Book Reviews

  • The Conquering Sword Of Conan book coverThe Conquering Sword Of Conan
    ★★★☆☆
    03/23/15
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  • “The Conquering Sword of Conan” reprints the last five “Conan the Barbarian” stories written by Robert E. Howard before his tragic suicide in 1936.

    One subtle difference between these and earlier Conan tales is that towards his end, Howard began incorporating elements of Americana into his “yarns”. This is less subtle in “Beyond The Black River” and “The Black Stranger”, which both place Conan in an American Western setting, complete with wooden forts under siege by tribes of savage Indians. (Although in Howard’s Hyborian Age, American Indians go by the ahistorical name of “Picts”).

    Howard’s writing could be at times formulaic, probably due to his market analysis of his publisher, “Weird Tales” magazine. (As a writer, he must have observed that “Weird Tales” often bought stories with “damsels-in-distress” ... so by strange coincidence, several Conan stories also boasted that very same character type!)

    Another weakness is that Howard’s Conan is so larger-than-life that he can’t really have any meaningful interaction with other characters. There’s a great moment in the 1982 “Conan the Barbarian” movie where Conan and Subotai have a short conversation around a campfire about the respective gods they worship. Just two uneducated guys, talking in their own unsophisticated ways about religion.

    That short one-minute scene makes the entire movie. But sadly, there’s nothing like this in any of Howard’s writing.

    Where Howard succeeds though, is in throwing obstacles like clever traps and hideous monsters in his protagonist’s way, and in describing how Conan hacks and slashes his way out (Howard’s prose is nothing if not sanguinary). At his best, he mixes up genres and throws in plot twists that the reader doesn’t expect. In a couple of the stories here, he has rogues double-cross each other unexpectedly – I don’t recall him doing that in his earlier Conan tales – and it makes for satisfying reading. (Kind of lends an air of authenticity: this is how rogues are supposed to act...)

    Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are not great literature, and no one should ever read them expecting anything particularly deep. What they are is simply visceral stuff about a mighty barbarian, from the man who single-handedly invented the swords-and-sorcery genre.

    =====

    POSTSCRIPT:

    “The Conquering Sword Of Conan” also includes some very fine illustrations by Gregory Manchess, an interesting letter the author wrote to a couple of his fans, and a very perceptive essay about Howard’s later work.

    Of lesser note are the reprints of Howard’s rough drafts, which are probably of interest only to R.E.H. scholars and hardcore fans. These can safely be skipped, apart from perhaps the never-before-published “Wolves Beyond The Border, Draft B” (which is sort of a Conan tale where the barbarian himself never actually appears).

  • The Doomsday Myth: 10,000 Years of Economic Crises book coverThe Doomsday Myth: 10,000 Years of Economic Crises
    ★★★★★
    02/01/15
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  • This book comes as something of a minor revelation. While most of us tend to think of technological progress as the main driver for human advancement, “The Doomsday Myth: 10,000 Years Of Economic Crises,” makes a convincing case that price increases of scarce commodities fulfil this role instead.

    To do this, the authors take a number of economic crises from history, and show how scarcity of each commodity caused the price of that commodity to rise. They then demonstrate how people adapted to these price increases via three mechanisms: conservation, substitution and technical innovation.

    The most interesting sets of crises / resolutions were:

    1. The birth of the Iron Age: A supply interruption of tin in ancient Greece (circa 1000 B.C.) led to a scarcity of bronze, and Greeks responded to high bronze prices by substituting iron for bronze (as well as by developing better methods of iron forging).
    2. The rise of the use of water and wind in the Middle Ages: The Black Death in Europe killed so many in Europe that the demand for labor exceeded supply. Wages rose. Those who possessed capital and land conserved labor (by producing less labor-intensive products) and began substituting wind and water power for labor in their mills. Technological improvements in these mills also occurred.
    3. The rise of the use of coal: Deforestation in Britain caused wood prices to rise. When prices reached a critical point, coal was substituted as a fuel. A number of technical hurdles had to be overcome for coal to be used in the production of glass, tin, lead, copper and iron. Deforestation problems were also alleviated by the substitution of coal-fired bricks for wood as a building material. And eventually, the use of coal helped spawn the Industrial Revolution, as steam engines were initially invented to pump water out of coal mines.
    4. The rise of the use of petroleum: Whale oil was once the fuel of choice for lamps, and was the primary lubricant during the Industrial Revolution. With increased demand, whalers proceeded to hunt whales to near extinction. When the price of whale oil became too dear, entrepreneurs sought to sell rock oil as a substitute. And a whole slew of technical advances followed.

    In short, “The Doomsday Myth,” is a wonderful little book which will change the average reader's view of how economics impacts the course of history.

  • The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements book coverThe True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
    ★★★★★
    01/05/15
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  • Twenty years ago, I read, “The True Believer” - and with today’s news telling of young Muslims from Canada & Western Europe joining ISIS, it seemed appropriate to revisit Eric Hoffer’s classic meditation on mass movements.

