Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Review: The Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better Runners

The Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better RunnersThe Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better Runners by Sabrina Little
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm writing a review of this book for a journal, so I can't say much here. But here's the short of it. This a well-written book that tackles some interesting and important questions but is really disappointing because it utterly fails to take account of and engage with the philosophy of sport literature. (Not a single reference!) This is a book published by a prestigious academic press that failed to do the basic research necessary.

View all my reviews

Friday, June 07, 2024

Review: Path of Deceit

Path of Deceit (Star Wars: The High Republic)Path of Deceit by Tessa Gratton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am sometimes amused that the YA books are often better than the 'adult' books. I found this book to be refreshing and the plot more focused. The portrayal of the Jedi was not as simplistic as some of the High Republic Jedi. And the story took some surprisingly dark twists. I think I will continue listening to the SW:HR books -- Erin Yvette does a great job.

View all my reviews

Monday, June 03, 2024

Review: Lethal White

Lethal White (Cormoran Strike, #4)Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rowling continues her Cormoran Strike series with this fourth volume. Picking up almost immediately following book 3, we see the the relationships of the main characters develop and evolve. The mystery keeps you guessing, with many red herrings and misdirection. For some it might get a bit too intricate or complicated, but I enjoy the writing and story telling. Rowling draws such vivid characters and tells a good story that keeps you engaged, on your toes, and wondering where things will go.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Review: Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi

Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious NaziHunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t remember who recommended this book to me, but I am glad that they did. I knew the essence of the story: Israel stages a daring mission to capture Eichmann in Argentina and bring him back to Israel for trial. But I knew little of the details. In crisp and engaging writing, Bascomb’s book provides the mission details, but also how the mission came to be and who was involved.

We learn how Eichmann came to hold the power he held in Germany; we learn how he eluded capture after the war and made a new life in Argentina. Bascomb’s portrayal of the man is one of utter mediocrity mixed with unearned arrogance and haughtiness. It is haunting to hear Eichmann’s rationalizations for what he did, that he was just following orders; but at the same time clearly felt a kind of pride for being able to complete his orders as successfully as he did.

The detailing of the mission itself is obviously the most exciting and interesting parts of the book: it reads at times like a spy thriller. One almost expects Gabriel Allon to appear! The random near misses and mistakes that could have undermined the mission are mind-blowing. The author is able to create tension and suspense even though one knows the mission is a success.

Bascomb briefly covers the trial and execution, and includes an epilogue that explains what subsequently happened to all the main players: the agents involved as well as Eichmann’s wife and sons.

There are many books that tell the story of Eichmann’s capture; many written by members of the capture team. I haven’t read them, so I can’t compare. But Bascomb’s book seems well-balanced and thoroughly researched.


View all my reviews

Review: Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War

Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day WarCatch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War by Micah Goodman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Goodman’s Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War is an excellent and important book. It lays out in concise and clear language the range of philosophical and political ideas that help to structure and frame the Israeli understanding of itself and the conflict with the Palestinians.

Goodman focuses on the core problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the way it is currently understood makes it impossible to make progress. Essentially, what Israel needs in a peace deal with the Palestinians is precisely what makes it impossible for the Palestinians to accept. Conversely, what the Palestinians need for a deal is precisely what the Israelis could never agree to. This is part of what Goodman means by “Catch 67;” a play on Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Another “catch” is that Israel faces an internal dilemma between its security needs in the disputed territories and a population problem. To keep the territories for security purposes, means having to rule over a substantial non-Jewish, non-Israel population. This threatens both the Jewish and democratic nation of the state. If the Palestinians in the territories were granted Israeli citizenship, it wouldn’t be long before the state would lose its distinctive Jewishness. But the alternative within this security paradigm, ruling over another people, would violate the democratic nature of the state. But, on the other hand, to relinquish these areas means a significant security threat to Israel. Hence, the Catch-67 nature of the conflict.

