Book Review: Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot


It’s good to give, it’s good to get.  Respect: An Exploration (2000) by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot works at understanding this crucial aspect of human relationships through the stories of six people.  Each  of these messengers works in a field where respect is vital and represents a different qualities of respect:

  • Empowerment: Jennifer Dohrn, a nurse-midwife who founded and directs a childbearing clinic in the South Bronx.
  • Healing: Johnye Ballenger, a pediatrician.
  • Dialogue: Kay Cottle, a middle and high school teacher.
  • Curiosity: Dawoud Bey, a photographer/artist.
  • Self-Respect: David Wilkins, a law professor.
  • Attention: Bill Wallace, pastoral therapy to the dying in hospice.

Each portrait is part interview, part Lawrence-Lightfoot’s observations of that person at work, and part biography.  The case study method lends itself to a bit of cheesiness, but not too much, and not in a negative fashion.

I find it hard to summarize the book any further as it is through the interplay of these many factors where respect is teased out.  Read it yourself to find out.

Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Basic Books (2000), Edition: 1, Paperback, 256 pages

Book Review: Terra Incognita: Travels In Antarctica


Representing Cold for the Book-a-month Challenge is Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita: Travels In Antarctica (1996). Just for kicks I’m going to make it the Around the World for a Good Book selection for Antarctica as well.  As the subtitle states, this is a travel book to the forbidding, ownerless continent at the southernmost part of the planet.  For the most part that means visiting scientific research station.  I’m surprised how many research stations exist and how many people live and work there.  The stations seem well out-fitted (all of them have a bar) and served by frequent flights.  Wheeler even flies to the South Pole which feels a bit anticlimactic.

Among the vast deserts of ice are the well-preserved huts of the early explorers of Antarctica’s heroic age.  It’s hard to believe that they still stand with the explorers’ provisions still on the shelves.  Wheeler visits these historic relics and weaves the stories of Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, Mawson, Cherry-Garrard and Byrd with her own.

The last portion of the book where Wheeler spends a season on the ice with an artist at their own camp is particularly impressive.  I give this book high marks for insight and originality.

Terra incognita : travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler.
New York : Random House, 1996.

Book Review: The Declaration of Independence: A Global History by David Armitage


The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007) by David Armitage takes a different approach to studying the Declaration of Independence of the United States by showing how it’s been received around the world and how it’s affected history and politics globally since it’s publication.  Even Americans need a review of what exactly the Declaration of Independence is, and Armitage sums it up in three parts: 1) a statement of the world of independency of the American states, 2) a summary of the offenses by the King of Great Britain that lead to this break, and 3) a statement of political philosopy on the rights of human beings.

Modern Americans remember the Declaration for the latter, but is the first two parts that were important at the time.  Governments around the world had to decide whether to recognize the United States and for many declaring independence was not enough, but force of arms prevailed on opinions.  Others attacked the notions of the rights of men in the Declaration, most notably Jeremy Bentham whose interesting questions regarding how something can’t be self-evident just because one says so is included in a complete republication in the book’s appendix.

The Declaration would also influence the independency of future nations with a declaration of independence an important part in their creation whether the country was born in revolution or peacefully ceded.  These often cribbed words and structure straight from the US Declaration, most strikingly in the 1945 Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam written by Ho Chi Minh.  Other declarations are different in their goals.  Armitage makes the comparison of how the US Declaration speaks of continued friendship with British bretheren, while the Haitian Declaration makes a point of stating eternal hatred to the French.  Perhaps that’s the effect of really being enslaved instead of using slavery as a political analogy.

Armitage has written an interesting book from an unique perspective.  It’s a quick read even if at times it appears to be a doctoral thesis or maybe a long research paper.  The appendix includes a number of worldwide Declarations of Independence in their full-text from 1776 to the present day.

Armitage, David, 1965-
The declaration of independence : a global history / David Armitage.
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2007.
vi, 300 p. ; 19 cm

Book Review: The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki


The Wisdom of Crowds (2004) by James Surowiecki challenges the notion that experts know the best answer to everything. Instead, large groups of people often can come closer to the correct answers in problems whether it be the average guess of the weight of a pig, or the location of a wrecked submarine in the ocean. Surowiecki applies his theory through a series of entertaining anecdotes related to law, elections, intelligence, gambling, traffic, scientific collaboration, small groups, corporations, markets, and democracy.

The author breaks down three types of crowd knowledge: cognition, coordination and cooperation. He also finds four keys required for crowds to be wise: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and aggregation. The lack of aggregation in particular is often the reason why crowd knowledge is seen as lacking by some and furthering a move toward centralization, such as the inability of US intelligence agencies to stop terrorist attacks on American soil (because they had not aggregated knowledge from diverse sources).

