Current Affairs

Oh, Russell Brand, what are we going to do with you?

I have a little soft spot for British comedian Russell Brand, even though I fully realize it's probably easiest to love Russell Brand from afar, which, luckily, is what I will always be from Russell Brand.

Let's break down the case. There's this: when Russell Brand is funny, he's really, really funny. Also: he is not a believer in voting, and I can go along with that.*

Third: He can write a serviceable memoir. I really enjoyed his first memoir, My Booky Wook, although I have just become aware he wrote another one, titled (not very imaginatively, Russell) My Booky Wook 2, and I will not in fact be reading that book. Only so much time, and all that. But when I saw he had a new book out called rEVOLution, I thought, all right, we'll give it a try.

It's awful. Really. It's unreadable. I am not alone in this opinion; most book critics seem pretty united in their opinions that it is not a well-written or even funny book. So it hurts me to write that you should not read this book, which is a mish-mash of memoir, political and ideological beliefs, befuddled writing about yoga, and (a very few) interviews with anarchist, nonprofit organizer, Occupy protestor types, including some of their ideas for bettering the world.

But? Every 100 pages or so he still managed to charm me. For example, when remembering a fraught conversation he had as a child with his grandmother (the "nan" he was not very fond of, to be exact), he decides that what he has to do as an adult is try and see his grandmother's point of view:

"I now look at my nan in another way. As a human being just like me, trying to cope with her own flaws and challenges. Fearful of what would become of her sick daughter, confused by the grandchild born of a match that she was averse to. Alone and approaching the end of her life, with regret and lacking a functioning system of guidance and comfort. Trying her best. Taking on the responsibility of an unusual little boy with glib, atheistic tendencies, she still behaved dutifully. Perhaps this very conversation sparked in me the spirit of metaphysical inquiry that has led to the faith in God I now have." (p. 60.)

So yeah, I can't recommend the book. But you've got to love a guy taking the time to re-evaluate his grandmother. Don't you? I do.

*He is also no fan of the British royal family, which is where we diverge in our opinions.


I'm only sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

I really, really enjoyed Helaine Olen's investigative business book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.

I first read about this one ages ago on Savvy Working Gal's blog, and I was immediately attracted by its cover. I wondered a bit about its subject matter; I'll admit I was skeptical that an entire book was necessary to explore the "dark side of the personal finance industry."* That's right. An entire book critiquing not the broader business atmosphere of the U.S., not the entire stock market, not capitalism, but literally critiquing ONLY those finance gurus who are well-known enough to have their own publishing, radio and TV programs, and seminar businesses. Olen began the book with a bang, giving the history of one of the earliest pundits, S. F. (Sylvia) Porter, who wrote financial advice columns and books from the 1930s through the 1970s. But I really started to enjoy myself in Olen's second chapter, on popular money guru Suze Orman:

"If there are any other personal finance gurus who are capable of arousing this much passion, I have not discovered them. Everybody knows Suze, the woman whose personal appearance is in itself nearly a caricature, with the neon-bright jackets, deep tan, big, bright white teeth, and ultrablond, ultrasculpted hair. She winks broadly at her audience, seemingly flirting with them, calling them 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend' in her over-the-top flat Midwestern accent. Orman has more than half a dozen bestselling books to her credit and a CNBC show, which despite being placed in the Saturday night graveyard hour still gets better ratings than anything in the cable giant's weekday lineup." (p. 28.)

I really enjoyed that, even though, personally, I like watching Suze Orman when I see her programs on PBS pledge drives. It's not so much that I like her financial advice, but I'm interested in public speaking techniques and Suze is nothing if not a MASTER of public speaking.

I'm not doing a great job of describing this book; do click on the link above to Savvy Working Gal's blog, where she gives a much better synopsis of Olen's main points. I will say it took me a while to read this book--it's quite detailed--but in a good way. A great read, particularly if you are oh so tired of hearing TV financial pundits blather on about how we can all save a million dollars by brewing our own coffee at home.

*Not because there isn't enough dark side there, but I thought it might get dull to read about. It did not.


I'm still going to fall apart in a disaster...

...but after reading Amanda Ripley's fantastic nonfiction book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - And Why, at least for now I'll have the comfort of thinking I've learned something about surviving "the unthinkable."

I found this book because I enjoyed Amanda Ripley's more recent investigative title The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. After reading it, I looked to see if she had written anything else, and up popped this title. So, because I am, in some small way, always expecting the worse*, this was a book I really wanted to read.

And I was not disappointed. I liked it even better than her book on education. Ripley set out to discover how people really DO behave during disasters (not how they THINK they'll behave), and to explore the psychology behind our survival tactics and fear responses. Her book is organized in the same order as we tend to respond to disasters: Denial; Deliberation; and the Decisive Moment.

Sadly, oh so sadly, I only read this book a few weeks ago and I've pretty much forgotten everything I thought I learned. Oh wait, I do remember something. In case of an emergency, try not to mill around aimlessly (as many people who survived the 9/11 attacks remember doing, and watching other people do). Do NOT go back for your personal belongings or load up on them, just get out. And don't be hurt if airline personnel scream at you to get you to exit the plane after an emergency landing or crash. They're doing that because they've been trained that people do actually need to be yelled at to get moving.

