Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

AuthorTa-Nehisi Coates
TitleBetween the World and Me
Publication Info: New York : Spiegel & Grau, [2015]

Written as a letter to Coates’ teenage son Samori, Between the World and Me is an extended essay on the control of black bodies which have been subject to slavery, segregation, incarceration, and murder throughout United States history.  Coates regrets the necessity of African-American parents to have to teach their children to behave better than everyone else and avoid interaction with police and other authorities in order to protect their bodies, and the regret that this does little to protect their children.  Coates illustrates the book with incidents from throughout American history and his own life. Central to this work is the murder of his college friend Prince Jones by the police, for which the officer face no sanction.  Coates finishes the book with an interview with Mabel Jones, the mother of Prince.  This is the most important book I’ve read this year and one I recommend that every American should read.
Favorite Passages:

“The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.”

“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy”

“Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”

“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not.”

“Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”

“‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been ‘black,’ and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible. They are the ones who came up with a one-drop rule that separated the ‘white’ from the ‘black,’ even if it meant that their own blue-eyed sons would live under the lash. The result is a people, black people, who embody all physical varieties and whose life stories mirror this physical range.”

“The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you—the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”

“I did not yet know, and I do not fully know now. But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur. For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going, and you find yourself inveighing against yourself—“Black people are the only people who…”—really inveighing against your own humanity and raging against the crime in your ghetto, because you are powerless before the great crime of history that brought the ghettos to be.”

“And all the time the Dreamers are pillaging Ferguson for municipal governance. And they are torturing Muslims, and their drones are bombing wedding parties (by accident!), and the Dreamers are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong. Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals. The moment the officers began their pursuit of Prince Jones, his life was in danger. The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers; today, when 8 percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.”

“The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”

Recommended books:The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Costa Rica
Author: Tatiana Lobo
Title: Assault on Paradise
Publication Info: Willimantic, CT : Curbstone press, 1998.

After completing this novel, I saw it described as a picaresque which is “a genre of prose fiction which depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.” The genre also has no plot.  I wish I knew these things going into the book because it would’ve made more sense (especially the plotlessness).  Assault on Paradise is the tale of Pedro Albaran who arrives in colonial Central America escaping the Inquisition.  First he works as a book-keeper for a monastery.  On a journey to another settlement he and some companions are separated and live on their own in the jungle.  Pedro falls in love with and has children with an indigenous woman known only as “The Mute” and their whole relationship is totally creepy.  After her death, Pedro returns to society just as the indigenous population launches and uprising.  The book details the sordid underside of colonialism – the conquistadors and the church – and all its levels of corruption.  It was a difficult read but that may be more of reader error than the book itself.

Recommended booksThe Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: What If? by Randall Munroe

Author: Randall Munroe
Title:What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

This book contains the sentence: “Aroldis Chapman could probably throw a golf ball about sixteen giraffes high.” That alone makes it worth reading. The creator of the webcomic xkcd, Randall Munroe uses math and science to investigate cornball questions from his readers.  If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if a baseball were pitched at the speed of light, what would happen if every person in the world jumped at the same place at the same time (say, Rhode Island), or what place on earth would allow for the longest free fall, this book is for you.  In addition to Munroe’s humorous, but mathematically explicit, explanations there are plenty of whimsical illustrations.  There are also a series of questions too weird and worrying for even Munroe to answer.
Favorite Passages:

Our plastic will become shredded and buried, and perhaps some microbes will learn to digest it, but in all likelihood, a million years from now, an out-of-place layer of processed hydrocarbons—transformed fragments of our shampoo bottles and shopping bags—will serve as a chemical monument to civilization.


If humans escape the solar system and outlive the Sun, our descendants may someday live on one of these planets. Atoms from Times Square, cycled through the heart of the Sun, will form our new bodies. One day, either we will all be dead, or we will all be New Yorkers.


So we shouldn’t worry too much about when computers will catch up with us in complexity. After all, we’ve caught up to ants, and they don’t seem too concerned. Sure, we seem like we’ve taken over the planet, but if I had to bet on which one of us would still be around in a million years—primates, computers, or ants—I know who I’d pick.


if an astronaut on the ISS listens to “I’m Gonna Be,” in the time between the first beat of the song and the final lines . . .  . . . they will have traveled just about exactly 1000 miles.


Rule of thumb: One person per square meter is a light crowd, four people per square meter is a mosh pit.


Al Worden, the Apollo 15 command module pilot, even enjoyed the experience. There’s a thing about being alone and there’s a thing about being lonely, and they’re two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely. My background was as a fighter pilot in the air force, then as a test pilot—and that was mostly in fighter airplanes—so I was very used to being by myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t have to talk to Dave and Jim any more . . . On the backside of the Moon, I didn’t even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight. Introverts understand; the loneliest human in history was just happy to have a few minutes of peace and quiet.

