Books—My Thoughts on Books That I've Recently Read

Dr. Phillip M. Feldman

Ally by Michael Oren, Jan. 15, 2017: Although Oren's writing is not beautiful, this is an inspiring book that should be read by anyone who cares about the U.S.-Israel relationship or the Israel-Arab conflict. I view myself as well-informed on these subjects, but nevertheless found much that I did not already know.

America in Retreat by Bret Stephens, Aug. 17, 2015: Reading this book on a recent flight to Ecuador, I became completely absorbed and lost track of time. Although America in Retreat is interesting, informative, and at times even entertaining, I won't promote it as such. This is an important book that should be read by everyone who cares about the future of the United States and the survival of democracy over autocracy. Stephens' writing is clean, and his arguments are generally well-crafted. The penultimate chapter, which constructs a hypothetical history of the near future, it less compelling than the rest of the book; one can skip this chapter without missing anything.

Anthony Blunt—His Lives by Miranda Carter, Oct. 11, 2015: This is a detailed biography of the British art critic and spy. The first three chapters give an excellent impression of Blunt's upbringing and education, as well as of the milieu. I gave up after chapter three because the writing is incredibly dry, and the material somewhat depressing. I do not believe that environment or circumstances justify the evil choices that Blunt made (I'm referring solely to espionage—not homosexuality) but this book reminded me to be grateful that the environment in which I grew up was healthy and nurturing.

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Dec. 16, 2013: Taleb's writing is choppy, ungrammatical, and unclear. At times he sounds distinctly anti-intellectual, e.g., when using vague epithets such as "Soviet-Harvard intellectual circles". (Such epithets illuminate nothing and tend to inhibit rational discussion). After reading part of the lengthy prologue and part of Chapter One, I gave up on this book.

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson, Dec. 31, 2020: This book provides an excellent overview of Churchill's life, giving insight into his thinking and decision-making. The writing is always clear and tight, and sometimes beautiful. As Johnson demonstrates, Churchill is proof that history is made not only by economic and social forces, but by flesh-and-blood people as well.

The Complete Infidel's Guide to the Koran by Robert Spencer, Dec. 19, 2013: Although Spencer's writing style has at times an unscholarly feel, his research is meticulous and impressive. Having read the Koran (the A. J. Arberry translation) and various items about the Koran, I already had some background, but nevertheless found this book hugely informative; my knowledge of the subject has been expanded, and my outlook has been significantly reshaped.

Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine, Nov. 8, 2013: Makine creates powerful impressionistic images—alternately beautiful and revolting—of Russia over a large swath of the 20th century. The description of the world through the eyes of a child, as well as the way a scene is deftly painted with a few phrases, remind me of the writing of the Israeli writer Amos Oz. One place where Makine's mastery is less than complete is in the jolting transitions between third person and first person. Also, the story, although well told, failed to 'suck me in' and give me the sense that I must find out what happens next. In summary, I found this a good book but not a great one.

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, Jan. 27, 2017: This series of four books explores a fantastical mindscape that no one other than Vance could have created. After roughly 30 years, I decided to indulge myself a return visit to this world of the far distant future, where humanity and a menagerie of magicians and odd creatures live in the red glow of an ancient sun that threatens to expire at any moment.

I re-read the last book of the series, which is called Rhialto the Marvellous, consisting of three stories that are essentially unrelated except for certain common characters. (Except for the general setting, this fourth book has no connection to the earlier three books in the series).

The first of these stories—The Murthe—involves a sort of war between the sexes. This is the weakest of the stories, mainly because the motivations of the main actors are neither clear nor compelling.

In Fader's Waft—a delightfully convoluted story—the magicians are ruled by a code of conduct called the Blue Principles, which, unlike the Mosaic Law, must remain on top of the mountain. One of the Principles is that no copy of the Original can be considered authoritative, so one must journey to the mountain before any question about the Law itself can be resolved. As one might guess, one of the villians replaces the authentic Blue Principles with a forgery that is reworded to suit his purposes. I won't give away any more of the story.

Morreion reminded me of an Agatha Christie novel, except that one must first determine whether any crime has been committed at all, and if so, against whom. To compensate for the lack of a true hero, Vance supplies plenty of villians.

Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, June 26, 2014: Although the language makes this book feel dated, the content is for the most part as relevant today as when the first edition was published. Hazlitt does a public service in clearing away the smoke and mirrors that have permeated so much of the discourse about economics. Central lessons of this book are that any benefit that the government provides to one group must come at the expense of other groups, and that long-term harm from government economic meddling often outweighs any short-term benefits.