It's a fascinating book, if a bit sobering. And let's face it, these days it's probably not a bad idea to try and imagine how you'd react in a disaster (and consider even more efficient or helpful ways of responding). I'm two for two with Ripley; can't wait to see her next book.

*Although when bad things happen, I often find myself surprised. It's like I do all of that worrying for nothing!


The smartest kids in the world...

...are not being produced by the U.S. education system.

When journalist Amanda Ripley points this out (based on PISA--Program for International Student Assessment--tests, on which students in such countries as Finland, Korea, Japan, Canada, and France all score better than U.S. students) points this out in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, she makes it clear that she is not blaming the students. She is, in fact, blaming the American education system.

Ripley opens her book with a discussion of the PISA test, and its development, not by an educational theorist, but by a physicist named Andreas Schleicher, who wanted a more accurate and unbiased measurement for how students compare to one another on an international scale. The test is noted for its ability to measure students' ability to think critically (rather than just offering multiple choice questions), and that is the aspect in which many American students really struggle. Based on what she learned about that test, the author decided to follow American exchange students as they studied in Finland, Poland, and Korea, in order to get a more immediate feel for the differences in educational systems.

It was an interesting read. One thing I particularly liked about it was Ripley's debunking of the myth that American students struggle because the American child poverty rate is so high (20%--yet another measurement that Americans should not be proud of). She refers to this as the narrative that external factors (like poverty, negligent parents, etc.) are the problem with schools, and this is what she says about that:

"The only problem with this narrative was that it was habit forming. Once you start locating the source of your problems outside your own jurisdiction, it is hard to stop, even when the narrative is wrong." (p. 36.)

A few of the other differences between education systems that Ripley explores are other countries' more rigorous methods of selecting for and training teachers; the fact that in much of Europe athletics are completely divorced from school (the kids play sports, but sports are not really connected with school, and for the most part teachers elsewhere were horrified that teachers here often combine teaching duties with coaching ones); there is much less technology in international classrooms than in American ones; and students take school and studying much more seriously elsewhere (although, in the "pressure cooker" system in South Korea, this might not actually be a good thing).

And then there was this nugget, which warmed my heart, as I used to tell this to people at the library until I was blue in the face (and very few people seemed to listen):

"And at least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, too...kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said." (p. 111--emphasis mine.)

The book is not perfect; at times Ripley seems to make somewhat contradictory statements (for instance: should control of education be more localized, or less? I thought her conclusions unclear on this point) and she doesn't seem to pay as much attention to the student she followed in Poland as to the other two. But those are small quibbles with an otherwise fascinating read. If you have school-age children, I'd look at it: there's some good ideas for how you can most effectively spend your time helping your children improve upon the embarrassingly low-ranked education available here.


There seems to be a lot of crafting in the new domesticity.

I am a terrible homemaker.

Really. I don't even like to apply the term "homemaking" to what I do. I'm an average cook, I hate cleaning, I refuse to "decorate" in any way (my current TV table is the same $15 plain wood table I bought from an outgoing student for my dorm room, oh my god, over twenty years ago now), I'm not really very good at playing with the children, and when I hear the word "crafts," I reach for my revolver.*

So why would I read a book on the "New Domesticity"?

The first thing I should probably do is define the term for you. Or, more accurately, I should let Emily Matchar, author of the book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, define it for you:

"The motivations behind New Domesticity are varied: an interest in self-sustainability; concern for the environment; the need for flexible, child-friendly work; the desire to remain connected to older generations. But the common thread seems to be this: my generation--those of us in our twenties and thirties--is longing for a more authentic, meaninful life in an economically and environmentally uncertain world." (p. 5.)

So yeah, I'm in my thirties (just barely, but I'm enjoying it while I still can), and yes, I stay at home as a pretty stereotypical housewife, with some freelance work on the side. I do many of the things Matchar talks about her interview subjects doing--raising the kids, trying to earn a little "pin money" on the side, and making the food. But I can safely say, after reading this book, that I do not approach domesticity with the zeal that Matchar's subjects do; many of them are actively "homesteading" and doing things like trying to raise their own meat animals and live off the grid.

Matchar's book is interesting (if a bit repetitive), and she actually does a nice job of keeping her tone pretty even-keeled. She seems generous to her subjects, willing to believe the best about their desires to DIY and remove themselves as much as possible from the factory food system, but also questions how realistic those desires are, and how they developed from and represent the last fifty or so years of feminism. She covers a wide array of topics, from domestic bloggers and Etsy crafters to DIY food culture, parenting to the politics of the New Domestics. And every now and then she comes across with a pretty nice flash of insight:

"Today parents are expected to be the total authorities in their children's lives. Parent are taught to question everything they hear and make sure it 'feels right' for their particular family. This can be empowering but also exhausting--every vaccine and preschool and baby-food brand must be rigorously vetted by Mom or Dad (usually Mom)." (p. 126.)

One thing I do feel the book was missing (as I feel most books of this type miss) was any realistic disussion of how on earth anyone can "homestead" or go without a job (or a spouse with a job) with health insurance. Unless you're the Pioneer Woman, no one is making enough on blogs or crafts to quit their day jobs, much less pay for any kind of health insurance on their own.

It wasn't the fastest or most fascinating read of the year so far, but I'll say this: it held my interest even after several 2 a.m. feedings (sometimes I have a snack and a chapter of something after nursing CR3). And that's usually the mark of a pretty well-written book.

