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What is Randy Reading Now?
- Max Boot, War Made New, Gotham Books, New York, 2006.
Max Boot is one of the key military historians currently studying the concept of revolutions
in military affairs and their role in the new age of warfare, where the adversaries are
shadow organizations like terrorists rather than nation states. This is a bold work, spanning
from 1500 to the present day, evaluating the successive generations of technology that have
transformed warfare. He chooses to illustrate his points with unconventional battles and
campaigns, as his purpose is to illuminate the role of new technologies and new systems rather
than focus on the most crushing defeats. The book is written in a surprisingly accessible and
chatty style that surprised me, but I guess he was seeking a broader audience than the traditional
historical and military communities. In my view, this book will become a classic of the genre,
in much the same way as his earlier book "The savage of Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise
of American Power" has become.
- Robert Harris, Imperium, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006.
I guess Harris fell in love with the Roman age after Pompeii (see below), so he
decided to write an historical novel about the life of Cicero in the dying days of the
Roman Republic. There is a nice unintentional tie-in here with the outstanding HBO series
on Rome that covers approximately the same period. It is one of the most fascinating periods
of Roman history -- how the Republic was usurped by the ambitions of its generals -- and
Cicero is one of the most interesting of the actors on that great stage. Unlike Pompeii,
this book does not attempt to introduce plot devices to drive the story onwards. It covers,
more or less, Cicero's high stakes cases that brought him the reputation as the first advocate
in Rome. The book ends somewhat abruptly, with Cicero besting Julius Caesar in a contest for
Consular elections. Presumably the rest of the story -- and the eventual emergence of Augustus
as Emperor -- will be left for a second volume. If you like historical fiction and this period
of time, this is a worthwhile read.
- Robert Harris, Pompeii, Random House, New York, 2005.
I have to admit that I am a bit of a fan of Harris, having read Fatherland and
Enigma in the past. While not great literature, Harris knows how to make historical
context interesting, and this is perhaps his best plotted book to date. My book club
discussion was led by a world-renowned geologist, an expert on Italian geology as it turns
out, and he endorsed the description of the eruption of Vesuvius as described in the book. For
a fun read that combines history with a who-done-it plot line, this book is highly recommended.
John Wilcox, Road to Kandahar, Headline Book Publishing, New York, 2006.
Now this is a fun book. In the spirit of the books of Bernard Cornwell (Sharpe series) and
Alexander Kent (Bolitho series), this one follows Simon Fonthill, a young British officer who
goes native to spy for General Roberts during the Second Afghan War of 1879-1880. He and his
sidekick Jenkins, and their Sikh interpreter W. G. Grace (not his real name, which is Singh
of course, but he is a huge cricket fan) find themselves in the middle of all of the critical
points of the campaign, particularly the fall of the regency in Kabul and the rapid march to
Kandahar to relieve its beleagured garrison. With a beautiful female war correspondant and the
evil and arch-rival senior officer set to destroy Fonthill, you have all the elements of a
wonderful yarn. Highly recommended if you like this sort of story.
- Lynn Miller, Death of a Department Chair: A Novel, University of Wisconsin Press,
I thought this book was going to be great, and bought copies for our current department chair
and associate department chair. But unfortunately, it was pedantic and plodding. Filled with
bad academic stereotypes at "Austin University, a large state university campus in Texas." I am
curious as to why a university press bothered to publish this. Ran out of scholarly books?
Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch, Riverhead Books, New York, 1998.
A great book about sports, life, and the formation of personality. The author explains his
obsession with England's Arsenal Football team, and how developments in his life mirror that
of his favorite team's fortunes on the pitch. Maybe the best book ever written about how and
why fans become so absorbed in their teams. If you are a sports fan of any sport, you will
enjoy this book!
- Hugh Trevor-Roper, Letters from Oxford, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2006.
