Friday, January 27, 2023

Review: The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg

The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe BergThe Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A biography of a fascinating man. Moe Berg was a unique figure; a quirky and weird guy in many ways. Brilliant and talented in many other ways. His life seemed rich and mysterious, but also quite sad and lonely. He seemed to be in the center of things but at the same time, no where at all.

The covers Berg's who life from his youth until death. It gets into more detailed than I expected into his family and the various friends and relations whose lives Berg drifted in and out of. His years as a spy during WW2 are of course covered, but they are not the focus. The mystery here is not this perennially backup major league catcher working as an OSS spy assigned to kill, if necessary, the renowned Germany physicist Werner Heisenberg. The mystery is Berg himself.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Review: Lonely on the Mountain: The Sacketts

Lonely on the Mountain: The SackettsLonely on the Mountain: The Sacketts by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Though the plot is similar to many other Sackett novels (one or more of the brothers gets into some kind of trouble, the other brothers come to help out, more trouble is had, and brothers come out victorious), there are some new elements here. There are a few twists. The landscape is different taking place mostly in the northern plains and Canada. There are some dicey moments for the brothers as well. I love living in the Sackett world even for just a few moments -- though I wouldn't last long if I had to for real!

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Saturday, January 14, 2023

Review: The Promise

The Promise (Elvis Cole, #16; Joe Pike, #5; Scott James & Maggie, #2)The Promise by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few twists and turns in this mystery. For the most part, this delivers what Cole fans will expect: Pike and Stone help him out. Cole gets into some trouble with the police. But the world's greatest detective eventually figures out what is going on. One of the most interesting elements of the novel is Crais's use of Maggie's point of view. Maggie is a former Marine dog now working with LAPD K-9 unit. Crais switches from Cole's first person of view to the third person point of view of other characters, and this includes Maggie. I didn't realize that Scott, Maggie's handler, have their own Crais standalone. I'll have to check that out.

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Friday, January 13, 2023

Review: Tempest Runner

Tempest Runner (Star Wars: The High Republic)Tempest Runner by Cavan Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy the Star Wars audio dramas, though this was not as good as the Doctor Aphra or Dooku ones. It was a fun listen, and gives much more context and background to Lourna Dee's character. In the Light of the Jedi series and the High Republic comics, she is just a villain. Here, we get more about who she is and where she comes from. She's still a villain, but a more interesting villain because she's not just a monster.

I did have some trouble distinguishing the characters in the audio drama, particularly at first. Also, the fights scenes tended to be just a lot of grunting and moaning.

I'm still not entirely sold on the High Republic era. I enjoy the books, the comics, etc., but I've not (yet) connected with any of the characters in the way I have with the Skywalker Saga characters.

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Sunday, January 08, 2023

Review: The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism

The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American ConservatismThe Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism by Matthew Continetti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Continetti’s sweeping history of American conservatism from the 1920’s up through the 2020 election offers important perspective and context for much of contemporary politics. Starting with President Harding and covering the political and intellectual figures of the Right and the conservative moment up through Trump. It’s well-research, balanced, and comprehensive. It is worth a read by anyone interested in the political and intellectual history of the US. Conservatives will find much to learn about the history of the movement they seem themselves apart of. Liberals will find a more nuanced and richer intellectual opponent than they are familiar with.

There are three criticisms I have. First is that the Continetti’s focus is really only on political and intellectual figures. What is missing is a sense of the conservative movement on the street level; how the common person might have understood conservativism and the Right. But that’s a different kind of history so it’s less a criticism than a caveat for readers who might be looking for that perspective. Second, and more substantive, is that Continetti doesn’t do enough to define the differences between conservatism and the Right. He acknowledges that these are not the same thing, but the contours are not always clear and at Continetti slides too easily between these. And this leads to my third criticism that Continetti does not do a good enough job with libertarianism. He treats it largely as just one more thread in the right, but that doesn’t do justice to the intellectual history of libertarianism and its stark differences with much of the rest of the conservative movement.

While this history is not written as guide to trying to understand Trump and the Trump phenomenon, it does have that as kind of sub-theme running through background until the last chapter that focus directly on Trump and the aftermath.

