by Hannah Arendt. German-American political philosopher wrote this in
1963, inquiring why some revolutions (America) lead to stable
governments while others (France, Russia) go horribly wrong. Her
explanations combine political culture (authoritarian or republican),
existing institutional structures,
and the behavior of leading elites toward the mass public (restrained
or dictatorial). Very thought-provoking as we Americans consider what
might be made out of the hash in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Chasing Vermeer by
Chicago and the
surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood. Calder and Petra pursue an art
heist they hear about in their sixth grade class. As the situation
becomes increasingly weird, they must decide which events are clues and
The First Paul:
Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon
by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Thoughtful if controversial
biblical scholars take on the life of Paul, the foremost apostle of
early Christianity. Based on the scholarship of others, they focus on
seven Pauline letters (Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians,
Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon) widely acknowledged to have
been written by Paul, while ignoring the others where authorship is
more doubtful. Their idea is that if you focus on these and interpret
them in the right context, Paul emerges as a political and social
radical, not a hypertheological grump. Provocative and mostly
persuasive... best read with Bible at one's side.
Tapes: Wrestling History with the President by Taylor
Branch. A fascinating book, like none
read. Taylor Branch, a brilliant historian best known for his trilogy
on the civil rights era, taped a series of secret interviews with Bill
Clinton throughout the latter's presidency that will be invaluable to
future historians. This is Branch's story of the project, how he became
reacquainted with Clinton after working with him briefly on the
McGovern campaign, the complications involved in getting him into the
White House on short notice for interviews, his dogged yet friendly
approach to the sessions with Clinton. He's a brilliant writer who
gives a unique portrait of himself as historian-at-work.
The House on
Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Cisneros uses the
impressions of a fictional teenage girl to create a vivid depiction of
a northwest Chicago neighborhood. Chapters average about 2 pages in
length, which makes for a fascinating literary pointlism. Destined for
my course on place this fall.
The Weather of
the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a
Climate-Changed Planet by Heidi Cullen. Meteorologist's effort to translate the raft of
climate science into probability-based forecasts of climate impacts
over the next 40 years, focusing on highly sensitive areas such as the
Arctic and the Sahara Desert, but also New York City. Works pretty
well. She tries to factor in political responses, which add another
variable... generally she's cautiously optimistic that eventually some
steps will be taken to mitigate the effects but not the causes so much.
The Wretched of
the Earth by Frantz Fanon. Probably best known for his
anti-colonial manifesto justifying violence, this collection of essays
also includes interesting reflections on spontaneous uprisings, how
ethno-nationalist liberation movements often decline into petty
dictatorships, and the psychological effects of colonization on the
Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. A chatty but intriguing
look at the multiple factors that predict success, which include
individual talent and effort, but also socially-constructed opportunity
and fortuitous timing. Unfortunately, Gladwell never is precise about
what he's claiming to predict: "success" is varyingly identified with
high-achieving individuals like Bill Gates, distinctively-performing
groups like Asian Americans, and private schools in inner cities that
offer a different formula for education. Still the stress on external
factors is eye-opening, and a cut above the usual pablum of self-help
and motivational books.
Willie Mays: The
Life, The Legend by James Hirsch. Well-written biography of one
of baseball's all-time greats, good detail though it verges on apology
at times. I came in on the end of his career, so it was good to read
about him in his prime.
by Nick Hornby. I wish Nick Hornby would clone himself so he would
write more novels. This one is set in the English seaside town of
Gooleness, where Duncan and Annie have a 15-year relationship that has
settled into a quiet mutual boredom. Duncan's real passion is the music
of reclusive American singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe. No sooner does
Duncan decide to leave Annie than Crowe contacts her. Hornby writes the
characters with compassion and good humor; the implausible and awkward
situation becomes plausible from the point of view of each character,
and no more awkward than most of life.
of Harold L. Ickes (3 volumes). Three volumes is a lot to go
through, but well worth it for a great insider account of the Roosevelt
administration, from inauguration through Pearl Harbor. Ickes was
Secretary of the Interior, among other administrative posts, throughout
FDR's presidency and into Truman's. He's a bit of a fusspot, but I'm
also a John Adams admirer so that doesn't bother me. He describes
vividly Roosevelt's inspiring public leadership as well as his blatant
manipulation of the people who worked for him. An ongoing subplot is
Ickes's attempt to have the Forest Service moved from the Agriculture
Department to Interior; FDR kept promising to do it, but never did, and
it's still there!
