Short Book Reviews: February 2021

With the new year, Biden settling into the White House, and the vaccines rolling out, my reading pace has picked up from its previous pandemic low.

So rather than work up longer individual reviews of the books I’ve gone through, I thought I’d do a quick breakdown of them, all at once, in reverse order (so, the most recent book I finished this month is listed first).

Here we go!

Not All Dead White Men, by Donna Zuckerberg

A frustrating read. Zuckerberg (yes, the Facebook founder is her brother) provides a detailed, anthropological study of how the denizens of the manosphere wield Classical authors to promote their racist, misogynist views. What she doesn’t cover is any way to counter these arguments. If anything, she comes down on their side, agreeing that yes, the Classical tradition contains lots of misogyny (Though no racism, since race as a concept wasn’t invented till the modern period. Which makes it weird that she would fall into the right-wing trap of assigning Whiteness to the Mediterranean authors of the Classical tradition? But I digress).

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis

A set of separately-published essays stitched together in book form. It works, because each essays illuminates a different side of the central question: What happened when an administration scornful of expertise took control of the nation’s experts?

This was published in 2018, and already Lewis could see — via his interviews and investigation — that disaster was coming. We’ve got a lot to rebuild.

The Mongol Art of War, by Timothy May

Discovered this via military historian Bret Devereux’s excellent series of blog posts about the historical accuracy of the Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire (narrator: there is none).

It’s a fairly quick read, giving a detailed look — well, as detailed as we can get, given the reliability of our historical sources — at how the Mongol army was able to conquer so much of Asia and Europe in such a short period of time. Goes through command structure, tactics, even some detailed logistics. For example, did you know Mongols preferred riding mares on campaign, because they could drink the milk provided (and thus not need to bring as much food along)? Or that the Mongols built a navy from scratch (with Korean assistance) just so they could conquer southern China? Fascinating stuff.

Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth

This is one I’m going to be reading and re-reading. It’s basically a manual of all the different navigation techniques used by humans before the invention of GPS. How did the Pacific Islanders sail thousands of miles across open ocean to settle so many islands? Why did the Atlantic triangle trade develop the way it did (hint: it was the prevailing winds)? What sequence of clouds denotes an oncoming storm?

Simply wondrous. Made me look at the world around me in an entirely new way.

Reaganland, by Rick Perlstein

The final volume in Perlstein’s excellent series on the rise of the Right in the United States. This one covers 1976-1980, and it’s absolutely riveting. All of the techniques we’ve seen from the GOP under Trump — misinformation, distortion, and deliberate hyperbole — got their start in this time period, and coalesced around Reagan as their standard-bearer. His election cemented the shift to the Right that we’ve been suffering from for the last forty years.

I consider this book essential reading, if you want to understand how we got to this point in American politics.

Short Fiction Review: Apex Magazine Issue 121

Apex Magazine is back!

Apex went on what looked like permanent hiatus while editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore dealt with multiple surgeries for serious health issues (see his editorial in this month’s magazine). But he’s thankfully recovered, and after a successful Kickstarter, he’s re-assembled the Apex editing team, and resurrected the magazine!

Issue 121, then, is their first new issue in almost two years. It’s a double issue, as all of them will be from now on, released every two months. You can grab your own copy here

So let’s dive in! (no spoilers, I promise).

Root Rot, by Fargo Tbakh

Jesus, this story.

Reading it is disorienting at first. There’s a good reason for that, for why the narrator’s voice seems jumbled and confused. But as I read, more and more pieces fell into place, until the very last scene broke my heart.

I wish I could write something this powerful. This moving. An inspiration, and a bar to shoot for.

Your Own Undoing, by P H Lee

Second person, represent!

I usually hate stories told in the second person. All those “You”s feel like commands, and I instinctually kick back against those, and out of the story.

Not so in this case. Lee’s story wove a meta fairy tale around me, a story that was itself an illustration of the conflict at its heart.

If it sounds too clever for its own good, don’t be put off. It’s not. It’s a fantastic story, first and foremost. It’s only afterward, when thinking about it, that its clever structure reveals its shape. Just amazing.