*Not really. But I will always remember that phrase from the promo copy on Jim Knipfel's fantastic book Ruining It for Everybody: "and when I hear the word 'spiritual,' I reach for my revolver."


All that glitters?

I was SUPER EXCITED to hear about Matthew Hart's new book, Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal.

Yes, all caps. I was just that excited. Why, you might ask? It's not like gold is all that scintillating a subject. I'm not even all that fond of gold--yellow gold, that is. (Yes, I'm an autumn, but I still prefer wearing silver and white gold. I'm a fashion daredevil.)

I was super excited because one of the books that started me on my love affair with nonfiction was Matthew Hart's title Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession. I loved that book and I'm not even sure why (I don't like diamonds either). One of these days I should re-read it; I just remember that it really grabbed my imagination and I enjoyed Hart's expertise on the subject, and his ability to make the discovery and refinement of diamonds so interesting.

In this book, Hart explores various aspects of this most precious of metals: its history (most often riddled with greed and violence), its role in the Spanish invasion of the Inca, its role in historical and current economies, and its discovery and mining in such locations as South Africa, the U.S., and China. It's an interesting book, and Hart still knows his way around prose:

"Spaniards came well equipped for the larceny of the sixteenth century. They reduced two empires, almost with a blow. They had the cavalier's weapon of mass destruction--Toledo steel. The swords were strong and flexible and the blades could take a razor edge. One good stroke took off a head. A horse and rider in full armor weighed three quarters of a ton. This massive equipage thundered along at twenty miles an hour, concentrating the whole weight on a sharpened steel point at the tip of a ten-foot lance. The Spanish could project such power through advanced technologies in sailing and navigation. And they had a pretext for the conquests they would make: winning souls for God." (p. 25.)

It was a good read. But it was not as good as I was hoping it would be. Part of this might be my distracted reading mind as of late--whenever Hart started discussing monetary policy (which he did a lot--it's a big part of gold as a subject), I just kind of shut down, as trying to understand most monetary policies is just beyond me. What I was looking for, I think, was more discussion on how gold is discovered and mined--if memory serves, Diamond offered a slightly more scientific viewpoint.

Not a bad read, really. But if I wasn't already a nonfiction lover, it wouldn't have been special enough to turn my head.


Rose George* does it again.

Last year I read journalist Rose George's fantastic book on poo, titled The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. I loved it. It was, bar none, one of the best books I read all year.

So I was very excited when my copy of her latest book, Ninety Percent of Everything, came in at the library. The book is about the shipping industry, which George investigated by living: she actually traveled on a container ship, the Maersk Kendal, from Felixstowe (the Kendal is actually a Dutch ship, but George joins its crew from a port in Great Britain) to its final port of call in Singapore. She explains, early on, why this is a subject in which she is fascinated:

"The Maritime Foundation, a charity that promotes seafarer matters, recently made a video called Unreported Ocean. It asked the residents of Southampton, a port city in England, how many goods are transported by sea. The answers were varied but uniformly wrong. They all had the interrogative upswing of the unsure.**

'Thirty-five percent?'

'Not a lot?'

The answer is, nearly everything. Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: at least 4 including the stroller. The game is to reckon how many of our clothes and possessions and food products have been transported by ship..." (p. 3.)

I love that George is out there in the world, thinking and writing about shipping for us, because who else would have the time or the necessary drive to travel on a huge container ship? One that may or may not be boarded by pirates at some point along its route? (The chapters on piracy, by the way, are fascinating and horrifying in equal measures.)

It's a good book; do check it out. I'll confess it wasn't quite what I expected--I was thinking George would take a somewhat broader view of the entire shipping industry, rather than framing many of her chapters around her travels on the one ship, but the more I read the more I enjoyed her approach. Of particular note is the very human face she puts on the ship's crew members and captain, as well as the individuals worldwide who seek to offer charitable services and help to such workers (which is necessary, because people working in the shipping industry, as you might guess, are not treated very well or paid very much).

You can also read a lengthy excerpt of the book at the NPR website. Try that and I'll bet you'll be hooked!

*By the way, I totally want a cool name like "Rose George." I love the succinctness of it.

**For whatever reason I love this sentence. Beautifully written stuff.


Everybody poops.

I loved, loved, LOVED Rose George's investigative book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

Let me rephrase, as a matter of fact: I would go so far as to say that I would be a totally happy camper if I could find a nonfiction book this good to read every single week. Or perhaps two every week. Two superlative nonfiction titles a week (and the time in which to read them, as long as we're dreaming). I don't ask much, do I?

But I digress. As you can tell from the title, George's book is about all things poo, defecation, sanitation, sewage, toilets, and all sorts of other lovely and earthy topics not normally discussed in polite company (the author frequently points out, for example, that everyone, including celebrities, want to be involved in "clean water" campaigns, but nobody wants to deal with the less glamorous "sanitation" part of "water and sanitation").

