The positive: I enjoyed Oren's effort to look at America's involvement with the Middle East through three distinct lenses: power, faith, and fantasy.The positive: I enjoyed Oren's effort to look at America's involvement with the Middle East through three distinct lenses: power, faith, and fantasy. It was a fresh way for me to view facts with which I was already quite familiar. I kept the narrative from growing stale, as Oren consistently changed lenses.
The negative: Oren tried too hard to fit facts into the various lenses. Sometimes stuff just doesn't fit in your thesis and it felt like Oren shoved a bit to make things fit. Overall though, this was a pretty good read....more
This is a better-than-average three stars. My biggest beef is that Frank doesn't really give us any solutions -- he kind of just spends the whole bookThis is a better-than-average three stars. My biggest beef is that Frank doesn't really give us any solutions -- he kind of just spends the whole book ranting about conservatives the way that he complains that they rant about liberals. I tend to agree with most of what he thinks, but I think Frank undersells his intelligence and insight by wasting his prose on sneering at the right instead of being thoughtful, which, judging by the few sunbreaks of political prescience he provides, he is quite capable of being. It's telling that the continued rise of the angry right, culminating in the Tea Party movement, is just about what Franks predicted a decade ago. He knows what he's talking about; I just think he has a lot more ideas about what the left needs to do to get back to its progressive roots than he lets on here....more
The most entertaining one-star book you may ever read. If I'm rating based on the sheer page-turner appeal of the first half of the book, I give it twThe most entertaining one-star book you may ever read. If I'm rating based on the sheer page-turner appeal of the first half of the book, I give it two or three stars. Gideon's Spies is chalk full of harrowing tales of treachery, boldness, and bravery, written in the voice of a murder mystery. The trouble is Thomas's shoddy writing, or, to be fair to Thomas, perhaps it's the publishing house's shoddy editing.
It's hard to take very seriously a book that claims the Lockerbie bombings took place in 1998. Thomas also doesn't do himself any favors in the credibility department by kicking the book off with a lengthy 30 page examination of the Princess Diana conspiracy theories. Look, maybe Mossad was involved -- I don't know. But if you're trying to establish credibility, at least bury the stuff about Di somewhere in the middle once you've convinced the reader that you're to be taken seriously.
Further, there's no coherent narrative to this book. Thomas jumps all over the place chronologically. We start in 1997, then it's the 1920s through the 1960s, then it's the nineties again, then back to the 1980s. It was impossible to pick up a thread. All that was going on was that Thomas was threading together one cool story after another. And, again, I give the guy props for telling some really cool stories. That's why this book has one star instead of zero.
But things completely fall apart after about 350 pages. At that point, the first edition clearly ends, and the final 300 pages is tacked on. Literally tacked on. Thomas did additional research -- kudos for that -- but made seemingly no effort to integrate the updated material with the earlier stuff. He defines terms we already learned. He rehashes stories -- dude, we already heard that story 200 pages ago! He mixes up dates. He does this weird thing when he quotes people where he writes "(insert quote here)," said So-and-So (to the author). I have just never seen that before in a serious, real book, and it came across very sophomoric.
I think Thomas could have done himself a lot of favors, and given his obviously very thorough research a real air of authority and reality if he had integrated the last half of the book into the first half, checked his dates, written a bit less breezily, and left certain stories completely out. As is, this is only passable fiction. Which is a shame, because, if true, this book is groundbreaking. The trouble is we can't take anything we read here seriously, even if we should....more
I truly want to get onboard with Justice Scalia’s brand of interpreting common law, statute, and the Constitution. It is attractive because it is trueI truly want to get onboard with Justice Scalia’s brand of interpreting common law, statute, and the Constitution. It is attractive because it is true to our contemporary understanding of the democratic structure and processes of our country: legislatures create laws, the executive branch executes those laws, and, when disputes arise, judges apply the laws to the facts and thus reaffirm the law while deciding the dispute. It is also attractive because of its consistency: a judge, Scalia maintains, deciphers the meaning of the text of the law according to the judge’s determination of what the text’s drafters meant to codify through the text. This is relatively neat and tidy; though this interpretive model cannot entirely block the willful judge from wielding her personal views and biases, it at least limits the space in which she can do it.
Sadly, however, I am not entirely convinced that Scalia’s methodology is correct, or even that his conception of the judicial role is entirely correct. First, I will evaluate Justice Scalia’s views on statutory interpretation, which is arguably the most important role that modern judges play given the volume of regulation they are called upon to interpret. I think I appropriately represent Scalia’s view when I say that his brand of textualism necessarily permits some flexibility to the manner in which the judge attributes meaning to the text. There is, nevertheless, a limit to that flexibility; beyond a point, text cannot bear semantic parsing because the meaning attributed to the text no longer passes the laugh test. Smith v. United States is such an example, and I believe I agree with Scalia’s incredulity at the meaning the case’s majority attached to the phrase “use a firearm.” Scalia believes that judges should pronounce upon the text the meaning it most realistically bears and, if that is contrary to the will of the legislature, leave it to the legislature to adjust the text.
However, this assumes that the Founders consciously created a system propounding neat lines between the roles of the legislature and the judiciary. Legislatures make laws and judges apply laws to concrete disputes. Professor Wood, however, convincingly speculates that the Founders’ understanding of the roles of legislatures and judges was not nearly so clear or so harmonious with our contemporary conceptions. Drafting clear, directive codes was more challenging, and legislatures less guided by republican ideals than the colonists anticipated. In this historical context, could the Founders have accepted that the judiciary, far from representing a sycophantic arm of the hated crown, could be a buffer between the people and the majoritarian legislatures? At least some evidence seems to suggest they did. The Founders embedded a judiciary in the Constitution despite the view in the preceding decades that judges merely constituted an element of the executive branch. Congress received power to establish lower courts, which it did. And, although some certainly scowled at Chief Justice Marshall’s jurisprudential jujitsu in Marbury v. Madison that secured for the judiciary the power to review acts of the legislature, the concept stuck less than 15 years after the birth of the Constitution.