Recommended books: 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks, What’s next? : dispatches on the future of science : original essays from a new generation of scientists by Max Brockman, and Feynman by Jim Ottiavani
Rating: ****

Book Reviews: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

Author:Michael Lewis
TitleFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Narrator: Dylan Baker
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2014)
Previously read by same author: Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, and The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.

This book focuses on the contemporary financial trading practices of high frequency traders or “flash traders” seeking to gain advantage in fractions of seconds by having more direct cable connections to the markets.  This is emphasized by an effort to lay a cable from to New York to Chicago through the mountains of Pennsylvania as directly as possible.  Many financial intermediaries are taking advantage of the high frequency trading to basically rip-off their customers and by proxy making the whole financial system susceptible to collapse.  The heroes of the book are the quirky iconoclasts who create the Investors Exchanges (IEX) to counteract this effect.  Lewis can get bogged down in technical details and traders’ talk at times, but mostly keeps things moving along to be entertaining and informative
Rating: ***

Book Review: First Family by Joseph Ellis

Author: Joseph J. Ellis
Title:  First Family
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2010), Edition: Unabridged
Previously Read by Same Author: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Historian Joseph Ellis explores the relationship of Abigail and John Adams, and how it was effected by the Revolutionary Era, not to mention the effect they had on fomenting revolution.  The main source for this history is their voluminous correspondence which shows that they saw one another as intellectual equals discussing the issues of the day, but also demonstrated a romantic attachment.  While Abigail is the more grounded of the two balancing John’s fiery personality, there are instances where Abigail seems more extreme, such as her support of going to war with France during John’s presidency or her approval of the Alien & Sedition Acts.  Since the book relies so heavily on correspondence, there is more material for the times that they were apart than when they were together and obviously not writing one another.  For the later years after John’s presidency, Ellis relies on the pair’s correspondence with other individuals (including the famed letters to and from Thomas Jefferson), but it loses the intimacy of the earlier parts of the book.  Ellis may have done better to pare the book down just to the years where correspondence between Abigail and John exists rather than attempt the story of their entire lives, but that’s a minor quibble.  This book paints a human portrait of the “venerable” couple from the time of the nation’s birth.
Recommended books: John Adams by David McCullough and Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Author: Erik Larson
TitleIn the Garden of the Beast
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio : Books on Tape, p2011.
Books Read by Same AuthorThe Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm


This history and biography book explores the rise of the Third Reich from the perspective of one American family.  Specifically that is the family of William E. Dodd, appointed to be ambassador to Germany by Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Dodd and his adult daughter Martha are the main characters of the book.  Dodd initially is supportive of Hitler and shares in some antisemitic beliefs.  Martha, recently separated from her husband, enjoys the social life of Berlin and liaisons with several men including Soviet intelligence operative Boris Vinogradov.  Over time the Dodd’s became more aware of the violence and oppression of the Nazi state, and the ambassador begins to become more vocal in calling on the United States to oppose Hitler’s regime (which in isolationist America proves to be an unpopular stance).  This is an uncomfortable book to read.  The Dodd’s are not very likable people, but then they’re contrasted with Nazis.  No one comes off looking good.  Still this is an interesting glimpse into a troubling time in history.
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: The Left-Handed Hummingbird by Kate Orman

Author: Kate Orman
Title:The Left-Handed Hummingbird
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1993.

This Doctor Who novel is epic in scope from contemporary Mexico to the Aztec empire to hippie London in the 60s to the John Lennon assassination to the sinking of Titanic. And yet, this may be the most internal story for the Doctor and his companions.  Their relationship is strained, especially the Doctor and Ace since she’s become something of soldier during her absence from the TARDIS. Worse yet, the Doctor faces an antagonist manifest as an Aztec god who is altering history.  The Doctor’s usual strategy of manipulating people and events fail and we see him at his most defeated. This novel is good in that it’s a rare story that’s set in Latin America in both precolonial and contemporary settings.  The only downside is that like Timewyrm: Exodus  it credits some historical acts of human evil to extraterrestrial influence.  This was the first novel by Kate Orman, who was also the first woman and first Australian to write for the Doctor Who line, and it’s a pretty remarkable achievement in how it reimagines what a Doctor Who story can be.
Favorite Passages:

“Has it ever occurred to you that the reason the sacrifices are made is to dispose of foreign warriors taken captive in battle – and to cause more and more battles to be fought?’”

“‘It’s already written in the book of history,’ he continued. ‘Painted in the records. Nothing I can do or say is going to change it. But there’s something else here, something that isn’t in the book, or wasn’t the last time I visited. Things have changed. Something’s wrong. Someone’s interfering. I need to find a way to read between the lines…’”

“‘Time travel,’ said Bernice, ‘is like banging your head on a brick wall. Only someone keeps moving the bricks.’”

Rating: ***1/2


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