Book Review: The Games by David Goldblatt


Author:  David Goldblatt
Title:   The Games
Narrator: Napoleon Ryan
Publication Info:  Tantor Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

I received a free audiobook copy of The Games through the Library Things Early Reviewers program.

Goldblatt’s history of the modern Olympic Games from 1896 to the present is a top-down overview of the International Olympic Committee and organizing committees more than the stories of participants in the games and particular events that I had hoped for.  Nevertheless, it’s an interesting look at general trends and growth of the Olympics.  For example, in the early 20th century the Olympics were more of a sideshow to World’s Fairs (Paris, St. Louis, London) held over several months  rather than discrete sporting events.  Yet, the Intercalated Games of 1906 in Athens, which were inline with the Olympic movement’s founder Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of a quasi-religious sporting ceremony, yet Coubertin refused to attend.  The Olympics came into their own in the 1920s and Los Angeles and Berlin used the games to make major vision statements for the future.  After some quieter, austere post-war games, Rome, Tokyo, and Munich all used the Olympics to reintroduce their countries to the world, while Mexico City and Montreal attempted to introduce themselves to the world stage.  The Lake Placid and Moscow games are the clearest examples of how the Olympics being outside politics was never true.  The Los Angeles and Barcelona games showed that the Olympics could make a lot of people a lot of money, but Atlanta, Beijing, Sochi, and Rio showed that the Olympics makes money through the most exploitative and neoliberal practices possible.

Goldblatt’s narrative makes it clear that whatever lofty goals the Olympic movement professes the contemporary games fail to live up to them, and that this is pretty consistent with the Olympics’s history.  Whatever joys the Olympics bring, it does more harm than good.

Recommended books:

Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper, How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer, and Eight World Cups by George Vecsey
Rating: ***1/2

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Book Review: The Fever of 1721 by Stephen Coss


Author: Stephen Coss
Title: The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics
Narrator: Bob Souer
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster (2016
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced readers copy of this audiobook through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

1721 is a pivotal year in Boston history.  Coss details how a popular party of elected representatives challenge the rule of the Royal Governor establishing the ideology and some of the organizations that would be used by the Revolutionary generation 50 years later.  At the same time, The New England Courant is launched as the first colonial newspaper completely independent of the government’s imprimatur and challenges the political and religious leaders of the time.  Tying them together is an epidemic of smallpox and the effort of some learned people in the town to try to fight it using a new idea, inoculation.

There are five pivotal figures in this book:

  • Elisha Cooke, Jr., the popular party politician whose election as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representative leads to a showdown with Royal Governor Samuel Shute, who dissolves the House and calls for new elections.
  • James Franklin, publisher of The New England Courant, who publishes opinions that scandalize the established elites and religious leaders of the colony, while also aiming for a more entertaining and literary journalism than offered by the two existing newspapers.  While generally on the side of reason against tradition and superstition, Franklin’s Courant comes out strongly against inoculation.
  • Benjamin Franklin, James’ much younger brother and apprentice who educates himself with materials at the print shop and makes his first impression by anonymously submitting the Courant‘s most popular opinion pieces under the pseudonym of Silence Dogood.  Franklin, of course, is a direct connection to the Revolutionary period of the 1760s & 1770s.
  • Cotton Mather, the conservative Puritan preacher and theologian, seeking redemption for his part in the Salem Witch hysteria.  Surprisingly he is also a man of science who initiates the call to attempt inoculation against small pox which he learns of from his African slave Onesimus and the writings of physicians in Europe.
  • Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, a middling physician who answers the call to attempt inoculation and continues to do so despite strong opposition in the town and threats to his life.  Boylston ends up successfully inoculating nearly 250 people for smallpox despite being a provincial doctor with no formal training and doing so before anyone in Britain had attempted to do so.

While I was familiar with a lot of the aspects of this history, I found it fascinating how Coss tied them together and showed how they influenced one another and lasting impact on Boston and Colonial America.  It’s a fascinating and engaging historical work.

