Said and read – March 2021

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“While our coming migrations may not proceed fast enough to keep pace with our shifting climate, a growing body of evidence suggests they may be our best shot at preserving biodiversity and resilient human societies.” – Sonia Shah, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move

Previous book reports: 2021 – February, January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for March

A lackluster month in many ways – overly long, filled with churning through the process of just trying to get things done. Reading hasn’t been the priority, and I feel its loss when I don’t have the time to indulge.

Still, I read quite a few things, but nothing really stood out.

*When the Body Says NoGabor Maté

“…people do not become ill despite their lives but rather because of their lives. And life includes not only physical factors like diet, physical activity, and the environment, but also the internal milieu of thoughts and unconscious emotions that govern so much of our physiology, through the mechanisms of stress and the unity of the systems that modulate nerves, hormones, immunity, digestion, and cardiovascular function. Much disease could be prevented and healed if we fully understood the scientific evidence verifying the mind-body unity.”

Can stress kill you… or contribute to your early demise?

“The dynamics of repression operate in all of us. We are all self-deniers and self-betrayers to one extent or another, most often in ways we are no more aware of than I was conscious of while “deciding” to disguise my limp. When it comes to health or illness, it is only a matter of degree and, too, a matter of the presence or absence of other factors—such as heredity or environmental hazards, for example—that also pre-dispose to disease.”

Dr Gabor Maté, well-known for his work on addiction, argues that stress and trauma, particularly that which has been repressed and never dealt with, can be fatal.

“A U.S. study, for example, found that women who are unhappily married and do not express their emotions have a greatly increased risk of death compared with similarly unhappy women who do not repress their feelings. Canadian research has shown that people abused in childhood have a nearly 50 percent increased risk of cancer in adulthood. Such data are manifestations of what the psychiatrist and author Daniel Siegel has termed “interpersonal neurobiology,” or what, going a small step further, we may call interpersonal biology. Our relationships help shape our physiology.”

One of the salient points in the book is one that emerges from discussion about human health more generally: we ignore the whole in favor of the part, specializing in or focusing on one thing, only to end up without insight into the bigger picture. The human body can suffer most of all from this short-sightedness and perceived lack of connection between the mind and body.

“The more specialized doctors become, the more they know about a body part or organ and the less they tend to understand the human being in whom that part or organ resides.”

Additionally, dealing with stress or trauma also requires understanding what to  do with the absence of stress: after a life lived under the weight of the burden of it, the lack of stress itself can cause another type of stress.

“For those habituated to high levels of internal stress since early childhood, it is the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, Hans Selye observed. To such persons stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.”

*Kubernetes for Full-Stack Developers – various authors

*Kubernetes for Developers – Joe Heck

So let’s start by saying that I am not a developer and even though I work in a tech environment, these kinds of books aren’t part and parcel of what I need to do or know. They are not designed for me. Not at this level of hands-on or specific depth anyway. But it’s still interesting following along passively as technology and application development change shape.

*The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the MoveSonia Shah

“Human migration is not exceptional. Long isolation did not differentiate our species into separate races. Feats of navigation are not the sole province of “white gods” from the West. The oceans can be crossed by canoe. And humans aren’t the only ones who move across the landscape, leaping over continents and oceans. Plants and animals do, too.”

Migration is nothing new – it has been done forever.

“By describing peoples and species as “from” certain places, we invoke a specific idea about the past. It traces back to the eighteenth century, when European naturalists first started cataloging the natural world. Assuming that peoples and wild creatures had stayed mostly fixed in their places throughout history, they named creatures and peoples based on those places, conflating one with the other as if they’d been joined since time immemorial. Those centuries-old taxonomies formed the foundation for modern ideas about our biological history. Today a range of fields from ecology to genetics and biogeography allude to long periods of isolation in our distant past, when species and peoples remained ensconced in their habitats, each evolving in their separate locales. This stillness at the center of our ideas about the past necessarily casts migrants and migrations as anomalous and disruptive. Early twentieth-century naturalists dismissed migration as an ecologically useless and even dangerous behavior, warning of “disastrous results” should migrant animals be allowed to move freely. Conservationists and other scientists warned that human migration, too, would precipitate biological calamity.”

Sonia Shah tells the story of migration – of animals, plants, people, explaining its additive rather than disruptive or negative force.

*Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect UnionRichard Kreitner

We tend to think of the United States as an always-united concept apart from the horror of the Civil War. But the idea of disunion and secession has always been woven into the ethos of the American experiment. It continues now, particularly during the turbulence of the last few years (the lead-up to and during the Trump presidency).

*The Invention of SolitudePaul Auster

Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude. If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.

Amen.

Image (c) 2021, S Donaghy

Said and read – February 2021

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A vort iz vi a fayl: beyde hobn groyse ayl. A word and an arrow are alike: both make a speedy strike. The idea that words have great power and potential to inflict harm is implied in the following: Verter darf men vegn, nit tseyln. Words should be weighed, not counted.” –How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed YiddishIlan Stavans

“Mouth tissue makes an excellent urethral stand-in. For one thing, it’s hairless. Urine contains minerals that, were there hair growing in your urethra, would build up on the strands. The stony deposits are troublemakers, obstructing flow or breaking free and getting peed out in a blaze of pain. The surgeon, James Jezior, has been over at the scrub sink going at his nails. He joins us now, hands front, drying. He has blue eyes and fine sandy hair and a mischievous wit. I would use the adjective boyish, but on paper he is very much not a boy. He’s a chief (of the Walter Reed urology department), a director (of reconstructive urology), and a colonel. “Also,” says Jezior, “the mouth is tolerant of pee.” He means that the mouth is built for moisture. It’s possible to create a urethra from hairless skin on the underside of the forearm or behind the ear, but the frequent wetting from urine can degrade it. A kind of internal diaper rash may ensue. Inflammation eats away at the tissue, tunneling an alternate path for the waste, called a fistula. Now you are dribbling tinkle from a raw hole in your skin. Just what you need.” – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at WarMary Roach

Previous book reports: 2021 — January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for February

February has historically been the slowest, darkest and most depressing month of my life – every single year. In the last few years, though, perhaps by virtue of keeping myself ridiculously busy, I have managed to avoid the worst of it. And reading helps, although as predicted, I didn’t get to read as much as I’d like in February and didn’t stumble on anything truly extraordinary during the month.

Nevertheless I have a few thoughts running through my head.

First is the frivolity of this endeavor. I read and then scribble down some things about what I read, and I try in some way to impart how important I think some of the books are. Then I look at social media channels and all the outrage about the state of the world we live in and a lot of commentary about how if you’re posting frivolous stuff rather than topical, political stuff, you’re part of the problem.

I wonder about the reasoning of this and feel like we can’t be turned-on, angry, vitriolic, political animals all the time without burning ourselves to the ground. And what good would that do? Don’t we need to reset and ground ourselves in ideas sometimes? I recognize that I am lucky to have the choice.

Another thing has nagged me as I’ve continued my years-long pursuit of sharing poetry daily. I love discovering and sharing poetry, particularly voices of poets who are not featured in our mainstream high school/college textbooks in the western, English-speaking world. And while I share poetry from Black poets and artists all the time, I dedicate a poem a day in February to sharing their voices exclusively, as part of Black History Month. Recently someone pointed out that they thought this felt “performative”, and I’ve questioned this myself. It’s a continuation of my desire to share great poetry, and I wanted to shine additional light on, in particular, the work of Black women. I sometimes feel when I share other people’s poetry – no matter who they are – that I am overstepping. Is it my place to share these things, regardless of how few people might see what I share?

This questioning isn’t terribly related to my “reading post-mortem, but it’s nevertheless what plagues me at night during those few nights when sleep is fleeting. I suppose it isn’t a bad thing to repeatedly interrogate yourself: Am I part of the problem? And if so, what can I do to remedy that?

So here we go…

Strangely I was overenthusiastic and included some of my February reads in my January book report… for example, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly ProsperousJoseph Henrich and Wintering, which I will write a bit more about later. Oh well. What can you do with an (over)abundance of enthusiasm?

Again these aren’t in any particular order and mostly reflect various things that stood out to me rather than anything that I expressly loved.

*Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult TimesKatherine May

“However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.”

Continuing to champion this lovely book because it fit so perfectly, and concisely, into the sharpest parts of winter, and the introduction to the first months of a new year.

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

A passage that particularly spoke to me was May’s description of how doing everything starts to look like nothing – it just blends together. How can we keep ourselves from falling into the crevasse of a life of blur?

“The problem with “everything” is that it ends up looking an awful lot like nothing: just one long haze of frantic activity, with all the meaning sheared away. Time has passed so quickly while I have been raising a child and writing books, and working a full-time job that often sprawls into my weekends, that I can’t quite account for it. The preceding years are not a blank exactly, but they’re certainly a blur, and one that’s strangely devoid of meaning, except for a clawing sense of survival.”

*Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that MattersRyan Singer

This is a strange segue perhaps, but May’s attention to “everything looking like nothing” gave me pause to consider whether all the things I do, and the way I work, could look more intentional. Productivity is one thing, but what is the point without purpose?

I don’t necessarily think the philosophy outlined in Ryan Singer’s book, Shape Up, which explains in detail how Basecamp works in six-week cycles rather than in popular but fairly meaningless two-week sprints, works flawlessly. But it tries. Aiming to swiftly develop and ship something within each six-week cycle, things move quickly without get bogged down.

Ultimately in reading this for work purposes, I saw some applicability in everyday life. That is, you can’t do everything, so why try? Why not discern what you can do that will deliver the most value to you in your life? Obviously this reasoning won’t work in every case. After all, you can’t rear children in six weeks and ship them onward while you move on to a new project. Many of life’s activities and its most fulfilling commitments are long term.

But some of the things we find ourselves taking on and saying “yes” to when we know it might be deleterious to our quality of life and in the big scheme of things won’t matter if we do them or not … we could avoid them if we thought about what matters.

*Breath: The New Science of a Lost ArtJames Nestor

If we were to wager on “what matters”, breathing would be right up there. I mentioned breathing in last month’s book report alongside this unusually inspiring book and wanted to write more about the importance of respiration and the act, rather than art, of breathing. How we take the basic inhale and exhale that mark our lives, a sign of our continued living, for granted.

How, in the middle of a pandemic characterized by breathing difficulties, could it not trigger thought about the fundamental function of breathing? How it literally flows through every single thing we do.

In January a lifelong family friend, who was just four years my senior, died quite suddenly. Again, we’re in the middle of a pandemic in which millions of people have been critically ill with this virus. But this family friend, it turns out, didn’t have Covid-19. She was admitted to hospital in December, diagnosed with pneumonia and discharged. Soon thereafter she experienced respiratory distress again, returned to the hospital, was readmitted, had been tested multiple times for Covid (all negative). Yet her condition kept declining.

From her second stay in hospital, she called my mother (the closest thing to a mother figure she had left), panicking, crying, “I’m really scared. Please tell me everything is going to be fine.” My mother reassured her, knowing of course that she couldn’t make promises but could instead try to be a calming comfort. My mother asked me whether I’d like to send a text message to this woman with whom I’d had virtually no relationship since we were children, and strangely, this entire episode dredged up some terrible memories of what a relentless and cruel bully this woman had been to me when we were children. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but suddenly, her vulnerability brought this flood of memories to mind in such a vivid way.

Of course despite the events of the past, I did send a text, letting her know I would be thinking of her and wishing her well from afar. I never received a reply, and frankly, I don’t think she was conscious much longer after that message was sent. She went downhill from that day, with the respiratory distress getting worse until she was put on a ventilator. This still was not sufficient, so she was airlifted to another hospital where ECMO was available. She did receive a diagnosis finally (a rare, and hitherto undetected, form of cancer), and died soon thereafter. Her prognosis probably would not have been good even if a diagnosis had come sooner, as the cancer was quite advanced to invade in this way. And the presentation (respiratory) coupled with timing (middle of pandemic) may have delayed getting a correct diagnosis as well.

All I could think of was that single, simple act of breathing became labored, impossible until there was no more breath.

In Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, which I also read in January but didn’t highlight in the book report, briefly discusses the Hawaiian language and reveals the “ha” of the words “aloha” and “haole” means “breath”. Reflecting how central the idea of breath is even to the development of our languages.

*Caste: The Origins of Our DiscontentsIsabel Wilkerson

“The anthrax, like the reactivation of the human pathogens of hatred and tribalism in this evolving century, had never died. It lay in wait, sleeping, until extreme circumstances brought it to the surface and back to life.”

Wilkerson’s writing, as always, is elegant and gripping, which makes it all the more painful to be nodding along and agreeing with her conclusion that America runs under an invisible caste system. No one would acknowledge or speak it aloud, or indeed, even see it (hence its invisibility), but racism and its structures is America’s caste system. Wilkerson makes the case, describing both the meaning of what a caste system is and how/why America is one such example:

“Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light. A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”

“The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.”

“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

More generally, and most damning and true, about America as a society, Wilkerson puts into words why a whole lot of people don’t buy into the myth of the American dream. It’s an illusion reversed for a fraction of the population.

“Compared to our counterparts in the developed world, America can be a harsh landscape, a less benevolent society than other wealthy nations. It is the price we pay for our caste system. In places with a different history and hierarchy, it is not necessarily seen as taking away from one’s own prosperity if the system looks out for the needs of everyone.”

And it has only become more distant in light of recent events:

“The pandemic, and the country’s fitful, often self-centered lack of readiness, exposed “a failure of character unparalleled in US history,” in the words of Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University. The pandemic forced the nation to open its eyes to what it might not have wanted to see but needed to see, while forcing humanity to contemplate its impotence against the laws of nature. “This is a civilization searching for its humanity,” Gary Michael Tartakov, an American scholar of caste, said of this country. “It dehumanized others to build its civilization. Now it needs to find its own.””

Does America have any humanity to find?

*The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of BalanceLaurie Garrett

“Nature isn’t benign,” … “The bottom lines: the units of natural selection – DNA, sometimes RNA elements – are by no means neatly packaged in discrete organisms. They all share the entire biosphere. The survival of the human species is not a preordained evolutionary program.”

Viruses are, as Garrett warns, black boxes. We don’t know where they next come from, how serious they will be, how infectious they are, until of course they appear. As Garrett chronicles the history of unraveling various mysterious diseases as they appeared in the world, and identifying them, she paints a dark picture of what will happen with future viruses. We’re seeing her dire warnings play out now with Covid-19, although her alarm was sounded by the HIV crisis and its cruel and slow mismanagement.

“Through the AIDS prism, it was possible for the world’s public health experts to witness what they considered to be the hypocrisies, cruelties, failings, and inadequacies of humanity’s sacred institutions, including its medical establishment, science, organized religion, systems of justice, the United Nations, and individual government systems of all political stripes.”

“If HIV was our model, leading scientists concluded, humanity was in very big trouble. Homo sapiens greeted the emergence of the new disease first with utter nonchalance, then with disdain for those infected by the virus, followed by an almost pathologic sense of mass denial that dew upon mechanisms for rationalizing the epidemic that ranged from claiming that the virus was completely harmless to insisting that certain individuals or races of people were uniquely blessed with the ability to survive HIV infection.”

“Over the last five years, scientists – particularly in the United States and France –have voice concern that HIV, far from representing a public health aberration, maybe a sign of things to come. They warn that humanity has learned little about preparedness and response to new microbes, despite the blatant tragedy of AIDS.”

The awakening of a “global community consciousness” – certainly as it relates to the ecology/shared earth/environment didn’t do much to stop climate change. And firsthand awareness of both the way HIV unfolded, and now Covid, doesn’t equal action. If anything it may engender indifference in many and an active backlash in others. As Garrett writes in the gripping chapters on HIV/AIDS: **It’s a Sin**:

“Medical research money per se was not usually a partisan matter in the United States. … But AIDS was unique. It touched every nerve that polarized Americans: sex, homosexuality, race (Haitians), Christian family values, drug addition, and personal versus collective rights and security.”

*The Shipping NewsAnnie Proulx

We are far enough removed from the film adaptation of The Shipping News that reading this feels new and isn’t marred by picturing Kevin Spacey in the lead role. Oddly I started reading this the same day as I randomly had a conversation with someone in/from Newfoundland. Not an everyday occurrence. And the book makes mention of saucisson, which was once a well-tread “thing” between a former partner and me. Actually a couple of different partners. One, from whom I learned about saucisson in the first place, attempted to bring it back into the US from France without declaring it, and when I said, “Yeah, it’s a meat product”, he indignantly replied, as if his right to bear saucisson were self-evident, “But it is my saucisson!”

The next partner understood this reasoning perfectly, also relishing the fatty joy of saucisson. He made up a tune: “Saucisson – c’est bon.” I added: “Pauvre cochon.” I am certain he would still claim that the pig was happy to give its life to be saucisson.

Back to the point: Proulx has a distinct voice. I don’t love it, but I can’t deny its pull. I come to her work late, reading mostly the books from which films have sprung. I got around to reading Brokeback Mountain last month, and the film actually hewed so closely and faithfully to the book it was almost painful.

*How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed YiddishIlan Stavans

Rosten’s approach to language is, in my view, savvy and dynamic. He doesn’t perceive it as an isolated, self-sufficient, enclosed human activity. Instead, he pushes for a more dynamic, functional conception, recognizing the constant effect politics, education, sports and entertainment, and other realms of life have on it. In other words, language is never static; it’s in permanent change, adapting to unforeseen circumstances by lending and borrowing terms and expressions from the environment. His approach, obviously, came from Yiddish itself, a stunningly resilient code whose principal source of sustenance was its flexibility and improvisational nature. To find health in the Pale of Settlement, Yiddish speakers for centuries made their lingo suit the needs of the time. They were polyglots, looking at language not only as a home but also as a way of escape: if one couldn’t do the trick, another one would. Plus, they were adept at the art of translation. To translate is to overcome the barriers of language, to cope with the circumstances by doing what chameleons do: make oneself part of an alien turf.

I was a bit disappointed with the most of this book (apart from the shared passages). I didn’t expect it to be a collection of different stuff but rather expected it to be a historical and linguistic account of the influence of Yiddish on American culture, language and life and vice versa. While the book kind of achieves that, it’s not quite the account I was hoping for.

Still there are moments when the precarious balance between a pop-culture representation of the Yiddish language, which in one way keeps it alive, however hollowed out, and the richer, deeper lived experience of the full language, which disappears with each day.

“Shortly after Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, a hilarious lexicon of colloquialisms and locutions, was published in 1968, Irving Howe, the deacon of Jewish culture in the United States, irritably reviewed it in the pages of The New York Times. In Rosten’s book, Howe said, “Yiddish is torn out of its cultural context, its integral world of meaning and reference.” He described the book as a catalog of kitsch. He was troubled by the way Yiddish had become distant and unknown among secondhand third-generation Jews, a sign of false nostalgia and lack of authenticity. Needless to say, Howe wasn’t Rosten’s only critic. Accusations of inaccuracy were published in periodicals such as the Forverts. Even Isaac Bashevis Singer, who himself was often accused of misrepresenting Yiddish and who, upon accepting the Nobel Prize, said that the mame-loshn is the only language on earth that has never been spoken by men in power, in private conversations derided The Joys of Yiddish as impure, just as he derided mainstream phenomena like the musical Fiddler on the Roof. One periodical even nominated Rosten for a “shanda award.” (Shanda in Yiddish means shame, scandal.)”

*Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at WarMary Roach

“THE MAIN stressor of combat medicine is absent from every training simulation. No one is shooting real bullets at or anywhere near you. “Training is limited by liability,” said Siddle. He sounded a little mournful. “The high number of returnees diagnosed with PTSD suggests we are not doing enough,” scolds Colonel Ricardo Love in his paper.”

As ever, Mary Roach brings her curiosity and uniquely irreverent voice to another topic: military R&D/technology.

“THE CHICKEN GUN HAS a sixty-foot barrel, putting it solidly in the class of an artillery piece. While a four-pound chicken hurtling in excess of 400 miles per hour is a lethal projectile, the intent is not to kill. On the contrary, the chicken gun was designed to keep people alive. The carcasses are fired at jets, standing empty or occupied by “simulated crew,” to test their ability to withstand what the Air Force and the aviation industry, with signature clipped machismo, call birdstrike. The chickens are stunt doubles for geese, gulls, ducks, and the rest of the collective bird mass that three thousand or so times a year collide with Air Force jets, costing $50 million to $80 million in damage and, once every few years, the lives of the people on board. As a bird to represent all birds, the chicken is an unusual choice, in that it doesn’t fly. It does not strike a jet in the manner in which a mallard or goose strikes a jet—wings outstretched, legs trailing long. It hits it like a flung grocery item. Domestic chickens are, furthermore, denser than birds that fly or float around in wetlands. At 0.92 grams per centimeter cubed, the average body density of Gallus gallus domesticus is a third again that of a herring gull or a Canada goose. Nonetheless, the chicken was the standard “material” approved by the US Department of Defense for testing jet canopy…”

“Not only are chickens easier to obtain and standardize, but they serve as a sort of worst-case scenario. Except when they don’t.”

“This is the sort of story that drew me to military science—the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks. Surprising, occasionally game-changing things happen when flights of unorthodox thinking† collide with large, abiding research budgets. People tend to think of military science as strategy and weapons—fighting, bombing, advancing. All that I leave to the memoir writers and historians. I’m interested in the parts no one makes movies about—not the killing but the keeping alive. Even if what people are being kept alive for is fighting and taking other lives. Let’s not let that get in the way. This book is a salute to the scientists and the surgeons, running along in the wake of combat, lab coats flapping. Building safer tanks, waging war on filth flies. Understanding turkey vultures.”

And, in tribute to all those who continue to fight against stupidity in the face of… biology (people who wish people would hide menstruation):

“In other words, it isn’t the blood that makes a tampon attractive to polar bears. It’s something uniquely . . . vaginal. Some kind of secretions that, please forgive me, smell like seals. This makes sense, does it not? When a feminine hygiene company hires a lab to test the efficacy of a scented menstrual product, the standardized odor employed for this purpose is known as a “fishy amine.” So alluring is the intensely vaginal/sealy scent of a tampon that a polar bear seems not to notice that it does not also taste like seal. In 42 of 52 instances, a wild polar bear who encountered a used tampon affixed to the top of a stake (scientific nomenclature: “used tampon stake”) ate or “vigorously chewed” it. Only seal meat was more consistently pulled from the stake and consumed. Paper towels soaked with regular blood—here again, nailed to a stake like a skull warning foolhardy jungle explorers—were eaten just three times.”

Said and read – January 2021

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“Freedom is as mortal as tyranny.” – Alan Dugan, “Argument to Love as a Person”

Previous book reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for January

Escaping the clutches of a diseased 2020 didn’t provide the respite one would hope for. There was death before and death after, the arbitrary threshold of one year ending and another beginning meaningless. Loss sometimes means remembering – and memories can be bitter, painful and unexpected.

To iron out the jagged edges of reality, books continued to work their magic.

Time feels as though it has accelerated, and I pack every day with so much that January (and all its books) feels like years ago already. For that reason, and in the interest of brevity (haha I hear you laughing as you scroll and scroll and scroll to the never-appearing end of this; there’s nothing brief about this book report), I’ll briefly mention books here without any kind of format (I tried to categorize my previous book reports). I don’t have the focus, time or energy to create categories. There were just too many books overall in January, so I’ve excluded some that were very engaging, wonderful books that just …didn’t end up making this list.

It’s all stream of consciousness now.

*A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution – Jeremy D. Popkin

No explanation. I just liked it. The French Revolution. What’s not to like?

*Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American LandscapeLauret Savoy

“History as taught to me in grade school tried to box all that is known of a fixed past into a universal, sequential story. A story that was innocent, independent, impelled. A story beyond human manipulation. … But that sense of history neglects our relationships to each other and to what is ‘known’ and ‘not known’ of the past. How and why do we know what we know? Who is doing the (re)collecting then telling?”

A beautiful book itself, but it struck me at the time I read it because Man’s Search for Meaning was cited. I had just finished re-reading Man’s Search for a second time before picking this up, and it added a certain richness and depth as an accompaniment. Then again, the more you read, the more there are pieces interwoven with other works and ideas, so considerable overlap isn’t unexpected. If you read enough, you discover that there are source materials that writers across disciplines return to, and Frankl happens to be one, appearing also The Upside of Irrationality, another book I consumed in January. Hannah Arendt is another. These repeated references stand to reason because they continue to make sense, and resonate deeply with more universal truths and clarity.

This is something I love about reading: interconnectivity. It is almost like a tonic or antidote to bite-sized, sensational, fast-paced and often fake “news”. An historical record that we can draw upon, question and interpret within a kind of shared intellectual milieu that’s always being built upon and enriched.

Trace explores memory and sense of place as well as point of view: what is history, who gets to tell the story?

“What to remember, what to forget. Colonial historian Bernard Bailyn writes that memory’s ‘relation to the past is an embrace. It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened. It is the spontaneous, unquestioned experience of the past. It is absolute, not tentative or distant, and it is expressed in signs and signals, symbols, images, and mnemonic clues of all sorts. It shapes our awareness whether we know it or not, and it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.”

Of course reading a lot eventually leads to drawing parallels with other aspects of pop culture. I recently watched the HBO series How To with John Wilson, and it touched on the subject of, and subjectivity of, memory. The human mind distorts memory to the extent that we can be 100% convinced that something happened the way we remember. And yet it didn’t. Sometimes this mass misremembering extends to large groups of people, which is often called “the Mandela effect“. Wilson examines this, diving into some unusual communities who do, despite being shown they are misremembering, continue to believe they are right, but that their memories took place in some kind of alternate or parallel universe. Yes, Wilson’s show is that kind of rabbit hole.

On a more personal level, I often have to remind myself that just because I’ve shared an experience or relationship with another person, my memory of it is an entirely different reality. The larger canvas of history is no different.

“That inhabiting the same time, sharing a past, doesn’t mean sharing common experiences or points of view was never clearer than on the tour of Walnut Grove. We live among countless landscapes of memory in this country. They convey both remembrances and omission, privileging particular arcs of story while neglecting so many others.”

*The Artificial Silk GirlIrmgard Keun

““Why do you laugh this silvery laugh, you sweet creature?” And me: “I’m laughing because I’m happy.” Thank God men are far too full of themselves to think that you could be laughing at them! And he told me he was an aristocrat. Well, I’m not so dumb to believe that live noblemen are running around in the streets these days.”

A German must-read, banned by the Nazis, focused on a young woman dreaming of being a starlet but never quite satisfying that — or any — hunger.

“If you’re human, you have feelings. If you’re human, you know what it means if you want someone and they don’t want you. It’s like an electrified waiting period. Nothing more, nothing less. But it’s enough.”

*The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismEdward E. Baptist

For anyone who doubts slavery ever ended and wants to know how the American capitalist nightmare machine was built (and on whose labor and at what human cost). Which, frankly, should be everyone. But sadly won’t be.

*Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened Jessica S. Henry

Henry immediately tells the reader that she knows a great deal about wrongful convictions. But even she, armed with the statistics, was shocked (as most readers would be) to discover that one-third of “all known exonerations involve people wrongfully convicted of crimes that never happened”. Yes… crimes that never happened at all.

What?!

“No-crime convictions start with the fictional narrative that a crime occurred. That fiction can be based on honest error, tunnel vision, lies, or corruption, but in every case it is an illusion manufactured from whole cloth. The entire criminal justice system then steps in to process an innocent person where no wrongdoing occurred—and somehow, the error is undetected at every stage of the proceedings. Society has no recognizable interest in spending the time, energy, and resources in identifying, prosecuting, convicting, and punishing a criminal suspect for a crime that never happened. Yet we do. More often than anyone could have imagined. No-crime convictions are based on phantom crimes. But for the wrongly convicted in no-crime cases, they are all too real.”

*Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our OwnEddie S. Glaude

“It is exhausting to find oneself, over and over again, navigating a world rife with deadly assumptions about you and those who look like you, to see and read about insult and harm, death and anguish, for no other reason than because you’re black or black and poor or black and trans or…For me, the daily grind consumes.”

A beautiful book, visiting places and steps James Baldwin took in forging his identity against a backdrop of both historical and present-day racism and the lie (a thematic signpost returned to several times) that America is driven by some kind of inherent goodness or redeeming quality. Baldwin, and through this exploration, Glaude, have exposed the rotting core of this lie.

“Narrating trauma fragments how we remember. We recall what we can and what we desperately need to keep ourselves together. Wounds, historical and painfully present, threaten to rend the soul, and if that happens, nothing else matters.”

*The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s EconomyStephanie Kelton

As usual my reading is all over the place. A lot of stuff about systemic inequality, but the rhetoric of why this is the way it must be rests on misleading arguments about debt, and more frequently, deficit. The system is broken, and we think about it, are taught about it, and discuss it in ways that betray our lack of understanding about it, according to Kelton.

“MMT radically changes our understanding by recognizing that it is the currency issuer—the federal government itself—not the taxpayer, that finances all government expenditures. Taxes are important for other reasons that I will explain in this book. But the idea that taxes pay for what the government spends is pure fantasy. I was skeptical when I first encountered these ideas.”

“The economic framework that I’m advocating for is asking for more fiscal responsibility from the federal government, not less. We just need to redefine what it means to budget our resources responsibly. Our misconceptions about the deficit leave us with so much waste and untapped potential within our current economy.”

Reading Kelton’s book took me back to a public sector economics course I took over 20 years ago. Our professors hammered the idea home that deficits don’t really matter. And, like Kelton, I struggled with this idea. Having been indoctrinated into the idea that lowering the deficit is somehow a worthy economic goal, accepting the idea that people do not, as Kelton writes, “deserve” to ask more from their government because it’s fiscally irresponsible.

“In a now-famous speech from 1983, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared that “the state has no source of money, other than the money people earn themselves. If the state wishes to spend more it can only do so by borrowing your savings or by taxing you more.”5 This was Thatcher’s way of saying that the government’s finances were constrained in the same way our personal finances are constrained. In order to spend more, the government would need to raise the money. “We know that there is no such thing as public money,” she added. “There is only taxpayer money.” If the British people wanted more from their government, they would have to foot the bill. Was it an innocent mistake or a carefully crafted statement designed to discourage the British people from demanding more from their government?”

I’d be genuinely interested to hear more thoughts on the assertions presented in this book. Some of them make a lot of sense, but others have been simplified to the degree that I think, “I must be missing something fundamental here.”

“Your taxes don’t actually pay for anything, at least not at the federal level. The government doesn’t need our money. We need their money. We’ve got the whole thing backward! When I first encountered this way of understanding how taxing and spending work in actual practice, I recoiled. It was 1997, and I was midway through a PhD program in economics when someone shared a little book called Soft Currency Economics with me.8 The book’s author, Warren Mosler, was a successful Wall Street investor, not an economist, and his book was about how the economics profession was getting almost everything wrong. I read it, and I wasn’t convinced.”

Thoughts?

*The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly ProsperousJoseph Henrich

“Beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms—culture—can shape our brains, biology, and psychology, including our motivations, mental abilities, and decision-making biases. You can’t separate “culture” from “psychology” or “psychology” from “biology,” because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think. Psychological changes induced by culture can shape all manner of subsequent events by influencing what people pay attention to, how they make decisions, which institutions they prefer, and how much they innovate.”

Yes, yes and more yes. I had not given a great deal of thought before going into the formal study of psychology to the problem that almost everything we think we know about human psychology comes from a very limited and relatively homogenous group of WEIRD people. That is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

“…almost everything we—scientists—knew about human psychology derived from populations that seemed to be rather unusual along many important psychological and behavioral dimensions. Crucially, there was no obvious way to tell whether a psychological pattern found in Western undergraduates would hold cross-culturally, since existing research going back over a half century had revealed differences across populations in people’s susceptibility to visual illusions, spatial reasoning, memory, attention, patience, risk-taking, fairness, induction, executive function, and pattern recognition.”

And how wouldn’t this skew “findings” that cannot necessarily be replicated or observed cross culturally?

Reading Henrich’s book reinforced one of the takeaways from my study: if you only have access to fellow university students as your study subjects, which is almost always the case as a student, how can you credibly claim to have concluded anything? The questions I was most interested in exploring had to do with things that no student population could possibly answer. For example, the perception of risk in people experiencing geriatric pregnancies. But how would one go about finding enough willing subjects for an investigation like this within the confines of a university-length semester?

Another key takeaway: the WEIRD societies the book describes, and their psychology, are individualistic.

“But, the WEIRDer your psychology, the less inclined you’ll be to focus on relational ties, and the more motivated you’ll be to start making up invisible properties, assigning them to individuals, and using them to justify universally applicable laws.”

In any case there were other fascinating points in the book, which had come up at various points in my previous academic career as well, for example, the influence of literacy on both cultures and on the brain.

“Learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and facial recognition. Literacy changes people’s biology and psychology without altering the underlying genetic code. A society in which 95 percent of adults are highly literate would have, on average, thicker corpus callosa and worse facial recognition than a society in which only 5 percent of people are highly literate.”

By extension, it seems culture and religion has shaped the likelihood of one becoming literate, e.g. “literacy rates grew the fastest in countries where Protestantism was most deeply established”; “In Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands, adult literacy rates were nearly 100 percent. Meanwhile, in Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, the rates had only risen to about 50 percent. Overall, if we know the percentage of Protestants in a country, we can account for about half of the cross-national variation in literacy at the dawn of the 20th century”.

And what would my book report be without a shout-out to my beloved Scotland?

“When the Reformation reached Scotland in 1560, it was founded on the central principle of a free public education for the poor. The world’s first local school tax was established there in 1633 and strengthened in 1646. This early experiment in universal education soon produced a stunning array of intellectual luminaries, from David Hume to Adam Smith, and probably midwifed the Scottish Enlightenment. The intellectual dominance of this tiny region in the 18th century inspired Voltaire to write, “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization.”

*The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in HistoryJohn M. Barry

“One cannot know with certainty, but if the upper estimate of the death toll is true as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus. And they died with extraordinary ferocity and speed. Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.”

Who can resist books and films about pandemics when living through a pandemic? For many, focusing on previous health crises induces greater panic, but I find these kinds of materials comforting. They describe a panic, a critical turning point in culture and understanding of disease, but ultimately provide some reassurance that humanity as a whole gets through these things. This, coupled with having a better grasp of the trajectory of the pandemic itself, provides solace of a kind, i.e. it will get better, or at least the death toll is nowhere near that of the flu pandemic of 1918. Small consolation, I suppose, for those who have experienced tremendous upheaval and loss this time around.

“During the course of the epidemic, 47 percent of all deaths in the United States, nearly half of all those who died from all causes combined—from cancer, from heart disease, from stroke, from tuberculosis, from accidents, from suicide, from murder, and from all other causes—resulted from influenza and its complications. And it killed enough to depress the average life expectancy in the United States by more than ten years.”

Certainly it’s not for everyone. But I recognize that people take comfort in whatever ways they can. I was thinking earlier about how people return to the same vacation spots, reread the same books, and eat the same favorite meals repeatedly. I, who thrive on novelty, change and constant learning and stimulation, would not enjoy this, but the depth of my understanding of people’s need for comfort and familiarity has increased, particularly during our own era’s seemingly infinite pandemic.

*Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the StoryAngela Saini

Having more women in science is already changing how science is done. Questions are being asked that were never asked before. Assumptions are being challenged. Old ideas are giving way to new ones. The distorted, often negative picture that research has painted of women in the past has been powerfully challenged in recent decades by other researchers—many of whom are women. And this alternative portrait shows humans in a completely different light.”

*Superior: The Return of Race ScienceAngela Saini

“‘In the modern world we look to science as a rationalization of political ideas,’ I’m told by Jonathan Marks, a genial, generous professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is one of the most outspoken voices against scientific racism. Race science, he explains, emerged “in the context of colonial political ideologies, of oppression and exploitation. It was a need to classify people, make them as homogeneous as possible.” Grouping people made it easier to control them.”

*Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First CenturyDorothy Roberts

First – read all of Dorothy Roberts’s books. Just read them. Do it.

Second:

“The emerging biopolitics of race has three main components. First, some scientists are resuscitating biological theories of race by using cutting-edge genomic research to modernize old racial typologies that were based on observations of physical differences. Science is redefining race as a biological category written in our genes. Second, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are converting the new racial science into products that are developed and marketed according to race and that incorporate assumptions of racial difference at the genetic level. Finally, government policies that are officially color-blind are stripping poor minority communities of basic services, social programs, and economic resources in favor of corporate interests while simultaneously imposing on these communities harsh forms of punitive regulation. These dehumanizing policies of surveillance and control are made invisible to most Americans by the emerging genetic understanding of race that focuses attention on molecular differences while obscuring the impact of racism in our society.”

I’d highlight the whole book if left to my own devices, but it’s such an important topic, and hidden behind a veneer of “science” (meaning average people don’t question, if they are aware at all), that you should read the entire book.

“Like citizenship, race is a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations. Race is not only interpreted according to invented rules, but, more important, race itself is an invented political grouping. Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.”

*Under the Udala TreesChinelo Okparanta

The thought occurred to me: Yes, it had been Adam and Eve. But so what if it was only the story of Adam and Eve that we got in the Bible? Why did that have to exclude the possibility of a certain Adam and Adam or a certain Eve and Eve? Just because the story happened to focus on a certain Adam and Eve did not mean that all other possibilities were forbidden. Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean that woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable. I wondered about the Bible as a whole. Maybe the entire thing was just a history of a certain culture, specific to that particular time and place, which made it hard for us now to understand, and which maybe even made it not applicable for us today. Like Exodus. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. Deuteronomy said it too. But what did it mean? What did it mean back then? Was the boiling of the young goat in its mother’s milk a metaphor for insensitivity, for coldness of heart? Or did it refer to some ancient ritual that nobody performed anymore? But still, there it was in the Bible, open to whatever meaning people decided to give to it. Also, what if Adam and Eve were merely symbols of companionship?

*Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public LifeIsaac Kramnick

Atheism is not typically a philosophy of nihilism stripping all meaning from human existence but a position of principled conscience grounded on commitments to reason and science and open debate. Hypocrisy is what empties the public square of moral purpose, and nothing encourages hypocrisy more than a god of convenience who finds sin not in what we do but in what our political opponents do.”

A great book. Living as an atheist, agnostic or even a non-Christian in the “godly republic” of America, the themes Kramnick wrote about here are familiar and deeply felt.

What matters in our story is how events conspired to keep nonbelievers under the same cloud of suspicion. Was it credible in the twentieth century that people who did not believe in an afterlife and divine judgment were more likely to lie than people who still believed in hell? The truth is that most perjurers in American history have happily professed religion and have freely taken an oath to tell the truth.”

Unable to chip away at the omnipresence of God in official political discourse, nonbelievers are marginalized, even stigmatized, as well, by their fellow citizens. This was true in the past and it remains true. No surprise then that candidates for public office would be silent about nonbelief.

*The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious NationalismKatherine Stewart

Christian nationalism is not a religious creed but, in my view, a political ideology. It promotes the myth that the American republic was founded as a Christian nation. It asserts that legitimate government rests not on the consent of the governed but on adherence to the doctrines of a specific religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage. It demands that our laws be based not on the reasoned deliberation of our democratic institutions but on particular, idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible.

Along similar lines and themes as Kramnick’s book on the marginalization and demonization of atheism, here we take a look at the rise of religious nationalism. The ultimate hypocrisy, really, when America will condemn and possibly even go to war with states because they are “oppressive theocracies”. If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black…

“‘I will occasionally mention political topics from the pulpit but not partisan ones,” he continues. “The Bible is inherently political in that it routinely speaks against people who abuse their power in order to oppress other people.’

*The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for FailureJonathan Haidt

“What is new today is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection. There is no expectation that students will grow stronger from their encounters with speech or texts they label “triggering.” (This is the Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.)”

Compassion, understanding, empathy and humanity underpin almost all of my interactions in life. One might imagine then that Haidt’s book on the coddling of the American mind, the removal and excoriation of all ideas and debate that create discomfort (at threat of violence and ostracism), would fly in the face of this commitment to compassion. In fact, no. There is ample space for sensitivity and constructive, respectful discussion. But that’s what has been lost. We are either at extremes, being as insensitive and offensive as we please, or we are tiptoeing around subjects and even words that might “trigger” someone. Is this a kind of censorship? Maybe. When it’s taken on as policy or code of conduct, probably. In individual university classrooms, where this problem has been most evident, it has become problematic to the point that professors have lost jobs and the support of their peers.

Where is the line between pushing the envelope, dissecting even the most abhorrent of ideas, to learn to argue and debate in a reasonable, fact-based and respectful manner and gross negligence toward other people and their lived experience? What else is university for than to encounter entirely different, new worldviews, philosophies and ideas? Why have people become so cocooned and fragile that they need to be protected from and encased in “safe spaces” from words and ideas?

Students were beginning to demand protection from speech because they had unwittingly learned to employ the very cognitive distortions that CBT tries to correct. Stated simply: Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”

Sure, I get that ideas are dangerous. But isn’t that all the more reason to make a truly safe space for diving into them more completely and find out how and why they have the power to control, to trigger, to incite? By ignoring and burying unpleasantness, we threaten ourselves, our children, and society as a whole with a kind of collective amnesia and an inability to deal with even minor hardship or trauma.

If we protect children from various classes of potentially upsetting experiences, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella. The modern obsession with protecting young people from “feeling unsafe” is, we believe, one of the (several) causes of the rapid rise in rates of adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide…”

No, this is not as simple as I’m making out, but it’s worth thinking about how far the pendulum has swung away from open expression and how much more harm we might be doing by shielding people, especially children, from the full range of experience. It’s like allergic response to peanuts. By protecting babies from peanuts, the argument goes, you are actually creating a greater sensitivity than if you had introduced low-level exposure earlier.

Children, like many other complex adaptive systems, are antifragile. Their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environments in order to configure themselves for those environments. Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.

I don’t know what to make of the book’s account of a troubling episode at The Evergreen State College (a frequent lightning rod for matters of political correctness and free expression) in Washington State. Having studied there many years ago, I found it difficult to balance the pursuit of pure academic ideas and following them to their conclusion against entrenched political ideas/ideals both within the student body and the faculty. I loved Evergreen and the flexible approach to learning. Indeed, I could always count on other students and faculty to challenge my ideas and thinking. That was purportedly one of the founding philosophies of the school.

Yet if your narrative, field of inquiry strayed too far from safe guardrails, you could find yourself ostracized within the community. But at the same time, there are two competing narratives about what happened in the so-called “attempted student coup”. There’s the “the left turns on its own” thread and then “alt-right media infiltrates to silence student protest” thread.

Probably valid points on both sides, but there’s no clarity about what actually happened – nor will there be. As Trace (written about above) declares, a shared history or shared experience will never produce the same recollection twice. But this is, I think, where Haidt is going: we should be able to discuss and consider both sides and the nuances of these in order to understand and strengthen our theories.

*Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White HouseRachel Maddow

“Because Agnew’s is a story of a scandal so brazen that, had it not occurred at the same time as Watergate, would likely be remembered as the most astonishing and sordid chapter visited upon a White House in modern times. Heck, in any times. Agnew’s is a tale of a thoroughly corrupt occupant of the White House whose crimes are discovered by his own Justice Department and who then clings to high office by using the power and prerogative of that same office to save himself.”

Overshadowed by Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, the unambiguous and out-in-the-open corruption offensive that characterized Vice President Spiro Agnew’s career could well have served as Donald Trump’s presidential playbook.

His now-all-but-forgotten story has also turned out to be an odd historical doppelgänger, almost a premonition, for what the country would go through with the next Republican president who would face impeachment, after Nixon.

Why sermonize about the superiority of your ideas and values when it was so much more effective to attack the motives and character of your opponents, to call them names, to question their love of country.

Maddow delivers a wildly entertaining and informative book about a moment in history we’ve largely overlooked, but which tells us in no uncertain terms that history repeats and snake-oil salesmen will slither out every few years to attempt to put a legitimate face on criminal enterprise.

*Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult TimesKatherine May

Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again. Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.

Just a beautiful book. Stop, take stock, breathe. Hibernate. Do what you need to do to accept and embrace winter.

More than any other season, winter requires a kind of metronome that ticks away its darkest beats, giving us a melody to follow into spring. The year will move on no matter what, but by paying attention to it, feeling its beat, and noticing the moments of transition—perhaps even taking time to think about what we want from the next phase in the year—we can get the measure of it.”

*Breath: The New Science of a Lost ArtJames Nestor

Evolution doesn’t always mean progress, Evans told me. It means change. And life can change for better or worse. Today, the human body is changing in ways that have nothing to do with the “survival of the fittest.” Instead, we’re adopting and passing down traits that are detrimental to our health. This concept, called dysevolution, was made popular by Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman, and it explains why our backs ache, feet hurt, and bones are growing more brittle. Dysevolution also helps explain why we’re breathing so poorly. To understand how this all happened, and why, Evans told me, we need to go back in time. Way back. To before Homo sapiens were even sapiens.”

I wouldn’t have thought that a book about breathing would be so inspiring, but I enjoyed it and became a lot more mindful and aware of how I breathe.

*Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up BubbleDan Lyons

I remember the hubbub in both tech and mainstream media when Dan Lyons, well-known technology journalist dude in his 50s, was hired at marketing automation startup wunderkind HubSpot. It made a few headlines because it seemed to fly in the face of the “youth is power” ethos that dominates startup tech hiring. Lyons’s account doesn’t do anything to change the idea of ageist bias, or my own experience that startups are often blind-leading-the-blind crap shoot enterprises. If they succeed, it’s not usually because they are well-organized and driven by great leadership or great products. Rather:

“It seems to me that HubSpot is not a software company so much as it is a financial instrument, a vehicle by which money can be moved from one set of hands to another. Halligan and Shah have assembled a low-cost workforce that can crank out hype and generate revenue. HubSpot doesn’t turn a profit, but that’s not necessary. All Halligan and Shah have to do is keep sales growing, and keep telling a good story, using words like delightion, disruption, and transformation, and stay in business long enough for their investors to cash out.”

Some of what Lyons scoffs at (organizational terminology, generational priorities, political correctness) is just par for the course – he’s a fish out of water. Drinking the Kool-Aid isn’t on his menu. And I get that. But it’s not like this is exclusive to the startup environment. Go to any company, of any size, and you’ll get the same things. It’s just that he went very far outside his comfort zone. If one went to one of the news rooms he describes, I don’t know that they would find instant comfort there either.

Still, Lyons’s chronicle of the layer upon layer of ridiculous isn’t misplaced and it isn’t wrong. I’ve seen reflections of this in almost every tech unicorn (and wanna-be unicorn) I’ve seen, and many books about working within the early stages of various now-massive companies that once had nebulous goals and business models confirm these impressions. Also, underneath the layer of ridiculing the inexperienced labor by which he’s surrounded, Lyons gets around to making some sharp points.

This is the New Work, but really it is just a new twist on an old story, the one about labor being exploited by capital. The difference is that this time the exploitation is done with a big smiley face. Everything about this new workplace, from the crazy décor to the change-the-world rhetoric to the hero’s journey mythology and the perks that are not really perks—all of these things exist for one reason, which is to drive down the cost of labor so that investors can maximize their return.”

And

In tech, the concept of culture fit is presented as a good thing. Unfortunately what culture fit often means is that young white guys like to hire other young white guys, and what you end up with is an astonishing lack of diversity.

Once again, yep.

 

2020 year-end roundup: The books that stuck like random gum

Standard

“We relate to the virus, in some ways, as we relate to Trump. We yearn desperately to return to a time of imagined normalcy, before Trump and before the coronavirus. But we can heal only by looking forward—perhaps to a life that will be slower, more environmentally responsible and less materially comfortable, but also more clearly rooted in mutual aid and the understanding of our fundamental equality and interdependence. Now that the pandemic, aided by Trump, has stripped our politics and our society to the bare basics, the question facing Americans is, What do we want our future to look like? Will we, as we did after 9/11, sacrifice civil liberties and human rights? Will we, as we did in response to the financial crisis of 2008, create even greater wealth inequality? Will we, in other words, choose solutions that exacerbate the root problems? In 2020, that would mean forfeiting more freedoms, accepting ever greater inequality, and reelecting Trump. Or will we commit ourselves to reinvention?” –Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen

It’s difficult to sum up a year in which time felt as though it passed more quickly than it ever has while simultaneously dragging on interminably. It feels fitting then that the year has been punctuated by memorable books, both old and new, that remind and instruct about the value of questioning, the value of suffering, the importance of asking how we want to be a part of the world and what we want that world to look like. Especially when we are limited and constrained by circumstances.

I did less this year than in previous years but read even more than normal over the course of the year. Read on to find out what I found most compelling in 2020’s reading.

Previous book reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Reading in 2020

In no particular order, I’ve listed the books that I valued most during the course of the year. I have never been great at describing why something resonated with me, or perhaps I am just lazy and prefer using the writer’s own words to explain what illuminates certain passages and books, elevating them above others. Here I condense my original write-ups from previous months’ readings.

*Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

“The uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on his creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.”

My December 2020 re-reading of Man’s Search for Meaning felt significant and newly relevant. It always does, but in the unusual darkness of 2020, its prescriptions for finding meaning and understanding the near-unlimited capacity we may possess for endurance take on new importance.

“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make.”

*The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American FreedomH.W. Brands

“The work wasn’t finished. The work of freedom never would be.”

Also read in December 2020, The Zealot and the Emancipator explored the routes abolitionist John Brown and US president Abraham Lincoln would take in trying to end America’s darkest, most heinous violation of human rights — slavery. Because of Brands’s gift for storytelling, history comes to life as the lives of two vastly different men are juxtaposed.

“THE QUESTION HAD BEEN: What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil? John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics. Yet the two paths wound up leading to the same place: the most terrible war in American history. Brown aimed at slavery and shattered the Union; Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery.”

We are once more reminded that the work of freedom is never done, and the democratic experience is fragile, dictated more by relying on good faith rather than law, and this is where some of 2020’s other great reads pick up.

*Surviving AutocracyMasha Gessen

“The difficulty with absorbing the news lies, in part, in the words we use, which have a way of rendering the outrageous ordinary.”

Confronted by egregious and shocking things we’d never seen in quite the way they’ve unfolded in the previous four years, we have not had the cognitive ability to process, using the language available to us, that we were surviving the nascent steps toward autocratic rule. Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, which I read twice in 2020, relies on the work of Bálint Magyar,  who assigns three stages to the birth and development of autocracy: “the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation.”

Trump-era madness embodied the autocratic attempt, and was at turns, successful. Could we say there was an autocratic breakthrough? Perhaps Trumpian successes have created “holes” in the veneer but haven’t entirely broken through. But his presidency has done enough damage and set a dangerous precedent that may make a breakthrough more likely and easier to accomplish somewhere down the line because it’s highly unlikely we are as a society learning the lessons of what this period has taught. Gessen insists that we disbelieve or ignore the signs and lessons as our peril, and I fear we did this long before Trump was a viable contender for president, and will continue to do so long after he is gone because we so long for the blindness and comfort of the status quo.

*Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of AmericaSarah Kendzior

““You were right two years ago, but this isn’t going to be Nixon. This is American authoritarianism, and they are going to tell us ‘That’s not possible’ until nothing else is.””

None of what Kendzior has predicted (repeatedly) will seem unfamiliar in hindsight. Much of it may seem unbelievable when reflected upon, but we’ve been on the slippery slope, being primed for this nightmare for a long time.

Read alongside Gessen’s warnings, Sarah Kendzior has delivered a damning condemnation of Trump and Trumpism, and, as many others have pointed out, doesn’t just let us off the hook with a concluding paragraph about “here’s how we get out of this” or “here are some hopeful, if misleading and false, words”. On second reading, this book managed to bear its sharp teeth even more effectively. After all, how can it offer hope when the truth is… things have long looked hopeless?

“One of the most horrific realizations when your government is hijacked from the inside is that there is no official to whom you can turn—because it is rare to find an official who cannot be turned by a corrupt operator. Living for legacy, living for security, living for money—it makes no difference, they are not living for you. There had been a coup, and we were on our own.”

As I said when I originally read this, this is a must-read. This was always the case but maybe it is even more important now as we stand at the threshold of the end of Trump’s presidency and the beginning of what may be the most status-quo presidency ever. So caught up in cleaning up the Trump-era messes and the continuing pandemic, no one will be interested in real change, and that’s what the powers-that-be (both the incoming government as well as Trump’s cronies) count on.

Inevitably, these readings lead to the bigger philosophical and existential questions of what constitutes freedom — on a personal or societal level? How can we seize our own freedom? Aren’t there countless definitions? Some of these definitions colored my other best-of 2020 choices.

Economic freedom

*And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic FutureYanis Varoufakis

Indeed, this book is about a paradox: European peoples, who had hitherto been uniting so splendidly, ended up increasingly divided by a common currency.”

I was on a Yanis Varoufakis kick in August, watching a number of his YouTube talks and interviews with other like-minded economists (there aren’t a lot of them because they have not drunk the standard endless-growth-is-good-possible-inevitable-at-all-costs KoolAid). When I feebly attempted to study economics, the field was dominated by blind praise for capitalism as a model, as the centerpiece around which other theories only existed as faded, failed ideas.

What reality shows us time and again, and which Varoufakis faithfully chronicles, is that people and the policies they enact, fail to enact or haphazardly enforce, often cause misery. It would be difficult to argue that unbridled capitalism has given true relief or prosperity to most people, even if it has done an exceptional job for the few who benefit from it.

To step outside the norm and the accepted (in anything, not just economic studies) requires not only an act of defiance but also raise your voice to tell the world that you think differently. This is where people like Varoufakis or Richard Wolff have walked a different path and have, at times, been “lightning rods” for daring to study, teach, lecture, and write about economic alternatives, which is akin to heresy for mainstream economists and capitalists. It’s also the unpopular direction economist Kate Raworth wanted her own economics studies to take, and she has discussed this in the introduction to her book,Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist. (Raworth’s book is another of my go-to 2020 reads; see below.) All focus on wanting to implement an economic system that serves goals that support human well-being rather than serving the rights and growth of capital. You wouldn’t think that would be so dangerous or controversial.

“ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE once wrote that those who praise freedom only for the material benefits it offers have never kept it long.”

Indeed this is at the heart of a functioning democracy, which has in recent years grown threadbare before our eyes. We don’t live in a democracy as much as a functioning plutocracy (and more frequently under leaders like Trump, kleptocracy). The average person knows very little about economics, and in fact, has been intimidated by and discouraged from understanding it. It serves the plutocrat class to keep people in the dark and only feed the dominant theory into the educational machine.

One is fooled into believing they are free when they are brainwashed into thinking this is so. Varoufakis’s warnings about inequality and how capitalism (one of the great engines of inequality creation) will devour democracy (hasn’t it already in the form of things like Citizens United?) parallel the underlying themes of works by the aforementioned Sarah Kendzior. Varoufakis writes:

“Leonard Schapiro, writing on Stalinism, warned us that “the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade. But to produce a uniform pattern of public utterances in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”

…you cannot help but think of Kendzior’s own warnings about how Trump’s scandals are a form of smoke and mirrors that serve as a distraction from the actual criminal pursuits taking place just below the surface (well, not even out of the public eye — if anyone were paying attention or cared, we can all see the illegality). The spectacle, the propaganda machine, spits out new craziness on a daily basis. The perpetual fatigue and exhaustion, which Gessen also writes about, create conditions ripe for the exploitation and complete plowing under of democracy.

And in a fragile, flawed democracy based on capitalism, which is — if you didn’t realize — controlled by money, money talks… loudest and longest, and those without (which is most of us) have very little recourse.

*Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century EconomistKate Raworth

“…whenever I hear someone praising the ‘free market’, I beg them to take me there because I’ve never seen it at work in any country that I have visited.”

Raworth describes exactly what is almost ineffably wrong about standard economics. When I took up the formal study of economics more than 20 years ago, I ran into walls  – walls that have grown taller and thicker over time. Mostly this is because, when I started, I was more willing to accept, as Raworth describes it, economics’ “long-established theories”, rather than the more sensible and just “humanity’s long-term goals”. It did not occur to me until I was, as Raworth also describes, deep in the abyss of trying to understand accepted theory, that there might be another way.

“I was so busy getting to grips with the theory of demand and supply, so determined to get my head around the many definitions of money, that I did not spot the hidden values that had occupied the economic nest. Though claiming to be value-free, conventional economic theory cannot escape the fact that value is embedded at its heart: it is wrapped up with the idea of utility, which is defined as a person’s satisfaction or happiness gained from consuming a particular bundle of goods.”

