Weekend Book Report Archives 1st half 2020

Below are the Weekend Book Reports from Jan to June 2020:


Weekend Book Report (5/31/2020):  Much has been said lately about the rise of “fake news”, disinformation and scams in business, political and journalistic realms; this week’s read (it took two weeks to read it, actually) dispels the notion that it’s anything new.  “Bunk” by Kevin Young (Graywolf Books, 2017) is a lengthy (550 pages with notes) but well-researched book into the issue.  He starts around the birth of the U.S., and focuses in particular on P.T. Barnum and other “showmen” whose outrageous displays of “bearded ladies”, “cannibal boys” and other “freaks”.  Young, who is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and poetry editor for New Yorker magazine, observes and expresses a theme in most of this; that Barnum’s shows (as well as many other hoaxes) were based in white supremacy (i.e., the “freaks” or ones to be observed or passive protagonists were always someone other than white and consequently portrayed as “lesser”).  The author also discusses plagiarism, more modern media and culture, pointing out scofflaws like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass with their manufactured news stories, Melania Trump with her convention speech stolen from Michelle Obama, Donald Trump’s charlatanism, and several other authors in recent memory who scammed the media, reviewers and celebrities (including Oprah Winfrey).  The common denominator is usually a tale, either online or in print, telling of difficult upbringings, with the story employing a person of color in a stereotypical fashion, with much of it fabricated.  He wraps up with a chapter called “The Age of Euphemism”, where  words have become corrupted (i.e., “illegal” meaning a person), no longer taking their original meaning.  The book is a great perspective on history; some may be put off by it’s length, caused in part by the author belaboring the point of the motives and his opinion of hoaxers.  But after reading, you may see in a new perspective how the hoaxers may change over time, but the hoax remains the same, especially through the lens of racism.

It’s available at your local independent books store (online) or your local public library (online or when they reopen).

Weekend Book Report (5/17/2020):  Another compilation of essays was in store to round out the week; “Call Them by Their True Names – American Crises and Essays” (Haymarket Books, 2018) by progressive writer Rebecca Solnit is a smallish book packed with short but powerful works.  In ranging from Confederate monuments to misogny to social isolation and a host of other subjects, Solnit displays an impactful writing style that’s as sharp as a razor and stirring to action, reflecting her longtime work as an activist.   New York Times book critic Dwight Garner calls her writing “off-road, rugged intellectualism”, and the essays flow like a good speech (some of them are excerpts).  She is credited with coining the term “mansplaining” and another of her most recent books is “Men Explain Things to Me” which dives into the subject.  Solnit has seventeen published works.  For this book, if you need motivation for political activism or understanding issues in the world, this wide-ranging collection of essays is for you.

It’s available at your local public library (when re-opening, or possibly online) or at your local, independent book store (support them and order online!)

Weekend Book Report (5/12/2020):  Another mid-week read completed, and although this one was short, it was really enjoyable.  Author, poet and activist Wendell Berry has penned numerous essays and short works on environmental observations and opinions, and picking up “Think Little” (Counterpoint Press, 2019) fills the bill with one of his most noted works.  This small one-hour read contains the title essay, and is book-ended with “A Native Hill”, a longer piece made up of observations of the land and nature near his home in rural Kentucky.  “Little” has a narrative that is stern but also soft and inviting, Berry’s work (originally written in 1972) is a call to look at our relationship to the earth differently, with a little less greed, consumption and mindless exploitation.  “Hill” is like a walk through the woods with the author, and with his observations of land, water, creeks and critters, you just can’t help that you’d like to be walking with him in person.   If reading was comfort food, this would be it.   Berry, 85, still resides in Henry County, Kentucky.

tWeekend Book Report (5/10/2020):    I went back to some political reading for the remainder of the week; another book from Powell’s in Portland was a work from Michael Lewis, (“The UnDoing Project”, “The Coming Storm“) who has penned many informative reads in the past decade.  “The Fifth Risk” (W.W. Norton, 2018) has a title that sounds like a spy novel.  The first four risks(which aren’t a part of the book) are nuclear war, climate change, etc., but the fifth is about an unappreciated element of the federal government – program management.  Often disparaged as shiftless, lazy bureaucrats, Lewis explores the world of the researchers, scientists, data analysts and others that study the air, oceans, agriculture, census data, space, manufacturing and a myriad of other disciplines on behalf of the American people.  Yes, many of them have salaries that can afford a decent living, but most of them do it out of love of country and service to the American people.  The chapters revolve around NASA, NOAA, the Weather Service, Departments of Commerce and Energy, and follows the fascinating stories of some of the individuals who worked their way up through to lead or have influential work within those organizations.  He also reveals the damaging vandalism of the Trump administration, who initially after inauguration didn’t even show up for transition, but eventually did – usually with one or two people, white men in their early ’20’s or 30’s, who wanted names of those who supported Obama, the science of climate change, or who were looked upon as threats to the oil and gas industry – and fired them.  One of the most insidious stories is the CEO of AccuWeather, who had disdained the National Weather Service, and was positioning himself to become it’s head.  After using the freely-accessed, taxpayer-paid NWS data and forecasts to further his private, family-owned firm as a private enterprise; his end game was to be that if you needed to know if a tornado was coming, you could buy the information – from him (he had already had subscriptions from corporate entities).  No pay, no notice; as AccuWeather had a video of swimming hippos on the tube while tornadoes devastated Moore, Oklahoma, but clients were notified.   The book is relatively short, but the chapters are long, but engaging, and overall is an enjoyable read; the testimonial by Cory Doctorow on the cover says it best:  “A hymn to the ‘deep state,’ which is revealed as nothing more than people who know what they’re talking about.” But it leaves the disturbing notion of the ongoing destruction of the federal government by the Trump administration – one that may not be easily reconstructed.

