Patrick E. McLeanAuthor: Patrick E. McLean
24 Jan 2021

Patrick E. McLean

Download, listen or watch all podcasts

The podcast of author and consultant Patrick E. McLean. Currently writing and podcasting How to Succeed in Evil. And taking interesting digressions in essay and interview form.

  • Listen

    The Persuasive Appeal of Dr. Martin Luther King

    I really like Martin Luther King day as a holiday. It certainly makes more sense to me than President's Day. Washington and Lincoln were tremendous figures in our history, worthy of study and reflection -- but the world that they were part of seems very distant from the times we live in. But Dr. King, he was a man who dealt with problems we face and the forces that must be confronted to change them.

    Organizational challenges. The staggering inertia of both the Government and the People. The omnipresent temptation to acts of violence.

    I believe that violence in always backfires. It either hurts the cause or the person who perpetrates it or both. And I believe that a politics that appeals to one group or faction can seem powerful in the moment, but will prove to be catastrophic. And often sooner than one thinks.

    This bodes not well for us at the moment, because all our politics currently seems to be predicated on identity and personality. I find that vile and stupid on all sides. But the key problem with identity politics is that it splinters into fragments. It's impossible to unify. Which makes it impossible to, well, lead.

    When faced with a problem, I first, ask myself: what solutions have worked in the past? And will they work again? I don't think there's a single person who think that things are great right now. Or that one way or another, we don't face turbulent times and colossal change. But how do we actually go about changing things and not make them worse?

    The last, biggest positive change I can think of was the Civil Rights Movement. And that was non-violent. And it inspired basically everyone.

    There are many people who think that anybody who voted for Trump is an irredeemable racist. The problem with that thought is there are 70 million people who voted for Trump. And if you can't reason or negotiate or come to terms with them -- if argument is no use and they're just demons -- then the only thing left is violence. By no means is this kind rhetoric limited to one party or faction. But every time I hear someone espousing this brand of 'the other side is horrible and can't be reasoned with' rhetoric' it bothers me.

    Because in it violence is implicit. And it always makes me wonder, is the person doing the yapping, going to get out there and fight themselves, or do they expect that someone else is going to take the hits for them?

    And even if you think it acceptable to use violence in the pursuit of your ends, political and otherwise, I just can't see how it could be a way out of our difficulties.

    And that's one of the things that is powerful about the "I Have A Dream" speech. Its fundamental rhetorical appeal is for people to answer the call of their own moral greatness. To recognize that we are, that we can, all of us, better than we give our selves credit for. And it works. Given the events of the summer and the recent events in the capitol, the speech shines brighter than ever for me this year. And seems all the more remarkable.

    The commentary I wrote on it 2006 is still among the finest things I've ever written. And before I share it again, I have but one observation to add:

    When you're serious about changing things you show up in a suit.

    Martin Luther King wore a suit. Malcom X wore a suit. The men who sat in at Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, wore suits. And maybe my point here isn't the clothes or the cause, but the attitude. When you really set out to create change in the world, it's serious. It's beyond rage. It's patient.

    Recently, we have seen a lot of angry people with a lot of opinions. But what I haven't seen is organized and patient group of people working towards a unified goal. What I see, at worst, are sideshows in a vandalism carnival. Poor deluded people, hurting themselves and others, throwing their lives away for causes that they believe in, but that do not believe in them in return. And, in the end, all of them having very little to no effect at all.

    What I see, at best, is protest without a plan. And protest with out a plan is performance art.

    Dr. King didn't engage in performance art. He didn't bring a sword to divide people. And he appealed to the best in the enemies of his cause. And, I think, many of them were surprised to find the best in themselves answering, perhaps not entirely with their consent. But it worked.

    Oh not perfectly. But it worked. And in this moment when things don't seem to be working very well at. Man, this speech. This approach to persuasion and change. It gives me hope. It makes me proud to be an American. A feeling that I find in dwindling supply.

    Because I too, refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

    MLK speech commentary

    "I am happy to John with you today in what will go down in history. As the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."

    This is a speech I thought I knew by a man I thought I knew. If the beginning is not familiar, then surely this line and will make it clear.

    I have a dream that one day...

    Dr. Martin Luther King, civic Saint of the civil rights movement, tragically murdered, and now remembered with a federal holiday that is in many people's mind, nothing more than another day off. In mine too, I suppose. But the other day, an interesting thing happened. Set to random, my MP3 player singled out this historic speech for my listening pleasure.

    Dr. King was the farthest thing from my mind. I was trying to beat a deadline, drowning out background noise with pop music. I almost skipped past it, but as I was about to press the fast forward button, my hand froze and it was this line that did it,

    But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

    It's easy, looking back from the great height of 2006 to say, of course his cause was just, but in 1963, amid, the heat of a nation in turmoil, was it so obvious to everyone? Listening to this speech with fresh ears I was astonished not at the rhetoric, which is excellent. Now I was astonished by the fundamental nature of Dr. King's appeal. He's standing with an army in the middle of our nation's capital. It's crowded, it's hot and people are angry because they have a legitimate grievance, How easy it would have been to tap into that anger.

