Category Archive 'Book Reviews'
05 Oct 2021

Disappointed Reviewer

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04 Oct 2021

“Man is the Measure of All Things” — Protagoras

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From The World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement by Robert Crease (2011), quoted in the London Review of Books.

The geeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are fond of merry japes, locally known as ‘hacks’. One of the more memorable happened one night in October 1958 when an MIT fraternity had the idea of initiating new members by making them measure a bridge over the Charles River connecting the Cambridge campus with Boston. Crossing the bridge was often a wet, windy and unpleasant business and it was thought that students returning at night from downtown would like to know, by visible marks and with some precision, how far they still had to go. The older fraternity brothers decided to use one of the new pledges as a rule, and selected Oliver R. Smoot, the shortest of the lot at 5ft 7in. The other pledges laid Smoot out at one end of the bridge, marked his extent with chalk and paint, then picked him up and laid him down again, spelling out the full measurement every ten lengths, and inscribing the mid-point of the bridge with the words ‘halfway to Hell’. In this way, it was determined that the span was 364.4 smoots long, ‘plus or minus one ear’ (to indicate measurement uncertainty).

The hack was too good to let fade away, so every now and then the fraternity makes its pledges repaint the markings. You might think this isn’t the sort of vandalism the police would tolerate, but they do. The smoot markings soon became convenient in recording the exact location of traffic accidents, so (as the story goes) when the bridge walkways needed to be repaved in 1987, the Massachusetts Department of Public Works directed the construction company to lay out the concrete slabs on the walkway not in the customary six-foot lengths but in shorter smoot units. Fifty years after the original hack, the smoot markers have become part of civic tradition: the City of Cambridge declared 4 October 2008 ‘Smoot Day’. MIT students ran up a commemorative plaque on a precision milling machine and created an aluminium Smoot Stick which they deposited in the university’s museum as a durable reference standard: the unit-smoot is now detached from the person-Smoot. Through the legions of MIT graduates driving global high-tech culture, the smoot has travelled the world. If you use Google Earth, you can elect the units of length in which you’d like distances measured: miles, kilometres, yards, feet – and smoots.

RTWT

03 Jul 2021

“Big Black Eyes Flashing Deep into the Night, Fueled by Nicotine, Caffeine, and Amphetamines”

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Art Deco Ayn denouncing the dirty communists in front of HUAC, 1947.

I found yesterday this affectionate, but clear-eyed, and quite well-written tribute to dear old Ayn written for New York magazine back in 2009 by Sam Anderson as a review of Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made.

Whenever Ayn Rand met someone new—an acolyte who’d traveled cross-country to study at her feet, an editor hoping to publish her next novel—she would open the conversation with a line that seems destined to go down as one of history’s all-time classic icebreakers: “Tell me your premises.” Once you’d managed to mumble something halfhearted about loving your family, say, or the Golden Rule, Rand would set about systematically exposing all of your logical contradictions, then steer you toward her own inviolable set of premises: that man is a heroic being, achievement is the aim of life, existence exists, A is A, and so forth—the whole Objectivist catechism. And once you conceded any part of that basic platform, the game was pretty much over. She’d start piecing together her rationalist Tinkertoys until the mighty Randian edifice towered over you: a rigidly logical Art Deco skyscraper, 30 or 40 feet tall, with little plastic industrialists peeking out the windows—a shining monument to the glories of individualism, the virtues of selfishness, and the deep morality of laissez-faire capitalism. Grant Ayn Rand a premise and you’d leave with a lifestyle.

Stated premises, however, rarely get us all the way down to the bottom of a philosophy. Even when we think we’ve reached bedrock, there’s almost always a secret subbasement blasted out somewhere underneath. William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, “a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned … What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”

No one would have been angrier about this claim, and no one confirms its truth more profoundly, than Ayn Rand. Few fellow creatures have had a more intensely odd personal flavor; her temperament could have neutered an ox at 40 paces. She was proud, grouchy, vindictive, insulting, dismissive, and rash. (One former associate called her “the Evel Knievel of leaping to conclusions.”) But she was also idealistic, yearning, candid, worshipful, precise, and improbably charming. She funneled all of these contradictory elements into Objectivism, the home-brewed philosophy that won her thousands of Cold War–era followers and that seems to be making some noise once again in our era of bailouts and tea parties…

It’s easy to chuckle at Rand, smugly, from the safe distance of intervening decades or an opposed ideology, but in person—her big black eyes flashing deep into the night, fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines—she was apparently an irresistible force, a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock who converted doubters left, right, and center. Eyewitnesses say that she never lost an argument. One of her young students (soon to be her young lover) staggered out of his first all-night talk session referring to her, admiringly, as “Mrs. Logic.” And logic, in Rand’s hands, seemed to enjoy superpowers it didn’t possess with anyone else. She claimed, for instance, that she could rationally explain every emotion she’d ever had. “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive,” she once wrote, “and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.” One convert insisted that “she knows me better after five hours than my analyst does after five years.” The only option was to yield or stay away.

