Weekend Book Report Archives

Weekend Book Report (8/12/19):  The summer reading continues in a political vein, with the second book this year on the timely subject of impeachment.  The first read, “Impeachment – an American History” (see archives 12/22/18) was written by a quartet of historians and was from that angle.  This week’s read, “Impeachment – A Citizen’s Guide” by Cass R. Sunstein (Penguin, 2019) is a more practical matter.  The author, a Harvard law professor,  is said to be the most cited in the world, and served under several presidents, dating back to Jimmy Carter.   Sunstein takes the reader through the history of the four impeachments, but then discusses, in workmanlike detail for the average joe, the intent of the founding fathers, interpretations of impeachments before and throughout our nation’s history (impeachment is not an exclusive American institution).   It is a relatively short (194 pages) read, and Sunstein may surprise some readers about who can and cannot be impeached, and some surprising reasons why impeachment can and cannot apply in certain instances, and has some surprising, but well-reasoned opinions on historical attempts at the process.  To keep the discussion fresh and keep an eye on the impeachment horizon for Trump, the Harvard law professor adds the executive summary of The Mueller Report, with an afterword on his thoughts as to whether the impeachment effort is relevant and worthy.  No spoiler here; you’ll have to read the Citizen’s Guide for gaining the knowledge of the impeachment process and make up your own mind.

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

Weekend Book Report (8/6/19):   As a retiree for nearly four years, I now look back at my working years with some nostalgia, a bit of thanks, but not a lot of regret or hankering to return to the workplace (although I have a part-time job driving trucks – just for fun).  This book, as a result, was an interesting dive back into the workplace with a provocative and interesting twist.  The irreverently-titled Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber (Simon and Schuster, 2019),  Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, puts forth the proposition that most of what passes for “work” is really soul-crushing, spirit-draining and morale-lowering meaningless exercises that provide no meaningful social value.  The once-predicted utopia of automation freeing up the need for labor and creating a happy leisure society is a myth, he says, and it doesn’t have to be; it’s just that the “work ethic” – ingrained from the early days of medieval society and religious edict – has created what he calls “bullshit jobs” to fill the void, a mandate that work is validation of one’s worth, no matter how meaningless the work is.  He names some; anything in finance, most in middle management, and although he points a finger at government, the private sector is the biggest  culprit (when I worked, we called it “empire building”).  Graeber makes the interesting observation that the jobs that provide the greatest redeeming social value (firefighters, teachers, custodians, craftsmen) seem to have the hardest fight for decent pay and benefits, and are the most denigrated by management elites and right-wing populists (usually by administrative strangulation by the former and moral envy by the latter).  The author has five categories of “bullshit” jobs, and after review, most of those who have been in the workplace will be able to relate.  Although the data-collection methods he uses aren’t scientifically exact (and he admits as much), he cites many items of correspondence he received that apparently struck a nerve from workers in “bullshit” jobs after he wrote a paper on the subject.  It drove the book, as well as his earnest desire to make the world a better place, where work, when voluntarily enjoined, can enjoyable – we don’t have to make it up.  He leaves with one policy item (but doesn’t cling to it strongly) – a guaranteed minimum income – for the reader to consider.  It’s an enjoyable read and provides food (make that a feast) for thought, whether the reader is still in the workplace (hopefully  not in a “bullshit” job) or not.

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

(cover edited for social media police)

 

Weekend Book Report (7/31/19):  Let’s start out with a shameless plug; as an avid reader, Powell’s Books in Portland, OR,  is like being a kid in a candy store.  The huge, independent book store is a must-see for Portland visitors.  After a trip there with the grandkids (who also bought their fair share), I filled my backpack with reading that will last a while.  One riveting book I purchased is Andrew McCabe’s “The Threat” (St. Martins Press, 2019).  The career FBI agent, who eventually became the agency’s deputy director and worked with the highest echelon of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in federal government, is best known for being the focus of attacks by Donald Trump and resulted in his firing 26 hours before his retirement, which rendered him ineligible for a pension (along with cruel, taunting tweets from the White House).  McCabe settles the score; after a boring first chapter that is essentially his resume, he provides an overview of the FBI, defends the agency and his colleagues, and their steadfast, diligent work.   In recounting investigations of Russian crime mobs in Manhattan, working on terrorism threats (the “underwear” bomber and Boston Marathon bombings), he lays bare both the cooperation, but also  political and bureaucratic tussling between various agencies.  He stresses the apolitical posture and independence of the FBI (with the possible exception of the Hoover era).  McCabe doesn’t spare Obama-era members from his criticism; although he thought President Obama had a good understanding of the FBI’s role, he admonishes then-Attorney General Lorretta Lynch’s leadership style and boneheaded choice to meet with Bill Clinton at a Phoenix airport when his wife was under investigation.  He also thought the email investigation on Hillary Clinton should have had a special prosecutor (like the Russia investigation) since it drug the FBI and other agencies into a political fray that could have been avoided.  The autobiography saves it’s ire for Donald Trump, and deservedly so; like Comey and others who worked under him, Trump rambled in angry, unfocused diatribes that appeared to be “part of his own reality”, demanded unquestioning loyalty, and had no qualm on destroying anyone or any institution who didn’t comply – and McCabe was one of them.  McCabe lays out the “dots” as in a “connect the dots” game, as he interleaves the Russian government, Russian organized crime (which he infers are essentially one entity), and Trump, but leaves the reader to draw the lines (drawing on his experience and probably classified information).  Other members of the Trump administration showed to be woefully unprepared (esp. Jeff Sessions), unwilling to focus on the task at hand, or the understanding of their jobs to conduct their own business as well.  The career agent wraps up his work – like other Trump administration officials that have been dismissed write in their books – with a warning about this administration, the future of our repulbic, and hope that America will “right it’s ship” and return to the rule of law, governance, and “real Americans” will take up civic virtue.   He certainly credits his agency with doing so, and Americans should take note of how the FBI and work like McCabe’s should be appreciated.

It’s available at your local public library or local independent (like Powell’s) book store.

Weekend Book Report (7/28/19):   Climate change has been at the top of the agenda for most inhabitants of our planet lately (ok, maybe with the exception of our current administration); weather patterns that affect our ability to feed and shelter ourselves are becoming more extreme and a clear majority (97%) of climate scientists point to human activity (especially deforestation and the use of fossil fuels) as a cause.  This is just one part of a lengthy book by astrophysicist David Grinspoon; “Earth In Human Hands” (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) is a comprehensive overview of the elements and history of our planet and the challenges we face here.  The formation of the universe, our planet, moons, comets and asteroids, the speculation and search for other intelligent life  “out there”,  the earth as become a living organism in it’s own right (the “Gaia” concept) and the current designation of an era where humans affect the planet – “Anthropocene” – are just some items discussed.  His far-ranging discussions make the book quite lengthy (544 pages) but each chapter takes on the subject matter and expounds intelligently on it, incorporating his own experiences and studies as well as the works of others, which he shares in a somewhat light-hearted, humorous way.  It’s not a weekend read; it took me nearly two weeks to get through and digest, but the work is authoritative (Grinspoon is an professor and senior scientist at the University of Colorado with degrees in planetary science from Brown University and U. of Arizona).   His conclusions, in part,  say that as a human race, we are now at a “bottleneck”; where if we can find ways to incorporate technology, new energy sources and most importantly, changed behavior, we can thrive well into the future.  If we can’t, well, it doesn’t look good as we consume resources and drown in our own waste.    For those interested in the future of the planet, it is a good treatise on how we, as a species, will survive – as well as our relationship with the universe.

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

Weekend Book Report (7/14/19):  Another book I read over the weekend was difficult and uncomfortable, but compelling and necessary.   “Grace Will Lead Us Home – The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness” by Charleston (SC) Post and Courier writer Jennifer Berry Hawes (St. Martins Press, 2019) is a telling, intimate account of the tragic shooting deaths of nine church attendees at the Emanuel AME Church there.   Hawes, a longtime religion reporter for the paper, frames the tragedy with both detail and compassion, as well as a reporter’s unflinching eye and many personal interviews.  She takes the reader into the close-knit family of the historic black church, the sterile lack of emotion of the perpetrator, Dylann Roof, and the amazing story of how survivors and family reacted – along with grief, angst and shock, but with forgiveness.  Roof may have wanted to start a race war with his act, but instead, Charleston looked at itself in a mirror – and had to.  She follows the actions of elected officials, (Gov. Nikki Haley and President Obama, who addressed the memorial service, among others), as well as the loss of a State Senator who died in the shooting, Clementa Pinckney.   The healing didn’t go without conflict, successors to the leadership of Emanuel are called into question over their acts in handling money and providing adequate ministerial services to the grieving congregation (some even left the church to join the predominantly-white Presbyterian church next door).   The trial, covered in detail, was manipulated by Roof, who was adamant that his attorneys not portray him as mentally unstable, and, heinous crime notwithstanding, whether the death penalty was the answer.  The pain the author (who had already been awarded a Pulitzer for other works) describes is palpable and difficult to read, but the book is a valuable and historical insight to one of America’s (unfortunately many) mass shootings.

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

Weekend Book Report (7/12/19):   Writing may seem to be a lost art in the age of social and digital media and news aggregation sites, but the former editor of the Op-Ed (Opinion and Editorial) page of the New York Times brings it back into focus.  Trish Hall’s “Writing To Persuade” (Liveright Publishing, 2019) brings a narrative of her personal experiences, as well as practical ways to enjoy and practice writing – but better yet, get readers to understand (if not agree) with your views.  Hall uses fifteen points to consider working the writing craft;  those  who have read Elements of Style or taken public speaking courses may find this familiar territory, but she expands considerably the tactics employed of and genesis of creative ideas.  Most are applicable to human relationships; understanding your audience, seeing elements of another person’s point of view without conceding to them, and overall respect are highlights, along with the sins of being too wordy and the use of jargon.   After two decades in the role at the Times, Hall also discusses how to approach editors when trying to get published – whether a letter to the editor, a book, or a substantial opinion piece.  Although the book may seem to be a “how to” for writers, it’s also an entertaining read on it’s own right – and shows that this veteran journalist / editor is pretty good at practicing her own craft.

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

Weekend Book Report (6/29/19):  The administration of justice and a satisfying overall treatise on why it is important in our society was my read this week with Preet Bahara’s “Doing Justice” (Alfred Knopf Publishing, 2019).  Bahara, as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was a high-profile, crusading prosecutor who led and worked on such cases as the Bernie Madoff scandal, public corruption scandals involving New York legislators, prosecuting organized crime figures as well as bankers engaging in insider trading and other crimes, shares his observations of the legal system, all in the theme of understanding and respecting the rule of law.  The author/prosecutor was born in India and came to the U.S. with his parents in 1970, eventually studying at Harvard and getting his law degree at Columbia University.  His book is divided into four parts:  inquiry, accusation, judgement and punishment, and each provide a thoughtful, insightful set of stories and insightful observations on the various aspects on how the justice system works and his office’s involvement.  Whimsy is included; some of the conversations Bharara had during trials and interviews are hysterical when re-told.  Danger also lurks, many of the trials of mobsters and political figures were fraught with threats and brinksmanship (such as President Erdogan of Turkey going right to President Obama and VP Biden, urging them to fire him for prosecuting a friend in the U.S. who had eluded jail time in Turkey, thanks to the Erdogan’s corruption.  The personal attacks, both my media and the defense, are all part of the realm.   It’s an easy read, and the author speaks of the integrity, diligence, and hard work of those in the legal profession, as well as those with the warts.  Bharara was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the behest of Donald Trump when he refused to resign his seat; although he never mentions it in the book, that backstory is a glaring contrast of those who have a respect and advocacy for the rule of law, and those who do not.

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

Weekend Book Report (6/16/19):  The book has been in such demand that it took nine days to arrive after ordering it from Half Price Books;  and it’s just about impossible to get at the library!  The “Mueller Report” (Official title: “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election) (Melville House, 2019) is a plain old paperback with historical significance.  It’s about two inches thick, but don’t let that intimidate you; the 330 pages, glossary and three appendices are small and printed in similar fashion as a legal document, with the bottom of the pages filled with footnotes, which can be perused at leisure.  The redactions (some pages are totally blacked out) reduce the volume of reading as well.  It’s cheap ($11.00), so there’s no reason not to get it – and keep it as a historical document.  (Note: my copy is just the report without background comment, The Washington Post and others have copies with an orientation and commentary.  I would recommend this one, or at least read the report first then read the commentary.)  The report is presented in two parts – the first being the chronological, detailed reciting of the individuals, acts and situations, and the second part is a methodical presentation of the charges of laws violated (or not) and by who.   Robert Mueller and his staff may not be into writing best sellers, but this work is excellent for a genuine citizen who takes interest in understanding the law and it’s process, and I am proud, as an American, to see such quality work go into an incredibly important issue.   It’s not too wonky or fraught with legalese, and really quite readable.  A glossary, including acronyms, is provided for clarity.   As with the press coverage of the report (which is largely accurate, save some right-wing spin), Mueller leaves the facts laid bare for the reader (and presumably, Congress and the electorate, and he has strongly suggested that they read it), but leaves the prosecution of the executive branch aspects to the realm of the legislative branch (“this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, but it does not exonerate him.”)  Whether Congress does anything with it remains to be seen, but – I’m echoing Robert Mueller here – this book should be read by everyone, as it represents a distinct, disturbing and critical turning point in our nation’s history, one that truly exceeds the magnitude of the cause of a previous special counsel’s report – about a whether a President lied about having a sex act.

It’s available (no, you’ll probably have to order it) from your local independent book store or (get on a waiting list) at your local library.

Weekend Book Report (6/8/19):  A nice change of pace in reading this week was found in a loaned book from a friend that covered both nature, adventure and human interaction in a unique setting.  “Kabloona” (Time-Life, 1941) by Gontran de Poncins was an offer from the Book-Of-The-Month Club and is a considered a classic in travel literature.  Poncins, who was born into French aristocracy,  was bored with the business end of being in high society and started to travel.  His fascination with the Arctic North brought him to Canada, and on his own dime and wherewithal in the winters of 1938 and 1939 he spent 18 months living with the Eskimo (now known as Inuit).  The Frenchman (“Kabloona” is Inuit for “white man”) was not a scientist, but he wrote of his travels and observations – living in igloos, eating frozen seal meat, getting everywhere by dog sled and enduring bitter cold and 24-hour darkness – all in a diary form.  Upon return, he turned them over his collaborator, Lewis Galantiere, who translated the works from French to English and assembled the notes into a readable and chronological narrative.  The work is fascinating; Poncins develops relationships with Inuit families, learns some of the quirks of their culture and customs (sometimes the hard way) and describes the bleak beauty of the windswept frozen landscape.  The only contact with the outside world is by a radio at a post at Gjoa Haven (now in what is known as Nunavut and at the time have twelve residents), where a broadcast was received for ten minutes on Sundays – that’s it.  As a result, the darkening of war clouds around the world were unknown to most – and like today, a read of this book may take you away from troubling contemporary issues, and learn about a fascinating culture as well.

