Book Review: Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by John Higgs

(Three Stars)

“There’s a moment for every generation when memory turns into history. The twentieth century is receding into the distance, and coming into perspective.” Giving charlatans—oops, I mean historians the opportunity to revise and reinterpret with less fear of contradiction.

An ambitious attempt to bring order out of the chaos of the last hundred years. Spanning the gamut from astrophysics to po culture, Higgs finds patterns in the twentieth century which may help us understand how we got where we are, though little help in projecting what’s next.

“The future is already here. It is just not very evenly distributed.” William Gibson

Higgs is English, which will slow non-English readers, as his historic, political and cultural references center on England. Though non-North American English readers have dealt with the self-referential nature of Americans for years; it’ll be a new experience for Continue reading

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Book Review: Code Girls by Liza Mundy (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World Wear II by Liza Mundy

(Three Stars)

“Almost everybody thought we were nothing but secretaries.”

A true and important part of American history. World War II was also won by thousands of women who labored in secret to penetrate the encrypted communications of America’s adversaries.

“Major General Stephen Chamberlin, who served in the Pacific, announced that military intelligence, most of which came from code breaking, ‘saved us many thousands of lives; in the Pacific theater alone, ‘and shortened the war by no less than two years.”

Three hundred pages of story crammed into 456 pages. The book wanders down many rabbit trails. Mundy seemed not able to resist inserting every fact, no matter how trivial and unconnected to her theme.

“Nobody cooperated with the Army, under pain of death,” said naval code breaker Prescott Currier.

Interservice rivalry, office politics and pure bureaucratic stupidity often impeded the mission more that the obtuseness of the cyphers. “Many cited as the chief workplace outrage during the summer of 1943: a directive that all window blinds had to be lowered to the same position.” Some things never change. “Growing up with the ideas that our newspapers always told the truth, I quickly learned about propaganda.” Each generation learns this truth anew.

“The Midway victory also set in motion one of history’s great bureaucratic backstabbings.”

A better book is Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. Better: read them both.

“’Mother, how dreadful! You killed all those Japanese sailors, and you were pleased about it!’ Elizabeth was dumbfounded. America quickly forgot what the war had felt like—how real the menace had been.” We wallow in that same ignorance today.

“And for every hero brave/ Who will find ashore,/ his man-sized chore/ Was done by a Navy WAVE.”

Book Review: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafai and Christina Lamb (Four Stars)

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Book Review: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education for Children and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafai and Christina Lamb

(Four Stars)

“Dear God, I know you see everything, but there are so many things that maybe, sometimes, things get missed, particularly now with the bombings in Afghanistan. God, give me strength and courage and make me perfect because I want to make this world perfect. Malala.”

Unusually well-written topical book. Normally these “as told to” books are not worth the paper, just exploiting someone’s fifteen minutes of fame. I am Malala is distinctively different. Yousafai and Lamb deal in depth with the history of Pakistan and the Taliban, especially the Swat Valley, Malala’s home.

“The falsehood has to go and the truth will prevail.” (Quran) “If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it? I wondered. I prayed to God every night to give me strength.”

The story starts on the day Malala is shot, then backtracks to build her world. The detail is exhaustive and intimate. The reader is drawn into Malala’s world and time. Her hopes, fears and aspirations develop organically. It’s real; it’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck.

“I felt like the Taliban saw us as little dolls to control, telling us what to do and how to dress. I thought if God wanted us to be like that He wouldn’t have made us all different.”

Surprisingly—or maybe not—about the only part of the world which rejects Malala is her native Pakistan. Her story—this story—doesn’t fit the narrative which the government, church, and people of Pakistan have developed for themselves. To change that, she has a tough row to hoe.

“They are abusing our religion,” I said in the interviews. “How will you accept Islam if I put a gun to your head and say Islam is the true religion? If they want every person in the world tobe Muslim, why don’t they show themselves to be good Muslims first?”

Malala is the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.

“Rahanna told me that thousands and millions of people and children around the world had supported me and prayed for me. Then I realized that people had saved my life. I had been spared for a reason.”

Book Review: Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century

(Four Stars)

“We never acknowledge the absolute mysterious character of nature, but always speak so confidently of explaining her, whereas all that we have really done is to go into fuller and more complicated descriptions, which only make the mysterious more mysterious than ever.”