Much of what we might call the content of “Trumpism”: antipathy for immigration; ambivalence, sometimes hostility, about free markets and free trade; isolationism/disengagement; and populism; has always been an element of the Right. It coexisted with the pro-immigration, pro-market, pro-trade, elitist, and projection of American power kinds of conservativism. Continetti traces out the various threads and streams of American conservatism and the American right. These disparate elements are only united by its opposition. Continetti’s starts his history with the Right’s opposition to Wilsonian progressivism. This early conservative movement, highlighted by President’s Harding and Coolidge, saw itself as preserving the principles and ideals of the founding that Wilson and the progressives were looking to reform. The next generation of the Right was united by its opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal. The Right was then united in the post-war by anti-communism and turning back the New Deal. Things get messy with Nixon for a while, but with Reagan, the Right returns: united again by anti-communism, rejection of big government liberalism, and social issues. The end of the Cold War then leads to the fraying of the broad coalition of the Right. The divergent elements all vie to have their vision be the controlling vision. We are still in this period; as evidenced by the turmoil in the GOP exposed by Trump’s candidacy and presidency.

What Continetti shows is that behind he superficial unified front of the Right, there were also always deep tensions and divisions. So Trump is in many ways just the latest iteration of the line of figures from Lindberg to McCarthy to Wallace to Buchanan that tapped into populist and outsider anger. The MAGA movement often sounds a lot like a contemporary reboot of the Birchers. One optimistic message of Continetti’s book is that the Right survived those and it will survive Trump. The pessimistic undertone is that these elements will also remain a part of the right, since they have always been a part of it.

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Friday, January 06, 2023

Review: Men Without Work: Post-Pandemic Edition

Men Without Work: Post-Pandemic Edition (2022)Men Without Work: Post-Pandemic Edition by Nicholas Eberstadt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An in-depth exploration of one of the major issues in labor economics: the large and growing percentage of prime-age men opting out of work. Eberstadt describes this growing phenomenon with lots and lots of graphs and data. He first gives the evidence for growing numbers of "un-working" men. He then describes the demographics of this group. He looks at what these men do and how they are able to do it without working. He also looks at some of the possible causes. Lastly, he briefly suggests some prescriptions to help reduce this problem.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that after the last chapter, there are two additional chapters by critics of book, and then a response by Eberstadt to the critics. The critics dispute aspects of Eberstadt's description of the problem, his explanation of the possible causes, and his prescriptions. This added a lot to my understanding of the ideas of the book.

It's a bit wonky and data-heavy for most readers; Eberstadt has appeared on any number of podcasts discussing the ideas in the book (that's how I heard about it). And unless you really want to dig into the data, those are probably sufficient to get the idea and the book is not necessary.

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Saturday, December 31, 2022

Review: Star Wars: Victory’s Price

Star Wars: Victory’s PriceStar Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As with the first two books in the series, I am mixed on this book and the trilogy. I like it, but didn’t love it. There are many elements I really like but overall it just doesn’t come together for me. This puts me into an unusual position. I am typically the Star Wars fan defending Star Wars from (mostly unwarranted) criticism and here with a series that is widely praised and well-received, I’m being critical!

I suspect there is just something about the author’s style that puts me off since I have felt the same way about all three books. I find it takes me a bit to get into them, the books can be a bit of slog at certain points, particularly in the first halves, and they meander in ways I don’t think ultimate pays off or helps the story. And while by the end, I do care what happens to the characters and the story, I don’t get the emotional payoff I’d expect (and that many others seem to get).

I do like the characters; they are fresh. Not retreads of Star Wars types. They are all interesting in terms of how they come to Alphabet Squadron and what happens to them while there and how they change. At the same time, I never really warmed to them in the way I did, say with the Aftermath trilogy characters. I don’t always get a sense of what their motivations where or why; in some cases, these were just told to us rather than developed through the story. There was an emotional connection missing.

The themes of this book, and the series, are also thought-provoking. Forgiveness. Consequences for one’s actions. Morality for morally compromised situations. Reconciliation after war. What war does to people at a personal level. How soldiers relate to each other and to their enemy. Like the TV show, Andor (fantastic btw!), this series brings the war to a very personal level. It’s not grand battles, it’s individuals. And Freed shows us the points of view of both sides.

There is lot to explore here philosophically. I don’t think I the themes get resolved as well as they could, though. In part this is because the themes are sometimes too explicit or too on the surface. That is, rather than having the theme work out and resolve through the plot and character action, it is imposed through dialogue. That was less satisfying to me.

