Archive for the ‘Books’ category

A Review of Parting The Waters by Taylor Branch

January 14, 2012

This. Book. Is. SO. Good. Wow.

It spans the decade of 1954-1963 and tells the epic tale of Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights struggles. It is not your snapshot version: clocking in at over 900 pages, you get the real meat of the story. You live through that decade as you read.

This means you get all the nitty gritty details of each 1950’s-era news cycle. An altercation occurs! King comments on it… People disparage him! He feels stuck… But just weeks later, the comments are forgotten and the next battle is at hand. It gives you great a perspective on all of today’s political controversies, and it exposes their silliness.

Amazingly, you don’t get lost in the details. The book is truly an American Epic – the struggle of a people for their rights and freedom with some fascinating larger-than-life leaders grappling with each other publicly and privately. Lord of the Rings is good and all, but this is an astounding tale of the grandest scale, and real at that.

The story starts when Republicans were still the most favorable party to blacks, a vestige of Lincoln’s emancipation. But both parties include civil rights elements in the presidential election of 1960 – blacks are a demographic worth courting. Then Kennedy’s win is aided partly because he and RFK made two phone calls about King being in jail (it wasn’t just Daley in Chicago delivering votes!), which the black community responds to with a drastic shift in support. But! Kennedy heads a party full of viscously ardent segregationists in the south. That tension permeates the interactions between the racist southern governors and RFK at the Justice Department as the movement’s confrontations with segregated institutions ignite in conflict.

J. Edgar Hoover doesn’t make anything easier, since he is always hunting for some (nonexistent and absurd) communist threat and influence. His dirt on JFK’s affairs secures his power at the FBI, and he insists that a couple of King’s friends are such a threat that he gets RFK to approve wiretaps. (For historians, I imagine those wiretaps are a treasure.) Exasperatingly, Hoover does not enthusiastically commit his FBI resources to investigating crimes in the south, more because of his own bureaucratic motives than segregationist ones. It certainly does not help King, the movement, or the poor people who were persecuted to have an unhelpful FBI.

Then there is the baptist church! One fascinating angle I had not heard before is how King wished to have the national baptist church organization help lead his civil rights efforts. But doing so meant the church’s national leadership needed to change. The stories of the National Baptist Conventions are as full of conflict as any events that decade, with a large swatch of preachers trying to unseat the president of the organization, J.H. Jackson, who tyrannically outmaneuvers them and holds onto power. He even dramatically rebukes King, demoting him within the organization and accusing him of something close to murder. Don’t forget, these are preachers doing a bunch of fighting!

Plus you have the global conflict of the US vs the USSR. Some of the civil rights stories make it into the international press, casting a bad light on the US, which pressures Kennedy from another side.

For flavor, peppered throughout are little mentions of celebrities like Frank Sinatra, who had gangster friends which caused issues for Kennedy at one point, plus Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr.

And the whole struggle (the point of it all, really) is this radically nonviolent movement against a very deeply rooted and violent racism in the south, with all kinds of enablers, intimidation, habits, and fears. It is not a war where the other side surrenders and it is over. It is a whole swath of institutions that King and the movement must continuously chip away, from segregation laws and business practices to intimidations against blacks registering to vote, all across several states.

Most perplexing is that the book ends before many policies really change. Brown v. Board of Ed and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 are ruled and passed in the book, true, but their implementation was not easy nor immediate: two big stories of the movement are when James Meredith tries to register at the University of Mississippi and all of Robert Moses’s efforts with voting registration in Mississippi. The results of Civil Rights Act of 1964 are not in the scope of the book. Plus, even if policies had changed immediately, it would not drive racism out of peoples’ hearts.

Because essentially, that is the long-tail ending of the story, and it has not even ended yet. Sure we have elected a black president and ended blatant lawful segregation, but there is definitely still a distinct community of black americans who are not respected or understood by much of white america. Political struggles have concrete endpoints. But social struggles exist in hearts and minds, and cannot be changed quickly by policy. But that’s a discussion left to several more essays…

Anyway, my summaries do little justice to the book. It is truly an experience to immerse yourself in the story. Thankfully, the terrors are mostly history so the reader can excitedly see how the events play out and be spared the emotional damage. The violence at times is utterly terrifying and Branch, an excellent storyteller, turns some of the famous photographs into real life on the page. After reading it, you very much appreciate the struggles our nation has gone through to overcome its original sin.

