A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 30 October 2020

Miscellaneous mini-reviews of books I have read in 2020

(I have not read all of these cover-to-cover, to be clear - 

Aeneid, Virgil (translated by Rolfe Humphries)

I tried reading this couple of years back with a rather archaic translation - I think it was by Dryden - and found it utterly impenetrable. The Humphries translation (available on Gutenberg) is much more accessible and really exposes some of the most lovely passages in Virgil. For example, the description of Dido considering her feelings for Aeneas:

What woman
In love is helped by offerings or altars?
Soft fire consumes the marrow-bones, the silent
Wound grows, deep in the heart.
Unhappy Dido burns, and wanders, burning,
All up and down the city, the way a deer
With a hunter's careless arrow in her flank
Ranges the uplands, with the shaft still clinging
To the hurt side.

 The account of Priam's death is longer than I want to quote here, but very visceral and real. Or the description of the cyclopian shore near Mount Etna:

There is a harbor, safe enough from wind,
But Etna thunders near it, crashing and roaring,
Throwing black clouds up to the sky, and smoking
With swirling pitchy color, and white-hot ashes,{81}
With balls of flame puffed to the stars, and boulders,
The mountain’s guts, belched out, or molten rock
Boiling below the ground, roaring above it.

"The mountain's guts"! Love it.    

The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan

I blasted through this last Saturday, at barely 100 pages you can easily get through it in one or two sessions. Fun enough, nothing profound but a perfectly good way to enjoy a couple of hours.

A Just Zionism: On the Morality of the Jewish State, Chaim Gans

This was recommended to me by Anonymous Mugwump as perhaps the best one-book defence of liberal nationalism for the twenty-first century. It is clear, careful, and thorough, and has helped me to clarify my own thoughts regarding liberal nationalism (i.e. that there is a place for it, but that place is considerably smaller than it was in decades and centuries gone by). The bits I've read so far have had surprisingly little on the actual history of Israel, so I am at present unable to recommend it as a single source on the key issue it is intended to be about; it is possible that the second half of the book rectifies this, unfortunately the e-book on Amazon is appallingly put together (no hyperlinked contents, no options to change the font, etc) so this is difficult to check.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

This is amusing in a politically incorrect way, but ultimately it feels like a fairly standard farce - if there's a deep message in there, it's well-obscured.

Fateless, Imre Kertesz

A semi-autobiographical account of a Jewish boy surviving the Holocaust, and perhaps the most famous work of Imre Kertesz - to date, the only Hungarian author to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was surprisingly upbeat and optimistic - there are jokes of the kind that teenage boys make, #relatable stories of Jews in the camps feeling too socially awkward to disobey their imprisoners, tales of incredible naivety and incredible gumption, all leading to the quite incredible final paragraphs:

But one shouldn't exaggerate, as this is precisely the crux of it: I am here, and I am well aware that I shall accept any rationale as the price for being able to live. Yes, as I looked around this placid, twilit square, this street, weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises, I was already feeling a growing and accumulating readiness to continue my uncontinuable life. My mother was waiting, and would no doubt greatly rejoice over me. I recollect that she had once conceived a plan that I should be an engineer, a doctor, or something like that. No doubt that is how it will be, just as she wished; there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally, and keeping a watch on me on my journey., like some inescapable trap, I already know there will be happiness. For even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the "atrocities", whereas for me perhaps it is that experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentrations camps.

If indeed I am asked. And provided I myself don't forget.

Fateless is the first part of a trilogy; the third part, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, "explains why he cannot bear to bring a child into a world that could allow such atrocities to happen." I'll be interested to see how he squares this with the above.

The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State, Joseph Heath

I've reviewed this at greater length previously on the blog, and don't have a great deal to add except the chapter on paternalism was every bit as excellent as I expected it to be.

The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Toby Ord

There's a Slate Star Codex review which I agree with, and have little to add to; as someone who is already highly familiar with most effective altruist concepts, this shifted my priors a bit but isn't really all that memorable.

A Little History of Poetry, John Carey

A very fine guide to the history of poetry; some of it I was familiar with, much of it I wasn't, and it served as an introduction to some of my favourite discoveries of this year - particularly The Rape of the Lock (discussed below) and Sappho fragment 31. If you're looking for a guided tour of poetry which assumes minimal knowledge as a starting point, this is an excellent choice.

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, Norman Davies

This is one of the favourite books of some good friends of mine, so I really wanted to like it. I read the account of the Kingdom of Stratchclyde, and it was... OK? Nothing special?

The Trial, Franz Kafka

I got about 40% of the way through this. It's interesting, both in itself and as an account of the world in that period, but it didn't feel in any way like essential reading.

The Miller's Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales is one of the many classics which I have attempted and not got very far with. I remember the introduction being all full of long descriptions of the many virtues of the characters, and taking ages over this with nothing happening. Based on a recommendation in A Little History of Poetry (above) I jumped into this individual tale. It's not really all that funny.

