Nightstand: What Scholars & Rogues are reading

nightstand-copySam Smith:

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A wonderful analysis on the difficulty of knowing and the impossibility of predicting.

Brian Angliss:

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

I’m not done with this book, but it’s been an interesting read thus far. Harris chronicles a long list of atrocities committed in the name of faith, with an understandable focus on the three major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. While it took me a long time to put aside my own biases (I’m an animist neo-pagan) and actually be able to read the book at all, I’ve found it an illuminating if occasionally frustrating read.

He’s spent almost no time on non-monotheistic faith thus far in my reading, and he’s said “the good things that religion has accomplished don’t matter” far too often. It feels too much like he’s saying “talk to the hand” when he should be spending more time explaining why the good stuff doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And I say this as someone who generally agrees with Harris’ sentiment that religion has been a largely negative force over the course of human history.


I am reading, with great dedication:

Beginning Python: From Novice to Professional, Magnus Lie Hetland

Essential SQLAlchemy, Rick Copeland

wxPython in Action, Noel Rapin and Robin Dunn

Programming Collective Intelligence, Toby Segaran

I heartily recommend them all to anyone hoping to become proficient at the Python programming language and, if I could just keep half of it in my head, I would much appreciate it, thank you.

Dawn Farmer:

The Logic of Life by Tim Harford (yes, at Whythawk’s recommendation — terrifically interesting book)

Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph Hallinan

Righteous Porkchop by Nicolette Hahn Niman (I’m curious to hear if anyone else is reading this book.)

In Righteous Porkchop Nicollette Hahn Niman recounts her work as the lead lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance’s Hog Campaign.  This campaign is designed to force factory hog farms into a more level playing field with the smaller farmer.  They have some important legal success using the Clean Air and Water Act, but the current economicclimate has made actual permits too expensive for the states to issue and enforce.  If you’ve never read anything about factory animal “farms” the book is an eye opener.  The author provides examples of well run farms and without being preachy offers suggestions to the consumer on the types of shops likely to have the products of these ethically run farms.  The author provides one more voice in a story that needs telling.

Just started:

The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser

Thumbs, Toes and Tears by Chip Walter

Chris Mackowski:

The Survivor’s Club by Ben Sherwood

Alexi Koltowicz:

The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels (actually a reread from years ago). An interesting alternative look at Christianity, though not deep enough to be called scholarly.

Bad Samaritans (The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism), Chang Ha-Joon. An excellent book from a Cambridge economist that pretty well tears down our idea of capitalism without attacking capitalism. Chang points out that the great economic powers like Britain and the US did not get to the top of the heap by practicing what they currently preach. He points out inconvenient truths like the US being the most protectionist country in the world up until the 1920’s, during which time the US was also the world’s fastest growing economy. With his intimate knowledge of Korea, he points out how both Korea and Japan became economic powers by not following the development prescriptions of the free-marketeers. This one is well worth any reader’s time; it’s deep enough to be satisfying and illuminating, but also short enough to be readable and briskly written.

Motherland (A Philosophical History of Russia), Lesley Chamberlain. A book that is probably long overdue. It brings together the narrative of Russian history with a new perspective and goes a long way towards explaining why Russia is so different than the West.

Russian Nights, Vladimir Fedorovich Odoevsky. A forgotten work of Russian philosophy presented as a series of short stories.

Street Gang (The Complete History of Sesame Street), Michael Davis. Behind the scenes and most concerned with the personalities that made the show possible, as well as their motivations. For someone who’s only allowed television was Sesame Street and who’s still a Sesame Street YouTube junky, it’s an indispensable volume.

For the Common Good (Redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future), Herman Daly and John Cobb Jr. This is an Agonista book club read, and I’m not far enough along to speak with any depth about it.

Truck, Michael Perry. A year in the life of Mr. Perry as he works on semi-restoring his his 1951 International Harvester pickup truck, plants a garden, falls in love, and ruminates on life from the view of his small, Wisconsin town. Somehow farms, deer hunting, NPR and green tea come together naturally. He’s an outstanding writer who manages to speak both intelligently and plainly; moreover, he can turn a phrase and make you laugh.

Roads to Quoz (An American Mosey), William Least Heat-Moon. An impulse buy fueled by a gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket. I cannot refuse a beautifully made book with a collection of words on the cover that include Least Heat-Moon, Quoz and mosey. The jacket blurb says “Heat-Moon is a travel writer the way Faulkner was a county historian” and that sums it up pretty well. An extraordinarily literate account of seeking out the local flavors, idiosyncrasies and stories that make travel a spiritual experience.

Mike Sheehan:

On my nightstand: I was at the comic shop not long ago and picked up a couple of Bad Planets and some old issues of Creepy and Eerie, favorites from my youth. Also got the recent issue of MAD about Obama’s first 100 days (surprisingly, MAD’s still quite funny, has talented new artists, and some of the legendary old 70’s crew is still around). Also re-reading the classic Y no se lo tragó la Tierra (…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him) by Tomás Rivera for the zillionth time. It’s a story of survival and acceptance from the point of view of a migrant workers’ son. The last pages always get to me… in a positive way. Also reading Machiavelli’s Il Principe (The Prince) for the first time. Watch out, world.

