Saturday, September 06, 2008

3 Book Reviews

On my recent runs I finished three books on tape: Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, Your Government Failed You by Richard Clarke, and The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby.

Young Men and Fire is Maclean's (of A River Runs Through It fame) book about the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire outside Helena, Montana in which 13 smokejumper firefighters died. There was some controversy over the fire because the crew leader started an escape fire (start a fire where you are so that when the big fire gets to you there's no fuel left and you'll be OK) which was unheard of at the time, so his crew didn't understand what was going on and ran right by the escape fire and were killed; some felt the escape fire was actually what killed the men (unlikely). The books drags on a bit at the end, but it's a good read, especially if you like mountains/the west/the outdoors, etc.

Your Government Failed You is Richard Clarke's (the terrorism czar that kept on trying to get everyone in government to take Al Qaeda seriously before 9/11) new book about how the government hasn't gotten any smarter in the years since 9/11. Although the book on tape was abridged, it was read by Clarke himself, so I assume he thought it was a decent abridgment. It's easy to accuse him of being a Monday morning quarterback, and I noticed a time or two that he contradicted himself (ragging on the Army generals for a last-minute scrapping of the long-held Centcom plan for invading Iraq with three or four hundred thousand troops for a lengthy post-invasion presence that he thought would've worked, but then later mentioning a conversation with Condi Rice where he said of the new quick plan: "at least it'll be quick.") What I really liked about this book were the specifics. This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff, it's specific intelligence programs that don't work and specific laws we could pass to fix them. There is a very apolitical tone throughout, and one of his major contentions is that we should limit the number of political appointees (the Department of Homeland Security (which is a mismanaged behemoth and should be unmade) has a higher percentage of appointees than any other executive department) and replace them with career civil servants. Perhaps the only vague wishful thinking part was that in order to do this, we need to make public service noble again, but Clarke was inspiring enough that I believe that might be possible.

Finally, Jacoby's Age of American Unreason is a history of anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism in America. Fundamentalist religion, TV, the Internet, Baby Einstein videos, video games, the death of reading, letter-writing, classical music, and poetry, communism, anti-communism, junk science (intelligent design, social Darwinism, thinking vaccines cause autism) and many other things are all making Americans stupid. I think this book said some really important things, but I can't imagine anyone liking the entire thing--at some point, regardless of your political stance, you're going to think Jacoby is arrogant and pompous. If anybody's read it, I'd love to chat about it, but my thoughts are well-formed enough to put in writing now. Plus, Jacoby hates book reviews on blogs.


  1. I'm fascinated that you can listen to books while running. I don't run long periods, just between 30-60 minutes and haven't ever tried a book or even a spoken word audio because I think I'll just drop in and out not paying attention all the time.


  2. I'm not usually going very fast, so that helps. On shorter runs I just listen to music, but I find that on longer runs I get kind of tired of the 3-minute loops and need something a little more substantive to keep my brain going.

  3. I'm gonna try it next time I want to do a longer run.