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Posts Tagged ‘Highly Recommended Book’

The Mask Of Command — book review
Today’s book review is for “The Mask Of Command” (1987©), written by John Keegan.  Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan OBE (Order of the British Empire) and FRSL (Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature) was an English military historian, lecturer (at Sandhurst – the English equivalent of West Point) and writer.  Keegan is considered (in my opinion) one of the “modern” expert military historians. I understand his basic premise to be that conflict in general and war in specific is cultural and not necessarily an extension of political governance.  This is in contrast with Clausewitz who stated that war is politics by other means.  Keegan is criticized for “disagreement” with Clausewitz.
As a secondary aside, I started reading about military theory (“strategy”) back in my early 20’s when I began reading about generals (mostly Patton) and the works of B. H. Liddell Hart were recommended to me by a roommate.  I read Liddell Hart’s book: “Strategy: The Indirect Approach“, which I must say greatly influenced my life by profoundly changing my view of the world.  My hope was to learn about leadership by studying the great generals.  Instead, what I found was that leadership is not the same thing as strategy and is, instead, founded on the person and the time in history the person lives, whereas strategy tends to be principled and more timeless.
This realization pretty much ties into the basis for this book, which is a study of four “great” commanders / leaders and looks at what made three succeed and one (ultimately) fail terribly.  The three successful commanders are: Alexander the Great, Wellington, and U.S. Grant.  The failure is: Hitler.
Keegan’s proposal in this book is based on “heroic” aspects (“title”) of military leadership: heroic, anti-heroic, non-heroic, and fake heroic.  To do this, Keegan establishes the cultural climate of each commander and then tries to explain it’s (the culture’s) effect on the military leader via their proximity to combat and personal exposure to danger.  Essentially, for most of man’s history, muscle and physical courage were the requirement of military leadership.  As the age of gunpowder emerged, the risk to the commander increased and they were forced to withdrawal from danger and thus “military” leadership changed.  Alexander had to fight hand-to-hand to prove his courage while leading from the front; Wellington could stay within sight of his forces, but had to stay a minimal distance from accurate musket range; Grant could not frequently approach the front lines; and, Hitler never exposed himself to physical danger (with the exception of possible assassination) and used propaganda to convince his forces that he was a soldier battling at their side.
The book has five main chapters (one for each leader / type) and the last is about leadership in the age of nuclear weapons.  I found this the most fascinating (timely?) chapter of the book as it proposes a “new” type of post-heroic military / political leader and attempts to posit President Kennedy as this “ideal” leader.
While I found the book to be an interesting (sometimes fascinating) read, it was not an easy read.  Keegan loves his erudite words and his complicated phrasing of sentences.  The punctuation is “British” (I guess), and I found many times I had to go back and re-read a sentence or paragraph to figure out what the heck he was talking about.  Frequently, his sentences appeared to be declarative, but were, in fact, interrogatory (questions), or vice-versa, and you (“I”) couldn’t tell until you (“I”) hit the question mark or period at the end of the sentence.  Occasionally, even though I was aware of this writing style, Keegan still caught me off guard and I had to go back and try to figure out what he was on about.  Which means I knew it was happening, and anticipating it, but continued to find it distracting.
Other than this (quibble), I found the book to be quite enjoyable.  Keegan has a keen method of describing battles and you can sometimes feel yourself seeing the carnage and tasting the spent gunpowder in the air.  At less than 400 pages, it seems also to be a quick read, but I suggest not rushing head-long through it in one or two sittings as the book is widely considered to be a classic and deserves a bit of contemplation as well as enjoyment.
Final recommendation: highly recommended! This book is a classic for a reason…  The battlefield descriptions are superb and Keegan’s argument is well presented – even if not wholly convincing (to me, anyway).  Still, regardless if you are new to military history or a veteran of any military genre, I think you’ll enjoy this book.  There will, of course, be a few quotes from this book appearing on my blog in the coming weeks / months.