RTWT

30 May 2021

The First Major Bio of John Moses Browning

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John Moses Browning

Commie LGBTQ LithHub this week actually published a nice long excerpt from Nathan Gorenstein’s new bio: The Guns of John Moses Browning.

Browning is undoubtedly the greatest firearm designer of all time. The list of his sporting arms, lever action Winchester, pump and semiauto shotguns is long, and the useful careers of some of his military arms is even longer. The Browning .50 caliber M2 machine gun (the “Ma Deuce”), designed late during WWI, is still in use by the US Military today. His Model 1911 pistol remained our military’s primary issue sidearm right up until the 1980s, and has since gone on to whole new wave of massive enthusiasm for both target-shooting and personal defense. A hundred years after its design, the old 1911 is still pretty much America’s default handgun.

The 1865 Browning home in Ogden, Utah, was adobe brick, situated a few steps away from untrammeled land filled with grouse, a small wildfowl that made tolerable eating once it was plucked, butchered, and cooked, preferably with bacon fat to moisten the dry flesh. Utah’s five varieties of grouse could fly, but mostly the birds shuffled about on the earth. The male “greater” grouse reached seven pounds, making a decent meal and an easy target, as yellow feathers surrounded each eye and a burst of white marked the breast. A skilled hunter could sneak up on a covey picking at leaves and grasses and with one blast of birdshot get two or three for the frying pan.

Such frugality was necessary. The closest railroad stop was nearly one thousand miles east, and the largest nearby town was Salt Lake City, 35 miles to the south and home to only ten thousand people. Ogden’s settlers ate what they grew, raised, or hunted. Water for drinking and crops depended on the streams and rivers that flowed west out of the mountains into the Great Salt Lake, and irrigated wheat, corn, turnips, cabbage, and potatoes. Each settler was obliged to contribute labor or money to construct the hand-dug ditches and canals. They made their own bricks, cured hides for leather, and made molasses out of a thin, yellowish juice squeezed from sugar beets with heavy iron rollers and then boiled down to a thick, dark bittersweet liquid.

The rollers were made by John’s father, Jonathan, himself a talented gunsmith who also doubled as a blacksmith. Jonathan’s shop was his son’s playground, and John’s toys were broken gun parts thrown into the corner. At age six, John was taught by his “pappy” to pick out metal bits for forging and hammering into new gun parts. Soon the boy was wielding tools under his father’s direction.

To build that first crude gun John chose a day when his father was away on an errand. From the pile of discards John retrieved the old musket barrel and dug out a few feet of wire and a length of scrap wood. He clamped the barrel into a vice and with a fine-toothed saw cut off the damaged muzzle. He set Matt to work with a file and orders to scrape a strip along the barrel’s top down to clean metal. With a hatchet John hacked out a crude stock. The boys worked intently. On the frontier a task didn’t have to be polished, but it had to be right. Basic materials were in short supply, and to make his gun parts and agricultural tools Pappy Browning scavenged iron and steel abandoned by exhausted and overloaded immigrants passing through on their way west. Once, he purchased a load of metal fittings collected from the burned-out remains of an army wagon train, and as payment he signed over a parcel of land that, years later, became the site of Ogden’s first hotel.

John used a length of wire to fasten the gun barrel to the stock, then bonded them with drops of molten solder. There was no trigger. Near the barrel’s flash hole John screwed on a tin cone. When it came time to fire, gunpowder and lead birdshot would be loaded down the muzzle and finely ground primer powder would be sprinkled into the cone. The brothers would work together as a team: John would aim, Matt would lean in and ignite the primer with the tip of a smoldering stick, and the cobbled-together shotgun would, presumably, fire.

