Archive for the 'Recent Reading' Category

Recent Reading 11

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

Francis King [1970]:  A Domestic Animal. Faber Finds, 2014.  A well-written account of unrequited love that becomes an obsession.  Both the plot and the dialogue are, at times, unbelievable, although the obsession and the emotions it provokes in holder and object are very credible.

Sheila Fitzpatrick [2013]:  A Spy in the Archives:  A Memoir of Cold War Russia. London, UK: I. B. Taurus.  This is a very readable account of the author’s travels to the USSR in the 1960s as an historian of the first decade of Soviet power.   She seems to have met everyone and known many of them.      With such an intriguing story, and such an interesting person recounting it, the major disappointment of this book is that Fitzpatrick tells us so little about herself.   We learn the names of some of her partners, but only hapharzardly, and usually with only little context.  She seems such a fascinating person, we hunger for more about her life and relationships, to know the whole story.  And how could an academic historian publish a memoir with no index?   What – or who – is she trying to hide?

Ben Macintyre [2014]: A Spy Among Friends:  Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.  London, UK:  Bloomsbury.   This is a well-written and interesting account of spy Kim Philby and his apparent treachery.   The only flaw in the book is the author’s omission of the most plausible theory as to why Philby was not unmasked by the British as a Soviet agent for so long:  Because he was so unmasked, long before his flight to Moscow, and then used by MI6 (and perhaps also by CIA and its predecessors) as a conduit for passing messages to the KGB that were intended to be believed.

Merely for MI6 to tell the KGB something would almost certainly guarantee that it would not be believed, as is discussed here.   So how can MI6 pass messages to their enemy which MI6 want to be believed, for example, messages about western intentions in the face of a nuclear war?    The most effective way is for intelligence agents of the KGB, implanted in western agencies, to pass these messages on.   The irony in Philby’s case is that the Soviets were never sure about his true loyalties -  for how could a double agent so senior remain undetected by the British or Americans for so long?   Because of this suspicion, perhaps the messages he delivered were not always readily believed by the Soviets.

Lisa C. Paul [2011]: Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, a Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope. New York City: Skyhorse Publishing. This is an account of the friendship between Paul and Inna Meiman, a dissident and refusenik, that began in the 1980s when Paul was an exchange student in Moscow.  The story is not without interest, and the depth of their friendship is clearly portrayed.  But the book has far too much detail, far too many letters printed in full, far too much of interest only to the two protagonists. The book lacks an index, which means one would have to read it to find the single mention of Vadim Delone (in a footnote on page 88).  Throughout, one has the feeling that this is a very personal story, albeit one played against major historical events. But the events, like the footnote on the 1968 Red Square protest against the Warsaw Pact invasion of the CSSR, are mentioned only in passing if at all, as if they were of no interest to the author.

Kai Bird [2014]: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. New York: Crown Publishers.  A riveting biography of Ames, who was CIA’s initiator and main contact to radical Arab groups, particularly the PLO.  One doesn’t make peace with one’s friends, as the saying goes, so such contacts were vital. They still are.  As I have argued before,  we cannot accurately predict the actions of our enemies without knowing their beliefs, mindset and worldview, and intentions, and knowing these requires at least sympathy and perhaps great empathy. Demonising people or groups gets in the way of understanding, so CIA is to be admired for having and nurturing people such as Robert Ames.




Love and Math

Frenkel Edward 2008Talking of his grandfather who had overcome poverty and blindness to become a US Senator, Gore Vidal once wrote that no challenge is finally insurmountable if you mean to prevail.  I was reminded of this in reading Edward Frenkel’s superb memoir, Love and Math.  Frenkel overcame the widespread and systemic anti-semitism in Soviet Mathematics to establish himself as a world-leading mathematician at a very young age.  

Denied entry in 1984 because of his ethnicity to Moscow State University’s (MGU’s) Department of Mechanics and Mathematics (Mekh-Mat), the leading undergraduate mathematics programme in the USSR, he entered instead the mathematics program at Kerosinka, the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas.  Anti-semitism (and anti-Armenianism, anti-Chinese racism, etc) in the admissions process at Mekh-Mat was so widespread, that other Moscow institutions, such as Kerosinka, were able to recruit very good Jewish and minority students.   One theory is that this policy was deliberate, since having all the Jewish mathematicians studying in one or two institutions made their monitoring easier for the KGB.

