Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Trumpet of the Swan

Posted by nliakos on February 14, 2018

by E. B. White, illustrated by Edward Frascino (Harper & Row, 1970)

Although I’ve read Stuart Little  and am a huge fan of Charlotte’s Web, I had never read E. B. White’s third classic children’s book, so I have now corrected that error. While it does not compare with Charlotte’s Web, it is entertaining and sends a message that disabilities can be overcome with persistence and resourcefulness.

The principal human character in the story is Sam Beaver, a young boy who grows up as the story of Louis the swan unfolds. Sam loves nature and animals and is always ready to help Louis when asked. But his importance to the story is secondary to that of Louis, the Trumpeter Swan who is born mute (not a Mute Swan!). (He is described as having “a speech defect”.) Louis refuses to accept his fate as an outcast in Trumpeter Swan society, and his parents decide that he should learn to play a trumpet of his own. Louis gets Sam to help him attend school to learn to read and write, and little by little, he accumulates a slate, a piece of chalk, and a trumpet,  all of which he carries around his neck and uses to communicate with both humans and other swans. He has many adventures: he plays the trumpet for the Swan Boat at the Boston Public Garden, and in a Philadelphia night club, and he woos and wins his true love, Serena. With Sam’s help, Louis is able to return to his idyllic life in the wild (but he has to agree to occasionally sacrifice  a cygnet to the Philadelphia Zoo, which seems kind of harsh given that Louis himself refuses to stay there).

It’s weird that a swan would think and communicate in English, use the toilet in a hotel room, know how much to tip a waiter, and other oddities, but there are funny passages that made me laugh, and I guess I can say that I enjoyed the book (but it’s definitely not in the same league as Charlotte’s Web!).

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Before I Fall

Posted by nliakos on February 10, 2018

by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins 2010)

I’m not sure how to categorize this novel about a high school student caught up in a time loop where, Groundhog-Day-like, she relives the day of her death seven times. It’s not a fantasy exactly, but it’s not realism either. Call it imaginings about death. (Roger Ebert called the 2017 film a “supernatural melodrama”.)

Samantha Kingston wakes up seven times on February 12, “Cupid Day” at her Connecticut high school. She interacts with her parents and sister, goes to school (or doesn’t) with her three best friends, attends a party at the home of a boy in her class who has been infatuated with her since third grade, and dies (or doesn’t) in a horrific car crash. Then she wakes up again on the same day and does it all over again, changing certain aspects of her behavior. She starts out trying to save her own life and finishes by saving the life of a despised, bullied classmate. Over the seven days, Sam is transformed from a shallow, feckless enabler to a (more) mature, much kinder person. She ends an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend Rob and begins a beautiful relationship with her childhood friend, Kent–despite knowing that it cannot endure.

In a way, Before I Fall is a meditation on popularity, and the high price it exacts from Sam. When she was younger, she was the one with few friends, the one who was made fun of. Then, inexplicably, the most popular girl in the class, Lindsay Edgecombe, offers Sam friendship. But Lindsay has some ugly secrets, and she is not a kind person. Thrilled to be seen as part of Lindsay’s intimate circle, Sam looks the other way (or participates actively) when Lindsay is cruel to her former friend, Juliet. She also laughs off Lindsay’s mean remarks when they are directed at her, feeling secure in her role as one of the popular girls. But she learns, by living this fateful day over and over, that kindness trumps cruelty, and eventually she is able to stand up to Lindsay (although she never rejects her outright).

It’s an intriguing idea. I am left wondering which day will endure in the memories of Sam’s friends and family: only the last one?

 

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Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection

Posted by nliakos on February 4, 2018

by Jacob Silverman (HarperCollins 2015)

Books on technology are often out of date by the time they are published. I read Terms of Service three years after its publication, yet I suspect it is still very relevant. The book is a searing indictment of social media. Do you know the saying, “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” (originally referring to TV viewers)? Silverman warns us that we (and our personal data) are the product of social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Twitter, and others, including some I had never heard of (like Klout and TaskRabbit). Our personal data are being sold to the highest bidder; that is where these social media giants earn their billions of dollars. They are all, in essence, advertising companies, and we happily hand over our precious personal information in exchange for a “free” place to express ourselves on the web. This is neither new nor surprising, but Silverman makes a detailed (if sometimes shrill) case. He also seems to think there is not a lot we can do about it, not only because we become addicted to social media sites (which is exactly what they want us to do), but because more and more, we need to participate in them if we are not to isolate ourselves in this social media era.

