Saturday, December 30, 2017

What I Read in 2017

**Updated Jan 15th to include two books I had completely forgotten about; The Right Stuff and My Struggle Book 2**

This post also includes 2016 Part II. That period was mostly consumed by my failed attempt to complete Harvard's Introduction to Computer Science course hosted by edX. I enjoyed the challenge and completed about half of the coursework but then had to turn my attention to a year-long deployment to Afghanistan. Spending most of 2017 in the conflict that defined the era of my military service definitely taught me some lessons (future posts). 

For now here are my book recommendations....  


War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet by Eric Margolis

Originally published in 1999 and updated in 2002 War at the Top of the World makes the case as to why SW Asia was tremendously important and would play a major role in 21st century security conflicts. Margolis nails it. The book was roughly divided into thirds; Afghanistan/Taliban/Osama to Kashmir/Tibet to India/China/Pakistan. It was refreshing to know that somebody had their pulse on this region even though it was completely ignored leading up to 2001. It has a bit too much first-person monologue and personal bias to be considered part of the pantheon for this region and era but it was an incredibly valuable perspective and warning. 

In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan by Seth G. Jones

Dr. Jones, formerly of RAND and now at CSIS, takes us through the US' involvement in Afghanistan from 9/11 to 2009, just prior to Obama's surge. As I tried to figure out what had already been done or tried in Afghanistan I found In the Graveyard of Empires to be an excellent narrative. Very readable primer on the first eight years of this conflict. 

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield

Several thousand years of history distilled into a few hundred pages Barfield's book is far more academic and dense but also provides a  structural theory about Afghanistan that helps frame what is happening there now and how American involvement may or may not be a repeat of the past. Barfield give a solid account about why occupiers rule through proxy of a central government, rural versus urban power struggles, modernizers versus traditionalists, tribal differences and historical grievances. An excellent book but one that requires a little more attention on behalf of the reader.  

These failures did not seem important because the Taliban were judged to be a spent force as late as the elections of 2004. But that did not mean they lacked the potential to reorganize. It was as if a patient stopped taking an antibiotic when the immediate symptoms had ended, disregarding his physician's warning that a full course was required to eliminate the infection. Goals that might have been relatively easy to achieve in 2002 were much more daunting in 2006. 

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

A fascinating account of Stewart's hike from Herat to Kabul just a few months after the Taliban fell. Stewart's dangerous journey seems absolutely absurd but the tale he tells is compelling. The villagers he encounters range from helpful and welcoming to cunning and deceitful.  

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Somewhere this became the "must read" novel about Afghanistan. It's plot twists and coincidences were a too clever by half for me to ever want to re-read this but the characters were rich and well developed. The most interesting thing is how the author helps us non-Afghan readers understand how poorly people from the Hazara tribe are treated by everyone else even in enlightened Kabul. 


Along with Karl Marlantes and few others, Sebastian Junger speaks for our generation of military veterans with authority despite not being a veteran himself. He's shared hardships with soldiers and understands them better than they understand themselves. Tribe seeks to explain how and why soldiers have such difficulty when they leave the service and attempt to reintegrate into society. Part of the problem is that there is no substitute for the strong bonds they formed in combat with fellow soldiers and nothing that gives them the same sense of purpose as accomplishing their mission and watching each other's back. Junger blames American society for putting these young people in harm's way and then forgetting about them and refusing to acknowledge their contributions beyond the perfunctory "Thank you for your service".

Brilliant! Mark Bowden tells the story of historic Hue city during the Tet Offensive. This North Vietnamese military operation was mostly a tactical failure (except in Hue) but ended up turning American support against the war. The incongruence between official reports on Hue and on-the-ground reporting led to a growing distrust between the Nixon administration and the public.  

Interesting to read this short classic while stationed in Afghanistan surrounded by contractors. Two time Medal-of-Honor winner, Maj Gen Butler, is scathing in his critique of how war decisions are made and influenced by commercial interests. He has some radical ideas about how to guard decision making processes against war profiteers including nationalization and restricting voting for wars to those who will actually do the fighting. 

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe 
I'm embarrassed that I'm at least nominally a pilot yet I had not read this book until this deployment to Afghanistan. A real fighter pilot friend of mine loaned me his precious copy years ago but it laid on my bookshelf for all that time. In my living quarters in Kabul a previous occupant left an old paperback copy of this book and I devoured it. Tom Wolfe tells the true story of America's race to space and the pilots who were on the front edge of that national priority. The pilots of that era are a fascinating culture as their sense of bravado far exceeded our and for good reason. Death was literally around every corner for them as the US engineered, built, tested, crashed and destroyed all kinds of new aircraft after WWII to gain the advantage over the Soviets.  


This remarkable essay by Prof. Deresiewicz is full of insights about the meaning of true intimate friendships and how our thoughts about them have changed over time. What used to be considered by the ancient Greeks to be the highest expression of human love has been substituted and diluted away to Facebook connections and has real consequences. I can't help but read this side by side with some of the studies of older men who have no friendships or relationships apart from marriage. Those populations are particularly susceptible to mental and physical health problems. Is this where I'm trending? 