This wasn’t without risk. There was no telling if the soldered wire was strong enough to contain the recoil, or if the barrel itself would burst. Then there was the matter of ammunition. Gunpowder and shot were expensive imports delivered by ox-drawn wagon train. And the Browning brothers’ makeshift weapon might prove ineffective, or John could miss, and anger their father by using up valuable gunpowder with no result. Despite the risks, John pilfered enough powder and lead shot (from Jonathan’s poorly hidden supply) for one shot.

In ten minutes the brothers were in open country. Ogden’s eastern side nestled against the sheer ramparts of the Wasatch Mountains, and to the west lay the waters of the Great Salt Lake. To the north the Bear and Weber rivers flowed out of the Wasatch to sustain the largest waterfowl breeding ground west of the Mississippi River. Early white explorers were staggered by seemingly endless flocks of geese and ducks. In the 1840s pioneers described the “astonishing spectacle of waterfowl multitudes” taking to the air with a sound like “distant thunder.” Mountains rose up in all four directions, with one range or another flashing reflected sunlight. It was a striking geographic combination, magnified by the bright, clear sunlight of Ogden’s near-mile-high elevation. A settler’s life was lived on a stage of uncommon spectacle.

John carried the shotgun while Matt toted a stick and a small metal can holding a few clumps of glowing coal. The idea was to take two or three birds with a single shot, thereby allaying parental anger with a show of skilled marksmanship. Barefoot, the brothers crept from place to place until they spotted a cluster of birds pecking at the ground. Two were almost touching wings and a third was inches away. John knelt and aimed. Matt pulled the glowing stick out of the embers, almost jabbed John in the ear, and then touched the stick to the tin cone to fire the shot. The recoil knocked John backward—but in front of him lay a dead bird. Two other wounded fowl flapped nearby. Matt scampered ahead and “stood, a bird in each hand, whooping and trying to wring both necks at once.”

The next morning, as Jonathan breakfasted on grouse breast and biscuits, John listened to sympathetic advice from his mother and chose that moment to tell Pappy the story of his gun, his hunt—and the pilfered powder. Jonathan sat quietly and when John was finished made no mention of the theft. He did ask to see the weapon and was unimpressed. “John Moses, you’re going on eleven; can’t you make a better gun than that?”

Matt snickered. John choked down his remaining breakfast. “Pappy has drawn first blood, no doubt about that. He hadn’t scolded about the powder and shot, and the sin of stealing. But he’d hit my pride right on the funny bone,” John told his family decades later. A moment later he followed his father into the shop. He unrolled the wire from the barrel, “whistling soft and low to show how unconcerned I was,” and then stamped on the stock, snapped it in two, and tossed the pieces into a pile of kindling. “I remember thinking, rebelliously, that for all Pappy might say, the gun had gotten three fine birds for breakfast. Then I set to work. Neither of us mentioned it again.”

RTWT

15 May 2021

Defending Foie Gras

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Paul Levy, in the Spectator, reviews Norman Kolpas’s Foie Gras: A Global History, which defends the rich delicacy and its creation via the practice of gavage (the fattening of geese and ducks by tubular feeding) against a recent wave of Puritanism and snobbish morality posing that got the product banned in California and removed from the shelves of Fortnum & Mason in Britain.

[T]he main opposition claim is that the production of the hyper-fatty livers of ducks and geese is physically cruel and therefore immoral.

The factual argument is just plain wrong, and so is the ethical judgment that depends on it. I have witnessed the ‘force-feeding’ of ducks, and it is not a case of animal abuse. What actually happens is that the nicely behaved ducks (imprinted à la Konrad Lorenz) form an orderly line to take their turn swallowing a flexible tube that in seconds whooshes pellets of maize or mash of cereal down their gullets. They appear to relish this, and are, in my experience, fussed about and petted affectionately by the farming women of the south-west of France who perform what is called the gavage.

The problem, says Norman Kolpas, is that our celebrities and anti-foie gras activists ‘immediately and understandably tend to anthropomorphize the birds, imagining how it might feel for a human to have a feeding tube jammed down the throat’. This image of oral rape comes from an ignorance of bird physiology. The human esophagus is a more rigid structure of muscle, cartilage and bone, and inserting a tube down it means getting past the epiglottis, which triggers the human gag reflex. These waterfowl species do not have a gag reflex.

