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Review: Hidden Figures [★★★★★]

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
by Margot Lee Shetterly

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 22 January 2017 - 24 January 2017
Goal: Non-Fiction

I loved reading this book. I enjoyed it on multiple levels. I'd heard that the story involved the African-American women scientists, who helped NASA send men into orbit. I was surprised to learn that all of them worked in Hampton, VA.

I grew up next door to Hampton, in Norfolk, VA. I'm not used to reading about my hometown in books. It was a very pleasant surprise to read about my hometown in this book. I'm woefully ignorant of the history of the area, so I'd never known that Hampton had played such a pivotal role in the development of flight.

The women worked for an organization called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) — a precursor to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). I was fascinated to learn about the role that NACA played in the development of airplane technology, discovering the science behind many of the airplane features that we take for granted today.

I also learned something about airplane designations. For instance, we've all heard of the B-29 bomber or the P-51 Mustang. I hadn't realized that the "B-" and "P-" designations had specific meanings. Shetterly explains.

Like Darwin’s finches, the mechanical birds had begun to differentiate themselves, branching into distinct species adapted for success in particular environments. Their designations reflected their use: fighters—also called pursuit planes—were assigned letters F or P: for example, the Chance Vought F4U Corsair or the North American P-51 Mustang. The letter C identified a cargo plane like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, built to transport military goods and troops and, eventually, commercial passengers. B was for bomber, like the mammoth and perfectly named B-29 Superfortress. And X identified an experimental plane still under development, designed for the purpose of research and testing. Planes lost their X designation—the B-29 was the direct descendant of the XB-29—once they went into production.

I was also struck by the love that these woman had for science and mathematics. They were truly doing these jobs because they loved the work and the mathematics behind the work. I don't think it would be inaccurate to call them math nerds and I love reading about the contributions that nerds have made to our world.

Finally, I was struck by the racism that Shetterly revealed. I'd known that Virginia had a racist past. I wasn't aware of just how committed to that racism Virginia had been and just how adamantly they fought for it.

The racism could be casual, such as the incident that Mary Jackson experienced, at the predominantly white East Side section of NACA.

Her morning at the East Side job proceeded without incident—until nature called. “Can you direct me to the bathroom?” Mary asked the white women. They responded to Mary with giggles. How would they know where to find her bathroom? The nearest bathroom was unmarked, which meant it was available to any of the white women and off-limits to the black women. There were certainly colored bathrooms on the East Side, but with most black professionals concentrated on the West Side, and fewer new buildings on the East Side, Mary might need a map to find them.

And the racism could be very deliberate, entrenched, and vindictive. For instance, one Virginia school system took extreme measures to avoid integrating their schools.

In Prince Edward County, however, segregationists would not be moved: they defunded the entire county school system, including R. R. Moton in Farmville, rather than integrate.

… Prince Edward’s schools would remain closed from 1959 through 1964, five long and bitter years. Many of the affected children, known as the “Lost Generation,” never made up the missing grades of education. Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.

… Commenting on the situation in 1963, United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “The only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”

Definitely, it was offensive. But, ultimately, Southern racism was incredibly stupid and shortsighted.

Foreigners who traveled to the United States often experienced the caste system firsthand. In 1947, a Mississippi hotel denied service to the Haitian secretary of agriculture, who had come to the state to attend an international conference. The same year, a restaurant in the South banned Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s personal doctor from its premises because of his dark skin. Diplomats traveling from New York to Washington along Route 40 were often rejected if they stopped for a meal at restaurants in Maryland. The humiliations, so commonplace in the United States that they barely raised eyebrows, much less the interest of the press, were the talk of the town in the envoys’ home countries. Headlines like “Untouchability Banished in India: Worshipped in America,” which appeared in a Bombay newspaper in 1951, mortified the US diplomatic corps. Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal.

… Newly independent countries around the world, eager for alliances that would support their emerging identities and set them on the path to long-term prosperity, were confronted with a version of the same question black Americans had asked during World War II. Why would a black or brown nation stake its future on America’s model of democracy when within its own borders the United States enforced discrimination and savagery against people who looked just like them?

I came away from this book with great admiration for these black women as well as an even greater contempt for the racists that dominated the South during this time period.