These catches make progress, both internally amongst Israelis and externally between Israelis and Palestinians, impossible. The solution to each problem is itself a problem whose solution is the original problem.

Goodman’s approach, then, is to stop trying for a solution and instead to look to reduce the conflicts. Thomas Sowell said about economics there are no solutions, only trade-offs. Goodman’s approach is analogous. There isn’t a solution to the conflict in the offing. But there are things to do to reduce the conflict. And in the last part of the book Goodman’s discusses various proposals that could help to do just that. I am skeptical about the effectiveness or feasibility of these, but I think he’s correct about the overall approach of focusing on more practical things to do that could shrink the conflict. I think real progress could be made on that front. In the wake of October 7, this is hard, even impossible, to imagine. But Goodman’s suggestions could be useful frameworks for thinking about the so-called ‘day after.’


View all my reviews

Monday, May 06, 2024

Review: Sports Spectators

Sports SpectatorsSports Spectators by Allen Guttmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Noted sports historian, Allen Guttman, takes on the topic of sport spectators in this short volume.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is “Part 1 From Antiquity to Modern Times” and it covers just that, though, in 123 pages, in no great detail. Most of the chapters in the first part focus on specific sports of the era and their spectators. Guttman highlights some of the demographics and what we know (or think we know) about how sport was spectated.

The second, and shorter, part of the book looks at spectatorship more analytically. It considers the impact that media has had on spectatorship, in short, but useless chapter, what academic critics like neo-Marxists say about spectatorship, and then closes the book with two of the more interesting chapters. The chapter on hooliganism tries to get at explanations of spectator violence; though Guttman’s analysis seems to end with few answers. None of the theories offered satisfy, though they all explain at least a small part of it. The last chapter on what motivates fans to be fans has a similar trajectory. There are several different theories and analyses offered, all of which seem to get at piece of it, without themselves being satisfactory. It’s an aesthetic experience, but not art. It’s kind of like worship, but also not religion. It’s a way of self-identification, but that’s also really complex and fraught. This chapter was the most interesting to me as a philosopher; and in part tis what draws me to the study of sport spectatorship both professionally and personally. Why do we watch? Guttman’s chapter isn’t an answer, but it is a good palace to find some questions to answer about why we spectate.

Published in the mid-80s, there is much that is out of date. Obviously, in the last 40 years sports spectatorship has continued to evolve. But Guttman identifies many of the trends that are still relevant today. I would imagine the media chapter would be much more substantial and the changes in in spectator violence would make the analysis of that chapter even more ambivalent. The role of gambling and fantasy would also have to be covered.

The book as a total is uneven. There are sections that offer interesting insights but others that are a bit pedantic. The historical sections condense a lot of material to provide a useful overview of the history, but is also too general to be that helpful beyond the general sense of things. The analysis/methodological sections are just too limited in scope, though as I noted above the last chapter raises some important questions about fan motivations.



View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Review: The Battle of Jedha

The Battle of Jedha (Star Wars: The High Republic)The Battle of Jedha by George Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maybe it's the audio drama with a full cast, but this is the best High Republic book yet. Interesting characters, good action, and a clear story. The different sects of the force on Jedha is something new in Star Wars, we don't see that kind of thing much. Silandra Sho seems like an interesting character that I hope they develop more.

I'm still a little unmoved by the war between Eiram and E'ronoh. There are supposed to be in this forever war that has been raging for .... five years? These deep and unhealed wounds that make peace so hard are not well developed. The war/ struggle for peace angle seems a bit naïve, even for Star Wars.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 29, 2024

Review: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present

People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted PresentPeople Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dara Horn’s book is much praised, and deservedly so. She goes through the history of antisemitism in a novel and personal way. She doesn’t explain the causes of anti-Jewish hatred or do a detailed history. On one hand, this is an intensely personal journey; a memoir of sorts. On the other hand, it is an analysis of the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish hatred. Even in places where people seem to be sympathetic to the injustice befallen Jews, there is a sense of an underlying, if implicit, rejection of Jews. As Horn lays it out this is because this sympathy only seems to be there for dead Jews. Once Jews are dead, they are loved or celebrated. Living Jews are criticized, rejected, expected to conform.