Two final thoughts: 1) I was not (am not) convinced President Kennedy is THE model for the post-heroic commander.  I found Keegan’s reporting on / analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis a bit simplistic.  And, 2) even if I had read this book on first printing, I doubt it would have influenced my world-view the way Liddell Hart’s book did.  Both are classics for any military reader, just different.  Just sayin’…
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On This Day In:
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The Power of Myth”  1988©
Today’s review is for “The Power of Myth“, which is a book based on interviews of Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers that were the basis for the PBS television series of the same name and the same year.  The book was timed for concurrent release and follows the interview format with editing provided by Betty Sue Flowers.  In fact, the book chapters follow the episode breakdown of the series.
The interviews deal with the universality and evolution of myths in human history and how myths fit (or don’t fit) in the modern day social structure.  Campbell mixes personal experience with stories from many epochs, cultures and civilizations to offer up a thesis that modern society is moving from old mythologies and traditions unique to their times and locations to a new global (and possibly unified) mythology.
Campbell believes myths are the stories / legends / fables which make up their culture.  Campbell believes there are universal “truths” which mankind tries to describe using these myths and this explains why the myths are common around the globe.  To him a “myth” is a way of defining the rituals and oral histories we pass from parents to child.
Because the “myths” of any prior generation were limited by location and technologies of communication, Campbell believes we are in a transition period which is trying to integrate all of the “great” traditions (religions, beliefs and myths) of the past with the rapidly changing technologies of a modern life supported by increasing amounts of technology without concurrent social and moral reinforcement.
Basically, modern culture specifically lacks a social structure to transition males from childhood to adulthood – the traditional “rites of passage”.  Campbell feels this problem is significantly less for females because their rite of passage to adulthood is observationally physical.  On this point, I disagree with Campbell as I don’t believe the completion of puberty is the actual rite of passage from childhood to adulthood except in the most biologically literal sense for males or females.
I found the book fascinating but difficult to read. I find it curious that myths (creation, death, heaven, hell, reincarnation, resurrection and ascension) are common across epochs and continents. I am less convinced that all individuals seek to be “heroes” and to find their “bliss”.  It is my observation that the vast majority of folks (male and female) just want to get on with life and enjoy it (life) and their families with as little hassle as possible.
Final recommendation: highly recommended.  I feel the book is very deep and full of insight – both in word and ideas.  I will be including quotes from it periodically.  My own copy is now high-lighted through large passages of the book. (LOL)
One final note: this book took me almost two years to read, even though, at barely 230 pages, it’s not very long.  This is because it is (was) intellectually challenging (to me) and I felt the need to pause periodically.  The result was start, stop, weeks pass, start, stop, etc.  In the end, I moved on to other books and then (after 90+ pages), when I finally got back to it, I felt I’d lost the train of discussion and started over from the intro.  So, reader be warned…  Well worth your time, but you’ll need to be better disciplined than I am.
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Book Review: “Pride And Prejudice”  (1813©)
Today’s book is a classic “romance” novel written by Jane Austen.  The edition / version I have is the “Annotated Edition” edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks which came out in 2010 and was a Christmas present to me from my wife (Hilary).  It was actually a present a couple of Christmas’ ago and I’m just getting around to reading it (and reviewing it).
The story is probably familiar to most: Prince Charming meets girl, they offend each other, they fall in love, lots of secondary story lines build the plot, they fall in love, Charming saves the day, they marry and live happily ever after.  Did I mention they fall in love?  Charming is a stuffy, rich aristocrat (hence “Prince”).  Girl is a vivacious, but prim and proper young woman who is from landed gentry, but not rich (only relative to Prince).  And, despite their both being “stuck up”, they fall in love…
I came to this book via the movie (2005), BBC mini-series (1995), movie (Indian version 2004), movie (1940) and a secondary source – “The Jane Austen Book Club” – movie (2007).  I have  reviewed the 2005 movie (here), and the Indian version (actually titled “Bride And Prejudice“, here), and the BBC and 1940’s version (here).  I recently viewed the “Book Club” movie, but I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it.  It did, however, prompt me to bump the book version up to my “read next” list from my “get around to” list.
