Black Flags by Joby Warrick *** (of 4)

 Book Reviews, History, Iran and Iraq, Islam, Middle East, NON FICTION  Comments Off on Black Flags by Joby Warrick *** (of 4)
Mar 252016
 

blackflagsSadly, so much of the terror that has become ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the countries of North Africa and the attacks in Europe are a consequence of America’s invasion of Iraq and depressingly inept post-war policies.  The historical evolution laid bare in this highly readable, and rather suspenseful account, is an excellent introduction.  In contrast to George Bush and his democracy cowboys, Jordan’s King Hussein, and especially Jordan’s secret service, the Mukhabarat, appear to be prescient, surrounded by enemies, and highly competent. It could be because Warrick likes Jordan or had access to more material from Jordan, but I do have new respect for Jordan’s plight. I also have questions about whether ISIS can be beaten militarily or whether more difficult measures like economic development, women’s empowerment, and more participatory politics are needed to stem the tide.  The test case seems to be Tunisia, but for the outcome on that experiment, we will have to await someone else’s book.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell ** (of 4)

 America, Book Reviews, History, Memoir/Biography, NON FICTION  Comments Off on Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell ** (of 4)
Feb 192016
 

vowellI love Sarah Vowell’s hip hop style of writing and she is hooked on an interesting fellow.  The Marquis de Lafayette arrived in the American colonies at the age of nineteen as an anti-British militant on loan from France.  He was useful, too, for an American army that George Washington was having a very difficult time organizing into anything more than a rabble with pitchforks and guns that don’t shoot straight.  Lafayette remains a friend of the newly founded country for decades and decades. Unfortunately, and I cannot imagine why she chose to write this way, Vowell never bothered to break her monologue into chapters or sections.  The whole thing is one long stream of consciousness, which periodically is rather enlightening, sometimes entertaining, and more frequently, breathlessly disorienting.

The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt ** (of 4)

 America, Book Reviews, Environment/Nature/Ag, Food, NON FICTION  Comments Off on The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt ** (of 4)
Jan 292016
 

townthatfoodsaved1Hardwick was a down and out village in rural Vermont.  Unemployment was high, farmers were struggling, and main street was worn out.  As if almost by magic a resurgence of local food and agricultural organizations galloped into town and everyone it appears is destined to live happily ever after.  For example, one agripreneur is persuading beleaguered dairy farmers to dedicate some fields to soybeans for his tofu factory.  Another invested in an enormous concrete cellar so dairy farmers can supply milk for cheeses he sells at $20 a pound.  The Center for an Agricultural Economy opened on Main Street and soon the town was featured in the New York Times.  Hewitt argues that every small town should replicate Hardwick, but seriously?  How much tofu will Americans eat?  Expensive cheese is going to save rural America?  And is either one of those things really selling in Hardwick?  The underlying premise of the book that conventional American agriculture with its admittedly anti-environmental impacts on soil, water, and air is in fact already coughing its death rattle is passed over without question. For all its flaws, American agricultural productivity is at global and historic highs.  Hewitt’s prescription for replacing American agriculture with small local farms, absent any specifics on where or how his agripreneurs cobbled together their capital, or even if they are turning a profit, could have been written by Polyanna.

Jan 042016
 

Margo-Jefferson-Negroland-Cover.w370.h555Margo Jefferson is nearing the end of a successful career as an English professor and brings all of her skill as a cultural analyst and textual critic to bear on her life as an elite African American.  What emerges, beyond a lot of references to literature I haven’t read, and cultural icons of the 1950s and 1960s that I barely recall, is the grinding, irrepressible tank tread of American racism.  Jefferson is buffeted on one side by the burden of having to be forever superior to low blacks, black blacks.  Always, because whites are watching and evaluating, and as her parents instructed her, she must be a model for her race.  And yet no amount of education, intellect, acumen, or accomplishment can erase a skin color that immediately draws suppositions, most of them discounting, some of them denigrating, from white Americans.  Despite claims to the contrary that her intentions were otherwise, Jefferson’s book is agonizingly tedious, monotonous in its inability to escape the premise that race pollutes everything in America.  And I think that is the point.

Dec 312015
 

7goodyrsSomewhere near the end of Keret’s memoir covering the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, Keret writes about his experience living in a narrow house in Warsaw, Poland.  The invitation to live in the house comes from a Polish architect who felt compelled to construct a house for Keret that matched the building codes of Keret’s short essays.  The house is tiny, only four feet wide, efficient, fitting between two existing buildings, and yet bursts out the top.  It is three stories in height.  And as life imitates art and vice versa Keret’s recounting of his stay in the house is at first odd and funny and finally brings you to tears when it turns out the house is constructed in the gap between the former Warsaw Ghetto and the slightly less Nazi-occupied parts of Poland.  Keret’s mother, a young girl during WWII, made nightly runs, at the risk of death if she were ever caught, to collect what food she could for her family, all of whom save Keret’s mother, died.  No other writer can wring so much emotion, plot, or character from only three pages.  In this, Keret’s first book of nonfiction, layer upon layer of the humor and tribulations of living in contemporary Israel, a country of profound joy and horror, capture a man and his country like few others.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson *** (of 4)