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

Weekend Book Report (5/30/19):    The deployment of persuasion, disinformation and outright lies efforts to persuade the masses has gone on for centuries; the advent of social media and electronic dissemination has expanded it, and understanding it better was the motive behind my purchase “How Propaganda Works” by Jason Stanley (Princeton University Press, 2015).   The author, who is a Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, crafted a read is that is steeped in the disciplines of political philosophy, and reads like, well, a college professor delivering the content.  Some may be disappointed; there’s no pictures (don’t look for memes here), bells, whistles or a flood of examples and the read can be difficult for those impatient, as it’s filled with the drill-down granularity of a professor making his point.  Stanley’s work is grounded in the fact that liberal democracy, in allowing freedom of speech, can have it’s own survival jeopardized by it.  His chapters – defining propaganda, it’s role in democracy, the practice of ideology, examining political ideology and the ideology of the “elites” (who get to define the “rules of the game”)  – will give the reader, when reflecting on the content, a good overview on how propaganda actually works, as well as understanding the maddening case when seeing one faced with solid, factual refutations to their belief system and still continue adhering to it.  Embedded along the way and in his conclusion, Stanley helps the reader address the self-realization on how it has affected their own belief system, which is one of the elements in preserving Western liberal democracy.  A tough read, and along with other commentaries on propaganda, a worthy one.

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

 

 

Weekend Book Report (5/20/19):   In taking a break from heavy philsophical and political items, I took an interesting journey into the ever-popular world of birding.  My wife and I are both birders, so after listening to the “Bird Man” Noah Strycker at a recent Bird Fest on the Washington Coast, it was high time to read his most popular book, “Birding Without Borders” (Houghton Mifflin, 2017).  Strycker grew up in Creswell, Oregon (near Eugene) and is associate editor of Birding magazine and an Oregon State University grad, majoring in fisheries and wildlife.  As a wiry, and obviously fit guy of 30, Strycker became obsessed with bird counting and came up with a plan to count and document as many birds as he could – in one year, all over the world (known in birding parlance as “a big year”).  Others had made impressive numbers, totaling over 4,000, but Strycker set a goal of 5,000.  His book is marked with entertaining chapters of his birding adventures (and misadventures), including interesting encounters with customs officials, heading up into the Andes in a van (and breaking down) in driving rain at 16,000 feet, and finding common denominators with total strangers that were birders (some absolutely obsessed with birding) in other countries that he counted on to help him find and identify species.  Each  chapter-adventure has descriptions of the terrain, weather and the birds identified, but also some philosophical and insightful thoughts on human nature and our relationship with the environment.  No spoiler here as to whether Strycker made his goal, but this book is like taking a ride with someone from January 1 to December 31 saying “hold my beer” to chase rainbows; and you know what, you’ll find some, and have fun with this read.

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

Weekend Book Report (5/16/19):   The influence and recognition of bias has lately become an item of discussion in American discourse; with our nation’s history as well as developed societal norms, good and bad, bias is pervasive in the way we treat each other.  Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a Ph.D. and professor of psychology at Stanford, has written a timely book that explores the truths and dispels some myths about bias – implicit and explicit – in “Biased – Uncovering The Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do” (Viking, 2019).  The author starts out in a scientific perspective, discussing the neuroscience behind bias, as well as how evolution has aided it’s development over time.  As a result she frames bias as something that one shouldn’t feel guilty about having, but compels the reader to recognize that they have it and examine their thinking – since much of it happens “implicitly” – nearly automatic – without thought as to why and without overt malice.    Eberhardt then discusses the history, colonial science (of which some elements are  absurd and heinous, such as slavery and indigenous genocides), and the more contemporary issues, as with white/black relationships, and especially in policing.  (She teaches bias training to police departments around the U.S.)  Bias isn’t limited to that dynamic alone, however, all races and all genders engage in the thinking.  Her conclusion in this easy-readable  and somewhat personal narrative (as a black woman, she was arrested, slammed to the ground and her car towed away for expired tags while attend grad school at Harvard) draws on the need for everyone to recognize implicit and explicit bias, and in spite of current trends in government leadership and society to propagate it, deal with it on an individual level, especially in relationships with other races and other genders, so we can achieve a more just, equitable society.

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

Weekend Book Report (5/4/19):  The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a watershed moment in U.S. history; the nation’s first black president was mired in a severe recession, had wars on multiple fronts and faced what would eventually become a relentless, hostile Republican party and Congress that handicapped the President’s efforts and denigrated his accomplishments, culminating in Dick Cheney’s declaration that Obama was the “worst President ever” (hence the title of the book).  Mark Hannah, a political analyst and former Obama campaign staffer, comes to Obama’s defense in his book “The Best Worst President – What The Right Gets Wrong About Barack Obama” (Harper Collins, 2016).  Hannah is unapologetic in his liberal viewpoints, and his book – made up of chapters divided by political, world and economic issues as subject matter – disassembles the Republican disinformation effort and opposition platform plank by plank with well-reasoned facts (remember them?) and rationale, and celebrates Obama’s successes, all along with illustrator Bob Staake’s enjoyable sketches.  His defense isn’t all-encompassing; Hannah also critiques the 44th president on some of his shortcomings – making analysis over decisions, and data over passion for starters, so it’s not all cheerleading.  But those who want to look back (somewhat wistfully, as this was written before the 2016 election) at a sane, rational presidency that took a lot of undeserved hits will enjoy this book, and also sigh over the relentless idiocy that has taken it’s place.

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

Weekend Book Report (5/4/19):  The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a watershed moment in U.S. history; the nation’s first black president was mired in a severe recession, had wars on multiple fronts and faced what would eventually become a relentless, hostile Republican party and Congress that handicapped the President’s efforts and denigrated his accomplishments, culminating in Dick Cheney’s declaration that Obama was the “worst President ever” (hence the title of the book).  Mark Hannah, a political analyst and former Obama campaign staffer, comes to Obama’s defense in his book “The Best Worst President – What The Right Gets Wrong About Barack Obama” (Harper Collins, 2016).  Hannah is unapologetic in his liberal viewpoints, and his book – made up of chapters divided by political, world and economic issues as subject matter – disassembles the Republican disinformation effort and opposition platform plank by plank with well-reasoned facts (remember them?) and rationale, and celebrates Obama’s successes, all along with illustrator Bob Staake’s enjoyable sketches.  His defense isn’t all-encompassing; Hannah also critiques the 44th president on some of his shortcomings – making analysis over decisions, and data over passion for starters, so it’s not all cheerleading.  But those who want to look back (somewhat wistfully, as this was written before the 2016 election) at a sane, rational presidency that took a lot of undeserved hits will enjoy this book, and also sigh over the relentless idiocy that has taken it’s place.

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

Weekend Book Report (4/28/19):   “Enlightenment” is a term used for the exercise  of reason, inquiry, science and progress, originating about 1750.  When it became a movement, starting in the Western European nations and spreading to the United States and Canada, it became the basis of establishing representative democracies, human freedoms, the value of education of the populace, free markets, inventions and scientific breakthroughs – resulting in phenomenal human progress.  It was a  two-week read and was somewhat deep, but “Enlightenment Now” (Penguin, 2018) by Canadian psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker examines it’s history, most notably marked by abandoning magical thinking, superstition and overt religious dogma (and not without conflict), and presses the case for it’s continuing renewal – adeptly addressing critics in the process.  The Harvard professor begins with an “enlightenment” primer, with the first chapter “Dare To Understand”.  Pinker then takes the reader, in manageable chapters, on an in-depth treatise on how science, reason, progress and humanism has “lifted all the boats” of humanity, backed up with charts, graphs, data and narrative.  In stunningly optimistic and well-presented arguments – and noting that although areas of extreme poverty, war and hunger still exist – overall, the human condition has benefited tremendously – and sometimes we just don’t recognize it because we are focusing on the negative and don’t calibrate our sights to see how far we have come.  There are still issues, for sure – nuclear proliferation and climate change are the two big-hitters – but Pinker makes a convincing case as he takes the reader through the movement, about how we must continue to persist in it’s principles of progress, as well as the handicaps and dangers to it’s continued success (i.e., fascism, populism and authoritarianism, for starters).   It’s deep, but entertaining read and well worth the effort.

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

Weekend Book Report (4/16/19):  International diplomacy was the subject matter of my reading for the past ten days; career diplomat William J. Burns’ memoir “The Back Channel”  (Random House, 2019) chronicles his story of working up through the ranks of the State Department.  Although not quite a household word in the U.S., Burns served five presidential administrations and reported to several Secretaries of State through a quickly changing world landscape, from the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War to the nuclear agreement with Iran, his last major work before retiring.  Burns is now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  His book has sharp-sighted insights on how diplomacy works; strategies and bargaining and tact are obvious needs, and the author summarizes the work with former Secretary of State George Schulz’s metaphor of diplomats being “gardeners”.  Also in quoting Theodore Roosevelt’s “walk softly and carry a big stick”, Burns agrees that diplomacy is handicapped without a strong defense as well as the willingness to deploy economic sanctions, but ambassadors, envoys, and diplomatic representatives should be the first deployed in negotiations, as the two other elements can be effectively used as leverage.  Each chapter reveals the inner workings and thoughts of the various administrations; it’s apparent the Burns was deep into all of them but not quite at the celebrity level of a cabinet member or other figure in the public spotlight.  It’s given him a valuable relationship as both “worker bee” and observer, and makes his story credible, as well as the critique of the current state of diplomatic affairs.  He has little quarter for Donald Trump and his administration; the stubborn arrogance and ideological contempt and broad incompetence has accelerated the decline of the U.S. standing in the world and gives our allies pause in whether they can work with us, with the administration all the while shouting conflicting statements and acting inconsistently in an effort to mask our retreat from prominence on the world stage.  It will take substantial work to rebuild our stature after Trump is gone.  Added to the woes are the draconian cuts at the State Department, resulting in the loss of seasoned, talented diplomats, as well (as Burns admits) as a stuffy, conservative and bureaucratic agency needing reform.  It’s a good read for those interested in world affairs and our nation’s relationship to them, coming from a credible person who has been immersed in this work.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (4/6/19):   Our local library prominently displayed this book in their “non-fiction” section at the entry,  maybe by design.  After passing by the shopping carts parked in front and the tents pitched out on the small wooded area on the street corner that represent someone’s home and belongings, “$2.00 a Day; Living on Almost Nothing in America” (Houghton Mifflin, 2015) was an appropriate read.  The authors, Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, are professors specializing in social work and public health (Edin at Johns Hopkins, Shaefer at the Univ. of Michigan).  They follow the stories of several families and individuals through their struggles with extreme poverty in America – defined by the title.  Their work took them to various reaches of the country – Chicago, rural Tennessee and Mississippi, Cleveland – to examine the hurdles one must leap to get out of the abject oppression of living without cash.  Although critical of the cry of “ending welfare as we know it” that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich espoused in the mid-90’s, and acknowledging that welfare is dead, they do see some practical help for the working poor with the earned income tax credit and SNAP (food stamps).  In being steered to the workplace market for relief, handicaps present themselves, even though the authors present some ingenious resourceful ways that the poor “make do.”  Not only are wages insufficient in meeting basic needs, especially housing, but “flexible just-in-time” scheduling, especially by fast food and “big-box” stores handicap single mothers and those without reliable transportation, since hours and pay can be unpredictable and transit can be costly without cash.  Wage theft is also a problem, as the extreme working poor has no recourse with unsavory employers.  In short, the market – touted as “the way out” from poverty – is failing them, and the authors offer other solutions, including public works projects or subsidized employment.   None of the interviewed had drug problems, although their surroundings were pretty dicey, so addicts and users also handicap not only themselves but those trying to stand on their own two feet.  The book is a short read, and the stories are depressing, but Edin and Shaefer are trying to make the point that so many of those who have fallen off the edge become invisible, are judged harshly when they are seen, but most of all, largely trying to lift themselves up in a system that is constructed to keep them down.   Their book offers means to fold the extreme poor back into society and get them on their feet.

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

Weekend Book Report (4/2/19):    Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari made a splash a while back with his book “Sapiens“, which discusses the history of humankind, looking at the past with unusual insights.  He has followed up with “Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow(Harper Collins, 2017), looking at the future from that historical perspective.  The book is “heavy” in both content and physical gravitas (the 448-page paperback is printed on heavy stock and must weigh at least five pounds).  Harari, a noted historian and Ph.D. from Oxford, looks at the trends moving forward and juxtaposes them from the earlier historical societies, and deftly draws predicted outcomes without setting them in concrete.  If nuclear war, ecological collapse and extinction by disease manage to be set aside (of which he is optimistic in doing so), he portrays a picture of a world dominated by algorithms, where humans happily give up their privacy, personal data and decision-making (in an almost religious-like faith he calls “dataism”) to computers and machines – and the persons that operate them.  Those who master the dominion of algorithms (he mentions Facebook and Google in particular) can essentially rule the world, since people will adopt an almost religious fervor in submitting to them, happily abandoning democracy and human rights in the process.   It sounds like a science fiction tale, but as he weaves the human endeavor within his well-thought treatise on human history, it is plausible – and greets the reader with all the subtlety of a punch in the nose.  It is heavy reading (use a pillow to lay the book on since this is no lightweight paperback), but it is clear, fascinating and thought-stretching, and is a commendable follow-up to his previous work.

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

Weekend Book Report (3/24/19):  In a hectic, information-overloaded and occasionally dark and angry world, one can lose their own sense of purpose, direction and self – known as “agency”.   In “The Power of Agency” (St. Martin’s Press, 2019) by Drs. Paul Napper and Anthony Rao address a common theme of our contemporary era that they term “the age of overwhelm”.  Social media, unceasing cable television, political polarization and 24-hour work demands have taken their toll on many.  They say that the average human sees nearly 4,000 items of persuasion (advertising, opinion, chats on social media) and process over 34 gigabytes of information – a day.   Human evolution has never accommodated this type of overload, and the results have been flawed judgment, poor decisions, overwhelming stress and the resulting use of medications, legal or not, and a loss of human connectedness that exacerbates the sense of loss of control of one’s own “agency”.  The authors are well-versed in psychology; Napper runs a management psychology consultancy and Rao is a cognitive-behavioral psychologist; both are from the Harvard Medical School.  Their book takes a warm approach to the reader that doesn’t get too wonky with clinical terms; and together they have crafted a seven-element approach to re-establish “agency”.  Their chapters expound on their elements, and the book provides a reader useful tools (here’s a hint on one:  “Control Stimuli” – i.e., screens, social media, television, emails should be purposeful instead of attention defaults).  It’s a good read, not too long (294 pages) and can be useful as another strategy to redefine your time, purpose, and sense of ownership in yourself.