Recommended booksThe Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny by Tony Williams,  Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore, and The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Rating: ****

Book Review: What’s It Like in Space? by Ariel Waldman


Author: Ariel Waldman
TitleWhat’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There
Publication Info: Chronicle Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

One of my favorite science writers, Ariel Waldman, collects anecdotes and quotes from astronauts about their experience in space in a small, illustrated coffee table book. Did you know that one cannot burp in space?  And while farting is possible, it is not possible to propel oneself in microgravity using only flatulence.  There’s a lot of bits about “functions” such as eating, sleeping, and excreting in space.  But there are also more inspirational stories such as an astronaut not wanting to sleep so as to not miss a moment of the mission or the experience of watching the Earth rotate beneath one’s feet while on a spacewalk.  It’s a fun, charming, and colorful that’s a quick read, and especially enjoyable if you’ve ever wanted to go to space.

Recommended booksPacking for Mars by Mary Roach and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank


Author: Thomas Frank
Title: Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
Publication Info: Metropolitan Books (2016)
Previously Read By Same Author:  What’s the Matter With Kansas and Pity the Billionaire
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Thomas Frank asks the question – if the Democrats have held the Presidency for 16 of the last 24 years, and have the demographic majority to take full control of the country, and have been in control in many states and regions for some time, why is it that the middle and working class continue in steep decline while Wall Street gets bailouts and the rich get richer?  The answer is that the Democrats have abandoned their traditional base of working class people and organized labor, instead becoming enamored with what Frank calls the professional class.  These are the wealthy and well-educated people credited as being “creative” and “innovators” and who are called upon to resolve problems with their innate brilliance on a revolving door among prominent universities, corporate boardrooms, and political office.  Meritocracy is baked into this idea of the professional class with the people who’ve succeeded being credited with working hard to earn their degrees and get to the place where they are (with the unspoken counter being that those who fail and are poor can only blame themselves for not trying hard enough).

Frank traces the Democrats connection to the professional class to the wake of the troubled 1968 election when Democratic leaders made a conscious decision to move away from their traditional base of organized labor and working people (assuming that these people would have to vote Democratic anyway).  The Democrats lost several Presidential elections over the 1970s & 1980s and the assumption for party insiders was always that they were always too Liberal and moved the party further to the right.  The core of the book is several chapters about the 1990s and Bill Clinton where the Democrats finally could win again and the professional class took control of the reins of government.  Only Nixon could go to China, but only Clinton could ratify NAFTA, approve the sweeping crime bill, dismantle the social safety net of welfare, repeal regulations of the financial industry, and other things that had been on the Republican wishlist for decades.  Frank even details negotiations between Clinton and Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security, the cornerstone of the abandoned New Deal, that were only scuttled due to the impeachment proceedings against Clinton. With only professionals represented in the Clinton government, alternatives were not considered, and all problems were resolved by doing what would most benefit the professional class.

Frank also covers the Barack Obama presidency  where Obama was swept in to power on a populist movement in the wake of the financial crisis.  Frank notes that Obama had the powers to punish those responsible for the Great Recession, but instead chose to bring Wall Street professional class “innovators” into the government to regulate themselves and work towards bipartisan consensus with the Republicans who were clearly not interested.  The presumptive 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is described as someone working to advance women’s equality, but doing so in a narrow way that only sees women working hard to become successful “entrepreneurs”  (another variation on the meritocracy of the professional class) and working class women are just not seen at her events or in her policies.  The book also details how the place where the New Democrat ethos of the professional class has had it’s greatest implementation – Massachusetts – is emblematic of this  reverence of the “creative class,” and also why the state has the greatest level of inequality in the nation.

This book does an excellent job of explicating what has happened in the Democratic party over the last several decades where it’s gotten to a point that a lot of their ideology is indistinguishable from Republicans and the large portion of Americans have suffered as a result.  The year’s still young, but I think this is going to be one of the most important books of the year and I suggest that everyone should read it.

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander andThe Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ****

Book Review: Out on the wire by Jessica Abel


Author: Jessica Abel
Title: Out on the wire : the storytelling secrets of the new masters of radio 
Publication Info: New York : Broadway Books, 2015.
Summary/Review:

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

Out on the Wire is a comic book about the production of NPR radio shows and podcasts, or perhaps the nerdiest thing I’ve ever read.  Through the graphic art medium, Abel details her interviews, observations, and storytelling processes of the creators of This American Life, The Moth, Radiolab, Planet Money, and Snap JudgmentFor lack of a better term, these programs are called “narrative journalism” and storytelling is central to all of these shows.  I’m a big fan of all of these podcasts and it is fun to see comic representations of the faces behind the voices (not to mention learning how to spell Chana Joffe-Walt). Abel’s approach is an effective way of using art to create a documentary.

