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I lied when I said the next post would be the wrap up to the discussion of systems. I forgot that since it was the beginning of the month that I needed to do the post where I review all of the books I read last month. Though “need” is probably too strong of a word, as I mentioned the last time I did my monthly review post, I’m still experimenting with the format, and the option of not doing it at all is still very much on the table. This time around, I’m going to try only including the sections of my review where I have something genuinely interesting to say. So some books may just get the one section. While others will get the whole enchilada as they say. We’ll see how it goes:

Extremes 

By: Various

186 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re the kind of person who might enjoy a collection of academic presentations, and you’re interested in the idea of “Extremes” you’ll probably like this book.

Thoughts

I forget why I picked this up, or where I heard about it, but it had an essay from Taleb, and that might have been enough all by itself, but also I’m interested in the topic of “extremes” anyway. The Taleb essay was good, though I don’t recall him bringing forth anything I hadn’t already come across in his books. Beyond that there were essays on extreme rowing and extreme weather, which were pretty good (though the rowing one seemed kind of out of place). But the essays I enjoyed the most were on political extremism. Definitely the extreme that seems most likely to cause problems in the short term.

The first was titled “Dealing with Extremism” by David Runciman, and dealt with the rising disaffection which has lead to extremism, as well as the difference between an extremist and a conspiracy theorist. I both cases I think he presented a balanced and interesting view of things. In particular I think conspiracy theorists are becoming, to everyone’s bafflement, a bigger deal, and this was the first really serious examination I’ve seen of how they might fit into the political landscape as something other than a weird fringe.

The second was titled “Extreme Politics: The Four Waves of National Populism in the West” and it covered three separate historical waves of western populism, before arriving at the fourth wave which is what we’re seeing now. Given how powerful this most recent wave has been, from the election of Trump to Brexit to Alternative for Germany receiving their largest number of votes ever just on Sunday, identifying how it’s different is incredibly useful. As you might imagine the current wave has put quite a bit more emphasis on the issue of Islam, but this has also led to some populists to voicing strong support for LGBT communities. Truly it’s an interesting mismash.

The Lazy Dungeon Master

By: Michael Shea

123 pages

Who should read this book?

No one should read this book. Which is not to say it wasn’t good, just that I would say Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by the same author (see my review farther down) will give you everything you would have gotten in this book and a lot more

Blood Song (A Raven’s Shadow Novel, Book 1) 

By: Anthony Ryan

592 pages

Thoughts

Somehow I ended up starting another fantasy series. At some point I’m going to have to stop starting new series and finish all the series I have already begun. However this came highly recommended and as they say there’s no time like the present. In particular this is one of those fantasy books that mostly takes place at a school, and as readers of J.K. Rowling can attest, there’s something about fantasy schools. They never fail to be interesting. 

Who should read this book?

If fantasy trilogies are your thing, then this is probably worth checking out. As I said I’ve only ready the first one, but so far it was quite good.

The Last American Man

By: Elizabeth Gilbert

288 pages

Thoughts

A friend of mine said that my review of Wild at Heart reminded him of this book, so I thought I’d check it out. It’s by the author of the book Eat, Pray, Love. (Which probably doesn’t tell you as much as you might think about The Last American Man, but it does tell you something.) 

The Last American Man is essentially a biography of Eustace Conway, and truly if you have to do everything Conway does to be considered a man, then he is indeed probably the last one. Conway lives almost exclusively off what he can grow, kill, or forage (which includes dumpster diving). He has a thousand acres in North Carolina, where he runs courses on getting back to nature, and by all accounts he works his staff so hard that people rarely last longer than a year.

As a biography it’s reasonably entertaining, but as a question for society it’s fascinating; the question of what do we make of Conway? Is he crazy? Or if he’s not crazy is he just a man who was born 100 years too late? Both of those answers are possible, but it’s also possible that he demonstrates what’s been lost, that even if we can’t all be exactly like him that most people, especially men should try to be living a lot closer to Conway’s example than they currently are. In other words, does Conway represent some kind of masculine ideal that all men should be doing their best to emulate, even if that emulation is partial at best

Certainly, and this is a topic that comes up in another book I read in August, we can’t all live as Conway does. There’s not enough space, there’s not enough wildlife and perhaps most tellingly if we all lived that way who would fill dumpsters with discarded food for us to retrieve? Nevertheless as you can imagine I’m sympathetic to the idea that we’d be a lot better off moving in Conway’s direction than in the direction of narcissistic materialism, which seems to be the other choice. Unfortunately there’s not a heck of a lot of advice on how to do that in this book. Or at least how to do it in a less extreme fashion than Conway.

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

By: Michael Shea

96 pages

Who should read this book

This is the book you should read instead of the aforementioned Lazy Dungeon Master. If you’re running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, or any role-playing game this has some great advice.