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

Weekend Book Report (3/21/19):   Self-help books were once the rage (and in many circles, still are) with readers looking for personal fulfillment and solving relationship issues.  This week’s read, “America, We Need To Talk” by Joel Berg (Seven Stories Press, 2017), takes that a bit further.  Berg, who is CEO of the non-profit group Hunger Free America, has crafted a lengthy work laced with biting critique, but dosed with generous humor in his effort to get Americans to take responsibility for their governance.   Instead of blaming “politicians” and “the system” and using other dismissives, the author first takes a lengthy list of America’s ills – “the relationship issues” – and opens the eyes of the reader:  hunger in America, crumbling infrastructure, infant mortality,  wasteful spending, authoritarian impulses by leadership and other maladies, presented in painful, but factual detail.  But the second half of his book is a game plan on how to work out those issues; it’s action oriented, and there’s a lot of detail as well (and as you might imagine, he focuses a lot on childhood hunger), and Berg demands that a relationship takes two to make it work, and that “other one” is you.

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

Weekend Book Report (3/8/19):   There’s an inherent bias here; Robert Reich has always been one of my favorite public figures and authors.  He manages to make the progressive ideals he espouses articulate but simple, and presents his arguments that land in the realm of respectful debate.  I love his “time lapse” butcher-paper drawings, too!  So when I saw his latest book “The Common Good” (Vintage / Penguin Random House 2018), I had to snap it up for a mid-week read.  Reich, a leading professor of Public Policy at UC-Berkeley, writes like he speaks – in a calmly articulate and non-alarmist manner about the need for our nation, in order to adhere to our democratic freedoms and principles, to reach back to finding ‘the common good’.  He defines it a respectful, thoughtful debate, respecting the rights of the minority, and the return to civic education in both our school system and public arena.  He laments the straying from that principle by politicians, business and persons, and cites several egregious examples – “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, who fleeced millions with price hikes and bragged of his lack of moral grounding; John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo who sat face-to-face over coffee with Reich and said he was “looking out for his customers”, and soon thereafter his bank was fined for fraud, and of course, Donald Trump, who exemplifies “common good” abandonment, although Reich doesn’t dwell on him too much, but shows how the apex of this malady has manifested itself.  He also warns of the dangers of society justifying the abandonment of the common good (“if they’re doing it, why not me?”), especially in our discourse on social media.  Reich, the progressive, goes after his own wing as well, warning that “win at all costs” isn’t limited to conservatives and radicals, and that liberals need to search for the “common good” – and cites examples in Bill Clinton’s administration (where he served as Secretary of Labor) and the Obama years that strayed from the principle as well.  The book wraps up with some recommendations on how to find our footing again – “because we must to preserve our republic”, Reich says – and the book makes for a cautiously optimistic tonic for a cynical era that has lost it’s way.

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

Weekend Book Report (3/6/19):  The ubiquitous presence of social media and the gadgets that flood our society, addicting us and dominating our behavior, is the subject matter of this week’s read, “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport (Penguin / Random House, 2019).  Newport, an associate professor in computer science at Georgetown University, in an ironic twist, uses social media very infrequently, and as one who has studied the phenomena, has some keen observations on it’s qualities and pitfalls.  More importantly, he uses that same knowledge (of what he calls the “digital attention industry”) to enable social media users to look up from the screens, rediscover life, and enjoy the social and psychological benefits of being “real” again.  There are several keys to this; and Newport includes removing social media apps from your smartphone, rationing time online, getting a different device (like an old-fashioned flip phone), starting out “cold turkey” (30 days off line to get started) and – this may be difficult for some) re-establishing relationships IN REAL TIME – IN PERSON (emphasis mine) with those you now communicate on line.  Viewing your use of social media from a different paradigm (“it’s your time, but they’re making the money”) is emphasized.   The book is an easy, entertaining read, not too preachy and relatively short, so I highly recommend it for anyone who is trying to understand what the world looks like when you’re not looking at a screen.  You may meet your kids, parents and friends all over again!

It’s at your local independent bookstore or local public library.

Weekend Book Report (3/1/19):  Many political pundits try to describe the “rural / urban” divide; many say it’s where the fault lines in the 2016 election were drawn.  The book I read this week, “For-Profit Democracy – Why the Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America” by Loka Ashwood  (Yale University Press, 2018)  dives into the subject on the rural side of the equation.   Ashwood, who is an assistant professor of rural sociology and agricultural economics at Auburn University in Alabama, focuses on Burke County, Georgia as her example.  The county lies on the border with South Carolina and is the site of both the Savannah River Project (a nuclear waste site) and Georgia Power’s nuclear plant.  The author moved to Burke County, renting a trailer in the back woods (where the landlord insisted she carry a pistol and learn how to shoot it) and she paints a colorful, lyrical narrative with interviews of local residents.  Common themes emerge;  the most prominent is the use of eminent domain by public agencies for private benefit (profit) and the mistrust and misrepresentation that corporate interests engaged in to achieve their means.   The economic disparity between black and white residents, especially in compensation for the property takings, and the fierce, independent spirit of the inhabitants – where a gun is insurance, religion is a salve, hunting and fishing are sacrosanct – meet with  corporations who use the rural environment as a path of least resistance to both environmental and human abuses for profit (which is the rationale for the book’s title).  Her case study of Burke County doesn’t include discussion of  situations in other rural areas nationwide, but the denominators are the same – and if you read this book, you see similarities to South Dakota, Arizona or elsewhere (even zoning in urban areas).   It’s a case study, without a lot of answers, on how empowerment of rural citizens can be elusive in the face of governments that see rural areas as centers of profit instead of governance by the will of the people.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (2/25/19):  Whew.  This one took a while, but it’s a storied and controversial work:  “A People’s History of the United States” by noted historian Howard Zinn (Harper Perennial, 2015) was originally published in 1980.  Zinn, a professor of history at Spelman College and political science professor at Boston University who died in 2010 at age 87, is an unabashed, self-described “anarchist” and “democratic socialist” who challenged norms and viewed the history of the U.S. in a very different manner.  He was challenged and maligned for his work, primarily due to his descriptions of history that were from the side not very well represented:  the landing of Columbus from the view of the Arawak tribe, displacement from the view of the Native American, slavery from the view of the slave, work from the view of the worker, suffrage from the view of the woman, and commonly referring to the dominant influence of United States politics and government as that of corporate and white male dominance.  It doesn’t wear well with conservatives and those who prefer the more sanitized version of history.  It is a long, enduring read, 670 pages of paperback, and can be somewhat tedious.  But a read of this book, if for academic comparisons only, is an important, even mandatory step in understanding the various perspectives of U.S. history.

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

Weekend Book Report (2/3/19):   Of the many  books that have ecological themes, most about disasters and impending doom for planet Earth.  A lot have have merit, but we’re not giving up without a fight, according to Paul Hawken’s “Blessed Unrest – How the Largest Social Movement in History Is restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World”  (Penguin, 2007).  The author is a well-known environmental activist, speaker, and writer from northern California who runs “Project Drawdown”, a non-profit dedicated to reversing global warming.  His environmental work revolves around the  concept of ecological capitalism (where the earth’s resources are treated like they are drawn from a bank and must be repaid).  This book, even at twelve years old, is still timely; it addresses the work thousands of organizations, non-profit or otherwise, and hundreds of thousands of people who are fighting for our planet’s sustainability and ability to support life – both of which are under jeopardy due to rapacious and injurious acts to them taken by resource extraction by multinational corporations and the burning of fossil fuels.  Many of his points are common themes within the environmental community; wind and solar generated power, sustainable agricultural practices, replenishment and preservation of forests, and others, but the point he drives home is that the push for ecological balance and environmental preservation of our planet is being conducted by many more people than we think – we just don’t see them because they are so diffused and granular in their presence.  Two items the book left me with are his definition of being a responsible steward of the earth – “never let an action inhibit the earth from the ability to heal itself”, and the fact that environmental responsibility is inherent in the act of a single person – you.  Your environmental organization may number only one, but you have plenty of company.  There is an excellent appendix that sorts out and defines environmental terms.

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

Weekend Book Report (1/20/19):   So I completed a double-header of progressive books this weekend, wrapping up with this “how-to” manual on fighting the emerging authoritarianism in the U.S. :  “D.I.Y. Resistance – 36 Ways to Fight Back!” by Anthony Alvarado (Seven Stories Press, 2018).  Written in the same vein as the 1971 classic “Steal This Book” by Abbie Hoffman, (but a little bit tamer), Alvarado, a Portland resident who specializes in “D.I.Y Magic” and is a writing instructor at Portland Community College, breaks his manual up into the topical sections of “Survive!” “Fight!” and “Liberate!”.  Many of the instructions are basic self-preservation and self-help, including mindfulness meditation, hobbies, and maintaining social networks, but there are some practical organizing, publicizing and advancing progressive agendas here as well.  It’s a quick read, and even could be categorized as a reference guide, and those who are immersed in turning the tide of progressive politics back to the plus side in the age of Trump would be wise to keep it in their hip pocket to recharge.

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

Weekend Book Report (1/19/19):  Bernie Sanders has a sequel.  The U.S. Senator from Vermont and former presidential candidate released his follow up, “Where We Go From Here – Two Years in the Resistance” (Thomas Dunne Books, 2018) last fall, but it was prior to the mid-term elections that added 40 Democratic seats to the U.S. House.   As a result, the book is somewhat dated; comprising of a chronology of Sanders’ travels around the country last year. He reaffirms and pounds home his points of addressing money in politics, income inequality, and environmental protection, as well as social and racial justice.  For his followers, it’s reinforcement and a call to keep up the fight through his post-election organization, Our Revolution; for those relatively new or interested in his deep-seated progressive principles, it’s a quick read and easy way to understand his movement, which has caught on, and, with the results of the midterms, picking up steam.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (1/17/19):   For the most part, my reading this year has been centered around politics, philosophy and nature.  With a lot of other happenings this month, it took about a fortnite to finish “The Nature Instinct – Relearning Our Lost Intuition for the Inner Workings of the Natural World” by  English author, adventurer and “natural navigator” Tristan Gooley (The Experiment Books, 2018).    The respite to nature was well worth it; the author, who has both flown and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and features a website called NaturalNavigator.com, has written several other books on this subject as well. He writes in beautiful form, on how our relationship with nature has been lost to many but can be easily regained with some patience, wisdom and observation.  He embarks on just how to do that with short and eloquent chapters that convey the many methods, signals and evidence that one can use to find their way, discover certain species (whether for hunting for sightseeing) and truly connect with the outdoors.  Categorizing recognizing elements of the outdoors as using “slow thought” and “fast thought”, Gooley educates the reader on how to achieve a second-nature revelation on the latter, which he insist is easier than you think and once acquired, is hard to shake and isn’t an exclusive province of the wilderness; many of Gooley’s passages are about walking in the English countryside.  He cites examples in nature as well as humans who use the skill to survive, including the bush people of the Kalahari and Bedouins of the Sahara Desert., but also offers wisdom on how to predict which way a flock of sheep will go – and be right!  It’s a great read for hikers, and other outdoors people, but backyard birdwatchers and people who walk dogs in the park will appreciate his wisdom.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (1/5/19):  Bob Woodward is a storied reporter and now associate editor for the Washington Post; his long-time connections and trusted sources inside the beltway have made him one of the most impactful journalists in contemporary U.S. media.  When he released “Fear – Trump In The White House”(Simon and Schuster, 2018) in the middle of last year, the field got a bit crowded in competing with books by Comey, Clapper, McCain and others (i.e., “Fire and Fury”).  I finally got around to reading my copy; it’s a bit dated since the merry-go-round at the White House has had other players come and go.  But this work cuts to the chase; Woodward puts together short vignettes in short chapters and puts the reader inside the White House with the impetuous, inattentive, petulant, backstabbing, angry and corrosive personality of Trump, (whose signature quote is “Power is fear”, which serves as a base for the title) as well as the predatory urges of acquiring power by his inner circle – Steve Bannon, Ivanka, Jared Kushner, and others, who take advantage of his deficiencies while others (mostly adults in the room) quit in frustration (Tillerson – “he’s a moron”), Dowd (Trump’s own attorney – “he’s a f*cking liar’) when essentially trying to get him to understand the irrationality of his actions – and even government itself.  It’s quite a riveting read; Woodward cites all of his sources in a lengthy appendix and thanks his many collaborators.  Along with the other corroborating books that have emerged about life in the White House, it will leave the reader wondering – how in the hell did we end up with this guy running our country?

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

Weekend Book Report (12/29/18):   There is a lot of discussion about the disparities in the economics, cultural and class distinctions of various areas of the U.S.; this week’s read is a heartfelt memoir written by a woman raised in the back corners of Kansas that puts a personal, authentic, and well-thought touch on the issue.  “Heartland – A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” by Sarah Smarsh (Scribner – Simon and Schuster, 2018) is the author’s first book; the thread of the story is about Smarsh’s upbringing through an extended and chaotic family history, blended with the work ethic, often brutal working conditions and challenges of farming in the Great Plains.  The family events and characters can be hard to follow, but that may seem to be by design; a grandmother with five marriages, a gangster in the family that may have killed people, domestic violence, and alcohol abuse are all featured in a jumbled history, but Smarsh weaves the story with the political climate of the times with realism instead of caricature in “flyover country.”  She adds in examples on how the poor (often cash poor, even if property-rich) suffer as society, government and corporations lean against their progress, and how folks on each coast (and even her own family) have trouble relating or understanding their world.  In intriguing snippets throughout the book, she refers to “you” – speaking in the first person to a daughter that doesn’t exist – and to herself, looking back at that upbringing and outcome.   She “made it” – succeeding in her schooling, going to college and now enjoying a career as a respected journalist, writer, commentator and professor with degrees from Columbia and the University of Kansas.   Her ability to bridge the viewpoints between her upbringing and adult success makes this book work, without judging either harshly, and it certainly forces a look – whether you live in “flyover country” or not.  Conservatives will argue with it for it’s realism, for liberals, it will remove blind spots.  It’s a National Book Award finalist for 2018 and certainly worth the read.

