Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Nina Stibbe: Love, Nina

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I believe that THB may have called "Love, Nina" the book of the year the year he read it. The year is still young, but if my books continue to be so ho hum (or if I keep making bad choices), this could definitely be it. Love, Nina is definitely shooting for best sleeper/surpriser/who knew? book.

Nina Stibbe was a nanny in the very early 80s in London. It turns out that she worked for a family of literary types who turned out to be movers and shakers in the literary world. I'm not sure that Nina really knew that, then, or that she herself was quite a writer. She hadn't gone to college- she had moved from her town (which sounds small) to London to nanny for some boys. The book consists of her letters home to her sister, signed, of course, Love, Nina. She tells of her days with the literary movers and shakers as though they are just your average quirky families on the street, because to her, they are just that. (To be honest, without Google, they are just that to your average California reader, which is fine, too, because her writing is so great.) The letters home are hilarious, dry, quirky and funny. She is a bit self-deprecating, but more, she portrays her faults through snippets of less-than-flattering dialogue of the family about her. She loves the boys she cares for, and their wit and personality comes through as though they were little men living in the house with you, not with her.

This book actually made me laugh out loud- I can't remember the last time I said that. I also can't remember the last time I recommended a book to so many people. To be fair, though, that may be the nature of the type of book I read, not the comparative amazingness of this book over the others. (Hard to tell people to read a book about how humanitarian aid is fucking up the world... It's weird how no one else likes to read footnotes...) Highly recommended, to pretty much anyone!

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Scott Johnson: The Wolf and the Watchman

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The Wolf and the Watchman is a devastatingly bad book. I kept reading it because it's not unreadable, it's just bad. Scott Johnson's dad was in the CIA. He was a spy. And in case you didn't understand that the first two times I said it, Scott Johnson grew up with a dad who was a spy. Got that?

Basically Scott Johnson and his dad had/have a codependent relationship. (I kept waiting to hear that his dad was dead and he waited to publish this kind of punishing book after the death of his father, but it appears that his dad was still alive at the time of the publishing in 2013. I guess since his dad was a contractor at that time, Johnson wasn't disclosing any state secrets or anything? He also doesn't explain how, when his dad ran for state office and was outed as a former spy, it was no big deal. Isn't it like a big deal to have people know that CIA officers are CIA officers? I guess not, in this case. ) Scott and dad love each other so much and are so tied up in each other's lives that it is an interesting topic or a book. Scott seems not really to question very deeply the work his dad does except once or twice, and he does talk about that, but ultimately, he calls his dad a patriot and seems to come down on the side of CIA as doing important, patriotic work. Scott ends up as a war journalist working in many of the places that he had grown up living in when his dad was there on postings, and then his dad decides to go back to work for the CIA as a contractor and follows Scott around. Both Scott and his dad draw connections between their jobs- trying to get information from people. And Scott seems hell bent on getting information from his dad, to the point of meanness. But it's not really clear what he wants- a confession that he was an asshole? A bad guy? Complicit in something more than getting certain spies to defect (the only thing we ever really hear that he was involved in)?

There are moments when you want to like both of them- Scott is involved in an IED explosion when he is in Iraq and suffers greatly after he gets back. As a kid, Scott lived on the CIA training ground and had no idea what it was, and the story is pretty amazing. But then back to him as an adult, and this weird- we went on a trip, stayed in the woods, my dad wouldn't tell me what I wanted to hear, I went away, he followed me, I was doing the same thing as he was, over and over and over. Maybe I missed the point, or maybe this book just sucked.

Joseph Laycock: The Seer of Bayside

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This is the kind of book that I love and know that most people have no interest in reading. I kept checking to see if they had it at the Oakland Public Library with no success- not just not at not at my tiny adorable branch but not in the whole system. But recently I got a Berkeley library card because I work around the corner and the very first trip I made there there it was- prominently featured in the "New Books" section! I feel like this is a perfect example of "it's the little things." (You were expecting me to say how amazing libraries are, right? No.)

