Recent Reading 6

Hungarian torn flag 1956 in Budapest

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

  • Patricia Anderson [2009]:  Robert Hughes:  The Australian Years. (Sydney, Australia:  Pandora Press.)  A fascinating account of Robert Hughes’ time in Australia before his permanent departure abroad in the middle 1960s, sadly undermined by very poor organization, poor writing, and sloppy editing.  Where was the editor when we learn of a 1958 play written by Hughes, in which the lead “roll” in 1959 is acted by an undergraduate John Bell (p.68)?  And where again when Major Harold Rubin, wounded in WW I,  is  “invalidated” from the army (p. 116)?  But the worst offence against the reader is the book’s poor organization.  Each chapter begins afresh, as if each was a separate attempt to dissect Hughes and his circle, sometimes ignoring what we’d read in earlier chapters, and sometimes assuming we’ve already read to the end the book (or we know what he did with his life afterwards).   A new viewpoint per chapter is not an intrinsically bad way to organize such material, but this attempt is poorly done, as if the writer or publisher had decided to skip the editing stage.   The book embodies a promising idea undermined by poor execution.
  • Rupert Sheldrake [2012]:  The Science Delusion:  Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry.  (London, UK:  Coronet.)  This is a superb book, from one of the great scientific thinkers of our age.   That Sheldrake is not so regarded by many other scientists is indicative of the closed-mindedness of contemporary science, much of it as dogmatic and un-sceptical as any religious cult.  The grand foundation of myth of western science is that every claim and assumption is open to contestation, and by anyone, but the actual practice of most modern science is profoundly opposite to such openness.   This book should be compulsory reading by every trainee, practising, and retired scientist.
  • Robert Holmes [2012]: A Spy Like No Other: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the KGB Links to the Kennedy Assassination. (UK: Biteback Publishing).  This book was most disappointing.  The author has no evidence for his claim that Lee Harvey Oswald was a KGB agent, not even circumstantial evidence.  His claim is based only the thinnest of speculation, about what some KGB people might have been doing talking with certain people they may have met at certain places they may have been visiting for certain purposes they may have had.   In addition, it is sad to report that someone could write a book about the Kennedy assassination without being familiar with much of the contested nature of the evidence on the ancillary events.   Thus, we know that someone calling himself Lee Harvey Oswald visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City shortly before JFK’s assassination.   We don’t know for certain that this person was the Lee Harvey Oswald arrested in Dallas for that assassination.  Without that certainty, the main evidence for Holmes’ claim falls away.
  • Vladislav Zubok [2011]:  Zhivago’s Children:  The Last Russian Intelligentsia. (Cambridge, MA, USA:  Harvard University Press).   This is a fascinating and well-written cultural history of the Soviet shestidesiatniki, thepeople of the 60s, and the generation just before them, the people who came of age in the late 1940s and 1950s.   My only very small criticism is that Zubok focuses primarily on the literati, with much less attention paid to the matherati.   But that is a very small quibble on what is a superb book.
  • Anne Applebaum [2012]: Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. (London, UK:  Allen Lane.)   This is a very fine and interesting book, although not about the subject of its subtitle.   A more accurate subtitle would have been The Crushing of East Germany, Hungary and Poland 1944-56.   The author appears not to have interviewed anybody in Czechoslovakia, for example, whose experiences of the imposition of communism and communist party rule were subtly different to those three countries.   Ending in 1956 means the author is not really able to provide a compelling explanation for Poland’s exceptional treatment by the Soviet imperium — why did Khrushchev give way in the Soviet confrontation with Gomulka in 1956, for instance?   But that is a small criticism of a fascinating book.
  • Charles Gati [2006]: Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. (Stanford, CA, USA:  Stanford University Press).  This is fine and careful account of the events leading up to and during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, by a someone who was present in Budapest at the time.  The book contains a thoughtful and well-argued political analysis of the alternatives open to each of the main actors during the crisis:  Imre Nagy and his supporters, his opponents, the Soviet leadership, and the American leadership.   It is clear from this analysis that the outcome could have been very different, creating in Hungary a socialism with a human face that would have been acceptable to and accepted by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR.   However, such an outcome may never have been ever possible with these particular actors and their personalities.  I had not realized, for example, how poor a public speaker Nagy generally was, nor how usually indecisive.  It was also fascinating to read of the many public protests sympathetic to the Hungarian revolutionaries that took place in the USSR following the invasion of Hungary.

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