Book Reviews: The Sisters Are Alright by Tamara Winfrey Harris


AuthorTamara Winfrey Harris
TitleThe Sisters Are Alright
Narrator: Tamberta Perry
Publication Info: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015

Summary/Review:

This short collection of essays focuses on how Black women in the United States are maligned and held to toxic stereotypes of being oversexed, irresponsible, and irrationally angry.  Winfrey Harris breaks down these stereotypes historically and in the present day, and holds up the beautiful and accomplished reality of Black women.  It’s very short but powerful so it’s worth finding a little time to read or listen to this book.

Rating: ***1/2

Advertisements

Book Review: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin


Author: James Baldwin
TitleThe Fire Next Time
Narrator:  Jesse L. Martin.
Publication Info: BBC Audiobooks America (2008)
Summary/Review:

This pair of essays published in 1963 discusses racial relations in the United States at the time and remains depressingly relevant in the present day.  Baldwin, in a letter to his 14-year-old nephew, describes what it means to be black in America with unrestrained anger and compassion.  The essays also examine the ineffectiveness of religion in dealing with these problems and his disillusionment with Christianity.  Baldwin’s analysis of America’s problems – among both white and black people – is unrelenting, but he does offers some hope that people can eschew their narrow beliefs.

Favorite Passages:

“You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine- but trust your experience. Know whence you came.”

“I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

“I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand — and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

Recommended booksBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Rating: ****

 

Book Review: Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill


Author: Marc Lamont Hill
TitleNobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Publication Info: Atria Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

Hill’s book is a collection of essays focused on the people whose names have become party of a litany of violence against African-Americans in recent years: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and others.  These people who have been made a Nobody in contemporary America are given their full human dignity in Hill’s account of their lives, as well as the incidents that brought their demise and their aftermath.  But Hill goes beyond the headlines and uses these incidents as a window into the greater societal and political trends that undergird them: “broken windows” policing, plea bargains denying people accused of crimes of their day in court and the incredible power this gives prosecutors, “Stand Your Ground” laws and the arming of America,  mass incarceration, and the neoliberal ideal of running the government “like a business” that leads to the exploitation and disasters of places like Flint, Michigan.  This is a powerful book and important book and one I highly recommend that everyone concerned about the future of our nation reads.
Favorite Passages:

“The case for broken-windows policing is compelling because it lightly dipped in truth.  Yet while there is a correlation between disorder (social and physical) and crime, research shows that this relationship is not causal.  Simply put, there is no evidence that disorder directly promotes crime.  What the evidence does suggest, however, is that the two are linked to the same larger problem: poverty.  High levels of unemployment, lack of social resources, and concentrated areas of low income are all root cause of both high crime and disorder.  As such, crime would be more effectively redressed by investing economically in neighborhoods rather than targeting them for heightened arrests.” – p. 44

“Unfortunately, since modern American society, as with all things in the current neoliberal moment, prioritize privatization and individualism, the very notion of the public has become disposable.  As the current criminal-justice process shows, no longer is there a collective interest in affirming the value of the public good, even rhetorically, through the processes of transparency, honesty, or fairness.  No longer is there a commitment to monitoring and evaluating public officials, in this case prosecutors, to certify that justice prevails.  Instead we have entered a moment in which all things public have been demonized withing out social imagination: public schools, public assistance, public transportation, public housing, public options, and public defenders.  In place of a rich democratic conception of “the public” is a market-driven logic that privileges economic efficiency and individual success over collective justice.” – p. 78-79

“There is plenty of reason to debate the central premise of privatization – that business always does it better – but we don’t have to go there to find this idea objectionable.  In the way that privatization separates government responsibilities from democratic accountability, the notion is flawed from its very conception.  Businesses are not made function for the public good.  The are made to function for the good of profit. There is nothing inherently evil in that.  In most cases, the profit motive will almost certainly lead to a more efficient and orderly execution of tasks.  But it does not necessarily lead to an equitable execution of tasks; indeed, it quite naturally resists and equitable execution of tasks. Furthermore, bu injecting moneymaking into the relationship between a citizen and the basic services of life – water, roads, electricity, and education – privatization distorts the social contract.  People need to know that the decisions of governments are being made with the common good as a priority.  Anything else is not government; it is commerce.  One only needs to look back at Michigan to see this idea manifested because the crisis in Flint, as Henry Giroux has written, is what happens when the State is ‘remade in the image of the corporation.'”

