Some Book Recommendations

by Timothy Lane   8/25/14

There are a few books I’ve mentioned in recent postings that I think might be of interest. Edward Radzinsky’s biography Alexander II, The Last Great Tsar covers the reforming tsar who ended serfdom and might have democratized Russia if he’d lived. To be sure, he tried to reform from the top down (as the Prussians did after Tilsit), but it’s still a lesson not only in reform but in resistance to reform – Radzinsky suspects that it was no accident that the Okhrana somehow was never able to prevent the assassination attempts by the group calling itself the People’s Will. That group itself provides a lesson in leftist hubris – a small group of middle-class college graduates who considered themselves both the intellectual elite and the representatives of the working class, and whose actions aborted reforms that could have bettered the situation of those they professed to care about.

Daniel Okrent’s The Last Call is a history of Prohibition and the resistance to it. He notes that there was a very wide array of support for it – progressives, temperance advocates, and Protestant moralists combined into an alliance whose members mostly supported Prohibition for extraneous reasons. Some of the methods for getting around it (bootleggers, speakeasies, and the Valentine’s Day Massacre) are well known, but there are also more obscure and interesting ones – such as one company that sold perfectly legitimate malt, and gave directions on what not with it lest one illegally create beer. Medicinal and sacramental uses were still allowed, and seemed to increase greatly during that period.

One consequence of bootlegging (and thus ultimately of Prohibition) was a great increase in deaths (and less serious problems) from methanol poisoning. Deborah Blum discusses these and other problems in The Poisoner’s Handbook, a history of the first few decades of the New York City Medical Examiner’s office dealing with poisons. It was a political feat even getting such a professional body established (local pols all preferred the traditional patronage; crime-solving took second place to political expediency).

Finally, I want to mention John Birmingham’s novel Without Warning and its sequels. This starts with a convenient fantasy (the sudden disappearance of most of North America due to a mysterious force field that instantly kills everyone inside it) to explore what would happen without the United States around. This leads to such unimaginable consequences as the Muslim Brotherhood taking over Egypt, and Israel responding with a series of nuclear attacks on all its Arab/Muslim antagonists. One haunting scene involves an Israeli pilot returning from an attack on the Aswan High Dam who notices the second sun that has just appeared – “Where Cairo once stood.” It’s a counterpart to Dinesh D’Souza’s recent work, written by an Australian writer.

Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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