The gavage, in fact, mimics the birds’ natural pre-migratory behavior; following the seasons, they gorge themselves with food in preparation for their long flights. This had been remarked at least as early as 400 BC, when, says Kolpas, ‘well-fattened geese were deemed sufficiently worthy to be presented as a gift when Agesilaus, king of Sparta, visited Egypt’. The Greeks and Romans force-fed geese with figs rather than grain, a practice later adapted for rich pork liver, as recommended by Apicius. Foie gras found its way to south-western France with the conquest of Gaul (121-51 BC), and then Jewish slaves, cooks and farmers spread it east across Europe. Though goose makes the most appreciated fat liver, the amount of goose foie gras now produced globally has become minuscule (about 5 percent) compared with duck foie gras, mostly from (pond-shunning) hybrid male Moulard ducks, whose meat is also succulent and valued.

RTWT

Outline link

02 Dec 2020

“Just Passing Through, Minding His Own Business”

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Michael Robbins has a little fun upon the occasion of the publication of “The Sentinel, the 25th Jack Reacher blood-curdler.

You know how, when you roll into a small town for the first time, in search of a slice of pie and a decent cup of coffee, you inevitably uncover a byzantine and nefarious criminal conspiracy, perhaps concerning Russian spies and Nazis? And your sense of justice and your MMA-style fighting skills demand that you stick around long enough to expose the evildoers, protect the innocent, and kick a whole lot of ass?

OK, that probably hasn’t happened to you more than once. But it happens to Jack Reacher all the time. Lee Child’s ex-military drifter-hero is framed for murder in a small Georgia town in the first book of the best-selling series, 1997’s Killing Floor, and he goes on to find trouble with a capital T in sleepy flyover hamlets across America—“tiny polite dots” on the map, as 2019’s Blue Moon has it—in eleven of the subsequent novels, including The Sentinel(Delacorte Press, $29), the first to be cowritten with the author’s brother, Andrew Child, who will take over the series after this installment. …

No one in the history of the world has randomly stumbled onto as many kidnappings as Jack Reacher, who once again thus stumbles, wanting only a cup of coffee, at the beginning of The Sentinel. Implausible, sure. A radioactive spider’s bite bestows spider powers on a teenage boy; a woman unweaves a burial shroud every night for three years without any of her suitors getting suspicious. We tell ourselves stories in order to tune the fuck out, sometimes.

So there Reacher is, fresh in town after hitching a ride from Nashville with an insurance agent, when he sees some heavy operators trying to force an ordinary schlub into a Toyota sedan. Except he doesn’t see them. Being Reacher, he senses the plan unfolding before it happens, apparently drawing on genetic memory. He’s headed for the coffee shop as the schlub, one Rusty Rutherford, leaves it:

    Reacher didn’t pay him much attention at first. He was just a guy, small and unremarkable, holding his to-go cup. . . . But a moment later Reacher’s interest ratcheted all the way up. He felt a chill at the base of his neck. A signal from some ancient warning system hardwired into the back of his brain. An instinctive recognition. Pattern and movement. Predators circling. Moving in on their prey. Two men and a woman. Spread out. Carefully positioned. Coordinated. Ready to spring their trap.

What chance do the heavy operators have against Jack Reacher’s hardwired spider-sense? No more chance than a complete sentence has against Reacher’s free indirect discourse.

And then we’re off to the races. …

It doesn’t matter that we’re not exactly dealing with John le Carré and George Smiley here. Child has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for readers who have to get up in the morning. He knows that we know that Reacher will yet again prevail against impossible odds, so it’s the details of each confrontation that matter. With what displays of brio shall our hero sally forth this time, deploying what forms of efficient brutality?

Reacher may lack the self-questioning complexity of Smiley or the queasy nuance of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, but Child makes his simplicity a virtue. Reacher is Jason Bourne without the Sophoclean psychology and heroic quest. He’s just real good at getting there first, whether “there” means anticipating an opponent’s moves or deducing the nature of a conspiracy from the scantest of clues. …

RTWT

15 Nov 2020

A Classic Case of British Madness Combined With Gallantry

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Ian Birrell*‘s Spectator review of Ed Caesar’s new book, The Moth and the Mountain (to be released November 17) placed it immediately on my own must-read list.

It recounts WWI veteran Maurice Wilson’s doomed 1933 attempt to solo climb Everest by crash landing a de Havilland Moth biplane on the mountain’s upper slopes and then ascending on foot to the top.