Chapter 1, “The Ideology of Social”, briefly summarizes the rise of Facebook, Google Plus, and other social media giants. Chapter 2, “Engineered to Like”,  is about the pressure to “Like” (which means “More, please”) and to stay on the platform. (At the time of publication, Facebook had not yet added “Love”, “Haha”, “Wow”, “Sad”, and “Angry” to “Like”.) Facebook’s tags (identifying how you are feeling, where you were, who you were with, etc. when you post) simplify the collection and quantification of your data for the company.

Chapter 3, “Pics or It Didn’t Happen”, examines why we feel the need to post details and photos about our personal lives, and why we “constantly tend” our social media profiles. Notifications and alerts keep us tethered to the site. We are disappointed if no one “Likes” or comments on our posts (I can attest to that!). But how many “Likes” are enough? Whatever we post soon vanishes in the fire hose of posts. We rarely revisit even our own old posts, let alone someone else’s. They are quickly forgotten, yet we keep churning them out, often including images as proof that we actually lived that moment, were in that place.

Chapter 4, “The Viral Dream”, is about “virality”–why it occurs and how it can impact people’s lives, often for the worse. “Viral fame quickly fades; that’s in its nature and the nature of the systems and culture we’ve created to enjoy it. But the hangover it produces can be long.” (pg. 67) It also considers “trending” and the data trail it produces, and points out that followers can be bought (or bot) by those who pursue notoriety or fame. It is the advertisers that actually benefit from trending topics and viral posts.

Chapter 5, “Churnalism and the Problem of Social News”, concerns “cheap, disposable content repurposed from press releases, news reports, viral media, social networks, and elsewhere, all of it practically out-of-date  and irrelevant as soon as someone clicks Publish”. Silverman considers how responsible journalism is affected by the drive to be first, which can pressure media outlets to publish without first confirming accuracy. He considers the weaknesses of Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and similar sites, and the pressure on journalists to be on social media all the time. He mentions “listicles” and quizzes, which he considers poor excuses for content.

Chapter 6, “To Watch and Be Watched”, focuses on surveillance, which is a constant of the social web. When we are online (and sometimes when we aren’t but just carrying our mobile devices around), we are constantly being watched, by Google, by Facebook, by the NSA, by everyone, and as they watch us, they are collecting information about us, often with the purpose of selling us a product (or an idea). We are being watched, and we are watching. We try to “manage our visibility”, but it is really out of our hands.

Chapter 7, “The War Against Identity”, is about identity vs. anonymity (which used to be a choice one could make on the web, but no longer!). Some of the things Silverman points out: Whereas social media sites used to allow people to use pseudonyms, more recently, we are required to use our real names and encouraged to sign up through other sites (like Facebook and Google Plus), which results in additional data about us being collected by the site. The fact that we may want to show different faces in different situations, as we do in real life, does not matter. We are forced to reveal just one self to the online world, whether we like it or not. Silverman considers how the choice to be anonymous can be beneficial, and opines that we should have that choice, whether we choose to exercise it or not.

Chapter 8, “The Reputation Racket”, concerns our reputation on social media, and how sites like Yelp, TaskRabbit, and Uber use ratings to judge both businesses (restaurants, drivers…) and people (consumers, riders); those who get poor ratings may be fired or may find it difficult to impossible to get a ride or a job. But the algorithms that determine our ratings are kept secret, so we can’t know what ours is or correct it if it is inaccurate.

Chapter 9, “Life and Work in the Sharing Economy”, concerns the crowdsourcing of work. Platforms such as TaskRabbit, which match individuals with low-paying work, enable companies to avoid hiring professional or full-time workers at decent wages with benefits. I was totally unaware of this trend in employment, which essentially enslaves an underclass of workers who are unable to get real jobs; they are forced to compete for lower and lower pay with others like themselves, while the companies claim that they are providing a means to earn extra cash for stay-at-home moms and those who need to supplement their income.

Chapter 10, “Digital Serfdom; or, We All Work for Facebook”, concerns how online companies use people to create content and do other work (test their products, read text that computers cannot read . . .) without compensation. It is not only web platforms that require us to work for what we want: we transport and put together IKEA furniture, scan our own purchases in stores, check ourselves in at the airport and out at the library, pump our own gasoline, etc. (It also mentions flanerie, or cyber-flanerie, where we move from one piece of content to the next, never stopping for long, forgetting soon afterward, “processing” each experience.)