Frenkel had grown up in Kolomna – only 70 miles from Moscow, but well into the provinces – and had not attended a special mathematics school (as did, for example, Vadim Delone at FizMat #2), nor had an opportunity to participate in the mathematical study circles that were widespread in the larger soviet cities.  He did have the help of a local mathematician, Evgeny Petrov, a professor at a teacher training college in Kolomna.   Frenkel was very fortunate to have such help.   I recall my envy on learning on the first day of lectures in my first year at university that some of my fellow students, who had grown up near to the university, had been meeting our professors for years previously for after-school mentoring and coaching. (On the other hand, even the brightest of my fellow students so mentored ended up winning no Fields Medal, nor even becoming a mathematician.)

Good mathematical undergraduates from Kerosinka and other specialized institutes in Moscow literally scaled the fences at MGU to attend, illegally but often with the encouragement of the teachers, lectures at Mekh-Mat.  Frenkel did this and was again fortunate in being befriended by some very great mentors:  Dmitry Fuchs (now at UC Davis), his student Boris Feigin, and Yakov Khurgin.  Their generous mentoring was unpaid, time-intensive, and often brave, given the society they lived in.   As a result, Frenkel wrote his first research paper in only his second year as an undegraduate, a paper subsequently published in Israel Gelfand’s famous journal, Functional Analysis and Applications.  Gelfand was someone that even my professors, in the 1970s and in faraway Australia, spoke of with awe.

With the opening of perestroika, the Mathematics Department at Harvard University decided to invite some young Soviet mathematicians for research visits, and Frenkel was one of these:  He received his invitation in March 1989, before he had even completed his first degree.  While at Harvard, he had another Russian mentor, Vladimir Drinfeld (now at University of Chicago), and Frenkel completed his PhD there, in 1 year, under the supervision of another Russian, Joseph Bernstein (now at Tel-Aviv).  Frenkel is very generous in his acknowledgement of the support he received from his mentors and from others, and his story warms the heart.  Despite the anti-semitism he experienced, he has prevailed in the end, being now a professor at U-Cal Berkeley (and a film-maker).  Reading his account, I was reminded repeatedly of the ancient spiritual wisdom:  When the disciple is ready, the guru will appear.

Frenkel interleaves his personal story with an account of his changing research focus along the way, a focus which has mostly followed the powerful thread of the Geometric Langlands Programme.   His writing is fluent, wise and witty, and he manages to convey well the excitement and pure, joyous exhilaration that mathematical thinking can provide.  His writing makes most of the underlying mathematical ideas clear to non-experts.  That said, however, the text has a couple of weaknesses, both minor, although both I found irritating.  No one who does not already know something of category theory would understand it, even at a high level, from the single paragraph devoted to it on page 156.   Another minor criticism is that the text does not always adequately explain the diagrams, or what is being done with them.    But then I have particular views about reasoning over diagrams.

In summary, this is a superb book – wise, generous, witty, and heart-warming – and reading it will enlarge your knowledge of mathematics, of the Langlands Program, and of the power of the human spirit.   Everyone in the pure mathematical universe should read it.

An index to posts on the Matherati is here.

Reference:

Edward Frenkel [2013]:  Love and Math:  The Heart of Hidden Reality. New York, NY:  Basic Books.




Recent Reading 10

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

David Eagleman [2010]: Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.  (London, UK:  Canongate).  A superb collection of very short stories, each premised on the assumption that something (our bodies, our souls, our names, our molecules, etc) lives beyond death. Superbly fascinating.  One will blow your mind!  (HT: WPN).

A. C. Grayling [2013]:  Friendship.  (New Haven, CT and London, UK:  Yale University Press).

Andrew Sullivan [1998]:  Love Undetectable:  Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival.  (London, UK: Vintage, 1999).

Michael Blakemore [2013]: Stage Blood. (London, UK: Faber & Faber).  A riveting account of Blakemore’s time at the National Theatre in London.

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac [1945/2008]:  And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks. (London, UK:  Penguin Classics).   Mostly writing alternate chapters, this is a fictional account of events based on the death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucien Carr.

Jack Kerouac [1968]:  Vanity of Duluoz.   (London:  Penguin Modern Classics, 2001).

Charles McCarry [1974]:  The Tears of Autumn. (London, UK:  Duckworth Overlook, 2009).   The assassination of JFK as a conspiracy organized by the family of the Diem brothers, involving Cuban military officials, the KGB, and the Mafia.

John Williams [1965]:  Stoner. (London, UK: Vintage, 2012).  Alerted by the enthusiasm of the late Norman Geras, and reinforced by the praise of Julian Barnes,  I starting reading this book with keen anticipation.  I should have known better:  someone who liked the books of Philip Roth clearly had a literary taste to be wary of.     Stoner was a great disappointment, and certainly does not belong in any collection of Great American Novels.

