Book Review: The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin

Author: Corey Robin
Title: The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump
Narrator: Mike Chamberlain
Publication Info: [Old Saybrook (Conn)] : Tantor Audio, 2018

Over the past eight years, I’ve heard again and again from Democrats and pundits that Donald Trump is a huge break from the reasonable Republicans they remember working with in decades past.  There’s nothing more revolting than hearing yet another Democrat proclaim that we need “a strong Republican party.”  I’ve held the contrary belief that Trump exists on a throughline that ties him back on a consistent Republican party ideology dating back at least to Barry Goldwater in the 1960s (and those ideologies drew upon older ideologies of elitism and white supremacy that supported slavery and Jim Crow laws).  The thesis of Corey Robin’s book is that this throughline goes back even further to the 18th century British philospher Edmund Burke and others who formed the basis of conservatism in reaction to the French Revolution.

Robin notes that the current Trumpian state of the Republican party is in fact a result of popular Leftist liberation movements in the United States being utterly crushed over the past 40 years.  The Republicans chose Trump because they felt comfortable to do so with no constraints from the opposition.  This suggests that if Democrats truly want the “old Republicans” back they should end the practice of reaching out to them by moving right and instead embrace radical ideologies.

Some consistent aspects of conservatism that have persisted from Burke through today include:

  • a desire to maintain hierarchical structures and opposition to movements of liberation
  • borrowing tactics and rhetoric from the Left and bending them towards their own ends
  • the perception that conservatism is acting in reaction to a perpetually dominant Left and thus a culture of victimhood even when they fully hold the reigns of power
  • blending elitism with populism by making privilege popular

The book is compiled into a series of related essays rather than a straight narrative and some parts are better than others.  I found the primer on conservatism in the early chapters to be the most useful.  There are also essays on Burke, Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian School of Economics, and Ayn Rand.  The final chapter written about Trump during the first year of his administration is hopelessly out of date.

Favorite Passages:

“Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left.  Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders.  What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension.  For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.  ‘We are all agreed to our own liberty,” declared Samuel Johnson. “But we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose.  I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern us.’ Such was the threat Edmund Burke saw in the French Revolution: not merely an expropriation of property or explosion of violence but an inversion of the obligation of deference and command. ‘The levellers,” he claimed, ‘only change and pervert the natural order of things.'” – p. 8

Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty – or a wariness of change, belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue.  These may be byproducts of conservatism, on or more of its historically specific and ever-changing modes of expression.  But they are not its animating purpose.  Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force – the opposition of the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere….

No simple defense of one’s own place and privileges – the conservative, as I’ve said, may or may not be directly involved in or benefit from the practices of the rule he defends; many, as we’ll see, are not – the conservative stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, base, and dull.  It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.” – p. 16

“There’s a fairly simple reason for the embrace of radicalism on the right, and it has to do with reactionary imperative that lies at the core of conservative doctrine.  The conservative not only opposes the left; he also believes that the left has been in the driver’s seat since, depending on who’s counting, the French Revolution or the Reformation.  If he’s to preserve what he values, the conservative must declare war against culture as it is.” -. p. 25

“This is one of the most interesting and least understood aspects of conservative ideology.  While conservatives are hostile to the goals of the left, particularly the empowerment of society’s lower castes and classes, they often are the left’s best students.  Sometimes their studies are self-conscious and strategic, as they look to the left for ways to bend new vernaculars, or new media, to their suddenly delegitimated means.” – p. 46

“But as that sense of conflict diminishes on the left, it has fallen to the right to remind voters that there really are losers in politics and that it is they – and only they -who speak for them. ‘All conservatism begins with loss,” Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, which makes conservatism not the Party of Order, as Mill and others have claimed, but the party of the loser.

“The chief aim of the loser is not – and indeed cannot be – preservation or protection.  It is recovery and restoration.  That is one of the secrets of conservatism’s success.  For all of its demotic frisson and ideological grandiosity, for all of its insistence upon triumph and will, movement and mobilization, conservatism can be an ultimately pedestrian affair.  Because his losses are recent – the right agitates against reform in real time, not millennia after the fact – the conservative can credibly claim to his constituency, indeed to the polity at large, that his goals are practical and achievable.  He merely seeks to regain what is his…”  p. 56

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Cat Sense by John Bradshaw

Author: Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet
Title: John Bradshaw
Publication Info: New York : Basic Books, 2013.