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

Weekend Book Report (12/22/18):  The book leapt off the shelf at me from the “new non-fiction” section at the library; it seemed timely and relevant, even scholarly, in these partisan times.  “Impeachment – An American History” (Modern Library Publishing, 2018) was written by a quartet of presidential historians and scholars – Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, Peter Baker and Jeffrey A. Engel.    Each author had a task; to provide frame of reference, historical context on the  impeachment process and background on our country’s three attempts at it, starting with Andrew Johnson, then Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, with an obvious eye on the potential for the same fate befalling Donald Trump.  Engel begins with a scholarly chapter on the discussions the founding fathers had regarding the check on executive power and the mechanics of removal.  It was a delicate balance because of the immense popularity of George Washington, and the need to provide a basis on suppressing the ambitions of acquiring power by evil and unscrupulous people without inferring the first President would be one of them.  Meacham covers the story of Andrew Johnson, saved by one vote from removal, and addresses the backstory – that although Johnson was angry, resentful, petulant and incompetent – it was really party politics that was behind the effort, and explains the outcome without bogging down in minutiae.  Tim Naftali writes about the Nixon debacle and how much was brought on by the President himself; his narrative takes me back to watching the impeachment hearings on television and dives into the dynamics behind it, along with Nixon’s resignation, after finding himself “painted into a corner.”  Peter Baker discusses the Clinton history of sexual dalliances and initial coverups, and the movement that Republican partisans called “The Campaign”.  All three add to Engel’s conclusion in the final chapter with discussion of the election of Donald Trump, and talk among the populace about impeachment even before the inauguration – a point that he makes is premature and misguided until a thorough discussion involving the politics, ethics, criminality, competence and possible treason (“high crimes and misdemeanors”) are made – and that the equation changes over time.  It’s all the more reason to read this book and get grounded in what impeachment, an act that puts the country through the ringer – means, and being clear-eyed when the process begins.

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

Weekend Book Report (12/18/18):  Between the holidays (especially since Thanksgiving arrived early this year) and all of the other errands, my reading has slowed a bit; this week’s selection, “How to Speak Science” by French author Bruce Benamran (The Experiment Books, 2016) added a degree of cerebral depth (and reading time) to my literary endeavor.  Benamran, who obtained is masters degree in computer science at the University of Strasbourg, has written an interesting and entertaining “how-to” book on understanding many of the aspects of science – including matter, light, biology, electromagnetism, space and the solar system.  It may all seem overwhelming (and in a few parts, it is) but the author, through his French-to-English translator Stephanie Stroebel,  adds some fun tidbits, insights, and contemporary humor to keep the reader interested, and ultimately helps the reader to understand the concepts, history and the science behind them – all deftly avoiding the tedious math.  The chapters are manageable, and Benamran admits had can’t cover all of the material that would encompass the various disciplines, but it’s enough to keep the reader plugging along, and laughing along the way.  Hint:  it may be a good book for that emerging high school or college-entry student to pique or augment interest in the sciences.  An added bonus is the author’s YouTube channel, e-penser (known in English as “Get It”), which helps the average guy understand science.   (Search e-penser in Anglais or you’ll get the French version).  More of us should work on understanding science, in addition to the appreciation of it, but maybe to win some trivia games, make a bet for a round at the bar, or impress our friends and neighbors.   😀

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

Weekend Book Report (12/1/18):  Among all the books recently published about a degraded environment, world crises, conflict, and corrupt governments, a book with an ominous title comes across as curiously optimistic.  “The Coming Population Crash and our Planet’s Surprising Future” by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press, Boston, 2010) takes a deep dive into the challenges and promise of how many humans reside on Earth, and how a myriad of contributing factors affect it.  Pearce starts out with a profile of Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century philosopher and religious leader, who gives a bleak assessment of the human condition due to overpopulation, and works his way up from there.  Besides the usual causes – famine, war, disease – Pearce, a veteran environmental writer based in England, discusses and looks at human behavior, migration, contraception and technology as factors as well.  There are some definite downsides; climate change and resource depletion, especially by rich countries, are challenges; education, or the lack thereof, can inhibit societies and countries from progressing toward quality of life for their inhabitants.  But the author adds in the increasing yields of food production, transportation and the fact that more and more humans are having less and less children – a key point in his book – that will cause world populations to plateau by mid-century and actually decline.  He adds that migration, instead of being a fear-filled element of strangers moving across the globe, should be embraced; as most of those searching for a better life actually have the motivation (and the skills) to add to the human capital of the nations to where they travel.  It’s an interesting perspective, counter to the bleak perspective of so much of today’s headlines, and makes for an entertaining and intriguing, and easy, read.

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

Weekend Book Report (11/21/18):  With the short week before the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a pleasant, but somewhat heavy read with Stephen Hawking’s “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” (Bantam Books, 2018).  The renowned (but, as you read his work, somewhat humble) cosmologist worked on this book but with his passing last March, ended up being published as a posthumous tribute, with a touching afterword written by his daughter, Lucy.   Like his “A Brief History of Time” published prior, “Brief Answers” jumps right into the heavy stuff – “Is there a God?”  “Where did it all begin?”  as well as some practical astronomical matters:  “What is inside a black hole?”  “Is time travel possible?”  as well as worldly matters, like whether the human race survive itself.  It might seem deep, but in typical Hawking fashion, with a touch of humor and simple explanations (well, as simple as physics can get) this is a leisurely, easy-reading and rather short book, although you may have to read a sentence or two again to get the point.  Also weaved into the narrative is the amazing story of Hawking’s endurance with motor neuron disease that was supposed to claim him by the time he was 30, and his gratefulness that technology enabled him to communicate.  Even with his passing earlier this year at age 76, his story, philosophy and scientific study will endure, and be an indelible mark in the work of science.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (11/16/18):    Although I use my local library (and…confidential to my local friends – it appears our library levy is passing!) and independent bookstore liberally, occasionally my wife and I pick out a book or two from the book section when shopping at our local Costco.  They don’t exactly have a huge selection, and they seem to keep the left and right happy by stocking both wings of publications (even that wacko D’Souza crap).  When I saw “The Plot To Destroy Democracy – How Putin and His Spies are Dismantling the West” by Malcolm Nance (Hachette Books, 2018), I laid it among my bags of frozen blueberries and paper towels and took it home.  Nance is an intelligence analyst and consultant, a former U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer specializing in naval cryptology, and specialized in the activities of jihadi radicalization by ISIS and Al-Qaeda.  He appears frequently on NBC, MSNBC and runs his own intelligence consulting firm.  Nance changes his tack, though, and turns his attention to this comprehensive overview of Vladimir Putin, with his and other Russian efforts to destabilize the West – an endeavor that  has dated back to before the fall of the Berlin Wall in the Soviet era.   Russia has always spied and conducted covert activities; Nance’s point, that he repeatedly documents and spells out in the book, are that now, along with Putin’s desire to bring Russia as a dominant power on the world stage, are two new developments – the emergence of social media and the rise of a self-absorbed, narcissistic and manipulated (through debt) conservative, with racist and autocratic ideals, in Donald Trump.  This has enabled Putin to conduct the “perfect storm” of destabilization, where fractures and dissension among a nation’s own populace can be sown and manipulated, so the solidarity and stability of nations can crumble from within.   Nance says it has worked flawlessly (although note that the book was printed before the blue wave took over the U.S. House), and Russia has efficient institutions to carry it out.   Trump, at first, was his “useful idiot” and then graduated on to “an unwitting asset” to a “witting asset” to a “full brother” (all are stages used in espionage parlance).  He goes on to cite documented “deals” and  misadventures that Donald Trump and family have engaged in with Russia, ultimately  jeopardizing democracy and Western values.  The book is intriguing, and somewhat provocative but well-developed in detail (although an embarrassing series of duplicate paragraphs appear on two pages – where are the proofreaders?) and gives a shout out to Robert Mueller, who Nance says will ultimately expose the truth.  It should be read by those who have fallen into blind allegiance to Trump and worse yet, disdain or even harbor hate against fellow Americans who don’t.  According to Nance, that’s exactly Putin’s plan.

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

Weekend Book Report (11/5/18):  With the rain and dark-induced move back to standard time, it was time to get a hot cup of tea and dive into a second book in one weekend.  “Outnumbered – from Facebook and Google to fake news and filter-bubbles – the algorithms that control our lives” by David Sumpter (Bloomsbury Sigma, London, 2018) seemed both wonky and threatening, with the title implying that data geeks in a dark place are plotting to control our lives.  But the author, a London native who is now a Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, dismissed much of the impressions of evil intent; he also adds that there is a long way to go in the use of algorithms (defined as an mathematical execution defined within a space and time to calculate a result) as well as artificial intelligence.  His chapters mix his personal experiences as well as professional expertise with interviews from data miners and software companies, so the reader can understand how they work, and dispels the fallacies and impressions of “boogeymen” (including the influence of Cambridge Analytica).  it may get a bit wonky for some, but the read will help the average computer user to understand why an ad may show up on their Facebook feed hours after they talked about it somewhere (no, they’re not listening through your smart phone).   There are many algorithms that have predictive qualities – some with amazing accuracy, and some with embarrassing resultsSumpter also adds that there are ways to defeat the algorithm tracking pattern, in case you’re paranoid, but his engaging style and information in this work will allow you to browse in relative comfort.

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

Weekend Book Report (11/2/18):  My local library has a promotion of sorts; they feature newer and “first run” books that can be hard to find at the library and call it “Lucky Day” (featuring a shamrock sticker on the cover).  Although it wasn’t a book of really fresh ink, they had “A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies and Leadership” by former FBI director James Comey (Flatiron Books, 2018).  So I snapped it up, knowing it’s two-week, non-renewable term was part of the deal (and saved me about thirty bucks).  Comey starts with his childhood and chronicles his life, and how episodes along the path formed his values –  as a teenager getting face-to-face with an armed rapist / burglar that had broken into their home, being disdainful (and on the receiving end) of bullies, appreciative and mindful of fairness and forgiveness as shown by an early employer, losing an infant child to a treatable disease, and always feeling a combination of awkwardness and empowerment, growing from a gangly kid to a towering six-foot-seven as an adult.    He recollects his work as an U.S. attorney, prosecuting mob bosses and learning the “code” employed by organized crime syndicates, working in Manhattan during the duress of post 9-11, and then getting in deeper with the Clinton email investigation and his ultimate dismissal by the current president.  Comey uses a tactful and deliberative angle in describing his values, especially in the realm of ethical leadership, and along with his impressions and facts, weaves them together well in each case study he presents, including his own personal angst over his role in what was happening.   His enduring principle was retaining the public trust of his organization (the FBI), being the good guys with white hats, which soon collided with the Trump values of unwavering loyalty, abandonment of principles and the enrollment in “this thing of ours” (the creed of the Mafia that Comey compares with the Trump administration).  He ends the book there, but adds an epilogue about the rough times our country will go through with an amoral and unethical leader, but insists will emerge with a recognition – and eventual correction – of our malady with the trust and will and actions of the American people.  It’s a worthy read on the insights of one of our more notable U.S. public servants.

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

Weekend Book Report (10/27/18):  There were a host of new books at my local library this week (and – psst – if you live in Pierce County, make sure to support your local library levy on election day Nov. 6!), so I checked out a half dozen.  Some were duds and retreads, but this one –  “How To Be Less Stupid About Race” by Crystal M. Fleming (Beacon Press, Boston, 2018) stood out.  Fleming, an associate professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and graduate of Wellesley and Harvard, makes an assertive and plausible case about how pervasive, endemic and historic racism is, especially in the United States and western civilization, but also elsewhere.  Her focus is in citing both economic and political institutions that have perpetuated white supremacy over the years, how racism endures, and how it’s socialization over time has caused it to seep into American consciousness – and points out how absurd certain sayings, comments and expressions reinforce it’s presence, even unwittingly.  It may be a wake up call for many, especially those who think gains in civil, economic and voting rights have put us behind racism.  The author answers that recognizing and answering racism is a large part a personal endeavor, but provides ten practical points at the end of her book in how you can help fight it.  But as in many issues, half the battle is recognizing there is one – and her book aggressively opens your eyes to it.

It’s available at your local public library (don’t forget to vote!) or your local independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (10/20/18):  After returning from a long-planned trip to Europe, it was time to return and get into some reading.  This week’s selection was a bit long, but interesting:  “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene (1998, Penguin Books) has recently had a resurgence in interest in light of the tactics utilized by the Trump administration – and in some regards, looks like a blueprint.  Although not the exclusive province of contemporary politics (and written well before the current political climate), Greene, a classical studies graduate from the University of Wisconsin, relies heavily on the stories and fables of the courtiers and masterminds of the Renaissance, Middle Ages and Chinese to demonstrate the laws of power and their exercise.  The presentation is fundamentally amoral, and don’t look for any compassion or empathy here -the exercise of power is wholly for the self and not the common good – but fundamentally necessary for those who may want to set boundaries, protect themselves, achieve goals or just screw their buddy. The work is a bit plodding, and it is long (over 440 pages), but each chapter is relatively short and manageable.  The laws often contradict each other, and the twist is that the author puts his introduction at the end, in the form of a somewhat insightful conclusion.  The book is a popular staple of prison inmates (really!) and celebrities.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (9/15/18):  An indulgence in a part-time retirement hobby (political cartooning) and a break from serious subjects was on the docket this week with the enjoyable read of “The Annotated Cartoons of Homer C. Davenport” by Gus Frederick (Liberal University Press, 2013).  Homer Davenport (1867-1912) was a native son of Silverton, Oregon; his mother died when Homer was 3 years old, but she saw that he had artistic talent, and one of her last wishes was to see that her young son received the schooling to develop it.  He became an accomplished illustrator in his own right, and Davenport soon landed a job at The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, and soon found success with the New York Journal and later at the San Francisco Examiner, being recruited there by William Randolph Hearst.  His caricature and skewering of political figures raised the ire of the New York state legislature, who tried to outlaw his cartoons by requiring permission from the subject to be depicted before publication (the bill was summarily dismissed). The book, with nearly 100 cartoons, consists of alternating pages of text with an associated cartoon, and acts as a visit to the political history of the U.S. at the turn of the century during the McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations.   Gus Frederick is a Silverton native and obvious study and fan of Davenport; conducting a talk about his life at the public library during “Homer Davenport Days”, Silverton’s town festival held in the cartoonist’s honor (along with a political cartoon contest).  It’s a fun, quick read, a good overview of history, and a case study in political cartooning, of which this writer is dabbling in.

You can purchase the book by contacting press.liberaluniversity.org.  (Liberal University was a college founded in Silverton in the 1890’s and operated for about seventeen years before folding; the name is kept alive by local townsfolk.)

