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!!!!

Cosby and Friends

In the wake of the recent allegations and revelations surrounding Bill Cosby, I would like to add my two cents.  I am not exactly a qualified commentator on rape, but I have beliefs about what this man has done that may be considered as reflective of a strong moral conscience.  I have encountered rape victims before, and I suspect more than just the ones who have told me about their experiences.  Not all people are privy to that, and I believe that these encounters hold value both for me and for readers who value information.

To rape once is a very bad thing and deserves a very harsh punishment if it can be proved.  It lacks any sort of gratification for either party and is an act of a man’s power over a woman, a physical power which carries no conscience with it.  Sex is an act of pleasure derived from mutual consent and enjoyment.  It is not an act of violence and submission, unless it is being practiced perversely.  To rape repeatedly and consistently is to deliberately violate the laws of nature and of nature’s God and to call for the severest form of punishment, which is to say capital punishment.  Were the opportunity to present itself I have no doubts but that I would personally inflict God’s vengeance on this man, no matter his age.  Laws to protect such a man are unjust, and the most unjust thing to do is to blindly obey an unjust law.

The sole exception to this is the case of the armed forces who have laid siege to a city for months and not gotten laid the whole time.  In that case, all bets are off, especially since a negotiated compromise generally would ease the tensions and allow them to go back to their wives and girlfriends and get some.  But for a stand-up comic, and a Hollywood icon, to do so, and to use drugs to accomplish his ends, is the ultimate betrayal of other people into the hands of fame and money masquerading as honor.  That he presented himself as he was doing this as a public moralist adds to the just outrage that I feel.

The issue is, first and foremost, the violence of the act.  But it is more than that.  It is the theft of moral and emotional peace from the victim and the replacement of it with shame, guilt, fear, and other forms of inner turmoil,  Where this substitution is made, the victim becomes herself nearly as evil–at least temporarily–as the perpetrator, but not through any fault of her own.  If eventually they overcome the event, it is only through an uncommon strength of character.  Many rape victims, I fear, never recover.

With this in mind, I should remind everyone of an event, now nearly twenty years ago, long since forgotten in this age where people can’t see more than one second behind them.  In the hills just north of Los Angeles, before one enters the San Fernando Valley, lies a small, mostly very reformed Jewish enclave, divided by the 405–the San Fernando Parking Lot–a high school on one side and an elementary school on the other.  If you start in West Los Angeles and take the 405 North, this is the area around the Skirball Center/Mulholland Drive exit.  Take the exit, and make a left off the exit ramp.  There lies a marker, dedicated to Ennis Cosby, Bill’s son, who was murdered on the spot.

I was ten years old and the drive to school was inordinately long that morning.  When we got to the area we saw that the police had marked it off.  Traffic was stopped.  We heard what happened.  The public mourned.

But now, of course, I am called back to that time, and I think about how God inflicts his justice.  I am not a religious man.  Nevertheless there is something so clear about it and I believe that these men get their due, at least partially, from God or whatever force we may believe acts as a ‘higher power’ if men fail to yield it.  I have no doubts that it is not sufficient.  Still we must recognize it, and remind ourselves that there are consequences for our actions, regardless of our unwillingness to face them honestly.

For everyone who wishes to live in a society of decency and civilization, the lessons of Cosby’s rapes should serve as a reminder that we are not above our actions, not permanently.  Pride cometh before the fall, the wise men say, and they are right.  Whether our model of genius is Biblical or Greek, the most important vice to avoid is also the most ancient: hubris.


Hello Everyone!

I saw Tomorrowland this afternoon and I must say that it is a great movie.  It’s a cross between a Schary-style message movie and a futuristic, sci-fi, dystopian political thriller, using space technology that my uncle Ted could have worked on (he was Chief Engineer of the NASA Int’l Space Station).  However–unlike other more negative dystopian thrillers, this movie emphasized characters who deliberately set about fixing the world.  I think it brought the magic back to Hollywood, and I highly recommend it.

