Thursday, February 4, 2016

One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War

Bing West’s One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War follows the combat mission of Marine Battalion 3/5, which suffered the highest casualty rate of any platoon in the Afghan War.  

West, a former marine with combat experience in Vietnam, writes with sympathy and intelligence about the experiences of infantrymen fighting a guerrilla war with an enemy who is not in uniform.

He makes some of the boilerplate observations and comments about a Marine’s life, but  the combination of his compassion and professional tone prevent them from becoming cliché or shopworn. His voice is real and identifiable to solider and civilian alike.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History

Joseph W. Esherick Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History, examines the story of the Ye family through several, mostly tumultuous periods in Chinese history.

The family are lower-level Confucian-Scholar officials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They are steeped in the Confucian classics, and strive for the honor and wealth which comes with governmental office.

Eskerick then moves forward in time showing how the Ye family fares as times change; by the twentieth century they are in the merchant class, which is growing in power and prestige.

With the end of the imperial Chinese system, the Ye family fought for both the Nationalists and Communists. During the early years of Communist rule, the family prospered in relatively peaceful years, but with the Cultural Revolution in 60s and 70s, they are exposed to all manner of danger and deprivation.

Finally, with the rise of the capitalist system in the early 1980s, the Ye family engages in all manner of middle class professions: they go to college, train as scientists, doctors, and lawyers.

The lesson in this book is simple but profound. The Ye family, and most Chinese people, adjusted to changing times. Not only adjusted, but also prospered, even in trying times.

Eskherick’s book is an excellent way to view recent Chinese history through a very human lens.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, is light reading as historical accounts go, giving the reader a clean and crisp narrative of America’s first real ‘war’ overseas.  In the process, the US Navy became a long standing official entity, and the Marines most famous land missions on the coast of North Africa occurred, which became immortalized in their anthem.

Kilmeade and Yaeger make some obvious and at times clumsy comparisons between early America's fight with the Muslim Barbary states and the present series of wars with Muslims in Islamic lands.  Some of the historical characters believe, and the authors appear to concur, that Muslims only negotiate through a show of strength, and not from any motive of pacific self-interest (not so sure about that).

So, if you want a light book that makes you feel good about American exceptionalism and teaches you a bit of history, this is for you.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead, certainly has a great set-up, an interesting mise en scène, yet something is missing from this novel.  Whitehead has the great set up, has all the pieces in place, and then fails to act fully upon them.

In the end, the story leaves one with a curiously unsatisfying sensation.  It is like a chess game that had the promise of great energy, considered strategy, and a keen eye for the moves ahead - but was quickly botched. Instead, this novel stops with pieces still left on the board.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy has a slightly misleading title, as Irvine is just as much pouring Stoicism into a modern mold as he is presenting an ancient art.

There is nothing wrong with this, and he repeatedly stresses that his Stoicism is a product of ancient Stoicism, but is even more so a new creation.  In fact, some of the techniques he provides to become a Stoic are not found in ancient sources (again, he points this out).

This does not detract from the book, in fact, it brings Stoicism to our age.  Irvin eliminates the ancient religious elements from Stoicism.  Any and all metaphysics is removed.  You won’t find reference to God, gods, Zeus or the World-Fire.  For that, use Irvin’s helpful list of books from Stoics at the end of this guide.

Controlling our emotions is probably one of the most difficult challenges in life. Irvine provides a fine avenue to approach this fraught task.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Between Friends - Amos Oz

Amos Oz’s Between Friends recounts life on a kibbutz sometime between the Sinai Campaign and the Six Days War.  

The book weaves in and out of the lives of the members of the kibbutz, highlighting, as it goes, the mostly negative influence of collective existence.  The novel revolves around a central irony: in a community that is supposed to work together, share property, and make decisions by consensus, there is a great deal of anonymity.  The "between friends" of the novel is not to be taken seriously.  The jealous socialism of the kibbutz, according to Oz, did not lead to greater harmony between its members, but simmering resentments, low achievement, and a high attrition rate.

This result falls under the law of unintended consequences.  A system designed to bring people together, often tore them apart.