Saturday, December 31, 2016

Bellevue by David Oshinsky

Hardcover, 384 pages Published Sept 20 2016 by Doubleday ISBN13: 9780385523363

Many Americans, even those who have never lived in New York City, have heard of Bellevue Hospital, certainly of some patients, and probably some of its doctors. Its storied history captures our imagination: it has fearlessly and insistently treated epidemics for centuries, as well as the widest range of disease in our nation’s largest city. For most of its history, Bellevue was a teaching hospital associated with two IV League medical schools, Columbia and Cornell, along with that of New York University. In 1966, Columbia and Cornell turned over their commitment to NYU, who produced distinguished physicians trained on some of the world's most difficult and unusual cases.

Land situated on the banks of the East River, about 3 miles from downtown Manhattan, called Bel-Vue, was leased in 1795 to serve as a hospital for those afflicted with yellow fever. It could be reached by boat, on horseback, or by carriage. It was meant to enjoy cooling breezes and yet be far enough away from the city to avoid spreading infection. Ever since that time, Bellevue has served as a public hospital open to handle the contagious cases for which there is no cure.
"I don’t think there is a disease in Osler’s Textbook of Medicine that I didn’t see," said Bellevue medical intern Dr. Connie Guion in 1916.
Bellevue was the center of the AIDS epidemic in New York beginning in the 1980 and in 1990 Bellevue’s Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Fred Valentine was instrumental in finding a cocktail of drugs that would keep the infection from progressing. Most recently in 2014, Dr. Craig Spencer, a volunteer with Doctors without Borders, arrived in Bellevue to be treated for Ebola, New York’s only Ebola patient. Aggressive treatment and early diagnosis helped to assure his survival, and he was released three weeks later.

The story of Bellevue is in many ways the story of medicine in the United States, plagued by lack of understanding of the role of sanitation in perpetuating disease, and discovering how lack of family or opportunities might lead to poverty, madness, and despair. Almost from the start, Bellevue had patients unable to pay for their care or explain their malady, and yet they could not be turned away. It has always been a refuge for those who had no where else to go: the homeless, the indigent, the immigrant. Today Whites rank last in ‘patient race.’

Bellevue not only handles disease, but has always handled catastrophic injuries from the city and environs. Oshinsky describes the aftermath of the 1863 Conscription Act riots, riots which began because the poor were drafted to serve in the Union army: the city erupted in mob violence, poor on rich, white on black, native on immigrant, Catholic on Protestant. More than one hundred died, and injuries were grievous.
"This is war zone medicine," a Bellevue emergency room doctor observed in 1990. "You'll never go anywhere in the world and see something we haven't seen here."
In 2001 Bellevue ramped up to take victims of the World Trade Center attack, only to discover an unusual sense of helplessness when few treatable injuries resulted from the incident.

Oshinsky is careful not to whitewash Bellevue’s history. His descriptions can be shocking in what they tell us of conditions there throughout the years. Never particularly well-funded, this public hospital was at the mercy of state budgets and political jockeying, and yet it attracted outsized medical talent by dint of its size, location, and affiliation. The worst bits--doctors operating before antibiotics or anesthetics, or psychotic homeless camping in unused closets—cannot keep the reader from finishing this read in absolute awe of the place.

Bellevue has been rebuilt several times, the latest ribbon-cutting in 1973 after two decades of construction to the tune of $200 million. Twenty-five floors for patients, each an acre or more in size, with stunning views of the river or the Manhattan skyline. Twenty elevators service the space, and the 1200 patient beds. The I.M. Pei-designed (Pei Cobb & Fried) atrium completed in 2005 connects the old buildings with the new.

Bellevue has had famous patients (including exposé-writing journalist Nellie Bly), and famous doctors (Dr. Andre Frederic Cournand and Dr. Dickinson Richards won the 1956 Nobel Prize for their work on cardiac catheterization). The ambidextrous surgeon Dr. Valentine Mott "performed more of the great operations" at Bellevue "than any man living," in the words of Sir Ashley Cooper, England's leading surgeon at the end of the eighteenth century.

Any day at Bellevue is positively epic in scope, novelistic, operatic even. When Oshinsky talks about NYC's Office of Medical Examiner being headquartered at Bellevue in the early part of the twentieth century and managed by Bellevue's chief pathologist, the powerful combination of politics, criminality, medicine, and forensics feels explosive. This is Life writ large, in all its manifestations, and Death, likewise. It is a gigantic, voracious story.

For those interested in the history of medicine, this is a must-read. The heroic pieces of the story are difficult to resist. David Oshinsky won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History for Polio: An American Story and knows how to tell a big story. There can't be that many who could do what he has done with this magnificent effort.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Foreign Soil: And Other Stories by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Hardcover, 272 pages Jan 3rd 2017 by Atria / 37 INK (first published April 29th 2014) Orig Title Foreign Soil ISBN13: 9781501136368

The extraordinary sense of dislocation we experience in Maxine Beneba Clarke’s first short story collection is intentional. Every story describes a different type of “foreignness.” Clarke takes on the voice and persona of every nationality of yellow, brown, black, or white person, those with red hair, chestnut, or soft black curls. Each story describes a pain, an experience that is commonplace enough among the natives she describes to be recognizable. Clark makes us uncomfortable. Slipping on the cloak of “other” isn’t always convincing, but her work is always an interesting and effective challenge to readers.

Clarke writes from Australia, but from an Australia that feels unfamiliar even in its English. Her stories put us on the back foot, and make us query. We are constantly scouring the words she has given us to divine her meaning. It feels sometimes as though she left us clues, but the cultural markers are not the ones we are familiar using. We have the experience of being the “other.” I grew to admire the discomfort Clarke evoked in me, at how many unfamiliar incidents she forced me to look at closely. If she did an insufficient job of navigating and communicating that episode, why am I so sure and how would I do it? Oh yes, she’s a clever one.

The most absorbing and impelling, while still not entirely comforting, was the title story, “Foreign Soil.” An Australian hairdresser falls for a client and accompanies him back to Uganda. Cultural habits learned from childhood start seeping into his behaviors before he is even out of the airport. By the time she discovers she is pregnant, she knows she is not going to marry this man.

Many of Clarke’s stories could easily be turned into a classic horror stories. They have that feel. We grow afraid to peer around the next page, wondering what damage will be done to her characters in the meantime. Even in “Foreign Soil” we wonder if the wife won’t be walled up, literally and forever, inside the doctor’s quiet, lonely compound in Africa.

The story “Shu Yi” likewise has a horror pedigree reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, or other horror greats. An Asian immigrant without good language skills must navigate a white middle school which hosts one black adolescent. The black student is asked to interface the two groups, but is unwilling to risk her position of safety, an invisibility she feels she has earned. Observing, or putting ourselves in place of the black student—any road will get you there—deliver unto us the most vivid discomfiture.

Some of the stories are interlocking, or self-referencing. For instance, we may discover one of the stories being discussed later in the collection, as in “The Sukiyaki Book Club.” The emergence into metafiction is entirely consistent with the self-acknowledging feel of the whole work. Clearly no one author could have experienced, or even known people who experienced, all these different lives.

The stories, therefore, are a suggestion, a question-mark, an initial attempt to understand what others’ lives are. Readers are meant to take the fútbôl and run with it, changing what needs to be changed, adding flourishes and corrections until we finish up together, panting and laughing and sure we did our best, win or lose.

An example of an early story which put the wind up was “Harlem Jones,” about a young angry black man determined to make his mark in a London demonstration, even to the point of “cutting off his nose to spite his face.” This story did not seem to quite capture the mind of a young man: there was not enough fear and, at the same time, immortality, in it.

Dissatisfied, I moved on, only to discover this was a thread, a kind of authorial technique. Clarke wanders in over her head, and looks to us. I grew to like her relying on us to think, to add our own understanding and our own spices. I did, though, also see room for greater clarity in style. Writing as a profession presumes we have something to say, but also that we say it well, and clearly, so that it is not mistaken. There was room for greater clarity, even supposing Australian and American are two different languages.

