Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2020

by Michael Pollan ( Random House 2001, 2002)

I have really enjoyed Michael Pollan’s books about eating, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food , and I try to follow his food rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants, with their corollaries such as Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients. (See the post for In Defense of Food for all the details.) I’ve been intending to read this one for years, and I got my chance when my sister gave it to me for Christmas. Thanks, Sis!

Like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is divided into four parts, each of which corresponds to a meal, The Botany of Desire‘s four chapters focus on four human desires (sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control) and four plants which fulfill them (the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato). The over-arching idea echoes a concept Pollan expressed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma–that plants use people, like bees, to spread their genes. In that book, it was corn that has somehow gotten humans to rid most of the American Midwest of all other competing species to its own advantage, with the result that we grow so much of it that we are forced to invent new markets for it (ubiquitous sweetener of other foods, automotive fuel…). In the present book, Pollan describes how apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes have taken over whole landscapes far from their places of origin. In so doing, he educates the reader with interesting facts. For instance, all commercially available apples are grafted clones; apples do not come true from seed. In fact, tulips are similar in this respect: “Tulips are prone to . . . chance mutations, color breaks,  and instances of ‘thievery’ (the tendency of certain flowers to revert to their parents’ appearance).” and “A tulip that falls out of favor soon goes extinct, since the bulbs don’t reliably come back every year. . . . Tulips, in other words, are mortal.” And the apples planted by John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman were used not for eating but for making (hard) cider, which stood in for most other alcoholic beverages in the American Midwest.  of his time.

Throughout, Pollan ruminates on the contrasting myths of Apollo (analytical, linear, controlling, rational. . .) and Dionysus (natural, chaotic, untamed, violent, sexual. . .):  “Johnny Appleseed”, a kind of gentle Dionysus. . . .  Marijuana, providing a Dionysian intoxication (“nature overpowering mind”). . . . “Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together.” This occasionally seems a little far-fetched, but adds an intriguing perspective.

In the final chapter, Pollan shines a bright light on the issues raised by genetic engineering, such as the inadvertent spreading of the doctored genes through the natural dispersal of pollen; the privatization of natural resources such as the natural insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt); the evolution of pests to resist Bt and other insecticides (a question not of if, but of when); and the control of farmers by agribusinesses such as Monsanto. He describes the dead soil in which most of our food grows, compared to the living multi-cultural living soil on organic farms: “. . . the typical potato grower stands in the middle of a bright green circle of plants that have been doused with so much pesticide that their leaves wear a dull white chemical bloom and the soil they’re rooted in is a lifeless gray powder. Farmers call this a ‘clean field,’ since, ideally, it has been cleansed of all weeds and insects and disease–of all life, that is, with the sole exception of the potato plant.” In contrast, the organic farmer’s soil “looked completely different from the other Magic Valley soils I’d fingered that day: instead of the uniform grayish powder I’d assumed was normal for the area, Heath’s soil was dark brown and crumbly. The difference . . . was that this soil was alive.” For the first time, I understood deeply why we should prefer organic produce over the cheaper alternative.

As always, Pollan does not disappoint.

Posted in Biology and environmental science, History, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2020

by Joan Maloof (Univ. of Georgia Press 2005)

I loved, loved, loved this book! It’s a collection of essays about trees, forests, and the other things that live in, on, under, and among them, written by a forest ecologist and emeritus professor of biology and environmental studies at Salisbury University, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (the part of the state that lies east of the Chesapeake Bay on the great Delmarva Peninsula). The essays mostly focus on the trees in this part of the world, and since I live on the other side of the bay (estuary, actually), most of the trees discussed are also to be found near my home (except the Bald Cypress): the tulip poplar, sycamore, pine (though maybe not the loblolly pine Maloof writes about), various oaks, maple, holly, and sweet gum–not sure about the black locust, redcedar, or beech (but having checked these out online, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are probably here, just unrecognized by me). But I felt as I read that Maloof was writing about my trees, my forests, my environment. It felt very personal. She writes about trees with love and respect for these incredible life forms, and includes the tiny animals that feed and shelter in the forest, like weevils, beetles, gnats, luna moths, borers, midges and leaf miners and wasps and more. She describes her efforts and those of others to protect trees from the crush of man’s embrace (from Laurie Lewis’ “The Wood Thrush’s Song”). Successes are rare, but somehow, she holds on to hope, and accordingly, so do I. To think about trees is to hold the long view of life on earth. Maloof points out that homeowners on the Eastern Shore sometimes go to a lot of trouble to plant trees on their newly acquired properties, when all they need to do is wait a few years for a young forest to propagate itself on its own because the land there naturally reverts to forest if left to its own devices. That’s a comforting thought.

