Book Review: Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport (four stars)

Book Review: Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport (four stars)

“For Philip Chadbourn, that day had been a point of significant and perhaps optimistic transition – ‘the blank between the reels’ – separating ‘the black misery and injustice of the first reel’ and the ‘red revolt and bright heroics of the second’.”

The defining year of the twentieth century. The 1917 Russian revolutions in Petrograd as seen by various westerners, mostly English and American, who witnessed it happen. Uniquely British and American condescension to the plight of the Russian people, even as many of them enjoyed (initially) access to the highest levels of Russian aristocracy.

‘This man Trotzky is the king of agitators; he could stir up trouble in a cemetery.’

Rappaport draws heavily on primary sources to create a history which, while it may have a western bias, will be more accessible and understandable to western readers. Whatever their opinions at the beginning all are convinced their witnessing a really big train wreck by the end of the year. Many are thankful just to get out alive.

Kerensky was ‘more afraid of doing the wrong thing than anxious to do the right one,’ he wrote in his later memoirs, ‘and so he did nothing until he was forced into action by others.’

Like the witnesses, readers are left to discern the motives of the various actors for themselves. Even among the press representatives personal bias weighs as heavily as facts on what they see and report.

‘Russia is a wonderful country, full of lights and shadows, though just now the shadows have the advantage. It is too bad that the world must lose so much that was beautiful in Russia to receive – what? Something much worse than nothing.’

Reflections on a Visit to Mount Vernon

George Washington was a great man. He became one despite his humble roots because he sought distinction his entire life. He was also every man. He strove to prominence, but he made compromises that, when he came to realize the evil of them, he couldn’t imagine a way out.

He enslaved other humans.

Washington looked around and saw other prominent men enslaved people, and he probably thought he treated his better than they did. And he intended to free them upon his death. (I suspect all of them had some such fiction to calm their screaming consciences.)

Other contemporary wealthy Virginians, notably Robert Carter III, freed their enslaved people and provided for their entry into life free. More, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, willed to free their enslaved people but never did.

Washington shouldn’t have judged himself by the standard of his neighbors but of his Lord. And of course he—all of us—fell way short of that standard.

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Matthew 19:23

Book Review: Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England by Jane Chance (three stars)

Book Review: Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England by Jane Chance (three stars)

‘This divided self surfaces throughout Tolkien’s fictive works and exists as a symbolic badge of fallen and imperfect human nature. Human nature is good—but also evil, as Beowulf is Germanic—but also Christian.’

Wanted to like this more. Worthwhile book; terrible writing. Multiple repetitions; some misdirection. Reads as if the author wrote multiple Tolkien analysis pieces, then concatenated the bunch without a thorough editing.

‘Kilby remarks on his perfectionism: “But if Tolkien was critical of others he was even more critical of his own writings. Few authors ever denigrated their own works more than he.”’

To start, she tells us what she’s going to tell us twice before starting to tell us. Skip both Preface and Introduction. To fit her preconceived notions, Chance misrepresents or wrongly reports what Tolkien wrote, which is almost unforgivable for an author of her stature. Cost a star.

“In a larger sense, it is I suppose impossible to write any “story” that is not allegorical in proportion as it “comes to life”: since each of us is an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life” JRRT

Many worthwhile insights, but all must be accepted only provisionally. Tolkien followers should first read all the referenced works.

‘One should not imitate the Creator in order to aggrandize creation for selfish reasons, but instead to praise both Creator and creation, to reflect one’s love for and trust in both and one’s obedience to the will of Ilúvatar.’ JRRT

Book Review: Small Acts of Defiance Michelle Wright (five stars)

Book Review: Small Acts of Defiance: A Novel of WWII and Paris by Michelle Wright (five stars)

“It’s not only our precious value of liberty that’s taken a beating in this new France. Equality and fraternity are also fading fast.”

Extraordinary debut novel. World War Two seen from inside occupied France. Honestly tries to capture uncertainty. The protagonist, Lucie, sees the world through artist’s eyes. Portraits drawn, folded, committed to chance.

“Every little way we can find to thumb our noses at the Germans is a small act of resistance.”

