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Archives for Non-Fiction (page 1 / 1)

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: 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 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: 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: 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.

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.

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.

Reading Idea: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
by J. D. Vance
$12.99 on Kindle

Throughout the Republican primary, I kept wondering what attracted people to Donald Trump. Because I always look for the good in people, I refused to believe that Trump’s supporters were motivated by racism, misogyny, or nationalism. Some were, I’m sure. But all of them? I believed that there had to be something more — something that Trump represented that resonated with certain Americans.

Rod Dreher’s interview with J. D. Vance in The American Conservative caught my interest. Dreher had high praise for Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy and focused on the problem of Trump.

The book is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

​And the interview focused on the relationship between Trump and his voters.

RD: A friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” tells me why. Explain it to people who haven’t yet read your book.

J.D. VANCE: The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

The last point I’ll make about Trump is this: these people, his voters, are proud. A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well. We were taught to raise our fists to anyone who insulted our mother. I probably got in a half dozen fights when I was six years old. Unsurprisingly, southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate. Can you imagine the humiliation these people feel at the successive failures of Bush/Obama foreign policy? My military service is the thing I’m most proud of, but when I think of everything happening in the Middle East, I can’t help but tell myself: I wish we would have achieved some sort of lasting victory. No one touched that subject before Trump, especially not in the Republican Party.

​I already bought a copy of this book and I’ll be reading it soon.

Reading Idea: A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe
by Geoffrey Wawro
$11.99 on Kindle

I can be persuaded that a book is interesting on the slimmest of recommendations, sometimes. For instance, this offhand comment by Warren Meyer.

Back in the depths of WWI, the Germans woke up one day and found that their erstwhile ally Austria-Hungary, to whom they had given that famous blank check in the madness that led up to the war, was completely incompetent. Worse than incompetent, in fact, because Germany had to keep sending troops to bail them out of various military fixes, an oddly similar situation to what Hitler found himself doing with Italy in the next war. ([A Mad Catastrophe] is a really interesting book if you have any doubts about how dysfunctional the Hapsburg Empire was in its waning days).

And that's pretty much how Amazon describes the book too.

A prizewinning military historian explores a critical but overlooked cause for World War I: the staggering decrepitude of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Reading Idea: A Summer for the Gods

$9.99 on Kindle

How much do you know about the notorious Scopes trial? Glenn Reynolds says that whatever it is, it's probably wrong.

TODAY IS THE 90TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE SCOPES TRIAL. Let me just note that what you think you know about it is probably wrong — especially if what you think you know about it comes from watching Inherit The Wind. I highly recommend Ed Larson’s excellent treatment, A Summer For The Gods.

What's the book about?

If you haven't seen the film version of Inherit the Wind, you might have read it in high school. And even people who have never heard of either the movie or the play probably know something about the events that inspired them: The 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," during which Darwin's theory of evolution was essentially put on trial before the nation. Inherit the Wind paints a romantic picture of John Scopes as a principled biology teacher driven to present scientific theory to his students, even in the teeth of a Tennessee state law prohibiting the teaching of anything other than creationism. The truth, it turns out, was something quite different.

In his fascinating history of the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson makes it abundantly clear that Truth and the Purity of Science had very little to do with the Scopes case. Tennessee had passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, and the American Civil Liberties Union responded by advertising statewide for a high-school teacher willing to defy the law. Communities all across Tennessee saw an opportunity to put themselves on the map by hosting such a controversial trial, but it was the town of Dayton that came up with a sacrificial victim: John Scopes, a man who knew little about evolution and wasn't even the class's regular teacher. Chosen by the city fathers, Scopes obligingly broke the law and was carted off to jail to await trial.

What happened next was a bizarre mix of theatrics and law, enacted by William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. Though Darrow lost the trial, he made his point--and his career--by calling Bryan, a noted Bible expert, as a witness for the defense. Summer for the Gods is a remarkable retelling of the trial and the events leading up to it, proof positive that truth is stranger than science.

Reading Idea: The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century

$29 in paperback

Tyler Cowen references an interesting sounding book, in his Equine Markets in Everything post.

Circa the late nineteenth century, in urban America:

Even the wastes of horses were commodified.  The collection of urban manure had old, even ancient roots.  Again, the process is most easily documented in New York City.  Before 1878, individuals roamed the street and picked up manure.  In that year the Common Council supposedly sold an exclusive license to a William Hitchcock, who sold the street sweepings to farmers for fertilizer.  Street sweepings varied in quality and were worth more if from an asphalt street than if from a gravel street or a dirty alley.  They were always worth less than stable manure, a purer product.  The older pattern of individuals collecting street manure for urban gardens never fully went away, and as late as the first half of the twentieth century neighborhood children in the Italian American neighborhood of East Harlem did a thriving business collecting horse manure from the streets for backyard gardens in the area.

That is from Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century, an excellent book from 2007.  I am sorry it took me so long to discover this work.  It has wonderful sentences such as:

Stables rarely make it into the histories of the built environment, although they constituted a substantial part of that environment.

How can you go wrong with that?  There is a good economics on every page of this book.