With the end of 2012—and possibly of the world—in sight, another slapdash omnibus review from the Superfluous Man backlog.
Title: Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response, by Aaron J. Klein
Completed: July 28, 2012 (#57)
Prompted by the fortieth anniversary of the Munich Olympics massacre this past summer, I decided to learn a bit more than old news reels and Steven Spielberg’s recent Munich film could reveal. Mr. Klein, an Israeli journalist who has reported on military and security affairs for a number of publications, has delivered a solidly sourced and reliable account. The narration of the Munich attack and the targeted assassinations that followed is pulse-quickening, page-turning material, and the moral murkiness of the whole affair is reminiscent of the next book on today’s list. Solid workmanship.
* * *
Title: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré
Completed: August 5, 2012 (#58)
This site has not reviewed many spy novels this year, although international intrigue has been a staple of my reading life. Mr. le Carré’s most famous work, so masterfully enacted by both Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman in the small- and silver-screen versions of the story, certainly warrants its reputation as the acme of Cold War thrillers. Unlike the ghastly and unreadable prose of Robert Ludlum or the fantasist swinger farces of Ian Fleming, Mr. le Carré displays some genuine literary flair.
A Superfluous Man takes all comers—Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, and Nelson DeMille are regulars on the Superfluous Kindle–but just imagine the following paragraph appearing in a Jack Ryan or Mitch Rapp novel:
Unlike Jim Prideaux, Mr. George Smiley was not naturally equipped for hurrying in the rain, least of all at dead of night. Indeed, he might have been the final form for which Bill Roach was the prototype. Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting, and extremely wet. His overcoat, which had a hint of widowhood about it, was of that black loose weave which is designed to retain moisture. Either the sleeves were too long or his arms were too short, for, as with Roach, when he wore his mackintosh, the cuffs all but concealed the fingers. For reasons of vanity he wore no hat, believing rightly that hats made him ridiculous. “Like an egg-cosy,” his beautiful wife had remarked not long before the last occasion on which she left him, and her criticism, as so often, had endured. Therefore the rain had formed in fat, unbanishable drops on the thick lenses of his spectacles, forcing him alternately to lower or throw back his head as he scuttled along the pavement that skirted the blackened arcades of Victoria Station. He was proceeding west, to the sanctuary of Chelsea, where he lived. His step, for whatever reason, was a fraction uncertain, and if Jim Prideaux had risen out of the shadows demanding to know whether he had any friends, he would probably have answered that he preferred to settle for a taxi.
A very rewarding read–all the pleasures of an airport thriller without the bombast, wooden characters, and shootouts.
* * *
Title: The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, by H.W. Brands
Completed: August 22, 2012 (#59)
Confronted as we are with scarce time resources in this life, any foray into a new subject matter must begin with the most definitive account available. Books are inexpensive but can cost dearly in sand through the hourglass. Reflecting on the past year of posts on this website, it strikes me that the incidence of negative reviews has been quite low. While perhaps not as entertaining as subjecting the work of Shakespeare conspiracists or inscrutably prolix authoresses to well-deserved mockery, this is surely a sign of success: there are far more literary delights in the world than time in which to consume them, so why squander precious hours on trivia?
Mr. Brands’ biography of the great Benjamin Franklin is worthy of its subject–witty, erudite, scurrilous, patriotic. Mr. Brand and Mr. Franklin contain multitudes. Each of us should spend some time with Benjamin Franklin at least once a decade, and this should be the place you start.
A foretaste for the benefit of future Googlers of Franklin’s famous cardinal virtues:
Having formulated his four commandments on the high seas, Franklin proceeded after landing to identify thirteen cardinal virtues. In typical orderly fashion (number three on the list), he enumerated them, with a thumbnail description of each:
Temperance: Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation.
Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e., Waste nothing.
Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly.
Justice: Wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
Franklin’s list originally stopped at a dozen. But a Quaker friend gently pointed out that certain of Franklin’s neighbors thought him proud. Franklin expressed surprise, thinking he had tamed that lion. After the friend cited examples, however, Franklin conceded that he required more work in this area. He added a thirteenth virtue:
Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
* * *
Title: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall
Completed: August 29, 2012 (#60)
Man Marathoner earned all 11 hours and 9 minutes of the audiobook version of Mr. McDougall’s famous anthropological-study-cum-self-help book on the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, traveling at a blinding average speed of 5.1 mph and shod in the outlandish “minimalist” footwear that became trendy in part thanks to this book. The book is ably read by Fred Sanders and is certain to inspire the Rousseauvian savage in each of us: Man is born free, but everywhere he is in laces!
Compelling long-form journalism, with a slight whiff of men’s magazine musk.