Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Review: How To Hide An Empire

Sunday, December 8th, 2019

This is another joy from the work of Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei on the brilliant Throughline podcast that NPR supports. They credit Daniel Immerwahr’s How To Hide An Empire significantly in their Puerto Rico episode. I recommend that episode.

Empire itself is a strong history of the United States’ adventures acquiring and administering territory in the 19th century and the sea changes that WWII brings to that Empire. The two phases are fascinating in their own rights. The strange happenstances of expansion by a democratic yet slave-holding state before the war are fundamentally refined by changes in technology and geopolitics worked on and by the US. The US becomes a worldwide distributor of influence, goods, and arms and our foreign holdings reflect that in ways that surprised me.

The first half of Empire shows how the US’s Manifest Destiny mythology drives conquest and land acquisition, modulated – as always – by the internal struggles between Northern financial and manufacturing interests against Southern slave-driven interests. The expansion of the empire is also influenced by our best ideals. The geopolitics of the world also plays a role. Unlike European powers that were wresting land and resources from largely indigenous people, the US was largely wresting land from other colonizers. The interplay between the promises one makes to the colony and the improvements that appear when the uprising is over reveals a lot about human nature.

After World War II, the US needs foreign holdings less to pull in resources like rubber and guano (yes, guano) than to project influence and products. The underlying changes that drove those changes and what that means for the people in the colonies are fascinating. The trade-off between exerting influence based on democratic ideals and holding colonists in varying piecemeal states of rights and protections produces some remarkable verbal tap-dancing and outright doublethink.

One hopes this sort of history can make citizens think more deeply about how we act. Empire is a clear and accessible place to start.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Retreat of Western Liberalism

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

Edward Luce is one of the co-conspirators over at Deep State Radio, a concern I support with some reservations. I picked this up reluctantly. Luce is not my favorite speaker on DSR – that’s probably Rosa Brooks or Kori Schake – and I was concerned that his book would be similarly dry to me. I’m delighted to find him much more sparkling on the page.

Retreat illuminates the state of the world for me in two ways I find useful. It is a powerful and intelligible summation of facts and motivations of liberal ideas in the sense of the sorts of ideas that motivated the creation of the United Nations and other national cooperative bodies (NATO, Marshall Plan). Western leaders planted these after World War II to promote specific values. Luce explicates what these institutions are and what specific ideals the leaders tried to embody in them. The ideals are key to me. We can and should argue about the details of these institutions and how they are implemented, but holding up the motivations and principles that they are intended to promote lets one focus on whether those are worthwhile outside the details of who is behind on their UN dues.

Luce presents those institutions and ideas in the world outside our window, full of mistakes, compromise, and players who don’t believe in either the institutions or the ideals. People who believe in a simplistic world of simple good and evil are woefully unprepared to deal with those very real forces and people. Luce is persuasively and clearly realistic about how the ideas that the WWII winners tried to plant in the ground operate and fail to. He lives in a world where outcomes are not inevitable and invites us to join him.

Beyond that, he writes with clarity, wit, and charm that I was not expecting. While I’m happy to defend that evaluation of his writing, I suspect readers who are less sympathetic to his support of the international institutions will find his style more grating.

Recommended.

Review: The Phoenix Project

Sunday, October 27th, 2019

Yeah, I really read this. It’s a novel about DevSecOps. Really.

Intellectually, I understand what Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford are up to. They believe in this management and software develop methodology and are trying to evangelize it. What surprised me is that they to spread the word in long form narrative fiction. Evidently they hypothesize that there’s a market for fiction about a Hero’s Journey through software development management.

I pretty much had to read it.

As literature, it’s a total potboiler. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Our hero is thrown into a job he can’t refuse in a department full of underappreciated characters who mistrust him. There are high-level schemers working against his goals and the goals of his company. The security manager takes apparent glee in undermining the smooth operations of systems to defeat imagined foes. Fortunately there’s a guru/guardian angel who embodies nearly every cliche of the misunderstood Silicon Valley genius to take our hero under his wing.