Chapter 11, “The Myth of Privacy”, is about privacy, or the myth that we have any. Silverman points out that Facebook may allow us to control what other Facebook users know about us, but we cannot control what Facebook itself knows or can use or sell. If we want a modicum of control over our online selves, we must pay the platform owner, but most people don’t; we want a free platform, but the platform is never free; if we don’t pay with money, we pay with data. Sometimes, what we wanted to keep to ourselves (or to a particular audience) is unintentionally made public to the wrong audience. Silverman examines definitions and history of the concept of privacy and describes the reams of data Facebook collects about people (thousands of pages). Facebook, Google, and similar platforms track people not only online but in the real world, as we drive around and enter stores and restaurants, and they target us for ads. (I’d like to inject here that perhaps unlike most people, I am mostly oblivious to ads. I skip or zap them as soon as I am able and rarely notice them along the margins of text. If there are enough to be intrusive (e.g., on The Daily Kos) I tend to avoid the site altogether. On the other hand, I was kind of appalled yesterday when I looked at this blog from a reader’s viewpoint and saw the large number of ads flanking the post. But when I just revisited it now, the ads have vanished. ???) There are applications available to help us protext our privacy to some extent, but they are not used by many people. Most Facebook users never check their privacy settings, for example, and those privacy settings change frequently as Facebook makes it harder and harder for its users to elude its data collection.

Chapter 12, Big Data and the Informational Appetite”, considers the field of statistics known as Big Data. Data brokers “vacuum up” information about us, and the Facebooks of the world partner with these brokers (and sometimes merge with them), enabling them to better pressure us to click and buy. Silverman writes, “Surrounded by an abundance of content but willing to pay for little of it, we invite into our lives unceasing advertisements and like and follow brands so that they may offer us more.” (pg. 321) In so doing, we are complicit in our own enslavement. The platforms want us to think they are improving the world. In Silverman’s view, they aren’t. He advises, “Consumers need to educate themselves about these industries and think about how their data might be used to their disadvantage. But the onus shouldn’t lie there. We should be savvy enough, in this age of late capitalism, to be skeptical of any corporate power that claims to be our friend or acting in our best interests.” (pg. 326)

The final chapter, “Social Media Rebellion”, has a few tips for protecting onself (using photos of avatars or objects instead of actual photos; lying about our profile; avoiding tagging, checking in, hashtags, location services and notifications; removing apps you don’t use or don’t trust. . . .) but is mostly about people who go much further in their attempts to get the better of social media platforms, such as Vortex, CV Dazzle, F.A.T., Weird Twitter, and others, none of which I was aware of.

This book made me uncomfortable about my use of Facebook and Google products, even though I feel that I am less vulnerable to targeted ads than many folks. In the future, I hope I will be more respectful of people who choose not to use these sites. I’ve noticed that while reading it, I’ve posted to Facebook a bit less than usual, and avoided personal posts. I wonder how long it will last!

 

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Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide

Posted by nliakos on January 5, 2018

by Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard University Press 2017)

Constitutional law scholar Cass R. Sunstein has written a book about impeachment for everyone who is feeling the need to understand this process a little better as we head into 2018 after the tumultuous first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Sunstein never mentions Trump by name, but it is very clear that he is thinking of him.

The book begins with a brief history of impeachment first in English and then in American jurisprudence. Sunstein summarizes the discussions among the framers of the Constitution concerning impeachment (which is front and center in Article 1, Section 2) and trial (Section 3) and then moves to the debate by those who ratified the Constitution in the different states, because those debates (unlike those of the framers) were public and thus representative of what citizens knew about impeachment.  He spends a lot of time examining the concepts of “high crimes and misdemeanors” and what those might be. He presents actual cases of impeachment (of presidents and judges), in particular the most recent cases of Nixon (never actually impeached because he resigned and was then pardoned before he could be indicted) and Clinton (whose impeachment was purely political) and then, in Chapter 7, “Twenty-One Cases,” he presents hypothetical cases of impeachment: first, two sets of “easy cases”, in which impeachment is obviously called for (first set of nine), or obviously not called for (second set of five). The final set of six consists of “harder cases” where the path is not clear, and reasonable people could disagree. In each case, Sunstein explains why the case is obvious or not. I found this chapter very enlightening.