The eponymous Seer at Bayside was a Catholic lady in Bayside, Queens, who had visions, primarily discussions with Mary. Her local church didn't like this, partially because Bayside was a suburb with notions of propriety and the spirituality of the seer just didn't fit. She wanted to worship in her parish church, they said no. She wanted to worship outside, at the statue of Mary and at first that worked out okay, but as her popularity grew and people started to show up to see her visions, the neighbors got annoyed and a war started between the religious and the neighbors. Eventually the Baysiders, as they're known, moved out to Flushing Meadows where they still worship.

The Baysiders are traditionalists. Luekens, the seer, was distraught over the post-Vatican II changes. She didn't like mass being said in the vernacular and she couldn't believe that the Eucharist was being served in the hand instead of the mouth. Her visions from Mary and others helped traditionalist Catholics come together around these beliefs. What Joseph Laycock does is use this community as an example of how religions are "continuously imagined and reimagined." The official Catholic church isn't the only doing the imagining and reimagining through events like Vatican II or the sudden changing of tradition of having Popes resign while they're still alive- individual lay Catholics are also involved in changing the religion (and of course Catholicism is just one example). He writes "while the imagined boundaries of Catholicism frequently seem natural and undisputed, historical circumstances can call them into question." The Baysiders changed the local (and international) version of Catholicism and the official Catholic church changed what it meant to be a Baysider- where they worshiped, their hierarchy, etc.

Laycock also posits that the "Baysiders do not represent a deviant sect or a localized variation of Catholicism, but rather an ongoing and asymmetrical debate about what Catholicism is." Luekens didn't want to leave her church and the church never formally disavowed her or her followers. It is fascinating to think about what one can easily call a "sect" as part of Catholicism. Laycock does a great job of this- in his words- "render[ing] the strange familiar and the familiar strange." Luekens believed in an impostor pope who had taken over Paul VI- how else could he have thought up such crazy things as Vatican II? But the Baysiders don't seem so wacky in this book. The strange lights that they see in polaroid pictures don't seem like chemical aberrations but possibly real visions, or at least credible enough to be believed by true believers. If you like anthropology or sociology or religion books, this is really a great one.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Books I'm never going to get around to reviewing

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I am so far behind with these book reviews that I literally bought and read this book while I was in Portland- a vacation and a job ago (no post about that, apparently). I don't remember much about Straight: 'The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality' except that I liked the first part immensely and thought the rest was a little bit long. The book was remaindered, and that doesn't really surprise me- this is exactly the kind of dense sociology-type text about esoteric subjects that I like to read. Hanne Blank's main point is that heterosexuality is a common sense concept- what it means is something that "everyone knows." It wasn't always that way, and won't always be that way, as our understandings of gender and sexuality continue to evolve and hopefully mature. She calls this "stuff everyone knows" "doxa," from the Greek "common knowledge," and this term frames her discussion of heterosexuality: it's the "stuff that 'goes without saying.'" Essentially, heterosexuality is like whiteness: it's a concept we don't have to say because it's assumed. Men aren't mentioned as casualties of war, we're shocked about the women and children. Heterosexuality became a thing, and its becoming was important: not only is it an abstract concept, doxa concepts also have "daily influence on how people think, speak, and act." This is what makes Blank's book great: it's about heterosexuality, surely, but also about how we are part of this creation of knowledge and society. Worth a read for those of us who thrive on this kind of nerdiness, not so much for others who tend towards the feeling that all of this is a little bit overwrought.

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Finkel's 'The Good Soldiers' is up there with one of the saddest books in recent memory, except perhaps 'Thank You for Your Service,' which I read last year. 'Thank You for Your Service' followed the torn up lives of soldiers who had returned from Iraq. It turns out that Finkel embedded himself in their lives at home after he had embedded with the same unit in Iraq. To get a picture of the story behind the newspaper is going on there, and to see how the fictional 'The Kills' is actually true (Americans really are building behemoths to nothing), 'The Good Soldiers' is your book. It's also awful, and hard to read and hard to put down. Finkel has genius headings to each chapter: real quotes from George Bush that match the week/month he is depicting. The blatant lies juxtaposed with the real lives of the soldiers doing Bush's dirty work are made just that much more horrific.