Normal People, Sally Rooney

Like The Thirty-Nine Steps this is very readable and has little in the way of depth. I suppose a straussian reading would be that in a broadly meritocratic society, such as the one in which we live, intelligence is the highest form of privilege. It's striking how unsympathetic the characters are - not just Marianne and Connell, but literally everyone except Connell's mum and one of his minor girlfriends.

I watched the first episode of the TV series, too. It struck me how much the whole thing must have had to be written anew - while the broad plot is the same, the novel contains almost no dialogue.

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World's Most Dynamic Region, Joe Studwell

I was astonished at the confidence with which Studwell proclaimed his conclusions, given that he was essentially working with an n of around 6. I think he makes a reasonable case for these conclusions - that the rapid development of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea in the second half of the twentieth century depended upon a combination of land reform, industrial policy focused on increasing industrial exports, and limiting the use of financial capital to "productive" investments - but there are, besides the small number of cases, a number of weak points:

  • He can write at length on a topic without being particularly clear about what he sees as the main point. For example, on land reform I think the fundamental problem in his view is that tenant farming means that tenants cannot benefit from investments which would increase agricultural productivity (I believe this is Pseudoerasmus' reading of Studwell too, but can't find the tweets) now.
  • He fails to consider some fairly obvious alternatives to the policies he advocates. In the example above, he believes that land reform - i.e. redistributing land so that farms are owned by the people working them - incentivises the investments. But one could equally argue that what is needed is centralisation of land ownership to allow landlords to make these investments - as arguably happened in the English agricultural revolution. (He also fails to consider the question of why landlords themselves did not make these investments and thereby enable the charging of higher rents. I think there are several possible answers which would be perfectly good - maybe the value of these investments is hard to prove to someone not directly involved in making them, or maybe the key issue is simplification of land ownership out of the kind of convoluted systems described by James C. Scott, so the key issue is not tenant ownership so much as unclear and shared ownership. I'm not saying he's wrong on this point, merely that he lacks rigour.)
  • In general he seems to advocate an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach: it is not enough to directly subsidise exports, you must also indirectly subsidise them through cheaper credit, must threaten to lock up manufacturers who don't export enough, etc... This all seems incredibly wasteful, surely there will be one or two most efficient ways of incentivising a behaviour and all others are going to create weird distortions and inefficiencies.

In sum - I can believe the broad strokes of his view, but on the details I am thoroughly unconvinced.

Percy Jackson and the Titan's Curse, Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth, Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian, Rick Riordan

I blasted through these for light relief over four evenings in January. As a teenager I loved these, they're less fun as a re-read but still good enough. Obviously highly recommended as a way to help your children gain a proper understanding of the crucial topic of Greek mythology.

The School for Wives and The Hypochondriac, Moliere

Marvellous fun! The School for Wives is the play which BBC sitcom episodes wish they were - a bit right-on for my tastes (I'm not in favour of compelling woman to marry their guardians, obviously, but why did the antihero on this metric have to turn out to be awful in almost every other way too?) but otherwise tremendously funny, and surprisingly relatable. For my money if there's one writer who captured the spirit of Online Drama, it's Moliere. I highly recommend The School for Wives and one out of The Hypochondriac or Tartuffe (which I have not read but saw the RSC version of a couple of years ago).

Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science, Stuart Ritchie

Arts and Minds, Anton Howes

I'm not going to go into detail on these, since the authors are my friends and I don't want to offend them. (More seriously: I may write reviews, but will want to cover them properly rather than just dashed-off thoughts at half-past midnight.)

Weird IR, David Bell Mislan and Philip Streich

This is mostly just a set of stories, most of them not with any particular purpose. Maybe they'd be useful for an intelligent International Relations undergrad in thinking about the limits of their theories, although then again many of the stories don't really challenge any particular theory. For example, chapter nine covers some odd cases of international trade which are probably useful to understand for people without any background in economics or international trade law; given my not-especially-advanced background in both, I felt there was nothing particularly substantive in this for me.

The Story of Maps, Lloyd A. Brown

Comparable to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe: it's impressive how boring they made such an interesting topic.

Dog Fight: Aerial Tactics of the Aces of the First World War, Norman Franks

Tells a good story of the pioneering days of early dogfights, and makes it clear how completely the nature of the air war changed over the course of the First World War. I need to read further into it, but a potential recommendation not just for military history but also for Progress Studies.

The Swamp Dwellers, Wole Soyinka

One of Soyinka's shorter, more accessible, and frankly less deep plays. I enjoyed it enough for it to be worth reading, and love to imagine the drama onstage as Igwezu - whose crop has failed, and whose wife has left him for his brother - holds a shaving knife to the throat of the priest who blessed both the planting and the marriage. I suppose you can read an anti-anti-colonial message into this, as with much of Soyinka's ouvre - Igwezu has been grievously wronged, not by any foreigner or stranger but by those who were closest to him. If you were going to read one Soyinka play, though, then it definitely has to be Death and the King's Horseman.

Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean, Taco Terpstra

Certainly far better than I expected given the author's background in classics and history - this is a deeply learned work engaging in depth with archaeology and with institutional economics. The introduction gives a guide to the long history of ancient Med trade and sets out his key theses that "First, state formation and consolidation had an aggregate positive effect on the economy of the ancient Mediterranean, starting in the Late Iron Age and peaking sometime in the Roman imperial period. Second, we should not ascribe that effect to ancient states acting as third-party enforces of private property rights." This is obviously a provocative pair of theses for a libertarian-sympathiser like myself, and Terpstra makes an excellent case for the importance of ideology and religion in promoting cooperation at a distance.

Patchwork Leviathan: Pockets of Bureaucratic Effectiveness in Developing States, Erin Metx McDonnell

A study of some relatively-effective agencies within generally-ineffective governments. I come at this from the perspective of a member of what is, according to the official statistics (whatever they may be worth) a high-performing division in a department of the world's most effective civil service, so perhaps I'm inclined to be cynical here - but one of the most striking facts was that "highest-performing pockets" in the less effective civil services are broadly on a par with the average in more effective civil services. The ways of working which enabled them to be so effective were things like "working longer hours", which can obviously help in a pinch but which we would regard as fundamentally a short-term measure which, if required on a regular basis, would indicate poor prioritisation.

That said, I enjoyed many of the stories (especially the Sino-Foreign Salt Inspectorate, which went from a minor office to providing funding for half the Chinese government, all the while expanding the Chinese domestic salt industry) and it is sociologically interesting to see how these pockets avoid being dragged to the levels around them - including intense control of recruitment to take on good people when they appear rather than fixed numbers, modelling of good practice by leaders, clear and distinct identities, and - of course - a certain insulation from politics. It would be interesting to see this compared with high-performing areas of more advanced civil services.

The Power Broker, Robert Caro

What I can say can hardly add to what has been written about this. It did, however, strike me as much more ideological and willing to make unsupported speculation about Robert Moses' motives than is generally recognised.

Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov

The last play I saw before Covid hit, back when it was a distant rumbling in China. The title character is fascinating - coming across as a bit of a creep, but fundamentally a man who has voluntarily undertaken a bit of a hard life in order to serve something higher, and seen this thrown right back in his face.

In the opening scene Ilya Ilych Telegin describes how his wife cuckolded and deserted him, and made a fool of him in every way, "yet I kept my dignity - and is not that what matters?" It comes across as ironic or as a coping mechanism and he as a figure of fun, yet ultimately the rest of the play could almost be seen as a defence of this statement, that it is better to suffer evil than to do it.

Collective Choice and Social Welfare, Amartya Sen

Far more boring than I remembered from covering the topic in undergrad.

It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, James Herriot

Various nostalgic stories of being a vet in Yorkshire, back when vets were primarily there to serve farmers rather than pet-owners. Good for light relief; the main thing I took away was how much drink-driving there was. If you've seen how blokes drive in the Yorkshire Dales, you'll understand how crazy that is.

The Plague, Albert Camus

I picked this up in a Berkhamsted charity shop on the recommendation of Ben Sixsmith, and started reading this because in the early days of lockdown everyone had to. I didn't get very far, but intend to pick it back up again.

How Fiction Works, James Wood

A truly excellent book, which inspires in one a strong desire both to read the books it covers and to try some fiction-writing oneself to try out the techniques which Wood analyses. I will be asking for Wood's new book  for Christmas, and frequently dip back into this. Perhaps my favourite book written in the twenty-first century.

Freedom and its Betrayal, Isaiah Berlin

Interesting enough, although the fact of my reading it apparently caused my grandmother to suspect I was going communist.

Collected Poems, Enoch Powell

I spotted this in a Cotswolds bookshop and bought it on the behalf of a notorious mutual on Twitter, who had a desire to read Powell's "tortured homosexual" poems, and in the couple of days between getting home and posting it off I blasted through the poems. The influence of Housman is very clear, as is that of Wagner. They are in many cases genuinely good poems; short and concise, expressing witty and inventive ideas.

(Powell, incidentally, was a local boy to me, having grown up five minutes' walk away on Woodlands Park Road; the other notable politician to have lived in this neck of the woods is Neville Chamberlain.)

Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Singer

I didn't get far enough into this to get into the properly heavy-duty Hegel; my experience of reading Hegel during my MA was that I would by dint of close reading and careful study make my way through a page of Hegel, and there would be meaning there, but it would be something quite banal which could have been expressed in one single sentence. The discussion of Hegel's Philosophy of History here was, however, quite clear.

Holy Sonnets, John Donne

My introduction to these was not the poetry collection above - though it does mention them - but John Adam's famous setting of the sixteenth sonnet Batter my heart for his opera Doctor Atomic. The sonnets are not easy-going, they typically require more than one reading to properly get the meaning of - but I think they're worth it. Sonnet Four, O, my black soul, was probably my favourite.

Benjamin Britten also set these to music; they are strange pieces, and not particularly pleasant to listen to.

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