The economic theories we were being sold were all about consumption and production and laden with its own (empty) values, which modern economists largely deny.

“It was only when I opted to study what was at the time an obscure topic—the economics of developing countries—that the question of goals popped up. The very first essay question that I was set confronted me head-on: What is the best way of assessing success in development? I was gripped and shocked. Two years into my economic education and the question of purpose had appeared for the first time. Worse, I hadn’t even realised that it had been missing. Twenty-five years later, I wondered if the teaching of economics had moved on by recognising the need to start with a discussion of what it is all for.”

How can future economists reclaim and reframe what economic success and progress look like, and espouse a way of “economic thinking that would enable us to achieve” and meet humanity’s needs and goals? Now more than ever, as unemployment numbers reach record territory, and when “full employment” doesn’t reflect the number of people in more than full-time employment who nevertheless live in poverty, how can we redefine economic prosperity to encompass human well-being instead of by impenetrable and meaningless GDP and stock market figures?

“And so, over half a century, GDP growth shifted from being a policy option to a political necessity and the de facto policy goal. To enquire whether further growth was always desirable, necessary, or indeed possible became irrelevant, or political suicide.”

This has been clear for a long time, but it takes extraordinary circumstances, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate how exploitative, fragile and short-sighted the current system is. Whom does it serve? Who really enables it?

Raworth writes extensively about the invisible and unpaid “core economy” – the labor of the household, of rearing children, etc. This labor has been removed from the equation. During times of crisis (like now), however, the veil is lifted and its supremacy as the foundation of all that becomes possible in the market is elevated – or at least obvious, even if briefly.

“…And since work in the core economy is unpaid, it is routinely undervalued and exploited, generating lifelong inequalities in social standing, job opportunities, income and power between women and men.”

“By largely ignoring the core economy, mainstream economics has also overlooked just how much the paid economy depends upon it. Without all that cooking, washing, nursing and sweeping, there would be no workers—today or in the future—who were healthy, well-fed and ready for work each morning. As the futurist Alvin Toffler liked to ask at smart gatherings of business executives, ‘How productive would your workforce be if it hadn’t been toilet trained?’”

How can we show that freedom is not about buying shit and that GDP and growth have very little to do with the people who power the economy — those who supply the labor — both paid and unpaid — to create the workforce on which all of society depends?

Socioeconomic freedom

*The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better LifeAnu Partanen

Defining freedom is culture specific. When I talk about freedom with Americans, they spout superficial ideas about freedom that are related to showy patriotism, supposedly low taxes, and the ability to “defend themselves” with guns. I don’t know exactly where these definitions come from, although I suspect, having been educated there, it’s full-scale indoctrination from an early age. Pledging allegiance to a flag and valuing symbols over other humans or cultures is something endemic to life in America and its school system. Perhaps, assigning a less value-judgment approach to this definition, I could say Americans are a “freedom to” culture more than a “freedom from” culture. This doesn’t capture the entire picture but strikes on the individualism and selfishness that characterizes most Americans and the culture they live in.

The Nordic Theory of Everything begins to tap into the two sides of the “freedom” debate (if you could call it a debate).

Re: America: “In this country you are at the mercy of your employer. You really don’t have any rights. Because of that you live in a constant state of worry.”

The book goes into incredible detail about the differences between the Finnish (and Nordic more generally) and American systems, finally landing on a key argument (italicized and emboldened emphasis mine):

“Yet the longer I lived in America as a Nordic immigrant, something became clear to me. Regardless of whether Finland was the “best” country in the world or not, most people in the United States, as well as many of my Nordic countrymen back home, did not fully realize that to leave Finland or any other Nordic country behind and settle in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century was to experience an extraordinary—and extraordinarily harsh—form of travel backward in time. As a Nordic immigrant to the United States, I noticed something else, too. Americans, and many others around the world, did not seem fully aware of how much better things could be.”

Instability is the name of the game in American life, and I so much wish I could impart to Americans about how they are sold a bill of goods that insists that they are free, but how free are you when everything is so complicated, opaque, and you are tied to your job, your employer-provided, but nevertheless not-comprehensive health insurance, your out-of-reach expensive day care, your student loans and exorbitant university fees, your complex and insane tax forms, an unfair system of taxation (which is not that much less than what many Nordic earners pay), which Nordic people are free from?

“The longer I lived in America, therefore, and the more places I visited and the more people I met—and the more American I myself became—the more puzzled I grew. For it was exactly those key benefits of modernity—freedom, personal independence, and opportunity—that seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, in a thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life today.”

And ironically… in “free” America, neither employees nor employers are free. This may be one of the key points Partanen makes. While no one would accuse most US employers of being overly generous, they are still being saddled with many of the responsibilities that Nordic countries expect their taxes and good government to provide:

“By now I was used to hearing the Nordic countries dismissed as “socialist nanny states.” But ironically it was here in America that businesses trying to manufacture products and make a buck had somehow gotten saddled with the nanny’s job of taking care of their employees’ health. Surely, I thought, Milton Friedman, the great free-market economist, must be turning in his grave! From a Nordic perspective, it seemed ludicrous to burden for-profit companies with the responsibility of providing employees with such a fundamental, complicated, and expensive social service. People in the United States were aware of this contradiction, of course, and in discussions of the American business landscape, experts often pointed to the burdens that health-care obligations placed on companies, especially on small businesses. But no one seemed to be talking about the other side of the coin: the unhealthy dependence on employers that this creates among employees receiving, or hoping to receive, these benefits. It was an old-fashioned and oppressive sort of dependence, it seemed to me, completely at odds with the modern era of individual liberty and opportunity. I could see the consequences in the lives of everyone I knew.”

Anxiety levels among my American friends are almost insanely high — but they don’t know otherwise. Making personal choices, like leaving jobs in which they are unhappy, or starting businesses, or taking a year off to have a child, isn’t fraught with anxiety levels in the Nordic countries because the government, held accountable by the people who elected it, anticipate these changes and needs. This seems like true freedom to me.

“When I look at my Nordic friends now, they seem so free to me. They work and have children, they engage in hobbies, they travel the world, and they never seem to worry about really going broke. They have health care, day care, and pensions. They can study whatever they want, and they don’t have to risk their financial future to do so.”

The freedom of personal choice, self-definition, self-determination and identity

The majority of books I read in 2020 are bound by this loose thread of defining “freedom”, defining oneself and one’s own identity, and finding meaning as well as, as Viktor Frankl wrote about, the self-determining nature of humans and humanity.

There are traits about ourselves that we can’t change, but there are also many aspects of our personal identities that we can change and choose for ourselves. Many of these books reflect the ways we make these choices and determinations.

*Shuggie BainDouglas Stuart

The much-deserved 2020 Booker Prize winner, a heartbreaking work with a clear sense of language, culture, class and place (Glasgow). The titular protagonist, despite poverty, suffering and loss, is deeply human, as are all the rich and imperfect characters populating the story.

*Scots: The Mither TongueBilly Kay

“Politics, in support or suppression, are central to the fate of languages. Yet political support at a given time is not in itself enough to guarantee a language’s survival if the historical process which has eroded it has been unrelenting over centuries and has pushed the language to a geographical and psychological periphery in the nation’s consciousness. That is certainly the case with Irish and until recently was certainly the case with Gaelic. The principal reason why Welsh is in a much stronger position than Scottish Gaelic today is that the Welsh had not posed a political threat to the British state for hundreds of years, while Gaelic was the language of the Jacobite forces which almost overthrew the state in the rebellions of the eighteenth century.”

In self-determination, language is a powerful key toward definition and retention. This book chronicles how essential the diverse Scots language is to the linguistic, national and cultural history of Scotland. Historical and linguistic hostility at its persistent use and existence continues — but the language itself has become a subject of vivid study and much-needed focus.

 “If using your first language is classed as the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at the teacher, there is little ground for fruitful dialogue. Educationalists often refer to the ‘inarticulate Scot’ as if it were a hereditary disease, instead of the effect of shackling people to one language when they are much more articulate in another. The omnipotent standard of having one correct way of speaking colours our society’s attitude and results in false value judgements about people. These value judgements are made in every sector of society, not just in education.”

This is particularly important as Scotland itself struggles toward self-determination in a post-Brexit, post-Covid-shambles world.

“One of the most debilitating phenomena of Scottish society is the false notion that to get on you have to get out. English hegemony is so all pervasive in our society that a sign of success and sophistication among some is to attempt to erase signs of Scottishness from their public persona. The implications of such an attitude for Scottish culture are drastic, not to mention wrong-headed. The linguistic tension is often not resolved at one particular time and can be an ongoing choice throughout one’s life.”

A person may choose to retain and (defiantly) use a language, such as Scots, and it becomes a part of their identity — or more a part of the identity. While you may not choose your native, first language, you can make the choice to continue using it even when it’s a minority language and often ridiculed… not only is it a part of the identity, it is a statement.

*The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

“The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.”

One of the few books that made me cry in 2020, Schulman’s account of a 1980s world governed by callous gentrification and a brainwashing of the entire culture to become willing cogs in the “Nasdaq value system” wheel hurts. And it hurts even more against its bigger backdrop: the loss of vast parts of an entire generation of young people, many of whom were artists, to AIDS, the dehumanization of the communities it primarily affected, and the heartlessness and unwillingness to act that kept the disease from being front-page news or a public health crisis of the proportion it should have been.

“The announcer is discussing events that I know intimately, organically, that have seared the emotional foundation of my adult life. And yet there is a strangely mellow tone to the story. It’s been slightly banalized, homogenized. This is the first time I’ve heard AIDS being historicized, and there is something clean-cut about this telling, something wrong. Something…gentrified. “At first America had trouble with People with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.” I almost crash the car.”

Thus I comprehend her bewildered reaction: “But then, they came around“?!

What!?

When did “they” ever come around? Had, as Schulman pondered, her community – what remained of it – failed to show exactly how much they had suffered, how much they had lost? What the world, in fact, lost, to this epidemic, the lack of response to which was “caused by governmental and familial neglect”?

Schulman’s words echo the same words and experiences as highlighted in other books I’ve selected as important here, especially regarding the devaluing of humanity, experience, education and the prioritization, at any and all costs, of money and material wealth.

“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. Sometimes we do know that certain happiness exists at the expense of other human beings, but because we’re not as smart as we think we are, we decide that this is the only way we can survive. Stupidity or cruelty become the choice, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. After all, people and institutions act on and transform each other. So, it’s not happiness at the expense of the weaker versus nothing, right? And yet we are led to feel this way.”

Schulman is writing from her own experience and taking back the narrative that homogenizes the AIDS crisis, but her theses are widely applicable in terms of discussing gentrification, privatization, privilege and — of course — the commodification of humanity and individual identities. Everything about this book commands attention and compels… action. Action toward empathy, compassion and intervention.

“Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen. Every historical moment passes.”

*Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary AbortionKatie Watson

While a book about abortion isn’t so much about identity, it is a complex and controversial issue defined by choice and anti-choice, ethical considerations, the legal system and personal and medical privacy. Public rhetoric about abortion, at least in the United States, treats it as less a personal medical issue and more a moral and religious one. And the mismatch between what is true (actions) versus what is said (ideas, beliefs) is stark.

Framing of the issue always comes into play, with the public discourse insisting that “abortion is always a tragedy” and that choosing abortion is or always must be “a difficult decision”. And this flies in the face of what I’d call freedom and identity (bold italics mine).

“But people who don’t struggle with an abortion decision are not necessarily less morally serious than those who do—they’re just less undecided. Someone who is clear about who she is, what she values, and what she wants is not casual. She is confident. Yet there are few examples of this type of counter-narrative. Bringing a child into the world is of great moral consequence, yet we don’t frame the decision to have a child as a difficult decision people always struggle with. So why wouldn’t some abortion decisions feel similarly obvious?”

And once more… the language and words we use matter.

“How we think shapes how we talk, and how we talk shapes how we think. That’s why terminology is contested ground in the abortion conversation. But all of our under- and over-inclusive words for embryos and fetuses make me wonder: Is it really that helpful to have seventeen words for snow? Or is the point rather that when you talk about something complex and important you need a range of words to describe it, each of which captures an important element, because none of them can encompass it all?“

*Breasts and EggsMieko Kawakami

And what of the choice not to bear children? What value does that convey about the one making this choice? Society has many opinions, but in the end, it is only the potential mother who must live with it.

In Breasts and Eggs, the protagonist is a writer who is considering having a child, and her reflections dive into the losses and consequences of having versus not having.

“It’s really simple, I promise. Why is it that people think this is okay? Why do people see no harm in having children? They do it with smiles on their faces, as if it’s not an act of violence. You force this other being into the world, this other being that never asked to be born.”

“Once you have children, you can’t unhave them,” she laughed. “I know how this sounds. You think I sound extreme, or detached from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is real life. That’s what I’m talking about—the pain that comes with reality. Not that anyone ever sees it.”

*The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaBessel A. van der Kolk

Much of what I’ve focused on is the chosen identity. The self-determination that we can influence and drive for ourselves. But what of trauma and its influence on our bodies?

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

Trauma appears to never disappear and the traumatic event (or events) live on, triggered for decades after (and epigenetics indicates that trauma lives on in the genes)… but an understanding of this, while continually emerging, is incomplete.

“The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.”

Freedom to explore, understand and interpret identity

*Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

“…no society, including our own, is the endpoint of human social evolution. We aren’t even a distinct stage in human development. History moves in loops and circles, not in straight lines, and toward no particular end. Our own vices and blind spots are as readily apparent as those of any society anywhere.”

The development of anthropology as a discipline isn’t something I gave a great deal of thought to until I started studying communication for development, which focuses on the so-called “developing world” (and queries whether it should even be called “developing world”). Later my psychology and theology studies crossed into anthropological territory, but it still never occurred to me to look more carefully at its theoretical and historical origins.

An anthropological quest crosses multiple disciplines: linguistics, sociology, psychology, theology, among others, and like most fields of academic inquiry, its methodology, its merit, its subjects have shifted alongside the specialists within the field and the cultures to which they belong.

At its core, according to its founding proponents, such as Franz Boas, cultural anthropology required acknowledging one’s own ignorance and one’s own worldview and preconceived ideas, placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and observing in as scientific and objective a way as possible. It provided, as anthropology pioneer Ruth Benedict put it, “illumination that comes of envisaging very different possible ways of handling invariable problems” and demanded the realization that nothing about culture is universal, i.e. cultural relativity.

Do we understand freedom, identity and self-determination without a context in which to place these concepts? Anthropology is one rich contextual lens through which to see and try to interpret in some limited way.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and could endlessly ramble about it — but won’t. It’s worth reading, and in particular its discussion on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work shines a light on her journey as a folklorist and writer in a new context; she is the most fascinating among the book’s “characters” and, while not orthodox or organized in her methodology and data collection, she captured the most living, breathing, startling accounts and observations in her anthropological work, such as in Haiti.

“Magical thinking was as close to a human universal as you could imagine, and it existed in modern societies, too. Gambling, the stock market, even the concept of private property—the belief that I can expand my sense of self to include an inanimate object, the loss of which would induce deep displeasure and anxiety—all depend to a degree on magical belief systems. They are ways of summoning the unlikely and the invisible in order to control the tangible world.”

For more detail on more of the things I read in 2020 (and before), here are the previous years’ reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Said and read – December 2020

Standard

Oddly I didn’t read a single book in November and only read a few in October. But I ‘recovered‘ in December by reading an insane amount. As always, it’s not the amount that counts. Just read. Especially during these times. There is something for everyone in the written word and world.

“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.”” Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

Previous book reports: 2020 – October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for December:

I liked a lot of the things I read in December, even if I would not recommend the majority of them. I include several here that struck me for personal reasons and not so much because I think they’d be universally appreciated.

Highly recommended

*Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

“The uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on his creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.”

I had read Man’s Search for Meaning about three years ago at the suggestion of a friend. She sent me the book this year for Christmas, not knowing I’d read the book when she recommended it years earlier. But it’s the kind of slim volume that can and should be re-read.

It probably diminishes the value of the book to say that it could be an especially insightful thing to read in these soul-ravaging times, but I can think of very few books that can offer a guide for these fraught times. What other book teaches about human freedom and choice – our ability to choose to endure or even rise above suffering by choosing our own response to it?

“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make.”

I have had many conversations of late with people who are each enduring their own forms of suffering, and it reminds me constantly that suffering is relative. It is, as Frankl writes, omnipresent in life, but we cannot know the size of another’s suffering. But in our own suffering or in helping to shepherd others through their suffering, we may identify the source of the suffering. When we name it, we can endure it because we can strive for something else when we give the source or form of our suffering a name.

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

In choosing our path, we also find meaning. Frankl, in very few words, shows how meaning can encompass so many different aspects of human existence.

“My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing—which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

*And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS EpidemicRandy Shilts

“How very American, he thought, to look at a disease as homosexual or heterosexual, as if viruses had the intelligence to choose between different inclinations of human behavior.”

I watch and read almost everything that chronicles the history of the AIDS epidemic, and strangely had never read this lengthy and detailed (not to mention gripping) account of the appearance of this mysterious and devastating disease. I had seen the film version, which now strikes me as inadequate.

Sound reporting for the most part, aside from its turning flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas into a villain by falsely identifying him as “patient zero”. At the time of the book’s publication, the best science available would have traced many AIDS patients back to Dugas, but later epidemiological digging would discover earlier antecedents to Dugas.

Notably thorough, particularly for a time when virtually no one was writing about AIDS with the kind of attention Shilts paid, it’s an incredible history from which we continue to learn. It covers the inattention, indifference and lethal lack of care of the public and political spheres (Conant recalled, however, that this was the dean who also once observed, “At least with AIDS, a lot of undesirable people will be eliminated.”), how frightening and befuddling the disease itself was, the incredible toll the disease took on the first group it mortally wounded, the gay community, and introduced a cast of unforgettable characters, including public health officials, AIDS activists and writer Larry Kramer (who recently died).

I can’t capture 800 pages worth of in-depth reporting in a couple of sentences, but this is one of the most comprehensive and important books of the early AIDS crisis, and time has done nothing to dim its vitality in retelling the story we seem to be, as a society, forgetting.

*The Right StuffTom Wolfe

“The military did not have very merciful instincts. Rather than packing up these poor souls and sending them home, the Navy, like the Air Force and the Marines, would try to make use of them in some other role, such as flight controller. So the washout was to keep taking classes with the rest of his group, even though he can no longer touch an airplane. He sits thee in the classes staring at sheets of paper with cataracts of sheer human mortification over his eyes while the rest steal looks at him… this man reduced to an ant, this untouchable, this poor sonofabitch. And in what test had he been found wanting? Why, it seemed to be nothing less than manhood itself.”

Having joked for years that my dad is Ed Harris (they sort of look alike), it’s hard not to then extend that to one of Ed Harris’s iconic roles, astronaut and US senator, John Glenn. I received a copy of The Right Stuff as a gift, an in-joke nod to this connection, the giver claiming I could finally get to know my dad better through his biography.