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While I was reading 'The Good Soldiers, I was slogging through 'The Insurgents,' which I never did quite finish.  Fred Kaplan tells the story of David Petraeus and the shift in military thinking and policy from that of overwhelming force to the concept of modern warfare: counterinsurgents. The title is a play on words: Petraeus, et. al were insurgents in a stodgy, slow moving bureaucracy. The thing is that the book read like an elegy to the guy: he modernized warfare! He fought the bad guys at the top of the military brass! He is amazing! But you can tell that's not quite what Kaplan was trying to say- it's just how it came across. And read in tandem with Finkel- Petraeus makes an appearance in 'The Good Soldiers' and his strategy is clearly what the troops are trying to do with no training and no resources in a useless war- the guy does not come across as a good guy. Maybe the second half was better, but I couldn't get past the sense that I was supposed to love an unloveable guy.

Talking about unlovable guys, David Carr was a major asshole. I feel terrible writing that about someone recently deceased, but I feel like he knew that when he wrote 'The Night of the Gun.' The strange part is wondering why Carr wrote this memoir: he knows he was an asshole and had more or less recovered (sorry, bad addiction/recovery pun) from his asshole ways. He repeatedly mentions that addiction memoirs are full of this asshole/redemption theme, and yet does it himself. Strangely, this is not a knock on the book which is almost impossible to put down. I'm guessing it is now selling very well, since every mention of Carr at his death talks about the amazing portrait of Carr as an asshole, and I was something like 10th in line when I went to put the book on hold at the library. When I finally got my copy, it was a brand new paperback, indicating that they had to order new copies to keep up with the demand (the book was published in 2008).

Carr's memoir is also about memory and how memory works, especially in the context of writing a memoir, which adds an extra layer of fascination to the book. For example (and I'm not spoiling anything- this is literally the first chapter), the book opens with an explanation of the eponymous night of the gun. Carr describes an oh-shit moment during his addiction when he remembers his friend in the early drug years pointing a gun at him and telling him to get the fuck out of his apartment. The thing is that Carr actually wrote his memoir as a reporter: he went back and fact checked his memory (can you imagine doing that for your own life? Especially if you were/are a hideous person and/or honest with yourself?). Turns out, he had the gun, even though he thought of himself as the kind of guy who would never own a gun. The book is not fundamentally about memory, but the way that Carr tells his story, it's hard not to think about yourself and your own memoir: we know we're the stars in our own movie, but do we really know how many times we were holding the gun? When we tell stories about ourselves, how many of them are actually anything close to what really happened? What really DID happen, and how much does it matter? This is maybe the best part of this already great book.

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Somehow Edna Ferber's 'So Big' got on my list of books to read and I'm glad it did. A fast read, this is one of those fiction books that makes me like fiction. It was written in 1924 and has that feel to it: it just couldn't have been written today, which is fine. There's a lovely review of it here which talks about Ferber's early and incomplete feminism. I feel like it's a little unfair to judge 'So Big' as a feminist novel: sure, the protagonist is a woman who does things differently and successfully while seeming to cave to tradition by living vicariously (and ultimately being disappointed by this) through her son. The book was written in 1924. I'm not looking to have Ferber change my worldview, or to be shocked into rethinking my views of the gendered world. (I'm not sure exactly WHAT I was looking to do when I added this book to my list, but whatever it was, I was satisfied since I read this book in about 2 days.) Ferber wrote a lovely book, and if it was forward for its day, I think that's fab. If it was conforming for its day, well, that's okay, too, but I don't think it was so bad. Selina, the main character, is pretty enough to appeal to the average reader and bold enough to be a protagonist without being odd enough to say "look, I'm a character in a feminist novel- who's gonna read this in 1924?" Anyway, worth a read.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Turtle Time