    The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community.

    But his persuasive appeal is not anger. It is faith, a patriotic faith in this country, which I'm not sure I have. The strength of his appeal is that he cries out to what is best in each of us. He's not really asking us to change. Not fundamentally. He's asking us to live up to what is best and we respond.

    As proof I submit that only once during the entire speech, is he drowned out by the crowd,

    Many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

    And what is the Dream of the I have a dream speech? Everyone has their own view of utopia and the word dream in this speech encapsulates many visions. But when Dr. King first defined the dream in this speech, he did so in a way that surprised me.

    It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream. That one day, this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

    For me, this line is the heart of the whole speech. He's counting on us to make good on a check written by our forefathers. Not by force of arms, does he expect overcome, but by the inherent goodness in the hearts of men. Simply put, he expects people to do what is right. All of the social reformers I've heard in my lifetime have based their appeal on anger.

    But to me, this speech is so different it might well have come from another planet. If Dr. King's appeal works, and clearly it did, It is because we are a good deal better than we usually give ourselves credit for. So on January 16th, I will not choose to remember a martyr. I will be thinking about a man, and a speech, which showed me that it is possible to change the world, not through fear or anger, but by appealing to what is best in all of us.

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

    I have a dream today!

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 18 Jan 2021

  • Listen

    Man Plans and God Laughs

    "Man plans and God laughs" is currently, my favorite Yiddish proverb.

    My second favorite Yiddish proverb is "If Grandma had wheels she would be a wagon." (I just ran into that one searching for the origin of "Man Plans and God laughs")

    The reason that this is on my mind is that I'm trying to make a plan for 2021. But, honestly, I'm flinching like a hand shy dog over the whole thing. Every time I sit down to give it some thought, I wince and shy away, expecting the next cruel blow of fate.

    I had such a great plan for 2020. Honestly. Going into 2020, I had my act together as much as I ever had. Business-wise the year was going to be tremendous. It felt like it was all just laid out in front of me, for the taking. And then... and then...

    Man plans, and God Laughs

    It all got 2020'd. And in some ways, this was a very good thing. For one thing, it lit a fire under me with my writing again. You see, I had been putting off my own writing so that I could be available for and provide for my family.

    You almost can't overestimate the amount of time and effort young children take, especially in the first three years of life. From what I understand of both the research and my experience with actual people, those years are the crux. After that, you've got what you've got. But proper nutrition, safety, love, physical affection, structure, and discipline in those early years are very important. And all of this can be collapsed into the single phrase, spend attentive time with your children. As a family we've made sacrifices to make that happen. Most of me not writing and not podcasting, was, part of the plane.

    And I think that's the correct thing to do. I mean, unless something very unusual happens, my greatest creative works, in terms of impact and longevity, are going to be my kids. If I screw them up (more than the amount required to make them funny) then that mistake is going to compound, possibly across generations.

    But when everything shut down, I got mad. I felt like I had made a spurned sacrifice -- or at least a mistake. I felt, like I think everyone felt, that I wasn't in control. This too is a gift of 2020. I got snapped around to how little input I had in the course of events. And that's a gift when it makes you focus more intently on the things you can control.

    The way I look at it like this, when you concern yourself with things you can't do anything about, your power, your ability to affect change in the world, shrinks.

    Think about that friend you know who is unreasonably obsessed with national politics. Wild emotional swings. Destroying friendships and straining family reunions. And their ability to change the course of politics is infinitesimal, if not non-existent. Yet they get so worked up, that they neglect to do the things they should or could do to make their situation and the situation of those they love better. You know someone like this I'm sure. They rage and their life falls apart more and more, while their attention is devoted to things like correcting someone who is wrong on the internet.

    But, when you focus on the things you can do, your ability to create change in the world grows. This effect can seem eerie, but honestly, it's one of the truest things I know.

    So what can I control? My output. Writing is a matter of time and will. So I tore into How to Succeed in Evil once again.

    In some ways, this is a stupid thing to do. Satire is a very difficult genre to crack. But I had the series outlined. So I followed the outline and threw my hands at the keyboard. In frustration and fear, I wrote.

    I'm really sketchy on psychotherapy. I think it's a load of horseshit, and the true benefits that someone gets from therapy are accountability and simply having someone to talk to. I don't doubt that depth psychology -- the idea that there is more going on in us than we know -- is correct. But I'm not convinced that delving into the depths of someone's personality is a good idea. The way to unite the plurality of urges and thoughts and evolved needs that is a human being into a strong and working personality is not through analysis, it's through synthesis. I think you have to make something to make something of yourself.

    This is not to say you should tackle things alone. Talking to someone about your problem, really being heard, is like a gift from God. And it is the lonely tragedy of the modern world that the average person isn't truly listened to. But that kind of coaching and counseling is a far cry from psychoanalysis as I understand it.

    All of this is a long-winded digression to say, if you are in trouble in your life, my suggestion is to immediately create something. It might not work for you, but it has always worked for me. And it has worked for everyone I've seen who's tried it. So, it's worth a shot.

