2014 in books that aren’t casebooks

The following little reviews are all shamelessly copypasted from my contributions to a book-review email chain. The focus thereof is “history books” – though departures are the rule, rather than the exception.

>>Prussian Nights: A Poem, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

As best as I have been able to reconstruct it, this is the context:

In the late 1930s, the Soviet Union is a place of hysteria, hopelessness and purge. The author was a grad student in literature in Moscow, hiding in books, escaping into poetry. During Operation Barbarossa he helped defend Moscow, but despite his education he was clearly of no temperament to lead men into battle, or even to be led. However, by the time that the German wave broke and the Russians typhoon began to move to Berlin, there weren’t many fighting people left. The author was thus given an officer’s rank and a squad of a few dozen men – some criminals, some peasants, mostly young boys – and sent into Europe for to conquer.

Along the way, he witnessed things which never left him. Destruction of property. Soldiers burning houses. Rape. Murder. Vea victis. Roman rule.

The author saw Russian soldiers act this way. Men under his command acted this way. Even he acted this way.

Then, a bare three weeks into his command, he was arrested and sent to the GULAG. And then Ivan Denisovich. And then a Nobel Prize. And then, many years later, this poem.

I believe that the poem is one part recrimination, one part witnessing, and one part question. The first part is simple: he saw atrocities and did not stop them, he himself was swept along and acted as no man should. The second part is the writer’s part: a desire to capture the feeling of a time, to demonstrate, to hear and then later be heard. The last part is the most interesting, and cannot be accomplished without the first two: the author seeks to ask, Why did we behave this way? Why did I?

He had many years to think of his actions. They were the last free acts before many years in prison, frozen labor, internal exile. But more than that: they were the supreme acts of freedom. A complete desecration of the sanctity of property, body, life. Actions against civilization, proving its absence.

And so the question he asks is: why did I act this way? Why did I let myself get caught up? Really: what else could I do?

But more than that, it asks: what is a time of war? Is it a time when civilization is reversed, and violence brought specifically to bear – as by a Russian peasantry which had been brutalized by the German war machine, simply having its revenge, just or at least understandable? Is it, in short, a time of anti-peace? Or it is simply the absence of civilization, not a black time, but infinitely grey: a vacuum of order, in which man’s basest desires can reign? Was it revenge that his soldiers took, or simply did they act because man is barbarous in nature, and the opportunity was presented? Did they rape and pillage because they wanted to destroy and conquer, or did they just want to fuck and watch-things-burn?

This is The Odyssey for the twentieth century, and I think I shall say that it is magnificent.

>>The General of the Dead Army, by Ismail Kadare

Twenty years after the Second World War, a German general goes to Albania to recover the bodies of Nazi troops who died in their occupation.

It is a meditation on post-war Europe, on wounds healed and festered; elegant and yet not ethereal, smelling of earth and truck exhaust and the smoke of Russian cigarettes and Italian beer, it is Camus plucked from his high heavens and settled in the Tirana countryside.

I must say that there was one disappointment. Throughout the book, there are passing references to “Colonel Z-“, who is said to have been the leader of a (presumptively) Waffen-SS regiment in Albania, noted by gossip for its great cruelty but tactical brilliance, efficiency, almost mythic ability to survive. The eponymous General keeps finding clues about Colonel Z, but they aren’t really relevant to his little quest for bones. It is as if his life keeps threatening to have some great purpose, some higher challenge… but int he end it never manifests, for he is simply a guy doing a strange job half in history.

And then, near the very end, the mysteriousness is clarified into a simple mystery, and is then resolved; and the book becomes as a detective novel, and so much of it by that is washed away.

It was Kadare’s first novel, and one can tell that he had not the confidence to keep it from becoming a novel. But is almost, so almost, had the courage to not have a plot. Which, in that case, would have made it perhaps the greatest existentialist meditation of all time: simple, simultaneously gemutlicht and wild, historical and modern, of the man-made road and of the earth.


