Short Book Reviews: July 2021

My wife’s been out of town most of this past month (helping her mother recover from cataract surgery), so I’ve been leaning on books (and friends!) more to keep me sane company.

As ever, I’ve listed the books in reverse order, with the one I read most recently listed first.

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

Not what I expected at all. I’d hoped for a thorough, wide-ranging, history of Central Asia. What I got instead was a history of Europe, told from the perspective of how events in Central and East Asia impacted Europeans.

So…not the kind of thing you can really use as research material for a novel set in the Central Asian steppes, as I’d wanted 😬

But once I got over my expectations, I settled in for what turned out to be a very enjoyable, very readable history. It’s lopsided, in that he spends only about 1/3 of the book on the vast majority of human history (everything before 1800, that is), and spends a lot of time in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Even so, it’s a good corrective to our usual look at the past six hundred years. Especially when it comes to the “rise” of Europe, Frankopan deftly illustrates how the real story was the theft of vast sums from the Americas and Africa to Europe, which was then funneled to Asia to obtain spices, silk, paper, etc etc. The “normal” situation for the world is for money to flow East, and the development of China and the various former Soviet Republics in Central Asia is less a revolution than a return to history’s status quo.

Oh, one last thing: This book does a much better job of laying out the perfidy and fickleness of the United States in its dealings with the rest of the world than the next book in my list. Leave the history to the historians, I suppose?

American Rule, by Jared Yates Sexton

I wanted to like this one. I really did. I wholeheartedly support Sexton’s goal here, which is to pierce the myths that we’re frequently taught as American “history.”

The trouble is — and the reason I couldn’t actually finish the book — in order for that kind of argument to be effective, you really have to get your own history right. And Sexton, um, doesn’t.

Here’s a sample paragraph (from page 10):

…England’s monarchy had long been held as unquestionable. This perception of the divine right of kings was forged in the centuries following the fall of Rome as civilization in Western Europe languished in apocalyptic ruin and struggled through the so-called Dark Ages. In this time, the one uniting tether of humanity was religion…

There’s…so much…wrong with that paragraph.

The absolute monarchy he’s talking about was something invented in the early modern period, not the Middle Ages (“Dark Ages”, as any historian worth their salt will tell you, is an offensively wrong term for the period). And the doctrine of absolute monarchy had nothing to do with the fall of Rome (itself a disputed event), and everything to do with the centralizing projects European monarchs embarked on after centuries of conquest and consolidation.

Far from civilization “languishing” in Western Europe for hundreds of years, the Middle Ages saw rapid urbanization, expansion of trade, and the foundation of Europe’s first universities.

And religion being the one unifier? As opposed to any, oh, government? That’s…fuck, that’s just laughable

These are not small mistakes. They’re massive mis-representations of the period and the trends within it. And Sexton makes mistakes like this on every page (nearly every paragraph)!

I couldn’t take it. So I noped out.

The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King

My second of two (see below) King books this month that don’t read like King books. This is told like a fairy tale, with the same sort of remove and third-person omniscience you’d have in a fairy tale. It’s the same voice King sometimes used in the latter part of the Dark Tower series.

And as far as I know, this is King’s one and only full-blown medieval fantasy book: kings and wizards, magic and dragons. I picked it up because of the connections to his other books — the king’s name is Roland, you see, and the (evil) wizard’s name is Flagg — not expecting too much.

I should have known better. Even in this mode, King is a master storyteller, weaving a tale of family and betrayal and escape that captivated me all the way to the end.

The Running Man, by Stephen King

Ok, technically this is a Richard Bachman book, since that’s the name King released it under originally. But they made a friggin’ Swarzenegger movie out of it, so I’ve got to include it in my reading list, right?

Interestingly enough, I can see why King published this one under a pen name. Because it doesn’t read like a King book at all. There’s no slow build up of tension, no deep dive into the lives of multiple characters before everything goes to hell. It just dives right into the plot, explaining just the bare minimum about the world needed to keep up with what’s going on.

And this thing moves. Each chapter is incredibly short, maybe 3 pages maximum. It’s the “potato chip” technique (keep chapters so small that folks think “I can do one more”), and it works here; I read the entire thing in a single day.

On the downside, it’s incredibly violent, and racist, and sexist, all at once. Granted, the world he’s portraying is very much that, all the way through, but it’s bigoted in a very…old-fashioned way, from the slurs they use, especially. Like 1960s racism ramped up to 11 and then set in the future.