Reinhold Messner, the first person to climb all 14 of the planet’s peaks higher than 8,000 meters, is probably the finest high-altitude mountaineer in history. His list of astonishing achievements on dangerous ice-clad crags includes the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without use of oxygen. Yet as he sat exhausted at 26,000 feet with two days still to go on that pioneering ascent, he thought of an eccentric Englishman ‘tougher than I am’ who had set out before him with one crippled arm and no crampons, let alone knowledge of some basic climbing techniques. ‘Do I understand this madman so well because I am mad myself?’ he wondered.

[T]he writer Ed Caesar, similarly captivated by the crazed early assault on Everest by the Yorkshireman Maurice Wilson, has told the extraordinary story of this intrepid ‘madman’ in an engrossing biography. It is a tale well known in the mountaineering community, not least since his frozen corpse has emerged five times from its glacial tomb on the slopes where he died; yet it remains clouded in as much mystery as those mists that cling to the great peaks. Was he a naive climbing legend, a mystical sage, a disturbed war veteran or even someone running from his gender fluidity, so unacceptable at the time? Or possibly all four of these things? …

The backdrop, as with so many things in the 1930s, was the legacy of savage trench warfare that tore apart a continent. Wilson fought with distinction, winning a Military Cross, but lost the use of an arm and saw one of his three brothers turned into a shambling wreck. His own efforts to win compensation were repeatedly rebuffed, leaving him with a loathing of officialdom.

It seems his traumas led him to trek the world aimlessly, dumping women and jobs in his wake. So was his bid to climb Everest an attempt to find glory or inner peace? …

Wilson began to read widely about Everest in 1932, hatching his plan despite the cruel details of terrible deaths in avalanches and blizzards. He was not deterred by the failure of four British expeditions, comprising the best climbers in the country aided by teams of porters carrying huge supplies. He began training his mind and body through fasting and prayer. He flirted with the idea of parachuting onto the lower slopes. Then he decided to fly there, so took lessons and bought a Tiger Moth; yet he was such an inexperienced pilot that when he left (looking ‘like a man going to a fancy dress party as an aviator’) he nearly crashed by taking off in the wrong direction with the wind.

RTWT

Maurice Wilson’s Wikipedia entry.

* Outline frequently lists the wrong author’s name for articles decrypted from behind paywalls.

25 Oct 2020

A Fine Read

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Members of the Baby Boom generation like myself are the product of WWII. Our parents typically met during the war, and the ultimate American victory led to their reunion and our post-war arrival.

We grew up in the post-war world of American political, military, economic, and cultural pre-eminence that they built.

My father served in the Marine Corps through the Pacific Campaigns, and I grew up familiar with the names of Guadalcanal, Guam, and Iwo Jima. I was, as a boy, eager to hear war stories, but like most veterans my father didn’t like to talk about it.

“Did you ever kill anybody?” I once demanded. And my father dismissively replied: “We were all shooting at them, and they were falling down. You couldn’t tell who hit anybody.” That was as far as he’d go.

Another time, I asked him if he had been afraid. He just laughed, and said: “We never saw them, but they were running away.” He mentioned that, on one island, they ran all the way to some cliffs on the far side, and jumped off.

My father never joined any veterans groups. He never used veteran hospitals, and he despised the kind of men who were always looking for veteran benefits. He had his last fist fight at age 78. He was in a barber shop on Mount Vernon Street in Shenandoah and some other old WWII vet was complaining that the government wasn’t doing enough for him. My father disagreed, and asked where the guy had served. He admitted that he’d never left the United States. My father laughed at him, and he got belligerent, so my father hauled off, hit him in the jaw, and knocked him down. The young people in the neighborhood were horrified at men of such age descending to fisticuffs.

When my father passed away, I became obsessed with the desire to understand where he had been during the war and what he’d gone through. I bought every history of the Pacific Campaigns, read them all, and contacted the Marine Corps to get his military records and to figure out what awards he was entitled to. I found that he was entitled to four stars (for combat service) on his Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal along with the Presidential Unit Citation (awarded long after the war to Marines from the Third Division who served on Iwo Jima).

Recently, I came across very positive references to the publication of the third, and last, volume of Ian W. Toll’s Pacific Theater Campaign histories. I bought the kindle versions, and I’ve read all three now with great pleasure.

Ian Toll does by far the best job I’ve found of elucidating and dissecting the perspectives, plans, strategies, and decisions of both sides, and he takes the reader through the individual battles and campaigns with a compelling narrative and a lot of technical insight and details that even a reader well acquainted with the same actions will find new.

