Saturday, May 31, 2014

Away Down South

Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity
© 2007 James C. Cobb
416 pages

            What does it mean to be southern, beyond a fondness for turnip greens and cornbread?  The answer is an evolving one, as the South’s distinctiveness has changed its expression throughout the United States’ history. Away Down South follows national and southern attitudes about southern-ness from settlement days to the present.  The Civil War, the South's stand against the rest of the nation, sets the stage for most of the book, including reconstruction and the continuing problem of race relations. The work  looks at the southern mind and heart, exploring not only intellectually-steeped expressions of the South like I'll Take my Stand and The Mind of the South, but delves deeply into southern literature, black and white.  The South as a concept remains negative throughout. Not that the South is without its virtues, but from the country’s beginnings James C. Cobb maintains that the south has been seen both by itself and the rest as a country as a place apart; first a wild frontier infested by poisonous snakes and Indians, a no-man's-land fit only for criminals, and later as the cesspool of American culture; the hiding place of aristocracy, slavery, ignorance, and all things foul. Having no France across  the Channel, or a Germany across the border, the South is the “other” which the rest of the country, with progressive, industrial New England as its model, can hold itself superior.  The  south's wild gave way to plantations and then Jim Crow, but regardless of changes the taint of ‘other’ remained.  This is a view not preached by Cobb, a man of the south himself, but the attitude haunts the imagination of the southern intellectuals and artists who later claim the story. What makes Away Down South stand out for me is the space given to black southerners, who left the fields for the  northern cities only to return in part to the southland. Despite its tragic history, its story is one they share;  the southern scene is the one fixed in their memories of home. That coming-to-terms with the past can't help but hold a fascination for a southern student of history such as myself.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Who Killed Homer?

Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom
© 1998 Victor Davis Hanson
290 pages

For hundreds of years, the study of the classics was at the heart of a liberal education, thought essential to the cultivation of free men.  Yet today speaking Latin would be regarded as a sign of eccentricity, not erudition. People now attend university for technical  expertise in fields like business, engineering, or nursing, and such a focus is lauded as practical.  A degree in Greek literature would be derided as useless as a degree in art history, the epitome of wasted public finance.  Victor Hanson argues that vocational training is not the point of a university education; an education is not what you know, but how you behave. In Who Killed Homer? he examines the soul-forming virtues of the classical tradition and contemplates their reason for their unnecessary but imminent demise.

Hansen begins by arguing that the greatest virtues of western civilization have their origin, and sustaining permanence, in the Greek tradition.  Drawing from philosophical treatise (to the Greeks, a category broad enough to cover politics, science, and more) in addition to extant literature, Hanson reviews a spectrum of values with origins in Greece.  These range from concepts given overt legal protection (consensual government and the open criticism thereof, armies subordinate to civil power, free enterprise, etc) to ideas understood at a deeper level, and contributing to the others.  These more fundamental appreciations include the belief that every polis' wellbeing depended on the average middling citizen, not the aristocracy or the mob, and that the world was fraught with meaning. Mysterious yet rational, the world was a place imbued with limits -- limits that extended to man. Part of the Greek heritage are more obvious than others; the very shape of US government structures bears witness to their past, and most histories of science will begin with the Greek enterprise. Other appreciations have been forgotten;  like the belief that man was nothing without the polis;  only the power of culture and threat of sanction by others kept the human animal from behaving worse than beasts.  It is in civilization than man finds salvation from his own destruction. This is a hard lesson given an obscene and brutal summation by Hanson: "Man is nothing without the state."  Ultimately, classical education imparted a cohesive view of the world in which science, politics, and philosophy were knit together, a part of the whole.

