Arts/Literature

Nightstand: What some of your favorite Scholars & Rogues are reading

nightstand-copyIs a brain in a synthetic body still human? Is there such a thing as too much horticultural knowledge? Is there such a thing as too much Jane Austen? Is there a link between the JFK assassination and 9/11? Anyone have any good reading suggestions for someone going through a midlife crisis?

For answers to these burning questions and more, check out what the Scrogues have on their nightstands these days.

Brian Angliss: I’m reading two things right now—the manga Ghost in the Shell and an old copy of Numerical Recipes. The first is purely for fun, but Shirow still plays around in the border between man and machine: is a brain in a synthetic body still human? How about an A.I.
with a partially human body? As for Numerical Recipes, well, that’s so I can understand statistics well enough to detect when someone is trying to manipulate me or others with bad math.

Jim Booth: I’ve recently finished a biography of Bob Dylan and a book on the stories behind the composition of most of The Beatles’ songs. I’m currently re-reading the completed novels of Jane Austen as I do every couple of years. Right now I’m early into Sense and Sensibility, having just completed Northanger Abbey. Once those are finished, I’ll be reading a biography of Mark Twain. After that, re-reading Pickwick Papers—jonesing for some Dickens….

Lex: Opium by Martin Booth. Anything that manages to combine botany, the seedy underbelly of society, and the historical evils that governments do is a page-turner for me. Also, Loise Hole’s Tomato Favorites because there’s no such thing as too much horticultural knowledge or too much reviewing of previously acquired knowledge.

Chris Mackowski: If a poetry collection can be a dazzling meditation, then Charles Wrights’ Sestets hits it pitch-perfect. It’s the strongest poetry collection by Wright to date, proving that some masters just get better and better with time.

Following up on my China visit from the spring, I’m also reading Prisoner of the State, the secret diary of Zhao Ziyang, former general chairman of the community party in China. Deposed by party rivals or being too reform-minded, the highly popular Zhao was kept cloistered from public view until his death in 2005. Chinese officials have banned the book and have been confiscating every copy they can find, which of course makes the book a must-read for me!

Finally, I’m listening to a tremendously entertaining audiobook edition of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, performed by Joe Barrett. Henderson is a quirky book, for certain, but the writing has such flashes of brilliance that I would need sunglasses if I was actually reading it. Barrett really brings the book to life in a way I didn’t fully appreciate when I first read it years ago. I’m going through a kind of mid-life crisis right now, I guess, so Henderson resonates strongly.

Sam Smith: I’ve been reviewing the greats and catching up on some classics lately. I recently re-read Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and William Butler Yeats’s Collected Poems and am currently working my way through a collection of Mark Twain’s great shorter works. My array of interests is so wide that it’s too easy for me to get caught up in what’s timely, so every once in awhile I need to retreat and reestablish contact with what’s timeless.

Russ Wellen: Much to my surprise, a post entitled JFK and the Unspeakable by filmmaker Oliver Stone was one of the most heavily promoted at Huffington Post a couple weeks ago. It was less a review than a tribute to a 2008 book of the same name by Christian peace activist James Douglass. I just happened to finish reading it since the last Nightstand was posted.

Subtitled “Why He Died and Why it Matters,” JFK and the Unspeakable is simply the most exciting book I’ve read in years. It incorporates much of the current thinking on John Kennedy’s presidency and death, leaning heavily on documents acquired by use of the Freedom of Information Act.

Stone, who directed a movie titled JFK, sums it up:

[Douglass] traces a process of steady conversion by Kennedy from his origins as a traditional Cold Warrior to his determination to pull the world back from the edge of destruction. Many of these steps are well known, such as Kennedy’s disillusionment with the CIA after the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion, and his refusal to follow the reckless recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. … Then there was the Test Ban Treaty and JFK’s remarkable American University Speech where he spoke with empathy and compassion about the Soviet people. …

But many of his steps remain unfamiliar: Kennedy’s back-channel dialogue with Khrushchev and their shared pursuit of common ground; his secret opening to dialogue with Fidel Castro (ongoing the very week of his assassination); and his determination to pull out of Vietnam after his probable re-election in 1964.