I was also struck by Shetterly's epilogue. She wants to give these women their due, not by showing how extraordinary they were but by showing how normal they were. They were extraordinary because they were black, female nerds who had to fight to fit in, but they were also very normal because they were nerds who just wanted a chance to fit in and do what nerds everywhere do — geek out about the science.

For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.

… By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.

I enjoyed reading about these women and I'll recommend this book to anyone that asks for a recommendation of what to read.

Reading Idea: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology
by Neil Gaiman
$12.99 on Kindle

Growing up, somewhere around the age of 10, I was a huge fan of Norse mythology and read several different versions and retellings. I'm also a big Neil Gaiman fan. So, really, all Goodreads had to do was send me an email letting me know that Neil Gaiman had written a novelization of the Norse mythology. Sold. It was, as they say, self recommending.

I'll give you the Goodreads blurb anyway, just in case you're not already as excited as I am.

Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

Reading Idea: Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire
by Candice Millard
$13.99 on Kindle

Robert Costa Tweet

@costareports: Book recommendation: "Hero of the Empire" by Candice Millard. Terrific insights on political ambition, the media and a young Churchill.

So what's it about?

Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899, valet and crates of vintage wine in tow, there to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels. But just two weeks after his arrival, the soldiers he was accompanying on an armored train were ambushed, and Churchill was taken prisoner. Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape--but then had to traverse hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him.

The story of his escape is incredible enough, but then Churchill enlisted, returned to South Africa, fought in several battles, and ultimately liberated the men with whom he had been imprisoned.

All of that plus an analysis of political ambition and the media? Sounds right up my alley.

Reading Goals: 2017

I'm going to continue what I started in 2016. I'll keep a low and easily achievable goal on Goodreads, so that I can read more on the web, read longer books, and read slower books. On the other hand, I hit my 2016 Goodreads goal by the end of July, which is just too early. I'll move my goal from 40 books to 50 books, which should have me finishing around the end of September.

Here are my 2017 goals (and the corresponding reading list). There's no way I'm going to fully hit everything on this list, but I'm definitely going to at least sample it all.

Literary Fiction

I only technically achieved this goal last year, by reading 1 book. That's no reason to quit though. I want to keep exercising my literary muscles by reading more literary novels this year. Let's make this year's goal a little more concrete: a minimum of 2 literary novels.

Non-Fiction

This is a perennial goal. This year, I want to read the rest of Bruce Catton's "Army of the Potomac" series. I'd also like to find a good popular history of China and read some more about Israeli history.

Historical Fiction

Last year, I rediscovered my love of historical fiction. I found the Accursed Kings series, thanks to George R.R. Martin. I reread the entire Hornblower series. And I enjoyed the first book of the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. This year, I'm going to fully dive back into historical fiction.

New to Me Series

I'd never read L.E. Modesitt or his Recluce series before last year. I'd also never heard heard of the Sector General series. I enjoyed The Magic of Recluce and Sector General sounds good enough to take a chance on. I'll dive into both, as well as anything else interesting that comes along.

New Releases

I'm already looking forward to the release of Oathbringer, so let's just go ahead and say that reading it is an official goal. I'm going to hope for a new Dresden novel from Jim Butcher. And I'm patiently awaiting the appearance of volume 5 of Robert Caro's "Years of Lyndon Johnson" series (even though past history says I shouldn't expect it for another 5 years).

This goal will also include any rereads that I need to do in order to fully enjoy the new book.

Enjoy Comics

Time to finally read Sandman, as well as other stories that catch my eye.

Dip Into the 2015 and 2016 Reading Lists

Last year, I finished my 2014 reading goals by finishing the Culture novels and the Wheel of Time series. I didn't have anything nearly as specific for 2015 or 2016, but I did compile a list of books that sounded interesting. I'll dip into those lists more.

I also still want to re-read some of my favorite books that I didn't get to in 2016.