If these truths are indeed timeless, how have they fallen by the wayside during the 20th century? Hansen lays the blame solely at the feet of the Classicists, who have thrown away the responsibility of their tradition in the pursuit of status and fortune. They ought to know better, and here Hanson's attitude reveals how seriously he takes his belief that education was the moulding of character, not acquisition of knowledge. To Hanson,  those who have committed themselves to knowing the Greek mind, who have studied it in earnest, bear responsibility for practicing it. Just as we expect a minister to conduct himself with greater care than the average parishioner, so to does Hanson expect classicists to be, if not moral champions, at least contenders;  he expects them to live the values of the Greeks, to take their place in the hoplite ranks of the mind and defend what is theirs, to rise to the challenge of revealing the classics' enduring relevance. Instead,  they focus on increasingly more pointless esoterically in pursuit of esteem,  viewing fellow classicists as competition to be beat for choice university positions in which they can focus on their 'research' and leave the actual teaching to grad students, producing not keen minds but papers on mathematical relationships governing the use of similes in The Illiad.  The comprehension of the whole is lost, and insult is added to injury when said scholars apply tortured modern interpretations,laying waste to The Odyssey by accusing it of being the wellspring of western sexism. Instead of defending and advancing the Greek way, classicists have allowed it to become the scapegoat for every moral self-doubt of the west. After outlining his case against his colleagues, Hanson proposes ways to put the focus back on the meaning of the classics,  in part by forcing classicists to teach."Publish or perish" is anathema to this professor who sees his primary vocation as  giving young people a structured education, not advancing his own  prestige. The work ends on a bitter note, however, as he does not expect the modern world's slide into the moral abyss to be arrested. Instead,  we will probably have to wait for civilization to collapse and demand strong men again, men who will rediscover the Greek truths.

That final bitter retort casts a pall over a strongly-argued book already shadowed by contempt for the modern world, especially ideologies like multiculturalism and relativism. The Greeks understood nuance, but in Hanson's view they stood by everlasting truths. Hanson's own stand is strident at times, to the point that he's less a Pericles calling forth citizens to stand with him and more a Leonidas rallying the troops before a final stand. His appraisal of Greek contributions is surpassed by the analysis of why classical studies have faltered, but Who Killed Homer does double duty as a traditionalist critique of modernity and a passionate appraisal of how much value the tradition still holds, even for moderns overawed by their own cleverness. As a classical partisan myself, I found it invigorating, but Hanson's zeal may spook the unconvinced.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ten in the life of Sharpe

Since 2010 I have been steadily reading through Sharpe's series, a set of historical novels following the storied career of the fictional Richard Sharpe, an orphan turned soldier who became an officer after saving the Duke of Wellington's life in India.   I wanted to commemorate the series' end  by sharing ten moments from the series, but there were so many to choose from I went with  mostly quotes, along with my tentatively-favorite book.

1. From Sharpe's Battle:

 “You did what, Sharpe? A duel? Don't you know dueling is illegal in the army?”
“I never said anything about a duel, General. I just offered to beat the hell out of him right here and now, but he seemed to have other things on his mind."
2.  A recent highlight was the scene in Sharpe's Waterloo, in which a blood-spattered Sharpe storms into a dinner party to inform the generals present that Napoleon is invading. As soon as he entes the doors, his adulterous wife (who ran away with his money to shack up with a more genteel aristocratic ponce) begins screaming bloody murder, and the aristo flees in terror. They're so pathetic by comparison its almost gratuitous, but made good by the fact that Sharpe ignores them because he's go his mission. Challenging a cuckholding coward to a duel can wait.

3. From Sharpe's Gold:

"Get him out, sir? There's two regiments there!"
"So? That's only eight hundred men. There are fifty-three of us."

4. From Sharpe's Escape

"Lieutenant Slingsby," the Colonel said, "tells me that you insulted him. That you invited him to duel. That you called him illegitimate. That you swore at him."
    Sharpe cast his mind back to the brief confrontation on the ridge's forward slope just after he had pulled the company out of the French panic. "I doubt I called him illegitimate, sir," he said. "I wouldn't use that sort of word. I probably called him a bastard.

5.  Sharpe's Prey is a rare Sharpe book, one taking place not on the battlefield but in the staggeringly beautiful port city of Copenhagan, in which Sharpe -- alone in a strange city -- must engage in dazzling heroics and prevent an entire fleet from falling into enemy hands by destroying it himself.

6.  From Sharpe's Challenge,  movie version:

Harper: So, you and me are going to stop a rebellion?
Sharpe: Well I don't see no bugger else.
7. Likewise:
"Don't know your place, do you, Sharpie?"
"Maybe not, but I know how to stand  before a French column." 

