Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

Michael Wolff (2018)

What can one say about a journey to the centre of the most disruptive and controversial White House of modern times? That is happened at all is amazing: that this book gives such a clear and (I would say) generally reasonably balanced view makes it a major contribution to political literature.

Wolff describes an administration at war with itself, a medieval court in which factions form and dissipate while seeking the attention of the monarch – and truly there’s no other way to describe Donald Trump, who sits at the centre of the book while remaining curiously absent as an individual. Trump comes across as a bundle of contradictions: an outsider who took on the system and won, but someone pathologically requiring attention and submission from all around him while simultaneously hating those who engage in this behaviour; someone unable to control his attention of impulses at the most basic level; someone who personalises everything, seeing every interaction as a zero-sum game in another’s gain must be his loss; and who is managing the presidency through, and for the benefit of, his own family.

It’s clear that Wolff thinks Trump is uniquely unsuited to the role of president, and is surrounded by staff who’s main task is to offer protection in both directions: protecting Trump from the world, but equally protecting the world from Trump. It’s also clear, I think, that Wolff’s Trump is suffering from dementia.

The book is marred by its writing style. There are rambling and often too-detailed sub-clauses – usually within hyphens – that often make sentences appalling difficult to read. And there are some jarring word uses (“hortatory”? really?) that add nothing and give the impression of someone trying too hard in places. Still, it’s a compelling read, both as history and warning.

4/5. Finished Friday 2 March, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Book of Iona: An Anthology

Robert Crawford (2016)

An anthology that rally gives a taste of the island. Robert Crawford (my colleague at St Andrews) is . talented poet in his own right, and he provides marvellously accessible translations of many of the poems associated with St Columba. These, coupled with several short stories set wholly or in part on Iona – and even an essay by another of my colleagues, Al Dearle, about the difficulties of providing internet access in wild parts – make this a book to dip into for inspiration and relief from “normal” life.

4/5. Finished Tuesday 27 February, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Olivia Laing (2016)

A study of loneliness through the medium of several different artists, and the author’s discovery and reaction to them. Some of these artists are well-known, in name if not in the detail of their lives: Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Billie Holliday, and even to a lesser extent Valeri Solanas (who shot Warhol). Others were unknown to me: David Wojnarowicz and (especially) Henry Darger.

I’m not convinced that the studies of these artists – fascinating though they are – casts much light either on the author’s travails or on loneliness more broadly. The first part of the book is stronger in this respect, with a quite penetrating analysis of the difference between loneliness and solitude, and the virtues (for some) of being alone. It’s something every introvert can identify with. I was left with the feeling of a chapter missing, the need to draw all the strings of art and reflection together.

4/5. Finished Saturday 24 February, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War

Paul Jankowski (2013)

A history of the longest battle of the First World War – or is it? The events of the actual battle get remarkably little space or discussion. Instead the book deals with the social history of the soldiers on both sides (although primarily the French), and on the various traps of attrition, prestige, and inertia that the generals and their political masters fell into. This is fascinating stuff, but there’s an unspoken assumption that the reader is primarily interested in these broader issues, and furthermore already knows all the important features of the battle itself in enough detail to not need even a chronology. Having read the book I still don’t know how the battle ended. It’s probably better therefore to think about this book as an exploration of the wider landscape, both official and personal, of the experience of a huge and extended battle, rather than having all that much to do with the battle as an event.

3/5. Finished Saturday 24 February, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Culloden: Scotland’s Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire

Trevor Royle (2016)

It’s unusual when the history of an event deals with that event one-third of the way through, spends the rest of the book looking at the personal and global consequences of the event – and still feels completely balanced in its treatment.

Culloden was many things, both the last battle fought on UK soil and the source of a great homogenisation of culture across the country. For such a dramatic event, the actual battle was remarkably simple, being fought on the wrong ground by an exhausted Scottish army who clearly never stood a chance (but who might have won had they fought on another day in another place that would have favoured their tactics).

But it’s the subsequent lives of the protagonists that really occupies Royle. The soldiers’ careers range across what became the British empire, from the American Revolutionary War, through the winning of India, to the eviction of the French from Canada and the re-ordering of the European political landscape. All of these started at Culloden, not least because they involved Highland and other Scottish regiments who’d fought on both sides, integrating the defeated into the army and economic opportunities of the victors.

4/5. Finished Saturday 24 February, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)