Recommended booksFeynman by Jim Ottaviani, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
Rating: *** 1/2

Book Review: The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke


Author: Brock Clarke
TitleThe Happiest People in the World
Publication Info: Chapel Hill, North Carolina : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014.
ISBN: 9781616201111
Books previously read by same author: An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
Summary/Review:

A Danish cartoonist, at risk for drawing cartons offensive to Muslims, is moved by the CIA to a small town in rural New York, given a position as a guidance councilor, and finds himself in the middle of the family drama of the high school principal and his wife the bartender of the local tavern.  To further complicate things, the CIA agent who assigned him to this town is the former mistress of the principal.  And to further make things wacky, pretty much everyone in the city is involved in the CIA or a secret agent of some time.  I suppose this book is supposed to be a farce and a satire, but I found it a chore to read.  I probably would not have finished it if I hadn’t been an award from the Library Things Early Reviewer program.  There are some funny bits, but after a while it’s just one reticent character avoiding communicating with another character who hates them over and over.

Recommended books: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

Rating: **

Book Review: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by Peter Gottschalk


Author: Peter Gottschalk
Title: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by
Publication Info: New York: Palgrave McMillan (2013)
ISBN: 9781137278296
Summary/Review:

I received a free early reviewers copy of this book via the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

As Americans, we proudly proclaim our religious tolerance and maintain that our country was built on religious freedom.  While many forms of religious expression have flourished in the United States, Gottschalk reminds of the many instances of religious intolerance in our country from earliest settlement to the present day.  The book is divided into seven chapters focusing on:

  1. Puritan persecution of Quakers in colonial Massachusetts
  2. The struggles of Irish Catholic immigrants in Protestant-dominated cities in the 19th century
  3. The Ghost Dance and the extermination of the Sioux
  4. 20th prejudice against Jews by the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and immigration restrictions
  5. The Latter Day Saints struggle against violent opposition in the 19th century and how the political careers of George and Mitt Romney show a growing acceptance.
  6. The Branch Davidians and the vilifying of outsider groups as cults
  7. Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11th attacks

The book is short for all the topics it covers and Gottschalk really only touches upon these various topics.  The author can get oddly deep into some parts of the topics while being very broad at other times.  I also found it troubling how much he defends the Branch Davidians as a persecuted minority rather than recognizing that child rape and their vast military arsenal were a threat to the community at large.

It’s an interesting overview, and if you have a familiarity with American history there shouldn’t be too many surprises.  But if you think that religious groups have always been welcomed in the United States, you’ll want to read this book.
Recommended books: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann


AuthorColum McCann
TitleTransAtlantic
Publication Info: New York: Random House, 2013
ISBN: 9781400069590
Previously Read by Same Author: Let the Great World Spin
Summary/Review:

I’m privileged to review an advanced reader’s copy of this forthcoming novel courtesy of the Library Thing Early Reviewer‘s program.

This is a novel of contrasts.  It’s an epic story covering three centuries and as the title implies crossing back and forth the Atlantic from Ireland to Canada and the United States.  And yet it is a very personal book with detailed character studies of four men and four women.  The men are well-known historical figures: American abolitionist Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour of Ireland, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown making the first nonstop transatlantic flight, and US Senator George Mitchell brokering the Good Friday Agreement.  The women are four generations of the same family whose lives briefly intersect with the historical figures: an Irish housemaid Lily Duggan inspired to go to America by Douglass, the journalist Emily Ehrlich who settles in Newfoundland, the photographer Lottie who marries an RAF airman from Northern Ireland, and Hannah Carson whose loses her son in The Troubles and as we read her story in her own voice in the present time is on the verge of losing all of her family history to the bank.