This entry was tagged. Reading List

Reading Idea: The Saga of Recluce

The Magic of Recluce

I've somehow never managed to hear of L.E. Modesitt Jr, even though he's written over 60 books. The Tor blog helped me to overcome my ignorance. I read the first book earlier this year and I'm looking forward to reading more.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Fantasy Worlds of L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

“The most important thing you need to know about Recluce—both the saga and the island—is that there is a neverending battle between chaos and order. In their natural state (a.k.a. Balance), these qualities make up all matter; but as white wizards unleash the entropy of chaos and black mages harness the structure of order, these forces become imbalanced. Modesitt’s intention was to subvert fantasy tropes by having the “good guys” wear black, though, as he points out, there is a lot more gray area to it—and not just the “grays” who can manipulate both chaos and order. Even as the first book, The Magic of Recluce, establishes Recluce’s tenets of uniformity and repetition in order to keep chaos at bay, such monotony—even with the safety it provides—bores protagonist Lerris. His lack of engagement with order gets Lerris sent away from home on the dangergeld, or ritualistic journey to learn more about the world before deciding if he will follow Recluce’s rules. But ennui aside, what we’ve learned from all of the dystopian fiction that has been released in the 25 years since the first Recluce book is that order can be just as dangerous as chaos.

While Lerris’ dangergeld is the focus of the first book, he is by no means the series’ protagonist; in fact, each of the characters in the 18 books to date get only one or two novels. In a recent piece for Tor’s Fantasy Firsts series, Modesitt challenged the notion that The Saga of Recluce is a series, considering that they neither follow one protagonist nor take place in “a single place or time”—instead spanning 2,000 years, and the rise and fall of empires worldwide in 20 countries on five continents. And even then, he adds, “the Recluce books aren’t really a ‘saga,’ either, because sagas are supposed to be tales of heroism following one individual or family. And that’s why I tend to think of the Recluce books as the history of a fantasy world.”

The internal chronological order is also vastly different from the publication order—if you’re going by timeline, the series starts with 2001’s Magi’i of Cyador and concludes with 1995’s The Death of Chaos. Modesitt says it’s the reader’s choice to read the books in either order, or neither, the only caveat being that one should read the first book of a certain character before going on to the second.”

I'm going to list out the books in chronological order. I'm a sucker for knowing where in the timeline everything happens.

  1. Magi'i of Cyador ($8.99)
  2. Scion of Cyador ($7.99)
  3. Fall of Angels ($8.99)
  4. The Chaos Balance ($8.99)
  5. Arms-Commander ($7.99)
  6. Cyador's Heirs ($8.99)
  7. Heritage of Cyador ($9.99)
  8. The Mongrel Mage (coming October 31, 2017)
  9. The Towers of the Sunset ($8.99)
  10. The White Order ($7.99)
  11. The Magic Engineer ($9.99)
  12. Colors of Chaos ($7.99)
  13. Natural Ordermage ($7.99)
  14. Mage-Guard of Hamor ($8.99)
  15. The Order War ($7.99)
  16. The Wellspring of Chaos ($7.99)
  17. Ordermaster ($7.99)
  18. The Magic of Recluce ($9.99)
  19. The Death of Chaos ($8.99)

Reading Idea: Aubrey–Maturin Series

Master and Commander

After reading the Hornblower series, it only seems natural to read the other major naval series set during the Napoleonic era.

Aubrey–Maturin series - Wikipedia

The Aubrey–Maturin series is a sequence of nautical historical novels—20 completed and one unfinished—by Patrick O'Brian, set during the Napoleonic Wars and centering on the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, a physician, natural philosopher, and intelligence agent. The first novel, Master and Commander, was published in 1969 and the last finished novel in 1999.[1] The 21st novel of the series, left unfinished at O'Brian's death in 2000, appeared in print in late 2004. The series received considerable international acclaim and most of the novels reached The New York Times Best Seller list.[1] These novels comprise the heart of the canon of an author often compared to Jane Austen, C. S. Forester and other British authors central to the English literature canon.

  1. Master and Commander ($8.87)
  2. Post Captain ($10.07)
  3. H.M.S. Surprise ($8.47)
  4. The Mauritius Command ($9.47)
  5. Desolation Island ($9.48)
  6. The Fortune of War ($9.47)
  7. The Surgeon's Mate ($9.46)
  8. The Ionian Mission ($9.47)
  9. Treason's Harbour ($9.46)
  10. The Far Side of the World ($9.47)
  11. The Reverse of the Medal ($9.54)
  12. The Letter of Marque ($10.99)
  13. The Thirteen-Gun Salute ($10.99)
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation ($9.88)
  15. The Truelove ($9.49)
  16. The Wine-Dark Sea ($10.04)
  17. The Commodore ($9.46)
  18. The Yellow Admiral ($10.39)
  19. The Hundred Days ($9.85)
  20. Blue at the Mizzen ($9.89)
  21. The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey ($10.74)

Reading Idea: Sharon Kay Penman

Here Be Dragons

I heard of Sharon Kay Penman last summer, when George R.R. Martin recommended multiple writers of historical fiction. Reddit comments backed up Martin's recommendation.