Wright takes us deep into her characters as their world upends. Again and again. She captures the reader’s attention and never lets go. Captures the uncertainty And horror of the developing Holocaust. Even gives a fair representation of those who collaborate.

“In the face of futility, only the crazy persist.”

Paris lovers will revel in references to familiar and hidden landmarks.

You are not alone. I see your face, your suffering.

Slow Going

Currently reading two works which, though as different as could be, require slow, thoughtful study.

They are Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England by Jane Chance and Andrew Murray’s With Christ in The School of Prayer.

Therefore I will again fail to meet my habitual two to three reviews a week pace.

I’m making better progress on Small Acts of Defiance: A Novel of WWII and Paris by Michelle Wright, but as I’m reading it on my personal computer (and I dislike reading on a computer) I’m not moving fast.

Good reading.

Book Review: The Fire Opal Mechanism by Fran Wilde (three stars)

Book Review: The Fire Opal Mechanism (Gem Universe #2) by Fran Wilde (three stars)

Having to step into this new role made her teeth ache.

A steampunk fantasy dystopia where only a single compendium of knowledge is allowed; divergent voices outlawed. Limited time travel must be understood before it cam be exploited. Main characters in conflict.

But while he’d been a student, [redacted] had read several adventure novels in the library. He knew now that he only needed one good chance, and everything could turn right around.

More action in the cover art than the entire story. Well told but unengaging. The ending was completely foreshadowed and a bit flat. Wilde can and has done better.

If she’d learned nothing from antiquity, it was this: the hardest changes to see are those happening all around you, until it’s too late.

Naïve economic and political perception but typical for modern fantasy. “Perhaps there was a future without an economy that did not rely upon scarcity.”

That [redacted] could travel back in time, but only to learn how to change the present, was a sharp, cold fact.


Our wants and needs exceed our resources. Always have, always will. The problem is in our limitless desires rather than the limited assets. At various times in history, we effectively increased our resources through innovation. Theories of what happened when and who gets credit came later. Most of those theories, even those which influenced history, were short-sighted, wrong, or selling a doctrine.

To review, people throughout history understood that land and materials (tools, seed, water, etc.) were necessary to life. Their effective management led to trade, civilization, nations, empires, and wars. Not all of those were beneficial even though all were sold as necessary.

Starting in the eighteenth century, people theorized about how economies worked and how to improve them. Adam Smith defined the role of capital and the assembly line manufacturing. Karl Marx posited that labor was the critical component of wealth and preached revolution. Some modern economists declare that government regulation, if not control, is essential to prosperity. Efficiency, utility, divine right, necessity, social justice were all advanced as the prime driver of economics.

Some were partly right, but the essential ingredient to progress is innovation. The improvements in fire, the wheel, metallurgy, seed selection, crop rotation, the assembly line, electric power, integrated circuits, media, and communication, whether breakthroughs or incremental, all resulted from people seeing a better way to do things. If necessity was the mother of invention, laziness was the father.

Just because we don’t know their names does not negate those whose spark of genius recognized a new material, a new use, a approach which revolutionized their world.  Not just Archimedes, Newton, Einstein, but Whitney, Ford, Gates, and Musk. Many whose name we don’t know but whose innovation changed how we live.

That spark—that “ahha” moment occurs to many people in many circumstances. Unfortunately, most don’t have the means to capitalize on their insight. One feature of modern society is widespread access to ideas, resources, capital, and talented workers. The critical role is not the venture capitalist, the skilled craftsman, the software writer, but the innovator. It’s no accident that the last century has seen an acceleration of innovation, knowledge, and standards of living. For most people. It’s not equally distributed, it never was.

Creativity cannot be dictated. China is demonstrating this principle. In recent decades, the party loosened their grip on money, ideas, and people. The result was a great leap in the creation of wealth. Now the party is reasserting the iron fist of totalitarianism. Want to bet on the outcome? Totalitarian cultures steal from free enterprise, and quotas and price control lead to stagnation. And cheating.

So how do we motivate creativity? We don’t. It’s there. The question is, how do we encourage and benefit from it?