Add two stars if you are a non-Bulgarian who wants to understand Bulgaria.
If you are coming to Bulgaria to visit or live and want to read one book aboAdd two stars if you are a non-Bulgarian who wants to understand Bulgaria.
If you are coming to Bulgaria to visit or live and want to read one book about the culture, instead of wasting your time reading a boring history book which is probably full of lies, read this book, a new translation of a classic work of Bulgarian literature. Here's why: -- At under US$20, it's relatively cheap for a new book. -- It's short. -- It's reasonably funny. -- The book is made up of an set of interlocking comic short stories, some of which can be read in their entirety in the time between the time when the stewardess tells you to turn off your electronic devices to prepare for landing and the time when you are allowed to turn them back on again. -- It was translated in sections by four native-English speakers who are clearly enthusiastic about Bulgarian culture and also know how to explain it to newbies. -- It was edited by one of the four translators, who pulled the various translations together into a seamless whole. -- The introduction provides excellent cultural and political background – it's worth reading before you start. -- All Bulgarians that you are likely to talk to here (meaning, anyone educated enough to speak some English) will have read this in school, know it, and have an opinion about it. They will be impressed that you have made the effort to read a work of Bulgarian literature, even in translation. If given a chance, they will spend a long time making sure you fully understand the historical, linguistic, and social context of the book, thus relieving you of the necessity of making conversation yourself, perhaps even for the entire evening.
Bai Ganyo's full name is Ganyo Balkanski – “Bai” is a title of respect. He's a kind of caricature of a national type, roughly analogous to Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt in the US or Colonel Blimp in England. In the opening stories, he's a light-hearted satire. A travelling rose-oil salesman, he starts the book by barging through 1890's Europe in search of free food, drink, and lodging, suspicious of pickpockets everywhere. He's critical of whatever nationalities he's meeting in one breath, and talking about the significance of being European the next.
When he returns to Bulgaria, Bai Ganyo changes from being a comic yokel to a blustering hoodlum, and the stories take a darker comic turn. He fixes elections, starts an irresponsible newspaper, and hires thugs to beat people up. The book notes indicate that the author, an aspiring politician as well as a writer who was eventually murdered under mysterious circumstances, was able to draw on his experience on the receiving end of this type of behavior to make the stories believable.
But this book is not just a museum piece. A lot of the issues that pop up in this book are still in play today. With Bulgaria recently in the EU, there's still a tremendous amount of talk here about what it means to be European, whether it actually worth being European, and so on. Another example: the introduction talks about the difficulty in translating the flavor of Bai Ganyo's Turkish-influenced dialect, which was the “hillbilly-speak” of its day, marking you as a provincial. Today, the use of Turkish-derived words in popular and youth culture is still a matter of controversy; a sign of rebellion on one side of the cultural divide and a matter of much wailing and gnashing of teeth by the guardians of language purity on the other.
Everything old is new again. Read this book....more
A woman got on the train and saw me reading an old-school library hardcover edition of this book. She asked me what I thought of it. Unused as I am (sA woman got on the train and saw me reading an old-school library hardcover edition of this book. She asked me what I thought of it. Unused as I am (sadly) to sudden unsolicited displays of friendly distaff behavior, I stammered, oh, uh, ur, bluh, well, it's very good, it reads like a novel, it won a lot of awards and “I am catching up on stuff I should have been paying attention to all along.”
“We all should have,” the lady replied.
You said it, honey. While we were snug in the roaring '90's and bow-tied pundits were telling us that school uniforms were a matter of life and death, the unhappy few with shards and shreds of advance information about the upcoming attacks by a monster of our own creation were stuck like mid-level-bureaucratic bugs in amber. If watching a disaster head your way in painful slow motion gives you a headache, keep a pile of hot compresses and an economy-sized bottle of aspirin nearby while reading.
Author Steve Coll has all the details, and I have a great deal of respect for his thorough gathering of fact and his painstaking explanations. But I'm also going to do some sorehead carping about the way he gives space to an unseemly team higher-level government self-servers who, retrospectively, want us to be aware that they were actually a voice of reason in the wilderness. I am skeptical of the claimers, but I'm inclined to cut the author some slack. It was probably impossible, writing immediately after the 9/11 attacks, to get access to documents that would support or torpedo the retrospective claims to foresight of executive-branch mandarins like Karl Inderfurth and Richard Clarke.
However, when Coll says (p. 299) that Colorado Senator Hank Brown tried to change State Department policy toward the Taliban in the mid-90's but was defeated by a “wall of silence”, I have to get up on my hind legs. First, unlike executive-branch mandarins, a Senator should lead enough of his life in public so that any concern of this type should have left a public trail of paper and/or witnesses, which the author could then include in the book's footnotes. If such documents or witnesses exist, they are not cited here. Second, Coll is enough of a Washington insider to know that any Senator can set a member of his staff to make the State Department's life a living hell if he so wishes. The Senator would still have plenty of time and energy left to fundraise until the world looks level. In this case, Coll should have shown some good Washington journalistic sense, meaning, he should assume that every word a member of Congress says is a lie, including “and” and “but”, unless there's convincing evidence to the contrary. Again, there actually may BE convincing evidence to the contrary in this case, but it's not presented. In the footnotes to this part of the book, Coll quotes Brown in a post-9/11 interview saying that the whole matter gave him (Brown) “a lump in my throat” (p. 613). Reading this gave ME a lump in the throat as well, but it's the type I get when I'm throttling the impulse to yell at the book loud enough so that the author will hear my voice through the copy that's sitting on his bookshelf at home.
While I'm on a roll of sorehead carping, let me also join in the small chorus of detractors here on Goodreads and elsewhere who have noticed a certain patience-trying wordiness, in which, for example, someone “perished in a fusillade of gunfire” (p. 47). Occasionally, this tendency can be distracting, as when (p. 46) an Afghan leader is described as “a former failed graduate student at Columbia University”. If he was a former failed graduate student, does this mean that he tried being a failed graduate student and gave it up to complete graduate school successfully? (To be clear, the answer is “no”. His dissertation was rejected.) In the same sentence, the same man is called a “leading architect of Afghanistan's 1978 Communist revolution”. Were there so many architects that some had to be “leading”?
There are many other examples like this.
But I really liked this book. I swear. I read negative reviews of this book here on Goodreads and elsewhere and I thought, “Wow, how discouraging it must be to labor for years to pin down a recent but still-ambiguous and -controversial historical period and have your labors greeted by a chorus of buttheads saying, variously, that you were unqualified to write about this period because you were a left-wing American-hater, or perhaps a tool of the left-wing Washington establishment, or simply because you were a white American.” (OK, so I didn't think it just like that, but you get the idea.) It was especially ironic to read criticisms of Coll's prose style by writers who themselves seemed to labor mightily to write as clichéd and unintelligible prose as possible, often including unexplained references to people and events barely touched on in this book, presumably so we all would be awed and intimidated by the volume of the critic's knowledge.
“You can judge a man by the quality of his detractors.” This thought occurred to me in embryo also while riding a train. (This was a different train, with lamentable lack of friendly women on it.) I had to say various approximations of above out loud before arriving at what I believe is the most elegant variation. This discomfited those around me. It was too late to pretend that I was talking on a cell phone. Unwilling to further alarm my fellow travellers, I ruminated silently: “That sounds much too profound to have been unthought-of until this moment.”
This nugget of wisdom apparently was thought of previously, but Google cannot reveal by whom. “You can judge a man by the quality of his enemies” is attributed to Doctor Who, but I just can't believe that a science-fiction character was the first one in history to voice this opinion....more
Simply a great book. It deserves your undivided attention.
As far as I can tell, this book can be bought in old-fashioned paper form in the USA only fSimply a great book. It deserves your undivided attention.
As far as I can tell, this book can be bought in old-fashioned paper form in the USA only from by Stackpole Books, based in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and in business since 1930. In addition to the inherent virtue of supporting a publishing institution of long-standing dignity and of location far removed from the traditional centers of power, I also think that this book is best experienced this way, because of the great pictures and maps in the book. It’s impossible to say that there isn’t an electronic format somewhere that will display this book adequately, but my Kindle ebook reader certainly will not do justice, especially, to the excellent maps in this book, apparently drawn by the author himself.
The clarity and accuracy of these maps must constitute some kind of gold standard against which other military historians may measure themselves. Each complex and chaotic battle described in the book (and there are many) appears not more than three pages away from a crisp and beautiful map which clarifies the text considerably. Every place name or geographical feature referred to in the narrative appears on the nearby map. My only complaint is that the book should be sold as a set with a good magnifying glass, as a special offer to middle-aged history buffs who are too cheap to regularly update the prescription on their reading glasses. To put it another way, squinting at a book held two inches from nose is not consistent with the self-image I hold of my dignity.
All this praise of the maps shouldn’t lead you to conclude that the rest of the book suffers by comparison. The research was clearly phenomenal. Given the author’s clear and easy style, it’s also hard to believe that the author was born in Austria and his first language was French.
