Reviews by Eloquence

5 stars
Loving homage to a hugely influential gaming genre

Like many nerds of my generation, I grew up playing games like Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, Monkey Island and (I’ll admit it) Leisure Suit Larry. These point and click adventure games offered immersive stories, atmospheric graphics and music, challenging (and often maddeningly unfair) puzzles, a lot of humor, and memorable characters—from Stan the used boat salesman to Larry Laffer and his laughable attempts to get laid.

I’m also a big fan of art books—paging through gorgeous photographs or paintings on the couch is just so much more relaxing than staring at a screen. So, when I read that Bitmap Books was making an art book about point and click adventures, I had to pre-order a copy. I couldn’t resist getting the (limited) collector’s edition, which arrived a few months later in a package like a classic PC game:

Art of Point and Click Adventures Collector’s Edition (Credit: Bitmap Books. Fair use.)

Just like old-school games, in addition to the book itself, the box contained several “feelies”:

  • a USB flash drive embedded in a fake miniature floppy disk, containing a PDF of the book, some game demos, and some wallpapers;

  • a “Dial-an-Interview” wheel styled after Monkey Island’s “Dial-a-Pirate” copy protection;

  • a sheet of refrigerator magnets for constructing your own silly adventure game sentences (“Give ID card to rat”);

  • a bunch of game art postcards;

  • a “Tri-Island Brewery” grog coaster (yet another Monkey Island reference).

The book without the feelies, which is all you can buy from Bitmap Books at this point, is still an elegant product, with a silver foil blocked cover and a convenient bookmark ribbon. It features art from the 1980s to today, alongside interviews with the humans behind the games: people like Al Lowe (Leisure Suit Larry), Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island), Brian Moriarty (Loom), Charles Cecil (Broken Sword), Tim Schafer (Day of the Tentacle), David Fox (Zak McKracken), and Noah Falstein (Indiana Jones)—to name just a few. Instead of photographs, many of the interviewees get their own pixel art avatars in the book.

Interview with Charles Cecil alongside some art from the Broken Sword series. (Credit: Bitmap Books. Fair use.)

The game art itself is reproduced in different sizes—some screens are blown up to the size of two full pages, which, well, let’s just say that there’s a reason they call it pixel art. In addition to screenshots from the games, the book includes sketches, character art, and backgrounds (some background scenes are multiple screens wide). There is a bit of repetition, but much of it is purposeful—showing how the same scene was created in 16 vs. 256 colors, for example.

The text could have used a bit more editing here and there, and the interviews often go over the same ground (“What was it like working at LucasArts?”) again and again with different interview subjects. But they do include many interesting tidbits about the artistic process and the personal and professional stories of the genre’s luminaries before and since the games we know them for.

The book is organized chronologically, and it does give some space to recent entrants, from Thimbleweed Park (review) to The Lion’s Song (review). If you think point-and-click adventures are dead, you couldn’t be more wrong—touch devices have brought classic adventure games to millions of new fans; crowdfunding and marketplaces like Steam and Gog help sustain a thriving community of independent game makers.

All in all, if you’re like me in at least two ways—you love the genre, and you appreciate beautifully made physical books—I highly recommend getting a copy of The Art of Point-and-Click Adventure Games, or putting it on your wishlist. This is not a book to turn to for critique; it is unadulterated joy and nostalgia. Beyond that, it’s inspired me to try out a few games I didn’t know about before.

Thanks to projects like ScummVM, commercial re-releases, and abandonware archives, games that were copied on floppies by teenagers decades ago are still eminently playable today. Thanks to publishers like Bitmap Books, they are getting the historical recognition they deserve, not just as entertainment, but also as an art form.

5 stars
How greed and fanaticism destroyed a world

Before Columbus, the Americas were home to tens of millions of people, possibly more than 100 million in total, a population greater than that of Europe at the time. The genocide that followed in the subsequent centuries—a combination of systematic extermination and diseases imported from Europe’s pestilence-ridden cities—is greater than any other known in history.

American Holocaust by David Stannard, Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii, was published in 1992—the quincentennial of Columbus’ first voyage. It remains one of the most authoritative works about how and why this genocide occurred.

An Old World

Caddo village, c. 1000 CE. (Credit: Nola Davis, Texas Historical Commission. Fair use.)

Before describing the consequences of European contact, Stannard gives us a window into what pre-Columbian societies in the Americas looked like, describing communities like the Inca, Aztecs and Maya, the Mississippian culture, and the Ancestral Puebloans.