George had me from the second chapter*, in which she has much to say about TOTO, a Japanese toilet manufacturing company. They take their toilets very, very seriously in Japan, so TOTO takes its product very seriously as well. And I chuckled each time I read the name--we own a TOTO toilet of our own here at Chez CR, and we've always been very happy with it.**

The book is not all lighthearted--George points out fairly early on that 2.6 billion people in the world don't have sanitation (as of 2008, when this book was first published). And then she puts that into context for first-world readers: "I don't mean that they have no toilet in their house and must use a public one with queues and fees. Or that they have an outhouse, or a rickety shack that empties into a filthy drain or pigsty. All that counts as sanitation, though not a safe variety. The people who have those are the fortunate ones. Four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box. Nothing. Instead, they defecate by train tracks and in forests. They do it in plastic bags and fling them through the air in narrow slum alleyways. If they are women, they get up at 4 a.m. to be able to do their business under cover of darkness for reasons of modesty, risking rape and snakebites. Four in ten people live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement because it is in the bushes outside the village or in their city yards, left by children outside the backdoor. It is tramped back in on their feet, carried on fingers onto clothes, food, and drinking water." (p. 2.)

Ooof. A paragraph like that'll make you think, especially when it appears on the second page of the book, for the love of all that's holy.

And yet she has a lovely light touch with her subject, and although she doesn't really insert herself in the narrative, her voice is delightful. I found her style somewhat similar to Mary Roach's, but I liked George's tone and prose so much better--Roach sometimes gets a bit "twee" for me and I get tired of her endless footnotes, some of which are funny but which mostly end up being just distracting.

So why did I check this book out? George has a new book coming out, called Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, about worldwide shipping, and that sounds very good too. While I was waiting for it, I thought I'd read this earlier title, and now that I know how good this author is, I'm really excited to get the new book.

*The first chapter, on sewers, is excellent also.

**I may be the first person in the world who demanded that my plumber charge me more when he replaced our broken-down toilet a few years back. He offered a standard Mansfield, and I had to explain, "Look, this is our ONE toilet, and how can I put this delicately, we need a workhorse here." So he gave us the TOTO, which cost more, and has been worth every penny. It was put in on my birthday (a great present), and lives in family and house lore as "Toto the Birthday Toilet."


A bit more about George Packer's The Unwinding.

I felt very unfulfilled by what I wrote yesterday about George Packer's book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. I feel I am not giving you the flavor of the book, or explaining why I couldn't seem to put it down, even though it was a downer.

One thing I would like to say that I particularly appreciated in Packer's choice of interviewees and subjects was his choosing Americans from all over the spectrum: from the factory worker to the political operative to Peter Thiel and other Silicon Valley luminaries. In fact, the Peter Thiel/Silicon Valley parts of the book were the ones I found the most informative. This sounds terrible to say, but I've now read so many books about the loss of our manufacturing base, failing heartland cities (Detroit among them), and working-class woes that none of the narratives from those perspectives particularly surprised me or provided new knowledge. But many of the points-of-view and ideas given by Thiel, the PayPal billionaire, were quite interesting (although Thiel in general gave me the super-heebies, also making him a fascinating character):

"At Cafe Venetia in downtown Palo Alto...Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and said, 'I don't consider this to be a technological breakthrough.'

Compared to the Apollo space program or the supersonic jet, a smartphone looked small. In the forty years leading up to 1973, there had been huge technological advances, and wages had increased sixfold. Since then, Americans beguiled by mere gadgetry had forgotten how expansive progress could be...

The information age arrived on schedule, but without the utopia. Cars, trains, and planes were not much better than they had been in 1973.* The rising price of oil and food showed a complete failure to develop energy and agriculture technology. Computers didn't create enough jobs to sustain the middle class, didn't produce revolutionary improvements in manufacturing and productivity, didn't raise living standards across classes. Thiel had come to think that the Internet was a 'net plus, but not a big one.' Apple was mostly a 'design innovator.' Twitter would give job security to five hundred people for the next decade, 'but how much value does it create for the entire economy?' Facebook, which had made Thiel a billionaire, was 'on balance positive,' because it was radical enough to have been banned in China. But that was all he would say for the celebrated era of social media. All the companies he invested in probably employed fewer than fifteen thousand people." (p. 383.)

There is a LOT to unpack in just those few paragraphs, and a lot to think about. I suspect that's why this book took me so long to read, even though it's quite readable--there's a lot of paragraphs like that, that you almost have to take the time to digest.

There. I feel I've done the book more credit now.

*I might also point out there are similar problems in health care, since I've read several times in the past months about how the maternal death rate from childbirth is now higher than it was in 1978.


Are we unwinding?

When I got George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America from the library, I'm pretty sure I started reading it that night--I was very excited to see it, as I am a fan of George Packer's. When I started it, I did have difficulty putting it down, but since I finished it, it's been sitting on my night table while I try to think what to say about it.

I don't really know what to say about it.

Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I get the feeling he's got a pretty good grasp on most issues of American economics and culture. In this book, he chooses not to write a straightforward journalistic investigation of such topics as the loss of America's manufacturing base, the problems of our political systems, and many more, but rather gives the reader a picture of them by interweaving several character portraits. The individuals whose stories he tells through the narrative are Dean Price (an idealistic and optimistic entrepreneur of the type typically presented as the type that will "save our country" with their entrepreneurial drive); Jeff Connaughton (a longtime political operative); Tammy Thomas (an Ohio woman whose town and economic situation keeps worsening due to lost jobs and dropping wages); and Peter Thiel (the Silicon Valley billionaire who founded PayPal). In between he also provides short chapters briefly sketching the biographical details of such American luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, and many others.

