Book Reviews

Book Review: The Measure of All Things

The Measure of All Things
The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World
by Ken Alder
New York: The Free Press, 2002. ISBN 0-7432-1675-X
Paperback: New York: The Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-1676-8

This book would’ve made for quite the shocker in the 1970s, when the United States attempted and failed to convert to the metric system. Highway crews added kilometers to road signs, grocery stores handed out brochures on cooking with metric units, and metric advocates championed the natural basis of the new measurements. One kilogram of mass for each liter of water, 100 Celsius degrees between freezing and boiling, and 10 million meters from the pole to the equator. Imagine what the opponents of metric units could've done with a book like The Measure of All Things, which exposes the basis of the entire metric system as a fraud!

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Book Review: Why England Slept

Why England Slept
by John F. Kennedy
New York: Funk, July 1940

It is difficult to read Why England Slept without seeing the shadow of the future president hanging over every word. Most prophetic indeed is Henry Luce's foreword, which notes on p. xiv:

In recent months there has been a certain amount of alarm concerning the “attitude” of the younger generation. If John Kennedy is characteristic of the younger generation—and I believe he is—many of us would be happy to have the destinies of this Republic handed over to his generation at once.

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Book review: Air Power

Air Power
The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Iraq
by Stephen Budiansky
Hardcover: New York: Viking, 2004. ISBN 0-670-03285-9
Paperback: New York: Penguin, 2005. ISBN 014303474X

This is a long book at 518 pages including notes and index, and it has a subtitle that's almost as long: "The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II."  It is significant that the beginning and the end both refer to American developments.  Not only did two American brothers develop the first heavier-than-air craft, but American forces have enjoyed air superiority in every war since the First World War.  Budiansky presents most of the debates on air doctrine in an American or British context, and undoubtedly it helps that these records would be available in English.  But he clearly believes that they set the pace of world developments.  The role of other world powers was to react — for example, there is very little discussion of the Soviet air force.

The book focuses on the great debate between strategic and tactical air power.  Should airplanes be used to bring war to the enemy's homeland, or should they be used to win quickly and decisively on the battlefield?  It would simply overwhelm the reader if Budiansky had covered a century of flight from every nation's viewpoint.  But when important developments occur overseas, the book travels there — to Spain as the Luftwaffe tests out its doctrines in preparation for World War II, to the Japanese carrier fleet in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and to Israel as American air power wins overwhelming victories against Soviet technologies through the Arab-Israeli proxy wars.

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Book review: 1421

1421: The Year China Discovered America
by Gavin Menzies
Hardcover, US edition: New York: Morrow, 2003. ISBN 0-06-053763-9
Trade paperback, US edition, revised: New York: Perennial, 2004. ISBN 0-06-054094-X

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Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine captain, claims that four separate Chinese fleets under the overall aegis of the great eunuch admiral Zheng He sailed on great voyages of discovery about the year 1421.  During these voyages, they discovered the Americas, Antarctica, Oceania, various Pacific islands, and longitude — basically, every continent except Europe.  The Zhu Di emperor's death, however, put an end to the great voyages of discovery.  China turned her energies inwards, and records of the Zheng He voyages were destroyed.  Within a century, though, Europeans picked up the mantle of discovery. These great explorers thus bravely set forth into the (not-quite) unknown, ultimately handing Europe the mantle of world dominance on the back of Chinese maps.

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Book Review: Brothel

Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women
by Alexa Albert
New York: Random House, 2001. ISBN 0-375-50331-5

Nevada is the only state in the Union in which prostitution is legal, and as Alexa Albert makes clear in this book, the business of prostitution is just as complicated as any other legal enterprise.  It's a business with many rules and regulations.  Nevada state law allows local areas to regulate prostitution, county laws place restrictions on it, individual brothels have rules for customers and prostitutes, and each prostitute also sets her own rules.  Prostitutes in Nevada’s legal brothels pay taxes like any other employee; one of them hired an accountant who mulled the proper response for "Occupation" on her tax return.  Licenses can be procured at the local police station, and the brothel industry association spokesman is George Flint, a retired minister who also owns a wedding chapel business.