8. From Sharpe's Havoc:

 "So what do you believe in?" Vicente wanted to know.
"The trinity, sir," said Harper sententiously.
"The trinity?" Vicente was surprised.
"The Baker rifle," Sharpe said, "the sword bayonet, and me."

9. From Sharpe's Eagle, movie version:

"You can't stop Captain Sharpe, sir. You can walk away from him or you can stand behind him, but don't ever try and get in his way."

10. From Sharpe's Waterloo

"'Educated, Sharpe! Think of that! My whole lifetime has been devoted to the study of warfare, and shall I tell you what is the one lesson I have learned above all others?'
'I should like to know, sir.' Sharpe admired his own tactful restraint, especially as the Prince was just twenty-three years old and Sharpe had been a fighting soldier for twenty-two." [...]
'They took two Eagles! Two!' The Prince clapped his hands. 'You should go and take a look, Sharpe. It's not every day you see an Eagle!'
'Sergeant Harper and I once captured an Eagle,' Sharpe's voice was filled with an unmistakable loathing. 'It was five years ago when you were still in school.'"

Teaser Tuesday

Marvin interrupted. "Suppose I don't want to spend my life on anti-Communist work but I feel -- a calling to fight the Communists on as many fronts as I can. Am I an altruist then?"
"Yes," Lee said. "And you are contaminating freedom. You're putting someone else's interests -- the anti-Communist cause -- on a higher order than your own. In that way you are rejecting the moral dimension of liberty."
"Balls," Woodroe permitted himself.

p. 237, Getting it Right, William F. Buckley

Monday, May 26, 2014

Getting it Right

Getting it Right
© 2006 William F. Buckley Jr

        Getting it Right is a political history disguised as a love story,  both tales told amid the radically shifting political climate of America's 1960s, as Americans reacted to the growing global power of the Soviet Union and the increasing role of government in their own lives.  Woodroe Raynor is an earnest young Mormon whose narrow escape from Russian soldiers invading Hungary cements his contempt for the Soviet Union, who finds similarly zealous spirits in the nascent John Birch Society. Leonora Goldstein is a bright young Jewish girl in the employ of the Objectivists, who adopts Ayn Rand as her mentor.  Through  the tumultous years of Kennedy and LBJ, the two  test their ideas against one enough, struggling to build a relationship on their mutual conservatism despite different values. The real stars of the novel are the historical characters for whom Raynor and Leonora are mere appendages, including General Edwin Walker, Ayn Rand,  JFK, and Barry Goldwater. Buckley incorporates a lot of historically-derived quotations into their dialogue, which makes some passages seem overly formal, but such casual pompousness would not be out of character for Ayn Rand.  The story can't help but be personal for the late Buckley, a central figure in the movement, and one whose National Review denounced both the Birchers and Objectivists in his day. Buckley's highbrow scorn for the paranoid and self-impressed fringe is initially dampened in the novel. Both of its central characters initially find a world of meaning in their respective organizations, rising to high positions within them throughout the Kennedy administration, but by the reign of LBJ both have reconsidered as the founders reveal themselves to be utterly mental.  The plot climaxes in the failed Goldwater challenge for the presidency, an election in which Johnson played on the public's fears that Goldwater's extremism would lead to global war. The famous "daisy" commercial isn't mentioned here, but the crackup of both the Birchers and Objectivists takes the wind out of the more moderate conservatives' sails. It's a quite a piece of work, an extended debate about political philosophy enmeshed in a lively retelling of the 1960s, a period which contributes action scenes in the form of assassinations and rioting.  If the specter of Ayn Rand talking can be endured, most readers of a moderate bent will find this engaging.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Captain of Rome

