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Other five-star reviewers have said most everything I might say. I did not want A Gentleman in Moscow to end and will make the rare move (for me) of reading it again, this time for the Kindle so that I can save my favorite references and passages. I was almost entirely taken in by the twists and turns, wholly willingly, and thoroughly enjoyed Towles’s prose, settings, and characterizations. Spying on Russian history unfolding from the 20s through to the 50s was an entertainment; I kept expecting Ninotchka to appear as a character. The references to Montaigne and other thinkers gave me pauses to think for myself. Some authors might have set their essays on the strength and endurance of the human will in a more conventional prison or gulag. Many thanks to Towles for his choices and reminder that classic virtues and manners do not need to be casualties of cultural and political upheavals.

I had very high hopes for this book because I love reading American history and because I can’t help from trying to synthesize what I understand actually happened with contemporary thinking and philosophies. But this book was a big disappointment. It failed completely in gaining any useful insight into the minds of the Founders. I don’t feel that Ricks makes his case at all that America’s Founders got their government-forming ideas and principles directly from reading the ancient Greeks and Romans. And I (still) think the ancients had much less to do with the shape of our country than Ricks proposes.

I learned that Enlightenment and Renaissance thinkers (Machiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Montesquieu, and others) were the main influencers on the Founders’ thinking and that the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution (especially as unpacked and explained in the Federalist) express a reaction to the history and contemporary actions of the British monarchy and parliamentary system much more so than to any other source. Those Founders educated “classically” certainly were exposed to ancient ideas and values as expressed from Homer to Hadrian, but Ricks completely leaves out the one source that was the first and most important source for the ideas and values of practically every thinker, monarch, politician, and military leader from at least the 5th century CE to the 18th, namely the Christian Bible.

Think and say what you like about the Bible from today’s perspective, but I can’t imagine writing an intellectual history of the American Revolution without acknowledging the Bible’s central role in shaping the minds and hearts of the Founders, and the whole United States by implication. At least I couldn’t before reading this book. I’m tempted to say, as have others here, that the book is a waste of time. But I don’t believe that. It has provided more food for thought about the influence of the Bible on all Western history including US history than anything else I’ve read.

Clearly, there is a lot to explore about the influence of the Bible on our political values (the foundation for government provided by laws and a legal system, individual accountability, human rights, social consciousness, egalitarianism, and much more). I’m looking forward to reading those books some day.

The Sword of God (John Milton #5)The Sword of God by Mark Dawson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is no denying Mark Dawson’s tremendous skill at spinning a yarn that drags you along through each threat, cliff hanger, and brush with death until the rescued are safe, the hero is restored, the relationships resolved, and your curiosity about Milton’s next adventure locked and loaded. I’ve read Miltons one through five now in fairly short order, a testament to that curiosity and his skills. Having said this, I am a mildly piqued by another feature of this and other Milton titles: a lack of attention to certain contextual details. In The Sword of God, Milton is rudely interupted as he journeys across Michigan’s Upper Peninsulaby the misadventures of a radical-right militia brigade intent on mayhem. For no obvious reason, two references are made to the times of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and both are incorrect. In the first, hikers come upon an old car rusting away in the woods. Someone refers to the car as a Model A Ford, from the days when T.R. was president (1901-1909). The 1928 Model A was introduced in 1927, eight years after T.R. died. The author probably intended the car to be a Model T (1903-1927). In another reference, a character’s father is said to have served in T.R.’s Rough Riders. This could only have been in 1898, making the father much too old to be the person described as the character’s dad. In The Driver, Milton #3, freeways are referenced as a Southern Californian would, as in “the 101” (rather than just “101” or “Bayshore”). No self-respecting Bay Area resident would say “the 101” or “Frisco,” also used, in referring to San Francisco. I can’t say that these errors have cost Dawson a single sale or fan. Looking quickly through the reviews of Dawson #5, I don’t see that anyone else picked up on the Model A and T.R. references. I’m just being a stickler for accuracy, I know, but this type of error makes me pause and becomes a countervailing force to the magnetism propelling me along in the story. Nonetheless and sufficiently primed by the author, I am ready to start #6!

