Archive for the ‘What’s New’ Category

Review: The Comanche Empire

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

I don’t know much at all about the history of the American Southwest despite living in the region (broadly construed). I know the basic outline of Northeastern history much better.  I have been trying to improve this and when Patrick Wyman’s Tides Of History Book Club recommended Pekka Hamalainen’s  The Comanche Empire, I decided to pick it up.

Hamalainen sets out to upset readers conception of the Comanches.  In my case, that is easy – I don’t know much about them beyond recognizing them as Western Movie villains. My very limited understanding the history of this domain was informed by the conflicts between Spain, Mexico, France, and the US. Those players are here, of course, but most of the traditional narrative only recognizes the Natives as weather conditions.  Empire makes the situation clearer by animating the Comanches.

The traditional narrative of the region has gaps that become more visible as one considers them.  Some of those gaps include the factors that made Texas ripe for splitting from Spain and Mexico.  Why and how is Northern Mexico such easy pickings in the Mexican War?  What in the world is the story in New Mexico?  The answer to all of those is not “Comanches.”  But answers that don’t face the facts about the extent and power of these Natives are confusing and incomplete.  Empire fills in the negative space in the historical narrative.

The Comanches are interesting in their own right as well.  They are a powerful geopolitical player, as I mentioned above. The group  is also interesting in terms of their internal nearly federated government style.  Multiple loosely cooperating clans who share tribal customs and values are capable of combining efforts to remake their society and act effectively against technically more advanced states.

The Empire exists because they can change their way of life to move into the great plains, but they disappear as much because they cannot sustain the new style than because they are defeated in battle.  Explosive population growth without carefully husbanding resources – in this case horses and bison – failed catastrophically.  This is a cautionary tale worth significant ruminations.

The Comanches also traded in and supported themselves with slaves.  This was certainly a second fuse burning in their society, though the ecological failures seem to have gotten them first.

Overall Empire is an accessible introduction to a fascinating people.

Recommended.

Review: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

It is always a bit surprising to hear a Georgetown Law Professor write discursively, but this is one of the great strengths of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. It has the title and back flap summary of another current events book focused on foreign policy.  And it certainly is that.  The parts of it that I found more thought provoking and engaging are when Rosa Brooks writes like she’s lecturing a grad student seminar in international law.

When that happens, she tells a convincing story that Western Civilization is worth saving.  That the vague consensus on values and authority of nations to enforce mores and influence on the worst of human behavior works well enough to make a positive difference.  That expressing the values of human rights, when merged with that consensus, advances the species.

Neither Books nor I believe that these institutions work all of the time.  We may not believe that they work most of the time.  Her realistic and hard won experience in these matters – she was high up in the Pentagon and significant Human Rights groups – have effectively tempered her idealism.  Though the running gag on Deep State Radio is that she’s uniformly pessimistic about humanity, but much of Everything undercuts that.  She is ruthlessly pragmatic, but ultimately seems to hold a flickering flame of hope up against the To Build a Fire odds.

The other aspect of Everything that I found compelling is her penetrating analysis of the changes technology and resulting politics have wrought in sovereignty with respect to international law.  I have long taken these legal concepts to be set in stone.  They framed my understanding of the morality of international intervention and violence. Brooks has moved me a significant distance off that base.  She has convinced me to strongly consider that enough has changed in the world that there are significant gaps in the ideas that underlie those legal constructs.  I also admit the possibility that humans may be able to adapt the ideas, laws, and consensus that form the basis for international law.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Forever War

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

Dexter Filkins is a journalist in the best sense of the term. Different folks have different ideas about the goals of the vocation, so here’s how I evaluate them. Journalists go into a situation, immerse themselves in it, and return stories that help us understand it. They bring their observation, investigation, and communication skills.  They also bring their minds, biases, and hearts.  Humans have to.

Filkins plied that trade in the Middle East in the first decade and a half of the 21st century.  He’s seen Taliban beheadings, daily life in Mujahideen camps, been embedded with US Marines in Fallujah, and watched the Green Zone, and US attitudes that underlie it, evolve.  He reports on it all clearly, with head and heart.  And he is honest about the prices he paid to be there, even when others paid them. Readers may disagree with elements of his reporting but his dedication to bringing these stories to others is outstanding.

H/T @kairyssdal for the recommendation.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Annihilation Score

Friday, May 4th, 2018

I’m a fan of Stross‘s Laundry Files. Most of my reviews of the series don’t have much to add to those links.  Annihilation Score marks an interesting point for me in that it is set in the same universe but from a different character’s viewpoint.  I was drawn in to the world partially by the computer science in-jokes, so it’s compelling and interesting to see the world without those references.  Stross carries it out well, showing us how the Laundry looks from an academic woman’s perspective.  He doesn’t miss a beat.

Recommended.

Review: Unexpected Stories

Friday, April 27th, 2018

I’ve often talked about my love of SF short story collections, and this small collection fits the bill.  It is only two stories, but they would be at home in any reasonable showcase. Octavia Butler is quite brilliant, and acquits herself well in these early tales.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the collection is the faint praise that Walter Mosley gives the stories in his forward.  From what he says these are a couple stories of primarily academic interest.  And he’s correct, in a sense. Butler later writes much more important and deep works.