Gorgeous 200-year-old illustrations by artist/naturalist John Abbot are interspersed throughout the pages of the book. They appear without captions, forcing the reader who does not immediately recognize the leaves in the image to look back at the list of illustrations which follows the table of contents. I was tempted to pencil in the species’ names on the facing pages, but I decided that would encourage laziness. If I leave them unlabeled, perhaps I will learn to recognize the leaves I don’t already know. I’ve long wished I could identify more trees.

One of the illustrations is of the chestnut oak. This tree grows in the state park adjacent to my neighborhood, where my husband and I often walk. I’ve wondered about those leaves: shaped like large teardrops with multiple indentations along the edges (what Wikipedia calls coarsely crenately toothed leaves). But I was unsure of my identification until I read Teaching the Trees. An added benefit!

Now that I’ve finished the book (I devoured it like a mystery), I kind of want to reread it from the beginning. I’ve already begun to forget all the neat things I learned! For example: Maryland has about 8,000,000,000 trees, 95% of which are less than five inches in diameter; only 2% are as wide as a woman’s shoulders.

Posted in Biology and environmental science, Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The First Love

Posted by nliakos on December 29, 2019

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House 2018)

Set in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, like Beverly Lewis’ other novels, The First Love is the most religious of Lewis’ books that I have encountered so far. It turns out her father was an evangelist who held revival meetings in Lancaster County, just like the tent meetings Maggie Esh is tempted by in this novel. Lewis writes, “My own father pitched a large tent not far from the location of the crusade Maggie Esh attends. There, for two consecutive summers, he conducted six-week evangelistic meetings where various evangelists preached the gospel and the sick were healed by God’s miraculous power.” The first love alluded to in the title refers to the love of Jesus that Maggie discovers in the tent meetings. Nevertheless, Lewis respects her character’s choice to remain in her Old Order Amish community. Maggie ventures out, is changed by the meetings she attends, and even makes friends with the evangelist’s son, but ultimately, she goes ahead with her plan to be baptized into her Amish church.

The book is also about Maggie’s struggle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She longs to be pain-free and strong so that she can pull her weight at home and dream of marrying and having her own family. She tries many remedies and dares to flirt with the idea of faith healing (apparently not part of the Amish tradition). One remedy appears to be effective for weeks on end, but in the end disappoints her as all the others have. Fortunately the young man Maggie loves accepts her as she is, after 282 pages of wondering if they will ever get together. (Spoiler Alert: Then, in a puzzling Epilogue, an older Maggie recalls how her husband and father prayed over her and laid hands on her, and how two days later, she became pain-free and lived happily ever after. After all those pages devoted to the Amish resistance to faith healing, this bit was a bit too facile for me. Did Lewis just want to include a non-Amish miracle in her story?)

The final plot line concerns the Esh children’s difficulty accepting Rachel, their father’s new wife, their Mamm having recently died of rheumatic heart disease. Lewis writes not only from Maggie’s perspective but also from Rachel’s. Rachel is deeply in love with her much-older husband Joseph, and her story involves her struggle to earn the love and respect of Joseph’s older children, especially 14-year-old Leroy, who is suffering from his inability to keep a promise he made to his dying mother, but also Grace and Maggie, 16 and 17-18 respectively, who are courteous and obedient but distant with their Schtiefmudder.

It all turns out all right. Lewis’ novels have replaced the murder mysteries I used to enjoy. They aren’t deep, but they are interesting. Her descriptions of the Plain folk’s simple life provide an escape from our world of technology.

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Catching up with Mma Ramotswe

Posted by nliakos on December 21, 2019

I used to listen to the audio books of Alexander McCall Smith’s delicious No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series every year as they came out. Somehow, retirement got in the way; even before I retired in 2015, I started taking the bus to work and reading books instead of listening to them. So I somehow forgot about Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and all the rest. But now I have Libby! Libby (for Mac devices look here)is a new (for me, anyway) app I can use to borrow e-books from my public library. I got a lesson from one of the librarians last week, and when I got home, j had the idea to check for new No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency titles. There are six–one for each year that I missed. So while I wait for Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell, I am catching up with Mma Ramotswe and friends.

The first one I got was The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013). In it, Mma Makutsi has a baby, and Mma Ramotswe is forced to acknowledge just how much she depends on her secretary turned assistant detective turned associate detective. As that story unfolds, the agency deals with two new cases: a contested inheritance and a case of intimidation. Meanwhile, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is persuaded that he should help his wife more at home–that he should be a more “modern” husband. To this end, he attempts to mash raw potatoes and other interesting recipes, and Precious needs to be very diplomatic. (Nov. 11)