All of these steps caused him to be regarded as a virtual traitor by elements of the military-intelligence community. These were the forces that planned and carried out his assassination.

Know how when the subject of alternate histories of 9/11 is brought up, you’re often met with the response “They could never have kept all the people needed quiet”? Or “The government isn’t competent enough to pull off a plan like that.” This book shows how people’s mouths are kept shut (not pretty), as well as how a government agency (the CIA —no surprises there) carries it off—with considerable clumsiness.

Those skeptical of 9/11 alternate histories also tend to think of 9/11 in a vacuum. Once you start learning about the assassinations, it comes to seem like a continuum (okay, a mega-conspiracy). The author, in fact, though aging, also intends to write books about the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

If you’re wondering to what “the Unspeakable” refers, it’s the evil embodied by a U.S. military and intelligence that not only would brook no talk of peace with the U.S.S.R., but sought to wage war in Vietnam and use nuclear weapons at will. Unspeakable enough for you?

I’m also on the final stretch of The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Third Edition by Lawrence Freedman, 2003, Palgrave. Required reading for those who wish to understand the nuclear mentality, it was more of a slog than it needed to be. While I have no head for gamesmanship, the more experienced I become poring over demanding texts, the more I’m willing to lay some of my difficulties with their comprehension at the feet of the author. Anyway, all you ever wanted to know about deterrence and then some. Nevertheless, Brian still leads in the competition for wonkiest books read.

Finally. . . Loren Estleman, Loren Estleman, Loren Estleman. Or have I mentioned him before?

10 replies »

  1. I’ve been pimping out Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” all over the internet for the past week. Simply put, this is the best novel I’ve read in the last decade(and I’ve read a few novels). It’s so good, I’ve been savoring it like a good Merlot, just reading 15-20 pages at a time.

    Jeff

  2. Chris: I have to get the Wright book. He’s the greatest poet alive, I think, and is one of the few contemporary writers I’d actually cite as an influence on my own work.

    Also a nice guy. Met him at a party once.

  3. I recently ditched cable (until hockey season starts) and I’ve been catching up on some classics I’ve never read, like 1984, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Catcher in the Rye. I’m also interested in David Cross’s new book “I Drink For a Reason”, and a book called Guns, Germs, and Steel. I actually just got done reading Atlas Shrugged, it was actually really good.

  4. The first three quarters of Guns, Germs and Steel is really interesting. Got a bit less interesting at the end. Its been a while since I read it, but i remember it got a bit too wishy washy and speculative for me.

  5. Philip Pullman is my recent kick. “His Dark Materials” is a three-volume “retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost with the moral polarities reversed” aimed, nominally, at 12-year-olds. Dark Matter is Original Sin.

    Really. For 12-year-olds. He is, of course, British. The first book was titled “The Golden Compass” in the US and the movie TGC did the first 3/4 of it, with stuff, inevitably, trimmed out. The books are wonderful.

    Previously he did a series of “plucky intelligent girl in distress in VIctorian London” books for 12-year-olds. Except that the heroine does some illegal and crazy things in her fights against danger. The guy is absolutely fearless in his plotting.

  6. I just bought Nation by Terry Pratchett, nd I’m working on The Pacific by Mark Helprin. On a totally unrelated subject, I once worked in a bookstore when a lady called and wanted to know if we had the book “How To Kill a Mockingbird.” I told her she didn’t need a book–just twist their little heads off. She didn’t think that was funny.

  7. Well, Terry, i think it’s funny!

    Obviously, myself and my two brothers had to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in school, and i’m not sure why but we all used my mother’s copy. By some act of grace, that copy made it through all three of us. And it wasn’t until years later that my mother realized she was sitting on a first edition. We probably wouldn’t have been allowed to touch it had she known that. It’s valued at between $5,000 and $8,000.