Captain of Rome
© 2010 John Stack
400 pages

The Mediterranean is awash in blood as the first Punic War steeps in intensity.  Having risen to the challenge and successfully confronted Carthage on the high seas,  the Republic of Rome  is swaggering under the influence of expected victory. Its fleet greatly enlarged, its sailors gaining their sea legs, the early humiliating losses seem to have been left behind. But Hamilcar Barca is far from beaten, planning a brutal counterstrike that will imperil Italy itself.  None in Rome are wise to the danger, its politicians fighting to claim credit for the presumed victory. To the laurel-seeking politicians, the military is a route to glory, including the men of the good ship Aquila, its crew and the Ninth Legion which it serves.   Its captain, Atticus, is an outstanding tactician, having snatched victories from the teeth of defeat and prevented some losses from turning into catastrophes. His success is resented, however, by some Romans who see in him nothing but an uppity Greek, a wily Ulysses with suspect loyalty. His reputation highlights the failures of others; if a Greek can do it, why can't they? Such a failure is Tribune Varro, a  pup given high rank by his daddy's gold, who makes Atticus the object of resentful sulking. As Carthage's plan ripens and the hour for a crushing blow to Rome arrives, Atticus is deep in the snare of petty politicians and endangered not only by Barca's great fleet, but assassins from his own lines.  In Captain of Rome,   Atticus must survive not only the threat of enemy ships, but the aftermath of his own earlier successes.

 The promising setup is fulfilled by Stack's execution, delivering action not only on the sea, but on land and in political chambers.  Atticus isn't the only officer whose future is threatened by others' ambition; the Carthaginians have their own Varros.  The ongoing tension between Atticus and his counterpart in the Ninth, Septimus, is especially well done; although the two are comrades-in-arms and fast friends, Septimus' hostility towards his sister's romantic relationship with Atticus threatens to drive them apart. The tension is never dispelled in one big confrontation; whenever  their repartee declines, circumstances impel the two to work together and ally again. It's not a clean back and forth, either, but an area of muddy water the two are never quite out of, even during the epic-scale battle at the end.  The strength of their friendship amid these stresses is an unexpected and added strength to a novel that already has plenty of appeal, considering the familiar-yet-exotic nature of classical-era naval combat, and the scheming (Carthaginian and Roman) that delivers a series of crises for the characters.  Readers will also appreciate the handling of the Carthaginians, who aren't villainized, though there are villains among their ranks;  instead, through Atticus' experience we see in the war's contenders  two powers alike in ambition, served by both honorable warriors and loathsome cretins.  Captain of Rome is another triumph in this fascinating trilogy of historical naval fiction.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ninety Percent of Everything

Ninety Percent of Everything:  Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate.
© 2013 Rose George
287 pages

UK Title: Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping [...]

What is 1300 feet long, travels the distance to the Moon nearly annually, and is nigh-invisible? The answer is any container ship, fleets of which convey the overwhelming majority of all goods traded between cities and continents, but which most people never think about.  This may be so because so few people work in modern sea-shipping, or because in the age of terrorism ports are severed from the cities they serve, blocked away by miles of walls and checkpoints.  In Ninety Percent of Everything, journalist Helen George spends several months aboard a ship owned by Maersk, a Danish commercial giant,  meeting the men and women who keep the fleets float in an effort to understand their experience and the importance of the shipping enterprise in the 21st century.

Like the containers the ships are filled with, Ninety Percent is a glorious grab-bag of topics; a little history, a little science, a little travel, a little military action on the high seas.  The Maersk Kendal, George's home for most of the trip, is lead by Captain Glenn, a man who lived through the revolution in shipping that followed "the Box", or the advent of containerization. Once a young seaman on a tramp steamer that moved from port to port, picking up small articles,  he witnessed the death of old harbors that were closed to make room for the far larger equipment needed to handle the containers. He is a romantic figure who can navigate the seven seas on a sextant alone, even if the march of time has forced him to spend his days a wheelhouse that resembles a computer lab.  Steaming from city to city, through monsoons and canals, ships like his can arrive in a harbor and completely turn over hundreds or thousands of containers in less than 24 hours  before departing into the night. 

The seamen's experience remains as it has for thousands of years -- lonely, dangerous, and often boring.  The views from the ship are of nothing but a long expanse of boxes piled another, and the work is similarly dull for most,  constantly cleaning and painting the ship, or tending the house-sized engine.  Most sailors come from developing countries the world over, and especially from the Philippines since their ability to speak English is prized. Dismal and unnoted as the work is, like most jobs it's better than starving. As the captain of the Kendal laments, even today when the fast container ships have reduced the globe from the world to a village, their crews are treated like the 'mere scum of the earth'.  Ms. George  also includes a segment spent on a military vessel hunting Somalian pirates (taking a decidedly unromantic attitude towards the sea-going thugs who are the object of so much fascination by the western press), and visits a portside organization that does its best to ameliorate the condition of the sailors, offering them counseling and sending them goods from home.  Although the book concerns modern shipping, George keeps it grounded in history as she can, retelling the story of World War 2's merchant marine sailors who endured the same danger for the same purpose as the Navy, but with little honor or compensation rendered.  One positive aspect of the sailors' experience is their time spent in the company of the sea's abundance of life, especially dolphins 