Clarke is a slam poetry artist, Australian, of Afro-Caribbean descent. Her Australia is unlike any I have encountered before. She has three books of poetry published or shortly due out, has won awards for this story collection even before it was published, and has a memoir, The Hate Race, just published August 2016 in Australia. She has talent and plenty of room to run with it. Expect to hear more from her.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Syrian Jihad by Charles R. Lister

Paperback, 500 pages Published February 1st 2016 by Oxford University Press, USA ISBN 0190462477 (ISBN13: 9780190462475)

Writing about a moving target is very difficult, but this is the most detailed look at the Syrian crisis that I have seen. Published in early 2016, this work discusses events from 2011 up to September of 2015. Charles Lister has fantastic access as scholar and advisor with Brookings Institute, and not all this material is easily available in innumerable newspaper reports. He spent four years researching and writing about the incredibly complex fighting environment in Syria:
"By early 2015 at least 150,000 insurgents within as many as 1,500 operationally distinct armed groups were involved in differing levels of fighting across Syria…"
Lister has a point of view—that is, he wished the West were more involved in offering opportunities for cooperation with groups resisting Assad, so that legitimate challenges to the regime might have had more thrust. He points out that, unfortunately, Western airstrikes beginning in 2014 had the effect of
"definitively creating a new international enemy in the eyes of IS and Jabhar al-Nusra—both of which had previously been focused solely on the local conflicts in Syria and Iraq."
True or not, it seems reasonable that ISIS in 2014 had no intention of taking on the entire Western world, but were forced into it regardless. It is hard to remember how much we knew at the time, but for perspective, consider that the Jordanian air pilot, Al-Kasasbeh, was murdered on film in January 2014, beginning an avalanche of responses from surrounding countries.

I skimmed parts of this; it is an extremely dense discussion with a huge amount of information. Unless one is intimately involved in making decisions about the area, it is probably too detailed, and not for the general reader. But events you may have heard about are often discussed here in great detail, with underlying imperatives and aftermaths. I was looking for Lister’s take on 2014-2015 events, and gleaned enough to know what to look for elsewhere in the future.

For years, and especially in the past 12 months I’d been hearing BBC World TV and radio hosts rant on about Obama’s lack of direct military intervention and I was wondering where this view was coming from. Lister is/was a strong advocate for the U.N. resolution “Responsibility to Protect” and felt Western countries were conveniently focusing on “terrorism” in Syria as a way to avoid staring at the real problem: Bashir al Assad. It appears Lister was of the opinion that Assad should have been neutralized, and then local resistance fighters could have protected Syria from ISIS. Obviously this is an argument that can go round and round, and we have so many recent examples of such interventions being the wrong thing.

Very interesting stuff here about Iran’s involvement protecting their strategic interests; Russia doing the same. In fact, as the fighting in the east dragged on in 2015, Iran was apparently negotiating directly with resistance fighters in some areas, with no Syrian government representatives at all. Resistance fighters at the same time felt abandoned by the West, will fight Assad to the death, and therefore are aligning or considering aligning with more radical elements, including ISIS-affiliates, to stay in the fight. Which is one reason why this book is called The Syrian Jihad, and not, say, The Syrian Insurgency or The Syrian War. Not a good development.

Lister doesn’t see the Syrian jihad collapsing any time soon, no matter what news is coming out of the U.S. military.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Mincemeat by Leonardo Lucarelli

Hardcover, 352 pages Published December 6th 2016 by Other Press ISBN 1590517911 (ISBN13: 9781590517918)

Storytelling and cooking may have something in common—imagination—but they also have a similar way of feeding people, and doing it well can be positively inspiring. Leonardo Lucarelli reminds us that good chefs use very, very sharp knives in the mastery of their craft, and good writers learn the same skill. Lucarelli says repeatedly he did it all “for the money,” while we laugh uproariously as he waxes eloquent about that meal he prepared--alone--for 250 capoeira enthusiasts in the hull of a rusty old ship with no kitchen docked beside Rome in the Tiber…

There is some special delight in listening to a man at the top of his career as a chef in a country known for spectacular cuisine and flamboyant male displays tell us how, by bravado, native (naïve?) talent—but no training—he goes from zero to one thousand in a matter of years. And he continued to manage it, learning on the job, telescoping years of trial-and-error into moments of insight literally seared into his memory...and his hands.

He is arrogant, abrasive, acerbic…and that is just the A’s. Lucarelli began cooking as a teen, when meals his mother left at home for his brother and himself needed a little massaging to be exciting. He cooked for friends, and the first gift to his first real girlfriend was bread, wrapped in a napkin, four corners tied together. (It had been his fourth try, and was the only loaf not obviously wrong on the outside.) Taste and presentation: he knew it might have something to do with winning hearts. Though that early attempt failed, his gradual emergence as a rock-star in the kitchen gave him plenty of opportunities to bedazzle the ladies.

Drugs go along with sex & rock & roll, and there are hair-raising moments in this memoir when we are not entirely sure Lucarelli is going to escape with his faculties intact. The momentum he achieves in his writing contrasts with the stumbling advancement of his career as he tangles with the law, makes poor choices in work and in life, wrecks his motorbike…everything revolving about an important friendship with Matteo, the grounded center of who he really was. Matteo was an ‘on again-off again’ roommate in Rome, Lucarelli’s alter-ego. A reprinted email from Matteo late in the book shows us Matteo’s talent seeing, feeling, and speaking truth, and how important he was to Lucarelli’s sense of himself.

It always interests me when “bad boys” discover their inner homebodies. Lucarelli was no exception, and truthfully, the portion of the memoir devoted to his life after rockstar status was some of the most interesting and affecting of what he chose to share. Lucarelli shows us that everything we learn can be used in the next gig, and how teaching cooking skills may have rewards that equal or exceed chef-dom when the pros and cons of each are laid side-by-side.

It is not just food or cooking that is so interesting about this memoir, however. Lucarelli reveals insights into the economics of modern Italy from his earliest mention of anti-globalization demonstrations in Genoa in 2001, reminding us that discussions revolving around these issues are not new and have been viewed as critical for many years in countries other than the United States.

More striking even were his revelations about the fluid nature of restaurant employment: under-the-table payments to all restaurant staff, even chefs, to avoid tax; direct wage payments from the night’s take; lack of contracts or protections for staff; the precarious position of most owners when it comes to loan sharks or bank loans. It seems there is no safety. What a remarkably poor investment, one might conclude, unless owners know something investors do not.

Taxes. It is hard to discover from just one memoir how widespread the practice must be, but one cannot but note how commonplace avoidance appears to be for those making even small incomes in Italy. In the United States, poor and middle-class wage earners generally pay taxes while the wealthy exploit investment loopholes that result in little or no tax payments. Tax avoidance may, in the end, be most responsible for both the exuberant display of, and the eventual destruction of, western ‘values.’

The other discussion, worthy in Italy just as it is in the United States, is the importance of immigrant labor, even illegal immigrant labor, in keeping restaurants afloat. Lucarelli even gives a somewhat impassioned defense of the illegals he has known that is well worth reading and considering. What art would not have been produced but for the 'slave' labor of illegals? These very issues we must consider when addressing our own problem of illegals in America.

Economic issues were not discussed in the Wall Street Journal review of this title by food critic Moira Hodgson, but Hodgson does give you an exciting look at Lucarelli’s anecdotes. Take a look for yourselves.

P.S. One last thing that warmed my heart: When Lucarelli began working in restaurants and clubs in the early 2000's, it seems every menu contained several vegetarian options, and at least one vegan option. Mediterranean food is especially easy to 'veganize,' but more importantly, it wasn't odd, but obvious. Nearly twenty years later, American restaurants are limping half-heartedly (heart-attackedly?) into enlightenment.