Surowiecki is particularly fond of free markets, and illustrates their advantages in way that can be convincing to a left-leaning “anticapitalist” like myself. Particularly interesting is the Iowa Electronic Markets which have been highly accurate in predicting everything from Presidential elections to Academy Awards because the participants are betting on outcomes not selecting preferences.

It was a very interesting book and interesting follow-up to reading Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. Of course, I can’t read a book without learning about other books and these books mentioned in the text look interesting:

  • William H. White, City
  • Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery by John E. Mueller

Favorite Passages

Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, if figures out how to use mechanisms — like market prices, or intelligent voting systems — to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think. Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible. – p. xix

What [Henry] Oldenburg grasped was the peculiar character of knowledge, which does not, unlike other commodities, get used up as it is consumed and which can be therefore spread widely without losing its value. If anything, in fact, the more a piece of knowledge becomes available, the more valuable it potentially becomes, because of the wider array of possible uses for it. – p. 166-67

Author : Surowiecki, James, 1967-
Title : The wisdom of crowds : why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations / James Surowiecki.
Edition : 1st ed.
Published : New York : Doubleday : 2004.

Book Review: Lee Miller’s War by Lee Miller, edited by Anthony Penrose


Lee Miller is a fascinating woman. She was a model and muse to photographers like Man Ray and took up surrealist photography herself among other talents. Following the Normandy invasion, Miller got herself credentialed as a war correspondent. She followed the progress of the American armed forces and the liberation of France, Luxembourg, and Germany for Vogue magazine of all publications (apparently her grim photographs of the war dead ran pages after typical fashion advice articles). Miller’s son Anthony Penrose says that his mother didn’t speak much of the war. In Lee Miller’s War (1992) Penrose collects the dispatches, letters, telegrams, and most importantly the evocative photographs of Lee Miller’s war experience.

Compared to Ernie Pyle, these stories have something of a women’s touch. Granted, Miller was often restricted from the frontlines against her wishes, although on one occasion she found herself in the heart of battle. More typically Miller is left to cover the fashion of Paris and how Parisians “dressed up” as an act of defiance against the occupying Germans. There’s even photos and descriptions of Paris’ first fashion show post-occupation. Miller also hobnobs with celebrities of the time like Picasso, Cocteau, and Collette which is interesting in that I never stopped to think that these well known people lived under German occupation. A similar novelty is the liberation of Luxembourg. It’s rare to hear about the war from the point of view of Luxembourg and its people.

Don’t be misunderstood though. Lee Miller confronts the war in all it’s grim and gritty nature. Her visceral distaste for the German POW’s and civilians lends an immediacy to the war correspondence. Her photos of liberated concentration camps capture all the horror while lending dignity to the survivors. She also ended up staying in Hitler’s Munich apartment where she was famously photographed in the bathtub.

This is a fascinating book to read and study. As always, MetaFilter has a couple of good posts with links relating to Lee Miller’s life and work.

Author: Miller, Lee, 1907-1977.
Title: Lee Miller’s war : photographer and correspondent with the Allies in Europe, 1944-45 / foreword by David E. Scherman ; edited by Antony Penrose.
Publication: Info. Boston : Little, Brown, c1992.
Edition: 1st North American ed.
Description: 208 p. : ill. ; 29 cm.

Book Review: Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook


Here’s a rare occassion in which I read a book in the year it’s published after reading this review of Timothy Brook‘s Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2008) in the Christian Science Monitor. This book is also my selection for April’s Book A Month Challenge on Beauty.

Brook uses eight works of art from the 17th-century (most of them by Johannes Vermeer) and uses them as doorways into the emerging global world. This book goes beyond simple art appreciation creating a James Burke’s Connections-style investigation of what is featured in the art and how it connects to the changing world of the time, especially in the Netherlands and China. It’s a fascinating and unique perspective and I recommend the book to anyone interested in art, history, and the human story.

The works of art are listed below with a synopsis of what Brook finds beyond each of these doors.

1. Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft (1660/61)

Vermeer’s accurate landscape of his hometown includes the prominent headquarters of the local chamber of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compangie, or VOC). This shows that Delft has become a part of the growing commercial empire trading with the East, redefining capitalism and nationalism in the process.

2. Johannes Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl (1658)

A familiar sight of a soldier flirting with a young woman focuses on the aspects that connect this domestic scene with foreign lands. The map on the wall shows the Netherlands as a growing maritime empire. The officer’s hat is connected to Samuel Champlain and his efforts by alliance and conquest to control the beaver pelt trade in the New World.

3. Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657)

A dish of fruit is prominent in the foreground and leads to a discussion of Chinese porcelain imported to Europe. The fine porcelain became a mark of taste and breeding in European homes. In China, the demand for porcelain created a export market for table ware used in ways different from the Chinese culture.

4.Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer (1669)

The studious geographer calmly studies the growing body of knowledge of the world. At the same time a cultural exchange in 17th-century occurs between the Chinese and European merchants, missionaries, and shipwrecked sailors.

5. A Plate from the Lambert van Meerten Museum of Delft (late seventeenth century)

Delft became a center of creating European versions of Chinese porcelain complete with Chinese-style images to enhance their exotic appeal. This plate in particular includes an image of a Chinese man smoking, an image that appeals to Europeans although for cultural reasons Chinese artists would never depict someone participating in such a new trend. This chapter follows the quick spread of tobacco use across Europe and Asia, and creation of cultural traditions for smoking.

6. Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance (1664)

The woman is weighing silver which became prominent in trade in the 17th-century. Much of the silver was mined in the Spanish colony of Bolivia. Each year a large ship fulled of silver bullion sailed from South America to Manila where it was exchanged for silks with Chinese merchants. The growing community of Chinese traders in Manila leads to mistrust and massacres, yet the trade thrives all the same.

7. Hendrik van der Burch, The Card Players (1660)

This painting by Vermeer’s contemporary prominently features an African slave, something Vermeer never painted, but a growing reality in 17th-century Europe. This chapter focuses on journeys, ordinary people traveling to far-flung corners of the Earth, some of them to stay including Africans enslaved in the Netherlands and Dutch sailors settling in China and Korea. There’s also some good parts about pirates (or privateers depending on your perspective)!

8. Emperor Guan, the Chinese God of War, Depicted in Ivory from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

An image similar to one exhumed by a Chinese convert to Christianity and used as a standard for a Chinese insurgency against the Spanish in Manila.

Book Review: Beer: Tap Into the Art and Science of Brewing by Charles Bamforth


Beer: Tap Into the Art and Science of Brewing (1998) by Charles Bamforth is my selection for the March Book-A-Month Challenge: Craft. Creating beer is certainly a wonderful human craft and Charlie Bamforth examines it from historical, global, and scientific angles. In a sense this could be a textbook for a science course on brewing with much detail on the chemistry, physics, and biology involved in making a good brew. For all that it is quite readable, if you keep in mind that my brain skims over the more complex scientific parts.

Here are some facts about beer I learned from this book:

  • Brewing beer is an ancient art going back to prehistoric times. From archaeological evidence at an Egyptian site, brewers Scottish and Newcastle were able to recreate an 3,000-year old recipe which they sold as Tutankhamun Ale. – p. 17
  • Since the late 80’s Coors has shipped their beer from Colorado to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia for packaging, bringing a little bit of the Rockies to the Appalachians. – p. 32
  • Boiling, fermentation, and anaerobic packaging of beer are all inhospitable to microorganisms, so drinking beer is often safer than drinking water. Something to remember when traveling abroad. – p. 73
  • Hops are unusual among agricultural products in that their solitary outlet is for brewing. “Although hopping acounts for much less than 1% of the price of a pint of beer, it has a disproportionate effect on product quality and, accordingly, much attention has been lavished on the hop and its chemistry.” – p. 102-103
  • The major starch-degrading enzyme in fermentation is the same as that in human saliva. In some cultures brewers start fermentation with their own spit! – p. 120
  • Brewing is a water-intensive process with as many as 20 liters of water used to create one liter of beer, although many brewers attempt to be much more efficient. – p. 123
  • In medieval times, the strains of yeast used for brewing were known as goddisgoode. “Saccharomyces cerevisae, then, is a busy beast. Apart from being the workhorse of the brewery, it is responsible for the production of cider, wine, spirits, and some other alcoholic beverages. And as every cook knows, it is essential for production of life’s other staple food, bread.” – p. 137
  • Beer is essentially the excretions of yeast. – p. 151-152
  • Filtration is done with one of two filter-aids: kieselguhr which is the fossils of primitive organisms or perlite which is a volcanic glass. – p. 159
  • Beers advertised as not being heat-treated are basically just marketing gimmicks since boiling beer does not significantly affect the flavor. – p. 164
  • Army Air Corps General Curtis LeMay played a role in creating the keg when US airmen stationed in East Anglia during WWII did not take a liking to the traditional cask-conditioned ales of England. – p. 167
  • Bamforth claims that being a quality assurance beer taster in a brewery is not as fun as it sounds, although I’d still love to find out for myself. – p. 183

So this is a great book, I’d reccomend to anyone who likes beer, brewing, and/or science.
Incidentally, while reading this book I came across this review of another book about beer, Fermenting Revolution: How To Drink Beer and Save the World by Christopher O’Brien, which may be next on my list when I want to read about beer.

