It's been a while (about 9 months) since I've done a full fledged book review. One reason is that I've been busy doing many things, including, of course, reading books. Another reason is that I do not want to monopolize the book review section. So, instead of full fledged many-paragraphed reviews of each book, I'm sharing a brief summary of each one.
Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II, by Jennet Conant (Simon and Schuster, 2002). This account of Alfred Loomis and his investment of significant personal wealth into a science lab tucked away in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., sheds the sort of deep background on the scientific inventions shifting the balance of power in World War II that would not have seen the light of day during the war, or even within the next several decades. It is both a testament to the foresight of private citizens, though well-connected with and strongly encouraged by government officials, and a warning about the lack of attention paid to science by a nation caught up in an idealized view of global events. It is not difficult to conclude that had Loomis not pursued his deep-seated interest in science, or had he not acquired the wealth that permitted him to turn his "hobby" into a full-fledged enterprise, the war may have developed with a bit less, or a lot less, success for the Allies, giving Germany the additional time that may have made a difference. I'll leave the "what if?" conjectures to another book on this list. Loomis was educated as a lawyer and practiced for some years, and even though tax was not the center of his life, his makes for a biography far more interesting than those of most lawyers. Conant's connection with the enterprise was her great-uncle, an associate of Loomis who ended up killing himself, which is what piqued Conant's interest in the story she tells in a tough-to-put-down-while-reading style. Conant's grandfather was James B. Conant, the subject of several books, including James G. Hershberg's James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age. In the interest of disclosing any potential bias, I'll share what a careful detective could figure out: Jennet is my fifth cousin, and though we've never met, I knew her grandmother. Anyhow, she joins the ever-growing list of Maule descendants who are writers. That, however, is a genetic thing, something that is the topic of another book on this list.
What If? 2, edited by Robert Cowley (Berkley Books 2002). Had I been paying attention when I picked this up in the bookstore I would have seen the "2" and hunted up "1" (which probably doesn't have a "1" just as no one called King Edward I, Edward the First when he was alive because no one knew for certain there would be a Second!). I still need to dig up "1" but in the meantime the order in which they are read makes no difference. This is a collection of essays by prominent historians who consider how world history would have changed had one small detail in an historical event turned out differently. Some of the hypothetical events examined take off from famous happenings (William fails to conquer England, Luther burned at the stake) whereas others turn around the outcome of decisions that get little or no attention in Western history textbooks (China's decision to pull back from sea exploration in the fifteenth century, Socrates' escape from the massacre of Delium), while most take off on situations that, well, at least were not news to me. It's fun stuff, to paraphrase a colleague of mine. There's no proving the speculation right or wrong. It's simply the intellectual stimulation of thinking through the impact of cause and effect, chaos theory, alternative on alternative, and the near miss (or near hit). For lawyers of any sort, the first essay alone, the impact of Socrates falling at Delium, is profound, because the foundation on which Western law rests would almost surely been different. And so, too, would have been the practice of law. Good thing Socrates was fast as a youngster!
Adam's Curse: A Future Without Men, by Bryan Sykes (W.W. Norton and Company, 2004). No, this isn't a tribute to the late Andrea Dworkin's philosophy of life. It's a sobering scientific analysis, focusing on genes, chromosomes, and sexual reproduction, that would strike fear into the hearts of men everywhere but for the fact that Sykes predicts this won't happen during our lifetimes. Whew. Beginning with an extensive DNA-based study of family history, especially gender proportions among couple's children, Sykes sets forth the proposition that in time the male gender will disappear among human beings. How? Well, read the book. It's nicely written, and one does not need to be a science major to understand it. Following on his Seven Daughters of Eve, which I read a few years ago, Sykes demonstrates that he is among the leaders in the field of genetic-based study of human history. I'd like to hire him to do for the Maule surname what he managed to do with Sykes. As for the law aspect, I started thinking about the impact on law of the disappearance of the male gender and concluded that the only certainty was the disappearance of heterosexual marriage. And the cessation of lawsuits stemming from arguments over the television remote control.
Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier, by Jeffrey A. Lockwood (Basic Books, 2004). I guess I have a thing for historical accounts of natural disasters, as readers of my review of The Big One might have noticed. This time, instead of shaking the earth, nature blankets it with locust swarms that could challenge the talents of the special effects folks in Hollywood. This is an historical mystery story. Why did the locust suddenly stop showing up? I won't spoil the whoddunit, but it wasn't the butler and it wasn't what I thought. Nor was it what the investigators first thought. Or second thought. Lockwood manages to avoid burying us with jargon and technical stuff, but instead brings a human interest perspective to much of his discussion. Of relevance to modern lawyers is the recurring theme of how government fails and succeeds in dealing with a national disaster at a time when the federal government was far smaller and much less powerful than it is today. The politics alone should hold the attention of most lawyers. Although it's been a while since a casualty loss deduction for locust swarm has been claimed, if ever, there are some dollar numbers in this book to tease the minds of empirically oriented tax policy experts. After all, one century locust, another century avian flu? Who knows? Well, as for the locust disappearance, Lockwood and his readers know.
Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes, by Steve Olson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002). Of course, another genetics-and-history volume. There's nothing like testing legends against the scientific proofs now available through DNA evidence. This is not a science text. This is an anthropology text, a sociology text, a political science text, and a history text. After getting through the basic stuff, such as why each one of us is related to each other one of us, Olson turns to the question of whether sapiens and neadertals interbred, whether the kohanin of the Jews are genetically linked and thus descended from one man (Aaron), the genetic "bottleneck" among the Samaritans of some years ago, the migration of humanity out of African and across the Indian Ocean seacoast to China and the archipelagos, the descendancy sequence between northern and southern Chinese, whether language families match up with DNA pedigrees, the genetic diversity of Europeans, the patterning of DNA trends onto a map of France and the clues that are provided for contemplating the impact of present day immigration into Europe, the disputes over the timing of the settlement of the Americas, and the political difficulty of obtaining genetic information when there is concern and even fear that it could be used to the disadvantage of those who contribute. In his last chapter Olson gets to a point so easily misunderstood, that is, there is no such thing as "race" unless one chooses to pick a particular feature and use it as a classification device. Despite the impression that until modern times humans lived in relative isolation, the DNA evidence demonstrates all sorts of sexual communication across tribe, nation, region, and continent. There is no "pure" anything, a point that Olson makes with his analysis of the DNA among residents of the Hawaiian Islands. Other than failing to identify the tax gene, there's not much missing in Olson's guide through an area of science that has changed enormously since anyone over 22 graduated from high school.
The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion, edited by the Lower Merion Historical Society's Dick Jones (2000). This is a nicely illustrated, fascinating history of Lower Merion Township, which sits just to the east of Radnor Township where I live. Generations ago, before my 4-great-grandfather moved into Philadelphia, my Maule and related ancestors lived in Radnor. This is a book that will captivate anyone interested in local history, particularly that of southeastern Pennsylvania.
Haverford Township, in the Images of America series (2003). This is a picture book, with captions, consisting primarily of photographs and a few drawings from the late seventeenth century through the mid-twentieth century. Haverford Township is to the south-east of Radnor Township. This is another book tailored to a narrow audience. Yes, I read the captions so this counts as a book that I have read during the past 9 months.
The First Crusade: A New History: The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam, by Thomas Asbridge (Oxford University Press 2004). This surely isn't how the First Crusade was taught to *me* when I was in school. Nicely combining my interests in history, military decision making, family history, and theology, Asbridge provides a detailed inspection of the culture from which the First Crusade sprang, the decisions, good and bad, of its leaders and participants, the gory details of the crusader campaigns through Asia Minor and the Levant, and the crusader mind-set that not so nicely combined greed with spiritual fervor. Discovering that there were instances when forces of Islam fought each other was not a surprise, but discovering that crusader forces allied themselves with some forces of Islam against other forces of Islam was. By the time I finished reading Asbridge's work, I realized how tangled a history the First Crusade wrote, and how misleading it is to cast it in clear cut terms when it was in fact a muddled jumble of politics and theological zeal.
Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel, by Eric H. Cline (University of Michigan Press 2004). Maybe Jerusalem is, as the medieval Christian mind thought, the navel of the world. It surely has been the center of attention for a long time. Did you know (I didn't) that Jerusalem has been at the center of at least 118 conflicts during the past 4,000 years, has been destroyed completely at least twice, has been beseiged at least 23 times, has been attacked another 52 times, and has been captured and recaptured 44 times? It has been the location of at least 20 revolts and countless riots. It has been surrendered peacefully TWICE in the past 4,000 years. Cline takes the reader through many of those incidents, putting the battles and other disturbances into the context of the times. He supplements his text with superb maps, graphs, and illustrations. The details sometimes can be horrific and revolting, for our ancestors too often were barbaric and narrow-minded. It was, for me, an eye-opener (literally) to see how the boundaries and walls of the city changed over time, to learn that for several hundred years in the common era it was a sparsely populated near-village, and that many of the common era conflicts involved disputes among different forces of Islam. It was not an eye-opener to understand that the current turmoil and disputes reflect a long history of contentiousness, but it was both disturbing and enlightening to discover how tangled and fractured that history has been. Considering that the city, in the grand scheme of things, never sat on a major trade route, isn't all that important militarily aside from its own existence, and has not been blessed with much water or other natural resources, it becomes quite evident that religion, or more specifically, conflict among competing religious beliefs, has elevated the city into a symbol far more powerful than any armed force that attacked or defended it. After reading Cline's careful enumeration of Jerusalem's history and absorbing his explanations of the cultures from which the hundreds of conflicts arose, I was left wondering whether there could ever be a solution other than to depopulate the place, seal it off, and declare it the sole and unapproachable property of Divinity however identified or defined. Perhaps somewhat like a parent taking something away from children who insist on fighting over the thing.
So much for nine months in the literary life of a tax law professor. And, yes, I'm already partway through two more books.