Monthly book roundup – 2014 July

Books finished in July:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History) (2007) by Vladislav M. Zubok.

Zukor is professor of international relations at LSE. I enjoyed learning some more about the Soviet Union and Russia, although I guess much, though not all, of the material is well known for people who are knowledgeable about the subject. Zubok writes about the general secretaries of the post WWII period, and claims that the Soviet leaders were often less scheming and more influenced by both ideology and domestic concerns than Western observers often assumed. The first secretary-general of NATO, Lord Ismay, said in 1949 that the purpose of NATO was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” I would not bet on the incoming secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg making similar remarks.

I found the last part, about the Gorbachev period, most interesting because I found it easier to relate to this newer material. Zubok writes sees Gorbachev as inconsistent, without a plan and no big statesman, but that he was nevertheless important. He writes of Gorbachev that: “His first priority […] was the construction of a global world order on the basis of cooperation and nonviolence. This places Gorbachev, at least in his image of himself, in the ranks of such figures of the twentieth century as Woodrow Wilson, Mahatma Gandhi, and other prophets of universal principles (p. 315).” The way these somewhat idiosyncratic beliefs influenced the general secretary made him have profound historical importance.

Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle No. 1) (2006) by Neal Stephenson. We follow the fictional character Daniel Waterhouse, a close spectator of the scientific revolution taking place in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Enlightenment in general. Daniel is a friend and aide of Newton, a member of the Royal Society, and encounters several scientifically significant characters, like Leibniz, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and John Wilkins. This first book of the trilogy Quicksilver ends when Daniel seems to arrive from the US back to England, to which is summoned by Princess Caroline (of Ansbach) to help repair relations between the two great men Newton and Leibniz. Enjoyable.

King of the Vagabonds: The Baroque Cycle #2 (2006) by Neal Stephenson. Second part of the first (long) novel of Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle”. Centered on vagabond and adventurer Jack Shaftoe. One must love this fellow who when he was a kid earned money by hanging on the legs of people sent to the gallows in order to hasten their death, and later tried the equally morbid profession of test-living in pest-infested houses, but the story was far from as entertaining all the time, and I was happy when I reached the end. I look forward to when the arcs from the two first parts are brought tohether in the third instalment “Odalisque”.

Ratings and old books are in the library.


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