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

China's Future by David Shambaugh

Paperback, 244 pages Published March 14th 2016 by Polity Press ISBN 1509507140 (ISBN13: 9781509507146)

This book was named among The Economist’s Best Books of the Year, but if you’ve ever heard that end-of-year podcast, you’d know that list is not exactly discriminating. However, I did not know that when I ordered this, and I also did not know that The Economist also named Shambaugh's 2013 China Goes Global as Best of the Year. Frankly, I am not impressed, either with this book or The Economist’s list.

This book was actually a speech that Shambaugh had been schlepping around various outlets for a couple of years until he discovered that, with a little tweaking, he could actually sell it as a book. It is, thankfully, brief. That is the best thing that can be said about it.

Shambaugh is an academic who, although he has been studying China for forty years, has never actually put himself in the leader’s place, and therefore cannot adequately convey the feeling Chinese leaders must have of sitting atop an active volcano, knowing changes are necessary, and handling some while stomping out flames as their pants catch on fire.

Shambaugh is dismissive and arch when contemplating the difficulties and constraints facing China’s leaders, while not for a moment considering that every country, even the “free market” democracies in the West, are facing enormous issues with crippling debt, infrastructure, wage-gap, health delivery systems, education and innovation. I really hate his smug attitude.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, it’s a wonder that we still have under-innovating academics like Shambaugh still peddling their tired lectures at universities and think tanks when the world has actually changed in forty years, and we can sit around and discuss, with innovation and rationality, what one would do if one were facing China’s issues, without the attitude. Since the West clearly doesn’t have it all worked out perfectly, why couldn’t we try to imagine a system that uses some state control and unleashes the creativity of the populace without allowing the wide wage and wealth gaps that appear in, say, America?

I find it astonishing that Shambaugh is worried China’s universities are not good enough or that China doesn’t have enough innovation. China is going to eat our lunch in twenty-five years, as anyone who has spent any time there will be happy to tell you. The entire economy has enormous vitality because these folks have known scarcity, and are extremely cunning in knowing how to get by. More than I have ever seen anywhere, it is a nation of entrepreneurs. The leaders’ problem stems from trying to keep it all under control.

Which is the best thing to address first? Deregulating the banking and financial system will cause a vast economic unbalancing, but not doing so is also a problem. Corruption may be endemic, no matter whether leaders are appointed or elected, or how free or tight the central control of the business relationships. Addressing it straight on, and sharing its devastating impacts via a freer press may actually bring more social goods.

The dissidents? They clearly care enough to speak out and see things that the center is avoiding. Rather than jailing them, put them to work coming up with solutions with the brightest poli-sci students, giving them real-life constraints and limited scope, e.g., a province may privatize their largest glass factory. What are the political, social, economic implications, and can it be done discretely within one province? How can the enormous job of introducing needed changes be done piecemeal if moving one piece shifts an entire economy?

Yes, China has to deal with rising expectations. Don’t we all? Shambaugh raises all the moving pieces China must address, but he seems out of touch. His lecture is drowning in very old-fashioned platitudes and attitudes towards “the communists” and he has no apparent enthusiasm for the experiment China undertook in their revolution and since. This is exciting stuff, folks, but you’d never know it from Shambaugh.

The most interesting observations were made by other authors that Shambaugh was quoting:
"Thus, I see China as currently stagnating in what scholar Minxin Pei very astutely and presciently described in 2006 (!) as a ‘trapped transition.’ In this wishful and visionary book [Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy], Pei…describes…economic foundation is inevitably constrained by its political superstructure. Without fundamental and far-reaching political reforms, China’s economy will stagnate and the regime may well collapse…I did not agree with his argument at the time, but have come around to agree with him now. The reason for my changed assessment is that China has changed in the interim."
Good god, folks. Just read Minxin Pei. I plan to. He has a new book just out, called China's Crony Capitalism.

The other legitimately interesting idea Shambaugh tells us about is a book published in 1989 (!) by Zbigniew Brzezinski, called The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century. In it Brzezinski apparently discusses communist party-states in the “post-communist authoritarianism” stage:
"In this phase, the communist leadership loses confidence, evinces a deep insecurity, and tries to reassert control."
I don’t think China is in this stage, but just about anything Brzezinski writes about the Soviets is interesting, and this one sounds just about as relevant as you're going to get.

The NYT on 12/20/2106 featured a QUOTATION OF THE DAY which struck me as having quite a lot of understanding behind it:
"China is a dragon. America is an eagle. Britain is a lion. When the dragon wakes up, the others are all snacks."
JIN CANRONG, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, at a forum discussing China's future and international relations. — Dec 20, 2016 06:52AM

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Reagan's War by Peter Schweizer

Steve Bannon, now a senior advisor to President-Elect Trump, has a film on his resume that excited some folks, called In the Face of Evil. The film was apparently based on a book by Peter Schweizer—this book in fact. It took some doing, but I managed to get my hands on a copy of the film and I was surprised. It didn’t seem particularly kind to Ronald Reagan, but painted him as a failed actor with a single obsession in his entire life: the destruction of the communist political system. Now, with echoes of Reagan resounding in Trump's tweets ("Let the arms race begin!"), I wonder if the film doesn't tell us what Bannon might be advising Trump to do.

The film used set-ups for shots that one will recognize from old film classics like Metropolis (dark, brooding, shots of creepy overlords), Citizen Kane (dark, brooding shots of politicians with creepy amounts of power), and a couple others, so it seemed like a weird montage by a newbie director who wanted to remind viewers of more important films than his own.

After watching the film, I then wondered about the book: was it as ambiguous about Reagan’s obsession as I felt the film was? Schweizer’s book reads like ad copy from the 1950s, not a book on political affairs published in 2002, and the book precisely illustrates my unease with supposed ‘histories:’
"Along with their children Michael and Maureen, Ron and Jane [Wyman] lived in a beautiful home with a pool on Cordell Drive. He owned a splendid ranch near Riverside, and when he and Jane weren’t at the studio lot, they could be found playing golf at the prestigious Hillcrest Country Club with Jack Benny and George Burns. At night they often dined at the trendy Beverly Club."
Reagan was an executive committee member of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP) which was accused in 1946 of being a communist front. Reagan instantly supported release of a statement denying support for communists which was opposed by the majority, leading to infighting and Reagan’s resignation. He was shortly elected to lead the Screen Actor’s Guild and became an FBI informant against his fellows in SAG. Wyman divorced him for “mental cruelty” when the two “engaged in continual arguments on his political views.”

Reagan became enamored of Arthur Koestler’s disillusionment with communism in 1948, when he read Koestler’s book, Darkness at Noon and gradually conceived of
”the opportunity to combine his love of movies with his newfound mission to undermine communism. Why not use Hollywood films to undermine the Soviets?”
Ah, the wheels turn, grinding out opportunities. From 1959 through 1963 Reagan honed and developed his anti-communist message, and by the time he gave his “rendezvous with destiny” speech [also called “A Time for Choosing”] in front of a national audience in support of Barry Goldwater at the Cocoanut [sic] Grove, Los Angeles in 1964, he’d been delivering versions of the speech for two years already.

What I take away from this book and my haphazard attempts to fact-check is that it is detailed, fluently-written--even absorbing if one is interested in Reagan's intellectual prowess--but also narrowly-focused, one-sided, un-nuanced propaganda supporting Reagan’s monomaniacal zeal for democracy’s strength in light of the encroachment of communist ideas. Certainly watching the film of the book would take less time, and you would have to ask yourself at the end of it…what kind of men are these that praise Reagan’s strength in defying Russia before, and praise Trump’s cozying up to Russia now?

Is it the clarity of a single motivating idea, and appreciation of strongman attitudes and propaganda techniques that captures Schweizer's and Bannon’s imagination and support? Perhaps communism was the real bugbear, not Russia, and now that Putin is clearly a world-class oligarch in the tradition of democracies and colonial empires the world over, Putin is no longer the threat, but the partner.

