Books I have read

‘Right Went Wrong’ A Crash Course In GOP Philosophy

whyrightwentwrongIn Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism–From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond. E.J. Dionne Jr, a Democrat writer and columnist, looks at how the conservative movement has shifted increasingly to the right since the 1950s.

Written in chronological order, the book starts with the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater and ends in the 2015 segment of the 2016 presidential race. Interspersed throughout the book are observations from the 50s – specifically the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the McCarthy Red Scare era, and the work of William Buckley Jr. (the National Review) and even fringe groups like the John Burch Society.

As a columnist, Dionne, has spent decades covering the political arena and – besides knowing many of the political players on a professional basis — he has a wealth of knowledge of political theory and the inner workings of Washington D.C. But his most impressive skill is the ability to take the sometimes boring subject of political theory and political maneuvering and condensing it into writing that is enjoyable to read.

His second strongest skill is to present the information is a low-key tone – almost in a conversational way so that the reader does not feel like an opinion is being ‘shoved down their throat.’

Make no mistake though, he is a liberal and does not try to hide it. However, his approach as a dispassionate reporter should enable even the most conservative voter to read the book and at least walk away with a better understanding of how their movement has shifted to more radical viewpoints – and how this shift may very well cost the Party its power.

For a casual reader, who may view politics as a necessary evil to be endured in American society, the book offers clever insights and backstories of the various political figures they watch on the news. Politicians like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and even Donald Trump. These readers will understand more completely how each of these figures positively or negatively impacted the Party’s future.

For me, some of the most interesting content centered on Ronald Reagan, a disciple of William Buckley Jr., and the conservative movement’s shining star. Although, I was not old enough to vote when Reagan defeated president Jimmy Carter, I remember vividly how it was an electoral landslide – which I presumed meant it was a popular vote landslide as well. It turns out I was wrong; Reagan captured 50.8 percent of the popular vote. As Dionne, points out,

Reagan was elected not because he turned the whole country conservative, but because he persuaded enough swing voters frustrated over stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the seemingly (and misleading) rising power of the Soviet Union that he was not the conservative ideologue of old. Reagan played down his more right-wing positions – deflecting for example, Carter’s attack on his past opposition to Medicare with the most memorable line of their only debate: “There you go again.”

Rated 5 out of 5. The book is well organized, non-combatant in tone and will elevate the political knowledge of any American. Filled with stories, stats and opinions, Why the Right went Wrong will educate anyone who desires to become a more knowledgeable voter.

Categories: Books I have read, Politics

Insane American Killer Plays Integral Role in Publication of British Dictionary

professorandthemadmanYou can file this story under the truth is stranger than fiction.

In The Professor and The Madman, Simon Winchester tells the story behind the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary which was first published (in part) in 1884 and has long been hailed as the standard upon which all dictionaries are measured.

Winchester’s book is two stories in one. It is about vastness of the dictionary project undertaken by Oxford Professor James Murray – when he and others set out to catalogue all the known English words of the era. But it is also the story of Yale-educated and former surgeon, William Minor.

A story about a dictionary, in and of itself, is not necessarily interesting reading unless you’re a wordsmith, but when it is coupled with Minor’s story it is quite intriguing.

The Murder

The book opens at the crime scene, shortly after 2 a.m. when the father of seven with an 8th child on the way – is pursued, shot and killed by Civil War Union veteran Minor in the community of Lambeth (near London, England). The deceased, who had agreed to pick up a shift for a co-worker, was murdered on his way to work. An editorial in Lambeth’s weekly newspaper commented somewhat smugly on the 1872 crime by noting,

Happily, we in this country have no experience of the crime of ‘shooting down,’ so common in the United States.


The crime part of the story moves fairly quickly into Minor’s trial, where he is found not guilty by reason of insanity. Minor, who receives a military pension, is then given a two-room suite at an asylum and in his own disillusioned world, he comes to believe the staff are his servants.

He seems resolved to make the best of his situation.

Then the author fills us in on the problems leading to Minor’s mental breakdown. We uncover his illness mental mainly through observations written by his attendants. We come to realize that Minor is paranoid, especially at night, when he is convinced people are attacking and molesting him.

He was also terribly frightened of Irishmen, we learn, because of a War incident. As surgeon, Minor was given the gruesome task of branding a Irishman deserter during the U.S. Civil War. Minor applied a hot iron to brand the letter D in the young man’s face.

The brutality of the act plants the seeds of Minor’s mental illness.

Oxford English Dictionary

So, what does all of this have to do with the dictionary?

To construct the Oxford English Dictionary, Professor Murray sent out a request for volunteers to read books dating back to around Shakespeare’s time. These volunteers would meticulously write down words for inclusion in the dictionary as well as when the word first appeared in the English language. The volunteers would also locate quotes from original materials to provide a ‘real world’ definition of the term. The sheer volume of this labor-intensive project caused many of the volunteers quit. And, it also delayed the final product by decades — the final version was not finished until 1928.

But one man, Minor, kept submitting high quality work and pushing the project forward. In fact, the original books include dedications to Minor because of his efforts. What Murray did not know, when mentioning Minor in the dedications, was the American veteran was living in an asylum and he had killed an innocent man.

This all changes when Minor is not present at a book publishing party. Many in attendance wanted to meet him, so Murray took it upon himself to find Minor. And it is in the asylum where Murray first learns Minor is not in an esteemed position, but is instead a patient. What unfolds over time is something akin to a friendship. When Minor is eventually (after more than 40 years) returned to the United States to the custody of his brother (with the condition he be placed in an asylum), it is Murray and his wife that see him off.

