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.

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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.


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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.


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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.

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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.


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