Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty

I had my reservations about this book from the start. My initial resevations turned into alarm when I found out that the book was foreworded by Bono (there is always something to say about an academic's self-esteem if he turns to a music celebrity for endorsement; some might argue it is a sagacious marketing ploy though but I find call it insecurity).
On the first 80+ pages of the book the author provides the 2+2=4 version of economics which completely misses the audience as it seems to be too non-inclusive for the uninitiated and completely redundant in its simplicity for those with a background in economics. One important thing to remember is that Sachs didn't set out to write a cursory overview of a balanced approach to the eradication of poverty but was agenda-driven from the get-go. There are several items on his agenda: (1) advocate for external debt cancellation for ... well, basically, anyone state which wants it, (2) smear the work of the IMF in all its applications, (3) the world's poverty is, in one way or another, the developed countries' -- particularly the West's -- fault which he considers to be a debt owed to the developing ones.
The rest of the book is a kaleidoscope of Sachs' personal travelog (which sometimes gets entertaining for what it is) and the continued lambasting of the West for everything that is wrong with the present economic -- and sometimes political -- situation of the developing world. In these assessments Sachs gives the reader a polarized view of world politics, a matter in which he does not cut an imagine of an astute expert. Examples of this are legion throughout the book. One thing that comes to mind is Sachs' portrayal of the Renamo as 'violent' and tacitly supported by the US and South Africa while, I presume, assuming that the USSR-bankrolled Frelimo were angels pillaged by the evil forces of the Renamo. Anyone who has studied the Mozambique conflict for half a day knows that this wasn't the case and that there is a wealth of scholarship attesting to the fact that both the Remano and the Frelimo were equally brutal and committed horrific acts of atrocity. The author, however, gives no credence to these assertions of others because they don't fit his agenda which is to smear the West and its foreign policy. Another glaring example of such misrepresentation is Sachs' reference to the African slave trade which he determines as having existed for 300 years, a totally untenable argument since it is a well-established fact that slave trade in Africa was started by Africans, not Europeans, to which Europeans were late-comers and contributed, some argue, not more than 10% to it. Slave trade in Africa continues to this day and is powered by Africans themselves. There are literally thousands of NGO reports to this effect, which Sachs chose to ignore because they don't work for his agenda.
If you absolutely have to get this book, get it on audio and get it over with while on the road. Otherwise, there are plenty of quality titles on economics, history of conflict, history of international organizations and other topics that this book purports to deal with. Go with those, particularly if you are not yet in a position to tell scholarship from demagoguery.
I got a tremendous kick out of this book for all the wrong reasons – I merely enjoy misguided arguments too much, particularly when they come from esteemed Harvard scholars, to miss this pearl.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam by Robert Spencer

by Stan Starygin
This is definitely a book with an agenda. The author's views are a combination of academic research, deep-seated emotion and juxtaposition between the teachings of Mohammed and Jesus. There are several themes that the book hammers away: (1) violence committed by Muslims is, most of the time, based on Islam, (b) members of the Judeo-Christian culture must take pride in their heritage lest they waste it away, (c) Judeo-Christian governments around the world don't do enough to recognize Islam and its tenets as a threat in their own rights, (d) there are many misconceptions about the Crusades as they weren't as violent as some might cut them out to be.
I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who is not sufficiently versed in Islam through less agenda driven sources, the Quran itself and the writing of eminent Islamic clerics since many of the approaches taken by this book were employed to prove a point the author makes at the outset of the book, rather than explore and analyze points of inquiry into Islam. This is a great source for those who are looking for validation for the Bush Administration post 9/11 policies and want to find them all in one place laced with a more than sufficient amount of fervor.
Having read several dozen of Islam-related titles I enjoyed this book, mainly, not for the author's attempts to debunk "the PC myth of the Crusades", but for its sheer energy that this work emits even in the parts of it where the author is on a limb and even those where Spencer is flat-out wrong. It is almost cute to see the gusto with which Spencer ignores fairly well-known sources which don't work for his arguments side-stepping them in favor of those -- sometimes of more obsure nature -- which do. This is the nature of any argument, though, and one should have a sharp and trained eye to distinguish between solid arguments and their lame counterparts. Read up on the background of Islam in other sources and you will get a kick out of this book like I did!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"EU Law Text Cases and Materials" by Paul Craig, Grainne De Burca, Grainne De Burca