It’s available at your local public library (when it re-opens, or see if they have it by e-reader) or your local independent book store (online -and support them!)

Weekend Book Report (5/6/2020):  They say if you don’t like the weather here in May,  just wait ten minutes.  No statement was more true than the beginning of this week; although the showers were pretty much a steady downpour on Monday.  At any rate, it enabled the mid-week completion of one of the weirdest books I have read in my life, “Something That May Shock and Discredit You” by Daniel Mallory Ortberg (Atria Books / Simon and Schuster, 2020).   I ordered this from Powell’s Books in Portland and frankly didn’t know much about it, as the description was somewhat vague but the title intriguing.   It’s about the author, who is the advice columnist at the online magazine Slate, who pens all sorts of poetry, commentary, dialogue and contrived verses about ancient Greek myths, biblical figures, William Shatner (yes) and comparisons between “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” – all in a rather unique style – and all the while blending in the author’s story of transition from a woman to a man, with all the biological, emotional and social influences and angst.  It seems to be written as a series of non-sequiturs, but at about halfway through, you start to see the pattern of the story about being transsexual.  It’s weirdly entertaining, with subtle moral, religious and philosophical undertones and self-reflection, but at the end, you’ll wonder what was the overall purpose of the book, and also thinking “what did I just read?”

It’s available at your local independent book store online (support them!) or your local public library (when it re-opens; but also see if they have e-books).

Weekend Book Report (5/1/2020):  In diving into my first shipment of books from my local independent book stores (Kings in Tacoma, and Powells in Portland), I took up a book that covers a vexing and problematic issue our nation has been facing, and still does, even in the undercurrent of the coronavirus pandemic.  “Dopesick – Dealers, Doctors, and The Drug Company That Addicted America” by Beth Macy (Back Bay Books, Little Brown, 2018) is an unflinching and uncomfortable look at how the opioid epidemic has taken off in the United States.  Macy, who was a staff reporter for the Roanoke (VA) Times for 25 years, focuses on her own neck of the woods – the Appalachian country of Lee County, Virginia and vicinity.  She points a finger at Big Pharma, especially Purdue and the Sackler family, who aggressively marketed their product to doctors and famously shipped over nine million pills to one town of just over 1,100 in a year.  Combined with a hollowed-out economy, poverty and a bleak outlook, the epidemic caught fire and soon enveloped Roanoke and the more affluent suburbs.  “Dopesick” is a term for withdrawal, and many users, trapped with their brain held hostage, continue to use – increasing dosages and transferring to heroin – to keep from experiencing the excruciating sickness that results.  Macy also weaves in personal stories of addiction, the friends and families affected, as well as following active addicts (when she could), and how attitudes toward treatment, local culture, indifferent bureaucracies, corruption, and the lack of Medicaid expansion in Virginia hamper recovery – including the overwhelming power opioids hold over the user as well.    She is an advocate of MAT (Medically Assisted Treatment), which uses methadone and other substitutes to wean users off their drugs of choice, many times in concert with drug courts.  The book is not pleasant, even tragic, but the author puts forth a tale of hard reality, in large part caused by corporate greed, but offers some hope and solutions on how to untangle this seemingly intractable social and medical crisis.  The book won the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Non-Fiction.

It’s available from your local public library (when it re-opens) and online from your local independent bookstore (support them!)


Weekend Book Report (4/26/2020):  The title was somewhat deceptive – complete with a depiction of boxing gloves – but “How To Fight” by noted Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press, 2017) is a short, pleasant handbook that spins pugilism on it’s head.  No left jabs or right crosses here; the Buddhist monk, who has authored over 50 books, offers short, meditative subjects – most one or two pages apiece – on how to react, communicate, meditate and most of all, breathe, when dealing with anger, conflict and everyday relationships.   The bulk of this small, short work is dedicated to “Notes on Fighting”; the last few pages are actual exercises and examples on how to work on it, including “loving notes.”  It’s a good read to pull off the shelf when you think you need it or just feeling grumpy.   Hanh is now 93, and after suffering a stroke in 2018 has returned to Vietnam for his “final voyage”.  His many works will leave a legacy in the Zen Buddhism world.