I have read some of Sharon Kay Penman's books. If you're into history, they are really really wonderful. She creates a captivating story while also keeping true to much of the history within the time periods she specializes in.

Reviews on Goodreads concurred.

AJ

It is incredibly accurate with regard to characters and events they were a part of, precipitated, and were involved in, impressively so.

Cassy

Did I mention this book is heavy on the history? It is honest-to-goodness historical fiction. Joanna, John, Llewelyn, and the other big players are the real deal. Sometimes Penman’s commitment to accuracy and completeness bogs down the story. There would often be a gap of years between chapters. And characters would give these odd monologues to catch readers up on what happened. What a beautiful day. It reminds me of last June when my father, the Earl of Whatever made a pact with Duke of Wherever. Of course, Papa would only consent to such an alliance, because Prince Whoever was taken hostage by Evil Guy. It was exhausting, but I loved it.

Meeting Penman last week confirmed the obvious: this woman knows her stuff. She was out promoting her latest book, Lionheart. Most authors start off talking about their writing process. Not Penman. She dove into a history lesson. When someone from the audience asked her opinion on a couple of obscure historical figures, she knew exactly who they were and broke down their life in great detail. And trust me, no one was yawning. She was really fascinating.

Penman had two series that caught my eye: Welsh Princes and Plantagenets.

Welsh Princes

Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England's ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king's beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John's attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales—and Llewelyn—Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.

  1. Here be Dragons ($9.99)
  2. Falls the Shadow ($9.99)
  3. The Reckoning ($9.99)

Plantagenets

A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England's King Henry I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman: Henry's beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned.

Sharon Kay Penman's magnificent fifth novel summons to life a spectacular medieval tragedy whose unfolding breaks the heart even as it prepares the way for splendors to come—the glorious age of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenets that would soon illumine the world.

  1. When Christ and His Saints Slept ($7.99)
  2. Time and Chance ($5.99)
  3. Devil's Brood ($12.99)
  4. Lionheart ($6.99)
  5. A King's Ransom ($11.99)

Reading Idea: CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping
by Kerry Brown
$15.66 on Kindle

Another book recommendation from Tyler Cowen. This earns a spot on my reading list because I've been wanting to learn more about China.

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Marginal REVOLUTION

That is the new and excellent book by Kerry Brown.  Almost all books on China are either bad or mediocre, but this one is the best book I ever have read on the exercise of power in contemporary China.  Every page is good, here is a short excerpt:

More important than a cabinet in the Western system of government, yet ostensibly separate from day-to-day decision making, the Politburo owns the crucial function of dispensing ideological, spiritual and political leadership.  This description means it covers nothing and everything.  It has the broadest framework within which to operate, which means it can wander into every area of administrative and governmental life in the country.  But like the ideal city described in Plato’s Republic, in a strange way China is really run on the model of philosopher kings.

Definitely recommended, one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year so far.  I can readily imagine re-reading it.

Reading Idea: The Red Sphinx

The Red Sphinx

The Red Sphinx
by Alexandre Dumas
$12.99 on Kindle

Newly translated, a sequel to ‘The Three Musketeers’ is as fresh as ever

Originally called “The Comte de Moret,” “The Red Sphinx” first appeared during 1865 in Les Nouvelles, but it was never quite completed after the magazine folded. For this handsome new edition — the work’s first translator since a wretched 19th-century version — Lawrence Ellsworth appends a related novella titled “The Dove,” which brings the adventures of the Comte de Moret and his beloved Isabelle de Lautrec to a dramatic, nick-of-time close.

Yet the Red Sphinx himself, as the historian Michelet dubbed Cardinal Richelieu, wholly dominates the book’s 800-plus pages. The action begins in December 1628, shortly after the French victory at La Rochelle chronicled in “The Three Musketeers.”