This idea is part of what lies behind her trenchant criticism of the Holocaust Museum movement (if we can call it that). Counterintuitively, she suggests this might be causing or allowing greater anti-Jewishness. By detailing the horrors of the Holocaust, anything less mass murder of millions of Jews seems to be able to dismissed or downplayed as “Well, it’s not the Holocaust.” There is a kind of worship of the dead Jew that can be seen in so much Holocaust and antisemitism education: it seems at first to come from a place of sympathy and justice, but Horn picks out ways it which it is actually ugly and deep down a love of dead Jews.

Another element of her thesis is that people seem to prefer to tell stories about dead Jews rather than ones about actual, living Jews. A troubling question she asks is, which is easier to name: three Nazi death camps or three Yiddish writers. The positive call in Horn’s book is to celebrate Jewish life and thriving, not just our tragedies but our triumphs.

The reader, Xe Sands, was wonderful; she really seemed to capture the author’s voice. Not literally, I have no idea what Horn sounds like; I mean more in the sense of matching the tone and feel of the text. Horn’s sardonic wit can be biting and maybe off putting to some. I had several, “oh damn!,” moments while listening to the book. Sands carries this off perfectly.

I think this is an immensely important book, all Jews should read it. I don’t agree with everything, but it does help to make some sense of the recent rise of antisemitism.



View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Review: Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict

Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East ConflictPalestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict by Oren Kessler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A thorough, well-documented journalistic history of the Great Revolt of 1936. Kessler provides voices from all the key players: Jewish, Arab, and English. And within each of these groups, he brings forwards the continuum of the views. There are a range of more strident and more moderate voices an all sides, and Kessler is able to reconstruct the contemporaneous dialogue between these different factions and how they led up to the revolt, evolved through the revolt, and how the revolt impacted these viewpoints. Kessler does a good job of presenting these views without bias or sentiment, such that one can understand why they thought the way they did. Each is, in their own way, sympathetic.

The main thesis is that this Great Revolt of 1936 was decisive for future of Israel/Palestine. It left the British exasperated and unsure how to proceed: setting the stage for their abandonment of the Mandate. It left the Arab Palestinians in disarray. Many of the Arab elites left during these hostilities, and the long-standing boycott had serious economic consequences for these communities. In putting down the revolt, the British were able to take out much of the fighting capability of the Arab communities. By the time the civil wars and war of independence comes a decade later, they still had not recovered.

On the other hand, the Yishuv (the Jewish community) comes out of the revolt stronger and better able to move forward. The Arab boycott meant the Yishuv had to hasten the construction of much of the economic infrastructure, such as ports and industries, that would be essential in the state building that was to come. The official policy of restraint by the Yishuv (holding back from offensive reprisals against Arab attacks) led the British more and more to rely on and train the Yishuv forces to help keep the peace. This helped to lay the ground work for the ability of the Yishuv to fight the civil war and war of independence that would come in 1947-48.

One of the most striking things about this book is paradoxically that it shows so many points of missed opportunities that might have avoided the decades of conflict that was to come but also how inevitable the conflict was. So many of the statements from the Jews, Arabs, and Brits of the 30s could be slightly edited for timeliness (and swapping out the Brits for the US) and be indistinguishable for statements issued today.

The book is indispensable for anyone wanting to get a much deeper understanding of the roots of the current conflict.