There is no doubt that Reagan's arms race and inflexibility 'broke' the less-strong Russian economy. Perhaps Trump hopes to push Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea to the wall in the same way, through the threat of weaponry escalation. A bloodless kind of war, played economically. The deep cynicism needed for this tack misreads our opponents and reflects how the conservative viewpoint in America has developed under Republicans and the Koch brothers' influence.

I’d love to see the insights of others about the book or on Bannon’s film, In the Face of Evil. I hesitate to recommend either one, however, not finding the central ideas sufficiently complicated enough to explain or deliver justice in today’s complex environment. I learned to think differently, growing up, and to seek less autocratic solutions.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

This nonfiction is unlike others Michael Lewis has offered us. In this he tries the trick of explaining confusion by demonstrating confusion, but near the end of this work we appreciate again Lewis’ distinctive clarity and well-developed sense of irony as he addresses a very consequential collaboration in the history of ideas. Lewis did something else he’d not done before as well. By the end of this book I was bawling aloud, in total sync with what Lewis was trying to convey: why humans do what we do.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. What is remarkable about that statement is also what is remarkable about Lewis’ attempt to explain it. Lewis made us feel the chaos and the unlikelihood of such a success, in this case, of ever finding that one person who complements another so perfectly that the two literally spur one another to greater accomplishment. From a vast array of possible choices, opportunities, and directions come two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who together add up to more than the sum of their parts.

One thing became clear about the groundbreaking work done by Kahneman and Tversky: despite the curiosity, drive, and iconoclastic talent each possessed, their moments of greatest crossover relevance came as a result of the involvement of the other. This could push the discussion into an examination of the importance of pairs in creativity, but Lewis resists that thread to follow what he calls a “love story” to the end, to the breakup of the two men. Once the closest of friends and collaborators, the reason for their breakup is as instructive as anything else Lewis could have chosen to focus on, and it makes a helluva story, full of poignancy.

Kahneman was an idea man, throwing up new psychological insights constantly, beginning with his early work recruiting and training Israeli soldiers for the front line. Tversky was a widely admired mathematical psychologist, iconoclast, and skeptic who challenged accepted thinking and in so doing, provided new ways to look at old problems. Just by asking questions he could lead others to find innovative answers. Both Israelis were teaching at the University of Michigan in the 1960s but their paths didn’t overlap until later, back in Israel. In one of the classes he taught at Hebrew University Kahneman challenged guest lecturer Tversky’s discussion on how people make decisions in conditions of uncertainty.

In this instance Kahneman became the iconoclast, the skeptic, pulling the rug from underneath Tversky. The challenge got under Tversky’s skin, but instead of falling prey to anger, Tversky was galvanized. Colleagues who saw him at this time recall his unusually intense period of questioning. Again, after a period of time, the men came together again, and thus began one of the richest and most rewarding periods of intellectual collaboration in modern times.

Together, both men were able to isolate some important pieces in the thinking sequences of humans who were presumed to maximize utility in rational, logical decision trees. It took many years to isolate what struck them as incomplete or incorrect in the accepted thinking of others, but what they concluded revolutionized the thinking in several disciplines, including economics (and baseball).

Lewis’s earlier book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game discussed how an algorithm assigning different weights to individual characteristics of baseball draft picks could by-pass the errors human tend to make when looking over a list of potential players. This is related, in a distant way, to the illogic discovered in the decision trees Kahneman and Tversky discussed, and unfortunately Lewis decides to revisit the breakthrough in his own understanding at the beginning of this book. Describing that tangential result of the men’s essential discovery unnecessarily complicates and obfuscates Lewis’ central thrust in this book—the relationship between two men who supercharge their achievements when they are together. Once Lewis settles into the real subject of his book, his writing becomes familiarly crystalline, filled with science and emotion, describing a singularly fascinating tale.

Particularly interesting is Lewis’ attention to how ideas develop. Lewis tries in several instances to get to the moment of insight, and then to the moments of greater insight which might lead finally to upturning accepted beliefs about how one thinks the world must work. Happiness and regret both came under the microscopes of these men and it was hugely insightful for them to discover that regret was the more impelling emotion. People often made decisions to minimize regret rather than maximize happiness. This led to the ‘discovery’ that the value of positive ‘goods’ decreased after a certain level of attainment, while the value of negative ‘bads’ never lost their bite. Which could be another way of describing the apparently supreme need to minimize loss rather than maximize gain. Which led to the discovery that people often gamble against what had been perceived as their own interests.

The two men were opposites of one another, Kahneman a heavy smoker whose office was messy and disordered, and Tversky, who hated smoking, had an office so well-organized it looked empty. For a period of almost twenty years, during the years of their greatest output, they could often be found together, talking, or writing one another if apart. They published hugely influential papers and became the toast of several continents. The closeness of the two men appeared to have no discrepancy until gradually over time, Tversky became better known and more popular in scientific and academic circles. The equilibrium of the relationship was thus unbalanced and a period of estrangement led the men in different directions.

The entire story, in Lewis’ hands, is wonderfully moving. If you can thrash your way through the thicket of ideas at the entrance to the main repository of ideas in this book, prepare yourselves to be utterly delighted.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Hardcover, 228 pages Published April 6th 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN13: 9780393240184

Mary Norris’ conversational manner first made me think that the person always behind the scenes at The New Yorker, America’s prestigious literary magazine, wanted her day in the sun. “ME!” I imagined her pointing, two thumbs to her chest, “I’m HERE!” The more I read, though, the more chummy she seemed. “I want to read what you guys are saying on the web, in reviews, articles, and blogs,” she seemed to be saying, “but don’t bug me with bad punctuation. It’s not easy, what I do, but here are a few pointers…”

I love her for that. It really isn’t easy, what she does, and when she gets into accusative, transitive, and copulative verbs, though they do sound right up my alley, my eyes watered just a little. But I am so glad she laid to rest the “you and me” bit. She gives an example of the “pratfall in dialogue form” when a TV character, known to be a bit dim, tries to elevate his diction by saying archly, “We have already reserved that bowling alley for Teddy and I.” She mentions that David Foster Wallace was “a fabulous stickler—a snoot, in his own term.” He lists “between you and I” second in a catalogue of blunders, and Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, notes this grammatical error is “committed almost exclusively by educated speakers trying a little too hard to sound refined but stumbling badly.” Well, that puts a nail in it.

My problem, I freely admit, is commas. I can actually feel readers cringing to read some of the stuff I have generated, though you probably know all about this failing of mine. I am always wishing I had a copy editor to just run through the thing with a Palomino Blackwing* and tell me what I meant to say. That’s why I got this book. I love the example in her discussion of serial commas or not: "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

What I actually learned from this book is that there is, as I’d hoped, quite a lot of flexibility in the actual putting together of a sentence. The ultimate objective, of course, is clarity. "THE PRIME NECESSITY IS TO SAFEGUARD AGAINST MISREADING." As such, "if commas are open to interpretation, hyphens are downright Delphic." Ah, she hits all the sore spots. For those of us who write quite a lot, we worry about these things. "There is a phase in the life of every copy editor when she is obsessed with hyphens." That’s a relief. Further good news is that one might be able to argue for one’s intent in case of disagreement with, say, another copy editor or writer of the dreaded ‘letter to the editor', but one should at least try to be consistent within the same essay.

As for the dash—for years my letters home were filled with dashes—with not a period in sight. Once I realized my dashes were getting longer and so populous I barely had room for a few words squeezed between them, I knew the game was up. I had to begin writing comprehensible sentences. Norris says of the dash:
"Women seem to use it a lot, especially in correspondence, as if it were a woman’s prerogative to stop short without explanation, to be a little vague, to have a sudden change of heart, to leave things open-ended."
Exactly. Leave ‘em guessing.