From the start, Dumas presents Richelieu as a man of cool analytic intelligence, who is nonetheless devoted to France and beloved by those who serve him, including his next-door neighbor, the courtesan Marion Delorme. Like a modern spy master, the cardinal seeks data about everything happening in Europe. In some of Dumas’ best chapters, Richelieu even acts as a detective, trying to crack a cold case: Who actually planned the assassination of Henri IV? The search for information gradually leads him to the dark secret of the Convent of Repentant Daughters.

Since so much of the pleasure of this novel involves its slowly unfolding plot, I won’t say too much more. But there are scenes of farcical comedy (usually involving the cardinal’s servants), France nearly topples because of a peevish boy-favorite of the king, two old enemies sword-fight while seated in sedan chairs, and young love blossoms.

In the final third of this continually enjoyable novel, the action moves to the battlefield, as the armies of France enter Italy. Here several guerrilla operations behind the lines should thrill even fans of Bernard Cornwell. Here, too, Richelieu encounters a young papal officer named Mazarino Mazarini, who will eventually become a French citizen and ultimately Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin.

So, en garde! In Lawrence Ellsworth’s excellent, compulsively readable translation, “The Red Sphinx” is just the book to see you through the January doldrums. And maybe those of February, too.

​I love The Three Musketeers. There's no way I can avoid checking this out.

Reading Idea: All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men
by Stephen Kinzer
$8.28 on Kindle

I discovered this book after David Henderson wrote about it.

Kinzer tells the story, in great detail, of how Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of TR and an employee of the CIA, set in motion the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran in the early 1950s. It's fascinating and disturbing: I found Roosevelt even more evil than I had expected.

I remember that when the Iran radicals had taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, they chanted and had signs about the CIA. Shortly after November 1979, I learned the connection with the 1953 events, but I had just assumed that they were angry about the CIA's role in 1953. Kinzer suggests an even more direct connection. He writes:

The hostage-takers remembered that when the Shah fled into exile in 1953, CIA agents working at the American embassy had returned him to his throne. Iranians feared that history was about to repeat itself.

In the back of everybody's mind hung the suspicion that, with the admission of the Shah to the United States, the countdown for another coup d-etat had begun," one of the hostage-takers explained years later. "Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible."

The whole story is tragic. Iran was a fledgling democracy stopped in its tracks by the U.S. government at the behest of the British government. When the Iranians finally overthrew the Shah, they got, not another liberal democracy, but a vicious theocracy.

The motivation for the coup was to get back the oil company that Mossadegh had nationalized. I don't defend nationalization, but overthrowing a government to reverse it is too extreme. I think Americans would be justly upset if, in response to the U.S. government's nationalization of an Iranian firm, Iran's government fomented a coup against the U.S. government. Moreover, as British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, of the Labour government, had said at the time: "What argument can I advance against anyone claiming the right to nationalize the resources of their country? We are doing the same thing here with our power in the shape of coal, electricity, railways, transport and steel."

This would pair well with reading The Fall of Heaven.

Reading Idea: The Death of Caesar

The Death of Caesar

The Death of Caesar
by Barry S. Strauss
$12.99 on Kindle

I've had this book written down for a while now. I think Goodreads recommended it to me, based on my reading history. I've always been interested in Roman history, so this intrigued me right away.

Goodreads

The exciting, dramatic story of one of history’s most famous events—the death of Julius Caesar—now placed in full context of Rome’s civil wars by eminent historian Barry Strauss.

Thanks to William Shakespeare, the death of Julius Caesar is the most famous assassination in history. But what actually happened on March 15, 44 BC is even more gripping than Shakespeare’s play. In this thrilling new book, Barry Strauss tells the real story.

Shakespeare shows Caesar’s assassination to be an amateur and idealistic affair. The real killing, however, was a carefully planned paramilitary operation, a generals’ plot, put together by Caesar’s disaffected officers and designed with precision. There were even gladiators on hand to protect the assassins from vengeance by Caesar’s friends. Brutus and Cassius were indeed key players, as Shakespeare has it, but they had the help of a third man—Decimus. He was the mole in Caesar’s entourage, one of Caesar’s leading generals, and a lifelong friend. It was he, not Brutus, who truly betrayed Caesar.

Caesar’s assassins saw him as a military dictator who wanted to be king. He threatened a permanent change in the Roman way of life and in the power of senators. The assassins rallied support among the common people, but they underestimated Caesar’s soldiers, who flooded Rome. The assassins were vanquished; their beloved Republic became the Roman Empire.

