The Ranch House HCIC 2007 Book Club
The Ranch House Restaurant (at Devil’s Thumb Resort) is an elegant and refined restaurant near the small, central Colorado town of Tabernash. (pop: 165) It’s one of those places that’s utterly unexpected, being fairly off the beaten track. Yet it is a sophisticated and suave place to dine.
Several of us from the 2007 HCIC meeting went here for dinner on Groundhog’s Day evening and had a book review discussion. As we usually do, we started by first going around the table asking everyone which book they read in the past year they’d most enjoyed, or would like to recommend to others.
Peter Pirolli: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks. Pete says, “Ricks does judge whether or not the war should have been fought. He just reveals how completely incompetently the US has waged the war as a military exercise…. it was a war that seems to have been argued and rationalized completely on Powerpoint slides, rather than with a careful briefing or any kind of analysis….” Ricks is a seasoned military reporter, and spent 5 tours in Iraq, noting that “each time I returned, the situation seemed worse.” Working from many military sources, Fiasco shows the fiasco that Iraq has become—ill-conceived, ill-planned, and over the serious reservations of the officer class.
Jack Carroll: The New Yorker Magazine. Not a book, but a sustained effort of excellence in writing. Jack is constantly happy and amazed that every issue seems to have something important. It is, in Jack’s judgement, better than The Atlantic [ed. my favorite] and the Economist. Read it for a few months and see.
Gary Olson: In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, by David Reynolds. Churchill wrote his magisterial six-volume history of WW2 and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for it. But if history is written by the victors, this book looks at how the Churchillian victors of the war wrote that history. As Gary says, “this book looks at four aspects: what Churchill wrote, reactions to Churchill’s speeches and writings, what was understood to be happening at the time, and what we now know was going on at the time.” This four-fold analysis gives insight into the way the documents of history are made, and gives new insight into the personal doubts and backstory of the war.
Dan Russell: The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa, by Phillip Snow. In the early 1400’s, well before the grand European voyages of discovery to the New World, a Ming Dynasty eunuch admiral, Zheng He, organized an immense research voyage to explore westward as well. But going west from China leads the Star Raft (a huge flotilla of several hundred ships, the largest more than 5X larger than the Santa Maria of Columbus’s tiny fleet) to the Malay archipelago, India, Arabia and east Africa. When Zhung He returned, the emperor, under internal political pressure and various external threats, decided to exit the outward looking, active research policy of exploration. China began a long isolationism, when it could have ruled the seas with its 3000 ship navy—the largest in the world until the 20th century, 500 years ahead of of rest of the world. If this sounds interesting, I also recommend When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne (1405-1433), by Louise Levanthes. In fact, now that I think about it, this is the better book, and the one I really recommend.
Clayton Lewis: Gladstone: A Biography, by Roy Jenkins. Clayton praised this unexpectedly funny and amazing biography of a “dusty Victorian politician” as having writing of the highest order. “Jenkins writes with such grace that there are passages that make your jaw drop.” It’s worth knowing that Roy Jenkins is actually Lord Jenkins (Asquith), and has both held a cabinet post and has been a chancellor at Oxford.
Tom Landauer: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. As Tom says, “this book rewrites your notion of history.” Clearly, Genghis Khan wasn’t quite the savage maurading brute as portrayed by common history books. Instead, the Mongol advance was a conscious effort to modernize the world by improving local governance. Bear in mind that Genghis Khan conquered more of the world than Alexander. He just didn’t have quite the PR team that nobel Alexander did.
Wendy Kellogg: Word Play (the movie and the book) People love crossword puzzles. But some people REALLY love crossword puzzles. Here’s an intriguing look into the lives of people who have crossword puzzles down to a fine craft. Here's the link to the companion book at Amazon.
Pete Pirolli: Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate by Ullica Segerstrale. So you think you know how science works? This look into the backstory of the sociobiology wars gives new meaning to the “social construction of science.” The book has it all—politics, sex, statistics, the definition of intelligence, race, truth and beauty. Pete says this book is exceptionally well written and insightful.
Wendy… sneaks in a counterpoint book in response to Pete’s suggestion: Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science by William Broad and Nicholas Wade. Various deceptions in the history of science—Piltdown Man, Millikan, Mendel… egads!
John Thomas: Annie Dillard… her entire body of work (best known work includes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. Essayist Annie Dillard writes, beautifully and deeply, about nature and all its manifestations.
Jack Carroll: Modern Times by Bob Dylan (the album). “I ignored him for years, but now I have a new appreciation. It’s good music… and very unpretentious.” Who changed? Dylan or Carroll? Regardless, Jack now finds Dylan’s new work to be well worth savoring. Note that Amazon also has a CD/DVD combination that has live concert footage as well.
Gary Olson: Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players by Stefan Fatsis. A Wall Street Journal reporter takes a year out of his life to understand why people would be so maniacally devoted to Scrabble. As he becomes enmeshed in the culture, he begins to get it… and not being sufficiently good by his own standard, he takes a SECOND year off. Having lost a good friend into the maw of Scrabble Tournaments, I [the editor] know what this is all about. It fits nicely with the other films and books about word obsessed folk.