It's an interesting way to provide a snapshot of America. Typically I prefer a more straightforward piece of nonfiction, like Matt Taibbi's Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, but there's no denying that this type of investigative storytelling makes for fascinating (if sad) reading as well. What surprised me a little bit was how long it took me to read the book--you don't feel like it's taking a long time while you read, and the stories are all character-based and move right along, but you can feel the depth of detail, research, and work behind Packer's writing. It really is, to put it as simply as possible, a somewhat amazing book. Depressing, of course, because it left me with the feeling of, well, what can we possibly do now?, and because (as some critics have charged, conservative David Brooks among them) Packer doesn't really provide any overarching statements or analysis. Normally I like some overall theme or structure myself, but this book works better without it. For lack of a better description, it drops you right in there with Americans facing a future that does not appear to be getting brighter. In some ways it reminded me of Joe Bageant's excellent Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War. In other ways it reminded me of Chris Hedges's Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, although I think this was a stronger book because Packer doesn't rely on overblown rhetoric as much as Hedges does (and he also doesn't present the Occupy movement as any kind of great hope for future change). 

This has been a dry review; sorry about that. I was actually a little stunned by this book, and I'd suggest giving it a try, but don't read it at bedtime. It's not relaxing. (And if you're going to read any of the review links below, go for the Christian Science Monitor one--it includes a great interview with Packer.)

Other reviews: The Guardian | Christian Science Monitor | Huffington Post


Tuesday Article: Taibbi does it again.

Yes, I know. It's becoming the all-Taibbi, all the time blog around here. I can't help it. Every time I read one of his articles (except for some of the financial ones I don't understand, and don't particularly want to understand), I think, well, right on, Matt Taibbi. Thanks for saying it out loud, even though you must feel like you're banging your head against a wall by now, because NO ONE IS LISTENING.

The article in question last week deals with Bradley Manning and the leak of national secrets to Wikileaks. Taibbi, bless him, points out that the only story anyone can write about this story has to do with the "Is Manning a hero or a villain" storyline, or makes a lot of veiled comments regarding Manning's gender and sexuality, neither of which are really the point.

What is the point? Let Taibbi tell you: "Manning, by whatever means, stumbled into a massive archive of evidence of state-sponsored murder and torture, and for whatever reason, he released it. The debate we should be having is over whether as a people we approve of the acts he uncovered that were being done in our names."

Wonder what's being done in our names? Go read the article to start to find out.*

*And here's a fun fact for you, from an article linked to by Taibbi: the Pentagon spends BILLIONS on PR? Gross.


Downer Book Week: Nothing to Envy

The year it was published, Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea was the rage of all the book reviewers and "Best Nonfiction of the Year" lists.

And now I know why.

Unfortunately, for contrary people like myself*, putting a book on any sort of "Best of..." list is a sure gambit in getting me NOT to read it. In a way, this is why I am always at a loss to understand the concepts of "book discoverability" and "social reading" as much as I should.

But with North Korea in the news a lot this past year, I've been thinking I should read the book on the subject, and because I am too lazy to read a real history of North Korea or the Korean War, I thought I would check this title out.

It's unbelievable. And I don't use that word lightly. I actually found it beyond belief in some parts. Demick begins her narrative with a fairly powerful image:

"If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea...It is baffling how a nation of 23 million people can appear as vacant as the oceans." (pp. 3-4.)

North Korea has been lacking in light since the early 1990s, Demick points out, which is when the economy there really crashed, taking its power stations with it (and leaving its infrastructure's copper wires to be stolen and sold by its starving citizens). And that is just the beginning of this story.

Because Western journalists are not typically allowed into North Korea, Demick largely had to wait for her story to come to her, in the form of six people who were born and raised there, but who then defected to South Korea or China. Reporting the book this way was a necessity, but it also makes it a very accessible read for those nonfiction readers most drawn to character portraits--two of her subjects conducted a secret, long-term love affair (which took years to get to the holding hands stage, and which was conducted in North Korea almost entirely under the cover of darkness, as the two would simply walk for miles together at night), while others were true believers in the North Korean system, or had families and children they had to leave when they defected. In short, these are very human stories.

You simply have to read this book to believe it. I am not a person who really believes that democracy is the only answer, or that America is the best country in the world (does one really have to be best, I always wonder?) but it is mind-boggling to me to imagine a society where your future is dictated largely by your caste (people belong to government-dictated social classes, and everyone knows your class), you can't make any sarcastic or negative remarks about the government at all, neighborhoods are watched over by community snitches ready to report any transgression, and your job and food are simply assigned to you (if and when there are jobs and food to be had).

It is simply surreal to believe that a country causing such a fuss with nuclear testing is the same country where "a survey of 250 North Korean households conducted in the summer of 2008 found that two thirds were supplementing their diets by picking grass and weeds in the countryside." (p. 289.) Makes me wonder how it is inside the country now, in 2013, nearly four years after this book was first published.

*Conversely, a review where someone rips into a book is usually a review that makes me want to read said book (just out of morbid curiosity).


Downer Book Week: Down the Up Escalator

I know, I know, you're starting to feel a little down just reading these reviews, aren't you? Well, hang in, we're getting through the week.