Here’s the kicker, though: King absolutely nailed how misinformation, spread through the media, can keep the people at the bottom of the economy apart, keep them hating each other, when they should be attacking the wealthy. And he portrays our current “meritocratic” caste system perfectly, illustrating how inequality can get so locked in that the only way out for some people is to offer to die on national television. That’s the horrific part of the book, for me, the part the lingered after closing the book.

The White Album, Joan Didion

Didion’s essays covering the Seventies (and part of the later Sixties). I could definitely feel a cynicism creeping in, something present in the first book of hers i read and becoming stronger with each essay here.

But she continues to draw moments in time in vivid colors, and is brutally frank about her experiences with mental health issues during this period. Just…compellingly readable, all the way through.

I’d like to say I wish I could write like her, but then I’m not sure how I would even begin to learn or adopt her techniques. Intimidatingly good.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

Wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. The title is…a bit pretentious, at least to my ears.

But the essays are as unpretentious as they come. Didion, for the most part, refuses to generalize or judge, choosing instead to capture the moment, or series of moments, that she experienced with and around certain people, at certain times.

The result is a bit like a time capsule of the Sixties, or at least, the parts of the Sixties that she experienced in California.

Her writing is a bit hypnotic, in that way. In how she brings you into a moment, even if that moment itself is a composite of other moments, showing you what it felt like, if not what actually occurred. Makes her essays a bit addictive, tbh, each one a hit of experience from another place and time.

The one downside? Because she’s writing so close to her own experience, her version of the Sixties is very…white. And middle class. To the point where, when she talks about the farming communities she grew up in, she doesn’t talk about the actual workers on those farms, who were organizing throughout the Sixties to advocate for better working conditions for the majority-immigrant workforce. Nor does she mention the Civil Rights movements, or the Black Panthers, or…I could go on and on. Suffice to say that her viewpoint is very well detailed, but is very much myopic.

Short Book Reviews: June 2021

The year is already half over? And California’s re-opening while vaccination rates are slowing and the Delta variant is spreading and…

breathes

…and I’ve been fully vaccinated for two months now, but I’m still keeping a low profile, wearing a mask in public, and avoiding crowds as much as possible.

Oh, and reading! Mix of essays and horror and, well, horror hesitates tools? Is that a thing? Because I read one.

As always, the books are in reverse reading order, with the most recent one I plowed through first.

Christine, by Stephen King

Definitely the worst of the King re-reads so far (and also the first one to not be set in Maine, make of that what you will).

I almost put this one down, after the rough opening and dialog that seemed broadcast from a 1940s B-movie. I’m glad I kept going, because the story eventually kicks into King-Dread-Gear and becomes compelling. The dialog never really gets better, and the car scare is just plain weird, but the possession bit was goose-bumps-down-my-neck spooky.

Hood Feminism, by Mikki Kendall

A series of excellently-written, pointed essays that I quickly realized were not aimed at me. Not that everything needs to be, of course!

Still illuminating. Kendall has no trouble stabbing through all the BS we tell ourselves about these issues and calling them out for what they are. Points to a type of feminism concerned less with Leaning In and more with putting food on the table. A critical work on fundamental problems with the way American does and doesn’t work for its people.

Body Trauma, by David W Page

This one was slow going for me. I get squeamish around needles, to the point where I get lightheaded whenever I have blood drawn (I’ve only passed out once, so there). But it was recommended by Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, and in the book I’m writing (and in short stories I’m working on), I need to be able to portray injuries and recovery accurately. So I pushed through.

And I’m glad I did! I’m sure I’ll need a few re-reads for everything to sink in, but I’ve got a much better sense of how serious certain wounds would be, and how they can be used to raise or lower tension in a story.

wow, no thank you, by Samantha Irby

Went into this one with no idea of what I was getting into, other than the essays were supposed to be funny. And they were, in parts — literally laugh out loud funny, in fact — but above all they’re a master class in writing a revealing, engaging, personal essay. What other writer do you know can make you reflect on your own poverty-filled past while relaying a (funny) story about how they thought their cheap-and-shitty apartment was haunted? Or make you admire them while they constantly put themselves down and refer to themselves as a “trash person”? That’s a magic trick played with words, and Irby pulls it off again and again and again.

Short Book Reviews: May 2021

Took a break from my Stephen King read-a-thon to dive into some non-fiction this month.

As always, these are listed in reverse chronological order. So, the book I just finished is listed first, followed by the one I read before that, and so on.

Let’s dig in!

Creative Selection, by Ken Kocienda

Polished, refined prose. Kocienda pulls just shy of a dozen stories from his time at Apple in the early 2000s to illustrate what he sees as the principles behind their back-to-back successes in that period, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad.