So, if I’ve clearly enjoyed the movies so much, what did I think of the original story and – more specifically – this version?  This “book” started off a VERY hard read.  I have not read very many “annotated” versions of anything before and I found it quite a labor.  For one thing, the book starts off with a 20-plus page restatement of the book and why the editor feels it needs to be annotated.  If I had not read the original book or seen any of the movies, I would have been completely put off by the editor completely giving away the story.  If I wanted a summary at the start, I’d have simply purchased Cliff Notes to read before the book.
Next, the annotations “probably” doubled the length of the print in this version.  The original was about 350 pages, but was a small book.  This version is almost 450 pages, but half of each page is allotted as space for the notations and images.  Indeed, some of the notations, spill over either onto the next page (which makes for a confusing read) or take an entire page (which disrupts the flow of the reader).  Also, some of the notations highlighted the same information repeatedly or were used as citations of evidence to support arguments and interpretations made in the introduction / summary.  I would estimate it took me fully 80 to 100 pages before I got used to the notes.  Having said this, they were occasionally interesting additions which added to my understanding of the story.  I guess I’m saying that, in the end, I found the notes  a useful addition to the story.
Separate from the annotations, did I enjoy the book?  Yes!  Tremendously.  And, I highly recommend it!  Not being a student of English history, I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of the book, but really, is that why anyone EVER reads a romance novel.  I certainly don’t…  What I would say is that as a fan of the various cinematic versions, I am very happy to have finally read the original novel.
Of course, now I’m sure to be tempted to read her other five books and see their movie versions.  At the very least, I’m going to go back and re-watch the BBC and 2005 versions.  Just ’cause that’s the way I roll…
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On This Day In:
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Walden Two”  (1948©, 1976©)  —  book review
This is another “classic” book (novel) I’ve wanted to read for some time.  No, it’s not the original “Walden Or Life In The Woods“, by Thoreau, or its sequel.  It is the fictional description of a “scientifically” created utopian community used by the author (B. F. Skinner) to promote his theories about (what is now known as) applied behavioral analysis.  It was Skinner’s belief that most of an individual’s actions (and cultural preferences) are determined by the environmental factors / variables / cultural norms one is exposed to.  While Skinner did not start the nature vs. nurture debate, he did go some distance in promoting his side (nurture) of the argument.
Basically, the novel revolves around an academic who is approached by two students to find out if stories about Utopia’s are real or even possible.  They have heard of one (in the professor’s class) and wonder if the professor would approach the person who organized it (the utopian society) so they could visit it.  The professor writes to his old friend who agrees to host them (the visitors) for a time.  The group of visitors ends up being the original professor, another academic / current friend, the two students and their two girl-friends.  The visit is to “Walden Two” – a play on Thoreau’s Walden which uses the sequence / numeric (two) instead of the “also” (too).  In other words, “we follow, but we are not the same.”
The “visit” allows the author to present his theories about how to “properly” arrange a society so it can maximize leisure time as well as efficient productivity to generate just enough to cover more than what the society needs, but never to exceed requirements so much that people do not have time to be and to become themselves.  As an example, everyone is “expected” to do a certain amount of work / chores, and you receive “credits” for the time spent doing them.  The “jobs” average to four hours per day and the remainder of the time is yours to use any way you see fit – eat, sleep, art, play, whatever…  The job credits are scored based on the number of staff who want to do the job, which presumes fewer folks want to do “harder”, “more tedious”, or “dirtier” jobs.  This, in turn, means you can earn your four hours of credit in less than four hours of work.  The “science” comes from the statistical analysis of how many folks ask to do the job.  Of course, the majority of jobs are also shifted periodically (again using analysis) to even out the more favorable jobs, too.  For those, you have to work more than four hours to get the four hours of credit.  The “surplus” generated by efficient productivity is used to deal with external entities – to pay taxes and for buying supplies which cannot be generated within the society.
This pretty much covers the general economics of the utopia.  The social engineering and politics are also covered and they are what was found so objectionable about the book that it was banned in some places.