Barbara Garson's Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession was a book I saw on many "forthcoming books" nonfiction lists earlier this spring, and the title intrigued me enough so that I put a hold on it at the library. Then I heard the author speak on public radio, and while I didn't hear the entire program, I liked her point that we are thinking of our current financial situation in America all wrong--most peole date our financial "crisis" to 2008, while Garson posits that things have really not been that great (particularly for working stiffs) for a lot longer than that, back even to the late 1970s. The book is divided into three segments representing our financial lives: Our Jobs, Our Homes, and Our Savings.

And of course nothing here is that big a surprise either (at least, not if you're a downer book addict like me):

--"By the fall of 2010 there were fourteen million officially unemployed Americans--40 percent of them classified as the long-term unemployed. An additional ten million were working part-time but said they wanted full-time jobs. Fifteen million more had dropped out of the labor force since this recession began." (p. 46.)

--"California was the Wild West of mortgage innovation. Nine out of the top ten subprime lenders were based in California before the crash, and so were most of the top ten mortgage banks that failed. California has 12 percent of the U.S. population, but between 2005 and 2007 more than 56 percent of America's subprime mortgages originated in California..." (p. 149.)

But this is a book that's more about personal stories and analysis than a recitation of numbers. Consider this exchange between Garson and one of her interview subjects:

--"'What am I looking at here in Evansville?' I asked the lean fifty-year-old [Charles Whobrey, president of the local Teamster union] as he led us into his cubbyhole of an office. 'How could a town have gotten this depressed since Lehman Brothers collapsed?'

''You're not looking at the effects of just this recession,' he asserted. 'So many people here survive paycheck to paycheck, obviously living beyond their means, that when something like this hits...well, let me go back.

'I started working for the union in 1981...I started in March, and not a month later President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Permanently fired the strikers. That doesn't happen much in American history. Killing PATCO [the air traffic controllers' union] sent the signal to business--as it was supposed to--that it was okay to get rid of the unions. 'Uh-oh,' I said, 'I have the knack for gettin' involved right when the wheel's going into the mud.'"

And with unions went wages..." (p. 82.)

It's kind of a strange read. Garson does not, for the most part, provide really shocking details of homelessness or utter destitution. What she DOES provide is a rather unnerving portrait of an increasingly large group of people finding it a bit tougher, every single day, to keep and find jobs, to keep making their house payments, to stay out of debt after experiencing a health setback, to have anything for retirement; in other words, pretty much everyone's growing daily monetary struggles.

I have read other similar books that I liked somewhat better: Richard Longworth's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, for instance, or even Louis Uchitelle's The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, which was published before 2008 and was therefore all the more prescient. But I did enjoy Garson's viewpoint, and I'd never heard of her before, so now I may look into some of her earlier books (including Electronic Sweatshop and All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work).


Downer Book Week: End of the Good Life

I know. You read a book with a title like End of the Good Life: How the Financial Crisis Threatens a Lost Generation--And What We Can Do about It, what do you expect it to be, except a downer?

Froymovich, herself a member of the Millennial generation, describes many of the economic factors that are currently working against those born between the years of the late 1970s and early 2000s. Among them are governmental austerity measures, uncertain global economics, higher unemployment rates and a poor job market, and rising education and student loan costs.

She does not paint a very optimistic picture.

Again, nothing in this book particularly surprised me: I've seen for myself and know many others who have found the job market to be tough going for the last few years. (Generation X hasn't exactly been raking in the dough either.) And it was definitely not a very "narrative" read; Froymovich interviewed lots of people and there are, therefore, many personal stories and insights throughout her book, but overall it has a definite "wonky" feel--heavy on the numbers and economic policy facts--but that was definitely part of why I found it such an informative read.

So what has been contributing to the loss of the American (and, to an extent, European) dream? Things like:

--"From 1990 to 2010, tuition and fees at public four-year universities more than doubled and the prices of two-year colleges climbed by 71 percent, while median household income rose just 2 percent." (p. 37.)

--"Since the crisis [of 2008], a quarter of young adults reported delaying marriage and about one-third have delayed starting a family." (p. 39.)

There's many more facts here than those, and the author offers a surprisingly global look at these challenges (and the political short-term thinking and austerity plans that continue to make a bad situation worse), but unfortunately I was an idiot and didn't bookmark many of the passages I found interesting.

One aspect of the book in which I was disappointed was its lack of better suggestions for the future or concrete ideas for improving one's own personal lot. And when such suggestions were made, they seemed to focus largely on the need for Generation Yers to "become entrepreneurs."* Consider this, as one of her positive case examples:

"Dollar Shave Club is another one of those great ideas. Cofounded in 2012 by Michael Dubin, just 33 years old, the company offers a subscription plan and delivery service for basic razor blades for men's grooming. Shaving supplies are often expensive, and men have to remember to restock regularly...Depending on the plan a customer chooses, the program costs just $3 to $9 a month, compared to fancy razors bought in a store that can cost more than $12 for the handle alone and $20 for a four-pack of refill cartridges. Dollar Shave Club can undercut the competition by cutting out the middleman--stores. It operates solely online. The company hired manufacturers in China and South Korea to make their blades cheaply." (p. 193.)

If you want to take a global view on that, how does it help the young people in China and South Korea?

So the ending annoyed me. But the rest of the book? I didn't think I was going to stick with it, and yet I did. And it provided a different look at current economic and political policy, which I appreciated.

