Archive for the ‘What’s New’ Category

Review: Operation Mincemeat

Friday, June 21st, 2019

I am a pretty big fan of history, but I find myself gravitating to the histories that cover longer timeframes or individual lifetimes. A friend recommended Ben MacIntyre’s history of a classic act of disinformation, Operation Mincemeat which is neither. I went in with a bit of trepidation.

I should not have worried. MacIntyre’s writing is extremely engaging and lively. He coveys the idea that a team of eccentric, mostly patriotic, enthusiastic British intelligence officers came up with an idea just crazy enough to work that would enable one of the key landings in WWII. He balances the giddy rush of lets-put-on-a-show with the tension of a tight Mission Impossible episode. Also Weekend At Bernie’s.

MacIntyre has been writing about British Intelligence long enough to have found some of the most colorful members of it. There’s something inherently charming about a team that includes Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Graham Greene – skilled intelligence experts who are also talented writers. None of those folks are center stage of Mincemeat, but the folks who are involved have their own quirk and wit. And conflicted motivations. MacIntyre tells their story whimsically and with scholarly backing.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Apocalypse Codex

Saturday, June 15th, 2019

Back to The Laundry.

My admiration for Charles Stross’s work in general and the Laundry books specifically is sizable and enduring. I love the mix of spy thriller, horror, and organization management review. All the computer science, networking, IT, and aviation references help a lot, of course. Great fun for me.

The Apocalypse Codex shows off Stross’s world-building and attention to the clockwork of plot. I didn’t come away with the same feeling of gleeful pastiche that I have in other Laundries, but I came away with a deeper understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes in the world.

One way that manifests itself is in Stross’s understanding and explication of the world of megachurches, both functionally and philosophically. The view is – perhaps surprisingly – sympathetic. The details of the way the church administration blends faith and business practices are clear and believable. It extends to the implicit comparison with the application of similar constraints and techniques inside the Laundry. Some of these practices and motivations are inherently exploitative. Stross lets neither organization off the hook for that. The social criticism of both Megachurches and National Intelligence Services is subtle, but pointed.

Meanwhile, Bob Howard is becoming a more mature and responsible manager of people and himself. Stross blends the natural ripening of a human with the guidance and discipline of the (faith-influenced?) organizational management styles in believable ways that are enjoyable, subtle, and worth reflection.

Finally, there are some plot twists for the series that make one gasp in the how-did-I-miss-that way that great spy writers can pull off.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Always Running

Monday, April 15th, 2019

Crux was a memoir that derived its impact from the literary framing that Guerrero put on her family’s story. In Always Running, Luis Rodriguez comes at his memoir from another direction. He tells his story plainly – starkly in places. That clean, simple approach lets his times and his perspective imbue his experience with heft and meaning.

Rodriguez writes crisply and evocatively without poetical flourishes that might distract from his narrative. Much of his point is that so many shared his circumstances and faced their own difficulties, victories, and tragedies all around him. Directly relating his life and the others it touches magnifies it.

That said, the differences that inspire him to challenge his readers and his society are all the more powerful because they seem so small at first. A few little choices mean the difference between a life of petty violence and a life of social reform. His life and his friends’ lives are continually balanced on a razor’s edge.

Recommended.

Review: Crux

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

Crux is the well-told story of Jean Guerrero’s unique life and relationship with her father tinted with the political and cultural world of Southern California and Northern Mexico. In that way, it is almost the definition of a memoir.

Memoirs are more than a recitation of a life, of course. Guerrero transcends simple history by casting her father’s life and her journey in discovery of it as a mythic hero’s journey. That journey takes her through an underworld spiced with the imagery and metaphor of the Southwest. She is quite effective.

I found her telling powerful, but not universal. She ties her narrative to the personalities in her family which makes it fascinating and unique. As a tale this is powerful, but specific.

Recommended.

Review: The Golden Empire

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

The Golden Empire is the second volume in Hugh Thomas’s history of the Spanish Empire in America following on Rivers of Gold. The style, balance and sourcing remain strong.

Thomas continues to place the colorful Europeans in the context of the expanding Spanish Empire begun in Rivers. These are large-as-life folks who come to the new world for as many motivations as they are people modulo a selection bias for enough courage to challenge a comparative wilderness.