“…men who were the bearers and protectors of the most important values of American life, who maintained a sense of discipline while civilians abandoned themselves to hedonism, who maintained a sense of honor while civilians lived by opportunism and greed. Opportunism and greed: there you had your much-vaunted corporate business world. Khrushchev was right about one thing: when it came time to hang the capitalist West, an American businessman would sell him the rope. When the showdown came – and the showdowns always came – not all the wealth in the world or all the sophisticated nuclear weapons and radar and missile systems it could buy would take the place of those who had the uncritical willingness to face danger, those who, in short, had the right stuff.”

I started reading the book (having seen the film about a million times, which is of course how Ed Harris is so inextricably tied to John Glenn) the day before Chuck Yeager, who was arguably the hero of this book, died.

The book was beautifully written and captured the embryonic moments of the US space program and the competition with the Soviets but almost as a backdrop to the incipient and groundbreaking (or maybe “sound breaking” would be a more apt description) work Yeager did as a test pilot. A great deal of descriptive nuance is lost in the film (although I’d argue the film is also a classic, for different reasons. I liked having the visual image of the actors from the film in mind when I read the book).

And, in the shadow of Yeager’s death, a fitting tribute to Yeager and his apparently infectious, folksy, Appalachian drawl and how pilots ever since have sought to imitate it:

“’Pygmalion in reverse’: “It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

*The NightfieldsJoanna Klink

Poetry as always.

*I’ll Fly AwayRudy Francisco

Another collection of poetry from one of my recent favorites.

Useful, interesting and otherwise positive

*Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven WorldCarl T. Bergstrom

I’d have loved to read this when I was studying full-time – it is a great book to read any time to begin to unravel the skewed way we interpret data and statistics, eating them up as prepared. And the truth is they are prepared and fed to the tastes of the person feeding them to us.

It called to mind a book I read back in July, Rigor Mortis, about how bad/sloppy science is not only contributing to the replicability/reproducibility crisis but also wastes money, time and leads to bad conclusions that end up interpreted or used in media or other research that leads nowhere. Sharpening the BS radar, as Calling Bullshit calls for, and changing some of the particularities of academic and scientific journal publishing practice, could help alleviate this problem.

Whether you just want to understand a bit better how to critically interrogate the provenance or veracity of something you’ve read in a news article or need to think more deeply about scientific claims made in research, this is a great book to revisit often for practical how-to tactics to debunk junk claims, misleading “facts” and interpretations, and general BS. We need this kind of thing more than ever. While everyone can use it, it would be a heck of a lot more powerful if the people who need it most would read it.

*All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern ParenthoodJennifer Senior

Not much to say about this book except that it won’t surprise anyone that rearing children is difficult, expensive, and has become, if we follow Senior’s logic, asymmetrical.

“Over time, reformers managed to outlaw child labor practices. Yet change was slow. It wasn’t until our soldiers returned from World War II that childhood, as we now know it, began. The family economy was no longer built on a system of reciprocity, with parents sheltering and feeding their children, and children, in return, kicking something back into the family till. The relationship became asymmetrical. Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses.”

Mostly we see how children went from being useful to almost like being an all-consuming project. Senior touches on some of the important stuff about how rearing children outside the US, in European countries for example, is a very different enterprise, as governments usually guarantee protection for employees who take time off to have children, subsidize childcare and healthcare is universal, erasing some of the biggest worries atop parents’ minds. Having a child in Scandinavia, for example, is a good deal less… stressful than in America. Sure, it’s still hard, but all those external stresses are alleviated so parents can focus on being parents and people (individuals outside of parenthood).

*The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and HubrisMark Honigsbaum

“Unless and until we take account of the ecological, immunological, and behavioural factors that govern the emergence and spread of novel pathogens, our knowledge of such microbes and their connection to disease is bound to be partial and incomplete.”

I am on board with reading as many books like this as I can. I don’t know why I devour them. You’d think they would seem scarier under the thumb of Covid. But I feel like trying to get a better understanding of the history of identifying disease is comforting.

“Indeed, by the 1940s Burnet was worrying that these spillover events were becoming more common and that overpopulation, coupled with international trade and jet travel, was disrupting natural ecologies in new and unpredictable ways, leading to virulent outbreaks of vector-borne diseases such as yellow fever. While a world in which everyone and everything was more closely linked in a biological sense should favour a ‘virtual equilibrium’ between humans and microbial parasites, Burnet warned that “man… lives in an environment constantly being changed by his own activities, and few of his diseases have attained such equilibrium.”

*A Promised LandBarack Obama

Obama is a good writer, and it was comforting in some way to go back to this more innocent time. It feels like a million years ago. And it wasn’t innocent. It was just filled with complete sentences.

Even good writers, though, benefit from good editors, a point Obama himself concedes early on in this overly long book. But who is going to tell Barack Obama that he needs to shave off a couple hundred pages? Especially when he recounts with precise detail how offended he felt when others were cutting lines from a speech long ago, before he was the US president.

If you’re someone who has read his other books and Michelle Obama’s Becoming, much of this will also feel like you’re treading old ground that he didn’t need to include here. But plenty of people will appreciate the level of detail about the past he introduces.

*Death is Hard WorkKhaled Khalifa

“Surrendering to one’s memories is the best way of escaping the wounds they preserve; constant repetition robs them of their brilliance and sanctity.”

Khalifa is a Syrian writer whose work brings the day-to-day struggles and tragedy in Syria into stark view. In this brief novel, an old man dies in Damascus and has tasked his son with completing his last wish: to be buried in the family plot in Anabiya.

Yet with war raging all around, roadblocks impeding the supposedly two-hour drive between Damascus and Anabiya, the son enlists his siblings to help him achieve his father’s final wish. This book tells the tale of that harrowing and perilous journey.

““Tend to the living—the dead are already gone.” He didn’t like it, however, because of how often the line was quoted by cowards justifying retreat. And in any case, today it might be a different matter—better to tend to the dead; after all, they now outnumbered the living. He went on to muse that they would all surely be dead in the not-too-distant future. This thought had given him exceptional courage over the previous four years. Not only had it served to increase his stoicism day by day, but he was far better able to withstand the many insults he received from checkpoint soldiers and Mukhabarat in the course of his work if he bore this thought in mind, since it allowed him to subscribe to the view that anyone who gave him a hard time would probably be dead today or tomorrow, or by next month at the latest. Not that this was a particularly pleasant notion, but it was an accurate one, and each citizen had to live under the shadow of this understanding. The inhabitants of the city regarded everyone they saw as not so much “alive” as “pre-dead.” It gave them a little relief from their frustration and anger.”

*Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

*GulagAnne Applebaum

I’ve only recently discovered Applebaum, which is odd considering my long ‘relationship’ with studying eastern Europe and Russia. Still, I’ve stumbled onto her work as a result of her recent book, Twilight of Democracy, which completes a journey through (relatively) newly authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary, the inward-looking, xenophobic English (and mercifully Applebaum makes the critical distinction that it is an English obsession, not a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish one) drive toward the disaster that is Brexit, and finally the Trump-in-America phenomenon.

I enjoyed Twilight of Democracy, but not quite as much as I had expected. Perhaps because I’d read Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding in Plain Sight and Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy first. Even though Applebaum has different expertise and her own voice, I was put off by her tendency to write exceptionally long and not particularly succinct sentences. I have always been (rightly) criticized for my own long sentences, and I have yet to read another writer in modern literature who gets away with it. And, even though Applebaum’s long sentences made it through editing, I wouldn’t say she “gets away with it” because greater concision would have made Twilight of Democracy a better book. This is, though, a minor complaint because it is a good book. Just not as good as it might have been.

Her other works, especially Gulag, are better. The diligence of her research is clear – and she exposes a great deal of hitherto unavailable information about the history of the Gulag system. When I told someone I was reading a book about the Gulag system, he asked incredulously, “System?!” Which makes Applebaum’s point:

“Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known. By some measures, it is still not known. Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness. “Human knowledge,” once wrote Pierre Rigoulot, the French historian of communism, “doesn’t accumulate like the bricks of a wall, which grows regularly, according to the work of the mason. Its development, but also its stagnation or retreat, depends on the social, cultural and political framework.”

*Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally IllRobert Whitaker

“I soon stumbled upon two research findings that didn’t fit with what I knew. First, in a 1994 article, Harvard Medical School researchers had reported that outcomes for schizophrenia patients had worsened during the past twenty years. Schizophrenia patients were now faring no better than they had in 1900, when various water therapies—needle showers and prolonged baths—were the preferred treatments of the day. Second, the World Health Organization had twice found that schizophrenia outcomes in the United States and other developed countries were much worse than those in the poor countries of the world. Suffer a psychotic break in a poor country like India or Nigeria, and chances were that in a couple of years you would be doing fairly well. But suffer a similar break in the United States or another developed country, and it was likely that you would become chronically ill.”

A damning exploration of the treatment of schizophrenia in America, and society’s inability first to see patients as people and second to appropriately understand the damage done by the litany of dangerous treatments lauded as “cures”. Whether blunt surgical butchery, electroshock therapy or highly toxic medication, the efficacy of most of the treatments administered in the United States was never established, and in most cases, patients ended up much worse off.

*The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American FreedomH.W. Brands

“The work wasn’t finished. The work of freedom never would be.”

This was one of those times I had to “nerd out” and email the author to say thanks because this book breathed fresh life into historical figures and events, which is something that always causes my heart to flutter a bit. This volume comes around at a time that lets it coincide with the raucous, much-lauded limited series, The Good Lord Bird, which certainly will act as a springboard for deeper investigation of the real people and stories that make up the actual historical record.

“The hanging was not the end of John Brown but a new beginning. Brown’s parting testament shortly surfaced, scribbled on a scrap of paper passed to a sympathetic guard before he left the jail. “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” he declared. The dreadful forecast made the martyr into a prophet as well.”

“Lincoln himself had raised the issue of blood atonement in his second inaugural address. Now his own blood was part of the reckoning, and his link to John Brown more compelling. Brown had foretold blood atonement while becoming one of the first sacrifices; Lincoln at the time had resisted the concept for his country and scarcely imagined it for himself. But he made decisions whose consequences included a bloodletting far greater than anything Brown had envisioned, and finally his own death. Brown was a first martyr in the war that freed the slaves, Lincoln one of the last.”

I’m partial to anything that leads people to investigate further. In this case, the book also raises points that are as relevant today as when Brown and Lincoln lived.

“THE QUESTION HAD BEEN: What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil? John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics. Yet the two paths wound up leading to the same place: the most terrible war in American history. Brown aimed at slavery and shattered the Union; Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery.”

*His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a LifeJonathan Alter

A misunderstood US president who has long been dogged by labels that he was one of America’s worst presidents. His long post-presidential life has enabled a reassessment of sorts, particularly as the man has devoted his life to doing good in the world.

Was Carter’s presidency as “bad” as it is often remembered? The book makes a compelling case that it certainly wasn’t – but Carter was a bit thin-skinned, a bit too honest and forthright, a true non-politician in the sense that he had neither the dishonesty or charisma to propel him to the inspirational heights that wholly unqualified individuals like Ronald Reagan reached.

*This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended ConsequencesSarah E. Hill

I am not sure how to characterize why this book was a disappointment to me. It’s not that it was bad or unreadable. It’s not that the subject matter isn’t fascinating in its own way. It’s just… I don’t know what. Still there are useful questions posed.

“Treating the pill as the big deal that it is will require a major course adjustment for all of us. We’ve all been far too cavalier about making changes to women’s sex hormones. And if you need evidence of this, consider for a moment the differences in the way we treat birth control pills and anabolic steroids, those drugs favored by athletes who don’t mind cheating to win. The primary ingredient in steroids is a synthetic version of the primary male sex hormone, testosterone. These synthetics work by stimulating testosterone receptors and getting cells to run their testosterone program. This causes the body to experience changes like increased muscle mass, skin breakouts, and the magnification of certain male-like behavioral traits (like bar fighting and wall punching). Now, as you are probably well aware, anabolic steroids are illegal without a prescription. They are classified as a Schedule III controlled substance and—if you’re caught with them—you’re looking at a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. Steroids, because they stimulate hormone receptors, have a wide range of effects on men’s bodies and brains. When taken over long periods of time, these changes can be bad for men’s health. Given that men might want to take them anyway, steroids are illegal without a prescription, in an attempt to discourage steroid use in the service of public health. Are you starting to sense the irony? We worry about men using artificial sex hormones because of all the effects they have on the body. At the same time, women are routinely prescribed female sex hormones and kept on them for years at a time despite all the effects that they have on the body. We are willing to turn a blind eye to all the ways the pill can change women because we simply can’t entertain going back to living in a world where women don’t have control over their fertility. And we shouldn’t have to.”

Disappointing reads

*Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the WorldTom Burgis

“Compliance officers had been around for a while but following a procession of corporate scandals – Enron, WorldCom and the rest – they became ubiquitous, the designated conscience of big business. In practice, what compliance officers at banks usually did was attempt to swathe the organisation in a veil of rectitude without restricting bankers’ moneymaking in any meaningful way.”

I thought this was going to be an exciting book, and whether I was just not in the mood for it, or it was just that boring, I could barely get through it. I may revisit it later.

“For an oligarch seeking safety there was one option so bold that you might have thought it would be difficult. First, turn yourself into a corporation: one of the most powerful fictions in which Westerners chose to believe, endowed with privileges and protections, and yet blissfully easy to create. Second, add to that corporation the assets Nazarbayev had allowed you to acquire – mines, banks, whatever. Then sell a share of your corporation for Western money.”

Probably the best part of the book was the strategic deployment of quotes from other people:

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” –Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Said and read – October 2020

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For the first time this year, I have read only a small handful of books. The motivation just wasn’t there. There is darkness all around. We are all on edge … and at the edge of falling into the abyss of societal decay we won’t easily recover from.

“Though neither happiness nor respect are worth anything, because unless both are coming from the truest motives, they are simply deceits. A successful man earns the respect of the world never mind what is the state of his mind, or his manner of earning. So what is the good of such respect, and how happy will such a man be in himself? And if he is what passes for happy, such a state is lower than the self-content of the meanest animal.” How Green Was My ValleyRichard Llewellyn

Previous book reports: 2020 – September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for October:

I liked all of the very few things I read in October (there were only six books):

*Shuggie BainDouglas Stuart

“’Mammy, help. I can’t.’ ‘Yes. You. Can.’ She was still smiling through her open teeth. “Just hold your head up high and Gie. It. Laldy.” She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.”

A heartbreaking book with a clear sense of language, culture, class and place (Glasgow). It hits close to home, and I devoured it.

*How Green Was My ValleyRichard Llewellyn

One of those books you always think you should read. A friend read it back when we were in junior high school, and then I recall Frasier Crane making a big deal out of the film adaptation in an episode of Frasier. I haven’t seen the film or read the book. But now, suddenly, I thought, “Why not?”

“HERE IN THIS QUIET HOUSE I sit thinking back the structure of my life, building again that which has fallen. It do seem to me that the life of man is merely a pattern scrawled on Time, with little thought, little care, and no sense of design. Why is it, I wonder, that people suffer, when there is so little need, when an effort of will and some hard work would bring them from their misery into peace and contentment.”

Like many stories about people living in communities where everyone ends up doing one dangerous job – whether it’s mining, as it is here, or logging, or something similar, the main character (Huw Morgan) has academic promise that can help him achieve something more than going down into the mines.

*Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945Tony Judt

“Post-national, welfare-state, cooperative, pacific Europe was not born of the optimistic, ambitious, forward-looking project imagined in fond retrospect by today’s Euro-idealists. It was the insecure child of anxiety. Shadowed by history, its leaders implemented social reforms and built new institutions as a prophylactic, to keep the past at bay.”

This was a really long book and goes into a fair amount of depth about the many different challenges faced by Europe after World War II.

“But the Communist myth bears unintended witness to the importance (and the difficulty) in both halves of Europe of managing a burdensome inheritance. World War One destroyed old Europe; World War Two created the conditions for a new Europe. But the whole of Europe lived for many decades after 1945 in the long shadow cast by the dictators and wars in its immediate past. That is one of the experiences that Europeans of the post-war generation have in common with one another and which separates them from Americans, for whom the twentieth century taught rather different and altogether more optimistic lessons. And it is the necessary point of departure for anyone seeking to understand European history before 1989—and to appreciate how much it changed afterwards.”

“Why were Europeans willing to pay so much for insurance and other long-term welfare provisions, at a time when life was still truly hard and material shortages endemic? The first reason is that, precisely because times were difficult, the post-war welfare systems were a guarantee of a certain minimum of justice, or fairness. This was not the spiritual and social revolution for which many in the wartime Resistance had dreamed, but it was a first step away from the hopelessness and cynicism of the pre-war years.”

It’s fascinating to see how the idea of a united (western) Europe is juxtaposed with the eventual unification of Europe after Communism and the splinters that created, whether in the breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent war or the significant differences between the way the United Kingdom is governed and how Scotland wishes to be governed.

“What these figures suggest is that Slovenia and (to a lesser extent) Croatia already ranked alongside the less prosperous countries of the European Community, while Kosovo, Macedonia and rural Serbia more closely resembled parts of Asia or Latin America. If Slovenes and Croats were increasingly restive in their common Yugoslav home, then, this was not because of a resurfacing of deep-rooted religious or linguistic sentiments or from a resurgence of ethnic particularism. It was because they were coming to believe that they would be a lot better off if they could manage their own affairs without having to take into account the needs and interests of underachieving Yugoslavs to their south.”

“Scotland was another matter. There too the decline of the old industries had taken a terrible toll; but the Scottish National Party (SNP) which emerged in the Seventies could count on a share of the local vote four times that of their Welsh colleagues. Within two decades of its breakthrough as a ‘single-issue’ party at the 1974 elections—where it returned eleven members to parliament—the SNP had overtaken the Conservatives and was placing serious pressure upon traditional Labour strongholds. Unlike the Welsh, the voters of Scotland did favour devolution of power; and although they had to wait for it until 1997, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh indisputably speaks for a country which thinks of itself as a distinct and separate nation, if not quite a state. Scottish nationalism benefited both from the fortuitous discovery of North Sea oil and gas—which brought prosperity to Aberdeen and the north-east—and from EC regional policies, which allowed Scottish administrators and businessmen to bypass London and forge direct links to Brussels. But Scotland, though joined to England by an Act of Union in 1707, had always been a land apart. Its sense of self rested less on linguistic or religious distinctions, which—though real enough—had grown tenuous for most of its residents, than on a curious admix of superiority and ressentiment.”