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The Defector by Daniel Silva

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In his Author’s Note, Mr. Silva describes at length the research and expertise he consulted in writing The Defector. His diligence effort yields both and encouragement and the heebie-jeebies for readers watching the world scene unfold. I very much appreciate the work he put into telling a great yarn while educating us on the story behind Russian behavior since the fall of the Wall in 1989. In light of our current president’s ambivalence, at best, about Russia and its leader, The Defector reminds us of things we should not forget about the past 25 years of US-Russian relations. We Boomers should be chagrined at the extent of our unfounded relief and naive hopes in the 90s at the conclusion of the Cold War. We grew up with “Now I’ve learned to hate the Russians, throughout my whole life. If another war comes, it’s them we must fight.”–Bob Dylan, Masters of War, 1963. Yet, we should also school ourselves in Russian history and culture, which show clearly the Russian tendency to autocracy, other failed attempts at democracy, generations of crushing poverty and the oppression of dissent, and amazing courage in defense of the Motherland. All this and much more informs our understanding of Russia as we have observed her since Silva wrote The Defector in 2008. And this is not the only arena in our recent international political history that Silva has helped us know and ponder better. Am looking forward to continuing he Gabriel Allon series and my education.

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1968

Guy Cicero —  07/22/2014 — Leave a comment

1968 was the worst year ever. MLK and RFK. Riots. Viet Nam. An unrelentingly bad outlook for a mostly clueless college junior turning 21 that summer and thinking a lot about what sort of world he would be graduating into the following year (a much better year!).

Drugs and beer brought no relief that summer of ’68, only heightened paranoia and deeper depression. Books and music saved me. Among these was E.B.White’s One Man’s Meat. A celebration of life. Natural peacefulness. Great writing. I’d read Strunk and White (The Elements of Style) in freshman English. “Omit needless words” was a mantra. I pursued clear and concise writing that said something meaningful in an elegant, graceful way.

One Man’s Meat became my paragon for prose, and has remained so. I recommend it to anyone, but especially to people who love good writing and need healing. I am very impatient with anyone who would have us go back to a better time in America. Times don’t really change much. But how we see them does, apparently. White was an intelligent observer of some very awful events in the 30s and early 40s, but gave us a clear, untinted lens through which to view world events in any time. Today, it’s hard to find this kind of seer. Read One Man’s Meat and then go back to reading the news and today’s observers. Compare and contrast. Repeat as needed.

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catastrophe

Guy Cicero —  07/16/2014 — Leave a comment

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914. A month later, no one was at war. A month after that, 20,000+ were being killed in a single day on battlefields in Europe. By the end of 1914, France alone had suffered one million casualties (killed, wounded, missing, or captured) in the first five months of World War I.

Today, we can do a better job of heading off the kind of all-in response that resulted in those casualties, and the many more to come. But we could also generate one million casualties in seconds rather than months.

Looking at the events during that first month after the assassination, with the delays in communication, the misunderstood messages, the complexities of world politics, and the pent up demand for war among the leaders of many countries, it seems inconceivable that today, with our instantaneous information networks, our simpler balance of power scenario, and our ability to react in a fraction of the time it took to do anything in 1914, we could see anything like the run-up to WWI.

But can we be sure?

Check out the NY Times WWI site. Fantastic.

One Man's MeatOne Man’s Meat by E.B. White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

1968 was the worst year ever. MLK and RFK. Riots. Viet Nam. An unrelentingly bad outlook for a mostly clueless college junior turning 21 that summer and thinking a lot about what sort of world he would be graduating into the following year (a much better year!). Drugs and beer brought no relief that summer of ’68, only heightened paranoia and deeper depression. Books and music saved me. Among these was E.B.White’s “One Man’s Meat.” A celebration of life. Natural peacefulness. Great writing. I’d read Strunk and White in Freshman English. “Omit needless words” was a mantra. I pursued clear and concise writing that said something meaningful in an elegant, graceful way. “One Man’s Meat” became my paragon for prose, and has remained so. I recommend it to anyone, but especially to people who love good writing and need healing. I am very impatient with anyone who would have us go back to a better time in America. Times don’t really change much. But how we see them does, apparently. White was an intelligent observer of some very awful events in the 30s and early 40s, but gave us a clear, untinted lens through which to view world events in any time. Today, it’s hard to find this kind of seer. Read “One Man’s Meat” and then go back to reading the news and today’s observers. Compare and contrast. Repeat as needed.

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