The second one was The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe (2014). That what Mma Makutsi decides to call her new restaurant. Uncharacteristically, she allows herself to be duped by some shady characters and ends up with a chef who can’t cook and a waitstaff who delight in being rude to the customers. Her nemesis, Violet Sephotho, then writes a scathing review of the new restaurant (but probably anyone else would have written a similarly poor review because the restaurant was really a disaster), but Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane manage to sort everything out in the final chapter. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is forced to let Charlie, the eternal apprentice, go due to a shrinking workload, and Mma Ramotswe feels obligated to offer him a job with the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, even though she can’t afford it, either. Of course, Charlie and Mma Makutsi are constantly in each other’s faces as Charlie becomes first an apprentice detective, then an assistant secretary, then a clerk and finally again a secretary at the agency. And Mma Ramotswe handles an intriguing case about an Indian woman with amnesia. (Nov. 14)

Number 3 in my catch-up series of Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books is The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015). In this one, Mma Ramotswe is pressured by Mma Makutsi to take a vacation, which she has never done before. Reluctantly, she gives up the reins of the agency to Mma Makutsi (despite her misgivings), who will be assisted by ex-mechanic apprentice Charlie (who has been laid off by Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and subsequently hired by Mma Ramotswe) and by Mr. Polopetsi, the former pharmacist and now part-time chemistry teacher who used to assist the ladies in their work and who comes back to volunteer his services while Mma Ramotswe is away. But Mma Ramotswe is unsuited to vacations. She feels at loose ends and is tormented by the desire to know what is going on at the agency without her. When Mr. Polopetsi secretly consults her about a difficult case he claims Mma Makutsi has foisted off on him, Mma Ramotswe has the excuse she needed to get back in the game, but it must be done delicately, so as not to insult the famously prickly Mma Makutsi. In the end, Mma Makutsi proves to be more capable than Mma Ramotswe perhaps realized. Along the way, Mma Ramotswe rescues a little boy trapped in an abusive home and manages to reunite him with his mother, as well as to settle him at the Orphan Farm with Mms Potokwane. (Nov. 23)

Precious and Grace (2016) shines a light on the changing relationship between Mma Precious Ramotswe, owner and founder of the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and her partner (formerly secretary, then assistant detective), Grace Makutsi. Mild-mannered Precious seeks to avoid conflict (although we know from previous novels that she is not afraid to confront troublemakers and even to threaten them in order to force them to do the right thing), while Grace seems to thrive on it, and she has a dangerous habit of speaking her mind before she thinks through all the possible consequences. Precious keeps an open mind while Grace tends to leap to conclusions and has a hard time admitting that she might be wrong. These differences show up as they try to help a Canadian woman named Susan locate her former nanny, Rosie, and the house where her family lived in Gaborone. After an announcement in the newspaper brings not one but many women claiming to be the Rosie who took care of Susan, Grace assumes that they are all liars, while Precious is inclined to believe the first one.  Precious and Grace make plans to attend a dinner honoring Botswana’s Woman of the Year, with Grace’s longtime enemy, Violet Sepotho, in contention for the honor. Meanwhile, Mr. Polopetsi has gotten himself into hot water by investing in a pyramid scheme, leaving Precious to sort it out, and Fanwell runs over a stray dog, which decides to adopt him. Fanwell cannot take the dog to the place where he lives with his uncle’s family in very close quarters, and Precious tries to figure out a solution, while Grace insists that dogs do not have souls, so it doesn’t really matter what happens to the dog. The most challenging case is that of Susan and Rosie, which turns out to be not as it first appeared, the grateful adult child returning to thank the beloved nanny. But in the end, the dog finds a home; Mr Polopetsi makes amends to those he has cluelessly swindled and even finds the perfect part-time job in the police crime lab; and Susan makes her peace with the past. Moreover, Grace finds herself able to see Violet Sepotho’s triumph in a new light, thanks to Precious’ gentle reasoning.

I started The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017) while I was not yet finished with Precious and Grace because I was listening to P&G on CD book (reveling in the unhurried narration of Lisette Lecat), which takes longer. When I read the text, I tend to rush through it, even though I try not to; it’s the same bad habit which renders me incapable of appreciating most poetry. Anyway, the main cases in Unexpected Sisters involve a woman dismissed from her job on false pretenses and Mma Ramotswe’s discovery of a hitherto unknown woman who shares her last name, which is quite rare. Underlying these story lines is the infamous Note Mokoti, former husband and abuser of Mma Ramotswe, back in Gaborone from South Africa for unknown reasons and causing Mma Ramotswe a great deal of concern. Of these, the most interesting is the mysterious Mingie Ramotswe, who (SPOILER ALERT!) turns out to be Mma Ramotswe’s half-sister, and due to a clerical error, Mma Ramotswe’s image of her “daddy” as a perfect human being is severely shaken. She rejects Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s attempts to help her as she struggles with renewed grief and loss. McCall Smith quietly includes the issue of same-sex marriage/partnership as a part of this story line. (Mma Ramotswe, of course, harbors no anti-gay prejudice.) The case of the fired sales clerk is resolved when Mma Ramotswe discovers that the boss has been straying with the vile Violet Sepotho and goes to talk to his wife; and she is spared having to confront Note Mokoti by the ever-helpful Mma Potokwane, who reports that he has turned over a new leaf and left Gaborone again.