The first easy case (“impeachable”), interestingly, seems very obviously to be based on Donald Trump’s behavior with Russia: A president has admiration and sympathy for a foreign nation that wishes to do harm to the United States. While in office, he reveals classified information to leaders of that nation, with the clear intention of strengthening it and of weakening his own country. The president can be impeached. He may have committed treason. . . . The only thing is that we cannot be sure of Trump’s intention when he shared highly classified information with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in May 2016. His “admiration and sympathy for” Vladimir Putin was well known; but it is not clear whether he actually understands that Russia “wishes to do harm to the United States”, so his intent is unknowable (or so it would seem to me). (This is like trying to prove corrupt intent in a case of obstruction of justice. Not easy to do.)

There is also a chapter on the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for the removal of the president from office, temporarily (as when he becomes too ill to do his job, perhaps during a hospitalization and surgery) or permanently, in the case of permanent disability, either physical or mental. The president can temporarily transfer his power to his Vice President; or if the President is incapacitated, his cabinet can transfer the power. Sunstein shows how the 25th amendment differs from impeachment in terms of when it would be applied.

Chapter 9 is a quick-and-dirty guide: “What Every American Should Know”. Some of the information here repeats that which has already been said, but in a more concise form. He also includes information that he has not already presented, such as Can federal courts–or the Supreme Court–stop an unconstitutional impeachment? (No) Must representatives impeach a president who has committed an impeachable offense, and must senators convict him? (Yes?) Can a president be sued for official acts? (No) Can s/he be sued for reasons other than official acts? (Yes) And so on.

It is not impossible that we will witness the impeachment and trial of Donald J. Trump during the next three years. While it is not likely that this will happen as long as the GOP retains control of the Congress, that situation could change; midterm elections are coming up in just over ten months, with the victors beginning their terms at the beginning of 2019. So it is a useful exercise to review the impeachment process, and Sunstein’s guide is a good place to start.

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Every Day I Fight

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2018

by Stuart Scott with Larry Platt (Blue Rider Press 2015)

I can’t remember why I added this book to my To-Read list. I had never heard of Stuart Scott; I never watch ESPN, where he anchored the show SportsCenter. I am not interested in sports, and passages such as the following, common in this book, are unintelligible to me: In 1999, just before announcing that Vince Carter–Tar Heel!–was the runaway Rookie of the Year, I broke down a dunk by him that everyone had been calling a 360-degree throw-down. Only it wasn’t. “I gotta drop some knowledge,” I said, while footage of Vince’s slam played on the screen behind me. “Vince Carter’s late-season 360 dunk was not really a 360. let me show you.” At this, we played a clip of a recent Kobe 360. “Most guys do a true 360–they start to their right, complete the circle, slam it.” Now we played Vince’s. “Vince basically did, like, a 450–he started the other way, went all the way around before ripping the rim.”  Suffice it to say I got none of that. I have never heard of most of the names Scott drops (exceptions: Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan), did not get the sports references, and was befuddled by the African-American dialect he used on screen and sometimes in the narrative.

But Every Day I Fight is fundamentally a memoir of cancer. We get the back story, of how Scott worked his way up to his anchor position at ESPN, his first marriage, the birth of his daughters, and so on. But the focus of the book is his seven-year battle against appendiceal cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, through clean scans and then new growths as the cancer kept coming back in new places, Scott continued to work when he was able and, incredibly, liked to follow bouts of chemotherapy with intense physical workouts, including mixed martial arts, a five-mile “Savage Race” and something called P90X. He insists that this made him feel better and gain weight. It’s not what most people would choose to do after chemo. Through it all, he was motivated by his love for his daughters, Taelor and Sydni. And he was able to bask in their presence as the cancer slowly destroyed his body–living in the now, not focusing on the future he would not have. I was crying as I read the final chapters.

I appreciated Scott’s insights into being a dad, a celebrity, a journalist, and in particular, a cancer patient. For example, he writes that once you have a cancer diagnosis, even if you are found to be “cancer-free”, your life is forever changed: My Buddy Brian wakes up feeling sore in the morning and thinks, “Man, this getting-old thing is a pain.” I wake up feeling sore and think, “Is that cancer? Is it back?”  Towards the end of the book, he writes, Well, when I started writing stuff down, I promised to keep it real, so I’ve gotta confess: I’m feeling that way (sick, tired, and depleted) now, with you. I’ve been filling up these pages with this cancer talk, and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t stand my own voice. I feel repetitive and pathetic and self-centered. . . .