My favorite funny bit may be the time she changed 'terrine of foie gras' to 'tureen of foie gras,' never having seen the term terrine and being unable to find it in a dictionary. I also greatly appreciated A.A. Milne's observation that
"If the English language had been properly organized...there would be a word which meant both 'he' and 'she,' and I could write: 'If John or Mary comes, heesh will want to play tennis,' which would save a lot of trouble."
Lu Burke was a colleague of Norris, a proofreader from her arrival at The New Yorker in 1958 to her retirement in 1990. On her desk she kept a canister wrapped in brown paper and marked with hand-drawn commas. It had a perforated lid, like the red-hot pepper shakers at a pizzeria. Lu thought The New Yorker’s “close” style of punctuation used too many commas. “In almost every way Lu was the opposite of Eleanor” Gould, the magazine’s legendary grammarian, query proofreader, and a certified genius. It is probably best organizations have long-running disagreements about punctuation. It keeps everyone sharp for the next opportunity to press their point.

Norris tells great stories with illustrative examples from the works of authors you will recognize, but the stories about her own life make her accessible. Who wouldn’t be impressed and intimidated by the behind-the-scenes editors who make possible the output of a weekly literary magazine of such reputation? She had me laughing so often it made me realize that I would love to see “pratfalls in grammar” illustrated in a separate column. She is a gem.

*Palomino Blackwing: Even the name of this pencil sounds somewhat thrilling to someone who never knew there was anything worth using beyond a Dixon No. 2 Ticonderoga. Norris tells us what she learned about herself when the Dixon No. 1 Ticonderoga could no longer be found for sale. Besides pencils, she became something of an expert on pencil sharpeners and once made a pilgrimage to a pencil sharpener museum in Ohio, a tale so well told and filled with zany details that it could easily have been published to great acclaim in her own magazine.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

Hardcover, 592 pages Published April 21st 2016 by Avalon Publishing Group (first published March 8th 2016) ISBN13: 9781568584638, National Book Award for Nonfiction (2016)

The insights and understanding shared with us in this dazzling work of erudition and scholarship entirely make up for its enormous length. One wonders how it can be that such a book has not been written to date, the need for such a work obvious from the moment Kendi begins to trace the evolution of America’s history of racist ideas, from the pre-revolutionary settlers and the sermons of Cotton Mather right through Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. By the end we have a framework to evaluate and calmly deconstruct the words of Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton, among other voices like those in Black Lives Matter.

The work has a momentum that develops from a stately walking pace in slave times, gathering steam after the Civil War and the First World War, until we experience a positive torrent of ideas, criticisms, actors, detractors in the 1990s and 2000s when everyone has a megaphone and it seems no one is listening. Kendi strips all qualified “asks” away and insists that black people be accepted in the fullness of their humanity: good or bad, talented or not, criminal or not.

This often surprising history reminds us how completely our opinions are shaped by political and economic realities rather than by the most logical or rational argument. In the 1600’s Cotton Mather was a product of his time: blacks were inferior in every way except for their physicality, but they should be baptized. Jefferson thought they weren’t as inferior as all that, but some blacks are more enlightened than others, and even those must rely on white people for their “safety and happiness.” The “time wasn’t right” to free the slaves. This was also the opinion of George Washington. William Lloyd Garrison believed fervently that blacks should not be slaves, but they were not the social equal of whites. “It is not practicable to give undeveloped Black men the vote.” This was the opinion of Abraham Lincoln as well, who wanted to free the slaves and send them back to Africa. W.E.B. DuBois was a well-educated black man who believed black men could be the equal of white men, but perhaps just some black men, not the great unwashed. And finally, Angela Davis thought black people shouldn’t copy or aspire to white life in any way, that black people, including black women, were absolutely the equal of whites in every way, if only they had equal opportunity.

In every period Kendi discusses, the latest scientific theories put forth “prove, undeniably” that black people were inferior to white people, in structure, in mind, in morals, in attitudes. Kendi discusses each with a dispassion bordering on amused curiosity. Each argument is eviscerated with cool observation before he moves on to the next attempt to convince white people that black people were worthy. By the end, he has inoculated us against outrage and taught us to evaluate each argument ourselves without falling into heated rhetoric or getting tangled in “should” and “oughts.” Kendi himself has concluded the only way black people would not be discriminated against in some way is if everyone recognize that blacks are at least as talented or flawed as whites and should be treated accordingly, that is to say, with the same amount of attention and acceptance of their potential talent, as for their potential for error. Anything less is racist.

I became utterly rapt when Kendi enters the period of Angela Davis and the modern day us. This is recent memory, and anyone can get first-hand corroboration on what people were thinking just forty years ago, as well as investigate the thickets surrounding any race discussions today. We, all of us, but especially white people, were lied to about what black people were about in this period. Because we were segregated, it was hard to get a clear idea or perspective on what was happening in each community. Kendi calls Davis’ first book, Women, Culture, and Politics, published in 1989, an “instant classic.” Davis wrote many more books once she began teaching classes in the university system in California. She understood right from her youth in Birmingham, Alabama that uplift suasion (becoming acceptable to whites by copying their attitudes, look, & culture), or assimilation (actually becoming more white through intermarriage & cultural overlap) were not going to give black people rights or respect. Black people needed then, and need now, the protection of the law. Enforceable law.

Kendi writes beautifully, in a totally engaging way, but the size of this tome may be a little intimidating. To assist uptake of his ideas, Kendi has provided a detailed Prologue and Epilogue. I recommend you read those, and then begin with the Angela Davis section. The momentum one attains in this whirlwind of ideas, popular figures, and known events will allow one to grasp his major theses. Then go back and allow him to carefully outline his research and thinking. It's worth studying.

This book won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

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Friday, December 9, 2016

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Wow. This huge, powerful novel is so minutely observed that readers can be forgiven for occasionally missing the forest for the trees. Sex, race, and class are backdrop here, setting and makeup for half-a-life of self-abnegation performed on a world stage. Dichotomies between first world/third world value sets, the insular self-preservation of huge celebrities, the influence of money on impulses of every kind, the debts we owe another, how generosity manifests, who “family” really is— these life-critical issues are part of Zadie Smith’s latest novel. It bowled me over.

The story begins with two young girls, both fascinated with musical theatre and dance, as closely entwined as stems from the same seed, growing apart as they grew up together, the result of outsized talent and personality on one side, and a confusion of identities and timidity on the other. One takes a job dancing on stage, the other handmaiden to a dancer on a bigger stage. The confusion of identities is not challenged for years, during which time the handmaiden begins to observe cracks in the world she sought to manage.

She is nameless, the narrator. By dint of parental steering, she finished university and managed to find her way into managing logistics for a superstar, a singer/dancer. Descriptions of her work grow less enthralled as she ages out of the job ten years on, after discovering along the way that she may have been hired or kept on because she was a “woman of color” and filled a slot rather than for any perceived talent. In fact, the one time she does display an actual talent—for singing—her boss threatened to fire her.

Looking at a changed world without the prism supplied by the superstar, she realizes there is little she can take away. The lessons she learned may not be ones she wants to keep, and she is not sure if she knows how to speak to a person dying, or how to be friends, or how to care, or how to make those around her share a little in her successes.

Smith raises many issues in this novel but doesn’t solve them for us. The thing she does do so beautifully is poke a mixed London heritage and point to those little moments we recognize: anguish over unequal opportunity disguised as childish jealousy (Tracey); admiration for someone able to draw people into their orbit with generosity and joy (Hiwot in West Africa, her mother in London); how to be just who you are without signifiers like age or race or education or accomplishments (her father, James & Darryl in NYC).

The narrator is a shadow yet, in the beginning and at end of the novel, by her own admission, and has not grown into her own persona. But we are there the moments she begins to see, to recognize who she is, what she believes, and what she has missed.
“Now everyone knows who you really are.”
We do, and we feel so many other things as well. She is vulnerable, perhaps even in danger, but instead of being frightened, she feels a tingle…that’s blood rushing. Why does it take so long for humans to develop their sense? She is on her way, and she’ll do fine. The last thing her mother says to her is that she would make a good mother. And she would. But so will many others, even those who look incapable of it. Even Tracey. Even Aimee. Even her. She did learn something about love after all.
“The future is the same as the past.”
What did Lamman mean when he said this to Fern? Perhaps he meant our future is in our past, or the future is created from the past or the past determines the future.