Once upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History

By: Ben Mezrich

288 pages

Criticisms

I picked up this book really hoping to get a deep dive into the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, as I mentioned in my last post, I wanted to know why the market reforms Yeltsin and his people implemented in the immediate aftermath of the collapse worked so poorly. And how did these reforms actually work to permit the oligarchs to snatch everything up. Or rather that’s what I heard had happened and I was looking for confirmation and more detail. Unfortunately, this book did not provide that. It did tell the very interesting story of the rise and fall of one particular oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, along with the tragic death of Alexander Litvinenko from polonium poisoning, which you may have heard of. 

In any case, as the story of a certain period in Russian history as told through the eyes of a handful of individuals, it was pretty good, but as documentation for how not to change systems of government (which you may have noticed is a recent interest of mine) it falls woefully short.

The Iliad

By: Homer Translated by Richmond Lattimore

528 pages

Notes on this translation

I am not an expert on different translations of the Iliad. This one was recommended by Harold Bloom in his book The Western Canon. It seemed good, perhaps accurate to a fault. The big annoyance was that he used a different spelling than what you commonly see, so it’s Aias, instead of Ajax and Achilleus rather than Achilles, which bothered me more than it should have. I’ve read the Iliad at least once before, but it was a long, long time ago and I don’t remember much about that translation. I hope to read other translations in the future and maybe then I’ll have something more to say about this one.

Representative passage

Indeed, Hippothoös, glorious son of Pelasgian Lethos,

was trying to drag him by the foot through the strong encounter

by fastening, the sling of his shield round the ankle tendons

for the favour of Hektor and the Trojans, but the sudden evil

came to him, and none for all their desire could defend him

The son of Telamon, sweeping in through the mass of the fighters,

struck him at close quarters through the brazen cheeks of his helmet

and the helm crested with horse-hair was riven about the spearhead

to the impact of the huge spear and the weight of the hand behind it

and the brain ran from the wound along the spear by the eye-hole,

bleeding. There his strength was washed away, and from his hands

he let fall to the ground the foot of great-hearted Patroklos

to lie there, and himself collapsed prone over the dead man

far away from generous Larisa, and he could not

render again the care of his dear parents; he was short-lived,

beaten down beneath the spear of high-hearted Aias.

Thoughts

I’m not sure what thoughts one should have on completing a classic like the Iliad. One of the reasons I selected the passage I did was to illustrate how gory it was. That’s probably the part that surprised me the most, and which I didn’t remember from the last time I read it. 

Other than that, knowing that it was the foundational myth of Greek Civilization, and therefore, by extension something of a foundational myth for Western Civilization in general, I came into it hoping for some insight into what made the two civilizations different from the other great civilizations of the world. I know it’s not considered polite, or even correct, to point out that Western Civilization is special, but I still think it is, and if you can’t grant me that it’s special, then you should at least be able to grant that it’s different, and I came into the Iliad hoping to uncover the source of that difference, and I don’t know that I did. I have a few ideas, but they’re not very concrete.

1- My sense is that the Greeks viewed their gods very differently from other civilizations. Yes, there were lots of civilizations whose gods had many human-like qualities. As just one example, out of many, there are the stories passed down about the Norse gods, but is there any other civilization where the gods are right in the middle of things to quite the same extent as the Iliad? 

2- Following from the above did the proximity of their gods make the Greeks more attentive to their actions, particularly their actions against co-religionists? Mostly the sense I got from the Iliad was that it was very biased towards the Greeks. Achilles and Ajax (or if you prefer Aias and Achilleus) were unstoppable, and dominant, while Hector was definitely a step below, and yet it wasn’t as biased as it could have been. And of course there’s the classic ending where Priam and Achilles share a meal and Achilles returns Hector’s body. A noble gesture which you don’t see in other ancient works. (That I’m aware of.)

3- From all of this I wonder if their mythology and legends led to a greater interest in investigating what it might mean to be virtuous. If the gods are right there and ready to step in at a moments notice if you did something bad, there’s an incentive to figure out what sort of things are bad and what sort of things aren’t. An attitude that may have come to fruition much later when the actual philosophers came along?

These are just half-formed ideas. As I said, I feel like there should be something distinctly “Western” in the Iliad, I’m just not entirely sure what it is.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle 

By: Daniel L. Everett

320 pages

Criticisms

This book recounts the author’s time living in the Amazon as a Christian missionary among the Pirahã tribe. And I’m not alone in finding it a difficult book to categorize. Just now I came across the review of the book in The Guardian, which opened thusly:

There is no easy way to categorise this story of a Christian missionary’s linguistic adventures in the Amazon forest. It’s a little as if Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast had been rewritten by Steve Pinker, but only a little.