The history of human settlements in the Americas begins at least about 13,500 years ago—and possibly as long as 40,000 years ago. During this time, the uncounted, diverse communities who lived on these vast lands developed vibrant villages and cities, sophisticated farming and irrigation techniques, and large trade networks. They built monuments, watched the stars, created geoglyphs, waged wars, made peace.

But when the threads of American history finally crossed with those of Europe, a new chapter began—and this one was to be written in the blood of multitudes.

Search for Gold

Stannard paints a vivid picture of Spain at the time of Columbus’ first voyage. This was the time of the Spanish Inquisition, of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, of the conquest of Granada; for many, it was a time of abject poverty and disease which routinely swept through Europe (in the previous century, the Black Death had killed 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia). It was a time of prophecy, of witch-hunts, and fanaticism; Columbus himself would write a Book of Prophecies towards the end of his life.

Above all else, the Spanish sought gold to fund their wars and their fledgling empire, with the “conversion” of natives along the way being at best a secondary motive in practice. When they arrived in “Hispaniola”, they brought with them diseases that Europe’s population had become hardened to, and set to work to enslave the native population to work the mines and fields. Those who weren’t killed by disease and by the terror that the Spanish unleashed on the population, were worked to death—and before long, the natives were replaced by imported African slaves.

Market scene of Tenochtitlan before Spanish conquest by Diego Rivera (d. 1957). Note the human body part being sold on the market, which is suggestive of Aztec cannibalism, the extent of which remains heavily disputed among historians. (Credit: Diego Rivera. Fair use.)

That story would come to be repeated by the Spanish invasions throughout South America. Whether natives were friendly or hostile made no difference: the invaders sought gold, not souls, and were willing to work the population to death to get it. The biggest concern this raised in the motherland was that the conquistadors were running out of slave labor.

There were, of course, some Spaniards who were horrified by this unfolding tragedy. Most notably, Bartolomé de las Casas advocated throughout his life for the welfare of the indigenous people, but he could not halt the genocide, only chronicle it.

Genocide as Policy

In contrast with the Spanish quest for gold, Stannard describes the motives regarding the colonization of North America primarily in terms of expansion, to which the native populations were an impediment. In this settler-colonialism, the expulsion or destruction of native populations was a prerequisite for the success of the new colonies, once again aided by European diseases.

Stannard provides more evidence for this characterization than can be included in a brief review, but as it pertains to modern America, it is worth quoting the section that describes the role of the “founding fathers” of the United States in advocating for and implementing genocide (p. 119-120):

George Washington, in 1779, instructed Major General John Sullivan to attack the Iroquois and “lay waste all the settlements around … that the coun­try may not be merely overrun but destroyed,” urging the general not to "listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected. " Sullivan did as instructed, he reported back, “destroy[ing] every­thing that contributes to their support” and turning “the whole of that beautiful region,” wrote one early account, “from the character of a gar­den to a scene of drear and sickening desolation.” The Indians, this writer said, “were hunted like wild beasts” in a “war of extermination,” some­thing Washington approved of since, as he was to say in 1783, the Indians, after all, were little different from wolves, “both being beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.”

And since the Indians were mere beasts, it followed that there was no cause for moral outrage when it was learned that, among other atrocities the victorious troops had amused themselves by skinning the bodies of some Indians “from the hips downward, to make boot tops or leggings.” For their part, the surviving Indians later referred to Washington by the nickname “Town Destroyer,” for it was under his direct orders that at least 28 out of 30 Seneca towns from Lake Erie to the Mohawk River had been totally obliterated in a period of less than five years, as had all the towns and villages of the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Cayuga.


Or Jefferson, for example, who in 1807 instructed his Secretary of War that any Indians who resisted American expansion into their lands must be met with “the hatchet.” “And … if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe,” he wrote, “we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi,” contin­uing: “In war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.”

These were not offhand remarks, for five years later, in 1812, Jefferson again concluded that white Americans were “obliged” to drive the “back­ward” Indians “with the beasts of the forests into the Stony Mountains”; and one year later still, he added that the American government had no other choice before it than “to pursue [the Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.” Indeed, Jefferson’s writings on Indians are filled with the straightforward assertion that the natives are to be given a simple choice-to be “extirpate[d] from the earth” or to remove themselves out of the Americans’ way.