Love, That Hungry Thing, by Cassandra Khaw

This one….this one did feel too clever for its own good, for me.

Not in structure, but in the way it leans so far into the modern (well, post-2004) tendency to leave readers out on a limb. Being confused can work — see the first story, above — for a while, but I (being very careful here, as I know not everyone shares my tastes) tend to get very frustrated if there’s no payoff at the end.

And there’s no payoff in this story, for me. In fact, there’s very little action at all, or even dialog.

A lot of beautiful description, though. Evocative words and phrases that promise glittering insight into this future, but then never cohere into a stable image. Nothing falls into place. It’s an exquisitely described place, though.

Mr Death, by Alix E Harrow

My favorite of the bunch.

I don’t want to say too much, lest I give anything away. Let me just say that this is what I wish the movie Soul had been. Read it. You won’t regret it.

The Niddah, by Elana Gomel

A short story about a global pandemic. Yes, really.

Grey Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Had an allergic reaction to this one. Something about another story that drops the reader into a confused space, with no explanation, and calls its main environment “The City.”

All I Want for Christmas, by Charles Payseur

Short, powerful flash piece. Made me shudder.

Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire by Delilah S Dawson

I turned the corner, and my soul left my body.

My wife says I walked around slack-jawed, not speaking, not noticing anyone or anything else.

It was our first trip to Galaxy’s Edge, at Disneyland.

We’d been walking around the other areas of the park all day, in the lingering heat of early October, 2019. I’d wanted to go to Galaxy’s Edge straight away, but our friend had insisted we wait till the sun went down. When the crowds would thin, and the lights and special effects on the buildings would come out.

She was right.

Because when we finally made it there, the park was perfect. Not empty, but not crowded. Cool enough to walk around, but not yet cold.

And everything was lit up.

I’ve been ambiguous about a lot of things Disney has done with the Star Wars franchise. But that day, in that park, I forgave them everything.

Because they nailed it.

The streets, the buildings, the design of the doors, the mother-fucking Milennium Falcon sitting right there, looking every inch a hunk of junk that’s ready to race around the galaxy. They even got the sound of the floors in the Falcon right, our shoes click-clacking on the floor panels exactly as if we were being followed around by a foley artist from Lucasfilm.

It was…uncanny.

And I wanted to go back the very next day.

As you can imagine, though, we haven’t been. We told ourselves we could return in the spring of 2020, just in time for my birthday.

What naïve summer children we were.

Thanks to the pandemic, there’s no return trip in my near future. No immersion in the world of Black Spire Outpost.

Except through fiction.

So I picked up Dawson’s book set on the world the park is meant to represent. I wanted to go back there, even for a moment, to let her words guide my imagination in invoking the spirit of the place.

Too much to ask, perhaps. But I had high hopes after reading Dawson’s Phasma, where she introduced two new characters — Vi Moradi and Cardinal — while building out Phasma’s backstory. That turned out to be a Mad-Max-via Star Wars tale wrapped inside a spy story; an incredible balancing act.

And once again, Dawson pulls it off, weaving a high-stakes story with a small-scale focus. She brings back both Vi and Cardinal, filling out more of their arcs and letting both of them shine.

But.

Something bothered me all throughout the book. I didn’t know what it was at first, just a vague unease in my mind as I read along.

It wasn’t until halfway through the novel that I realized what it was: the colonial attitude of Vi and the Resistance towards Batuu (the planet on which Black Spire Outpost is located).

Let me explain. No spoilers, I promise.

When the story begins, Batuu is not involved in the conflict between the Resistance the First Order. It’s too small, too unimportant. The war has passed it by.

Which is one reason Vi is selected to go there, as some place the First Order won’t be paying attention to.

Logical on the face of it. But it’s the start of my problems with the story.

Because no one on Batuu invites the Resistance there. No one on Batuu wants to be involved in the conflict, at all.

The Resistance just assumes they have the right to build an outpost there, regardless of what the local population wants.

Which means they assume they have the right to bring the war there. To bring violence and death with them. Because they know the First Order is going to eventually discover said base, and when they do, they will respond with oppressive force.

