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Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

Monday, July 11th, 2016

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Storm of Creativity2017



white horsewashington


The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?

The Center Can Hold

Friday, July 8th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]


“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity….”

The sad and shocking events this week have come at a time when America is more politically and socially polarized than any other time in recent memory. This has led to casual comparisons between 2016 and the America of the most turbulent year of the Vietnam War, 1968.

They are not the same.

It is not 1968. That year saw the assassinations of MLK and RFK, race riots and arson in 125 American cities and armed troops on the streets. 16,899 young American men were killed in Vietnam that year while massive anti-war demonstrations closed universities and rocked Washington, DC.  Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States, declined under the pressure to run for re-election and a “police riot” broke out in Mayor Daley’s Chicago on live television. America was torn apart on generational, racial and political lines. This week has certainly been tragic for a variety of reasons that go deep into the American psyche, but thankfully we are not even close to reliving 1968.

It might be useful however, to recall Robert Kennedy’s words, spoken after announcing to his supporters at a campaign stop that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated:

….We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.


Sunday surprise: three entangled faiths

Monday, June 20th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — two exhibits linking the Abrahamic faiths ]

For disciplinary as well as doctrinal purposes, the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — are generally thought of separately — a separation which the two exhibitions this post revolves around are intended to bring into question.


One: Of gods and men: how Egypt was a crucible for multiple faiths

For instance, there’s a “stele of Abraham” in the British Museum show from last autumn that is worth pondering:

stele of Abraham

The accompanying text tells us:

On public display for the first time will be a gravestone, or stele, for a man called Abraham. “It commemorates someone with a Jewish name and yet it bears Christian symbols inside a classical frame next to the ankh symbol, the ancient Egyptian sign of life,” said O’Connell. “What is more, the engraving on it says he was ‘the perfected monk’ and is written in Coptic Egyptian.”

More about the show:

Curators at the London museum will use a series of items, many never put on public display before, to demonstrate the level of “entanglement” of religious symbols and rituals; with Egyptian emblems regularly appearing in classical Greek designs, depicting Jewish stories that were decorated with Christian crosses and Roman wreaths.

“Over the last 10 or 15 years in scholarship, there has been growing interest across the disciplines in looking at the way religions interacted, rather than just in isolation,” said Elisabeth O’Connell, a keeper in the museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan and a co-curator of the exhibition. “It is becoming clear that a lot of religious history has been founded on our modern distinctions simply being projected back.”

Note in the next paragraph the use of the terms ” troublesome” and subversive”:

Two hundred of these troublesome objects, many deliberately ignored by scholars in the past, have been gathered together to challenge the conventions of religious history. From architectural fragments, jewellery, paintings, gravestones and toys, to the paraphernalia of religious worship, they are all subversive evidence that faiths were once amalgamated in a way that was accepted by the ordinary people of Egypt, regardless of their birth-race or family’s religion.

Those are the Guardian writer’s words — Vanessa Thorpe‘s — not the words of the curators, but it seems the exhibit is intended to emphasize the “melting pot” side of Egyptian religion across the millennium after the fall of the Pharaohs rather than the separations:

“If you only take the work we have from Dioscorus of Aphrodito, it blows apart these distinctions,” said O’Connell. “He was a lawyer and poet, who lived in Egypt and wrote in Greek, although he was a Christian Copt.

“He is a great example of what was going on widely, because he used biblical sources and also wrote Homeric verse, one of them dedicated to a man with a Christian name, Matthew.”


Much the same impulse appears to have been behind a British Library exhibit in 2007:

Two: Sacred texts that reveal a common heritage

For the first time, the oldest and most precious surviving texts of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths have gone on display side by side at the British Library. They include a tattered scrap of a Dead Sea Scroll and a Qur’an commissioned for a 14th-century Mongol ruler of modern Iran who was born a shaman, baptised a Christian, and converted first to Buddhism, then Sunni and finally Shia Islam.

Here’s a two-page spread of that “Mosul Qur’an“:

reduced image via the British Library

The Guardian article continues:

The exhibition also has some exotic private loans, including an embroidered 19th-century curtain which once covered the door of the Ka’bah, the shrine which is at the core of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a hand embroidered Jewish bridal canopy – and a gold shalwar kameez worn by Jemima Goldsmith in 1995, when she married the former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan.

Phew, pop-cultural enthusiasts will at least have had the shalwar kameez to give them comfort!


Graham Shaw, the lead curator, said: “We were determined not to create faith zones, but to show these wonderful manuscripts side by side, and demonstrate how much we share – not least that these are three faiths founded on sacred texts, books of revelation.” Many exhibits are among the oldest of their kind, including a Qur’an made in Arabia within a century of Muhammad’s lifetime.

