2011

War and Our World by John Keegan

This is a very thoughtful and rational analysis of a very diabolical subject. Keegan acknowledges that war has evolved into something so terrible that it is to be avoided at all costs, but at the same time argues that war and preparedness for war remain unfortunate necessities in the fallen world in which we live. He also urges us to respect and honor the soldier and the code that enables him to do his duty, and not to let our modern distaste for war undermine our appreciation for the service that the soldier performs. This book is much warmer and more humane in tone than Keegan’s usual cold-blooded military dissertations, and it is one of his most readable works. A good introduction to a subject that defies any definitive rational explanation.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2011/10/25/war-and-our-world-by-john-keegan/

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/