by Stan Starygin
This is one of very few books that is worth paying $85 for. It might not fit with the needs of entry level law students, but it is a great buy for advanced students, legal academics and practitioners. This title meticulously walks the reader through the history of the European Community (EC) to the expansion of EU institutions and to the detail of various facets of EU law. The authors had developed a great understanding of the subject in its incredible intricacy. Considering the subject of the publication, the materials of the title reads fairly easily and arguments, intricate as they might be, are coherent and comprehensible.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Khrushchev: The Man and His Era" by William Taubman

Expansive but Lacking Critical Detail

This book could be what you are looking, but could be not. It all depends on how much you know about the history of Soviet Union and the facts of life of the protagonist. One of the book's stonger parts is the description of peasant life in Russia prior to the Bolshevik coup d'etat of 1917. The topic is well-researched and the verbal imagery created by the author is quite vivid. This is followed by a fairly comprehensive analysis of industrial workers' life in the years between the turn of the previous century and 1917. From here on out the quality of research plummets to long meandering paragraphs strung together by the author as a substitute for factual accounts of what had -- or likely had -- taken place. Some of the most tremendous and tragic events which happened during Khrushchev's time and by which he doubtless would have been affected, as well as the people of his inner circle are mentioned here in passing. One of these events is the Great Famine of 1932-33 which devasted Ukraine and which -- many argue -- was instigated by the Stalin government as a reprisal against the rebellious Ukrainian peasants who at the time were fighting off forced collectivization. The Great Famine -- granted the status of genocide by the Ukrainian Parliament in 2006 -- was one of the most barbaric incidents of recent history to which Khrushchev was privy, in one way or the other. An event of this magnitude and Khrushchev's participation in it and knowledge of such did not merit in this book much more than a facile treatment. Khrushchev's amazing ability to dodge the various waves of purges is also understated and underanalyzed. His WW2 years and the speech at the 20th congress of the CPSU follow suit. The problem with writing a quality review of this book is that it is not objectively substandard, and yet it does not add much to the scholarship on the issue. Truth be known, I would recommend this volume over Roy Medvedev's work on the same topic, as Taubman's piece, for all its other frailties, seems to be more impartial and less apologetic.

"The Trial of Henry Kissinger" by Christopher Hitchens

A Rare specimen!
This book is a rare specimen. It is a book without an audience (besides people like myself who got duped by the title). Although it does have an ostentatious name that would lead you to believe that it might contain hardcore evidence of Kissinger’s commission and complicity in the commission of a wide range of crimes, it falls far short of that expectation. If this book was intended for historians and international lawyers its material is unimpressive, inconsistent with the facts (reference to the authority of the International Criminal Court (ICC) by which Hitchens alludes that the United States is in some way bound comes to mind first, although the US has been persistently rejecting the ICC and has been working for the past few years with individual governments to conclude bilateral extradition treaties designed to undermine this very court) and too speculative to be given any academic credence. If the book was written for the general public which knows little or, in case of the new generation, nothing about Kissinger, it is not explanatory enough to help this audience make head or tail of the nature of Hitchens’ accusations. In addition, the book draws no line between the public and private persona of Henry Kissinger. Instead, allegations of the commission of crimes are made across the board and are served by the author as an amalgam of Kissinger’s private beliefs and practices (such as his long-term support of China and the CCP government) and his public duties which he carried out more than two decades ago. Disregard Daily Telegraph’s challenge (printed on the back of this book) thrown at Kissinger to sue, as there’s no court in this world which abides by the principles of fair trial that would consider Hitchens’ arguments sufficiently persuasive to grant them a prima facia. Kissinger made the right decision by completely disregarding this publication as it has no teeth outside the realm of coffee-shop reading. For the record, I am not associated with Henry Kissinger in any way, nor am I his avid supporter. In my opinion Kissinger’s actions as a public persona merit an investigation, however, Hitchens’ book is an incredibly feeble attempt at doing so. This book has added nothing to the scholarship on the subject, nor does it contain any material that can be of utility to anyone who might decide to put together a prima facie case against Kissinger. There’s better compiled material available on the subject – although it cannot be found all in one place – that a reader can obtain commensurate with his/her prior knowledge of the history of the period during which Kissinger was a political figure. By not buying this book you will also be making a stand against demagoguery in modern polemics. Stan Starygin