I read The Colours of All the Cattle (2018) in three different formats. First I borrowed the e-book on Libby. Then I tried out a new technology called Playaway  from the library: a little plastic device about the size of an iPod holding one audiobook. The borrower provides earbuds and a AAA battery. The controls were simple and Lisette Lecat’s reading delightful as always, but unfortunately the device did not work as intended. It kept shutting down, and each time it did that, I had to restore my speed and volume settings. Then it stopped going back to the place it had stopped, requiring that I search over and over for my place in the book. Way more frustrating than I was prepared to deal with! Then I forgot I already had the e-book on my tablet, so I borrowed an old-fashioned book. I finished the book both ways. You can believe I will tell the library staff about my less-than-ideal experience with Playaway when I return it!

The story features three interwoven plots. One of these is the case of Dr. Marang, a kindly doctor from Mma Ramotswe’s home village of Mochudi, who was struck by a hit-and-run driver and badly injured, leading to many expenses for which he would like to be compensated. Mma Ramotswe is at first confounded by the seeming impossibility of finding the driver of a car the good doctor could only describe as “blue”, but with the assistance of Charlie, she is able to resolve the case satisfactorily. The second plot is the relationship between Charlie and a beautiful young lady named Queenie-Queenie, daughter of the owner of a large trucking business. Queenie-Queenie hides her family’s wealth and prestige from Charlie, but when he finds out, he becomes discouraged, believing that her family will never allow her to marry such a poor man without cattle for a bride-price. Perhaps the main story involves Mma Ramotswe’s adventure into local politics when she allows herself to be persuaded to run for a seat on the Gaborone City Council by Mma Potokwane, who opposes the construction of the Big Fun Hotel next to the cemetery where her mother is interred, and by Mma Makutsi, whose main goal is to ensure the defeat of Violet Sephotho, her longtime enemy, who is also running (or standing, as they say in Botswana) for the seat. Mma Ramotswe immediately regrets having agreed to stand for the Council and does her best to back out of her commitment, but in the end, she goes through with it (although she is incapable of voting for herself, which feels horribly immodest to her). Despite (or perhaps because of) an exceedingly modest campaign slogan (“I am not much, but I promise you I’ll do my best.”), she wins the election but is neatly rescued from actually having to serve on the Council once Mma Potokwane’s wish to stop the hotel construction has been fulfilled. That’s typical of the series: the solutions are invariably easy and neat. The first person you suspect is often the culprit, unlike in more traditional mysteries. (If I were a cataloguer in a library, I might not classify these as mysteries at all!) What makes the books so delightful is not how the crimes are solved or the mysteries untangled; it is what happens in between–the simple conversations between husbands and wives, or Mma Ramotswe’s thoughts as she seeks to escape from the world of politics she is suddenly thrust into. These make Botswana seem like a simpler place than the one we inhabit, even though it also has corrupt politicians, dishonest people, and schemers.

I’ve just discovered that there is a 2019 book in the series, but Libby can’t guarantee I will get it before 13 weeks, so I’m going to go ahead and publish this post!


