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The Unwomanly Face of War

The Unwomanly Face of WarThe Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alexievich interviews Soviet women who fought in the Second World War. Apparently many women did, in all sorts of roles. These stories had not been widely told before she set out to capture these stories in the 1980's.

This edition, which came out in 2017, includes material censored in the original publication.

This book was initially difficult for me to get into, in a way that her Voices from Chernobyl was not. But it soon became difficult to read. I have taken longer to read it than a book of its size should have taken me, because the material was so often difficult to read.

Today I was fewer than 100 pages from the end, so having the day off I decided to push through unto the end. And sometimes after reading a story, I was crying. At least once I yelled at the pain. One rarely is exposed to such evil and suffering.

Near the end of the book, Alexievich writes, "I don't see the end of this road. The evil seems infinite to me. I can no longer treat it only as history." I was glad to read this when I did, as I was feeling overcome.

Her final interview subject, Tamara Stepanovna Umnyagina, who was a junior sergeant in the guards, is one of her most eloquent and profound storytellers. She speaks of how after the war, the people who fought in it were looking forward to peace, for surely now people will be changed for the better and start loving one another. "People still hate each other. They go on killing. That's the most incomprehensible thing to me."

And she speaks the words that make reading this book and enduring the pain it reveals a worthwhile experience. She said, "Yet this must be preserved, it must. We must pass it on. Somewhere in the world they have to preserve our cry. Our howl . . ."

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LeviathanLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The first two parts, wherein the essence of the political argument is made, were entertaining enough. Interesting to read for better historical perspective. Interesting to read to see the flaws in the argument--such as the false dichotomy between an all-powerful sovereign or a state of civil war and his oversimplified and incorrect understanding of human psychology and evolutionary development.

Parts three and four are a chore, even if you skim through them. I didn't expect the lengthy theological arguments. At points the issues are relevant to the political issues confronting him--he is writing after a religiously-motivated civil war--but often there are vast numbers of pages on various doctrinal issues that seem unrelated to the main thrust of the book (and also wrong with the hindsight of the history of theology and biblical interpretation).

But worthy to read these historical text if nothing else to help remove the blinders that keep us trapped into our current moment, thinking we live at this exceptional time and that our troubles are so, so bad.

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The Blood of Emmett Till

The Blood of Emmett TillThe Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A searing exploration of the lynching of Emmett Till and what followed--the trial, the protests, the civil rights advances.

But what most astonished me reading it was that the book gave me insights on our current moment and the support for Donald Trump. Which is frightening. For example, there was this, in a paragraph on the 1948 Dixiecrats:

"Judge Brady was already a fuming Dixiecrat, calling for a new party 'into whose ranks all true conservative Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, will be welcomed' to battle 'the radical elements of this country who call themselves liberals.' Senator James Eastland of Mississippi termed the Dixiecrat revolt 'the opening phases of a fight' for conservative principles and white supremacy, and 'a movement that will never die.'"

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Personal History

Personal  HistoryPersonal History by Katharine Graham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Katharine Graham's autobiography. In fact, I wish she had instead written a series of more focused memoirs so that you could get more in-depth to some of the key, historic moments of her life.

The autobiography serves also as a personal view on American history in the 20th century, as her parents, husband, herself, and kids, played significant roles and knew very important people throughout the century. The one serious surprise is how much the Civil Rights Movement and racial issues are mostly absent in the story. She does not appear to have had any close relationships with people of other races.

At times reading the book I was nostalgic for another age, when politics and journalism and the wider society functioned by a set of mores and standards that seem to be missing now. One reason Watergate was such a shock, and ultimately the parties united against Nixon, was the way he flouted the traditions.

In this strange time we live in, it was good to read a book lionizing the importance of journalism.

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Perspective of "Death of Liberalism"

These authors point out that for more than a century liberalism's death has been predicted.  But that's nonsense, one reason being that so many different things are a form of liberalism.  This article gives some good historical perspective on our current moment.  And I liked this line, "Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires."