When Scott writes about “keeping it real,” I am reminded of my friend Rhona Hall, who died of cancer in May of last year. Rhona often said to me, “That’s what I like about you, Nina–you always keep it real.”  I hope I will have the integrity and the courage to keep it real with my friends, my family, and myself in the coming years.

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March

Posted by nliakos on December 27, 2017

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions 2013 (Book One), 2015 (Book Two), and 20  (Book Three).

The three volumes together comprise this graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights movement. Book One opens in 2009 as the congressman prepares to attend the inauguration of the nation’s first black President. A woman brings her young sons to his office, and he begins to reminisce…. He recalls his childhood on his family’s farm in Alabama, going to school, hearing about the outcome of Brown Vs. Board of Education of Topeka and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery bus boycott, enrolling in a seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, meeting Dr. King and others in the nascent civil rights movement, and learning about and practicing non-violent resistance in workshops which they then applied in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. They were arrested and jailed, but they were finally successful when Mayor West recommended the desegregation of the lunch counters in the city. This was in 1960.

Book Two picks up the story at the end of 1960 and takes it to the March on Washington in August, 1963, through sit-ins at Nashville cafeterias and fast food restaurants, non-violent attempts to integrate movie theaters, and the Freedom Rides of 1961. Lewis describes his involvement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which he was chosen to lead in 1963. He talks about Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who did not believe in non-violent resistance, as well as the leaders of the non-violent movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Farmer; Diane Nash, and other well-known figures of that era. Of course, the racist southern politicians such as George Wallace and Bull Connor figure as well, and so do the Kennedys and federal agent John Siegenthaler, to whose memory this volume is dedicated.

During one of the Freedom Rides, Walter Bergman, a college professor,  was beaten so badly that he was paralyzed for the remainder of his life. Once, during a sit-in at a restaurant, the staff turned off the lights, locked the protesters inside, and fumigated the restaurant, as if they were exterminating bugs. Lewis writes simply, “We did not die that day, but it was not the last time I thought I saw death.” The courage it took to confront racist hatred, knowing that one could not meet violence with violence, is astonishing. Yet they kept going back for more, and Lewis played a major role in both protesting and in training the protesters.

The last pages of Book Two recall the cowardly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls, and Book Three (which, inexplicably and by itself, is this year’s First Year Book at the University of Maryland) opens in the chaos of the burning church (prologue) and then moves on to the other major events of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the fight for voting rights, culminating in “Bloody Sunday”, the terrible March 7 attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which the marchers  had to cross to continue on to their goal of the capital of Alabama, Montgomery; the symbolic march to the bridge on March 9; and finally the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, March 21-25 1965. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law less than six months later; the rest of the country was appalled at video of the vicious attacks on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators.

2017 is a strange vantage point from which to reflect on those long-ago events. Last year, the Voting Rights Act was essentially gutted by the Supreme Court, and Republican states have already implemented new laws which result in severe restrictions on the ability to vote for citizens of color. Did the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers offer their bodies to be beaten for this?

I guess that making this a graphic novel makes it more appealing to younger people, but frankly, I would have preferred a traditional prose memoir with photographs. I don’t have the patience to try and figure out what the pictures supposedly show. I couldn’t tell the various characters apart–not Lewis, not John Kennedy, not Martin Luther King, Jr. Nobody was recognizable to me, so it was hard to figure out who was speaking. The action wasn’t clear to me, either. For example, on page 121 (Book Two), did a pick-up truck actually hit a child during a protest at the swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois? (I had to google that one.) There are a lot of confusing scenes of mayhem and beating, fire hoses and billy clubs and guns, with onomatopoeia like KRAK, KLOP KLOP KLOP, CL-CLANK, VR_VRMMM, WHAP, KRUNCH, ERT, WHUMP, BLAM, VOOSH, SCREEEEEE, which I guess is appropriate for comic books (but I don’t understand why they have to mangle the spelling)I impatiently read through the text and hardly looked at the illustrations, which were mostly inscrutable to me anyway. I suppose had they been drawn differently, they might have supported the text more, but as it is, it just made me anxious to read Lewis’ more traditional memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) or Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (2017). I assume that March may appeal more to younger readers who are unaccustomed to reading an actual book (how snarky of me).