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The Corfu Trilogy

Posted by nliakos on December 3, 2019

by Gerald Durrell

  • My Family and Other Animals (Penguin 1956)
    • This was one of my mother’s books, and I read it myself many years ago. Recently, my interest has been reawakened by the delightful TV series The Durrells in Corfu, which my family gathered to watch on Sunday nights for four seasons of laughter-inducing episodes about the eccentric Durrell family’s life on the Greek Island of Corfu (Kerkira). The day after the Season 4 finale, I started re-reading the first of the so-called Corfu Trilogy. It introduces us to the main characters: mom Louisa Durrell and her young adult children, Larry (the Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame); Leslie; Margo; and the narrator of the entire trilogy, ten-year-old Gerry, whose later books about animal collecting and his special zoo on the Isle of Jersey (the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust) made him at least as famous as Larry. We also meet Spiros Halikiopoulos (son of a pebble?), a Corfiot who immediately befriends the family and sticks by them through thick and thin; Lugaretzia, who is hired as household help; and Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s friend and mentor. Twenty years later, a grown-up Gerry remembered the details of his life on the island: not only the animals, which he observed with intense fascination, captured, and brought home as pets (to the horror of his family), but also the plant life, the sea, the weather, and of course the people. Gerry seems to have learned enough Greek to communicate fluently with the neighbors (something the TV series ignored; even in Season 4, all five Durrells can barely get a sentence out in Greek).  He describes the process in Chapter Two: “As the days passed, I came gradually to understand them. What had at first been a confused babble became a series of recognizable separate sounds. Then, suddenly, these took on meaning, and slowly and haltingly I started to use them myself; then I took my newly acquired words and strung them into ungrammatical and stumbling sentences. Our neighbours were delighted, as though I had conferred some delicate compliment by trying to learn their language. They would lean over the hedge, their faces screwed up with concentration, as I groped my way through a greeting or a simple remark, and when I had successfully concluded they would beam at me, nodding and smiling, and clap their hands.” He narrates his adventures both in his own garden and farther afield on the island and includes some very funny episodes about the people he lives with and the people he meets, such as the various tutors his mother engages to educate him. The funniest parts always include his ever-expanding menagerie: Ulysses the Scops owl, Achilles the tortoise, Alecko the black-backed gull, the “Magenpies”, Geronimo the gecko, the dogs Roger, Widdle, and Puke, and many more, some too tiny to name. The first book concludes with the family traveling to England where Gerry was supposed to go to school, whereas in reality, it was because of the impending Second World War that the family were forced to leave Corfu in 1939. (11/09/19)
  • Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (Viking 1969)
    • The second in the Corfu series continues in the same vein. Durrell describes in simile-laden prose the plants and animals he observed and sometimes captured. His similes help the reader envision what he was experiencing. For example: “…tiny crabs or beadlet anemones like little scarlet-and-blue jewelled pincushions”; “…a delicate growth of acetabularia mediterranea with slender threadlike stalks, and perched on the top of each stalk something that looked like a small green parasol turned inside out by some submarine wind”; and “a great black lump of sponge covered with gaping, protruberant mouths like miniature volcanoes.” (The above three examples were all in a single paragraph described shore life in a tiny bay.) My favorite similes, however, are the ones that anthropomorphize the wildlife, like this one: “… [the mantises’] bulbous straw-coloured eyes turning this way and that, missing nothing, like angular, embittered spinsters at a cocktail party.” And “[the tarantula] was standing half-way up a blue thistle, waving his front legs and peering about him, reminding me irresistibly of a hunter who had climbed up a tree in order to see if there is any game about.” I assume that the breath-taking detail with which he describes his island world can be attributed to the habit, already instilled in him at that young age by his mentor, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, of keeping a detailed journal of his discoveries and observations, in which he not only described things in words but also sketched them.  Gerry’s adventures narrated in this volume include night-fishing with Taki, acquiring a young donkey as a birthday present, Katerina’s wedding and childbirth, Sven (who never dates Gerry’s mother Louisa, as he does in the TV series) and Captain Creech (who is, if possible, even more irritating than he is in his TV portrayal), fishing for cuttlefish with love, dissecting a rotting turtle carcass on the front veranda, Leslie bribing a judge with postage stamps when Roger is falsely accused to stealing and eating five turkeys, a trip to London to retrieve Margo (Aunt Fan, Cousin Prue, some Bedlington terrier puppies, and a seance), Donald and Max’s visit, Gerry’s lunch with Countess Mavrodaki, the acquisition and loss of four baby hedgehogs, the wreck of Larry’s yacht, Gerry dancing with Pavlo the bear, and a family outing to Mr. Stavrodakis’ vineyard/winery. This last one constitutes the final chapter of the book and is the only chapter that isn’t particularly funny. The whole day is described with such love and longing, as if it were Gerry’s most important memory of the place he loved so much. He ends the chapter, and the book, thus: Lulled by the wine and the throbbing heart of the boat’s engine, lulled by the warm night and the singing, I fell asleep while the boat carried us back across the warm, smooth waters to our island and the brilliant days that were not to be
  • The Garden of the Gods/Fauna and Family: An Account of the Durrell Family of Corfu (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster 1978)
    • I had a hard time finding this one because it wasn’t obvious that one book had been published under two titles. Once I figured that out, I realized I already owned a copy. The narratives continue, looking at the island, the family, their friends and peculiar guests through young Gerry’s eyes. (The Durrells spent four or five years in Corfu, so Gerry might have been ten when they first arrived, but he was fourteen or fifteen when they departed. It’s never clear in the books how old he is in a particular chapter. The books don’t seem to be organized chronologically. I suppose he wrote about what he remembered best, and he didn’t plan it as a trilogy, but just kept adding volumes because of all of his books, these were the best sellers and thus earned his Wildlife Preservation Trust the most money (Writing was how Gerald Durrell financed his Jersey zoo devoted to saving endangered species). I was curious to see if the final volume mentioned anything about Gerry’s mother falling in love with the taxi-driver, Spiro. It didn’t. Nor did it have any mention of Spiro’s wife or children, if indeed he was married. So that juicy little romance was a fiction invented by the TV folks (not surprisingly). Also, in the books, Spiro is described as barrel-shaped, usually scowling, and ugly–not at all the handsome, charming man of the series, though he was able to find/make/buy/produce anything the family needed, which included some pretty weird stuff. There were some extremely funny moments, like Gerry’s bull horns (not bullhorns) falling on Leslie’s head and nearly knocking him out; King George’s visit to Corfu (also embroidered rather fancifully by the TV series director or scriptwriter); the time Margo brought home a besotted Turk with his two veiled wives, who was prepared to take on Margo as Number Three; the visit of the gentle American homosexuals, Lumy and Harry, who did make it into the TV series; and finally, Prince Jeejeebuoy’s birthday, in honor of which the whole family throws an elaborate India-themed party which takes days to prepare and naturally does not go completely as planned. . . . In sum, I enjoyed the TV series, but I am glad that it inspired me to go back to the books, because, as is almost always true, they are much better than the series!