 Book Reviews, Europe, History, NON FICTION  Comments Off on Dead Wake by Erik Larson *** (of 4)
Dec 242015
 

dead-wakeIn 1915 the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ship on the ocean was the Lusitania.  Crossing the Atlantic by ship was the only way to get from America to Europe  and back only in 1915 the first World War had engulfed most of the continent from England to Russia.  Britain’s incomparable navy had completely blockaded Germany (though Erik Larson never mentions this precursor) and Germany retaliated with the one technological advantage it possessed on the high seas: U-Boats.  You can see where this is headed and Larson does his best to build suspense but falls short when he overplays the “If Only” card.  If only the Lusitania had left New York twenty minutes earlier rather than waiting for Captain Turner to show someone around the boat; if only the ship was running four engines, rather than three; if only, the fog on the day of the attack had been thicker a little longer or a little shorter or Captain Turner had zigged instead of zagged then surely the meeting of a U-Boat torpedo and the hull of Turner’s ship could have been avoided.  Larson conveniently overlooks the fact that so much of war is chance and instead tries his best to make the case that because the Lusitania was the biggest and fastest ship on the Atlantic, and the first significant loss of life for Americans, that its sinking was what dragged America into the first World War.  As dastardly as it might have been for Germany to sink a passenger liner (there were probably arms hidden on board), and killing so many civilians, the U.S. did not mobilize for another two years.  Another overplay on Larson’s part.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett ** (of 4)

 Book Reviews, Creative Non-Fiction, Environment/Nature/Ag, NON FICTION, Science  Comments Off on Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett ** (of 4)
Dec 012015
 

rainAs these things go, not too bad.  Consider it everything you ever wanted to know about the hydrological cycle (there are similar books on coffee, cod, oil, and so forth).  Well written and organized loosely from the most ancient rains, those that fell on a recently cooled planet, forward toward contemporary discussions of floods, droughts, dams, rivers, crops, and the livelihoods of humans at rain’s mercy.  The book is remarkable for its breadth and inclusiveness, and strongest when Cynthia Barnett’s stories are longest, but the final result is like so many unending raindrops.  A drowning in more facts about rain than anyone really wishes to endure.

Oct 212015
 

goldMatthew Hart purports to answer all your questions about gold.  Why does it have value?  How is it mined?  What is the historical significance of gold?  Why should anyone own any?  After dispensing with theft from contemporary South African mines and the history of gold rather briefly, the book devolves into two rather dense sections.  First, is a jargon-rich explanation, best understood by fellow economists, for the gold standard that backed much of the world’s currencies until the 1970s.  Second, is a tedious description of how a few ounces of gold are chemically extracted from tons of useless rock.  Interspersed are some not very compelling travelogues to some of the world’s most interesting gold mines.  Though it is presented only as a passing thought the inevitable conclusion is that gold’s value is currently no different than the value of a famous painting.  It is worth only as much as someone who collects such things is willing to pay.

Age of Ambition by Edward Osnos *** (of 4)

 Asia, Book Reviews, NON FICTION, Prize Winner  Comments Off on Age of Ambition by Edward Osnos *** (of 4)
Aug 272015
 

age of ambitionPieced together from Osnos’s eight years of reports on China filed with the New Yorker, Age of Ambition comes together as a complete painting of modern China’s rocky transition to modernity.  Half a billion people have moved to China’s cities in pursuit of capitalism’s greatest prize: wealth.  The Chinese government is gambling that the delivery of free enterprise can be exchanged for political stability and to ensure the trade goes well the Communist party forbids freedom of speech and the freedom to organize in protest on anything larger than a municipal level.  Osnos focuses on the problems: jailed artists, tortured civil rights leaders, a rising desire for a moral compass, and unrelenting press censorship implying that beneath China’s meteoric economic ascent lies deep instability.  It is hard to know to what extent Osnos has selected stories of the elite and overlooked an even deeper satisfaction among a generation of Chinese liberated from the threat of starvation and really quite happy to forego some freedom in order to have enough money for McDonald’s and the Internet, even if key websites are blocked.  Some of the key interviewees argue rather persuasively that because nothing published in China’s media is reliable, and everyone knows that, Chinese people are much more skeptical consumers of news than Americans who all to readily believe that drinking Coke can make you happy, driving a new car can make you sexy, and whatever their politicians say must be true.

Jun 142015
 

TheBoysintheBoatOn the face of it an uplifting story of a group of eight hayseeds from Washington state who come together to become the world’s best rowing team.  They stand for all that is good in America — hard work, optimism, rags-to-riches, democracy, talent, and above all a can-do attitude — when they compete for gold in Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Brown’s writing is so evocative that you can feel the cold wind on Lake Washington during a late-fall practice, endure the doubt inside the mind of every student-rower anxious about paying for an upcoming semester during the height of the great depression, crane your neck watching a tight race, and in the end, when all goes right, fly on a boat with eight oarsmen working in perfect synchrony.  You really do want these guys to beat the Nazis.