All this praise of the maps, pictures, research, and style shouldn’t lead you to conclude that the book doesn’t carry a clear and worthwhile message today about the effective use of military might. For example, from page 266: “...In a form of warfare in which political considerations regularly outweigh the military, air attacks against ’suspected enemy groups’ are all too likely to be self-defeating. The loss of support brought brought on by each innocent man or woman killed is likely to far outweigh the possible gain of hard-core rebels.” (This is actually a quotation by Fall from another book, but it’s to the author’s credit that he found and included it.)
For casual readers (meaning, if you’re reading this for pleasure born from knowing things, but not studying it for a class), I especially recommend the chapters (4, 6, 8, and 10) labelled “Diary”, which are adapted from the letters Fall wrote home to his American wife while doing research in Southeast Asia. They offer a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day details of a time and place that is quickly receding from living memory. Some of it is even laugh-out-loud funny, like the anecdote on page 274 about the unexpected popularity with certain hill tribes of Vietnam of a US-government produced short documentary film about a volunteer fire department in Illinois.
In fact, if you are fortunate to live in a place where you can grab this book off the shelf of a library or bookstore, run down (right now would be good) and read these chapters while standing in the aisle. It will be the most enjoyable act that you will do today.
If you are not fortunate enough to be in a situation where you can study it with an expert, at least try to find a quiet moment in your life when you can read it with mindfulness. I think a beach vacation would be perfect for this purpose. In fact, I read it on a beach vacation. However, my understanding, based on observation of people who appear to fit the description of “normal”, is that many people inexplicably desire lighter fare during beach vacation. Why? Books like this one are far superior, and you will only have the time and energy to give this book the attention it deserves at a time when you are away from the thousand distractions of a normal life. Plus, you will be a better person for having read this book. Just go ahead and read it already....more
I read this entertaining 1998 historical novel, which glorifies the ancient military dictatorship of Sparta, in part because it cost only $7.99 for aI read this entertaining 1998 historical novel, which glorifies the ancient military dictatorship of Sparta, in part because it cost only $7.99 for a Kindle download. Then I realized that I couldn't write a coherent review of it, because I still, in spite of the intervening years, am an incandescent tower of blistering but impotent rage at the senseless loss of life and treasure which resulted from the blunderings of the George W. Bush administration in the Middle East in the first decade of this century. This rage colored my every word and thought. It's not the book's fault that some people seemed to view it as a justification of the U.S.A.'s bumbling militarism. I'll try to write a review of this book sometime when I've calmed down, maybe in 20 years.
OK, I've taken some medication and had a nice lie down.
Why bother to read books? After all, there's no money in reading, and it will not help you to obtain a fashionably well-developed musculature. I don't understand why other people read books, but then again, I don't understand why people do pretty much everything, including but not limited to going to flea markets, voting for defenders of the rights of the well-to-do, and having interest in the lives of movie stars, to name just a few.
I read books because my mental picture of myself is a piece of meat in a cage. I am a prisoner, stuck like a bug in amber in a class, time, space, nationality, residence, psychology, and function. I often flatter myself that my place in the world is of my own choosing but it is really the result of forces which were in motion long before I was born and will continue to influence the world long after everyone's forgotten that I ever lived. Animated with that cheerful thought, I wonder if life appears this way to everyone else. Many people seem to be acting and behaving very differently from me, most relevantly, in this case, soldiers. Since it is not yet possible to engage in Matrix-like entry into soldiers' consciousnesses, the closest that I can get to understanding why soldiers act so completely different from me is to read books about them.
It's still difficult for me to understand why anyone would willingly ignore the pointless bullying, the tedious machismo, the cynical grasping and snatching after pathetic shreds of power, and the sheer unadulterated lunacy (all adequately portrayed in this novel) that seem to invariably accompany military life. However, I think that I caught while reading this book certain glimpses of a rationale, if something mostly disconnected from reason can still be called a “rationale”.
Why get up in the morning? Why take one route to work and not the other? Why order a croissant and not a banana nut muffin? Why do a good job at work when a crummy job will suffice? Why sit? Why stand? Why write a review for Goodreads that three people may read instead of, say, listening to Alma Cogan sing “Never Do a Tango With an Eskimo” on Youtube for the umptee-umpth time?
When you are a part of a team, any team, it helps everything else to make sense. If you are part of a fighting team, life not only makes sense, but you have a purpose as well. You get up in the morning, you have a place to go. It makes a difference whether you shine your shoes. There's a right way to lay your shield on the ground, and a wrong way. You have friends and colleagues to admire, and to be admired by. You can't let them down by staying home on the couch and watching reruns of “America's Next Top Model”, because you promised to be at hoplite formation drills. You are a nobly small part of a fine upstanding tradition, without which the Persians would overrun civilization, leaving us to wallow in our own filth while listening to goateed Brooklyn hipsters complain about the deficit of adequate post-apocalyptic arugula.
I guess it's just about time for another dose of medication.
Before I join the line at the nurse's window, I'd like to say that reading this book about people with a purpose was a worthwhile use of time, but I'm not sure that present-day people who read this book and see their purpose reflected in the life and achievements of the Spartans actually understand the Spartans, or themselves....more
This historical event is yet another example of the truthiness of Hanlon's Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stuThis historical event is yet another example of the truthiness of Hanlon's Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” In this case, a cowardly middle manager with no relevant experience cuts corners to please his clueless bosses, constructing a huge, dangerous, leaky tower for molasses in a crowded slum. He disregards direct pleas from people who work at the structure and feel that it is dangerous, insisting that he, the middle manager, knows better. However, the middle manager is sufficiently concerned to order the tower painted the color of molasses, so the extent of the leaking is not so obvious. When disaster inevitably strikes and innocent (also: poor, foreign, powerless) people are killed, the manager's organization goes into full spin-control mode, wrapping itself in the flag and blaming shadowy foreign terrorists. (Insert your own rueful comment about more recent world events here.) Meanwhile, the organization acquires the services of the best lawyers and experts that money can buy, just in case.
Descriptions of this incident often contain the word “curious”, because we're not used to thinking of molasses as being as dangerous as, say, water or fire. Water looks harmless in the glass, and fire seems fairly friendly at the end of a match, but we've all seen evidence of the power of these elements – if you're fortunate, only on You Tube or in the movies. The few souls who have witnessed a wall of molasses several stories tall devouring a whole neighborhood have passed away, so the rest of us are free today to envision molasses as a vaguely ridiculous gelatinous substance oozing harmlessly from a tiny jar. So cute! Not at all like a nightmare of brown sludge pounding down the city streets with the velocity of a speeding car, drowning people and pulverizing structures unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One of the unlikely heroes in this book turns out to be Hugh Ogden, the Boston judge for the subsequent court case against the owners of the tank. On first examination, he seems like the type who might be sympathetic to the foreign terrorist argument, meaning, he was a strict law-and-order patriot and veteran. Lawyers for the owners attempted to appeal to Ogden's presumed political bias. I speculate that Judge Ogden realized that getting at the truth of the case, even if it contradicted his political sympathies, was the best service he could do for his country. This he did, finding for the families of those killed and injured. I hope that his spirit continues to live on in judges today.
When reviewing a book, it is generally considered good form to review the whole book, not just one chapter or even one page. So, before my descent intWhen reviewing a book, it is generally considered good form to review the whole book, not just one chapter or even one page. So, before my descent into bad reviewing form, I'd like to say that this is a fine book about the Versailles Peace Conference, written by a grand-daughter of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. When she tells you that French Prime Minister George Clemenceau during the conference once attempted to interest a young, newly-married daughter of DLG in a bunch of dirty postcards, you can be pretty sure she got it from a reliable source.
Most continental European countries receive attention in separate chapters. Interested as I am in things Bulgarian, I read Chapter 11 with special attention, especially the following about then-Prime Minister Alexander Stamboliski:
In June 1923, there was a coup; Stamboliski was killed by Macedonian conspirators who first cut off the hand which had signed the antiterrorist agreement with Yugoslavia.
Desperate as usual for material in my next Bulgarian conversation class, I mentioned this event (only average gruesome by Balkan standards) to my teacher. Not true, she said, the writer must be thinking of Stefan Stambolov (died 1895), a man who shared the following qualities with Stamboliski: was Bulgarian, was Prime Minister a long time ago, died violently for political reasons, was killed by Macedonians, had the same initial seven letters in his surname.
I decided to investigate whether MacMillan made a factual error in the above sentence. (Spoiler: Probably not.)
The footnote associated with the paragraph directed me to Crown of Thorns: The Reign of King Boris III of Bulgaria 1918-1943 by Stephane Groueff and A Concise History of Bulgaria by R. J. Crampton. Groueff mentions the allegation about the hand, and other allegations of torture, but then says
So many political groups wanted to use Stambolisky's [sic] assassination to accuse other factions or to justify future revenge that the complete truth has been obscured. But no matter the differences in the cruel details, the fact remains that Stambolisky was killed in the most abominable way.