 

Recommended books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Rating: ****1/2

Book Reviews: My Misspent Youth by Megan Daum


Author: Megan Daum
TitleMy Misspent Youth
Narrator: Xe Sands
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media, LLC (2015)
Summary/Review:

I listened this book of essays on recommendation of Slate magazine’s best audiobooks of 2015 article (although the essays were largely published more than 15 years ago leading to a time warp sensation hearing them).  The first few essays are largely autobiographical and detail Daum’s personal experiences with online romance, working in the publishing industry, running up debt to follow her dreams of living New York City, and her hatred of carpets and love of wood floors.  In these essays she comes across as a rather shallow and negative person. Later essays have more of a literary journalism feel including a documentation of the everyday lives of flight attendants and interviews with the polyamorous Ravenheart family.  While I like these essays better, Daum remains overly sarcastic and dismissive of her subjects in a manner I suppose is intended to be “edgy.”  So I didn’t like this book much, but it was a quick read and Xe Sands’ narration skills are excellent.

Recommended books: The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy
Rating: **

Book Review: Through the Children’s Gate by Adam Gopnik


Author: Adam Gopnik
TitleThrough the Children’s Gate
Narrator: Adam Gopnik
Publication Info: Audible Studios (2014)
Summary/Review:

This collection of essays documents Gopnik’s life upon returning to New York City with his wife and young children after living in Paris.  The September 11th attacks occur shortly after they move in and they color a lot of the stories in this book.  There are humorous bits about Gopnik’s therapist, who he believes to be the last Freudian, and his daughter’s imaginary friend who is so very New York that he’s always too busy to play with her.  The most touching story is about Gopnik’s friend who is an art historian and football coach and how he spends his final months before dying of cancer presenting lecture’s at Washington’s National Gallery and coaching Gopnik’s son’s flag football team. Gopnik has a talent of spinning out a lot of ideas from a small observation, but he also has a proclivity towards white, upper middle class navel gazing.  It’s a fine edge and he doesn’t always land on the right side.

Recommended Books: Manhood for amateurs  by Michael Chabon

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado


Author: Linda Tirado
Title: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
Narrator: Linda Tirado
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Audio, p2014.
Summary/Review:

Tirado writes and narrates this extended essay on the poor in United States, unflinchingly and wryly explaining why the poor do the things the do and how both right-wing and left-wing  stereotypes of the poor are off the mark.  It’s an intelligent and honest account based on lived experience, not shying away from anything (especially an insightful chapter on sex among the poor).  This book is build off an essay widely circulated on the web which captures the gist of the matter, but the whole book should be required reading.
Favorite Passages:

“If the average rich person had to walk around for a day wearing a polyester work uniform, they’d need Xanax.”

“You can’t tell us that our brains and labor and emotions are worth next to nothing and then expect us to get all full of intrinsic worth when it comes to our genitals. Either we’re cheap or we’re not.”

“I once talked to a neighbor about the fact that people who lived on our block were statistically likely to die earlier than the people who lived five blocks over in the wealthy neighborhood. He told me that it was just life, it was the way it was.  He’d stopped questioning it.  So if you already figure you’re going to die early what’s the motivation for giving up something that helps get you through the here and now?”

Recommended booksNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ****

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]
Summary/Review:

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 Reviews: Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon


AuthorMichael Chabon
TitleManhood for amateurs : the pleasures and regrets of a husband, father, and son
Narrator: Michael Chabon
Publication Info: HarperCollins, 2009
Summary/Review:

This book collects together essays by author Michael Chabon about being a husband, father, and son.  Particularly his efforts to avoid the cliches of masculinity in these roles.  I can relate to his sensitive and introspective thoughts on fatherhood.  One particularly interesting essay discusses the loss of wildness in childhood (much like the concerns of Free Range Kids’ Lenore Skenazy).  This goes beyond children being able to wander around outside though as Chabon discusses how fart jokes in children’s books and movies have allowed adults to gentrify what once was a means for children to rebel against the grown-up world.  Other essays are less relatable such as the uncomfortable reminiscences of his early sexual encounters with much older women.  The essays are good and bad, but the good outnumber the bad and they all offer something worth reading.