Can man play God?  Can we make life so pleasant that free will becomes a lost / legacy concept?  Can we eliminate greed and/or the desire to rule others?  I don’t know.  My instinct is to say “no”.  And if we could do any of these things, is it a society I would want to live in?  Again, I don’t know…  But the book sure did make it sound appealing.  What happens to the six visitors?  I’m afraid  that would be telling, so you have to read the book to find out…
Final recommendation:  highly recommended!  This is a book which made me think about my own values and what I’d be willing to give up in my “society” to have a civilization where wealth was not the “be-all / end-all”.  If nothing else, that (“it made me think”) is a pretty good description of a “classic”.  …And, of course, quotes / excerpts will follow in good time.  (LOL)
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On This Day In:
2016 Learning Subtle Differences
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The Return of Depression Economics (and the Crisis of 2008)”  (2009©)  —  book review
This book is authored by Dr. Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2008.  That’s kind of an easy way to validate that he knows what he’s talking about in terms of economics.  I actually completed this book earlier in the month, but have just been too lazy to get around to this review…
Basically, the good doctor is a progressive / liberal economist from the Keynes / Galbraith school of government “interference” in the free market to both stimulate the economy and restrict bad business practices (i.e. monopolies).  This means, when the inevitable market slow-down occurs, the author feels it is the government’s job to step in and provide demand for goods and services which will keep the economy ticking along.  The failure to do so, the author states, results in a stalled or failing economy, which starts a self-fulfilling prophecy / death spiral of recession or depression.  To prevent the excesses of capitalism, he proposes, a stricter regulation of banks and non-bank money (credit) generators.  In theory, this decreases the size of economic bubbles and the resulting “crashes” which follow the inevitable bubble burst.
The bottom line appears to be that markets are subject to “bubbles”.  Bubbles are periods of overconfidence which directly result in price increases to the point of frenzy.  However, when the frenzy pauses to catch its breath, everything tends to go to hell in a handbasket unless the government is willing (and sometimes it isn’t) to step in and save everyone’s bacon.  The buying frenzy then becomes a selling panic and the free flow of funds / capital means individual national economies can end up in very deep do-do, very quickly.
Final recommendation: highly recommended.  I recognize I am also a progressive / liberal who is predisposed to agree with the author’s opinions and arguments, but I found the basic arguments to be in agreement with my own experiences over the last 50 years.  The book is written in standard English for the “off-the-street” (non-economist) person to understand.  It is relatively short at under 200 pages and I found it to be a fairly fast read.  Well worth your time to understand some of why the world is functioning the way it does.
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Over the weekend, I finished reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” and viewing the movie based on the book.
To Kill A Mockingbird” (1960©) —  book review
TKAM was written by Harper Lee.  This was her first (and only) novel until “Go Set A Watchman” was published just before her death.  “GSAW” was / is purported to be the initial draft of TKAM, with substantial revision to focus on a particular period within the draft.  TKAM is the story of a young girl growing up in Alabama during the 1930’s Great Depression.  More specifically, it’s about a three year period where the girl begins to discover her place in her family, her town and society in general.  From just before entering school, to attending a criminal trial, to almost being murdered, the girl’s life interweaves threads of family, friendship, racism, education, poverty, politics, economics and justice.  I have not read GSAW, so I cannot comment on it at this time.
The main character / narrator is Jean Louise Finch (“Scout”), a “tom-boy” who lives with her older brother, Jeremy (“Jem”) Finch, and their widowed father, Atticus Finch.  The brother and sister befriend a boy named Dill, who visits their town each summer to stay with his aunt.  The three kids are scared of, yet fascinated by, their neighbor, the reclusive Arthur (“Boo”) Radley who lives in a relatively dilapidated house on their block.  They make up stories and believe “Boo” is a prisoner of his strict / evil father.  Although, he is not the “main” character, Scout’s father, Atticus, is the ultimate heroic father figure – kind, humble, understanding, a successful lawyer and a crack shot with a rifle.
The book also has two characters who are important in tying the other strands together:  Calpurnia (the Finch’s housekeeper / cook) and Alexandra Finch (Atticus’ sister).  The two females serve as role models for “Scout”, both in terms of “female” skills (cooking, cleaning and discipline) and in social status / behavior (dress, speaking, comportment).
