Friday, January 3, 2014

Read Any Good Books Lately?

As you can see from the title, this article will be all about gardening....and whales. Sure, why not. Whales. And maybe record players too.

As is natural with my line of work, I voraciously snap up books on history and politics. Being a conservative, I go more specifically for ones that challenge the conventional wisdom concerning liberal awesomeness and progress and all that nonsense. But they should also be well-written and serious works, not Limbaugh's "Rush Revere And The Whatever It Was Because I Took One Look In The Bookstore And My Eyeballs Rolled Into The Back Of My Head."

So, here are three fairly recent books the Commentarama community might enjoy.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. By Anne Applebaum. I want to stress something: No credible college professor, not even an Ivy Leaguer, will today deny that the Soviet bloc was not a fun place to live in; the evidence of oppression and economic failure is simply too great. But many of them will pooh-pooh the idea of the USSR as "totalitarian" and claim that Stalin and Co. were just reacting to American aggression, blah blah blah.

Applebaum, who won a Pulitzer for a previous book on the Russian gulags, relies on a lot of newly available archival evidence to show that in the Eastern European countries which fell under their control, the Soviets were not "reacting," but very definitely intended, from the beginning, to stamp out democracy and civic society, and to create something very close to the totalitarian ideal. Their ultimate goal was nothing less than the creation of a new sort of man, a Homo Sovieticus, if you will. It's a sad story, and pretty dark; but Applebaum also shows that traditional Western values persisted, despite the official persecution, and played a significant part in the fall of the Iron Curtain decades later. Definitely worth checking out.

Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. By Daniel Hannan. Hannan is one of the few prominent Europeans to be a conservative in more than name. Which he is in name as well: He represents Britain's Tories in the European Parliament, and some of his speeches are awesome to watch, if you have the time and access to YouTube. (Which presumably you do, if you're reading this.) Anyway, his latest book can best be considered an ode to the Anglophone world--Britain and all its former colonies, including America. Basically, he argues that all the rights and institutions we take for granted today (private property, the rule of law, etc.) can be traced back to the ancient traditions of the first Anglo-Saxons, who preserved "English liberty" and handed it down to the present day.

Some of his characterizations are a bit sappy, if you want my honest opinion, and I don't agree with every single one of his interpretations, but he makes some compelling arguments for why the Britons went in such a different (and far more stable) political direction than, say, continental Europe. And I can think of precious few academics--certainly none in the "Colonial Studies" section--who would let you know there were instances when, yes, British subjects beyond the island did love the Empire and all it stood for. Bottom line: Don't be afraid to go rah-rah for your country and your culture once in a while.

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. By Niall Ferguson. Ferguson being, of course, another of those rare truly conservative Europeans--so much so that I've heard more than one liberal express a wish that he would just drop dead already, so you know you can trust him. Not quite as optimistic an author, I'm afraid, but then Ferguson does concern himself with the long-term rise and fall of civilizations. Short and to the point, he identifies some common characteristics of prosperous Western societies--democracy, capitalism, the rule of law, and civil society--and argues that all are threatened today by the ever-expanding state. It's already become such a behemoth, in America and Europe alike, that you can't relate to it except in a purely technical sense: noted in his comparison between "The Rule of Law" and "The Rule of Lawyers." (Sorry, Andrew.)

If you've read some of Ferguson's other work, you know he can get a little grim when contemplating the future. Still, he draws on his personal experiences to argue that none of these trends are irreversible; action from below, in the form of ordinary people taking an active interest in their government, or even their own neighborhood, can mitigate a lot of these problems.

So there you have it--three of the latest books to catch my eye at the bookstore. All worth a read, I think. But I'll turn it over to you guys. What have you read lately that's good, and does any of it have a strongly conservative message? Because books are important, yo.


EricP said...

VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave. Told by the surviving VJs, with some sprinklings if excerpts from some of JJ Jackson's writings and past interviews with MTV's elder jock, was the fastest I've rifled through 300ish pages since Talkin' Baseball (just something about oral histories). The early/mid-80s was a great time for music, and the best and worst were all on MTV. Awesome hearing the behind the scenes dirt and triumphs from the guys and gals who brought it to us. Didn't think it possible, but dislike Mark Goodman even more now.

Next up: Christmas present #2, Big Hair and Plastic Grass - A Funky Ride through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s.

Anonymous said...

Finished Theodore Rex, the second volume of Edmund Morris' Teddy Roosevelt trilogy. Unfortunately, my retention isn't very good so half the time, by chapter's end, I forgot how things started. Simply by happenstance, I read most of the first two TR books on planes so I'll buy the third one when I book another flight!