Is the book great literature?  Well, frankly, no.  It is well-written, no question, but not well enough.  We are told the main character William Stoner has no friends while an undergraduate, but nothing in the thin preceeding pages would explain why.   We are told he switches from studying agriculture to literature after an epiphany in a compulsory literature class, but this paragraph (and it is just a paragraph) is very thin indeed.   Why did he have this epiphany?  Where did it come from?  Nothing beforehand (in the book) would justify this event, and the event itself is only barely described.   Do people make such a switch so often, that no explanation is needed?  Not in my experience.

I can see that members of the literati – for instance, Julian Barnes – would like to read about people who come to love literature and who then devote their life to its teaching.  But Williams merely states these attributes of William Stoner as facts, without providing any compelling justification – not psychological, nor social, nor familial, nor cultural, nor literary, not spiritual, nor nothing – for these facts.     Indeed, there is hardly any justification at all, let alone a compelling one.

The narration is by a third-person narrator, and he or she seems to know what is inside Dr Stoner’s head.  Moreover, every other character is a cypher to the narrator, as (presumably) they are to Stoner himself.  One is therefore tempted to read the narration as being in the first-person.  But then, some of it is too vague for either a knowledgeable first-person or an omniscient third:  on pager 109, for instance, we read that Stoner disposed of his $2000 inheritance by giving “a few hundred dollars” to his parents’ black farm worker.    A few hundred?  Surely, Stoner knew at the time exactly how much he gave.  Likewise, surely, an omniscient narrator would also know the amount.   This is sloppy writing, and it undermines the case for the narrator being either first- or an omniscient third-person.

Similarly, we are told several times that Stoner had a deep friendship with Dave Masters, who is killed in the Great War.   But although this friendship is mentioned, it is not described in any depth.  It is certainly not invoked, nor is an invocation even attempted.  So, again, we come away thinking the narrator barely knows about which he speaks.   Just how credible, then, is anything the narrator says?    The book undermines its own case.

Why has the book proven popular?   Well it is more popular in Europe than in America.  I believe the answer to this disparity goes to something the former British Labour MP, Bryan Gould, once said when comparing political life in Europe with that in Australia, New Zealand, or North America:  In the New World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to fix it.  In the Old World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to live with it.   Stoner is a book about a man who lives with every major problem of his life, accommodating himself to an unhappy marriage, to a wife who appears on the edge of madness, to the end of his only happy relationship, to an alcoholic daughter, to not seeing his only grandchild, to an unsatisfying and tedious job, to an unfair assignment of work duties, to no promotions, to a lack of close friendships, to public gossip and innuendo about his marriage and relationships, to the death of his parents and his one apparently-close friend, while only ever once, it seems, standing up for himself.  And the counter-attack he launches is in such a small and picayune way, hurting the very students he is supposed to care for, that it can hardly be worthy of any emulation.

Certainly such people exist (indeed, the Old World is full of them),  but this novel never presents a compelling case that this particular man, William Stoner, should behave in this way.   Indeed, it hardly presents any case at all – the writing is all tell, and no show.    The power of showing is demonstrated by the one scene where the author does invoke the events, rather than merely mentioning them: the PhD upgrade viva of Charles Walker, where we can read the dialog for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions.    If only the author had done this more often, the book would have been much better.

 




Recent Reading 9

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

Anita Raghavan [2013]:  The Billionaire’s Apprentice:  The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund.  (New York:  Business Plus).   This is a fascinating and excitingly-written account of the rise and fall of several people, many of them Americans of South Asian descent, associated with the activities of the Galleon hedge fund.  First among these is billionaire Tamil-American Raj Rajaratnam, founder of Galleon, and convicted insider-trader.  In the next tier are his many insider informants, primaily Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar, both prominent partners of McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm.  Indeed, Gupta was three times elected global MD of McKinsey by his fellow partners, and thus the book has lots of fascinating information about The Firm and its operations, incidental to the main story.

Insider trading is a strange crime.  Surely most traders engaged in trading for its own sake (and not hedging some activity or transaction in non-financial markets) seek to take advantage of something they know that others don’t, even if it is just clever or faster analysis, or the knowledge that comes from aggregating views across multiple trades.   And who, exactly, are the victims here, since any trading requires a willing counterparty?    But even if insider-trading is not considered an evil, there is great dishonour in breaching confidences gained in positions of trust, and there seems little doubt that Rajaratnam’s informants did that.

An odd feature of the book, where so many prominent Indian Americans and South-Asian businesspeople are name-checked, is the failure to mention Praful Gupta.   As far as I am aware, the two Guptas were no relation, and met when they were fellow students at Harvard Business School.  Rajat Gupta, in a newspaper interview in 1994, said they became and remained very good friends.  While Rajat pursued a career with McKinsey, Praful became a management consultant and partner with Booz, Allen & Hamilton, and later a senior executive with Reliance Industries.