    Plunging into 2021

    So as I stand here on the precipice of 2021, I have basically, three books completed. The second evil book, currently titled, "Half-man, Half-alligator, Half Plumber" is complete. It's been proofed, I'm giving it the final pass as I read the audiobook, and as soon as I am done, I will release the ebook, say Jan 15th at the latest. After editing and mastering the audiobook will be available.

    I'm also about 5,000 words away from a first draft of the third book in the series, "Guy Who Amputated his Body" which is the story of Brainitar, who has featured in every iteration of How to Succeed in Evil, but was never really explained. My plan is to finish that up and release it in the Spring.

    Writing more books seems like the highest leverage thing I can do.

    And the question for 2021 is, "What now?" And whither the content of this Substack? I'm getting a lot of joy out of these essays and I hope you are too. But the overwhelming feedback from my reader survey (which if you haven't taken, you totally should, it's right here) is that I should write more fiction.

    So the question I have is, do I continue to podcast every chapter of these new Evil books? Or do I do a podcast the first few and make the whole book available to subscribers for free? And for sale, etc.

    Or do I make the books available on another feed?

    It's tough to figure this stuff out, and I have recently come to grips with the fact that I suck at it. After I overcame the pain and embarrassment of this realization, became fascinating to me.

    See, I have always assumed that the road to success was to become a better writer. To try new things, to grow, to seek out wider and more experimental horizons. But I have come to realize that that is not the case. Not that I shouldn't do those things. But the fault isn't the writing. There are people who don't write as well as I do who are making a better living than I am writing.

    They're better at authoring. And by that, I mean some alchemy of promotion, networking, time management, and whatever else it is that I don't know.

    At first, this realization is humbling, but then it is liberating. Realizing what you don't know is, in itself, a map.

    Hey, look at this blind spot.

    Well, what shape is it?

    And once you've named the blind spot and outlined it, you can fill in your knowledge. You can ask for answers. You can make a plan.

    So, the plan…

    Which brings me back around to planning for 2021. You see, every time I start to make a 2021 plan, I start by saying something like, "If I could just find a way to grow by readership a little faster..." And then I hear a voice in my head saying, "Yeah, and if Grandma had wheels she would be a wagon."

    My number one problem is that my audience isn't growing fast enough. I'm not getting my work in front of enough new people. I'm not putting myself out there enough. Any suggestions that you (dear reader or listener as the case may be) have are most welcome.

    The good news is that my audience is growing. And for six-and-a-half months of cranking out words, I've made a lot of headway. But the nature of the world has become more increasingly winner take all. Those who are at the top of a field, have a greater share of the spoils than ever before. Now, you could say, why should you care about that. The work should be its own reward. And I agree with you completely. But right now my attention is fragmented. What I'm doing now, is a fraction of what I am capable of, because I can't focus solely on writing and thinking. And what I want to do is get to the point where this generates enough income so I can really give it everything and see what I've got in the tank.

    Right now, every word I write is written on stolen time. I'm not complaining. It's hard and, it's good that it's hard, But that's just a fact.

    I heard Werner Hertzog talking about what it takes to be a filmmaker, specifically what he saw lacking in some younger filmmakers, and he said, "A certain criminal element". He was not referring to a method of financing, but rather to being creative and ruthless with the world in pursuit of getting work done. Success in any creative field is impossible. But some people do succeed. So, the conclusion I draw is, you're going to have to break, or at the very least ignore some rules.

    So, while God is laughing, here is my current, rough plan for 2021.

    I'm going to publish less frequently, but with higher quality. I will write essays as the spirit moves me. Because, honestly, writing these things really help me work through what's troubling me. And I turn a good phrase in them every now and again, which I take as evidence that they don't completely suck.

    My target is one piece of new fiction a month. 5-10k words. So short stories. What you might think of as preludes to larger works. I've been noodling stories set in space for 10 years. And I've been trying to get the world-building right. Not the politics or the economics, but the physics of it.

    Not the actual physics, you understand. Spend time on Atomic Rockets and you will realize, in great depth and with great rigor how scientifically inaccurate all sci-fi you love really is. But what I have struggled with is how to have the story grounded in a physical reality, such that the kinds of stories you tell are a natural outgrowth of the reality, just as much as a cowboy story is grounded in the plains or high desert.

    I could spend another 10, scattered, years at this task, but honestly, I've made enough progress to just write one and see how it turns out. At its core, all writing is like this. You prepare as best you can, but at some point, you just have to grab the parachute, jump out of the plane and figure it out on the way down.

    Undergirding all of this is a feeling that a long-form story running in serial form is not friendly to new listeners. It seems like a three-hour episode would be fine. And a 10-minute episode is fine. And letting someone binge an entire book right away is fine. But asking someone in our distracted age to keep track of a week over week chapters -- or search back through a feed for the first episode, seems like it just asking for too much focus. Any feedback you might have on this question is very welcome.