Albert first encountered the Nevada brothel industry when she was studying public health in college, when she wrote a research paper [...]

Book Review: I'd Rather be Right

I'd Rather Be Right
A Musical Revue
by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Hardcover: New York: Random House, 1937. 4 plates.
Well printed on acid-free paper, so should remain in good shape if properly stored. Music composed and written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, separately published.

I first discovered this musical after watching James Cagney perform the showstopper "Off the Record" song-and-dance routine in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  That biopic of songwriter and performer George M. Cohan is a fabulous film, using Hollywood’s best showmanship to string a bunch of songs together into a rousingly patriotic plot that was just the ticket in 1942.

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Book Review: The Perfect Store

The Perfect Store: Inside eBay
by Adam Cohen
Hardcover: Boston: Little Brown, 2002. ISBN 0-316-15048-7

"When the early history of the Web is contemplated centuries hence, Adam Cohen's detailed and thorough account of the founding and development of eBay will be among the books that people will turn to to truly understand one of the Internet's most important companies."
— Kara Swisher, Wall Street Journal columnist, as quoted on the back cover

Adam Cohen has written a very thorough company account, one that takes into account many diverse viewpoints.  Cohen is on the editorial board of The New York Times, and each section in the book seems to follows the inverted pyramid style of journalism.  There’s an eye-catching lead to pique the reader's interest, some background, quotes from sources, and finally, an analysis of  the topic’s significance.  One could imagine this book having been compiled from several articles in the Times.

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Book Review: Spycatcher

Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer
by Peter Wright, Former Assistant Director of MI5, with Paul Greengrass
Hardcover: New York, Viking Penguin, 1987. ISBN 0-670-82055-5

From the jacket:

“Uncensored, remarkably candid, and enormously revealing about the real spy business that most of us know principally from fiction ... as Britain's principal liaison with American intelligence officials ... Wright's insights about the CIA and the FBI ... is riveting stuff ...American interest ought to be especially aroused by Peter Wright's charge that there was a conspiracy within MI5 to overthrow then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the mid-1970s, and that it was instigated from within the CIA ... But the most important aspect of this book is that it offers a rare inside glimpse of the real day-by-day goings-on within the intelligence world over a long period of time from a very high-level, authoritative voice.”

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The heart of the book is on Wright's work in counterintelligence. As operations kept going wrong, and pieces of the puzzle began to fit together, Wright focuses on Roger Hollins as a suspected Soviet agent. He would be the Fifth Man, the only man remaining at-large from a busted five-person Soviet spy ring that had placed men at high levels of British government. But since Hollis was the Director of MI5, Wright was never able to prove his allegation. The identity of the Fifth Man remains unknown today. In the world of double-agents and barium meals (disinformation), colleagues turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be friends (most notably in the CIA), and the truth only becomes murkier once the subject goes to the grave.

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Book Review: Sailing through China

Sailing Through China
by Paul Theroux
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984

Paul Theroux has authored dozens of travelogues, many of which have made The New York Times bestseller list.  He has traveled extensively by rail on all continents, including lines in Africa and South America that have long since fallen victim to civil wars or economic downturns.  These are journeys that you can now experience only through travelogues from decades past.

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Book Review: Zephyr

Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America
by Henry Kisor
Times Books (Random House), 1994. ISBN 0-8129-1984-X

This is the first of three reviews of Amtrak travelogue books. The other two books reviewed are Making Tracks and Booked on the Morning Train.

Zephyr concentrates on one train in the Amtrak system — the California Zephyr, which makes a 51-hour run between Chicago and Emeryville, California (just across the Bay from San Francisco).  Kisor is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and writes as a journalist would.  He describes the passengers, the route, the sights, and the history of the areas that the train passes through.  He participates in some whimsy himself, spending a couple of hours concocting a murder mystery set aboard a train after meeting a fellow writer.  He tells of passenger antics, of the forced camaraderie of the assigned-seating in the diner, of the reactions to the views from the lounge car.

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