An annoying feature of the writing is the author’s repeated confusion about tense.   On page 217, for instance, we read, “In 2005, Lloyd Blankfein’s predecessor and former secretary of the Treasury Henry M. “Hank” Paulson Jr. had approached Gupta about joining the Goldman board of directors.”  But Hank Paulson only became Secretary of the US Treasury in 2006, where he remained until January 2009.   At the time this sentence was written by Raghavan in 2012 or 2013, Paulson was a former Treasury Secretary, but not in 2005, the time referred to at the opening of the sentence.   There are similar instances of inaccurate or confused tense on pages 257, 288, 347, and 362, and no doubt more that I did not catch.  These appear so frequently that one is tempted to consider them not mere lapses nor evidence of a non-grammatical linguistic style, but indicative of a more fundamental difference between the author’s conceptualization of time and that of most speakers of English. There are also a number of confusions or ambiguities of subject and object, and of deictic markers, in sentences throughout the text.

 




Recent Reading 8

TheMothersofthePlazadeMayo-2004

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

  • Jason Matthews [2013]:  Red Sparrow (New York: Simon & Schuster). A debut spy-thriller by a 33-year CIA clandestine service veteran,  this book is well-written and gripping, with plot twists that are unexpected yet plausible.    The book has placed the author in the same league of Le Carre and McCarry, and I recommend the book strongly.   As so often with espionage and crime fiction, the main weakness is the characterization – the players are too busy doing things in the world for us to have a good sense of their personalities, especially so for the minor characters.  Part of the reason for us having this sense, I think, is the sparsity of dialog through which we could infer a sense of personhood for each player.    And the main character, Nate Nash, gets pushed aside in the second half of the book  by the machinations of the other players.  In any case, the ending of the book allows us to meet these folks again.    Finally, I found the recipes which end each chapter an affectation, but that may be me.  The author missed a chance for a subtle allusion with solo meal cooked by General Korchnoi, which I mis-read as pasta alla mollusc, which would have made it the same as the last meal of William Colby.

 

  •  Henry A. Cumpton [2012]:  The Art of Intelligence:  Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. (New York:  Penguin).   A fascinating account of a career in espionage.    Crumpton reports an early foreign assignment in the 1980s in an African country which had had a war of liberation war, where the US had a close working relationship with the revolutionary Government of the country:  The only candidates that seem to fit this bill are Zimbabwe or possibly Mozambique.  Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF Government was so close to the USA in its early years that the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) had only two groups dealing with counter-subversion:  a group seeking to counter South African subversion and a group seeking to counter Soviet subversion.  Indeed, so great was the fear of Soviet subversion that the USSR was not permitted to open an embassy in Zimbabwe for the first two years following independence in 1980.

The book has four very interesting accounts:

1. Crumpton’s perceptive reflections on the different cultures of CIA and FBI, which are summarized in this post.

2.  The account of the preparati0ns needed to design, build, deploy, and manage systems of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in Afghanistan.  The diverse and inter-locking challenges – technical, political, strategic, managerial, economic, human, and logistic – are reminiscent of those involved in creating CIA’s U2 spy-plane program in the 195os (whose leader Richard Bissell I saluted here).

3.  The development of integrated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for tactical anti-terrorist operations management in the early 2000s.  What I find interesting is that this took place a decade after mobile telecommunications companies were using GIS for tactical planning and management of engineering and marketing operations.  Why should the Government be so far behind?

4. An account of CIA’s anti-terrorist programs prior to 11 September 2011, including the monitoring and subversion of Al-Qaeda.  Given the extent of these programmes, it is now clear why CIA embarked on such an activist role following 9/11.  George Tenet remarked at the time (and his memoirs) that such a role would mean crossing a threshold for CIA, but until Crumpton’s book, I never understood why this enhanced  role had been accepted at the time by US political leaders and military leaders.  From Crumpton’s account, the reason for their acceptance was that CIA was the only security agency ready to step up quickly at the time.

  • Paul Vallely [2013]:  Pope Francis:  Untying the Knots. (London, UK:  Bloomsbury).  A fascinating account of the man who may revolutionize the Catholic Church.    Francis, first as Fr Jorge Bergoglio SJ and then as Archbishop and Cardinal, appears to have moved from right to left as he aged, to the point where he now embraces a version of liberation theology.   His role during the period of Argentina’s military junta of Jorge Videla is still unclear – he seems to have bravely hidden and help-escape leftist political refugees and activists, while at the same time, through dismissing them from Church protection, making other activitists targets of military actions.