I'm working my way through yet another series of Star Trek novels, subtitled The Fall. It's kinda like the US vs. the USSR with the Federation as the US and a new alliance of villains called The Typhon Pact as the USSR.

I also added a few more books on the Amazon wishlist, including:

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything

Hopefully I'll get to all of these one day. :-)

Kit said...

I'm currently reading Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, the book that put her on the map. A truly fascinating read. It seems to be a study of the Western art and literature have depicted sexuality and the male-female dynamic. I certainly don't agree with everything she says but it is a fascinating read.
Camille Paglia on the book: "It was intended to please no one and to offend everyone. The entire process of the book was to discover the repressed elements of contemporary culture, whatever they are, and palpate them. One of the main premises was to demonstrate that pornography is everywhere in major art. Art history as written is completely sex free, repressive and puritanical. I want precision and historical knowledge, but at the same time, I try to zap it with pornographic intensity."

I've also recently finished reading Chesterton's The Defendant and Twelve Types. First Chesterton books I've read all the way through and I liked them. A lot.

Especially this gem from The Defendant:

"The pessimist is commonly spoken of as the man in revolt. He is not. Firstly, because it requires some cheerfulness to continue in revolt, and secondly, because pessimism appeals to the weaker side of everybody, and the pessimist, therefore, drives as roaring a trade as the publican. The person who is really in revolt is the optimist, who generally lives and dies in a desperate and suicidal effort to persuade all the other people how good they are… The prophet who is stoned is not a brawler or a marplot. He is simply a rejected lover. He suffers from an unrequited attachment to things in general."

T-Rav said...

EricP, I haven't read it and don't have any intimate knowledge of MTV, but that may be because by my formative years, it was already devolving into one reality show after another, and at no point have I had any interest in that. Rather a shame, though.

LL said...

There is always the famous author Andrew Price and his works to turn to.

T-Rav said...

Kit, I'm confused by the quote "Art history as written is completely sex free, repressive and puritanical." It sounds like Paglia thinks this is a bad thing. :P

Honestly, I haven't read that, but I have read a lot of academic stuff on gender and sexuality, most of it third-rate hackery, so I can make a few guesses about what Paglia has to say.

As for Chesterton, I've never read a book of his I didn't like, and as your block quote shows, he was truly the master of the aphorism. There are multiple websites devoted to producing lists of his one-liners, and they are some long lists. Glad you're enjoying his books.

T-Rav said...

Scott, TR was a fascinating guy; the long argument among intellectuals on the Right as to whether he was a conservative or a progressive at heart is one example of his complexity. (Where does Morris come down on that, by the way?)

I can't give much commentary on the Star Trek novels because a) I'm not a Trekkie, and b) I tried reading novels based on the Star Wars prequels, and they didn't help, so I kinda lost interest in that sort of thing. But maybe these are better, I don't know.

T-Rav said...

LL, well that goes without saying. But thanks for saving my bacon by saying it anyway. ;-)

Anonymous said...

T-Rav -

The books appear to be quite even-handed. TR feels justified in his decisions and like all public officials, he has both supporters and detractors.


Crap, that was such a vague answer! (It's like a school book report!)

I'll probably have to finish the third book before I can make a definitive statement. But I'm not joking when I say that, at least from my limited POV, it seems that every time TR says something that conservatives today would wholeheartedly agree with, he says something on the next page which would never fly.

Kit said...


I won't say I agree with everything she says and I think in some areas she might go a few steps too far in her ideas. But even then she makes some interesting points about human nature and what common folk call the Battle of the Sexes and how it plays out in art.

Its also fun reading her tear apart Radical Feminism and its root ideology, Marxism.
"Marxism is a flight from the magic of the person and the mystique of hierarchy. It distorts the character of western culture, which is based on the charismatic power of person. Marxism can work only in pre-industrial societies of homogeneous populations. Raise the standard of living, and the rainbow riot of individualism will break out. Personality and art, which Marxism fears and censors, rebound from every effort to oppress them."

Kit said...

Another excerpt:

"One of feminism’s irritating reflexes is its fashionable disdain for “patriarchal society,” to which nothing good is ever attributed. But it is patriarchal society that has freed me as a woman. It is capitalism that has given me the leisure to sit at this desk writing this book. Let us stop being small-minded about men and freely acknowledge what treasures their obsessiveness has poured into culture."

BevfromNYC said...

Kit and T-Rav - I happen to be a fan of Camille Paglia. She is an old school/non-man-hating feminist like me including being irritated and frustrated with that "fashionable disdain" for true (and earned) equality.I I believe there are woman who can do anything a man can do at the same level. And it is insulting to me that many women demand lower standards so they can compete "equally". It all demeans what the women who CAN and DO compete equally have achieved.