Ninety Percent of Everything succeeds in going aboard the massive machine that is a container ship and giving its lifeless expanse of hull and rows of containers a human face;  for all the automation, the sealanes still remain the province of sailors who have brain enough to engineer solutions against fickle winds and waves. While George doesn't spend a great deal of time about the mechanics of shipping (nor should she, seeing how that territory was well done in The Box),  her account of the human side makes for fantastic reading. Her Yorkshire ancestors would surely be pleased. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Teaser Tuesday (20 May)

     "Sometimes all a reader can do is sit back and watch the words go by:

The same arrested relay of emulative métis underlies Oydessean architectural theory. For in the female invention 'of making threats adhere to one another' is also the beginning of architecture. The Vitruvian myth of aboriginal architects 'imitating' the weaving and daubing of birds' nests continues a widespread aetiology. (A.L.T. Bergen, 'The (Re)Marriage of Penelope and Odysseus: Architecture Gender Philosophy, A Homeric Dialogue' in The Ages of Homer, J.B. Carter and S.P. Morris, eds. [Austin, 1995], p. 210)

     It is hard to know whether we are reading about Homer or poring over the Time-Life series on home remodeling."

p. 138, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Last Patriot

The Last Terrorist
© 2008 Brad Thor
352 pages

The Last Patriot takes a modern covert-cops thriller and combines it with The DaVinci Code, though the sinister establishment being threatened by some archaeological find is not the Church of Rome, but global Islam.  The novel opens with a car bomb exploding in Paris, its target an American historian in the employ of the US president.  “President Rutledge” hopes to shake Islam at its base by revealing the Last Revelation of Muhammad, for which the prophet was supposedly assassinated.  The nature of that revelation is evidently seriously enough  that angry Muslim villains employ a US secret agent turned terrorist to kill anyone who might know about it. Unfortunately for him, Rutledge has a whole band of terrist-fightin’ secret agent men of his own, and they go ‘round and ‘round throughout the novel killing people until the final reveal.

Although I’d hoped for an exciting military or political thriller set in the mid-east, most of the action takes place in either Paris or D.C. The fantastic plot beggars belief, between the amount of clues tied up in Thomas Jefferson’s architectural work, and all of the characters seriously believing that a document changing their beliefs about the Koran would diminish global terrorism. The story climaxes at Jefferson’s privately-designed estate, where clues in its design lead to the location of the final revelation’s hiding place, National Treasure-like. The stuttering hostility toward Islam doesn’t help, with the general avowing that global Islam is the worst thing ever being occasionally disrupted by characters blandly mentioning that it’s radical Islam they hate, not Islam in general). Aside from the technology and some of the American characters, there’s not a lot of believably here: Left Behind had more credible Muslims.   I'm not entirely sure what the title even has to do with the plot; it seems a generic America vs Evil Muslims tale with some Founding Father resonance thrown in. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The White War

 The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919
©  Mark Thompson
488 pages

By 1915, what began as a conflict between Austria and Serbia had broadened into the Great War, whose largest contenders were not parties to the initial dispute. The war became truly global as countries the world over joined the Allies or the Central Powers, using the struggle to pursue their own ends; such was the case with Japan, which declared war on Germany not to avenge Belgium, but to snatch up  the Kaiser’s Asian colonies.  Closer to the heart of the battle was Italy’s role in the fray; although the recently-unified kingdom began 1914 in a defensive alliance with both Austria and Germany,  it delayed entry while it considered better alternatives. Finally deciding that reclaiming more of its ‘historic’ territory from its border was better than attacking France for no reason at all, Italy entered into the war in the early summer of its second year. So began five years of tragedy, creating a victory as sad as any loss. Such is the story of The White War, which is excellent even though disheartening.