And throughout her stay there, Vi repeatedly acts like a colonial officer sent to a “backwards” place:

  • She quickly makes a deal to steal an ancient artifact and use it to bargain for supplies (instead of leaving it alone, as she has no rights to it)
  • She assumes the right to squat in ancestral ruins that the people on Batuu consider sacred
  • She receives medical care from a local elderly woman, which saves her life, and her thanks is to rip the woman’s only help — her grandson — away from her. She thinks she’s right to do so, as it’s “for the greater good”
  • She’s constantly saying things like “Don’t they realize I’m doing this for their own good?” every time she can’t bend someone to her will
  • When she finds herself using local expressions and greetings, she doesn’t think of it as being respectful, but as “going native”

I could go on.

It’s a frustrating flaw in an otherwise fantastic book. I like Vi, I like the other characters, I like the story, I even like the ending.

But the constant attitude of Vi and the Resistance that “we know better than you, so we’re going to make these choices for you” is so…belittling, so arrogant. It feels out of character for a movement that says it’s all about free will. And yet totally in line with the way we Westerners usually interact with other countries.

I still recommend the book. It’s the next best thing to being there, in the park. Which is an incredible achievement, despite the problematic nature of some of its plot points.

Good Economics for Hard Times, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

A frustrating book. One minute, it’ll be knee-deep in the blinders and false-assumptions of economics, the next it’ll flip and call out economists for being too focused on GDP and not enough on human dignity.

That kind of whiplash makes me not trust anything the authors say. They’re too inconsistent for me to be able to piece together a coherent approach or worldview for them.

Or argue with their takes. I mean, how do you approach someone who believes the B.S. that Silicon Valley has been spouting for decades about being “disruptive” (instead of the truth: they’re VC funds chasing the bubble-high returns of monopoly) but also admits that increasing automation can displace people who should be helped?

Or a team that argues that GDP should not be used to measure growth anymore — and even that growth is not that important — but also uses GDP growth in their arguments for other policies (for example, that immigration does not hurt the societies that accept immigrants)?

It’s all over the place.

If anything, this book further convinces me of the limits of current economic thinking. So many times, the authors posit a problem (“why don’t people move around more?”) that has obvious answers as soon as your take your head out of the economic sand.

I mean, so many of the things that make it hard for them to “explain” why humans act the way they do are fundamental ideas in economics that have been debunked.

Amazon isn’t profitable because of its size. Amazon was a business failure for decades, that Bezos kept afloat through his access to capital. Only in the last few years, when it’s become an illegal monopoly and so can flood the moat around its market, has Amazon turned a profit.

The authors swallow the Amazon line because they’re still beholden to the economic idea that bigger means more efficient. But anyone that’s ever worked in a large org knows that bigger organizations are less efficient than smaller ones. They just wield more economic power, and so can remain large.

And they find it hard to explain why people don’t move around more (from poorer places to wealthier ones) only because they rely on the economic model of human behavior, which posits that people always act to increase their wealth, and do so efficiently.

Which is obvious bunk to anyone who has, you know, spent time around actual people.

The authors whiff on basically every issue they address. They find it hard to calculate the costs or benefits of social media, when Facebook’s balance sheet is publicly available (proving social media is big business). They advocate for helping immigrants find their way in a new society, without pointing out that the policies they recommend — job matching, housing, child care — would benefit everyone if implemented universally, not just the displaced (and so be more politically viable).

In the end, I think they themselves sum up the book’s “insights” best:

Economics is too important to be left to economists.

Well said.

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

I’m ashamed to say I’m not sure I knew Dinah’s name, before reading this.

I knew parts of her story, from my youth, when I heard the Bible tale. How the sons of Jacob tricked every adult male in a town to become circumcised, just so their king’s son could be granted the privilege of marrying Jacob’s daughter.

How they then slaughtered the town while the men were laid up healing.

In church, the story’s presented as a righteous thing, a sign of their cleverness. How they could outsmart their enemies.

No one said anything about Dinah. How she might have felt about things. Or about the wives and daughters of the murdered men. They were background characters, unimportant to the morality of the tale.

So how amazing, then, that Diamant has put Dinah front and center. Breathed life into her, filling in her story and giving us a complete account of her journey. Of her mistakes and triumphs. Of her hopes and fears.