It’s available at your local public library (when it re-opens) or online from your local, independent book store (be sure to support them!)

Weekend Book Report (4/24/2020):   I was getting down to the last of my stack of books, but thankfully found that two of my local, independent book stores – Powell’s in Portland and King’s Books in Tacoma – both offer online shopping and delivery.  Powell’s, which anticipated financial devastation with the physical closing of their stores, now has two shifts of workers processing orders online and apologized for the week-long delay in shipping.  (Disclosure:  I also use Half Price Books, even as a corporate chain they have a level of independent book store “funkiness” that I appreciate.  At any rate, I took one of my last books – a thick, 450-page paperback called “The Power of Knowledge – How Information and Technology Made the Modern World” by British history professor Jeremy Black (Yale University Press, 2014) and dived in.  Two weeks later, I have all the brain-stuffing facts and figures of entire periods of history.  Black, who teaches at the University of Exeter, has obviously went deep into his research and discusses in depth the uses of information and knowledge in the development of civilization in all parts of the world.  From primitive wall paintings to the internet, his chronology, has goes into occasionally painful detail and with the dryness of a college lecture, but he does offer insights on elements of information.  Maps, were king at one time, even when rife with errors, they were instruments of Western colonialism – “if you named it, you owned it”, and were often kept secret as a military advantage.  The printing press and Chinese wood-block printing is also discussed, as well as the relationship with religion and science, which often competed but sometimes made for strange bedfellows.  The stories from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are most interesting with the development of broadsheets, manuscripts and newsletters in Britain and the new territory across the pond.  The book isn’t for everyone – history buffs and scholars will enjoy it, but others beware – the narrative is quite dry.   But it’s a great way to get through ‘social distancing’ on a rainy day, and for me it was two weeks.

It’s available at your local public library (when it opens) or online at your local , independent book store.


Weekend Book Report (4/11/2020):  At my wife’s suggestion, I changed gears from politics and philosophy this week and read an interesting nature book (it was her Audubon Book Club selection last month).  “Eager – The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” by environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb (Chelsea Green Press, 2018) is an entertaining narrative summarizing the history of the rodent;  it’s hunt to near-extinction by trappers in the 18th and 19th centuries, to it’s eventual recovery and realization of their contribution to the environment, especially in regard to water conservation, and providing habitat for other critters as well.  Goldfarb holds a masters in environmental science from Yale, but his prose is far from technical or even academic; he follows beaver advocates (called “Beaver Believers”) to their studies, projects and efforts in collaborating with the rodent to mitigate what is seen as damage to forests, highways, farms and by floods.  From North America to Europe, he documents the industrious animal’s behavior, installation of dams, and discusses the design and construction of devices that allow beaver dams to overflow excess water, saving human-built structures from damage due to flooding (called “Beaver Deceivers”).   Even though at first blush it’s sounds like they’re environmental vandals,  they help restore water tables, water storage, and enable other species to flourish and balance; Goldfarb cites the introduction of both the wolf and the allowing of beavers to run their course in Yellowstone Park as a prime example.  Interestingly, he also includes culling as a sometimes necessary step to control beaver damage, but his primary focus is getting along.  He uses engaging descriptions of the people he meets and the areas visited (including several in Washington State) and entertains the reader while teaching about this often-overlooked and maligned animal.   As the last chapter states: “Let the Rodent Do The Work.”  The book won a Pen America Literary Award for 2018, my only caution is if you order the book, find it in either large print or be ready to use reading glasses.  It’s in painfully small font for my old eyes, but well worth the read.

It’s available at your local public library (when it reopens) or your local independent book store (order online!)