"Kosovo: A Brief History" by Noel Malcolm

Great myth-debunking job!
I believe not much has been written in the world to debunk the myths that have been created over centuries and millenia, the fact which encourages many a few nations to live in the world of self-created oblivion, and, inexorably, glorious past. This oftentimes aids self-validation, forward-leaning nation-building and patriotism however, in one too many cases this attitude to history has spawned radical nationalism and caused civil unrest and armed conflict. Kosovo is an example of the latter. Kosovo watchers know that arguments have been made by either side of this conflict to justify the 'truths that are self-evident'. The issue here is that an ordinary person may not be versed in the Balkan history to a point where he/she can cull out the husk from the kernel, which is where this book comes in. I appreciate the effort of the author at doing a tremendous research job and making coherent and, in my opinion, for the most part, solid arguments. Conclusions made by the author are heavy-handed and unequivocal where they need to be, which is the style of narration I personally appreciate and which is a testament to the author's confidence in the quality of his research. On the downside of this work, I felt that some of the arguments got bogged down in detail (which is indispensible for history writing) and which seemed to have diluted and led astray some of the author's arguments. The details provided -- although do not add value to the arguments set forth -- doubtless can be used for other purposes than those immediately applicable to the aforementioned arguments. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the nature of the Kosovo issue and those who study -- from athropological or political science viewpoints -- the development of historical and political myth (otherwise known as propaganda)and its effects on the political and societal climates of a particular state or region.

"Never Eat Alone" by Keith Ferrazzi

Review by Stan Starygin
In this publication Keith Ferrazzi decided to add to the growing body of "the Schmoozer's Bible". Ferrazzi outright rejects the terms which normally describes the type of behavior he champions. These terms are 'schmoozer', 'apple-polisher', 'sycophant', etc. Instead, Ferrazzi is more comfortable referring to himself -- and others of his ilk -- as 'connector'. This, unfortunately, does not change the nature of what he does and, most important, how he does it. The book teaches that, if put in a nutshell, all moral scruples are suppressed, there will be nothing standing between him/her and his/her goal. Ferrazzi claims that he has perfected the art of "connecting to people", whereas the truth is that what he has really perfected is the art of manipulation and pretense. There are hysterical parts of this book where Ferrazzi encourages the reader to "develop" certain interests, focusing in on the most popular interests of the rich of this world, such as, for example, golf, which Ferrazzi himself does not particularly enjoy but is afraid to speak strongly against it in the same measure as he is afraid of speaking strongly against anyone or anything, hedging his bets and thinking that he might have to ask this person for a favor some time in the future which is why irating him/her in this publication would be imprudent. Perhaps the most laughable statement made by Ferrazzi is the one he makes towards the very end of this book where he talks about how his strategy of "connecting to people" can change the world. Keith is either delusional or just can't snap out of the overall pretense of this book, but the way he does things achieves the exact opposite -- it creates a nation of adaptable and spineless people who even arrange their tastes in music to the liking of those they "want to meet". Ferrazzi, according to his own admission, has grown into the lifestyle his schmoozer philosophy affords and, apparently, has done very well for himself applying it. I, personally, wouldn't want someone like him as a friend and I wouldn't want his type around in professional settings either.
It is not all bad, though. There are certain parts of the book that -- although do not contain new information and a new way of presentation of old information -- are instructive as they remind us of certain aspects of social etiquette. Thank-you letters is one such aspect. Remembering people's birthdays is another. These are very simple and widely known forms of social etiquette which sometimes, unfortunately, escape people's attention. There are a few other things that can be picked up on the way.
Considering the cost of time that takes to read this book and the benefit one can attain, I recommend you get it on audio and listen to it in your car where there is little else to do. Do not treat this book as a revelation, though. There is no hidden message and Ferrazzi does not know much more about "connectivity" than most of you unless of course you accept his version of "persistence". The greatness value of this book, though, is how entertaining it is and how fun it is to watch Ferrazzi "connect to people" in what most would consider as humiliating ways.