Well observed, but inconclusive about the hand. I proceeded to Crampton, pgs. 96 – 98, as mentioned in the footnote. I found that these pages refer to the life and death of Stefan Stambolov. Aha! I thought. Gotcha! Then my long-suffering wife, whose dust I eat in the area of being a Balkan history geek, recalled a photograph of Stambolov lying in his coffin with his severed hands in a glass jar beside it. Double gotcha!
Rather than rushing to publish a libelous screed accusing MacMillan of shoddy research, I felt the need to look into this further. (This is an example of why my career as a journalist went nowhere.) My next stop was History of the Balkans: Twentieth Century by Barbara Jelavich, generally considered to be the gold standard of English-language histories of the region, and also cited by MacMillan as a source elsewhere.
This turns out to be the source of the story about Stamboliski's hand. MacMillan can only be accused of erroneous footnoting. Jelavich says that Stamboliski
was captured by a [Macedonian] band and tortured. His right hand, which signed the Treaty of Nis, was cut off, and he was stabbed sixty times.
What was Jelavich's source? The book has no footnotes, only a bibliography, which includes many obscure old histories which even hard-core Balkan history geeks do not have on hand. So, the trail grows cold. Given the esteem in which the Jelavich book is generally held, I'm willing to take her word for it.
(Also, the fact that two separate Bulgarian Prime Ministers, within the space of 30 years, had their hands cut off before they were killed doesn't strike me as in the least bit odd or revolting, which probably means I've been in the Balkans too long.)
However, the case is far from closed. Hugh Seton-Watson, in Eastern Europe Between the Wars 1918 – 1941 says that Stamboliski
...was then taken by some Macedonian terrorists, who led him back to his home, where they mutilated and tortured him, made him dig his own grave and finally finished him off.
Assuming that Seton-Watson meant to convey that the final grisly activities took place one after another in the order he described, this would tend to indicate that Stamboliski did not have his hand cut off before dying. Even Macedonian terrorists are not short-sighted enough to cut off a man's hand first and demand he dig his own grave second.
In summary, the tale of Stamboliski's hand is a colorful story, illustrative of the cruel and violent nature of Balkan politics. There was enough evidence for a responsible historian to guess that it might be true, so it went into the narrative. If anecdotes are repeated often enough in this way, they become history.
Oh, and the sex. OK, that’s six words. Not as dramatic. Can’t be helped.
Lose the magic. I really wanted toThree words for the author: lose the magic.
Oh, and the sex. OK, that’s six words. Not as dramatic. Can’t be helped.
Lose the magic. I really wanted to like this book, because I saw the author speak and he said a lot of things I agree with about the negative effects of ”writing what you know”, for example, all those tedious novels and short stories about unhappy English professors and unhappy participants in graduate school writing seminars. I was disappointed because I wanted to see this opinion fleshed out in an effective manner. I was doubly disappointed because this book also seemed to come with a promising High Concept (a series of stories told by people waiting in an airport to pass the time), which would allow the author to be able to show off his stylistic chops by writing in an entertaining variety of voices.
But, alas, all the stories are told in the same ”once upon a time” voice, which is OK the first or second time but loses interest on the fifth or sixth appearance. Even the plots have a certain sameness about them, as they all start out within one standard deviation of normal and get progressively more bizarre, with magical and/or grotesque elements introduced to no apparent purpose or internal consistency except, sometimes, to get the author out of the narrative corner he’s written himself into. An example: in one story, the author for narrative purposes needs to get a Turkish girl from the Turkey to Germany. Presumably to avoid getting sidetracked on a lot of unimportant details about visas, he says that she came through a magical underground hole from Turkey to Germany, which is apparently unknown to anyone else, before and after, and is not used or mentioned again.
Please take my word for it that there are many further examples of this type of thing.
I’ve read the second novel by this same writer. Like this one, the introduction of fantasy elements sent the story completely off the rails. I’d love to see this writer try something completely based in observable lived experience, meaning, no convenient magic tunnels. Not even one.
And the sex. I thought that the brother-sister incest early in the book would be the most cringe-worthy sex scene. I had underestimated the author because, later on, there is a scene between Robert DeNiro and a Chinese laundress, and, after that, there is a scene between a Japanese entrepreneur and the sex doll he constructs out of prosthetic body parts, both of which are even sillier. It is difficult to tell why these scenes take place. Are they supposed to showcase the writer’s ability? Did the publisher cynically demand sex scenes to boost sales? Perhaps scenes like this were designed with the intention of shocking me out of my bourgeois complacency, but be assured that my bourgeois complacency, made of very durable materials indeed, continues to envelope me like a great comfortable fuzzy blanket.
I probably appear to be some sort of decrepit killjoy, taking mean-spirited pleasure in bashing a writer’s uninhibited creativity. I can only reply: that’s ”Mister Killjoy” to you, friend....more
This 1912 comic novel is available for free download in many electronic formats. Search by the title and the word “ebook”.
Everything I know about normThis 1912 comic novel is available for free download in many electronic formats. Search by the title and the word “ebook”.
Everything I know about normal life I learn from mass media. For example, if I am to believe my TV, normal friends drop by with cake and gossip. My friends, by comparison, recommend that I read Important Modern Novels (IMNs) that, being modern and important, are filled with madness, adultery, Nazis, animal cruelty, violent death, and so forth. They never bring cake.
I flatter myself that I can stand, noggin to noggin, with the brainiest readers of IMNs, but sometimes even I grow weary of madness, adultery, and so on. I yearn for a pleasant description of a simpler time. So, I took a break from IMNs to read this book, touted by the late lamented Common Reader catalog (Autumn 2002) as a laugh-out-loud depiction of rural life in Canada.
I must report only an occasional wry smile cracking my joyless, IMN-influenced mug. Certain portraits, like that of a blustering amoral illiterate who becomes the much-respected head of a conservative political party, probably seemed daring at the time, but now read like a documentary description of a routine occurance. Similarly, a story in which clergy engage in insurance fraud was probably an outrageous knee-slapper 100 years ago, but considering the unfortunate hi-jinks of today's men of the cloth, insurance fraud seems a quaintly old-fashioned vice, like buggy-racing after overindulging in mead.
Still, the book is a calmingly pleasant read and our cousins in the Great White North can take pride in having this home-grown talent in their canon. Me? I've got an appointment with some Nazis.
This book was recommended in the article “A Reporter's Arab Library”, N Y Times Book Review, 30 Oct 2005.
This is an excellent book, but will strike diThis book was recommended in the article “A Reporter's Arab Library”, N Y Times Book Review, 30 Oct 2005.
This is an excellent book, but will strike different people differently. People used to reading serious history will find it easy to read – the author's conclusions are clearly stated and supporting evidence easily located. People used to reading novels will find it hard to read – there is a bewildering variety of place names and personalities to keep track of. People who derive a sense of satisfaction from understanding a complex situation will find this book satisfying – the author makes a lot of things that appear in the newspaper clearer. People who are dismayed, annoyed, or depressed by the spectacle of the great and mighty screwing up the world will find this book unpleasant – it is the chronicle of a delicate international situation handled in the worst way possible, with the result of years and years of unnecessary and senseless murder and mayhem.
Comparisons between the present situation and that portrayed in the book are unavoidable. In each case, a tiny cabal of self-proclaimed experts, whose ignorance was matched only by their self-regard, managed to convince a credulous world of a preposterous conspiracy theory. (To be fair, compared to the belief, apparently held by many in powerful British circles at the time of WWI that the Ottoman Empire was secretly controlled by a cabal of Jews and Freemasons, believers in the claim that Iraq had WMD appear almost reasonable.) Another parallel: self-serving native political charlatans latched themselves to western policymakers like barnacles, unstoppable in their efforts to leech as much money and influence as possible from their clients. And, finally, in the end, governments ended up supporting policies they knew to be failures out of bureaucratic inertia and a desire to “save face”.
Read this book. Understand the world. It's your right as a citizen and a responsibility as a human being.
In the Balkans, you hear many seemingly crazy things. Some of them are true.
For example, in the late 1980's, I lived in Bucharest. During that time, sIn the Balkans, you hear many seemingly crazy things. Some of them are true.
For example, in the late 1980's, I lived in Bucharest. During that time, several unwashed strangers approached me, shaking with terror, to whisper that the secret police were building a network of secret tunnels under the city, one of which had an outlet in the music school across the street from the U.S. Embassy's Consular Section building.
I listened politely but thought: yeah, right, whatever, a network of tunnels....
I left Romania before the shooting started but later read newspaper reports that, indeed, the secret police had built a network of tunnels, with the outlet near the U.S. Embassy.
Similarly, here in Bulgaria, people will tell you (sometimes at length) that the computer was actually invented by an American of Bulgarian ancestry named John Atanasoff (1903-1995), who was then cheated out of the recognition he deserved. Don't rush to dismiss them. While this statement is debatable, depending on your definition of “invented”, “cheated”, and “deserved”, there is a strong case for Atanasoff, including a 1973 US Federal Court decision (Honeywell v. Sperry Rand) which assigned Atanasoff the credit for inventing “the automatic electronic computer”.