>>The Siege, by Ismail Kadare

Obviously I liked Kadare’s first book, because I went and got another. I will probably read several others of his, if not all of them; that’s usually how I operate.

The Siege flows much more easily than The General; one can tell it has not the desperate tightening of a first novel, incessently worked and “perfected,” but was simply written.

It is an excellent historical novel, showing three months of a siege of an Albanian holdfast (presumptively the First Siege of Shkoder, late 1400s) by the Ottomans. Though written by an Albanian, the story is almost entirely from the perspective of the Turks. It follows, among others, an aged military commander who knows that this is his last battle; a minor functionary who dreams of shaping the world in the Ottoman image; a captured Albanian girl now in the harem of a Janissary commander; a nerdy gun-caster; an indifferent siege engineer; and the historian sent by the Porte to record the battle for history.

It is elegantly presented, bounteously researched, bereft of glossy romance or modern sanctimony… In short, fans of military history fiction will get the biggest boners ever.

The book is particularly interesting in comparison to The Siege of Shkoder, which is considered the first book every written by an Albanian (ca 1500) – and is, as such, a mountain of chauvenism, both by itself and in the position it held in Hoxha’s Albania.

>>The Physician, by Noah Gordon

I think I’ve written about this book here before, but I just wanted to point out that the movie (Der Medicus) was just released. It is, I think, the highest-grossing German movie of all time… even though a round 0% of it is set in Germany.

I loved the book (medieval Islamic medicine + proto-GRRM historo-boobage… feed it to me like grapes!), but I am forced to concede that the movie ate more ass than a cannibal let loose on a troupe of rap-video backup dancers.

A few of the little scenes were well done, but at the end of the day:
1) No country outside America seems to have the resources to produce a truly immersive historical film, at least not of such a pre-modern time. The cut corners are simply too apparent. It reeks of the back-lot. It breaks the metaphor.
2) You cannot take an 800-page novel and turn it into a 2-hour movie at all, let alone one that still attempts to be faithful to the book. This would have made a truly magnificent miniseries. As it was, it suffered from a total want of quality.

>>Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol

Really very good.

I should start by saying that this is the book upon which Assassin’s Creed was “based.” Note the quotation marks. Note them again.

Screed, one may recall, is made primarily by Ubisoft Montreal. Alamut was originally available almost exclusively in French, and enjoyed rather significant notoriety in the francophone world. It is still not very much read in its native Slovenian; Bartol died in the 1960s, forgotten, all his work out of print in his own country.

The story, in short, is that the of the beginning of the Assassin sect – that is, the Hashishins – that is, medieval Ismaeli Muslims. It starts with two characters, a new recruit of the fedayeen, and a new addition to the leader’s harem. However, before very long, the real center of the novel is seen to be the Assassin leader, Hassan-I-Sabbah; before the novel is three-quarters over, the two starting “protagonists” have entirely 100% left the story.

It is, more than anything else, a meditation on three points:

1) How much can a person be manipulated to do the bidding of another?
In this context it is an accessible entree into the psyche of a modern suicide bomber (and more), as well as the psyche of the person who orders them to martyrdom.

2) What does a person want who has such power?
A person who has riches, resources, even the power of life and death over his countrymen – what do they want? Would we be bound by our bougie middle-class morality if we had such power – and if we were, would that even be a good? More than anything else, the books seeks to investigate the mind of a dictator – not the moribund general-in-his-labrynth, but the actual and supreme ruler-of-men, which this world (and its many parts) has seen thousands of times before, and sees not infrequently to this day.

3) Is a Heaven built upon earth, by the hands of man, really inferior to a deific Heaven found only on high?
This is a question which it leaves the reader to decide – or, better yet, to ponder, and not choose.

