2017: A Year in Reading

I’m desperately bad at keeping this personal site filled with useful things. However, after reading Roxane Gay’s 2017 reading list, I felt inspired to do the same. I’ve tried to make clever categories, or just useful ones, whenever possible, but there are a great many sitting towards the bottom and in longer categories still worth your time. I didn’t read too many awful things this year (I generally just stop reading them in the middle), so I haven’t made a tiered ranking system for those, but I’m happy to offer up some personal suggestions if you get in touch with me via Twitter. To the writers (if any of you are reading this) thanks for all the great work.

Favorite book of the year

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Numbers two and three

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Judas by Amos Oz

Series I tore through and now anxiously await for the final book

The Kingkiller Chronicles (The Slow Regard of Silent Things, The Wise Man’s Fear, and The Name of the Wind) by Patrick Rothfuss

The horror I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish (and then still kept me up)

The Fisherman by John Langan

Favorite history book (and a favorite nonfiction, in general)

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Book whose vast detail should’ve pained me, but instead got me thoroughly invested

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Dense academic book I couldn’t stop reading

The Long Shadow by David Reynolds

Favorite writing about writing

The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers by Terry McDonell

Proof genre is a silly distinction for people to make

The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Books perfectly (if occasionally unfortunately) appropriate for the times

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

American War by Omar El Akkad

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Classics I finally got around to reading

Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire

Alternating Current by Octavio Paz

The Dubliners by James Joyce

Selected Poems: 1966-1987 by Seamus Heaney

Disappointments (fiction and nonfiction)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Worst figure of speech award

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Obligatory re-read

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Reading for articles (not including innumerable academic papers, essays, articles, etc.)

Bring Out the Dog by Will Mackin

Gambling and War by Justin Conrad

You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

Consequence by Eric Fair

Unknown Soldiers by Neil Hanson

The Long Walk by Brian Castner

The Road Ahead by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner

Terminal Lance: The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte

War Porn by Roy Scranton

The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

Retire the Colors by Dario DiBattista

War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

Reading for book research

The Hundred Years War: A People’s History by David Green

Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte

Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I by John Ellis

Honorable mentions (i.e. ones I don’t have anything novel or clever to say about, but still want to single out)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

American Originality by Louise Gluck

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

Road Fever by Tim Cahill

The rest (Many of which are still fantastic!)

The Reporter’s Kitchen by Jane Kramer

The Best of Richard Matheson

In the Not Quite Dark by Dana Johnson

Someone by Alice McDermott

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Radicals by Ryan McIlvain

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson

To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction by Phillip Lopate

The Kingdom and the Power by Gay Talese

Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

The Vanishing Velazquez by Laura Cumming

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

The Vegetarian by Kang Han

New York by Edward Rutherfurd

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Fen by Daisy Johnson

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank

1984 by George Orwell

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

A History of Histories by J.W. Burrow

The Art of Intelligence by Henry A. Crumpton

The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

The Purple Decades by Tom Wolfe

The President’s Book of Secrets by David Priess

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman

The Code Book by Simon Singh

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Grunt by Mary Roach

The Georgetown Set by Gregg Herken

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

God’s Middle Finger by Richard Grant

On the Death of Cassini

What follows are some thoughts I had in the wake of Cassini’s finale. It’s a shorter and rougher version of what I originally envisioned, but it’ll do for now. All errors of accuracy and grammar are my responsibility alone, though I would blame the fact it was written in the course of an hour-long airport layover.

As soon as I felt the airplane’s wheels scraping back against the Earth, I turned my phone on, but it was already gone. I scrolled through my feed, trying to find the moment I knew I had missed.

At 7:55 eastern daylight time, to the extent earthly concepts of time mean anything when discussing interplanetary travel, and while I sailed above cell towers without a signal for the first time in weeks, if not months, Cassini lost its tether to the Earth one final time. Spacetime is a funny, nearly incomprehensible thing for someone like me, so I don’t know at what point to mourn Cassini’s end: the exact moment we lost its signal, backdated to account for the hundreds of millions of miles it traveled? The moment we received its message? Some unknowable point after it stopped transmitting and Saturn’s atmosphere, an unfriendly mix of hydrogen and helium, began tugging at the vessel just a bit harder, its molecules resolutely standing in the way of Cassini while it flew at tens of thousands of miles per hour, battering it with an ever-growing heat that turned the gas into a sunset-colored plasma? And what, I wondered, will replace it should our earthly problems seep past the upper reaches of our planet?