Dan Russell: Water, Life, Time by David Doubilet. No words, but a pure coffee table book with some of the most beautiful pictures of the underwater world you’ll ever see. This is as close to pure diving as you’re going to get without being wet. I don’t recommend any coffee table books except this one. It is a wonder. (And the photographs of manta rays are truly, truly exceptional.)
Clayton Lewis: Towards a Philosophy of Real Mathematics by David Corfield. Is all of modern mathematics based on strange twist in history? Can category theory really form a new basis on which a newer, better, less-paradox-ridden mathematics can be built? Clayton is passionate about this book, and willing to bend your ear about it. (I found his argument really very interesting and surprising. Suppose all those paradoxical results—like being able to dissect a sphere and recompose it into 2 spheres with greater volume!—are an artifact? Potentially explosive.. and in the world of mathematics, that’s saying something.
Tom: Little Miss Sunshine. Staring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Tom sees few films, but he liked this dysfunctional family flick so much he saw it twice! And you have to like any film that has the following keywords in Amazon: Strip Tease | Ice Cream | Title Spoken By Character | Road Trip | Insanity | Van | Fried Chicken | Hospital | Screaming | Heroin.
Pete: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Malcolm Gladwell writes in his review: “Stumbling on Happiness is a book about a very simple but powerful idea. What distinguishes us as human beings from other animals is our ability to predict the future--or rather, our interest in predicting the future. We spend a great deal of our waking life imagining what it would be like to be this way or that way, or to do this or that, or taste or buy or experience some state or feeling or thing. We do that for good reasons: it is what allows us to shape our life. And it is by trying to exert some control over our futures that we attempt to be happy. But by any objective measure, we are really bad at that predictive function. We're terrible at knowing how we will feel a day or a month or year from now, and even worse at knowing what will and will not bring us that cherished happiness. Gilbert sets out to figure what that's so: why we are so terrible at something that would seem to be so extraordinarily important?” And the book tells you a great deal about what DOES make us happy… and what you can do about it.
PLACES YOU HAVE BEEN AND ENJOYED:
In this part of our discussion we shifted out of “Book Review” mode and mentioned vacations in places that we especially liked.
Dan: Venice, Italy. I love Venice. I love the quiet. I love the church bells ringing out over La Serenissima on a Sunday morning. I love walking into St. Mark’s and hearing a choir singing Monteverdi, lost in the resonance of that magnificent space. It’s the world’s most romantic cities, and a place I can’t get out of my mind.
Gary: Elizabeth, New Jersey.. When Gary and Judy were still courting [ed. Gary’s word], they observed that they could probably have fun together no matter where they went. Good experimentalists, they selected a city at random [ed. possibly apochryphal story follows] by tossing a dart at a map. Thus randomly selected, Elizabeth became their test case. As you might have expected, they discovered that they could in fact have a good time together virtually anywhere. Elizabeth, NJ provided an especially good test of their hypothesis as it has no discernable attractions of any sort.
John: Provence, France, in November., France, in November. If you go in fall you can avoid the heat, the crowds and enjoy the quiet of post-harvest Provence. It’s the southeastern most part of France, rich in lavender, peace, serenity, fine wine and the subject of more than a few travel guides.
Tom: Overnight camel ride and camping in the Sahara. Incredibly exotic, Tom and a few friends were carried a ways into the Sahara as night fell. They stopped at a random place, set up camp, and let the night sky unfold before them. With no human-made light anywhere nearby, the universe was revealed to them. (And to think that the kids tried to stop them from going.)
Wendy: Lake District, England.. Bed & Breakfasts, unspeakably charming, tea and scones, long walks to make you feel all Tennysonian and Jane Austenish. Makes me want to drink some Earl Grey and wax rhapsodic. Wendy recommends you get the Ordance Survey maps and just start walking.
Clayton: Fort Robinson, Nebraska, just south of the Black Hills, in Crawford, NE. Clayton describes Fort Robinson as the “best emblem of the tragic history of the West…” A former Army fort, it has enough buildings that “essentially anyone who wanted to do something could do it there…” As a consequence, Fort Robinson is home to an array of peculiaria: the only known dog kennel from WW II, a veterinary hospital museum, a prisoner of war camp… and so forth. Since it has so much available space, summertime is “family reunion time.” Highly recommended if you’re passing within 400 miles or so.
Pete: Sicily, Italy, Why? Because nobody would really recommend it.....but that makes it even more authentic, interesting and less cluttered with the claptrap of tourism. Besides, the food is really, really great. It’s small enough to get your arms around in a week or two, but large enough to be really fascinating. Undo your expectations of Sicily by actually visiting it.
Jack: Gizeh, Egypt. Jack went to the pyramids when he was but a youth of 18. He happily recalls his time in an Arab village near the pyramids… and a long horseback trip that went once around. [ed. A good friend of mine just returned from Giza, and thoroughly enjoyed it, saying explicitly that Americans need not worry about visiting. It’s at least as safe as any large city in the US. ]