I highly highly recommend this book. It is incredibly well written and the story is a supremely important part of our nation’s history.

—–

On a much more personal note, the book intrigued me also because I was interested in learning about this era that my dad’s side of the family was a part of, albeit in the periphery:

My dad and my pacifist grandfather had lunch with King in (I think) 1959 at some church event somewhere. My dad remembers King appearing very tired (and when Branch spoke at my church a few years ago, my dad mentioned this memory to him, to which Branch said it was probably because King was traveling all the time, giving speeches). My grandfather was a Democratic congressman from Colorado for one term, 1959-1961, and he attended the 1960 DNC in Los Angeles. And my grandmother was somehow friends with Harry Belafonte, who she had a crush on (we still have his records – also, he’s still alive?!). Plus, they were living in DC during the march on washington, and attended it. And, my parents have a poster of Bayard Rustin hanging in their office.

So as I read, all of these family stories gained another dimension of clarity.

My enthusiasm about the book also brought something out of my dad that I did not expect. He started college in 1960 when he was seventeen and soon wound up in radical student politics, joining an early version of SDS. So he came of age during the whole national upheaval chronicled so eloquently by Branch.

Anyways, there I am, sitting in my parents’ study, gushing to my dad about how good the book is, having just read the fascinating account of the Montgomery bus boycott. “There were other people who had gotten into altercations on the buses! But some organizers knew they wouldn’t be good examples to use if they wanted to make a statement out of it! But then Rosa Parks got arrested! And SHE was this really sweet, upstanding citizen, so they instantly rallied around her and then-”

As I’m raving on about Rosa Parks, to my prodigious surprise, my dad starts tearing up a little bit.

He remarks huskily, while he blinks at his computer screen, “to think, that she would then lie in state at the US capitol… simply amazing…”

Now, I’ve sat in that study and talked to my father about all sorts of things – politics, economics, policy, family, the neighbor’s dog, whatever.

But I’ve never before in my life, in that study or elsewhere, seen my father come close to crying.

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Book Review – 7 of ’em

August 6, 2011

Lord of the Rings 1, 2, and 3 by JRRT

The last (and only other) time I read these was in 5th grade, before any of the movies had come out. They felt like one long series of events until they (spoiler alert!) finally destroyed the ring. I remembered Gandalf dying-but-not-really, the ents being badass, and that gollum was a pain yet important in the end. Reading them again having seen the movies a couple times gave me many more plot touchstones to rely on and look forward to, so I had a lot more fun this time around. They also did not feel painfully long. Most importantly – the MAPS. I’m a very spatial thinker, so knowing where in the topography they were trekking actually made the stories feel more grounded and less random. And I’m old enough now to appreciate some of the larger themes and subtleties of the character actions. Plus having taken too many doses of Harry Potter over the years, you notice way too many commonalities (wormtongue? really?) All in all, a great summer read.

—-

Atul Gawande – The Checklist Manifesto

An absolutely great little book. I had to read just a portion of it for a class and did not put it down that evening until I read the whole thing. The writing is accessible and easy and full of great anecdotes (but if you’re squirmy about gory medical stories like me, be prepared).

Essentially, Gawande is reminding the reader that people inherently forget things. Even routine things. This is a problem when we engage in certain tasks where forgetting key details is detrimental. The solution? A checklist.

A couple salient examples: in building construction, they use huuuuuuge checklists of all the parts and people and the schedule of when which has to arrive and do their job. They even have a checklist of who has to be consulted when something goes wrong in order to properly and thoroughly troubleshoot every problem. Second – airline pilots. They have scads of little checklists that help them out when any kind of problem arises. The lists might even feel facetious sometimes when they start out with “fly the plane” but sometimes in emergencies when you are dealing with all sorts of stresses, you forget even the most obvious of tasks, which can be critically important before going down to “flip this switch, adjust this dial” sorts of tasks.

Gawande is a surgeon, and there are apparently few checklists in medicine. He decides to implement them to some absolutely astounding improvements in medicine that no single pill or procedure could possibly create. Seriously.

Interestingly, people resist checklists. We don’t like to feel incapable. But (and we discussed this in class) the way to think about it is not that we are “stupid” but that checklists can actually be an aide. Without the list, we would have to devote mental space and energy to remembering each little task. Using a physical list both ensures that we never forget AND that we can devote our brains to the more complex tasks.