Each chapter begins with the story, and then ends with him picking it apart, revealing the particular aspect of the Apple process (really, more like goals or guidelines) that he wants to focus on.

It’s all well-told, and they’re entertaining stories, but I can’t escape the feeling that it could all have been summarized in one word: Demos.

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Ana Partanen

Absolutely fascinating. Partanen is a journalist and a naturalized American citizen, originally from Finland, and she wrote this book in 2015-2016 after living here for several years.

Her goal is definitely not to knock the United States — she bends over backwards, in fact, to insist over and over again how much she loves Americans and was excited to live here — but to point out the widening gap between what we say we value — families, children, individual choice — and what our policies actually value. She uses a “Nordic Theory of Love” as a through-line, connecting how Nordic policies on healthcare, vacation, school, parental leave, etc all enable a greater freedom of choice for the people that live there.

Full confession: My wife and I have been contemplating a move to Northern Europe, and I picked this up as part of some research into what it might be like to live there. While I think many of the policy changes Partanen outlines would be wonderful if adopted in the United States, given our current political climate, I don’t think they’ll be adopted any time soon.

Partanen, apparently, agrees with me; she returned to Finland after getting pregnant with her first child (shortly after this book was published, in fact), and she hasn’t returned.

Needful Things, by Stephen King

More King! A later novel, this one’s a bit of door-stopper. But it’s still King at the top of his game: small-town Maine rendered in exquisite detail, slow-building tension that explodes in gory violence, and a victory so Pyrrhic as to be more like a truce.

I thought I knew the plot of this one, going in, based on parodies and knock-offs. But the real thing is much, much better, both more unsettling and harder to predict. The villain’s motivation was a bit of a letdown, to be honest, but his methods were chef’s kiss perfect.

I also felt a bit of shear between the setting as written and the setting as placed in time. Having read King’s novels from the 70s and 80s, this felt more like that time period than anything else, let alone the early 90s, when the story is supposed to take place. There were some markers laid down — I think one kid’s t-shirt has a 90s band on it — but they felt more like window-dressing. As if King had such deep knowledge of the Maine of 1960-1980 that he had trouble writing about the present. Which is perhaps why he’s returned so often in later books to writing about that exact period?

Short Book Reviews: April 2021

Fewer books read this month. Between turning 42 and getting both doses of the vaccine, I’ve been reading less (but writing more?). I’d hoped to have a fourth book done before the end of the month, but that’s going to have to wait 😦

Anyway, here are brief, non-spoilers reviews of the three books I did get through, again in reverse chronological order (so the most recently read book is first).

Carrie, by Stephen King

At this point I should just confess that I’ve decided to read all of the classic King books. Everything I missed growing up (parents!): Carrie, Cujo, Christine, Needful Things, etc.

This was King’s first book, and it’s amazing how much his writing improved between it and his second (Salem’s Lot). Carrie is a lot faster paced than the other book, but as a result I didn’t feel like I really got to know (or care about) a lot of the characters.

Even so, it’s a gut-punch of a book. Would recommend.

Trade in Classical Antiquity, by Neville Morley

A non-fiction palate-cleanser between horror novels. Recommended by the author of acoup.blog, whose insightful and detailed critiques of the “medieval” world represented in the Games of Thrones TV series drew me in.

It’s a short book, more of an extended scholarly essay than anything else. Morley’s goal here seems to be to poke holes in two of the leading schools of thought about trade in the classical Mediterranean: one that holds trade couldn’t possibly have been worth noting because of subsistence farming, and another that basically says globalization arrived thousands of years earlier than we thought.

I’m not familiar enough with those other schools to tell if that’s a straw-person argument or not. But Morley lays out his own case well, arguing for a sort of middle approach, relying on archeological evidence that shows trade in certain goods was in fact massive, while admitting the large gaps in our understanding of the period. Certainly food for thought when designing a classical-like society, or writing a story set in the classical period.

The Dead Zone, by Stephen King

Published the year I was born! King’s fifth book published under his own name.

Again I could see both the commonalities in the way he tells stories (newspaper clippings and interviews sprinkled throughout, a sharp focus on the minutiae of small-town life) and the leveling-up of his skills in the use of those techniques (and exploration of those themes).

Very much a horror-as-dread book, rather than blood-and-guts. Reminded me of his later book 11/22/63, not in the time travel aspect, but in the dilemma the protagonist faces towards the end (no spoilers, it’s worth the read). King’s rendition of the political mood of 1976 jibes with everything I’ve read about that election by recent historians, and his construction of a populist politician with evil in his heart and elections to win felt…let’s say a little prescient, after 2016?

