Skip to main content

Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 28)

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII

Jack El-Hai

2013


I came to this book at the recommendation of a friend, and it's one of the best I've read recently.

The book tells the story of the meeting of psychiatrist Douglas Kelley with Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering in the Nuremberg gaol where the latter was on trial. It's mainly a book about Kelley, Goering's personality having been dissected enough in other works (not least Kelley's own 22 cells in nuremberg, which is itself well worth reading for eyewitness value). It follows Kelley from his childhood as the driven and over-achieving child of a famous, eccentric, Californian family; through his committed treatment of shell-shocked soldiers and his appointment to oversee the mental health of the Nuremberg inmates; to his later career and eventual suicide. The fascination of his suicide is that Kelley chooses the same method as Goering himself -- cyanide -- in a dramatic and public gesture that seems to lack any real motive.

Kelley's commitment to traumatised soldiers notwithstanding, he was not an attractive personality. His psychiatric certainty is alarming, especially given his reliance on Rorschach blot tests and truth drugs that would not nowadays be well thought of. The author does a good job of highlighting the controversy that Rorschach interpretation engendered, even though the consensus now favours Kelley's view that there was no "Nazi personality" or particular criminal characteristic that set the Nuremberg prisoners apart.

This really is an excellent read, and the only reason for giving it only four stars instead of five is this (which may be an unfair criticism anyway): the author never really nails the interaction between Kelley and Goering, in the sense of how the experience affected Kelley's personality. The doctor comes across as self-absorbed, opinionated, and controlling. He steps into the limelight whenever possible, offering his opinions with a quite hair-raising certainty, and one can't quite escape the suspicion that his certainly could easily have abetted miscarriages of justice in his later career. He tries to shape his eldest son in a particular image, is withdrawn and self-absorbed, and kills himself in what almost seems like a fit of pique.

But despite the book's title, the core question remains unanswered: to what extent was Kelley shaped by Nuremberg, and by Goering in particular? Did the experience of the prison change him from confident to arrogant, or was that transition inevitable and perhaps just slightly reinforced? He clearly always had a yearning for fame, and yet received his most famous assignment largely by chance. Was the experience formative for him (as wartime experiences were for so many), or did it simply provide a lever by which to accomplish pre-existing goals? I suspect Nuremberg affected Kelley less than one might imagine, his self-absorption protecting him while allowing him to function. In that sense he was the perfect choice for Nuremberg psychiatrist.

4/5. Finished 07 March 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How to Thrive in the Digital Age

How to Thrive in the Digital Age

Tom Chatfield

2012


A short exploration of the state of modern internet and social experience. In some ways the book is mis-named, in that it isn't in any way prescriptive or suggestive of how one should thrive, but rather illustrates some of the issues one should consider in order to: such issues as privacy, time away, imaginary vs real experience, and the like. Definitely worth a read, and with an excellent bibliography pointing to further information.

3/5. Finished 25 February 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

Simon Singh

2013


A good book for relaxing on a plane. The book is structured by highlighting and explaining some of the hidden jokes in The Simpsons that derive from the writers' unexpectedly mathematical and scientific backgrounds. Actually the book is broader than its title suggests, as it also covers The Simpsons's sister show (and my own favourite) Futurama.

There are some excellent explanations of some excellent gags. Without giving too much away, perhaps the most surreal moment is where a plot device for an episode of Futurama requires the writers to develop a new theorem in order to get the storyline to work out: the only known case of a sitcom giving rise to new mathematics.

The most reflective chapter is the "Eπlogue", where the author explores with the writers whether they have any regrets leaving their mathematical careers behind for comedy. David X. Cohen, who became the main writer on Futurama, muses whether he's had more influence in spreading science as a writer than he would have had as a researcher. I think this is a noble observation, and one that can be made about other "entertainers in science" such as Jorge Cham of PhD Comics: no matter how successful they might have been as scientists, their work has inspired a generation.

3/5. Finished 20 February 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Mao's Great Famine: The History Of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62

Mao's Great Famine: The History Of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62

Frank Dikötter

2010


A hard book to read, detailing the effects of the Great Leap Forward on the people of China, especially in the countryside. The parallels with other Communist states are striking: the bureaucracy, the persistent raising of production targets, and the ubiquitous lying as to how those targets have been exceeded everywhere despite the obvious facts on the ground. But there are unique features too. Two stand out in particular. Firstly, the use of particular countries as targets to exceed in particular commodities (i.e., beat Britain in iron production) for no readily apparent reason. Secondly, the very fact that amid the desire to increase food production, and the famine that resulted as this campaign was mis-managed, several other campaigns were instituted such as backyard iron smelting and water conservation that all interfered so as to guarantee their mutual total failure. It's hard to place yourself into the mindset of any government being able to distance itself so completely from reality as to imagine this approach could work even in theory, and then to further be able to ignore the facts so comprehensively.

Dikötter's book on the takeover of power (The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957) forms a trilogy with this and his next work on the Cultural Revolution. When finished the three will be indispensable as a guide to this period.

5/5. Finished 09 February 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)