(SPOILER ALERT!! –   stop here if you’ve not read the book or seen the movie.)
The two main threads of the book are the mystery of Boo Radley and the Radley house and the trial of Tom Robinson (a black man on trial for raping and beating a white woman).  Over time, the children make friends with Boo without ever seeing him.  Atticus establishes the innocence of Tom, but due to racism, Tom is convicted of the crime anyway and dies while trying to escape custody.  After a few more convolutions, Boo saves Scout and Jem from the truly guilty party and the Sheriff “saves” Boo from Atticus and the town.  In effect, although an innocent black man died, justice is served when the real “baddie” gets it in the end.
This book has been considered a “classic” since its release.  In my opinion it definitely is!  I found the story well developed and the characters believable.  It is easy to see why the fictional character of Atticus Finch has been mentioned by many as “the reason” they got into the legal profession.  Final recommendation:  highly recommended!!  As an aside, this is the first book in many years where I had to pull out my dictionary to make sure I understood what the author was saying.  I did this six(6) times!!!  How many times to you thoroughly enjoy a work of literature and learn vocabulary from it too?
To Kill A Mockingbird”  (1962)  —  movie review
I must admit I know I have seen this movie before, but I have almost no recollection of it.  Based on that, I must have seen it in my early teens, before I was aware of economics or the Depression or class / social racism.  I’m not saying I was unaware of racism when I was growing up.  Only that I grew up in a multi-cultural environment which did not “promote” it openly.  The movie closely follows the trial theme in the book.  Other themes are glossed over or poorly explained (relative to the book).
Having said the above, this movie is profoundly disturbing.  As an “older” man (now in my 60’s), I still find the overt racism (tribalism?) portrayed in this movie to be frightening real and powerfully moving.  The book has multiple threads in it which the movie simply doesn’t have the time to develop.  This detracts from the overall story, but it increases the force of racism portrayed.  I imagine though, that if you have either not read the book or not read it recently, the fact the trial of Tom Robinson was the main theme of the movie makes its viewing even more disturbing than the rendition in the book.
The movie stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch (Oscar for Best Actor), Mary Badham as Jean Louise Finch (“Scout”), Phillip Alford as Jeremy Finch (“Jem”), Frank Overton as Sheriff Heck Tate, Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, Estelle Evans as Calpurnia, Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, and Robert Duvall (in one of his earliest film roles) as Arthur “Boo” Radley.  Badham received an Oscar nomination for her role as Scout.  The movie won three Oscars and was nominated for five more (including Best Picture and Best Director).  The movie is shot in black and white which (to me) increases the dramatic effects of the characters and the town / time period.
Final recommendation:  highly recommended!!  The movie skirts the social, educational and economic issues raised in the book and focuses on the racism in America during that time period.  This is not to say there is no racism in America today.  The movie is, however, attempting to bring the issue to the forefront for discussion – which for a 1962 release date – was, in itself, a powerful step forward for the country.  It continues to highlight (to me) that as far as we’ve come, we’ve farther to go.
Oh, and my suggestion is to read the book first and then see the movie.  But, that’s just me…
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On This Day In:
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Will Rogers Says…”  —  book review
Will Rogers Says…” (1993©) is a book of quotations edited by Dr. Reba Collins who was the Director Emeritus of the Will Rogers Memorial and Research Center.  The book is small and short (barely 86 pages with photos), and it is also (obviously) both as very fast read and a very funny / amusing read.
Final recommendation: Highly Recommended!!  If you like social and political commentary, you will love this book.  I will, of course, be posting many of the quotes contained in this handy reference to plain spoken American humor.  LOL.
Two samples:
1)  Being serious, or being a good fellow, has got nothing to do with running this country, if the breaks are with you, you could be a laughing hyena and still have a great administration.
2)  Washington, D.C. papers say:  “Congress is deadlocked and can’t act.”  I think that is the greatest blessing that could befall this country.
[And thus Rogers presages the Trump Administration’s “booming” Stock Market and the Republican majority “Civil War” in Congress despite complete control of all three branches of the Federal Government.  Just saying…  —  KMAB]
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A Good Post

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