A Note on the Casual Racism in King’s Earlier Books

While I’m reading through King’s oeuvre, and enjoying it, for the most part, there’s a few…problematic things that pop up again and again, like sour notes among an otherwise well-written symphony. And I feel the need to call them out, rather than skip over them.

Most striking, for me, in reading these now, is the way King drops at least one racist bit of imagery in each of the books I’ve read up to this point. Adjectives like “n*ardly”, or describing a character’s grossly misshapen and swollen lips as “African”.

It jerks me out of the book each time, and makes me wonder why he (or the publisher) doesn’t go back and remove it. This isn’t in character dialog, it’s narrative description, and it would be easy — very easy — to remove the short phrase that contains it without really altering the book at all. Why not change it?

More insidious is the way these books have basically no black people. In Needful Things, which I’m reading now, there’s one (one!) black character, and he’s only allowed to be a janitor, and his dialog is written…well, let’s just say King tries to render what he feels is a Black manner of speech, and it comes across as a caricature. I know some of these books were written before I was born, but I swear there were Black people in America back then, even in Maine. Leaving them out altogether feels…strange. Less like oversight, and more like an authorial blindspot.

These elements might change in his later works (and I hope they do!). And I’m certainly not trying to say anything about King the person, especially given how much time has elapsed between when he wrote these books and today. I must hope that whoever he is now, it’s a better version of himself than when he wrote these.

But these racist elements are in the books, and I feel must be called out as such.

Short Book Reviews: March 2021

Ok, I didn’t get this posted in time for the end of March, but better late then never, eh?

Continuing the theme of posting short reviews of the things I read each month, here’s what I’ve consumed since last time, again in reverse order (so, the most recent book first):

Seven-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M Valente

The first book is also one I couldn’t finish. I love the premise of this book: a Western retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. And Valente is one of my favorite authors! Should have been right up my alley.

But the whole thing is written in dialect, which is annoying for me at the best of times. And when it’s an author from the Northeast trying (emphasis on the trying) to write an entire novella in a Southwestern accent, this Texan just can’t take it.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

This one I enjoyed! Very well-crafted fantasy. Hard to say anything without spoiling the plot, but basically it weaves in themes from Frankenstein, the Wizard of Oz, multiverses, and time travel (of a sort…you’ll see) to construct something wholly original. I’ll be studying this one for pointers on style and craft.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

I didn’t think it was possible to make a compelling single-monster horror. But Jones has done it, and done it with characters and traditions (Blackfeet and Crow) you don’t normally find in American literature. This one was so good I read it all in one gulp, in a single day.

Four Lost Cities, by Annalee Newitz

Another one I wanted to like, but couldn’t get through. It’s supposed to be a survey of four historical cities that, for various reasons, were abandoned, even after long periods of growth and popularity. It promised some insights into the debates we’re starting to have about the sustainability of modern cities, and whether climate change will mean their inevitable decline.

Instead, I kept running into mischaracterizations and outright mistakes. One glaring error is in the location of Pompeii, which the author has right in the text but wrong on the maps. One mischaracterization is the author projecting the myth of the noble savage onto the population of an ancient city, even after they relay an exchange with an expert that lays bare the flaws of their assumption!

I can’t read nonfiction that I can’t trust, so I put this one down.

Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner

Wrote about this one last week. Recommended for anyone that’s even thinking of writing horror.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

King mentions in the intro to this one that he wrote this book partially because he wanted to see if it was possible to wed a literary story about a small Maine town with a Dracula-inspired vampire tale. That duality runs throughout the book, with passages that wouldn’t be out of place in the New Yorker followed by harrowing chapters filled with dread. So in reading it, I felt like I was watching the evolution of King the writer in real time, with his literary aspirations slowly giving way to his mastery of horror techniques.

Oh, and the story absolutely still works, even after all this time!

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Holy shit, this one. Another book that hooked me from the first page, and held me until I’d swallowed it all in a single day. An absolutely brilliant — and ambiguous — take on Lovecraftian horror. I immediately went and ordered more LaValle after finishing it.

Genghis Kahn by Paul Ratchnevsky

Another book I picked up after it was referenced on acoup.blog. Not as readable as The Mongol Art of War, but covers similar ground. Interesting for insights into how Genghis built up his empire, via political manuevering as shrewd policy as much as through battle.

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.

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).