More reading in preparation for my trip to Oxford. Trevor-Roper was also the Regis Professor of History
at Oxford. These are letters he wrote to Bernard Berenson, a well-known art critic who lived in
Italy, and entertained Europe and America's elites. I must say that Trevor-Roper, who made his
popular reputation with a book about the last days of Hitler, does not come across as a good
person to be your friend. Very petty, very critical, very political. Does provide some amusing
insights into the internal politicals of college and university life at Oxford. Michael Howard's
book is better.
Michael Howard, Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace, Contnuum UK, London, 2006.
I usually don't read memoirs, but this one caught my eye (actually Amazon.co.uk tossed it there), and I
was not disappointed. Sir Michael is an eminent professor, well into his eighties, of war studies at Kings College London and Oxford,
essentially founding the field as a broadening of traditional military history after World War II. He served as a
young junior officer in the Coldstream Guards in Italy during WW II, winning a Military Cross while being wounded twice.
All is presented in the usual self-depricating and self-mocking fashion that maintains the tradition of not looking
like one is trying too hard. His insights into academic politics are all too true and quite fun to read. A fascinating
book by a man who has led a fascinating life.
Gautam Malkani, Londonstani, Penguin Press, New York, 2006.
This is the book I meant to pick up when I bought Londonistan by accident (see August 2006).
It is a novel about the "desi" immigrant culture in London at the moment. These are teenaged to twenty-something
year old youths, of Pakistani, Indian, or Sikh descent, born in the UK, living in the Western suburbs of London
(near Heathrow), with their own interpretation of the Black gangsta rapper of the American inner city. If you
have ever seen Ali G, the white and jewish Sacha Baron Cohen doing a character that some people seem to think is
black (usually Americans) and others know is Pakistani (those in the UK). The book is a
fun read, the language of the "streets" being the best part, though the plot line is rather stretched, especially the
build up to the climax. The author
is a thirty year old Cambridge graduate, and an editor of the Financial Times, so he should really understand the
contradictions inherent in the Londonstani "Rude Boy" culture he describes in this book.
Melanie Phillips, Londonistan, Encounter Books, New York, 2006.
I was looking for a completely different book -- Londonstani -- when I picked this one
up almost by accident. The book tries to answer the question of how a liberal open society
like modern Britain could become a hotbed of radical conservative Islamism. This is an extremely
pressing question as the West grapples with this issue. Our own leaders appear to be convinced
that Jeffersonian democracy will take hold in the Middle East, given the right conditions and
enough time. Yet the conflicts between Western values and minority/immigrant groups in several
European countries (France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain) do indicate that such values need
not be so quickly assimilated. The debate in this book is colored by the discovery of home grown
terrorists in the UK, but one could imagine much the same kind of arguments being made about the
immigration issues in the Southwestern part of the US -- the new immigrants remain apart, speak
their own language, do not integrate with the greater society at large, etc. In the end, this
book was a disappointment. The question it raises is important; but its answer is a 200 page
diatribe against liberalism allowing these separate communities to happen. It could have been
writen by Anne Coulter. A thoughtful and intelligent analysis of how communities can be retain their
culture while integrating with the greater national culture needs to be addressed in the context of
the 21st Century. Unfortunately, this book isn't the one.
Niall Ferguson, The War of the World, Penguin Books, London, 2006.
Ferguson is an economic historian, now at Harvard, who has developed something of a
reputation as an advocate for empire and imperialism. As you can imagine, this is a
controversial position in the 21st Century! This book starts with the end of the
Victorian Era, describe the age as almost the height of civilization, and then attempts
to explain the economic, political, diplomatic trends and events that led to the most
violent century. The book is something of a tour-de-force in its effort to weave so
many threads to explain so complex a set of circumstances, and as only an economist can
do it: with numbers, data, and charts. There are a few facts he seems to have missed,
like the inhumanity of the Belgians in the Congo, or the great Indian famines of the latter
part of the 19th Century. While there are many aspects of the Victorian era that were
highly advanced -- such as the march of industry, the development of science, and peace in
Europe -- there is much that Ferguson overlooks. Nevertheless his data is extremely interesting,
such as his detailed analysis of the degree with which Jews were integrated into German
society in the first part of the 20th Century. How then did hatred of the Jews, with
such a high degree of intermarriage into German society, become so successfully exploited
by Hitler. The book has been produced in conjunction with a television series in the UK,
and will no doubt eventually come to the USA on PBS. I think it will be very interesting
to watch, but will require some skepticism to fully appreciate Ferguson's grand explanations.
