Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ari Berman: Give us the Ballot, Michael D'Antonio: Mortal Sins

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Ari Berman has written a cheerful book about one of the most depressing topics in the last 100 years: the way voting rights have been steadily and intentionally eroded. I say cheerful because there's very little in the tone of the book that since reconstruction and the Voting Rights Act, white politicians have been steadily working to "Change the rules of the game to protect their own power." It's been a minute since I finished this book, so I can't review it thoroughly. I didn't really enjoy it, but I would say that it's an important book and probably worth reading.

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Michael d'Antonio's Mortal Sins is very readable and not quite as depressing as it could be, considering it's an overview of the abusive priests in the Catholic Church in the last 40-odd years. I think the saving grace is, instead of focusing on the victims (not to say that this isn't important), d'Antonio is looking at the bigger picture of who knew what, when, and who was digging for the truth. It's awful- they knew, forever.

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It always makes me sad when I can't read a book that I really wanted to read. The Dreadful Deceit was one of these books. I literally fell asleep after each page that I read. Not even worth writing more.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Yang Jisheng: Tombstone

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Between 1958 and 1962, tens of millions of people died in China because of Mao's Great Leap Forward. Not surprisingly, getting a real history and accounting of that time has been difficult. Yang Jisheng has written a monster of a book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, which documents in both factual/historical and anecdotal detail the depth of the disaster. The book, unfortunately, is too long and detailed (and was cut down from 1200 pages) for me to have finished. That said, it is clearly a much needed story of a manmade non-natural disaster, the scope of which is only beginning to be understood. As Jisheng writes,
The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism. While totalitarianism does not inevitably result in disasters on such a massive scale, it facilitates the development of extremely flawed policies and impedes their correction. Even more important is that in this kind of system, the government monopolizes all production and life-sustaining resources, so that once a calamity occurs, ordinary people have no means of saving themselves.
While it is hard to imagine something on this scale happening again in post-Cold War society, it is not impossible to imagine a totalitarian government creating another such scenario. The lengths that China went to ignore and then cover up the problem makes it even worse. Jisheng's book is admirable, unwieldy and important.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Lawrence Osborne: The Forgiven

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My list of books that I wanted to read (now wisely kept on my phone so that I have it everywhere) had gotten very short. So I went online a couple of times and stocked it up, using everyone's favorite newspapers, a couple of blogs and Kirkus reviews. In those stock-up session, I even put a couple of pieces of fiction on my list. The Wallcreeper came first and now The Forgiven. I gotta say, for short breaks between my otherwise quite depressing and serious reads, this fiction stuff isn't so bad! Plus, it gives me something to talk about with people. When most people want to talk about books they should read, they're thinking fiction or at least a memoir or history, not the 500 page book I'm reading about China or the polemic on the border patrol. Even more, it gives me something in common with said people- when they bring up a book they've read, now I have a slim chance I might have read it, since it's fiction! (I'm going to start using this as an excuse for why I binge watch TV during the offseason, too- it's so I know how to talk to people!)

Anyway, The Forgiven is a nice piece of fiction. This British couple who doesn't really like each other go to Morocco to an extravagant party hosted by a gay couple who have bought a village, basically, and restored it in their own image. As the book flap says, so I'm not spoilering anything, on the way to the party, the drunk British husband runs over a young Moroccan man. The next three days, supposed to be festive, are of course altered by this event. How they're altered and what happens, is the meat of the book, and not predictable in the least- it's mesmerizing. The husband is an unlikeable oaf who, by the end, we understand, and the wife is a likable woman who, by the end, we're not sure how much we like. For 200 pages, there's a lot going on, and the end is amazing. (Also not a spoiler- it's on a blurb on the back of the book.) Highly recommended by at least two members of my family. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

My New Favorite Thing

You've probably already seen these, but if you haven't, these videos are officially my favorite thing. Can't. Stop. Watching.

(for the rest of them:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Quick Update on Gamifying Life

I've written a couple times about "gamifying" life:

In 2011 I wrote review of Jane McGonigal's book "Reality is Broken" that encourages us to approach life as a game in order to change our lives and the world. I was on the fence, but kind of excited by the idea.

Later that year I wrote about Barbara Ehrenreich's "Bright-Sided," and decided that McGonigal's gamifying idea was pop psychology nonsense.

Well, the New Yorker has reviewed McGonigal's new book, "SuperBetter," and eloquently summed up the idea I had settled on: we can't game our through life, and pop psychology, while appealing, is really not great science. I highly recommend this review, if you've given any thought to gamification. It's a short article, for the New Yorker, and a long article for a bad book review. 

The review also makes me think long and hard about adopting the first thing we read on a new-to-us concept as truth, even if it sounds science-y and is published by a reputable publisher- I'm talking anchoring, not being gullible or good at information literacy. This may sound obvious, but if you push yourself, I'm guessing that very few of us take the time to read an alternate perspective on a new concept. We've picked our sources and are already teaching ourselves complicated new things- do we really always need to go there? I just happened to stumble on this review in my intellectual magazine of choice- I didn't seek it out. But if we don't question our new concepts, we run into trouble.