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Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

Posted by nliakos on November 3, 2019

by Ronan Farrow (Little, Brown 2019)

Reading Catch and Kill immediately after She Said was interesting. Most of the book details Farrow’s pursuit of the same story that Twohey and Kantor were chasing in She Said–Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse of hundreds of women over many years. Naturally, both books share many of the same characters: victims/witnesses/sources, predators, and enablers. In Catch and Kill, there is also a whole new cast of characters from NBC News, where he worked when he began investigating Weinstein, and The New Yorker, which eventually published the finished piece (and several follow-ups) after NBC ordered Farrow and his collaborator, Rich McHugh, to stop work on the story, as well as people at The National Enquirer and its parent company, AMI, who took it upon themselves to buy the rights to stories concerning the misbehavior of people like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump and then consign them to a vault so that they would never see the light of day (the “catch-and-kill” of the title).

Yes, it’s true: NBC was complicit in the coverup (and guilty of tolerating a similar culture of sexual abuse and coverup in the person of Matt Lauer, host of the Today show). Yet another shocker (I guess I am pretty naive). I don’t watch NBC, but I used to consider it part of the “mainstream media” which can be (more or less) trusted. No more. If I did watch it, I would stop. At least in the case of NBC, they did not attempt to stop Farrow from publishing his results in The New Yorker–in fact, Noah Oppenheim, one of Farrow’s superiors at NBC) actually suggested it.

The sheer number of people in the book is breath-taking, and I found it hard to keep them all straight. The chapter titles are weird, and in most cases I could not discern their relationship to the chapter they named: “Button”, “Quidditch”, “Syzygy”, “Spike”. I don’t know why he even bothered to name them. I suppose there is a connection, but it would have taken time and mental energy to figure out what it was, so I didn’t bother. Ditto for the Part titles: “Poison Valley”, “White Whale”, “Army of Spies”, “Sleeper”, and “Severance”.

Farrow includes enough personal details and reconstructed conversations in the story to keep the reader interested and to pave the way for a film based on the book I think it would make a good movie, if only they limit the number of characters in it. But now I think I will read something entirely different. Enough sleaze. (As of this writing, Harvey Weinstein is still a free man, still rich, awaiting his trial in New York and planning his comeback in the movie business. The creep.)


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She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

Posted by nliakos on October 24, 2019

by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (Penguin 2019)

This book is actually two books in one. The first, the longer one, is the one referred to in the subtitle: the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment case that ultimately brought down not only Mr. Weinstein but also his entire company, The Weinstein Company (TWC). The second, only 62 pages, which tells the story of Christine Blasey Ford and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation, seems like more of an after-thought. Kantor and Twohey did not break that story, although Blasey Ford did attend a gathering they organized in 2019 to interview a disparate group of women who had come forward to accuse their harassers in order to learn how going public had impacted their lives.

As I had read in a review somewhere, Kantor and Twohey’s book helps the reader understand the journalistic process and the ethics which guide journalists’ work. We read about the editors and higher-ups in the New York Times who make the crucial decisions about what to print, when to print, whether to print, to continue pursuing a story or not, how much time to allow reporters to work on a story that seems to be going nowhere, and so on. There are references to others pursuing the same story (e.g., Ronan Farrow, whose book Catch and Kill I will read next) and the pressure to be the first to break the story rather than to write a “follow” (a summary of another person’s original article), which the authors say is “humbling to write”.

As for the actual story itself, Harvey Weinstein was a sleazy old guy with a lot of power and influence who (with the cooperation and assistance of his underlings) trapped young women in hotel rooms and tried to get them to disrobe, give and accept “massages”, take showers with him, and watch him masturbate. He occasionally raped them, but in general his modus operandi seems to have been “persuasion”, keeping in mind his dominance over them professionally–both the women who worked for him and young actors hoping for parts in his films. Some of them submitted; some escaped, but all, it seems, were harmed by the experience. Some of the harm was professional; e.g., a staffer unable to continue working in the film industry because she was prevented by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) from explaining why she had left Miramax, Weinstein’s company at the time. Other harm was in the recriminations and self-doubts that continued to plague these women, who were prevented from discussing what had happened to them by the NDAs they had signed, thereby consigning them to living with the events and the feelings connected to them unresolved.

