Reviews: A Crack in the Edge of the World, Nixonland

July 16th, 2009

A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester - 6/10

I really, really enjoyed Winchester's Krakatoa, his The Professor and the Madman, and his Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Outposts of the British Empire, so when I saw that he had written a book about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, I was justifiably excited.

Well. I'm being generous by giving it a 6. Half rushed memoir (of Winchester's travels), half historic account peppered with inaccuracies and questionable "facts", A Crack in the Edge of the World was a real disappointment. Given his obvious ability to write really good books, I wonder if this book lacked a proper editor, or perhaps it simply needed to sit on the shelf a few years before being heavily revised by the author himself.

In either case, it was unsatisfactory. There were quite a few really interesting period anecdotes, eyewitness accounts, and facts both pertinent and tangental; but the fact that Winchester included several rather serious inaccuracies cast a vast shadow over the veracity of any of his facts, and sucked much of the joy from the book. The 1906 quake is a subject about which I am fairly well-informed, and had I adopted wholesale the information in this book, I would now be dumber.

Alas.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein - 8.5/10

An excellent but depressing book. The research is fantastic, it's presented in a very readable fashion, and provides a remarkable insight into the transformative period that was the late 1960s. If you want to understand American politics either then or now, I strongly recommend this book.

That said, it was subtly but relentlessly grinding, as deception and duplicity and social breakdown and the triumph of stupidity (both on the left and the right) blossom and stretch forward into the future. Perlstein delivers fantastically on his promise to guide the reader through the political transformation of the period, but I also happen to know that there was joy and progress and hope during the late 1960s, and he shows us precious little of that. So read it, do read it, but be warned.

As an aside, there was a recent Internet(tm) discussion thread about the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, and someone popped in to announce that if people did not like contentious confirmation hearings, well, they had only Teddy Kennedy to blame - until he stepped in and ruthlessly smacked down poor Robert Bork, confirmation hearings had been all sunshine and rainbows. Damned liberals, once again the root of evil, or at least incivility.

Well, I knew that was bullshit instantly, having just read in Nixonland about the clusterfoul that Nixon had engineered for Abe Fortas. As a rule, I don't post on forums where idiots are allowed, but I was immensely gratified to witness one of the better Smackdown-by-Cold-Hard-Facts I've seen in a long time, as other posters raised confirmation hearings not just of Fortas but also of Louis Brandeis and others going back to George Washington's attempted nomination of John Rutledge. And the initial poster floundered with half-assed attempts at topic change and finally slunk away with his tail between his legs.

So that was good. And it's worth reading Nixonland.

Reviews: Fearless, Dauntless, Courageous, Valiant, Relentless

July 16th, 2009

Fearless, Dauntless, Courageous, Valiant, Relentless - the Lost Fleet series, by Jack Campbell - 7/10

A solid but not outstanding space-combat-opera series. The premise is interesting and the strategic thinking is compelling, but the characters are very sparse (there's a main character, two love interests, a handful of other people the main character talks to, and some boneheads/villains who get about a page of dialogue each) and large swaths of the books are mildly annoying navel-gazing. Some navel-gazing can create depth of character, but Campbell uses self-doubt and worried introspection to fill the time between space battles, and it does get annoying. The five books could be condensed into about three and half and be stronger and more interesting for it.

That said, the action is pretty good, the overall story arc is as mentioned fairly compelling, and there's some wit and some good emotional payoffs. If you like space-combat-opera and you want something light to read, I can certainly recommend these.

Opening the Floodgates

July 16th, 2009

Just a note: there will follow several book reviews (and a movie review or two); as followers of the blog know, our second child was born May 15. I have thus been a bit busier than usual but have had ample opportunity to sit around and read, and have built up a backlog of books I've read but not rated. And since I've rated every book I have read since 1998, it seems clear that I darn well need to continue.

I'm going to break the reviews up into a couple of different posts both for ease of maintenance and because I've been writing them piecemeal for a while now.

Used for Evil

July 16th, 2009

As a father, I have to say that this is the saddest, most horrifying thing I have read in some time (from Robert Cringely):

I eventually finished the piece [I had been working on in Tehran] and decided to go see the war since I had been in Beirut and Angola, but had never seen trench warfare, which is what I was told they had going in Iran. So I took a taxi to the front, introduced myself to the local commander, who had gone, as I recall, to Iowa State, and spent a couple days waiting for the impending human wave attack. That attack was to be conducted primarily with 11-and 12-year-old boys as troops, nearly all of them unarmed. There were several thousand kids and their job was to rise out of the trench, praising Allah, run across No Man's Land, be killed by the Iraqi machine gunners, then go directly to Paradise, do not pass GO, do not collect 200 dinars. And that's exactly what happened in a battle lasting less than 10 minutes. None of the kids fired a shot or made it all the way to the other side. And when I asked the purpose of this exercise, I was told it was to demoralize the cowardly Iraqi soldiers.

It was the most horrific event I have ever seen, and I once covered a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh that killed 40,000 people.

Waiting those two nights for the attack was surreal. Some kids acted as though nothing was wrong while others cried and puked. But when the time came to praise Allah and enter Paradise, not a single boy tried to stay behind.

From Robert Cringely.

What a Difference

July 14th, 2009

This, is awesome.