//end feminist rant//

On a lighter note - Uh, our Snow-maggedon in NYC turned out to pretty much nothing. Yeah, there's 10 inches of now melting snow because of the beautiful sunshiny day. I feel cheated...

AndrewPrice said...

LL, Yes, there is! LOL!

Sadly, I haven't read anything lately. I've been so busy that I never get the chance. That's kind of annoying actually.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Sorry to hear that Snow-maggedon didn't pan out. Maybe the next one will bring the end of the world? :D

Nice feminist rant, by the way.

tryanmax said...

Sadly, I haven't read anything above a 1st grade reading level in quite some time. However, if you want to talk about Dr. Seuss, I am presently well versed.

T-Rav said...

Unfortunately, tryanmax, I do not like green eggs and ham. :-(

T-Rav said...

Scott, I'm glad you haven't forgotten the time-honored practice among students of talking out both sides of your mouth. :-D

Yep, that pretty much sums up TR. And it also reflects the fact that, in his age, Democrats and Republicans didn't yet claim to represent specific ideologies; there were large groups of conservatives and progressives in both parties.

T-Rav said...

Bev, you call yourself a feminist? A bunch of women I know would jump down your throat and denounce you as a traitor to your gender for even suggesting a merit-based system. It's kind of disappointing on your part, really. Tsk, tsk.

If it helps, we're not expecting anywhere near 10 inches of snow, but next week we are supposed to be having our coldest weather in almost 20 years. My mom is really excited. And by "excited," I mean borderline suicidal.

T-Rav said...

Kit, well in that case, she's definitely better than the crap I've had to read on sexuality. Certainly none of those writers ever described the "mystique of hierarchy" in positive terms, much less the positive virtues of patriarchal society. In fact, I can think of several feminists whose heads would explode if they ever saw that second excerpt. Interesting.

BevfromNYC said...

"...bunch of women I know would jump down your throat and denounce you as a traitor to your gender."

T-Rav - Actually, I DO rarely call myself a feminist, but I find that I am more of a feminist than the women I know who rant about how they are feminists. Oh, I would guess that none of that "bunch of women" have ever had to suffer or overcome REAL discrimination in their lives either. I find women under 35 amazingly ignorant and appalling unsympathetic to the plight of the women who paved the way for them. It's kind of appalling that they do not understand the society that kept women in the home with no ability to buy or sell their own property without a husband or father's approval, no ability to get loans for businesses, rampant sexual harassment if one did get a job. I could rant all day on this topic.

This is the difference between me and that "bunch of women" - Many years ago I was watching some talk show. The host was interviewing a woman who was complaining that she would never be able to break "that glass ceiling" because she couldn't play golf like the men. Because apparently all business deals are cut on the golf course. Everyone nodded knowingly about how evil men are 'cause they freeze these poor women out by meeting on the golf course. My response was " Why do you think you deserve special treatment? Why don't you learn to play golf? That's what those men had to do."

//end second feminist rant//

See you should never had brought up Camille Paglia...

Critch said...

Glock: Rise of America's Gun by Paul M. Barrett.
King David's Spaceship (1980) by Jerry Pournelle.
The Last Battle by Stephen Harding (best history book I've read in awhile).

T-Rav said...

Bev, remind me never to seriously cross you! (looks around nervously)

Having a great deal of day-to-day contact with under-35 women, I would agree that that is often the case, and usually the more man-hating they are, the more ignorant they are as well. Not all--I have known a number of very sensible, decent, and intelligent young women as well--but among the hard-core feminists, that's how it goes.

And as a point of order, it was Kit who mentioned Paglia, not me. So go yell at him (please).

T-Rav said...

Critch, I've read parts of Barrett's book, and it's pretty good. The history of the Glock is very interesting (and typical, I think, of that meticulous German craftsmanship).

I haven't heard of Harding's The Last Battle. What does that cover?

Kit said...


In fairness to the under-35 women, their only knowledge of feminism is those "bunch of women". Who complained about golf, who made them feel bad for liking Disney Princesses, who tried to force them into sports, and, in general, run their lives for some politicized agenda.

Their primary experience with the feminist is the angry feminazi who hates men and hates women who like men.

Koshcat said...

Most recently I read "Gone Girl" and "The Tiger's Wife". Both were good but the latter was different and I thought quite well done for a first time writer. Over the summer I have been reading some of the Foundation Novels from Asimov and over the last year I read "Le Miserables". I also recently read "The Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". I tend to read a lot before bed or I can't get to sleep.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I love the Foundation series. It's an interesting bit of science fiction. I'm particularly impressed that he foresaw tech things getting smaller rather than larger.

BevfromNYC said...