Favorite Passages:

“A father is a man who fails every day.”

“Make all families are a kind of fandom, an endlessly elaborated, endlessly disputed, endlessly reconfigured set of commentaries, extrapolations, and variations generated by passionate amateurs on the primal text of the parents’ love for each other. Sometimes the original program is canceled by death or separation; sometimes, as with Doctor Who, it endures and flourishes for decades. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs–nerds, geeks, and fanboys–of us all.”

Recommended booksAmerican Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent, Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy and Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia by Mark Salzman
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Eight World Cups by George Vecsey


Author: George Vecsey
TitleEight World Cups
Publication Info: Times Books (May 13, 2014)
ISBN: 9780805098488
Summary/Review:

Vecsey, a sportswriter for The New York Times, writes a series of essays and memories of international soccer dating back to the 1982 World Cup in Spain, tying it in with his own love of the game back to his childhood.  The title is a misnomer, because Vecsey writes about Women’s World Cups and Olympic games among other competitions, but the eight men’s World Cup finals he attends from 1982 to 2010 are the core of the book. In addition to some lovely writing describing the games and controversies of the each World Cup, Vecsey gives a sense of the host nation where he and his wife generally set a up a home base for a month.  He writes about the great players of each era from Diego Maradona to Zinedine Zidane.  A major focus is the rise of the United States men’s team from a non-entity to one that regular qualifies for the World Cup and is competitive.  Vecsey also explores the seamy underside of FIFA and CONFACAF with the greed and corruption that runs alongside the beautiful game.  All in all, this is a nice American take on World Cup football from a personal perspective.

Recommended booksThe Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer by Christopher Merrill, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World by Jere Longman, and Goooal! a Celebration of Soccer by Andres Cantor
Rating: ****

Book Review: Distant Corners by David Wangerin


Author: David Wangerin
Title Distant Corners: American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes
Publication Info:  Temple University Press (2011)
ISBN:  1439906300
Summary/Review:

A sequel of sorts to Soccer in a Football World, Wangerin’s history of soccer in the United States, this book is a series of essays focusing on particular places and times in American history when soccer flourished.  If there’s a unifying theme of book is the inevitable quote from a contemporary to the effect that soccer’s rise to popularity in the United States is just around the corner.  The negative that can be taken from this is that they were all wrong as soccer remains a niche sport in the country, but the positive is that it shows just how much of a history of the game there is in the United States.  Wangerin explores this historical periods in search of a distinct American style of play that can be built upon as the game continues to grow in the US.  

Topics covered by the essays include:

  • tours of the US by Pilgrims, Corinthians, and other English teams to attempt to popularize association football at a time when violence and deaths were sullying gridiron football in the early 1900s.
  • The creation of a national federation (now the USSF) and the National Challenge Cup (now the US Open Cup).
  • Thomas Cahill, the man who, under better circumstances, would be remembered as the father of American soccer.
  • The success of Penn State’s soccer team in the Depression Era under the leadership of Bill Jeffrey.
  • Leagues in St. Louis create a distinctive St. Louis style of play
  • The Oakland Clippers, champions of the renegade NPSL in 1967 and one of the top teams in the first year of the NASL in 1968, flounder in their attempt to play outside the league against top international competition.
  • 1979, the pivotal year of the NASL.

Recommended books: Once in a Lifetime by Gavim Newsham and The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer by Christopher Merrill
Rating: ***1/2

 

Book Review: The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne


Author: Lawrence Osbourne
Title: The Wet and the Dry 
Publication Info:   New York : Crown, c2013.
ISBN: 9780770436889

Summary/Review: 

I received this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

I selected this book expecting whimsical travel adventures seen through a drinking glass.  I forgot that alcohol is a depressant.  The author Lawrence Osbourne comes from a family of alcoholics and has recently lost his mother.  He spends a lot of time in various parts of the world isolated in bars merely drinking.  A particular challenge for him his to find places to drink in the Islamic world, which seems to be as tedious for him to pursue as it for the reader to see described.  While he has some interesting observations on the drinking culture (or lack thereof) in the places he visits, much of this work is inward facing.  And to be frank, Osbourne seems like an unpleasant person so it is a difficult read.

