Current reading

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher, Doubleday 2014.

Too funny for words, only not. The collected letters of a put-upon academic, continually asked for letters of reference, peppered with side notes to colleagues, deans, and the ex-wife. Anyone who has spent a few years on tenure-track will recognize the scenarios, share the angst, and lough out loud at some of the comments. I’ve often told people that I will write a book about the life of a dean but when I do, it will have to be released as fiction because nobody would believe half of what I would tell. This book is close – the letters could be written by any of us but the difference here is that the author is a fabulous writer with exquisite turns of phrase and a sharp eye for the foibles of human nature. The best book about academic life I’ve read in ages, I recommend it to doc students too, so they can appreciate what they might be getting into (and in the hope that a few of them might appreciate when not to approach me about another letter).

No Place to Hide. Glenn Greenwald, MacMillan, 2014

There’s no avoiding this book, this year, with the issues involved. Snowden polarizes views and his early media appearances seemed somewhat contrived but once you scratch beneath the surface, you come to appreciate what a profound stance he has taken. The book is the best account yet of how the story came to be told and it’s quite humanizing to find the author struggled at first to understand what he was becoming involved in and how to even set up a secure line of communication between himself and Snowden. Yes, it is likely that others, even famous journalists, are as confused as you about encryption and secure lines. No wonder then, we are all victims of our technical infrastructure.  Read on and learn just how the relationship between the author and his subject developed, how greedy media interests staked out a position, how national security officials responded, and how a man had to flee in order to get his message out. Yes, this has the makings of a political thriller and the book reads like one. For the most part, you can find yourself swept along with the events until you start to read some of the data Snowden sought to reveal. Then, the book takes on a whole new meaning as you uncover who knew what, who was trying to know what, and how the appetite to ensnare everyone took over those in power. The middle chapters reveal a frightening level of intrusion and collusion that could get lost in the more human drama of the protagonists if you don’t digest them appropriately. Unfortunately the tail end of the book is marred by the author’s insistence on settling personal scores with various media powers which the editors really should have toned down but by then, this is a sideshow. The real story is ongoing, I suppose a follow-up is inevitable but if you want to have a sense of what is happening in our world now, and how the majority of mainstream media have forgotten their role in a democracy,  this book should be on your reading list while it is current.


The Rocky Road, Eamon Dunphy, Penguin Ireland, 2012

Autobiography of one-time soccer player and long-term critic and journalist, Eamon Dunphy. A product of post-war, working class Dublin, Dunphy escaped to England as one of the youngsters recruited under Matt Busby at Manchester United. Not quite making the grade, he followed the well worn journeyman’s path through a series of clubs, most notably the almost-successful Millwall team of the early 1970s. Outspoken as a player (he organized a black armband wearing display among Irish players in England after the Bloody Sunday massacre), he crafted perhaps the best book about life as a pro, ‘Only a Game?’ in the late 1970s before becoming something of a fixture in the Irish media of the 1980s, where his rants about mediocrity, cheats, and the true nature of greatness completely polarized his audience. The majority of the country hated him, I loved him and this book goes a long way to explaining his appeal. I remember him coming to our debating society meeting at UCC when I was a student. He chain-smoked his way through multiple political topics ending with a savage critique of the Irish soccer team’s management.  The one down side is the book ends before the nineties start and a second volume must now be awaited but Eamon shows remarkable honesty in assessing his own downsides and even admits there were times he should have been even more outspoken in the face of injustice, paddywackery, and the general lack of integrity on display in Irish public life. Part self-examination, part explanation and all a galloping good read. Roll on part II.

Intelligence: a novel of the CIA, Susan Hasler, St. Martin’s Press, 2010

Thinly disguised fictional account of life as a grunt in the intelligence service at a time of imminent but largely unrecognized national threat. Part confessional, part thriller, it mixes the usual pool of slightly cliched characters (love-lorn mid-lifers, cynical old hacks, over-eager young go-getters) into a nonetheless engaging picture of relentless bureaucratic machinations and clueless political posturing. If you want to know the codewords and lingo used by folks on the inside (‘slag’, ‘shaft’ ‘canary crew’ and ‘the mines’ gives you a flavor), you could  probably get a better sense of life as an analyst with this novel than some of the standard text books on the profession, and it’s far more entertaining. A quick read.

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, Philip Short, Holt Press, 2006

The Khmer Rouge story has always been difficult for me to grasp: how a small, relatively peaceful people could find itself simultaneously in bed with and at odds with Russia, China, North Korea and Vietnam and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the relatively faceless presence of a mad man. Short’s book is unusual in that it explains very well the historical forces at work while documenting the horrors of people living in a truly Orwellian nightmare. Imagine a nation trying to eradicate currency, crafting the use of language so that only certain thoughts were enabled, emptying cities so as to ‘overcome’ historical mistakes that divide society into urbanites and peasants, and then embarking on forced purges of intellectuals (defined as anyone who wears glasses) so as to ‘re-forge’ citizens into a collective and you can get some sense of the hell that existed there for the two decades after 1975. With hindsight, the blame can be shared, and both France and the US have much to answer for here, but Pot remains almost impossible to fathom, even after more than 300 pages of this bio.  The man hid himself deliberately from the people and even a writer as excellent as Short struggles to get inside the personality or even the true history of his life, so cleverly did Pot disguise his own record and avoid public display. Fascinating on many levels, the book serves as a reminder of how far humans can go when politics are warped and violence is used to gain and sustain power.