He pays less attention to specific Mayans and Mexica, though my impression is that this is more due to fewer sources of information than excessive Euro-centricism. When he has sources, he brings the indigenous folks to life as well. Of course, I’m new to the history of the region and I’m not a member of the indigenous. Take me with a kilo of salt on this.

Thomas places considerable emphasis on the Empire’s internal grappling with their duties toward the people they are taking the land from. Conquistadors are killing the people en masse, destroying their governance and culture, and taking their resources. Even with trans-Atlantic supply lines, these raids’ outcomes were never really in doubt. While I agree that decisions about how to treat the survivors is splitting a hair, understanding why slavery in South and Central America is materially different than in North America was compelling.

Spain was an aggressively Catholic Empire at the time, as the Inquisition and pogroms in the continental Spanish Empire demonstrate. The distinction in the Empire is between full people – Christians – and less-than-people is entirely based on embracing the religion. It is worth listening to the voices who argued that the indigenous people were humans who deserved to be saved. The arguments have practical aspects and repercussions. Slave trading is fantastically lucrative; many conquistadors are in it for the money. That Spain is willing to constrain enslaving natives and enforce it is remarkable. So is the fact that enforcement is spotty.

Thomas also points out that environmental and economic realities affected the nature of slavery and exploitation of South America. Unlike the North where (two centuries later) tobacco and cotton were both lucrative and labor intensive, the Spanish Empire focused on mining – gold, silver, copper – that is less labor intensive. The Spanish conquerors are less incentivized to enslave the locals or to import Africans.

They did do both, of course, but some amount of traditional serfdom also seems to prevail. I found it telling to see that evolution.

Recommended.

Review: Dear Los Angeles

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

Because I look at everything through the lens of 1980’s comic books, I see David Kipen’s Dear Los Angeles as Ozymandias‘s video wall turned on Los Angeles’s history.

Kipen accomplishes this by collecting and sequencing snippets of first-person letters and diary entries written in LA that span 1542 to 2018. Having sifted unguarded glimpses of the place from those sources he curates the collection by arranging them by on day of the year on which they were written. The resulting temporally unanchored panopticon synthesizes a unique view of the place.

There are myriad ways for this to fail, but I really enjoyed this literary kaleidoscope.

Recommended.

Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

Monday, February 18th, 2019

Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told effectively ties the personal accounts of American Slavery to the power of the institution as an economic engine. Though I’ve read many accounts of the period, I’ve never felt the impact of the events on individuals at the same time feeling the incentives that drove Americans to enslave people and torture them. It’s powerful writing.

I have heard many of the individual accounts before – and they’re appalling – but when he connects the inhuman treatment of people to the insane economic growth that it fuels, it becomes more believable that people continued expanding the geographical scope of slavery and the inhumanity of the physical torture.

People who are getting rich exploiting others can insulate themselves from the horrors they are inflicting on others. They can convince themselves that their hands are clean. It is easy to see people perpetuating similar cycles of exploitation and denial today.

Baptist makes an impersonal and compelling case that these forces held sway in antebellum America. Their echos certainly continue to ring in modern America as well. To me, the power of the argument is that one can accept and promote terrible justifications for atrocities without malice in one’s heart. Individual prosperity combined with rising national prestige is a powerful brew.

Baptist also traces fairly subtle changes in attitudes toward slavery. As the nation’s productivity fuels national prestige, people tied to the economic methods naturally tribalize. The people directly benefiting from slavery have a direct connection to perpetuating the atrocity. Baptist connects the communities that indirectly benefit to that tribe as well. Merchants who transport cotton or operate textile mills also support it. The more direct supporters propagate plausible (or only vaguely plausible) justifications that are easier for more distant supporters to accept because of the community sense and income.

Troublingly, the argument works for abolitionists and Northerners as well. If one believes Baptist, part of the nation’s failure to make good on promises of freedom in Reconstruction stems from the idea that Northern sentiment was more about taking power from the South by destroying slavery than by ending and atoning for the horror. If the moralizing of the North (even though factual) was mostly justification for the War, that is consistent with people losing ardor when the short term goal – destroy the institution – is complete.