This fascinating book explores the domain of the world’s most popular pet, the domestic cat.  Surprisingly, very little scientific research has been done on the cat, but Bradshaw compiles the outcomes of recent research in this book.  The book begins with a natural history of cats and how they developed a relationship with humans.

The famous independence of cats comes from how they first were first domesticated.  Cats were “hired” to be mousers, a job that they did on their own as opposed to the more social aspects of the dog’s work of herding, hunting, and guarding. Despite their independence, the affection of cats is real.  In addition to touch and grooming, a raised tail is a signal of friendliness.  While cats meow often with humans, it’s rarely used among wild and feral cats.  While cats can bond with humans (especially if they’re socialized before they reach 8 weeks) they are less likely to want to spend time with other cats due to their territorial nature.  Getting a second cat to keep your original cat company rarely works.  In fact, a cat coming to a new home may find that they yard of their humans’ property is already marked by a neighboring cat, leading to stress and standoffs.

The issue of allowing pet cats outdoors on their own is a contentious one.  Bradshaw argues that the evidence that cats decimate local wildlife are built on faulty data (although cats can be bad for certain environments, such as islands, and feral cat communities anywhere).  In some cases, cats may be beneficial to bird populations since they hunt other predators such as rats. Nevertheless,  Bradshaw offers a lot of tips on how best to allow cats outdoors should you choose to do so as well as enrichment to help keep indoor cats happy.  Bradshaw believes that when cats leave a dead animal as a “treat” for their humans that they simply remembered once they got home that there was much tastier store-bought food and lost interest in the animal they caught.

The last chapter is a little strange in how Bradshaw considers how to select traits in domestic cats in order to breed them to be better companions to humans and to living indoors.  He does make a good point that the growing practice of neutering pet cats means that future kittens are more likely to come from feral cats who have traits opposite of what we desire in cats.  Overall it’s an interesting book that’s taught me some new things about my favorite pet.

Favorite Passages:

“Unlike the dog, which was domesticated much earlier, there would have been no niche for the cat in a hunter-gatherer society. It was not until the first grain stores appeared, resulting in localized concentrations of wild rodents, that it would have been worth any cat’s while to visit human habitations—and even then, those that did must have run the risk of being killed for their pelts. It was probably not until after the house mouse had evolved to exploit the new resource provided by human food stores that cats began to appear regularly in settlements, tolerated because they were obviously killing rodents and thereby protecting granaries.”

“Cats’ hearing is therefore superior to ours in many ways, but inferior in one respect: the ability to distinguish minor differences between sounds, both in pitch and intensity. If it was possible to train a cat to sing, it couldn’t sing in tune (bad news for Andrew Lloyd Webber).”

“We could consider some of this behavior manipulative, but only to the extent that two friends negotiate the details of their relationship. The underlying emotion on both sides is undoubtedly affection: cats show this in the way they communicate with their owners, using the same patterns of behavior that they employ to form and maintain close relationships with members of their own feline family.”

“pet cats rarely hunt “seriously,” often watching potential prey without bothering to stalk it. A hungry cat will pounce several times until the prey either escapes or is caught; a well-fed pet will pounce halfheartedly and then give up, probably explaining why pet cats, when they do kill birds, usually succeed only when they target individuals already weakened by hunger or disease. Furthermore, pet cats rarely consume their prey, often bringing it home as if to consume it there, but then abandoning it.”

Recommended books:

  • Catwatching by Desmond Morris
  • The Silent Miaow by Paul Gallico

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Discworld Graphic Novels by Terry Pratchett

Author: Terry Pratchett
Title: The Discworld Graphic Novels: The Colour of Magic & The Light Fantastic
Publication Info: New York : Harper, c2008.
The Colour of Magic

  • Originally published: Innovative, 1991
  • Illustrated by Steven Ross
  • Adapted by Scott Rockwell
  • Lettered by Vickie Williams
  • Edited by David Campiti

The Light Fantastic

  • Originally published: Innovative, 1992
  • Adapted by Scott Rockwell
  • Illustrated by Steven Ross
  • Painted by Mira Fairchild
  • Lettered by Michelle Beck

Other Books Read by the Same Author:


In this graphic novel introduces Terry Pratchett’s Discworld through an adaptation of the first two novels in the series.  The central character is the hapless wizard Rincewind who is charged with being the guide for Twoflower, the first tourist ever on Discworld.  The pair, along with Twoflower’s Luggage (a sentient chest that moves on tiny legs), have a series of adventures that play on the tropes of high fantasy and sword and sorcery stories.  Meanwhile the gods themselves and a powerful book of magic called Octavo have plans for them.

