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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Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Very English Scandal by John Preston

John Preston writes from real-life events, in this case a very public murder trial involving a homosexual Member of Parliament, Jeremy Thorpe, and his liaisons during the 1960s and 70s. The case highlights the difficulties faced by closeted gays where anti-sodomy laws were still on the books, though in the summer of 1967, homosexuality was no longer outlawed between consenting adults at least 21 years of age. But passing a law is not the same as eliminating the stigma of the designation, and gays in politics were reluctant to let their sexual preferences be known lest their bid for reelection be lost.

The case of Jeremy Thorpe, elected the youngest leader of the Liberal Party in a century, was a complicated and sordid affair. To hide an earlier sexual liaison with a handsome but unstable young man, Thorpe engaged his friends and colleagues in a scheme to kill the man to prevent news of his homosexuality emerging. It is a remarkable bit of research for a case nearly fifty years old.

Thorpe was apparently a talented politician, though as I remarked in a review about Ben MacIntyre’s account of Kim Philby, charm is hard to understand unless we see/experience it. (Donald Trump is said to be personally magnetic and charming, though watching him on television does not convey this attribute. If we accept that this description is true, one would have to experience that magnetism in person.) Anyway, Thorpe had a good name for faces and was a good conversationalist, but he wasn’t a very good minister and he was a bad friend, casual with relationships, and greedy for power at any cost.

What was queer about this true crime story was the compliance of Thorpe’s colleagues and hangers-on. Preston posits that one colleague and friend, Peter Bessell, was so interested in preserving Thorpe’s warm attentions that he consistently did things against his own interests. In Preston’s narrative, Bessell was a worthy friend though a weak and incompetent man, money running like water through his hands, losing his inheritance and many loans several times with get-rich schemes that never seemed to work out.

The case went to court, and an ambitious lawyer took Thorpe’s defense. Thorpe was acquitted of the attempted murder, but he lost his seat and wasn’t ever able to regain his previous standing. Thorpe imagined that he would lose his leadership role because he was homosexual, but in fact he lost it because he was a conniving, murderous liar with no great ambition except to further his power.

The research into this period and people was painstakingly thorough and intimate. Near the end, in the hardcover bound edition, I came across several pages of excellent reprinted glossy photographs I hadn’t realized were there. They add a necessary visual component to the characters in the drama, rounding out our impressions of the persons herein described.

The book came out in May 2016 by Viking in the U.K., and was released in the U.S. this fall by Other Press. If a reader has any interest in how murder comes to be contemplated, this is an excellent introduction. For writers, it may be a useful character study to see just what combination of traits and events can push someone to the edge. Just be aware that if you are unhappy over elections or do-nothing ambitious politicians with revolting personal failings, this may just send you over the edge. I really admired what Preston was able to do to recreate the conditions for murder, but I can't say I enjoyed reading about a corrupt politician at this time. Bad timing.

Other Press, $27.95, hardcover, 352p., 9781590518144

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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

In my mind’s eye is a vision of McEwan himself opening the door to detectives investigating a murder, and noticing everything about what they do, how they look, how their voices sound. He might begin to play on their curiosity a bit, making leading statements that drift off into nothingness…and then suddenly revive his tale with a stronger, quicker tone when they query his lead. Oh, you author of fictions, who plays so with our heads.

Oh course a real murder is not nearly so amusing as its fictional half-brother, and we get inklings of that in this novel that highlights dark and murky motives for murder from an unusual quarter: a snobbish unborn oenophile who, though he cannot see, has numerous other senses with which to judge his family.

One of the best parts of this novel comes right at the start, when McEwan takes a stab at imagining the first moment of consciousness in a human’s life. Not just any human, but Trudy’s son, likewise son of the psoriatic poet, John, whom Trudy plots to kill during the course of this novel. And oh, such lying words spoken to hide the greed, lust, and revenge were never spoken so beautifully, so smoothly, so unbelievably. For they weren’t believed, not by the fetus, the chief inspector, nor, apparently, by John’s poetess friend.