View all my reviews

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Review: Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman

Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman (2016-05-31)Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman by Matti Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a unique memoir. Friedman tells the history of a hill, called Pumpkin, in the Israel security zone within southern Lebanon. This is where Friedman himself served with the IDF, though he doesn’t start with his service. The first focus is on Avi, a soldier serving at the Pumpkin before Friedman. Then Friedman gets into his service, which was in the late 90s ending with the Israeli pull out of the Lebanon security zone. Then Friedman tells about his fascinating clandestine trip back to the area only a few years later.

The story is intensely personal and poignant. It also gives hints of the world that was to come: IEDs, video taping of terror attacks, the challenges of asymmetric warfare against a civilian embedded enemy. The memoir also gives us glimpses into the debate within Israel about the security zone and how this zone eventually unraveled.

The book is decidedly not political: it’s not about analyzing the arguments for or against the security zone or any other aspect of the conflict. It’s about the soldiers, their families, and their lives: how war impacts and shapes their lives. Though at times brutally honest about the soldier’s experience it is free from hyperbole or dramatics. It doesn’t demonize the enemy and it doesn’t glorify his own side. Like the soldiers on the hill, it just lives in the complexity of the conflict; just tries to survive it.

This is the third Friedman book I’ve read; they have all been amazing. I recommend all of them: Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai and Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.


View all my reviews

Sunday, April 07, 2024

Review: Convergence

Convergence (Star Wars: The High Republic)Convergence by Zoraida Córdova
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the end, I enjoyed Star Wars: Convergence. It moves along fairly well, the world building is very good, it has some good action, and some of the characters are compelling. Still, the High Republic remains overall a disappointment to me. Partly, I just don’t get the point. The stories can be fun, but overall it doesn’t really add that much to Star Wars. There is little adding to the lore or fleshing out of the Jedi or the Republic.

The Jedi, Gella Nattai, has promise. One of the main problems with the High Republic era is that most of the Jedi are caricatures, too good, too perfect. It’s very hard to get a feel for them, or make a connection. Gella is younger, not flawed as such, but still developing as a Jedi and her finding her way in the Force. I found it easier to connect to her character.

Axel Greylark is a fun character; in some ways he’s a caricature of the rich playboy type, but there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Xiri and Phan-Tu are more mixed as characters. There are interesting things about them, but their romance doesn’t work for me: too forced and too quick. As the book goes on, they seem to be there more for the story to happen then as drivers of the story.

Most of the other characters are pretty flat, indistinguishable, and not very memorable.
The Mother and the Path could be an interesting adversary; we’ll see how it goes as it develops in Phase 2.

The plot itself is kind of far-fetched: one never figures out why the two worlds are fighting, and then they come together far too quickly after what is termed a forever war. It’s very simplistic: as if war just happens and all that is needed for peace is for two people to stand up and declare it.
But once that is put aside and the story moves along, it does become more compelling and entertaining.


View all my reviews

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Review: Romeo's Fight

Romeo's Fight  (Mike Romeo, #4)Romeo's Fight by James Scott Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of the four Mike Romeo books I've read so far, I think this one is the best. The plot is tighter and more focused. Previous installments have sometimes got a bit convoluted and involved too many plotlines. This one is more straightforward, though with some twists and turns. It's a fast, fun read with some interesting characters. Romeo is a hard hitting, philosophically-minded detective and knight-errant. His dialogue is peppered with quotations from philosophers, artists, and authors. I think the books could be improved if the philosophical ideas worked themselves a bit more into and where reflected in the plot. They are fun and helpf characterize Mike, but don't serve anything more substantive in the books.


View all my reviews

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Review: The Book of Genesis

The Book of GenesisThe Book of Genesis by Gary A. Rendsburg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This course was quite fascinating. Over the course of 24 lectures, Prof. Rendsburg takes you through Book of Genesis. One aspect of the course I appreciated was that Rendsburg had lectures weaved into the overall progression of the book that focused on various issues needing special focus. For example, there are lectures that focused on the history of the Ancient Near East that are relevant for understanding the historical context of the Bible, another lecture on the literature structure of the Bible, one on the different ways of translating the Bible, and another on the dating of the Book of Genesis. These provide important theories and ideas for understanding Genesis, but also they help break up the lectures and avoids the tedium that can sometimes come in long Teaching Company courses.