The exhibition also shows how calligraphers and manuscript illuminators shared influences and styles. The microscopically detailed decorated capital letters of the Lindisfarne Gospels are echoed in Islamic and Jewish manuscripts, while Christian and Jewish texts borrowed Islamic-inspired decoration, so that a 14th century Qur’an and a translation of the gospels into Arabic are indistinguishable at a glance, and two 13th-century French texts, one Christian, one Jewish, use virtually identical images of King David.

And this part tickled my fancy, and will surely find a place in my book on Coronation and Monarchy if it ever finds a publisher:

A later psalter owned by Henry VIII outrageously uses his portrait as the great Jewish king – accompanied by Henry’s court jester, William Somer, beside a text which translates as “the fool says in his heart ‘there is no God'”.

The wise fool Will Somer or Sommers wasn’t quite a member of Henry VIII’s Royal Family, but stands nearby, in the arch far right, in this detail from a family portrait of 1545 or thereabouts:

detail Will Sommers Family_of_Henry_VIII_c_1545

Let’s just hope history doesn’t try rhyming Tampa with Iraq

Friday, May 27th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — applause is nice, premature self-congratulation can be deceptive ]

Tablet DQ 600 tampa cheney 80

On the narrative arc

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a recent Wapo example of how history gets bent (ever so slightly) out of shape to serve narrative ]

Riley Rainbow in Curved Air
One of the universal arcs, and a personal favorite


Story-telling shapes awareness.

Yesterday’s Washington Post has an article titled Patriots at the gate: The Americans preparing for battle against their own government. It’s an interesting overview, but I’m not interested in discussing the merits or demerits of the Patriot Movement, Southern Poverty Law Center, Oath Keepers, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City, the Bundy Ranch, or Malheur — what interests me is the way the story is told.

Here’s the section dealing with one participant:

Across the family-style table, Alex ­McNeely, 25, a drywaller and “avid YouTuber,” said he became interested in the patriot movement online and joined the group to feel that he was helping to defend the country.

“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm. “But if I’m denied my rights, what else can I do? Am I just going to stand there and take it, or am I going to do something?”

In the Constitutional Guard, McNeely said: “I feel what we do is stand up for people who don’t have the means to stand up for themselves. I have an overwhelming desire to help people.”

They have passed out more than 2,000 pocket-size copies of the Constitution that Soper said he bought for $500, sent food and clothes to victims of forest fires in Washington state and Oregon and given Christmas presents to more than three dozen children in need.

McNeely considered joining the military when he graduated from high school, but he turned 18 the month Obama was elected in 2008, and, because of Obama’s “socialist” policies, “I wasn’t going to accept him as my commander in chief.”

“I don’t like that he wants to fundamentally change America,” McNeely said.


The writer is Kevin Sullivan, a WaPo Senior correspondent, and I think we can safely assume he knows his trade. My interest focus on the sentence:

“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm.

Sullivan has already given his opening identification of McNeely —

Across the family-style table, Alex ­McNeely, 25, a drywaller and “avid YouTuber,” said he became interested in the patriot movement online and joined the group to feel that he was helping to defend the country

— that’s fair enough, and the bit about the “AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm” could have gone in there, or been added to the graph:

McNeely considered joining the military when he graduated from high school, but he turned 18 the month Obama was elected in 2008, and, because of Obama’s “socialist” policies, “I wasn’t going to accept him as my commander in chief.”

where the topic is his consideration of “the military” — but no, Sullivan posts it neither where he’s introducing McNeely nor where he’s talking about his thoughts about the military, but in the graph discussing the Patriot Mov ement ideals as McNeely describes them — see, once again:

“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm.


Sullivan wants the irony. He’s making a juxtaposition-with-purpose — long-time readers here will know that juxtaposition as a rhetorical device is a keen interest of mine — he’s linking the movement’s ideals with the AK-47 tattoo to add an inflection of irony.

It’s a tiny point — no more than an inflection — but it’s one that I note in the same way I noted the non-appearance of bin Laden‘s Qur’anic epigraph in media versions of a significant speech, in my post Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns. I don’t happen to share McNeely’s worldview, nor that of bin Laden, but I am deeply interested in the ways the media portray matters of substance and nuance. I am interested in “narrative”.

We’ve all heard MLK’s quote, “somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The arc of narrative has another aim: it bends towards “good reading” — and if the curve bends fast enough it will spiral ever more lightly and less helpfully in, and we wind up with “click bait”. I know this, because I practice my own version of the dark (and sometimes, brilliantly illuminating) art of writing.


There’s a lot more to say about narrative, and the various meanings it now has.

One of my own interests is the way in which we think a narrative can be spun out of words and images (aka “propaganda”), when facts, grounded realities, history may, as they say, tell a different tale — and facts may speak louder than words. In that sense, if we need a new narrative, we may need a new behavior, a new policy, a new strategy implemented, to speak it.

What interests me here though, getting back to the WaPo piece and McNeely, is how telling a story in a way that makes it a “good read” influences a narrative arc that is, significantly, also the arc of “the first draft of history”.

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