Rating: **

Recommended BooksA History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage and Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz

 

Book Review: Sleepwalk With Me by Mike Birbiglia


Author:Mike Birbiglia
TitleSleepwalk With Me 
Publication Info: New York : Simon & Schuster, c2010.
ISBN: 9781439157992
Summary/Review:  Stand-up comedian,  monologist, and This American Life regular Mike Birbiglia writes about his life and sleepwalking issues in this collection of autobiographical essays.  In the early going, I was disappointed because these were the same exact stories I’ve heard before but lacking the same resonance they have when you hear Birbilia’s voice.  Later on, the book improves as the written form of his storytelling gets better for less familiar stories.  If you like Birbiglia’s work in stand-up, storytelling, or even his upcoming movie you might like this book.  On the other hand, he may just work better in those other media and this book is extraneous.

Favorite Passages:

p. 102 – “Data entry is a fascinating job where you .. type … in … data….that’s been…written on something else. You can press tab and jump from field to field, and you need to remember to capitalize proper nouns like people’s names and their streets. The first ten minutes of data entry fly by, because you’re really getting the hang of it. The remaining seven hours and fifty minutes go a lot more slowly, because you glance at the clock after you finish every entry. Data entry is the white-collar equivalent of potato peeling.”

Recommended booksNerd Do Well by Simon Pegg and Bossypants by Tina Fey.
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne


Author: David Byrne
Title: Bicycle Diaries
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2009.
ISBN:  9780670021147
Summary/Review:

David Byrne has a folding bike and takes it with him on his travels around the world.  This book collects his ruminations from cycling through many great cities.  Sometimes they are observations on what he sees from the saddle, but often they ponder more deeply place of the city from architecture to culture to politics.  He is admittedly didactic at times, but he often makes a good point.  Knowing Byrne as the singer/songwriter for Talking Heads, I found his narrative voice not at all what I expected, sometimes a little crude, sometimes a little lofty, but usually compelling.  This is a good book for learning about the necessary changes that need to be made to our cities to survive an uncertain future.

Politics of Happiness

Favorite Passages:

My generation makes fun of the suburbs and the shopping malls, the TV commercials and the sitcoms that we grew up with — but they’re part of us too.  So our ironic view is leavened with something like love. Though we couldn’t wait to get out of these places they are something like comfort food for us.  Having come from those completely uncool places we are not and can never be urban sophisticates we read about, and neither are we rural specimens — stoic, self-sufficient, and relaxed — at ease and comfortable in the wild.  These suburbs, where so many of us spent our formative years, still push emotional buttons for us; they’re both attractive and deeply disturbing. – p. 9

These [modern] buildings represent the triumph of both the cult of capitalism and the cult of Marxist materialism.  Opposing systems have paradoxically achieved more or less the same aesthetic result.  Diverging paths converge.  The gods of reason triumph over beauty, whimsy, and animal instincts and our innate aesthetic sense — if one believes that people have such a thing.  We associate these latter qualities with either peasants — the unsophisticated, who don’t know any better than to build crooked walls and add peculiar little decorative touches — or royalty and the upper classes — our despicable former rulers with their frilly palaces, whom we can now view, in this modern world, as equals, at least on some imaginary or theoretical level. – p. 79

I’m in my midfifties, so I can testify that biking as a way of getting around is  not something only for the young and energetic.  You don’t really need the spandex, and unless you want it to be, biking is not necessarily all the strenous.  It’s the liberating feeling — the physical and psychological sensation — that is more persuasive than any practical argument.  Seeing things from a point of view that is close enough to pedestrians, vendors, and storefronts combined with getting around in a way that doesn’t feel completely divorced from the life that occurs on the streets is pure pleasure.  Observing and engaging in a city’s life — even for a reticent and often shy person like me — is one of life’s great joys.  Being a social creature — it is part of what it means to be human. – p. 292

Recommended books: Pedal Power by J. Harry Wray and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Rating: ***

Book Review: Do It Anyway by Courtney E. Martin


Author: Courtney E. Martin
Title: Do it anyway : the next generation of activists
Publication Info: Boston : Beacon Press, c2010.
ISBN:

Summary/Review:

Martin (who I didn’t discover until after reading the book is an editor for one of my favorite blogs Feministing.com) interviews and tells the stories of 8 people under the age of 35 who are contributing to their communities as activists.  Martin takes the approach that this generation has been told from generation that they need to “save the world” but are often criticized for being aloof and narcissistic.  Through these essays Martin shows that while they can’t “save the world” there are in fact many young people who are far from self-centered.