This delightful novel had the parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet that others have pointed to, but among its many other references to earlier works, it was also a crime novel par excellence, with the plot, murder, defense, and getaway offered up with sly asides to those of us who think it might be easy to pull off such a thing when one is two weeks shy of a full term.

But more, McEwan throws in cameos on the state of the world delivered on TV news shows, radio announcements, or earphones-delivered political podcasts and has our not-yet-born listen to discourse on the torments to come. “These disasters are the work of our twin natures. Clever and infantile.” All of which makes the listening fetus feel anxiety and no little umbrage. “Like everyone else, I’ll take what I want, whatever suits me.” Oh yes, son of mine, you no doubt will.

And what of revenge, yearned for by John’s son, who wishes most heartily for John to return and crush the life from his murderers. Following the build-up to the murder while floating in his amniotic sac, our clever fetus realizes he needs to seize his opportunity to avenge his father’s death.

We are treated, in the course of this novel, to writing advice: ‘If it doesn’t come at once, it shouldn’t come. There is a special grace in facility.’ ‘Don’t unpack your heart. One detail tells the truth.’ and ‘Form isn’t a cage.’ In an interview McEwan tells us this advice is “rubbish” he picked up from a Saul Bellow interview he’d heard once. "One really does have to work at it,” he tells us and in this case he'd worked on it solidly for 18 months, doing very little else, all the while assailed by doubts about whether he was completely bonkers to be writing from the point of view of a fetus.

The book is slim, and yet packed with murderous plotting, references to other literature, the state of the world, and the curious position of a fetus so clearly aware of his environment. This of course would take some writerly skill and attention to detail. An earlier draft of this review sounded patronizing regarding the struggle to birth such a piece, though conceiving a novel from the viewpoint of a fetus was…as easy as rolling off a log, from what McEwan tells us. As it should be.

Critics I have read have a tendency to choose favorites from among McEwan oeuvre, utterly discarding a few titles as so much mulch. I feel differently. In nearly every book McEwan brings in world issues we face (like climate change), indicating to me that this author suffers not from a failure of imagination. His sense of humor still reigns supreme, including us in his worldview. He is writing to us, for us. For that we celebrate his skills.

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Friday, November 4, 2016

Congratulations, By the Way by George Saunders

This book is the convocation speech George Saunders gave to the 2013 graduating class at Syracuse University.

George Saunders is the kind of old white guy that we want to give us life advice. He doesn't have many answers, and I argue this makes his advice even more valuable. He has only a few good hints, gleaned after a lifetime of rough and tumble. His dedication at the beginning of the book mentions his grandparents, in loving memory. In the course of the speech he tells us that when we become parents we know what sacrifice is and what it takes to love another. He hopes that we apply those lessons as the educated adults that we are, and maybe not wait until we get there, as parents. To know it, and to act on it. Now.

Convocation speeches are not just for graduates, ever. They are for those who aspire, for those who hope one day to graduate to better life management, to a happier, more fulfilling existence, for those who still need advice. That probably includes all of us. Even George Saunders.

George Saunders is my kind of guru. He is funny, articulate, self-deprecating, smart, and unassuming. He doesn't pretend to be something he is not. He is a fiction writer who is flummoxed by humans, and yet is someone who has figured out a few things in his life.

In this speech Saunders paradoxically brings up death. Just to remind us that this moment--it is just a moment. That a life is justifiably filled with plans, hopes, dreams, striving, and that this is good, necessary, and normal. But there is something we don't want to forget as we make our plans because it puts everything in order, and perspective, and that is death. We are not alone and striving in the world, but we live with others. We will have lots of opportunities in our long lives to choose to be kind or not. He recommends "to err in the direction of kindness." Because nothing else matters, in the end.

Every time I read this speech I cry in the exact same place. I wonder if you will, too. I cry when he says how proud our parents are on this day of our graduation, I cry because I know how much my parents did to get me to that place. How much they gave up, how much they loved, how much they hoped. I cry because I know what the parents feel looking at their kids graduating. How proud, yes, relieved, hopeful, etc.

Anyway, this book is about going after things that matter, like kindness. Because in the end...and in the beginning, and in the middle...that's all that matters.