Weekend Book Report (9/8/18):  Occasionally,  even a dated book will be quite timely; such was the case in this week’s purchase of “The Healing of America – A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care” by T.R. Reid (Penguin Books, 2010). The longtime correspondent for the Washington Post wrote the book in 2009, just prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and has an afterword about it’s enactment published the next year.  Overall, the book is a worthy embrace of the ethical, political, philosophical and practical components of providing universal health care.  Reid, using “real world” experience by taking stiffness of his right shoulder from an old injury to health care systems around the world to be diagnosed and treated, relates his encounters in a humorous, enjoyable fashion.   He identifies four categories of health care systems; “Bismarck” (Germany), “Beveridge” (Britain), “National Health Insurance” (Canada) and the “Out of Pocket Model” ( i.e., “pay or die” – most Third World and poorer countries).  Stressing that the U.S. has all four, depending on who your are (over 65, Veteran, Native American, the employed as well as the working poor) he makes an obvious case of the failings of the for-profit insurance and health care system here, especially pre-ACA (which he describes as helpful but not a solution).  20,000 people die every year in the U.S. due to the lack of health insurance (even today), and most Americans polled would be supportive of universal access to health care in the U.S. – if they only were aware it was a problem (most are not).  But old ways die hard, especially with the benefactors (insurance companies) making a profit with a business model based on not providing a service.  Reid points out the problems with health care systems in other countries as well, and that many (doctors, patients, government) complain about how to make it work and talks of “reform”, but the common denominator he brings to the book is that administrative costs and health care costs, when figured as a percentage of that nation’s GDP (of which the U.S. leads, as well as mediocre health statistics) are considerably less in every other part of the developed world.   It’s an easy read, and will give an understanding of how the various health care systems work globally, and how to fix ours.

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

Weekend Book Report (9/1/18):  As you can probably tell by the books I read and review, I like to stay with non-fiction and stick to political, philosophical or scientific pursuits in my reading.  This time, even though it was in the non-fiction section of the local library, I took somewhat of a dare and checked out “Crux – A Cross-Border Memoir” by Jean Guerrero (One World Books, 2018).  Guerrero, who is a reporter for the NPR and PBS affiliate in San Diego, and specializes in border issues, penned this memoir which revolves around her father, weaving the tale of her and sister’s upbringing with an unstable man, and her efforts to find out the elements of truth of his life.  Metaphorically taking the crossing of the frontiers of madness (he suffered from schizophrenia) and sanity, peace and violence, family discord and harmony, personal discomfort and peace, laid against real border crossings from the U.S. and Mexico which was part of her life, she constructs a complicated tale. Unfortunately in her telling, I began to get lost in what seemed to be a ceaseless, albeit lyrical and even poetic refrain of revisited hurt, pain and angst, and found the book weary.  There are those who like it, and you may too, as she won the PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize for her work.  You’re welcome to read it; but I’ll go back to more of my standard non-fiction tastes.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (8/25/18):  This week’s read was easy, and geared more for reference, but was still weighty and no less timely. “On 1984 – Quotes for the Orwellian Future Happening Today”, edited by James Daley (Racehorse Books, 2017) is a handy little book full of quotations from authors of every political stripe and historical and contemporary era, with the subject matter involving the musings and more serious implications of encroaching totalitarianism and fascism that the world has faced and currently faces in various forms.  Five chapters categorize the quotes; “Fake News”, “Bad Hombres”, “Draining The Swamp”, “Order and Strength”, and “Resistance”.   Daley, the editor, makes no apologies about the intent of the book, to counter and make the reader aware of the dangers to freedom and democracy as a result of the election of Trump.  The quotes are telling, and the book, overall, is a good resource to keep handy to cite quotes from the famous, wise and insightful.

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

Weekend Book Report (8/17/18):  A break from political matters was in order, so I found this interesting book about another favorite pastime – hiking.  “On Trails – An Exploration” by Robert Moor (Simon and Schuster, 2016) would seem, at first blush, a story of hiking in the woods.  But don’t look for recommendations on hiking boots or places to go here; the author, a Canadian environmental writer that has worked for the New York Times, Harpers and GQ, uses his subject matter in diverse ways – metaphorically and practically.  Humans do not have a monopoly on making paths, which may be obvious, as Moor dives into ancient extinct life forms, such as slime mold, as well as contemporary animals, like ants, to demonstrate that building paths and trails were just as important to those creatures as any other – even 500 million years ago.  Paths evolve in curious ways, he writes, as the original animal trail (be it an elephant or bison) are found to be just as efficient as any highway, and ironically, humans will build them inefficiently to protect from erosion and highlight scenery – an effort not necessarily shared by other humans worldwide.   Moor traveled to many parts of the world to explore how paths and trails evolve (or not), including Newfoundland, where, in a huge open area without trails or paths, he found himself lost, even with a GPS.  His hike on the Appalachian Trail generated his original interest in writing the book, and he also became involved in  earnest plans for an International Appalachian Trail” that would trace the ancestry of the prehistoric super-continent Panagea  from Costa Rica to Morocco.   He sought out and interviewed people (walking with them for days) that have been walking most of their lives, seen by them as an element of freedom (some would call them purposely homeless).  This is an insightful and interesting book for both study of the human element as well as nature in how we get from one point to another.

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

Weekend Book Report (8/9/18):  Inevitably while vacation, I end up at book stores, and this short jaunt was no different.  I picked up four books to read, and the first was this interesting work by Boston University Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero.  “Why Liberals Win – Even When They Lose Elections” (Harper Collins, paperback, 2016) is a fascinating and carefully reasoned study of America’s “culture wars” – and why, ultimately, they make us more inclusive as a nation.  The author starts way back in U.S. history with the Puritans (the original conservatives) and their rigid posture over keeping things controlled, up to the contentious election in 1800, where Thomas Jefferson was called an “atheist, a philanderer” and – get this – “a Muslim”, and the political fractures seemed to threaten the new nation.  Additional examples by chapter include the anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, anti-immigrant movements of the 19th century, as well as the failures of prohibition and the war on drugs.  Prothero makes interesting points that have merit, although conservatives may bristle when reading them; the deployment of “warfare” analogies in their cause against the left, consistently portraying their plight as victims and as an insult to their way of life (i.e., usually Protestant, white and patriarchal).  Liberals win because conservatives take on the fight when their cause is already lost; which provides conservatives incentive to seek out, identify and fight another cause.  The result has been the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, equal rights for women, and same sex marriage.   The author points out an insightful angle; many of the conservative causes used liberal arguments, and much of the liberal push back was from trademark-conservative fear of the role of “big government”, and each chapter explores this.   Prothero’s summary is that once the polarization is displaced by actual conversation for the common good (which he says, always happens, but not without some pain) the country is put in a better place as a result.  Liberals may cheer this book, but conservatives should read it too (despite any immediate offense at the title) to gain insight to see what they’re fighting for – and more importantly, why.

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

Weekend Book Report (7/27/18):    While browsing my local book store, I came upon this short and easy read that almost feels like ancient history in light of the other developments that have happened since.  “The Bullies of Wall Street” by former FDIC chair Sheila Bair (Simon and Schuster, 2015), is a three-year old book about the traumatic “Great Recession” of ten years ago; but it’s points and information are more relevant than ever.  Bair, a Bush appointee that has worked in several administrations as a public servant, has divided her work in two sections; the first is in the form of stories (names and places changed) that show the damaging effects that the housing bubble and resulting recession had on a personal level (Main Street); the second half is about her involvement, the mechanics, policies and personalities behind what caused it, and describes even worse behavior (spoiler alert:  there are few kind words for Timothy Geithner, and everybody wanted to dump the bailout on the FDIC) by some in trying to get the economy back on it’s feet.  Competing and feuding agencies, and Congressional resistance didn’t help, either.  It’s a simple book; I found it almost too easy to read at first (especially the stories) , but noticed on the liner notes that it was for “12 and up.”  That’s ok with me; kids should read about this historical event as well, as the financial mechanics leading up to the collapse is made easily understandable.  Bair also makes a case for continued financial regulation – “too big to fail” and “too small to save” are not happy choices when Main Street is affected, and we may not have the competence in the current administration to get through another debacle like this.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (7/23/18):  I drove down the “left” lane with a book  bought at my local independent bookstore a few months ago, and finished it over the weekend.  “Global Discontents – Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy” by longtime linguist and activist Noam Chomsky (Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt Publishing – 2017) is actually a series of interviews with interlocutor (definition: someone engaged in a series of conversations) David Barsamian.  The twelve chapters are similar to a televised interview with a question and answer exchange, and is an easy read, even for the political novice.   Chomsky, now 87, discusses  imperialism, climate change, elections, fearmongering, the Middle East and Israel and a host of other topics, including memories of his childhood in New York City.   As expected from a former opponent of the Vietnam War, an advocate for the Occupy movement and other causes, his comments are highly critical of U.S. involvement in foreign affairs, as well as corporate infiltration and domination of the West’s power structure – at the expense of the environment and human rights.  Also, as expected, his comments are highly effective, simple and logical.  He refers to many of the challenges on the world stage as “dry kindling”, ready to be ignited at any moment and any place that can start a conflagration of human disaster – or lasting change.   Those on the right will bristle, those on the left will cheer, but at any rate the arguments put forth by this long time MIT professor are hard to refute.

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

Weekend Book Report (7/21/18):  Another “Lucky Day” book at the library filled this week’s reading; “Standoff – How American Became Ungovernable” by Bill Schneider (Simon and Schuster, 2018) is an interesting history on the political dynamics of presidential elections.  Schneider is a professor of Government and Public Policy at George Mason University and works at other universities, and has written columns for a host of major newspapers and magazines, as well as a political analyst for CNN for nineteen years (1990-2009).  His work, which after reading it,  has a more ominous sounding title than the actual content, starts with the 1964 election, with Barry Goldwater as the losing Republican candidate, as a watershed event in political history where cultural issues (anti-Communism) defined the debate – and lost.  Elections after that continued the polarization, and some elections, Schnieder muses, had the right guy but the wrong idea, and some initiatives that were thought to derail an incumbent (Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky affair) actually backfired.  He says our country is the most populous one in the world, and it’s a curious dive into the workings as to why Americans vote the way they do.  His summary into our current affairs is hopeful – our government was built to make it hard to do things on purpose to put the check on tyrants and megalomaniacs like the current occupant of the White House.  Short of a disaster or coup, Schneider says the guardrails are in place, but the people must be the ones to make sure they hold.  This is a good read for political science buffs, election watchers or those who just want to get a handle on what’s going on.

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

Weekend Book Report (7/16/18):  After a visit to the library on Friday, I found this “Lucky Day” book (you only get it for two weeks and can’t be renewed) that is somewhat of an antidote for the previous read below.  “Factfulness – 10 Reasons We’re Wrong About The World -and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling, in collaboration with his son and daughter-in-law (Flatiron Books, 2018) is an unabashedly optimistic (Hans calls it “being possibilistic”) look at the progress the world has made since 1800, when objectively viewed through the world of data.  He should know, Rosling (who unfortunately died of pancreatic cancer shortly after his book was released) was a medical doctor, public educator and adviser to UNICEF and the World Health Organization, and was a member of Doctors Without Borders.  His major work was using United Nations and other organization’s data to analyze, solve and propose better outcomes for societies and countries around the world.  Refusing to accept the terms “developed” and “developing” countries, the Swedish doctor uses four levels of income (1 being the poorest) to determine correlating conditions (child mortality, life expectancy).  He expands on the theme of using data in objective and analytical ways, cautioning the reader to avoid pitfalls that shape the popular perception that everything is awful – including blame, proportion, a sense of unneeded urgency and fear, among others.  He points out media, politicians and activists as culprits, but doesn’t blame them, they’re just a human as the rest of us with our perceptions, and lays out a simple guide to help sort it all out.  Rosling is no Pollyanna, he has sober comments on the real challenges the world faces, but when put in the perspective of historical data, we have come a long way.  The trio have also established two websites, gapminder.com and dollarstreet.com – both of which are fascinating – to help the reader understand their concepts and ultimately get a more real understanding of the world.  It’s an enjoyable read (I finished it in a weekend) and gives a more refreshing perspective than cable news or politicians jacking their jaws.

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

Weekend Book Report (7/14/18):   “Alternative Facts”, myths, superstitions and other boogeymen have always been a part of human history; this week’s book discusses how it has affected America, from the earliest white-settler times to the contemporary Internet era.  “Fantasyland – How America Went Haywire, a 500-year History” by Kurt Andersen (Random House, 2017) is an interesting take on how religion, superstition, disinformation, belief and disbelief has been part and parcel of the development of America and our United States.  Andersen is a prolific writer and Harvard grad (and was editor of the Harvard Lampoon while a student there), penning columns for the New York Times and Vanity Fair and is co-founder of Spy Magazine.   His lengthy work (440 pages) starts with the Puritans and Pilgrims, whose religious beliefs help bring about the Salem witch trials and other atrocities, and works it’s way through history, including the genocide of Native Americans, who were thought, through rumor, myth and belief, to be agents of the devil.  As technology progressed (the printing press, telegraph, telephone) the impressions and communication of beliefs, (founded or more than likely, not) became more sophisticated and complicated.  As the wide-open frontier was settled in the 18th and 19th centuries, the “rugged individualism” that was revered also made allowances for those to believe what they wanted, resulting in the expansion of various religious sects (Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventist, the “Vineyard” churches) and other mindsets – setting the framework for, as Andersen says, the “Fantasy-Industrial Complex” that exists today.   Disneyland, the New Age Esalen Institute, manufactured political boogeymen, lies, damned lies, conspiracies and television are all modern-day manifestations of this historical framework, and Andersen nicely crafts his thesis into relevance with the age of the Internet.  We can truly believe what we want to believe, and the Internet will validate it.   He explains how Trump has mastered this by validating his “facts” by what he “reads on the internet” and won a base of voters who went along for the ride.  He holds out hope that the “Fantasy-Industrial complex” has or will reach it’s peak soon, says the author, and as an admitted optimist, our nation will survive, sober up and maybe even be smarter when it settles out.  It’s a lengthy read, but manageable, with short chapters and a linear progression, and those students of history, sociology, religion and political science – as well as those concerned with the direction of humanity and our country in general – will find it fulfilling.

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

Weekend Book Report (7/5/18):  Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright is no intellectual slouch and is an astute observer of history, with a Ph.D from Columbia University.   An experienced professor, she presents lessons that need to be learned – and that readers should take heed.  “Fascism – A Warning” (Harper Collins, 2018) delves into biographical summaries of fascists throughout history, including Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, among others, with the purpose of comparing their common denominators and clarifying often conflicting definitions of the term.  She includes her personal history as a young girl in Czechoslovakia, where she saw the unraveling of democratic efforts in her own country through her own eyes and that of her father.   Using Mussolini’s often-used refrain “pluck the chicken one feather at a time”, Albright stresses that fascism (which she defines as obtaining power by legitimate means to eventually attempt to exert it’s permanence through force and to control the populace) is insidious, often disguised as populism at first and often with “buy-in” by those seeking certainty, which is occasionally not found in democratic institutions, which by their nature are deliberative, laborious and slow.   She says she would write this book even if Hillary Clinton was elected, since many countries are falling into the fascist trap (Hungary, Cambodia and others) and it needs to be recognized, but her focus and conclusion near the end of the book is the similarities of the current occupant of the White House to populism (which she says, is inherently not bad) at least, and authoritarian regimes (at worst), calling him the “most un-democratic President our nation has seen”).  While cheering the new-found civic engagement as a reactiion, she remains cautious and extols Americans to remain vigilant in preserving democratic principles in freedoms in this – as she puts it – “our indispensible country.”

