Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Nation Challenged

A Nation Challenged: A Visual History of 9/11 and Its Aftermath
© 2002 The New York Times
240 pages

The first few anniversaries of 9/11 had a weight as they approached -- not only for what memories they evoked, but for the speculation that another attack might be attempted on the day itself.  But as the years passed, that salience eroded.  This past anniversary, in 2018, was different -- different because it was a Tuesday, an echo of the day itself.  I couldn't help but remember the shock and fear of that day, and especially of the early morning when things kept happening and we didn't know when it would stop or what might happen next. This past week, for the first time, I sat and watched extensive videos relating to 9/11 -- not  news footage, but video shot on the ground itself, after the attack or even before it,  seeing the towers both in their prime and in their demise.  In this mood I couldn't help but reading through one of the books I put on display at the library, A Nation Challenged.

In the days that followed the obscene attack on New York City in 2001, the New York Times began publishing coverage of the aftermath and its investigation in a special feature called "A Nation Challenged". This feature, an insert inside the paper,   ran until the end of the year. A Nation Challenged collects many of the photographs and articles from that run into a single collection to document the day itself,  stories of the people involved, and review the consequences of America's grief as it began a war in Afghanistan which, like a mythical hydra, spawns more conflicts the more we persist in flailing away at it.  The information included, however, is not merely text and photos; instead, there are other visual aides. A two-page spread reveals the interior of both towers,  and includes analysis of how each fell.  Another two-page spread provides a transcript of communications chatter as aviation authorities and other pilots realized that something was wrong.  Coverage of the day itself is only a part of the book, as subsequent sections review the clean-up process and the treatment of debris as a mass crime scene. Also included is information Osama bin Laden's background, and the political/ethnographic breakdown of Afghanistan.

While I've never read any other 9/11 books, this particular volume recommends itself as a remembrance.  Also, if you have time,   in late August a video was posted containing 30 minutes of restored footage shot on the day itself,  near the WTC site immediately following the collapse of tower two.  The photojournalist responsible, Mark LaGanga, spoke with people fleeing the scene, toured WTC-7 (empty save a few LEOs confirming the building was clear), and captured the collapse of WTC-1 on film.  It is unlike anything I have ever seen.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The TBR of Doom

I recently realized that I've bought ten nonfiction books in the last few months and haven't yet read them, and so began drafting another TBR challenge.  Both in 2014 and 2016 I imposed a challenge on myself: no more book buys until I'd  finished reading what I had.   Things are much, much worse now.   "How bad could it be?"


The Oil Kings: How the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East, Andrew Scott Cooper
The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East, Jay Solomon
Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler, Mark Riebling
An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler, Peter Fritzsche
The Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, Ayn Rand
The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton
Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton
The Moral Animal, Robert Wright
To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, Arthur Herman
Taking to the Ground: One Family's Journey on Horseback Across the Sacred Land of the Navajo, Douglas Preston (Purchased in Flagstaff, AZ)
The Essential Russell Kirk, Russell Kirk
Honor: A History, James Bowman
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, Nicholas Stargardt
The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe, Andrew Wheatcroft
The Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, Abolqasem Ferdowsi
The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and the United States, Kenneth Pollack (Purchased in St. Augustine, FL)
The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution, Brion McClanahan
Who Killed the Constitution?, ed. Thomas E. Woods
The Church and  the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy,
Thomas E. Woods
Constitutional Chaos | The Constitution in Exile | A Nation of Sheep, Andrew Napolitano
The Ends of the Earth: The Polar Regions of the World, Isaac Asimov (Purchased in Las Cruces, NM)
Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?, Galal Amin
The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season, Thomas Hopko
Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, Anthony Esolen
On the Good Life, Marcus Tullius Cicero
Go Directly to Jail: The Criminializaton of Almost Everything, ed. Gene Healy
Trucking Country: The Road to America's Walmart Economy, Shane Hamilton
Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to  Orthodox Judaism, Lynn Davidman