The adventures are ludicrous and fun and wonderfully illustrated. If there’s a flaw is that the story seems to skip around a bit making me wonder how much of the original novel’s story was abridged for space. Nevertheless, it’s serves as a delightful introduction to Discworld.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne

Author: Kevin Hearne
TitleHeir to the Jedi 
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2015.

This Star Wars novel is set in between the original film and The Empire Strikes Back when the Rebel Alliance is looking for a new base of operations.  Luke Skywalker is dealing with the comedown after his initial success of destroying the Death Star and having no one to train him to use the Force.  Luke is assigned a mission to recover the brilliant cryptographer Drusil Bephorin (from a species who talk about math for fun) who is being forced to work for the Empire.  Accompanying him on his journey is the sharpshooter Nakari Kelen, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who supports the rebel cause.  They fly on her souped-up yacht, the Desert Jewel.

The narrative overall is episodic adventures of Luke, Nakari, and Drusil using their strengths to avoid entanglements with Imperials and bounty hunters.  Uniquely, the story is narrated from the first person point of view of Luke Skywalker, and does a good job of capturing his uncertainty and impulsiveness.  Luke’s relationship with Nakari helps him realize things about himself in his effort to learn more about becoming a Jedi.  They also have an amusing, quippy relationship that leads to romance.  The idea introduced in the prequels that Jedi were like Catholic priests who could have no romantic attachments always bothered me so it’s nice to see it subverted here.

While this novel is ultimately a light and frivolous thing, I did enjoy it.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Terry Pratchett: The BBC Radio Drama Collection by Terry Pratchett

Author: Terry Pratchett
Title: Terry Pratchett: The BBC Radio Drama Collection 
Narrator: Full cast performances (see links from descriptions of each radio drama for the names of cast & crew)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info:  BBC Books (2019)

I’ve been meaning to read more Terry Pratchett, so what better way to start than with seven of his novels dramatized by actors at the BBC.  Most of these novels are set in Pratchett’s Discworld, a flat planet on the back of four elephants on the back of a giant turtle.  The setting is similar to the medieval fantasy and fairy tale stories with comedic and satirical factors.

Mort (****)

Death, a recurring character in the Discworld stories, decides to take on the teenage Mort as an apprentice.  But when Mort prevents the assassination of Princess Keli he creates an alternate universe that threatens reality.  This is a really funny and clever novel.

Wyrd Sisters (**1/2)

One of the issues I had with these radio dramas is that the audio quality wasn’t always good and it was particularly hard to understand the Shakespearean stage whispers in this production.  That may have marred my enjoyment of this story about three witches and an acting troupe.  The play within a play  parodies elements of Macbeth, Hamlet, and other works of Shakespeare.

Guards! Guards! (***1/2)

This book introduces the City Watch, generally considered incompetent, but put to the test when a group of miscreants summon a dragon as part of a plot to put a new king on the throne.  Lead by Samuel Vines, and inspired by earnest newcomer Carrot, the  Watch rises to the occasion.

Eric (***)

A parody of Faust, thirteen-year-old demonologist, Eric Thursley accidentally rescues the wizard Rincewind from Dungeon Dimensions (a Discworld version of hell).  Eric is granted three wishes but they are fulfilled with “monkey’s paw” style consequences.

Small Gods (****)

The Great God Om manifests himself in the form of a tortoise to a simple religious novitiate named Brutha, who turns out to be the only human who truly believes in Om.  This book somehow works both as a skewering of religion but also shows the positive side of religious practice.

Night Watch (****)

Commander of the City Watch Samuel Vines is pursuing a dangerous criminal, Carcer, when they are both transported back in time.  Vimes must take on the identity of John Keel and mentor his younger self through the conflict that ensues.

Only You Can Save Mankind (**1/2)

The only story not set in Discworld, but instead in England during the time of the Gulf War in 1991.  12-year-old Johnny Maxwell is playing a video game about an alien attack, when the alien ScreeWee surrender to him.  In a reality-bending adventure Johnny is responsible for helping seemingly real-life aliens get back home.  This story seems to anticipate massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Breadfruit by Célestine Hitiura Vaite

Around the World for a Good Book selection for French Polynesia

Author: Célestine Hitiura Vaite
Title: Breadfruit
Publication Info: Auckland, N.Z. : Vintage, 2000.