Bergoglio seems to understand something his brother cardinals appear not to – that the Catholic Church (and other fundamentalist and evangelical Christian denominations) are not seen by the majority of people in the West any longer as places of saintliness, spiritual goodness, or charity, but as bastions of bigotry, irrationally opposed to individual freedom and to human happiness and fulfilment.  In its campaigns against gay marriage rights, euthenasia, abortion, and other private moral issues, the Church opposes free will not only of its own clergy and lay members, but also of other citizens who are not even Catholic adherents.   Such campaigns to limit the freedoms and rights of non-believers are presumptious, to say the least.  The Catholic Church does a great deal of unremarked good in the world, work which is sullied and undermined by the political campaigns and bigoted public statements of its leaders.

The book is poorly written, with lots of repetition, and several  chapters reprising the entire argument of the book, as if they had been stand-along newspaper articles.   The author clearly thinks his readers have the minds of gold-fish, since interview subjects are introduced repeatedly with descriptions, as if for the first time.

The photo shows one of the demonstrations of the The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, held weekly since 1977  to protest the junta’s kidnap, torture, and murder of Argentinian citizens.   We should not forget that the military regimes of South America, including the Argentinian junta of Videla, were supported not only by the Vatican and most local Catholic clergy (with some brave exceptions), but also by the US intelligence services, including during the administration of Jimmy Carter.




Recent reading 7

Berliner Ensemble

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

  • Igor Lukes [2012]: On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague.  Oxford University Press.   Some comments here.
  • Randall Woods [2012]: Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA.  Basic Civitas Books. Colby comes across as remarkably liberal, pragmatic and sensible in this account of his life, promoting agrarian socialism and grass-roots democracy to beat the communists in South Vietnam, for example.
  • Roger Hermiston [2013]:  The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake.  Aurum Press.
  • C P Snow [1969]:  Variety of Men.  Penguin Books, second edition. (HT:  Saul Smilansky at Normblog.)
  • Charlotte Joko Beck [1997]: Everyday Zen: Love and Work.  Thorsons.
  • James Button [2013]:  Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business.  Melbourne University Press.   A mention here.
  • Robert Dessaix [2012]: As I was Saying.  Random House Australia.  A typically erudite collection of talks and essays, as smooth as a gimlet.
  • Charles S. Maier [1999]:  Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany.  Princeton University Press.
  • Meredith Maran (Editor) [2013]:  Why We Write.  Plume.
  • Marci Shore [2013]:  The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.  Crown Publishing Group, New York.
  • Thomas Nagel [2012]:  Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.  Oxford University Press USA.  Any book so heavily criticized by Brian Leiter has to be worth reading, and this was.

The photo shows the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, from 1954 home of the Berliner Ensemble.




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.



Recent reading 5

A list, sometimes annotated, of books recently read:

  • Richard Bassett [2012]:  Hitler’s Spy Chief.   New York: Pegasus. A biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr.  This book appears to be a reissue (also revised?) of a book  first published in 2005.  The subject and argument of the book are fascinating, but sadly this is not matched by the writing, which is just appalling.The first problem is with the status of the book.  The inside cover pages say “copyright 2011″, and “First Pegasus Books hardcover edition 2012″, yet the Acknowledgements section is dated 2004.   Various references to contemporary events throughout the book also indicate a date of writing of around 2003 or so.   The front section contains a “Preface to the American Edition”which is undated, but cites letters written in 2008 and 2009.  The author’s sloppiness with dates is manifest throughout the book, and it is often very hard for a reader to determine exactly which year events being described actually happened.A further great sloppiness concerns the use of names – many people, like citizens of Indonesia, appear only to have surnames.   Later references will often find a first name attached to the surname – is this the same person, one wonders?  It is as if the author assumes we know as much as he seems to know about minor Nazi officials, and temporary clerks in MI6.The book actually reads like the author’s narrative notes for a book rather than the book itself, with much background information missing or assumed to be known by the reader.   Is this his first draft perhaps, ready for editing?   How could one write on the topic of German foreign intelligence in WW II without discussion of the XX Committee, for example?    Admittedly, the author does make one single reference to this operation (on page 280, out of 296 pages of text), but with no explanation of what the committee was doing or an evaluation of its work, and not even a listing in the index.    And given the author’s argument that Canaris was an internal opponent of Hitler from before the start of WW II, then an analysis of the alleged success of the XX operations in outwitting Nazi intelligence is surely needed here.  Was Canaris complicit in these operations, for example?   Especially if, as the author believes, Canaris met with his British opposite number, Sir Stewart Menzies, during WW II.And like a person too eager to please, the author’s sentences run on and on and on, with clause after subordinate clause, each introducing a new topic or change or direction, or dropping yet another name, in some drunken word association game.    Where were the editors when this book was submitted?  On vacation?  On strike?   Reading the book requires a reader to fight past the author’s appalling prose style to reach the interesting content.    Sadly, Admiral Canaris still awaits a good English-language biography.
  • Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman [2012]:  Spies Against Armageddon:  Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Levant Books.
  • Milton Bearden and James Risen [2004]: The Main Enemy:  The Insider Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB.  Presidio Press.
  • Natalie Dykstra [2012]:  Clover Adams:  A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.   An intelligent and sympathetic life of Marian (“Clover”) Hooper Adams (1843-1885), pioneer of art photography, wife of Henry Adams, and a daughter of transcendentalist poet, Ellen Sturgis Hooper.   She was a friend and muse to Henry James, and a distant relative of the step-family of George Santayana.
  • Archie Brown [2010]:  The Rise and Fall of Communism.  Vintage.
  • James Douglass [2008]:   JFK and the Unspeakable:  Why he Died and Why it Matters. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
  • Sidney Ploss [2009]:  The Roots of Perestroika:  The Soviet Breakdown in Historical Context. McFarland and Company.
  • David Maraniss [2012]:  Barack Obama:  The Story.  Simon and Schuster.
  • Ben MacIntyre [2012]: Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  London: Bloomsbury. Reviewed here.
  • Colin Eatock [2009]: Mendelssohn and Victorian England.  London: Ashgate.  A detailed and comprehensive account of Mendelssohn’s visits to England (and his one visit to Scotland), and his activities, musical and other, while there.
  • George Dyson [2012]:  Turing’s Cathedral:  The Origins of the Digital Universe.  Allen Lane.   A fascinating account of the involvement of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, in the early development of scientific computing, led by that larger-than-life character, Johnnie von Neumann.
  • Gordon Brook-Shepherd [1988]: The Storm Birds:  Soviet Post-War Defectors.  Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Neil Sheehan [2010]:  A Fiery Peace in a Cold War:  Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. Vintage Books.  A fascinating history of the US inter-continental ballistic missile program in the 1950s, told through a biography of one of its parents, USAF General Bennie Schriever.    It is easy to forget how much practical expertise was needed for successful missile and satellite launches, as with any new and complex technology.   As a consequence, we forget how few of the early test launch attempts were successful.  The Vanguard 3 rocket, for example, launched just 3 satellites out of 11 attempts between December 1957 and September 1959. (Vanguard was a USN project.)

The photo shows the Mercury-Atlas and Gemini-Titan rockets at Rocket Park in New York City (courtesy of the NY Hall of Science).




Santayana on Stickney

George Santayana was friends with Joe Trumbull Stickney.  In 1952, five decades after Stickney died from a brain tumour, Santayana wrote a letter about their friendship to William Kirkwood.  The letter is reproduced in facsimile in M. Kirkwood’s life of Santayana (1961, pp. 234-235).

Via di Santo Stefano Rotundo, 6
Rome, May 27, 1952

To Professor Wm. A. Kirkwood, Ph. D.
Trinity College, Toronto

Dear Sir,
It was a happy impulse that prompted you to think that the books you speak of and their annotations, and especially the lines in praise of Homer written by my friend Stickney would interest me. They have called up vividly in my mind the quality of his mind, although the verses represent a much earlier feeling for the classics, and a more conventional mood than he had in the years when we had our frequent moral fencing bouts; for there was a contrary drift in our views in spite of great sympathy in our tastes and pursuits. These verses are signed Sept. 15/ 90. Now Stickney graduated at Harvard in 1895, so that five years earlier he must have been about 17 years old. This explains to me the tone of the verses and also the fact that they advance line by line, seldom or never running over and breaking the next line at the cesura or before it, as he would surely have done in his maturity, when he doted on the dramatic interruptions of Shakespeare’s lines in Antony and Cleopatra in particular, and in all the later plays in general. [page break]

I see clearly the greater mastery and strength of impassioned drama, if impassioned drama is what you are in sympathy with; but I like to warn dogmatic critics of what a more naive art achieves in its impartial and peaceful labour and the risk that overcharged movement or surpluses [?] runs of drowning in its deathbed [?] waters. Every form of art has its charm and is appropriate in its place; but it is moral cramp to admit only one form of art to be legitimate or important. The reminder of this old debate that I had with Stickney who enlightened me more (precisely about the abuse of rhetoric) than I ever could enlighten him about the relativity of everything has been a pleasant reminder of younger days: although I am not sure that much progress towards reason and justice has been made since by critical opinion.

With best thanks and regards

Yours sincerely

G. Santayana

Reference:

M. M. Kirkwood [1961]:  Santayana:  Saint of the Imagination.  Toronto, Canada:  University of Toronto Press.

Previous posts on George Santayana here, and Joe Stickney here.