It’s available at an independent book store or public library near you.

Weekend Book Report (6/30/18):   It took two weeks to read this one, because (1) I was reading while traveling and (2) it’s a comprehensive work.  My wife helped after taking and interest and started to read it, and instead of having her chase my bookmark, I finished “Sapiens, A Brief History of Mankind” (Harper / Perennial Books – 2015) by Yuval Noah Harari in a two-day flurry.  The book, a heavy, handsome paperback with glossy and heavy paper that must weigh five pounds, is a humorous, touching and ultimately thought-provoking work of the story of humankind throughout the ages.  Harari, who has a PhD. in world history from Oxford, starts with early man, with it’s five species of Homo,  and travels through time, whittling down to just Homo Sapiens, past the Agricultural Revolution, Industrial Revolution to the modern era, and provides different perspectives than conventional history and your school textbook, or even conventional wisdom (e.g., hunter-gatherers may have been the happiest historical group since agriculture bound humans to the earth, time, location and even more vulnerable to the mercy of the elements).   The author explores the relationship of religion, ignorance, war, the development of states and the market economy, the pursuit of resources and human ingenuity through short and enjoyable vignettes within chapters with differing historical paradigms, making a comprehensive story manageable.  Although “brief” is in the title, it’s still a lot of history and covers 450 pages, so it’s not a weekend book, but Harari covers historical ground efficiently and leaves the reader with a different, even expanded view of humankind’s impact on earth, as well as fascinating (and ominous) impacts for the future.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (6/9/18):  In what seems to be a streak of memoirs released by publishers lately, this week’s read was Senator John McCain’s “The Restless Wave” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).  The Senator, now fighting brain cancer that he admits will soon claim his life, had the help of one of his longtime aides, Mark Salter, in crafting his history, giving first-hand accounts of mostly political and wartime experiences, with some personal and philosophical comments included.   McCain recounts his experiences in Vietnam, as a Naval officer and his foray into politics. As expected, the political realm dominates, and the Senator readily admits that though he could be stubborn ,  and politics can seem personal and heated in the thick of the battle and often one can wind up making regrettable statements (which he also readily admits).  But at the end of the day, the common denominator, repeated throughout the book, is the transcendence of the infighting and the overall good relationships he garnered in his tenure, all because of being focused on the good of America.  It’s as if a paraphrase could be “we may have punched each other in the nose, but after it’s over, we buy each other a round.”  His political positions and statements are recounted and consistent as well; Vladimir Putin is an evil despot bent on undermining the West, and Donald Trump is either an unwitting or witting useful idiot or overt partner doing his bidding; civility and respect must return to political discourse; his famous “thumbs down” vote on repealing ACA, and reiterating the Republican mantra of a strong defense, fiscal accountability and personal responsibility.  He covers the presidential campaign with Sarah Palin with his running mate, but is somewhat oblique about the impact that her behavior had on the ticket.   McCain reveals a special respect for soldiers and dissidents fighting for freedom overseas, and features several vignettes on those he met; some with success and some who lost their lives.   Even if you didn’t agree with his political decisions, the book is an insightful self-reflection, one that will give a degree of respect for McCain’s remarkable political career.

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

Weekend Book Report (6/4/18):  I managed to read two books this week, and this one, albeit shorter (212 pages) was much deeper.  Barbara Ehrenreich has a dozen good works;  her critically acclaimed “Nickel and Dimed,” published in 2001, was a stinging critique on the way the economy treats the working poor.  Many may not know she holds a Ph.D. in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University in New York, and she uses some of that knowledge, as well as philosophy, economic and political criticism in her book “Natural Causes – an Epidemic of Wellness, The Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer” (Hachette Books, 2018).   The author, now at age 76, takes a hard look at aging and mortality (including her own), it’s effects on the body and mind, and our society’s seemingly incessant insistence that it must be something to combat, and the charlatans and businesses that are more than happy to help (at a fee).  Without totally  dismissing the need for a healthy lifestyle, she examines the health club craze, the doctor/patient relationship, the heroic efforts (and tremendous expense and often at the objection) of treating those who are seriously in decline, as a means of “victory” over death – even if it’s for a month.  Her field of study comes into play as she discusses the views of medical professionals regarding the causes of cancer, diabetes and other illnesses – and that many are caused irrespective of one’s fitness or adherence to regimented workouts and diets.  She cites studies that even the immune system and it’s “good guys” (macrophages, T-cells) can often collaborate in the causes and advancement of disease.  She wraps up with perspectives on mortality, philosophy and “how to rejoice” in a living world without thinking it will go on forever (yes, there are some Silicon Valley megalomaniacs that think they will, if technology permits).  It’s deep, but easily readable and worth it; something to think about while you’re on that Stairmaster in the gym, missing out on a beautiful, sunny day at the park with friends.

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

Weekend Book Report (6/2/18):  With the retirements, firings and turnover in this tumultuous political circus, there’s ample opportunity to read some of the memoirs and stories from some of the notable players involved.  “Facts and Fears – Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence” by retired Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (Penguin/Random House, 2018) is one of several currently on the best-seller lists.  Clapper, who served over fifty years in the military and intelligence services, recounts his life as a young man growing up as an “Army brat” – moving from place to place, as his father was in a similar government position.  His epiphany to get into intelligence  happened when he discovered the radio transmissions of the Philadelphia police department by holding the knob on the television between channels.  (His father promptly praised his resourcefulness.)  After enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1961, Clapper entered various realms of intelligence gathering and methods, including the Vietnam War, and rose through the ranks to serve both the Bush and Obama administrations.  Clapper, who collaborated on the book with DNI colleague Trey Brown, has a timeline that uses a mix of  government acronyms, names and situations that can become quite wonky (after all, this is intelligence gather and government work – and he has a glossary of acronyms in the appendix) but pulls it together with the rationale for what’s happening, some depth into personalities involved, and the outcomes to keep it interesting.  Addressing Vietnam, 9/11, Benghazi, fights with Congress over funding and the crises created by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning’s espionage, Clapper’s main theme is that intelligence gathering is just that; information obtained so executives can form policy, and members of the IC (intelligence community) are overall, hard-working, smart people with integrity – not those that will want to snoop on your emails to see if you partied too hard last weekend or cheat on your spouse.  His main indictment is at the end – that the Russians are currently our most dangerous enemy, and they influenced and shaped the outcome of the 2016 election, and, elated with their success, will do so in the future.  It is in their interests to see the U.S. fail, or at least become so acrimonious that governance and trust in our democracy are called into question.  Although not linking the current president directly (intelligence will never link items directly unless overwhelming evidence supports it), Clapper calls the “purposeful disinterest” by him and his administration in addressing the Russian attacks a monumental threat to our nation, as well as his continued denigration of government institutions, freedoms, the press and disdain for ethics and civility.  At 77 and retired from government service, Clapper, untethered by public service protocols, sounds a clarion call to citizens to recognize and take action on all of them – and in the meantime provides an interesting life story.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (5/25/18):  This week’s hardcover is one of the newer releases I’ve read (hot off the press, and currently #2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list), and it’s timeliness and theme ring quite true in this age.  “The Soul of America – The Battle for our Better Angels” by Jon Meacham (Random House, 2018) is a handsome work, viewed through the lens of some of the darker moments in American history, and placed in the context of the troubling times we have today.  Although he only mentions the current President by name in a few instances, Meacham, a biographer and visiting professor of history at Vanderbilt University, juxtaposes the populism, demagoguery and authoritarian tendencies of today to the similar crises of the earlier years of our nation, and yields hope that principled leadership and the involvement of the common citizen will prevail and preserve the republic, as it did then.  He chronicles, in easy but concise chapters, the  leadership and works of Lincoln, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Reagan, and a few other chief executives, as well as non-elected leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.  In facing challenges such as the Civil War, Reconstruction, enacting turn-of-the-century progressivism, World Wars I and II, women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement, the author reminds us that the presidency may be a superhuman task, but it’s only humans that are called to master it – and those who have the sense of our “better angels” (Lincoln’s words) will succeed.  He wraps up the book with counsel on how a citizen can work to fight off the shadow of authoritarianism and corruption we face with the current occupant of the White House and to be a good, practiced citizen in any event.   We’ve had plenty of duds in the White House before (the late 1800’s comes to mind) and, with some work, we’ll survive this one, he says.  It’s telling that the author, in showcasing the masterful leaders we have had over history, doesn’t even have to gauge the caliber of the present one – he doesn’t even come close – but must be challenged, for the sake of preserving our republic.

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

Weekend Book Report (5/18/2018):  Despite the coarse title and irreverent language inside, this New York Times Bestseller (#1 a while back, selling three million copies) offers some really solid advice, especially for the younger set for which this book is targeted.  Boston blogger and author Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***,  A Counter-intuitive Approach to Living a Good Life” (HarperCollins, 2016)  starts out by turning “feel good” assumptions about how to live right on their head – that such expectations of having to be fit, successful, productive, handsome or beautiful and wealthy (he terms “mindless positivity”) creates a manifestation of inadequacy that causes a person to not feel good about themselves, precisely because they are always measuring themselves to that standard.  The “Subtle Art” and the verb that comes with the title (“giving a f***”) means that for self-improvement to really work, take all those expectations and toss them.  All the mass media marketing, material acquisition and social status efforts are meaningless, and a lot of what goes on in the human condition sucks anyway – so work your way up from there.  After engaging that, take what is really important (“giving a f***”) and choose carefully – with the emphasis on the word choose (an entire section is dedicated to “You are always choosing.”)  Each provocative chapter title (i.e., “You’re Wrong About Everything”, “Victimhood Chic”) provides keen, but rough-edged, nuggets of wisdom, much of it from Manson’s own experiences and not academic exercises (his degree is in finance from Boston University).   The book will stretch your mind and see things about yourself that you haven’t been aware of before – and, if you can get past the title term and the other coarsities, you may learn something in the value of the subtle art of giving a F***.”

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

 

Weekend Book Report (5/14/2018):   Interest in diplomatic and military intrigue drove my purchase of “War On Peace – The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence” by Ronan Farrow (W.W. Norton, 2018).  The author, with an interesting background in his own right (a Rhodes scholar, son of actress Mia Farrow and possibly Woody Allen or Frank Sinatra) launched into a career of diplomacy and journalism, including exposing Harvey Weinstein’s sexual improprieties (which, interestingly, NBC declined to broadcast, but The New Yorker did).  His book is broken into three parts; the first features vignettes about American diplomats, including Richard Holbrooke, Hillary Clinton, Robin Raphael and others, and examines diplomatic efforts that were handicapped by what Farrow terms as the “militarization” of foreign policy.  Farrow worked with many of them while working in the Obama administration’s State Department, so much of the narrative is first-hand experience or direct interview.  In some cases, diplomacy failed because it was too tedious, and in some cases it was unforced errors or coordination with other departments of government, but in many others, diplomacy was purposely undercut (including the arrest of Robin Raphael for espionage, charges that were later dropped) or ignored by the military-industrial complex that dominates decision making at the White House, dating back to the Reagan years.  The second part deals with some of the events and characters U.S. diplomats had to deal with, including General Dustom of Afghanistan, who is eyed as being complicit (as well as U.S. forces) for the mass grave of thousands of Taliban prisoners, executed by “Northern Alliance” regulars at the outset of the Afghan war.  This event, suppressed for a decade, has never really come to light in U.S. media or acknowledgement by Bush II, Obama, or Trump administrations.  The third part covers the misadventures of American foreign policy (again at the suppression of diplomacy) in Afghanistan and other countries; most recently, Syria, where U.S. CIA-backed rebels end up fighting U.S.-military backed rebels in a complicated cluster to attempt to remove Assad, ISIL, and who knows who else.  Farrow’s overarching theme is the unfortunate decline of the State Department and the work of Foreign Service Officers who are talented and difficult to replace, mostly by design with budget cuts, domination by the military in the White House and outright hostility from the Trump administration, but also due to dated technology and an embedded bureaucratic inertia, that many State Department employees agreed should be reconstituted.  Diplomacy takes time, and many times, it works – and he cites examples as well.   His interviews with the likes of Rex Tillerson, Condoleezza Rice and other top officials offer a broad swath of perspective of our recent history of diplomacy, and he makes a case that even if it’s slower, diplomacy is cheaper, less brutal and many times more effective than warfare (although he agrees force is the underlying hammer in achieving goals), and we should be enhancing, not handicapping it.   If unchecked, America’s image and stature will continue to decline abroad.

This book can be purchased at your local independent bookstore or local public library.

Weekend Book Report (5/7/2018):  Our bi-weekly trip to Costco for certain provisions, like cases or paper towels or five-pound sacks of frozen blueberries, also includes the obligatory look at their book table.  The decisions to stock the books can be somewhat unpredictable and sometimes seems to reflect the political leaning of that week’s floor manager – one visit it’s flooded with insipid right-wing pap from Dinesh D’Souza or Mark Levin, the next week can be noted with stacks of Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened” or even Noam Chomsky.  But I digress; at this visit they had a stack of pro football defensive end Michael Bennett’s “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable” (Haymarket Books, 2018), so I grabbed one.   The book is a quick read; Bennett, who worked with author Dave Zirin, writes like he speaks – with passion, and articulately, but with enough force to let you know he means business when it comes to issues dear to him.  Police shootings of unarmed blacks, racism, income disparities between races and gender, and “food deserts” where minorities find it difficult to find healthy food choices due to the lack of stores are among his action items.   He clearly explains how being a successful NFL player leveraged his activism to draw attention to these issues, as well as the occupational hazards he and others (i.e. Colin Kaepernick) faced in expressing them, such as taking a knee during the national anthem.  He juxtaposes this to being “just another black guy” on the street , where his experiences (facing overt racism at Texas A&M when not in a football uniform, and being slammed to the ground by police in Las Vegas) puts the issue of “walking while black” in a whole different light.  He calls out NFL and NBA owners and right-wing media who twisted his and the Black Lives Matter message, and offers a cautionary tale about the NCAA to those considering college football.   Bennett wraps up his activism with a call for inclusion, urging people of all colors to get together and understand each other’s issues and puts a plug in for a new organization, “Athletes for Impact” (AFI).   Although it may some white folks “uncomfortable”, it’s a worthy read, and offers perspective – from a well-spoken and tireless activist – to those who may just need it.

It’s available at your local independent book store or public library, and, last I looked, at Costco.

Weekend Book Report (5/3/18):   I gravitated to the philosophy and religion section of my local book store for reading during a pair of short vacations; this one turned out to be an interesting treatise on the counsel of human behavior.  “12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos” by Jordan B. Peterson (Random House /Canada, 2018) is a fascinating, although occasionally wandering, book of advice.  Peterson is a practicing clinical psychologist that has taught at Harvard, and more currently at the University of Toronto, and has served as adviser to numerous law firms and the Secretary General at the U.N.  His lectures and works have become increasingly popular across Canada and the U.S., especially among millennials looking for some common sense advice and rules to apply to life.   His book starts with a foreword by a colleague that sets the history and philosophical framework of the book; and Peterson follows up with twelve interesting chapters with the “rule” as each title.  Many chapters start with a puzzling non-sequitur, and the narrative can seem to go all over the map in observation, source and logic, but by the end, the author wraps it up and makes sense out of such rules – such as “don’t bother children when they are skateboarding” (#11), “pet a cat when you encounter one on the street” (#12) or more seriously, “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” (#4), or “tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie” (#8).  You may not agree with some of his fundamentals and conclusions (especially the recent controversy over his comments about male dominance), but their are a few gems, and the ride is certainly entertaining in getting to them.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (4/30/18):   A few weeks ago I bought some books to take along while traveling on a pair of short vacations; I gravitated to the philosophy and religion sections and picked up not one, but two!   The first, “Making Sense of God – An Invitation to the Skeptical” by Timothy Keller (Penguin, 2016) appears at first blush by the cover and liner to be a philosophical discussion covering the realms of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Keller, whose background includes studies at Bucknell University, the Gordon-Conwell and Westminster Theologicial Seminaries, is a well-known Christian intellectual who has worked to establish new churches in large cities and is head of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City.  But as a defender and advocate for the Christian faith, the book repeatedly steers the reader back into Christian church doctrine and discounts the skeptics, but not by sweltering in fire and brimstone or the hollow promise of prosperity-based faith of some suburban mega-churches.  Keller’s mission is to connect with the urban masses, and this work reflects the intellectual discussions of faith that are often found in that population.  It’s worthy reading for believer or non-believer alike.

It can be found at your local independent book store or local public library.

 

Weekend Book Report (4/5/18):  From the days of it being used as a medicine, to the craziness of “reefer madness”, the issue of marijuana usage and legal status is featured in my reading this week of “Grass Roots:  The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America” by Emily Dufton (Hachette Book Group, 2017).   Dufton, a Ph.D in American Studies at George Washington University, has presented a well-researched work in the history of the legal issues surrounding the drug (don’t be looking at this book for information about marijuana itself), focusing on the role that activists and others – hippies, suffering patients, moralizing politicians and concerned parents – have had over the years.   Two particularly interesting stories are of “Mary Jane” Rathbun, who baked thousands of marijuana brownies in San Francisco for AIDS patients during the height of the epidemic, becoming somewhat of a folk hero, to Robert Randall, an unassuming, quiet man who found, quite accidentally in his mid-20s, that smoking pot relieved his glaucoma, preserving his vision and as a result, and became the first person to beat government charges against him for possession since it was deemed medically necessary.  The author also recounts the history of the anti-pot groups, including suburban Atlanta parents who wanted to protect adolescents from drug use after finding them stoned at a party that evolved into the “Just Say No” movement, which First Lady Nancy Reagan co-opted for a time until the Reagan administration abandoned their effort by cutting off funds.  Legislation, at the state and federal level, also rides a roller coaster between anti and pro-pot forces, and many of the players, including NORML – (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws) and it’s leader Keith Stroup,  as well as Stephen Kafoury and Umatilla Republican pig farmer Stafford Hansell, both Oregon State Representatives who introduced the first decriminalization legislation, provide interesting stories on the road to decriminalization.    Dufton wraps up her book without moralizing the issue either way, but provides advice on how to advocate (pro or con) for marijuana legislation, and concedes public opinion may continue to vacillate.  But with 28 states either legalizing recreational or medicinal pot, or both, she concedes that the tide may have turned, especially due to the futility of incarcerating people when so many other more weighty substances (heroin, meth) need to be addressed.   It a great history lesson and worth the read to get context, no matter how you feel about the use of marijuana.

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

Weekend Book Report (3/30/18):   My last report was a long read, but this selection was short (30 minutes) but stunningly more powerful, impressive and timely.  “On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books, 2017) is a small pamphlet that could well be a “Common Sense” (by Tom Paine) manual for modern times.   With short reflections on history, Snyder, a professor of history at Yale,  states in plain terms the symptoms and danger of the rise of fascism and authoritarianism (from both the Nazi and Communist eras) and more ominously, the tacit approval of it’s growth made by public complacency.   He identifies similarities with modern-day U.S. politics and asserts that although history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it does instruct, but its patterns are often forgotten until the populace finds itself as accomplices, willing or not, in perpetrating horrible acts against fellow citizens, forfeiting freedom and destroying Western democracy.  Our Founding Fathers recognized this history and built safeguards in the documents they crafted, but they are only as effective as the defense of those safeguards by the citizenry. The book is in the form of “lessons”, and Snyder lays out, in succinct terms, how to recognize, resist and repel growing authoritarianism – especially as demonstrated since the 2016 election – to preserve our freedom and our democratic republic.  It’s a must read for anyone dedicated to preserving liberty, and fits in your shirt pocket for mobility – and to share.

It’s available at your local independent bookstore (you should buy one when possible and give one as a gift) or your local public library.

Weekend Book Report (3/29/18):  It’s been a while since my last report because my latest read, “Collapse” by Jared Diamond (Penguin Books, 2006), was nearly 600 pages and took a full two weeks of unhurried reading to get through.  Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA, was the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel”, and this follow-up work is a comprehensive treatise about various societies in human history that failed, died off, or otherwise disappeared.  The book is divided in four sections; the first two includes the stories of Easter island, Polynesia, the Greenland Norse and societies of the Desert Southwest and Central America (i.e., the Mayans) and examines the actions of each that contributed to their demise, as well as adjacent or nearby societies and settlements that thrived and still do so today (i.e., Iceland).  In an interesting twist, he discusses the competing influences of development in his adopted and favorite home, the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, to frame his debate.    Fast forward to modern societies in the third section, and the author lays out similarities in failed societies actions of the past with those of the present; Rwanda, Haiti, and those who you wouldn’t necessarily think are in danger – China and Australia – whose actions, especially with the squandering of natural resources and introduction of invasive species, put their existence in peril.  It’s a lot of doom and gloom, especially in the last chapter, and the author indicts corporations who act in their own self-interest at the expense of ecological balance and sustainability to much of the blame, but Diamond points out a needed, new recognition that if a society is to exist, survive and thrive, its members need to understand and work toward sustainability, and lays the responsibility of doing so primarily on the general public. ( In other words, don’t count on governments and corporations to do it on their own, although some do).  It’s a long, thorough read, but the chapters and vignettes are easily taken in short segments, and, being written 12 years ago, misses some important developments that have happened since publication.  But it’s worth it to understand human and natural history with this thoughtful and deep work.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (3/10/18):  There are hundreds of books on relaxation, meditation and self-help, and all seem to have a different method or take on how to cope in a hyperactive, stressful world.  Dan Harris, an news reporter on ABC and a host on Good Morning America, in collaboration with meditation instructor Jeff Warren and writer Carlye Adler, has penned a work – “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptcis” (Penguin / Random House, 2017) – that is part road trip, part meditation practices and part personal story, that is as entertaining as it may be practical for many.  Harris is known (as he affectionately recounts in the book) as the guy who had a panic attack on live television while delivering a newscast (now a famouse You Tube video).  His experience, which he says was from being in overdrive in a competitive industry and probably some drug use to cope with it, drove him to try meditation.  His meditation work wasn’t formal, and it manifested itself in many different ways, but it worked, and his motive is to get folks to try it – in whatever form they can.   After seeing what it did for his life, Harris and met Warren, and together rented a tour bus (once used by musician George Clinton and the band Funkadelic) and toured around the country, encouraging anyone who would listen and visit to try meditation out (guaranteeing it would make them at least “10% happier” – which became the trademark of their tour).  The road trip story, intertwined with meditation methods, advice, benefits and other people’s personal stories of both skepticism and trying meditation out, is an entertaining read that draws in the humor of a Hollywood movie as well as practical advice, and drives home Harris’ point that it’s not a chore or a regimen, and whatever way it works for you will work – so just try it.

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

Weekend Book Report (3/3/18):  At my wife’s recommendation, this week’s reading got away from politics and into history, but in some ways it was environmental politics and history.  “The Invention of Nature – Alexander Von Humbolt’s New World” (Vintage Books, 2015) by British writer Andrea Wulf is a lengthy, comprehensive work on an often-overlooked contributor to exploration and science.  Humboldt was born in Prussia to an entitled, wealthy family, but had an insatiable appetite for science, and was found to study and measure everything.   He was sequestered in Europe by a domineering mother, but after she passed, he took his inheritance and began to explore the world, including notable and consequential trips to the Amazon region of South America, Latin America, and Russia.  He was dutiful and diligent in taking measurements, notes and making drawings of his surroundings, sometimes at his peril; he climbed mountain peaks up to 19,000 feet and explored thick jungles wearing only early 1800’s gear, but always carrying the heavy and clumsy scientific instruments.  The book is rather lengthy, but successfully draws together the notion that Humboldt was the first to claim the intricate connectedness of nature, and mankind’s impact on it (“there are three detriments to the climate”, he says, “deforestation, aggressive irrigation, and the massive amount of steams and gases”).  Wulf also stresses the political impacts Humboldt had on others, he disdained the colonialism of the Spaniards in South America and inspired Simon Bolivar, who was studying in Europe at the time, as well as meetings and influences on Darwin, John Muir, Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh.  A comprehensive and worthy read on the world’s first natural scientist and environmental advocate.

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

Weekend Book Report (2/18/18):   Our rights and liberties, enshrined in the Constitution, have occasionally been threatened over the history of our country (Japanese internment, suspension of habeus corpus, among others) and to this day; each time citizens have fought back using our founding document to keep those forces in check.  “Engines of Liberty – How Citizen Movements Succeed” (Basic Books, 2016), by David Cole, the National Legal Director of the ACLU, explores and discusses three major citizen efforts and examines how they prevailed, and he uses these lessons as a cautionary tale on how to resist the propensity of authoritarianism demonstrated by the current administration.  Cole examines the issues of same-sex marriage, individual gun rights, and rights of due process for those detained and arrested without cause, especially at Guantanamo prison.  The author interviewed individuals who were integral contributors, and their methods differed in several ways due to the goals to be achieved.   Same-sex marriage was a right fought to be obtained, individual gun ownership was a 2nd Amendment right to be preserved, and the rendition and detainment of prisoners without process was a basic constitutional and human rights issue dating back to the Magna Carta.  Cole chronicles the work, with the first two finally being addressed by the Supreme Court after being petitioned state by state, and the last issue was resolved by public and media pressure, as well as other western democracies that saw those actions as illegal, and pressured the U.S. with diplomacy and  public statements.  The principles, passion and methods on the road to winning are telling – the stories of the NRA, GLAAD and tireless human rights lawyers are impressive –  and come with a warning; “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”, and Cole also cautions the reader (and by inference, the American people) that sitting and waiting for someone else to do it will not result in success.   Freedom is a contact sport and requires involvement, and his work is a good guidebook to shine light on the darkness of authoritarianism that now shadows our nation.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (2/14/18):   The storied history of newsman Dan Rather is a book in itself; however this short and and to-the-point series of essays exemplifies his call for a renewed emphasis of American ideals.  “What Unites Us – Reflections on Patriotism” (Algonquin Books, 2017), written in collaboration with colleague Elliot Kirschner, has segments that  Rather says are elements of America that are our country’s signature – Freedom, Community, Exploration, Responsibility and Character.  Each of the themes have chapters that explore and celebrate those issues; and stresses that we haven’t really lost them, but need to rediscover them again, especially in light of the divisiveness that currently plagues our country.  His writing is direct and a compelling read; Rather, at 86, is an American journalistic institution with both dignity and warts, and he makes no illusions about that as well.   His craft reflects his own patriotism, which readers may pay heed and reflect as their own.

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

 

 

Weekend Book Report (2/3/18): This book struck me as interesting; since I was quite the “nerd” as a kid, the term “awkward” seemed to relate and drove the selection of this week’s read.  Ty Tashiro, a Ph.D. who received his doctorate in psychology from the University of Minnesota and appears on NPR and TED talks, manages to take all of those pejorative terms and wrap them up into a somewhat-clinical study in “Awkward – the Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward – And Why That’s Awesome” (Harper Collins, 2017).  Starting with his own experience – an uncomfortable meeting-up with an aggressive girl at a junior high dance – Tashiro expounds on those who “march to a different drummer”.  He explains the socially awkward as those who have a differing sense of focusing on what’s important at any given moment; for instance, one who walks into a room and zeroes in on the dog, or inanimate object such as a lamp, at the expense of exchanging greetings and introductions.  It’s a small example, but Tashiro touches on many other aspects of awkwardness in the book, especially with children (who can be taught out of it, taking advantage of the same awkwardness skills).  Awkwardness doesn’t grow out of adults, either, and several chapters are dedicated to defining the issue, as well as the skills to overcome it, whether it’s in the social graces, work, or, ahem, sex – and again, defining them as a strength to be used instead of a handicap.  It’s a fun read, as the Gen X perspective of Tashiro is entertaining for this boomer.  It’s not exactly a public health crisis – but it’s a good insight on why some of us “march to a different drummer” .

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

 

Weekend Book Report (1/25/18):  Having taken up writing, studying journalism, and crafting editorial cartoons, I found this time-honored reference book to be dry, occasionally boring, and dull – but inherently indispensable.  The “Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law – 2017” (Basic Books, 2017) is a handy, substantial book compiled and authored by the news co-op.  It is for those who want to not only write news and hone writing skills, but to help in understanding how news reporting, either in print or video, is crafted.  As the year notation implies, it is updated regularly to reflect changes in language, world events and people.  AP has been pretty much free of accusations of bias and scandal; the guidelines for reporter conduct are just as important as the constructs of the language.  The first half of the book is dictionary-like; many common phrases, acronyms and even slang are described as to what they are and how they should be used, and the other half of the book describes terms used in religion, business, sports and straight news with short definitions.  Included in the latter part of the book are important guides on privacy, sources (both confidential and upfront), access to government records and journalism law.  I found this copy at the library, ironically, it’s really one that should be bought and kept around the house, whether you write or not.  It’s got information that can be found useful – just peruse it once to gain familiarity, and you’ll be going back to it for reference many times – whether to enhance your knowledge or maybe even win a trivia game!

