Category: Books

*Blood and Ruins*

The author is Richard Overy and the subtitle is The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945.  There are two categories of Richard Overy books, the good and the tremendously good.  So far this book falls into the latter camp, noting that some of the introductory material (while fine) was excessively familiar to me.  The eventual focus is on North Africa, the Turkey-Persia region and the Caucasus, how Japan ran its new colonies, how the British empire started collapsing, and much more along those lines.  The history of the war is told through what are usually regarded as the peripheries, though Overy makes us rethink that as well. I am only on p.240, but so far this one is strongly recommended.

As a general rule you can never read enough good books about World War II, even after you feel you have read enough good books about World War II.  Its lessons never go stale, and the scope of the war itself has attracted remarkable talents to write about it.

The Rewired Soul reviews *Talent*

I was highly skeptical of this book, but after reading it, I legitimately think it needs to be mandatory reading for anyone involved in hiring. Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross wrote a book that is about as close to perfect as you can get destroying conventional wisdom about hiring. As someone who has been lower-middle-class my whole life, but I work my ass off, I’ve always hated the mindless process of how applications and interviews go. Too often employers won’t even consider you if you don’t check certain boxes on an application, but Cowen and Gross are looking to change that.

The book dives into so many different nuances about hiring people and finding the right people. Because people are complex, and there’s much more under the surface (Crazy, right?!). Cowen and Gross give tips for better interviews and what to look for in candidates as well as identifying potential. They also dive into various pros and cons of different personalities and even have a section about interviewing online or over the phone.

Here is the full review.

My excellent Conversation with Roy Foster

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the episode summary;

Roy joined Tyler to discuss why the Scots got off easier than the Irish under British rule, the truths and misconceptions about Ireland as a policy laboratory for the British government, why spoken Irish faded more rapidly than Welsh, the single question that drove a great flowering of Irish economic thought, how Foster’s Quaker education shaped his view of Irish history, how the Battle of the Somme and the 1916 Easter Rising cemented the rift between the Northeast and the rest of the country, what went wrong with Irish trade policies between the 1920s and 1970s, the power of Irish education, why the re-emergence of The Troubles in the 1960s may not have been as inevitable as many people believe, the cultural effects of Ireland’s pro-Allied neutrality in World War II, how Irish visual art is beginning to be looked at in a similar way to Irish literature, the social and economic changes of the 1970s that began to radically reshape Irish society, the reasons for Ireland’s openness to foreigners, what Irish Americans misunderstand, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: If we think of the 19th century, as you know, I think it’s in 1831 that free universal schooling comes to Ireland. Are there ways in which, in the 19th century, Ireland is more modern than Britain?

FOSTER: That’s a very interesting and subtle question.

There is a theory that Ireland is used as a laboratory for British government and that they will apply further afield, in India and the Caribbean, models and lessons that they’ve learned in Ireland, which is sometimes referred to as Britain’s oldest or England’s oldest colony.

I have a slight problem with that, because Ireland is a very special kind of colony, if it’s a colony: it’s a metropolitan colony. The original inhabitants remain, one could say, in a far stronger position than in many of the areas of the British Empire, where they are effectively either enslaved or wiped out. But the point is really that what’s happening in Ireland in the 18th and 19th century is, as I’ve said earlier, a kind of dispossession.

But at the same time, there are elements — and this is true from the Act of Union, which abolishes the old, very elite Irish Parliament in 1800 — there are elements of experimentation in the British government of Ireland which aren’t (I have to say this) entirely malign, and you zero in on education. The attempt that was being made in the early 1830s was to introduce a nondenominational form of primary education for the Irish people.

Ireland being Ireland, it was rapidly denominationalized: the Catholics used it for their purposes and the Protestants used it for their purposes. But the theory of it was that you had to overcome the religious differences, which by the early 19th century seemed to dictate everything that was happening in Ireland.

The great novelist William Thackeray, who was married to an Irish woman, said when he did a tour of Ireland and wrote his Irish Sketch Book, “Where to get at the truth in this country: it is not possible. There are two truths, the Catholic truth and the Protestant truth.” By the early 19th century, this seemed all too true.

Substantive throughout, in my view one of the very best CWTs in some while.

*Arbitrary Lines*, by M. Nolan Gray

The subtitle is How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, and here is one bit:

By today’s standard, New York’s 1916 zoning code is surprisingly liberal.  Modern zoning mainstays, like use subcategories or explicit floor area limits, are absent.  This is because the framers of New York’s zoning ordinance saw themselves as balancing a desire for some control against a natural skepticism of this new institution.  After all, as a historically unprecedented curtailment of property rights, the constitutionality of zoning was very much in question, and one ill-conceived regulation risked a court decision that could imperial the entire project.  The strategy of starting small worked, and the code survived, expanding from just a small pamphlet to hundreds of pages over the coming decades, before the 1961 rewrite.