This policy of genocide was continued by future presidents—notably Andrew Jackson, whose “Indian Removal Act” was exactly what it sounds like (a policy of murderous ethnic cleansing). About Jackson’s ascend to the presidency, Stannard writes (p. 121-122):

Then, in 1828 Andrew Jackson was elected President. The same Andrew Jackson who once had written that “the whole Cherokee Nation ought to be scurged.” The same Andrew Jackson who had led troops against peaceful Indian encampments, calling the Indians “savage dogs,” and boasting that “I have on all occasions preserved the scalps of my killed.” The same Andrew Jackson who had supervised the mutilation of 800 or so Creek Indian corpses—the bodies of men, women, and chil­dren that he and his men had massacred—cutting off their noses to count and preserve a record of the dead, slicing long strips of flesh from their bodies to tan and turn into bridle reins. The same Andrew Jackson who—after his Presidency was over—still was recommending that American troops specifically seek out and systematically kill Indian women and children who were in hiding, in order to complete their extermination: to do otherwise, he wrote, was equivalent to pursuing “a wolf in the hammocks with­out knowing first where her den and whelps were.”

Such explicitly genocidal language was used into the 20th century, including by Theodore Roosevelt, who once remarked: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

It is rare that the colonists recognized their own actions as “massacres”, but the 1782 mass murder of 96 peaceful Christianized natives in Ohio (in the majority women and children) is an exception; it was embarrassing in a context where usually a pretext was sought for expulsion or mass murder. The event is known as the Gnadenhutten Massacre. Illustration from Henry Howe, The Great West (1852).

Today’s occupant of the White House is a noted admirer of Andrew Jackson; he placed Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office (where it hung during a ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers) and cited him as a role model on many occasions.

Ideological Foundations

Stannard links the policies of genocide in the Americas to the fanatical religious ideology that the Spanish and the English brought with them: an ideology that often venerated suffering, that was obsessed with sex, that carried within it ideas of “monstrous races” in need of either salvation or destruction.

He connects these ideas to their precursors in antiquity (especially the dehumanization that accompanied the institution of slavery), while noting how the rise of Christianity hardened them into fanaticism, a subject on which Catherine Nixey elaborates in her 2018 work, The Darkening Age.

These beliefs made it all too easy to regard the natives as “savages” and “beasts”, less than human, beyond reason. The fact that many of the societies of the Americas had more permissive attitudes towards sexuality, very different concepts of property, and a large number of beliefs that were totally alien to the invaders—all this removed them further from the prevailing concept of what it means to be human.

Even the Spanish missions, institutions supposedly meant to bring Christianity and “civilization” to the natives were, in reality, little more than concentration camps where natives were worked to death, if not killed by disease (facilitated by the tiny amount of living space allocated to each inhabitant). Stannard cites the example of the missions of California, a topic on which author Elias Castillo recently elaborated in the book A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions.

The Verdict

Of course, to this day, there are plenty of people that will dispute the facts recounted by Stannard, or look for ways to equivocate: Surely disease was by far the more deadly force, so this was not genocide! Surely some natives attacked settlers, so the goal was not extermination but self-defense! Surely the claims against the Spanish were exaggerated by other European powers! Surely there were times of peaceful coexistence, so genocide cannot have been the political intent!

None of these defenses withstand even the slightest scrutiny; Stannard anticipates most of them, and cites sources that largely speak for (or against) themselves. Where he makes assumptions that some will criticize (e.g., in arguing for larger population numbers than some scholars accept), he cites credible research and “shows his work”, letting the reader draw their own conclusions. My only significant criticism of the book is that the photographs and illustrations in the paperback edition are of extremely poor reproduction quality—you may have more luck with the hardcover version.

American Holocaust, then, is an essential work to truly understand the origin story of modern “civilization”. For if we are to create a society that is in fact worth being called a civilization, we must be willing to reflect upon the beliefs and values that made the genocide in the Americas possible.

Remnants of these beliefs—including the expansionist, extractive ideology of settler-colonialism—still animate human action as we face the twin challenges of the 21st century: avoiding catastrophic climate change and avoiding nuclear war. To name just two examples, conflicts like the protests by Native-Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline, or settler violence against Miskito indigenous people in Nicaragua, show that this past isn’t dead—it’s not even past.

2 stars
Overpriced and kitschy political allegory

Stephen King is known for his prolific output of novels and short stories. Having grown up reading books like Stark, It, The Stand and Needful Things, I find it hard to resist the temptation to pick up anything that has his name on it. Usually that’s been a pretty good bet. Usually.

Elevation comes in at 160 pages in a compact form factor, making this more of a short story than even a novella, certainly not “a novel” as it is billed on the cover. It is the story of Scott Carey, a man who mysteriously loses weight without changing in appearance.