I listened to this novel, published by Penguin Random House Audio and read by Pippa Bennett-Warner. Bennett-Warner was amazing. She made a plethora of accents perfectly distinguishable, at least five London accents alone, two Australian, Jamaican, West African, along with NYC and generic American, male and female. That’s pretty grand, no matter how you cut it. I took my time over this, did not mark my place as I listened, so often listened twice to any section to catch up to my last heard scene. I was never bored. Smith packed so much seeing in each scene, I was thinking the entire time. Impressive in every way, and tons to talk about if readers choose this for a reading group. Which I recommend.

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"They Can't Kill Us All" by Wesley Lowery

In his Acknowledgments, Wesley Lowery calls the victims of racial violence “Rorschach tests in a divided nation’s debate of race and justice.” That seems a particularly appropriate choice of metaphor in light of the criticisms from some portion of our populace about the movements that have sprung up to protest police violence against black citizens. What do you see when you are shown an unarmed black man splayed and bloody on a city street, in a park, in a car, shot by police fire?

With all the incidents of racial violence in the past two three years now—can it really be so many for so long?—it is hard to keep straight when the outrage began and when it began to blossom into fury. Lowery began his reporting on police shootings with Ferguson in 2014. He was writing for the Washington Post. He first saw Instagram photos uploaded by his friend Brittany Noble with CBS affiliate KMOV in St. Louis, who had a list of local officer-involved shootings in her reporting history. “I just felt different. Something wasn’t right. This wasn’t the typical police shooting scene,” Noble told Lowery.

When did “police shooting scene” become paired with “typical”? Lowery explains that it was during Ferguson that we realized there was no national data for police shootings. It needed to be collected, and was, later, by hand, by scouring newspaper reports from around the country. It turns out that the largest subcategory of people killed by police are armed white men, many mentally ill or explicitly suicidal. We don’t see the numbers here, but one wonders how many unarmed white men, as opposed to unarmed black men, become victims. There is no doubt that a close reading of the numbers would help us to understand the difficulties on both sides of the policing debate.

So Lowery begins with nearly three months in Ferguson: “There is this overwhelming feeling that they can shoot us, they can beat us—we can even have this stuff on video and the police officer still gets off” [Patricia Bynes]—and is drawn into a national crisis, ping-ponging around the country with each new shooting. The timeline and the incidents are laid out in order, along with the crescendo of voices in protest.

He notes the moment “black lives matter” goes viral for the first time, from a Facebook post by Alicia Garza, a 31-year-old activist in Oakland, reposted by fellow activist Patrisse Cullors. Black Lives Matter became “an ideological and political intervention” then, "in the face of deadly oppression." The name later became the name of an organization. “Its tenets have matured and expanded over time and not all of its adherents subscribe to them in exactly the same manner…” The division in what became the movement has been seen before between groups wishing to bring racial inequality to the nation’s attention. While some may not agree that "Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise," one has to admit it looks an awful lot like that.

Lowery introduces us to many young activists and spokespeople around the country who are anxious to be part of the dialog and the solution. That is the hopeful part of his narrative. Well-educated, articulate men and women around the country have poured their organizing and speaking skills into highlighting these issues for those who do not face profiling or harassment or intimidation in their everyday lives. Many may end up someday in political roles, if they can gain traction: ”No one is going to teach you. Power is never given, it’s taken,” one young aspirant was told by a prominent official. So be it, then.

The discussion of political leadership led directly to an eye-widening moment for me: “…the percentage of black registered voters in the South more than doubled—skyrocketing from 31% to 73%—between 1965 and 2005” (a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Not coincidentally, this is just the time the conservative Koch brothers began to systematically fund groups who would move far-right politicians into down-ballot races, beginning the process of changing the face of southern electoral politics so that new districts could be drawn without contention and restrictions on voting rights could be enacted.

One night in early 2016 I happened to catch the Colbert Report when DeRay Mckesson was guest speaker. That night he was trying to explain the Black Lives Matter to Stephen Colbert, who came off looking foolish and even a little resistant against the smooth, cool rationality of Mckesson. I learn from Lowery that Mckesson has become a huge figure in racial identity politics since 2015 when he involved himself with the Black Lives Matter movement. I have added the clip below for those who haven’t seen it.

I understand also that Mckesson has been involved in discussions President Obama convened with his advisors and other activists Lowery mentions, e.g., Brittany Packnett, (Campaign Zero), and Mica Grimm, (Black Lives Matter). It is thrilling for me to hear these voices, though I wish there were less contention among the groups about motives and means. The ends are pretty much the same, it would seem. The means…I guess we will have to see the response of the police and government, but not everyone wants the activists to fail in their pursuits.

The Stephen Colbert Report with DeRay Mckesson:

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

March (Books 1,2,& 3) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

The third book in the graphic novel series March won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2016, prompting a look at the trilogy. John Lewis’s extraordinary life growing up on a farm in Alabama is told in flashbacks, linking to the opening frames of Book 1 which depicts Lewis’ office in Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C. in January 2009.

Our perception of the fifty-odd years between Lewis’ childhood and Obama’s inauguration changes as we read, sometimes thinking fifty years sounds like a long time, and then realizing it’s only fifty years. How radically different living conditions were then, outside of cities. Blacks were still being blatantly discriminated against in every way, and the first civil rights legislation was just being proposed, passed, and enacted. This is the story of the resistance.

Lewis’ early work began with protesting segregation at lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, and then moving on to protesting segregated movie theaters, swimming pools, and universities. He wrote to organizers of the Freedom Ride, a planned action on Greyhound buses from D.C. to Louisiana. The Freedom Riders sought to challenge bus companies ignoring the recently-passed Supreme Court ruling on Boynton v Virginia which disallowed discrimination on buses or in bus stations. Lewis was allowed to participate in that dangerous but ultimately successful protest action before moving on to protesting lack of access to the vote for blacks in Mississippi.

The continued pressure of constant insistence on political rights for people of color across the southern states provoked violent push-back, but the disciplined, nonviolent tactics of Lewis’ group were surprisingly effective. It is valuable for us now to know how difficult it was for the nonviolent arm of civil rights groups to negotiate not only with the folks opposing their rights, but with their own colleagues. The stress of repeated beatings, killings, jailings, and threats was pushing attitudes toward a more robust form of protest. The authors describe differing voices, alternative views.

Lewis and the man whose delivery of nonviolent “social gospel” which influenced his own speeches, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped to hold back the swelling tide of violent resistance long enough to celebrate national recognition for their efforts culminating in the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Lewis had a front-row seat to all that was going on in the south and in Washington. He was head of Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee and as the youngest of the “Big Six,” representatives of the most impactful civil rights organizations, he met with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Lewis has a story to tell, and in this collaboration with two younger men, show us how momentous his contribution.

The whole trilogy is a focused and detailed look at the Civil Rights movement from the point of view of John Lewis for approximately a ten-year period 1955-1965. The encapsulation of a real life into a series of picture frames and dialog boxes is a difficult thing to pull off, but Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell do it beautifully, never talking down to the reader, nor reaching so high that the concepts can’t be grasped immediately, viscerally even. This is life and death stuff, and they leave a little of the horror in for us to contemplate, but the steady focus and preparation necessary to challenge political power comes across as well. As does the bravery of those who dared to resist.

Get this trilogy if you have teens. This is worthy.

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Saturday, December 3, 2016

TrumpNation by Timothy L. O'Brien

Tim O'Brien restored my sense of humor. I was belly-laughing by the end of this book. O'Brien was sued by the Donald over the reporting in this book, twice, but if anything, O'Brien makes the Donald look bombastic rather than purposely evil. At first I was disconcerted by O'Brien's breezy style, but by the middle of this book I understood that the style matched the subject matter. I started laughing when O’Brien tells us about the fight headlined daily in the New York papers between developer Trump and Mayor Koch in the 1980s. I even got to the point where I was thinking, like Trump’s wives, “That’s just Donald. He does it to everybody.” He is a braggart and a smooth-talking operator. Everyone knows he is lying, but because no one takes him seriously, what he says doesn’t matter.