It’s an incredible feat to pull off. And Diamant covers not just Dinah’s life, but her mothers’ lives, too, starting from the moment they met Jacob, so we get the fullest picture possible of Dinah’s situation, of her time and place.

She gives us a sense of the rhythms of their existence, both day-to-day and year to year, without ever getting bogged down in too many details (or leaving things so vague as to be unhelpful).

And what rhythms! Diamant invokes the feel of the ancient world, the sounds and the smells, the hassles and the joys. And it’s a woman’s world that she brings to life, the rituals of childbirth and the red tent, the offerings to multiple gods, the hard work of cooking and farming and making, well, everything. T

he men are present, but it’s not their story. It’s not their world.

Diamant’s succeeded so well in showing us this world, in fact, that it’s her story, Dinah’s story, that I remember more vividly now, not the ones about her brothers. Which feels…proper. The way it should be.

Better to remember the healer and midwife, perhaps, than the tricksters and killers.

Foreign Affairs: September/October 2020

I’ve got subscriptions to half a dozen different magazines, most of whom I don’t get through.

So I’m trying something new this month: reviews of different magazines, which highlight stories or articles that stuck with me. I’ll also be honest about any sections that I skipped out on, and why.

My hope is that it’ll incentivize me to read them through, and hopefully point you, dear reader, to articles and magazines that you might otherwise miss?

So here we go:

Overview

The theme of the issue is “The World That Trump Made,” but its contents don’t bear that out.

If anything, the articles drive home the fact that Trump has been mostly ineffective or inactive in global affairs. As a result, the world is one that others have made: Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, etc.

And they will continue to do so, as long as the United States abrogates the leadership role it’s played — for good and for ill — over the last eighty years.

Highlights

“A Grand Strategy of Resilience” is a fantastic pulling together of multiple threads, linking social justice movements to the ability of the US to project power abroad. The author rightly points out that an unjust and unequal society is a fragile one, and that great powers cannot weather the storms of global politics if they are not resilient.

I love the concept of resilience, and favor using it as a lens through which to judge policy. It’s the kind of concept that should appeal to both conservatives and liberals: Because who wouldn’t prefer to live in a more flexible, bounce-back kind of country?

“The Tragedy of Vaccine Nationalism” raises a problem I hadn’t even considered: As different countries race to produce a vaccine for Covid-19, what will we do when/if one is found? Once made, how will presumably limited supplies be allocated? And given how global supply chains have gotten, what will we do if one country refuses to manufacture (or drives up prices on) the parts of the vaccine that its companies make?

The author argues that we should be laying the groundwork now for cooperation in sharing and manufacturing any vaccines, so agreements will already be in place by the time one is found. But like so much else, I fear the major powers have no interest in cooperating, and no leaders capable of admitting they might need other countries.

Disappointments

Went into “The Fragile Republic” expecting a good summary of threats both foreign and domestic. Got thrown out of the article just three paragraphs in, though, when the authors reach back to 1798 as their framing device, but name the opposition party as the “Republicans,” instead of the correct “Democratic-Republicans.”

It seems like a small thing, but it incorrectly projects the existence of the Republican Party back an additional sixty years (!). And if they can’t be bothered to get that one detail right (that even this non-specialist knows), how can I trust anything else they say?

“To Protect And Serve” sounds like it’s going to be a wealth of information about police practice in other countries that we can draw from. But the other than “more training,” the one reform the author advocates is a federal takeover of police departments across the US, which would be politically a non-starter and doesn’t help those of us advocating reform of our local police departments.

Skipped Articles

I skipped out on “The End of American Illusion,” an article written by someone who worked in the Trump regime and thinks only he sees the world clearly. I don’t read paeans to strongmen.

Also skipped “Giving Up on God,” because I’m an atheist and the decline of religion worldwide is both not surprising (because it’s been documented since the 1980s) and not worrying (ditto).

Predicting the Next President, by Allan J Lichtman

Hope. It’s a hard thing to come by, for me, when it comes to the federal government.

