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New Books

Monday, September 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop and the Gods of New York by Michael Muhammed Knight

Ideal by Ayn Rand

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

An eclectic combination, to be sure.

I am mostly finished with Reign of Error and The Five Percenters. The former is a devastating and methodically documented critique by historian and former Bush I administration official Diane Ravitch of a crony capitalist network’s effort to hijack public education and its revenues under the guise of reform. The latter is a friendly journalistic history of the often feared and widely misunderstood Five Percent Nation, which split away, at times violently, from the better known Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammed and Louis Farrakhan. Knight’s objectivity is somewhat suspect here as he himself became a rare white Muslim Five Percenter (a.k.a. “Azrael Wisdom“) and apologist, but his closeness to the group’s insiders cannot be denied.

What are you reading?

New Books

Monday, July 13th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Hit Half-Price Books recently….


Leadership by James MacGregor Burns
How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil
Goebbels by Peter Longerich
I Will Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer
The Red Baron (Autobiography)
Memoir of a Revolutionary by Milovan Djilas
The Haunted Wood by Alexander Vassiliev and Allen Weinstein
The Coming Anarchy by Robert Kaplan
The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction by Nate Silver

The Haunted Wood was once groundbreaking and provocative and is now a classic of Cold War studies. Allen Weinstein, the former Archivist of the United States, died a month ago but he was better known as one of the historians who exposed that Alger Hiss was indeed the Soviet spy, traitor and secret Communist inside the Roosevelt administration State Department that Whittaker Chambers and Richard Nixon said he was, an achievement that did not endear Weinstein to the dwindling band of hardcore leftist Hiss apologists at The Nation magazine.

Milovan Djilas was a man who epitomized the same conflict as the Hiss-Chambers trial.  The right hand to Tito in the Yugoslav Communist Party, Djilas was the highest ranking Communist official to become a dissident and critic, moving politically from convinced Stalinist to an advocate of free elections and liberal democracy. Djilas shrewdly analyzed the Communist nomenklatura as an oppressive and parasitic oligarchy in The New Class.

What are you reading?


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?

New Bookapalooza

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


Stalin: Volume I – The Paradoxes of Power by Stephen Kotkin

World Order by Henry Kissinger 

Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins by J.E. Lendon

A Culture of Freedom by Christian Meier

On Sacrifice by Moshe Halbertal

Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock

My Command Operations by Otto “Scarface” Skorzeny 

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Allen Dulles: Spymaster by Peter Grose

The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks 1932-1939 by J. Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov

The Vikings by Jonathan Clements

An unusually large book-buying spree on my part, fueled in part by a stash of Xmas gift cards.

Reading Thinking Fast and Slow already and will probably start the Kotkin book on Stalin tomorrow and I have already finished On Sacrifice, which I will review elsewhere. I’ve resolved to get more books read this year as 2014 was kind of a nadir in that regard (more on that in another post) by my previous standards and looks rather woeful next to T. Greer’s list.

Scott Shipman was instrumental in my picking up World Order, as he convinced me that after I had slogged through all the volumes of Kissinger’s memoirs that he still had something to say.

What new titles have you acquired?

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