Recent reading 4: Achtundsechziger

While elements of the left turned to revolutionary violence in most countries of the West at the end of the 1960s, three countries experienced this turn to a much greater extent than any other:  Germany, Italy, and Japan.  This fact has always intrigued me.   Why these three?     What facts of history or culture link the three?  All three endured fascist totalitarian regimes before WW II, but so too did, say, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, and Spain.  The countries of Eastern Europe, however, met the 1960s still under the Soviet imperium, and so opportunities for violent resistance were few, and in any case were unlikely to come from the left.   Spain and Portugal and, for a time, Greece, were still under fascism in the post-war period, so opposition tended to aim at enlarging democracy, not at violent resistance.   Perhaps that history is a partial explanation, with (some of) the first post-war generation, the 68ers (in German, achtundsechziger) seeking by their armed resistance to absolve their shame at the perceived lack of resistance to fascism of their parents’ generation.  Certainly the writings of the Red Army Fraction (RAF), the Red Brigades, and the Japanese Red Army give this as a justification for their turn to violence.

I have always thought that another causal factor in common between these three countries was the absence of alternating left and right governments.  With a succession of right-wing and centre-right regimes in Italy and Japan, and right-wing and grand-coalition (right-and-left-together) regimes in Germany, how were views in favour of socialist change able to be represented and heard?  Indeed, in the German Federal Republic, the communist party had been declared illegal in 1956, and remained so until its reformation (under a new name) until 1968.   And even the USA may not be an exception to this heuristic:  In 1968, the candidate of the major party of the left, Hubert Humphrey, was a protagonist for the war in Vietnam (at least in public, and during the election campaign).  And while the candidate of the major party of the right, Richard Nixon, had promised during the campaign to end the war, once in office he intensified and extended it.   For anyone opposed to the war in Vietnam, the democratic political system appeared to have failed;  indeed, one of those who had most publicly opposed the war, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated. It is interesting in this regard to note that the Weather Underground only adopted armed resistance as a strategy in December 1969, a year after Nixon’s election.   In Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism view of democracy, a key role of political argument and verbal conflict is to bring everyone into the political tent.  If some voices, or some views, are excluded by definition or silenced by assassination, we should not then be surprised that those excluded try to burn down the tent.

And perhaps because I like the idea of acting according to (an empirically-grounded) theory of history, I always found the primary argument of the RAF very intriguing:  That by engaging in armed resistance to the capitalist state, the revolutionary left would force the state to reveal its essential fascist character, and that this revelation would awaken the consciousness of the proletariat, leading to the revolutionary overthrow of the state. Although intrigued by it, I never found this argument quite compelling:  First, it could be argued that a democratic state only has a fascist character in response to, and to the extent of, armed resistance to it.  So predictions of its fascist tendencies become self-fulfilling.   Second, the history of countries ruled by fascism in the 20th century surely shows that life under totalitarian rule makes organizing and engaging in dissident activities, particularly group-oriented dissident activities, less not more feasible.     Third, I believe strongly that not only do ends not usually justify means, but often means vitiate ends.     This is the case here:  suppose the violent left’s violent resistance had indeed worked in overthrowing the governments they were directed at.  What sort of society would have resulted?   What we know of the personalities of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof and their revolutionary colleagues leads me to think that a Cambodia under the Khmer Rouges, rather than a Sweden under Olof Palme, would be a more likely description for life in a West Germany led by the RAF.  Thank our stars they failed.

These thoughts are provoked by some recent reading on the subject of leftist urban terrorism in the West, both fiction and non-fiction.  The fiction concerns the psychology and consequences of life underground, long after any thrill of plotting and executing armed resistance has passed.

First,  a novel about the Angry Brigade (AB), the lite, British version of the Red Army Fraction:  Hari Kunzru’s “My Revolutions”.   This is a gripping first-person account by someone who had participated in AB actions, and now, 30 years later, is living under an assumed name.  His past comes back to him, through some not-fully-explained, but dirty, tricks that British intelligence agencies seem to be running.  These dirty actions are (or rather, appear to be) targeted against those who were on the edges of the violent left, but not part of it, who have now risen to prominence in Government (Joschka Fischer comes to mind), and the narrator is used by the shadowy intelligence forces to blackmail or destroy the career of the target of the action.  The writing is fluent and plausible, and the tale engrossing.  Only occasionally does Kunzru trip:  Who ever uses “recurrent” (page 4) in ordinary speech?  (Some people may say “recurring”.)    Precisely how does the sun beat down like a drummer? (page 10).   But most of the novel reads as the words of the protagonist, and not the words of the novelist, indicating that a realistic character has been created by the author’s words.