Just as in Let the Great World Spin, McCann does not interweave the stories, yet characters from other stories appear later on.  The stories are also connected by an unopened letter which acts as kind of a McGuffin and is one of the less effective aspects of the novel to me.  Other than though, the writing in brilliant and McCann has a special gift for capturing the human experience in words.  The fictional figures seem as real as the historical figures and the historical figures are so detailed as to appear as fully-realized literary characters.  This is another great novel by McCann and I highly recommend it.
Favorite Passages:

“What they need are the signatures.  After that, they will negotiate the peace.  Years of wrangling still to come, he knows.  No magic wand.  All he wants is to get the metal nibs striking hard against the page.  But really what he would like now, more than anything, is to walk out from the press conference into the sunlight, a morning and evening jammed together, so that there is rise and fall at the same time, east and west, and it strikes him at moments like this the he is a man of crossword puzzles, pajamas, slippers, and all that he needs is to get on a plane, land, enter the lobby of the apartment on Sixty-Seventh Street, step into his own second chance, the proper silence of fatherhood.” – p. 120

Recommended books: A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan  and Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times by Steven Travers


Author:Steven Travers
TitleThe Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times 
Publication Info: Lanham, Md : Taylor Trade, 2011.
ISBN: 9781589796607
Summary/Review: I received a free advance review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  The biography of the great Mets pitcher and Hall of Fame baseball star is generally a hagiography from the title to the conclusion.  Not that I would prefer a hatchet job but depicting Seaver as near-superhuman does him no favors in my opinion.  Also, Travers and Seaver share the same alma mater of USC and Travers doesn’t miss any opportunity to mention it.  I did learn some interesting things about Seaver such as the fact that he was a late bloomer and didn’t become a great pitcher until his college years.  There are also some interesting details of his Mets years and relationships with coaches and players.  The diehard Mets or baseball fan may want to read this book but otherwise I think the great Seaver biography remains to be written.

Recommended booksGil Hodges: The Quiet Man by Marino Amoruso, The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolove and If at First: A Season With the Mets by Keith Hernandez.
Rating: **

Book Review: Best Mets by Matthew Silverman


AuthorMatthew Silverman
TitleBest Mets
Publication Info: Lanham, Md. : Taylor Trade Pub., c2012.
ISBN: 9781589796706
Summary/Review: I received and advanced copy of this book for free through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program, who like to send me books about baseball (I wonder why).  The title of the book pretty much sums things up, this is a book of lists about the best Mets players, teams, games, traditions, etc.  Obviously this book is not going to have widespread appeal beyond Mets’ fans, although I’d think it best for the novice Mets’ fan looking to learn a little bit about the history of the team.  Still, there are better Mets’ books out there. (see below)
Recommended booksFaith and Fear in Flushing by Greg Prince, Mets by the Numbers by Jon Springer and Taking the Field by Howard Megdal.
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion by Johan Harstad


Author:  Johan Harstad
Title: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion
Publication Info:  New York : Seven Stories Press, c2011.
ISBN:  9781609801359
Summary/Review: This book from Norway, recently translated into English by Deborah Dawkin, is the latest book I’ve received free from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program and a book for my Around the World for a Good Book project.  The narrator/protagonist is a young man named Mattias who seems to be content with not standing out or being noticed for anything.  Hence his fascination with Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.

After a long-time girlfriend leaves him, Mattias goes to the Faroes Islands with his friend’s band and suffers a mental breakdown.  He’s picked up by a psychiatrist who runs a sort of halfway house for people with mental and emotional problems trying to ease back into society.   Mattias moves in and over the next couple of years details his new life on the Faroes.  Plot is secondary as the narrative is mainly an internal dialogue of a man coming to terms with his loneliness and depression.

Mattias is not always a sympathetic character but I relate to him a lot.  I like what Harstad is trying to do exploring the interior anguish of Mattias, but I have to admit that the book is overlong.  Still I recommend reading it, I find it reminiscent of the work of Haruki Murakami.

Favorite Passages:

“Friday.
One should beware of Fridays.
They promise so much.
Like movie trailers.
Only rarely do they live up to expectations.
Most Fridays are lousy sequels.
Back to the Future Part III.” – p. 43

“The brain is a strange contraption.  A library with a messy librarian.  And in the floors below, in the cellar, there are vaults, filled to the ceiling with books and journals, dissertations and papers that are scarcely ever asked for.”  – p. 181

Recommended Books: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, and The Museum Guard by Howard Norman.
Rating:

