Sunday, May 3, 2009

Book Reviews

Since Candice has been dragging me to Rue while she does homework, I've had plenty of reading time. Just finished a couple of books and here are some thoughts.

The Radioactive Boy Scout. By Ken Silverstein. The author backtracks the adventure of David Hahn, a teenager who constructs a scarily-close-to-viable breeder reactor in his mother's garage. The book is a pretty quick read (only a few hundred pages) and flows well. The author cuts between narrations of Hahn's experiments and disasters in the atomic power industry. For an English major, he does an incredible job at keeping his facts straight. He still gets the penetration of Beta particles wrong and misattributes a few quotes. It could have used a more thorough fact checking.

What sort of bugged me was he was blatantly anti-nuke throughout the whole book. The author's Wikipedia page notes "Silverstein is a self-described "gadfly" in the newspaper business, and an opponent of what he considers "false 'balance'" in the news media." That's fine and all for, say political reporting, but for scientific reporting, that starts down a slippery path. He also takes a few jabs at the Boy Scouts. He spends almost a chapter talking about how Baden Powell had a fixation on stopping masturbation and was a closeted fascist.

Still and all, it's a quick read, it's an interesting subject, and it's well written. If you read it, just keep that bias in mind as he narrates certain subjects.


I've been trying to work through the "must reads" list. I've been reading Huey Long, by T Harry Williams since the fall semester. It's a thick book, so it's taken me a while (those of you following me on twitter will note my occasional posts the past few months).

Huey Long is one of the most fascinating characters in American History. Every biography of him has taken the stance right from the start that he is either a saint or a scoundrel. Only one has stayed fairly objective and that's the best one. To this day, no scholar can top T Harry Williams' book.

Despite being a little dated in writing style (and vocabulary), I found it a lively read, due in no small part to the subject. The book is exhaustively researched and well annotated.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book:
* Huey Long had a photographic memory. He remembered every word from every book he ever read. An amazing gift for a politician to have.
* Some of Huey's speeches seem like they were written yesterday. A sample:

Mr. Hopkins [WPA] announced twenty-two millions on the dole [Food Stamps], a new high-water mark in that particular sum, a few weeks ago. We find not only the people going further into debt, but that the United States is going further into debt. The states are going further into debt, and the cities and towns are even going into bankruptcy. The condition has become deplorable. Instead of his promises, the only remedy that Mr. Roosevelt has prescribed is to borrow more money if he can and to go further into debt. The last move was to borrow $5 billion [imagine trillion today] more on which we must pay interest for the balance of our lifetimes, and probably during the lifetime of our children. And with it all, there stalks a slimy specter of want, hunger, destitution, and pestilence, all because of the fact that in the land of too much and of too much to wear, our president has failed in his promise to have these necessities of life distributed into the hands of the people who have need of them.

* Huey constantly railed against FDR for appointing Merril bankers to his cabinet. The criticisms have been made of Obama and Goldman Sachs.
* I think one of the things that sets the book above the rest is it's as much a chronicle of the subject's enemies as it is about the subject of the biography. You can't understand Huey's actions without understanding what he was up against.
* While Huey might have started out doing things for the right reasons, once he became a Senator, he started to lose control of his machine. It started to take on a momentum all its own. Huey had to constantly supervise every little detail of its operation. After his death, the machine had total control of the state without someone like Huey to restrain it. I suspect these postmortem excesses might have hurt Huey's reputation more than the record shows he did.
* The person that I thought reminded me the most of Huey Long was The Gracchi of Ancient Rome.
* Huey Long played an important part in FDR's administration. He pulled the administration hard to the left. The things FDR is really remembered for, like Social Security, were things Huey stumped for and FDR implemented to take away Huey's fire. Even then, Huey lambasted FDR for not going far enough in his reforms.

I know the term must-read is over used, but if you're interested in Louisiana politics, T Harry Williams' biography is a must read.

Some supplemental video:


jeffrey said...

You can't understand Huey's actions without understanding what he was up against. Amen. I first read Williams' book when I was in high school and I think the most indelible impression it left on me centered around the lengths to which the anti-Longites went to stubbornly resist progress of any kind. That impression continues to color my impression of the inherent insincerity of conservatives to this day. Louisiana had to have a Huey to combat this. It's the only way we would ever pull ourselves up out of the muck.

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