As the process accelerates, he finds his mood “elevated” as well. With newfound energy, he tries to connect with a lesbian couple who recently moved into his conservative town, and who are facing prejudice from the conservative majority of the community.

At the annual “Castle Rock Turkey Trot”, a 12K race, Scott finally manages to bridge the gap with the haughty member of the lesbian couple, Deirdre McComb, whose arrogance is a way to protect herself from bigotry.

It’s a kitschy political allegory not entirely without its moments: King’s depiction of the race is a high point in the short story, and the ending is simple but moving. If it had been part of a short story collection, I would rate it three stars. As a stand-alone entry, currently priced at $8 in the ebook version on Amazon, it doesn’t measure up. (You’ll get the whole Wool Omnibus for less, and trust me, it’s a lot more entertaining.)

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
5 stars
How to burn hundreds of millions of dollars, hurt thousands of people, and not get away with it

At its peak, blood testing company Theranos was valued at US$10B, a staggering amount for a privately held start-up. It had raised $700M in investments by venture capitalists and private investors. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was featured on the covers of business magazines sporting a black turtleneck, echoing Steve Jobs’ trademark style. Holmes hobnobbed with the powerful and was celebrated as a brilliant entrepreneur who would revolutionize health-care.

As John Carreyrou recounts in Bad Blood, there was only one problem: Theranos didn’t help people—it hurt them. The company had not created a working product and had systematically deceived the public and investors about this fact, running most tests on recklessly modified commercial analyzers. Worse, Holmes and company president Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani (who was also Holmes’ boyfriend during their time at Theranos) had pushed the company’s flaky blood tests into Walgreens stores.

To minimize regulatory risks, much of this experimentation on human beings took place in the “pro-business” city of Phoenix, Arizona. It had the predictable results: many patients received utterly nonsensical reports that endangered their health and caused them to incur medical debt to pay for expensive follow-up tests.

Climate of Fear

Carreyrou, a Pulitzer-winning investigative writer for the Wall Street Journal whose reporting was instrumental to bringing about the fall of Theranos, tries to explain what happened. Was Theranos a scam from the start? How did things get off the rails?

Holmes, a Stanford dropout, did not understand how the product she wanted could be built—she only knew what she wanted: a slick, compact device that could produce a vast number of different types of blood tests from a tiny sample of blood. Unsurprisingly, her team was not able to deliver what leading scientists and engineers said was an incredibly challenging problem, perhaps unsolvable with today’s technology.

When a normal company fails to achieve an over-ambitious vision, it pivots to a less ambitious one: a larger device, fewer tests, larger quantities of blood. But Theranos was not a normal company. Instead of reasoning through the problem, it fired its internal dissenters, fudged and misrepresented data for investors, and pushed towards the real-world use of extremely flawed, extremely flaky prototype devices.

According to Carreyrou, through much of its existence, Theranos experienced extremely high turnover with frequent and vindictive firings—and resignations in response to dysfunction, intimidation, and ethical transgressions. Employees were first and foremost seen as a threat that had to be monitored (emails and even social media use were heavily policed) and controlled.

An Ineffective, Infatuated Board

The Theranos board included former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State and war criminal Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis. It included no members with substantial relevant expertise and lacked any ability to evaluate the merits of Theranos’ work.

Indeed, the board was infatuated with the Theranos founder and neither able nor willing to hold her to account. Employees who tried to warn the board were ignored or threatened.

George Shultz’s grandson Tyler was exposed to some of the company’s egregious and unethical practices through his own work there. He ultimately blew the whistle on Theranos. However, his attempts to persuade his grandfather that all was not well with the company fell on deaf ears.

The desire to believe that Holmes really was the brilliant and world-changing inventor she presented herself as was all too powerful—and a lot of money was on the line. And it wasn’t just the board that was infatuated; media and investors were all too ready to embrace the Theranos hype without asking too many questions.

Irrational Self-Interest

It took the Wall Street Journal to finally bring down the house of cards. That’s not without its irony; it was the Journal that had granted Elizabeth Holmes an op-ed to promote its company only months earlier, and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, invested $121M in the company just before its downfall. (To his credit, Murdoch never attempted to shut down the Journal’s investigation.)

Problems like the ones Theranos sought to solve—and indeed all problems of similar ambition and scope—require collaboration, transparency, openness. Instead, they were dealt with paranoia and secrecy, under cult-like, authoritarian leadership. According to Carreyrou, Elizabeth Holmes told her employees that she was creating a religion.