I do have a few issues with this book: (a) The discussion of tariffs is somewhat oversimplified. Here is one example of a point that Hazlitt missses: Suppose that country X is willing to subsidize their companies in industry Y so that they can capture market share from the U.S. U.S. consumers would benefit in the short term from lower prices, but if the U.S. companies in industry Y go out of business, country X might be able to raise prices, in which case U.S. consumers might have to pay more over the long term. (b) Hazlitt says almost nothing on the important subject of tax policy. (c) There are places were the discussion would benefit from the introduction of a few mathematical equations, even though this would make the book less accessible to some readers.

Found in Translation—Modern Hebrew Poets—A Bilingual Edition by Robert Friend, Aug. 16, 2014: My Hebrew is too poor to allow me to appreciate these poems in their original language, or to judge the fidelity of the translations, but the English versions are beautiful and often very moving. I am particularly attracted to the achingly sad poems of Rachel.

He Killed Them All: Robert Durst and My Quest for Justice by Jeanine Pirro, Jan. 23, 2016: I had some difficulty deciding how to rate this book. On the one hand, the writing is choppy, bloated, and filled with grammatical mistakes and slang—in short, attrocious. (Pirro also at times has trouble keeping her ego in check). On the other hand, she does provide a highly informed and informative view of the workings of the U.S. criminal justice system, and I found myself generally agreeing with her ideas about how that system should operate.

The Idea Factory—Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner, Jan. 4, 2015: Although not elegant, Gertner's writing is clear and precise. More importantly, this book gives an excellent overview of an important piece of the history of technology, as well as many insights into the process by which technology and science advance hand-in-hand.

Killing Jesus: A History by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, June 5, 2017: The main problem with this book about the life and crucifixion of Jesus is that it isn't a history. The authors disregard two basic principles that should govern all historical writing (with the possible exception of historical fiction): (1) Identify your sources. (2) It is permissible to take a position even when the facts are unclear, but one should present both (or all sides) of the case and the evidence (or lack thereof) for each. Failure to do so is at best slipshod and at worst dishonest.

A case in point: The only source for the story of the Massacre of the Innocents is the Gospel of Matthew. Because no Jewish or Roman historian of the period mentions this supposed event, most biblical scholars regard it as a legend rather than history. O'Reilly and Dugard have a responsibility to at least disclose the fact that their position is not well supported by evidence, and that most biblical scholars disagree with them.

The Martian by Andy Weir, Nov 5, 2015: Although I read quite a bit of science fiction in my teen years, this is the first book in that genre that I've read in many years. The Martian is fast-paced and cleverly written, but the characters are two-dimensional. Also, don't plan on learning about engineering or technology from this book, because some of these elements are not quite right. For example, using the uncontrolled release of air from the space vehicle as a means of propulsion would not work. (The mass of the released air is tiny compared to that of the vehicle, and the relative velocity of the released air would be low; the combination of these two factors means that the delta-V would be small). In balance, I'd say that this is a good read but not a great one.

The Middle East—A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years by Bernard Lewis, Nov 8, 2018: Lewis was a great writer and historian, and all of his books are well worth reading.

That said, Lewis is occasionally sloppy (or possibly biased?), as in the following passage on pp. 34-35: "In their religion too, the early Christians were concerned with philosophical subtleties of a kind that had long preoccupied the Greeks, but that had never much troubled either the Romans or the Jews." This of course has no basis in fact. There is much philosophical argument and speculation in the Talmud, the earliest portions of which predate Christianity by roughly 200 years. And, the Romans made significant contributions in philosophy. (See, e.g., the Wikipedia article on Roman philosophy). For the record, the Jews, Christians, and Romans all learned philosophy from the Greeks, although some Jews and Christians are reluctant to acknowledge this debt.

Also, there is much less information on sources than I would expect to see in a book of this type.

Outliers—The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, Nov. 27, 2013: Ordinarily, I wouldn't touch a book that gives even the slightest hint of being in the "self-improvement" category, but my wife assured me that this wasn't and would be well worth reading, both of which turned out to be true. Gladwell's writing is simple and accessible, and the author is refreshingly insouciant about political correctness. Most of us believe that extraordinary success stories are almost entirely the result of individual genius and hard work; Gladwell makes the case that other factors—in particular, accidents (e.g., the month or year of one's birth) and culture—are also essential ingredients in most individual and team success stories.

A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev, July 13, 2018: In this poignant and often steamy romantic novel, Shalev beautifully recreates Israel, both at the time of the War of Independence and in the late 1990's. The perspective switches between third person narrator and first person narrator; one might expect these shifts to be disorienting, but they aren't. The language is beautiful, and at times poetic.