Kantor and Twohey show how the NDAs provided the victims with cash settlements far larger than they would have gotten had they complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency charged with enforcing the laws against sexual harassment, and won–which, given the atmosphere at the time, was far from certain. Blaming the victim was common, and the EEOC was not even allowed to make public the information it had about serial harassers. “Such agencies would gather crucial information with taxpayer dollars and then, for the most part, were required to lock it away where almost no one could see it,” report the authors. Thus did the federal and state governments enable sexual harassers to continue to victimize people for years–in Weinstein’s case, over forty years before he was finally held accountable.

Once having signed an NDA, however, victims of sexual harassment or assault were muzzled for life. In effect, the NDAs prostituted the victims after the fact: after they were groped, fondled, “massaged”, forced to engage in oral sex, or raped, they were paid to remain silent about what had happened. While many victims wanted only to forget what had happened, the inability to reconsider that decision would haunt them for years and made Kantor and Twohey’s investigation much more challenging, because they were unable to persuade people to talk to them. These agreements should be illegal, in my view.

Definitely worth reading.

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The Fifth of March: A Story of the Boston Massacre

Posted by nliakos on October 17, 2019

by Ann Rinaldi (Harcourt 1993)

This is the story of young Rachel Marsh, an indentured servant working as a nanny in the home of John and Abigail Adams in 1768-70. Well-researched, with most of its characters based on actual people, The Fifth of March provides a front-row seat to the events leading up to and following the Boston “Massacre”, which is widely seen as a crucial factor in the beginning of the Revolutionary War. As Rachel narrates the story, we gain an understanding of how some of the colonists began to see themselves as just plain “Americans” rather than subjects of the British Crown, as the concept of individual liberty began to take root.   Along with her friends, her employers, and her employers’ friends and associates, Rachel must decide whether to cast her lot with “the rabble” or with the soldiers sent to keep the peace in a turbulent time. We come to appreciate the British side of the story: how the British Captain Preston tried valiantly to avert violence while the Americans insulted, cursed, lobbed objects at, and otherwise provoked the young British soldiers.

Rachel’s choice is complicated by the fact that she has befriended one of the soldiers, Matthew Kilroy (also a historical figure), thereby jeopardizing her relationship with the Adamses. This is the fictional story woven into the historical events. Even Rachel Marsh’s fictional character is based on an actual person of that name whom the Adamses employed. Rinaldi takes this character, about whom essentially nothing is known, and creates her protagonist.

I found this to be a balanced description of what it might have felt like to live in Boston during this period a few years before the Revolutionary War.

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Educated: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)

Reading the story of Tara Westover, who was raised by fundamentalist Mormon parents on an Idaho mountain but who managed to earn a PhD. in history from Cambridge, was for me similar to reading a good mystery or thriller: once I got started, I couldn’t stop.  Her life on the mountain was so alien, the neglect she suffered from her father and the abuse inflicted on her by one of her brothers so unbelievable, and the way she internalized their misogyny so complete, I was driven to read on to find out how she escaped her destiny as an uneducated wife, mother, herbalist, and midwife.

She was aided and abetted in her escape by members of her family, like the brother who first made it to college, and to some extent her mother, a weak woman whose will bent to that of her (apparently mentally deranged) husband, but who at crucial times gave Tara the support she needed to break away.

Her experiences in college, after spending most of her childhood unschooled and then studying an ACT prep book on her own, were surreal. Think of an alien plopped down in a classroom, expected to know what to do. She did not understand that she was expected to read her textbooks, how to write a paper, how to prepare for a test. The surrealism increases when she travels to Cambridge University, first with a group of fellow Brigham Young University students and later as a graduate student. She was fortunate to find professors at BYU and at Cambridge who recognized her extraordinary ability and who went out of their way to mentor her.

But it was not easy to break away from the pull of her family and her religion. In the end, she managed it, but the story of how she did it is what makes the book so compelling.

Interesting quote, from Westover’s undergraduate days at BYU:

A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester,

“If you were a woman,” I asked, “Would you still study law?”

Josh didn’t look up. “If I were a woman,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to study it.”

But you’ve talked of nothing except law school for as long as I’ve known you,” I said. “It’s your dream, isn’t it?” 

“It is,” he admitted. “But it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.” He smiled at me as if I knew what he was talking about. And I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds we were in agreement.

Then: “But what if you were a woman, and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?”

Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, “I’d know something was wrong with me.”