There is some redemption in Theranos’ ultimate failure, but it’s not the Invisible Hand of the free market that is redeemed, but the role of regulatory bodies (which forced Theranos to discontinue its dangerous tests), of investigative journalists like Carreyrou, of courageous whistleblowers like Tyler Shultz. How much longer could Theranos have survived under slightly different circumstances? How many more people would have been hurt?

The Verdict

Bad Blood does not examine the systemic questions the Theranos case raises, but it is one hell of a story, told by the man who broke it. Carreyrou’s book is based on countless interviews with former employees, partners, consultants, acquaintances; on documents revealed in lawsuits or by whistleblowers; on the scientific papers the company cited, and the opinions of experts.

It reads, for the most part, as if the author had been a fly on the wall during every dramatic turn of the Theranos saga. There is a little bit of repetition as we hear one particular story over and over again—new employee is excited by Holmes’ vision, new employee experiences insane levels of dysfunction, new employee quits or gets fired. There is also a bit more gossip than is necessary to tell the story (Did Elizabeth Holmes fake her deep voice? One former employee thinks so!).

Those are minor criticisms, however. As a story of a fall from grace, of self-delusion, sociopathic behavior and blind ambition, this book is about as good as it gets. Don’t turn here to find out what to learn from the Theranos story. But to begin asking the right questions, it’s a must-read. 4.5 of 5 stars, rounded up.

5 stars
A gut-wrenching investigation into prisons and profits

I’ve long believed in the importance of undercover journalism. As a German, I’m familiar with the work of Günter Wallraff whose riveting report from the inside of Germany’s best-selling tabloid beats Manufacturing Consent any day when it comes to showcasing viscerally how propaganda works under capitalism. But America has had its share of undercover reporting icons, too — from Nellie Bly to Barbara Ehrenreich.

Shane Bauer continues this tradition with American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment. Bauer (a Mother Jones reporter and former prisoner of the Iranian regime) spent 4 months as a guard at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, a for-profit prison. His book is a re-telling of this experience, interwoven with brief chapters about the history of incarceration and forced labour in the United States.

An imprisoned black boy punished at a Georgia convict camp, 1932. (Credit: John L. Spivak. Fair use.)

After the US Civil War, former slaveholders hijacked criminal law to continue “slavery by another name” as Douglas Blackmon put it, with the same profit motives and the same racist ideology serving as pretext. African-Americans were rounded up, often on false pretenses like “vagrancy” or made-up charges, and put to work under the most horrific conditions imaginable.

Bauer explains that the death rates in this late 19th century prison-industrial complex rivaled and exceeded those of Soviet gulags during their worst years. For many of the predominantly African-American convicts, the emancipation of slaves had turned out to be pure fiction—instead, now the corporations “leasing” them didn’t even have any purely financial incentive to keep them alive.

It would take cases of white people like Martin Tabert to force modest reforms. Tabert was arrested on a trivial charge and leased to a lumber company. There, he was brutalized and killed by an overseer. The sheriff who had arrested him was paid a reward for every able body delivered into the hands of the company.

With the rise of mass incarceration in the late 20th century—the new Jim Crow—corporations once again began to see opportunities to derive profit from the caging and exploitation of human beings.

The Winn Report

Bauer’s experience as a Correctional Officer at Winn offers a window into a very different prison system. Here, the goal is not so much to force prisoners to build railroads or harvest timber. It’s to warehouse prisoners at the lowest possible cost, with the greatest possible profit.

The system Bauer describes is one of a chronically under-staffed facility with chronically under-paid and chronically under-qualified staff, where prisoners (when they’re not in segregation) live in open dormitories that house dozens of men. The guards barely manage to keep order.

Literally dozens of shanks—improvised weapons—are discovered routinely; stabbings are frequent and far more common than in publicly run facilities. A thriving underground economy of drugs, phones and sex involves both guards and inmates. The only thing that keeps the whole place from completely falling apart are irregular interventions by “Special Operations” teams from other locations, who attempt pacification by way of pepper spray.

Bauer describes the psychological toll this system takes on him. He (uncritically, which is disappointing) cites the Stanford Prison Experiment, and notes his own changes in behavior—from attempting to form relationships with some inmates, to taking pleasure in acts of revenge against others.

Ultimately, he performs well by the standard of the prison, and is put on the path towards a promotion before he resigns.

The Verdict

American Prison can be difficult to read, given that the entire book is about violence and coercion. There is nothing cathartic here: things haven’t gotten better since the book was published, and the private prison industry is thriving on efforts to cage men, women and children for attempting to seek shelter from brutality and destitution in their home countries.