Russ Wellen:

His Excellency George Washington
Joseph Ellis
Knopf, 2004

When I was a boy, my most cherished book may have been The Golden Book of the American Revolution. Intended for early adolescents, it was illustrated with period paintings and prints, which served to imprint me on the era. But I don’t recall actually reading the text. In fact, it’s only in recent years that I’ve read about the Revolutionary War and learned about its causes, battles, and what life was like for the soldiers, as well as the colonists.

It wasn’t long before I discovered that George Washington was not someone to take for granted just because we overdosed on him in school or because he looks stiff and imperious in paintings and statures. However, I was unwilling to invest my time in a 500-page or two-volume biography. I especially avoid those authors who insist on kicking off their bios by chronicling the subject’s ancestry and dragging the reader through his or her parents’ lives. They lose the reader before he or she even gets to the subject of the bio.

I considered a popular bio of Washington similar to John Adams by David McCullough. However, I’m leery, though, of popular bios, especially since the late Stephen Ambrose, author of books like Band of Brothers, got caught plagiarizing. (Not that I mean to imply that of McCullough.) Another popular “brothers” history book was Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis. But when I noticed that his Washington bio, His Excellency George Washington (Knopf, 2004), drew strong reviews, I checked it out of the library.

It immediately became apparent that Ellis deserves to be widely read: How many historical bios have you read that are page turners? Neither do the liberal insertions of Washington’s own writing slow the book down. However contained, Washington always made his feelings known. In fact, even though his life was scandal free — no children by slaves, no apparent affairs — Washington was one of those rare figures who kept bumping up against history at every turn, from the French and Indian Wars to the Revolution to the Constitutional Convention to his presidency.

Because he kept slaves, singing the praises of Washington is seen as less than politically correct. He eventually felt guilty about it, but, a businessman before he was a humanitarian, the only option he saw open to him wasn’t freeing his slaves but selling them. In the long run, he did neither. But, as with many planters, his slaves became a money-losing proposition.

As they populated his farms, he couldn’t bring himself to break up their families by selling them. Furthermore, he was caring for those too old to work. In essence, many of his slaves were in a state of forced welfare, complete with teenagers with too much time on their hands. In other words, Washington was torn between benevolence and business.

The central paradox of his life, however, is that a man as ambitious and obsessed with his personal legacy as Washington resisted overweening power. Perhaps the only American who received as much open adulation as him was Elvis Presley. Yet, once president, Washington disregarded the public’s urging that he reign like a king. He was that rare man who realized his ego and his ethics could be on the same page, that by doing what was right for the country — ratifying separation of powers, limiting the power of the executive branch — he was ensuring his own legacy.

Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.
Trita Parsi
Yale University Press, 2007

Though the author is Iranian-American, the book, which I’m halfway through, is a dispassionate account of relations between the three countries. Most Americans have no idea that Iran and Israel, however reluctantly, were on good terms until the first Iraq War. They needed each other as buffers against rising power Iraq, though for the sake of the Arab world, Iran publicly denigrated Israel. In fact, while Israel sought a long-term commitment, Iran acted on a case-by-case basis.

To give you an idea of how important Israel viewed Iran to its security, Israel actually provided Iran with arms during the hostage crisis. Further courting U.S. ire, while the United States was supplying Iraq with arms during the Iran-Iraq War, Israel continued to sell them to Iran. Until the Iraq War, Israel appeared to be a beat behind Iran when it came to diplomacy, even, at times, in denial of how little regard in which it was held by Iran. One can’t help wondering if the years Israel spent as what amounted to a spurned suitor helped fuel its present-day bitterness towards Iran.

The United States, as well, often fumbled its dealings with Iran. As for Israel and the United States, we forget, but the United States often kept Israel at arms length. The author quotes a phone conversation in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush told Israeli President Itzhak Shamir, “I’ve just read the wire story quoting you about a confrontation with the United States. If you want that — fine.” During the same period, Secretary of State James Baker sent Israel this public message: “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”

Even though Treacherous Alliance is exclusively about diplomatic dealings, with little in the way of anecdote or character, thanks to the author’s gift for narrative, it too fairly flows.

Despite that, the book still requires concentration and when I started it I soon rediscovered why it was the first ambitious book I’d embarked upon in a while. Most of my book reading (as opposed to keeping up with events and research) is done while commuting to work on the train. But, interrupting my concentration, passengers speaking to each other or into cell phones became a source of frustration.

Thus, a few months ago, I swore off ambitious books and plans to renew that vow once I finish reading Treacherous Alliance (okay, and one or two others). Whenever I hear about the latest tempting (to me, anyway) tome, it’s hard to resist the impulse to check it out of the library.