As I said, a lot of Star Wars fans love this series, and I do think it’s worth a read if you are a Star Wars fan.

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Monday, December 12, 2022

Review: A Purple Place for Dying

A Purple Place for Dying (Travis McGee #3)A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

MacDonald's Travis McGee novels are such pulpy fun. The language, though dated, sexist, and otherwise political incorrect, has its own rhythm and poetry to it. McGee is somewhat the reluctant knight-errant. He describes himself as salvage expert; and that has three meanings. He lives on a houseboat in the Keys, so there is the maritime connection. But the main meaning is that he primarily makes his money by recovering wealth or goods for his clients (he keeps half of what is recovered). The deeper meaning is that, in each of the three stories I've read so far, McGee's real salvage work is the female protagonists. There is the element of knight-errant saving the damsel in distress; but MacDonald, though trading in sexist stereotypes of his time, does a good job of making sure the women have agency. There are not there merely to be saved; McGee helps them to get on a better path by showing them their own strength, and it is their own agency that gets them there.

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Sunday, December 11, 2022

Review: Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport

Greek Athletics and the Genesis of SportGreek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport by David Sansone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is made up of two essays. The first essay focuses on the origins of sport in general, while the second focuses on Ancient Greek athletics in particular; and as instance of the general theory Sansone proposes in the first essay.

Sansone starts by discussing various accounts of where sport came from, dismissing them before offering his own. He argues the roots of sport are to be found in distant human pre-history: in particular, rituals and rites engaged in for hunting among Paleolithic hunters. He argues that sport is a form of ritual sacrifice of human energy. As human cultures moved away from sole reliance on hunting as source of food, the rituals used by hunters persist, evolving into various cultural features, including sport. The energy used for the hunt shifts away from the hunt into other ritual behaviors. While there are some very interesting descriptions of various rituals and different cultural rites across cultures from all over the world, the argument is unpersuasive. First, there are key assumptions of motivations and explanations of pre-historic and ancient peoples that seem impossible to know with any measure of assurance. Why did the hunter bath before the hunt? There are various possible reasons, but so far removed how could we possibly know with any confidence? Second, the links between the rituals and sport is too speculative to establish more than interesting possible connections.

The second essay focuses on Ancient Greek athletics and how these too are rooted ultimately in the hunting ritual. The focus is really on aspects of athletics: why the Greeks engaged in sport naked, why they anointed themselves with oil, etc. There is not much in the way of trying to explain the origin of sport as such (I supposed Sansone takes himself as having established that in the first essay). Like the first essay, I found the discussion itself very interesting, in particular some of the striking similarities in disparate cultures, but I don’t think the overall argument is all that persuasive. What Sansone takes as having established with confidence still seems far more speculative. I think Sansone is correct that sport contains much that is rooted in pre-historic rituals; and that many of these ritual behaviors have been repurposed to fill some new needs. But he doesn’t discuss these needs that sport is meeting; why adopt these ritual behaviors, why put them to these new uses? Moreover, I don’t think Sansone answers the main questions he takes himself to be answering: why do humans engage in sport? Why has sport persisted through time and cultures? I am not sure we can ever know the answers to these questions. At one point, Sansone says “But people engage in sport today for the same reason they have always engaged in sport, namely because they have always engaged in sport” (56). It’s not much of answer, but it might just be the best we can get.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Review: Markets with Limits: How the Commodification of Academia Derails Debate

Markets with Limits: How the Commodification of Academia Derails DebateMarkets with Limits: How the Commodification of Academia Derails Debate by James Stacey Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is James Stacey Taylor's critique of Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski's Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests. I'm a big fan of B&J's book, notwithstanding some concerns I would make of aspects of their arguments. I've also followed Taylor's work, and was hoping for an interesting dialogue. Unfortunately, we don't get that. Some of Taylor's criticisms hit the mark, but I am unpersuaded by his deeper points. At times I think he's uncharitable and other times he seems to be misunderstanding them (the same could be said of some of B&J's criticisms of Taylor's book). There are important things Taylor brings up about scholarship and some of its problems, though I'm not convinced his diagnosis is accurate or that his prescription is warranted.

