Nation to Nation: Scotland's Place in the World

Stephen Gethins


A former MP discusses Scotland's now and future foreign policy.

(Full disclosure: Gethins is a Professor in Practice of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, where I also work.)

This is a detailed and wide-ranging work, exploring the past, present, and potential future of Scotland's foreign policy "footprint". It's quick to point out that even sub-State actors have such a footprint, and show how the Scottish government is able to work with (and sometimes against) the wider UK government in liaison with other international players, and the tensions and missed opportunities that arise.

Gethins is SNP (as am I), and as such has a clear preference for an independent Scotland. He tries valiantly to consider the potential future without independence, and how Scotland might in that case contribute more effectively to the UK's efforts. This doesn't quite succeed as an approach, perhaps because Gethins can't imagine that the UK can execute what would be needed to make such a future happen, for example as set out in How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations – and I have to say I agree with him on that. He quotes many influential Europeans (and others) who welcome Scotland's policy stance, and would welcome independence were it to come, which is clearly set out to address some of the uncertainties that doomed the "indyref" of 2014. It does a good job of this, as well as of showing how much Scotland as a region has to offer in the foreign policy sphere, and how little is being made of it so far.

Finished on Sat, 08 Jan 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

Ten Days that Shook the World

John Reed


An eye-witness account of the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian Revolution. Perhaps too detailed for anything except reference, but fascinating as a counterpoint to the more accepted (and Bolshevik-defined) history of their rise as a steady, inevitable, unanimous undertaking by the people. Here there are disagreements, armed struggles, and dissent from within the workers' Soviets and unions.

It's also notable that there's (as far as I can tell) exactly one mention of Stalin, as People's Commissar for Nationalities, again underlining the degree of re-writing of history that took place later. Stalin is far from being a prominent individual, or even a serious leader in the early days of what became the Soviet Union, and his later ascendancy is entirely unheralded in his early actions.

Finished on Sat, 01 Jan 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 3/5.


James Joyce


Short tales of turn-of-the-century Dublin, but capturing the essence of Ireland and urban life. The stories are loosely linked, with a main character in one appearing in a walk-on part in another (and some later do the same in Ulysses): but they stand alone in terms of style and subject matter. Joyce's ability to look inside someone's head is on full display, especially vivd when expressing their disappointments or fears at their own failings.

The strongest story (and the best-known) is certainly The dead, an exploration of alienation and social concern through the medium of a musical soirée rolling into a remembrance of a past love tied up with a husband's jealousy and passion.

But Dublin itself is also a character, especially if one knows the streets and even the shops visited and alluded to – many of which remain intact a century later. It's amazing that a set of stories focusing strongly on their human characters' interactions can also evoke the city so strongly.

Finished on Mon, 27 Dec 2021 12:24:12 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America

Beth Macy


A personal but very balanced history of how the opioid epidemic erupted in Appalachia, drawing heavily on the authors' experiences in her home town of Roanoke, VA.

It's a story that starts with drug company malfeasance, and I expected that to be the core of the story – but it's really only the start, as the impact of available prescription painkillers triggers an avalanche of users switching to heroin and then to fentanyl, with each change of drug generating fresh overdoses. There's a fascinating change in the dynamic between healthcare and law enforcement as the user population changes and the drugs invade more affluent areas, as well as being an indictment of America's very disjointed and vey much for-profit healthcare system. Many of the treatments that are available are snarled in a culture-wars debate about the "rightness" different approaches, entirely divorced from the evidence. It's also interesting (and somewhat terrifying) to understand exactly how many pathways there are to addiction, how many "gateway" drugs there can be, and how social pressures can prevent many people from seeking treatment even if it's readily available. Very sobering.

Finished on Thu, 23 Dec 2021 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

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

Aja Raden


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


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


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.