I don’t think people fundamentally change a lot. To the extent that Baptist is right about these tendencies toward self-delusion and herd mentality, we need to look at how we are exploiting others in pursuit of prosperity.

Though I believe a lot of Baptist’s arguments, he is gathering and interpreting facts and analyses from many disciplines. One could summarize one of his positions as asserting that the toxic masculinity that a torture-based economy imbued Andrew Jackson with spurred him to both sweep Native Americans from their tribal lands to fuel substantive expansion of slave-driven cotton production at the same time he destroyed the banking system that accelerated that growth. That’s a bold statement.

Baptist does not shy away from showing his work. Half is well sourced and pours supporting facts out in torrents. I find he strikes a good balance between support and narrative, but it is a fine line. I suspect there are some who nit-pick some of the economic arguments as well. My preference is Baptist’s abundance and transparency.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Big Picture

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

The Big Picture aims to propagate a physics-based philosophy and worldview. I am sympathetic to an overall non-supernatural outlook and science as a basis for finding objective fact in a confusing world viewed through imperfect senses and idiosyncratic thinking organs. I think Sean Carroll reaches further than he reasonably can in an effort to build a theory of everything, but his attempt includes many perceptive and thought provoking ideas.

Carroll is a physicist well versed in cosmology and quantum theory. He starts by combining our incomplete understanding of these disciplines into an overall description of the physical universe. Though I mentioned that our understanding of those ideas is incomplete, one of the compelling ideas that Carroll puts forth is that our understanding is complete enough to resolve the overall state of the universe. He supports the justification the consistency of, explanatory power of, and evidence for those theories justifies relying on them. I think that’s compelling, but then I showed up pretty close to that; not everyone will agree, but he lays out a clear position.

When he begins to apply Bayesian analysis and conditional probability theory to belief levels, I start wanting to argue about it. As he extrapolates further from other mathematics and physics into a life philosophy and moral basis, I find more to disagree with. I reject parts of his worldview, but my personal views are incongruent with most people’s. I don’t think any two people will agree completely on those big issues.

The value I see in Picture is that Carroll builds his perspective clearly and directly from modern cosmology. He uses mathematics and other ideas as metaphors when not directly applicable. The book sparked some interesting ideas even when I disagreed with them.

Recommended.

Review: Rivers Of Gold

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

Rivers of Gold is the first volume of Hugh Thomas’s trilogy of books on the Spanish Empire. I picked it up as part of my ongoing interest in South and Central America.

Thomas is an old school British historian and Rivers is correspondingly well researched and clearly delivered. His style is unexpectedly accessible and almost inviting. The combination of invitation and educational focus makes it feel like a great history class.

The research and references are all solid without being overbearing. I think the notes and bibliography provide a solid basis for further exploration.

The overall narrative balances the push and pull of Spanish royalty in Europe and the almost internecine Caribbean politics. Having gobbled up Conquistador and basking in the Western Hemisphere insanity, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the European politics has a different complimentary flavor.

Recommended.

Review: The Library Book

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

Susan Orlean opens obscure cultures and places to readers through her insightful writing. In The Library Book she takes on one of my favorite institutions – the Los Angeles Central Library (and the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) in general)

The LAPL anchors LA’s literary landscape, educational resources, and community outreach. It is a powerful and fascinating resource and I am delighted to be a contributor to it, just to slap a bias on the table.

Beyond that, the history of the place is in the center of the unique and chaotic confluence of forces that is the insanity of LA history. The parade of people and politics that swirl about the founding and evolution of the early history of the LAPL routinely drops your jaw. It’s lively and delightful, including an early (female) director who is voted out and basically responds by saying – “you want the keys? Come and get ’em.”

That’s without considering the 1986 arson that nearly destroyed the place and the subsequent conspiracy-theory-fertile legal wrangling after it. As remarkable is the powerful restorative response of so many parts of LA’s community. Orlean relates this all with the power and mystery it deserves.

Beyond the historical, Orlean takes pains to capture the eclectic feeling of the library. It is a backbone of so many facets of the city and community that no one view could capture it all. She builds a lively collage of perspectives that illuminates the library’s many roles in LA’s pageant.

Any admirer of libraries, history, or community will find much to love here.

Strongly recommended.