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If I Stay

Posted by nliakos on December 26, 2017

by Gayle Forman (SPEAK/Penguin Group, 2009)

Vicki and I watched the movie of the same name that was based on this novel, which made both of us want to read it. I consumed it in a couple of days. Both the movie and the novel made me cry.

If I Stay is the story of 17-year-old Mia Hall, a promising young cellist living near Portland, OR. In her final year of high school, Mia is dating Adam, a young man a year older than she who is a guitarist in a punk band. She is very close to her parents, who also frequented the rock music scene–her father was the drummer in a well-regarded band–and her younger brother Teddy. She has applied to Julliard, which would mean moving across the country away from her family and Adam, but other than this her life seems quite charmed. . .  until the family is in a terrible accident on a snowy road. Mia’s mother is dead on the scene; her father and brother make it to the hospital but ultimately do not survive. Mia herself is gravely injured and comatose, but her spirit watches over the family in the hospital, including her own unresponsive body and the people who keep a vigil at the hospital: Adam, her best friend Kim, her grandparents and other relatives. Mia’s spirit is devastated by the loss of her family, and she dreads waking up without them. One of the nurses keeps telling her that whether she lives or dies is up to her, and that if she wants to live, she must decide to live. Mia seems reluctant and readies herself to die–but Adam refuses to let her go without a fight.

The novel does not proceed chronologically but consists of time snapshots of the day of the accident interspersed with flashbacks to Mia’s childhood and adolescence; these include scenes without her, such as her parents in their bedroom listening to a very young Mia practicing her cello obsessively late into the night. The flashbacks flesh out Mia and Adam’s loving relationship as well as Mia’s family life.

I must be showing my age, but I was kind of amazed that Mia and Adam quickly become intimate, and no one seems to think it strange for high school kids to be sleeping together. This is, after all, 2017 (well, 2009, when it was written)!

Music is integral to the story. In the edition I read, there is an addendum by the author explaining her choices of both popular and classical pieces that she wrote into the novel.

If I Stay is a love story, tender and passionate. Adam and Mia, like Romeo and Juliet, love deeply and intensely, despite their youth. But will their love be enough? You can probably guess the answer–but this book is followed by a sequel which I have not read, Where She Went, which takes place three years later. Apparently there is no happily ever after–at least not immediately.

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The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2017

by William Easterly (Basic Books 2013)

This is a book about development economics, the branch of economics that deals with guiding poor countries out of poverty, and about how its practitioners have consistently trampled (or allowed autocratic leaders to trample) on the political and economic rights of the people in those countries, while throwing money and “expertise” at those same autocrats and dictators. Not only that, but these “technocrats” and the governments and organizations (such as the World Bank and the United Nations) that sponsor them have not led a single country out of poverty and into the elite club to which belong the world’s “developed” nations.

In Part One, “The Debate That Never Happened”, Easterly begins with a comparison of economists Friederich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal, who shared the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974. Myrdal espoused the version of development economics that still exists today and which Easterly criticizes here, while Hayek held the opposite views, setting them out in his book The Road to Serfdom (1944). Hayek was never given the opportunity to argue for his point of view; instead, he was ignored by the development economics community and then forgotten. You have probably never heard of him. I hadn’t. Not an accident!

Hayek and Myrdal disagreed about three basic things, around which Easterly has organized his book:

  1. The Blank Slate vs. Learning from History
  2. The Well-Being of Nations vs. the Well-Being of Individuals
  3. Conscious Design of National Economies vs. Spontaneous Solutions to Economic Problems

In Part Two, “Why the Debate Never Happened: The Real History of the Development Idea”, Easterly uses China, Africa, and Colombia to illustrate how the concept of helping nations to “develop” economically got its start during an era of empires, colonialism, exploitation, and unmitigated racism. Development was conceived as a way to continue the status quo, to benefit the imperialists. Even though the “Western” nations’ economic power had come about in an unplanned way, these nations’ “experts” prescribed “technical” solutions and scientifically planned economies for the poor nations, and they were happy to support the authoritarian rulers who promised to work with them, and to overlook the unpleasant fact that these rulers caused more suffering than they alleviated. Development economics presumes the leadership of a “benevolent autocrat” who institutes “technocratic solutions” to improve the conditions of the people, but in truth, once given absolute power, autocrats were never and are still not benevolent. In China, Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek alienated the population they claimed to lead. In Africa, Great Britain wanted to justify its own exploitative empire; Kwame Nkrumah was the first home-grown autocrat to lead a former colony (Ghana) there. In Colombia, where the first survey mission of the young World Bank was begun in 1948, Laureano Gomez presided over an 8-year reign of terror known as La Violencia without losing World Bank support.