Timothy Harrison Place, Military Training in the British Army, 1940-1944: From
Dunkirk to D-Day, Frank Cass Publishers, London, 2000.
This is really a Ph.D. dissertation in military history, published as a book. The thesis
is interesting: an attempt to explain the tactical failure of British troops in Europe
in the latter stages of the war. Basically, the only branch of the service that knew its
business was the artillery. The armour and the infantry never learned how to fight as
combined arms, leading to excessive losses among the tanks and slow advances for the
infantry. Fascinating, but again, only for the fanatical military historian.
Mike Snook, Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift, Greenhill
Books, London, 2006.
This book is obviously a lifetime's labor of love. Mike Snook was a Lieutenant Colonel in the
descendant regiment of the 24th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Regiment of Wales. He has studied
every detail of the Zulu War, especially the heroic stand of the 24th at Rorke's Drift,
where a handful of redcoats held off 4000 Zulu warriors. Snook recreates the battle on
minute-by-minute timeline, integrating the latest research including his own. He points out
all of the aspects in the film Zulu that were false, such as the true story of Hook, who was
not a malingerer after all. An interesting book, but one for the fanatic only.
John Masters, The Road Past Mandalay, Harper, New York, 1961.
Part II of Masters' memoirs of his military career before he became a successful novelist in the
1950s. Written in the same warm and witty styles as Bugles and a Tiger that I read in May.
This is really quite an excellent book, covering Masters' experiences in the Middle East and
in Burma, where he was an officer in the follow on units to the Chindits. These troops
operated deep behind Japanese lines, and despite great resourcefulness and bravery, the
casualties incurred could never really justify the strategic effect these troops had in
theatre. A gripping story, but told in an entertaining way. I'm going to have read Masters'
Frederic Manning, Her Privates We, Serpent's Tail, London, England, 1999.
I came across this book by "accident" on Amazon (it was recommended to me). With endorsements by
people like Hemingway ("The finest and noblest book of men in war.") and Lawrence ("I am sure
it is the book of books as far as the British Army is concerned."), I knew it was something I
had to read. It is very good -- a kind of English version of "All Quiet on the Western Front."
It is the story of a private soldier in the muck and horror of the Battle of the Somme, much
better educated and more middle class than any of the other soldiers in his unit. Obviously the
book is based on the experiences of the author himself (the title is a quotation from Shakespeare,
each chapter begins with one, and the book was originally published anonymously). It is a riveting
read of men at war: the horror, the humanity, and ultimately, the futility.
David Winners, Those Feet: An Intimate History of English Football, Bloomsbury Publishing
London, England, 2005.
This is a fantastic book! I picked it up to learn a bit more about the 2006 World Cup, and finished
it just in time to watch the fall of the England National Team in the quarter finals against
Portugal. To be an England fan is an exercise in frustration. The fans are always looking back
at the glories of the past, and even the biggest most rabid fans are imbued with a pessimism that their team will
fail at the critical moment. This book is really as much a psychoanalysis of England as it is an
analysis of English football. Highly recommended!
R. J. B. Bosworth, Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictator, 1915-1945,
The Penguin Press, New York, NY, 2006.