Weekend Book Report (4/8/2020):  More idle time with “social distancing” means more reading, and this mid-week selection was relevant:  “Why We’re Polarized” by journalist Ezra Klein (Avid Reader Press, 2020) was a diversion from the daily parade of news of the bug, but is still appropriate in assessing our political dysfunctions and divisions (which presumably will be here after the pandemic and, in some degree, playing out currently).  The former Washington Post columnist and founder of the online news magazine Vox doesn’t say that partisanship is bad; as a matter of fact he laments the mid-twentieth century Congress, where the parties were virtually a “mush” of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats – with the latter, especially “Dixiecrats” from the South, who, in wielding a block of power, could determine the agenda; they would agree to most any legislation as long as the oppression of civil rights for people of color could be preserved.  Klein also touches on the other quirks of human nature that creates polarization; the elementary-school-level need to identify with a group (the “in-group”), designate out-groups as “others”, worthy of disdain, and the perplexing propensity of humans to adhere to “groupthink”, aligning belief systems with their “in-group” even in the of face of overwhelming contrary facts otherwise.  Other chapters discuss how media, now atomized and ubiquitous, has created ideological camps with journalistic manipulation, how the demographic “browning” of America exacerbates group identities (mostly white Christian Americans) through fear of economic and cultural loss, and also how those identities have melded with other social issues, right down to judgments on whether you shop at Wal-Mart or Costco.  Klein’s political opinion points the finger at the Republican Party; with a shrinking constituency and engaging in more desperate measures to preserve the impression of keeping “the way things used to be”, they have engaged in more  anti-democratic exercises and ideological extremism (consummating in the Trump presidency) than Democrats, who, although not innocent of their own shenanigans, gravitate to the middle through necessity to pick up enough of  votes, but represent a much more diverse electorate.  He wraps up not so much with answers as he does counsel; even though we may be politically divided like never before, life does go on and so will the nation.   Klein’s narrative avoids political wonkiness or technical jargon and uses a wealth of sources to buttress his observations; this book would be a good read for one who wants to “get above the fray” and understand how and why the American body politic has fractured, and ironically in some respects, in a good way.

It’s available at your local independent book store (Kings’ in Tacoma, Powell’s in Portland – support them online!) or your local public library (when it reopens).

Weekend Book Report (4/4/2020):  I’m sure glad I got into reading in retirement, this sequestration mandated by the bug has enabled this hobby to be a great coping mechanism – and learning experience, especially with this week’s read.  Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli philospopher / professor who holds a Ph.D. in history from Oxford, has followed up on his two other best-sellers “Homo Sapiens” and “Homo Deus” with this fascinating and provocative work, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” (Speigel & Grau, 2018).  While “Sapiens” deals with human history and “Deus” deals with the human future (and you should probably read them both before reading this one), “21 Questions” deals with the here and now while simultaneously looking each direction.  In touching on his previous themes (artificial intelligence creating wide disparities in the human condition, even creating a new species –  as well as dependence on dominance of algorithms conducting daily life for people)  the bulk of his work is presented as enumerated items  that he poses as questions, but they’re more like treatises or commentary, including the “post-truth” era, humility, war, education.  Harari has an unique insight to the issues and challenges the reader by shattering many paradigms that one may have assumed and may offend some, but challenging value systems and assumptions may just be needed to cope, adjust and thrive in a new age.

It’s available at your local public library (when it reopens) or order online from your local independent book store (hint:  King’s in Tacoma or Powell’s in Portland).

Weekend Book Report (3/27/2020):    Some call it intuitive, others call it ESP, but this week’s read “Blink – The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” (Back Bay Books, Little Brown, 2007)  by reporter Malcolm Gladwell is a fascinating look at how the mind assesses, diagnoses and makes conclusions on things a person faces in an instant – often without the person knowing.  He cites examples in an enjoyable, easily-read narrative; the Getty museum studying whether to purchase a supposed ancient statue with scientists, curators and lawyers when other take one look and immediately see it as fake; how immediate assessments are made with patients suffering chest pain at Cook County (Chicago) hospital, and how instant assessments can result in victory on a battlefield, in lieu of analysis and deliberation.  Outcomes can also be tragic with this phenomenon; law enforcement can have this happen when danger, perceived or real, arises in encounters with suspects and the public – Gladwell discusses how that immediate reaction is mitigated with training.   Gladwell has found a niche in studying human nature; the Washington Post and New York Times journalist also has another interesting work in “The Tipping Point” (reviewed last year).

It’s avaiable (online) from your local independent book store (support them!) or your local public library (when they re-open).

Weekend Book Report (3/21/2020):  It’s been a pretty wild week, being substantially sequestered at home with the angry bug floating out there.  Reading is always a respite, but concentration can be fleeting at times.  At any rate, I made it through another book.  “Enemy of the People – A Dangerous Time To Tell The Truth in America” by CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta (Harper Collins, 2019) was my subject-matter followup to the recent reading of CBS journalist Scott Pelley’s work.  Acosta’s book has a different flavor than Pelley’s; he recounts the ongoing conflict with the president after being insistent with questions, being “froze out” of press briefings and experiencing death threats and other harm from rabid MAGA adherents.  The various faux pas of the administration are laid bare, and Acosta is merciless in needling the likes of Sean Spicer, Sarah Sanders for their blatant misrepresentations.  Although Acosta’s relationship with the White House occasionally appears that of a rival in lieu of a reporter, the book, though not deep in political policy, is an entertaining read and yet another insight into the madness and dysfunction in the Trump White House.

It’s available at your local public library (when it re-opens) or independent book store (order online and support them!)