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, Roger Crowley
Virolution, Frank Ryan
The Scarlet Thief, Paul Fraser Collard
ST Vanguard: What Judgments Come, Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore
ST Vanguard: Storming Heaven, David Mack
ST Vanguard: In Tempest's Wake, Dayton Ward
How Dante Can Save Your Life,  Rod Dreher
Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy
How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America, Brion McClanahan
ST ENT: Live by the Code, Christopher L. Bennett
ST ENT:  Tower of Babel, Christopher L. Bennett
The Afghan Campaign, Steven Pressfield
American Contempt for Liberty, Walter Williams
Defeat in the West, Milton Shulman and Ian Jacob
The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves, Scott Woolley
The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings, Lars Brownsworth
The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, ed. Frank Shuffelton
Our Only World, Wendell Berry
The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry
A Place in Time, Wendell Berry
Sword and Serpent, Taylor Marshall
Democracy: An American Novel, Henry Adams
The Return of George Washington, Edward J. Larson
The Well and the Shallows, GK Chesterton
Survival of the Sickest: The Suprising Connections Between Disease and Longevity, Sharon Moalem, Jonathan Prince
Atomic Awakening: The History and Future of Nuclear Power, James Mahaffrey
The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, Frank Dikotter
The Damnation of Theron Ware, Harold Frederic

Obviously barring myself from buying books until I'd taken care of all these would be futile, but I am pondering allowing myself to buy new books only as I read these -- for every book taken from the list, another could be purchased.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
© 2003 Cory Doctorow
202 pages

In the not-very-distant future,  death is an inconvenience, and material goods are no longer scarce. Instead, the currency of society is reputation,  and Jules needs all of his reserves to get through the next year of his life.  The trouble began when he was shot dead at Disney World.  A brain backup was soon downloaded into a freshly-grown clone, and soon he was back in business keeping the old Disney World -- an artifact from the distant past,  run by volunteers who loved  the primitive animatronics  --in working order.  Something had changed in the brief blip of time he spent unconscious, however: a group of fellow "adhocs" running Disney World decided to inflict change on the Hall of Presidents,  and they could only be after the Haunted Mansion next.  Jules is desperate to hold back the tide, but in the months to come he will be alienated from his closest friends and find himself strapped to a medical gurney, unable to speak.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was Cory Doctorow's first novel, and I read it purely for the author. DisneyWorld has no attraction for me, and that disinterest meant that I didn't actually care what happened in the novel.  Most interesting for me were elements of Doctorow's worldbuilding.  In his future, mental states can be downloaded into computers, and people make backups of themselves frequently. This is not just a precaution against death;  people can effectively erase negative periods of their lives by reverting to an earlier version of themselves.  Bioengineering extends to custom clones, as  teenage girls sport trendy faces, and musicians use augmented bodies (pianists with long fingers) that help them in their craft.  There's also a neural interface that allows people to interact with society's digital layer merely with their heads; one of the first things people do when encountering friends or strangers is to glance  at their "Whuffie",  the reputation system that functions as society's currency. ("Whuffie" is like reddit karma, but you can buy stuff with it.  The Orrville had an episode where the crew visits a planet with this kind of currency. Brief clip here.)

Fans of DisneyWorld may find this far more appealing than I did. His later novels have captivated me in a way that this one didn't even begin to.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Water Will Come

The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World
© 2017 Jeff Goodell
332 pages

Complex problems of enormous scale rarely have a patent solution. There are, however, rational responses. In The Water Will Come, Jeff Goodell reviews the way a few cities across the globe are moving to address the growing problem of rising sea levels, from flat denial  to grandiose plans to raise entire city centers. Goodell visits Miami, New York,  Venice, and communities in the Arctic circle, Nigeria, and the Marshall Islands.  Although Goodwell is hopeful that action can be taken, he's left with the grim conclusion that many communities may simply be abandoned and their people removed to higher ground.

Goodell reviews both the various ways rising water will threaten communities near seaboards, as well as their responses. Rising waters will lead to widespread property forfeiture, of course, but floods and storm surges will become worse.   Invasive waters are not simply the ocean with a bigger footprint:   waters sweeping through urban areas become toxic soups of offal and waste fluids,  providing a perfect vector for health crises  While it's easy for most people alive today not to worry about 2100, and easier still to shrug and say that those clever people of 2099 will no doubt have extraordinary technology to solve these problems,  rising floods today are an immediate risk.  Hurricane Sandy added particular impetus to New York City's own risk assessment goals: they intend to build floodwalls around some of the most vulnerable areas.    Venice, Italy, has been fighting its own reclamation by the sea for centuries, but tidal flooding has grown worse and the city now finds itself struggling to complete a controversial tidal barrier.   While Miami is wealthy enough that it can conceivably plow money into infrastructure to help it adapt to the future, places like the Marshall Islands can only look abroad for help.  If the Marshalls are reclaimed by the ocean, their population will have to find new homes abroad -- and as the migrant crisis provoked by the ISIS gang-state indicates, that won't be pretty.