I came across a review of this book, and became interested in the fundamental question addressed
in this book: how did the Italians, the most improbable nation for militaristic ambitions, fall
under the sway of Fascism? It was a relatively new nation, with huge gaps between North and South,
city and country, and much stronger ties to local authority than to any government in Rome. The
secret to the Fascists success was not their doctrine, which in the end had little to interest
the vast majority of Italians, but their ability to take over local government and "convert"
other local figures of authority. As the author points out, very few Italians bought into
Mussolini's picture of a new Roman empire, especially when that empire encompassed the deserts
of Libya, Ethiopa, and Somaliland. No wonder the regime collapsed on to itself, only to propped
up by Germany in the final years of the war.
John Masters, Bugles and a Tiger, The Viking Press, New York, 1956.
A friend, on learning of my interest in India and the Indian Army, gave me this book.
It is an excellent memoir of service in the Indian army in the period between WW I and WW II.
The author was an officer with the 4th Ghurkas, serving on the Northwest Frontier.
Masters is a natural story teller, expressing a love for India, his regiment, and his soldiers.
He does a fantastic job of describing his life as a young officer candidate in England, his early
years learning what it is like to lead men, rising to be adjutant of his battalion.
The story ends with the start of the war, to be followed with a second memoir entitled
Beyond the Road to Mandalay.
Later he became a rather successful novelist, spinning more stories of his time in India.
One of his books, Bohwani Junction, was made into a film with Ava Gardner and Stuart Granger!
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Simon
and Shuster, New York, 2005.
Abraham Lincoln was one of, if not the, greatest Presidents. There is so much that is
incongruous in his history: no formal education, a backwoods self-taught lawyers, etc., yet
he won election to the Presidency -- and as this book points out, won the nomination against
much better known and more experienced Republican candidates -- and led the nation through
one of its most difficult time. So much has been written about Lincoln -- he may be the most
written about President -- yet this book covers new ground by focusing on how he forged his
cabinet, largely formed of his political rivals rather than his allies, into an effective
executive instrument. Well written and well researched. Highly recommended.
Bernard DeVoto, Across the Wide Missouri, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1998.
This book covers a period of American history that I knew very little about: the
story of the "mountain men" hunting and trapping in the American West during the 1830s.
At this time, there was never more than a couple of hundred white men working in the
millions of acres of land in the Western Louisiana purchase, living among the mountains
and the Indians. I guess the issues of expanding slavery into the newly forming states
of the central part of the US takes prescedence in the teaching of American history in high
There was intense competition between the trapping companies, with
fortunes being made and lost, but rarely by the trappers themselves. Eventually fashions
changed, the beavers were hunted out, and the settlers started moving west, forever changing
this part of America. An interesting book, written as a set of spun tales of heroic
personalities. Recommended if you are into this sort of things. It was originally written
in 1955, winning a Pulitzer Prize. That it is still in print says something about the
quality of the book.
- Robert Reich, The Future of Success: Working And Living in the
New Economy, Vantage Books, New York, 2002.
Reich was the first Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and
a long time "Friend of Bill" -- they had both been Rhodes Scholars together.
Reich is a fine writer, commentator, and thinker about economics and society.
Our book group had the benefit of meeting with him to discuss the book -- he
is a visiting professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy. Basically the
premise of the book is that successful people fall into two categories: the geeks
and the shrinks. The geeks are the ones with technical skills that are difficult
to broadly duplicate. Reich is clearly a fan of advanced education as a key
differentiator in the New Economy. Think of engineers, inventors, financial
wizards, etc. The second category, the shrinks, understand people's wants and needs;
think of salesmen, marketeers, etc. Successful companies need both kinds of people.
Like other writers on this topic, Reich points out the decline of the paternalistic
corporation, and the need for workers to be responsible for their own careers. He
also notes the need for balance between life and work -- something he experienced
himself when he decided to leave the Clinton administration and spend more time
with his field. In the end, I have to admit that I was disappointed with the book.