Though most of the stories where familiar to me, and I imagine would be to almost anyone raised in the West, I learned a lot about the context of these stories, how they related to each other and to other parts of the Bible. I also developed a deeper appreciation for the language, structure, and construction of the Biblical text.

My main criticism would be that some of the discussion of the historicity of the stories could be too credulous. Most of the evidence for the events of the Biblical narrative is circumstantial at best and I think Rendsburg ought to have been clearer about that. Personally, I don’t think it matters all the much: the power of the stories and their meaning is not tied to their literal truth. Like fiction and mythology, the narrative can be meaningful and significant without historical accuracy.



View all my reviews

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Review: When the Thrill Is Gone

When the Thrill Is GoneWhen the Thrill Is Gone by Walter Mosley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love the rhythm and language of Mosley's writing. McGill, the main character, intricately describes the variations of color and shape of everyone he meets. At first, this might seem like Mosely's overly interested in race. But I think it's more about the way McGill sees the world, as a detective looking at every detail of the people he interacts with. McGill is a fascinating character; struggling with his past and his present, but always guided by trying to do what is right. And Mosley develops a cast of characters around McGill that are equally as interesting and engaging. I am not sure McGill is everyone -- his view of the world is a bit too malevolent for me at times -- and I can see that being a turn off for some. In the end, I think while McGill has a malevolent sense of things, the people around him subvert, through their actions (and his own) that view.

I do find at times, I get a little lost in the flow of the story. But, regardless, it pays off; and I really enjoyed how the plot of When the Thrill is Gone resolves itself.

View all my reviews

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Review: Shadow of the Sith

Shadow of the Sith (Star Wars)Shadow of the Sith by Adam Christopher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set between TROJ and TFA, this book fills in back story for the sequel trilogy, and in particular key aspects of TROS. Lando and Luke teaming up is interesting choice, but it works. One issue I've had with several Star Wars novels is that they can sometimes get bogged down; but Christopher does a good job moving things along. There is a good balance of exposition and action. I think he does a good job with Lando and Luke, capturing those original trilogy characters well. (Though Lando could have been a bit more dashing and swashbuckler-y.) Ochi struck me as quite different from the comic books, but he's been through a lot since the setting of those books.

Overall, I enjoyed it and recommend it for Star Wars fans. I don't think this adds all that much to the wider world of Star Wars, but it does explore the latter development of two beloved characters and that makes it worth while.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Review: The Secret Lives of Sports Fans

The Secret Lives of Sports FansThe Secret Lives of Sports Fans by Eric Simons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although there are some interesting parts of this book, overall, I was disappointed. In many ways, the book felt like it was really a long form magazine article (like the Atlantic or the like) that got stretched into book. The flow of the book is mainly a series of anecdotes punctuated by interviews with scientists and other relevant experts. In themselves these were each usually interesting or informative, but they don’t hang together as a whole in a satisfying way. And there is no non-fiction equivalent of a denouement for the various strands of theories and ideas about fandom that Simons presents in the book.

That said, there are some worthwhile discussions of fan identity, how fans relate to each other, and how fandom intersects with other parts of our lives. And Simons and his interviewees do provide some useful social science and evolutionary biology that is relevant for thinking about fandom.