I’d been wondering whether something was wrong with me since the beginning of the semester, when I’d attended my first lecture on world affairs. I’d been wondering how I could be a woman and yet be drawn to unwomanly things.

To find out how she was able to break out of this misogynistic Mormon mold and reach for the sky, you have to read the book.

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Yuval Noah Harari (Spiegel & Grau, 2018) (I read the electronic version)

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his Introduction to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we teach our kids?”

Although I was spellbound by Harari’s Coursera MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind” in 2013, this is the first of his books I have actually read (though Sapiens has been on my to-read list since I took the MOOC, and Homo Deus is already in my Nook library). I remember Dr. Harari’s video presentations. He always sat in the same armchair with a floor lamp beside it. There was a video screen next to him, but he rarely used it. Instead, he kept us enthralled with his words, sitting there with no notes, just talking into the camera. It was amazing. 21 Lessons reminds me of that, a little. While I was not enthralled (more like depressed) as I read it, he constantly got me to look at things in a fresh new way, just as he did in the course.

I was expecting something more along the lines of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but 21 Lessons is more like the reworking of previously published articles, supplemented by responses to reader questions. That said, there is plenty here to learn and think about, written succinctly and clearly, with relevant examples taken from numerous countries around the globe as well as from Harari’s personal experiences (something he did not talk about at all in the MOOC).

Order of chapter topics:

Part I: The Technological Challenge (Ch. 1: Disillusionment; Ch. 2: Work; Ch. 3: Liberty; Ch. 4: Equality)

Part II: The Political Challenge (Ch. 5: Community; Ch. 6: Civilization; Ch. 7: Nationalism; Ch. 8: Religion; Ch. 9: Immigration)

Part III: Despair and Hope (Ch. 10: Terrorism; Ch. 11: War; Ch. 12: Humility; Ch. 13: God; Ch. 14: Secularism)

Part IV: Truth (Ch. 15: Ignorance; Ch. 16: Justice; Ch. 17: Post-Truth; Ch. 18: Science Fiction)

Part VI: Resilience (Ch. 19: Education; Ch. 20: Meaning; Ch. 21: Meditation)

Some of the main take-aways:

  • People think in stories. Most of them are fictional. The one my friends and I prefer is “the liberal story”. But it’s not the only one out there. (A related thought: “from a political perspective, a good science fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.)
  • In the future, most people could become irrelevant (“a massive new ‘useless class'”) as powerful elites use bio-technology to turn themselves into a kind of super-human. “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” We might even split into two separate species. The crucial difference is “who owns the data”. But how do we regulate data?
  • The Artificial Intelligence Revolution will transform the future job market.  “No job will remain absolutely safe from automation.”
  • Humans make most of their decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. Emotions are “biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction”. In other words, “feelings. . . embody evolutionary rationality.”
  • Human communities have always been characterized by inequality. Equality gained ground in the 20th century, but inequality is now growing again.
  • All humans today share a global civilization which recognizes nation states, money, and shared scientific, medical, and technological knowledge.
  • The success of Homo Sapiens is due in large part to our propensity to think in groups and to cooperate.
  • People don’t like too many facts. “The world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.”
  • The three main challenges facing humankind are the nuclear challenge, the ecological challenge, and the technological challenge, which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” Four questions for any candidate for office:
    • If elected, how will you reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    • How will you fight climate change?
    • How would you regulate technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
    • How do you see the world of 2040?
  • There are three kinds of problems: technical problems, policy problems, and identity problems. Religion is relevant only to identity problems.
  • Immigration is a deal with three basic conditions.
    • Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
    • Term 2: The immigrants embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country.
    • Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate enough, over time they become equal and full members of the host country.
    • We need to have a consensus on the meaning of the three terms before we can have a debate on immigration.
  • Terrorism is a military strategy used by groups that are too weak to really damage their enemy materially. Don’t panic over terrorist actions because in the end their effect is usually very small. “There is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.”
  • Jews are less important in world history than either they or their detractors think.
  • Monotheism made people less tolerant of others.
  • A moral person is one who reduces the suffering of others.
  • Two rules of thumb:
    • If you want reliable information, you should be prepared to pay for it.
    • If an issue is really important to you, read the relevant scientific literature about it.
  • Students don’t need more information (facts). They need to know how to make sense of the information they have.

Favorite quotes:

  • Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.”
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.
  • The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion.
  • If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
  • We are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
  • Xenophobia is in our DNA.
  • Identities are a crucial historical force. . . . All mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
  • Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. 
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
  • Home sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.
  • When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. . . .
  • Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it.
  • Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
  • As a species, humans prefer power to truth.
  • A ritual is a magical acts that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
  • If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.

One thing I really enjoyed in particular was how Harari explains his points with reference to art (Hamlet, Inside Out, Brave New World, The Lion King…).


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