“Thus, in the same way that so many of the classics of modern English literature are in fact Irish, so some of the greatest achievements of English-language political and social thought since the Enlightenment, from David Hume to Adam Smith and on to John Stuart Mill and beyond, were actually Scottish. Not only was Edinburgh in some ways the intellectual capital of early industrial Britain and Glasgow the radical core of the British labour movement in the early years of the twentieth century; but Scottish businessmen, Scottish managers—and Scottish émigrés—were responsible for establishing, settling and administering much of England’s empire. Moreover Scotland had always claimed and maintained a distinctive and separate identity: even at the height of centralized rule from London it preserved its own system of education and its own legal system. An independent Scotland, then, was a perfectly plausible proposition—particularly in a European Union in which it would have been by no means the smallest or the poorest nation-state. Whether the majority of the Scottish population, having secured much of the appearance and some of the substance of independence, would ever wish to go further is less certain. The limitations of geography, demography and resources which have kept Scotland dependent upon the UK are still there; and by the end of the Nineties there seemed reason to suppose that in Scotland as elsewhere the engine of nationalism was running out of steam.”

*An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women PoetsValentina Polukhina, ed

*An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian PoetryElizabeth Bishop, ed

*The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: An Anthology- Ilan Stavans, ed

Said and read – September 2020

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I must have waded through about 2,500 pages of academic journals, theory and method books, law cases and so many things that I didn’t keep close track of and can’t quantify. But it consumed me in the latter half of September as I completed a paper for university that got completely out of hand.

Among the materials here that I did keep track of – all of which I found enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking, are the following, which I’d expect most people to find a bit dry:

Realistic Socio-Legal Theory: Pragmatism and a Social Theory of LawBrian Z. Tamanaha

Unspeakable Subjects: Feminist Essays in Legal and Social TheoryNicola Lacey, ed.

Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New ChallengesMia Lövheim, ed.

The Sociological ImaginationC. Wright Mills

Challenging the Public/Private Divide: Feminism, Law and Public PolicySusan B. Boyd, ed.

Previous book reports: 2020 – August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for September:

Highly recommended

*Breasts and EggsMieko Kawakami

I knew these women were only venting their frustration and their anguish, but so long as they had someone, they were blessed. Technology was on their side. They had options. There was a way. They were accepted. That’s even true for same-sex couples who wanted kids. They were couples, sharing a dream with someone who could share the load. They had community, and people who would lend a helping hand. But what if sex was out of the equation? What if you were alone? All the books and blogs catered to couples. What about the rest of us, who were alone and planned to stay that way? Who has the right to have a child? Does not having a partner or not wanting to have sex nullify this right?

My favorite book for September. It just flowed, and I felt immersed in it. The protagonist is a writer who is considering having a child, and her reflections dive into the losses and consequences of having versus not having.

It’s really simple, I promise. Why is it that people think this is okay? Why do people see no harm in having children? They do it with smiles on their faces, as if it’s not an act of violence. You force this other being into the world, this other being that never asked to be born.”

Once you have children, you can’t unhave them,” she laughed. “I know how this sounds. You think I sound extreme, or detached from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is real life. That’s what I’m talking about—the pain that comes with reality. Not that anyone ever sees it.”

Another passage that really caught my attention was one that made me feel such powerful familiarity… that sense of meeting the “right” someone when it’s too late, when you’re too damaged…

I know that might sound totally out of line,” he said, “but it’s the way I’ve felt for quite a while now.” I took a deep breath, holding it, and closed my eyes. And then I let everything go. What Aizawa had said was like a dream. Just like a dream, I told myself. Only it made me feel hopelessly depressed. I ran through what he had said a bunch of times and shook my head. It made me even more depressed. What if . . . what if I’d met him years ago, when I was younger. Why couldn’t we have met back then? The thought tore through my heart. If we had only met back then. But when, exactly? What would have been the right time? How many years ago? Ten? What if we met before I even met Naruse? What would have worked? Hard to say. All I knew I wished we could have met before I got this way. That’s for sure. But there was nothing I could do about that now.

*The Chronology of WaterLidia Yuknavitch

My last bout of Yuknavitch was during a snowy winter traveling the north south Oslo-Göteborg corridor, remembering reading one book during the three+ hour long ride between the two cities.

This time I just loved how she described things in her own memoir.

I have also learned that we share a birthday, albeit a few years apart. It signifies nothing, but somehow shared birthdays seem comforting.

*Alien Candor: Selected Poems, 1970 – 1995Andrei Codrescu

Strange and unique voice – poetry of course.

*Hiding in Plain SightSarah Kendzior

I reread this. I found more new things to be angry about. Wow. Absolutely must recommend again.

Also read her previous book, The View from Flyover Country.

Also listen to her podcast, Gaslit Nation.

Good – or better than expected

*The Lying Life of AdultsElena Ferrante

Like all Ferrante, it reads effortlessly, and you are drawn into the story. I didn’t find this as immersive as previous work, but it still shone a light on how some things seem so black and white when young, when you don’t see the whole picture, but become so complicated.

“Maybe everything would be less complicated if you told the truth.” She said haltingly: “The truth is difficult, growing up you’ll understand that, novels aren’t sufficient for it. So will you do me that favor?” Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many.

*When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of AfricaPeter Godwin

In my part of Africa, death is never far away. With most Zimbabweans dying in their early thirties now, mortality has a seat at every table. The urgent, tugging winds themselves seem to whisper the message memento mori, you too shall die. In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue. You feel perishable, temporary, transient. You feel mortal. Maybe that is why you seem to live more vividly in Africa. The drama of life there is amplified by its constant proximity to death. That’s what infuses it with tension. It is the essence of its tragedy too. People love harder there. Love is the way that life forgets that it is terminal. Love is life’s alibi in the face of death. For me, the illusion of control is much easier to maintain…”

A surprisingly engaging book.

IT IS SOMETIMES SAID that the worst thing to happen to Africa was the arrival of the white man. And the second worst was his departure. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy much of Africa’s indigenous cultures and traditions, but not long enough to leave behind a durable replacement.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in AmericaRobert Whitaker

A different take on the “epidemic” of mental illness diagnoses in the last 40 or so years and the exceptional level of prescriptions issued, which, according to the case studies presented in this book, often appear to be doled out without great consideration for the patient’s well-being. Much of this is predicated on the question:

If we have treatments that effectively address these disorders, why has mental illness become an ever-greater health problem in the United States?

Is the heralding of miracle drugs for psychiatric disorders really miraculous? Are they doing more harm than good? How much can clinical trials and evidence presented by pharmaceutical companies be trusted? This book dives into some of these questions but is imperfect in its answers … at least it does raise the questions, though, which feels like an important counterbalance to the typical narratives about mental health and medication.

*Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and CultureKaren E.H. Skinazi

Read as part of my aforementioned university paper, much of this book didn’t do much for me but did offer important insights into divisions between groups of Orthodox Jews. Most stories in the mainstream, like the popular memoir, Unorthodox, and the even more popular Netflix adaptation of it, paint a picture of tightly knit, aggressively oppressive communities, particularly for women. And how some of these people choose to “escape”. But not every community is the same, and this book uses a number of cases to highlight this. Quite informative and enjoyable.

*Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic RootsDeborah Feldman

As mentioned above, I read the memoir, and perhaps because I saw the Netflix adaptation first, the book didn’t affect me very much. Maybe it is because as Feldman describes her life, it came across as controlled by family, community, husband, and a set of arbitrary and constantly changing rules ostensibly set by “innovation as tradition”, a term Skinazi writes about the aforementioned book, Women of Valor:

When innovations like these are rendered as traditions, they are justified within the sects as age-old and unchangeable. And for mainstream, secular readers, Orthodox women’s modest dress and behavior, seen to be dictated by these long-standing, immutable “traditions” of the religion, render the whole practice of Orthodoxy outdated and oppressive and thus “completely unacceptable.” That Orthodox communities construct their own modernities is hard to see. But they are indeed modernities, ones that embrace ideals distinct from those of mainstream culture and have, in fact, arisen in direct opposition to mainstream culture. “Haredization” is, in large part, a response to liberalization.

Feldman’s rebellion read as though she forged a lot of freedom and latitude for herself, however hidden and “second life” it had to be. I cannot imagine trying to break away from a life that had been the norm or the kind of consciousness development one would need to undertake to free him/herself from a life and community they felt had oppressed them. Many people never reach the stage of self-awareness to realize that they are not fulfilled by the life they lead, particularly when boxed in as Feldman was.

I read an interview with Feldman discussing the TV version of Unorthodox in which Feldman expressed a fascinating point of view on women’s roles in the community she came from (italics mine):

“Interviewer: In episode four, during the Passover scene, the grandfather leads the prayers and tells the story of Exodus. No women participate. Yet, if you look at the actions that move Unorthodox forward, almost all are taken by the female characters.
Feldman: Men tell the story and women make the story real. You have the table where the man dictates prayer, belief and narrative, but if you look at the story of Esty, it’s women who are making the decisions. It’s the women she’s interacting with who are basically the driving force behind community life, the engine behind the story.”

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*The Catcher in the RyeJ.D. Salinger

I don’t think I need to describe this. I never read this when I was young, and thought I should. But I hated every second of it.

Said and read – August 2020

Standard

“Moreover, only when the weak have decent reasons to defend the system that reproduces their subservience does the empire of the powerful stand a chance to survive.” And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic FutureYanis Varoufakis

Image by S Donaghy

As I write, it is already the middle of September. I don’t know how this happens — the time slipping away so effortlessly. Perhaps the entire world feels mad, on fire, filled with a kind of crippling uncertainty that makes time present simultaneously as an accelerating blaze and a mind-numbing standstill (and the latter only because we see few resolutions or certainties that will provide comfort, that is, we fear the outcome of the upcoming US election; we watch literal fire turn large swaths of the world into infernos and then ash; we continue to grapple with the consequences of an out-of-control and still-not-entirely understood pandemic).

Just as always, reading is a salve, a form of hope, a cautionary tale, a glimpse into other worlds, other histories, lives we can only imagine.

Previous book reports: 2020 – July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for August:

Disappointingly most of what I read in August was uninspiring, and left me uninspired. A lot of things that were enjoyable or informative enough but were nevertheless mediocre. Despite having given myself time to contemplate everything, I’ve ended up without books that fit neatly into categories. Just a single list of a handful of books, making this August book report the shortest one I’ve written in a very long time.

*Capital and IdeologyThomas Piketty

“Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.”

“This approach runs counter to the common conservative argument that inequality has a basis in “nature.””

A really densely packed and far-ranging book, probably not best served as the leisure-time reading for which I used it. It would be great if I were connecting it to something academic, but standalone – as great as it is – it’s a bit too much.

“To recapitulate: inequalities linked to different statuses and ethno-religious origins, whether real or perceived, continue to play a key role in modern inequality. The meritocratic fantasy that one often hears is not the whole story—far from it. To understand this key dimension of modern inequality, it is best to begin by studying traditional ternary societies and their variants.”

The book’s most valuable chapter is the final chapter, which serves as prescription pad for a more just and socialist future: Intertwined concerns – various forms of “justice” to reach equality, from educational justice to taxation, from democratic participation to universal income rights.

*Second Person SingularSayed Kashua

“She said that man was only smart if he was able to shed his identity. “Skin color is a little hard to shed,” she said, “it’s true. But the DNA of your social class is even harder to get rid of.””

Last month I mentioned Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua, as I enjoy his voice. This book was still on my to-read list at the time. I realized well into reading Second Person Plural that I had seen some form of film adaptation of it. The film, A Borrowed Identity, isn’t a direct adaptation of this book but instead is billed as an adaptation of Dancing Arabs, which I’d read last month. But Second Person is definitely tells the part of the story the film eventually takes on, in which an Israeli Arab ends up assuming the identity of the Israeli Jew he had been a caretaker for – with the blessing of the guy’s mother. The film portrays this event (taking over someone else’s identity and the relationship between the protagonist and the person whose identity he takes on) slightly differently, but the themes of co-existing cultures, fitting into a culture but only to a certain degree unless you literally become someone else… these are fascinating questions.

*And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic FutureYanis Varoufakis

Indeed, this book is about a paradox: European peoples, who had hitherto been uniting so splendidly, ended up increasingly divided by a common currency.”

I was on a Yanis Varoufakis kick in August, watching a number of his YouTube talks and interviews with other like-minded economists (there aren’t a lot of them because they have not drunk the standard endless-growth-is-good-possible-inevitable-at-all-costs KoolAid). When I feebly attempted to study economics myself it was this blind praise for capitalism as a model, as the centerpiece around which other theories only existed as faded, failed ideas that brought only misery to people, that turned me off. I was not looking for a love song for capitalism but alternatives. What reality shows us time and again, and which Varoufakis faithfully chronicles, is that people and the policies they enact, fail to enact or haphazardly enforce, cause misery. The theoretical economic systems people attempt to employ are just that — theories. It’s in practice that misery or relief or prosperity can be enacted, and it would be difficult to argue that unbridled capitalism has caused relief or prosperity for most people, even if it has done an exceptional job for the few who benefit from it.

“Capitalism, lest we forget, flourished only after debt was demoralized. Debt prisons had to be replaced by limited liability, and finance had to ride roughshod over any guilty feelings debtors were encumbered with, before “the rapid improvement of all instruments of production… [and] the immensely facilitated means of communication” could draw “all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization”—to quote from none other than Karl Marx.”

I never found the right kind of economics program at any university, so I abandoned the field. And almost 20 years later, after doing some casual self-education, I’ve learned that I was not alone. To step outside the norm and the accepted (in anything, not just economic studies) requires not only an act of defiance but also raises the flag that tells the world that you think differently, and may therefore be dangerous. This is where people like Varoufakis or Richard Wolff have walked a different path and have, at times, been “lightning rods” for daring to study, teach, lecture, and write about economic alternatives, which is akin to heresy for mainstream economists and capitalists. It’s also the unpopular direction economist Kate Raworth wanted her own economics studies to take, and she has discussed this in the introduction to her book,Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist. All focus on wanting to implement an economic system that serves goals that support human well-being rather than serving the rights and growth of capital. You wouldn’t think that would be so dangerous or controversial.

“ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE once wrote that those who praise freedom only for the material benefits it offers have never kept it long. In today’s Europe, those who wax lyrical about the sanctity of the existing rules are their own worst enemy and the handmaidens of discretionary, autocratic power. Europe’s democrats must, for this reason, beware of those speaking of moves toward political union and “more Europe” when their real objective is to preserve an unsustainable monetary architecture. Continuing to impose impossible rules opens the door to the ugly ghosts of our common past.”

Indeed this is at the heart of a functioning democracy, which has in recent years grown threadbare before our eyes.

“DEMOCRACY VS. DISCRETIONARY POWER This section ought to be superfluous. The fact that it is not reflects badly on a world that seems to have forgotten the minimum requirements for a functioning liberal democracy. So here we are, stating what, once upon a time, everyone knew well, namely that the chief purpose of law is to create a level playing field between the weak and the powerful. While a level playing field does not preclude exploitation and serious violations of freedom, it is the very least the rule of law must provide.”

A few key points from Varoufakis’s work:

“Looking down from the heights of the famous Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park in Vienna, Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in The Third Man, 1949) issues an impertinent theory of European civilization. Under the Borgias, he professes, three decades of bloodshed gave us the Renaissance. In contrast, five centuries of Swiss democracy and peaceful coexistence produced nothing more spectacular than the cuckoo clock.”

In addition to parallels with other modern economists, Varoufakis’s warnings about inequality and how capitalism (one of the great engines of inequality creation) will devour democracy (hasn’t it already in the form of things like Citizens United?) parallel the underlying themes of works by journalists like Sarah Kendzior. Kendzior is best-known for her work on Trump and his long-lived criminal ties, but has an academic background and expertise in the rise of authoritarian regimes. When Varoufakis writes:

“Leonard Schapiro, writing on Stalinism, warned us that “the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade. But to produce a uniform pattern of public utterances in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”

…you cannot help but think of Kendzior’s own warnings about how Trump’s scandals are a form of smoke and mirrors that serve as a distraction from the actual criminal pursuits taking place just below the surface (well, not even out of the public eye — if anyone were paying attention or cared, we can all see the illegality). I’ve recently reread Kendzior’s book, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America and was struck by these kinds of analysis most of all: the spectacle, the propaganda machine, spits out new craziness on a daily basis. The perpetual fatigue and exhaustion create conditions ripe for the exploitation and complete plowing under of democracy.

And in a fragile, flawed democracy based on capitalism, which is — if you didn’t realize — controlled by money, money talks… loudest and longest, and those without (which is most of us) have very little recourse.

Another thought-provoking point from Varoufakis’s work: he discusses at some length the 1991 Krzysztof Kiesłowski film La Double Vie de Véronique. His brief analysis digs into Kiesłowski’s own thematic exploration of the burgeoning European experiment. Near the end of Kiesłowski’s life, his final works dealt with European unity after 40+ years of disunity (the Trois Couleurs trilogy directly confronts and grapples with this). But the earlier Véronique teases some of the themes: The connection between the two characters (twinned souls, of sorts – one in Poland (Weronika) and one in France (Véronique) – who only briefly get a glimpse of one another) could represent the connections between these very different countries (Poland and France) and their very different historical trajectories. At the time we had only the haziest ideas of what each other’s lives were like, but we were still human — and the two heroines here have a split-second recognition of each other’s humanity, and its fleeting nature. Varoufakis takes this a step further, looking at how the past 25 years have eroded that naive hope and dashed much of the compassion with which Kiesłowski treated his subjects:

“And here is the irony: Before the border fences were torn down between Poland, Germany, France and Britain, a film like The Double Life of Veronique resonated perfectly in Warsaw, in Paris, in London and in Stuttgart. Today, a similar film would not. Véronique and Weronika would have no bond, no mystical connection. They would be pitted against each other in the context of a ruthless European Union where solidarity has been reduced to predatory “bailouts” that increase debt, “reforms” that translate into savage cuts in the poorest Europeans’ wages and pensions, and “credibility” that is synonymous with following failed economic recipes.”

I had never really thought much about these underlying themes when the films were released because at the time, as an American youth looking in from the outside at a Europe at the end of the Cold War, at the threshold of a new cooperation, it felt like a peaceful inevitability that Europe would unite – and Kiesłowski delicately captured the novelty and fragility of that. It remained to be seen then how unification would actually play out. How the unity of people is not at all the same thing as the unity of a currency.

On a final and completely frivolous note, Varoufakis wrote about people he met in 1991, one of whom was called “Grandma Georgia”. I laughed out loud seeing this, as my own grandmother was a “Grandma Georgia”, and a girl I knew in my adolescence claimed that she loved the sound of these words together so much that one day she would name a child “Grandma Georgia” (she didn’t).

*Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep EstablishmentYanis Varoufakis

A detailed and harrowing account of how Greece’s then-finance minister, economic Varoufakis tried to negotiate with the European and American establishment in the face of truly bleak odds and real human pain on display in a flailing/failing Greece. The establishment was not receptive and not negotiating in good faith, and much of this book, in addition to providing a blow-by-blow account of the crisis, explains much of the backstory as to how and why it’s not what it seemed and was not in good faith.