Ill Fares the Land
by Tony Judt. NYU historian's diagnosis of what ails Western
civilization: unfettered individualism leads to rampant economic
inequality, while the abandonment of public goods leads to poverty of
the soul as well as the wallet. The political system, bereft of
principle, becomes a contest among special pleaders from which many
people are justifiably alienated. The book is briefly and elegantly
argued, sacrificing the detail/data that might have buttressed the
argument at some cost to the reader's patience.
Scroll of Agony:
The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan. An
occupation of Warsaw (1939-1942), smuggled out of the country notebook
by notebook. He reports every detail of the Nazi assault on Poland and
its Jewish population, clearly and passionately--and along the way
invents an alter ego named Hirsch for those times when he's of two
minds about something! Utterly riveting.
Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress by Harry Katz
et al. A wonderful coffee table book for any baseball fan, particularly
one interested in the sport's history pre-1970. Wads of historical
photographs of players and memorabilia, with some interesting short
features including panorama photography, early baseball cards, and
baseball in World War II. Interesting artifacts include a diary excerpt
from a Princeton student in 1786 who is spending too much time playing
"baste ball;" pictures of baseball games from young adult books from
1787 on; and the cover of the dime novel "Base-Ball Player" from 1868.
The Travel Diary
of a Philosopher by Count Hermann Keyserling. Not so much a
diary as Keyserling's formal musings inspired by a world tour he began
in 1911 as an effort to break out of a personal stagnation. A good deal
of speculation about how varieties of geography, religion, government,
and so forth affect human development, which is occasionally
interesting but often turgid and reads a lot like "national character"
gunk. Two volumes.
I Will Bear
Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years by Victor Klemperer.
Outstanding chronicle of the Nazi era, told by a Dresden Jew who was
somewhat protected by his marriage to a Christian. His methodical,
detailed descriptions make for a powerful statement about the Nazi
regime. The book ends in June 1945 following a journey from Munich to
Dresden through bombed-out postwar Germany.
The Diary of H.L.
Mencken. H.L. Mencken was one grumpy bump. Reading these
selections from the last couple decades of his life raises the question
of whether it's worth being correct--if indeed he was--about politics,
society, language, &c. if it makes you alienated from people around
You Are Not a
Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. Computer scientist Lanier,
present at the creation of virtual reality, expresses concern about the
loss of individuality in many aspects of the contemporary digital world
(such as MIDI files, Wikipedia, Facebook pages, and comments). His
presentation is occasionally herky-jerky, but his passion shines
through and his anecdotes are frequently amusing.
People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon. Introductory survey
of famous correspondences, arranged by topic ("love," "friendship,"
"prison," e.g.). You get more of Mallon than the writers here, but
that's OK because the point is to present a range of human experience
quickly and point you to the complete correspondences many of which
should be available on interlibrary loan.
Diary: 1917-1956 by Col. Richard Meinertzhagen. Meinertzhagen
was a British army officer posted to the Middle East in the years
following World War I. He came to support Jewish aspirations for a
national state, which was official British policy but slow to be
enacted because of what he saw as anti-Semitism in high places. (The
casual anti-Semitism Meinertzhagen describes in European leaders helps
to explain how the Nazi Holocaust was possible.) He met with Nazi
leaders several times to try to persuade them to allow Jewish
emigration; he's brave enough to show his initially naive views about
Hitler. Eventually, he cheers the founding of the State of Israel, and
rails against the dying of the light of the British Empire.
in Medieval Times by John B. Morrall. Brief overview of medieval
European political thought, focusing on the latter part of the period
(1100s-1400s). Morrall effectively sketches the institutional
structures of Christendom, the major controversies, and the ideas of
some of the leading thinkers.