*This line of thinking always pisses me off. First and foremost: not everyone wants to become an entrepreneur, for chrissake, and not everyone should have to become one. Also, there is increasingly NO POSSIBLE FRICKING WAY to cover your health insurance or health costs as an entrepreneur (unless you are one of the entrepreneurs who turns out to be, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, or someone like that). Take it from a freelancer: one of the only ways to make it as a freelancer is to marry some other poor sap who has a health insurance plan you can join.


Back in the reading saddle.

I realized the other day that I have a different book going in every room of the house (and one in my backpack), and it feels really, really...good. It feels like I am getting back to myself again, reading-wise.

So what's going on where? Details to follow, but in the bathroom I have a novel by a British author I've always enjoyed, in the bedroom is a book on how Generation Y is getting royally screwed, economically speaking (nice light bedtime reading, dontcha know), in my bag is a memoir that I'm not quite sure about but am going to stick with anyway, in the living room is a somewhat depressing book (book info toward the bottom of that post) that I've had to take a small pause from, and in the kitchen waits a book I started a few weeks back and really must get back to, because it is fascinating. Oh, and how could I forget a book about books, which, interestingly enough, has a chapter about being in the middle of too many books (and which roves around as I carry it from room to room and outside)? Add to that some books on gardening (every year in spring I read about gardening, rather than actually gardening) and some on toilet training (although, sadly, neither CRjr nor I are too interested), and you have a full reading slate.

It's lovely.


A disturbing juxtaposition.

This may be a bit heavy for a Monday, but if you're looking for some disturbing reading to put together (and therefore make it even more disturbing), you might try Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451 and this latest article from Matt Taibbi.*

For whatever reason I decided last week it was time to re-read Fahrenheit 451, as I think I first (and last) read it in seventh or eighth grade. I'm not all the way through, but it's been interesting. I wish I'd kept a journal way back when, recording what I thought about this book, because I always remembered liking it and being struck by it, but I can't for the life of me remember WHY. And I suspect it has been a very different reading experience this time around, reading it as an adult.

This was one of the many parts that struck me, from the book:

"The bombers crossed the sky and crossed the sky over the house, gasping, murmuring, whistling like an immense, invisible fan, circling in emptiness. 'Jesus God,' said Montag, 'Every hour so many damn things in the sky! How in hell did those bombers get up there every single second of our lives! Why doesn't someone want to talk about it?'"

And from the article:

"The idea that we have to beg and plead and pull Capra-esque stunts in the Senate just to find out whether or not our government has "asserted the legal authority" (this preposterous phrase is beginning to leak into news coverage with alarming regularity) to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil [using drones] without trial would be laughable, were it not for the obvious fact that such lines are in danger of really being crossed, if they haven't been crossed already."

In both: the theme of "not wanting to know" is a disturbing one. And yet, I know why we don't want to look and don't want to know. We're tired and we've got to go to work and get the kids fed and I think the brakes are going on the car and Christ, how am I going to pay that $5000 medical bill that wasn't covered? I get it. But I salute both Bradbury and Taibbi for asking: what will it take to make us LOOK?

*Stick with the article. It's long but worth it.


Where will the next big epidemic come from?

Would you believe I spent the past week blowing through a book on diseases (primarily caused by viruses) that cross over from animals to humans?*

Well, I did, and it was a fantastic read. The book in question was David Quammen's Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, it's 520 pages long, and yes, it's about disease and human pandemics, and I could not put it down.

This came as somewhat of a surprise, since I've looked at some of Quammen's other science/natural history books, and found them somewhat dull. So either this is just a subject that I find interesting (and I do), or he took his style up a notch in this one, or I didn't give his earlier books a fair trial. All possibilities.

To be specific, Quammen reports on "zoonoses"--diseases that are communicable from animals to humans (thanks, Merriam-Webster's). Here's some introductory information from Quammen:

"Ebola is a zoonosis. So is bubonic plague. So was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, which had its ultimate source in a wild aquatic bird and, after passing through some combination of domesticated animals (a duck in southern China, a sow in Iowa?) emerged to kill as many as 50 million people before receding into obscurity. All of the human influenzas are zoonoses. So are monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus disease, rabies, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, anthrax, Lassa fever..." (p. 21).

So yes, a real upper subject. But Quammen makes it very compelling, tracing the emergence, outbreaks, study and history, and other aspects of a variety of zoonoses, from Hendra to Ebola to influenza to HIV. It's quick-paced, particularly for science writing, and there's a ton of fascinating things to learn here. Did you know, for instance, that HIV might have "spilled over" from animal to human hosts as early as 1908? I didn't.

It's a really fascinating book. I wouldn't read it right before you get on an airplane, or if you live near a lot of bats. Otherwise, do have at.

*Although, check out that freaky cover. Mr. CR is reading it now, and I've had to request that he put it down facedown, because the cover freaks me out.


God bless Matt Taibbi.

Matt Taibbi continues to be the only journalist working in America who I can stand.

Do click on over to read his latest article on drones, and his take on the rest of the media's take on the news about them. I myself was appalled last week when I was listening to public radio and even their supposedly "liberal" guest couldn't get himself to say too much against the use of drones to kill American citizens abroad, even without concrete evidence of their terrorist complicity.