Here's where I'm at: I'm a smart person with a degree in information science- I'm pretty good at knowing what is reliable information. But when are introduced to a novel concept and it's shrouded in the trappings of reliability (here we can hark back to "Galileo's Middle Finger"), it can be hard, not only to question the new information, but to even think about questioning the new information. Why would we? It sounds good, it merges easily into our core knowledge, and it comes from a reliable source (and may even, as in the case of McGonigal's work, be backed up by what look like scientific studies). If the information is so out of the spectre of something we consider, maybe we put the book or article down and stop reading. But if it fits, the information can quickly and dangerously become part of what we think and "know." We can start telling others about it, as if it were truth (and it may be truth, but it may also not be truth, or at least half-truth). Think Gwyneth's green juice. 

I don't have an answer, just thoughts about how knowledge is formed, and how we can challenge ourselves to think before we know. That awful bumper sticker comes to mind (are all bumper stickers awful, or is it just me?)- "Don't believe everything that you think." 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

George Packer: The Unwinding

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George Packer has written a very odd book. I *think* I get what he's getting at, but I'm not sure, and I'm not sure why he picked this way of going about it. On the other hand, The Unwinding is a very readable book, and not bad for what turns out to have a giant caveat at the end: "Though this work is a work of nonfiction throughout, it owes a literary debt to the noels of John Dos Passos's great U.S.A. trilogy, published in the 1930s and overdue for a revival." This, not surprisingly, left a slightly odd taste in my mouth after thinking I was reading a book of nonfiction. (See: fact finding.) So, if one were to read this book, it might be a good idea to take into account the fact things like "the biographical sketches of famous people are drawn entirely from secondary sources... the sketches sometimes paraphrase or quote the subjects' own words [emphasis mine]." That this appears on page 431- "A Note on Sources" (a page I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who ever reads) made me a little sad. I expect more from a New Yorker author, or really anyone presenting something as a work of nonfiction.

Anyway. I think the book is trying to tell how the US lost the middle and lower class and thus the fabric of society has unraveled (unwound, if you will). Packer follows several people from different walks of society who more or less have shitty lives for one reason or another, or who lose social capital. Then he intersperses the stories with more or less relevant vignettes about famous people like Oprah, Colin Powell, Newt, and some places- Tampa and Silicon Valley. Even Alice Waters makes a (not very flattering) appearance. Maybe the vignettes are trying to be metaphors. Here's Packer on Sam Walton: 

"It was only after his death, after Wal-Mart's downhome founder was no longer its public face, that the country began to understand what his company had done. Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters. The small towns where Mr Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too. The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company's bottom line. And in parts of the country that were getting richer, on the coasts and in some big cities, many consumers regarded Wal-Mart and its vast aisles full of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror, and instead purchased their shoes and meat in expensive boutiques as if overpaying might inoculate them against the spread of cheapness, while stores like Macy's, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in."

This, I think, is what Packer is telling us in 450 pages. It's depressing, and horrible and true. The book is like the beach read version of longer, more complicated and factual versions of how we got here. Like I said, an odd book.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Kevin Kruse: One Nation Under God

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I don't put a book down very often. It's hard for me, it's like a compulsion almost to finish a book once I've started. Recently my book list got very small- small enough that the only ones left on the list are ones that I've put off intentionally because I am not sure I really want to read them- either they're fiction or they're recommendations that I *should read- or they're books I think I may already have read, or they're books that are always going to be on the list because no library has them and I'll have to request them from inter-library loan, and that's a commitment that I only want to undertake if I know I really want to read something (or risk incurring many many dollars in fines).  All this to say that I recently went through some "best of" 2015 and 2014 lists to find some new books for my list. I started with Kirkus, the trade reviewer, and found some books that sounded solid. We're not off to a good start.

'One Nation Under God' purports to be the story of 'How Corporate America Invented Christian America' (the subtitle). The idea is that now we think of the US as having always been religious, Christian, etc and that we'll never be able to separate church and state because the founding fathers put them there. Keven Kruse's book goes back to late the late '40s and tells the story of the men who actually rewrote history to nefariously implant God into the everyday life of government. This should be a really fascinating story- how the pledge of allegiance got godly, how stamps and money started including god stuff, etc., but it's tedious. Instead of the exciting parts I just mentioned being exciting, they're buried in long wordy paragraphs which are buried in long wordy chapters- oh, something big just happened? Couldn't tell. Worse, to me, and sometimes I forget that this is why I don't read history as a general genre, is the way that Kruse tells the story of the 1940s/1950s as though of course it was all leading up to this. There is no counter narrative, no other possibility. When we hear about contemporary arguments against religion in government, it's Kruse throwing in something about how even the ACLU wasn't against it. This starts to read as though Kruse found every chapter in every book that fit his narrative and strung them together. Maybe it truly is the way history went- maybe everything was leading up to Americans believing the country has always been a Christian/monotheistic nation, but somehow I don't think life is ever really that clear. There's push and pull against ideas. Change comes slowly and in fits and starts. There are no women in this story- where were they? No people of color- what were they saying? If no one but white men get a voice (at least in the first 120 pages of the book), it strains credibility that all voices are being heard in this book. Kruse has a fascinating story to tell, and I believe that we need to problematize the idea that God and religion are in the constitution- and I think we need to do it soon. I just don't think this book does it (or is anywhere readable enough to even give it a start).

Ask me how I really feel about it!