The last few chapters were a bit of a letdown (my wife disagrees), partly because the reader is no longer carried along by suspense. More generally, the motivations of the characters are sometimes unclear and troubling. Why does Raya choose to leave her husband, who is fundamentally such a decent person? Why does she favor Yair over the child that she had by her husband, driving a wedge between the two children? Why is Yair unable to make a definite choice between Liora and Tirtza?

Perhaps the ultimate message of this book is that the human drive to reproduce ourselves is incredibly powerful.

Socrates by Paul Johnson, Nov. 3, 2013: Johnson is a wonderful writer; it is unfathomable to me how anyone can produce so many books of such consistently high quality. This book gives a clear picture of Socrates in the context of 5th-century B.C.E. Athens, stripping away much of the nonsense and frippery that Plato falsely ascribed to his teacher.

Stealing America: What My Experience with Criminal Gangs Taught Me about Obama, Hillary, and the Democratic Party by Dinesh D'Souza, May 30, 2016: D'Souza's writing falls short of what one would expect from an educated person, let alone a professional writer. For example, on p. 37, he writes, They refused to follow laws they considered stupid or unrealistic. Indeed, they took pride in flaunting them. (That should be flouting). Despite the impoverished writing and the at times polemical tone, D'Souza provides many useful insights into the operation of our system of government.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman, April 1, 2014: This book—a wonderfully amusing collection of anecdotes— provides insight into the personality of the great physicist. The writing is abysmally bad (Feynman had little patience with the formal strictures of the English language), but this did not measurably detract from my enjoyment of the book.

Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West by Raymond Ibrahim, Dec. 30, 2019: Ibrahim is a master of his subject matter, his research is meticulous, and the writing is first-rate. "Sword and Scimitar" should be read not only by those who are interested in military history, but by anyone who wants to understand the roots of this ongoing conflict.

Unknown Quantity—A Real and Imagined History of Algebra by John Derbyshire, 29 Aug., 2015: The histories of the physical and biological sciences tend to get more attention and are better known than the history of mathematics, partly because much of what's been written on the history of mathematics is dry and inaccessible. Not Unknown Quantity. Besides being well-written and meticulously researched, this book is also fun to read. You will have an advantage if you've had one or two college-level mathematics courses, but the lack of mathematical background should not dissuade you from picking up this book. One can always skip the math and simply enjoy the story. (For those who really do want to follow the math, be forewarned that there are many typographical mistakes).

War and World History by Jonathan P. Roth, 19 Feb. 2017, updated 5 June 2017: In this audio book, Prof. Roth treats the subject of war in a remarkably holistic and lucid fashion. Covering much more than just battles, he also examines the political, social, cultural, and psychological forces that give rise to war. Roth at times tells me a bit more than I'd like to know, and he sometimes bends over backwards to be politically correct, but this is nevertheless the most comprehensive, well-written, and accessible work on this subject that I've ever encountered.

Why Save the Bankers? by Thomas Piketty, 29 June, 2016: This book is a collection of essays—mainly on economics—originally published in French over a period of about a decade. Piketty makes some observations that would be useful if not so obvious. He notes, for example, that the creation of the European Union, with a common currency but without a common budget, common debt, or even a common fiscal policy, was a recipe for trouble. The book is marred by the use of undefined terms, e.g., patrimonial capitalism, by unsupported claims, and by leftist tropes. One of these tropes that I found particularly annoying was the following: "... terrorism is fueled by the inegalitarian power keg of the Middle East". (We have plenty of income inequality right here in the U.S., but it doesn't appear to have fueled any terrorism.)

Zealot by Reza Aslan, Nov. 1, 2013: About 10 days ago, I managed to read about 1/4 of this book, but finally gave up. In the absence of historical documents about Jesus from the time when he lived, the project of writing an authoritative account of his life and teachings is a hopeless enterprise. [My statement should not be interpreted as an assault on the Christian religion. I only assert that what the various Christian denominations teach about Jesus is founded on faith rather than historical evidence.] I regard Zealot as closer to historical fiction than scholarly inquiry; I would be somewhat less uncomfortable with the book if it were billed accordingly.

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, Feb. 27, 2016: This book is partly a biography of Boris Pasternak and partly a history of how Doctor Zhivago came to be published. But, more importantly than either of these, it covers a large swath of Russian, Soviet, and Eastern Bloc history, from the horrible Stalin years through the post-Stalin part of the Cold War. This is an important book for anyone who wants to understand how the Soviet Union functioned, as well as some of the forces that helped to bring it down. I'd also like to mention that the audio version is beautifully read.