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A Plethora of New(ish) Books II.

Friday, September 16th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for montefiore the romanovs  Image result for Sir Ken Robinson creative schools book  Image result for White world order black power politics 

Image result for Most Likely to succeed innovation education book  Image result for martin van creveld technology and war   Image result for Tough Liberal Al Shanker

   Image result for Tough Liberal Al Shanker  Image result for mercenaries in the classical world book

The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Creative Schools by Sir Ken Robinson
White World Order, Black Power Politics by Robert Vitalis
Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our Kids for the [….] by Tony Wagner & Ted Dintersmith
Technology and War by Martin van Creveld
Tough Liberal: Al Shanker and the Battle over Schools [….] by Richard Kahlenberg
With Arrow, Sword and Spear: A History of Warfare in the Ancient World by Alfred S. Bradford
The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein
Mercenaries in the Classical World by Stephen English

Long delayed part II.

Some repeat names in this batch; I have long been a fan of creativity theorist Sir Ken Robinson and eminent historians Simon Sebag Montefiore (Russia, USSR) and Martin van Creveld (War, Strategy) and own many of their other titles. These were easy choices – I’m curious to see how Montefiore’s Romanovs stacks up against the book of the same title by the late Russia scholar, W. Bruce Lincoln.

Some of these titles are outside my normal genres and political dispositions, but if you don’t read things that you might disagree with you’ll never learn anything new. The Vitalis book on the influence of African-American scholars on the evolution of international relations came highly recommended to me by Daniel Nexon so I thought I’d give it a go. The Shanker book I thought was interesting because Al Shanker was not only instrumental in shaping the teaching profession and unionism, he was a “Cold War liberal” and tough anti-communist of the kind the often bloody trade-union wars between the democratic Left and the pro-Soviet Communists in mid-century produced.

What are you reading?

A Plethora of New(ish) Books I.

Monday, August 29th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for goddess of the market  Image result for a gentle madness  Image result for small wars and faraway places burleigh

Image result for warfare in antiquity delbruck    Image result for on killing  Image result for Gulag applebaum  Image result for muqqadimah   Image result for denial klehr haynes  Image result for the restoration of rome Image result for excellent sheep

Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns
A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes
Small Wars, Faraway Places by Michael Burleigh
Warfare in Antiquity by Hans Delbruck
The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz
On Killing by LTC. Dave Grossman
Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun
In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage by John Earl Hynes and Harvey Klehr
The Restoration of Rome by Peter Heather
Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz

Nothing makes me happier than buying a new batch of books. So I did. In a large enough number to require two separate posts.

A Gentle Madness intrigued me, naturally enough, when I caught it years ago on the old C-Span Booknotes program, the book jacket mirrors the look of the old, fine press, book cover. Some of the authors, Burleigh, Boaz, Haynes and Klehr have written works I have enjoyed and already have on my shelf ( I used to be on a listserv with the last authors years ago in the pre-blogging era. Careful and smart scholars they were). On Killing is widely cited and remains controversial in military academic circles and two of the other books are classics.

I’m not reading any of these books at present. My time is currently occupied by with The Landmark Thucydides in preparation for the upcoming Thucydides Roundtable in October and also with Coming Apart by libertarian intellectual and gadfly Charles Murray (seemed appropriate given the election cycle).

What are you reading?

Book Bonanza

Monday, December 28th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

My usual yuletide haul of books received and purchased….





The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Avoiding Armageddon: From the Great War to the Fall of France 1918-1940 by Jeremy Black
Roots of Strategy Book 3
Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner
Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes
Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
The Middle-East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years by Bernard Lewis
Patton: A Genius for War by Carlo D’Este
Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith by D.K.R. Crosswell
The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
A Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin 

If anyone has read these titles and wishes to fire away about them, or their authors in the comment section, feel free. Not sure how many will be featured in future reviews.

The Nixon books were first brought to my attention on, if I recall, the Facebook page of historian Maarja Krusten of NixonNARA, the expert’s expert in matters relating to the presidential records, documents, court cases and tapes of Richard Nixon. When Maarja opines on Nixon topics, I listen with care. I look forward to reading these, even though my opinion of  Bob Woodward is that he often has to be treated cautiously, Alexander Butterfield’s cooperation and contribution was obviously central to the book (not unlike the far longer cooperation between George Kennan and his biographer,  historian John Lewis Gaddis). Evan Thomas’ theme just offhand strongly reminds me of Richard Reeves’ excellent President Nixon: Alone in the White House; I’m curious if this will be a rehashing or if Thomas can bring something new to the table about America’s 37th President.

I am also excited about Rule of the Clan, which should be of interest to anyone thinking about insurgency, irregular warfare, unconventional warfare and terrorism intersecting with tribal or quasi-tribal societies. My friends Michael Lotus and James Bennett who wrote the excellent America 3.0 and drew on the family structure ideas of British anthropologist Alan Macfarlane and French scholar Emanuel Todd, would also be interested.

The fiction was picked up for a simpler reason. I need a change of pace and never read the last, most recent book in the Game of Thrones series.

What are you reading these days?

