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on 22 November 2007
As always, Mike Davis - America's greatest leftist - delivers punchy, erudite analysis of the current woes of the USA in these essays. Highlights (mind, there are no duffers in here) include a bitter laugh at Arnie Schwarnegger's governship of California to outrage at the neglect of Katrina's victims to a chilling encounter with the sociopathic TexMex border vigilantes. The final section, "Old Flames", is the strongest and brings to life some of America's lost heroes and villains such as the Bill "the Butcher" Poole of the Victorian-era NY gangs or the unfulfilled promise of Malcolm X. Most poignant for me was the tribute to Private Ivan, the unknown (in the West at any rate) Soviet soldier who really won WW2.
Read everything by Mike Davis - you may not share his politics or agree with all of his analysis, but you will never be bored by him and will always come away better informed. Since Paul Foot died we have noone quite like Mike Davis in Britain - a smart, funny and clear exponent of anti-capitalism and the socialist alternative.
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on 14 January 2009
Theres few in the same league as Mike Davis - he has all the attributes of a good essayist, he can write well, with humour and wit, and can make the inexplicable comprehensible in a relatively short space.

He writes on a wide range of topics in this collection of essays - from the post hurricane Katrina ethnic cleansing of New Orleans to figures past and present in the American Union movement. His speciality is California, his home state, and his point of view is that of the underdog: the Latinos, blacks and the working and underclass. America isnt the sole subject of the essays either, a short essay celebrates the efforts of "Private Ivan" - the ordinary russian soldier who bore the brunt of the fighting against Nazi Germany. Many of the other essays are informed by an awareness of history and the world beyond Americas borders.

The essays are easily comprehensible to a non American and offer a fascinating take on America that stands in stark contrast to pretty much anything you'll see in the mainstream media, or a month of sundays worth of cable/satellite reality tv slush. Read it - and laugh and weep and be informed. America will never look the same.
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on 11 May 2009
"In Praise of Barbarians" compiles a large amount of essays and articles written by prominent left-wing author and activist Mike Davis, one of my favorite contemporary writers of nonfiction. Most of these are pieces written for the Socialist Review, the paper of the British SWP, parent party of the International Socialists. Nonetheless these are just as readable and generally accessible as the articles written for The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, and similar periodicals.

Davis covers a wide spectrum of issues from a left-wing perspective here, from the Iraq War to American prisons and from New Orleans to Greenland. As is to be expected with him, the style is engaged and indignant, with a strong historicizing context - he is after all professionally a historian. This is what Davis does well, time and again, and this collection is as such no exception.

It must be noted though that as other reviewers have pointed out, some of the articles are somewhat dated, and the large amount of topics addressed and the imbalance between them gives the whole a scattered and uneven impression. All of the essays/articles are interesting to read, but they have little in common besides Davis having written them, which does not work as well as Davis' cogent and powerful accusatory books do. This collection is recommended but by no means essential.
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With the American imperial war machine in one's sights it's hard to go wrong, but much of this is tired, recycled agitprop. 'Tony Blair [recently asked] fellow EU leaders to extend white Europe's border defenses into the heart of the Third World' (2004). A background piece on Iraq brings out how odious Gertrude 'It's a wonderful thing to feel the affection and confidence of a whole people around you' Bell was, but nothing in this book quite lives up to its title. What have the barbarians ever done for us? George Lansbury is too important to have his name misspelt. Apart from any other claim to fame, he was Angela's grandad
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