Frankly, I think his three volumes put Samuel Eliot Morrison’s magisterial 15-volumes in the shade, and that is really saying something.

I recommend them in the strongest terms.

They are:

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945

01 Sep 2020

“Bro!”

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Here we have a classic representative production of contemporary elite culture delivering a rather remarkable mixture of admirable learning thoroughly polluted with repulsive left-wing ideology.

Jo Wilkinson, in the course of reviewing a new “femininist” translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley, exhibits a thorough understanding of the poem’s origin, scholarship, and cultural significance. This tidbit was news to me:

There is only one historical “fact” (a word of debatable meaning) in the poem: when Beowulf explains how the Geatish lord Hygelac died in battle. Using the spelling Chlochilaichus, the sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours attests to the same event in his chronicle.

But you also get some of the worst kind of old-fashioned middle-brow Freudian crap:

Why does the blade melt? On the surface, it seems as though some enchantment is undone by the monster’s foul blood. But this is also the final extermination of an ancient, albeit monstrous, lineage, and there’s something anticlimactic about that final, cruel thrust. The sword melts away, leaving Beowulf with nothing to do but go home. As with every other apparently triumphant moment in the poem, it just doesn’t feel like a triumph.

A lecturer once told me she was sure the blade is a phallic symbol and that its melting represents Beowulf’s manhood going limp after finishing with the woman in the cave.

Along with lavish doses of Toni Morrison references, contemptuous hostility to appropriation of the poem by “white supremacists,” and the now traditional left-wing inversion of values. The new translator, Maria Dahvana Headley, previously published a Grendel-and-his-Mom’s-point-of-view retelling, The Mere Wife.

The last Beowulf translation was a very loose version by the Irish pansy Seamus Heaney. Now, we get an inner-city vernacular version, in which “Hwaet” [more or less: Hark, Listen, or Attend!] gets translated as “Bro!”

As he armors up to attack Grendel’s mother, the Beowulf-poet writes that he does not mearn for his ealdre—mourn for his life. In her version, Headley translates those words to mean Beowulf “gave zero shits.”

Jo Livingstone relishes Headley’s female us-versus-them approach:

Headley’s boyish narrator wraps his story in colloquial language almost as a trick, a flashy come-on to lure readers into a story that turns out to be full of dark lessons about traitorous soldiers and the inevitability of old age. Her Beowulf is a tragicomic epic about the things men do to impress one another. It’s as fierce an examination of masculine weakness as The Mere Wife was of feminine strength.

Depressing and annoying as all the vulgarity and left-wing politics are, I still think this is a book review worth reading. I’m of two minds about actually buying the Headley translation, but I did buy one of her novellas on Kindle.

WT

01 Jul 2020

Nobody Thinks Much of Bolton’s Book

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One of the kindest reviews comes from John Lloyd of the Financial Times.

[M]illions of words and images produced over the course of the Trump presidency all converge on a contemptuous assessment of the White House incumbent. So yet another volume—even one written by a person whose leadership of the NSC meant a great deal of face time with Trump—may seem otiose. Indeed, some reviewers have concluded it is exactly that. Bret Stephens, a conservative Trump opponent and columnist for the New York Times, sums up Bolton’s book as one which “tells all, yet somehow manages to say nothing.” The litany of stupidity, ignorance, vanity, and bluster it reveals only causes Stephens to think “knew that” or “not surprised.” A fellow Conservative, the former editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal Gerald Baker, wrote in the (London) Times that Bolton was generally “ineffective,” and should have known better than to join Trump’s administration in the first place. Stephens’s New York Times colleague Jennifer Szalai, meanwhile, is dismissive in another way. Attacking the author rather than his work, she reminds the paper’s largely liberal readership of Bolton’s strongly hawkish views, and finds him deficient in style, organisation of material, and ability to mark out large issues from “a stew of detail.” David Ignatius in the Washington Post and Graeme Wood in the Atlantic are less reproachful, and indeed at times complimentary, but both agree that this is not a significant piece of work.