My summary might be decent, but really you should read the book. There are several other important points in it that I can’t even get to.

—-

Michael Lewis – The Big Short

The Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame brings his excellent writing to illuminate the characters who predicted the financial crash of 2007/8 and therefore made money off of it. For me, it taught me more thoroughly what actually caused the crash, since I had never really read very deeply into it. And it gave me another glimpse into the world of Wall Street, its language and sensibilities and players. It showed/reminded me that there is still a lot that I don’t know. A good book – I recommend to anyone who wants to learn the details behind the crash. The details are pretty mind-numbing (“credit default swaps”) if you don’t have something entertaining to lead you through them. Lewis provides that needed narrative.

—-

John Cassidy – How Markets Fail (The Logic of Economic Calamities)

Oh my god. I just finished a Stanford degree in public policy in which I took a lot of classes in economics. Those classes handed me a lot of analytical puzzle pieces. This book gave me my first outline of what the whole puzzle might look like finished. So good.

There are many (MANY) people who are champions of free markets all day every day. As in, free markets will guide our society to the best and most desired ends. In case the title wasn’t obvious, this book takes a shit all over that idea.

First off, the book takes you through some history of the field of economics. To anyone whose taken classes, be prepared for a greatest hits of economic minds. Smith, Hayek, Keynes, Friedman, Walras, Stiglitz, Summers, Pigou, Arrow, Volcker, Coase Greenspan. Hell, he even got Hotelling in there. Cassidy tells a tale of a field of study that spins some simple, grand theories that rest on some incredibly important assumptions that just do not exist in the real world. That nagging feeling that some of what you were learning in economics class didn’t fully apply correctly is because a lot of economists work in theoretical la-la land.

Then he gets into all the ways markets fail. Much of this I had heard before, but here it was all pulled together. Prisoner’s dilemmas can give firms the incentive to do something less beneficial for all (namely, the tragedy of the commons is an n-person PD where everyone would be better off taking less, but the incentive is to cheat and take more). Or when different sides in a trade have imperfect information, or the research by Kahneman and Tversky that links some of economics to psychology and is part of what’s called “behavioral economics” (which, sadly, one of my economics professors called “not real economics”). On and on. I might summarize that whole section of the book in another blog post just because it’s all so important.

Finally, he gets into the financial sector. I’ll give one description to illustrate what Cassidy explains to the reader. In a theoretical market in economics, the supply curve (price vs demand) is a positive relationship. At higher prices, the firm will sell more goods. The demand curve is inverse – at higher prices, people will buy fewer goods. Standard fare econ 101 (in my case Econ 1A). BUT. In a financial market, the demand curves can be all screwy, and  even a positive relationship. A high stock price that is getting higher means people want even more. I laughed when I read him describe this because it was so obvious and went so counter to basic economic theory you learn at the very beginning. It’s part of what creates bubbles – everyone sees everyone making money so they all buy in and drive prices up higher. Then something finally pops those expectations and bam. Clearly, financial markets are not the normal markets of economic theory. Thus, the “let the market be free and unregulated” argument falls apart in this sector. Unless you like bubbles and the pain when they pop. Or the government bailouts.

Anyways, great book. I want to go read some opposing arguments.

—-

Jared Bernstein – Crunch

To those who pay attention to economists, Bernstein is a liberal. This book ultimately has what are liberal policy prescriptions.

But I found a fair amount of his explanations to be rather persuasive. The most salient point I got from this book is the role of power in the economy. The free market removes a lot of price-fixing and production-level power that is centralized under other systems. However, there are still power dynamics within firms that allow money to flow up the chain or give certain people some control over others’ wages, benefits, and even employment. Sure it’s legal for bosses to cut wages and to fire workers, but those power dynamics have distributive consequences. Namely, they distribute the earnings of the firm to the top. So when people express allergic reactions to “redistributing wealth” by government, just know that it’s not the only place in society where wealth distribution decisions can be made.

—-

Phew. Lots of reading. And it’s only the surface of some economic issues that I want to explore more. Considering some kind of graduate degree in economics more than a month ago now…

I Just Realized…

March 23, 2011

I read Harry Potter 1 when I was ten. He was eleven. He became thirteen before I turned eleven. I’ve been catching up with him since:

There were a few months before Book 6 came out when I was 16 while he was 15. Then I had about a year and a half where I was 17 (then 18) while he was still 16.