    Written in 1951, “The True Believer,” isn’t really social science, but does offer a basis for thinking coherently about mass movements. Hoffer offers an intuitively attractive theory of how they progress: from the “Disaffection” stage (prompted by writers and speakers who create dissatisfaction with the current regime), to the “Active phase” (dominated by fanatics), and culminating in the “Consolidation” stage (when practical men and careerists assume power by shunting the fanatics aside).

    But what type of person finds himself attracted to a mass movement? And, more specifically, what personality type is attracted to Islamic Jihad?

    Hoffer suggests a few types: atomized minorities, the misfits, the inordinately selfish, the sinners as well as those who are just plain bored. All of these, in Hoffer’s estimation, are uniquely vulnerable to developing a sense of overwhelming frustration with the self, and are then willing to subsume the identity of the self into a unitary mass.

    (While “The True Believer” also discusses in great detail the attraction of mass movements to the “newly-poor”, Hoffer failed to foresee the rise of a new class: the “comfortably-poor” - whose material needs are attended to by Western welfare states, but who seethe with resentment nonetheless.)

    Since the book was written in the early 1950s, it tends to focus more on the two totalitarian mass movements of interest at the time: communism and Nazism. However, it does make one particularly incisive observation about Islam – which is that the “Active phase” of Islam has been prolonged longer than other mass movements due to the influx of fanatical converts. If this is in fact true, then it should be a source of great concern, since Hoffer characterizes the “Active phase” of a mass movement as the period of its greatest destructiveness.

  • How To Run A Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders book coverHow To Run A Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders
    (Marcus Tullius Cicero)
    ★★★★☆
    10/08/14
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  • Various excerpts from Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero on the proper role of government as well as the requirements for effective administration. As a professional rhetorician, Cicero was an excellent stylist, and is a genuine pleasure to read even two thousand years after his death.

    The book loses a single star for its price: $14 for 152 pages. But the latter half is composed of Cicero’s writing in the original Latin, so the general audience really only gets 67 pages.

  • The Thin Man book coverThe Thin Man
    ★★☆☆☆
    08/16/14
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  • Nice portrayal of life during the era of speakeasies and Prohibition. The book has a good ending, but it's a little difficult to keep track of all the characters.

    Hammett tosses in some cynical statements about human nature here, which is exactly what one expects from the genre. He also gives the detective character a semi-friendly relationship with the police, which is a notable difference between this and his earlier book, "The Maltese Falcon".

  • Gates Of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae book coverGates Of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
    ★★★★★
    07/09/14
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  • As much as I liked the movie, "300", I can't shake my reservations about the Spartans (whom I view as being 5th century proto-fascists).With this book though, Pressfield humanizes them, and makes understandable their submission to their city's brutalizing discipline. This he does by showing the alternative: early in the story, Xeones of Astakos (the protagonist) witnesses his city, his family and his home utterly destroyed in war 10 or 15 years before the Persian invasion.

    There's a few anachronisms along the way (was "survivor's guilt" really an issue for the classical Greeks?) as well as some crudities, but Pressfield does a terrific job in building sympathy for the men who fought against impossible odds at Thermopylae.

  • Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East book coverLawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East
    ★★★★★
    06/28/14
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  • I knew T.E. Lawrence was a formidable guerrilla warrior, and was vaguely aware he was also a gifted scholar. But I had no idea he was, in addition, a bureaucratic infighter par excellence.

    The book also concentrates upon the exploits of Curt Prüfer (a German spy), William Yale (an American oilman / spy) and Aaron Aaronsohn (a Jewish agronomist / spy). With the respect to the latter, "Lawrence In Arabia" gives an insightful look into the birth of Zionism in the modern Middle East.

  • The Maltese Falcon book coverThe Maltese Falcon
    ★★★☆☆
    05/31/14
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  • What's striking is how good Hammett was at writing dialogue. All that snappy dialogue in the 1941 movie didn't come from a team of Hollywood screenwriters - that's Hammett all the way.

    It's hard to read this though, and not hear Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet voicing the characters' lines.

  • Flight To Arras book coverFlight To Arras
    ★★★★☆
    05/24/14
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  • Pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry chronicles a reconnaissance mission he flew for the French Air Force during the early days of World War II.

    His memoir is all the more poignant since he and his fellow flyers were fully aware that their situation was hopeless: within the previous 3 weeks, 17 out of 23 crews in their squadron had been shot down by the Germans, and France's defeat was a virtual certainty.

  • The Greek Sophists book coverThe Greek Sophists
    ★★☆☆☆
    03/11/14
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  • In modern terms, the sophists were the equivalent of today's law school professors. However, they were paid like rock stars: the tuition costs (in today's dollars) for a single course by a sophist like Gorgias was upwards of $160,000 USD!

    While it was interesting to see the philosophical differences between these men, the book is a bit of a slog. (I found myself having little patience with the sophist who spent several pages displaying his verbal and cognitive dexterity by "proving" that nothing exists...)

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