These include:

  • Rachel Corrie, a peace activist killed by a bulldozer as she attempted to prevent the Israelis  from destroying a Palestinian home.  Martin goes beyond the sensationalist headlines to tell the story of Corrie’s hopes for transformation through peace.
  • Raul Diaz, a  social worker who helps young men reenter society after prison sentence as part of his work with Homeboy Industries.  Diaz lives a life shattered by gang violence and persists despite the deaths of many friends and mentees.
  • Maricela Guzman is an activist for veterans and against the military culture that contributed to her being raped by an officer and failing to get the support she needed after the attack.  A highlight of this chapter is when Martin brings together Diaz and Guzman together to share common experiences of trauma and violence.
  • Emily Abt who found her voice as an activist through making documentary and dramatic films through Pureland Pictures.
  • Nia Martin-Robinson, an environmental justice advocate, who carries on her family’s activist tradition by fighting pollution’s inordinate damage on communities of poor and people of color (as well as giving a minority voice often shunned by the green movement).
  • Tyrone Boucher, who chose to establish a philanthropy to give away his trust fund and fight for social justice outside the confines of the capitalist system.
  • Rosario Dawson, an actress who dedicates much of her time away from the set to various charities and social causes.
  • Dena Simmons, a teacher who grew up in the Bronx and remains as an inspirational teacher to her middle school students.

These are all inspiring stories of people doing good in their communities tied together by their common respect for humanity, perseverance, and big dreams with strategic visions.  This is a good book to read if you want to read something positive about people in our world today.

Recommended books: Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and From the pews in the back : young women and Catholicism by Kate Dugan.
Rating:

Book Review: The Purpose of the Past by Gordon S. Wood


Author:Gordon S. Wood
Title: The Purpose of the Past
Publication Info:Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2008
ISBN: 9781433242137

Previously Read by Same Author: The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Summary/Review: This is a collection of book reviews written by the esteemed historian Gordon S. Wood.  Many of them criticize history writers for presentism, post-modernism, political history, and scientific quantitative analysis.  Coming under Wood’s scrutiny are authors I admire such as Gary Wills, Barbara Tuchman, and Simon Schama.  Yet despite this, I like Wood’s well-written and well-supported take on how history should be told.  Regardless of Wood’s ultimate opinion of these works, there are a lot of books I want to add to my reading list.

Recommended booksPracticing History by Barbara Tuchman
Rating: ***

Book Review: 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks


Author: Michael Brooks
Title: 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, c2008.
ISBN: 9780385520683

Summary/Review: This book is a collection of essays about scientific anomalies which are currently puzzling the scientific community.  I think Brooks is deliberately provocative in choosing these 13 and frequently criticizing scientists for their insularity and claims of unassailability.  On other hand, someone needs to say these things.

Here are the 13 things with a short synopsis of each:

  1. The Missing Universe – the question of dark matter which makes up most of our universe but cannot be found.
  2. The Pioneer Anomaly – should satellites drifting off course make us reevaluate our understanding of gravity?
  3. Varying Constants – the only constant in physics is inconstancy.
  4. Cold Fusion – an experiment so thoroughly debunked its not even to be discussed, but is there some truth to it?
  5. Life – how did it begin?
  6. Viking – did the Mars probe find evidence of extraterrestrial life?
  7. The WOW! Signal – have intelligent extraterrestrial beings already tried to contact us?
  8. A Giant Virus – the Mimivirus challenges what we think we know about viruses and the definition of life.
  9. Death – what is the genetic and evolutionary purpose of aging and death?
  10. Sex – is there really any evolutionary advantage to sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction?
  11. Free will – does our brain decide things for us before we even have a chance to “think.”
  12. The Placebo Effect – studies are inconclusive of whether placebos really work and what role they should play in medicine.
  13. Homeopathy – it’s all a bunch of hooey yet no scientific study has thoroughly discredited it either.

An interesting book, highly recommended if you’re interested in contemporary ideas in science.

