Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (2018) by Michael Wolff is a very successful book that provides something of a glimpse inside the Trump White House. This week the book has featured in 4 out of 5 days of NPR and BBC World News. If Donald Trump had been signed up to publicise the book he could not have done better.
Wolff says he got unprecedented access to the White House because it was so disorganised that he was allowed, for months, to wander around and talk to people. The book seems to support this idea. It fits with the other facts that are known about the Trump White House.
The first third of the book was fantastic. I laughed out loud regularly. The account of the Trump team’s transition is really funny. According to Wolff Trump and his team didn’t really expect to win so a lot of planning that is normally done was simply not done. In addition to that Trump had very few people with real political experience at the top of his team.
The middle third of the book drags a bit, it’s a detailed tale of a complete mess. Wolff portrays the White House as eventually dividing into a Ivanka an Jared Kushner faction and a Bannon faction. The two parts battled it out for supremacy which ultimately resulted in Bannon being fired.
The end third of the book describes the end of the fight, the firing of Comey and the appointment of Mueller as special prosecutor along with all the other chaos involved of the Trump White House. It also describes the hilarious appointment and dismissal of Scarramucci.
A quiet figure on the side line, Mike Pence, gets a few pages and is seen as someone biding their time, waiting for their opportunity.
I really enjoyed the book. It tied together all the things the news has been full of about Trump. Most of the figures are presented quite sympathetically. It is an alarming but somewhat reassuring book. It describes a group of people not full of malice but who are simply not up to the job at which they find themselves. Had the book been sent back through time to the start of the century people would have found it hilarious but too far fetched. We truly live in strange, televised and tweeted times. Covfefe to you all.
Sheilas, Wogs & Pooters: An Incomplete Biography of Johnny Warren and Soccer in Australia (2002) by Johnny Warren, Andy Harper and Josh Whittington covers Warren’s great career as a very successful football player and Australian soccer manager, commentator and promoter and provides a simultaneous history of Australian soccer from the late 1950s until the early 2000s.
Warren was in Botany on a street that would, incredibly, provide three representatives of Australia in various sports. He somewhat randomly started to play soccer and was superb at it from a young age, playing in much higher divisions as a junior. As a young man he played for St George-Budapest and encountered European and South American players and styles which had a big impact on him. He also met Les Murray, the great SBS broadcaster while playing for them.
The book goes through the era of clubs made by post-war migration in Australia. The state based competitions were dominated by ethnic Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Jewish and Macedonian based teams.
Warren went on to represent Australia from 1964 until 1974, playing as an attacking midfielder. He also captained the team and was later part of the team that qualified for Australia’s first World Cup, that of Germany in 1974.
After playing he went on to manage and then promote soccer and helped the establishment of the NSL in the late 1970s. He coached Canberra and also helped to bring the New York Cosmos out for exhibition games in Australia.
Warren had written as a soccer journalist since the 1960s. He then joined up with Les Murray and became part of the soccer broadcasters at SBS that did so much for the game in Australia.
As well as being autobiographical the book successfully intertwines a history of the game in Australia, Warren’s love of the game as an international game and a history of the Australian national team in Warren’s era.
For anyone interested in Australian soccer this book really is a must read. In conjunction with The Death and Life of Australian Soccer it provides a great view of Australian soccer in the post war era. As well as providing the autobiography of Warren the book provides more details of the teams while Warren played and highlights the huge role that SBS played in popularising soccer in Australia.
Balancing on the Blue : Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (2015) by Keith Foskett is the story of Foskett’s tale of doing one of the great American trails. The Appalachian Trail (AT) is amazing trail from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachians.
Foskett had already done the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) so the AT was arguably a bit easier for him. He’d also already written books about hiking the Camino and the PCT so he’s also more experienced author.
If you like reading these sorts of memoirs this book is definitely worth a read. If you haven’t tried any of them it’s still possibly a good read. It certainly gives some of the feeling of what a long distance hike must be like. Foskett writes good portraits of his fellow hikers and also provides quite a bit of detail about the trail itself and the hardships he had to endure.
Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017) by Kieran Setiya presents a philosophical view of midlife and the author’s musing on his own life. Setiya is professor at MIT who is married and has a child. It’s relevant because his view of midlife is one from substantial success.
The book first presents a history of the midlife crisis and then look at the various reasons people often enter in a malaise in their forties. Fear of missing, regrets and pondering what to look forward to all feature.
The book points out that in happiness studies there seems to be something of a dip in reported happiness in people’s forties. The modern world, with greater wealth and less struggle. The idea took off in the 1960s and 70s and was strong by the 1980s. Still, careful analysis pointed out that crisis was too strong a word, with only a small fraction having a real crisis, most people people just having something of a struggle with work and family.
There is also reflection on the fact that people inevitably confront mortality in their thirties and forties and that career paths become fairly clear at this point. We must all deal with regret but acknowledge that our strange paths have also led us to the people we love and potentially to children. Other paths would result in their nonexistence.
