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. They 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.)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

themacinator and Sister Take on Portland (a THB-style posting)

themacinator is not a travel blogger. Her father, THB, travels often, and documents his trips meticulously in words and images (although the most recent couple of posts detour a bit from this- scroll down). In fact, I don't travel much. But last year, K, my sister, and I went to New York for the first "sister trip" and right now we're sitting in Portland on the last night of Sister Trip #2. In honor of THB (or inspired by or whatever), here are some thoughts.

First, the one and only rule of sister trips is "no killing each other." Obviously, we both adhered to this rule last trip, as we survived and then went to Hawaii with the whole family AND made it to Portland. We have not made it home yet, so I can't promise the rule will be upheld, but it's looking good. We planned very little for our NYC trip- some ideas of what to do, but no planning. We planned almost nothing for this trip.  I've mentioned here that K is the much more prudent sister- she did all the planning that was done- booked our flights (I literally emailed her the day before to find out what time we were leaving), arranged where we were staying, etc. But we had no agenda.

We are staying in an apartment in the Pearl District. The apartment belongs to friends of my parents- they also have an apartment that is vacant and can be rented out to friends and family. We were going to stay there but ended up staying in this amazing top floor (16th floor!) apartment, with the most generous deal. Amazing! (Unlike THB, I'm not going to post every dollar spent here!) The apartment even has a deck- no, we did not eat lunch on the deck- but we have brought amazing weather (read: the drought) to Portland, and I did read on the deck this afternoon.
view from the deck
Essentially, K and I have made sure to enjoy the best of what we heard Portland had to offer: FOOD. K has sampled donuts from both Voodoo Donuts (verdict: crappy) and Blue Star (verdict: amazing). Favorite flavor: blueberry, bourbon, basil. I do not eat donuts, but don't worry, I've eaten lots of other things. We ate at Salt and Straw, the ice cream place, twice. I had caramel cupcake ice cream the first time- amazing. The second time we shared a sea salt caramel sundae (literally has caramel running though it, like, a LOT of caramel running through it). This place gives you as many tastes as you want- and they want you to taste things, and the tastes are huge, so we basically ate 7 scoops the first time. They make the waffle cones on site, so there were many people making waffles on those waffle machines you use at hotels. I wanted my ice cream on a fresh waffle, but didn't want to be too pushy. (K says it would melt the ice cream. I don't think I care.) We went to Frice bakery today and sampled the Portland version of Arizmendi's chocolate thing. Good, but not great, until we realized that we had forgotten to order made to order madeleines. Literally, made to order. We waited and waited and then ... amazing fresh cookies. I don't even like madeleines. (That's a lie- I like anything that is sweet and doesn't have cooked fruit or is name donuts- but I won't seek them out.) But these were incredible. They served us maybe 12, and they went down so quick. Incredible. I took a picture of my food for you. We did not drink a ton of beer or coffee, but did do a little of both.

gone before you finished reading this caption
We have taken a lot of different shiny public transportation things. There is a street car and one is a light rail. They are color coded, but it is VERY important to know that the color of the actual vehicle has nothing to do with the color of the line. While there are many blue and green cars out there that run the blue and green line, they do not correspond at all with the lines. Further, disembodied voices tell you to exit on "my" left or right (the streets are often one way, so you might exit on either side). However, because the voices come from speakers in the roof and are prerecorded, it might take a person a few rides to figure that these voices are supposed to represent the driver, who always sits in the driving booth that faces forward, although there is one in the rear since the cars can go both directions. Additionally, although it does cost money to ride these modes of transportation, we saw one person the entire time "validate" her ticket. The transit system appears to be entirely on an honor system- you can buy your ticket at a kiosk outside any stop (and sometimes on the cars), get on, ride around, get off, get on, repeat. You may never have to show said ticket to anyone. People must be paying, though!

we need this in Oakland, if we could fund it. only, I never even saw a pothole!

Other cool things we did: visited the Portland State University farmer's market this morning- amazing selection of premade foods, including (wait for it) cookies. Went to Blue Moon, an all-analog camera store that has optical printing on site- SO cool. They also have and repair typewriters. And, of course, I've made approximately 5 (no, exactly 5) trips to Powell's. If possible, that place is too much bookstore for me. It's true.

Miscellaneous observations:
  • There are a lot of people here that appear to fall on some spectrum of unhoused, homeless, street people, homeless by choice, etc. These people appear much more like Santa Cruz homeless than Oakland homeless in demographics. There may be more of them than in Santa Cruz. What's unclear is why they don't go south where it doesn't rain so much.
  • Portland is just as white as I had heard it is, at least, as far as we can tell.
  • Downtown Portland is very quiet and empty during the week. It livened up a lot today, and it's not clear if that's normal- tourists? People off work? March Madness (happening here today)? Spring break?
  • We aren't quite clear where everyone works. There are a TON of restaurants, so it's very possible that people work at restaurants to make money to eat at other restaurants.
  • Some things seem outdated: yes, you still can't pump your own gas, no, there is still no sales tax. People smoke a lot here- it seems bumping up the cigarette tax might help with that. How is everything so clean and apparently well funded (ie: pothole hotline) with no sales tax?
  • People seem VERY civilized here. For example, we saw dozens and dozens of dogs and not a single one was off leash. K saw one tied up dog this morning (in front of Starbucks, of course), and we saw one around lunch time today, although it was for approximately 1 minute and then the owner went and sat with him. We saw zero dogs strain on their leashes to lunge or bark at anything, and I think I heard two total dogs bark on their leashes. There wasn't any dog poop anywhere.
  • "Food trucks" aren't food trucks. They're permanent food carts or stalls. And at least the ones in downtown Portland were disappointing.
  • Meat is back. It seems to be coming back in Oakland but it is really back in Portland. Lardo's is a super popular mini-chain, but you can go anywhere and get lots and lots of meat.