Review of Importing Democracy

Subtitle: The Role of NGO’s in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina

Author: Julie Fisher

Publisher: Kettering Foundation Press, 2013

In reading this book I am struck by two things: the array of factual material, which is exceptional–Ms. Fisher has done her research and done it well–and the unfortunate absurdity of modern scholarly writing, which defeats the purpose of writing books as means for transmitting ideas.

Let me focus first on the research: Ms. Fisher shows how many of the elements that make democracy sustainable are present in the three nations she focuses in on.  These elements range from markets to grassroots organizations and associations which ensure governmental accountability and form civil opposition, preventing the use of force to implement “regime change” (or “administration change”).  At times it feels as though Ms. Fisher is hammering the reader with facts, sometimes so much so that I found myself discombobulated reading through them.

Which leads me to the unfortunate aspect of the actual writing.  First off, I found the organization of the book poor: the first chapter is heavy on presenting her theory, which lends the later chapters, where she lays on the facts, the aspect of trying to fit them into what she has already determined she will show.  This is, of course, the way the scientific method often works–but this kind of book is not describing science, it is describing society and institutions, which should be treated much more casually.  If, however, Ms. Fisher had laid out all the facts first, and then theorized afterwards, I believe that the writing would have been much smoother and the book would have been easier to read.  At times, because of how she has organized the material, it appears that she uses “but” four or five times in a span of two or three paragraphs, which should not happen.  Laying out the facts first would have prevented this.  When I teach writing, I tend to tell my students: think like a lawyer.  In no place is that more relevant than here.

Beyond that, the use of language leaves much to be desired.  Every scholar ought to be familiar with George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”  Never use a long word where a short one will do, avoid barbarous usage, and so on and so forth.  One particularly striking passage in it is where Orwell quotes famously from Ecclesiastes, then rewrites the quote in very technical, modern “scholarly” language, in which long words replace short ones and the attempt to sound sophisticated results in something approaching insanity.  I find that Ms. Fisher, like so many other scholars, forgets at times that the book’s contents only have meaning if the reader can digest them.  Thus while at the time of writing some of her phrasing and construction may have appeared good because it was sophisticated, upon revision the proper thing to do would be to try to place the same ideas in simpler, clearer language.  And this was apparently not done.

So, in respect of the facts, the book deserves three stars–it would get four or five from me if the writing were not as it is.

Review of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic

Author: Charles N. Edel

Publisher: Harvard University Press

An effective biography of JQ; but not much more than that.  Edel purports to present a case for John Quincy being more strategic than other Founders.  What he presents in the book shows that he was more strategic and far-sighted than other members of Monroe’s cabinet, but no convincing case is made that he was such in relation to other figures such as Hamilton, Madison, Washington, or even his own father.  In addition Edel goes to great lengths to emphasize that JQA was not able to implement his own vision due to an abhorrence for the practice and standards of politicking, so that Edel undermines his own title and in fact shows that others did a better job at building the nation.

Most particularly galling is the claim that JQA showed an “overwillingness” to resort to force and to justify it as a means to securing the borders.  If you are a liberal you are a coward, and Edel appears to be picking on a dead man who cannot defend himself.  It may be that in Edel’s eyes this was the case, but of course he does not make a clear differentiation between unequivocal statements of fact and statements of author opinion.

My general impression after reading this book is that JQA is a great figure for supporters of the current administration–a professor who plays tough until he gets to the Presidency, then proves spineless and controlled by abstract ideas which he can only justify by claiming they are too far in advance of his own time.  Sadly, then, Edel made me less of a fan of JQA than I had been before I started reading it.

Three stars.

Review of The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I

Author: Stephen Alford

Publisher: Bloomsbury Press, 2012

One of my main criticisms of most modern books about history is that they lack depth; another is that they focus on the irrelevant at the expense of the relevant.  Neither of those are true of this fine book, which is one of the best I have read in years.  In the research for my own volume on Tudor England and Scotland this ranks as my favorite secondary source, far exceeding the rest in informative and entertainment value.

After the first fifty pages, which go around in circles and the information in which could be placed to greater effect in a variety of different places through the rest of the book, the narrative hones in on specific spies and agents working in the great hubs, seaports, and villages of Europe, from London Venice and Milan and Rome and Paris to Rheims, Dieppe, and Lyons.  Not only does it emphasize their specific activities, it explores the different purposes each served and the different uses to which they put their information–some for a public audience, some for special use by the Elizabehan Privy Council, some as witnesses in treason trials, and so on and so forth–and it explores the reliability of each source, which varied considerably.  It explores their motives for engaging in espionage, their respective skills and abilities; and it effectively describes the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants as a matter of politics, stability and continuity of government, rather than as matters of religion that we in the 21st Century have difficulty understanding.

The book is of value to me as a historian, and as a scholar of ideas, of course.  But it is equally of value in assessing our own government’s preservation of security and stability in the face of a political threat cloaked under the disguise of religion.  As such it is one that I highly recommend to each and all.

