6/11/2013

Rat Reviews

The Rat Reading List

This is my collection of "must be read" books. I read a couple of books every week. Most of my reading is for entertainment, some is for professional education, these books are beyond that standard.  These days, I think anyone who hasn't been exposed to the books listed in my first category is unfit to be called a "citizen" of this country.

Political and History Books

  • Reason, Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America by Robert B. Reich.

    Reich, currently a Professor at Brandesi University and several other schools, was secretary of labor for Clinton and has even tolerated political office under Republican Presidents. Reich argues that liberals, and their tendency to be intellectual and analytical in problem-solving, are the only hope for the nation in the coming far more complicated world. Since liberals tend to do creative work while conservatives only fear and criticize anything that doesn't resemble "what ma daddy did," Reich hopes to convince us that the future belongs to liberals and the past will show us the way.
  • A War Against Truth by Paul William Roberts. 

    Want to know who we bombed in 2003?  Have you ever considered what it felt like to be on the ground in Baghdad when American bombs began to fall on neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, radio and television stations, and public buildings? Would you like to know about the history of Iraq, North Africa, and the oil and weapons business from the Canadian perspective?  Would you like to know why 93% of the rest of the world fears the United States and the "most likely" source of world insecurity?  If none of these questions interests you, stay away from Robert's fine book. If you are willing to entertain the thought that there might be more than a little wrong with this country, A War Against Truth is required reading.
  • Armed Madhouse: Who's Afraid of Osama Wolf?, China Floats, Bush Sinks, The Scheme to Steal '08,No Child's Behind Left, and Other Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Class War by Greg Palast.
  • It's a history book. No, it's radical political criticism.  It's an analysis of everything wrong in the United States in 2005. No it's reactionary liberal tripe. You can find a lot to love, a lot to despise, and a lot of knowledge in Palast's radically different-than-the-MSM book.  Palast has taken the concept that history repeats itself as farce to a very readable extreme. I recommend it.
  • Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.  An upper-middle-class writer joins the working class and documents the experience.  Sounds like a boring "lefty" book, but it's an experience.  In the same way that Tom Wolfe made me feel that I'd been doped up and partying for a week when I read "The Koolaid Acid Test," Ehrenreich made me feel poor, oppressed, badly managed, and disassociated from the American Dream with her experiences among the working poor.  It should be required reading for those folks who would never, ever, consider viewing the world from the perspective of actual working people. It wouldn't change them, since they have no compassion or patriotism at all, but it would inconvenience them; which is all we can hope for in this decadent country.

  • American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Phillips. This is, simply, one of the best books I've ever read.  I know more about my country, North Africa and the Mideast, the history of the interaction between all three of those areas, and where we are going because of this book than I could have figured out on my own in several lifetimes.  This is one of those rare books that will amaze you in its complexity and completeness.
  • What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. As a Kansas expatriate, I think Frank is dead on the money.  Everything he says about my home state is exactly right.  Kansans don't know enough about politics or economics to know their right hand from . . . their other, unacknowledged, right hand. Since sometime in the 1960, the state's majority have consistently voted solidly against their own best interests, destroying the state's economy, enriching the ruling elite, and chasing their best and brightest children from the state. If Kansas were more insane, there would be gates and padlocks at every road entering the state. Kansas isn't alone in this Midwestern madness.

  • The Betrayal of America by Vincent Bugliosi. No words minced here, even in the title. As far as Bugliosi, and 50 million American citizens whose vote was disregarded in the 2000 election, the five majority members of the 2000 Supreme Court are traitors and should be tried as such, convicted, and executed. Five names--Justices O'Connon, Thomas, Rehnquist, Scalia, and Kennedy--are among the most dastardly criminals in the history of these United States of America. Many of us, including me, will never vote in an election again without the fear that the Court will step in and "settle" the election in a partisan political manner. Democracy in this country has suffered irreparable harm from this court and I fear, as does Bugliosi, that the country become regressively less democratic from this point forward. From a prosecuting attorney's legal perspective, Bugliosi spells out the crime these minor intellects committed and explains in clear language the harm they have done. Imagine how it must feel to be hated by more than 50 million of your fellow citizens? No wonder O'Connor cut and ran from the public eye. I'd like to use this book review to propose an annual event in the United States of America. I'd like to use the anniversary of this infamous violation of law and democracy to celebrate a day of concentration toward the remaining four scumbags of the 2000 Supreme Court. Rehnquist already suffered a dishonorable, withering death. O'Connor, Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy are yet alive (or at least among the walking dead). On December 12th, in every year that Republicans hold office in this country, and, especially, every year that any one of these traitors remains alive, I'd like to recommend that every free-thinking citizen take a moment and pray, hope, meditate, toss sticks or chicken bones, pierce voodoo dolls, or whatever you do (when you urgently hope something happens) that these four remaining criminals suffer the outrageous misfortune of your choice. At the very least, everyone of us should check out this book on this day (or buy another copy) to keep this memory alive, fresh, and livid in the American memory.

  • Business Books of Mismanagement and Incompetence (is there any other kind?)