Reading Idea: The Last Lion

The Last Lion

The Last Lion
by William Manchester
$50 on [Kindle][kindle]

I discovered this biography while listening to Russ Roberts talk to Ryan Holiday, on the July 18 episode of EconTalk.

So, let's take the flip side of that character trait, and let's look at Winston Churchill. And Winston Churchill, you talk about in the book. But he had, it appears, an enormous ego that sustained him through all kinds of failure. He was blamed politically in the first World War. And in the run-up to WWII, he's considered a crazy lunatic who is worried about Nazi Germany. And ultimately his reputation is redeemed and he's considered one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, like top five. So, his ego--and by the way, you quote, I think, the Manchester biography, Volume 2, Alone. Well, in Volume 1, one of the moments that's legendary in my household because my kids loved it so much--you know, he escapes from a prison in the Boer War, walks a huge distance, I forget how far, and presents himself in the middle of the night at the British Embassy and pounds on the door and someone opens a window upstairs and says, 'What's going on?' And he yells up something like, 'It's Winston Bloody Churchill. Open this door.' And so, here's a man who is totally full of himself, as far as I can tell. And he's a great success. So, why is ego the enemy?

Guest: I'm fascinated that you would ask this, because — and for our listeners, we did not plan this — I am actually in, I have like 10 pages left, in Volume 2. And I read Volume 1 in the last couple of weeks. So, I've been reading about Churchill, and he's fascinating. And the Manchester biography is so great, because he looks at that ego; and he says over and over again, basically Hitler and Churchill were opposite sides of the same coin. And he says — it's interesting, maybe the only reason that Churchill saw through Hitler was that he saw a bit of that megalomania in himself.

That sounded interesting enough to check out. The full biography is three volumes, all available on Kindle.

  1. Visions of Glory, 1874 – 1932, $14.99
  2. Alone, 1932 – 1940, $14.99
  3. Defender of the Realm, 1940 – 1965, $19.99

The first two volumes were written by William Manchester alone. The third volume was written by Paul Reid, whom Manchester brought in after Manchester developed writer's block. Paul Reid was supposed to actually co-write the last volume with Manchester, but Manchester died before the project got fully off of the ground. Reid ended up having to mostly research and write the last book himself.

Reading Idea: The Fall of Heaven

The Fall of Heaven

The Fall of Heaven
by Andrew Scott Cooper
$19.99 on Kindle

While expensive, this book comes with a strong endorsement from Tyler Cowen. I've been reading a lot about the 60's and 70's over the past couple of years. This would fit right into that pattern.

The Fall of Heaven - Marginal REVOLUTION

I loved this book, the author is Andrew Scott Cooper, and the subtitle is The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.  It is the best book I know for understanding the Iranian revolution, and it is compulsively readable throughout.  Did you know for instance that the Ayatollahs were deeply disturbed by the presence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and also Rhoda on Iranian TV?

I would describe this book as relatively sympathetic to the Shah, and also arguing that the oppressions and tortures of Savak are sometimes overstated.

This one makes my best non-fiction of the year list, and it will be in the top tier of that list.

Reading Idea: Northlanders

Northlanders

Northlanders
by Brian Woods
$40 on ComiXology

I heard about this series on a 4-year old episode of The Incomparable podcast. I'm not going to try to transcribe Lisa Schmeiser's comments, but you can visit this link to listen to them: The Incomparable #126: A Dark, Dark Narnia. (Her comments start at 42:33 and the link should jump you to right to them.)

The idea of a comic that tells interrelated stories about the historical Viking culture was a fascinating one. I read quite a bit about the Vikings (and Norse mythology) growing up. I'd love to read more about them and the visual storytelling aspect of comics should be valuable as well.

Reading Idea: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
by Margot Lee Shetterly
$10.99 on Kindle

I was interested in this story when I first saw it as a movie trailer. Then I found out that it was based on a book and now I'm interested in reading the book.

Publisher's description

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

What I Read in 2016

Last year was a good year for reading. I made progress in all of my reading goals and discovered a number of memorable books.

I lowered my Goodreads goal from 70 books down to 40 books in order to "give me the space to read more on the web, read longer books, and read slower books than I ordinarily would". That was a success, as I felt more freedom to spend time on the reading that I don't normally do. I finished my 40th book before the end of July. It felt weird to finish my Goodreads goal so early.