Weekend Book Report (3/7/2020):  It’s no secret that much of my reading is in political science and commentary and this week’s selection was no different.  “How Democracies Die – What History Reveals About Our Future” by    by Harvard University Professors of Government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provides case studies in the subject, where authoritarian leaders and regimes wrest control of governments and subject their citizens to repressions of freedom and civil liberties.   The focus of their work has been on Latin American countries, but the common denominators they provide are also applicable to the American experience, in past and especially the present.  Rejection of commitment to democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration of the encouragement of violence and readiness to curtail civil liberties and media are the four are their tenets (sound familiar?)  Their histories includes the rise to power of Venezuela’s Chavez, Chile’s Allende, Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Marcos of the Phillipines, who all subscribed to those tenets, but the authors also add that several “unwritten” rules of democratic institutions – institutional forbearance (disagreement of principle but respect for the individual) and behavioral norms – are just as important.  (In fairness, they indict Franklin Roosevelt for the unheard-of ambition to run for a third term, which drove the passage of a constitutional amendment prohibiting them).  Their focus then pivots to the current occupant of the White House but lays much of the weight of the situation on the Republican Party, which set the stage with Nixon, Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay and the “scorched earth” policy of winner-take-all politics.   History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes, and the authors sound the alarm on how what we take for granted – our freedom – is being threatened by an emerging authoritarian state.  They also prescribe an antidote (which, by the way, does not mean responding with the same behavior) to get our country, as well as others, back on a democratic track.   Spoiler alert:  it involves you and it takes work.

It’s avaialble at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (3/2/2020):   This week’s book, read in the evening during motel stops while taking a road trip, was an entertaining and thought-provoking work.  “Gender Mosaic – Beyond the Myth of the Male and Female Brain” by Daphna Joel, PhD and Luba Vikhanski (Little Brown / Hatchette Book Group, 2019) explores the research that the two authors conducted (as well as other reputable studies) regarding assumptions of sexual identity,  juxtaposed with actual conditions in a person’s gray matter.  They rarely align.  Joel  is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Tel Aviv University in Israel; Vikhanski is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.  They explain in the first half of the studies done on subjects (mostly involving fMri imaging and other brain scans) showing regions of the brain favoring or minimizing certain elements of assumed gender behavior (assertiveness in men, nurturing in women) despite the actual sex of the subject.  It leads to a theory of a “mosaic” of gender within a person, regardless of their physical sex, effectively separating the two elements.  It also dispels former assumptions of gender differences by physical brain characteristics (i.e., men were assumed to be more intelligent because of a larger skull).  The second half of the book discusses how this separation makes gender conditioning (boys are “supposed” to play with trucks, girls with dolls) irrelevant, unnecessary and even harmful; inhibiting creativity and learning when “non-traditional” interests are shunned or discouraged.  ln adulthood, it is a source of frustration for both genders in so-called “non-traditional” occupations (women in computer science, men in art are two of the book’s examples) since stereotypical sex assumptions dominate (and unfortunately, are acted out).  The book concludes with a discussion of the various iterations of gender identity and how we should rethink the ways we view them.  It’s an easy read, relatively short, and brings a new paradigm in understanding the issues of sex and gender.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (2/24/2020):   In another of the several books regarding the dysfunction of the current White House and it’s occupant, this week’s read, “A Very Stable Genius – Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America” by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig (Penguin / Random House, 2020) was the most lengthy – and brutal.  The work takes the reader into a roughly chronological volume of various episodes of the Trump White House – outbursts and tirades, unfocused and short-term attention spans, lack of knowledge (and worse yet, the ignorance of not needing to learn), egotism and narcissism, disrespect of honored people (including military officers) and institutions, backstabbing courtiers, grimace-inducing diplomatic faux pas and outright cruelty – in full detail.  Most of the work is corroborated in other recent books, including those previously reviewed here.  Rucker and Leonnig’s work is that of reporting journalists and their preface states that  their deep and trusted sources in government (with many of them having to be shielded due to retribution) gave them first-hand accounts into this disturbing and dangerous time in American political history.  Their only editorial comment is at the epilogue, which ends just before the impeachment hearings began last year – whether principled people will put their country before party and demagogue.  After reading, it will make you wonder why the hell anyone would have hitched their wagon to this guy – unless they share what he represents.  Then we’re all in trouble.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (2/18/2020):  Normally I try to read books that are first-run or on a best-seller list, but this little gem, which I found tucked away behind two others on my book shelf after buying it a couple months ago, was an interesting, short read.  “The Separation of Church and State” by Forrest Church (Beacon Press, 2004) is a short (190 pages) treatise on one of the fundamental tenets of our Constitution.  Church, who died in 2009, was a senior minister at the All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, and has 25 books under his authorship.  He greets the reader with an introduction and some opinion, but then provides pertinent writings of the framers during the formation of the new nation, including Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Unitarian minister Richard Price – and the argument for the “wall” between church and state become apparent.  The 18th-century writing can be a bit tedious, with long sentences that were the style of the time, but with Church’s commentary and eloquence of argument, any armchair historian will get a better understanding of this fundamental and critical pillar of human rights .