I edited an issue of Reason Papers which features a symposium of Taylor's book. Check it out here:

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Review: Slow Horses

Slow Horses (Slough House, #1)Slow Horses by Mick Herron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After watching the AppleTV+ series, I wanted to read the book on which it was based. I was surprised at just how close an adaption of the book the TV series was (especially after Apple's awful and disgraceful adaption of The Foundation). There are of course some minor changes, but for the most part the series follows the characters and plot of the book. It's impossible not to picture the actors from the show as you are reading, but that's fine. They are perfectly cast. I'm definitely going to read more of this series. I just hope to get ahead of the show!

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Review: Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics

Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, ScepticsHellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics by Anthony A. Long
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A.A. Long's classic work on Hellenistic Philosophy is a great primer for anyone looking to do a deep diver into the thinkers of this period. At times a bit dated, but otherwise the writing is clear and detailed. Long covers the main thinkers, but also gets into some of the secondary figures as well.

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Review: The Guilty

The Guilty (Will Robie, #4)The Guilty by David Baldacci
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Will Robie takes on a very different sort of challenge than he's used to. This is one is much more personal; but unsurprisingly Robie's special set of skills plays an important role in finding out just what is going on in his home town. Robie's return to his home town to help solve a mystery also leads to a mystery internally for Robie. The story is wonderfully told. Robie's a great character, and Baldacci is a master at what he does.

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Friday, November 18, 2022

Review: The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters

The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire WildcattersThe Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters by Gregory Zuckerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My rating might be a bit harsh. The book is not bad; it just wasn't quite what I was expecting. It is much more a business book than anything else. Particularly in the last third, the focus becomes more about stocks, board rooms, and finance than fracking. The first third or so was interesting in terms of laying out the history of both the development of the techniques as well as the individuals involved. I would have liked a bit more on this. I didn't want a geology lesson, but wanted more focus on the novelty of fracking and how the various innovators and engineers along the way improved the process. The middle part focused more on the building of the companies that were the driving force in this American oil and gas production revolution. The afterward was in some ways the most interesting for me. It discussed the criticisms and responses to criticisms about the dangers and consequences of fracking. Zuckerman takes an appealing moderate approach: as he says, the worst dangers of the fiercest critics are overblown, but it is not the harm-free process the industry would like it to be. Zuckerman argues that many of the dangers can be mitigated by improving industry standards and regulatory oversight. Still, I would have liked this discussion to be more in the main section of the book, and better explored. The afterward also gets into the geopolitics of the shale revolution. This too was very interesting and should have been more in the main sections of the book. But then, that really wasn't the book Zuckerman was writing. He wants to the tell story of the businessmen who are created and stoked this revolution. And he does a great job of that.

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Sunday, November 13, 2022

Review: Queen's Peril

Queen's PerilQueen's Peril by E.K. Johnston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this much more than the first novel in this trilogy. The story telling is less conventional and more interesting. The character development of Padme and each of the handmaidens is much better. Though it takes place prior to and during the events of The Phantom Menace, there is little direct overlap, just enough to know where you are in the timeline. And what we do get gives a bit of insight into what else was going on during the events of the movie.

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Monday, October 31, 2022

Review: Persuader

Persuader (Jack Reacher, #7)Persuader by Lee Child
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took a long break from the Reacher series. After the excellent Prime series, I decided to return. I enjoyed this. The plot was complex enough not to be predictable, but not unnecessarily convoluted. Reacher is Reacher. He's able to survive some fairly challenging circumstances -- it strains the credulity but that comes with the territory. It is hard now not to see Alan Ritchson in my mind as Reacher; though he's a bit older in my head.

I liked how Child wove together Reacher's memory with the current events; it added tension and the parallelism underscored key elements. More characterization could have been down with the Beck family; we get to know them just enough for the plot but no more.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Review: Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai

Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the SinaiWho by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai by Matti Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful book. Friedman ably balances Cohen's personal story in Israel with a history of the 73 Yom Kippur war. Cohen is an enigmatic figure; and through this unique personality, Friedman is able to show us a different side to Israel. Friedman's book tells us how the 73 war played a pivotal role in Israel's "national personality" much as it did on a personal and professional level for Cohen. This is neither a complete biography of Cohen nor a history of the war; but through it one will learn a lot about both in an intimate and charming way.

The audio version does a great job; with a voice actor portraying Cohen when Cohen's unpublished account of his time in Israel during the war. Otherwise the author reads it; and does so as skillfully as a professional reader.

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