“The spirit of the age loves dissonance, in tones, in lines and in thought. That shows how far from thinking it is, for thinking is a harmony within us.”

Intriguing title; intriguing work. First published in 1965, it draws on Albert Schweitzer’s life as a medical missionary in what is now the nation of Gabon. He lived his philosophy, though some will find his words and actions out of step with current style, even allowing for his age.

“Every ethic has something of the absolute about it, just as soon as it ceases to be mere social law. It demands of one what is actually beyond Continue reading

Book Review: When a Nation Forgets God; 7 lessons We Must Learn from Nazi Germany by Erwin W. Lutzer (Four Stars)

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Book Review: When a Nation Forgets God; 7 lessons We Must Learn from Nazi Germany by Erwin W. Lutzer

(Four Stars)

“The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory than man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or as the Nazis likes to say, ‘Of blood and soil.’ … prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.” Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor

A distinctly Christian work. Lutzer, who has written dozens of books about Nazism and American popular culture, explores how Adolph Hitler effectively neutralized Germany’s Christians in his quest to create his Nazi paradise. Lutzer explores seven areas—such as the church itself, education, propaganda, the economy, etc.—where Hitler’s plans eviscerated opposition, leading of course to Continue reading

Book Review: Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee by Clifford Dowdey (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee and the Dawn of a Legend by Clifford Dowdey

(Four Stars)

“McClellan was in fact the most modern of generals then active: he was an executive. His talents were m [sic] organization and administration. But, as a general, McClellan hated to go near a battlefield.”

Most students of history know that George McClellan almost won the Civil War in the spring of 1862. This book explains why … and why not. A monumental effort, involving tracking every major unit of both armies, often with biographies of commanders down to the brigade level. Weather, ordnance and rations are detailed.

“The next day the guns in the unfinished fort at Drewey’s Bluff, turned back the James River fleet of the U. S. Navy, nowhere in the war did so few accomplish so much in significance of the course of the war followed.” (Did you know? I didn’t, but Continue reading

Book Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (Three Stars)

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Book Review: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

(Three Stars)

“The story of an American soldier whose involvement in making the world’s greatest dictionary was singular, astonishing, memorable, and laudable–and yet at the same time wretchedly sad.”

The engaging tale of how William C. Minor, an American doctor, came to be imprisoned for most of his adult life in an English insane asylum, yet from those confines became a major contributor to one of the greatest works of scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

“The English, who had raised eccentricity and poor organization to a high art, and placed the scatterbrained on a pedestal, loathed such Middle European things as rules, conventions, and dictatorships.”

With hardly more material than might make a good periodical article, Winchester inflates the story with details extraneous, untrue (and he tells why they’re untrue) and extensive excerpts from the OED itself–fortunately, not at length.

“No one had a clue what they were up against: they were marching blindfolded through molasses.”

Along the way, the reader is entertained by the naiveté and persistence of the editors, especially James Murray, in producing this monumental undertaking.

“There is a cruel irony in this–that if he had been so treated [psychologically], he might never have felt impelled to work on it as he did. In a sense doing all these dictionary slips was his medication; in a way they became his therapy.”

Book Review: British Forts in the Age of Arthur by Angus Konstam (Three Stars)

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Book Review: British Forts in the Age of Arthur by Angus Konstam

(Three Stars)

In his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill described this period as night falling on Britain, followed by hundreds of years of darkness, then dawn rising on England with everything changed. Konstam’s survey of recent archology and study of fortifications built or renewed during that obscure time casts a bit of light into the gloom.

This book is part of a series by Osprey Publishing related to ancient and medieval warfare. Some overlap to previous Konstam/Osprey volumes.

Excellent illustrations by Peter Dennis. I have visited several of these sites. Both the photographs and illustrations bring out the nature of the “Age of Arthur” efforts better than seeing them. That said, if you have the chance, do visit them.

Book Review: The Age of Eisenhower by William I. Hitchcock (Three Stars)

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Book Review: The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s by William I. Hitchcock

(Three Stars)

“Eisenhower had that rarest of gifts in politics: he brought America together.”