But that’s all over now. Now people must take him seriously, and it is difficult to change early impressions. The only thing we do know is that among the powerful, nearly everyone is waiting for him to trip up and hang himself. No one, except perhaps Giuliani, has any loyalty to this guy. After all, Trump has insulted them, lorded over them, sued them even. He won the election, yes, but if he blows it, they will dump him faster than Brutus stabbed Caesar.

Now, to this book. It was initially published in October of 2005, long before politicos around the nation were speaking of him the same breath as Bush, Romney, and Obama. Their worlds did not overlap. A second edition of the book was published June 2016 with a new Introduction (described here in the Washington Post) which should give you some idea of O’Brien’s writing style and attitudes towards the Don.

The thing that I began to warm to in O’Brien’s telling is that this is actually funny. Donald is a gad-dang charlatan, for cripes' sake. Everyone knows that, especially the dour-faced Republicans who opposed him during the campaign. And they are all lawyers. Donald has so much objectionable, actionable, lying behaviors behind--and presumably ahead--of him that they can take him down at any time they decide to put their little minds to the task. It just depends how long they can keep him on their leash. This has nothing to do with “popular opinion.” That pleasantry will go right out the window when the politicos decide enough is enough. Brutus and Caesar.

Anyway, this book is a hoot. I first read David Cay Johnston’s The Making of Donald Trump which allowed me to relax into this more casual history. Both books have great stories about Trump in conflict with one powerful billionaire after another. I particularly liked the story about Trump so admiring the Plaza Hotel that he bought it despite its flaws at a price which began to suck his wallet dry.
"This isn’t just a building, it’s the ultimate work of art," Donald said of his hotel. "I was in love with it…I tore myself up to get the Plaza."
It’s nice to know there is some sentiment in the guy, even if it is only for a building and not for the blond bombshells he married to amuse himself and dazzle us. Somewhere along the time O’Brien recalls the testimony from Steve Wynn, Las Vegas developer, discussing Trump(1) do I begin to see that Trump’s election is a fluke, and that he is hanging again by his toenails to this high bar he has managed, by luck and bravado, to scale. But there isn’t much underneath him, and it is just a matter of time before the Washington establishment declares “This emperor has NO clothes!”

Endlessly amusing if one can detach the real-world implications of Donald Trump as President of the United States, this book should be required reading for those too distressed to listen to news since the election. It is a reality inoculation to stave off despair. We knew we had a lot of work to do to repair the political system. Now we have no choice. It is not a question of “if” or “when.” The answer will have to be “now.” Be prepared to become involved.

(1)Steve Wynn on Donald Trump:
"No sane or rational guy would respond to Trump," Wynn responded. "His statements to people like you, whether they concern us or our projects, or our motivations, or his own reality, or his own future, or his own present, you have seen over the years have no relation to truth or fact. And if you need me to remind you that, we’re both in trouble. He’s a fool."
Turns out Steve Wynn is classified in an Esquire report as Trump's "friend." It seems Trump is a more reasonable man in person.

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Friday, December 2, 2016

The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston

The best part of this book comes near the end, in Trump’s Atlantic City casino.
“Akio Kashiwagi was one of the world’s five biggest gamblers, literally a one-in-a billion customer, who…in May 1990 was sitting at a green-felt table at Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino calmly wagering $14 million an hour. He had been there for nearly a week.”
Johnston prepares us for nearly two hundred pages with Donald’s history of self-promotion, alignments with shady racketeers, tax dodges, questionable accounting practices, and the real sleaze of a man who’d reached his intellectual limit selling real estate. The reader literally becomes queasy imagining the damage this man could do as leader of our country.

The story at the casino is told in minute detail, how $18.8 million in $5K chips are stacked on the table and floor beside Kashiwagi at the baccarat table as he reached the pinnacle of his win in the double-or-nothing wager he had with the house. He was still in the black by the middle of the next week, and Trump could not sleep.

It is in the middle of this story when I realize that this is one of Trump’s biggest moments…a game…for money. I can’t tell you how it turns out—the book is worth seeking out, Johnson tells the story so well—but it does have something to do with reputation and the real wealth of both men, not the heralded fake wealth bragged about. It is a fight to the death, considering mob-boss friends hold the velvet stage curtains behind which both men hide.

In the final pages Johnston's skill as an investigative journalist and writer come across clearly. He focuses the last part of the book on Trump’s little known mob connections, and criminal associates. Knowing bad folks, as Johnston points out, proves nothing. But Johnston goes on to show how Trump profited by his relationships with folks who commonly transgressed the law. Trump cared about money, and measured his worth by it. He measures other people's worth by their beauty or wealth...or power.

The ups and downs in the legal battle over Trump University alone should have given the American voting populace pause because it showed Trump’s desperation and his rhinestones-for-diamonds charlatanism. Johnston gives a good overview of the bribery, threats, lawsuits, misdirection, and outright lies involved with this case. Right after this section is one on supposed donations to charity that got all tied up in donations to and from his own foundation.

I wasn’t going to read anything about Trump right away because I was in a deep funk after the election, but a lengthy discussion with a Goodreader led me first to TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald by Timothy O’Brien, and before I finished that, to Johnston’s book. TrumpNation first came out in 2005, and was reissued in early June 2016 with a new introduction. O'Brien has a fascinating in-depth section on the Koch-Trump rivalry (Koch was mayor of NYC in the 1980's) and a hilarious description of Trump's purchase of New York's fabled Plaza Hotel.

O’Brien was an editor at the NYT before moving to become executive editor of Bloomberg View. O'Brien actually edited some of Johnston’s work when both worked at the NYT. Johnston is a specialist in tax law and reporting, earned a Pulitzer in 2001 for his reporting on taxation, and was able to see some of his suggestions adopted by Congress into tax law shortly afterward. The material in Johnston's book and O'Brien's overlaps: both are sobering assessments of the man they watch, and detailed in what they focus on specifically.

Johnston’s book came out in English and German in Aug 2016, but he'd been researching Donald Trump for almost thirty years. Johnston met Trump back in the 1980’s, when he was investigating money flows, taxes, tax avoidance, and casinos. There were so many folks involved in Trump’s success that investigations into his financial reporting went nowhere. He was both too big and too inconsequential. Trump's net worth was nothing like he claimed, but there was so much money going in and out of his accounts. It was going somewhere.

Johnston makes an excellent observation early in the book, in his bio of Fred Trump, Donald’s father.
”When Fred Trump was under intense criticism for plans to destroy a popular Coney Island attraction…where he wanted to build the first apartment project bearing the family name, Fred Trump shifted the focus of news coverage by hiring a bevy of beauties in hard hats and polka-dot bikinis to hand out bricks to locals and city dignitaries…Decades later, of course, Donald Trump would surround himself with models to attract television cameras and would have his third wife pose nearly nude aboard his Boeing 757 jet for a men’s magazine while he looked on during a photo shoot.”
Hard to believe near-nakedness distracts anyone from hanging onto their pocketbooks anymore--isn't that the oldest con of all? But so it goes. Donald continues to point to sexy beauty and away from his own indiscretions.

Johnston starts Trump’s family history with the observation that the family name was once Drumpf, changed in 1648, too early to implicate Donald, but not too early to influence his sense of himself. Johnston points out various meanings of the word trump:
”Donald no doubt enjoys the bridge player’s definition of trump: a winning play by a card that outranks all others. But other definitions include ‘a thing of small value, a trifle’ and ‘to deceive or cheat’ as well as ‘to blow or sound a trumpet.’ As a verb, trump means to ‘devise in an unscrupulous way’ and ‘to forge, fabricate or invent,’ as in ‘trumped-up’ charges.”