    The other thing that I'm playing around with is a series of videos called "How It's Written." The topic has great keyword juice on YouTube, and I see a way to talk about how books are made in a way that nobody else does. Looking at things from the highest levels - plot, theme, characterization - right down to the way individual authors use words, sentences, and paragraphs.

    I've put the first one up on YouTube. It is for Game of Thrones. It was easy because I did a pretty detailed outline of it a few years back. I think this is a great first attempt and totally works, but I have ideas of how to make the next one even better.

    You can watch the video here:

    And here's the infographic.

    What's great about this is its content, but it's all practice for me. And, the kind of thing I should be doing on a regular basis anyway. So I thought I would shoot for one a month in 2020. It's really modeled on Rick Beato's "What Makes This Song Great?" series, which, if you haven't checked out yet, I highly recommend.

    So that is my, admittedly somewhat discursive plan. To summarize. Each month, one new piece of fiction, one "How It's Written", excerpts from "How to Succeed in Evil" and various essays and oddments as the spirit moves me.

    I don't know if this is the best plan, this is just what I think I should test next. So if you have any suggestions or comments, please reply to this email, or leave a comment. Help me plan, and that way God can laugh at us together.

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 29 Dec 2020

  • Listen

    The War on Santa

    An Army of Christmas Massing at the Border

    2005 was the first time I ever heard the phrase the War on Christmas. Of course, now the "War on Christmas" has been raging or simmering, depending on your perspective, for years. But not depending on my perspective.

    The way I saw it then and the way I see it now is that we don't make War on Christmas as much as Christmas makes War on Us. Christmas can be a terribly difficult time of year. Expectations are high, family relations are strained, it's an easy time to feel like a failure and be totally overwhelmed.

    The holidays roll in and terrorize us every year whether we like it or not. They demand we spend money giving many gifts that nobody really wants. If you want to spend an interesting moment with the dismal science of economics, google the phrase "Deadweight Loss of Christmas."

    It was with all of this in mind -- and out of the desperation that came with trying to maintain the week-over-week output of the Seanachai podcast, that I wrote and produced these four episodes entitled the "War with Christmas."

    It's the only Christmas story I've ever written. It's pretty gonzo in style, pretty rough in places, but it still makes me laugh. And laughter is powerful stuff. A lot of what I see in the world now is people responding to grim and desperate circumstances by choosing to become more grim and desperate.

    In some cases, things can be really dire like if you're fighting for your life, but truly desperate circumstances are short in duration. In the modern world, it's the relentless, millimeter by millimeter grind that gets you.

    I picked millimeters there because inches are by far the more heroic measure. I'm just sayin' it's not 10,000 Meters Under the Sea.

    Laughter lifts you out of whatever your troubles may be, even if only for a moment. Laughter is like a magic trick. It's why I have such respect for truly dark, gallows humor. It takes an awful situation and transforms it in a flash of joy.

    Much has changed since 2005. Christmas shopping, at least, has gotten a lot easier. You can knock that out with a few clicks. But I can't say this is going to be an easy Christmas. This year, for many people, the holidays will be harder than ever because of COVID. Many loved ones will not be getting together. And because of the weight of all the expectations that come with Christmas people will beat themselves up about this. Christmas is supposed to be perfect, but nothing is ever perfect.

    My mother-in-law is in a memory care facility. So my children will not see their gram and my wife will not see her mother this Christmas. The facility is on lockdown because, like a monster, there is COVID in the house. And there's a chance that we never get to see her again.

    These are dark days. But we as a people and species have lived through darker days than these. We did not make it without courage. And we did not make it without laughter.

    And laughter is a strange thing in an evolutionary sense. There's evidence that when you tickle rats, they laugh. Which should really make you wonder, what evolutionary advantage does laughter convey? It wouldn't be around if it didn't help you survive somehow.

    So this season I wish you one good, rib-aching, lung-straining belly laugh. One that pushes back the darkness farther than candles and carols and endless strands of twinkly lights could ever do.

    I don't know if you will find that laugh in my odd, madcap, reference-ladened personal tale of struggling with Christmas, but I'm tryin' and I hope it helps.

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 18 Dec 2020

  • Listen

    Crazy Psycho Murder Tree Ch. 20 - Topper and Edwin

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 15 Dec 2020

  • Listen

    A Year in Reading

    So what did I read this year? Well, I'm all over the place. But I thought I'd take a moment to hit some of the highlights. These are in no particular order.

    A Gentleman in Moscow By Amor Towles

    The best book I read this year is A Gentlemen in Moscow by Amor Towles. It's just a wonderful and wonderfully crafted book. I can't say enough great things about it. It has one of the most beautiful and perfect metaphors involving a wine cellar. I literally put the book down and cursed out loud. I couldn't believe how good it was. I thought about it for weeks.

    But really that's a technical thing. The story is set in 1922. It's about Count Alexander Rostov, an Aristocrat who survives the Russian Revolution because he wrote a poem. Instead of being put against the wall and shot, is sentenced to house arrest, and ultimately labor, in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin.

    This book does what great art should always do, expand your experience of being alive. I don't think I've read a better book in the last five years and I don't expect I will in the next five.

