Arts/Literature

Scholars & Rogues Nightstand: what Scrogues are reading

If you are what you read, it is indeed evident that our cast of characters is composed of both scholars and rogues. . .

Chris Mackowski:

All the World’s a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare by John Reed (Plume, 2008). Take all the best plot ingredients from Shakespeare’s greatest plays, cut and paste the Bard’s own language, keep all the insights into human behavior, and mix creatively — the result is Reed’s invigorating re-envisioning of Shakespeare, written by Shakespeare himself.

J.S. O’Brien:

I just finished Ghost Wars by Steve Coll (Penguin, 2004). This is a stunning work that earned Coll a well-deserved 2005 Pulitzer Prize.

Coll examines, in minute and fascinating detail, the run-up to 9/11, beginning with America’s support of the Mujahadeen against the Soviets. He names names and explores not just what happened but how the interaction of personalities, organizational structure and culture, internecine and inter-agency rivalries, motives, political realities, agendae, etc. let Al-Qaeda slip through the cracks.

Perhaps most interestingly, Coll’s historical narrative is rich in details on where the money and support came from, who gave it, how it was delivered, and how it was manipulated. The Saudis, the Taliban, the Pakistani intelligence operation (ISI), Pakistan’s government and military, and the CIA play major roles, but not once do Iraq and Saddam Hussein make an appearance. In other words, prior to 9/11, Iraq was not even a faint and distant blip on the US intelligence screens monitoring Osama bin Laden and his organization.

Mike Sheehan:

I’ve got four I’m reading at once (which I tend to do, not because I’m a fast reader, quite the opposite; I just like having a buffet at hand): Shroud of the Thwacker by Chris Elliott (Miramax, 2006), an insane fictional tale of murder and mayhem in old New York featuring Teddy Roosevelt as a hilariously twisted fop; re-reading Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson (Random House, 1967), one of his earlier books, happily steeped in a depraved rage for disorder; and just starting on two golden sci-fi nuggets: Larry Niven’s Ringworld (Henry Holt, 1977) and a first edition copy of John Varley’s Titan (Putnam, 1979), which I read excerpts from as a kid and have long wanted to experience in full (thanks, eBay!).

[Yes, the Get a Life, Cabin Boy Chris Elliott. Also, the Varley book is the first of his celebrated Gaea trilogy. – Ed.]

Dr. Denny Wilkins:
Im slogging through two books at the moment — John W. Dean’s Broken Government (Penguin, 2008) and Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Metropolitan, 2008).

These are particularly painful to read … and a little embarrassing. My journalism career spanned the ’70s and ’80s. I was a rookie as Nixon’s political depravity drove his administration into lawlessness. Similarly, I was an editorial writer and edit-page editor during the Reagan administration.

These two books are teaching me what I missed in my routine, day-to-day journalist. The hindsight in these books is much different that the spate of books written about Watergate by the various indicted and unindicted co-conspirators. Those books dealt with the blow-by-blow accounting of daily malfeasance.

Dean and Frank unpack the long-term project by conservative loyalists with the patience to take a long view … in this case, nearly a half century.

Neither Bush presidency was an accident. They were planned for and planned on. I’m looking for additional books that also explain long-term trends in politics, be they from liberal or conservative perspectives.

Russ Wellen:

Dr. D., here’s an additional book that helps explain long-term trends in politics. Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002) by John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse caused a stir among political scientists when it was published. Through polls and focus groups, the authors learned that it’s impossible to romanticize Americans by portraying them as seeking a greater role in democracy. Because we don’t.

It’s not so much that we’re apathetic, but that we’re turned off to politics –- to a wildly disproportionate extent — by two of its most salient characteristics: rancor and politicians who are in it for personal gain. Though somewhat academic, Stealth Democracy is one of those rare books in which almost every page contains an observation that shatters your preconceptions and even makes you laugh out loud. It’s inspiring me to next read rebuttals to it and to use it as a starting point to further explore what I think of as the “enduring enigma that is the American mind.”

I also just finished U.S. vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security by J. Peter Scoblic (Viking, 2008). It’s astonishing how conservatives’ half-baked, simple-minded ideas have gained currency as national policy and military strategy. Much of the book concerns nuclear weapons, about which conservatives seem to have a blind spot: They just don’t get that they and their loved ones could be on the receiving end. Or, to put it another way, in missile defense they trust.

U.S. vs. Them is a valuable resource and full of wisdom. Here’s a sample quote from the closing pages:

But if this book has demonstrated that ideas matter, it has also argued that they should matter less — that national security policy should not flow from ideology. Just as you do not choose a doctor for his worldview, the United States should not choose a president for his convictions about the nature of good and evil.

Care to share with us what you’re reading in the comments section?

Ann Ivins

Late to the party, but here’s the full bedside table list (it’s a good-sized table):

  • The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell
  • Victorian and Edwardian Fashions from La Mode Illustree – ed. JoAnne Olian
  • Rumpole and the Reign of Terror – John Mortimer
  • Much Ado About Nothing (new Pelican edition) – the Big S
  • Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte
  • Smoke and Mirrors – Neil Gaiman
  • Ghost Town – Patrick McGrath*
  • The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot
  • Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  • Castle Richmond – Anthony Trollope
  • Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
  • The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova
  • The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose – ed. Frank Muir
  • Carpe Jugulem – Terry Pratchett
  • The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, And Respectability in New Orleans, 1865-1920 – Alecia P. Long*
  • Funeral Games – Mary Renault*
  • The Prop Builder’s Molding and Casting Handbook – Thurston James

* Latest additions to the crowd. Patrick McGrath is the master of modern Gothic (for lack of a better term). Funeral Games is classic Mary Renault, about the political machinations following the death of Alexander the Great. Southern Babylon explores the intersection of race, gender and Reconstruction-era politics in the brothels of New Orleans.

4 replies »

  1. Still going through Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but I’m finally getting a handle on the syntax. I’m also about halfway through Robin Buss’s translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. I’ve got Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union hanging on the grapevine when I finish one or the other.

  2. Ghost Wars is absolutely essential to understand the current situation in Afghanistan. History as prelude, yada yada yada. It’s also interesting to note how many of the names that Coll writes still pop up in current news stories.

  3. I am waiting for The Islamic Shield, by Elie Elhadj, to arrive at my local library on inter-library loan. Has any Scrogue or Scrogue reader read it? Any thoughts on it?