The Long Road to
Gettysburg by Jim Murphy. Detailed description of the Battle of
Gettysburg in the American Civil War, brief enough to be accessible to
younger readers. Most of the material is taken from eyewitness accounts
by two soldiers: Thomas Galway, a Union soldier from Cleveland, Ohio,
and John Dooley, a Confederate soldier from Richmond, Virginia.
Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 1100-c. 1550
by Cary J. Nederman. Expert on medieval political thought challenges
the notion that the Middle Ages were an unbroken story of repression,
killing non-conformists and subjugating minorities in the name of the
One True Church. There was a lot of that, of course, but Nederman
identifies a number of prominent writers, many of them within the
Church, who argued for state autonomy from religious power, tolerance
of non-Christian peoples, and/or strength from diversity. Interesting
set of arguments from a distant and very different time.
London by Joseph Fort Newton. Newton was called from the Little
Brick Church in Cedar Rapids (where is/was that?) to City Temple, where
he served from 1917-1920. His main concern was to help heal relations
between Americans and Britons, and to overcome prejudices each held
about the other. I suppose such prejudices still exist, but we get on
pretty well now, so it makes for a strange read.
Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time by Michael Perry.
It's hard to overstate how much I like this book. Perry returns to his
tiny Wisconsin town after 12 years' absence, and reintegrates by
becoming an EMT and joining the volunteer fire department. This
connection ties him closer to the place he loves through people he
loves. A natural for my course on place. (I hope my students agree.)
Chapter 7, "My People," is one of the most amazing essays I've ever
read. He starts by saying he feels at home in places, but not
necessarily with people, but his joint venture with his fellow
volunteers gives him a home in what is essentially their world not his.
True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Eleventh-Hour Fight to Save the
Earth by Eric Pooley.Detailed if depressing history of the 2009
climate bill that passed the House but failed in the Senate due to a
filibuster. Pooley, a reporter for Bloomberg News, explores the
activists supporting climate legislation, the policy entrepreneurs
within government, and the opposing interests who successfully blocked
action. The book tries to end on a hopeful note, but the question
lingers whether any complex policy issue can be addressed in the
current political environment where simple-and- appealing almost always
wins, no matter how foolish and inaccurate.
The Magic Thief,
The Magic Thief: Lost, and The Magic Thief: Found
by Sarah Prineas. Series of books about a street boy who
becomes a magician's apprentice in a city where the "magic level" is
mysteriously disappearing. Amusing meld of medieval, modern technology,
mystical and scientific thinking. Oh, and good stories, too.
Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution
by Jack N. Rakove. One of the best accounts of the Constitutional
Convention I've read, Rakove (history, Stanford) presents Convention
and post-Convention debates on a number of issues. He concludes that
deriving the intent of the Framers on specific questions of law is
rarely easy, and it's not at all clear that we should anyhow. Useful
corrective to contemporary politicos who attempt to appropriate the
Framers to their own goals.
The Path: A
One-Mile Walk Through the Universe by Chet Raymo. Massachusetts
physics professor describes his one-mile walk from home to office,
along a path through an undeveloped area of his town--what might be
called a micro-place. Along with local history, each new section he
encounters brings new observation, scientific description, and
reflection. He is optimistic about both the impact of human development
and "the Arcadian ideal of humans living in harmony with tamed nature."
Sir Walter Scott. A bit over the top, but great escapist
literature for a long cold winter. Ivanhoe is an English Saxon
living in the troubled era of King Richard, Robin Hood, and that
bunch. Much jousting. One of the most memorable characters
is Rebecca, a young Jewish woman who battles religious bigotry and male
domination with aplomb.
Super Sad True
Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Young Eunice Park finds herself
in a relationship with Lenny Abramov, an older, homely schlemiel. She
struggles with the security the relationship provides as opposed to her
attraction to bolder, handsomer men--Lenny's entrepreneur boss and an
ex-Army political activist--against the backdrop of a dystopian America
consumed by technology, an authoritarian government, consumerism, and
the desperation of the poor.
Exile, 1935 by Leon Trotsky. Exiled Soviet leader, near the end
of his life, languishes in France and then Norway, while hunted by the
evil Stalin. Mostly descriptions of his misery along with obscure
commentary on contemporary politics.