Cromulent Book of the Week: Red Famine

Red Famine: Stalin's War on UkraineThe victims of Russian communism under Joseph Stalin numbers in the tens of millions. In an age where seemingly even the Easter Bunny is Hitler, the crimes of the “man of steel” sadly go largely unnoticed by the general public. Anne Applebaum once again does a magnificent job revealing these atrocities, this time focusing on the Holdomor, the Ukrainian genocide, in her latest work Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.

The Holdomor (from the Ukrainian phrase “to kill by starvation”) was a two year period, 1932-1933, of mass starvation in Ukraine, leading to the deaths of millions, possibly as many as twelve million. What sets Red Famine apart from previous works on the starvation is Applebaum’s conclusive evidence proving the Holdomor was a deliberate extermination effort to suppress a burgeoning Ukrainian independence movement and destroy the very idea of Ukrainian national identity.

Stalin hated the peasantry and viewed them as an obstacle to his goal of mass collectivization. Grain quotas increased to unsustainable levels and unlike shortages in 1921 and 1947, the Soviets did not seek assistance from the international community nor halt grain exports. In Stalin’s estimation the people of Ukraine were idlers and saboteurs deserving of suffering and death.

What makes the Holodomor, as well as the innumerable other atrocities of the Soviets, so terrifying is the personal nature of Stalin with regard to the pain and suffering he wrought. He took personal pleasure in meting out punishment, often spending his evenings in his office thumbing through files of political prisoners, handwriting directives on punishment. From a murderous armed robber to leader of a nuclear power, Joseph Stalin rose to be history’s greatest organized crime boss.

Red Famine is available in hardback and digital from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


Cromulent Book of the Week: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Making of the Atomic BombIt is simply astounding that the atom was not proven by science until the late 1800’s and yet within a half a century atomic weapons were built and used successfully. The Manhattan Project began in 1939 and detonated a bomb by July 1945, an undertaking costing $2 billion, equaling over $25 billion today.

Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for his exhaustive history of those sixty years in The Making of the Atomic Bomb. There is no better one volume chronicle of this period. At just under 800 pages, it is a dense, but satisfying read, and goes into detail not just on the engineering of the bomb but also the science behind nuclear fission, including the men and women toiling away across the globe, many working independent of one another.

With a near daily stream of stories about the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran, Rhodes’ book has never been more critical for those that want to understand the early history of these terrible weapons. Be it nuclear war or nuclear accident, the end of the Cold War did not signal the demise of atomic devastation hanging over all our heads.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Cromulent Book of the Week: The Impossible State

Sometime next month President Trump will sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a summit on NK’s nuclear weapons program. There have been numerous op-eds decrying that any such meetings are a “dangerous gamble and a bad idea” and “will all end in diplomatic disaster“. Negotiations, no matter how slim the chance of meaningful success may be, are always preferable to antagonism and aggression, especially when nuclear weapons are involved. Frenzied warnings of another Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement moment are tired clichés: North Korea is not Nazi Germany and treating it as such is a dangerous game to play.

The warhawks in the White House (looking at you John Bolton) are intent on starting a conflict that will see the deaths of potentially hundreds of thousands of civilians and economic damages in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The counter-argument has been made by numerous pundits and politicians but the best is that of Victor Cha, a Georgetown professor and former Director for Asian Affairs for National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

Cha’s insistence that a bloody nose strike on North Korea would be disastrous cost him the position of Ambassador to South Korea.

[T]here is a point at which hope must give in to logic. If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind? And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?

Professor Cha knows far more about North Korea than anyone in the White House, or anywhere else for that matter. His 2012 book The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future is the best single volume on the North Korean regime, not just its structure but also more crucially the mindset of the Kim family dynasty.

The book lays out a picture of the regime by exploring several topics all rooted in how North Koreans view their own history. Topics include:

  • The “good old days” before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • The Kim family history and the dynamics of their inter-familial relationships.
  • Relations with neighbors, particularly China.
  • Unification.
  • “The Logic of Deterrence”.

If you want to understand North Korea in a context other than Team America: World Police, pick up a copy of The Impossible State.

Available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


Cromulent Book of the Week: The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z, by David GrannThe Lost City of Z is the incredible tale of Englishman Percy Fawcett, one of the greatest explorers in history yet long overshadowed by the likes of Ernest Shackleton and Henry Stanley. David Grann paints a portrait of a man consumed by the unknown and a tolerance for suffering hardly imaginable today.

Fawcett had become convinced of the existence of the ruins of a once mighty city deep in the Brazilian Amazon. On his final quest in 1925 he brought just his oldest son Jack, Jack’s best friend Raleigh, and two native guides. The group disappeared without a trace, perhaps killed by an unfriendly tribe or the victims of disease and/or starvation in the hostile jungle.

Fawcett was the last of the great Victorian-era explorers, men that set out into truly unexplored country with rudimentary supplies, no maps, and the overwhelming desire to chart the unknown. In an interesting twist, as Fawcett set out on his final journey, a competing team led by an American set out to find the lost city with wireless radios, setting the stage for modern exploration using all the latest in satellite,aerial, and communication technology.

A movie, also titled The Lost City of Z, came out in 2016 starring Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett and Robert Pattinson of Twilight infamy. Save your time and money – it’s a bland, boring affair that does nothing to adequately reveal the spirit and determination of one of the all-time greats of exploration. Hunnam conveys all the emotion of a ballpoint pen and never comes within a mile of a convincing adventurer.

Available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Cromulent Book of the Week: Understanding China

Understanding China: A Guide to China's Economy, History, and Political Culture by John Bryan StarrChina is in the news on a daily basis- trade relations, human rights, territorial expansion, Taiwan, and recently Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate his power. How much do you actually know though about China and why they are the way they are? Understanding China: A Guide to China’s Economy, History, and Political Culture by John Bryan Starr is a great single volume on the country. Starr is a lecturer on China and a past president of both the Yale China Association and the China Institute in New York City.

If you want to understand the underpinnings of all those news stories this is the book to read. It covers a wide range of topics including the party-state, economy, “centrifugal forces of regionalism”, rule of law, rural vs urban, environmental challenges, and education.

I have read Understanding China on several occasions and each time taken away something new to think about, perhaps the most important idea being the overwhelming fear by the ruling Communist Party of social upheaval and the need for harmony at all costs.

To understand China is not necessarily to love it, but understanding China is a prerequisite for dealing with it effectively … And, given its size and its potential, and the degree to which the rest of the world has become linked with it both economically and politically, there is no avoiding the necessity of dealing with China in the years ahead.

It is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.



Cromulent Book of the Week: The Gun

The Gun by C.J. Chivers

The Gun by C.J. Chivers.The Gun is one of my favorite books of all time. C.J. Chivers, a former Marine infantry officer and now a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, traces the often obscured origin of the infamous AK-47 assault rifle. The Gun is not a technical overview of the weapon, as Chivers makes clear in the introduction, but a social history of the weapon.

The automatic Kalashnikov offers a lens for examining the miniaturization and simplification of rapid-fire firearms, a set of processes that when uncoupled from free markets and linked to mass production in the planned economies of opaque and brittle nations, enabled automatic firepower to reach uncountable hands.

You do not need to be versed in small arms or even particularly interested in weaponry to enjoy this book. Chivers illuminates not only the development of the weapon and its creator, but also its proliferation and its immense and varied symbolism.

It’s available in paperback at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.



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