In retrospect, its analysis is rather straightforward, and his policy proposals were
not profound. I wanted to ask Reich the question of how his view of the future of
success might have changed in the last four years, but unfortunately I never had
- Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte
Simmons, Picador, New York, 2004.
I have greatly enjoyed Wolfe's non-fiction books -- like The Kool-Aide Acid Test, The Right Stuff -- and even his
works of fiction like Bonfire of the
Vanities. Wolfe is one of the pillars of the new journalism --
writing about issues of the day, like liberalism in the 50s and 60s and
the space race of the 60s, as though they were fiction -- inventing
dialog but keeping true to the nature of the events. Fairly late in his
career, he has switched to writing fiction. Charlotte Simmons was given to me
by my stockbroker. I am not sure it is an accurate picture of life on
America's elite university campuses. As a work of fiction, it falls a
bit short. The main character is not particularly likeable, the other
characters are cartoons of profs, jocks, frat boys, and brainiacs.
Could have used some editing too -- first semester freshman year takes 738 pages!
Perhaps the only interesting thing about the book is that DuPont University
is modeled on Duke, and the bad jocks -- essentially rapists -- are all Lacrosse players.
The Economist Magazine noted Wolfe's uncanny ability to catch the pulse
of current American society. Nevertheless, unless you have a lot of time on your
hands, this book is not
- Johnny Henderson with Jamie Douglas-Home, Watching Monty, Sutton Publishers,
Gloucestershire, England, 2005.
This is an excellent book! Henderson was an Aid-de-Camp to Field
Marshal Montgomery from Alamein to the Hamburg. Sharp insights into the
General's personality. He may not have smoked or drunk, but he did
arrange for brothels for his men, and always visited his troops with
plenty of cigarettes to hand out. The book is lavishly illustrated with
fantastic photographs -- most of which I had never seen before.
- Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World,
Harper Collins, New York, 2006.
I read this in preparation for an April book club discussion -- in
honor of the the 100th Anniversary of the Great California Earthquake
of 1906 (unfortunately, the book got changed at the last minute).
Winchester is a prolific writer and traveler, having written one of my
favorite books, The Sun Never Sets,
describing the remaining remote outposts of the British Empire (e.g.,
Diego Garcia, St. Helena, Tristan de Cunha, etc.). I'm afraid I did not
like this book. It takes about 250 pages before he works his way to the
earthquake. Way too much of it is about his rambling across America by
car, by way of an earthquake fault here or there in the middle of
Missouri or Alaska.
Tim Slessor, First Overland: London-Singapore by Land Rover,
Signal Books Ltd., Oxford, UK, 2005.
This is one of the best adventure/travel books ever written! And you
don't have to be a Land Rover fanatic to love it. First published in
1957, it is the story of six Cambridge and Oxford graduates traveling
from London to Singapore -- through Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India, and
via the WWII Ledo Road, through Burma, Thailand, Malaya, to Singapore,
via Land Rovers. Wise and witty observations about the people they meet
along the way, like the Pakistani Colonel who is "more British than the
British," the tea planters in India's Assam region living lovely but
isolated lives, and the Burmanese natives watching "The Prisoner of
Zenda" at the local cinema not knowing a word of English yet cheering
the good guys and booing the bad. Definitely in the genre of the
unassuming amateur who accomplishes amazing things with similarly
little effort. Makes me want to hop into my Land Rover and tackle the
Darian Gap single handed! Highly recommended if you like this sort of
Michael York, Are My Blinkers Showing? Adventures in Filmmaking in
the New Russia, De Capo Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005.
I am reading this one for a book club. It isn't something I would
normally be attracted to read. The film that Michael made -- Moscow
Heat -- was a dud, but his observations about Mr. Putin's Russia are
- Arturo Perez-Reverte, Purity of Blood, Putnum, NY, 2006.