Best-selling fiction writer Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres, Moo) has engaged in an unlikely attempt to rehabilitate Atanasoff. Since there is a limit to the amount of time that I, given the necessity of eating, sleeping, and pathetic attempts to earn a living, can spend taking in Balkan-related writing, I was pleased to see that this book is available in 8+-hour unabridged audio format, so it can be ingested while driving and exercising, for example.
This is a good book to experience in this manner. Like many successful authors, Smiley seemingly has left behind the tyranny of editors. As a result, there are a few instances of unclear writing and borderline libellous statements. More frequently, the book has a bad case of “No Index Card Left Behind” Syndrome, meaning that no detail is too small, tangential, or irrelevant to be excluded. As a result, the book includes an explanation why the university land grant system came later to the southeastern section of the US than other areas, the full titles and authors' names of the children's science books that competing scientists read when young, and a list of distinguished Hungarians of the early twentieth century. There are many, many other examples. However, this great pile of detail is somehow less bothersome when heard than read. The experience is like being with a friend who learned some interesting stuff and is relaxed enough in your presence to let her knowledge flow naturally.
The factual claims in Smiley's underdog genius story have drawn some abuse on line (especially from partisans of rival scientists' claims), but I'm not sure that this means that they are not true. However, even sympathetic listeners will notice Smiley's tendency to interpret all available facts in Atanasoff's favor. For example, when a rival scientist stays at Atanasoff's home and Atanasoff's wife notices that the guest's bedroom light is on far into the night, this is taken as evidence that the rival scientist is busy making notes in order to steal Atanasoff's ideas. Possibly true, but maybe he was an insomniac? Afraid of the dark? Reading an especially engrossing novel? Writing a passionate letter to his wife? In the habit of sleeping with the light on?
I invite you to study the case of John Atanasoff as a exercise in divergent thinking and using your own good judgment.
From the Balkan angle, this story will seem familiar to anyone who has ever talked to a Serbian about Nikola Tesla. It highlights how the same set of facts can array themselves variously in a person's mind when shined through the lens of differing cultural heritage and national pride. Like Atanasoff, Tesla died in relative obscurity in the US in spite of undeniable genius. If you view these stories from the American point of view, these men were victims of bad luck combined with their inability, born partly of self-centered arrogance and lack of practicality, to play according to the rules of the society which hosted them. They therefore deserved, more or less, their less-than-happy fates. From the Balkan point of view, these men were preyed upon and betrayed by jumped-up American hypocrites whose only real talents were for theft and deception.
This book, in whatever form you consume it, is an opportunity for you to pay your money and take your choice....more
Brain Pickings, like many new media outlets, seems to have realized that nothing attracts the page views like a well-written bit of optimistic sentiment, so we get as part of their recommendation this uncharacteristically sunny sentiment from the pen of The Master:
I have led too serious a life; but that perhaps, after all, preserves one’s youth. At all events, I have travelled too far, I have worked too hard, I have lived in brutal climates and associated with tiresome people. When a man has reached his fifty-second year without being, materially, the worse for wear — when he has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives — I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.
I’m here to tell you now that the previous bit of sunny sentiment is immediately followed by a devastating “but”, specifically:
But I confess I shirk this obligation. I have not been miserable; I won't go so far as to say that--or at least as to write it. But happiness--positive happiness--would have been something different.
I love James and this is a great story, but -- as usual with my first read-through of a James story -- a great fat “Say What?" issued from my greasy lips when I reached the final word. Since then, I have discovered that several very clever people have reached wildly different interpretations of what we are supposed to make of this curious story. So I don't feel so bad about not really being sure what the heck this great slab of ambiguous prose is supposed to be about, except I have a sneaking suspicion that a heart-warming depiction of the bitter-sweet joys of middle-age was not Henry’s primary aim. Read it for yourself and decide.
It's tough to know what we're supposed to think after reading this bewildering story. I first thought that this story was a commentary on rise of theIt's tough to know what we're supposed to think after reading this bewildering story. I first thought that this story was a commentary on rise of the Tea Party mentality, but considering the time and place of composition, it seems unlikely that this was the author's intent.
My long-suffering wife (LSW) has explained repeatedly that actually caring what the author's intent was in writing X or Y is considered a sign of hopelessly out-of-fashion literary sensibility. Yet I cannot rid myself of this concern. The fiction writer, like the puppet-master, must have some reason to lift a characters' left arm instead of his right, or else why not just bang out random groups of symbols and present it as a work of literary fiction.
LSW further offered up her interpretation of K.'s work in general. I imperfectly understood and interpreted it as follows:
It's best to think of K.'s work as folk tales, experienced the way folk tales were experienced in the pre-modern world. In our modern world, fairy tales are cleaned up, made presentable, even cute, tidied up with a unambiguous moral for the edification and stupefaction of wayward children. In the process of making folk tales useful in this way, we've lost their original effect. Imagine being the first hearer of a story about an evil hook-nosed woman who lives in a house made of candy in the middle of the forest and lures children to their doom. I know my first reaction would be to lean over to the plowman next to me around the fire and whisper: “What the heck is that supposed to mean?” In today's world, the concerns are different, but the effect is the same. However, unlike those in the pre-modern world, I don't have a long following day behind the plow to try to puzzle it out. Already, trivia is closing in, demanding my attention. But this tale keeps crowding in, making me re-think its meaning. That's a successful story....more
Exceptional minds are capable of great feats of memory through the use of a “memory palace”, an imaginary building, constructed solely in the mind. By stuffing this mental building with bizarre mental images, the exceptional mind can recall long texts or the order of a pack of playing cards they have seen only once, skills that are useful, if only to win a contest.
A certain category of hoarders, described in this book, construct their memory palace in the real world. Their only problem is loving life too much. They want to remember everything, every conversation, every person they met, every contact they had, no matter how fleeting, because they wish to relive the happiness the original gave them. They hoard ticket stubs, old newspapers, matchbooks, etc. etc., because every one is connected with a happy, or at least interesting, memory.
Exceptional minds can make a well-ordered and useful mental house. The chaotic physical house of the hoarder actually resembles the chaotic interior life of the average person. (When I write “average person”, of course I can only be certain of what my own interior life is like, but I make the leap of faith that I am not actually a deluded brain in a jar, or in any other way exceptional.) We pile our memories everywhere, willy-nilly, valuables stuffed in with the meaningless, like the lady in this book who discovered an envelope full of money squirrelled away in the folds of the years-old newspaper that she just had made the agonizing decision to throw away.
What I'm saying is: Hoards are just extroverted memory palaces. At the time I thought it, it seemed profound.
If your default setting, like mine, is to have insufficient sympathy for the suffering of others, to believe that what ails most people can be solved by a good slap upside the head, then it's useful to listen to this book. You can hear an expert tell you that the situation is more complex than you think, and that sympathy and empathy is not only ethically correct, but often more effective practical approach to dealing with behaviors which, upon first examination, may appear inexplicable or inexcusable. ...more
13 ways to look at Gretchen Rubin's 40 Ways to look at Winston Churchill:
1) Bathroom reading for the overeducated (apologies to Tom Hahn). 2) Lists are13 ways to look at Gretchen Rubin's 40 Ways to look at Winston Churchill:
1) Bathroom reading for the overeducated (apologies to Tom Hahn). 2) Lists are easy to write because they don't have to have thematic unity or cohesion. 3) Lists are easy to read and fun to quote from. 4) Lists of historical details are deceptively hard to compile accurately, but Gretchen Rubin does so, repeatedly. 5) Ways to look at Winston Churchill that were not considered in this book, but could have been: bricklayer, inventor, administrator, mirror of biographers' prejudices. 6) Ways to look at Winston Churchill that were wisely not considered in this book: acrobat, substance-abuse counselor, blogger. 7) Phrases not associated with Winston Churchill: “I do not know which to prefer,/ The beauty of inflections /Or the beauty of innuendoes”, “O thin men of Haddam”, “bawds of euphony”, and “He rode over Connecticut/ In a glass coach.” 8) Churchill appreciated brevity... in other people. 9) If Churchill had never been born, who would babies look like? 10) Life is fleeting and there is much reading to do, so if you're going to read one good book about Churchill, this is a good choice. It's short. 11) This book is like the unholy offspring of Reader's Digest and the History Channel. 12) This is a good book to read while listening to the much, much longer Churchill biography The Last Lion on your Ipod. 13) This book is Imodium for the logorrhea of other Churchill biographers.
Although I put myself forward to the indifferent world as a mature man of intellect, I have the usual selection of shortcomings, among which are a basAlthough I put myself forward to the indifferent world as a mature man of intellect, I have the usual selection of shortcomings, among which are a basically childlike (NOT in the flattering sense of the term) lack of self-control, which manifests itself as the desire (for example) to immediately consume a second ice-cream, or beer, directly after the first ice-cream, or beer, and the same with the third after the first two. I seem cheerfully impervious to the often-experienced lesson that, in the past, the second (or third) ice-cream (or beer) is rarely as pleasurable as those that have come before.