After all, on the TV that hung above the boarding lanes of my gate, the talk was nuclear war. Shortly before, while I was still at my seat waiting to be called I refreshed my phone again. “Happening now: the spacecraft is reconfiguring to transmit its final observations to space in real time.” By that point it had already crossed the path of Enceladus and the outermost rings of the planet. Its moon, its rings. Without it, they were distant concepts: seeable to some but enigmatic to all. It was speeding along at a pace unimaginable to human vision or minds, save for its numerical measure (69,368 mph, to be exact). And all the while—its eyes and ears and mouth and nose, with names I can barely string together—were wringing that experience for all that it was worth: the composition of the planet it would soon become, its temperature, its magnetic field. It still took us over an hour to hear its observations of these moments, but when we did, it was in Cassini’s own words coming in directly as it witnessed them.

The Day the Earth Smiled

In 2013, those eyes looked back towards its first home, a place it only spent its first waking moments. We appeared as no more than a distant speck, to be sure, but if you looked up at that moment, your eyes would meet. The most that can be gleaned from the resulting photo is confirmation that we do, in fact, exist and that our world which feels so very large to us is unimaginably small even within the bounds of our own solar system. In the photo, the three agencies encompassing 24 countries all blurred into one. To its eyes, that’s what they always were.

This has always been an incredible fact about space, if not in actuality than at least in perception: that it is a last bastion for cooperation not in the name of profit, security, or technology, but for the most profound and most human quality: curiosity. I am, of course, glancing over the impetus that caused humans to quickly reach up towards the stars and some of the applications for which we use the room above us, but the mere fact these do not preclude this curiosity from driving ambitious ventures remains one of the more heartening qualities of life on Earth.

I can’t profess to know with any certainty how far we’re slipping from this ideal. Whether, in casting aside pure science in the name of placing humans farther outside Earth’s gravity will cause our multitude of problems to tag alongside them, or whether, through some unknown mechanism, we’ll rinse them from those pioneers. I can only hope.

Perhaps that’s why, despite its lack of a beating heart or a self-sufficient brain or eyes that can interpret what they’ve seen, Cassini still draws us like iron filings to a magnet or gravity’s force upon an object. Without these organic bits and pieces, none of humanity’s problems assert their will on it. There is only curiosity distilled to its purest form and with such a strength as to be capable of transmitting it across a vast distance I cannot hope to understand.

For that, Cassini, I miss you already.

Photos all courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The Evolution of the Tomb of the Unknowns – The Atlantic

Earlier this month, I had an article come out in The Atlantic regarding the ongoing evolution of military memorials and mourning, with a focus on Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknowns. There’s quite a bit that is not said in the piece regarding the composition of the military, changing styles of engagement, and the like, but I enjoyed writing the reflection.

According to Bill Niven, a professor of contemporary German history at Nottingham Trent University, England, the effect of World War I on how countries memorialize conflict was a cultural turning point—one most neatly embodied in the sharp contrast between France’s modest Tomb of the Unknown and the imposing Arc de Triomphe. Constructed in the early 1800s, the arch memorializes the “glory of [Napoleon’s] Grand Armée,” while the tomb that rests in its shadow, and built more than a century later, has a subdued visage. The arch reflects the aggrandizement of war through extravagant uniforms, neat battle lines, and the ever-present murmur of honor and fidelity, but World War I had trod such formal conceptions through the muddy trenches of France and the Eastern Front. And it was that more desolate aspect of war that the tomb personifies. Here were average citizens—rather than professional soldiers—charging, fighting, and dying seemingly at random and on an industrialized scale few at home could fathom, much less fully comprehend. War itself had been radically altered, and so too had the mourning of those lost to it.