We need more movies like this–and fewer like The Hunger Games.  (And I would make the case that the female lead is much hotter than Jennifer Lawrence.  For what it’s worth.)

My face hurts!

For the last five years I have had the opportunity and the pleasure to live independently of all institutions. This is an unusual thing, especially for someone my age, and it has involved some sacrifices.  I feel that it is well worth it, and I wish others who are of a similar socio-economic background would do this as well, because the world would be a better place for it.

One of the great features of this lifestyle is that I can play basketball whenever and wherever I choose.  My life consists more or less of four things: books, ball, booze, and girls, and pretty much in that order.  Most of the guys who have played with me would probably describe me as a tough competitor, a guy who lacks real athleticism but can do everything on the court and do it better than most of the other guys.  I can’t get around anyone,and I can’t jump.  But I’m the smartest guy on the court, I find passes in and to places others can’t see, I can hit the 3, I can score in the post, I have a mid-range game, I block a ton of shots (especially as a help defender, on the fast break, or when I get beat by my own guy), I can rebound, and you can stick me on the other team’s best player and it will take a load of screens to get him free.  If you give me the ball at the end of the game, especially if I’ve stunk for the rest of it, I will probably hit the last two shots–and make the last defensive play–to win the game. Some will deny this, but these are generally the guys who have been victims of my scoring barrages or my last-minute heroics.

Recently I’ve been hit by a string of injuries, mostly involving my face.  The last two of these were a lacerated tongue in October, because I was an idiot and did not wear a mouth-guard, and, last night, a cut and gumball-shaped lump near my eye, the result of an errant elbow that a defender was trying to use to get at one of my shots in the post.  Pain heals, chicks dig scars, and glory lasts forever.  And you can tell Mayweather that I am coming for him.

The question now for me is when is enough enough?  When do the injuries become too numerous and too frequent to justify continued play?  I turned 27 on Saturday, and the guys who play pickup ball are in their late teens and early 20s.  I told them to call me grandpa.  The younger generation is not one of thinking men, and the differences between them an I are exacerbated by my injuries, rather than alleviated by the formation of common bonds.

Everybody who plays enough games gets hurt.  I used to play from 10 am to noon on Sundays, then 10 pm to midnight, and then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, AND Thursday.  I was as durable as a basketball player can get, and I could take a pounding.  I was probably more durable because I never could jump and never was very quick.

I could call it quits now.  I really could.  But here’s why I don’t think I will:

1) Basketball is one of the greatest means by which I can assess people.  All different kinds play, and you can tell a lot about a man by his game.  All virtues and vices appear in the course of the game.  A man’s intelligence or lack thereof is obvious; his dedication to himself or to others is there; his willingness to share, his critical thinking ability, his response to adversity and to triumph, his commitment to getting things right or lack thereof.  Everything shows.

2) Basketball is a puzzle, and it exercises the highest elements of my mind and my character.  God knows that when I began playing serious pickup ball at 18 or 19 I got trapped on the baseline after getting a rebound a thousand times.  He knows that I would get the ball stolen trying to handle it, and I couldn’t get the ball out of a double- or triple-team, that i was a limited offensive player, and that I could be bullied on defense.  He also knows that I have been able to transform myself into a dominant point-forward, from whom you can’t steal the ball, who can play both the wing and the post and can pass out of any trap you attempt to set for me.  I’ve learned how to think through the game, and to process every situation you can encounter on the court.  Given the speed at which the game is played, this is not at all easy, and many players remain lost their entire lives if they start the way I did.  God gifted me with an eidetic memory for the purpose of figuring all of this out.

3) I love the game.  This is the hardest point to understand, especially if you don’t love it, or don’t love anything.  It’s a passion.  For me it’s an art form.

So why do I say this here?  Because these are three reasons that can be applied to almost any pursuit to justify its continuation.  And I think that’s really worth noting.  I said earlier that I’ve had to make sacrifices to remain independent.  I may well be the last American to do this.  But think about whether money is really the right justification for dependency, and whether these three things might justify an independent life.  You might be surprised with what you conclude.