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (2/15/2020):  I was overdue for a respite from political and philosophical reading this week, so this book “The Wilderness Idiot – Lessons From an Accidental Adventurer” by Seattle resident Ted Alvarez (Falcon Books, 2019) filled the bill.  Alvarez is the Northwest editor of Backpacker magazine, and in his work he fills the pages with descriptive narratives of his adventures – and misadventures.  Beginning with his clothes flying away on a windswept beach while skinny-dipping in Iceland to exploring the world’s largest cave in Vietnam, Alvarez takes the reader on some perilous treks, but also rather mundane visits, all with the theme of being fearless, awestruck, and a little bit foolish.  He doesn’t counsel throwing caution to the wind; you do it, you own it; and he also delves into how wandering in the wilderness can test and cement relationships as well as an appreciation of nature.  A few of his chapters are of visits to Pacific Northwest locales – the North Cascades, Olympics, Vancouver Island, Mt. Rainier – reflecting his regional bias, but why not?  Our area is a feast for those afoot (and I’m biased as I go on my share of hikes here as well).   You may find yourself strapping on a backpack and heading out – and like the author says (and a take on the Talking Heads song) – “you may ask yourself – how did I get here?”  Just be safe.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (2/10/2020):   As a regular reader of the editorial and opinion section of various newspapers, I’ve often ran into and enjoyed economist/columnist Paul Krugman of the New York Times.  Credentialed and highly-regarded (with a Nobel prize in economics) as a writer and distinguished professor of economics from City University of New York, Krugman’s work is consistently readable for the average joe.  If he gets “wonky”,  he freely admits it (and he doesn’t let it happen very often), and if the readers wants to pass, you’re forgiven.  So is the case with “Arguing With Zombies – Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future” (W.W. Norton, 2020).  The work is a selection of Krugman’s NYT columns, based in various categories – Social Security, Obamacare, Economics (Boom and Bust), Conservatives and the GOP, Tax Policy, Deficits, the 45th President and others, all with an introduction with his opinion on the subject.  It makes the book lengthy ( a good-sized hardcover at 444 pages) but each column is set at the word limit mandated by newspapers, and are only two and a half pages each – making for a casual read which makes it’s point quickly.  The columns date back to Krugman’s early years, and the historical perspective of them provide both an insightful and accurate portrayal of the body politic through several administrations.  Without diving into too many spoilers, he has some surprising (and not-so-surprising) conclusions:  deficits (fiscal and trade) aren’t the boogeyman they’re made out to be; economists present data to support their arguments, but many are  skewed with political contamination and as a result, lack validity (and economists are brutal in their peer review); the Republican party has evolved into self-induced consumption of it’s believing it’s own baloney, and conservatives, when finding their arguments losing democratically, would rather kill democracy than lose.   This “Arguing With Zombies” analogy culminates with the behavior of the current president, who is a result of the GOP mindset, not the cause of one.  As a result, Krugman says, our nation is in peril.    Yes, it’s sobering, but it’s enjoyable reading, and the columns that Krugman submits represents his credibility, validity and conclusions.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (2/2/2020):  After finishing another book on this palindrome date, a theme appeared:  How can we have such different views of the same thing, looking forward and backward, when in essence they are the same?  Such is a (yes, rather awkward) intro to the book I read, “Strangers In Their Own Land – Anger and Mourning on the American Right” by renowned sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press, 2016).    The author, a professor emeritus in sociology at UC-Berkeley, is no stranger to social divides, and has studied and written eight other books on various social issues.  Her mission in this book was to visit the bayou country of Louisiana, which ranks near last or dead last in many social measures (education, pollution, life expectancy) but has a near-rabid affinity for conservative ideology and, although the book was finished before the 2016 election, blind allegiance to Donald Trump.  She traveled to the village of Bayou Corne and Lake Charles and, with empathy, listening and questioning, befriended nearly two dozen individuals to get behind what the mindset was.  Although Bayou Corne was devastated by a corporation-caused (Texas Brine, Inc.) sinkhole, destroying their town with no residents getting compensated, and Lake Charles in jeopardy of  devastating pollution from a pipeline leak that also has endangered the I-10 causeway’s structural integrity, the residents there have a blind eye (or sometimes referred to as “amnesia”) as to the cause and effects.  They also have a visceral distaste of government, and disdain regulators, and adhere to faith and church as their avenue to endure.  Ironically, many of the sportsmen profess their love of hunting and fishing, but admit they can’t eat anything without adverse health effects due to rampant pollution, caused by complicity between the petrochemical industry and state government.  Inversely, the author was chided for her home town, with locals asking where they can see all the “naked hippies”.  (She responded by saying they can visit the public parks, libraries, museums and colleges).   Although the book sounds like the cultural gulf is wide, Hochschild uses the metaphor of an “empathy wall” to understand, explain and find the common denominators between the right and left .  The book is structured in categories, and her narrative is well written; and the reader will find her conclusions are insightful – making for, perhaps, a bridge in our nation’s cultural divide.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (1/29/20):   Since the election of those with authoritarian tendencies in the past few years, there’s been a host of books about how to organize, work for and affect change, and this short read “How To Resist – Turn Protest Into Power” (Bloomsbury Books, UK, 2017) by UK activist Matthew Bolton is yet another, but it is significant.  Bolton, as deputy director of activist group Citizens UK, has street cred on his methods and tactics; his organization successfully fought for a living wage and for immigration reform there.  His short, straightforward book is more like a pamphlet, and it spells out the tactics and strategies that can be employed – no matter the cause – so the book is somewhat agnostic in that regard.  Bolton starts, interestingly, with an admonishment of the word “resist” – implying that it is a passive response to someone else’s exertion of power, and the framework of his book is using small, individual influences, effective organizing, and confrontation in a highly visible and publicized manner with those in charge to assert power.   “Don’t be afraid of it (power)”, he says.  “It’s yours if you take it.” (A similar quote is attributed to black activist Eldridge Cleaver in the ’60’s.)  He shares his failures as well, one of them is a caution against using vague causes – “fighting for the environment” or “helping refugees”.  He deconstructs them, encouraging the activist into showing they affect things locally; calling them “problems” and “solutions”, and celebrating the successes – no matter how small.  You can fight pollution, but it’s more effective if you deal with the company that’s crapping in the local river.  He also dismisses the influence of social media, which may be good for the logistics of meetings and organizing, but he says there’s no substitute for one-to-one conversations.  The work is one of the better “how to” manuals in affecting change, because the principles can be applied anywhere (depending on the authoritarian tendencies of those in charge, of course, where he talks about courage and bravery when needed).  It’s good homework for the would be activist.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (1/26/20):  Every now and then there’s a book that may be as profound as it is understated; especially in light of this new century’s advancements in technology,  and especially when juxtaposed with human nature.  Kate Murphy’s “You’re Not Listening – What You’re Missing and Why It Matters” (Celadon Books, 2019) is a well-written work on how social media, distractions of screens and consequent obsession with ourselves has caused one of the basic human forms of communication – listening – to suffer.  While we like to feel like we’ve been connected to each other as never before, most Americans also feel as lonely as ever – and Murphy, a journalist based out of Houston, Texas, explains both the malady, the pressures, technology, and market forces that reinforce it, and how to break through and finally connect.  It takes work and time, she says, as well as skills that have become lost upon many.  (A stunning example is the 20,000 people that line up every weekend at a Catholic shrine in San Juan, Texas to speak in a confession booth – whether they’re Catholic or not – just so they feel someone has heard them; not seeing the irony of doodling on their phone while waiting in line.)   Our current discourse, dominated by online presence, causes us to ramp up our positions and attack others as well, adding nothing to solving our issues – especially in the political realm, where politicians and elected officials parrot what we think we want to hear instead of listening.   Murphy’s observations and research has a beauty to it’s simplicity, this book may prove to be one of the most important for anyone to read and practice, for relationships as well as genuine human connection – if they can take the time away from their screen to do so .