In Part Three, “The Blank Slate Versus Learning from History”, Easterly writes of the importance of understanding a country’s culture and history when trying to end poverty. He compares “collectivist values” (trust only members of your own group; it’s okay to cheat outsiders; hierarchical; the state’s role is to force the individual to behave) with “individual values” (written laws and contracts make it easier to trust people outside of your group; equal rights under the law; free cities and states). Easterly disposes of the benevolent autocrat idea, saying “Neither Europeans nor non-Europeans can be trusted with unconstrained power against the rights of individuals.”  Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi, the geographically unlucky Aja people of West Africa, how under-development was the logical outcome of slavery in Colombia, and the success of the people of one block on Greene Street in the free city of New York are the extended examples Easterly uses to bolster his claim that countries with the rule of law and economic and political freedom outperform economically countries under totalitarian or authoritarian rule.

In Part Four, “Nations Versus Individuals”, Easterly examines the role of migration in the world. He ponders the question of why we think it is okay for people in rich countries to go wherever they have the best chance to earn and live well, while at the same time accusing the citizens of poor countries of selling out their countries if they migrate to find better opportunities. He shows how migration can actually alleviate poverty (such as in the case of Haiti), and how migrants contribute to global development because of the increase in their earning power. The examples he uses are interesting: the Mourides, a group of Senegalese small-businesspeople who help each other to flourish in many different parts of the world through an astute use of micro-finance and mutual support, and the Fujianese, who form the majority of “overseas Chinese” who have been the drivers of the economic powerhouses of countries like Malaysia and Singapore. These success stories are disregarded by development economists, who have no way to look at (or advise) economic life that crosses national boundaries.

Easterly uses Chapter 10, “How Much Do Nations Matter?”, to explain that the way we measure growth through Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is extremely unreliable (which reminded me of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, which said essentially the same thing), so we shouldn’t take it so seriously: “We assume national growth performance is measured with precision–a precision that does not exist and that is sometimes based on numbers that do not exist.” He states that no one can prove that anything the experts recommend has ever caused economic growth or lifted a nation out of poverty (except perhaps temporarily), but that the one thing that is a good predictor of growth is geography: what region a nation is part of seems to matter a lot, and economies rise and fall together with others in their region (e.g., the “Asian Tigers'” boom and the “Lost Decade” of Latin America).

The last part, “Conscious Design Versus Spontaneous Solutions,” begins with a defense of Adam Smith’s ideas. Smith is thought by many today to have espoused the idea of pure laissez-faire in economics–a totally free marketplace in which companies can do whatever they wish to succeed. In fact, says Easterly, Smith deplored greedy business owners and decried monopolies; his concept of a free market was a way to protect consumers against unscrupulous merchants. When individual consumers choose freely, they naturally choose to buy from the best and most efficient producers, and/or for the best price. Easterly writes, “Freedom to choose is a powerful engine in rewarding the world’s best problem-solvers in each area, while getting rid of the inept problem-solvers.” Not knowing much about economics, I don’t know if Easterly is correct in his assessment of Adam Smith, but his argument makes sense.

Chapter 12, “Technology: How to Succeed Without Knowing How” considers how new technologies (both invention and imitation of new inventions) drive growth. Different from a good, which can be consumed by one consumer, an invention or idea can be exploited by many (“nonrival” in economists’ terms). It can fuel economic growth, population, and standard of living in a “bottom-up” way. We can see that wherever there are more people, we also find more technological innovation. Isolated groups of people, like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, still carried or dragged their burdens when all of Eurasia had wheeled vehicles. But innovation requires the right of an individual to think for herself, or to question authority. Then, for a new idea to spread, people need to be free to move to different places, taking their technology (or their ideas) with them (technological transfer, or diffusion).  New technologies cannot be predicted; they always surprise us. Examples include cars and cell phones. To succeed without knowing how, people help to solve each other’s problems, but for this to happen, knowledge must be decentralized.