View all my reviews

Saturday, March 02, 2024

Review: Making It Home: Life Lessons from a Season of Little League

Making It Home: Life Lessons from a Season of Little LeagueMaking It Home: Life Lessons from a Season of Little League by Teresa Strasser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's a cliché that baseball is a metaphor for life; and yet there is little about this book that is cliche. Teresa Strasser tells the story of her son's championship little league season and how watching the season with her father helped them both to grieve their lost loves one and deepen their own relationship. Strasser's brother and mother died within four months of each other; and so both she and her father have a lot to process. But Strasser's relationships to her brother, her mother, and her father are, shall we say, a bit complicated; and that all comes out as Strasser tells the story of her son's little league season. Each chapter is a mix of baseball and flashbacks that tell you more about these relationships and the unique Strasser family situation. This is also usually tied together with a relevant metaphor or two from baseball. There are laughs and tears throughout. Strasser reads the audio and you can hear the emotion in her voice. The memoir doesn't hold back, there is a real honesty in Strasser's narrative as she struggles with her grief, her guilt, and her anger. And before you think this is just depressing, there is a lot of joy and happiness here as well.







View all my reviews

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Review: The Brass Verdict

The Brass Verdict (The Lincoln Lawyer, #2; Harry Bosch Universe, #19)The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always enjoy Connelly's books. Haller is an interesting character. Still, he's not Bosch. But Haller and Bosch meet and work together(somewhat) in this book. Seeing Bosch in this way is different: his terse and brash personality are bit less enduring from the outside! What I enjoyed most was Haller's struggles with his own place in legal system and how to deal with the ethical dilemmas he faces.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Review: Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul

Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul (Jewish Encounters Series)Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul by Daniel Gordis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel Gordis presents us with a picture of Menachem Begin as a complex, principled, sometimes paradoxical man. Gordis shows us the full humanity of Begin. Gordis shows us why Begin ought to be honored and praised as one of the re-founders of Israel, while avoiding hagiography. Equally, Gordis presents us with many reasons to be sharply critical of Begin without lapsing into vilification or demonization.

The central theme of Gordis’ book is that Begin was deeply committed to the Jewish people and the restoration of the Jewish homeland. So much of what animated and informed Begin’s actions and decisions was Jewish history and thinking. The history of Jewish suffering and oppression was never far from his mind: he experienced all the 20th century threw at the Jews. He suffered the pogroms of Poland; the murder of his family by the Nazis, the tyranny of the Soviet Union, the restrictions and oppression of the British, and Arab hatred. Throughout it all, he remained steadfast in the need for Jewish freedom and Jewish sovereignty. These principles shaped the man and through him, they helped shape the country.

Another interesting motif running throughout the book is the troubled relationship between Begin and David Ben-Gurion. Though they at times despised each other; the two needed each other: Begin the principled and steadfast idealist; Ben-Gurion the pragmatist single-mindedly focused on building the state. Unsurprisingly in his own biography, Begin comes out getting the better of this fraught relationship.

Begin is sometimes and unfairly presented as harshly militant (even a terrorist). True, he did not shy from the use of force, especially when fighting the British. But he was willing to take big swings at peace (e.g. Egypt). He argued against the military administration for Israeli Arabs, engineered the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, and was the first major political figure to reach across Ashkenazi and Mizrahi lines.

Though his legacy was permanently tarnished by the Lebanon War, Begin’s impact on Israel is uncalculatable. Gordis’ biography captures this important man’s life and historic contributions.


View all my reviews

Monday, February 05, 2024

Review: Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Woods’ Empire of Liberty covers the history of the early US, roughly 1789 to 1815. Starting with the reasons for the constitution and the early years of the new government, the first part of Woods’ hefty volume covers some fairly well-trodden areas. This is not to say it doesn’t offer some interesting analysis of the reasons for the new constitution as well as how it was interpreted and implemented in those early years. It is primarily focused on the presidential politics up to the election of 1800 that sees Jefferson come to power. The general theme here is the initial power of the Federalists followed by the rise and dominance of the Jeffersonian Democrat-Republicans. For those familiar with this historical period, it is fairly standard, but laid out masterfully and deftly.

The second half of the book is more thematic, rather than chronological. Here the chapters pick up a theme or topic and explores it. So, you have a chapter on religion in the early republic, another on the development of the Supreme Court and its power, one that looks at slavery, and one that looks the foreign policy and diplomacy of the period. Each of these provide a fascinating window into an aspect of the history of the period.