I wonder, then, if Justice Scalia’s insistence that judges kowtow to Congress’s oh-so-carefully chosen statutory language is as historically necessary as he contends that it is. Although some statutes—typically those that make legal news—are ambiguous, most are not. Perhaps it is therefore somewhat inaccurate to intimate that judges in every jurisdiction are chomping at the bit to create law in spite of statutory language that, if read by its plain meaning, would not permit any result but one. I suspect that most cases of statutory interpretation present at least largely unambiguous text and that judges charged with interpreting it do so fairly faithfully to that text. I also suspect that, where statutory text is vague few judges flagrantly flout all the text’s reasonable textual interpretations to arrive at a completely implausible but personally pleasing outcome, or ignore the text’s statutory context to arrive at a similar result. Rather, I think most judges employ statutory interpretation tools similar to those Justice Scalia wields when confronted with an imprecisely worded statute. They try where possible to construct a reasonable interpretation based on the text. They attempt to reconcile the text’s meaning with the overall structure and content of the statute. They employ other canons of construction. Reasonable minds may and do differ on the meaning of text even after these methods have been applied. I do not think this is divergence of reasonable minds is occasion to castigate judges that look for textual meaning outside the original understanding of the text’s drafters; divining that original understanding seems to me a comparably imprecise exercise to many, but not all, others. Perhaps I am naïve and flat out wrong; if so I will sheepishly stand corrected.
I turn very briefly to Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States to make a final point in conclusion. Like Justice Scalia, I cannot help but find the Court’s outcome troubling at best and, at worst, ridiculous. Where judges willfully and admittedly step outside the clear boundary of reasonableness permitted by the text, it is cause for alarm. It alarms me just as it alarms Justice Scalia. My question, however, is whether that alarm is conditioned by a slightly skewed understanding of the role the Founders intended the judiciary to play. If Scalia and conservatives more generally are correct and judges making law is absolutely inconsistent with the system the Founders intended, then Holy Trinity is wrong. If, however, Professor Wood’s thinking is correct and the Founders conceived of the judiciary as a backstop to protect justice from legislative gaffes, I am not so sure Holy Trinity represents the wrong result or judicial process. ...more
Although I felt that Tuchman likely took some liberties with the historical sources to give "A Distant Mirror" its lively narrative flow, I can forgivAlthough I felt that Tuchman likely took some liberties with the historical sources to give "A Distant Mirror" its lively narrative flow, I can forgive that because I suspect that if one wants to present a cohesive picture of events so buried in history, one must be somewhat liberal with filling in the blanks. As it is, Tuchman gives us her best guesses as to what the 14th century was like: smelly peasant houses, cults of death, sacrilege, Black Death, foolhardy knights, and political intrigue. Wonderful little anecdotes bring Tuchman's points to life and humanize even the most obscure people. I loved her description of the bawdy Christmas celebrations the town working class undertook each year, mocking the hypocrisy in the worldly Church with a black, crass mass led by a beggar over the drunken cacophony of the "congregation."
If I took anything away from "A Distant Mirror," it's that the present isn't necessarily as bad as we sometimes think it is. I think I'd rather live today, even with our wars and crazed mall gunmen and consistent geopolitical tensions than 14th century Europe, with its marauding bands of brigands laying waste to fields, villages and towns; its corrupt Church that sold salvation to any who could buy it and damned the rest; its impossibly destructive plague; its wildly incompetent royalty; and its expensive never-ending wars that kept taxes at backbreaking levels. The 21st century isn't so bad after all....more
A readable look into the messy, convoluted world of an actual major civil action case, Harr's work is gripping and revealing. Using a terse and pointeA readable look into the messy, convoluted world of an actual major civil action case, Harr's work is gripping and revealing. Using a terse and pointed writing style, Harr sketches the characters memorably and squeezes the drama from a truly dramatic litigation. I understand the book was made into a movie, which I haven't seen and don't plan to. It can't do the book justice, which is usually the case when books are translated into movies....more
I thought Dunn presented excellent character sketches of these two queens -- Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots. She persuasively and verI thought Dunn presented excellent character sketches of these two queens -- Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots. She persuasively and very effectively showed the virtues and vices of each woman, Elizabeth's imperious indecisiveness along with her incredible ability to connect emotionally and intimately with her people, Mary's legendary charm, courage, and physical capacities along with her impulsive passion and manic moodswings that led to disasterous decision-making. Dunn casts Elizabeth as a proto feminist, which I think reflects more on Dunn's persuasions than the reality of Elizabeth's sixteenth centry thinking, and I found that feminist thread to be a little forced.
But what really brought this book down from great to merely good was the messy narrative flow. Dunn warns us early on that she does not intend to follow a strictly chronological order of presentation, and while I appreciated the heads-up, the storytelling element that could have really threaded this work together was weakened. Readers lacking prior knowledge of the main events of the era (such as me) are left scratching their heads as Dunn glosses over seemingly critical events (the Babington rebellion is one that Dunn gave short shrift). Moreover, the jumping about into the future then into the past and back again made it difficult to piece the story together. And finally, Dunn blazed through the years of Mary's imprisonment in England, after having lingered so long on each of the preceeding 15 years, and I found this sudden jump to warp speed to be discombobulating. And then, the book just ended abruptly, having set up the scene of the Spanish Armada's defeat in 1589 and then dealt with the event in two or three confusing paragraphs. It all kind of left me with a poor taste in my mouth, which is unfortunate because I think this is probably a better book than I think it is. It just left me confused....more