    For after all, if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years.

    But as they came to the bend in the road where the Count would normally give a snap of the reins to speed the horses home, Helena would place a hand on his arm to signal that he should slow the team—for midnight had just arrived, and a mile behind them the bells of Ascension had begun to swing, their chimes cascading over the frozen land in holy canticle. And in the pause between hymns, if one listened with care, above the pant of the horses, above the whistle of the wind, one could hear the bells of St. Michael’s ten miles away—and then the bells of St. Sofia’s even farther afield—calling one to another like flocks of geese across a pond at dusk. The bells of Ascension . . .

    “I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.” Anna Urbanova took the cigarette from the Count’s fingers, dropped it in a water glass, and kissed him on the nose.

    Since the day I was born, Sofia, there was only one time when Life needed me to be in a particular place at a particular time, and that was when your mother brought you to the lobby of the Metropol. And I would not accept the Tsarship of all the Russias in exchange for being in this hotel at that hour.”

    The Last Good Kiss By James Crumley

    To whipsaw things another great novel that I read was The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. Here's the beginning:

    When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

    I would say that Crumley is a guilty pleasure, but I don't feel guilty in the slightest. He's like Hunter S. Thompson and Raymond Chandler had a baby. After I finished that one, I plowed through two more of Crumley's books. No guilt. No regrets.

    The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart

    I read The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart. It's the middle book of the Chronicles of Master Li and Number 10 Ox. These books aren't really like anything else. I have all three and didn't want to guzzle them. They're set in a mythical China that never was. They're wonderfully fantastic, very funny and surprisingly poignant in places.

    They are also something of a cautionary tale, the book struggled to get traction because it's in a genre of its own. It is fantasy, but Ancient Imperial China as a setting rather than the Middle Ages.

    Master Li is ancient and the smartest man in China. Number 10 Ox is the narrator and is played as the big, dumb strong guy, but there's a fair amount of unreliable narrator jazz.

    Big fun and great writing. Here's a couple of sloppily random snags

    “My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character,” he said matter-of-factly. “You got a problem?”

    Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can.

    Master Li turned bright red while he scorched the air with the Sixty Sequential Sacrileges with which he had won the all-China Freestyle Blasphemy Competition in Hangchow three years in a row.

    The abbot used to say that the emotional health of a village depended upon having a man whom everyone loved to hate, and Heaven had blessed us with two of them.

    The Immortality Key: the Secret History of the Religion with No Name by Brian C. Muraresku

    Reading this now. The book is an investigation into what is likely the oldest and most widespread religion -- centered around a funerary rite with hallucinogenic beer and later wine.

    I pounced on this after listening to an author interview with Andrew Sullivan. It's an intellectual detective story, and quite good. The first thing that hooked me was that this was an explanation for the Eleusinian Mysteries, which was a ceremony that was a well-kept secret in the Greco-Roman world. People made a pilgrimage to Eleusis, fasted, drank the beer, had unbelievable visions, and raved about the experience. Saying things like it's what made civilization possible. And say it removed the fear of death. Which was described as "If you die before you die you will not die."

    Best guess is the beer was brewed with ergotized wheat. But nobody knows for sure. But two things are interesting about this. One, we can actually test old vessels and figure out what was in these beverages right now.

    And modern medical research is showing that a single dose, if you will, of psychedelic mushrooms, cures depression and PTSD and takes away the fear of death in hospice patients. Essentially inducing a religious experience with chemicals. Johns Hopkins is doing this research, not some unwashed hippy with a YouTube channel.

    There are real questions about the early Christian Eucharist: was hallucinogenic? Was it an extension of the Eleusian and Dionysian mysteries.

    But for me, the craziest thing in the book to wrap my head around has been Goebleki Tepe the oldest known temple, dated from 10,000 B.C. Which appears to have been a sacred brewery for hallucinogenic beer. And, honestly, the hallucinogenic part is the least crazy part of that last statement. The 10,000 b.c. is nuts. That's 6000 years before settled agriculture. And the temple is constructed from gigantic slabs of stone, in a way that we didn't think people could build back then. Insert Ancient Aliens nonsense if you must, but the crazy part is that it reverses what I thought the causality of civilization.

    It was always thought that first came agriculture, then came beer. But it seems that beer -- as a sacrament -- predates civilization by thousands of years.

    The other crazy thing about his book is that the brewing of sacred potions was exclusively the realm of women. Old women. Which appears to be the origin of our archetype of witches. Boil toil and trouble anyone? And that this was stamped out as the underground Christ cult grew into the state religion of Rome.

    There's a lot going on in this book. And if anything I've just mentioned pique your curiosity, you should definitely check it out.

    Hamilton by Ron Chernow

    After watching the musical on Disney +, which scarcely needs praise from me, but is unbelievably fantastic. And amazing accomplishment on many levels -- I dipped into Ron Chernow's biography, it's also great.

    Here's a gem that seems uniquely appropriate to the current moment.

