Sunday, August 30, 2020

some books read

The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir by John Bolton (Simon & Schuster). One book I would only get from the library; I wouldn't give Bolton any money. Painstakingly detailed account of the author's time as National Security Advisor, that feels like it's taking you through the story at the same pace that he lived it. This does have the advantage of giving a concrete feeling of what it was like to exist inside the Trump administration, but after a while the eyes water, interest in the details of negotiations with Russia, North Korea, and Venezuela (which gets an unexpectly large amount of space here) falters, and you begin skimming through looking for the juicy bits which were already mined by journalists anyway. For a truly disconcerting and vertiginous experience, read this book in between watching old episodes of The West Wing.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday). Sweeping account, focused on Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, of how the Russians came in and rogered these countries. Large-scale chapters on various topics explore how the invaders and their patsies were slowly able to put the weight on and force acquiescence from the citizenry. Of course the fundamental reason, the fist inside the glove, that the Communists could do this was the threat of the Red Army. The book makes compelling reading, despite the dryness of the presentation, because of the clarity and meaningfulness of the facts. A few places give a hint of some limitations in the source material: Applebaum has clearly read the memoirs of Andrzej Panufnik, but the absence of virtually any other references to classical music, in a book with a heavy emphasis on cultural themes, is noticeable.

The Bible Doesn't Say That by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (St Martin's). The title suggests a journalistic debunking, but it's nothing of the sort, and specifically in no way an attack on the Bible, but an attempt to cleanse it of misinterpretations. The author is a Biblical scholar and writes like one, straining towards a general-reader's approach as he fussily explains the difference in nuance or in rhetorical import between some Hebrew word and its usual English translation, littering the text with extraordinarily inept parallels. He disconcerts the reader by brushing aside various controversies, like the question of whether Isaiah says "a virgin" or a "young woman", as insignificant issues of fuzzy translation. Even when he ought to be tearing into red meat, as with "no, there's no such thing as the Rapture," he's fussy.

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly). Brief but concrete essayettes on various aspects of language - internal things like vocabulary and, yes, grammar; external ones like place in national and ethnic culture - each illustrated by one or more European languages, which turn out to have distinct style markers even from their related neighbors. Much of what's in this book I already vaguely knew, but it's nice to have it confirmed (like the inter-intelligibility of the Scandinavian languages, or the story of the resurrection of Celtic ones), and yes, what it always seems like is true: Spanish really is spoken faster than other languages.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (Doubleday). Another one of Bryson's bursting-with-facts entertaining reads, like A Short History of Nearly Everything (so long as "everything" is defined as "earth sciences and biology"), One Summer (the event-filled American year of 1927), and Made in America (its language), like them it is packed with varyingly-relevant digressions. Organized by the rooms of a 19C English house, it discusses its design, construction, and what went on there, from treatment of servants to disease to forestry (houses need to be built, after all) to nutrition to the acquisition and use of whale oil to the advent of the telephone, going as far afield as to explain how (and why) the Eiffel Tower, no house and not English, was built. An irrelevant footnote regarding Parliamentary elections on p. 24 completely confuses pocket boroughs and rotten boroughs, leading me to wonder what else Bryson gets wrong with utter confidence in what he's saying.

No comments:

Post a Comment