Along the way, our hero quits in frustration, only to be literally begged to come back by the CEO. The security manager walks out, drinks himself into oblivion and comes back to the good side through application of DevSecOps principles. Our hero wins the loyalty of his team, frees his company from the prison of hidebound operating principles and leads it to the Nirvana of market penetration. If you know what I mean, and I think you do.

It’s an advertisement dressed up as an airport novel, executed perfectly competently. For that matter, I learned a few things about DevSecOps management principles that were worth thinking about.

I can’t recommend it, but it’s exactly what it says on the tin.

Review: Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?

Sunday, October 27th, 2019

I think Caitlin Doughty makes the world a better place by telling folks what she knows about dying and funeral practices from her perspective as a Funeral Director. She’s admittedly something of a radical and activist director, but I think it’s a fun world in which one can be those things. At her core, she holds death and the rituals and services around it up to the light and tells people how they work. She tells the truth about the nuts and bolts of funerals and burial while respecting the beliefs that drive them.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? is part of that straight talk campaign. Specifically, she collects questions from children who attend her various appearances, read her books, or encounter her in her day job. In Eyeballs she answers the ones she finds most common, interesting, illuminating, or some combination thereof. I learned a bunch from her answers, and I already knew some about the topics.

She writes clearly, but a little bombastically for my tastes. I do think this is a matter of taste. I feel like she’s performing on paper as much as writing. Words on a page dance different steps than words on a video or podcast. The odd steps never seem more than a mild distraction to me, though. She’s clear and engaging.

Recommended.

Review: Lords of the Realm

Sunday, October 13th, 2019

I heard a strong recommendation for John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm from an excellent baseball commentator, so I grabbed it. I did so with some trepidation. The subject is primarily off-field games – contract negotiations and labor relations – which is usually dead boring to me. I like to sit in the stands and bullshit, not compare player salaries.

I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Helyar brings the evolution of baseball’s labor situation to life very well. He manages to both animate the owners, union founders and leaders, and players. There is plenty of negotiation that feels specific to baseball. He also explains the labor issues clearly and insightfully. Whether you’re like me and love the game more, or a student of the finances, Lords is worth your time.

Recommended.

Review: In Patagonia

Thursday, September 26th, 2019

In Patagonia is a book that, like Desert Solitaire, captures a place but is not a travel book. Bruce Chatwin has written an ode to a people and place that he found himself drawn into.

Chatwin’s Patagonia is a desolate, supernatural place inhabited by loners, discards, and outlaws to which he was drawn by a possibly fictitious brontosaurous skin. The inhabitants are simultaneously historical, fictional, and contemporaneous giving the place a timelessness that few places can claim. The result is to place a real location outside into a magical realm.

It’s a beautiful and unique work.

Strongly recommended.

Review: War Dances

Sunday, September 8th, 2019

I really enjoy and appreciate Sherman Alexie’s poetry and short work that I’ve read. War Dances feels much the same as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven in all the right ways.

I don’t have much else to say.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Private Empire

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Private Empire is a well-reported history of ExxonMobil’s history between the Exxon Valdez disaster and the first term of the Obama administration. Steve Coll does a fairly even-handed job of both documenting the corporate actions and animating them with the personalities who drive them.

One cannot approach the history of a corporation that acts on the scale of a nation in without some bias, but Coll is even handed enough that I believe that I got a clearer sense of the motivations of the players in the corporation. I came away with two insights: ExxonMobil policy is driven as much by the personalities of the executives who steer it as by the structure of the industry and market it exists in.

The corporation projects the economic mass of a nation channeled by a single industry and market. The industry leads the corporation to search into places with oil that one can get at. Getting at oil includes at least geology, changing technology, the government (or other organization) that controls the legal claims to that geology, and the public relations of getting access to it and selling it. As complex as the problem is, that is much more constrained than what drives nations. Under those constraints oil companies act in a pretty broad range of ways.