I found it is powerful to look at these stories as expositions of craft.  Deep thoughts don’t matter if you can’t hold a reader’s attention. Butler’s craft is unparalleled. She gors on to bigger things, but these are diverting, interesting, stories with real meat.  It is only her later triumphs that dim the praise.

Recommended.

Review: A Colony in a Nation

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

In A Colony in a Nation, Chris Hayes made me reframe my thinking on several topics that I thought I’d thoroughly understood. It’s always hard to lead people to seeing things new ways, and more so when you have an interest, some study, and strong opinions.  The topic here is how people – mostly white American people – treat people different from them.  The topic is incendiary and the sides dug in.  Hayes is in the midst of this as an MSNBC commentator and journalist, and it is tempting to dismiss his views from that bias.  I think that would be unwise.  Agree or disagree with his conclusions, he repeatedly shifts the camera to reveal facts one knows from a new perspective.  Every chapter of this made me reconsider ideas I thought I understood completely.

Part of this is his eloquent and effective writing.  He corrals ideas effectively and channels the reader’s impressions powerfully.

Finally, and crucially, Hayes resists any urges he might have to suggest quick fixes.  He’s looking at the system that makes up our society and admits his complicity without condemning himself – or anyone else – for being part of it.  Despite that, he does not leave anyone off the hook either.  It’s a powerful position.

A must.

Review: Hunt for the Skinwalker

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

I read a lot when I was a kid, reinforced by being pretty good at school.  When you read all the assignments you get sent to the library to “read quietly.” Reading quietly was a treat for me – a way to explore the world from a small town.  I read lots of stuff, including things like collections of ghost stories and UFO investigations.  I also read histories of science and Norse mythology.  Don’t judge me.

Hunt for the Skinwalker would fit nicely on the bookshelf of my past next to say this charmer.  It purports to be a scientific investigation of a bunch of UFO/ghost stories coming out of a Utah ranch investigated by a set of folks called the National Institute for Discovery Science. It’s a book of common conspiracy and UFO stories and the unconvincing investigation that follows.

I wound up reading it based on a mention from The Desert Oracle.  The Oracle is an unflinchingly weird view of art, rumors, and craziness in the western deserts. As a tour of the particular rumors that form in the desert, Skinwalker is a fine example.  Beyond that there’s not much here.

I do have to say that “skinwalker” is a cool name for an Navajo shapeshifter.  So, two things.

Praise to the Cast

Saturday, March 31st, 2018

“That’s the impossible middle ground we’ve established for ourselves,” (or something like it) is how Kevin Porter, who hosts the Good Christian Fun podcast with Caroline Ely, describes their work.  The conceit is that the hosts and some guests review items from Christian-targeted pop culture and toss out their impressions.  Along the way they talk about their relationship to American Evangelical Christianity.  Both of them grew up attached to the Church in different ways though – as they freely admit – neither has the resume to be talking about any of professionally.

That’s the aspect I find charming about it.

Both are young socially liberal folks who care about their religion.  They freely and deeply share their doubts and moments of affirmation.  And some appalling popular culture.

It reaffirms my faith in people to hear personable, openly religious people who care about justice and decency.  If you feel like you need a dose of that now and again, come check it out.

Review: Louie, Take A Look At This

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Luis Fuerte is Huell Howser‘s collaborator and camera operator who worked with him on many iconic shows across Howser’s storied career.  In many ways it’s a straight ahead memoir that shows great respect for both his collaborator and their shared work.  If you’re looking for tales out of school, don’t look here.

What are here are telling details of how creators become collaborators.  Luis has a real touch for describing the unspoken dance that emerges as he learns to trust Howser’s storytelling instincts and interview skills and Howser comes to appreciate Fuerte’s composition skills and operational brio.

It is not deep, but is diverting.

Review: Locking Up Our Own

Friday, March 30th, 2018

James Forman, Jr. is a defense attorney and community activist in the District of Columbia who has been in the courts’ trenches.  Inspired by the toll that decisions of the last 50 years have taken on people he has met, he relates a well researched history of national and DC criminal law.  There are a many books that wade into this history and tell similar stories.  Forman brings a fascinating matter-of-factness to the issues.

He is clear that DC’s environment is driven by the forces that drive DC’s nascent black-driven power structure.  DC unique in that its government is essentially formed in this time.  Until the 1970’s the city was administered half-heartedly by Congress.  In 1973 Congress cedes control to a locally elected government.  Because the populace was largely black, so was the government.

Despite that unique formation and evolution, the DC drug possession and gun violence laws are among the most draconian.  DC is a “law-and-order” style city despite that phrase often signifying such laws imposed by whites.  Forman delves into his memories and the historical record to show how class, violence, and the drug epidemic all combined into the powerful brew from which those laws emerge.  His research and ability to connect it to his own experiences is fascinating.

His sense of balance also restrains him from looking for quick fixes to the complex problems those laws have engendered.  He never claims the easy answer or the simple motivation.  That sort of balance is rare and valuable.

Strongly recommended.