Rated 4 out of 5:
Writing a book about publishing a dictionary is tough to keep entertaining. At times the book moves a little too slowly for my tastes, but the author does deliver an intriguing look at Minor’s mental issues. The author does this while also weaving in Murray’s ambitious project. The book is worth reading just to get a glimpse at how mental illness was treated in Britain at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Categories: American History, Books I have read | Tags: , , , , ,

The Canine Gaze And Other Great Dog Mysteries

20160112_103030-EFFECTSI love reading books about dogs. I always have. One of my favorite childhood books included a dozen or so stories about dogs that protected their owners from bear attacks.

Of course, Old Yeller and Savage Sam were two stories that really pulled me in. The climax of Old Yeller is when teenager Travis Coates is forced to destroy Old Yeller. The dog, infected with rabies after protecting Travis’ younger Arliss from a rabid wolf, is now a danger to the family. As we watch the scene of Old Yeller’s death unfold — knowing in our hearts it’s the right thing to do — we still wish for a better way.

But it’s time for Travis to become a real man and overcome his personal affection for the dog and do what is right for his family.

Versa’s Flaws

When I began writing personal essays, my first attempt at a longer read (one-hour story) was about our dog, Versa. In some ways, Versa is like Old Yeller. When we adopted her, she was not overly likeable and a little rough around the edges — she had some flaws. The day we met, she did not impress me, partly because when my daughter, Molly, tried to interact with her, Versa was too timid — cowering with her tale between her legs, and quivering as Molly tried to pet her.

It wasn’t Versa’s fault.

She is a pound puppy and, as I wrote in Broken Spirit: Lessons From a Rescued Dog About the Politics of Life, she exhibits the traits of fear aggression — a tendency to be afraid of everything and everyone. It is a common trait of pound dogs. And, although, its grip on Versa is lessening, the trait is still noticeable after working with her for nearly three years.

In time Versa ‘grew on me’ and now she is part of my daily routine. As I wrote in Broken Spirit,

Versa and I have a daily ritual. I sit on a stool in my living room, start putting on my socks with my shoes beside me on the floor. Versa knows what this means: she is going for a walk. She wags her tail; prances over to our front door then back to me to check my progress. She nudges me with her nose as if to say, hurry up — let’s go.

True Companionship

Dogs provide a companionship that cannot be matched by any other domesticated animal. It is probably for this reason alone that so many books have been – and still are being – written about canines. We want to know how others interact with their four-legged family member.

contentA Useful Dog by Donald McCaig is a short-read — probably an hour or so — but by reading it you develop an deep appreciation for McCaig’s Border Collie sheep dogs. These dogs are energetic, bright and loyal, but as the author points out they can be difficult to train, control and work.

The book also includes snippets about the various jobs performed by other dogs, including sniffing out landmines in war-torn areas of the world. A deep bond grows between the dog and its partner in such adverse conditions, McCaig notes, but he says, this deep bond often exists in less dangerous situations.

He writes,

“On good days, I imagine humans are connected to our dogs on a primitive genetic level; that we don’t need to hear well because our dogs hear for us, that we don’t need good noses because our dogs sniff out danger, that we humans can dream because our dogs watch over us. On good days, I think dogs gave us our spiritual lives.”

The Gaze

packoftwoFor an even deeper look at the intricate dog-human relationship, read Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs. In the book’s opening, author Carolyn Knapp readily admits one reason she adopted Lucille, an eight-week-old Shepherd mix, from the local shelter was to fill the abundance of time Knapp acquired after becoming sober for the first time in her life. (She writes about her battle with alcoholism in Drinking: A Love Story).

Knapp fearlessly jumps headlong into issues only dog owners truly appreciate.

She speaks bluntly and honestly about dealing with other dogs and their owners, about condescending dog trainers with their various theories of control, and the hardest of all humans to understand – people who don’t like dogs. But one of the most intriguing passages is about the ‘canine gaze.’ If you own a dog, you’ve seen it. Often a dog’s gaze has a very definite meaning – I need to go outside, for example — but sometimes, we owners are clueless to what the dog is trying to communicate to us.

As Knapp notes, this non-understood gaze troubles us so when her dog launches into a gaze, Knapp, like all of us, concocts some really crazy ideas about what it means. She says,

In other words, I project. I project and I anthropomorphize and I make stuff up. I view her inner life through the filter of my own emotions and experiences, and the tendency to do this can make me crazy, for I can read anything into Lucille’s eyes. Anything. I can imagine that she’s mad at me, whether or not she is. I can imagine that she’s lonely or depressed, that’s she’s worried or chagrined or wistful, that I’m getting on her nerves.

It’s part of the Lassie Syndrome of life – we dog owners have come to believe that all looks, gazes and actions of our beloved canine friend holds some deep — often mystical — meaning.

Versa Knows

As I write this, Versa lies calmly on her bed beside my chair. She is always nearby. Whenever I walk to another part of the house, she follows. With her, I’m never alone.

And as she lies comfortably on her bed, she is a visual reminder that dogs are simple creatures. They are the embodiment of what life is meant to be — a pleasant process. Versa needs very little: Food, water, shelter and a daily walk. Once Versa’s daily walk is complete – meaning her work day is over – she is content to nap, relax, play with the cats or simply do nothing at all.

She has figured out the secret to a happy life.

And, maybe that’s what she’s been trying to tell me all along.

broken-spiritBroken Spirit: Lessons From a Rescued Dog About the Politics of Life

When a rescued, mix-breed mongrel with an ill-fitting name (Versa) and a behavioral problem (fear aggression) chose me as her sidekick, I reluctantly agreed. But as I helped Versa overcome her fears, she taught me about the secrets to work and life.

Categories: Books I have read, Dogs, Pets, Versa | Tags: ,