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A Backlog of Books for the Antilibrary

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for sapiens harrari book  Image result for Tolkien and the great War: the threshold of middle earth   Image result for soldiers & Ghosts book  Image result for the grand strategy of the roman empire

Image result for intellectuals and society book sowell   Image result for Dynasty book Tom Holland   Image result for psychology of military incompetence book dixon   Image result for Xenophon's Retreat book waterfield

Image result for the young hitler i knew   Image result for You belong to the universe Keats    Image result for Assholes a theory       Image result for Hitler's Private Library

I have an intimidating backlog of new and newish books to review here. I have an even longer queue of not so new books for my Antilibrary. I’m not sure when I will get to some of these, given my schedule, but they are nice to have on hand for research purposes.

Here’s why I picked these up:

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Buzz mainly. Saw a few reviews and some chatter on Twitter. I also like evolutionary and cultural evolutionary themes, “Big History” and the like. OTOH I have also read folks bashing  Harari for a poor grasp of economics, so we shall just have to see.

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth

This is a natural follow-up to The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings which I reviewed the other day, but in truth I’ve been looking for a copy of this book for a while in used bookstores. I didn’t buy the hardback when it was new and regretted it. This one I will start reading now.

Soldiers & Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity by J. E. Lendon

The ancient world is a topical area where I have been trying to build my Antilibrary for some years now and this book is a twofer being also military history. I am also, in some ways, hoping to make up for the subpar education of my youth by reading the classics and ancient histories.

The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward Luttwak

Edward Luttwak is one of our more creative – some might say weird – strategic thinkers who is known for putting forth provocative positions embedded with offbeat tangents. Luttwak is also, after a fashion, not an “operator” , or so it is bruited about – and not just an armchair theorist. I liked his The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire even though he gave Byzantine purists fits.

Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

Sowell was in the news that day for retiring as a columnist and I was in a bookstore.

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

I have read some of Holland’s other books, most notably Rubicon. He’s an engaging writer and popular historian with a knack for keeping the narrative moving.

The Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon

While I’m sure a book like this could write itself, Dixon did it and I’m interested in his systemic conclusions, if any, off organizational incompetence.

Xenophon’s Retreat by Robin Waterfield

Xenophon, the student of Socrates, historian and mercenary always struck me as interesting, which probably led me to organize the Xenophon Roundtable years ago on the Wayne Ambler edition of The Anabasis of Cyrus. I also need to pick up Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny again; so little time. So many books.

The Young Hitler I Knew by August Kubizek

A source in almost every major bio or history of Adolf Hitler ever written other than Konrad Heiden’s Der Fuhrer and Trevor-Roper’s  The Last Days of Hitler. Most likely, you have already seen the most reliable or noteworthy parts of Kubizek’s memoir reproduced elsewhere more than once in print and documentaries. This is another topical area for Antilibrary building.

You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future by Jonathan Keats

Buckeyballs. That’s why.

Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

Partially finished with this one. It is a reasonable argument  built upon recognizable observations but being a philosopher, Dr. James is a bit of a pedant and circles back frequently in the text to reiterate his line of reasoning. This may be standard philo practice  but it makes the book slower going than it might have been for a popular format.

Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life by Timothy Ryback

A side of Hitler that neither the German public during the Reich nor the generations of students of history after WWII have normally seen. A useful source for research.

That’s it!

REVIEW: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for the felowship the inklings book

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski

“….it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening”

“….these clubs offered grand things: escape from domesticity, a base for intellectual exploration, an arena for clashing wits, an outlet for enthusiasms, a socially acceptable replacement for the thrills and dangers of war, and in the aftermath of World War I, a surviving remnant to mourn and honor the fallen”

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a book outside my usual wheelhouse, being concerned deeply with the intellectual interplay among the Inklings impacted their literary works and legacies and more fundamentally, the central role played in the former by Christianity and anthroposophy. I was drawn to this book primarily by virtue of being a radical J.R.R. Tolkien fan, but the center of gravity of The Fellowship is C.S. Lewis, the pivotal figure with whom the other Inklings related; even if Lewis was not always the dominant persona, he was frequently a catalyst or a foil for his fellow Inklings. While the Inklings could survive the untimely death of Charles Williams, whose intellectual brilliance and influence over other writers always surpassed his own literary fame, when C.S. Lewis passed from the scene, the Inklings as an active literary society did as well.

What were the Inklings?

This is a question the authors struggle to answer, despite haven woven four strong biographical essays into one. To call them merely an informal discussion club of Oxford and Cambridge scholars is to miss the mark and greatly underrate their influence. To call the Inklings a “movement” or a “school” – either for promoting Norse mythic or Christian revival – imparts a pedantic formality and air of proselytizing that simply never happened.  The Inklings were always particular about admitting new faces to their pub meetings and stubbornly refused to include women, even Dorothy Sayers , a gifted author whom many of the Inklings admired, respected and befriended. Some of the Inklings were not scholars either, not in the academic sense, being editors, lawyers, poets and religious bohemians of a literary bent.