Book Review: Taking the Field by Howard Megdal


Author: Howard Megdal
Title: Taking the Field
Publication Info: Bloomsbury USA (2011)
ISBN: 9781608195794
Summary/Review: I received this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewer program.  Mets fan and sports journalist Howard Megdal, frustrated by the mismanagement of his favorite team decides to take action by running for the office of Mets general manager.  The position is not an elected office of course, so this is a bit of a gag, but Megdal dutifully holds primaries on a number of Mets blogs.  I could have lived without the extensive details of the election campaign as it becomes obvious pretty early that  Megdal has great ideas about how to manage the Mets and that these ideas have a lot of support among Mets fans.  Luckily, alternate chapters contain Medgal’s actual analysis of how to run a ball club focusing on the Mets historically on their all too many bad transactions as well as the thought and planning that went in to building the championship teams of 1969 and 1986.  Megdal’s evaluation of the Mets past and present  is spot on as are his ideas for the future of the team.  I’d vote for him if I could but lucky for him Sandy Alderson took the job, so Megdal can focus on spending more time with the baby daughter he writes about lovingly throughout the book.

Recommended books: Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets by Greg Prince, Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark by Jim Bouton, and Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Take Time for Paradise by A. Bartlett Giamatti


Author: A. Bartlett Giamatti
Title: Take time for paradise : Americans and their games
Publication Info: Bloomsbury USA, 2011.
ISBN: 9781608192243
Summary/Review:

When I was young and stupid, I hated Giamatti for banning Pete Rose from baseball.  Over the years I came to realize that Rose is a cheater and a liar, and that Giamatti’s premature death was a great loss for Major League Baseball.   This charming little book shows why.  Giammatti was an intellectual who took time to philosophize over why Americans play games dropping in a few classical references here and there to illustrate his points.  It’s a pretty little book that should be enjoyed by baseball fans or people who want to understand the games we play.
Favorite Passages:

I do not believe human beings have played games or sports from the beginning merely to summon or to please or to appease the gods.   If anthropologists and historians believe that, it is because they believe whatever they have been able to recover about what humankind told the gods humankind was doing I believe we have played games, and watched games, to imitate the gods, to become godlike in our worship of each other and, through those moments of transmutation, to know for an instant what the gods know. – p. 24-25

Recommended books: Why Time Begins on Opening Day by Thomas Boswell, This Time Lets Not Eat the Bones by Bill James, Out of My League by George Plimpton.
Rating: ***

Book Review: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang


Author: Ha-Joon Chang
Title: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism
Publication Info: Bloomsbury Press (2011)
ISBN: 97816081916666
Summary/Review:

I received this book as an advanced reading copy through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Like the title says, it goes through 23 aspects of capitalism that are myths, misrepresentations, or simply bald-faced lies.  Now this book is not anti-capitalism, but the author does seek to debunk the ideology of free-market capitalism (itself misnamed) that over the past three decades has gained an almost religious reverence in political and economic circles.  Some of the most interesting tidbits include:

  • The economic and technological revolution of the internet has been vastly overstated.  We do not live in a post-industrial age and the washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has.
  • There is no such thing as a free market as there is some level of regulation in all markets.
  • Running a company for shareholder interest is inefficient for the company and bad for the national economy.
  • If we assume the worst about people we will get the worst out of them (this applies to the frequently repeated belief that the economy is based on individual self-interest and denials that people are moral agents).
  • Many successful endeavors have been initiated by the government or through public-private partnerships.
  • Regulation works not because the government knows better but because it deliberately restricts our choices within the scope of humanity’s bounded rationality.
  • Bigger government allows people to take more risks by re-tooling their work skills knowing there is a safety net if they fail.

Chang’s writing style can be dry – although there are flashes of good humor – and he gets repetitive since the 23 things overlap often.  I found it an interesting overview of economics and capitalism and makes a lot of good points about what’s wrong with the prevailing opinion.  Of course, I may be predisposed to agree with Chang’s thesis, but I also feel I learned a number of things I never understood before.
Favorite Passages:

“The higher purchasing power of US citizens (compared to the citizens of other rich countries) is owed in large part to the poverty and insecurity of many of their fellow citizens, especially in the service industries.  The Americans also work considerably longer than their counterparts in competitor nations. Per hour worked, US incomes is lower than that of several European countries, even in purchasing power terms.  It is debatable that that can be described as having a higher living standard.” – p. 111

“Simply making the rich richer does not make the rest of us richer.  If giving more to the rich is going to benefit the rest of society, the rich have to be made to deliver higher investment and thus higher growth through policy measures (e.g., tax cuts for the rich individuals and corporations, conditional on investment), and then share the fruits of such growth through a mechanism such as the welfare state.” – p. 147