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

 

 

Weekend Book Report (1/20/18):  As a follow-up to last week’s book about reforming the NSA, I checked out this one about the person whose actions started the crisis.  “How America Lost Its Secrets – Edward Snowden, The Man and The Theft” by Edward Jay Epstein (Alfred Knopf, 2017) is part investigative journalism, part editorial comment and also a “whodunit” spy story about the American who pilfered thousands of top-secret files while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency, and landed in Russia.  Epstein is a noted investigative journalist and former political science professor at MIT, and this work is deep, detailed and rather lengthy.  He interviewed many of Snowden’s associates, acquaintances and others as well as members of U.S., British and Russian intelligence agencies.  He dismisses the popular theme that Snowden was a “whistle-blower”, with the purpose of exposing widespread surveillance and privacy invasion of Americans, and instead characterizes much of his actions as a defector / spy.  Snowden moved between several intelligence contractors, and the exposure afforded him all-too-easy access to top-secret “keys to the kingdom” files, and Epstein’s investigative manner  points out how damaging those exposures were, and also how Snowden received help.  It’s a rather long book, and some of the points are repeated for emphasis, but the chapters are short and concise – making for a good (but, unfortunately, real-life) spy story that critically handicapped the intelligence efforts of the Western democracies.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (1/13/18):  This book was as timely as it was informative; “Beyond Snowden – Privacy, Mass Surveillance, and the Struggle to Reform the NSA” (Brookings Institution Press, 2017) by Timothy H. Edgar.  The author is a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and was an director for civil liberties on the Obama administration’s National Security Staff.  After the revelations of Edward Snowden, which shook public faith and confidence in intelligence gathering with exposing the methods of the NSA taking records on everybody, Edgar chronicles the work at the White House and elsewhere in the struggle to regain the balance of privacy, civil liberties and finding out what the bad guys are doing.  He was an integral part of the intelligence community, and (with some clearance and discretion admittedly issued to him due to national security concerns)  Edgar brings up the dynamic on how intelligence gathering policy is made and executed.  Some didn’t care who got caught up in the sweep (Dick Cheney, in particular)and how it was used; others really wanted to ratchet down the NSA’s capabilities.  Edgar also visited and speaks of other countries’ methods and policies; authoritarian states, as expected, make book on everybody with impunity, while Western democracies (in this case, Germany and Britain) struggle with scope and intent, just like the U.S.  This is not a spy novel, it’s a thoughtful work on intelligence policy based on first-hand experience, and makes an interesting read for those concerned about civil liberties in the world of electronic surveillance.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (1/4/17):  After a brief reading respite for the holidays, I dived into a book with a rather rude title, but is quite timely in dealing with the realm of immigration and migration.  “Go Back To Where You Came From” with the subtitle “The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy” by Sasha Polakow-Suransky (Nation Books, 2017) is an in-depth work, though some readers may be disappointed because it pivots on mostly European immigration issues, which have been acute in the past several years.  Europe has seen mass migrations before, and the latest wave, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, is different than the last one in the ’90s.  The author, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar) and most recently was an editor for the New York Times and Foreign Affairs magazine, conducted lengthy interviews as well as political analysis as the migration crisis evolved, and found that the political upheavals that have occurred have some similarities the U.S. (although the U.S. immigration challenges seem pale in comparison).  He starts the book with a conclusion – that when one side says “immigration is good for diversity, compassion and labor” and the other says “they are criminals that take our jobs and will replace our way of life” – he finds them both wrong, primarily because of the dynamic and makeup of the immigrants and the ability of a nation to assimilate them – which are both challenges – varies.  The danger he presents is in the populist reactions – often visceral – where basic premises of democracy become imperiled as a result, but also addresses how that challenge can be met.  The book is a must-read for those who are firmly planted in one camp or the other regarding immigration, as it will open your eyes to each political side, as well as the variety of iterations of  human migration –  and the causes that create it, which will continue into the future.

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

 

Weekend Book Report (12/16/17):  A lot of talk has been made about a demographic segment of last year’s election; especially of the “working class” – those who voted for Trump and are often derided as bigots and racists.  Joan C. Williams is a Distinguished Professor of Law at UC-California Hastings School of Law, and she dispels these notions (in part) and bridges the gaps in understanding the class conflict in “White Working Class – Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).  In short, concise chapters titled with a question (Are they racists?  Why do they hate the poor?) Williams works on understanding the viewpoint from which the white working class operates, as well as the other socioeconomic classes in America.  She spreads blame (but not totally) on all of them for our polarization, and as a result puts forth solutions to enable understanding between them (hint:  one of the first steps is understanding what the different classes are).   It is a short, very easy read, and immensely valuable for any American to help understand what polarizes our nation today – and to fix it.

If available at your local independent book store or local public library.

Weekend Book Report (12/3/17):  Normally, biographies are written about just one person, but this one breaks the rules. “Churchill and Orwell – The Fight for Freedom” by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin / Random House – 2017) is an intriguing work that follows both men through their lives.  The author, a Pulitzer-prize winner specializing in military history, begins the timeline with both at an early age, and then interweaves the stories of the two throughout their separate experiences – World War I, the Spanish Civil War and World War II.  He does this quite deftly, aligning their common denominators as well as the disparities (Churchill gained notoriety early in his career, and  Orwell was rather obscure and not acclaimed as an author until after his death in 1950).  Both suffered health issues, fought in wars, and both distrusted the exercise of power; but their paths diverge between engagement in the political arena (Churchill) and the circumspect observation of it (Orwell).  Ricks is successful in creating an intriguing read that provides insights into both men, their works and  their influence on both military and political history.

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

Churchill and Orwell – T Ricks (Penguin/RandomHouse)

Weekend Book Report (11/26/17):  The provocative title and sale price at the local book store made this an irresistible and interesting read.  The title:  “The End of White Christian America” (Simon and Schuster, 2016) by Robert P. Jones sounds like a poke in the eye, but not intentionally so.  The CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) appears in many religion-news magazines and national media, and in this work he dissects, in detail, the decline of church attendance by whites (but modest rises by blacks and Latinos) and the subsequent convulsing political climate that has emerged.  His work his historical and thorough, addressing the early mixing of religious organizations with politics, and chronicles the rise of the “prosperity doctrine” and the capital that followed, creating exorbitant, luxurious and high-priced churches, and their decline, such as The “Crystal Cathedral” (which was sold in a bankruptcy).   The book is abundant with enough statistics to be in danger of becoming dry; but Jones brings the reader back with the political and cultural implications of a declining, but fiercely dedicated voting bloc, and insights on how it will affect our political future.  It’s an insightful read for those of any political leanings.

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

Weekend Book Report (11/17/17):  My local library, in it’s non-fiction section (if you haven’t gathered, that’s where I spend most of my time), occasionally puts books together of a certain “theme”.  In this latest effort, it revolves around political reconciliation – the effort to get bipartisanship back into our political machinations and discourse.  As a result, I tried out “The Parties Vs. The People” by former Congressman Mickey Edwards (2012, Yale University Press).  Edwards, a Republican, served sixteen years in the U.S. House as a representative from Oklahoma, and now serves on the faculty at Harvard and Princeton and writes for The Atlantic magazine.  His message is quite succinct; hyper-partisan politics, driven by party machinery, is part and parcel of the dysfunction of the U.S. political system, and without reform or change, imperils our form of government.  The book is prophetic, as it was written 5 years ago, but still relevant; although it may seem intractable, Edwards proposes several efforts and reforms that will mitigate this dysfunction and put our country’s governance on the right path, but the solution lies with voters.   Getting 50 votes +1, declaring victory and crushing the other 49 isn’t working, so he may be on to something here.  Read it (easily read within a week) and see if you agree.

It’s at your local independent bookstore or public library.

Weekend Book Report (11/10/17):  This is my first Neil deGrasse Tyson book – and I’ve wondered why I haven’t caught his earlier works, as “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (W.W.Norton, 2017) is a fun, short work that makes the subject matter accessible to just about everyone.   It’s a small book and at 221 pages, you’ll easily cover ground in a week as Tyson takes you through the creation of the universe (the first chapter and easily the most steep, but it gets easier after that), why things are round, how planets were formed and gravity.   A few humorous anecdotes and stories are thrown in for good measure.  A pleasurable read, and you might just learn something about this formidable subject matter that Tyson makes easy.

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

Weekend Book Report (11/3/17):  Social media has been a polarizing influence on politics and relationships, and both have suffered.  What to do?  Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston and also author of the recent best-seller “Rising Strong”,  and has followed up with this book.  “Braving The Wilderness” is a how-to, on a personal level, to address differences of opinion, both on one-on-one and with groups, and create a summation of better understanding as a result, in hope of repairing relationships with our various factions.  With cyberspace becoming a place where words have become weapons and increased politicization, Brown presents strategies and methods in simple forms to combat them, which her book says is indicative of the lack of belonging and a spiritual crisis.  The solution means communication should be in person and adopt the following when engaging it:  people are hard to hate, move in; speak truth to bullshit, be civil; hold hands with strangers; have a strong back, soft front and wild heart.    You may have dissenters, critics and some may belittle and be mean, but to stand your ground (with the metaphoric feeling like you’re “in the wilderness”) in this manner will make you feel better about it, and gain the respect of your opponents as well.  An easy read, and this a book that you should hand off to that person is on the other side of the political fence – so you can both practice it’s recommendations.  We may all get somewhere as a result.

Weekend Book Report (10/29/17):  I missed a week’s worth of reading during a hiking vacation in Canada, but a happy by-product of the trip was stopping in an independent book store in Campbell River and getting this book by renowned Canadian environmental writer, David Suzuki.  The author is well-known in Canada, and in environmental circles in the U.S.  He has written many books and was host of a long-running CBC program, “Nature”.  “Sacred Balance” was originally written in 1997, but Suzuki has annotated the book with updates on recent events and expanding on them.  Whatever version you get, this book is a good read, as Suzuki ties together the mandate of recognizing the environmental damage we create with consumerism and the wasting of natural resources, but reserves the ingenuity of the human race as a strength in resolving them.  Along with chapters on air, water, soil, fire, and plants and animals, Suzuki ties in to other less tangible, but just as important elements – love and spirit – to put the pieces together to have a more wholesome, balanced and sustainable relationship with our planet and all the species who inhabit it.

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

Weekend Book Report (10/5/17):  I set my smartphone down long enough to read this book about the pervasive influence of technology.  “Irresistible” by Adam Alter (Penguin, 2017) is a persuasive work into the why we can’t look away from social media, video games and smartphones – it’s all there by design to keep you hooked – and keep you looking.  Alter, an associate professor at NYU who specializes in psychology and marketing, starts off his book with an interesting anecdote; that Steve Jobs wouldn’t allow his children access to iPads and other devices.  He then enters an “every-man’s” discussion about the causes of addiction, separating the physical addictions of drugs with the behavioral addictions of technology use.  It is a helpful introduction; Alter then gives real-life accounts about real-life addictions of humans to games (especially World of Warcraft) and those who cannot sleep, eat or go to the bathroom without their smartphone nearby; and also talks about “rehab” centers for those whose lives have become unmanageable as a result.  Game and social media designers use behavioral addiction as a scheme, and Alter shows case after case of the methods (“cliffhangers”; “rewards”, etc.) of how they work. The effect on children is presented; since social media cannot discern facial cues and body language, those, especially the young, who have immersed themselves in social media (especially texting) struggle with face-to-face communication.   Although it is frank and brutal on the effects of technology, the author also praises the use of technology in the advancement of our common good; however, it will be wise to “sober up” and learn how the beast can be tamed, or it will tame us.  A good read, then look in the mirror (instead of your smartphone) and see how it affects you.

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

Weekend Book Report (9/24/17):  An obsession with safety and protecting ourselves from ourselves to the point of absurdity is the subject matter of this weeks’ read, “Playing By The Rules”, by Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon (Sourcebooks, 2016).  The duo’s theme throughout the book is the growth of safety regulations, and they point many of them out, including the fact that although you can’t take nail clippers on a plane, but an axe is conveniently attached to  the cockpit door.  Throw in a few more, like an airline pilot who wasn’t allowed to take his fountain pen on board due to the sharp point (his response: “dude, I’m flying the plane”) and a study, a commission and an entire set of regulations to inspect and modify gravestones in England because one fell over and killed a toddler (because he was crawling on top of it).   (The authors seem to pick on England a lot in the book).  The pair do not necessarily think that the addition of onerous rules originate from a nefarious “big brother” mentality, that many come from a political need to react to tragedy;  and that some are justified, especially when well-crafted.  But between the growing safety consultation and implementation industry and someone justifying their existence in the regulation mechanisms created as a result, they become embedded.   They also point out that many regulations emphasize issues that may make one feel safer, but also jeopardize safety since attention that should be made to other more pressing items (yes, you were told to throw away that 12 oz. bottle of shampoo, but do you know where the nearest exit row is?).  Their advice – challenge regulations that seem absurd by “asking for evidence” – not just accepting statements like “it’s the rules”- and things can possibly change (they cite several successful examples in the book).  Wise advice for making some sense in a world strangled by red tape.

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

Weekend Book Report (9/15/17):     I was unaware that this week’s book was the part of a trilogy, but nonetheless “Half-Earth – Our Planet’s Fight for Life” by Edward O. Wilson (Liveright Publishing, 2016) is an informative and compelling argument for strategies to save the endangered ecosystems on our planet.  Wilson, the Harvard professor emeritus in biology, winner of two Pulitzer prizes and author of over twenty other respected works, makes an audacious but concrete proposal to save the planet and it’s species – including our own – by dedicating at least half of our planet to ecosystem preservation.  It’s not impossible, he asserts, since so much of the populated areas in the world are urban in nature , and advances in agriculture and energy can support it, as well as an anticipated leveling-off and even decline in human population in the remaining century.   What’s interesting in the book is his detail on the microcosms of ecosystems – stuff we don’t see but affects us when we affect it, and also citing the studies (his own as well as others) of previously unknown relationships between different species.  This aspect of the book is fascinating in it’s own right, but reinforces the argument of preserving ecosystems.  It’s not too deep, and rather enjoyable; and Wilson gives his advocacy good cause and rationale.  He will be on my list for other reading (and there’s plenty of it).

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

Weekend Book Report (9/6/17):  Don’t step on a sidewalk crack, or you’ll break your momma’s back.   Counting the number of letters when someone speaks a sentence.  The stories of hoarders and collectors.  Coming back home to see if you’ve left the coffee pot on – twice.   All these and more are examined in this fascinating book by Sharon Begley, called “Can’t.  Just. Stop. – An investigation of Compulsions”   (Simon & Schuster, 2017). The author, a science editor at the Boston Globe, isn’t a psychologist or behavioral specialist, but her book is a deep and well-researched guide into the quirks that we all have, and examines whether they are really mental illness or just that – human quirks.  Each chapter is centered around a particular compulsion, including OCD, video games and the champion of compulsive behavior – smartphones and social media.  The discipline of studying these issues has been both historically neglected and subject to much debate (although much of it revolves around anxiety); researchers and academics have argued over whether the “addiction of the month” really warrants it’s categorization.  Begley relates tales of other folks crippling OCD and compulsions and how they found relief (completely or at least in part), as well as studies of the brain that tries to identify where those compulsions come from.  It’s an easy and fascinating read, but a little heavy on metaphor in some places; but I think you’ll find places in the book that you can relate.  I know I did (especially about bibliomania – the love of books).

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