    > “This misfortune affects me less than others,” he told Eliza Schuyler, “because it is not in my temper to repine at evils that are past but to endeavor to draw good out of them, and because I think our safety depends on a total change of system. And this change of system will only be produced by misfortune.”

    The Bobiverse Series -- Dennis E. Taylor

    This series starts with "We Are Legion (We Are Bob)" I listened to a bunch of these, so I don't have a bunch of quotes. Just read them all. They are just lovely, humane, funny speculative fiction.

    A guy is turned into a Von Neumann probe, A self-replicating device to explore the universe. And as he goes, he replicates himself, fights off aliens, struggles help save humanity -- it's tremendously positive without being trite or stupid. Really, really great. And the audiobooks are some of the best I've heard.

    In fact, if I had to rank the best audiobooks I've ever heard this currently comes in third Best performance is Stephen Fry reading the complete works of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, the stories are great, but Fry is a great actor who loves Holmes and puts everything he's got into the performance. I can't overstate how good this audio is.

    Number 2 and Best ensemble performance is 'World War Z'

    And third place is Ray Porter reading Dennis Taylor's Bobiverse books.

    Richard Stark, The Jugger

    I dipped back into this one. Westlake -- Stark was Donald Westlake's pen name -- always said this was the worst book of the series, but there's a moment in this one that's just shockingly powerful. I won't ruin it, but Westlake is master for a host of reasons. Here's a bit of his description

    Freedman led the way to his office. He was short and barrel-shaped and walked as though he’d do better if he rolled instead. His face was made of Silly Putty, plus hornrimmed glasses.

    The Road to Character, by David Brooks

    This book is really a compilation of short biographies of people of great character and how they developed themselves. It is quite good. I dug into it as research on virtues. And the book paid for itself in the introduction here's an excerpt:

    I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it. The Plan The plan of this book is simple. In the next chapter I will describe an older moral ecology. It was a cultural and intellectual tradition, the “crooked timber” tradition, that emphasized our own brokenness. It was a tradition that demanded humility in the face of our own limitations. But it was also a tradition that held that each of us has the power to confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and that in the course of this confrontation with ourselves we build character.

    My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind. Over the last several decades, we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life. We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate. We’re not more selfish or venal than people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.

    But it did occur to me that there was perhaps a strain of humility that was more common then than now, that there was a moral ecology, stretching back centuries but less prominent now, encouraging people to be more skeptical of their desires, more aware of their own weaknesses, more intent on combatting the flaws in their own natures and turning weakness into strength. People in this tradition, I thought, are less likely to feel that every thought, feeling, and achievement should be immediately shared with the world at large.

    This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

    And in it I found this great quote from St. Augustine

    “How small, of all that human hearts endure, That part which laws and kings can cause or cure.”

    Aristotle's Politics and Ethics

    I first read Aristotle's Ethics in college for a class on Classical Political Philosophy. And I jumped back in, as research for thinking about virtue

    There is an idea that reading old books is pretentious or stuffy or dull. And that's not been my experience at all. The reason to read books like this, even when they get a little hard is because they are incredibly useful. The Greeks and Aristotle, in particular, laid the foundation stones of civilization -- or drew up the attack plan for what G.K. Chesterton calls "the whole courageous raid which we call civilization." I like that metaphor, because it suggests heroism, fragility and glory in what reveals itself to the not-so-simple work of civilizing one's self and others.

    This gem came from the commentary to Aristotle's Politics.

    Aristotle's attention is here directed chiefly towards the phenomena of "Incontinence," weakness of will or imperfect self-control. This condition was to the Greeks a matter of only too frequent experience, but it appeared to them peculiarly difficult to understand. How can a man know what is good or best for him, and yet chronically fail to act upon his knowledge? Socrates was driven to the paradox of denying the possibility, but the facts are too strong for him. Knowledge of the right rule may be present, nay the rightfulness of its authority may be acknowledged, and yet time after time it may be disobeyed; the will may be good and yet overmastered by the force of desire, so that the act done is contrary to the agent's will.

    It underscores a naïveté of classical political thought -- and this is not to say that the ancients were generally naive -- this is just a mistake. Because, I think I could make a really good case that wrestling with yourself about doing what you know to be good is the defining human problem here at the beginning of the 21st century.

    The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester

    I have loved the Horatio Hornblower novels since I was, maybe 12. When I saw a preview of the movie Greyhound, I became aware that C.S. Forester had written this book about a commander of a convoy to Britain in the early days of WWII. Tom Hanks got this movie made, wrote the screenplay, starred in it. And that's a clue for you. Not that the movie -- it might be, I haven't seen it -- is good, but that the source material is excellent. Because somebody expended career capital to get it made.

    This is a tremendous book. The psychological tension and strain of command in combat is represented here in a way that I've never read before. I don't know how you could render this in film. And by that, I'm saying this book does what only books can do, very, very well. It's well-crafted and relentless in a way that doesn't lend itself to punchy quotes, but it made a huge impression on me.

    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

    I just finished this one and I need more time to think about it. I read it primarily because another writer I greatly admire is giving a lecture on it, so I wanted to be adequately armed for the lecture. A lot of the book is concerned with what happens when you don't believe anything -- if it's even possible not to believe anything.