But in book 7, Rowling ends by making him THIRTY-SIX.

All told, I’ve had about two years of being older than him. He will have had twenty-four years of being older than me by the time I’m 36. It will take me until I’m fifty eight to have been older than him longer than he will have been older than me (the first ten years of my life notwithstanding, and not regarding his actual canonical birthday in 1980).

Eesh..

Book Reaction – Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

January 18, 2011

by Ben Ratliff.

My uncle gave this to me for Christmas, proving himself yet again to be a great gift giver. He originally gave my family Myst, thus starting me and my sister onto adventure computer games, followed a few years later by Harry Potter 1 when it first came out. This time, it was a gift that pointed me back towards jazz, a genre I had been neglecting, right when I needed it most.

Most people would be pretty bored by the book. The first half involves much discussion of Coltrane’s performances on different recordings, little of which is relevant without hearing the recording. The second half is a wandering bunch of content about his influence on jazz and music in general.

I’ve taken almost zero jazz history, and the extent of my jazz knowledge is the standards I played in school jazz bands, plus a few albums I own. This book filled in a few holes of how the style developed over different eras. Ratliff talks about the music very colorfully and interestingly, so he gave me many more handholds in a genre that had seemed complicated, but really had just never been explained properly.

And as an aspiring musician, reading Coltrane’s example is one of those reminders about how lazy you are with practicing, and how much you need to get down to business if you want to cut it. As soon as I read it, I added to my jazz music library and got excited about exploring a whole other musical vocabulary, as a listener, performer, and composer. Jazz piano’s in my schedule this quarter and jazz history next.

Why have I been waiting all this time? MUSICMUSICMUSIC OM NOM NOM

Book Reflection – “The Music Lesson”

November 8, 2010

The Music Lesson – A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor L. Wooten

I saw Victor Wooten live at the 930 club in DC this summer. Then he showed up at my campus bookstore, where I decided to buy his book and, having no instrument at hand for him to sign, got his signature on the title page.

Let’s just start by saying, Victor Wooten is a wayyyy better bass player than he is writer. But that’s OK. If you can look past his writing style, the book has some interesting commentary on what music is, and how to think about it.

For instance, he tries to break the mental habit in much of western musical society where we think music has to fit into strict structures of harmony, form, melody, etc. He encourages a freer approach. Especially in teaching and training: he suggests that he doesn’t “play the bass” but that he “plays music.” Probably the most salient idea is the comparison with how we learn language: we are surrounded by expert english speakers as children, who take joy in our verbal mistakes and encourage us to keep trying, while offering helpful corrections. With music, we don’t get to be surrounded by expert bass players as we learn, and even if we do take piano lessons, mistakes are frowned upon. It’s a much less supportive upbringing. And as a result, we don’t “speak” music as naturally.

I particularly liked his idea that people blend emotions:

“Blending emotions is what happens when two people fall in love. It is also what a psychic can use to read your thoughts or what a politician often uses to impose his will upon the public. Two or more people blending their positive emotions can cause miraculous things to happen. The opposite is also true. Two or more people blending negative emotions can cause catastrophes from illness to world wars, from crucifixions to shopping malls.” (100)

It’s another way to frame the idea of positive or negative energy, optimism or pessimism, construction or destruction. He goes with it for a while, talking about how preachers benefit from expressing emotion, while politicians lose trust when they hide it. But musicians deal with emotion without an agenda. Music for music’s sake. (Unless they act political with it, but that’s another discussion.)

Anyways. It’s a wandering book with a weird plot as a vehicle for him to make a lot of spiritual commentary about music. There are some good musical lessons in it (pay attention to silence, for example) which are good if you haven’t heard them before. For me, it was a reminder to pay not get too stuck in your head, but to pay attention to the feel.

Book Reflection – Amusing Ourselves to Death

September 17, 2010

by Neil Postman, copyright 1985

It’s a familiar idea that TV is junk for your brain. That’s not particularly new. Postman goes deeper and discusses how with TV as the dominant (not the only, but the dominant) mode of communication in our country/society, it shapes the way we think, to a detrimental degree.