Thanks to C, I have a gopro now! Believe me when I say that I swam with turtles.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Avi Steinberg: The Lost Book of Mormon

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This book is unreadable fiction packed in the trappings of readable nonfiction. Avi Steinberg has tried to follow in the shoes of both the writer and the protagonist of the Book of Mormon, that religion that people still love to hate. I'm going to do something that kind of makes me wretch but will explain part of why this book was so fascinating to me and compare this religion to Scientology. Like Scientology (see review of book that I really enjoyed by Lawrence Wright), it's still totally politically correct to make Mormon jokes. Unlike Scientology, Mormons do not appear to torture people. Like Scientology, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have an enormous amount of money (and they aren't afraid to spend it to influence causes they believe in) And like Scientology, Mormonism is a new American religion. This is why I'm interested, and also, I believe, why people don't trust it. Americans tend to think that the Judeo-Christian tradition is THE tradition because it's old. We created our own myths when we landed in America (I'm also a little squeamish using this "we") about divine providence and whose land it was, and we proceeded to act on this. But when anyone else comes along with a new myth, it makes us super uncomfortable. But really, what makes Ron L Hubbard or Joseph Smith's versions of the world any less real or right? They seem outlandish to us, but honestly, walking on water or parting giant oceans are pretty outlandish. We've just had longer to internalize them.

So I liked the premise of Steinberg's book- a Jew like me trying to walk back through this creation myth and explain it to us. And he also seems to take it for granted that religions are just stories that we come to believe. But from the very first chapter I was super confused about what he was talking about. Were we following Joseph Smith (the scribe who wrote down the original story of the creation myth, sort of like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) or were we following Nephi, the guy who found the brass (or were they gold, I'm not quite sure because this is a new myth to me and it wasn't clear, because Joseph Smith found gold plates) plates and was crucial in this new myth, or were we following Avi? And if you're confused by that last sentence, then you can imagine me in the first 30 pages. I almost stopped then, but I was waiting for a bus that didn't come, so I kept reading. I finally stopped about half way through, and this is a short book, but I never really got less confused. Meanwhile there was a confusing conversation with James Frey who wrote that memoir that wasn't, and I was basically lost. I partially liked Steinberg's style- the actual words are really well written. But really, the book is too much, especially with a complex subject like a bible. Can't recommend this one, even though it's super popular.

Evan Osnos: Age of Ambition

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Although this book isn't by Peter Hessler, I highly recommend reading his new article in the New Yorker: "Travels with My Censor." I read it last weekend on the plane home from Portland right after I finished Age of Ambition. Hessler, the author of Country Driving, gives a wonderful, brief (for the New Yorker) and nuanced account of his recent time in China and how the changing and conflicted information landscape in China looks to Westerners both from afar and to those who actually experience it close up. He notes (as does Osnos) that the current state of affairs in China vis a vis information and how it is received, processed, understood, censored, etc. should not be painted with a broad brush as it is constantly changing and being changed. He also does not come to the same conclusion as Osnos does as to how Western authors should react to the Chinese government's attempts at censorship: Hessler was in China on a book tour and describes in detail how his contract with his Chinese publisher worked. Osnos, on the other hand, did not agree to publish his book in Chinese, and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about this. From the Hessler article:
Evan Osnos, my colleague at The New Yorker, wrote an Op-Ed in the Times last year about his decision not to sign a Chinese contract for his book “Age of Ambition.” He warned against writers justifying censorship by the percentage of a book that is left alone, explaining, “It is tempting to accept censorship as a matter of the margins—a pruning that leaves the core of the story intact—but altering the proportions of a portrait of China gives a false reflection of how China appears to the world.” Most articles in the Western press have been critical of the practice; the Times described foreign authors engaging “in an Orwellian embrace with a censorship apparatus.” But the same quality that makes Chinese censorship so obvious—the fact that there’s an extensive apparatus whose work is crude—might actually make it less insidious than foreigners imagine. Even George Orwell would probably agree with this. In the original preface to “Animal Farm,” he warned against the complacency of assuming that censorship is the primary threat to freedom of information. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary,” he wrote. His book had been rejected by four publishers. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.”
Censorship in China, Hessler goes on, is "easy to document" in China. It's not so easy in the US where all kinds of pressures can make or break the publication of just about anything. Anyway, the reason I go into all of this about Hessler (besides the fact that I find it absolutely fascinating to think about what else must go on between two China specialists at the New Yorker) is that, if you're not going to read Osnos' book (which I suggest you do if you're interested in China), this piece gives you an interesting glimpse into some of the very same issues that Osnos discusses, even if they come to opposite conclusions about where to publish their books. The thing that ties the second section of Osnos' book (Truth) together is this unnamed benign looking building in Beijing that technically doesn't exist. It has "no address, no sign, and it appear[s] on no public charts of the Party structure." It is the Central Publicity Department in English and in Chinese, much more honestly, it is the Central Propaganda Department- the place that takes care of deciding and enforcing what Chinese can and can't, do and don't know. (Or at least they try.) Osnos describes the text messages he gets on his phone about messaging to include (or not include) in the media, and how this affects what gets published. Words that can and cannot be typed into the internet and will be excluded from searches are decided here. Osnos gives the example of how after an earthquake, newspapers all over the vast country published the exact same headline thanks to the Propaganda Department sending them the same messaging.