Damns Eisenhower with faint praise. Following the rising tide of academic and popular reappraisal of Ike, Hancock tries to hew to the old bumbling amateur angle, even as he says he rejects it.

“These first years of his presidency, Eisenhower laid down a blueprint for the warfare state–an official plan to mobilize the nation and put it on a permanent war footing. The military-industrial complex had begun to take shape.”

“Eisenhower, [Garry] Wills believed, ‘had the true professional’s instinct for making things look easy. He appeared to be performing less work than he actually did. And he wanted it that way. An air of ease inspires confidence.”

Shoddy scholarship. Adds his snarky quips at the end of paragraphs, then sets the footnote after it, implying that the cited source (often in the 1950s) is to blame. “That suited Eisenhower fine.” “Middle-class paradise on a presidential scale.” “The comparatively glamorous and graceful Jacqueline Kennedy.

“The central paradox of the Eisenhower presidency: that a man so successful at the ballot box and so overwhelmingly popular among voters could have been given such poor marks by the political class. His critics never grasped the profound appeal of the man and never appreciated the depths of his political talent.”

Other, better modern investigations into this most-underrated president of the twentieth century–for example, try any David A. Nichols work.

“Dwight Eisenhower must be counted among the most consequential presidents in modern American history.”

Book Review: Defending Middle Earth by Patrick Curry (Two Stars)

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Book Review: Defending Middle Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry

(Two Stars)

“The costs [of modernity] have been horrendous, and are, unlike the benefits, increasing.”

Curry opens defending J. R. R. Tolkien against wrong-minded critics, then shifts to weaponizing Tolkien to beat his own ideological foes. That his foes are mostly English only obscures his bias to American readers. Disappointing. Since he makes several glaring errors on topics I know a little about, I suspect more lurk within.

“It has been asserted … that The Hobbit represents an alliance of the lower-middle class (Bilbo) and skilled workers, especially working class miners (the dwarves), in order to overcome a parasitic capitalist exploiter who ‘lives off the hard work of small people and accumulates wealth without being able to appreciate its value’ (the dragon). This is genuinely interesting … but it says at least as much about Marxism as a fairy [tale] as it does about The Hobbit.”

Tolkien was not a postmodern. If anything he was pre-modern, even pre-Enlightenment, because he believed that good and evil were real. He believed in God, and while there’s no church in Middle Earth, Tolkien based his entire mythos on an all-knowing, all-sufficient God. Those who claim Middle Earth was polytheistic do so from ignorance or guile.

“Modern profit-driven and state-protected science [is] a powerful counter-enchantment, much of whose power stems from being a spell that denies that it is one: a secular religion, literally a bad faith.”

Curry casually tosses Tolkien’s religion aside as irrelevant. Curry admits he judges Christianity by the externals he has witnessed, not from inside as Tolkien experienced it. Curry uses Lord of the Rings (LOTR) the way some atheists use the Bible, as a weapon against those who believe it. Despite Tolkien’s claims to the contrary, Curry asserts that LOTR is fundamentally a “pagan” work with Christianity included. A counter argument is that Tolkien meant for all the pagan myths to be included in the greater Christian mythos, which unlike the rest of them happens also to be true.

“I have been accused of using Tolkien to advance an ecological agenda. But nothing in this book about defending nature does not draw its warrant from the contents of Tolkien’s own work … I believe he himself would have thoroughly approved.”

Apparently others called him on his bias because in his Afterword, published seven years after the original work, Curry claims, “I nowhere argue that Tolkien was himself a postmodernist, nor that ecology is the only or even the most important key to his work.” His original work argues otherwise.

“As Max Weber saw long ago, religion itself becomes an enemy of enchantment when it asserts it [sic] own sole universal truth, and thus becomes entangled in aspirations to complete control and ultimate power.” Curry asserts, “So his defence of Middle-earth is fully as spiritual as it is ecological and cultural. But it is not a journey away from our lives and our home here on Earth; ultimately, and critically, it is a return.”

Does Curry admire Tolkien’s work as much as he says or has just taken them up as a cudgel in his own battles?

“There are no havens in a world where evil is a reality. If you think you live in one, you are probably naïve like the early Frodo, and certainly vulnerable.” J. R. R. Tolkien