That’s not a bad way of describing, but as the review says, it still doesn’t do it justice. The book is part travel log, part a challenge to Chomskian linguistics, part an extensive ethnographic examination, and part the story of someone losing their religion.

The travel log part was interesting enough, though far too short to be gripping in the way you expect out of this sort of thing

The linguistics part might have been the part I found the most novel. But it seemed to assume a certain familiarity with the subject that lessened the overall impact, since the time spent trying to get up to speed on the uniqueness of his linguistic discoveries detracted from the time and energy available to appreciate the subtleties of those same discoveries.

The ethnographic angle took up the bulk of the book, but, in my opinion, Everett idolized the Pirahã to such an extent that it fatally undermined his objectivity. As an example I offer up the following story:

One of the women of the tribe had died in childbirth, leaving a very sickly child behind. Everett and his wife adopt the child and manage to nurse it back to health, finally reaching a point where it was clear that the baby would survive. Having worked non-stop to get to this point they decide to take a short break and go for a jog. While they are gone they leave the baby with its (I don’t think Everett ever specifies the gender) father, who promptly kills it.

Everett goes to great length explaining why the father killed the baby. And yes, I understand, there might be reasons, if you’re on the cusp of survival, for doing something like that. And. normally, the father would have been correct in his assessment that a baby born under such circumstances wasn’t going to survive, but in this particular case the father was wrong. He made a mistake, he may have done it for reasons which are normally understandable, but in this case it was still clearly a mistake, yet Everett goes to great length defending the act.

Which takes us to Everett’s loss of faith. Part of the reason he defended the infanticide is that he claims that the Pirahã are the happiest tribe on Earth. To begin with, there’s the problem I mentioned above with The Last American Man. It appears that a great part of the Pirahãs happiness is tied up in their traditional foraging lifestyle. Even if we did decide that this was the ultimate way to live, how many people can this lifestyle actually support? (Estimates of Pirahã population range from 400 to 800.) Even if it could support 1,000 times the current number that only gets us to 600,000 people or about the population of Luxembourg…

Further, I think this is a large bit of evidence in favor of my argument that he’s not particularly objective, but even if it were the case that the Pirahãs were objectively the happiest people on Earth, does that necessarily mean that they have the best culture? (This is the big reason Everett abandoned Christianity.) As I have repeatedly pointed out, choosing happiness as your ultimate value is not the same as choosing survival as your ultimate value. And on this count, with, best case scenario, 800 total Pirahã, they are unlikely to survive for much longer. To say that they’re in a cultural dead end is an understatement. Does it matter how happy they are if 100 years from now they no longer exist as an independent tribe?

Do people ever think through these things?

American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump

By: Tim Alberta

688 pages

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

I think anyone interested in the current state of politics should read this book. 

Representative passage

Suddenly, Priebus [the chairman of the Republican National Committee] was reminded of his nightmare scenario. Ever since Romney’s loss to Obama, he had labored to get the Republican party out of it’s own way—not just on policy, but on process. The 2012 primary had stretched on nearly five months and featured upwards of twenty debates and forums, an atmosphere of anarchy that took a brutal toll on the party’s general election readiness. Priebus had affected sweeping changes to the primary structure, most notably a condensed nominating calendar and half the number of debates. It was all in the service of producing a quality nominee as quickly as possible with minimal intraparty damage done.

And then along came Trump.

Thoughts

I have lots of thoughts on this book. In fact, it led me to a realization/epiphany, which I’ll be writing a whole other post about. But outside of that one narrow realization, at 688 pages, there is a lot of other stuff going on. Just to hit a few high points. 

  • As you can tell from the subject it covers the Republican Civil War, but when I look at what’s going on in the primaries and between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez I feel like basically the same thing is happening on the Democractic side of things.
  • Obama was a good president, and he did a pretty good job, but it’s clear that if he had been just a little bit more conciliatory to the Republicans and a little more moderate that we could have avoided a lot of what has happened since then. I don’t blame him for it, it would have been tough to pull off, but I do regret how close we were.
  • Republicans gaining control of the Senate in 2014 was huge, it allowed the Supreme Court to be in play, and if you think the Supreme Court question didn’t play into Trump’s victory, you may be part of the problem.

Criticisms

I don’t have a lot of criticisms. Perhaps he could have done a better job distinguishing amongst the various actors. Maybe include the non-fiction version of the Dramatis Personae list. (What ever happened to those anyway? I really found them useful.) Also, while this book was pretty objective, it did seem a little bit harder on Trump than the Democrats, and maybe that’s precisely how it should be, but some of the criticisms seemed less substantial and more juvenile, which again is probably understandable.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Members of congress are less evil than you think. But things are still really messed up.


Once again, I’m trying something different with reviews. Let me know what you liked and what you missed. And as always slipping a couple of bucks into my palm when you make a request ensures the promptest service.