Osnos has divided his book into three sections: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith. He uses individual Chinese people to demonstrate how the new China looks as money, information and religion/philosophy/belief (it's not really religion) plays out. Just as Hessler's article says, it's not a clear uniform picture, and Osnos really wants us to understand that .There's no way for Osnos to depict that in a short book, but it's hard because, by using individuals, Osnos is forced to streamline the conversation somewhat. In a country of so many people, it's also hard to know if the 10 or 12 people that the readers get to know are outliers or good examples or something else entirely. It's also a great book, and if you don't overthink it, helps to remind us that China is not just Cold War communist gone free market, or just that place that we look can't help looking at through a stale Cold War lens, or an exotic place we might never understand. It's a real place with real people, going through a very real and very big transition. Recommended, for sure.

Friday, March 27, 2015

John Steinbeck: East of Eden

My hunt for the Steinbeck book that started my Steinbeck phase in high school has ended. When I was in Portland at Powell's, unsurprisingly, they had at least 15 copies of East of Eden on the shelf (and who knows how many more in the back). I wasn't able to find the version I really wanted- the yellow old Penguin kind- but truthfully, even I know that the book was exactly the same behind the cover. Sometimes change is just cosmetic.

When I wrote last month about being embarrassed to say that I didn't love Grapes of Wrath, and couldn't quite remember the whole thing about Steinbeck, that must have been because I wasn't reading East of Eden. If Steinbeck didn't invent historical fiction or the saga, I'm not sure who did. And he got to write historical fiction and still be considered serious! I suppose this is because he's a great writer while he writes sagas complete with love triangles, whores, mistaken identities, war, etc. Sadly, I don't remember that any other of his books are so LONG which means they probably aren't sagas, and historical fiction that isn't a saga just isn't going to keep me awake reading like this did! I will say, at about page 500, I got a little tired and the book probably would have been equally good if it were 550 instead of 700 pages, but isn't that true of all 700 page books that you actually finish?Also, my version has a hideous cover from the "ABC Motion Picture for Television" on it, and my experience definitely would have been improved without having to look at the 70s looking version of turn of the century Salinas on it. But I also can't really blame Steinbeck for that.

I think there are also a few layers of this book that I need to think about more, in a literary criticism kind of way (which will also make me wonder, did John Steinbeck do this intentionally? What was he trying to do? Am I overthinking this? Is fiction just meant to be enjoyed?). The second half of the book centers on Adam Trask and a Chinese-American servant, Lee, who becomes essentially Adam's partner. Lee disguises himself at first by speaking pidgin and wearing a queue. He "comes out" to one of Adam's friends, an Irish man who has been accepted into white society due to certain characteristics and admits that not only does he speak English, he is extremely educated and intelligent and that he and other Chinese servants only speak pidgin to get by. Does Steinbeck give Lee humanity because he understood the ridiculous racism of the time? Does he give him humanity because he had a Lee- kind of like a mammy figure? (There is a John Steinbeck in the book, a young child who is sort of the omniscient narrator, but it's never quite clear.) Lee's humanity isn't without stereotypes- he has run in's with opium, he never spends a dime, and he is effeminate. He takes care of the house, the kids, and of course, Adam. He is wise like a sage. But he is human.