If you don't have time for the entire article, I can give you the takeaway:

"This whole thing is crazy. In our own country, we don't allow the government to torture criminal suspects and/or kill people without trial – because it's wrong. If it's wrong here, it's wrong in Yemen or Iraq or Afghanistan; if it's wrong to do it to an American citizen, it's wrong to do it to a Pakistani. Our failure to recognize that and our increasingly desperate attempts to rationalize or legitimize this hideous program gives the entire world an automatic show of proof of American bigotry and stupidity."

But really. DO read the article. And read the entire editor's note at the bottom: Taibbi has a little something to say on the morality of how we as Americans kill people (and I do mean we--we are all complicit). And he's the only one out there saying it, as far as I can tell.


Holy downer book, Batman.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
Powells.com

If you're looking to become suicidally depressed, have I got the book for you.

A few weeks ago I was actually browsing my library's "Serendipity Collection"--a shelf of books that are new, bestselling, or otherwise popular, and for which there are usually long waiting lists, but in that small collection they are available on a first come, first serve basis. I place a lot of holds, and normally have a pile of books to pick up and check out, but nothing great had been coming in for me, so I thought I'd look around. So I ended up checking out Chris Hedges's and Joe Sacco's investigative work Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

According to Hedges's intro, the pair (Hedges is a journalist; Sacco is a graphic novelist/journalist) "set out two years ago to take a look at the sacrifice zones, those areas in the country that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement. We wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks like when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit."

So yeah. You're starting to see where the suicidal depression comes in, right?

The book is comprised of four chapters on "destruction": in journalism and graphic novelettes the two tell the stories of people they found on the Native American reservation at Pine Ridge South Dakota (poverty, alcoholism, drug dealing); Camden, N.J. (a former industrial/dock town where immigrants used to find the American dream and now poverty and lawlessness rule, along with racial tensions and violence); a coal-mining region of West Virginia (where mountaintops are being blown off, there are very few coal jobs to work anymore, and everyone has diabetes or other health conditions from breathing in coal dust); and Immokalee, Florida, where illegal immigrants work in modern-day slavery. A fifth and final chapter titled "Days of Revolt" centers on the Occupy protests in New York City.

It's so sad, but I couldn't stop reading it. On the other hand, I don't know if I can recommend it. Really. I know the authors meant the last chapter in particular to be inspiring, but I just can't help feeling that the Occupy protests were not enough to offset the relentless misery in the first four chapters. What I did find inspiring, actually, was one of the graphic novelettes in the Camden, N.J., chapter, featuring a woman named Lolly Davis, who not only worked and took care of her own children, but also raised other people's children, and in one memorable story, during race riots in the city, warned her white neighbors across the way to "put something red in their window" (as a rioter had told Davis to do) so rioters would leave them alone.

I thought the format was done well too--I'll admit I skipped ahead and read most of the graphic novel bits before I read the rest of the text. But that was to be expected--I've never been much of a Chris Hedges fan. I find him a bit histrionic in all his books (I wasn't overfond of his title War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, either). Here's what he has to say towards the end of his narrative:

"The game, however, is up. The clock is ticking toward internal and external collapse. Even our corporate overlords no longer believe the words they utter. They rely instead on the security and surveillance state for control. The rumble of dissent that rises from the Occupy movements terrifies them. It creates a new narrative. It exposes their exploitation and cruelty. And it shatters the absurdity of their belief system." (p. xii.)

Okay, sure. I wish the game really were up, but I suspect it is not, and won't be for a long time, even with continuing Occupy protests. But that's just me. Do read the book sometime, but do me a favor and make sure you're not depressed when you start (although whether you should blow a happy mood with it either, I just don't know).


The road to hell as paved with good intentions.

MeantI really struggled with what to title today's post. "What a fucking waste"? "War is just so completely stupid"? "Finally a war book that points out the military shit is largely beside the point"? Read Peter Van Buren's spectacularly depressing memoir We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and you'll see why it would have made me think all of those things.

Van Buren was a State Department worker who was sent to Iraq to head up an ePRT--an "embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team." He lived there for a year, and details, in short chapters that can be read whenever you have a spare few minutes, a multitude of the stupid things he saw while there. He hits all the high points of our illustrious American liberation in Iraq: how we knocked out sewage and water treatment and electricity plants without ever building them up again; how we dropped our little Green Zone headquarters right on top of Saddam's old headquarters, nicely illustrating the whole ordeal was just a regime change, and not for the better ("Conveniently for Iraqis, the overlords might have changed but the address had not. The place you went to visit political prisoners who opposed Saddam was still the place you went to look for relatives who opposed the Americans"--p. 155); how we spent millions and billions of dollars on less than nothing, with State Dept. and military types alone handing it out willy-nilly, with no research or follow-up, simply to meet their own made-up objectives. Christ. Consider:

"Kids were always hanging around everywhere; few attended school in rural areas, and those who did went only half days because boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime. The new Islamic Iraq we midwifed in 2003 couldn't afford to double the number of schools, so it was girls in the mornings and boys in the afternoons." (p. 83.)

That bit annoyed me but it was actually pretty innocuous; there are much more damning chapters about agriculture specialists who didn't know anything about agriculture, military types who were looking for any kind of activity that included women so they could just throw money at it and hit their "making the lives of women better" objectives, and constant, constant waste. It's an eye-opening read, if you can stand it.