Book Review: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Author: Chris Bohjalian
Title: Skeletons at the Feast
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2008
ISBN: 9781415948910


The William & Mary Alumni Boston Chapter selected this novel set in German-occupied Poland at the end of the Second World War.  It tells the story of three different journeys that intertwine and complement one another.  First there is the Emmerich family, prosperous German farmers in East Prussia with the elderly father and eldest sons off fighting, the women and children flee west to safety from the Russian army taking with them a Scottish POW.  Then there is Uri, a Jew who escaped from the prison trains and has spent two years taking on the uniforms and identities of various German officers both for survival and sabotage.  Finally there is Cecille, a French Jewish woman forced with her fellow prisoners on a death march (although this is the least well-realized of the three storylines).

Bohjalian does not shrink from the details of all that was horrible about the war and the Holocaust.  Yet, in the end this is a book about hope.  After tearing us down, Bohjalian builds us back up with the romance of 18-year old Anna Emmerich and the Scottish airman Callum, the persistence of Cecille, the bravery of Uri and many small, kind acts.  The one thing I wish the author had not done was to distance the Emmerich’s so much from Nazism.  It seems a cop-out that many authors/filmmakers fall on is the “good German” instead of trying to find humanity or promise of redemption in those who adhered to this evil ideology.

All in all a gripping and well-written novel.

Recommended books: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson

Author: Peter T. Leeson
Title: The invisible hook : the hidden economics of pirates
Publication Info: Princeton : Princeton University Press, c2009.
ISBN: 9780691137476


I awaited the release of this book with great anticipation as it contains three elements I can’t resists: pirates, quirky application of social sciences,  and a terrific pun in the title.  Overall it did not disappoint.  Leeson examines the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly 1680-1720) through the lens of economics, seeking economic reason for what pirates did.  Much of pirate behavior is based in reaction to the harsh and unrewarding life of sailors under cruel captains.  Leeson shows how pirates preceded both James Madison and Adam Smith by decades by creating democracies and free market capitalism aboard their floating communities.  It was beneficial to the crews as a whole to elect their captains and to sign pirate codes that would determine fair treatment – and a fair share of the booty.  Pirates also should a fair amount of tolerance for black sailors among their crew making their racism subservient to the economic benefits of a good hand on board no matter what his color.

The “Jolly Roger” and the wild antics of pirates like Blackbeard also have an economic purpose – to force the pirates’ prey to surrender without a fight.  Sea battles would damage the pirates’ prize, their own ship, and perhaps even the pirates so it behooved them to act as threatening and crazy as possible to actually prevent violence.  For many of these reasons, pirate ships were actually popular among the ordinary sailors who were willing recruits into a society that would allow them a voice in how things are done and take home a greater share of wealth than they’d earn in the merchant marine.  The book concludes with a humorous management course as taught by a pirate with a syllabus of articles and books that back up the economics behind the pirate way.

One quibble I have in this book is that Leeson often deviates from economics to slip in Libertarian ideology in tangents that seem odd and out of place.  For example, he takes up several pages to convince the reader that all government is based on the threat of violence as opposed to pirate societies which were freely joined.  He even writes of the benefits of pirate torture in regulating the behavior of commercial ship captains (who had to treat their sailors well lest they too be caught and tortured by pirates) but seems to see only evil in any regulation whatsover by government.  Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable and educational book that brings the dismal science to life through the romance of piracy.  Arrr!

Recommended books: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt; Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly
Rating: *** 1/2

Book Review: “The System of the World”by Neal Stephenson (Book 8 of the Baroque Cycle)

The Baroque Cycle comes to an end in the third book of the third volume (8th overall for those who are counting), The System of the World (2004) by Neal Stephenson which is also entitled “The System of the World”.  The major world events underlying the previous book pretty came to a conclusion with the Hanoverian succession at the end of “Currency.”  The final book instead focuses on the more personal stories of Stephenson’s main characters.  Will Jack Shaftoe escape the noose of Jack Ketch?  Will Newton and Leibniz end their quarrel?  What will become of Daniel Waterhouse’s many schemes in science and politics?  What will happen at the Trial of the Pyx?  Stephenson answers all of these questions in his entertaining and informative style with many tangents, including a duel with cannon.

I must read these books again.


Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Author: Salman Rushdie
Title: The Enchantress of Florence
Publication Info: Overdrive Publications (2008), Audio CD
ISBN: 1436119375


The  story in the book is about a visit by a Florentine man to the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, claiming to be a long lost relative.  But the The Enchantress of Florence is about stories themselves, stories told by the characters, interweaving and overlapping with reality.  There’s a good mix of history, fiction and the fantastic to be found here, reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle.  And while the Mughal emperor may claim kinship to the gods, this book is far more earthy capturing in words humanity at its basest in war, sex, and filthy, filthy language.

The writing style of the book just oozes with machismo, especially as read by Firdous Bamji.  I’ve never read Rushdie before so I don’t know if this is typical of his writing style but it is well-suited to the time and the characters.  Women don’t come off well in this novel as they are sexualized, objectified, vain, coquettish, mystified, and even imaginary to the men that see them only as mirrors. The way Rushdie piles on the stereotypes in a Joycean fashion leads me to believe it is meant as parody. Despite all the unpleasantness, Rushdie creates something beautiful in his words.

This is the best type of novel their is: one that transport you to a different place and time for an escape yet shares stories and ideas that make you think.

Recommended books: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
Rating: ***1/2