O Sing Unto the Lord

O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church MusicO Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music by Andrew Gant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A delightfully witty and informative book on the history of English church music. Thanks to the book I've discovered some musical gems such as Wylkynson's 13 part harmony Jesus autem transiens


And Tallis's Spem in alium, a 40 voice motet.


I've been looking up the pieces he discusses on YouTube and creating a playlist, which I'm not finished with, but here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...

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This Little Trailblazer

This Little Trailblazer: A Girl Power PrimerThis Little Trailblazer: A Girl Power Primer by Joan Holub
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great little book about powerful, trailblazing women. We got the similar book about Little Presidents at Mount Rushmore, and it became one of Sebastian's favourites. I saw this and that it would be a nice gender balance with that book. So far Sebastian delights in this one as well, as it has become a favourite to read.

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Robert Peel: A Biography

Robert PeelRobert Peel by Douglas Hurd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Peel, the 19th century British Prime Minister, appeared as a supporting character in a number of things I've read and watched in the last year. I had a growing intuition that Peel is the sort of leader our nation will require in the next generation to recover from our current crisis. So, I wanted to know more about him.

This biography is written by Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign and Home Secretary, writing as a contemporary Conservative politician on the founder of the Conservative party. Hurd's asides comparing Peel and his time to issues in our time are part of the joy of the book.

In short, I have come away from the book hoping that America will find someone like Peel to help lead us in the middle of this century. But, yet, how unlikely that will be because Peel is so singular and rare. We can only hope.

Peel created the modern police force, revised the entire English economy, helped to reform the church, reformed the banking system, completed negotiations with the US settling our northern border, revised the entire English criminal code, and helped open public office to Roman Catholics. But his greatest achievement, according to Hurd, was establishing free trade as the dominant global force it has become.

What Hurd admires most about Peel's position on free trade, is that Peel did not make it a matter of negotiation with other nations, with some quid pro quo. He eliminated English tariffs unilaterally because he felt it the right thing to do. Primarily that it would lower the cost of living for the poor and working classes, helping to improve their lives. And also that the bounties of nature (God's blessings) ought to be able to move about the world freely to the benefit of all.

Peel's form of conservatism was devoted to some key ideals and values, not any dogmatic positions on issues and policies. For he radically changed his mind on major issues more than once--Catholic emancipation and the Corn Laws being the two supreme examples. Where others, such as Benjamin Disraeli, saw hypocrisy and equivocation, Peel saw his changes of mind as furthering the core values.

Those were conservative values of maintaining order and stability and moving slowly and deliberately to change and only when the facts and reason compelled it. Peel studied the French Revolution in-depth, clearly in an attempt to understand what forces had led to it and how to avoid something similar in Britain. So his changes of mind on major issues were often because he realized that to hold dogmatically to a position would invite social discord and lead to the destruction of the things he valued most. He could not grasp why other conservatives did not understand this.

So his concerns to alleviate poverty did not arise from some deep humanitarian feeling--quite the contrary--but because he saw poverty as leading to social disorder and revolution. Therefore poverty should be alleviated.

He was also committed to diplomacy and a quieter, persuasive foreign policy. The more adventurous foreign policy of Palmerston, for instance, appalled him. He thought a strong nation was made stronger by persuading others to adopt its values (Hurd has a little commentary on recent American foreign policy at this point).

In the introduction Hurd writes that 150 years is a relatively short time in the life of a nation (a sentence I marveled at as an American) while making the point that the issues dominant in Peel's day are not completely gone from British life and his solutions created the systems still followed.

Peel was pragmatic, studied deeply, worked hard, led decisively, was convinced by facts and reason to change his mind, and was devoted and loyal to family and friends. Even when he was the leader of the opposition, he argued that it was wrong to oppose everything the Whigs did, that instead the proper role for the opposition was to help for the good of the country to achieve the best legislative outcomes. He also thought that doing so built trust that would lead to electoral success, and he was proven right.

So I read this book with a deep sense of admiration and sadness at the current plight of America and what we lack in our political leaders.

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