It was not a perfect book – the narrative is a bit choppy, sometimes by design, sometimes I think not – and it was written in a sufficiently conservative climb and time so as to lack somewhat of the flesh and fire that a modern novel presents (and for which it would here, unlike most modern fictions, actually be appropriate).

But I highly recommend it.

(PS it has, in essence, the precisely antithetical purpose and message of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Which is one part tears, I think – but ten parts smirk, by a well-read Ant)

>>Smuggler Nation, by Peter Andreas

Not very good.
Clearly the result of a new Brown professor paying homage to historical Rhode Island. Little narrative interest, sparse on interesting historical research, and lacking int he mouthfeel of great historical storytelling.

>>How Great Generals Win, by Bevin Alexander

Suitable for a middle-schooler who has gained an interest in military science by means of Europa Universalis or Rome: Total War. Not bad, but not great – and at no point of a depth to really satisfy.

>>The Fruit Hunters, by Adam Gollner

Clearly pieced together from the author’s magazine pieces. Clearly, likewise, it began its life as a book called “Fruit,” in much the same way as we might see “Salt” or “Cod” or the legion of other single-subject “noun books” in airport bookstores around the aviating world. However, the filler between the magazine-pieces ranges from dull to dulllllllllllllllllllllll, and the wide focus of a “biography of fruit” would have been better focused down onto a single subject – such as the subject of fruit-hunters, which this humble reader would have much preferred.

Approximately a quarter of the book is about the variety of fruits on this Earth, particularly exotics that even Whole Foods has not yet marketed into apathy. This part of the book is very well done – and mouthwatering, and inspiring.

Approximately a quarter of the book is about fruit-hunters, people who seek to track down fruits at the ends of the earth; or breed them; or market them; fruit-obsessives; greenhouse-addicts; and adventurers of blossom and vine. This part is quite well done, and I should like to see it more developed.

The remaining half of the book is bland post-Pollan pontificating about monocultures and prints of the carbon foot… which I got quite enough of at Hampshire, thankyouverymuch.

>>Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, by Edward Luttwak


>>THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST, by David Halbrestam

Highly recommended.

Traces the origins of the Vietnam War from the Dien Bien Phu to the Tet Offensive; which is to say, mainly, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Speaks of corruption, of intrigue, of petty politicking and personal ambition, and above all of the systematic ignorance and a lack of rigorous self-doubt that had us engage in a hopeless land-war in rural Asia. So, um, timely.

Places things in context. Focuses primarily upon four things: one, the homogeneity of Kennedy’s advisers; two, the titanomachia within the administration resulting from the assassination of JFK (by Greedo #spoileralert), three, the havoc wreaked on American foreign policy by a domestic policy of fear (i.e. the McCarthyana); four, the inevitable failure of considering war to be the exclusive provenance of soldiers, rather than a political struggle utilizing military means (with the necessary subservience of military commanders to political actors at the international level).

Or, to put it another way, it’s a book that makes you spend 900 pages wanting to dig up Clausewitz’s skeleton, remove his ulna, and use it to smack the Pentagon liberally about the face and neck.

A fine example of history written, not by an academic historian, but by a professional journalist of the highest caliber. Significantly easy to read, with prose that ranges from “elegant simplicity” to “delightful acerbism”. This was the first of the “Kennedy revisionist” documents, that plucked Camelot from legend and gave it its well-deserved place in the humble house of history. I should also make special note of the fact that it was begun in 1968, just after Nixon’s election, and was completed a full three years before the fall of Saigon. You want to talk in medias res? Jesus Christ.

One brief anecdote: the title of the book came to the author, as, he says, his own invention. It was criticized at the time of publication (by members of the establishment groping for something to criticize) for being a misconstruction of an old Episcopal hymn, which uses the words “brightest and best.” The author points out that he had never even heard this hymn, and as such, found the charge particularly enjoyable. I should like to point out, O ants, that the phrase “best and brightest” is actually derived from the Latin of classical Rome – OPTIMVS MAXIMVS, which itself was a title of Jupiter, patron of Republic and Empire. If this is not the most-perfect metaphor for Vietnam – for what happens when one ignores the lessons of history – I can’t think of a better one.