    • Dealers of Lightning, XEROX PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age
    • by Michael Hiltzik.  For anyone who has experienced the dysfunction of a small or large company, this book is a hoot.  XEROX had the computer world by the tail from 1969 until 1980.  All the resources, talent, products, and opportunity in the world and XEROX's bonehead management squandered it all.  But this book isn't about that, mostly.  Dealers of Lightning is about the talent and technology that collected in XEROX's research facility, PARC, and the people who spread out from that organization and experience to seed the computer world; as one of the ex-PARC researchers described, to be the "messenger RNA of the PARC virus." Without this incredible business failure, it might have been years before the personal computer as we know it would have come to be.  With their influence, everything from the mouse, to the color screen and laser printers, the Internet, Postscript, the Apple Macintosh, Microsoft Windows, a host of programs and applications, computer music and graphics, and an endless host of common (today) computer functions arrived fully developed and functional.  Several of the companies spawned by XEROX's dysfunctional organization went on to overwhelm the host company's valuation in a half-dozen years after key employees left XEROX.  This is an incredible history and a great read. 
    • The Reckoning
    • by David Halberstam. This is an insightful parallel history of the Ford and Nissan auto companies. Halberstam has done a great job of showing us the warts and weasels and wiz-kids that made these companies and their products from the first cars shoved off of the assembly line to the 1986 models (published in 1987). It's a great look at how much luck is involved in the life of a "successful" business.
    • Big Blues
    • by Paul Carroll. Anyone working for a stuffy, braindead, MBA-driven company will get a kick and an education out of the history of IBM's fall from grace and power. Obviously, no one managing one of these companies ever learns anything, so I won't waste my time recommending it to managers.
  • The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence by Ray Kurzweil. You can't beat that title for being controversial and Kurzweil backs up his argument. He should know, too. He was at the leading edge of a collection of computer technologies that have changed our lives, whether we know it or not. As an economic predictor, Kurzweil was no better in his books than he was with his companies.  He is mindlessly optimistic about the possible interaction between humans and machines.  Otherwise, it's an interesting book with an original look at the history of technology.
  • Further up the Organization : How to Stop Management from Stifling People & Strangling Productivity
  • by Robert Townsend. I used to say the concepts in this book are all you needed to know to be a great manager. I still do, but MBA's don't want to read it because it hammers at all of their favorite misconceptions. Townsend also expects managers to do useful work and to be of service to the people they manage. It's been out of print for almost a decade. If Townsend managed a McDonalds, I'd work there. If he had managed IBM, we'd still be buying their computers. If Harvard School of Business were in the business of creating managers of future successful companies, they'd be using this as a textbook. They aren't, they don't, and here we are at the decaying tail end of the American Dynasty.

    Other Non-Fiction

    • Anything
    • by David Halberstam (except Michael Jordan & the World He Made, which was a discouraging piece of commercial tripe). From Vietnam era political history to modern sports history and back to politics (in the Bush administration), Halberstam is my favorite "current history" writer. The Children is one of the most inspirational books ever written, but I could also say that about The Amateurs. Once you read one of these books, you're going to wonder how anyone could write so much, so well.
  • Callings by Gregg Levoy.  Not only is this a good book for someone in the throws of mid-life crisis, but it's simply a good book.  Even if you're happy with what you're doing, the analysis and references Levoy uses to make his points are worth the time it will take for you to read this book.
  • Imperial Hubris, by Michael Scheuer.  An interesting, if oddly right-wing book.  The author makes many valid points about the failures of the Bushies and their war on the third world.  He (or she) does a wonderful job explaining why we've failed so miserably at finding bin Laden.  If the copy I read hadn't been a library book, I'd have highlighted huge portions of the text.  The author included some incredible quotes about war, warriors, and politics that I'd love to be able to find when I need them.  My favorite, from Larry Seaquist in the Christian Science Monitor, is "the ultimate measure of a fighter is the size of his foe."  With that in mind, is it any wonder that Muslims think bin Laden is their Zorro, Robin Hood, and Batman all wrapped up (no pun intended) in a single man.  No one man has ever taken on such a powerful opponent and done so much damage with so few followers and such simple weapons. 
  • Fiction