The book looks at how we should work out how much of our life to live in the present and how much to dedicate to our own and others happiness. Setiya looks at Mill, Schopenhauer and others to help answer the question.
It’s not a bad book and for anyone who wants something more than just a self help book but something that does look seriously at how people feel and view their lives in midlife it’s worth a read.
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (2015) by Alice Domurat Dreger is an interesting book that looks at what happens when activists and scientists cross paths, often in anger.
Dreger starts the book by describing how she came to be an intersex activist. She did a PhD in the history of science and studied how people born intersex, that is with ambiguous genitalia or sex hormones were mistreated through history. This led to her becoming active in a movement that sought to avoid attempting to normalise intersex babies that often resulted in poor outcomes. Here she opposed the then scientific consensus and sought to change it.
She then came into contact with J Michael Bailey who was a researcher into transgender people. Bailey wrote a book call ‘The Man Who Would be Queen’ where he puts forward the ideas of a Canadian research Ray Blanchard who put forward the idea that becoming transgender is tied up with sexual desire and that there are men who become women in order to attract men and men who become women because they find the idea fascinating partly in an erotic way. This offended some transgender activists who preferred the idea that it was the brain of one gender trapped in the body of another and that was all there was to it. They proceeded to attempt to trash the career of Bailey in any way they could. When Dreger came into contact with Bailey and found out what had happened she was appalled.
This led her to look at the careers of other academics who have published on controversial subjects such as how the victims of pedophiles go in life . How ‘recovered memories’ of child abuse where often made up, how much chronic Lyme disease there was and also one who had written about alien abductions. She also encountered Craig Palmer who suggested that rape was about sex and not power. She also met Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist who wrote about indigenous people in the Amazon and who suggested that they were human beings rather than simply noble savages and had his career deeply damaged by fabricated attacks. She also encountered EO Wilson who suggested that the is also evolution of groups of humans.
Finally Dreger returns to her study of intersex births and describes her dealings with doctors how have drugs that may alleviate some intersex births but also carry serious side affects.
The book is genuinely interesting. It describes how academia can rapidly become a place of serious persecution by pressure groups if something is researched and conclusions are reached that somebody decides they don’t want aired. This is, in some sense, what is likely to happen in a world where empirical truth is used as an arbiter of policy. Theologians were often persecuted in religious societies if they reached conclusions that powers did not like. In our age we like to imagine that we’re wiser and better than that, but Galileo’s Middle Finger shows that we relapse readily.
How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race and the Birth of Private Space Flight (2016) by Julian Guthrie is all about the creation of the X-Prize, the groups that entered, the people involved and the group who won.
Peter Diamandis established Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) while studying molecular genetics at MIT. He then went to Harvard Medical School to get an MD but still pursed his space dreams. He paused his medical studies to get a Master’s in Aeronautics then finished his medical degree but then started to pursue his space dreams full time. In 1994 Diamandis started the X-Prize Foundation after reading The Spirit of St Louis. The X-Prize set up a prize of $10 M for the first company to make repeated journeys into space. He then spent years chasing funding and pushing the idea.
He met members of the Lindbergh family including Eric, the grandson of Charles Lindbergh who overcame early onset arthritis to reply his grandfather’s famous flight. This flight also helped foster interest and funding for the X-Prize.
Burt Rutan, the legendary aircraft designer and founder of Scaled Composites became interested in the prize and with funding from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen started developing a craft.
Other competitors included John Carmack, the lead programmer for ID Software who created Doom & Quake and various competitors from the UK, Argentina and Romania.
It’s a good story, but the book doesn’t really hang together that well as narrative non-fiction. It’s about a third too long. There are also a few too many characters and the book meanders a bit.
Still, the fundamental story is interesting and it’s remarkable how Diamandis created a prize that really has helped kick start new efforts into space. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos were both attracted to the prize and it has helped them create their own space efforts. We still don’t quite have regular space tourism, but with SpaceX in particular it seems that new impetus has been given to new efforts into space and the X-Prize and SEDS seem to have really helped give this a push.
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (2010) by Tom Bissell is another book where a successful, serious writer and critic looks at video games.
Bissell faces the problem that other similar books such as Bit by Bit, How to talk About Videogames and other books like this face in that specific games are written about while the general and diverse nature of games is also addressed.
Bissell writes really well, he writes about what he found in Fallout 3, Resident Evil, Left for Dead, Gears of War, going to the DICE awards, Braid, Mass Effect, Far Cry and Grand Theft Auto (GTA). The chapter on GTA compares Bissell’s addiction to games to his sometime enthusiasm for Cocaine.There is also an interview with Peter Molyneaux and a discussion of Fable 2 in the book.
Bissell looks at how games tell stories, how the mechanics of the game often conflicts with stories and the power that games have to get people to play them. The book also has quite a few amusing quips.
Extra Lives does work as a book of serious game criticism. It’s fun to read and for anyone who enjoys reading the New Yorker and playing games it’s going to be a pretty solid, fairly amusing book.