Goodell's survey involved interviews with policymakers and scientists alike, and helps readers understand why more actions aren't being taken.  Many Miami developers don't care about sea level changes because they're short-term investors: once they sell the development, they move on.  The future peril of the development is for its owners and subletters to worry about.  There's also the fact that climate response  has to be mediated through society and governments that are not only unwieldy, but beset with other considerations as well. President Obama may have believed strongly in the threat posed by change, but when he's badgered by the author as to why he allowed the Alaskan oil pipeline to continue, the president patiently explained that no president is truly free to do what he wants; he enters office with wheels already in motion, and  he has to not only work through Congress but take into account politics and economics. If Goodell succeeds in promoting the need to plan for rising sea levels, it will owe to the threat itself and not his delivery; he appears to see only this problem, and dismisses any opposition. He refers to multiple people as "[cityname]'s Trump", or "the [country-adjective] Trump",  but that's confusing to say the least. Are they trumplike because they're developers? Populists? Overenthusiastic twitter-ers? 

This is an important matter for concerned citizens to consider, especially in seaboard communities like Miami which are already fighting "sunny day flooding" because increases in sealevels have submerged their seaside drain outlets. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Fire and Fury

Fire and Fury
© 2018 Michael Wolff
336 pages

"You look at the operation of this White House, and you have to say...'Let's hope to God we don't have a crisis." - Bob Woodward, CBS Sunday Morning interview

Even its fans must admit that the present administration is the most unstable in American history, with an incredible amount of staff turnover in the first year. The election results themselves were clouded in intrigue, involving multiple intelligence agencies, and just recently an op-ed contributor of the New York Times claimed to be part of a resistance group within the administration itself, actively interfering and manipulating Trump's actions as president to minimize his disruptive and unpredictable behavior. When we are presented with supporting for either an unelected shadow-cabal or a temperamental and reckless executive , all Americans should be gravely worried.   Michael Wolff's tabloid-esque Fire and Fury argues that the present administration's instabilities were baked in, that Trump and his allies entered governance not seriously expecting to win, and were wholly unprepared for the responsibility once it was theirs. 

Trump's team was not a 'team of rivals', but a soft detente between bitter factions who found Trump's position a useful tool.  Trump actively encouraged rivalry between his subordinates to prevent any one from assuming too much importance and overshadowing him, and the man himself -- in Wolff's portrayal,  one shared by virtually everyone except for his admirers -- is..."anti-professional", to put it mildly. Wolff claims that Trump is totally disinterested in the materials of administration -- reading, reviewing,  listening -- and mostly spends his days talking and then getting excited over various bugs lobbyists had put in his ear.  While there are people within the office with coherent agenda,   said agendas often conflict.  One faction might convince Trump to back more work visas for immigrants which his business friends need, while at the same time the populist faction reminds him that he ran on immigration being a problem.  Although Fire and Fury cannot be taken seriously as an expose of the administration (its style, lack of citations, etc),   two years of watching Trump's public behavior makes the general premise believable.  However one may wish to think that the popular portrayal of the president as temperamental, aggressive, etc, is a multimedia conspiracy,  his own output betrays him.   As Hurricane Florence drew near the Carolina coast this past Friday morning, Trump was seemingly more interested in arguing over the death toll from last year's devastation, defending himself over twitter.   Even if the estimate of three thousand deaths was inaccurate, the eve of another disaster isn't the time to argue it.  At such an hour one would hope for a projection of strength and competence from the nation's chief executive, not playground petulance.