Highly recommended.

One might best divide the book into three parts: 1) a general history of post-Newtonian physics; 2) All Szilard All The Time; 3) history at its best.

This first part is rather dry, and not at all the smoothest narrative. In the age of Wikipedia, it would have been shorter and smoother – and better because.

This second part is, while very good, not great; its much-ballyhoo’d “revisionism” stems from focusing more on certain actors who had not until then received their fair share of credit… and yet this is not the most interesting sort of revisionism, nor is it thorough (it overemphasized the role of several smaller players for the sake of so doing, and likewise it ignores many smaller players too, committing the very sin its strive to wash us of). Likewise its character-centric history, while o so human, rather speaks of a desire to take great events (and greatest science) and make it palatable to someone rushing through an airport.

The third part takes the former two parts and ties them together with absolute brilliance. It forms a riveting narrative. It is, in short, worth the slog.

>>1491, by Charles C Mann

It’s aight.

A fair introduction to that broadest of fields, Pre-Columbian Studies, encompassing most of the scientific and social-scientific disciplines over about eight million square miles. Nice summaries of modern researches interspersed with personal narratives and human stories. But really, it’s a very slim volume – it has to the ancient Americas roughly the same relationship as a Roland Emmerich movie to climatology. Popular science is strange enough when it recounts the stories of experimental studies; this is popular science about a metastudy, which I find to be of little use.

>>Spillover, by David Quammen


A history of modern infectious-disease epidemiology with a focus on zoonosis, the crossing (or titular “spillover”) of a pathogen from an animal to a human population. It’s not bad. It’s pretty light, all things considered, and betrays its scientific pretensions by indulging in the same sort of theatrics which it so frequently decries – kind of like An Inconvenient Truth if it had been scripted by Michael Crichton.

I was also particularly offended by the logical inconsistency of its mewing, crying-indian environmentalism. “If only we didn’t interfere with Nature,” is the essence of its refrain, “we wouldn’t keep making it fight back!” The result is a kind of “the horror, the horror” Deepest Darkest Africa mindset, whereby we shouldn’t go near the jungle lest we disturb the demons within. And yet the populations most affected by so many modern diseases (viz the Ebola family of viruses) are people who have lived in these areas for hundreds, if not thousands of years – and done so in a way of life that has not substantively changed during that time. It is not their fault for being decimated by disease; it is simply that we, on the other side of the world, are so protective of *our* not-exactly-in-harmony-with-nature lifestyles, that we want to make sure their diseases don’t get to us. The danger is not created at the source of the disease; it is created in the megalopolis, an entity seemingly designed to act as a perfect and unimpeded host for an epidemic.

From a scientific standpoint, the book is a good description of spillover of pathogens from animals to humans. But from a policy standpoint, the basic thesis of the book is that we should all be scared lest disease spill over from Africans to Us. Which, needless to say, makes me want to buy the author a one-way ticket to Vozrozhdeniya Island.

>>A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891–1924, by Orlando Figes

Five stars, recommended, would revolt again.

The book opens with an apology by the author for having made the book so damned long. So right away I knew I was gonna like it :-)

It provides an outline of early Russian history, a substantive and analytical investigation of the forty years’ prior to Red October, and a street-level and relatable (dare I say, human) narrative of the revolution and its immediate aftermath. And yet, none of the contextual information it provides is given in a vacuum: *everything* is tied to later analysis of the Revolution, in such a way as to from time to time actually cause the smacking of one’s gob.

It is well-written, accessible, and yet still chock full o’ statistics. How’s that for hitting the sweet spot? One example comes directly to mind.