War Stories Wraps Up Season One

If memory serves me correctly, War Stories was founded during the centenary ceremony of the Somme. A few weeks prior to that, my co-conspirator, Angry Staff Officer, and I met up to chat (or more likely, to snark) over drinks in Alexandria. And a few weeks before that, we talked about the use and misuse of history with Nate Finney on the Military Writers Guild’s podcast. As of today, season one of the show has closed out and now begins our inter-season planning and writing grind.

We set out with a number of goals in mind for the show, some ambitious, others decidedly not. On a fundamental level, we wanted to bridge the individual narratives of war with the larger historical and contextual picture. Through this model, we hoped that both the history and story-interested listeners of the show would be on level playing fields. On a loftier level, I also think there’s something to this model in getting people to better understand and use history, particularly in the uniquely human endeavor of warfare. I don’t think there’s anything particularly novel or innovative about the method, but that’s not to say that it’s practiced enough.

There were also smaller goals relating to the format of the show and what it would feel like for those listening. There’s something more intimate, or at least potentially intimate, about audio programming. Written words indeed have a massive amount of power over us, but there’s a relationship between storyteller and listener that exists in audio which doesn’t come forth as frequently in writing. The subjects we chose to cover only added to that.

I don’t want to take away from an upcoming article/interview about the show by hashing over many of the same points I always make, but I do want to say that it’s been an absolute pleasure writing, editing, producing, re-editing, re-writing, etc. it. It has fit the multi-disciplinary, humanistic, conflict-driven type of work which I most enjoy. To be sure, there’s a whole lot of work to be done in order to have the show continue improving. We’re a two man team and that meant essentially continuous work in order to keep our schedule, but with a bit of additional planning I think we’ll have more room to play around with additional content and improve production value.

If you’re (somehow) just learning about the show, here are our episodes. If you enjoy it, give us a ‘subscribe’.

 

War Stories Episode Two

This past week, Angry Staff Officer and I released the second episode of our audio show, War Stories. In this episode of the show titled, “Patton at the Saint-Mihiel Salient,” we set the remaining foundation for this season with the story of then Captain George S. Patton’s efforts in developing the AEF’s light tank school and his subsequent exploits on the battlefield of the Saint-Mihiel Salient.

From here, we’ll be advancing to the interwar years and then WWII. As these will have only iterative additions to the underlying platform, we’ll be really drilling down on the most compelling stories we find in a way that shows the progress being made. As always, thanks for listening.

Listen: Online | iTunes | RSS Feed

 

War Stories Launches

If you’ve followed me on Twitter the past six to eight weeks, you’ve probably noticed some cryptic Tweets about a new storytelling/podcast project I’ve been working on alongside Angry Staff Officer. Last week, we announced the show, War Stories, to those outside the small group we asked to serve as beta listeners of the project. I’m pleased to announce that after receiving their feedback and making the necessary edits, we released Episode One on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, etc. yesterday.

Though we’re still getting the hang of doing a more production-intensive show rather than one just focused on cleaning up audio and piecing together a conversation, we’re really pleased with the model that we’ve come up with and we’re eager to continue our first season on armor.

The show itself is a narrative history show centered on telling the stories behind points in the development of warfare. In each season, we’re taking a topic of warfare and picking out key moments and people who exemplify those moments. The central focus in each episode is telling the story of one of those people, but we’re also weaving in contextual details in order to give a solid foundation on which to base your understanding.

If you haven’t listened to the released episode yet, I hope you do and email/Tweet/etc. me on what you thought about it. If you already have, there are a couple requests I have:

  • Share it with a friend/family member/colleague/Tweep — We’re setting this up to be a serious project and we think its model appeals to all sorts of people. Getting it outside of our own networks is a big goal on the administrative side of that.
  • Rate and review it on iTunes — this is another way for us to reach outside our own networks. We have about eight weeks post-launch to maximize the potential real estate that iTunes offers us. We’re obviously going to continue past that time, but steadily increasing listenership, reviews, subscriptions during that time goes a long way.
  • Become a patron of the show on our Patreon — in addition to each script containing 5000-6000 words, we also put a lot of time into producing and developing the show. War Stories will always be free to listeners, but if you’re looking for resource guides and transcripts, bonus episodes, etc., you can get them for as low as $3/month. Shoot me an email and I can send along a sample (one is also on the ‘support’ page on www.warstoriescast.com)

Exiting the Comfort Zone – from the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future

Today, I recalled some of the lessons learned from MWG’s recent workshop that took place at Defense Entrepreneurs Forum’s DEF[x]DC conference for the Atlantic Council.