And what of Lee and Adam's relationship? I did a brief search and found an author that suggested that Steinbeck allows these two to live in a sort of early gay marriage. I sat with this for awhile and loved the idea. But the reason that Adam is sexless is because of the horrible woman he married, who is portrayed for hundreds of pages as a monster. I wonder if, rather than approving of alternate sexuality, there is a bit of misogyny here: when women are bad, men are forced to live together, and sure, it can work out okay, especially if a noble savage (to mix racial stereotypes and throw Lee in there) is involved. The female characters in East of Eden that we're supposed to like are amazing, stoic, loving motherly types, or are otherwise witty, strong and smart. They have 9 children and make something out of nothing. They grow up early and understand complex situations. The rest of them die (literally), are prostitutes (literally), or are terrible. Granted, I read this book for fun, not for the sake of litcrit, so I could well have forgotten some of the women, but the main characters basically fall into these categories.

I hope I haven't ruined Steinbeck for those who haven't read it: if you haven't read it, you've gotta read East of Eden for the sheer enjoyment of it. Distances in Monterey County seem just so FAR. Life seems so different, and the lives of his characters are just so out there. If you have read it as an assigned book many years ago, you have to reread it because it's still beautiful, and it's much more complex than you might remember. And it's a great read if you are in the middle of a reading rut. Thank god for those authors who can pick you up when you're down- Graham Greene, Steinbeck, Stegner, etc. The bring reading back to where it ought to be.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Three more books: the good, the bad and the fascinating

Linda Polman: The Crisis Caravan This was the best book of the three that I'm behind writing about, and possibly the most depressing book I've read in recent memory (which is definitely saying something). Linda Polman rips to shreds any possible notions we might have that humanitarian aid is either humanitarian or aid. Left in the wake of this book is the notion, basically, that there is nothing we can do. In our family, we have a little joke (it's not really funny), that if you read too much, or think to hard about what you can and can't eat ethically, you'll be stuck living on nuts and berries ala Talking Heads. If you read this book, you'll be left thinking the world should be supporting the nuts and berries of the world. Famine? Oh well, nothing we can do. Refugees? Tough shit. War torn places? Yup, we got um. Nope, not gonna do anything. Ultimately, that's not Polman's point, but she makes it clear that right now humanitarian aid is not functioning the way we a) want it to and b) think it is functioning.

I didn't know this, but from the beginning, humanitarian aid had two different tracks. Florence Nightingale (remember her from school?) believed that aid wasn't aid if any warring parties benefited. Like, if people were at war and injured and needed help, they shouldn't get help. "The higher the costs of a war, the sooner it would end," summarizes Polman. Aid was for civilians. She advocated for strengthening government institutions like hospitals and training for doctors. If private institutions came around and took care of this, it relieved the government of their duties and responsibilities. Henri Dunant believed aid was for everyone, soldiers and everyone. Individual, untrained volunteers trying to help out wounded soldiers was inefficient and ineffective. An organized private initiative would save the government money later by helping reduce pensions paid out to injured soldiers. Ultimately, Durant won this battle and the Red Cross was established, followed by the Geneva Conventions which took on these principles: "a presumed duty to ease human suffering unconditionally." The aid organizations that do this work promise neutrality- not choosing sides, which means not cooperating with either side more than the other, impartiality- giving aid "purely according to need," and independence- from politics, essentially. Those are the principles, at least.