The election of 2016 was traumatic. My wife and I watched, horrified, as the candidate we thought not even Republicans were crazy enough to pick won first the primary, and then the general election.

Well, “won.” He lost the popular vote by 3 million, and still walked away with the keys to the White House, because of our country’s old, undemocratic way of electing Presidents.

It was so unnerving, when it happened, that we decided not to go home.

We were living in Arkansas at the time, having moved to nurse my wife’s mother back to health after she suffered a cardiovascular incident. It was our first time living in my wife’s home state in seven years, and in that time, the state we remembered as slightly behind the times but neighborly had curdled into a paranoid, xenophobic place.

Bad enough having to live there at all. Living there while their white nationalist leader commanded the federal government? While they crowed about his “achievements” dismantling the legacy of eight years of Obama’s government? While they felt entitled to air out their racism and sexism with impunity, with pride, even, because their man was in the White House?

We couldn’t do it.

So we lived on the East Coast that winter, crashing with friends — amazing friends, to put up with us for so long — and moved back to California, renting an apartment sight unseen. We drove cross-country, stopped in Arkansas just long enough to pack, and then moved on.

Now, after four years of Trump’s chaos, his rage and his incompetence, we’ve another election looming. And that same fear is back, that he’ll win again, and our country, which has never been innocent, but has at times fought against its darker impulses, will instead succumb to them.

So Lichtman’s theory of presidential elections — that the campaign doesn’t matter, that the candidates themselves almost don’t matter, only the past four years of governing do — gives me hope. Because after four years in power, the GOP has lost seven (!) of his thirteen “keys” to the White House, and you only need to lose six to lose the election.

Which means I can ignore the polls. I can tune out — to some extent — the campaign itself. I can focus on voting, on helping others to vote, and preventing election fraud.

And I can hope.

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been afraid of the police.

Not that I have any negative experience to make me afraid. No, I grew up White and privileged, shielded from the things they did to others.

Yet I was afraid. And I was right to be.

Because if the police can pull you over for a broken taillight, insist on a search of your car, and choke you to death when you resist said illegal search, you never want to be pulled over.

If the police can raid your house on an anonymous tip and kill your dog when it tries to protect you from the armed intruders violating your home, then leave without even an apology when they learn it’s the wrong home, you never want to have them pay you a visit.

And if they have the power to insist that the only way you’re going to get help with your heroin addiction is to plead guilty to a crime that hurt no one but yourself, you never want to ask them for help.

But that’s where we are, in the United States. We’ve expanded the role and powers of police so much, that the often the only hand being held out for those who are homeless, or addicts, or mentally disturbed, is the one holding a gun.

As we re-examine the place of police in our society, Vitale’s book is essential reading. It’s not a screed, and not wishful thinking about how everything would be peaceful if the police went away.

Instead, it takes a hard look at what the police are for, and then dares to ask the question: Are they successful at it?

As it turns out, they’re not. They’re not any good at solving homelessness, or making sex work safe, or getting addicts into recovery, or reducing gang violence, or helping the mentally ill get treatment, or disciplining school children, or even something as mundane as actually preventing crime.

Police, in a word, are a failure. They’re an experiment that we need to end.

Because the problems we’ve asked them to address can be, just by different means.

We can get the homeless into homes, and use that as a foundation to get them standing on their own again.

We can invest in businesses in and around gang-troubled neighborhoods, to give the people who might join those gangs the opportunity to do something better.

We can find other ways to discipline children than having them handcuffed and marched out of school.

The End of Police is both a passionate plea for us to find a better way, and a dispassionate look at how badly our approaches to these problems have gone wrong.

It’s not too late to try something else. We just need to make the choice.

Which Country Has the World’s Best Health Care? by Ezekiel J Emanuel

Today, the US healthcare system occupies a place very like US beer did in the 1990s.

See back then, US beer was a joke to liberals, or anyone that took beer seriously, and a point of patriotic pride to conservatives.

These days, after decades of shifting regulations that allowed the market for craft beer to first find a foothold, then blossom, US craft beer is world-renowned. Numerous pubs in other countries proclaim they serve “American-style craft beer.” People across the political spectrum can take pride in their local brewers, no snobbery or jingoism required.