As I look back on the last year, several things stand out. I read some great non-fiction books. I still think about Mr. Lincoln's Army, Hillbilly Elegy, and Embers of War. After discovering that the Horatio Hornblower series was available on Kindle, I bought and read the entire thing. I've been wanting to do that for years and enjoyed finally doing so.

After watching Jurassic Park with my daughters, I reread the book to see how it held up. Similarly, after rewatching The Hunt for Red October, I read that book to see how it held up. I'm happy to report that both books are still as good as I originally thought they were. I also reread Starship Troopers and found it to still be intellectually stimulating.

Finally, you can spend your time in a far worse way than reading Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others. As a friend put it, "each story reads like it came out of a possibly drunken conversation and a 'what if'". Given that the book includes a short background for each story, that seems especially apt.

And now, here's the full list of what I read last year, broken down by reading goal.

More Literary Fiction

I didn't do so well in this category, as I never got around to reading a second (let alone third or fourth) literary novel.

Non-Fiction

Fix the Oops

I had fully intended to read more of Jack Vance's novels. But I really didn't enjoy the first one and decided that I didn't care to read more than that.

Enjoy Comics

I never did read more of Saga or The Sandman, but I'm happy to have read Locke & Key. It was well worth the time.

Hard Science Fiction

Maybe I just don't enjoy this the way that I used to. It's hard plowing. Greg Egan invented his own physics for The Clockwork Rocket. While I'm sure that it's 100% consistent, it made my head hurt. I like science, but I'm not enough of a scientist to enjoy that sort of thing.

Finish the 2014 and 2015 Goals

I finished reading The Wheel of Time and I very nearly finished reading the Culture series.

Reread Old Favorites

I nailed this goal, especially considering that the Hornblower series wasn't even on my initial reading list.

Other Diversions

Special mention goes to Children of Earth and Sky. I've yet to read something by Guy Gavriel Kay that wasn't excellent.

This entry was tagged. Reading List

Reading Idea: Into The Lion’s Mouth

Into the Lion's Mouth

Into The Lion’s Mouth
by Larry Loftis
$13.99 on Kindle

I've been a long-time fan of the Bond movie franchise. I've even read a book or two. I've always thought that Bond was obviously fictionalized, that no real spy would come anywhere close to what Bond routinely does. According to Loftis, one man did. I first heard about his book on an episode of The Art of Manliness Podcast.

The Real Life James Bond

Bond is so damn manly, it’d be easy to think that he was purely the creation of author Ian Fleming’s imagination. But in fact, Bond was inspired by a real-life WWII spy, and his life and career was even more Bond-like than James Bond himself.

My guest today has written a biography of the real-life inspiration for James Bond. His name is Larry Loftis and he’s the author of the book Into The Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov: World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond. Today on the show we talk about Dusko Popov and his career as a double agent during WWII. Larry and I discuss how Dusko got involved with spying, the insanely dangerous missions he went on, and the real-life encounter between him and Ian Fleming that inspired one of popular culture’s most iconic characters.

Review: Hillbilly Elegy [★★★★★]

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
by J. D. Vance

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 27 August 2016 - 10 September 2016
Goal: Non-Fiction

I highlight the things I read for one of three reasons: because I vehemently disagree with it, because I agree with it, or because it makes me think. I've highlighted this book more than any other and all of it made me think.

J. D. Vance writes his story, of how he achieved the American dream. He's now a successful lawyer and venture capitalist, living in San Francisco, married, and with two dogs. He started as a hillbilly in Eastern Kentucky, lived with his mother, grandparents, and a string of his mother's boyfriends and husbands. He came from a broken home — in nearly every way that it's possible for a home to be broken.

While this is a story about overcoming obstacles, it's really a story about the obstacles and how daunting they are. This is a story about J. D., but it's really a story about hillbilly culture and how it's both an asset and an incredible hindrance to success.

I was enthralled by this book and often had trouble putting it down. But I also had multiple nights when I had to put it down, because J. D.'s story was wrenching and too emotionally draining to just power through.

This book, more than anything else I've ever heard or read, showed me how incredibly privileged I've been. Not in finances — I definitely didn't grow up rich — but in having an intact family, in having stability, and in having a supportive community who never told me anything other than how I would succeed in life. J. D. Vance's story was educational, in the best possible way.