            I have previously regarded the butchery of the Somme as the Great War’s most depressing moment, but it now has a rival, for the Italian front reads like one long prolonged experience of the Somme. The star and culprit of the show is General Cadorna, a man who was invested with considerable power and claimed even more as the war progressed, who launched ten successive attempts at the same Austrian lines over the course of two years with precious little to show for his efforts. Despite enjoying considerable advantages in men and material, the Italian army under Cardona’s command gave new meaning to SNAFU, never learning to adapt to the new style of warfare, not even incorporating lessons from its allies on the western front.  So extraordinarily bad is Cardona at waging war that the Austrian army, in other accounts and fronts lampooned for its own failures, appears focused, potent, and grimly efficient by comparison.  Only when the Austrians launch an attack that destroys all of the blood-won progress of the three years preceding, and even threaten Venice, is Cardona sacked and the Italian army saved.  Reorganizing and pushing forward, the Italians won their greatest victories only when peace talks  were already in progress, and the terms being penciled in – but even then, Italy’s redemption was squandered by its own leaders’ politicking,  For all of its millions lost, Italy ended the war despised by Europe and already at daggers with its new neighbors, the Slavic nations.

It’s a sad, frustrating story, but a story easy to experience as delivered by Mark Thompson. He’s more personable than scholarly, sometimes relaxing into a present-tense narrative of the war that would no doubt annoy history professors insisting on a more objective and consistent residence in the past tense.  Italy makes for a fascinating front, as the mountains and hills between it and the Austro-Hungarian border are far different terrain than the plains of Flanders field.  The text is supplemented by maps that make the difficult terrain’s role easier to see, but The White War is more than combat. Beginning with Italy’s extensive diplomatic dickering,   it pauses from the action throughout to offer looks at the home front, or other aspects of the Italian experience. These excerpts reveal the relatively new nation fracturing under the stress of war, stress made worse by Cadorna’s heavy-handed approach. It’s an old joke that “beatings will continue until morale improves”, but such was Cardorna’s practice;  outraged by the lack of disincline among the army, he reinstituted the Roman practice of decimation (deliberating killing every tenth man in a unit to punish it), treated prisoners as traitors, and punished even civilians for being less than enthusiastic about the war.

The White War commends itself to those interested in learning about the Italian experience, even if that experience showcases the most frustrating and horrific aspects of the conflict. 

Human Scale

Human Scale
© 1980 Kirkpatrick Sale
500 pages      

      Human Scale is an ambitious assault on big business, big government -- the very concept of Bigness. Opening with biology, Kirkpatrick Sale first establishes his basic operating principle:  for everything, there is a limit to its size beyond which it cannot grow without being compromised. In its opening third, Human Scale addresses the problems inherent in large, complex systems, then follows that with sections on how society, economy, and politics might function more effectively if scaled down.  On the hefty side itself, Human Scale impresses with its thoroughness; a kindred spirit to E.F. Schumacher's small is beautiful,  the book has largely stood the test of time in putting forth a case for decentralized politics, appropriate technology,  organic locally grown agriculture, and cities and buildings built to the human scale.  Sale creates a synthesis from topics as varying as demographics and aesthetics.. It is at times dated, at least in its optimistic projections for solar energy efficiency.  On the whole, however, it offers insight into government dysfunction and widespread social problems, along with ways people can work to effect change themselves. It is almost an anarchist how-to, a review of ways people can reclaim their lives against the power of centralization, and its enduring relevance is proven in the multitude of authors still advancing its ideas, a number that includes Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry.

Monday, May 12, 2014

This week: commerce, trade, and shipping

This past week at the library I’ve been mostly reading into commerce and trade, and reviews are posted or will be for all except for Point of Purchase, a “history of how shopping changed America”.  This was a history of American shopping, largely, with some attempt to read meaning into browsing and acquisition;  Consumers’ Republic did that better.  My most recent read was Ninety Percent of Everything, a library book I imagine I’ll end up buying since I dropped it onto a rain-soaked pavement and then splashed coffee onto it for good measure. I wouldn’t mind owning it, as it made for a fantastic read. At least I didn’t overturn an entire glass of milk onto it as in eighth  grade, when I utterly ruined a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I’m not usually this abusive to books, honest.

