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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 37)

A Canticle for Leibowitz (St. Leibowitz, #1)

A Canticle for Leibowitz (St. Leibowitz, #1)

Walter M. Miller Jr.


Post-apocalyptic science fiction meets an historical analogy of the Middle Ages in an enjoyable, if a little disjointed, tale of what happens when the church once again becomes a repository of learning. The Order of Leibowitz transcribes the printed matter that's survived a nuclear exchange and the subsequent mass murder of any scientists, engineers, or intellectuals left. That included the Order's founder, a scientist driven the religion by his experiences.

The book episodically covers several centuries, starting with the experiences of a novice's discovery of an ancient fallout shelter that leads to Leibowitz' canonisation; through the later battles of small statelets fighting in the ruins alongside the recovery of scientific knowledge from the disjointed artefacts and texts; and culminating in the destruction of a later civilisation again unable to manage the existence of weapons of mass destruction but managing (this time) to send out emissaries to the stars.

The view Miller takes of the church is quite balanced, neither fully supportive nor dismissing it as archaic. And on balance it seems likely that the church and church forms would survive a holocaust of anything did: it's the only institution, along with the universities, to have survived continuously from the Middle Ages. The end result sees humanity unable to move beyond repeating history, learning little new science and no new ethical or social self-knowledge along the way. In this it's at least partly a product of its time (being first published in 1959), but the fact that the risks it explores remain equally valid today is itself enough to have it read more often.

3/5. Finished 04 August 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy

Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy

Rod Liddle


Definitely a book that's passed through political correctness and come out the other side.

There seem to be a couple of issues drawing Rod Liddle's ire. The first is the narcissism of modern society, which he skewers mercilessly. The second is the emergence of a super-class of highly advantaged upper-middle-class families who are radically better able to access society's goods than others. Their advantages come from multiple sources – public schooling, living in better areas, social networks that can help access, and so forth – but also (Liddle claims) from a more surprising source: changes to the law that seem egalitarian but work to reinforce privilege.

Is super-class privilege now so entrenched as to be immovable? If you're looking for answers to this, or even some vague suggestions, you won't find them. But as a source of dinner-party factoids and telling phrases, this is a winner. People "who have had their struggles too" will definitely be part of my vocabulary from now on.

4/5. Finished 13 July 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)



Robert Mason


A raw and largely uncensored account of the life of a "slick" (troop-carrying) helicopter pilot's life in Vietnam. It's a great mix of war story, flight training manual, memoir, and anti-war polemic, gradually shifting between these various facets as time goes on.

Mason doesn't glamorise the war or his own part in it; nor does he gloss over details that must have been uncomfortable to write (and for his family and friends to read). What comes through strongly is heroism on a small scale and pointlessness on a large scale: repeatedly and bravely storming the same pieces of territory as the "strategy" of attrition wears down both sides. In between are some wonderful flight scenes and descriptions of helicopter tactics that will fascinate any technically-inclined reader.

The epilogue covering his return from Vietnam is poignant and revealing of the challenges that many veterans faced as they tried (and often failed) to re-integrate themselves. It's an inconvenient truth that many societies -- and the UK is no better than the US in this -- fail to deal with their troops well once they're out of the field, no matter how much they applauded them while the war was on.

4/5. Finished 05 July 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

1913: The World Before the Great War

1913: The World Before the Great War

Charles Emmerson


A rounded tour of the horizons of the year before the Great War.

Emmerson structures his history around the great cities of the world: London, New York, Paris, St Petersburg, and Berlin, all obviously, but also Mexico City, Durban. Winnipeg, Melbourne, Detroit, and others. He uses them as nuclei around which to describe the core events and factors driving the populations. That they are universally unaware of the catastrophe that is bearing down on them only reinforces the strange nature of the Great War, that its origins seem to defy credible explanation.

It's impossible to read this book without being reminded of The Proud Tower : A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, Barbara Tuchman's portrait of Europe in the same period. And if Emmerson lack something of Tuchman's elegance, it's only a matter of degree: he has the same eye for anecdote, the same beautiful turns of phrase. He also favours wider-ranging sociology over Tuchman's considerations of art and politics. IN many ways to two books make useful companion pieces.

The overriding impression for a modern reader is the almost universal acceptance of racist and sexist foundations for societies, extending both to the rulers and to the ruled. Gandhi fights for the rights of Indians in South Africa without concerning himself about the rights of Africans; Irish Nationalists struggle for independence but deplore votes for women. The ability to rationalise clearly hasn't changed over the years.

4/5. Finished 27 June 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of Man

Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of Man

Paul Strathern


A well-paced and diverse account of a critical piece of European political and intellectual history.

The subject of the book is the clash of ideas between modernism and fundamentalism, as respectively represented by Lorenzo de' Medici and Girolamo Savonarola. Florence and Italy more widely provide a stage set with a range of characters, both those intent on their own betterment and those devoted to higher causes. The book manages to navigate a path between the ideas in play and the sometimes squalid and violent means with which these ends were pursued.

There are enormous ironies in these ends, too. Savonarola was a fundamentalist who wanted to introduce more democratic forms, and which gave rise to many modern ideas of governance – but abhorred the freedoms that such democratic ideas brought with them. Lorenzo kept tight political control but allowed great freedoms to the citizens, whilst being unable to distinguish between what was good for Florence and what was good for the Medici – and recalled Savonarola to Florence to be both a moral force and an ornament to the city's greatness, laying the foundations for the end of Medici rule.

As in his other book on Mediaeval Italy, The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped, Strathern shows an well-balanced sense of character and an ability to juggle a range of sources of variable trustworthiness. He also has a keen eye for anecdotes: my two favourites are the shock that the arrival of French armies trained in full-on Northern European warfare caused for Italian armies used to a far more civilised form of warfare in which few people er actually got killed; and how the phrase esperimento del fuoco (trial by fire) gave rise to the word "experiment", a trial to which some facet of the world was subjected. He deftly manages the difficult task of making clear the bewildering changes of political alliances that were characteristic of Italian politics of the period. And he sets the clash of ideas into the broader context of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and both Luther's debt to Savonarola and the fact that Savonarola would have hated all Luther stood for: another paradox in a complex man.

It's easy to see the parallels with the modern world and the struggle between democracy and fundamentalist religion, but Strathern is too goo a historian to avoid the complexities that history beings to this comparison. Savonarola the fundamentalist was also Savonarola the democrat; Lorenzo the autocrat was also a committed and in many ways conservative religious figure. The modern concepts and dualities don't translate back to the fifteenth century, much as many might like them to, and this book is an important guide to the ways in which ideas mutate over time.

5/5. Finished 30 May 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)