But that’s not all. Washington could park Wall Street’s bad assets on the Federal Reserve’s books and leave them there until either they started performing again or were eventually forgotten, to be discovered by the archaeologists of the future. Put simply, Americans did not need to pay even that relatively measly $258 per head out of their taxes. But in Europe, where countries like France and Greece had given up their central banks in 2000 and the ECB was banned from absorbing bad debts, the cash needed to bail out the banks had to be taken from the citizenry. If you have ever wondered why Europe’s establishment is so much keener on austerity than America’s or Japan’s, this is why. It is because the ECB is not allowed to bury the banks’ sins in its own books, meaning European governments have no choice but to fund bank bailouts through benefits cuts and tax hikes.”

*Selected Poetry, 1937-1990João Cabral de Melo Neto

Poetry of course

*SpellAnn Lauterbach

Poetry

*Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems: A Bilingual EditionCarlos Drummond de Andrade

Poetry!

*The Country Between UsCarolyn Forché

What do you think?! POETRY!

*The Lunatic: PoemsCharles Simic

Need I say it? Poetry.

Said and read – July 2020

Standard

“Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.” The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaBessel A. van der Kolk

Image by S Donaghy

Right up until the 20th of July time seemed to fly. Then, inexplicably, it slowed. There’s no accounting for this shift. Is it that so many other people are on holiday? Is it that the passage of time is an illusion subject to how preoccupied (or not) we are? This slowdown at least afforded me the opportunity to reflect a bit earlier than I have in previous months on the month’s reading. I thought this would make for a more timely book report, but it hasn’t. It’s already almost mid-August. I’ve failed to write about July reading or even read much so far in August.

Previous book reports: 2020 – June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for July:

Highly recommended

*Scots: The Mither TongueBilly Kay

One of the most debilitating phenomena of Scottish society is the false notion that to get on you have to get out. English hegemony is so all pervasive in our society that a sign of success and sophistication among some is to attempt to erase signs of Scottishness from their public persona. The implications of such an attitude for Scottish culture are drastic, not to mention wrong-headed. The linguistic tension is often not resolved at one particular time and can be an ongoing choice throughout one’s life.

By far my favorite book this month. I love this kind of thing. It’s all about the Scots language, its status, its diversity and it use, and how it is essential to the linguistic, national and cultural history of Scotland. Historical and linguistic hostility at its persistent use and existence continues — but the language itself has become a subject of vivid study and much-needed focus.

If using your first language is classed as the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at the teacher, there is little ground for fruitful dialogue. Educationalists often refer to the ‘inarticulate Scot’ as if it were a hereditary disease, instead of the effect of shackling people to one language when they are much more articulate in another. The omnipotent standard of having one correct way of speaking colours our society’s attitude and results in false value judgements about people. These value judgements are made in every sector of society, not just in education.

“Politics, in support or suppression, are central to the fate of languages. Yet political support at a given time is not in itself enough to guarantee a language’s survival if the historical process which has eroded it has been unrelenting over centuries and has pushed the language to a geographical and psychological periphery in the nation’s consciousness. That is certainly the case with Irish and until recently was certainly the case with Gaelic. The principal reason why Welsh is in a much stronger position than Scottish Gaelic today is that the Welsh had not posed a political threat to the British state for hundreds of years, while Gaelic was the language of the Jacobite forces which almost overthrew the state in the rebellions of the eighteenth century.”

If you’re interested in the way propaganda, linguistic subjugation, politics and other factors convince people their language is wrong, is dying and is not important, this is a great, and entertaining, study.

Being an honorary Glaswegian who thinks of Edinburgh a bit as “England number two”, the passages about Glaswegian gave me particular joy.

“The huge Edinburgh middle class tends to speak Standard English or Scottish Standard English. Scots is there too; a friend who was born and bred in the Southside speaks good Scots, so much so that people presume she is not a native of the city. Edinburgh is so dominated by the values of the middle classes, that working-class culture and speech had very low prestige even among the working class. This has changed in recent years due to the phenomenal success of Irvine Welsh’s brilliant novel Trainspotting and the movie that emerged from it. The Edinburgh dialect now had street cred, but that is something the weejies of the west have always had in abundance. West Central Scots Whereas in Edinburgh the working class are defined by the predominant middle-class culture, in Glasgow the opposite prevails and the professional classes have some of the street wisdom and gallusness of the predominant working-class ethos of the city. The result of this is that almost everyone from Glasgow is recognisably Scottish in speech. In Edinburgh, it is sometimes difficult to tell if someone is Scottish or English by their accent; in Glasgow, that confusion rarely exists. The middle classes may not like the Glasgow dialect but they are influenced by it. Years ago, when I lived in South Carolina, I often heard elderly white gentlemen apologise for the fact that their speech had been influenced by their close associations with the blacks. The inhabitants of Glasgow’s leafy suburbs are in a similar relationship with the speech of the masses. Glaswegian has enormous internal prestige.”

“The ultimate test of a dialect’s worth is its ability to communicate, and there are few more extrovert communicators than Glaswegians.”

*The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaBessel A. van der Kolk

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

A fascinating exploration of how trauma visits and expresses itself in a person’s physiology and psychology and can change “the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive”.

Trauma appears to never disappear and the traumatic event (or events) live on, triggered for decades after (and epigenetics indicates that trauma lives on in the genes)… but a complete understanding of this, while continually emerging, is incomplete.

“The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.”

*One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: EssaysScaachi Koul

“Plenty of us are fighting for structural changes, but a firmer solution has more to do with correcting human behaviour in general. No one learns how to be mean at twenty-five. No one actually becomes a hardline racist in their thirties. These are beliefs and behaviours we inherit from our bloodlines, from the people who raised us, and the internet is just another way to put those beliefs to work. The troubling part is not that there are people online who feel comfortable—vindicated and strong—in calling me a cum-bucket. What scares me is that those people go out into the world, holding these convictions secretly or otherwise, and exist around me physically. I see them at the bank and they go to my dentist and I might end up working with them. What they say to me online is the purest distillation of the rage they feel—statements that would get them fired or arrested in real life but get them a moderate fan base or begrudging attention online.

I didn’t expect this collection of essays to be as engaging as it turned out to be.

I happened to read this book first while sitting in a grocery store parking lot waiting for it to open and then while binge-watching the tv show Shrill. This reading was timely — so much of what the book addresses was being elevated in the popular media — from race and privileged spaces (as Koul writes about all kinds of groups: “All of us struggle towards whiteness”) to chemical skin whitening products in South Asia (“Fair & Lovely is a popular brand of skin-whitener in South Asia, marketed with crummy little ads where a girl gets the guy after she slathers these chemicals on her face and turns into some ghost-like version of her former self. You can buy it for your face or your body, creams to remove “facial discolouration or brown spots,” or to lighten all the skin you have, one big body-wide brown spot.”), from the deceptive idea of Canada as a multicultural haven (“The white majority doesn’t like being reminded that the cultural landscape is still flawed, still broken, and while my entry into something like Canadian media, for instance, hasn’t been an easy ride, it has been made more palatable for other people because I am passable. I’m not white, no, but I’m just close enough that I could be, and just far enough that you know I’m not. I can check off a diversity box for you and I don’t make you nervous—at least not on the surface. I’m the whole package!”) to immigration (“So much of immigration is about loss. First you lose bodies: people who die, people whose deaths you missed. Then you lose history: no one speaks the language anymore, and successive generations grow more and more westernized. Then you lose memory: throughout this trip, I tried to place people, where I had met them, how I knew them. I can’t remember anything anymore.”).

The Shrill parallels come up when Koul writes about the identities we forge online. This opens us up to all manner of abuse, which is something Lindy West, the author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, has written about extensively both in Shrill and the more recent The Witches Are Coming, which discusses the MeToo movement in great detail. It’s all on display, illustrated in the tv adaptation of Shrill, in which the lead character, Annie, experiences monumental levels of (violent/threatening) online trolling. Treading similar ground, Koul writes:

“I sometimes try to understand how people formed their identities in eras before the internet existed. What did teenagers do to carve out a sense of self in the world? So often, the people screaming at me online seem to derive their selfhood from being internet aggressors, and the more time I spend on any given online platform, the more my identity is marked by defending myself.”

“We love to talk about the web as if it’s a limitless resource, like the only barriers we put on it are what the government will allow, what money will buy, what manpower can create. But all things built by humans descend into the same pitfalls: loathing, vitriol, malicious intent. All the things we build in order to communicate, to connect, to find people like us so we feel less alone, and to find people not like us at all so we learn how to adapt, end up turning against us. Avoiding human nature at its most pure and even at its worst is pointless. No one deserves your attention, but no one has earned your withdrawal.”

Every message we receive — both online and in real life (as women, but particularly for women of color) is that we are not good enough, in one way or another, and something about us needs to change. We are objects, and that is why the rape culture, which Koul writes about with both clarity and rage, is pervasive. Once women have been objectified, they are easier to surveil and monitor and take advantage of. Rape culture likes to blame women for being in the wrong place, wrong time, wearing the wrong thing,  and drinking the wrong amount. It blames the victim (we all know this). Koul points out something that society as a whole doesn’t talk about even if all women know it:

“Surveillance feeds into rape culture more than drinking ever could. It’s the part of male entitlement that makes them believe they’re owed something if they pay enough attention to you, monitor how you’re behaving to see if you seem loose and friendly enough to accommodate a conversation with a man you’ve never met. He’s not a rapist. No, he’s just offering to buy you a beer, and a shot, and a beer, and another beer, he just wants you to have a really good time. He wants you to lose the language of being able to consent. He’s drunk too, but of course, you’re not watching him like he’s watching you.”

It is not an accident. It has all been carefully planned.

“And yet, being surveilled with the intention of assault or rape is practically mundane, it happens so often. It’s such an ingrained part of the female experience that it doesn’t register as unusual. The danger of it, then, is in its routine, in how normalized it is for a woman to feel monitored, so much so that she might not know she’s in trouble until that invisible line is crossed from “typical patriarchy” to “you should run.””

“The mistake we make is in thinking rape isn’t premeditated, that it happens by accident somehow, that you’re drunk and you run into a girl who’s also drunk and half-asleep on a bench and you sidle up to her and things get out of hand and before you know it, you’re being accused of something you’d never do. But men who rape are men who watch for the signs of who they believe they can rape. Rape culture isn’t a natural occurrence; it thrives thanks to the dedicated attention given to women in order to take away their security. Rapists exist on a spectrum, and maybe this attentive version is the most dangerous type: women are so used to being watched that we don’t notice when someone’s watching us for the worst reason imaginable. They have a plan long before we even get to the bar to order our first drink.”

*Confession of the LionessMia Couto

“Every morning the gazelle wakes up knowing that it has to run more swiftly than the lion or it will be killed. Every morning the lion awakens knowing that it has to run faster than the gazelle or it will die of hunger. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle: When the Sun rises, you’d better start running. —AFRICAN PROVERB”

I can’t really tell what it is about Mia Couto’s work that I find so compelling. Something about Couto’s writing style generally draws me in.

“Genito Mpepe was a tracker—he knew all the invisible signs of the savanna. He had often told me: Only humans recognize silence. For all the other creatures, the world is never silent and even the grass growing and the petals opening make a huge noise. In the bush, the animals live by listening. That’s what my father envied at that moment: He wished he were an animal. And far from human beings, to be able to return to his lair and fall asleep without pity or guilt. I know you’re there!”

In Confession, a small (fictional) village in Mozambique, Kulumani, is gripped with fear by a sudden spate of lion attacks on the village women. A hunter is employed to kill the lion, with a writer accompanying the hunter to chronicle the ‘adventure’. But there are other forces at work, and like much of Couto’s writing, lines between the literal and figurative are blurred. Women characters talk of themselves as though they are already dead — or are animals living within human bodies, while the language used to describe how events unfold hint at the possibility that there have been no lions at all attacking women, and perhaps something more mundane, but more horrible, such as men killing women, is happening. No definitive answers appear, but answers aren’t important. It’s more the setting of the scene and realizing what years of civil war and violence have done to the people and the place that make up this work.

*A Black Women’s History of the United StatesDaina Ramey Berry

Black women are at the core of – and key to – American history. This book explains how. Also included in my “Confront head-on our white racist BS” reading list.

*Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

“The skin around his eyes tightened. He shook his head. “Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from their heaven, it is this.””

The story of a boy who, almost by chance, manages to escape slavery on a Barbados sugar plantation. I am not sure what I expected when I started reading this, but it was so much more than I imagined. It was engrossing.

“Death was a door. I think that is what she wished me to understand. She did not fear it. She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free. That was the idea that had come to her with the man in white, like a thread of poison poured into a well.”

*The Housekeeper and the ProfessorYoko Ogawa

“I remembered something the Professor had said: “The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn’t going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers. Of course, lots of mathematical discoveries have practical applications, no matter how esoteric they may seem.”

“The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing.”

A young housekeeper is assigned by her agency to clean and care for a mathematician who, due to a brain injury, loses short-term memory every 80 minutes (if I recall correctly). Each day when the housekeeper turns up for work, the whole introduction begins again. At some point she begins to bring her son along to work with her because the professor has insisted, and there develops an unusual kinship among the three. There isn’t necessarily a deep plot here, but it was still engaging.

“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world.”

*Angela’s Ashes: A MemoirFrank McCourt

I didn’t expect to be including Angela’s Ashes among the things I found best during July. By the time I got around to reading it, it had, of course, already hit best-seller lists and been adapted into a film (which I’ve never seen).

It’s one of those things I wouldn’t normally read, but for some reason I did. It’s an easy read in the sense that one can tear through it quickly because it’s that readable; on the other hand, the subject matter is difficult in that it describes abject poverty and people trying to live in the midst of that. What makes it readable and compelling is the fact that McCourt has told it from the perspective of a child. Despite the fact that this is a brutal account of growing up in extreme poverty in Ireland – and misery pervades — it’s in some ways so innocent, such as when the narrator recounts everything from having mustard for the first time (and uses “sangwidge” to write “sandwich”, which is one of those things I’ve always found cute among Glaswegians as well), to, more broadly, the matter-of-fact way of reporting daily realities and speech.

“There are Thursdays when Dad gets his dole money at the Labour Exchange and a man might say, Will we go for a pint, Malachy? and Dad will say, One, only one, and the man will say, Oh, God, yes, one, and before the night is over all the money is gone and Dad comes home singing and getting us out of bed to line up and promise to die for Ireland when the call comes.”

*I’ll Be Gone in the DarkMichelle McNamara

I remember many years ago having a very brief conversation with a Dutch guy, and when I told him a bit about myself and my youth growing up around Seattle, I happened to say a few words about the proliferation of serial killers from the area (both Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway – the Green River Killer come from there). The guy I was talking to flipped out and decided I was “sick” for talking about such things so casually and for knowing so much about serial killers in the first place. It struck me as a strange overreaction, but I didn’t really know anyone else who had an academic interest in serial killers. But this was the dawn of the internet true crime genre — before Michelle McNamara and others like her took to the internet to write about and discuss these cases and mysteries ad nauseam. Through McNamara’s work, I think a lot of people realized that they were not alone.

“The truth, of course, was much weirder: I was foregoing a fancy Hollywood party to return not to my sleeping infant but my laptop, to excavate through the night in search of information about a man I’d never met, who’d murdered people I didn’t know.

Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life—long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer. The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy’s BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl’s back.

To say I’d like to stop dwelling is beside the point. Sure, I’d love to clear the rot. I’m envious, for example, of people obsessed with the Civil War, which brims with details but is contained. In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.

The first one, faceless and never caught, marked me at fourteen, and I’ve been turning my back on good times in search of answers ever since.”

That said, I’ve never been that passionate about the subject. I have a passing interest in true crime – and my knowledge of and interest in Bundy and Ridgway were “local interest” stories more than any fascination with rapists and killers. It’s similar to my passing interest in the bizarre story of the Enumclaw animal-sex case in which a bunch of men were having sex with horses until one of the men died. The story is horrible, and I am not interested in the details — it’s just that that was a local stomping ground, so it was of interest when it was an anonymous blurb in the local paper as much as when it became a national story and eventually a documentary called Zoo. I read the stories; I saw the documentary. But I won’t be visiting or starting any online communities dedicated to that or serial murderers.

With all of that background out of the way, though, let’s just take a moment to revel in Michelle McNamara’s glorious voice. Voice is one of the most challenging things to tackle in writing – but she had a distinctive, powerful, clear voice that was recognizably hers. In the parts of the book that she had painstakingly written, the strength of her inimitable voice shone through. Her blog had always showcased this, but writing a book is different. So much more scrutiny, deadlines, expectation. I imagine that some of this pressure and perfectionism is what led to her overuse of the drugs that eventually took her life. And that perfectionism is what made everyone around her miss all the signs that something was wrong. I didn’t know her, but both her writing — and the accompanying documentary about the book and her life — make it clear that she was meticulous. You would only see what she wanted you to see, and if she was even aware of how dependent she had become on various pharmaceuticals, she would have downplayed it (as her husband Patton Oswalt described in the docu).

*The Poems of Octavio PazOctavio Paz

*Hotel InsomniaCharles Simic

*Beautiful False Things: PoemsIrving Feldman

*Where Now: New and Selected PoemsLaura Kasischke

All poetry. All necessary.

Good – or better than expected

*Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of OccupationRaja Shehadeh

“Clothes are like houses, objects we cover ourselves with and often dwell in so as to create an impression for others and not just for the comfort they provide. My different lives are represented by the different clothes I have worn, as by the homes located in different parts of the city where I have lived. To this day I have my writerly clothes and my lawyerly ones, some from when I started my career thirty-seven years ago – shirts, belts, trousers and jackets.”

A journey through Ramallah in the West Bank – emotional but almost journalistic. I happened to read this at the same time as I watched several Israeli TV shows that inevitably depict aspects of the occupation… and how it is a central function, or determinant, of Palestinian life.

“My jar is now whole again. You can see the individual pieces when light shines through the holes which I failed to fill, but you can appreciate the effort of rebuilding the whole after the disastrous breaking. Perhaps one day this will be the fate of Palestine too. It will become whole again, far more appreciated after going through wars and massacres before being reconstructed kintsugi-style.”

“How extensive has been Israel’s success. This woman who now lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank is working in the department that exercises so much power over us and determines which Palestinian can or cannot live in the city of their birth with their spouse. Not only have we failed to end the occupation, but every year it seems to be ever more entrenched. Almost daily now we hear of killings of young men who attempt to stab Israelis.”

*Last Night in NuukNiviaq Korneliussen

Unusual, brief book delivering a slice of life look at young life in Greenland. Perhaps it’s not perfect – drags on a bit in places, and the stream of consciousness style and point-of-view changes don’t always lend a lot to the story, but it’s a debut novel that shows promise and gives us a glimpse into something we never hear about – life in Greenland.

*Born in SarajevoSnježana Marinković

I will read almost anything I find about the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the subsequent war and forming of new states. This is a memoir both of the breakup of the country and disintegration of a family told through the eyes of one girl experiencing what became a familiar story as Yugoslavia split and violence ensued. The story itself was very personal but could at times be frustrating.