The book ends by providing a coda for the enlightenment. That is, as the War of 1812 ends and its consequences are felt, the 18th century ends and the Enlightenment ideas that inspired and influenced so much of the ideas of the founding generation give way to both a more pragmatic approach and the new Romanticism that takes root in the 19th century.

The overall, general theme of the book is the rising republicanism and egalitarianism in the early US. By that, it is meant that the central conflict, as it is convincingly presented by Woods, was between hierarchical, monarchial societies on one hand, and on the other, the push to individualize, democratize, and equalize society on the other. Today we think in terms of liberal and conservative, right and left. And while there are elements of that in the early republic, these dichotomies are mostly absent. The split is really primarily between those supporting more traditional social hierarchies (Federalists) and those with a more radical and flatter view (Jeffersonian Republicans). The former seeing these hierarchies as bulwarks against the ravages of both tyranny from above (kinds) and tyranny from below (mob-rule). The latter seeing individual liberty and an engaged citizenry as the real spirit of ’76.

All in all, I think this book is a well-balanced and important history of the early Republic. While probably a bit overly focused on the political history, it does capture the broad themes of the society more generally. It is important to understand this history: if only to see that all the controversies and issues and concerns we fret about today where all there in the early Republic. We got through that. We can get through the craziness of today too.


View all my reviews

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Review: The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1)The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Abercrombie has a created a fantasy world that is interesting and fresh, with deftly crafted characters, avoiding hackneyed types. The story is a slow burn, but never boring, driven by the characters and how they are dealing with the circumstances they find themselves in. The subtle world-creation is great; Abercrombie dribbles out bits and pieces as it makes sense to the characters; it is never forced or just for the sake of world-building itself. The characters are really what makes this book shine. They so well-drawn, compelling, funny, and intelligent. As for the greater story of the trilogy, and why these characters are coming together, little is revealed but there are lots of hints. The book ends with the stage set for the next round without telling us all that much.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Review: How the Talmud Can Change Your Life: Surprisingly Modern Advice from a Very Old Book

How the Talmud Can Change Your Life: Surprisingly Modern Advice from a Very Old BookHow the Talmud Can Change Your Life: Surprisingly Modern Advice from a Very Old Book by Liel Leibovitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wonderful book. It is funny and playful, and yet profound and meaningful. Leibovitz makes relevant this ancient book (if you can call it that) and shows how its wisdom is important and needed for our lives today.

Leibovitz starts each chapter with some contemporary and seemingly un-Talmud (even un-Jewish) like story (e.g. the friendship of Tolkien and Lewis; the spy Aldrich Ames; Billie Holiday; etc.). But then he finds a way to draw the connections between these and the stories the Talmud tells; and then ends the chapter discussing the underlying enduring truth or deep meaning convened by both the Talmud and the contemporary story. Along the way one learns about the history and construction of the Talmud, the role it plays in Jewish life, and some of the lessons it teaches. Moreover, Leibovitz demonstrates what makes the Talmud so unique. It is not just a legal text or law book; not is it just stories and myths. And it’s not just the idiosyncratic structure of the Talmud: it’s meandering style, it’s replication of the debates and arguments of generations of Rabbis, it’s commentary on itself that is contained within its own pages. It’s all of this and more that makes the Talmud unique, eternally engaging, and meaningful.

The Talmud is able to capture something very human: we are rational beings, but also emotional and story loving beings; and it also captures the paradox of being both particularistic and universalistic (something that runs through so much of being Jewish and Jewish history). The Talmud convenes truths that are universal, but convenes them in particularistic ways of stories, parables, and disputations about arcane legal matters.

I may never actually read the Talmud (I’ve tried; it can be a slog at times), but if I do, it’ll be because of books like this.


View all my reviews