Currently I’m engrossed in The White War, a history of the Italo-Austrian front of the Great War. It’s quite impressive so far. Next in the Great War books will be one on airplanes or ships, I think, and then I’ll examine the Eastern Front. Those interested in the war may find a recently-created Twitter handle of note; "RealTimeWW1" will be posting 'news articles' from the war. Presently the fighting hasn't broken out yet. There were a couple of WW1 books on NetGalleys I was hoping to read, but I'm told the advanced review copies are reserved for English-types. Alas. (It's been ages since I read anything from NetGalleys; the last might have well been To End All Wars, on anti-war action in England during the conflict.)

Reviews are  in the works for for Human Scale and Away Down South. 

Books in the "News"
Today's Econtalk podcast features an interview with Chuck Marohn, author of "Building Strong Towns".  Considering that I listen to both of their shows weekly, today's is a special delight. 

The most recent episode of AstronomyCast features an interview with Phil Plait on the topic, "The Universe is Trying to Kill You". Dr. Plait draws from his book, Death from the Skies

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Splendid Exchange

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World
© 2009 David Bernstein
496 pages


  History oft moves with the caravans and trade fleets, and its journeys along the routes  of the past and present are given a storied account in A Splendid Exchange. Beginning in ancient Sumer and moving forward to the present day, David Bernstein demonstrates how the lust for goods from afar has linked cities and states together, and driven them apart. The narrative corners nearly every corner of the globe, Antarctica excepting, and ripens into a tentative argument for free trade, though its author isn't too insistent. Bernstein brings a lot to the table; he's a personable author, sometimes wandering off on side-roads but for never too long, and usually delivering something valuable to the reader as a reward for gamely enduring:  understanding of how air compressors work, for instance, or what is meant by the economic phrase, comparative advantage.  He creates in A Splendid Exchange  a marvelously varied history book, following the tale of  trade through city-states to nation-empires, from the middle east to South America -- but as varied as it is, no matter the diversity of goods being traded or fought over, the narrative flows seamlessly aside from a jump in the 20th century.  Those goods range from the exotic to the mundane;  table elements we now take for granted have had far more interesting past lives. Readers may well know that sugar, spice, and all things nice are everything little girls are made of – but they’re also the stuff of world empires and bitter grudges. 
The importance of trade routes affirms the importance of geography; many of the straits endlessly fought over throughout the book remain heavily in use today, underscoring the relevance of the various trading empires' rise and fall.  The same trading routes the Dutch and Portuguese  shot their hearts out as cannons attempting to secure are the ones we employ to transport oil, no mere luxury. Our entire global economy is lubricated by trade, which is why Bernstein cautiously presents arguments for freeing it up, with caveats.  A Splendid Exchange strikes me as popular history at its finest; varied but cohesive, fun to read but intelligently argued and obviously relevant to our contemporary experience. 


More Work for Mother

More Work for Mother: the Ironies of American Housework
© 1985 Ruth Cowan           
288 pages

       Throughout the 20th century,  households were transformed by a new abundance of labor-saving devices, from washing machines to toaster ovens, and processed goods that reduced housewives’ workloads, leaving them free to learn trades and professions of their own and fully participate in the modern world.  But in the second decade of the 21st century, American women are just as  chore-taxed as ever, lamenting of the ‘second shift’ that awaits them upon arriving home. Despite the many machines now investing our homes,  most of the work still has to be done by hand, for Parkinson’s Law holds true there as well as anywhere  else: work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In More Work for Mother, author Ruth Cowan demonstrates how gadgets and goods created new work while eliminating others, and argues that women will not be free from drudgery until housework is freed from the realm of ‘femininity’ to the point that men won’t feel emasculated by laundry.