But it is precisely this kind of reporting that is needed to show—beyond the power of an argument—why the idea of entrusting profit-driven corporations with incarceration is batshit insane.

As a chronicler of this insanity and its historical precursors, Bauer is meticulous. He distinguishes quotes that he was able to capture on audio from those he had to recollect. He provides extensive citations. He identifies the people who gave him permission to use his name. He includes the voices of those who disagree with him. He received appreciation from many of his former colleagues for his reporting.

And that’s precisely the standard that undercover journalism must live up to—especially in a country where garbage-spewing flimflam artists like James O’Keefe have given the genre a bad name.

Bauer is not first and foremost a scholar but a storyteller, and the historical review is relevant and accurate but patchy. Nonetheless, American Prison is a compelling and necessary book. 4.5 points, rounded up.

3 stars
An entertaining whirlwind tour of unusual minds

In Unthinkable: What the World’s Most Extraordinary Brains Can Teach Us About Our Own, science journalist Helen Thomson chronicles her meetings and interactions with a set of people whose minds have unusual qualities, e.g.:

  • one subject hyper-empathizes with the emotions he sees in others, experiencing touch and pain almost physically;

  • another, for some time, was utterly convinced that he was dead;

  • one remembers nearly every day of her life in vivid detail;

  • another sees auras around people, reflecting his own feelings about them.

Thomson interweaves these stories with neurological research and short “here’s a thing you can try at home right now” experiments, some more practical than others. From each episode, she tries to draw conclusions that can apply to many of us—about how our memory really works, or how to manage our own empathy.

The science here is light reading, and sometimes too light; for example, while Thomson spends a couple of paragraphs debunking popular misconceptions about “left brains” and “right brains”, she quickly embraces “top brain / bottom brain” theory as an alternative explanatory model, without applying similar skepticism.

Overall, though, Unthinkable is a quick and entertaining read that personalizes a complex subject through a necessarily arbitrary but interesting cast of characters. 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded down because each of these stories would have deserved a bit more depth than Thomson gives them.

4 stars
A fine collection of lefty essays about politics & culture

Current Affairs is a left-wing magazine (review) and podcast, and they publish some of their essays in book form as well. I received one such collection, “The Current Affairs Mindset”, as a Patreon gift for supporting the podcast. Since I’ve only subscribed to the magazine since 2018, this was a welcome gift; the book was published in 2017 and includes essays from the 2016-2017 time period.

The cover is adorned with an illustration of a middle-aged, mildly obese white man admiring himself in the mirror, pretending that he is a gorilla with a Trump-like head of blond hair. The title and illustration poke fun at far-right demagogue slash self-help guru Mike Cernovich’s “Gorilla Mindset” cult, which is dissected in one of the book’s better essays.

The cover and the brevity of most essays also make the book a decent bathroom reader for any lefty household. Because Current Affairs doesn’t paywall its content, you’ll find all of the included essays online, as well, in case you want to sample the content on a screen before buying a print version.

Complete table of contents with links

They range from left-wing critiques of liberal obsessions (like the musical Hamilton) to very cogent analysis of the resurgence of the far-right, and of the realities of poverty and oppression in the United States.

While parts of the book feel a bit echo-chambery (“here’s what good lefties think about X”), Current Affairs deserves credit for publishing nuanced essays on topics like free speech or identity politics, instead of embracing received wisdom of any particular political persuasion.

4 stars
A cautious introduction to America's imperialist history

How much do you know about the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, about the Philippine-American War, about America’s efforts to depose José Zelaya in Nicaragua, Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam? If the answer is “very little”, Stephen Kinzer’s 2006 book Overthrow remains a reasonable introduction to these and other “regime change” efforts.

Kinzer, a journalist and writer who was the New York Times correspondent for Central America in the 1980s, weaves a narrative of some of America’s military and intelligence interventions in other countries from the late 19th century to the early 21st. He connects the political events with the stories of some of the key figures involved, like Henry Cabot Lodge and his grandson, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Dulles brothers—John and Allen, subject of another book by Kinzer.

Throughout his analysis, Kinzer points at the clear commercial interests at the root of foreign policy interventions: taking control of Hawaii at the request of American-born plantation owners, preserving United Fruit’s corporate stranglehold over Guatemala, punishing Iran’s Mossadegh for attempting to end foreign exploitation of the country’s oil reserves.

After a directive from Richard Nixon to “make the economy scream” through sabotage, the CIA used the subsequent instability to help install Augusto Pinochet, replacing Chile’s democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s regime was responsible for the death of thousands, and for the arrest and torture of tens of thousands. (Credit: Chas Gerretsen. Fair use.)