I think it is, but I should first concede some agreement with the above. It’s not as badly written at Szalai says, but it’s clunky, and certainly overly detailed. Bolton particularly likes to highlight the compliments he receives, even when they come from people he despises or thinks are evil. Trump, we are told, said “I like John”; Russian President Vladimir Putin described Bolton as “very powerful and specific” in argument; and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, offered a compliment dressed as a curse: “Death to Trump, John Bolton, and (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo.” However, Bolton never provides even the most minimal of introductions to the world leaders he meets and with whom he often speaks at length. Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Boris Johnson, who was then British Foreign Secretary, all drift in and out as mere appendages to his narrative, when a better writer would have provided a brief character sketch to help us locate them as individuals.

RTWT

27 Jan 2020

“Profiles in Corruption”

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Roger Kimball reviews Peter Schweizer’s timely new book, Profiles in Corruption.

[Schweizer’s] real subject, however, is not this unsavory lot of so-called “progressive” politicians. Rather it is a truth of human psychology summed up in Milton Friedman’s observation that “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

All the figures that Schweizer discusses are known as “progressives” of one stripe or another, from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the heavy-handed redistributionist, socialist end, to Joe Biden in the gabbling senile establishment middle. They all talk about helping the little guy. They are filled to the brim with “good intentions.” But the scare quotes are intended. What they are really all about is increasing the power of government, and hence their own power and perquisites, under cover of noble-sounding progressive nostrums.

This brings us to the core of Schweizer’s important book. “What makes so many people angry at Washington,” he notes, “is the fact that those with political power get to operate by a different set of rules than the rest of us.” That’s it in a nutshell.

As one compares the treatment accorded to Hillary Clinton, say, or Biden and his sons and brothers with the treatment accorded to General Mike Flynn or a host of other people outside the charmed circle of progressive piety, one is tempted to suggest a change to the inscription on the U.S. Supreme Court.“Equal Justice Under Law” is so out of date; “Unequal Justice Under Law” would be a more accurate slogan, one that accorded better with actual practice if not rhetoric.

Schweizer is right. Such people “use their own levers of power to protect their family and friends from the scales of justice; bail out their failing businesses; steer taxpayer money to them. When they misstep, they are excused or it is covered up. While those with little or no power have to pay for the consequences of their actions, the political class often does not. The power elite—the people who grease the wheels for themselves—are the most disconcerting and dangerous ones.”

Despite the conspiracy of silence imposed by a compliant media on these facts, the truth is leaking out bit by Biden bit. It is one reason that we now have President Donald Trump, not President Hillary Clinton. It is a reason, too, that, come January 2021, President Trump will embark on his second term. We all owe Peter Schweizer an enormous debt of gratitude for his enormous and effective labors in bringing sunlight to these tenebrous and mephitic climes.

RTWT

25 Aug 2019

The American College Dormitory

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My own college dormitory, one of “James Gamble Rogers’ sublime Yale residential colleges.”

Anthony Paletta reviews a recent book on college dormitories in America.

Hotels have received plenty of architectural attention, but unless you’re Howard Hughes or Coco Chanel you probably haven’t spent four years living in them. One space where most readers have likely spent just that long in residence–and that hasn’t attracted a fraction of that kind of attention—is the old-fashioned college dormitory, now ably addressed in Carla Yanni’s Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.

The dormitory is an interesting space, intrinsically transient but often designed to serve as a social aggregator, edifying home environment and cocoon from baleful influences, once loose morals and religious nonconformists, lately Halloween costumes and Republicans. It’s a building type represented virtually everywhere in the United States—Yanni notes early on that there are likely more than thirty thousand dormitory buildings in the U.S.

The first unusual thing about American dormitories is simply how widespread they are. You don’t actually need to house students on-site: this happens for a very small minority of students in secondary and boarding schools, and a minority in graduate education. Living on campus is not remotely as common in a number of other societies, and wasn’t the standard even in some European societies that provided inspiration to American universities. A prime task is to explain “why Americans have believed for so long that college students should live in purpose-built structures that we now take for granted: dormitories. This was never inevitable, nor was it even necessary.”

The religious and often rural origins of many American colleges, designed to remove students from the malignant influences of the city, played a prominent role in the provision of housing. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe and its fictional Harley College—“The local situation of the college, so far secluded from the sight and sound of the busy world, is peculiarly favorable to the moral, if not the literary, habits of its students; and this advantage probably caused the founders to overlook the inconveniences that were inseparably connected with it.”

RTWT

I’ll bet the Yanni book overlooks the story of the Yale undergraduate of the 1850s who was expelled for shooting a deer on the New Haven Green from his dormitory window on the Old Campus.

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