To the beer-and-ice-cream category of experience I now add David Foster Wallace. I recently finished reading DFW's Oblivion. I enjoyed it, although after typing “enjoyed” right now, I felt the urge to footnote (see what I did there? DFW has a lot of footnotes in this work, so it's a joke, see?) that I did not enjoy it the same way that one enjoys, you guessed it, ice cream and beer (this and all previous refs to i.c. and b. mean, of course, when they are taken separately). DFW at his best is significantly more difficult than ice cream or beer, and requires a certain persistence and mental discipline, but the rewards are as real as i.c. or b., and easier on one's sylph-like figure.
In any event, although I rarely listen to those counseling against additional ice cream or beer, I urge you to be wiser than I am and enjoy a break between your doses of DFW. Although clearly a writer of great talent and imagination (and of course the famous thesaurus-like vocabulary), the short stories, if taken one after another, might evoke an involuntary “oh-for-the-love-of-pete-not-again” response. I refer to the long long sentences, the digressions, and so forth. They are, simply, difficult to take in large doses.
I liked Oblivion (published many years later) more than this book. I think that DFW was actually becoming a better writer when older, which of course makes it even a bigger damn shame that he succumbed to mental illness as he did. Most of us men do not have the ability to make the obsessions common to young men (most obviously, sex, but also fame, ambition, need for attention, etc.) sufficiently interesting to others, which turns out to be a good thing. Effective dramatization of that state of near-insane self-obsession is an undeniable accomplishment but rarely reflects well on oneself. Oblivion, written by DFW in his thirties, shows that the lessening of the animal instincts allowed him to more effectively explore other parts of human experience and to push outwards some as a writer. I wish he had had the chance to push further.
But even average DFW is better than the best of nearly everyone else, so, if you have had a certain amount of DFW-free time to clear out your palate, I'd certainly recommend giving this occasionally infuriating book a try....more
This book's big idea: Normal people under average contemporary circumstances can consistently be hoodwinked into making decisions against their own ecThis book's big idea: Normal people under average contemporary circumstances can consistently be hoodwinked into making decisions against their own economic interest.
Define “normal people” as anyone with a average attention span and average load of worries, cares, responsibilities, and distractions.
Define “average contemporary circumstances” as the usual places and times when people are compelled to spend money, e.g., in crowded and noisy stores or markets, under the influence of salespeople on commission, or through websites designed in a deliberately manipulative manner.
Given the above, few people can do calculations in their heads with, at most, three or four variables. Most will struggle with two variables. A consulting industry, presumably populated by grown-ups with the same moral character as single-cell organisms, has grown up around exploiting this weakness in the human character. The result is the proliferation of unnecessarily complicated pricing systems and commercial gimmicks, including but not limited to customer loyalty programs, rebates, and cell phone contracts of Byzantine complexity. Faced with this, customers (also occasionally called in the book, I am not making this up, “suckers”) can then be distracted by a single high or low number, which the confused brain will seize on as the basis for a (bad) decision.
When younger, I was considered something of an extremist because I voiced the opinion that, if people who knowingly aided in the economic exploitation of other members of their society were publicly garrotted at half-time during the Super Bowl, and their corpses hung from the goalposts while birds pecked out their eyes, it might cut down on the number of people who participated in such exploitation, thus benefitting society. However, I have mellowed and become more conservative, a result of old age (certainly) and wisdom (perhaps). I now believe that people deserve an opportunity to reconsider the error of their ways. So perhaps all that needs to be done is to put exploiters in the stocks and pelt them with old fruits and vegetables, to let them know that their activities are not universally approved-of. Strangely, this comparatively-reasonable opinion, when voiced, still makes people move away from me at social gatherings.
But I digress.
In summary, this book is a readable popular summary of the disciplined and painstaking research which shows that, while crowds might have some wisdom, the individuals and small groups that make most economic decisions have very little.
Interviews with the author about this book on National Public Radio's "The Splendid Table" here and on "Marketplace" here....more
From Professor Schmecker's Pop-up Book of Modern Irregular Conjugations Reflecting the Problems of Modern Society:
I hack, You betray, He accelerates tFrom Professor Schmecker's Pop-up Book of Modern Irregular Conjugations Reflecting the Problems of Modern Society:
I hack, You betray, He accelerates the collapse of society.
which about sums up Ghost in the Wires.
A big shout-out, props, and whatever else the cool kids are saying nowadays when they want to show respect to William L. Simon, Mitnick's “co-author”. Mitnick shows no evidence of ever having read a book for the sheer joy of it, nor even writing a letter or a note on a refrigerator without the intention of deceiving someone. He seems complete uninterested in and unmotivated by concepts like beauty, devotion, faith, or justice, except to the extent that any of these ideas can help Mitnick to gain the confidence of others for his personal amusement or to leave prison earlier.
I believe that the lack of these qualities renders him incapable of writing a book this interesting, so the book's success is due to Simon. He makes Mitnick jump off the page, warts and all, investing him with a perverse vigor and vitality. Only people dedicated to the same ethos as Mitnick, i.e., everything I self-interested act I take is justified because it is a blow against “the man”, will find him remotely sympathetic. But you really want to see how he gets away with the next hack, the next escape, the next confidence-gaming of some poor sap whose only fault is the impulse to be kind to strangers. In short, a good read.
This book is probably safe to publish now because the social engineering scams of Mitnick and his ilk have caused such a great reduction in the level of trust in the world. The elementary-level trickstering describe herein no longer routinely take people in save for the hopelessly dopey, who will always be with us. So, like a magician whose tricks are now common knowledge, Mitnick takes what pride he can in fact that he was the first to think up mean ways to trick people.
Many people here and elsewhere have remarked on the unintentional hilarity which is caused when Mitnick shares information he gains by betraying the trust of others and then shares it with like-minded individuals who – can you guess? -- betray him. Mitnick is outraged! He clearly felt that he and other hackers were an elite brotherhood who had the right to exploit the rest of us poor saps but, being brothers-at-arms, not each other. But then he found out that there was no honor amongst thieves, a thing he could have probably have learned at much smaller cost to himself if he had read some books.
I have heard that there is a certain amount of debate as to what should be the correct dictionary definition of “hacker”. Should it be “person who likes to tinker with technology” or “person who accesses information without permission”? I propose a third definition: “person who with intentional malice fails to understand game theory since it conflicts with his/her sense of entitlement”. Specifically, game theory has shown fairly conclusively that, when people trust and cooperate with each other, the outcomes are overall better for everyone involved. If we lived in a society like that, everyday life might be less of a headache, with less two-step authentication and obligatory changing of passwords. Like life being a headache? Thank a hacker! Shake his hand, if you can find a moment when he'll stop using it to pat himself on the back.
I won this book in a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway! Thanks for the free stuff!
This is a fun book to read about a great story. It's a terrific way toI won this book in a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway! Thanks for the free stuff!
This is a fun book to read about a great story. It's a terrific way to get educated about an interesting historical moment on the subway or in the minutes before bedtime. It's clear and interesting. Bravo.
However, I will follow with some bad-tempered complaints, which will presumably teach HarperCollins good that sending me free stuff is a waste of postage.
I am bored with hearing/seeing/reading people praise other people much like themselves, meaning, people of the same sex, geographical location, and personality. In this case, we have the two greatest centers of English-language in-print self-congratulation, London and New York, facing off in a cage match of shameless auto-back-patting between book covers.
A few years ago, I read another enjoyable book on this same topic, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson. Robinson and Ventris are men from England. New York-born and -bred author Margarlit Fox and her hero, Brooklyn-based classicist, Alice Kober, are women from New York. Robinson (the earlier book) almost completely ignores Kober. Fox openly insults Ventris, through the time-honored techniques of faint praise and placing the insulting sentiments into the minds or mouths of others in her narrative. It's ugly, especially as Ventris was apparently a troubled genius, died tragically early, and is not around to defend himself. To be fair, Fox softens her tone toward the end of the book and gives Ventris some props, but it's never unclear where the author's sympathies are.
In both books, I see evidence of authors letting their personal narrative of heroism and grievance drive their writing, rather than allowing the facts speak for themselves. Brits have this cultish worship of the brilliant amateur, the lonely, socially-inept polymath who is in fact more clever than the professional nabobs. Ventris fits nicely into this mythology. Result: a book in which he is the hero.
Women have a (justified) sense of frustration that, even to this very day, women are routinely dismissed as lightweights, and their accomplishments belittled. Result: a book about a woman whose achievements are ignored by a simian members of puffed-up professoriate.
To each, his/her grievance, packaged and marketed to those who wish to have their previously-held narrative re-told and confirmed, and who live in a prime publishing market, a London-based hero for Londoners, a New York-based hero for New Yorkers.
It would be great if we could just have the story without the grievance narrative.