One of the core texts of Stoic thought, Meditations, is imminently readable by everyone and a favorite of Bill Clinton and James Mattis. Marcus Aurelius was a 2nd century Roman Emperor who put pen to paper to record his personal philosophy on how he ruled himself; the habits and virtues he cultivated to deal with himself and the hardships of the world. Life guarantees challenges and hardships and our task is to prepare, in advance, to manage them by managing ourselves. 

31....Consider all that you have gone through, all that you've survived. And that the story of your life is done, your assignment complete. How many good things have you seen? How much pain and pleasure have you resisted? How many honors have you declined? How many unkind people have you been kind to? 

Holiday draws on Stoicism to give advice about facing adversity and challenges. The book is well written but little bit of "me too" in the explosion of Stoicism writings in the last several years. Still, it is well written and makes the excellent point about reframing our attitudes about challenges in as much as they make us better and force us to rise to the occasion to accomplish our goals. The goal isn't important as the self-transformation gained by facing the impediment to success. Be grateful for difficult obstacles because they prepare you for even more difficult obstacles.

Passing one obstacle simply says you're worthy of more. The world seems to keep throwing them at you once it knows you can take it. Which is good, because we get better with every attempt.


Diversity and Complexity by Scott E. Page
It is quite fashionable for leaders to repeat the mantra that "diversity makes us stronger" without much reflection or explanation. We would all be better off reading Professor Page's book which he wrote specifically to help us meta-think about diversity. He draws from nature and thought experiments to illustrate conditions when more diversity ought to arise and be useful and when the opposite might occur.  

Dr. Whittmann draws on his research as a psychologist to help explain why time seems to speed up or slow down for us under different conditions. It is difficult to summarize his thoughts but he makes an interesting distinction between how we experience time at the present and how we view time retrospectively and in the future. Also, our own time discount rate for the future affects how we experience things now (not new to an economist but a different way of presenting that idea). And our bodies give us signals of time; heartbeat, breathing and body temperature. Those signals can vary with conditions and between individuals and can explain part of the different as to how time is experienced. Fascinating ideas and definitely a mine for future research questions.


Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

I'm embarrassed to say that Seize the Day is the first Saul Bellow novel I've read. Whatever it means to be literary I've clearly not achieved that state by ignoring Bellow's oeuvre. He gives us the painful story of self-loathing Tommy Wilhelm a middle age man who's irresponsibility and lack of self-awareness knows no bounds. Tommy, unhappy with his lot in life, wants something better but lacks the discipline to attain it. Instead he is susceptible to every forbidden shortcut leaving him as nothing more than vulnerable prey to the world. 

My Struggle: Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
As brilliant, if not more so than Book 1, Knausgaard continues his memoir into his young adulthood with his second wife and young children. Raw and honest thoughts about his life and the quotidian. He struggles with what he believes are conflicting roles; father, husband, writer, man. For a period he takes on the primary care-giver role for his daughter, Vanja, while his wife completes an education program. He knows this is his duty and wants to embrace it but it feels incongruent with his self-perception. 

In talking about a children's enrichment event at a local library Knausgaard probably sums up the feelings of lots of fathers as we transition to a new, and hopefully better, world.
"Then we were handled some rattle-like instruments that we were supposed to shake as we sang a new song. I wasn't embarrassed, it wasn't embarrassing sitting there, it was humiliating and degrading. Everything was gentle and friendly and nice, all the movements were tiny, and I sat huddled on a cushion droning along with the mothers and children, a song, to cap it all, led by a woman I would have liked to bed." 
 "As a result I walked around Stockholm's streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me."

Beautiful story about 19th century Catholicism in New Mexico. I read this while in Albuquerque for work and enjoyed it immensely. Cather accurately describes the majestic landscapes of New Mexico and the difficulty in trying to traverse them to communicate, to minister and build up the Church.   

The old man smiled. "I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived."

A story about race and identity told through the experience of Ifemelu who comes to the US from Nigeria leaving behind her love, Obinze. The first 3/4ths of the novel has a tremendous amount of energy and life. The last several chapters when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria feel contrived and unnecessary. Still, it was enlightening to be able to see America through an African immigrant’s eyes.     

Still deserving to be classics and on the bookshelves of our children. My oldest daughter enjoyed me reading these to her even though she could have read them herself. Little House on the Prairie interestingly acknowledges and comments on the problem of the numerous American settlers competing with the Indians for land that nobody "owns".   


Not the greatest book about running that I've ever read but hey, if the former American 5000m record holder wants to tell a story about himself and his Olympic 1500m champion son then I'm in. What is interesting is that their two running careers bookend the massive failure of American male runners in the 80s, 90s, and the 00s. With a few rare exceptions, the 1970s, the elder Centrowitz's era, was the end of American men on the medal stand in major distance races until the younger Centrowitz and his peers broke through. Now US men are contenders in every distance event from 800m to the Marathon. Lacing up my shoes...Miles of Trials, Trials of Miles.

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