    For me, Russian novels manage to be profoundly psychological and spiritual and I can't ingest them quickly. But in it, I found this gem of a line. "Death's an old joke, but it comes fresh to every one."

    Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

    I have read embarrassingly little Vonnegut. I read Harrison Bergeron in school -- and it's prescience has terrified me ever since.

    Vonnegut is amazing. And I'm going to work my way through many more of his books. This was my start. Here's a taste.

    Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

    And so it goes…

    Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism By Larry Siedentop

    The biggest problem with not reading and not being familiar with history is that you can be easily fooled into thinking that the way things are now is the way that they have always been. Even highly educated and intelligent people can fall into this trap and become provincial in time.

    The book is a study of how the individual became the unit of social organization in the West. It's fascinating.

    For in the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists, and indeed in the eyes of not a few in the West, liberalism has come to stand for ‘non-belief’ – for indifference and permissiveness, if not for decadence. Why is that? And is the charge justified?

    This book is an attempt to find out. Its argument rests on two assumptions. The first is that if we are to understand the relationship between beliefs and social institutions – that is, to understand ourselves – then we have to take a very long view. Deep moral changes, changes in belief, can take centuries to begin to modify social institutions. It is folly to expect popular habits and attitudes to change overnight.

    The second assumption is that beliefs are nonetheless of primary importance, an assumption once far more widely held than it is today. In the nineteenth century there was a prolonged contest between ‘idealist’ and ‘materialist’ views of historical change, with the latter holding that social order rests not so much on shared beliefs but on technology, economic interdependence and an advanced social division of labour. Even the declining appeal of Marxism in the later twentieth century did not discredit that view. Rather, in a strange afterlife, Marxism infiltrated liberal thinking, creating a further temptation to downgrade the role of beliefs. That temptation became all the greater because of the unprecedented prosperity enjoyed by the West after the Second World War. We have come to worship at the shrine of economic growth.

    The Peloponnesian War by Robert Kagan and Thucydides Commentary

    Okay, every time I say Peloponnesian War - I've got this stupid line in my head. "Pelop's Ponesian War" Like a guy name Pelops decided to put on a war for entertainment. No idea why this is the case. But this seems to happen with Greek words.

    I have a joke about Sophocles as well.

    Big Guido -- "Mikey, why you always writing like that? You should be out playing ball."

    Micheal -- "I've got a paper due on Sophocles."

    Big Guido -- "Sophocles? How about you try Sophocles" (Grabs crotch)

    I've read Thucydides before. Hard, but worth it. Kagan wrote a four-volume masterwork on the history of the War for scholars then distilled it down into this book.

    I read these, partially because Thucydides is great. And partially as research for a project for something I can't really talk about while it's in the works.

    The Peloponnesian War was effectively the first “World War” Athenians v Spartans, all the other Greek city states picked a team. It’s got Vietnam baked in (the disastrous Athenian campaign in Syracuse), earthquakes, plagues and some of the defining speeches of Western Culture.

    Piranesi by Suzzanna Clarke

    I liked it. It's gorgeously written, but it didn't have the impact on me that Dr. Strange and Mr. Norell did. I loved that book. Which is a kind of alternate history presupposing disused magic existed in the Napoleonic era.

    This is is my favorite part

    “Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.

    Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”

    The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

    I've only read half of this book. It's a Christmas book about a magical toystore in the Heart of London before WWI. In the spring, I started reading it on the recommendation of a friend and I decided to save it for the week of Christmas. It's marvelous magical realism. If you want a Christmas book -- this is the one.

    Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

    This is the blurb for the book:

    "A siege is approaching, and the city has little time to prepare. The people have no food and no weapons, and the enemy has sworn to slaughter them all.

    To save the city will take a miracle, but what it has is Orhan. A colonel of engineers, Orhan has far more experience with bridge-building than battles, is a cheat and a liar, and has a serious problem with authority. He is, in other words, perfect for the job."

    What nothing on the outside of the book will tell you is that this is a book about the tensions of civilization, racism, oppression and ideology. Orhan is part of a downtrodden minority in the book. Yet it falls to him to save the city and the empire -- the same empire that crushes everybody who's not the empire beneath it's cruel sandaled heel. There's a lot in this book.

    Orhan is also a magnificent narrator. And this book is funny, insightful, profound, here's a few clips.

    “A wise man once said, the difference between luck and a wheelbarrow is, luck doesn’t work if you push it.”

    “Beautiful people, though, I struggle with. Unless you keep your eyes shut or look the other way, you can’t help but have the awful fact ground into you, like the wheel of a heavy wagon running over your neck, that here is someone divided from you by a vast, unbridgeable gap, and they’ve done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Ogus’s wife – her name was Sichelgaita – was that level of beauty. I won’t even try to describe her, because they don’t make words that could take the strain. You felt ashamed to look at her.”

