Weekend Book Report

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.