Alternative title: Why Nations Keep Shooting Themselves in the Foot

Misgovernment is of four kinds, often in combination. They are: 1) tyranny or oppression…2) excessive ambition…3) incompetence or decadence…and finally 4) folly or perversity. This book is concerned with the last in a specific manifestation; this is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: [1] it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight…[2] Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available…[3] a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.

–Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly

A rereading may be beneficial to one’s mental health.

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Coffee Table on KBBI — Good reads for summer!

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I was a guest on Coffee Table on KBBI this morning, keeping company with Shady Grove Oliver and Terry Rensel as we talked about our favorite reads with people who call in. It was a blast, as always–thanks, guys!–and without further ado, here’s the books we talked about on the air.

Caroline
Cow Woman of Akutan (there’s a title for you) by Joan Brown Dodd
The Wind is not a River by Brian Payton

Lee
The Martian by Andy Weir
Astoria by Peter Stark (Lee compares this book to Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, one of the great survival stories.)
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Trish
A Thousand Prayers by James Sweeny
The List, a collection of short stories also by James Sweeny

Shady
Shadow Show by Sam Weller
Hyperbole and a Half (another great title) by Allie Brosh
I’m a Stranger Here Myself and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Dana inserts herself here with her favorite Bill Bryson book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid)
The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley (Shady says its a great adventure story).
All’s Fair by Mary Matalin and James Carville (Shady says it’s a horrible book but you won’t be able to put it down. I just ordered a copy from the Homer Bookstore, so sold!)
Among Others by Jo Walton
Also, she’s been reading a lot of Agatha Christie, and says it’s interesting to see how Christie’s craft evolved over the years (decades)[century]. If you have yet to encounter Dame Agatha, Dana recommends Murder on the Orient Express. (They made a terrific movie out of it, too.)

Murder on the Orient Express

Terry
A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin, a history Terry says reminded him of Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly.
Madam Secretary by Madeleine Albright (which Terry recommended in response to my recommendation of Read My Pins, see below)
Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill’s War Leadership and Churchill’s Political Philosophy, all by Sir Martin Gilbert. (Terry says these books are small, about 116 pages each, and a quick way into the life and character of Churchill, if you’ve always wanted to read about him but were daunted by the massive amount of books with his name in the title. Like me.)
The Martian by Andy Weir (Dana says she’s halfway through and loving it.)

Dana
If I Should Die by Matthew Frank
Sniper’s Honor by Stephen Hunter
The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Euphoria by Lily King
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Read My Pins by Madeleine Albright
You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack by Tom Gauld
Dana says you can read her reviews of these books on her Goodreads page.

You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack

And a shoutout to the Homer Public Library’s Read 15 in ’15 reading challenge, because Shady and I and Terry are all participating. Click on the link to download a list of 150 books in various categories, and pick 15 of them to read in 2015. You can fill out an online form about a book you’ve read and leave a few comments, too. They’re printing out the comments and posting them on a bulletin board in the library so you can stop buy and get a few ideas. I’ve read seven from their list so far and every one has been a book I never heard of or something I wouldn’t have picked for myself. Fun.

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The pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest. Or why governments keep shooting themselves in the foot.

The March of Folly: From Troy to VietnamThe March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman

A book which informed my entire world view. In it, Tuchman posits the existance of folly, or the pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest–in other words, why nations keep shooting themselves in the foot. She uses the Trojans taking the Greek horse inside the walls of Troy as her template, and then goes on to talk about how the Renaissance popes caused the Reformation, how the British lost America, and how the US lost in Vietnam. A lively, engaging prose style with more than a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

View all my reviews

Top 10 Books That Make Me Want to Quit Writing

[From the stabenow.com vaults, October 16, 2009]


Here’s my top ten list of books that make me want to quit writing,
because I’ll never write anything this good, so why am I bothering.

pp1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
I know, kind of obvious, but I defy anyone, whether they’re reading it for the first time or the fiftieth, not to have at minimum twenty laugh-out-loud moments. We are most seriously pleased.

monte2. Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer.
A new addition to the list, and please note how far up. Phenomenal prose style (by page 30 I was looking for people to read aloud to), delightful characters, and you can smell the dust on the trail. A lot to say about frontiers and what gets left behind when they’re gone.

tey3. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.
A British policeman flat on his back in a hospital solves a double homicide four hundred years old. Terrific on every level, characters, plot and setting(s).