The aid industry is booming. There are thousands of aid organizations. But it's not clear that they're really doing the work that they "should" be or even think that they're doing. Refugee camps get set up with every intention of being temporary only to last indefinitely and become recruiting and training grounds for warring factions. Black markets in the camps end up funding the armies and prolonging wars. Members of the factions go to the camps, rest up, and go back out to fight. Supplies are diverted from the most needy in the camp and go straight to the battlefield. Sometimes countries won't even let the aid organizations in until they've paid "taxes" of supplies to the ruling government that is causing the need to for camps in the first place. Polman demonstrates one particularly devastating example in regards to the amputations in Sierra Leone. Aid came when the amputations started. So the amputations continued, and the aid continued. It was that cynical. No missing limbs, no money from the NGOs. Polman describes how most famines are actually government wrought. The most dramatic, the more money. Drought and poor soil isn't really the cause of famine. But dramatic famine brings money and relief. Starving children in Africa doesn't sell unless there is a story. It's gross.

This is an amazing book. It's a horribly depressing book. Polman doesn't have an answer other than that she wants us to ask more questions. She wants the countries funding aid to ask questions and she wants donors (individual, corporate, etc.) to ask questions. She wants us to think about whether aid helps, hurts or both. We should. We should think about whether we can ever truly be neutral, especially in war. We should think about what kind of stereotypes were are both believing and feeding into when we are "aiding" poor people in the global South. We should think about what we are enabling when we go into war zones.

Nicholas Lemann: The Big Test Sometimes books are just so promising and so unreadable. Nicholas Lemann has written one of these. Sadly, I've accumulated $2.00 of fines at the library trying to figure out what to write about this book. Basically, Lemann is trying to tell the story of the standardized test: something "so familiar and all-encompassing that it seems almost like a natural phenomenon, or at least an organism that evolved spontaneously in response to conditions. It's not. It's man-made." Great! I love it! Tell me about it! But, no, actually, maybe not. If you want to learn the story of the SAT and how it came to be and why it is how it is and what it has done to America, you and me both will have to go somewhere else.

William Poundstone: Priceless If, on the other hand, you want to learn about how we think about prices and values (which are not the same thing), William Poundstone's Priceless is a great book. There is a ton in here that I couldn't begin to explain, but it's about psychology and economics and a weird thing called psychophysics which is apparently a real thing, not some hocus pocus, and how we think about what something (including ourselves) is worth. Some of it sounds like hocus pocus, and when explaining complicated theories that smart math-y people have figured out, Poundstone wisely includes some fo the tests that they've used to prove their theories- it's amazing how often I read them and was like, oh, yeah, I totally would have picked the (stupid) option that proved that, too! For example: "Every year, thousands of kids aspire to become a pro athlete, despite long odds and near-certain disappointment. Why? It's easy to list names of athletes who beat the odds and became rich and famous. Now try to name some guys who went out for the NBA or NFL and never made it. Can you name any? Hmmm maybe the odds aren't so bad after all..."

There are some words in here you might have heard of- anchoring, heuristics, etc. and lots you probably haven't- preference reversal? adjustments? prospect theory? Each individual piece will make you go aha! And then at the end, you (me) might be thinking- wait, I knew this stuff! You didn't. Poundstone just explained it so well that you've internalized it. Like the fact that normally, economics is about absolutes- a billion dollars is a billion dollars and a million dollars is a million and a billion is more than a million so you should be happy with a billion if you have that and you "only" had a million before. But test after test is says that we don't feel things in absolutes- we feel things in relatives: "The human reality is that a billionaire who's loft half is fortune [five hundred million dollars if my math is right] can feel destitute, and a $5,000 lottery winner can feel on top of the world. It's all about contrasts." There are a lot of things, theories, examples like this. It's fascinating and I would really recommend this book. You might feel a little stupid when you get to the part about how companies are getting us to spend money by using the theories. Or you might feel a little smarter- why do you feel bad about making x salary but not that same amount of money when it's translated to y dollars/hour? You might use the information to not buy something. Or you might just chuckle- I'll NEVER be fooled like that!! (Spoiler: yeah right.)