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

Hardcover, 259 pgs, Pub Sept 6th 2016 by Crown, ISBN13: 9780553418811, Lit Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science & Technology (2016)

O’Neil deserves some credit right off the bat for not waiting until her retirement from the hedge fund where she worked to tell us the secrets of how corporations use big data (our data). Underlying the collection and use of big data is an attempt to utilize efficiencies in the market place for goods, money, and talent. Big data ostensibly can also “set us free” from time constraints and uneven knowledge dispersal. Conversely the opposite is often true. We are at the mercy of how our own data is shredded and packaged, and errors in the model can mean mutually assured destruction—for the school, corporation, family.

The book starts with examples any readers who actually picked up this book to read might recognize: the chances of getting into a major university. O’Neil doesn’t go into the actual algorithms but just explains the variables chosen to populate the algorithms. Just when I was wondering who this book is targeted at, since after all, we kind of know how to get into university already, she comes up with examples of big data messing with aspirations that are still (hopefully not) in our futures.

She addresses the real pain-in-the-ass nature of minimum wage jobs where the inadequate part-time hours are constantly changing to maximize profits for owners and to screw with employees ability to plan their life, their children’s lives, and the children’s caretaker’s lives. O’Neil addressed the situation in 2009 when Amex decided to reduce the risk of credit card nonpayment by reducing the credit ceilings on users who shopped at certain stores, like Walmart. She shows us the way micro-targeting ends up using data to perpetuate inequities in opportunity and “social capital.”

The hardest part of reading this book (there is no actual math), was keeping my mind on what O’Neil was saying. Every time she'd mention another example of the ways big data was screwing us over, my mind would wander to experiences of my own, or ones I’d heard from friends, family, or others. This is real stuff, and just when I thought that it would be an excellent book for those with skills and interest in social justice to take to an interview with Google, Amazon, or a big bank, in she comes with another example of how the “fixes” are almost worse than the disease (Facebook’s method of who your friends are determining your credit risk).

But O’Neil reminds us big data, mathematics, algorithms, etc. aren’t going to go away.
"Data is not going away. Nor are computers—much less mathematics. Predictive models are, increasingly, the tools we will be relying on to run our institutions, deploy our resources, and manage our lives. But as I’ve tried to show throughout this book, these models are constructed not just from data but from the choices we make about which data to pay attention to—and which to leave out. Those choices are not just about logistics, profits, and efficiency. They are fundamentally moral."
Exactly. We still have to use our brains, not just our computers. It is critical that we inject morality into the process or it will always be fundamentally unfair in some way or another, especially if the intent is to increase profits for one entity at the expense of another. One simply can’t include enough variables or specifics. Some universities have begun to audit the algorithms—like Princeton’s Transparency and Accountability Project—by masquerading as people of differing backgrounds and seeing what kind of treatment these individuals receive from online marketers.

O’Neil suggests that sometimes data might be used to good effect by targeting frustrated online commenters with solutions to their issues: i.e., affordable housing info, or by searching out possible areas of workplace or child abuse and targeting that area with resources. She wades into national election data and notes that only swing states get candidates attention, suggesting, by the way, that the electoral college has outlived its usefulness to the citizenry. Algorithms are not going to administer justice or democracy unless we find a way to use them as a tool to root out inequities and try to find ways to deliver needed services where they are deficient.

When I look at the totality of what O’Neil has discussed, I am inclined to think this book is best targeted to thoughtful high schoolers and college-aged students who are thinking about planning their careers, who have a penchant for mathematical and computer modeling, and who think their dream job might be with an online giant. I’d be happy to be disabused of this notion if someone wants to challenge my thought that much of this information is known to many of us who have been out of school for awhile and who have been paying attention to our online experiences and junk mail solicitations. But it is always interesting to read someone as coherent and on the side of social justice as Ms. O’Neil.

It might be noted that Jaron Lanier in Who Owns the Future? (2013) also talks about the use of big data to steer our thinking and makes a preliminary suggestion that individuals should be paid for their data—for data that is collected about them, for profit. It is an interesting discussion as well. Love these intersections of technology and humanity.

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