Now We Have Your Attention: Inside Britain’s Radical New Politics

Jack Shenker

A very timely exploration of the left-behind of British society and how they're coming to terms (or not) with late-stage capitalism. The actors range across the spectrum, as do the politics the various people embrace.

It's such a current book, written just before the Conservatives' crushing win in the 2019 general election, that it's hard to assess some of the observations. Momentum, the left-wing insurgency within Labour, had a hand in massively improving the party's showing in 2017, and Shenker clearly outlines their goals and strengths. But even with that, Labour didn't win – and went on to lose even more severely in 2019. Perhaps it will take time to assess whether Momentum's integration of party politics and activism can be properly harnessed to win power.

There's also what feels like a curious, sharp, turn in the last chapter to include more consideration of climate change and climate activism. It's closely argued and clearly very important, and that makes it surprising that it wasn't woven more tightly inot the rest of the argument.

Finished on Sun, 10 May 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

William L. Shirer


Undoubtedly still the definitive single-volume history of the period, still a classic in every sense.

Some parts of the narrative haven't aged well and show signs of the times when Shirer was writing in the late 50s; other parts have been exploded by new scholarship; and still others ignited controversies that still rage (for example Shirer's basing the roots of National Socialism in thew mainstream German philosophical tradition). But bearing all that in mind, it's easy to feel the immediacy of his connection with the events he describes. If that clouds his objectivity in some case it's worth it for the sense of place and time that this book provides, differently to all the other varied histories of the Third Reich.

Finished on Sat, 09 May 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky


When you consider that half of this book is about a generation starship while the other half is written from the perspective of spiders, you get some idea of the breadth of ideas that have gone into it. The fact that it holds together is nothing short of remarkable, as is that it – without spoiling the plot – sets up for a "dark forest"-type ending that it then deftly avoids.

Finished on Tue, 28 Apr 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder and Memory In Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe


As good a narrative history of the Troubles as any you'll find. It skips the broad brush in favour of the effects on three groups of people: the children of Jean McConville, the best-known of the "disappeared"; the coterie around Gerry Adams and Dolours Price; and the authors and interviewers of the Boston College project that captured (and partially revealed) the activities of many of the protagonists on both sides of the divide.

From one perspective this is the right level. The terror campaign – Republican and Loyalist – has had a lot of exposure in terms of the events, but less in terms of the victims (and perpetrators). It's important to realise how many of those intimately involved came to regard "the struggle" as purposeless in retrospect, and to renounce the violence they had once embraced. Martin McGuinness is the best-known example of this, but there are surprisingly many more.

From another perspective, however, it's less satisfactory in that there's a lack of closure, a continuing lack of agreement about who did what, knew what, and decided what. It will probably need another twenty years before there's a consensus, and in the meantime this is the most illuminating exploration.

Finished on Fri, 03 Apr 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Simon Winchester


An engaging history of engineering through the the lens of ever-increasing precision. starting with more efficient steam engines and ending with spacecraft and microprocessors.

Until about two-thirds of the way through I had a criticism that the book focused on precision solely as a means to mass production the need to components that are exactly the same to facilitate easy replacement, as contrasted against craft-made items. I was contrasting this against one-off, hand-made, but nonetheless precise artefacts such as the turbulence experiment described by James Gleick in Chaos: Making a New Science: a tiny fluid chamber with embedded sensors, still regarded as one of the finest experiments ever crafted. But the discussions of watches more than remedied the omission.

The chapter on Japan as a contrast to the "cult" of precision feels a bit forced. Yes, the Japanese have a sensitivity (wabi sabi) for the imperfect in art while maintaining a reverence for high-precision machines – but so do other cultures and art forms, not least jazz and abstract impressionism, that render the contrast a bit superficial.

Finished on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

Michael Pollan


Almost enough to make one want to try them, this is a fine description of the history, biochemistry, and cultural significance of psychedelics. It walks a fine line between the materialistic and the spiritual: what do psychedelic trips signify, are they "just" drug experiences or do they connect with something else?

It's a book that's worth reading for any of its component parts. The history sheds light both on the counterculture of the 60's and on the genesis and evolution of moral panics of the sort that resulted in LSD being proscribed. The biochemistry does its best to reflect the latest scientific thinking, but also shows how much of neuroscience is still tied up with speculative and metaphorical models of what's happening in the brain. And the personal history of the author's own trips – carefully supervised and with plenty of trepidation on his part – go some way to showing how influential and persistent the effects of the drugs can be.

The book could do with some better copy-editing: it's repetitive in places. But well worth a read.

Finished on Sun, 23 Feb 2020 11:46:15 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, #1)

Charles Stross


What happens when it turns out the HP Lovecraft was right, and that the monsters from without can be summoned and (to some extent) controlled by a perfectly rational experimental science? That's the premise of this book, the first of the "Laundry files" series, that combines horror, science fiction, comedy, and an exploration of the social hierarchies and deep plotting that turn up in civil service institutions.

Finished on Wed, 12 Feb 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in his World

Erica Benner


A different interpretation of Machiavelli than the common one, viewing him as a republican rather than as a supporter and facilitator of tyrants. It's an attractive and quite compelling thesis, and surprisingly (to me, anyway) one that was common amongst early readers of The prince before his reputation changed in later centuries.

Finished on Mon, 10 Feb 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

The Children of Húrin

J.R.R. Tolkien


The long-form collected version of the tale from The Silmarion. It's worth a read for a dedicated Tolkien fan (of which I am one), but in fairness doesn't add a lot more in either detail or texture to the previous text.

Finished on Sat, 11 Jan 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 2/5.