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (1/24/20):  While on the mend from a minor surgery, my reading has taken to a heightened level (and a long string of rainy days helps).  The first off the stack that I acquired in anticipation of my recovery was “Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life” by Jeff Wilser (Three Rivers Press, 2019).   Wilser, a writer and traveler who has lived in 24 countries, mixes an interesting blend of humor, philosophy, and respectably-researched history into a story of one of our most influential founding fathers, distilled into maxims that Hamilton may have adopted during the course of his storied life.  The subject matter of the chapters (Leadership, Romance, Family, among others) are dotted with short vignettes of  his story, warts and all, and present how Hamilton, even with a bleak outlook as a youth, achieved success.  Wilser also makes comparisons to historical accuracy of the popular Broadway play along the way (hint:  some don’t align).  The work is entertaining; and although not scholarly (and it doesn’t claim to be) it is a pleasurable, back-door way to get to know one of the important architects of our nation.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (1/21/20):  It’s not the first book I’ve read on how to make peace with the world and make relationships better, but “Don’t Be A Dick – Change Yourself, Change Your World” by Mark Borg,  Jr., PhD. (CRP Press, 2019), with it’s irreverent title, is humorous and insightful, and will ultimately help those walking around with a chip on their shoulder (even those who don’t realize it).   The author is a licensed clinical psychologist with a lengthy private practice in New York City, and he provides the workings (much of it emulating the twelve-step recovery programs) on how to identify, manage and  reconcile the concept of “dickery” (essentially acting out and being a jerk).  Much of “dickery” is based on anxiety, fear and other emotional issues, and without proposing a lot of meditative fluff or “tough love” talk, Borg shows how to delve into working it out – and how to fix it if you fall.  There are worksheets at the end of each chapter, but that’s for those who purchase the book and have serious work to do.  (I checked this out at the library – as it struck my attention with the title prominently displayed in the “new non-fiction” section).   The read is easy and entertaining with the flavor the author has of the subject matter, and who knows, it may help you or others be less of a dick… we could all use that!