He starts with an allusion to Orwell and Huxley. He says Orwell’s fear of a government controlling everything isn’t the reality, instead warning that Huxley was a lot closer – that people would only care about entertainment and give up on society. TV brings us Wall-E, not Stalin.

It’s an extreme view that I don’t think will fully happen, but like 1984, a useful archetype to have in mind. Also, since he wrote the book twenty-five years ago, the practicalities of the internet aren’t addressed at all.

A few salient points:

“The medium is the message” a Marshall McLuhan quote that Postman elaborates on. Books involve thinking in a long-term manner, keeping the early chapters in mind while being led through an extended logical argument. TV instead is visual and brief, where the television language is one of constant scene cuts to keep the viewer engaged and interested. These two examples encourage very different kinds of thinking and communicating. TV encourages reducing complicated ideas to sound bites. And discourse suffers.

In the 1800s, the inception of long-distance telecommunication with the telegraph changed news forever. Instead of knowing mostly about local matters, and learning about distant events after a period of time, now we know anything about anything from anywhere. Postman asks a very serious question – what is the usefulness of knowing all of this information? Are you going to do anything differently this afternoon when you hear about all sorts of disasters and conflicts around the world on the morning news? The answer usually is: not really. We have a glut of information about the world and few immediate tools that allow us to act on that knowledge.

The ramification of a glut of information, in Postman’s mind, is that news is entertainment. We hear 30-second tidbits of info without any time to react emotionally or reflect on them before we hear about the next tidbit.

Also, we’re not very deliberate about how we let new technology into society. The telegraph is invented and it quickly spreads because of its advantages. Society just doesn’t think about the changes that introduces and whether or not they are good. It’s commonly thought that new technology is always good, and the behavior change as a result is also probably good. Postman is afraid that the change in how we think due to TV is not good.

Postman doesn’t offer an easy remedy. His suggestion is basically education – we need to talk about our communication technologies and how they shape the ways in which we talk and discuss our world. He didn’t know about the internet at all when he wrote the book, but it’s worth thinking about how the internet shapes our brains as well.

Very thought-provoking book. Worth a read.

Book Reaction – John Adams

July 24, 2010

by David McCullough

I highly recommend reading history through biography. It makes obscure dates and events seem real and human. Reading about the frenzy of anti-French sentiment showed how, of course congress and a president would pass and sign the alien and sedition acts! It still wasn’t right, but you understand why it happened. Getting to know Jefferson through the eyes of someone who disliked him for a time teaches you that he’s human too. And Hamilton was a crazy mofo. Interestingly, there was very little about Washington in this book. My favorite Washington moment was when he was standing, watching Adams be sworn in as president, to which Adams wrote “Me thought I heard him think, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!’ ” Imagine General Washington teasing someone.

What was really fun was reading about the founding of the country as I rode a bus into and out of Washington DC every day. Passing the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress made it feel like I was seeing into the future as I lived in this late 18th-century world.

And to that end, wouldn’t it be an experience to bring the founders into the present and show them around? A lot of them were fascinated by science, so the technology would be overwhelming. Look! With a flip of a switch there’s light everywhere! See the buildings we have constructed! You don’t have to wait 6 months to correspond with people in Europe – it’s instantaneous! We can FLY! We’ve been to the MOON! Look at what we know about medicine and biology now! They would be the most giddy people, playing around with all of the knowledge. They would get lost for weeks on wikipedia.

It’s less certain how they would view the nation. They would definitely be sobered by the fact that the civil war had to happen, though probably not surprised. I imagine they would be generally heartened by the social progress we’ve made – and I’m certain they’d be supportive of furthering those efforts. It would be fascinating to see how they react to the size of our institutions – corporations, governments, banks. Would they be disquieted by their size, and worry at how powerless a single individual is? What would they think of the Senate? 2 people representing millions from California compared to two representing just a few hundred thousand in Wyoming – would they regret that they couldn’t negotiate a different setup originally, or would they still favor state’s rights that much? Imagining those humans coming into this age and seeing what they enabled would be beyond amazing.

And in general, McCullough’s a great writer – I read the whole damn book and it kept me interested the whole time.

John Adams was a world-class human being. Deserved to be President. He deserves a memorial as much as Jefferson, given what he did in helping prop up the country.

Finally, my favorite bit of early 19th century language, from John Adams upon his retirement and needing to stay occupied: “Something I must do, or ennui will rain upon me in buckets.”