The same cannot be said for Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document”.   Although this book too is riveting, it is not nearly as well-written as Kunzru’s book.   The story also concerns the later after-life of some formerly violent leftists, presumably once members of the Weather Underground, now living in hiding in the USA, incognito.   The story is told through the purported words of multiple narrators, a technique which enables the events to be described from diverse and interesting perspectives.  I say “purported” because too often the words and tone of different narrators sound the same.  In addition, often a narrator uses expressions which seem quite implausible for that particular narrator, as when the teenage boy Jason speaks of “recondite” personalities in suburbia (page 74):  these are not Jason’s words but those of the author.

These works of fiction are partly engrossing to me because I once unwittingly knew a former violent leftist on the lam – the Symbionese Liberation Army’s James Kilgore, whom I knew as John Pape.  I wish I could say I’d always suspected him, but that is not the case.  Indeed, if anything, I suspected him of being a secret religious believer.  He was serious, always intense, and softly-spoken, and ideologically pure to the point of having no sense of humour. The Struggle was all, and life seemed to be all gravitas, with no levitas (at least in my interactions with him.  I have no idea how much of this serious demeanor  is or was his true self.)  Adopting a position as a committed revolutionary is certainly an interesting strategy for a cover;  one does not expect underground weathermen to be regular attenders at Trotskyist reading circles, but Pape was.  (And he did the homework!) But perhaps someone with a sense of humour does not join a movement of revolutionary violence in the first place, at least not in a democracy.

In the non-fiction category is Susan Braudy’s history of the Boudin family, one of whose members, Kathy Boudin, was a member of the Weather Underground.   As with Kunzru’s and Spiotta’s novels, this non-fictional account is also riveting.   It is, however, appallingly badly written. For instance, for a history, the book is very fuzzy about dates – when did Jean Boudin die, for example?  And much of the text reads like third-hand family anecdotes, perhaps interesting or amusing to the family but not to anyone else.  (Aunty Merle always was partial to rhubarb and once asked for it in a restaurant.)    And lots of very relevant information is simply not provided, for instance the prison sentences given to Kathy Boudin’s fellow-accused in 1981.   As a history book, this is certainly a book.

Finally, a quick report on Hans Kundnani’s superb analysis of the extreme German left, Utopia or Auschwitz:  Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust.  Kundnani argues that there were competing strains within the violent German left in the 1960s and 1970s:  one strain engaged in struggle (against capitalist and western imperialist injustice) as a form of remedy for the failure – or at least, the perceived failure – of their parents’ generation to resist Nazism, and other strains comprising German-nationalist and, suprisingly, even anti-semitic tendencies.    The presence of such tendencies at least explains how some on the far left in the 1960s ended up on the neo-Nazi right thirty years later.  Kundnani’s book is superb – interesting, well-written, humane, engrossing, and tightly-argued.  I had only one small quibble, which is perhaps a typo or an oversight:  On page 252, Kundnani refers to German military participation in a NATO-led attack on Serbian forces on 24 March 1999 as the “first time since 1945, Germany was at war.”  Well, the Federal Republic of Germany perhaps.   The DDR sent troups to join the Warsaw Pact invasion of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in August 1968.   If I was a former citizen of the DDR, regardless of my opposition to that invasion, I would be annoyed that my nation’s history seems to have been forgotten by people writing after unification on German history.

UPDATE (2010-08-25): My remark about participation by the DDR military in the Warsaw Pact invasion of the CSSR in 1968 is wrong.   The forces of the DDR were, at the last moment, stayed, as I explain here.    Thanks to Hans Kundnani for correcting me on this (see comment below).

References:

Bill Ayers [2001]:  Fugitive Days:  A Memoir. Boston, MA, USA:  Beacon Press.

Dan Berger [2006]:  Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland, CA, USA:  AK Press.

Susan Braudy [2003]:  Family Circle:  The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. New York, NY, USA;  Anchor Books.

Uli Edel [Director, 2008]: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex.  Germany.

Ron Jacob [1997]: The Way the Wind Blew:  A History of the Weather Underground. London, UK:  Verso.

Hans Kundnani [2009]:  Utopia or Auschwitz:  Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. London, UK:  Hurst and Company.

Hari Kunzru [2007]:  My Revolutions.  London, UK:  Penguin.

Chantal Mouffe [1993]: The Return of the Political.  London, UK: Verso.

Dana Spiotta [2006]:  Eat the Document.  New York: Scribner/London, UK: Picador.

Tom Vague [1988/2005]:  The Red Army Faction Story 1963-1993.  San Francisco:  AK Press.

Jeremy Varon [2004]:  Bringing the War Home:  The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley, CA, USA:  University of California Press.

Some previous thoughts on beating terrorism here.  Past entries in the Recent Reading series are here.

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