Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World

Aja Raden

2015


The desire for jewels exists everywhere, and this is an overview written by someone with a deep understanding of jewellery and its place in both fashion and politics. There are some great vignettes, especially about the rise of cultured pearls and the influence of De Beer's on the emergence of diamonds as fashion essentials.

Raden is less sure about history, though, and sometimes gets carried away with detail that doesn't in any way relate to the issues at hand. Many of the comments are alarmingly ahistorical: describing Mary Tudor as "mad" and "insane", for example, for actions that were perfectly sensible in the context of a religious war between Catholics and Protestants. And the notion that there being no market economy means that nothing can have value assigned to it, or that any attempt to better workers' conditions amounts simply to socialism, betrays her own background more than it illuminates either the history of the jewellery.

Finished on Sun, 21 Nov 2021 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Du Bois

1903


This is a hard work to capture succinctly. A collection of re-worked essays that address the concerns of those working for civil rights in the early 20th century, looking at the failure of Reconstruction and unable to see the currents that would lead to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and its limited successes.

There are some things that place the writing in its particular time. There's an acceptance of race, of racial differences and distinct, widely shared racial characteristics that is jarring to the modern ear. There's also a casual anti-Semitism that's perhaps even more shocking when deployed in the cause of emancipation by such a deep thinker who mainly overflows (at least in the main part of the book) with inclusivity towards white Americans.

The essays range in tone from the high idealisation of education in "Of the training of Black men" to the howl of anguish in "Of the passing of the first-born". And then – in this edition, anyway – there's the sudden volte face of Du Bois's later thought in "The souls of White folk", where he interprets the First World War as the start of an anti-colonial struggle that's redolent of much recent writing in the same vein.

It's only having read Du Bois that I (as a non-American) really come to appreciate his influence and hear the echoes of his thought. Certainly he is being channelled directly in Between the World and Me, and his ideas and even his speech patterns come through clearly in the voices of the modern civil rights movement.

Finished on Mon, 01 Nov 2021 14:27:17 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Travellers in the Third Reich

Julia Boyd

2017


Subtitled "The rise of Fascism through the eyes of everyday people" is perhaps disingenuous, unless by "everyday" one means ambassadors' wives, countesses, academics, and the Mitfords. Perhaps it's inevitable that it's such people who leave the raw material of diaries and reports from which to draw this view of Nazism's rise. It's fascinating nonetheless, notable again because of the casual anti-Semitism that blights so many utterances and otherwise insightful observations.

Finished on Tue, 26 Oct 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness

Carlo Rovelli

2018


A collection of essays that showcases the author's quite breathtaking range of interests and erudition, beautifully written – perhaps especially the last essay on the outbreak of covid-19 in Italy. Although I think my favourite is the essay "Ideas don't fall from the sky," where an early-career Rovelli is given unexpected advice from a Nobel prize-winner, that hard work and an immersion in contemporary ideas and their origins is more important that raw talent in achieving success. Spotting contradictions or gaps in the corpus of work in an area often shows where there is new knowledge to be found, and this requires one to be an expert, not necessarily to have superior insights. It's a gratifyingly modest view of science.

Finished on Tue, 19 Oct 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

David Grann

2009


A retelling of a story that was once front-page news across the world: the disappearance of probably the last of the "gentleman explorers", Percy Harrison Fawcett, his son, and his friend in the Xingu river basin in 1925.

Grann mixes the history – both of Fawcett and of some of the Fawcett-hunters who've emerged over the decades – with his own archival research and explorations around the Xingu. He shows how Fawcett's obsession within finding the lost city of Z (as he called it) led him to falsify the information he gave to others about his intended route. He also traces the growth of the obsession, setting Fawcett's undoubted skills in the jungle with his demanding and unforgiving manner and his gradual eclipse by other, more professional, anthropologists and archaeologists, who decided his ideas about the Amazon being able to support a large civilisation were fatally flawed.