“When the managerial classes in the US and, to a lesser extent Britain, possess such economic, political and ideological power that they can manipulate the market and pass on the negative consequences of their actions to other people, it is an illusion to think that executive pay is something whose optimal levels and structures are going to be, and should be, determined by the market.” – p. 156

“Unless we deliberately restrict our choices by creating restrictive rules, thereby simplifying the environment that we have to deal with, our bounded rationality cannot cope with the complexity of the world.  It is not  because the government necessarily knows better that we need regulation.  It is in the humble recognition of our limited mental capability that we do.”  – p. 177

Recommended books: The Great Unraveling by Paul Krugman, Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston, The Big Short by Michael Lewis
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: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: Where good ideas come from : the natural history of innovation
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead, 2010.
ISBN: 9781594487712

Previously read by the same author: Emergence

Summary/Review:

I’m pleased I won a copy of this book by one of my favorite science writers through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  In engaging prose Johnson explores through historical examples and case studies how people come up with great ideas.  It’s not the lone genius with a light bulb popping up over their head.

Johnson discusses that innovation is possible within the adjacent possible when a number of factors come together to allow a new idea to work (on the shoulders of giants to speak).  Strong networks – whether they be cities, the Web, or universities – inevitably contribute to greater innovation the solitary inventor.  Ideas also come over time, the slow hunch, where something in the back of one’s mind only becomes a possibility after years of interactions and research.  Error and serendipity play their part as well.   Johnson also discusses the idea of expatation where something built for one purpose is borrowed for an entirely different function.  Platforms are also important for the development of further innovations.

In an interesting conclusion, Johnson makes the case against the accepted belief of free-market competition being the greatest source of innovation (although state-controlled command economies are not the solution either).  Instead Johnson calls for continued support of research universities where networks are formed and ideas shared.  I enjoyed this book and I think it helped me look at innovation in new ways.

Recommended books: Connections by James Burke, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order by Steven H. Strogatz, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath.
Rating:

Book Review: The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel


Author: Miriam Pawel
Title: The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chávez’s Farm Worker Movement
Publication Info: Bloomsbury Press (2009)
ISBN: 1596914602

Summary/Review:

I’ve never known much about Cesar Chávez and the United Farm Worker’s union so I was pleased to receive a free copy of this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  The book is not about Chávez directly although his presence hovers over the events covered in this book for both good and ill.  Instead Pawel focuses on the stories of nine individuals who dedicated their lives to the farm worker movement – field hands, organizers, lawyers and a ministers. Their overlapping stories offer a glimpse into the movement’s rise and fall from the 1960s to the 1980s.

At first it’s an inspiring story of boycotts, strikes and union elections where the union prevails against the growers (and their Teamster thugs) as well as scoring legislative victories.  Chávez becomes a national hero for his inspiration, non-violent leadership.  Unfortunately like many organizations the UFW is torn apart by internal conflicts and Chávez only exacerbates the problems.    Pawel details how these close friend and colleagues of Chávez see him becoming increasingly paranoid, micromanaging and megalomaniac, purging the union of people on specious grounds and making life miserable for those who remain.

This book is ultimately heartbreaking but there are glimpses of hope nevertheless.  It’s inspiring that despite all the difficulties these nine people dedicated themselves to an ideal and a cause.  While shattering the myth of Chávez the hero, this book still illustrates the good that can be done by ordinary people working for social justice.

Recommended books: The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, We Can’t Eat Prestige: The Women Who Organized Harvard by John Hoerr, and Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow
Rating: ***

Book Review: The mom & pop store by Robert Spector


Author: Robert Spector
Title: The mom & pop store : how the unsung heroes of the American economy are surviving and thriving
Publication Info: New York : Walker Pub. Co., c2009.
ISBN: 9780802716057

Summary/Review:

This Library Thing Early Reviewers free advance review book is a tribute to independent business.  Through historical discussion – including the business of the author’s own family – and through case studies of independent shops around the country the author tells the story of the success and importance of “mom & pop stores.”  Spector’s writing is an unabashed booster but despite his unbiased approach it remains convincing.  Spector also isn’t the best writer, but many of the stories of the individuals, families, and groups who go into business on their own are inspiring.

Recommended books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs and Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann
Rating: ***