This entertaining novella plus long end notes, as of June 2011, is available as a Kindle download for $1.99 from amazon.com
Subtract one star if you haThis entertaining novella plus long end notes, as of June 2011, is available as a Kindle download for $1.99 from amazon.com
Subtract one star if you haven't read The Steel Bonnets by the same author, or possess a thorough knowledge of the Border region, because otherwise all this talk about Marches and evil Nixons might lead you to believe that this is some sort of obscure allegory about U.S. politics in the 1970s.
I'd file this under “excellent beach reads for the over-educated”, with a cross-reference in “shame it wasn't more commercially successful”. I don't know what film treatments are supposed to be like, but this seems a lot like one to me. To be clear, this is praise: you can see a film in your head, including details barely suggested in the narrative. I rather unimaginatively cast Russell Crowe (thief-turned-hero, handsome when covered in mud), Keira Knightly (well-born lady who must fight, frequent costume changes), and Ian Holm (priest with doubts, stealing the picture). Feel free to re-cast at will...
This book made me think about the strange sexual politics of book publishing in our times. Previously, I had read that Joanne Rowling became J.K. Rowling because the publisher thought boys wouldn't read a book by a woman. This didn't seem so bad to me because boys, well, they bring the very concept of childishness to life; you can't blame them for it any more than you can fault the rain for being wet. However, I also listened to a recent biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, also by a poor soul who had to resort to the same wheeze with the two initials so that grown-up history geeks would not be seen in public reading a book by a presumably cootie-inducing woman historian.
So, what goes around comes around. Although I understand that there are successful male romance writers (sometimes writing under women's names), perhaps Fraser, best known as the creator of the unredeemable arch-cad Flashman, simply could not be marketed to the romance-reading demographic. As a result, I imagine that Fraser's publisher just didn't bother to tell him to beef up this volume with longer periods of heavy breathing and a more conventional ending (although Fraser is not known for this style of writing, I feel he had a healthy enough interest in money, and sufficient talent, to do so if asked). As a result, this novella as it came out of his typewriter falls between two stools, not mushy enough for the romance-reading public, but too talky for lovers of ultra-violence in historical novel form.
But I loved it. At a mere 190 pages, this is perfect for a weekend at the beach......more
I had a hard time finding this book at the Washington, D.C., public library because, although it is about a resourceful little girl and has whimsicalI had a hard time finding this book at the Washington, D.C., public library because, although it is about a resourceful little girl and has whimsical illustrations, it is shelved with the novels for grown-ups.
Has anyone out there every actually read this to or with an actual child? What was the child's reaction?
Saunders is sort of literary flavor-of-the-month now. I see serious people with goatees and/or tattoos reading his latest, Tenth of December, in coffee houses. It's encouraging in these times to see anyone reading anything anywhere, so no complaints, no remarks about goatees or tattoos.
As remarked here on Goodreads, there's a certain world view evident in this book that is likely to please the goatee-and-tattoo crowd. One reviewer seemed to think this book displayed anti-Christian bias because one of the (temporary) villains falls into the still-very-common trap (common across all religions) of attributing good fortune to God's favor. It seems barely worth mentioning that people who do this are really missing something very basic about the religious life, even if they go to a place of worship every week.
The religious are touchy. Compare: Elsewhere in this story, Saunders mocks the eminently mockable advice to “work smarter, not harder”. You don't see a lot of management consultants getting all stroppy on Goodreads about it.
I guess I understand the D.C. public library's decision to put this in the section with the books for grown up. They don't want a rushed parent absently pulling this off the shelf for their child's bedtime reading one week and returning enraged the next, asking what kind of morally polluting secular humanist filth the pub. lib. is peddling these days. I suppose that could happen. Even in Washington DC....more
NOTE: possibly useful information if you haven't started The Tin Drum yet.
There are two English translations of this book: an award-winning 1961 transNOTE: possibly useful information if you haven't started The Tin Drum yet.
There are two English translations of this book: an award-winning 1961 translation by Ralph Manheim, and a 2009 translation by Breon Mitchell. Starting with the “Translator's Afterword” in the Mitchell translation might add your enjoyment and understanding of this book, no matter which translation you end up reading.
End possibly useful information. Begin opinion.
I must admit that I laughed out loud at the Afterword when I reached the part where Grass shyly criticized the first translation because it was too easy to read. His reasoning: the original German deliberately contained long tortured sentences, as well as multi-syllabic neologisms coined by the novel's insane hero, so why shouldn't the translation as well? Wouldn't that be more faithful to the author's vision?
Well, yes, but life is full of distractions. Those of us making the effort, in our spare minutes on public transit or before going to sleep, to read 582-page Important Modern Novels about emotionally-damaged characters and societies might be excused for hoping that the meaning of almost all words and sentences were more or less clear the first time that we read them. Still, once I read the Afterword, I realized that the style was not a bug but a feature, and somehow that seemed to make it better. However, given that this honkin' fat novel is a major investment of time and energy, a reader might choose Manheim's “easy” translation without covering him- or herself in shame.
As my literal-minded lack of patience makes me irritable when I have to read a sentence more than once, so also is my sang-froid agitated by prolonged calls for suspension of disbelief. (In general, we can conclude that I am not part of the target demographic for artistically-rendered magical realism.) So, when a character takes a job in a museum guarding a statue with a long association with gruesome death, and then starts talking to the statue in an extremely disrespectful manner, I found myself rooting for the statue to go ahead and dispatch this idiot, who clearly has never read or even heard of a supernatural tale in his life, and by doing so put the idiot, and us, out of our misery. Similarly, the third or fourth time that the anti-hero and anti-Peter Pan, Oscar, wrecks a great work of architecture and disturbs the public calm by unleashing his secret superhero power, a glass-shattering shriek, upon his friends and family, I waited in vain for one of them to calmly go home, hide his/her eyeglasses and wristwatch in some safe place, buy a good set of ear plugs, put on his/her stoutest pair of Kashubian marching boots, and return to plant a good swift kick deeply deeply deeply up Oscar's symbolically-German tiny white butt.
If you've read this far, you're probably saying, “If this book annoyed you so much, just stop whining and go read a novel about teenaged vampires already.” To which I reply, first, don't take that tone with me young lady, and, second, that books, like food, offer increased pleasure in variety. Sometimes you just have to sit yourself down with a fat serious novel like this one. The Tin Drum prompts you to think hard, self-generate ideas, and subsequently be more interesting society for your long-suffering friends and spouse, who've just about had it up to the eyeballs with the same old set of boring things that you keep mumbling into your Jameson's whenever you're in public. That's my theory, anyway. ...more
Ferguson and Diamond are public intellectuals, conservative and liberal, respectively, in the modern-day US political sense of the c- and l-words. Both of them have, with great effort, constructed historical folk narratives of how the world got the way it is, whether that way is a good thing, and what will cause that way to continue or fail. (To be completely clear, Diamond's narrative is Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.) Ferguson's book is later, and he talks intellectual smack about Diamond's contention that current prominent place in the world held by the West is a result of happy geographical accidents. No, no, no, says Ferguson, Western domination is the result of superior ideas, referred to somewhat annoyingly as “killer apps”. (This last has been so completely mocked by the reading public here at Goodreads and elsewhere that I feel no need to ridicule it further. Maybe it was something his editor suggested at the urging of the marketing department.)
The question simplified: How did the West end up on top?
A gross oversimplification of Diamond: we (Westerners) got what we got more or less by luck (e.g. where we were on the face of the planet) and superior intelligence or morality had little or nothing to do with it. Therefore (Diamond doesn't say the following, as I remember, but it is implied) we didn't really earn it and don't really deserve it, therefore maybe we should cut the rest of the world some slack and be receptive to other ways of doing things.
A gross oversimplication of Ferguson: we got here by inventing superior institutions, we thought of them and implemented them ourselves, we justly reaped the fruits. The rest of the world will prosper in direct proportion to how completely and sincerely they adopt our way of doing things. Those who reject our way of doing things are condemning themselves, and often their neighbors, to poverty and backwardness.
Most of Diamond's causes of the triumph of the west are based on things that happened thousands of years ago (domestication of horses, innovations in agriculture, early exposure to viruses), whereas most of Ferguson's causes of the triumph of the west are relatively new (property rights, the Protestant work ethic). Here's a crazy idea: both of them are right – in sequence. The West got a leg up on other civilizations by dint of lucky breaks. Then the West took those advantages and widened the gap through the creation of Ferguson's six (forgive me) “killer apps” of Western Civ.
Diamond came first, so the worst he can really be faulted for is not talking about Ferguson's rest of the story. However, Diamond's book is already a great fat tome already, and it took him years to even get the first half right, so maybe he gets a pass. Ferguson, on the other hand, would have to have been fairly myopic not to notice that his book often covers a significantly different period than Diamond's, but he chose to ignore it. Why? Probably because Diamond's view cheesed him off greatly, and he couldn't pass up a good opportunity to take an ax-handle to it.
In short, it is a liberal-conservative story-telling problem. It seems like both explanations account for part of the phenomena. Ferguson won't admit it because admitting that your opponent could be partially correct doesn't play well in the English public-school debating society political culture which his mind seems to be helplessly stuck. A shame. Another opportunity to go beyond the usual political name-calling missed.