The typical pattern of each chapter is “storytelling → larger political events → analysis”. As a storyteller, Kinzer is not quite at the level of Erik Larson—there are some slightly jarring repetitions, for example—but the book is certainly engaging.

The book’s value is ultimately limited by its narrow scope, and by its unwillingness to stray too far outside the Overton window of American political discourse. For example, America’s many efforts to influence democratic elections in other countries help to understand why democracy and political independence are often difficult to reconcile for smaller countries.

But these efforts, far more numerous than direct intervention, are largely out of scope, as are many of the other methods America’s military and intelligence apparatus have employed (and continue to employ) to bolster friendly regimes, however brutal, and to undermine perceived unfriendly ones.

When Kinzer imagines “what-ifs” for countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua, he theorizes that America stunted the emergence of independent capitalist democracies. In full cognition of the historical facts, it should not take much daring to speculate whether democracy and capitalism are in fact compatible at all.

The book’s narrative ends with the near-term effects of George W. Bush’s war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kinzer’s 2006 prognosis for both countries was not optimistic; today, one would have to connect the dots between these interventions, subsequent American and European actions in the region, and the terror, wars and instability that continue to this day.

I recommend Kinzer’s book with the above reservations as a starting point to explore America’s imperialist history. It may also serve as a cautious introduction for readers wary of more radical authors like Chomsky (who eloquently critiqued Kinzer’s New York Times reports from Central America in the 1980s). 3.5 of 5 stars, rounded up because of the importance of the subject and the quality of the writing.

3 stars
Scratching the surface of antiquity

Ancient statues and buildings were frequently painted in vivid colors. The modern image of austere white marble is largely an invention, based on misunderstanding the weathered appearance of ancient works as intentional. That invention became the preferred view of antiquity from the Renaissance to today.

Ancient polychromy is not, however, a recent discovery. After all, statues often still had pigments on them when they were discovered (many still do so today). Historians like Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768) acknowledged that many ancient statues were colored, but claimed that “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is.”

The true colors of the ancient world reflect the diversity of the people that inhabited it. They also make the ancient West look a lot more like the ancient East, offering a glimpse at the thread that connects all humanity; sharpening the contrast between the polytheistic, messy culture of ancient Rome and the darkening age that followed it.

Since Winckelmann, historians have rarely embraced, sometimes rejected and mostly ignored the true colors of antiquity. In recent decades, a small number of archaeologists and historians have tried to change that, culminating in an exhibition of painted statues called Gods in Color which first opened 2003 and has been continuously updated since then. The book Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World is a catalog of the exhibition with some additional essays on the subject.

Reconstruction of the Peplos Kore as featured in the book. (Credit: Gods in Color. Fair use.)

The introductory essays are short but interesting, shedding light on the discovery and perception of ancient polychromy, and giving examples of early drawings and reconstructions.

The new reconstructions, however, may offend modern sensibilities. This is less because they’re colorful and more because they just are not very well done. As Margaret Talbot writes in the excellent New Yorker article “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture”:

In the nineteen-nineties, [Vincent] Brinkmann and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, who is an art historian and an archeologist, began re-creating Greek and Roman sculptures in plaster, painted with an approximation of their original colors. Palettes were determined by identifying specks of remaining pigment, and by studying “shadows”—minute surface variations that betray the type of paint applied to the stone. The result of this effort was a touring exhibition called “Gods in Color”.


But [Mark] Abbe, like many scholars I talked to, wasn’t crazy about the reconstructions in “Gods in Color.” He found the hues too flat and opaque, and noted that plaster, which most of the replicas are made from, absorbs paint in a way that marble does not. He was also bothered by the fact that the statues “all look fundamentally the same, whereas styles would have differed enormously.”

All of this is true. Moreover, many of the depicted reconstructions are incomplete, with partially colored eyes or limbs creating a truly garish appearance. Where the original is damaged, so is the replica, with a white broken nose at the center of a flatly painted plaster reconstruction.

The pigments recovered from each original are carefully documented, but the artistic execution of most of the reconstructions is accordingly mechanistic, constrained by evidence that remains between us and the ancient world.

The result is a presentation of antiquity in painted plaster that resembles the uncanny valley of bad computer graphics. The Brinkmanns and their collaborators deserve the world’s credit for forcing us to take a more realistic view of the ancient world in its full color—but a lot of work remains to do so in style.