Kit - I get that. They had different influences. I saw women who were really discriminated against, but didn't take "no" for the final answer and fought back or cleverly found the loophole or right argument to make others see the light. Mostly because they proved that they were as competent, as skilled and as capable as their male counterparts. Not because they whined, And still liked men are all very entertaining. :-)

It has been a life-long frustration from both extremes of the movement. I see the history and know how far women have come rather then seeing how far we have to go. Shannon Faulkner was my breaking point. Look her up if you don't know who she is/was.

//end of my feminist rant//

For now...bwaahahahahah.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I saw some statistics I'll talk about next week that will probably make you happy. The vast majority of young women say they see discrimination, but don't want the government to help them.

Faulkner was not a good thing.

T-Rav said...

Koshcat, everyone in my neck of the woods has been boning up on Gone Girl recently, because it's set in nearby Cape Girardeau (well not really, but that's what the fictional setting is based on) and they've been filming there for the movie, so a bunch of people got to have their pictures taken with Ben Affleck and the rest.

I understand the book is kind of wacky in its organization. And my mom objected a bit to the constant profanity in it, but overall she liked it.

Koshcat said...

Gone Girl was good; The Tiger's Wife was better.

T-Rav, did you go up and get all fan-dom over Ben?

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - It isn't so much that Faulkner was a bad thing. It's that if one demands equality, one must be prepared to be prove that one IS equal. She did pave the way for other women who were. And to her credit she didn't ask for the standard to be lowered. She got what she fought for and that was the opportunity. But it was still frustrating that she spent all that time demanding equality in opportunity and failed to prepare herself to prove it. It just made it that much harder for women who WERE equal to the task and prepared to prove it.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I used to work with a woman who was in the first class of women to graduate from the Air Force Academy (Class of 1980) and she despised Faulkner for that very reason. She said that Faulkner made it a LOT harder for other women. And she was particularly pissed that women had already entered more difficult environments and succeeded, and she felt that it was a disgrace that Faulkner didn't prepare herself.

Kit said...

I'm also reading Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book and Edith Hamilton's Mythology.

In the Blue Fairy Book I am on the story "Aladdin".

BevfromNYC said...

It was a disgrace. She sat on her butt waiting for the case to wind it's way through the court system, when she should have been out training every single day to prove she was worthy. She should have had every single physical challenge down cold, but she didn't. It was embarrassing.

Kit said...

" I see the history and know how far women have come rather then seeing how far we have to go."
Exactly, women in America have it pretty well, at least compared to 75% of the world.

Alas, I know who Shannon Faulkner is.

Critch said...

The last Battle refers to an incident when US troops, Wehrmacht troops, and some French citizens had to defend a castle against SS troops intent on killing the Frenchmen. True Story.

Tennessee Jed said...

I read "The Battle of Campbell's Station" by Gerald L. Augustus. Fascinating account of a battle that took place 150 years ago near where I live. All the more interesting to me since my great grandfather (36th Mass.) was an active participant. I'm currently reading Scott Turow's new book. The reviews have said it is neither his best nor his worst, but the thing is, when Turow is only cooking on medium heat, he is still the best in this genre. I have the Clancy to read as well. Despite his ponderous descriptions, the guy had an uncanny ability to write polts that turned up on the newspapers a year or so later.

T-Rav said...

Kosh, I did not. For one thing, I was away at school all that time, and for another--No.

T-Rav said...

Critch, I've heard of that. Not many details, but I have heard of it, and it is interesting. A lot of peculiar things like that happened in the last days of the war.

Anthony said...

Just finished reading The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War. Rough stuff.

Lots of interesting people were talked about, including Longstreet, a celebrated South general who became anathema because he became a Republican and opposed the South's attempts to resubjugate blacks and Prince Rivers, a black soldier who fought for the North and rose high in Reconstruction era (he became a judge), through their efforts in the last two years of his life he was reduced to holding the same menial job as a free man (coachman) that he had as a slave.

The White League and the Red Shirts rather than the KKK were the organizations that loomed large in the book. Both organizations were paramilitaries/gun clubs composed largely of Confederate vets whose two goals were reinstate white supremacy and Democratic rule.

Eventual senator Pitchfork Ben (whose claim to glory was staging the Hamburg Massacre), openly bragged on the Senate floor that the Democrats were murdering their opponents and stuffing the ballot box, which he said was a rational reaction to the insult the North had offered the South by treating the black man as the white man's equal.

*Shrugs* I was familiar with the broad strokes before I read the book, but the particulars are fascinating.

As I've said before in the context of a lot of the newly democratic countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, democracy is the best system of government, but it doesn't magically impose a social consensus or rights or justice or what have you. Realistically in new democracies with a history of strife we should still expect crazy stuff to happen in the short and even the medium terms.

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