Coll argues that the personalites of the executives steer those actions. Over this period ExxonMobil was headed by basically two people: Lee Raymond and Rex Tillerson. Their mix of aggressive drive and Boy Scout upbringing led to more nuanced responses to their problems. The company’s expansion (including merging with Mobil) and geopolitical adventures (including responding to kidnappings and pulling a legal heist on the nation of Venezuela) are surprising in ways I approve and disapprove of. I understand them better having read this.

Seeing Tillerson as a cross between Boy Scout and Robber Baron makes his tenure as Secretary of State pretty surreal.

Recommended.

Review: Manuscript Found

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Literary sources abound in the modern world. This book came to me as a Patreon perk from Nathaniel Lloyd’s Historical Blindness podcast. His podcast is worth its own review, but not here.

Manuscript Found is a historical novel told with a metafictive bent. Lloyd is writing a novel about Joseph Smith and the founding documents of Mormonism. He’s also commenting on both the contents of the historical record and how an author – or historian – injects their views into their writings. It’s a nice mix, though it can be a little dry and subtle.

Lloyd braids this with a thread about authors of documents exposing the workings of Masonry. I find that choice to be illuminating. Revealing the workings of a secret society and presenting the foundations of a religion that is particularly shrouded in silence raise questions about how each arise and address the release of them. Alongside that he presents other protagonists’ involvement with the Underground Railroad. The Railroad is another secretive historical society whose motivations for secrecy are driven primarily by practicality.

His use of a fictional historian relating the workings and motivations of those groups fleshes the ideas even a bit more. He challenges many preconceptions about history and people through the historian’s voice.

I found it very intellectually challenging and thought provoking, though less emotionally engaging than some. I’m reminded of Jimmy Carter’s fiction. I admire the thinking and structure behind it, but wold love some more dynamism.

Review: The History Of White People

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

As titles go, The History Of White People, is pretty confrontational. Nell Irvin Painter is definitely issuing a challenge with it, though one can choose to fight her, wrestle with the works she does, or with your own preconceptions. I advocate a bit of all three.

The history one hears is shaped by the perspectives and assumptions of the tellers. For many, this makes history – told with any passion or even sense of narrative at all – more engaging and illuminating than even the intricate nuts and bolts description of the technical systems that power the world. (The styles and content of technical and historical works do overlap and the best and worst of the two broad areas cross over.) Because histories can engage intellect and passion together, they can motivate readers to learn more and take action like few other writings. Readers need to remember that first sentence – all humans who write history bring their perspective to it. I can easily forget that, so I remind myself whenever I can.

I mention all that to underscore my admiration for Painter’s title. When a Black historian who is proudly African American releases a work with that title, she puts her ambitions and perspective squarely on the table. Painter is famous enough that she doesn’t need to be so brash just to sell books or gain attention. I take it to be a declaration of boldness framed with historical responsibility.

Painter certainly writes from her advertised position, recognizing that having come to fight she needs to support her positions carefully and with direct and clear connections to the original sources. She does so with aplomb and accuracy; her scholarship seems compelling.

I find her arguments to be generally sound and interesting. Her detailed and compelling deconstruction of the stunningly broad range of eugenic race theory is rich in detail and merciless in prosecution. Given how subjective and malicious this body of work is, this is shooting fish in a barrel. She expands her assessment into the literary and historical – giving Emerson a few sharp kicks in the shins that challenges the reader to reassess his writing and biases. She convinced me that there’s a fair amount more bathwater around Emerson’s babies than I remember. If and when I wade back into those tubs, I’ll be looking with a more jaundiced eye.

Her writing style is well suited to this kind of exploration and challenge. She writes clearly and precisely, connecting solidly to primary sources and also providing the occasional cutting comments that remind readers how biased and self-serving the overall picture is. I imagine that some will find her style dry, but I respect the tightrope she walks. For my money, the writing matches perfectly.

Recommended.