*Gravel HeartAbdulrazak Gurnah

“‘No one bid the British to come here,’ my mother’s father said. ‘They came because they are covetous and cannot help wanting to fill the world with their presence.’”

A boy grows up in a changing Zanzibar and doesn’t, as a child, understand why his father has abandoned the family or why his mother makes seemingly selfish decisions. He is sent to live with his shady uncle in London, and his life completely changes. He doesn’t get the answers he seeks until much later in life… too late to completely make amends.

“Everything is complicated and questions simplify what is only comprehensible through intimacy and experience. Nor are people’s lives free from blame and guilt and wrong-doing, and what might be intended as simple curiosity may feel like a demand for a confession. You don’t know what you might release by asking a stupid question. It was best to leave people to their silences.”

*Several books by Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua, e.g. Let It Be Morning and Dancing Arabs

I read several books by Sayed Kashua, and in reading about him stumbled on this lovely but heartbreaking letter exchange between Israeli author Etgar Keret and Kashua after Kashua left for a sabbatical in the US.

*A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing NinetyDonald Hall

“You are old when you learn it’s May by noticing that daffodils erupt outside your window. You are old when someone mentions an event two years in the future and looks embarrassed. You are old when the post office delivers your letters into a chair in your living room and picks up your letters going out. You are old when you write letters.”

The best parts of this book were excerpted liberally upon publication and around Hall’s death. But there were nevertheless a few important thoughts that still gave this book something extra. Perhaps it is just that one feels Hall’s observations naturally, inevitably, as one ages: the speed of time but the slowing down of so many of life’s things (and the value of that slowness), the coming of old age, the growing delight of solitude that is interrupted only by those moments when another’s presence brings momentary relief…

“I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.”

“When I was sixteen I read ten books a week: E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Henry James, Hart Crane, John Steinbeck. I thought I progressed in literature by reading faster and faster—but reading more is reading less. I learned to slow down.”

“An athlete goes professional at twenty. At thirty he is slower but more canny. At forty he leaves behind the identity that he was born to and that sustained him. He diminishes into fifty, sixty, seventy. Anyone ambitious, who lives to be old or even old, endures the inevitable loss of ambition’s fulfillment.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My LifeAyelet Waldman

I have read many books by Waldman – some I’ve liked more than others, but overall there is such a needy quality to her, particularly when she writes autobiographically — like this book. Her insistence on writing about her near-obsession with her husband seems…troubling. This book chronicles day by day her experience with a total of 30 days of microdosing with LSD to see if it would help her moodiness and near-debilitating depression. It seems like it helped, and there are interesting passages in the book about the discovery and possibilities of LSD for clinical use. But the book overall was hard to get through, mostly because of this aforementioned neediness and intense… reliance on one’s spouse for a sense of self-worth (while also seeming to — probably due to depression — behave… badly toward that spouse. I get it — sort of. But I guess it just doesn’t make good reading for me. But it probably is great for someone — as I said, there is a lot of good information here. Just hard to sort it out from the rest.

*Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War IISvetlana Alexievich

“I am a person without childhood. Instead of childhood, I had war.”

Children will witness war and suffer just as adults do – prematurely losing the innocence associated with childhood. Alexievich’s ability to bring a variety of people’s recollections and stories to life is remarkable and makes even difficult subject matter easy to read and feel.

“What do I have left from the war? I don’t understand what strangers are, because my brother and I grew up among strangers. Strangers saved us. But what kind of strangers are they? All people are one’s own. I live with that feeling, though I’m often disappointed. Peacetime life is different…”

Told from POV of children and adolescents as they realized war was happening, what that meant to them. It’s heartbreaking (as most of Alexievich’s books are).

*Women, Race & ClassAngela Y. Davis

Davis’s take on the women’s movement and how it has been slowed by the lack of acknowledging intersectional concerns.

“This bears repeating: Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s. This was one of the greatest ironies of the slave system, for in subjecting women to the most ruthless exploitation conceivable, exploitation which knew no sex distinctions, the groundwork was created not only for Black women to assert their equality through their social relations, but also to express it through their acts of resistance. This must have been a terrifying revelation for the slaveowners, for it seems that they were trying to break this chain of equality through the especially brutal repression they reserved for the women. Again, it is important to remember that the punishment inflicted on women exceeded in intensity the punishment suffered by their men, for women were not only whipped and mutilated, they were also raped.”

*Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War IIDouglas A. Blackmon

“Beginning in the late 1860s, and accelerating after the return of white political control in 1877, every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize black life.”

Since the end of slavery, we’ve lived in an era of “neo-slavery” — the creation of a new form of enslavement that is enshrined in the legal system, corporate greed, suppression of black citizenship and participation. Very clear manipulation of the system to engineer continued oppression of an entire group of people and a consistent supply of free labor on which capitalism relies.

“A world in which the seizure and sale of a black man—even a black child—was viewed as neither criminal nor extraordinary had reemerged. Millions of blacks lived in that shadow—as forced laborers or their family members, or African Americans in terror of the system’s caprice. The practice would not fully recede from their lives until the dawn of World War II, when profound global forces began to touch the lives of black Americans for the first time since the era of the international abolition movement a century earlier, prior to the Civil War.”

*TriesteDaša Drndić

“History, an ornate lady who does not die easily, dresses again and again in new costumes, but keeps telling the same story. History as Dracula, History as the Vampire, the vampiric fate of history, History the Bloodsucker, that great mistress of humanity.”

I think if I had been in another frame of mind when I read this, it would have been one of my favorites of the month. But I read it at the wrong time, and it struck me as dense and fascinating… and worth a second read.

“Conversations about the past are like little confessions, like unburdenings, after which the soul returns to the present on angel wings, fluttery and luminous.”

In Trieste, Drndić grapples with history — examining 20th century events almost like a historian while weaving in storytelling about victims and villains. And sometimes how history is elastic — it is eroded enough that it’s not fully erased. We might be able to trace it and find surprising things hidden in the faded past.

“Haya learns of Tom Stoppard, too. She hears that Stoppard was born Tomás Straussler in the town of Zlin, Moravia, where Bata sets up his famous shoe factory. She learns that until 1999 Tom Stoppard has no clue he is Jewish; then (by chance) he finds out that he is. Tomás’ father Eugene Straussler works at the factory hospital as a physician. Immediately after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, in 1939, Mr Bata decides to save his employees, including the physicians, by sending them off to the branch offices he owns all over the world. The Straussler family relocate to Singapore, but before the Japanese occupation, Marta Beck (Straussler by marriage) leaves with her two sons and goes first to Australia, then to India, while Eugene Straussler boards a ship full of refugees somewhat later. The Japanese shell his ship and with it sinks Eugene. In India, Marta Straussler meets a British officer by the name of Stoppard who asks her to marry him. He gives her boys his last name and together they return to his homeland, England, where they live happily ever after, as if their earlier life had never happened, as if there had never been a family, a war, camps, another language, memories, not even a little Czech love. In 1996 Marta Beck (Straussler by marriage, Stoppard by marriage) dies, and at that moment Tomás, no longer a boy, born Straussler, re-born Stoppard, starts digging through his past now that he is tired of writing plays or now that his inspiration has dried up—who knows?—and time unfolds before him. In the Czech Republic Tomás learns that his grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, cousins, all of them disappeared as if they had never lived, which, as far as he is concerned…”

*Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You HaveTatiana Schlossberg

I think more than I should about the invisible things we do that have incredible environmental footprints. One thing is the constant use of the internet – especially now that we are streaming all of our entertainment. This requires a shocking amount of energy — but it’s not as conspicuous or easy to calculate as the carbon debt we run up when we drive a car or take a flight somewhere. No, much of the physical infrastructure of the internet and what makes it run is hidden from site and euphemistically called “the cloud”. But the infrastructure — and all its energy-thirsty demands still exist. And we’re adding to that consumption every day.

“…the physical things we interact with every day and lots of our daily activities don’t exist in a vacuum—they’re much more connected to each other, to global climate change, and to each one of us than we think. The story of climate change—and all of our stuff—is actually a story about everything: science, health, injustice, inequality, national and international politics, the natural world, business, normal life. Climate change affects everyone constantly, but, until very recently, we usually only talked about it for a few days when some natural disaster happened or a particularly scary report by government scientists came out—if then—before we moved on to something else.”

Schlossberg takes on the less obvious energy and resource guzzlers in this book, looking in some depth at everything from ICT costs to the staggering costs of the fashion industry, among others.

*Superbugs: The Race to Stop an EpidemicMatt McCarthy

Any book on a superbug or virus… I tend to grab and read them all. I’ve been thinking a lot about antibiotic resistance for years, although this important and ongoing crisis tends to be forgotten and overshadowed when we find ourselves in times of more urgent crises, e.g. coronavirus. But, as McCarthy points out: More than 20,000 people die in the United States each year because of an antibiotic-resistant infection. And there are not enough new antibiotics in the pipeline to keep up with the growing ineffectiveness of the antibiotics we do have. Most tellingly – and this will surprise no one in our capitalist societies – antibiotics are expensive to develop, don’t have a long life (because we wear them out to the point of resistance) and are not money makers. Even with active antibiotic stewardship programs, where infectious disease experts make determinations about antibiotic prescriptions, there aren’t enough antibiotics now or in the offing.

A few crossover points with current events and other reading… McCarthy’s discussion on the shortage of infectious disease specialists makes us appreciate Dr Anthony Fauci even more (he is, of course, mentioned in this book):

“Infectious diseases specialists have become a dying breed in some parts of the country, cast aside by modern medicine. Most doctors are now compensated based on the types (and cost) of procedures they perform, and infectious diseases doctors don’t really perform procedures. Ours is a cognitive specialty, providing expert consultation, and reimbursement schemes haven’t figured out how to keep up with the tremendous demands of the work. The field is experiencing a brain drain, and every year, it gets a bit worse. Specialists still flock to big cities on the coasts, but the middle of the country has been hit hard by the changing economics of medicine. Young doctors are less interested in infectious diseases than their predecessors were, and this presents a problem: once lysin is approved, there need to be specialists who know how to use it.”

Also, McCarthy writes:

“Pharmaceutical research and development has the highest failure rate for new products of any industry, which raises important questions: How far should we go to incentivize the production of new drugs?”

This ties in with another book I read this month:

*Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions  — Richard F. Harris

Not only are there limited private funds for certain kinds of pharma research (no one wants to fund research for drugs that won’t turn a handsome and relatively quick profit), but public taxpayer funded research isn’t easy to come by.

“Taxpayers fund medical research – but what good is it, how effective is that spending – if most of the science produced – or how results are interpreted – turns out to be skewed to support the goals of the researchers rather than finding actual answers?”

“The ecosystem in which academic scientists work has created conditions that actually set them up for failure. There’s a constant scramble for research dollars. Promotions and tenure depend on their making splashy discoveries. There are big rewards for being first, even if the work ultimately fails the test of time. And there are few penalties for getting it wrong.”

Similarly,  despite peer review, there does not seem to be adequate oversight or rigor (hence the book’s title) required to make research results reliable — and replicable. Replicability of results is a major crisis across the disciplines — as the book highlights, one study with faulty (but “positive”) results can often go undetected when other scientists begin citing those research findings even without testing for themselves to see if they can reproduce the same results or find the same significance.

“There she saw one big problem with cancer research: scientists were not approaching many studies with enough rigor. Each scientist had his or her own way of working, but those were not standardized or often repeatable. That’s the culture of biomedical science today—researchers are individual entrepreneurs, each attacking a small piece of the problem with gusto. Barker says that unfortunately the quality of the work is all over the map—and there’s typically no way to tell which studies you can believe and which you can’t, especially when scientists try to add together results from different laboratories, each of which has used its own methods.”

And this is…well, again, it’s in the title: sloppy at best, and a waste of tens of millions of research dollars at worst.

“Begley said one of the studies he couldn’t reproduce has been cited more than 2,000 times by other researchers, who have been building on or at least referring to it, without actually validating the underlying result.”

Harris lays out the stark choice scientists are often forced to make: reporting rigorous results openly to advance medical science OR do what’s best for their career, which may require secrecy, fudging of results (or willfully deceiving oneself about the results or how to report them). And, as Harris reports, the time to make this choice is now:

“Arturo Casadevall at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shares that sense of alarm. “Humanity is about to go through a couple of really rough centuries. There is no way around this,” he said, looking out on a future with a burgeoning population stressed for food, water, and other basic resources. Over the previous few centuries, we have managed a steadily improving trajectory, despite astounding population growth. “The scientific revolution has allowed humanity to avoid a Malthusian crisis over and over again,” he said. To get through the next couple of centuries, “we need to have a scientific enterprise that is working as best as it can. And I fundamentally think that it isn’t.””

*Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and WantNicholas Epley

And so, with the obvious benefits that come from social understanding, you and I and nearly every other human being on the planet have become so well practiced at reading the minds of others that our sixth sense operates almost invisibly. As philosopher extraordinaire Jerry Fodor has written, “Commonsense psychology works so well, it disappears.” Only at the rare times when it is stretched beyond its limits, or is proven to be profoundly mistaken, does its existence come back into view.”

I kind of expected this book to be a surface-level, self-help, best-seller type thing, so I didn’t think I’d invest a lot of effort into reading it. It turned out to be a little bit like what I expected but it dives into much more. First and foremost – addressing the overconfidence people have about their ability to read and understand others (particularly those they are closest to).

“Getting to know someone, even over a lifetime of marriage, creates an illusion of insight that far surpasses actual insight.”

And at the root of this is understanding oneself — Epley writes that the disconnect between what people think about themselves and how they actually behave is one of the most common things found about perceptions of self when studied by psychologists. One of the most prominent studies, though largely seen as unethical by today’s standards, is the Milgram experiments. I’ve written about this SO MANY times before because it comes up in virtually every psychology textbook, course and discussion, whether it’s on experimental design and ethics, about obedience to authority or about the sense of self. It is cited in all kinds of pop culture, including tv shows like Law & Order SVU. You can’t escape Milgram.

And in Epley’s book it is a good illustration of exactly how misaligned our own ideas about ourselves are with what we actually do. In the Milgram experiment, most participants would likely have classified themselves as nice/good people who would never cause intentional harm to anyone else. But the experiment pushed the limits of what people were willing to do if they were being given instructions by someone who appeared to be in a position of authority. More than 60% of participants in Milgram’s study willingly pushed a button that they were told would shock a person in another room (even to the point of death) because they were “just following orders”. We are seeing things play out similarly in society right now — people who love to claim that they would have resisted Nazi terror are at best silent now and at worst buying into patently fascist and dictatorial moves in US politics.

Epley shows time and again, in different ways, that we are not who we say or think we are. One way we all do this is through “the planning fallacy”. Most of us underestimate how long it will take to get things done. Do we really just not know how long tasks take or are other factors at play? We all struggle with this at times, but some people are much more likely to fall prey than others (to my frustration).

“What’s surprising is how easily introspection makes us feel like we know what’s going on in our own heads, even when we don’t. We simply have little awareness that we’re spinning a story rather than reporting the facts.”

Fascinating book that simplifies some of the constructive work the brain is always — and almost effortlessly — doing. And how the effortlessness of that work can fool us until thinking we know a great deal more than we actually know.

*They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child SoldiersRoméo Dallaire

I did not “enjoy” this book – in fact it’s very disturbing. But we need to remind ourselves, or in some cases learn for the first time, about the atrocities of the world, of recent history. I know plenty of people who blindly ignore these kinds of things because they don’t want to see the darkness of the world – the true darkness. But how can we prevent further such atrocities if we don’t come to terms with their existence and how horrific they actually are? Recently I had a number of long discussions about ethnic cleansing and civil wars that almost no one seems to remember (Sierra Leone, Rwanda, etc.). The 25-year anniversary of Srebrenica recently passed, and I cannot count the number of people I mentioned it to who claimed never to have heard of it. These are brutal, gruesome events in recent history, but for some, these are relics of a long-distant past… and for others, things that never registered for them in the first place. I find the indifference and ignorance… more than painful.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*A Confederacy of DuncesJohn Kennedy Toole

I could barely get through this. I don’t know why it’s so widely lauded. I could be missing something. I might have read it at the wrong time and not given it enough time to land. But every time I sat down to read, I wanted to give up. And that doesn’t usually happen to me.

*Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters – And How to Get ItLaurie Mintz

You’d have to be totally uninformed to find this book informative. Then again I am constantly surprised by how mysterious people find their own bodies, so how could a partner find another’s body any less so? The book does at least acknowledge that much of this ignorance comes from the misinformation and a lack of education that exist around female bodies, sex and orgasms … both formally and in the media and cultural realm. But I am not sure it delivered on the promise of the title. Does it really explain why its author believes “orgasm equality” matters?

*Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s PainAbby Norman

“I’ve often found it curious that when a woman is suffering, her competence is questioned, but when a man is suffering, he’s humanized. It’s a gender stereotype that hurts both men and women, though it lends itself to the question of why there is a proclivity in health care, and in society, to deny female pain.”

I was keen to read this book because the title promised something. There are a lot of voices in the media and even in medicine speaking up about the imbalance between how men and women are treated by the medical system. This ranges from how clinical trials are run to how drug dosing recommendations are made. Because men are always seen as the default, everything comes back to them. On an individual level, there are countless stories of women whose pain is discounted, disbelieved and dismissed. In this story, the writer keeps fighting back. As you discover as you read, she has very little choice but to keep advocating for herself, despite how her life otherwise falls apart.

“…she glanced down at my notepad where I’d scribbled something about the patriarchy of medicine. She pointed to it and just gave me a simple, but bold and resounding, “Yes.” “I think perhaps my biggest take as a woman is that I have so many people come to me who are willing to tolerate so much, or they have tolerated so much,” Dr. Marin began in our discussion of female pain. “Either because no one was willing to listen to them, or just because they thought it was normal, or that was the price of being a woman—that they don’t have to tolerate.””

“The problem with a woman’s “blood” was really not the problem at all: vaginas were the problem. To extrapolate, women’s sexuality was the problem. Women having agency of their bodies was the problem.”

Still, even with all this background, and the timeliness of the theme, I thought this book would be a lot more interesting. Of course I don’t want to criticize the author. I believe in her pain and the ordeal she went through to get diagnosed, to get treatment, to live without pain, and most of all, to be believed. The book probably needed excruciating detail of everything she went through to show how far women have to go to find relief. But I guess I’m hypersensitive to people’s illnesses and propensity to never stop talking about them, which should lead me away from reading books like this. But here we are.

through the solar systems

Standard

Thinking of Elin.

On Foot I Had to Walk Through the Solar Systems
Edith Södergran
On foot
I had to walk through the solar systems,
before I found the first thread of my red dress,
Already, I sense myself.
Somewhere in space hangs my heart,
sparks fly from it, shaking the air,
to other reckless hearts.

Original
Till fots
fick jag gå genom solsystemen,
innan jag fann den första tråden av min röda dräkt.
Jag anar ren mig själv.
Någonstädes i rymden hänger mitt hjärta,
gnistor strömma ifrån det, skakande luften,
till andra måttlösa hjärtan.