Recommended books: What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science by Max Brockman, Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science–From the Babylonians to the Maya by Dick Teresi, and The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table


Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes
Title: The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table
Publication Info: Cosimo Classics (2005) [Originally published, 1858]
ISBN: 1596053070

Summary/Review:

I recently completed reading 107 daily installments of this classic work on DailyLit. This book lends itself well to this format as it is a series of essays and often less essay than snippets, vignettes, and quotes as if collected in a commonplace book.  Oliver Wendell Holmes waxes on poetry, manners, philosophy, aging and the art of conversation often with a touch of humor and satire.  It was a fun way to read a Yankee classic.

Favorite Passages:

When I feel inclined to read poetry I take down my Dictionary. The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as that of sentences. The author may arrange the gems effectively, but their shape and luster have been given by the attrition of ages. Bring me the finest simile from the whole range of imaginative writing, and I will show you a single word which conveys a more profound, a more accurate, and a more eloquent analogy.

Why, the truths a man carries about with him are his tools; and do you think a carpenter is bound to use the same plane but once to smooth a knotty board with, or to hang up his hammer after it has driven its first nail? I shall never repeat a conversation, but an idea often. I shall use the same types when I like, but not commonly the same stereotypes. A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times. It has come to you over a new route, by a new and express train of associations.

You know, that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was of the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way,–AND THE FOOLS KNOW IT.

Many people can ride on horseback who find it hard to get on and to get off without assistance. One has to dismount from an idea, and get into the saddle again, at every parenthesis.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science


Author: edited by Max Brockman
Title: What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science
Publication Info: New York : Vintage Books, 2009.
ISBN:  9780307389312

Summary/Review:

This short book is a collection of essays about the future of science and was a nice illuminating read.  Oddly enough, much of the material was already familiar to a dilettante like myself which I guess shows the efficacy of listening to podcasts of Radiolab and Scientific American.  The title is a little misleading as the majority of this book is “what’s now” with the authors not speculating much about the future, which is good science.  Popular topics among the essays are climate change, neurology as it relates to memory, language, and morality, and human evolution.  Favorite essays include Lera Boroditsky: “How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think?”, Nathan Wolfe: “The Aliens Among Us” (about viruses), and Katerina Harvarti: “Extinction and the Evolution of Humankind.”  This is a good book to pick up if you’re interested in a quick overview of contemporary scientific research.

Recommended books: Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science–From the Babylonians to the Maya by Dick Teresi, Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human by Chip Walter
Rating: ***

Book Review: The dangerous joy of Dr. Sex and other true stories by Pagan Kennedy


AuthorPagan Kennedy
Title: The dangerous joy of Dr. Sex and other true stories
Publication Info: Santa Fe, N.M. : Santa Fe Writers Project, 2008.
ISBN: 0977679934

Summary/Review:

I selected this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewer program because I knew that Kennedy was a Boston-area writer, but that was the extent of what I knew about her.  Then I let the book sit around for over half-a-year, because I wasn’t sure it was the type of thing I wanted to read.  My mistake, because Kennedy is a brilliant writer.  Her sentences are very spare, but contain the precise wording necessary to convey complex ideas and emotions.  I imagine Kennedy labors over each sentence for hours to get the wording right.  If she doesn’t, then I hate her because no one should be able to write that well, that easily.

The essays in this book are written in a literary nonfiction style – what Kennedy calls “true stories” – and mostly are short biographies of interesting people.  Most of these people are involved in science, technology, or medicine, all of them are innovators and have tormented lives that motivate them.  Stories include:

  • the title story about Alex Comfort, the psychologist behind the book The Joy of Sex.
  • Amy Smith who strives to invent things that can cheaply and easily be adopted poor, remote areas of the developing world.
  • A young female weightlifter, Cheryl Haworth, who seems to have a future as the strongest woman in the world.
  • Amateur researches examining the effect of electric charges on the brain for improving memory, intelligence, and personality.
  • Vermine Supreme, a prankster-activist.
  • A man who wants to restore the coastline of Eritrea by planting mangrove trees (Dr. Gordon Sato).
  • Singer/songwriter/collaborator extraordinaire and child prodigy Conor Oberst.
  • Saul Griffith, who wants to teach the next generation to be tinkerers and inventors.

The book also contains autobiographical stories from Kennedy’s life, most interesting is the revolutionary yet commonsensical ideas put forth in the essay “Boston Marriage” about women sharing lives and residences together.

Recommended books:
Rating:****