In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin

Lindsey Hilsum


Hard to think of a better way to tackle the life of such a complex individual in such complex circumstances. This is an excellent read both for its subject matter and for the general experience of war reporting.

I don't think we ever really get to the bottom of Marie Colvin's complexity. though. Perhaps that's inevitable at such a short distance from the events. Lindsey Hilsum avoids the facile explanations (daddy issues, thrill-seeking), but is left with very little else. She (Hilsum) seems to think that the same basic issues drove both Colvin's reporting and her self-destructive personal life that repeated a pattern of unsuitable men: she even shows how Colvin herself knew this was happening and yet seemed unable to escape the pattern. But as to what drove Colvin to the extremes she went to, reporting on stories that even other war reporters thought were too risky, remains in the shade for now at least.

Finished on Mon, 21 Sep 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.


David Boyle

A funny and quite damning indictment of tickbox culture and its pernicious effects. Unfortunately slightly short on meaningful prescriptions apart from resisting the temptation to comply (and accepting the possibly unfortunate consequences for others). Should certainly be required reading for anyone in a position to manage the introduction (or termination) of any sort of appraisal scheme.

Finished on Fri, 11 Sep 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz

Jack Fairweather


A largely unknown story about a man who broke in to Auschwitz – and the successfully broke out again, having formented resistance and collected intelligence of enormous value, only to then be executed by the new pro-Soviet government of Poland after the war.

It's brilliant researched and told. My only criticism is a stylistic one, that the prose sounds breathless and boy's-own, somehow. I think it's because everyone is referred to by their first names, rather than their surnames as would be more common in history books. That's a minor distraction though from a story that should be a lot better known.

Finished on Sun, 30 Aug 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi


"A worthy successor to Gibson" (as the cover blurb says) indeed. While I found this excellent in its vignettes it overall didn't do it for me, for reasons I can't quite pin down.

Finished on Thu, 27 Aug 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3*/5*.

The House That Hitler Built

Stephen Henry Roberts


I have a thing for books written without a knowledge of the future events that will make them extremely relevant. This is one such. It was clearly influential in its day, having done through three printings in the last three months of 1937. But that means it's written before World War 2, and indeed before the Anschluss and other events, at about the last point at which it was possible to believe that Nazism might be a movement that benefited both Germany and Europe.

The interesting thing is that it doesn't – quite – do this. There are plenty of warnings that the author makes, warning that make appeasement and Munich even harder to understand: if an academic writer could see the signs they must have been available to governments, so why were they deliberately ignored? Of course Roberts couldn't see into Hitler's mind and so writes off as impossible the invasion of Poland that actually happened; but he correctly identified Austria and Czechoslovakia, and indeed France, as in danger.

It's a book of its time, though. While deploring the repression and persecution of German Jews – and remember this was written before Kristallnacht – Roberts accepts the notion of there being such a thing as a "Jewish problem" in ways that no modern person can. He accepts the notions of colonies and Mandates as something argued over by "the Powers", with scant attention paid to "the Natives" (his terms). Roberts also subscribes (or at least reports the views of those who subscribe) to the "if only the Führer knew" defence, now generally rejected as a fallacy and replaced by the view of Hitler as "the most radical National Socialist of them all" (to use Joachim Fest's phrase from The Face of the Third Reich).

Reading this book gives support to the notion of how widespread anti-Semitism really was in 1930's Europe in ways that we now forget, and it's easy to see how this might explain how people managed not to see what was coming. It definitely gives weight to CS Lewis' notion of the importance of continuing to read old books.

There are also some interesting presentiments of the modern age of information in the way that Roberts admits to falling easily into the traps set by propaganda that is endlessly repeated – by a State's media rather than by social media as we see now, but the risks are easy to see and they lead in a terrifying direction.

Finished on Sat, 08 Aug 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

How to write an abstract

I've spent much of this week working with MSc students writing their dissertations, and this has inevitably led to the part of a dissertation that often causes the most pain to write (and read, for that matter): the abstract.

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From Dictatorship to Democracy

Gene Sharp


A how-to manual for passive resistance to a dictatorship. It's a believable presentation, perhaps a little too dry and deterministic in its suggestions about how to collapse a dictatorship's will to rule, but a book that feels amazingly and unfortunately relevant at the moment.

Finished on Sat, 01 Aug 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3*/5*.


Kim Stanley Robinson


It's unusual to find a negative take on the idea of generation starships. Most authors like the idea; Robinson isn't one of them, and indeed makes a strong argument that the whole notion of planetary colonisation is flawed. It's argued so well that's it's hard to refute.

The book is excellently written as well as being closely argued: good characters and social interactions, and a sensible and believable plot. My only criticism would be that it's one chapter too long: the final beach scene doesn't add anything, in my opinion, and I'm hard-pushed to understand why it's there at all.

Finished on Wed, 29 Jul 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.