In Chapter 13, “Leaders: How We Are Seduced by Benevolent Autocrats”, Easterly examines the human tendency to attribute effects to a single person, even when there is no evidence for this attribution. He considers autocrats such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and the last several autocratic leaders of South Korea, who presided over stunning economic growth, and concludes that the growth occurred despite, not because of, these leaders. Korea is an economic powerhouse not because it was ruled by dictators; “The idea that autocracy was necessary for progress in Korea was contradicted by its own later experience,” after the advent of democracy. Sustained economic growth requires lucky circumstances in addition to skills and technologies. People look for heroes of economic development because we have a psychological bias toward individual power, but the data do not back this up. Easterly writes, “The data show little evidence that leaders matter for growth rates.” And if this is true, there is no justification for supporting autocratic leaders in the name of economic development.

In this book, William Easterly makes a powerful case for political and economic freedoms for everyone around the globe. Is anyone listening?

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Nanjing Requiem

Posted by nliakos on November 18, 2017

by Ha Jin (Pantheon, 2011)

The publication of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997) put the brutal Japanese occupation of China’s “Southern Capital” on my radar. I don’t believe I knew about it prior to that time. Reading the reviews of the book, I was appalled at the cruelty of the atrocities described. I couldn’t bring myself to read the book itself. But the events of 1937 and after stayed in my mind, like the genocides of Rwanda and Cambodia, as something I ought to educate myself about. When I saw Ha Jin’s novel about these events on the library shelf last week, I decided I would try a fictional account as a way to learn more. Fiction can be more difficult to digest than factual prose, since it puts the reader into the mind(s) of the characters as they struggle to survive against seemingly impossible odds, so I was cautious as I began to read the story of Minnie Vautrin, principal of Jinling (Ginling) College, and her heroic fight to protect the thousands of women and children who took refuge on the college campus in 1937, narrated by the (presumably) fictional Anling Gao. But I was not swept up in the story of men and women fighting against insurmountable odds. I felt like I did when I read the reviews of Iris Chang’s book: appalled, but not personally involved.

The novel reads like a diary. (Indeed, Ha Jin used diaries kept at the time as some of his sources.) Horrific events, like murder and rape, are relayed in the same dry tone as what everyone had for dinner. It’s terrible, but you don’t want to cry. Anling’s voice is cool and calm, whether she is describing the campus ponds polluted with dead bodies or meeting her half-Japanese grandson for the first and only time. The reader has to infer her pain; Jin does none of this work for you.

I also noted Jin’s odd use of American and English idioms, which also seemed awkward to me in Waiting and War Trash, two other Jin novels which I have read. The idioms often don’t seem to fit into the context he uses them in. I suppose he is trying to convey the use of colloquial Chinese expressions in at least some cases, but the expressions just don’t seem natural in his prose. They seem more like the tortured sentences my students used to write when told to use an idiom in a sentence–or when they tried to pack as many idioms into one sentence as possible, as in this instance from page 276: If they got on my nerves, I didn’t hesitate to give them a piece of my mind to let off some steam. I knew they would bad-mouth me behind my back, . . . . There is nothing actually wrong about these sentences, but for some reason, they seem more like a language learning exercise than natural prose. They stand out in a way that seems awkward. That said, Ha Jin is on a short list of major authors writing in a second language (others that come to mind being Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov), and I have enormous respect for his ability to do it at all.

In conclusion, I guess I am going to have to read The Rape of Nanking after all.

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Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over

Posted by nliakos on November 11, 2017

by Geraldine Brooks (Doubleday Anchor Books 1998)

I’ve loved Geraldine Brooks’ fiction (Caleb’s Crossing, Year of Wonders, People of the Book, and The Secret Chord, and March) and have been looking forward to sampling her non-fiction. Brooks, a former journalist, wrote Nine Parts of Desire (which I haven’t read yet) in 1994, Foreign Correspondence four years later. In it, she describes her Australian childhood. Growing up in a downscale suburb of Sydney, she longed to escape and see the world. Her correspondence with four pen pals–the first one a resident of a more upscale part of Sydney, and an American, a French girl, an Israeli Jew, and an Israeli Arab–was her escape route. As an adult, she manages to track down and meet all but one of her correspondents, and discovers that her childhood impressions did not reflect their reality. The happiest one, she realizes, is the one who has never left her home village to explore the greater world, as Brooks herself yearned to do when she was a child, and she succeeded.

In addition to the pen pals, Brooks writes about her parents, her sister, her neighbors and friends, her school, her obsession with Star Trek, her marriage and conversion to Judaism, her work as a foreign correspondent, and especially what her bit of Australia was like to grow up in.  It’s not a long book, just over 200 pages, and it all makes for very interesting reading.

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