lamb4. Lamb, the gospel according to Biff, Christ’s childhood pal by Christopher Moore.
First time Jesus ever died that I felt like I’d lost a friend. Entirely too many great scenes to recount here, beginning with Jesus resurrecting his brother’s lizard and, later, a jittery Jesus on a caffeine high buzzing around Antioch marketplace healing everybody. A funny book, yes, but also very, very smart.

civil-contract5. A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer.
Actually, pretty much anything by Georgette Heyer, who wrote the best dialogue in the English language. I love this book because it’s her most realistic novel, but I also love The Unknown Ajax, Frederica, The Foundling, Venetia, Cotillion, Friday’s Child, okay, I’ll stop.

trustee6. Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute.
You’ll remember Nevil Shute for On the Beach and A Town Like Alice, but this was his best story, about engineer Keith Stewart’s round-the-world journey to recover his orphaned niece’s inheritance, and the adventures he has along the way. Illiterate heart-throb sailor Jack Donnelly is one of my all time favorite characters.

folly7. The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman.
A book which informed my entire world view. In it, Tuchman posits the existance of folly, or the pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest–in other words, why nations keep shooting themselves in the foot. She uses the Trojans taking the Greek horse inside the walls of Troy as her template, and then goes on to talk about how the Renaissance popes caused the Reformation, how the British lost America, and how the US lost in Vietnam. A lively, engaging prose style with more than a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

lion8. The Lion’s Paw by Robb White.
I grew up on a fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska, and I was always looking for books about other kids on boats. In this one, Ben, Penny and Nick run away on a yacht called the Hard-A-Lee, and they’re not coming back until they find a rare sea shell called a lion’s paw, because when they find it Ben’s father will return from the war in the Pacific. Great details, great characters, and White’s heirs finally got it together to bring this book back into print, yay! See also The Pearl Lagoon by Charles Nordhoff and The Sea Flower by Ruth Moore.

gate9. The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper.
In post-apocolyptic America, the women have a plan to study war no more. Tepper doesn’t chicken out, either, she’s got an idea and she sees it through to the bitter end. Or as she puts it, the Damned Few.

seersucker10. The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas.
A couple of American politicos go to the African nation of Albertia to run the election campaign of Chief Sunday Akomolo, and there is nothing they won’t do to win. Funny, smart as hell, and an ending that will knock you sideways.

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Barbara Tuchman

[from the Stabenow.com archives, January 25, 2010]

barbara_tuchman-757098It’s not often you find a good historian occupying the same body as a good writer — think of any history text you were force-fed in high school — but Barbara Tuchman was a stellar exception. I’m still mad at her for dying before she wrote more books. Try a A Distant Mirror, a look at the effect on society of the Black Death of 1348-1350, which killed a third of the population between India and Iceland. In the foreward, Tuchman describes this time as a “violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disentegrating age, a time, as many thought, of Satan triumphant.”

Sound familiar? The more things change.

mirrorMy favorite Tuchman book is The March of Folly. With the almost parental exasperation that characterizes so much of her writing, Tuchman posits the existance of folly, which she defines as the pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest. To qualify for the definition of folly, Tuchman writes, the policy must meet three criteria. One, it must have been perceived as being wrong in its own time. Two, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. And three, the policy had to have been that of a group, not an individual, and had to persist beyond one lifetime.

follyHer template is the Trojans taking the Greek horse inside the city walls. Next, the Renaissance popes provoke the Reformation by selling indulgences, elevating illiterate drunks to the pulpit and hosting orgies in the Vatican. The third folly is the British losing America, in which Dr. Samuel Johnson is memorably quoted as saying that Americans were “a race of convicts and ought to be grateful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”

Hard to believe we rebelled, isn’t it?

stilwellThe fourth folly, and I think the one that inspired Tuchman’s conception of folly and the writing of this book, is America in Vietnam.
And then, if you want to understand the beginnings of America in Vietnam, read Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, in which you learn that Americans screwing up in Southeast Asia wasn’t exactly a new experience.

A delightfully acerbic prose style, sort of on the order of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”, combined with an exhaustive but nonetheless easily accessible scholarship and a you-are-there sense of time and place, the Tuchman historical oeuvre makes for seriously good reading, and you’ll learn a thing or two along the way.