And yet the professionals may have been wrong in their criticisms. A new generation now argues that there might have been exactly such a civilisation, building cities in wood and cultivating large tracts of jungle. Disease wiped them out leaving only subtle traces, such as the earthworks now being re-discovered.

The story trails-off a little at the end, which is perhaps inevitable given that there's been no proper resolution of the disappearance. It's still a great story, of a time not long past when there remained significant gaps on the map.

Finished on Tue, 05 Oct 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Collected Fictions

Jorge Luis Borges

1998


A dazzling collection of short stories, intellectual without pretension, that weave and re-enter each other in fascinating ways. It's impossible to read this collection without being reminded of other writers' works, and equally hard to decide exactly who influenced whom. Certainly many of the works resemble those of HP Lovecraft in presenting themselves as contemporary or eye-witness accounts of fictional happenings, or as reviews of non-existent books. I was also strongly reminded of one of my favourite Robert Heinlein short stories "The man who travelled in elephants": that same magical realism appearing in a framework that's almost, but not quite, science fiction.

Finished on Sun, 26 Sep 2021 07:35:44 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

Michael Lewis

2021


A hard work to classify. It sets out a bleak view of American healthcare in which politics has eroded a system that can, in principle, deal with large-scale medical emergencies – but which i practice has degraded to the point that it can't function at all. In this telling, the covid-19 pandemic was an inevitable tragedy, one that the federal government and the president made worse by their actions (and inactions), but would have been unable to address in any case because the means of control, and of action, have degraded beyond the point of effectiveness. It's especially scathing of the CDC and its false (in the author's view) claims to authority and leadership.

But it makes, in my opinion, a mistake in trying to find a collection of heroes who can serve as independent counterpoints to the institutional failings. Perhaps that's also inevitable in Lewis' journalistic style, and (as always with his books) he does indeed find a cast of memorable and unusual characters. But he suggests that bureaucratic impediments serve no purpose or are malicious, where in fact they serve as important corrections on risk to the public: one may argue that the safeguards should be jettisoned in a pandemic, but not (I think) that their existence per se is unnecessary. More seriously in my view, Lewis inherently promotes the "great man" theory of science (although one of his protagonists is a woman): the idea that individuals can change the course of history, and are held back by the inertia of the scientific "establishment", which in my experience doesn't exist. He also seems to feel that capitalism and private investment are a way forward, despite detailing all the failures of private companies along the way, and despite the evidence from countries other than America as to the power of centralised, planned, government interventions.

Finished on Sun, 19 Sep 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Fracture: Stories of How Great Lives Take Root in Trauma

Matthew Parris


An enjoyable, if limited, read.

The author's hypothesis is that a lot of "great lives" – and he admits to not being able to define what this means clearly – are formed in childhood trauma. Some of the examples (especially Edward Lear and Rudyard Kipling) illustrate this perfectly. But to coverage of the lives chosen, one in detail and then others in a manner that is really rather perfunctory, left me feeling rather short-changed about the lives not fully explored.

But Parris seems to lose conviction in his approach for three of the later chapters, which deal with trauma in fiction. That's a statement about what we find meaningful or entertaining rather than being about biography, and these feel like "fillers" rather than properly contributing to the book.

Finished on Tue, 14 Sep 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Serhii Plokhy

2021


A revisiting of the Cuban missile crisis from more of a Soviet perspective, which is an interesting twist.

It's a view that focuses on the politics in play rather than on the publicly-visible events, and this radically changes the view of what's important. The confrontation at sea, for example, and the famous tussle at the Security Council between Stevenson and Zorin, barely rate mentions. Instead there's consideration of Kennedy's domestic credibility problem in dealing with Krushchev, as well as Krushchev's problem getting out of the situation in which he found himself. It also shows the influence of Fidel Castro, who was far more willing to get into a nuclear war than either of the main protagonists, in spite of the obvious consequences that would have had for Cuba.

Finished on Sun, 12 Sep 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.