            The devices and goods of the 19th and 20th century – refrigerators, washing machines, microwaves,  convenient bags of flour, even more convenient no-bake cheesecake mixes, even more convenient instant cereal --  did indeed reduce a lot of labor. In fact, for men they reduced virtually all household work.  More Work for Other opens with a history of housework. Although modern readers might  be aware that women’s traditional role was in the home, men’s traditional role was in the home, as well;  prior to industrialism, men didn’t pack a lunch pail and disappear into the country for a day at work. The home and the work of most families were intimately connected,  typically inseparable. Women may have baked bread, but it was men who gathered and ground it;  women may have washed clothes, but men chopped the wood and let children lug in the water.  But while men’s roles in the household largely vanished, women found that work remained constant.  The availability of affordable clothing reduced the need for sewing and repairing, but increased the burden of laundry, and standards of cleanliness climbed as the ability to clean increased. Laundry and scrubbing agents meant that minor stains could no longer be tolerated, necessitating near-daily cleaning regimens.  And those new labor-saving devices were often fragile things, needing frequent cleaning to avoid their works being gummed up.  Additionally, for middle class or wealthier women, the availability of do-it-yourself machines meant that retaining maids and other servants was a sinful waste – never mind that doing it themselves meant more hours of their own time spent doing the labor, regardless of advertisers’ claims of quick ease-of-use.   There  were options that might have truly revolutionized household chores –  commercial kitchens with thrice-daily delivery,  commercial laundries, cooperatives, apartment hotels – but most fell by the wayside, either because of cultural imperatives or because of market forces.  

         Although not as sweeping as Susan Strasser's Never Done,  what's lost in extensive narrative is replaced by more serious analysis and an abundance of good points made. Cowan notes, for instance, that the increase of standardized products destroyed easy class differences:  while in the mid-19th century a street urchin and the scion of a wealthy businessman would look as different as night and day just judging from their clothes' cleanliness, today both could wear the same products, and the fact that vitually all homes have water and heating means that no one is denied the ability to shower every day.  The interior of homes, too, are far closer than they once were; the absence of gadgets and electricity might have once marked a hovel, but these days not even campers will tolerate going without a refrigerator.  Her driving point is that the fact that homes are now filled with gadgets and manufactured articles doesn't mean that homes are no longer productive; mothers are still 'producing' clean bathrooms, fed children,  and presentable clothing. If the labor women perform was priced as though they were in the open market, people would never assume homemaking to be unproductive. Ultimately, Cowan believes women will be freed from drudgery only when we relax fanatic standards regarding cleanliness and the housework that remains is stripped, through cultural or technological means, of its traditionally female association so that men will pitch in more.  If that argument, made in 1985, has lost some of its edge in a 21st century peopled by "Mr.Moms" , most of the work has not.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Progress so far, and another announcement

Four months into my "Great War" yearly theme, I've managed to stay true to my intention of reading one book a month on it.  Only two of the books so far have come from my original list,  as I supplemented them with a novel set in the colonial war in Africa and Louisa Thomas's Conscience.  I made an attempt at Under Fire, but found the translation difficult going. I may try again, as I've intended to read the book for years.   In spite of being technically on track, I'm not particularly satisfied with my progress so far because I've not covered any serious new territory. There's still eight months left, though, and my next couple of reads will more sharply focused.

  1. The First World War, John Keegan
  2. La Feu (Under Fire), Henri Barbusse
  3. The Great War in Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
  4. The Great War at Sea, Richard Hough
  5. To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War, ed. Vincent O'Hara et al
  6. Wipers: A Soldier's Tale from the Great War, Jeff Simmons
  7. Forgotten Voices of the Great War, Max Arthur
  8. The Eastern Front, Norman Stone
  9. Rites of Spring: the Great War  and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins
  10. World War 1 Companion, Mathias Strohn, editor.
  11. Collision of Empires, Prit Buttar
  12. Silent Night,  Stanley Weintraub
+  An Ice Cream War, William Boyd
Conscience, Louisa Thomas

I realized recently that I have ten titles, purchased over the last few years, that I've not yet read. Since ten is a number that commands respect, I've decided to impose a moratorium on myself. No more acquisitions until those ten are read or until they spontaneously combust.

    1. Power, Inc; David Rothkopf
    2. Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
    3. The Vikings, Robert Ferguson
    4. Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman
    5. The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond
    6. Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton
    7. Earth, Richard Fortey
    8. Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal
    9. Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins
    10. Star Trek the Fall: Revelation and Dust, David Mack
     I'll still be patronizing my library, and heavily, I just won't be buying anything. Technically I have a lot more unread purchased books, but several dozen Trek paperbacks purchased in a box for $10 four years ago doesn't quite count.  My aim is to clear this to-be-read list in a few months, but considering how many library books  I can distract myself with, I may not accomplish anything other than saving money. Only time will tell!