Following are summaries of books I have read and recommend over the past 90 days or so:
1) Fantasyland – How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen
This book explores the migration to, the settlement of, and the maturing of our liberal American Democracy. Essentially the author makes the case that the original migrants who came to the American continent were mostly religious and social misfits in European society, trouble makers, or people hoping to find gold in the new world, get rich quickly, and go home.
He argues that once these early migrants arrived they quickly discovered that there wasn’t any gold and they could not get along with each other, especially as it related to religious doctrine. Various groups splintered from the original Puritan religious dogma, spread out in the country, and started their own communities with their own interpretation of truth and reality.
The author follows that “reality” thread through the 500 years that Europeans have inhabited America. He claims that the American sense of reality is fundamentally different from and much more radical than any European country. It is an interesting read.
2) Team of Vipers – My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House by Cliff Sims
I did not learn much about the Trump Administration that I did not already know or suspect. The author does shine much more light though on the internal cut throat behavior of the White House staffers, how they attack and back-stab each other to get ahead, and the level to which they will go to pander to Trump.
The most striking revelation for me was the author’s reverence for Trump, almost as a messiah. He relates how much he believes in virtually everything the President was doing or trying to do. The especially sad part of that is that Sims claims to be an evangelical Christian yet was by his own admission one of the vipers he writes about. I can’t even imagine a sincere Christian who seriously follows the teaching of Jesus and also cares about our country behaving as he admits he did. Of course I know I am prejudice here!
3) God is a Question, Not an Answer by William Irwin
This book does not reflect an effort on the part of the author to prove there is no God. It is really a philosophical treatise on the subject. The author casts himself an “honest atheist”. By that he means that while he does not believe in God he admits that regardless he still sometimes has doubts.
His objective seems to be to shake the confidence of people on both sides of the issue. He argues that doubt is a virtue. He advances the idea that doubt is an integral part of the human condition as it relates to God and faith. He says every person has doubts from time to time if they are honest with themselves. He also thinks that doubt is a place where both people of faith and those who have no faith can find common ground in finding ways to show mutual respect and live in peace with each other.
4) House of Trump House of Putin by Craig Unger
First, I will say the author presents no smoking gun. However, the circumstantial evidence he presents is so compelling it is hard to even imagine that Trump as well as his father were not involved with the Russian mob and massive associated money laundering operations. The author identifies 59 Russian mobsters, oligarchs, and associated Russian Government actors involved in cash purchases of Trump real estate and other suspicious interaction with Trump himself.
The book was particularly enlightening to me. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s I was in Russia several times trying to create telecom partnerships and joint ventures. One of the companies we were courting actually expressed interest in buying a minority interest in our company as part of a deal. Thankfully we never could come to terms. But that company, Gasprom, the author says was controlled at the time by the Russian mob and used to launder money.
5) Ancient Worlds – A Global History of Antiquity by Michael Scott
I found this one especially interesting because it explores the ancient kingdoms and empires in the Mediterranean, central Asia, and China, but from the perspective of how they interacted, interconnected, and influenced each other. Most histories I have studied tend to deal with one empire. Its context within the broader world order of the time was only dealt with in a peripheral way.
6) No Property in Man – Slavery and antislavery at the Nation’s Founding by Sean Wilentz
This book’s focus is on how the framers of the Constitution went to great lengths not to use the word slave or slavery in the textual language and avoid implying in any way that the Constitution endorsed the concept of humans as property. It then explores how the vagaries of that language spawned different interpretations of the Constitutional and how that played out over the next 70 plus years culminating in the civil war.
7) My Opposition” edited by Robert Scott Kellner, grandson of the author
The book is a published reprint of the diary Friedrich Kellner, an anti-Nazi living in the Third Reich, kept during the war. Mr. Kellner started his diary in 1939 at great risk to himself. He held an administrative position in the German court system where he could observe the Nazi bureaucrats and interact with solders on leave, as well as listen to friends’ and neighbors’ opinions and views as the war progressed through to the end. Thought he had to be ultra careful in hiding his writing from public exposure he continued throughout the war. He was unbelievably insightful from the very beginning in his views about how the war would ultimately end.
8) Qur’an in Conversation by Michael Birkel
I met Mr. Birkel at an interfaith event a couple of months ago. In our conversation he told me about his book. So I read it. He is a Quaker by faith but interested in building bridges among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths as I am. To that end he set out to interview Islamic scholars to gain their perspective on the Qur’an, its place in the modern world, and the relationship of Islam with Christianity and Judaism. Those interviews along with his own commentary is the content of the book.
This book was a hard read in some places for me. I had difficulty following the language and logic of some of the Islamic scholars. I found myself wanting to ask follow on questions or for additional clarification. Nevertheless, I am so pleased that I stuck with it. It was well worth the time, effort, and understanding I gained.
9) The Prisoner in His Palace by Will Bardenwerper
This is the story of the 12 military police offices (the super twelve as they called themselves) who were responsible for guarding Saddam Hussein after his capture. It chronicles their experiences and interactions with him throughout his imprisonment, trial, and execution. The guards describe a different Hussein character when he is out of the spotlight. It paints an image virtually no one not privately engaged with him has ever seen. It also deal with the price these guards paid for their participation in their mission. Fascinating read.
10) Reconstruction: A Concise History by Allen C. Guelzo
This was a fascinating book. It is truly concise, exactly as the title says it is – massive amounts of information in a very short volume, about 130 pages. I learned a lot of detail about Reconstruction as well as the political and social mores of the era that I did not fully appreciate before. The book is well researched with a sizable bibliography for reference. It whetted my appetite for more study of specific aspects. Because of its abbreviated nature, however, I sometimes got lost in the chronology and had to go back and reread some portions.
11) Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama
This is one of very few books I will choose to reread. It is hard to summarize because it covers so much territory. The author discusses the struggle for identity and associated dignity from antiquity through the Trump Administration. Most of the emphasis, however, is on the past three centuries as modern liberal democracies took root and developed.
In early chapters he talks about thymos, the ancient Greek word roughly translated as soul, or at least that part which encompasses feelings of pride, dignity, shame, etc. He develops that into people’s need to feel respected and treated equally both individually and collectively.
Later he explores how that need for respect and equality plays out in social, religious, and political environments. He relates how the need for collective sense of dignity shaped national and ethnic identity. Finally he discusses how real and/or perceived inequities and indignities among subgroups of people within the world’s liberal democracies are sparking the rise of nationalist, racist, and ethnic unrest.