    “The way I see it, the truth is just barren moorland, all useless bog and heather. It’s only when you break it up and turn it over with the ploughshare of the Good Lie that you can screw a livelihood out of it. Isn’t that what humans do? They take a dead landscape and reshape it into what they need, and want, and can use. I’ve never hesitated to adapt the world to suit me, when I can get away with it.”

    “That’s how the world changes. It’s either so quick that we never know what hit us, or so gradual that we don’t notice. It’s only later, when books are written and scholars decide what mattered and what didn’t, that red lines are drawn – before this point, the world was this way, after this point, everything was different. You could be there and not have a clue. You could be asleep, or looking the other way, having a quiet s**t or screwing in an alley, and an unseen pen draws a line. Here the Empire ended. Here the Dark Ages began.”

    A lot of Conn Iggulden

    Conn Iggulden is one of the authors of the Dangerous Book for Boys. But he also writes historical fiction. And, for my money, he makes Bernard Cornwall look like a chump. And Cornwall is excellent.

    This year I read the Emperor Series about Julius Ceasar. Last year I read his Genghis Khan series. Both excellent. Both in a page-turning, thrilling, gore and violence, arrrgh adventure! Way and as writing. Especially the first two books of the Ceasar series. Some very powerful human moments. And he write women very well. He's tremendously talented. And very diligent with this history.

    I also read The Falcon of Sparta which is his retelling to Xenophon's Anabasis. The story is one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. Xenophon goes with a 10,000 Hoplite Mercenaries to fight for Cyrus the Younger who attempted to steal the Throne of Persia, but gets killed and his army is defeated.

    All except the 10,000 greek mercenaries. See they were on the other side of the hill from Cyrus's army, so they are busy routing the rest of the Persian army. And when they find out Cyrus is dead, they have a huge problem. It's the story about how they fought their way back home to Greece.

    Or Coney Island. Because, not only is this a true story, but it's also the inspiration and plot of Walter Hill's classic 1977 film The Warriors.

    If you need some historical fiction, pick up some Iggulden. He's a master. And it's seriously fun to say his last name.

    Boswell's Life of Johnson

    I'm reading this bit by bit. My sense is the biography has lasted better than anything Johnson wrote when he was alive. Which is a bit crazy because, except for his Biography of Johnson, it seems that Boswell might have been an annoying drunken hanger-on of a jackass who never did anything else right in his life.

    Samuel Johnson came from crushing poverty and hardship -- and pretty much single-handedly compiled the first Dictionary of the English Language.

    In the preface of which he wrote:

    It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.

    Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.

    He was also a prodigiously fast writer and reader.

    Boswell says this of him.

    'Johnson knew more books than any man alive.' He had a peculiar facility in seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end. He had, from the irritability of his constitution, at all times, an impatience and hurry when he either read or wrote.

    Which makes me feel better about the way I sometimes raid nonfiction books rather than read them. Or maybe the way I render them, like one boils scraps of meat to render the useful fats out of them.

    I'm not going to take the time to find the precise metaphor. Whatever it is, it isn't pretty -- it's messy and nothing I'd want my children to watch. I just try to rip the guts right out of the book. And that fact that Johnson did it too makes me feel a little better.

    The Border by Don Winslow

    Good, but honestly, not his best. I would suggest The Power of the Dog -- the first book in the trilogy. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but reading The Power of the Dog and The Cartel was an experience like I've never had before.

    Winslow knows the sordid ins and outs of the Drug War like few others and he gets so much out of it as an author.

    I am personally against the prohibition of drugs on moral grounds. In addition to being electrifying thrillers, these books help make the human cost of our price supports for drugs real. If cocaine wasn't expensive in the U.S. people wouldn't kill themselves for it in Juarez and Colombia. Pablo Escobar blew up an airliner and bombed the Colombian Supreme Court. That's on him. But it's also on us.

    But don't let my speechifying put you off. The books are great thrillers. If you liked Narcos, you'll love these.

    The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

    Here's the Amazon blurb:

    Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

    This is a triple winner of a great book.

    1) It's great hard sci-fi.

    2) It's is great psychological fiction. Not only is the science good, but the insights into people and society are great as well.

    3) It's Chinese science fiction, so you get a glimpse into another culture.

    Having been to a few conventions and having met a number of sci fi and fantasy authors, it is a little dismal how conventional many of them are. There is a groupthink in what they call "The Field" of writing speculative fiction. And, of course, a lot of internal strife. Who's the good guys, who's the bad guys? I don't pretend to know, but you can get a lot of sameness in fiction when they have the same worldview and they've spend a lot of the same time in the same rooms talking about the same things in the same way.

    This book wasn't like that at all for me. It was brilliant and refreshing.

    Plus Others, but...

    That's for this post. Throw in some scattered reading in the Bible, Shakespeare, Economics and Poetry and it's a year well-spent. Of course, I wish I had a chance to read more, but, you know there was real life to be lived as well.

    If anybody has a suggestion of something I should read next year, put it in the comments. I have a bit of an addiction with buying books, so please enable me.

    Get full access to Patrick E. McLean at

  • Posted on 14 Dec 2020


Follow Playlisto