And this:

At the end of 1916, 8 municipalities had adopted some form of zoning, and over the next seven years, a steady stream of municipalities would follow, such that by 1923, 218 municipalities had adopted zoning.

Nolan is an urban planner who is very skeptical of such zoning.  Recomnended, and I am pleased that both Mercatus and Emergent Ventures had a hand in supporting this project.

How heritable are various sports abilities?

Let us start with data from identical twins:

Take wrestling.  Of 6,778 Olympic wrestling athletes, there have been something like thirteen pairs of identical twins.  This implied that the identical twin of an Olympic wrestler has a better than 60 percent chance of becoming an Olympic wrestler himself.

That is from the forthcoming Seth Stephens-Davidowitz Don’t Trust Your Gut: Using Data to Get What You Really Want in Life.  From such reasoning you can divine the relative import of genetic factors for success in various sports.  Here are the derived calculations, with the number indicating “Percent of Same-Sex Siblings Who Are Identical Twins” (when both make the Olympics, or achieve some other status):

Track and field: 22.4%

Wrestlers: 13.8%

Rowers: 12.4%

NBA players: 11.5%

Boxers: 8.8%

Gymnasts: 8.1%

Swimmers: 6.5%

Fencers: 4.5%

Shooters: 3.4%

NFL players: 3.2%

MLB players: 1.9%

Alpine skiers: 1.7%

Divers, equestrian riders, and weightlifters: All zero percent.

What I’ve been reading

1. Alan Bollard, Economists at War: How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars.  A useful book on a much underrated topic.  Keynes, Kantorovich, and Leontief receive the most attention, though the book also covers of Takahashi Korekiyo of Japan.  My main complaint is the absence of Thomas Schelling.

2. Elizabeth Wilson, Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia.  She converted from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity, and her career spanned from the 1920s through 1970.  She was at times out of favor, other times Stalin’s favorite pianist.  Called a “holy fool” by many, this is an excellent biography that brings its subject to life.  And her playing was full of depth, albeit with often creaky sound..

3. Ian Barnes, Restless Empire: A Historical Atlas of Russia.  One of the very most useful books for understanding Russian history — about half of this one is maps!  Changing maps over the ages.  These are the maps that Putin looks at, you should too.  A high quality book in all regards.

4. Sarah Weinman, Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free.  The murderer is Edgar Smith and the conservative is William F. Buckley — how could anyone have been fooled by these remorseless criminals?  A good look at what had been becoming a forgotten episode.  A tale of self-deception to the nth degree.

5. Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.  Yes, the empire truly was based in unacceptable levels of violence, and at its very core.  This excellent book is the very best demonstration of those propositions.  Historically thorough, and covers more than just a few cases.

There is a new reissue, with a new and good introduction, of Orlando Patterson, The Sociology of Slavery: Black Society in Jamaica, 1655-1838.

Ben Westhoff, Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and my Search for the Truth is a very good narrative by a very good author.

Jeevan Vasagar, Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia is a decent first book to read on Singapore, although mostly it was interior to my current knowledge set.

Marijuana fact of the day

In California, three years into the era of legalization under the Proposition 64 ballot initiative, data indicate that only about one-quarter of weed sold and consumed in the state is legally licensed and that the remaining three-quarters is produced outside legal market channels.

And from a later chapter:

And that is why some people say, and we consider it plausible, that the so-called legalization of weed in some North American markets has illegalized more weed than it legalized.

That is from the new and excellent Can Legal Weed Win?: The Blunt Realities of Cannabis Economics, by Robin Goldstein and Daniel Sumner.

James Person’s Hawaii bleg

Could you please recommend or ask your readers’ recommendations for books about Hawaiian history and culture? I am visiting the state for the first time and like to approach my travels with a deeper understanding as you exemplify in your MR travel posts. Thank you for your time and help and especially for MR and Conversations!

Your assistance for James would be much appreciated!

That was then, this is now, again Russia/Ukraine edition

Circa 1919, with Ukraine under siege from the Bolshevik armies:

Things, however, did not soon improve.  Again to take the case of Odessa, by the end of April electricity was running out.  “Thus in one month they have brought chaos to everything,” Bunin snarled, “no factories, no railroads, no trams, no water, no bread, no clothes — no nothing!”  In fact the Bolsheviks had inherited the chaos and the crisis; they also inherited — and exacerbated — the free-wheeling brutality displayed on all sides and of which…they were the beneficiaries.  To this kind of panache they applied a new moral calculus.

That is from Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921, which as noted yesterday is quite a good book, especially for viewing the Bolshevik Revolution through the eyes of what became the broader Soviet empire.

