Archive for April, 2019

Review: Black City, by Boris Akunin

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

Boris Akunin is the pseudonym for Grigory Chkhartishvili, one of the most successful crime writers ever to emerge from Russia. His series of books featuring Erast Fandorin span several decades of the late 19th and early 20th century, and have sold tens of millions of copies in Russia.

The English translations by Andrew Bromfield are superb. The books have been described as “Tolstoy writing James Bond with the logical rigour of Sherlock Holmes,” though that may apply mainly to the first ones in the evolving series.

I have enjoyed the whole series, from The Winter Queen up through this book, which is set in 1914 on the very brink of the outbreak of the First World War. This is a complex story, and it helps for one to have an understanding of Russian history. (In parallel to these books, Akunin also writes history books.)

Set in Baku, this story has Fandorin — who is now in his 50s — on the trail of a revolutionary terrorist known as “Woodpecker” or “Odysseus”. This villain is, of course, a Bolshevik and he has some clear parallels to a young Stalin. Fandorin (and the author as well) have strong views about this: “All ardent revolutionaries are basically psychologically sick,” he thinks.

Without giving too much away, this may be the very last of the Fandorin books (I’m actually not sure about this) — but I certainly hope not.

Review: The Battle, by Richard Overy

Monday, April 15th, 2019

This book has now gone through several editions, and was recently re-issued with a slightly different title.

It is a very short history of the Battle of Britain of 1940-41 and in just a few pages, Overy manages to demolish a number of long standing myths about the period. Among these are the idea that the British or Germans at that time were deliberately engaged in terror-bombings of each other’s cities. Or that either the RAF or the Luftwaffe was significantly “better” than the other; both air forces had cutting-edge aircraft and outstanding pilots.

He attributes Britain’s “victory” (he’s not convinced it can be called that) to something rarely discussed: Britain was far better at producing large numbers of Spitfires and other aircraft, while the Germans (despite their having conquered most of Europe) struggled to meet their production targets.

A good introduction to the subject, but not without controversy.


If we can’t get a new government, let’s get a new Left

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

The Israeli Left failed yesterday in its attempt to change the leadership and the direction of the country. Maybe it’s time to change the Left instead. And let’s learn a lesson from Israel’s history to show us how to do that.

Read my full blog from the Times of Israel by clicking here.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, illustrated by Renée Nault

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been in the news a lot lately. Her book is now considered a classic, a recent television adaptation was a huge success, and a sequel is due out later this year.

The book was first published in 1985, a time when many in the U.S. and other western societies assumed that the women’s movement was making changes that could never be reversed, and that society was gradually becoming more liberal and more tolerant. Today, more than three decades later, Atwood’s dystopian vision increasingly seems far closer than we would have imagined when the book was first written.

This graphic novel adaption is done beautifully, and shows Gilead (the country that used to be the United States) almost as a dream — and a bad dream at that. Highly recommended.

Review: Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography by Noah Van Sciver, Paul Buhle, Steve Max and Dave Nance

Monday, April 8th, 2019

The colourful Eugene V. Debs would make a wonderful subject for a graphic novel but unfortunately, this is not the book I’d recommend.

A text-heavy graphic novel that cannot decide if it’s “Debs for beginners” or something far more serious. It is filled with half-ideas, people and institutions that pop in for a moment, are never introduced, and who then disappear a moment later. (Will anyone reading it know who Daniel De Leon was? Or for that matter, William Winpisinger?)

Much is done to show Debs as if he was a 21st century politician, far ahead of his time on issues like race and gender, though one wonders how true this is. (The party he led was hardly free of racism and sexism.)

There are passing references, largely uncritical, about the Bolsheviks and their American supporters.

A not insignificant part of the book focusses on American socialism post-Debs, showing Norman Thomas as a rather nice old man and Michael Harrington in a very critical light.

The authors’ political agenda is evident on every page, but the real Eugene Debs does not come alive here. A pity — this was such a great idea for a book.

Review: Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, by Rutger Bregman

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

I admit to being a bit of a latecomer to this party, having only discovered Rutger Bregman following his extraordinary non-interview on Fox News recently. This is his best-selling book laying out the case for a number of reforms, some quite moderate (like universal basic income, which even Richard Nixon advocated) and others far more radical (abolishing borders between countries).

These are pretty much all good ideas, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them utopian.

And also, for some strange reason, he’s not mentioned some of the great experiments in social change including the independent Georgian republic of 1918-21, or the kibbutz movement in Israel. Well worth the read.

Don’t vote

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

If having a prime minister who faces a number of serious criminal charges doesn’t bother you because you think it’s all “fake news” cooked up by the left-wing media, you can relax because polls show that most people agree with you, and that he’ll be re-elected. Don’t vote.

Read the rest of my article on The Times of Israel.