A conflict erupting in Iran and a speech delivered to Congress on the eve of a Department of Defense shutdown. These were the stories, if only the germinated seeds, that greeted participants as they entered the recent Military Writers Guild workshop at the DEF[x]DC conference. A crowd, save one, entirely out of their comfort zones when confronted with a writing challenge that stemmed from a fictional prompt.

When first approached with the idea of hosting a writing workshop at Defense Entrepreneurs Forum’s annual DC conference on behalf of MWG, I knew that first and foremost, the workshop should reflect the unique qualities of the organizations it was supporting. For MWG, this task meant building into the program a diversity of viewpoints, backgrounds, and writing styles. For DEF, it meant intellectually and interactively engaging some of the brightest young innovation-focused minds in the national security sphere. What better way to accomplish both these goals than a writing exercise whose only constraints were the mind of a participant?

Read the full write-up at the Atlantic Council >

May 2016 Work

As we roll into the sweltering summer months of DC, I’m fortunate enough to participate in a number of cool projects with topics that could not be more diverse (at least in the national security realm). They span theoretical, practical, and analytical topics and will hopefully pave the way for more of the same, even though wearing a suit around town will become even more miserable

The Pen and the Sword

Thursday, May 5th I’ll be recording the fourth episode of the Military Writers Guild podcast, The Pen and the Sword. In this episode, I’ll sit down with Dr. Ajit Maan and John DeRosa, both MWG members who sit in the academic world and examine narratives. Jiji and John both work on The Project for Narrative Braiding, a really cool project out of George Mason University with both theoretical and practical applications for the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

DEF[x]DC

Recently, I was asked to host a writing workshop on behalf of the Military Writers Guild for the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, a 501(c)(3) organization filled with bright, young military leaders and their civilian counterparts who seek to develop a culture of innovation within the DOD community. I’ll be hosting the workshop alongside Kate Brannen of the Atlantic Council, John Costello of New America, and Claude Berube of the U.S. Naval Institute. The workshop will focus on a set of creative prompts that both expand participants’ writing styles and experience.

ASP Podcast

Finally, on May 16th I’ll sit down with my friends at the American Security Project to discuss the role of the space domain in national security. I became involved in this topic while serving as the government and media affairs officer of ASP, so it’ll be nice to come back to the shop a few years later as an adjunct fellow to discuss where it’s gone since that point.

On the (mis)use of history – The Pen and the Sword

This weekend, I sat down to chat with Nate Finney and Angry Staff Officer about the use and misuse of history in the military and national security professions. There were some really great points, both practical and big-picture, brought up. I also particularly relished the discussion of the latest episode of Hardcore History – a section I knew I wanted to bring up as soon as I heard it on the metro.

The podcast series, in general, is also hitting a bit of a stride (if I may say so myself). Learning the mechanics behind both producing and hosting is not something I would’ve encountered otherwise. Some of the software has a steep learning curve, but I think we’re quickly coming up with a product that is well and above some of the competitors out there.

From here, I’m going to work on creating a more consistent schedule for episodes. It’s been a bit of a worry since the inception of the podcast that I would eventually run out of ideas, or at least have a barely filled hopper. That worry hasn’t exactly gone away, but I’ve become slightly more confident in my ability to get it done.

In any case, here’s the episode. Hope you enjoy!
 

The Pen and the Sword, Episode 2 – Carrie Morgan and Kama Shockey

Last week, I had the opportunity to record the second episode of The Pen and the Sword — a podcast sponsored by the Military Writers Guild.

In this edition of the podcast, I was joined by Carrie Morgan and Kama Shockey, two incredibly talented writers in the civilian space. In the hour-long discussion, we had a chance to talk about the role that civilian writers play in the military and conflict genre, what they bring to the table, and their own experiences.

I’ve included a link to the episode below.

Medium Episode Page