Largely, the authors struggle because while the Inklings have written or admitted how much their meetings or particular members influenced their thinking, their writings or in Lewis’ case, his faith – there is very little record of the meetings themselves. Much of what happened has to be inferred beyond specific incidents like Hugo Dyson’s repeated taunting of J.R.R. Tolkien (“…not more fucking elves!”) or taken from extant correspondence of prolific letter writers like Lewis or diarists like his brother, Warnie (who despite his raging alcoholism, managed to become later in life, an impressive historian of the France of Louis XIV).

The Fellowship though leaves little doubt  that the meetings of the Inklings at the Eagle and Child (“the bird and baby”) or C.S. Lewis’ rooms at Magdalene College at Cambridge were a chief intellectual and social support for the Inklings and an escape from possible loneliness. While Tolkien enjoyed a busy family life with his wife Edith and four children, Lewis’ long endured (which is the correct word) for much of his life, a bizarrely dysfunctional relationship with a much older woman whom he never married, Mrs. Jane Moore, the mother of a close friend who had been killed serving on the Western Front. Other Inklings were bachelors or had unhappy, austere, marriages, making the cerebral debate and late night amusements of the Inklings a welcome refuge.

One of the aspects of the Inklings that comes across in the book – their fellowship of male camaraderie – is nearly extinct in the 21st century and has a distinctly antiquarian air. Such associations were once commonplace. Not merely in academic circles or exclusive clubs of the wealthy, but every small town and hamlet had its charitable societies, Masonic orders, veteran’s organizations, Knights of Columbus and humble bowling leagues that formed and strengthened male social networks among friends, neighbors and their larger community from the 18th century onward. By the time women began demanding entry (or abolition) in the early 70’s these groups were already well into dying off, victims of mass society and suburbanization.

As the Zaleskis convey in The Fellowship, for an informal club of sorts lacking the aesthetic pretensions of the Bloomsbury group, the range of Inkling scholarship, literary and religious influence remains to this day, staggering. Aside from the scholarly accomplishments of its members, other writers drawn into their orbit, at least for periods of time, included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Saul Bellow, G.K. Chesterton, John Wain and Roy Campbell; and also several generations of fantasy authors were inspired by the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth, including by his own admission, the immensely popular George R.R. Martin. The effect of Lewis’ Christian apologetics, especially The Screwtape Letters, may be equally large – and this was the largest source of friction for Tolkien, whose deeply pious, pre-Vatican II traditional Catholicism left him with scant patience for C.S. Lewis’ “amateur” theology and even less for his dear friend’s residual Ulster Protestant cultural prejudices.

In The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip and Carol Zaleski have crafted a deeply researched and complex group biography of impressive depth and reach. Strongly recommended.

New Book: THE KNOWLEDGE by Steven Pressfield

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Knowledge: A Too Close To True Novel

The Knowledge by Steven Pressfield

Long time readers know that noted novelist Steven Pressfield is a friend of this blog and that in turn we are big fans of Steve’s work, both his fiction and non-fiction masterpieces like The War of Art. Pressfield has a new novel out, one inspired by his struggles outlined in The War of Art and Steve was kind enough to send me a copy which arrived the other day.

What is The Knowledge about? From the book jacket insert:

Where did The War of Art come from?

How did creativity sensei Steven Pressfield come up with the notion that there is an insidious force in the universe called Resistance that keeps us from pursuing our life’s work and fulfilling our artistic destiny? And that until we recognize and engage in an end-of-days battle with the big “R,” our inner genius will remain blocked and unborn inside an internal protoplasmic goo?

Was he touched by angels as he contemplated the universe in an ashram?

Did he meet a mysterious stranger in a truck stop in Twin Falls, Idaho who imparted deep truths over a cup of muddy Joe?

Perhaps blunt force trauma in a Reno bar had something to do with it?

If only…

As his “too close to true novel,” THE KNOWLEDGE, riotously reveals, the truth of Pressfield’s Weltanschauung origin story lies somewhere between fact and fiction…

In the high-crime 1970s in New York, Pressfield was driving a cab and tending bar, incapable of achieving anything literary beyond the completion of his third-in-a-row unpublishable novel. Until fate, in the form of a job tailing his boss’s straying wife, propels him into a Big Lebowski-esque underworld saga that ends with him coming to a life-altering crisis involving not just the criminals he has become deeply and emotionally involved with, but with his own inner demons of the blank page.

THE KNOWLEDGE is not just a writer’s coming-of-age story. It’s every writer’s coming-of-age story.

If you’re a fan of THE WAR OF ART, Pressfield’s new novel, THE KNOWLEDGE, is the story behind that story and the origin tale between its lines.

I love the novel’s setting. Most people have forgotten that in the 1970’s, New York City had come to symbolize American decline and decay. It was a rough place over which the Five Families held sway, where the police department was riddled with corruption, crime was rampant and several thousand murders took place annually. Here was the Bronx at the time The Knowledge takes place:

 

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The Subway

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Times Square

Image result for 1970's New york Times square

This was the New York of Abe Beam, the Five Percenters, of a young and rising Donald Trump and an ancient and fading Robert Moses. This is where Steven Pressfield gained The Knowledge.

I look forward to reading and reviewing it here soon.

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?


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