Perez-Reverte is a wonderful writer -- and he must be even better in
his native Spanish -- but I must admit that this book was a little
disappointing. It is the second in the Captain Alatriste series, kind
of a Spanish adventure hero in the style of Dumas' characters. The
story is told from the perspective of a young boy -- the son of the
Captain's compatriot who has died in the wars in Flanders. Forces in
the Court are intriguing against Alatriste, who has as many enemies as
friends, and especially the latter, who have laid a trap for him.
Somehow the intrigue and plot twists are not as compelling as in the
first installment, but the writing is still beautiful and very
literary. The third book in the series is due out next year.
- Richard Longstreth, Four Architects in San Francisco at the
Turn of the Century, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998.
I read this book for a local book group. It focuses on the careers of
four of the
major architects working in the Bay Area at the end of the 19th Century
and the beginning of the 20th. Perhaps the best known of these today is
Maybeck, because so much of his work survives to this day in the
Berkeley area. I love the Arts and Crafts movement, and miss the first
house I ever owned, a modest craftsman bungalow near the Rockridge BART
station. I still remember the period details of the living room, with
its lovely riverstone fireplace and built-in bookcases and cabinets.
The dining room had three quarters redwood paneling on all four walls.
While it was no Maybeck, it just illustrates how well designed and
comfortable these houses were. It was interesting to read about the
development of the architecture profession on the West coast and the
struggle to establish a local "vernacular" that borrowed the best
visual forms from Europe and the east, while creating something matched
to the landscape and live style of the West.
- David Gilmour, The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the
Victorian Raj, John Murray, London, 2005.
I am a fan of Gilmour, having read and enjoyed his biographies of
Kipling and Curzon. In this book, he focuses on the British
administration of India in the 19th Century. Again, it is a fascinating
story of how so few were able to rule so many so reasonably well. I
know that the latter is controversial to many of my Indian friends, but
when you compare British rule with, say the Belgians or the Portuguese
in Africa, you must conclude that they were relatively mild. Gilmour
covers all aspects of the life of administrative class: their
education, their pastimes, their social lives. Gilmour is a wonderful
writer, an excellent story teller, and he really makes the past come
- Richard Florida, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New
Global Competition for Talent, Harper Business Books, 2005.
This is a follow on to Florida's book on "The Rise of the Creative
Class." In this book, Florida now believes that there is a rise in the
international demand for talent. He uses the example of Peter Jackson
in Wellington, New Zealand to illustrate how creative people can set up
almost anywhere and
attract other creative people to work with them. He describes how
creative people are being lured to places like Scandinavia, Canada, and
Singapore (I am bit sceptical about Singapore, which has a rather rigid
social environment and has been trying hard to move up the high tech
food chain, though they have had some notable success attracting
international talent in biotech). He is concerned that recent
developments in the United States are driving some creative people to
seek opportunities abroad. I understand the argument he makes, and am
sympathetic to it, but it is remarkable that he expresses such a
turnaround from the enthusiastic book he wrote just three years ago
touting the success of America's high tech cities.
Last updated 15 November 2006, Randy H. Katz, randy@cs.Berkeley.edu
- Richard Florida, The Rise of
Creative Class, Basic Books, New York, 2004.
Florida has a
different take on the rise of knowledge workers. He focuses on the 38
million American workers who "create" as opposed to providing
"services." And unlike the usual claim that telecommuting will allow
people to work anywhere, his point is that creative people tend to
congregate in cosmopolitan, attractive places. This is not good news
for the economies of the old manufacturing centers at the center of the
country. And it also implies that even if knowledge work moves
off-shore, creative work -- which is what economies ultimately pay a
premium for -- will continue to stay in its current centers like New
York, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and Los Angeles.
- Richard Holmes, Sahib: The
British Soldier in India, Harpers Collins, London, 2005.
A tour de force examination of the British military in the subcontinent
during the nineteenth century. How did so few manage more or less
effectively to oversee so many? I remain fascinated to learn what the
latter stages of the British Empire have to teach us as the American
Age comes to end.