This book is sort of like Woody Allen's “Zelig”, if the movie had been a gigantic doorstop of a book, if it had been set mostly in Europe in the yearsThis book is sort of like Woody Allen's “Zelig”, if the movie had been a gigantic doorstop of a book, if it had been set mostly in Europe in the years 1650 – 1713 instead of Great Depression-era America, and if it had had three Zeligs instead of one. OK, so, maybe they're not so similar, but still, like Zelig, the main characters flit from one great historical event to another, influential but unrecognized in life's rich pageant. The three Zelig-like characters are Daniel Waterhouse, Eliza, and Jack. An unscientific study of nearby reviews shows that Daniel Waterhouse is the favorite of the Goodreads demographic. I understand and agree. Daniel has the same appeal for the bookish as the title character in “I, Claudius”: a survivor, decent but not unbelievably so, smart but not overwhelming ambitious, well-meaning but occasionally clueless. He befriends Isaac Newton at school, gives New York its name, becomes an influential figure in Restoration England almost by accident. The other characters may seem less compelling by comparison because, sadly, fewer of us are exotic, seductive, impossibly beautiful, adventurous social climbers and successful derivatives traders (Eliza) or free-spirited, cowardly, romantic hobos, always up for a big caper (Jack). Anyway, it's a historical novel with an attitude, and if you like it, there are still 2,000 more pages to go to complete the trilogy! ...more
At times like these, I tend to see the world as a giant version of high school, witA New York Timesbest book of 2012? Really? I mean, it's OK but ...
At times like these, I tend to see the world as a giant version of high school, with more money. In this case, I see this as the grown-up version of the kids who ran the high school literary magazine praising each other, sincerely but, well, wrongly. It's just not that good.
Still, I enjoyed it. (view spoiler)[Considering the story is about a guy sitting around waiting for something that never happens, (hide spoiler)]A Hologram For the King moves forward at a snappy pace and is easy to read. It claims 317 pages, but -- as noted elsewhere on Goodreads -- there’s a lot of white space going on. At this length, it’s a good book to borrow on one of those library ebook loans where Amazon comes and yanks it off your device at the end of the loan period.
On the other hand, the main character is one of those awkward white guys who otherwise populate British “comedy of embarrassment” vehicles and, on this side of the ocean, the novels of Jonathan Franzen. These guys must somehow, for the story to work, have gained a position of at least modest authority but then, in order for the novel to be minimally novel length, must engage in multiple incredulity-stretching lapses in judgement. For many people, a little of this kind of main character goes a long way. Being a white guy who is no stranger to judgement lapses, perhaps I have a higher tolerance for this than normal.
One part where my disbelief refused to suspend itself was the multiple occasions when the protagonist Alan began to compose letters to his college-age daughter. This wheeze allowed Eggers to show off his writerly chops in the area of aphorism. Many of the quotations from this book here on Goodreads are lifted from these segments. So, they are good writing, to be sure, but it’s hard to believe that this bumbling salesman who otherwise shows no particular interest in the written word is adept at crafting such tight, well-polished sentences, except for the obvious reason that the author requires a vehicles for his bon mots (a phrase from the French meaning “good mots").
The sex is ridiculous, too. If you didn’t know, you could tell this book was written by a man because, in spite of being an obvious loser, he is the recipient of frequent distaff sexual attention.
Conclusion: not for everybody, not (NY Times be damned) life-changing, but pretty good and worth a look.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This book raises some important questions, i.e., (a) what were they smoking when they published it?, and (2) where can I get some?
Although reading isThis book raises some important questions, i.e., (a) what were they smoking when they published it?, and (2) where can I get some?
Although reading is my favorite activity, the process which leads to publication is a mystery to me. Why did Basic Books publish this book? Who did they think was going to read it? Call me crazy if you want, but I thought that the overwhelming majority of sales might to university undergraduates taking a survey course of twentieth-century history, with a minority of aspiring armchair-history geeks, especially in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. Instead, it seems to be written for people who already know a lot about WWI but want to read about the whole violent soggy mess one more time, perhaps for the sheer joy of reading about the senseless suffering of others. Is that a important demographic that I am unaware of?
This book has two of the things in history books which give me the vapors: (1) names of people, places, and ideas introduced without adequate explanation, and (ii) untranslated French. Pardon me while I lie on a divan in a darkened room to recover.
There are also occasional “Wha?” moments, where the author shows that he has the editorial freedom to introduce odd, disputable, and slightly irrelevant facts, just 'cause he can, and apparently his editor will not object. For example, at Kindle location 682 (the ebook is unburdened with traditional page numbers), the author contends (without footnote or supporting evidence) that a German government official named Riezler was “responsible” for the development of the first nuclear bomb by the United States, because he passed on “the secret” that he allegedly received from German Jewish exiles. Huh? You mean that the first nuclear weapon was developed on the basis of a secret recipe from a German diplomat? What about the Manhattan project? The University of Chicago? Oak Ridge? Los Alamos? I mean, that can't be right. I distinctly remember that there were other people involved.
Similarly, at Kindle location 1736, the author says that, in July 1918, German troops were reporting sick in higher numbers, and says that it was a symptom of approaching defeatism in the ranks. Hmm, didn't I hear something about the deadliest influenza epidemic in history taking place at that time? Couldn't that be some kind of confounding variable? I mean, it's possible that Stone is correct, but he needs to supply more evidence and at least mention the Spanish Flu.
While I'm giving this book a sound thrashing, I'd like to point out that, contrary to Stone's assertion at location 1976, historian Barbara Tuchman, author of a well-known book about WWI, was not the daughter of Henry Morgenthau Sr., US Ambassador in WWI Istanbul. She was his granddaughter. (If you don't believe Wikipedia, how about her obituary in the New York Times here?) Did anyone fact-check, or even read, this book before publication?
Occasionally, the author will suddenly snap to attention with an entertaining fact (e.g, one of the first orders issued by the Romanian army during WWI forbid junior officers to use eye shadow (l. 1138)) or a crisp, concise description of an obscure military term (“counter-battery fire” (l. 1710)), at which time it is clear how much better this book could have been if mindful attention had been given to its preparation.
The book also has maps, which refer to many of the places mentioned in the book. The maps are hidden at the end of the book, and not referred to in the table of contents or the narrative. Of course, if you have a paper copy of the book, you might stumble upon it by accident, while riffling through the book, wondering how such a thing achieved the dignity of print. But the maps are completely hidden from people reading on Kindle ebook until it's too late.
An excellent book, deserving of the many rewards and positive reviews that it has received. I listened to this on a three-part Audible download, and IAn excellent book, deserving of the many rewards and positive reviews that it has received. I listened to this on a three-part Audible download, and I noticed the following small errors.
-- Part two, chapter four, time 13:40: Mixed metaphor alert: “Moreau's star was about to turn.” I guess a star can actually rotate, but, in my mental dictionary, when you wish to metaphorically indicate an improvement in someone's fortune, their star rises. Fortunes themselves, less metaphorically, can turn.
A Google search indicates that rising stars generally outnumber turning stars by 10 to 1. I could find no other indication that anyone else ever used the words “star” and “turn”, in any grammatical variation, to indicate an improvement in fortunes.
[Digression: While researching the previous paragraph, I found that a UK e-commerce site for women's shoes had inexplicably pasted a page-long portion of this book, including the above quotation, into the comments section of its site. I found this vaguely disturbing.]
Update 12 May 2015: Someone on Goodreads very politely emailed me to point out that the point I tried to make in the next paragraph was incorrect. Upon re-reading, I am embarrassed by my rudimentary mistake. Apologies.
-- Part two, chapter four, time 46:30: The author's biography says he has been a “professional investment manager for 25 years”, worked at the World Bank, is a trustee of the Brookings Institution, and a graduate of Cambridge and Harvard. So it's surprising that, here and in at least one other location, he makes a rudimentary error in statistics. In this case, he says that an appreciation of the French Franc from 50 Francs on the US Dollar to 36 as a 40 percent increase. It isn't. It's a 28 percent increase. A change from 36 to 50 is a 40 percent change, but a change from 50 to 36 is a 28 percent change. If a simple English teacher like self can understand this, then....,
-- Part two, chapter five, time 45:44: Instead of “de jure”, the narrator says “de jute”. As far as I can tell, this is not a word or phrase in either English or French. Was it too much trouble to go back and say the word correctly?