Intel Wars: The secret history of the fight against terror, Matthew Aid, Bloomsbury Press, 2012

Interesting semi-insider account of US intelligence efforts around the globe aimed at countering terrorism. For the most part it avoids sensationalism and provides a solid, if dry, account of the efforts, often unexciting, involved in gathering and processing reliable data on those who wish to inflict harm on America. What it does convey well however is the internal competition for attention and resources that render many efforts less effective than they might otherwise have been and the author gives a very real sense that lessons from previous intelligence efforts and campaigns are rarely learned. Consequently, a lot of money and time is spent making the same mistakes even while new organizational structures and leadership, intended to correct the problems, end up reinforcing them. Provides strong examples of how data is not the same as information in a very practical and consequential environment.

Not the easiest read, the author tends to drag chapters out or combine sections that warrant edited separation. That said, it’s a fairly slim volume and makes a good case for intelligence work as a driver of success in the ‘war on terror’

Humanism and Libraries: An essay on the philosophy of librarianship, Andre Cossette, Lib Juice Press, 2009

Originally published in 1976, this curious little book is an interesting read offering a different take on the profession and discipline. Cossette writes of the speed of technological development and the lack of real awareness of the field’s mission in a manner that is as timely now as it must have seemed then. While I am less convinced by his claims that library science is a real science (he argues that we cannot just assert this but seems to do just that anyway), I do agree with him when he states that libraries are not primarily about education or preservation but about distribution of information, and the strength of this work is Cossette’s placement of this discussion within a broader question of how the field does this in the face of power structures and political forces. This is not your typical LIS book and consequently, more people should read it.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes, Random House, 2011

Hard to say more than has been said already of this book but it is everything reviewers say it is. The narrative sweep across time compels you to read on, almost with regret that this slim volume’s pages are running out too quickly before you. It’s not the story so much as the mood which grabs you and takes you into the lives of others, and that so much hinges on one carefully kept record that questions the veractity of memory only gives this more relevance to current times. When I picked it up, a quotation from a reviewer indicated you would want to immediately re-read it upon completion in order to check your original interpretations. That is an experience I believe many will have with this work. A book to treasure.


Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson, Simon and Schuster, 2011

Yes, I admit it, I caught the bug and once I started it, I could not stop. Large, sometimes detailed, but always engaging account of the man, the products, and the company. Despite the very real descriptions of his faults as a person, the book also conveys why the cult of his personality and his life will long endure. Some folks might cringe at some of his remarks about users not knowing what they want but haven’t we known this for decades? Anyway, he cared about users where it mattered, at the level of their experience with Apple’s products. Sadly, I anticipate the BS-business publishing market to now start pushing Jobs-inspired credos as guides but in a way, that is a tribute to the book as written. Isaacson walked a tightrope and pulled off a fine biography, warts and all, of a man whose work defines our times like few others.

A Journey, Tony Blair, Knopf, 2010

Though he gets it in the neck relentlessly from those who see the world in one-dimension, Tony Blair is the best politician I’ve lived with and the only British politician to make a serious and successful effort to address the problems (of Britain’s making) in Ireland. This book, rather than being a typical bio, is only the story of his time in office and it’s a cracking good read, especially if you know some of the people and personalities involved. Still does not adequately explain the Bush relationship but it gives a real glimpse into left-wing dogma and right wing corruption in late C20th UK. Campbell’s diaries are far more entertaining but this is a worthy complement.

Miles: The AutobiographyMiles Davis w/Quincy Troupe, Touchstone, 1990

A brisk and blunt account of Miles’ life, as told by Miles to his co-author. Clearly music was Miles language because he could speak more eloquently and creatively with his trumpet. Here he tends to mine a few repetitive themes exhaustively and colors them up with an impressive array of foul language and frank confessions. No rags to riches story this, Miles grew up comfortably and gave his life to music, for which we all ought to be grateful but along the way he used and abused drugs, women, and some friends. To his credit, he makes no attempt to cover this up but in so doing reveals his own nascent racism, intolerance and impatience while simultaneously being the victim of them. But what a story! The inside accounts of his relationship with (and sometimes harsh rating of ) key players are fascinating and his reaction to a certain psychiatrist who told him how to cure his drug addiction by taking up a certain personal habit is laugh out loud funny! This bio is about as frank as it gets.

Talking Jazz: An Oral History Ben Sidran, 1992

Now available as a boxed set on CD, this is the original published book of interviews between Sidran and some of the greatest jazz players of the 20th century — Miles, Art, Dizzy, you name them, Ben speaks with them and does so in a manner that is as close to compelling, intimate and up-close as you can get on text. You don’t have to love the music to appreciate the form but if you do, and if you are familiar with the music that is referred to throughout the interviews, you will probably find this irresistible. It makes me want to drop a few hundred dollars now on the 24CD set. Sidran has a rare ability to capture the person and each interview works on its own. Taken together, these interviews tell a rich story of an American musical form that continues to evolve.

The Blair Years, Alistair Campbell, Arrow Books, 2007

Campbell was TB’s press secretary and general aide for the years leading up power and two terms in office. Here’s his diary of what happened when, to whom and what folks really though of each other. Fascinating insight into how the modern political system operates, replete with hilarious personal anecdotes and shenanigans. Did Chancellor Kohl really tell Blair to ‘f%^& off”? Was Clinton really happier hanging out with the Brits than with his own entourage, including a former dean here at UT? Great stuff.

Luck and the Irish, R.F. Roster, Penguin, 2007

Leading historian takes a stance on what happened to Ireland between 1970 and 2000. Obvioulsy it will need updating soon to take account of the downturn but this is a sharp eyed take on the leadership battles of major parties, the social upheaval of economic improvement and the challenges faced by traditional organizations losing their members. Charlie Haughey is shown in dim light but this is history told by an expert who can entertain and educate in equal measure.