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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 44)

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity

Steven Pinker

2010


A comprehensive look at an important problem of perception.

I sort of disagree with Pinker's hypothesis that most people believe the world is more violent than in the past: than in the recent past, perhaps, but I don't think anyone really disputes that the past 2,000 years had more violence in them. Where dispute arises, I think, is when one considers pre-State or pre-chiefdom level societies: did small bands live in harmony, as Rousseau and his followers would have us believe? Pinker's answer is a clear "no", when one considers the death rates of small-society violence.

But in some ways this is an essay manifesting itself as a book. The introduction and conclusion are quite compelling in their own rights: violence has decreased, people do live more peaceful and safe lives now than at any other point in history, local eruptions of extreme violence notwithstanding. The rest of the book provides the evidence, and it's vitally important that it's been collected, synthesised, and analysed by someone as skilled as Pinker. And it's the source of fascinating anecdotes that it's a shame to risk missing – but its very depth and length make that risk real, as well as becoming lost in the fascinating but ultimately inconsequential analyses of a certain body of evidence. It's a depth that's necessary for a research work or thesis, but perhaps off-putting for a casual reader.

4/5. Finished 04 March 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939–1945

The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939–1945

Max Hastings

2015


Another masterly rendering of military history, this time looking at the secret war.

Hastings is disparaging – with reason – of many of the claims of secret services: the information obtained by diplomats often seems radically superior and more reliable than that obtained by spies, perhaps not least because it's being interpreted in a cooler and less personally dangerous atmosphere. It's hard to disagree as far as the Second World War is concerned, given that barely a single spy changed the course of the war to any measurable degree.

There are two exceptions to Hastings' conclusion, however. One of code-breaking, where he provides a carefully balanced and even-handed treatment of all sides' cryptographic skills. He places the British efforts in a context that's all the stronger because he dispenses with myth while still being left with a story of epic successes: the codebreakers were able at times to exert a major influence on tactics and strategy, even while being stymied at others.

The second is the handling of double agents, and here it is the Russian efforts that really stand out. While the British XX committee scored major successes, the Russian deceptions were incredible in both their depth and extent, often completely masking the armies' intentions even after they had started manoeuvring. In many ways the Russians achieved by stealth what Operation Fortitude achieved by physical deception, and on an enormously larger scale. It was particularly interesting that Hastings pulled out the contribution of "Rudolf Abel", which I'd just read about in Abel: The True Story of the Spy They Traded for Gary Powers, and whose contributions really deserve to be better known.

5/5. Finished 31 January 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin

1974


A science fiction utopian classic: how would one go about setting up an anarchist society, and what might then happen? Le Guin answers the first question by requiring a new language, new forms of relationships, new ways of naming children, and an organising principle based around the collective opinion of one's fellow-citizens in the absence of any form of compulsion. As to the second, she sees the potential for human pride and ambition even in the face of a social order explicitly predicated against them. Any desire of which someone disapproves can always be characterised as self-interest ("egoising"), which will be met with disapproval.

There are plenty of echoes in this story of the Soviet Union, especially prior to the Second World War, in which noble ambitions to re-make society showed that they could be used and weaponised by someone who was prepared to act ruthlessly in their own interest. It's the way in which someone acts that often conditions how people interpret their actions, giving power to anyone able to connive with a pious expression.

4/5. Finished 27 January 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes: Early Detective Stories

The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes: Early Detective Stories

Hugh Greene

1970


An eclectic collection of detective fiction largely contemporary with Holmes' exploits. It's a mixed bag, featuring both well-known and now-forgotten authors, and it's easy to see the selection process at work: the stories of William Le Queux and Baroness Orczy stand out (in completely different ways) for their skilled construction.

3/5. Finished 29 December 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Timothy Snyder

2010


A timely and excellent exploration of a forgotten battlefield.

It's easy to reduce the Second World War to the extermination camps, resistance, and large-scale battles. This book tells the story of the civilian terror visited on the people of Eastern Europe before, during, and after the period we usually regard as "fighting". From Stalin's Great Terror, through the Nazi occupation, and then the reprisals that Stalin re-visited on the "Bloodlands", it's an almost inconceivable story of loss and random death that Snyder manages to tell without falling into any of the traps or tropes that he might have done. He keeps his perspective while telling of the death of (literally) millions, with a good eye for the individual story and copious support from documents and eye witnesses. It's a uniquely valuable contribution to the literature on the war, and doubly valuable today when nationalism is once again on the march. Without thinking history will repeat itself, it still does no harm to be reminded of what can happen.

5/5. Finished 29 December 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)