This book is worth your time.

"Sustainer", Not "Help Meet"

I find Robert Alter's Bible translations fascinating because of his footnotes and his uniquely fresh take on translating different passages. I recently bought, and started reading, The Five Books of Moses, his translations of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. He caught my interest right away.

Long time Bible readers will be familiar with Genesis 2:18 (rendered here, from the KJV).

“And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”

Because of this verse, there's a nice tradition (at least in traditional Christian circles) of referring to one's husband or wife as "a help meet". I do it myself, on occasion. So I stopped and took notice when Alter footnoted this section.

The Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo (King James Version “help meet”) is notoriously difficult to translate. The second term means “alongside him,” “opposite him,” “a counterpart to him.” “Help” is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.

Instead of "help meet", Alter translated the phrase as "sustainer".

“It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.”

I really like that. It has a much more active sound and still maintains the same connotation as someone that a person needs to thrive in his or her life.

This entry was tagged. Bible Marriage

Reading Idea: Remembering Abraham

Remembering Abraham

Remembering Abraham
by Ronald Hendel
$57.95 on Kindle

Robert Alter mentions this book in his introduction to The Five Books of Moses, as he talks about the historical origins of the Five Books.

Scholarship for more than two centuries has agreed that the Five Books are drawn together from different literary sources, though there have been shifting debates about the particular identification of sources in the text and fierce differences of opinion about the dating of the sundry sources. Some extremists in recent decades have contended that the entire Torah was composed in the Persian period, beginning the late sixth century B.C.E., or even later, in Hellenistic times, but there is abundant evidence that argues against that view. Perhaps the most decisive consideration is that the Hebrew language visibly evolves over the nine centuries of biblical literary activity, with many demonstrable differences between the language current in the First Commonwealth—approximately 1000 B.C.E. to 586 B.C.E.—and the language as it was written in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. There is very little in the Hebrew of the Torah that could have been written in this later era. (Ronald Hendel provides a concise and trenchant marshaling of the linguistic evidence against late dating in the appendix to his Remembering Abraham.) A recent revisionist approach, purportedly based on archeological evidence, places the composition of our texts as well as most of the Former Prophets in the seventh century B.C.E., during the reign of King Josiah, the period when, according to scholarly consensus, most of Deuteronomy was written. This contention, however, flatly ignores the philological evidence that Deuteronomy was responding to, and revising, a long-standing written legal tradition, and that the editors of the so-called Deuteronomistic History (the national chronicle that runs from Deuteronomy to the end of 2 Kings) were manifestly incorporating much older texts often strikingly different from their own writing both in style and in outlook.

I looked up the book and the description caught my eye.

According to an old tradition preserved in the Palestinian Targums, the Hebrew Bible is "the Book of Memories." The sacred past recalled in the Bible serves as a model and wellspring for the present. The remembered past, says Ronald Hendel, is the material with which biblical Israel constructed its identity as a people, a religion, and a culture. It is a mixture of history, collective memory, folklore, and literary brilliance, and is often colored by political and religious interests.

In Israel's formative years, these memories circulated orally in the context of family and tribe. Over time they came to be crystallized in various written texts. The Hebrew Bible is a vast compendium of writings, spanning a thousand-year period from roughly the twelfth to the second century BCE, and representing perhaps a small slice of the writings of that period. The texts are often overwritten by later texts, creating a complex pastiche of text, reinterpretation, and commentary. The religion and culture of ancient Israel are expressed by these texts, and in no small part also created by them, as they formulate new or altered conceptions of the sacred past. Remembering Abraham explores the interplay of culture, history, and memory in the Hebrew Bible. Hendel examines the Hebrew Bible's portrayal of Israel and its history, and correlates the biblical past with our own sense of the past. He addresses the ways that culture, memory, and history interweave in the self-fashioning of Israel's identity, and in the biblical portrayals of the patriarchs, the Exodus, and King Solomon. A concluding chapter explores the broad horizons of the biblical sense of the past.

This accessibly written book represents the mature thought of one of our leading scholars of the Hebrew Bible.

It's a lot pricier than my normal reads (by at least a factor of four), but it sounds interesting nonetheless. It's not on my immediate list of things to find and read, but I wanted to remember it for future research and reading.