The Soviets, in their “war against the peasants” of (especially) 1919-21, were wont to decry many smallholding farmers as “Kulaks” – capitalist-farmers, that is: too rich, that is: class enemies; that is: dipped in pejorative otherness sufficient to justify the confiscation of their much-needed grain. A common charge was that, even as late as 1919, one out of every three peasants had enough grain to keep and feed a horse – this when a full-time industrial worker in Petrograd was living on a thousand calories a day.

Figes then points out that these horses were not luxury items; few were even suitable for human transportation. They were beasts of burden. They lived to pull the plow. Likewise the Russian plow was not the large sweeping steel plow then universal in western Europe, but rather the old wooden wedge plow that had been phased out in England starting in the 1600s. Such plows were inefficient, and very hard to pull.

As a result, those peasants who did not own a horse had to pull the plow themselves. They had to tie themselves to a harness and pull a little plow through a field. They had to literally be put under the yoke – day in, day out, for the muddy Russian spring and summer.

Every horse that the Bolsheviks requisitioned – or ate – was not equalizing peasant relationships; every horse-owning peasant they killed was not the execution of a class enemy. The Bolsheviks were waging a war A) on the peasantry as a class (then by far the largest in Rus’), B) on the country’s supply of food, C) on technology.

Then, Figes explores to what extent these were each the ostensible goals of the Reds – to what extent they were using this war to further their own ends (suppression of the self-interested peasantry in favor of the workers, their political base) or were simply being bad administrators (evinced by the widespread starvation they engendered, both among the workers and doubly so among the over-requisitioned peasants).

It is also a charmingly revisionist history. The author is wont to all but say, “Here’s an incident from the Revolution. Here’s how the Western historians have portrayed it. Here’s how Soviet historians portrayed it. Here’s what I think happened.” His analysis is a paean to Occam’s Razor; he does not romanticise any parties, he does not give undue credit (nor does he withhold it when it is due), there is nothing so foul that he does not consider its benefits nor so fair that he does not cast a critical eye on its effectiveness.

Likewise he is wont to approach matters with a dry wit, oscillating between laconic and the sardonic as the situation warrants, which is probably the most British thing since Branston Pickle.

Sure the pigs – in the Orwellian mold – became as the farmers they had fought against. Is that such a bad thing? The tsar was doing a *terrible* job, with a corrupt and ineffective administration bent on pre-modern goals. The Reds were the new tsars – but was that what was needed? How much were their goals better, their methods more efficient, their methods necessary to the matter at hand? How much was the tragedy of the revolution’s excesses and abuses the inevitable adaptation to the context of A) a long-oppressed people, B) a backwards and divided empire, C) Russia? How much was, in short, crime – and how much only tragedy?

The book has *agency,* which makes it a gripping read – but this derives in great part from its pragmatic assessments. As a result, a person might be forgiven for thinking that this book is a useful *handbook for revolution* – what to do, what not to do, and when and why such a movement is appropriate.

>>The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss

Popular history.

The first twenty pages deal with the trials encountered by the author during his research – in the first person. Not something I consider much forgivable when it is merited, or done well. In this case there is no story worth telling, and it is told badly.

The remainder of the book tells a rather simple story – there is not substantively more meat to it than could fill a good Wikipedia Featured Article – which seeks to obscure its undernourishment with a tumescence of context.

The book is, therefore, a good introduction to slavery in the Carribean; a good introduction to the history of race relations in early France; a good introduction to the major works of Alexandre Dumas. It does not, however, ever excel the introductory.

Would make really good airplane-reading. If the internet was down.

>>The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel

In Werfel’s hands, 40 days seems like 40 years. To put it another way: it is so god damned overlong that it does not reward reading.

>>The Possessed, by Dostoevsky

A fallible, introspective first-person narrator – forty years before the birth of modernism. It makes one gasp.

A portrait of the revolutionaries of 1870s Russia (pre-Communist) – their origins, their methods, their aspirations, their horrors. Steeped in atmosphere. The perspective is not quite cynical, not quite enamored, not quite horrored… it is, in short, Russian.