The Peter Macklin Series

Fortunately, reading less taxing books on the train doesn’t present the same problems. In previous Nightstands I beat the drum for author Loren Estleman. Though, come to think of it, his signature series, featuring “hardboiled” detective Amos Walker, is challenging in its way. This is especially true of the later novels in the series, where his writing has became honed and, in places, dense.

But the only challenges most crime-fiction readers want from the genre is puzzling the out who, how, and why of the crime. They lack both an eye and the patience for the literary. Between the dialogue, action, interior life, and description — Estleman was once an artist and has no qualms about halting the proceedings and lovingly describing a scene — he’s the only crime novelist besides James Lee Burke whose work I’d classify as literary. (I’m sure there are crime-fiction aficionados who’ve drawn up their own lists.)

To keep from depleting the supply of Amos Walker books, I just finished another series of Estleman’s: the five-book Peter Macklin series. Far from solving crimes, this character commits them. Macklin, in fact is a hit man. But he describes himself as simply a killer, just as he uses workmanlike guns of modest caliber. Nondescript in appearance, killing’s just a job to him and while his work excites him, it’s neither pleasurable nor repellent to him.

Wait a minute — what is someone like me, who not only shuns excessive violence in books and movies in books, but comes dangerously close to being a pacifist, doing reading books about a hit man? Chalk it up to the power of Estleman to beguile the reader, no matter what he writes.

Though, of course he’s not the first author to make you care for a violent offender, Estleman further tempts you into rooting for Macklin in the last two books of the series when he’s ostensibly out of the game and trying to start a new life with a young wife. But when his old life comes back to haunt him, he has no qualms about killing again to protect his new life.

To what extent have I fallen for Estleman’s work? I just started reading one of his Westerns. Wait — what self-respecting reader reads Westerns? Overexposed to Westerns on TV as a kid, I became indifferent to the genre. But, as with George Washington, I guess I was destined to come full circle and find out just why they matter.

What, Scholars & Rogues readers, are you reading?

7 replies »

  1. “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. Enjoying it, but finding my Spanish, knowledge of speculative fiction and comic books, and familiarity with Dominican history seriously lacking. So probably not enjoying it quite as much as I could be.

  2. Ellis’s Founding Brothers remains one of my all-time favorite books, Russ. I’m pretty widely read in the history of the early Republic, but Ellis’s book remains the best “intro” to the period that I’ve run across. It’s been deeply influential in my understanding of those early years–which has, in turn, influenced my thinking about modern America. I hands-down recommend it to anyone.

    Ellis went through a period of personal and professional disgrace of his own. He lied about his military service in Vietnam and, shortly after Founding Brothers got called out on it. His Excellency received all the more scrutiny because of it–and as you saw for yourself, it still received rave reviews.

    Your analysis of Washington is excellent. He was truly THE outstanding American.

  3. Dawn, I’ve not yet read Niman’s book, but will eventually (because am writing a history of meat in modern America, and hope I’ll be able to interview the Nimans).

    Because I spend all day reading what amounts to non-fiction (primary research materials, scholarly monographs, and the like), I save my leisure reading time for fiction (although I do read some non-fiction).

    I just finished Val McDermid’s A Darker Domain. Excellent.(I am a fan of “mysteries,” term I use loosely because a good mystery is typically a great novel.)

    Also just finished Nicolas Carr’s The Big Switch; definitely worth reading if you don’t know much about the brainware and systems behind the wired world.

    And finally, I recently finished Phineas Finn. It’s the one Trollope novel I’d never been able to get through for some reason (am otherwise a serious fan of Trollope). I’m so glad my mood and the book finally meshed. First rate!

  4. Sam, Taleb’s book is very good and I got a copy before publication and liked it. If I can recommend a good book, different subject matter, that will segue nicely is Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers.” Although my life has been a very busy social whirlwind, I’ve been reading Cowen’s “Discover Your Inner Economist.” which is a first rate read. Then you could read something by Nock, and step outside the box. Very important message from Nock, and so true… true.


  5. Until reading Gavin’s addition, I didn’t realize that I could include technical books. I’ll add those to the next Nightstand roundup.

    You know you’re a geek when…. you’re teaching yourself statistical analysis and the varied disciplines involved in climatology as a hobby.

  6. Yeah, I know what you mean, Brian, about technical material. It actually excites me to read about the fine points of nuclear treaties. When I was younger, I used to hate that stuff because it reminded me of school. Now I think of it as a mental challenge.

    Regarding Mike’s contributions, even though I sometimes read MAD as a kid, but — I know it’s heresy — I didn’t find it that funny. But my son brings the new one home and at times it’s Onion-funny. Meanwhile, typical gringo, I’d never heard of the Rivera book. Might try it.

    Thanks, Chris, for the background about Joseph Ellis’s professional disgrace. What’s with authors and dissembling?

    Maureen, cool that Trollope’s still being read.

    Had never heard of Discover Your Inner Economist, Jeff. Intriguing title.

  7. 70’s-era MAD is part of what made me what I am today: a cynical, jovial, carefree zero. I still laugh hysterically at my old copies.