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (1/17/20):   I’m not sure if they still do it, but back in high school we had a class called “current events”.  Much of the instruction revolved around conversation of the news items of the day; the only condition that the teacher (one of my favorites, a soft spoken guy with a crew cut that always sported a bow tie) was that we had to be insightful, thoughtful, and make accurate observations and conclusions.  It was one of my favorite courses.  So when I visited my book store and spotted “Fault Lines – a History of the U.S. Since 1974” (W.W. Norton, 2019) I snapped it up.  Crafted by Princeton political historians Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer (who also teach a course on the subject there), the book examines divisions in our country beginning where they saw as a logical (but not exclusively so) point in time – the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  They see it as a watershed moment where battle lines were drawn between liberals and conservatives, with exacting revenge and full suppression and/or victory became the prime motive, secondary to governing.  The chapters move on chronologically, and are written in a scholarly manner in the flavor of journalistic history, not tipping scales as to favoring or justifying either side.  It makes for great historical reading, but as such it doesn’t offer insight or guidance on how to heal such divides (except that they have become more profound with the election of Trump, who has, by design, widened them).   It should be required reading for high school students or young adults trying to understand what boomers experienced in the 20th century.   They may discover that our political and societal situation is nothing new and although, as the authors say our nation may be “divided, but not broken”,  it may not change.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (1/8/2020):   After an opinion piece was submitted earlier this year by a “senior Trump administration official” anonymously to the New York Times (and, to some observers surprise, they published), the as-yet unknown-to-the-public author has followed up with a book that summarizes the chaos and instability of the man the Electoral College put in charge three years ago.  I received “A Warning” (Hachette Book Group, 2019) as a holiday gift, and it’s riveting reading is a pretty good summary of the mess the executive branch is in.  The inconsistent positions, lack of an attention span, angry outbursts and seemingly endless tweets of the executive are frustrating enough, but along with the departures of dedicated and thoughtful staff (that the author calls “The Steady State” – a takeoff of “Deep State”) that somewhat kept him in line has made the administration much less competent and our nation much more vulnerable.  Add in the  backstabbing, lies and power struggles and currying of favor by the people Donald Trump surrounds himself with, and the recipe is there for disaster, especially if re-elected.  Then no guardrails will exist, authoritarianism will begin to prevail, and the country will be fraught with peril should we have a genuine blown-out crisis.  The mystery of, and subsequent discernment of trying to figure out the author’s identity is intriguing; he’s no Democrat – having joined to help the administration in restraining runaway spending and reducing regulation, as well as speaking highly of other planks in the classic (mostly fiscal) conservative platform.   Several other officials are named, but not all, and the author is careful not to include any identifying clues to his identity.    Interestingly, “anonymous” doesn’t support invoking the 25th Amendment (removal due to the inability to discharge duties) or even impeachment; but he does conclude with a warning call as loud as  klaxon for the electorate to take charge and essentially save their country in 2020.

It’s available at your local independent book store or public library.

Happy New Year!  50 books read in 2019!  Woot woot!

Weekend Book Report (1/2/2020):   I’ve always admired two things:  (1) good books on presidential history and (2) a good historian who writes them.  The latest offering by noted and respected historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times” (Simon and Schuster, 2019) focuses on four of our most highly-ranked and respected chief executives:  Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.  Some may question the  rationale of the last entry, but along with tales of the four men’s ambition, adversity and leadership (conveniently put in three sections), Goodwin has assembled a comprehensive and insightful work about how the makeup of these four men had their mettle tested, how they retreated, then re-emerged and succeeded.  Kearns worked directly with LBJ before his death in 1973, assisting with his library and memoirs, and her focus is on his passage of the Civil Rights Act; in her epilogue she is not as kind toward his leadership over the Vietnam War.  The Civil War (Lincoln), clashes with corruption and monopoly corporations (T. Roosevelt), and the Great Depression (F.D. Roosevelt) are pivots on how leadership was exerted by the others.  It’s comprehensive, so it’s a bit lengthy (460 pages, including notes) but the narrative is engaging and is enjoyable reading, whether a history buff or not.  It certainly begs the question as to the caliber of leadership (or more frankly, lack of it) in comparison.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.