Two Mini Reviews

Monday, June 29th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

I have a tremendous backlog of good books to review that I have read in recent months and I am facing the fact that it is dubious that I will ever to get to feature most of them here.  As a stopgap, I am going to try a few mini-reviews instead of the more noteworthy, or at least interesting, titles. Here are two:

1. Stalin: Volume I Paradoxes of Power

Stalin: Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928  by Stephen Kotkin

Eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis praises Princeton’s Stephen Kotkin for his new biography, calling it “A monumental achievement”. This is certainly correct. Kotkin has done more than break new ground with Stalin: Paradoxes of Power; in my view it is arguably the best book on Joseph Stalin ever written.

Admittedly this is high praise. It is true, that Kotkin is not in the same literary class as Simon Sebag Montefiore, who demonstrated his great prose skill with masterfully written and deeply researched biographies of Stalin, but Kotkin is always a clear, effective and always forceful writer. Where Kotkin excels is in the granularity of his biographical narrative, unearthing aspects of Stalin’s childhood and early revolutionary days, the intra-party rivalries with leading Bolshevik personalities, especially Stalin’s complicated relationship with Vladimir Lenin and Stalin’s skill as a politician and grand strategist. The narrative is accompanied with Kotkin’s piercing psychological analysis of Stalin’s criminal psychopathology emerging from a combination of complex rational political calculation and a bottomless well of narcissistic self-pity that ate away at Stalin’s soul.

If volume 2 equals the first book, Kotkin will have written the definitive work of Stalin for years to come.

II. Salinger

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

The book that accompanied the documentary of the same name, David Shields and Shane Salerno have put together a remarkable page turner that explains the mystifying author behind one of America’s most iconic literary works.

“Don’t worry if all of the first wave of you are killed, We shall simply pass over your bodies with more and more men” 

J.D. Salinger’s counterintelligence unit spearheaded the landing of the 4th Division on Utah Beach on D-Day, Salinger participated in five major battles in the European theater including the deadly Hurtgen Forest where his regiment suffered 200% casualties and GI’s fighting in summer uniforms without blankets or winter coats froze to death in foxholes. A CIC field interrogator, Salinger operated with great freedom and authority and after participating in the liberation of the concentration camp complex known to history as Dachau, he checked himself into a mental hospital. To paraphrase Shields and Salerno, J.D. Salinger carried six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye in to battle with him, a book that took him ten years to write and which he then regretted for the rest of his life.

Salinger the Documentary

New Books

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft ad the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow

The Fall of the Athenian Empire by Donald Kagan

The Memoirs of Ernst Rohm by Ernst Rohm

Heinrich Himmler by Peter Longerich 

The Origins of the Final Solution by Christopher Browning

The Hitler Book: The Secret Dossier Prepared for Stalin by Henrik Eberle

Some new books….

The bio of Brent Scowcroft, if my impressions from picking up and opening to two random sections are valid, is going to be very. very good (they were on Scowcroft’s estimation of the working relationship of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon and Scowcroft’s strategic adice to the first President Bush during German reunification). I was very impressed both with Sparrow’s prose and his ability to let Scowcroft’s voice shine through the text.

I’m a fan of the pessimistic Donald Kagan and recommend his Yale Open Courseware series on Ancient Greece from time to time to my own students who show an interest in the Classical world. One of Kagan’s students, now an academic nautical archaeologist, John R. Hale, also produced a fine history of the Athenian navy and the intertwining of thalassocracy, empire and the Radical Democracy and I recommend that book to my students as well.

The next three books are related.  Last year I read the frequently useful, but also at times turgidly tedious, I Knew Hitler, by Kurt G. W. Ludecke. The cause of Ludecke’s downfall with his semi-friend Adolf Hitler was the former’s constant embrace and enthusiastic promotion of the populist roughneck, leftist and “idealist” figures in the Nazi Party, like Ernst Rohm, the Strasser brothers and Alfred Rosenberg and Ludecke’s belief that the “movement” came before the Fuhrer. Ludecke dedicated his massive memoir to the memory of Rohm, who was the catalyst between the old Freikorps paramilitarism of the old German nationalist Right and its hideous and radicalized offspring, National Socialism. Rohm is a key figure in the development of Nazism and a complicated one, being one of the few early Nazi leaders to have been on familiar (“Du”) terms with Adolf Hitler and his sudden fall had wider implications than were realized at the time – including inspiring Stalin to reshape Soviet society with terror and murder  (“Hitler, he shows us how to deal with political opponents!”). Rohm’s memoir has been partially translated into English and deals with the early years when the Nazis were but one extremist party in an ecosystem of radical right German politics.

Peter Longerich is one of the top German experts on the Holocaust and it is fitting that he has completed a monumental biography of Rohm’s former deputy, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer-SS and the chief implementer of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Chris Browning, another expert on the Holocaust also has much to say on the role of Himmler and competing Nazi functionaries in the evolution of genocide as a state policy of the Third Reich. Finally, The Hitler Book was an NKVD/MGB top secret analysis put together by Soviet intelligence for Josef Stalin, mirroring, to a small extent, the OSS psychological profiling of Hitler and top Nazi leaders during the war.

Recently, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage blog asked me how many of the strategy related books on my shelves had been read vs. being in the antilibrary. The answer was “most”. My antilibrary tends toward history and biography where I buy books more quickly than I can read them, while more instrumental books are bought and read shortly thereafter. I also trend toward “collecting” in Soviet studies, classical antiquity, Second and Third Reich Germany, US diplomatic history and books related to the Nixon administration.

What are you reading and buying these days?

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