While I wouldn't necessarily recommend this, it may be helpful to those who find the Trump administration inexplicable, in explaining some of the causes of its internal chaos.  Bob Woodward's Fear is presumably a more considered review of the same,  and I hope to evaluate it soon.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Fly Girls

Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied the Odds and Made Aviation History
© 2018 Keith O'Brien
352 pages

"Women must try to do things as men have tried. Where they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others." - Amelia Earhart, 1937

The subtitle is a bit of an oversell, but Fly Girls  honors five pioneers of aviation,  most of whom died while trying to push the envelope.  Amelia Earhart is the only one of their number who has any name recognition today,  disappearing as she did while trying to accomplish the first trans-pacific solo flight.  She'd previously been the first to fly solo from the United States to Hawaii, as well as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.  Judging by her accomplishments, Earhart is in a class by herself here, but I'm tempted to agree with one of the other featured fliers here, Louise Thaden, who responded to someone asking her how she won the 5th National Air Race by stating it was 25% skill, 25% the airplane, and 50% luck.      Early aviation was a lethal enthusiasm, practiced with evolving tools and planes composed with canvas wings.  When things went wrong -- and flying planes for hours at a time meant something was bound to --  survival came down to circumstance. Sometimes a catastrophe could be survived, but sometimes there was nothing but to accept rapidly-hurtling fate. No one in this book is ever far from death; Earhart, for instance,  was nearly sucked out of her aircraft during the same race that Thaden won. 

Earhart's triumphs could have belonged to other women, like Ruth Nichols:  she refused to give up trying to cross the Atlantic, even after she crashed two planes within a span of four months.  A broken back aside, she was determined to try it again -- only to have Earhart beat her to it.  Another accomplishment of the women here -- who were friends and competitors simultaneously -- was organizing the International Organization of Women Pilots, more popularly known as "The Ninety-Nines" because 99 women attended the first full meeting thereof.  The Ninety-Nines organized in response to the discriminatory policies adopted by air race organizations to keep women out of the racing. The exact kinds of accidents that downed fantastically gifted fliers like Florence Klingensmith occurred to male fliers, but no one demeaned the talent of the male deceased or questioned their mental state at the time. Flying was inherently dangerous, but women, the Ninety-Nines protested, should have the right to accept that danger, and to try for the glory that would be theirs if they were successful.

As much as I enjoyed this look into aviation history,  it does not live up to its title. The subjects were all outstandingly courageous and talented, moreso for continuing to seek their passion despite little support from outside, save for businessmen interested in gaining advertising value by sponsoring the odd attempt to across the Atlantic or set a new endurance record. But if this is a book about early women aviation pioneers, why is someone like Bessie Coleman completely absent, not so much as mentioned?  Unable to take pilot training in the US because of her race, Coleman learned French and traveled to Paris to learn to fly, an incredible demonstration of doggedness that surely belongs here. I think Fly Girls is  therefore more accurately regarded as a book about the women who formed the Ninety-Nines, culminating in their successful re-entry into national air races and Thaden's victory.   They were an impressive group of women who refused to quit, and I'm glad their story is being shared decades after the last of them has left us.

Earhart and the Autogyro prototype, which she used to demonstrate across the country before her Atlantic solo flight. I would have loved to learn more about this!

Monday, September 10, 2018


Antiquity: The Civilization of the Ancient World
© 2003 Norman F. Cantor
256 pages

Perhaps western history is all Greek to you. In that case, Norman Cantor's Antiquity may shed a little light on the subject. It is a brief work, scarcely over 200 pages,  and in it Cantor reviews the primary roots of Western civilization (Greece, Rome, and Judaism), as well as more material considerations like the role of cities.  Civilizations of the middle east also appear through the Jewish connection.  This book has a curious organization, and one of its chapters eschews narrative altogether: instead, Cantor presents the debates within early Christian thought as a lively conversation involving St. Augustine and a few others.   Although the book is intentionally pitched as a survey for the historically illiterate, Cantor doesn't shy away from probing a little more deeply when he can --  exploring the meaning behind classic architecture, for instance, the common emphasis on rationality and restraint that linked Greek aesthetics and philosophy. (Of course, they can't help but be linked, considering that aesthetics was considered one of the branches of philosophy, along with ethics and metaphysics.)   Cantor holds the Roman empire in especially high regard, declaring that it was the most harmonious and stable multiethnic society in history. 

Although I enjoyed this quick romp through the ancient and classical world well enough ,  it has its quirks -- the unusual approach to reviewing Christian thought, for instance, and the fact that Cantor believes that imperialism and  plutocracy  were passed down not by human nature, but by the classic heritage.   I'm preee-eety sure they had war and imperialism in China, Africa, and...oh, everywhere else.  Those who have a serious interest in repairing historical blind spots can probably find better works.