Review of Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England

Author: Thomas Penn

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2013

This excellent book is Penn’s debut and deserves recognition as one of the finest books of history published in the last half-decade.  Henry VII is not the most complicated figure, but his reign is somewhat mysterious and Penn, looking at Henry’s relationships with foreign rivals and allies, as well as with his own realm, provides at least a partial justification for what can only be described as the greatest tyranny in British history.

The depth of this work is commendable.  By comparison Robert Hutchinson’s Young Henry (about the rise of Henry VIII) documents some of the same events, but in describing the relationship between the British monarchy and the Pope leaves out Penn’s account of the disputed trade in alum, which the Pope sought to monopolize and which England helped to smuggle to the Low Countries.  This is important clarifying detail, inasmuch as it establishes an early basis for conflict between the Tudor monarchy and the Papacy, regardless of the changes in occupants in each place between the reign of Henry VII and the English Reformation.

Easily a five-star book and one which any student of 1500s England ought to read.

Review of Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

Author: Juan Williams

Publisher: Broadway Books, 1999

Thurgood Marshall, whatever your opinion of his specific policies, is one of the hundred greatest Americans.  But any biography breaks down into two categories: factual narrative and author’s analysis.  Marshall is very difficult to biographize because his career presents a dichotomy: his successful moderate positions at the NAACP and as Solicitor General as against his increasingly radical and much less moderate positions as the first Afro-American Supreme Court justice.  This makes authorial analysis much more difficult because it presents inconsistency in character.

In this particular biography Juan Williams does an excellent job of presenting fact, but he is much better in his coverage of Marshall’s work at the NAACP than in his analysis of Marshall’s work on the Supreme Court.  Marshall’s heroism as the leading figure in the quest for integration through legal means is drawn out through anecdotes, thorough narrative, and through examination of the documentary record.  The research for this part of the book was extensive and thorough.  This makes sense, because this was probably the more important part of his career in terms of the impact he left at this stage of his life.  However the section on Marshall’s career after the NAACP–including his time on the Second Circuit Appeals, his work as Solicitor General, and his Supreme Court career–is shorted.  Only a quarter of the book is devoted to this period; the research is less extensive, the interviews with former associates, friends, and colleagues less prevalent, the anecdotes unavailable.

In the end Williams seems to excuse Marshall’s newfound radicalism on the High Court by blaming his shortcomings on illness and bad temper.  I do not think this is adequate; it may serve as a partial explanation, but does not excuse the fact that Marshall’s ego got to his head and that he became a caricature of his former self.  It is true that biographers become attached to the subjects of their research, but a professional biographer should be able to make this point and make it clearly and explicitly.  The reality is that there is a stark contrast in Marshall’s political and social outlook that develops later in his life–as he has become more, not less, successful–and it demands a stronger explanation than Williams gives.

This is still a very good–and important–book but it is only 4 stars in my eyes rather than 5.

As a side note, Marshall with one testicle would make a much better President than Obama with no balls.

Review of NUMBERS: Their Tales, Types, and Treasures

Authors: Alfred S. Posamentier and Bernd Thaller

Publisher: Prometheus Books, 2015

This book is a bit of a mixed bag.  Its beginning is very good, exploring the origins of counting and number operations and early mathematics.  However as it moves into more complex maths it becomes less easy to read–the authors, for all their qualifications as professors of math, do not give the simplest mathematical explanations–and devolves at time into trivialities.  In addition it is not organized very well, so that the information comes out haphazardly, and they do not completely analyze many topics, instead partially covering many of them and then referring the reader to his own engagement or to other books of Mr. Posamentier, such that the book comes off as an extended advertisement for half a dozen others of Posamentier’s books.

The best book on mathematics and numbers remains Jan Gullberg’s Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers.  As such if recommending one of the two I would always go with Gullberg’s rather than this one.

Harper Lee’s New Book

Apparently Harper Lee is about to release another book where Atticus Finch is a racist. A critic for NPR just called it ‘sloppy’ both on a literary and moral level, and when asked how to do it she said that teachers should probably teach To Kill a Mockingbird alongside portions of this new novel.

Here’s a suggestion for all the teachers (if they deserve such a name) who are willing to take it: there are thousands of literary classics of FAR greater merit. Why don’t we just dump TKAM and put in something better, like, you know, Travels with Charley, The Marble Faun, The Last of the Mohicans, Roughing It, Old Times on the Mississippi, The Innocents Abroad, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Love of the Last Tycoon, John Brown’s Body, Ben-Hur, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, selections from the Decameron, Troilus and Criseyde, The Song of Roland, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, El Cid, Pharsalia, Coriolanus, Richard III, Timon of Athens, and/or Pericles, Prince of Tyre? Just a thought, and while we’re at it maybe we can dump The Catcher in the Rye, too!!!!