Set in Tahiti, this novel is the story of Materena, a young woman in Tahiti who lives with her somewhat shiftless boyfriend Pito and their children.  At the beginning of the book Pito drunkenly proposes to Materena and she dreams about the wedding while wondering if he really meant it.  The book is episodic linking together vignettes of everyday life in Tahiti, usually with Materena being visited by family and friends who share their adventures.  The novel is mostly light and funny, but there’s an undercurrent of the reveal poverty and effects of colonialism (which manifests in the book primarily through the French police officers).  It’s a delightful and charming book and Vaite does a great job in creating the characters and their dialogue.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Author: Ray Bradbury
Title: Dandelion Wine
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc., 2010 [Originally published in 1957]
Other Books I’ve Read By the Same Author:


I read Dandelion Wine 30+ years ago and it swiftly became one of my all-time favorite books.  However, there’s actually very little I remember of the book. My main memory is the scene where the main character’s grandfather is indignant when someone tries to convince him to get a lawn where dandelions won’t grow, and thus lose the main ingredient in the titular beverage (By the way, since this book is set in 1928, does making dandelion wine violate the Volstead Act?).

This book is a more personal work for Ray Bradbury, based on his childhood memories of summers in his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois (which he calls “Green Town”). Bradbury admits in the introduction that Waukegan is an unattractive, industrial city but for a child it was full of wonders, something the jibes with my own experience of growing up in a mundane Connecticut suburb.  The main characters of the book are 12-year-old Douglas, his younger brother Tom, and their friend Charlie.  But it’s not a novel as much as it is an interconnected collection of short stories, several of which don’t involve the children at all.

The book is not science fiction or horror as it typical of Bradbury’s work, but contains aspects of these things.  Douglas finds magic in the feeling of being alive in the summer and an elderly neighbor is considered a “time machine” because of the stories he can tell.  While rooted in childhood, this book is very much an adult’s perspective on ideas of mortality.  An elderly woman is convinced by children who believe she was never young to let go of her memories, while Douglas’ great grandmother predicts the hour of her death.  There’s also the horror of a serial killer known as The Lonely One stalking the town.

Bradbury’s work is filled with nostalgia and poetic language, but it is not divorced from cold reality.  It embraces the magic of every day life while not shying away from the fact that one day everyone will die.  Through all the change, there are always things that will remain the same.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Boom! by Mark Haddon

Author: Mark Haddon 
Title: Boom!
Narrator: Julian Rhind-Tutt
Publication Info: Listening Library (2010)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:


Recommended books:


Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Title: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Narrator: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Publication Info: W. W. Norton & Company (2017)
Other Books I’ve Read By the Same Author:


As the title says, Neil deGrasse Tyson breaks down big questions of the universe into a quick and comprehensible book. Topics include the Big Bang, dark matter and dark energy, and exoplanets.  For me this is a bit of a review of the awe-inspiring cosmology course I took in college.  Of course, I never fully understood it all back than so learning it again never hurts.  Tyson is probably the most well-known living public scientist, and his writing style (and narration on the audiobook) makes for an engaging book on complex topics.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism by Bernie Sanders and John Nichols

Author: Bernie Sanders and John Nichols
Title: It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism
Narrator: Bernie Sanders
Publication Info:  Crown (2023)

The latest book from America’s beloved socialist grandpa has a provocative title.  So I was a little disappointed when a good chunk of the book was a memoir of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, helping to get Joe Biden elected, and a frustrating two years where the Democratic party failed to take advantage of their congressional majority to advance a progressive agenda.  Basically it’s a sequel to Our Revolution.  Mind you, I have great memories of attending a Sanders’ presidential rally on Boston Common, which was the last big crowd I stood in before the pandemic started.

But the title implied that this was going to be more of an analysis of what is going wrong in our country/world and how to fix it.  And it does get down to it eventually with a good synthesis on how the corporate and wealthy elites have created intense economic inequality.  The solutions, of course, are the many proposals that he and others have been putting forward, many based on what has worked in other nations as well as in the United States past.  It’s all very well-written, but also not anything particularly new to me, as I’m the choir to Bernie’s preacher.  I’m not sure if their is an audience who is not aware of these solutions already who would be receptive to hearing it from Senator Sanders (because believe it or not,  our beloved socialist grandpa is not loved by all).  But if there is, this would be a good primer for them!

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2



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