-- Part three, chapter one, time 13:40: A historical character is characterized as “bespeckled”, which, unless he was covered in spots, is a mistake. I think that the intention was “bespectacled”, meaning that he wore eyeglasses. However, this mistake made me laugh, so I don't mind it so much....more
Announcing a searchable on-line glossary for David Kynaston's Austerity Britain
This is an excellent and VERY detailed history (the first in a series)Announcing a searchable on-line glossary for David Kynaston's Austerity Britain
This is an excellent and VERY detailed history (the first in a series) of the UK after World War II. The intended audience seems to be British people; it is an instance of a nation re-telling its story to itself. There's nothing wrong with this; in fact, it is very necessary. However, it sometimes makes the book difficult for the non-British to understand, because the author assumes that the reader is aware of common British cultural references. In addition, sometimes ordinary citizens who just happened to leave diaries behind appear in the narrative without identification; it's hard to tell upon first reference if a person is an ordinary citizen or someone you should have heard of. Finally, there's a liberal use of non-English words, many of which I had never heard or read before, probably due to my inferior colonial education.
As an aid and encouragement for non-Brits attempting to tackle this book, I have assembled and posted a searchable glossary of obscure (to me) names, places, and words used (in my opinion) without sufficient explanation. It is in the form of a spreadsheet on Google Docs here.
I hope this attempt to push the boundaries of Goodreads-related web geekery is of use to someone somewhere.
I chose to exclude from this glossary all names, places, etc., that I felt were sufficiently explained in this book. Also, I chose to exclude names, etc., that I felt were sufficiently famous, i.e., that I had heard of before I read this book. Some of these names include:
All British Prime Ministers, all rock group members or individual acts that had hit records, Alan Bennett, Patrick Stewart, Quentin Crisp, Isaiah Berlin, Cecil Beaton, Ian Dury, Anthony Powell, John Fowles, Norman Tebbit, Arthur Scargill, Arthur Koestler, Tom Courtenay, Roy Hattersley, Elvis Costello, Glenda Jackson, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Philip Larkin, Benny Hill, V. S. Naipaul
As mentioned, in addition to the luminaries listed above, this book strives mightily to include the voices of average people, which is a refreshing change. On the other hand, there are times when you find yourself pretty deeply into the weeds on topics like trade unionism and urban planning in the period. I didn't mind, but it's definitely not for every taste. I intend to read the already-published second volume, Family Britain, as well as the as-yet-unpublished third volume, tentatively titled Modernity Britain.
I invite you to submit comments, corrections, or suggestions about the glossary in the comments section after this review....more
Another delight for the parsimonious, a great out-of-copyright ebook hidden in plain sight on the Internet, specifically, at Project Gutenberg, ManyboAnother delight for the parsimonious, a great out-of-copyright ebook hidden in plain sight on the Internet, specifically, at Project Gutenberg, Manybooks.net, and the Internet Archive, among other places.
A long time ago in the pre-Internet age I wrote this title down in an old-school paper notebook I kept for the same reason I am on Goodreads today: to keep track of books I would like to read someday. I thought at the time that it seemed unlikely I would ever be once again close enough to a university library. Happily, in our improved networked world, one no longer has to be.
Given that, it seems churlish to complain, but complaining is one of life's simple pleasures which I cannot deny myself.
For example, you might be happily reading along and suddenly come upon this placeholder:
[Illustration: Chukchi Maiden Throttles Kodiak Bear with Her Bare Hands, Uses Bones to Construct Her Yurt.]
but sadly, there is no picture to demonstrate the technique for bear-throttling among youthful distaff Chukchis. Disappointment results.
OK, I made up the part about the bear above, but still there really are places where illustrations are referred to but not actually present, to the detriment of one's reading experience.
But the book is still a great pleasure. It has elements of both Jack London and Jerome K. Jerome. I can't quite decide if it reads like Jack London with a better sense of humor, or Jerome K. Jerome in an atypically adventurous mood. To decide for yourself, see the excerpts that some public spirited soul has extracted and published on Goodreads. They are well worth the detour.
My favorite passage was not included in the above, so I transcribe it here, fairly confident it will be the funniest thing you will read today:
[Background: Members of the Korak, an indigenous Siberian group, live in yurts which can be entered or exited solely by a hole in the chimney]
When the snow drifts up against the yurt, so as to give the dogs access to the chimney, they take a perfect delight in lying around the hole, peering down into the yurt, and snuffling the odours of boiling fish which rise from the huge kettle underneath. Not unfrequently they get into a grand comprehensive free fight for the best place of observation, and just as you are about to take your dinner of boiled salmon off the fire, down comes a struggling, yelping dog into the kettle, while his triumphant antagonist looks down the chimney hole with the complacency of gratified vengeance upon his unfortunate victim. A Korak takes the half-scalded dog by the back of the neck, pitches him over the edge of the yurt into a snow-drift, and returns with unruffled serenity to eat the fish-soup which has thus been irregularly flavoured with dog and thickened with hairs.
There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the book, and also some moments of genuine suspense, as when the hero and his party try to track down some members of their expedition across the frozen tundra. There are occasional moments when the narrative lags a bit, but hang in there and another funny bit, like the city bus, will be along in a few minutes.
There are some drawbacks to living in this age, but it is a fine thing to have a great book like this available for free, and not gathering dust in some corner of Mugar Library....more
An hour-long interview with the author about this book is available here.
An important book, but damned difficult to read. It probably needs to be studAn hour-long interview with the author about this book is available here.
An important book, but damned difficult to read. It probably needs to be studied with an guiding expert in white-collar criminality rather than read for the pleasure of being informed. There are a bewildering array of abbreviations and names, which is understandable. The helpful index of abbreviations is in the front of the book; the helpful index of names is in the back of the book – this is somewhat more difficult to understand.
I read it because I always want to know about Rollo Tomassi -- the guy who gets away with it. OK, so, in the end, Charles Keating didn't get away with it, but he spent a long time getting away with it and his eventual downfall was a near-run thing, based somewhat on (for him) bad luck.
I know that small-time con artists make their crust by convincing some poor sap they are a Nigerian prince or some-such, but how do you steal millions of dollars? I mean, doesn't the millions of dollars belong to someone before it goes missing? Does the previous owner of the millions of dollars keep a tight watch, and get all bent out of shape when his/her pile goes missing?
Well, in addition to convincing naive elderly widows to part with their life savings (something that actually happens in this book), there are also cleverer ways to create money from nothing. I still don't understand them completely, though. For example, in this book, Black gives an example like this: an entrepreneur wants to borrow $2 million. He asks the crooked S&L for a loan. The crooked S&L says to him: we will NOT loan you $2 million. However, we will loan you $52 million if you buy this piece of property for $50 million.
The property is owned by the bank. They bought it for, say, $25 million. Now, they can show regulators and auditors that they “sold” it at a 100% markup, evidence of great business savvy. Regulators and auditors who dig deep enough to discover this find themselves, at worst, the subject of vilification, harassment, and lawsuits, or, at best, never employed by the crooked S&L again. The latter is probably a blessing in disguise, but, at the moment it happens, it feels like you've done the wrong thing and served yourself a mess of trouble.
So, here's my question: doesn't the sham buyer ever worry about the inevitable day when he/she is asked to pony up $50 million for a $25 million property? Is bankruptcy in the US that easy, that painless, that free of consequence? I don't know, because I was raised to think of bankruptcy as something deeply shameful, probably ruining my prospective career as an entrepreneur.
I also learned how to bribe an appraiser (see p. 39). You never know when knowledge like that will come in handy.
Back to the book: it is a long, deep-in-the-weeds description of trying to do the right thing, being consistently kicked in the head for your troubles, and persevering most out of sheer unadulterated cussedness. In other words, I admired the author. He probably impressed Charles Keating and other opponents as an bearded pushover at first, but he turns out to be someone you don't mess with, because he's probably smarter than you.
There's a certain amount of score-settling, only only with crooked S&L frauds but with fellow bureaucrats, in the book. Normally this would make the author seem somewhat petty and vindictive, but given the serious and well-document nature of the wrongs done to him, it seems reasonable to give him a pass, just as you might to a homeowner who vents his aggravation at the person who broke into his home.
This book on its surface should appeal to a left-wing sensibility, because (somewhat oversimplified) it is the story of a humble public servant doing battle with a bunch of breast-beating big business Pharisees. It certainly runs contrary to the standard right-wing narrative about time-serving government clock-watchers dragging down the entrepreneurial free spirits that made America great. But one of the book's unlikely heroes is a life-long Republican who knows a crime when he sees it; one of its villains is a powerful Democrat who doesn't.
My take away: it is important to remember among the legions of people who sincerely and correctly believe big government is a threat to our liberty lurk a number of unprincipled thieves who use ideology as a cloak and just want government dismantled so it's easier to steal. ...more
A good reminder for those of us in the English teaching racket that our awesome pedagogical skills andAudio interview with the author available here.
A good reminder for those of us in the English teaching racket that our awesome pedagogical skills and overwhelming personal charisma are employed in the advancement of an arbitrary set of rules which assembled themselves more or less by accident. That might depress some people, but I find it strangely cheering and liberating.
Chapter 10, about the scandalized mutterings generated by the 1961 release of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, was especially informative and entertaining. I remember reading one story featuring the fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, taking a break from his orchid-raising to rip pages out of this dictionary and throw them into a fire. By the time I read the story, the reason for this behavior had faded into obscurity. Read this for all the gory details. ...more