Our healthcare system has not experienced anything close to that kind of renaissance. Conservatives refuse to countenance any critique of the system, while liberals use it as a tired punching bag. We’re warned of the dangers of “socialist medicine,” all the while my mother-in-law is constantly harassed about a $4,000 bill she doesn’t owe (the hospital filed it wrong with her insurance), doctors and nurses are overworked, and millions go without any sort of insurance.

And, frankly, Medicare for All sounds great, but it scares the bejeezus out of anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders. Not to mention it’s sort of vague on details, and seems to require a rather large leap to get from here to there.

So I was primed for a retread of the old arguments in Which Country Has the World’s Best Healthcare?. US healthcare is terrible, Canada’s is great, etc etc.

Thankfully, that’s not what I got at all. Instead, I found the missing manual, a way to evaluate different healthcare systems around the globe. Along with a proper sense of the history and workings of eleven of them.

Emanuel describes a set of axes along which to measure a healthcare system. Things like patient wait times, or costs at the point of service, or choice of doctors. Then he proceeds to examine each country’s system in turn, looking at the things it does well, the challenges it faces, and — most importantly — how and why it does those things well or badly.

True, the US performs terribly on basically every axis. That’s not news. What is news is that multiple countries manage to provide better coverage, better care, and cheaper care, without giving up private practices, or even — in some cases — letting go of private insurance!

Reading this, I felt both relieved and angry.

Relieved, because with so many different systems out there, no one’s got a monopoly on the “right” way to do things.

Angry, because for so long the debate in the US has been framed as single payer or status quo. When the truth is that we can do a lot to improve our system without letting go of the basic free market nature of it.

How much further would we liberals have gotten, if we’d argued for a regulation of drug prices, instead of single-payer? Or insisted that insurance coverage for children be provided for free, as part of any policy, like it is in other countries with well-regulated markets?

We don’t have to have the government take over as the single payer for everyone. We don’t need to radically overhaul the system. We need to properly regulate it, to get the outcomes we want: patients being able to choose their doctor, use their insurance to help pay for their care, and not go broke obtaining the prescriptions they need.

Framed as the proper regulation of a free market, what could the conservative response have been? I suppose they could argue that Greed is Good, and everyone that has to choose between paying the rent and buying their blood pressure meds deserves it, so the CEO of some corp can enjoy a multi-million dollar bonus.

But that doesn’t have quite the same ring as “death panels,” does it?

So ultimately, I’m grateful that Emanuel and his team chose to write this book, and publish it now. It’s high time we brought a more nuanced, useful debate, to the argument over healthcare.

How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi

Powerfully written.

Kendi lays out a set of definitions for racism, racist, and antiracist, then shows how those rules apply across different areas: culture, sexuality, gender, class, etc.

Along the way, he tells stories from his own life, using his personal growth to illustrate how following the principles of antiracism leads to also being a feminist, an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, and an anticapitalist.

Because Kendi is so willing to be vulnerable here, to admit to his previous homophobia, his sexism, his snobbery towards other Black people, his hatred of White people, he takes us along the journey with him. And he makes it okay if you’re still only part way along the journey, because he gives you a path forward.

What could easily have been a sermon, then, becomes a conversation. A directed conversation, to be sure, one with a purpose, but one where both parties admit they’ve made and will make mistakes. It made me want to be better, to think more clearly, than simply laying out his current perspective would.

And his anchoring of racism vs antiracism in power, and the way power is distributed among (invented) racial groups, is empowering. By targeting power’s self-interest, we can push for lasting changes, not just momentary victories.

We don’t wait for racism to fade away. We don’t wait for my family to become less afraid of Black people. We first remove the laws and policies keeping the races unequal, then people’s fears will go away.

It’s a serious responsibility, but it gives me hope. Because it makes the work more concrete: Not asking people to hold hands and sing together, but winding down the police state. Investing more in schools, and less in prisons. Breaking up monopolies and pushing power and money into communities that have neither.

So I recommend this book to anyone, of any race or caste. It offers clarity and hope in equal measure, because we have to see how racist power works — and how pervasive racist ideas are, in all groups — if we are to dismantle it.