5 stars
An antidote to cynicism

In November 2015, Nathan Robinson and Oren Nimni launched a Kickstarter to fund the creation of Current Affairs, a print magazine of “political analysis, satire, and entertainment” promising to “make life joyful again”. The campaign exceeded its goal of $10,000. Three years later, Current Affairs has become of the most reliably interesting and, indeed, enjoyable political publications on the left.

Print editions are issued every two months; each is carefully designed and, in addition to articles on diverse topics, every issue contains the creative works of many contributing artists. While many illustrations simply support a given article, in other cases it’s the illustrations that tell the story—see, for example, the “City of Dreams” illustration and accompanying article.

Recent Current Affairs covers. (Credit: Current Affairs. Fair use.)

Chances are that you’ve come across Current Affairs articles before through some of Nathan Robinson’s in-depth “takedown” articles about prominent American and Canadian political writers — especially those spreading reactionary ideas, e.g., Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Mike Cernovich, and Dinesh D’Souza.

Instead of simply dismissing them outright, Robinson takes these figures to account on the basis of their own words, dissecting the ugly mess of hateful nonsense beneath whatever persona they’ve created for themselves.

Current Affairs is a decidedly leftist publication; it routinely condemns capitalist excess, corporate misconduct, “bipartisan” alliances with murderous regimes, the convenient political amnesia concerning America’s history of horrific military interventions, the dark legacy of racism at the root of deep social and economic inequalities.

While it writes of socialism as a political and economic alternative, the magazine has been equally critical of authoritarian socialism. Robinson’s own essay, “How To Be A Socialist Without Being An Apologist For The Atrocities Of Communist Regimes“, puts it quite plainly:

The dominant “communist” tendencies of the 20th century aimed to liberate people, but they offered no actual ethical limits on what you could do in the name of “liberation.” That doesn’t mean liberation is bad, it means ethics are indispensable and that the Marxist disdain for “moralizing” is scary and ominous.

Current Affairs instead leans towards libertarian socialism, an ideology seeking to balance a high commitment to individual freedom with a concern for the welfare of societies. It speaks of “humanistic” values and holds all ideologies to account for living up to those values.

The magazine publishes essays about diverse topics from the changing politics of Star Trek to the Mardi Gras holiday in New Orleans. You’re in for a visual treat the moment you open the table of contents, each of which is an artistic exploration of the topics covered in the current edition.

Current Affairs table of contents examples. (Credit: Current Affairs. Fair use.)

Alongside its playfulness and occasional silliness, the magazine features articles such as a gut-wrenching and unflinching look back at the Vietnam War (“What We Did”) or an insightful report on disillusioned African-American Rust Belt voters (“The Color of Economic Anxiety”).

Recently, the magazine also launched a podcast; as of this writing, it is already generating more than $6,000/month in Patreon support (supporters get access to bonus episodes). The podcast features conversations between the magazine’s contributors on a wide variety of topics, featuring segments like “Lefty Shark-Tank” (tongue-in-cheek criticism of left-wing policy ideas), interviews, answers to listeners, parody ads, and more.

Legally, Current Affairs is not a nonprofit; Nathan Robinson told me by email that the team “debated it and then decided against it as it creates all kinds of logistical headaches”.

However, he emphasized that Current Affairs will never operate as a for-profit company. Over the course of each magazine’s two-month run, all articles are published online without any kind of paywall, and the website and magazine are entirely free of third party ads. Regrettably, articles are under conventional copyright, as opposed to a permissive Creative Commons license.

Article example from the latest issue. (Credit: Current Affairs. Fair use.)

The Verdict

After reading their online edition for a while, I subscribed to Current Affairs earlier this year, and have not regretted it yet. At $60 for 6 issues, you get good value for your money; the magazine is a pleasure to look at, and I generally read it all the way through before the next one arrives.

A few typos usually slip through, and some articles would benefit from more rigor (data, citations) or additional editing. But these are the kinds of problems you would expect from a small, independent magazine.

In many ways, I prefer the Current Affairs model to the heavily grant-funded nonprofit publications I’ve reviewed (e.g., The Marshall Project, ProPublica). It will likely never be able to muster the resources to engage in a similar scale of reporting projects, but its writing is fearless and independent, funded entirely by readers. While its humor can be snarky, underneath it there’s an earnestness that’s disarming and likable. I highly recommend checking it out.

Would you enjoy reading it? Fortunately, that’s easy to find out by browsing the archives of the website. Regardless of its legal status, I’ve also added it to the Twitter feed of quality nonprofit media, which is a convenient way to sample the content of many nonprofit outlets if you happen to use Twitter.

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