Johnston has just the right amount of amused skepticism and new information to hold us in thrall rather than have us toss the book across the room in a rage. He keeps us reading and thinking. It is absolutely unbelievable that Trump was victorious in November.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up mixed in South Africa ends with a bang. In some ways, he is the manifestation of his mother’s dream of escape. A dream of equality might be a step too far, but escape…escape from Soweto, a township “designed to be bombed” with a population of one million and only two roads in or out.
”The story of Soweto is the story of driveways. It is a hopeful place.”
Trevor’s mother’s family lived in Soweto, and though she had courageously—even foolishly, white people in this country might say—gone to live where black people were prohibited in Johannesburg, she somehow managed to make it all work: finding work, renting an apartment, becoming a single mom. She actually charted, as best she could, a future for her family that looked very different from what was expected. That level of desperation is not well known among white people in America.

Although this is a memoir of a thirty-two-year-old comedian, and perhaps because it is the memoir of a thirty-two-year-old comedian, Trevor's mother’s story is the one that resonates most keenly. But let’s give credit where credit is due: Trevor has an amazing delivery. All the while we are listening to the most difficult material, the scariest or most tragic stuff we've never had to face growing up, all the while we are ready to laugh, or to crack a smile. He keeps it light, but he definitely shows how he moved from being “born a crime” into actual crime without making it seem criminal.
"Listen, you shouldn’t get upset. Black people don’t have any money, so trying to get more stuff for less money is just what we do. But let me help. I’ll be your middleman…"
Noah spent most of his youth on the outside of every society he was in, a good position to see each group for what it was. In school he learned to mediate between competing groups and sell them things…pirated CDs, games, food. One day he is caught on film stealing candy from a mall shop that was closed. His interrogators, despite seeing his features and face, thought the boy on film was white, and therefore, despite lengthily interrogating Noah and showing him the film numerous times, Noah himself wasn’t suspected. That level of colorblindness may be more rare in America. It's hard to say that Noah's personality didn't confuse things.

Noah’s facility with languages was his entree into gaining acceptance with diverse populations. He could sound like anyone, speak their language, and earn a spot in their group.
"I could be a part of any group that was laughing…I’d catch a bit of their conversation, learn more about their group, and then leave. I never overstayed my welcome. I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t an outcast…"
After school he moved into an apartment with help from his mother and a push from his stepfather. He hustled on the streets for years, earning enough to eat and not much more. What came in went out.
"Hustling is to work what surfing the internet is to reading…maximal effort put into minimal gain."
This period of his life is recounted in such an honest way it is sure to be familiar to many who grew up poor in a city with lousy opportunities. What was going to be a short-term hustle to earn enough to get into college became an end in itself. Noah’s "Go Hit-ler" chapter should go down in South African history books as a funny but cautionary tale, a consequence of the separation of the races. It shows us how a teen already out of school and thought to be educated could be so completely ignorant of history. A spectacular end to the street hustle made Noah rethink his prospects.

There are so many quotes and revealing moments in this book, I am tempted to pick them all out for you, but you simply must read it for yourselves. This is the story of a man we can see every night on television, showing us how to laugh at our queer customs and queerer politicians. It is an education how racism plays out in one of the most racially-divided states on earth. The South African government before the end of apartheid made very discrete categories of race to keep the groups separate. But people “want to mix,” Noah tells us, “humans being humans and sex being sex.” Besides that, we are just curious, interested. Why do we, even we Americans, insist on keeping segregation going? What on earth can be worse than what we had in the past or what we have now?

This is an absorbing and deeply informative look at growing up mixed in South Africa. I read Netgalley’s ebook advance from Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, and regret that photographs were not included with the advance copy. Hopefully with the hardcover you will see Noah and his mother, both remarkable people, at various stages of their lives.

An excellent discussion of this book on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross is here. Below please find a brilliant riff on African dictators by Comedy Central's Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, and why we should care.

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The Playful Little Dog by Jean Horton Berg (G&D Vintage)

Ooh, I like this one. Penguin Random House's Grosset & Dunlap Vintage imprint has been republishing children's books from the 1940s and 50s and recently chose this title for reissue.

A family living in an apartment with a puppy looks for a new house out of the city and discovers the neighbors at their new place has a bigger dog than their own.

It is a wonderful little story that has tension and release, tension and release, with everyone getting what they want in the end. Best of all, it is the perfect length for a bedtime story--"one short one before bed"--ages 3-5 most appropriate.

Definitely consider this one for Christmas this year. It's a gem from days gone by, though the family and the neighbors are all white people, and for that reason alone it feels a little bit distant in terms of how we live now. The change in our demography contrasts with what we see here and we look back in wonder at the "olden days" when we didn't have the rich complexity diversity has bestowed upon us.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

An Obvious Fact (Walt Longmire #12) by Craig Johnson

Reading a Craig Johnson mystery is so reassuring. At a time when we have reason to wonder whether our government is working for or against us, here Johnson comes to let us know that there are people of goodwill laying their lives on the line for us every day. The ATF makes an appearance in this novel, and Johnson is kinder to them than he often is to the FBI. The AFT role-play characters that wouldn’t be out of place on the stage, though the guns aren’t toy replicas, and the viewing public is more like the mob.

There is so much information in a Craig Johnson novel, it is sometimes difficult to choose an element to emphasize: geology, geography, popular culture, Indian ways, and in this case … guns and motorcycle rallies. The setting is Hulett, Wyoming, next-door town to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally just across the state line in South Dakota. A very handsome motorcyclist of Cheyenne descent winds up hospitalized, and when Longmire and Henry Standing Bear investigate, they discover that Lola, an old flame of Henry’s, is mother to the boy. Paint from her car is on the wrecked motorcycle.

The ancient battle of the sexes plays out against a backdrop of big stakes, drugs, guns, money. Our perspective is realigned several times as readers struggle to trust anyone in this setting of bikers, races with life-defying odds, secret airports, and glamorous women over fifty years of age who are still dropping the jaws of young, reckless men. The title is explained in the first pages as Henry Standing Bear carries with him a three-volume set of The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

One of the compelling features of Craig Johnson’s novels are that things like MRAPs have a certain kind of logic in one-road midwest border towns. We know the federal government has “retired” some of their military vehicles to towns willing to put up some rationale and some cash, but finding one in Hulett can be a goldmine to an inventive fiction writer. I appreciate Johnson’s sense of humor about these things, giving the vehicle a starring role, but once he mentioned it in the beginning we knew he was going to have to use it before the end.

There is little evidence of the supernatural in this novel, unless one counts the outstanding story-within-a-story about the skeet shoot starring none other than Walt’s foul-mouthed undersheriff Vic, who returned to Wyoming from her failed search for the murderer of her cop brother in Philadelphia. Walt’s daughter in Denver calls a couple of times with news of Walt’s granddaughter, Lola, and with answers to puzzles. Cady is so familiar now to readers of the series that she no longer needs to be identified by name.

Johnson’s series is so easy-going and inventive that it is easy to forget how difficult it is to construct a story where readers are stumped all the way to the end. And all the while we are ambling through some gorgeous country, getting a taste of local habits, and specialities like dinner plate-sized pancakes. For me, the best might be that I discovered the name of a geologic formation that my parents had visited way back before I was born when they travelled across country in an early Ford. Last year I found some photographs tucked away from those early days and knew that place, Devil’s Tower, must be something special, rising as it does 1,267 feet from the plain in northeast Wyoming, the site of America’s first national monument.

Many thanks to a kind friend who sent me a signed first edition of this fine novel. I am so glad I had a copy to pick me up after an emotionally-draining week getting battered at the ballot box. Many of the folks who reside in Walt Longmire’s neck of the woods voted for our new president-elect. It is my everlasting hope that those residents are more like the good guys in Johnson’s novels than the bad ones. A Sherlock Holmes quote seems suitable, since Henry scatters them throughout this episode. “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius.” Let’s hope they know what they were doing this election.

Wyoming's official state motto is "Equal Rights," leading to it being called The Equality State. "Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote in 1869 (more precisely, women were granted the right to vote so there would be enough voting citizens to meet the population requirement for statehood)." [Website of State Symbols]

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