That was then, this is now: Russia/Ukraine edition

What became known as “the first Soviet conquest of the Ukraine” was achieved without much resistance. The Ukrainian soldiers who had pledged allegiance to the Rada in summer 1917, while still part of the Imperial Army, were now back in their villages.  Petliura had poorly trained men at his disposal, mostly the so-called Free Cossacks (Vilne kozatsvo), some of whom found the Bolshevik appeal more attractive and changed sides.  In abandoning the city, Petliura’s followers not surprisingly had executed as many of the renegades as they could get their hands on.  Once in possession of Kiev, Colonel Murav’ev introduced his own reign of terror.

That is from Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921, which is in general a very useful book.

*Amongst Women*

That is the title of a 1990 Irish novel by John McGahern, well-known in Ireland but as of late not so frequently read outside of Ireland.  In addition to its excellent general quality, I found this book notable for two reasons.  First, it focuses on the feminization of Ireland, being set in the mid-century decades after independence.  An IRA veteran slowly realizes that the Ireland he fought for — a place for manly men — was a figment of his civil war imagination, and not an actual option for an independent, modernizing Ireland.  The latter will be run according to the standards and desires of women, and actually be far more pleasant, whether or not Moran likes it.  Second, the book is an excellent illustration of the importance of context for reading fiction.  The story reads quite differently, depending how quickly you realize the protagonist is an IRA veteran with his wartime service as a fundamental experience.  Few readers will know this from the very beginning, but I suspect many Irish readers — especially older ones — will figure this out well before they are told.  In general, the very best fiction is context-rich, and this is one reason why many people may not appreciate all of the literary classics.

That was then, this is now, Russian political economy edition

From Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon:

Though all four continental great powers were in theory absolute monarchies, no one doubted that the power of The Russian emperor was more complete than that of his French Austrian or even Prussian peers.  He could make laws and tax his peoples without their consent, and no laws protected even his most aristocratic subjects against his arbitrary whims.  By contrast, especially in France and Austria, aristocratic assemblies and judicial institutions inherited from medieval feudalism inhibited a monarch’s power, as indeed did the ethos of the social elites, including sometimes of the monarchs themselves and their relatives.  Other factors also enhanced the power of the Russian autocrat.  For examples, in Protestant Europe the previously enormous landholdings of the Catholic church had been confiscated during the Reformation and had mostly fallen into the hands of the aristocracy.  In eighteenth-century Catholic Europe most of these lands were still held by the Church.  In Russia, however, the monarchy had confiscated the vast wealth of the Orthodox Church by the 1760s and largely held on to it for itself.  That was one key reason why by the 1790s more than 40 per cent of the entire serf population “belonged” not to private landlords but to the crown.


The Russian army traditionally fought with a higher ratio of artillery to infantry than was the case elsewhere in Europe.


The Russians instead soon overran the principalities of Moldova and Wallachia, and made their acquisition the key war aim.

I found this book very useful for understanding the mindset of Putin and some of the other Russian elites.  For instance, none of the characters in this earlier history seemed to regard the national borders of the status quo as anything close to sacrosanct.

*The Restless Republic*

The author is Anna Keay and the subtitle is Britain Without a Crown, of course covering the 17th century British interregnum without a king.  Here is one relevant bit:

The rise of the newspapers was itself an aspect of the explosion in publishing which took place in the mid-seventeenth century.  In the year 1500 just over fifty books were printed in England, in 1600 the number was 300, come 1648 more than 2,300 titles poured off the presses in a single year.  Perhaps 30 percent of all men and 10 per cent of all women could read, and over double those percentages in the capital, a readership now offered an addictive weekly news fix that involved them as never before in the turbulent goings on of their kingdom.

One of my ongoing projects is to brush up on my seventeenth century European history, out of fear that it may be an especially relevant era right now.  The Keay book I found excellent throughout, especially her treatment of the Levellers, Sir William Petty, and more generally how the Irish and English histories of that time intersect.

What I’ve been reading

1. Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism.  An excellent look at all the icky ideas that have been circulating around Russia for the last few decades.  This book also brings the relevant characters to life, for better or worse.  Recommended.

2. Christopher Prendergast, Living and Dying with Marcel Proust.  Unlike most of the secondary literature, this book actually makes In Search of Lost Time sound like it is worth reading.

3. Elizabeth Popp Berman, Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in U.S. Public Policy.  A useful book, and many people should read it, that said I have some caveats.  Was “equality” ever the standard?  Why isn’t there more public choice/political economy analysis in here?

4. Joseph Sassoon, The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty.  A fun read, I had not known the family was Iraqi-Jewish, or so heavily involved in the opium trade in 19th century China.  The author, by the way, is a distant relation to the main family tree, but it turns out he can read all the relevant languages for deciphering the family archives (and hardly anyone else can).

5. Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout.  Bowen has to be one of the most underrated writers of the twentieth century.  No human ever has told me to read one of her books!  Yet this one is a subtle knockout.