Sometimes it feels like it’s eight million pages long. Sometimes it feels like the voice of God.

>>>Q, by Luther Blissett

The strongest possible recommendations. Reread. The Radical Reformation in its terror and glory. The birth of Protestantism cast as a social revolution betrayed into status-quo-affirming theology – in short: a direct comparison to Communism in the Europe of the 20th century. Not a perfect book. But when it’s good, JESUS CHRIST.

>>Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

At this point, it is possible to read Crypto as two different sorts of of historical fiction: one, based in World War Two; two, based in the Dot Com world of the Left Coast in 1999. Fifteen years on, and that world has become a part of history. Fascinating.

>>”Legacy of Ashes” by Tim Weiner

Not bad.

A general history of the CIA, from inception to the middle 00s. Written by a veteran Times reporter. Winner of the Pulitzer.

Rather strident in its revisionism, to the point of internal inconsistency – will spend page upon page belaboring the failings of the Agency’s intelligence, then several chapters together talking about the Agency’s failure to adequately present their intelligence. Other contradictions abound – all in the service of heaping scorn.

Doesn’t mean it’s *wrong* – just means it’s *sloppy*.

A number of its stories are comparatively overdeep – the ones that the reader is likely to find sexiest, like the Kennedy assassination, or White House politics in regards Vietnam – but never approach the level of a substantive study thereof. A number of other stories are rather glancingly treated, such as the Phoenix program, the secret war in Laos (Tony Poe is my copilottttt) which are notably never given any sort of conclusion. And, to my real chagrin, several stories are not covered at all – Allende; the Dalai Llama; Viet Nam prior to Dien Bien Phu; and – to my mind – the most interesting part of the pre-Vietnam Agency, its roots in the OSS, is not substantively explored.

It is a good introduction to the subject matter. It’s the sort of thing you might recommend to your friend’s sixteen-year-old who thinks it’s cool to call herself a neocon.

But at the end of the day, it is of the class of general histories which take a central focus and seek to give it context through smaller, related foci. Once a popular theme for a libretto, efficient, useful – in the waning days of The Great Predigital. It is impossible for such a work to be comprehensive while still maintaining narrative stride or accessibility – or a length-limit that would not require a binding made of epoxy and titanium. But in the digital age, simply in the days whereby such a work might be presented in the controlled pseudolinearity of hypertext, its very form is archaic and inefficient.

>>Ghost Wars, by Steve Coll


One part Hopkirk (Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, The Great Game), one part grand and moving historia with the touch of a Churchill or a Manchester. The idea that a modern American college student could call themselves graduated without having read this book is, frankly, appalling. Go read the fucker. Right fucking now.

(Read The Great Game first, and no lily shall e’er have been so well gilded)

>>The Complete Short Stories of Jorge Luis Borges.

Read one at a time in the space between classes. A sorbet to cleanse the palate – law school style.

The Universal History of Iniquity is charming, but due to its lack of invention it is hard for me to credit it with genius. The remainder of the stories are, most all of them, overburdened with invention – I want to call them genius, but find I do not actually care for them. In short: I like Borges when he is comfortable with being a librarian, and not when he tries so hard to be The Borges, Librarian Unto All The World.

>>The Call of the Wild, by Jack London.

It’s about a dog.

>>El Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

Rereading yet again. Continues to be a masterful work of storytelling. Even if somewhat slovenly self-conscious it is not without a certain clumsy charm – as it well knows. The most romantic novel of the modern age which I have encountered. Every time I read it, I must half a dozen times actually slap my gob and say, “Mother fucker, this is the book I should have written!”

>> Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel DeFoe.

The words of DeFoe hold up better than anything else in this language of ours. Still I found more adventure in the Journal of the Plague-Year – though easy for me to say, as medieval London is more exotic to me than a leafy island. #orientalism #occidentalism #yolo


~ by davekov on 29 December 2014.

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