    • Anything
    • by Elmore Leonard. You can find a bibliography and a short biography on this link. For what it's worth, Quentin Tarantino has called Leonard "the best writer in the world." I don't know about that, but I read anything Leonard writes.
    • Anything
    • by Loren Estleman. It's a terrible thing to admit, but I found both Leonard and Estleman by browsing the "Westerns" section of my library a couple of decades ago. I'm a hardcore western fan, which means that any romance novel disguised as a western attracts me as strongly as Danny Quayle or G.W. Bush are pulled to spelling bees. Also, like Leonard, Estleman writes Detroit-based suspense stories. Most of Estleman's stuff isn't mentally challenging, but it is great entertainment.
    • Anything
    • by Pete Dexter. From God's Pocket to Brotherly Love, Dexter is an incredible writer who never lets me down. Yet another writer I discovered through a great western, Deadwood, which was mangled into the credits of a terrible movie and an incredibly derivative HBO series for which he received no visible credit at all.  Dexter seems to have disappeared, in the last decade.  I suppose Hollywood has sucked him into to doing teen crap or something equally pointless.
    • Snow Falling on Cedars
    • and East of the Mountains by David Guterson. Guterson is an incredible writer who drags all of your senses into his story telling. I can not recommend these books strongly enough. I am the last person to rave about "descriptive writing."  More often than not, I don't care about scene, setting, or circumstance.  I just want someone to blow something up.  Guterson makes me smell, see, hear, and touch the places he writes about.  Even more important, he makes me want to experience more of that without making me feel like I'm reading "literature."  His characters are complicated, human, and stuffed with the attributes of the "human condition."
    • Many things
    • by Stephen Hunter. So far, I've read A Time to Hunt and Dirty White Boys. I expect, by the end of the month, I'll have read his catalog. Hunter is a writer along the lines of Elmore Leonard. His characters are multi-faceted, realistic, and incredibly interesting. Even when he writes a straight-forward gunslinger story (like A Time to Hunt), he is driven to add dimension and character to his story. I have a new writer to chase down! Xmas in Minnesota.
  • Ishmael by David Quinn. Depending on your politics and spiritual inclinations, this might be a radically controversial pick.  Ishmael is a telepathic gorilla who Quinn uses as a tactic to discuss the heritage of our "taker" (industrialized society) culture.  Being a naturally inclined tree-hugger, I tend to agree with Quinn's basic assumptions and felt that many of his guesses on the origins of our culture's myths were far more likely than not.  Being somewhere between agnostic and atheist, I was in sync with his take on organized religion.  Otherwise, there was a lot of new territory for me in Quinn's cultural explorations.
  • The Rat Movie List

    Documentary

    Simply perfect.  Everything you ever wanted to know about American and international corporations is described in this movie.  Through advocate interviews, advertising examples and the statements of advertising gurus, and the clear and perverted statements of execs themselves, The Corporation shows how this perverse and irrational business instrument is the downfall of democracy, the environment, and society.  If the information provided by this movie goes un-acted upon, we are dooming our children to the world best described by the original Rollerball movie. 
  • Yes Men
  • .  Moments of this book make the hours almost worth tolerating.  Yes Men moves at a glacial pace, over-describing the thought process of the characters who played incredible practical jokes on the folks at NAFTA and the WTO.  The discovery that the upper-crust management hacks who populate those stodgy organizations are about as alert as wintering tree sloths is one of the best moments in guerilla documentary making. 
  • Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore's apparent swan song, since he's taken to wearing suits and hiding from the liberal supporters who made him a millionaire.  Still, this was an incredible attempt to educated an ignorant, cowardly conservative public.  Liberals shot Moore in the back by claiming that what he depicted was "old news" and didn't hit hard enough.  Conservatives whined that their poor little rich kid, Bush, was being unfairly exposed as a coward and a fool.  With this general consensus from the idiots on the far right and left, you have to know that Moore hit his target right on the nut for the rest of us.
  • 911 Loose Change.  Believe it or not, the premise of this movie is something we all should consider.  There are a lot of loose ends associated with the events of 9/11/2001.  The so-called investigation barely considered the facts, let alone the coincidences.  Stories and analysis of this event changed so abruptly that you'd almost suspect the media was being controlled.  From the events since then, we know there was a lot of money to follow as a result of the attacks on New York and Washington.  Nobody substantial seems to have even considered looking for a trail.  Find faults with this film, criticize the research, laugh at the assumptions, but not write the premise off because you and I know that G.W. Bush and his pal, Dick Cheney, would do anything for money.  Anything.
  • PBS: Evolution. One of the few brave moments in US television history. This series demonstrates the science and politics behind the evolution theory, beginning with an entertaining re-enactment of Darwin's life and trials (Man, did he need to know more about genetics! Marrying your first cousin?). The last DVD in the series (What about God?) deals with the nutcases of the "Creation Science" movement (synonymous with bowel movement) and the even crazier folks who cling desperately to their collection of sheepherder tales as if nature is simply too overwhelmingly complex for them to take part. If you've had enough of superstition, I'd recommend skipping on the last in the series. On the other hand, the preceding show, The Mind's Big Bang, deals gently with the lost scientific decades between the Scopes Trial and Sputnik. Losing the ability to investigate a single area of science, evolution, cost the United States immeasurably in scientific growth between 1925 and 1957.  We suddenly discovered that another nation, the Soviet Union (and many other nations, as we'd learn in the 1970's), had leapt ahead of us in technology, even with the handicap of a repressive dictatorship, because of our superstitious handicap. For a few years, the United States played catch-up with the world, something our capitalist democratic system and public education system accelerated, until conservative religion reared its fearful head and the country returned to its Puritan tendencies. In 2001, France ripped past our space program's capabilities with their hydrogen powered spacecraft, SWAN, and it's deep space observations, but we were so busy worrying about gay marriage and flag burning that it didn't even cause a blip on the national screen. Ah, decadence and evolution! What a fine team they make in social systems.
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