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs


The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2007) by A.J. Jacobs follows 12 months of raised secular, agnostic writer for Esquire attempting the ultimate in Biblical literalism. While it is an exercise in participatory journalism, Jacobs is also a spiritual seeker and offers great insight on faith and religion.

For about 2/3’s of his year he sticks with the Jewish scriptures, and then about four months tackling the New Testament (something even more challenging since it’s not part of his heritage). He follows every rule from the scripture, those listed in the Pentateuch as well as many other direct commandments in books such as Proverbs, creating a list of over 700 rules. He illustrates just how difficult it is to follow each and every one of them not to mention simply remembering them all.

Then there’s the question of figurative language as even among Fundamentalist believers there is a difference of opinion on whether a particular passage should be accepted literally. Jacobs points out that even Christ teases those who take his teachings literally.It should be noted that this book is also very funny, but not in a mocking or detached ironic way. Instead there’s the humor of Jacobs grappling with the more perplexing Biblical commandments and the situations they land him in.

I learned a lot from this book too. I found myself growing very fond of Jacobs and appreciating his humility, open-mindedness and wisdom. He’s given a great gift by conducting this experiment and writing so eloquently about it.  I think whether you are religious or agnostic, conservative or liberal, there is something in this book for you.  This will definitely be one of my ten favorite books read in 2008.

I’ve decided…that the Wikipedia and the Bible have a lot in common. Hardcore believers say that the Bible emerged from God’s oven like a fully baked cake….The alternative is called the documentary hypothesis. This says that the Bible has many, many authors and editors….The passages have been chopped and pieced together by various editors. In short, the hypothesis says that the Bible has evolved, like humans themselves. Like a Wikipedia entry. – p. 200

My quest is a paradoxical one. I’m trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd. As one of my spiritual advisers, David Bossman, a religion professor at Seton Hall University, told me: “The people of the Bible were ‘groupies.’ You did what the group did, you observed the customs of your group. Onely the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism. So what you’re doing is a modern phenomenon.” – p. 213

I always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward. The sentence about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension. I’m not used to talking like that. It’s so over the top. I’m used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place? God shouldn’t be insecure. He’s the ultimate being. Now I can sort of see why. It’s not for him. It’s for us. It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain. – p. 220

Greenburg tells me, “Never blame a text from the Bible for your behavior. It’s irresponsible. Anybody who says X, Y, and Z is in the Bible — it’s as if one says, ‘I have no role in evaluating this.’ The idea that we can work with God to evolve the Bible’s meaning — it’s a thrilling idea…He says that just because you’re religious doesn’t mean you give up your responsibility to choose. You have to grapple with the Bible. – p. 268

This year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates…But the more important lesson is this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se…The key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones. Religious leaders don’t know everything about every food, buy maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh. – p. 328

Book Review: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan


This is the review for my January 2008 entry to the Book A Month Challenge:

The Worst Hard Time (2005) by Timothy Egan tells “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Rooted in oral history, the book reads like an epic novel although it is all true no matter how unearthly it may sound (and when I say unearthly I don’t mean it as a bad pun). There is grit in Egan’s writing style that reflects the grit of the dust storms and the grit of the people determined to remain on the land that betrayed them.

Or did they betray the land, as many outsiders portray the over-farming that preceded the Dust Bowl as the root cause of this environmental disaster. Pioneers in America’s last frontier managed to make the largest wheat crop in history from the dry land, although they saw no benefit from it as the price of wheat plummeted and the grains rotted at train depots and in the fields. In the ensuing years parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado would turn into vast oceans of shifting dust.

There is a lot of repetition in The Worst Hard Time although this too is an effective writing device. The repetition reflects the horror of the dust storms returning day after day, month after month, and year after year. Some storms even carried the dust of the Plains to the big cities on the East Coast and out to sea. The people of the Dust Bowl also dealt with static electricity that could knock a man over, searing heat, and biblical plagues of biting insects, grasshoppers (who generally ate whatever crop they might grow), and rabbits (who became the subject of Sunday clubbings).

Egan introduces the reader to a fascinating cross-section of characters. The old cowboy attached to the land. The doctor who moved to the Plains for his health and ends up having to provide free care to all the people suffering in the unhealthiest environment on Earth. The mother who loses her baby to dust pneumonia. The cornhusker who keeps a diary of short but poignant entries that document the Apocalypse.

This excellent historical work is an early candidate for my favorite books read in 2008.

Related Links:

NPR: Dust Bowl Stories from ‘The Worst Hard Time’

The American Experience

The Library of Congress: American Memory

The full film The Plow that Broke the Plains: