Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for November, 2018

Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran

Posted by nliakos on November 30, 2018

by Shirin Ebadi (Random House 2016)

Judge, lawyer, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi tells the story of her attempts to get the Iranian government to uphold their own laws, first in Iran (even after many of her compatriots had fled abroad), and subsequently from outside the country, where she now lives in exile. Believing that her status as a Nobel Prize winner will keep her safe, she takes many risks to help those who had been unjustly arrested or imprisoned. In response, the government targeted her sister, her husband, and her two daughters; her daughters had to leave Iran, and her husband left her (a heart-breaking tale of persecution, entrapment, blackmail, and imprisonment that eventually broke his spirit). Ebadi refused to give in, knowing that if she allowed herself to be silenced by threats to her family, the threats would only escalate. She and her husband lost their property in Iran, the place Ebadi still sees as her home and which she swears she will return to some day. And they lost their 35-year marriage.

Along the way, we get some basic information about Iran’s recent history and politics. Ahmedinejad, Rafsanjani, Rouhani, and others are differentiated and fleshed out a little. We are also introduced to some of the many courageous activists working within and outside of Iran to resist against the excesses of the regime, such as Noushin Khorasani,  and Haleh Esfandiari. And there is the Ministry of Intelligence  officer Mr. Mahmudi, Ebadi’s “nemesis”, who hounds her and her family mercilessly, trying to get her to stop speaking truth to power, as they say.

Sometimes she begins a paragraph by describing a particular day, a place, the weather; the reader tensely awaits something awful, like an attack on her life or the arrest of one of her daughters. These things usually don’t materialize. But the cloud under which she herself lived in Iran and the arrests of so many of her colleagues and staffers, as well as the description of her husband’s treatment in prison, is horrible enough and constitutes the most powerful aspect of the book in my view.

Ebadi discusses elections,  women’s rights, the plight of the Baha’i religious minority, the so-called Arab Spring, Iran’s support of Shi’a rebels in countries such as Syria and Yemen, and more, and describes how her views on Iran’s right to develop its nuclear power program changed after she spoke at length with Rebecca Johnson and other anti-nuclear activists at an international conference she attended in Belfast.

For American readers, it is a chilling reminder of what can happen under a dictatorship that cares nothing for the basic human rights of the people, where there are no free media or elections, no women’s or individuals’ rights, no freedom of expression–none of the freedoms and rights we in the U.S. take for granted, but which Donald Trump and others would like to take from us.


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The Violinist of Venice: A Story of Vivaldi

Posted by nliakos on November 21, 2018

by Alyssa Palombo (St. Martin’s Press 2015)

I was in the library, looking for Red, by Orhan Pamuk. It wasn’t on the shelf, but my eyes strayed over to Palombo, and I saw two historical novels by the same author: one about Botticelli and the other about Vivaldi. Those looked interesting, kind of like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which I loved, so I borrowed one.  The Girl with the Pearl Earring this is not, but it held my attention for about 24 hours. Palombo’s narrator is the musically talented, stubborn, eighteen-year-old Adriana d’Amato. Having read that some people believe that Anna Girò, the much-younger woman whom Vivaldi was rumored to have had an affair with, was in fact not his mistress, but his daughter, Palombo imagined who the mother and actual mistress might have been, and came up with Adriana, who approaches Vivaldi one dark night asking for secret violin lessons, which ultimately culminate in a scandalous love affair between this daughter of a wealthy Venetian social climber and the Red Priest.

In addition to Adriana and Antonio, there is a bastard brother, an abusive father, faithful servants, BFFs Vittoria and Giulietta, various suitors (the older, boring senator; the handsome, fabulously wealthy son of a great Venetian family), the eventual children who are all beautiful and musically talented…. Except for the impossible relationship with the composer-violinist, Adriana turns out to have a pretty cushy life. And things happen without much fanfare. Palombo doesn’t bother to build her story line slowly. (In two sequential sentences, Adriana’s half-brother Giuseppe begins courting her widowed friend and marries her eighteen months later.) Everything is tied up neatly and efficiently: for example, unwanted spouses conveniently die so that would-be lovers can marry, and the bastard child given up for adoption magically reappears to study singing with Vivaldi.

There’s rather a lot of sex. . . .  no bodices are actually ripped, but there’s a lot of passionate attraction among Venice’s beautiful young people (and a few lecherous old ones too).

And Adriana seems more like a liberated young woman of today, insisting on making her own choices (like nursing her babies and composing music) even when those are not done in her society. Another author quoted on the cover, Roberta Rich, proclaims the novel “realistic”. That’s not an adjective that came to my mind while reading it!

It wasn’t deep, but it was a satisfying read in a way. I can’t claim I didn’t finish it.

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Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Posted by nliakos on November 19, 2018

by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow Publishers, 2015)

Having recently seen the documentary based on this sort-of-biography (three times! And I could easily see it again), I decided it was high time I read the book. The book did not disappoint. It’s not exactly a biography in the sense that it’s not a chronological narrative of RBG’s life. Instead, the chapters each focus on a different aspect of that life, such as her family background, her education, her marriage,  her early work as a professor and ACLU lawyer leading the Women’s Rights Project (WRP), her friendships, her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, her best-known opinions and dissents (helpfully annotated for better appreciation), and so on. There are plenty of photos of the justice as a child, a (beautiful) young woman, and an older woman, as well as images of drawings and other art depicting her, documents and letters, memes, even a couple of pages of various women (and one baby) dressed up to look like her, with her iconic glasses and lace collars and (sometimes) a crown. It was an entertaining and informative read (even though not much was new to me, as I had seen the CNN movie and read so many reviews and articles about her). I guess RBG is such a hero, and her story is so amazing, that I never tire of hearing it/reading about it/watching it. A new biography by Jane Sherron de Hart has just come out, so I will probably eventually read that as well. (The WaPo review of that one indicated that RBG’s official biographer is still at work on the official one.) And there’s a biopic called On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder with Felicity Jones as a young RBG, that also came out this year. Lots to put on my to-read and to-watch lists!

Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Posted by nliakos on November 15, 2018

by Deborah Blum  (Penguin 2018)

The “one chemist” of the title is consumer advocacy pioneer Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who headed up the Bureau of Chemistry at the Department of Agriculture from 1882 to 1912. Wiley fought to protect American consumers from mislabeled, adulterated, dangerous foods and medicines for his entire adult life. But The Poison Squad is not just about Wiley; it is also the story of his many allies (e.g., Willard Bigelow, lead chemist for Wiley’s early research into common food additives like sodium benzoate; and Henry J. Heinz of ketchup fame, who was an early advocate of preservative-free foods) and enemies (e.g., John Queeny, founder of Monsanto and a staunch defender of the unlabeled use of saccharin in food; and James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture and Wiley’s boss, who often caved to industrial demands and suppressed Wiley’s findings and reports). (Blum helpfully provides a 9-page alphabetical cast of characters at the beginning of the book–I wish that all non-fiction writers did the same!) Scientists and journalists, novelists and cookbook authors, politicians and suffragists and consumer advocates on the one side, and industrialists, bureaucrats, different politicians and even presidents on the other–a great battle was waged for many years over the regulation of America’s food and drug supply. Interestingly from our perspective, around the turn of the 20th century, Democratic and Republican roles were reversed. The Democrats were the bad guys, supporting industry demands to be able to freely adulterate foods to cheapen production and increase profits, while the (progressive) Republicans were on the side of consumer safety.

Though the politics has changed, that battle continues today. Just one example is saccharin, one of the deleterious additives targeted by Wiley a century ago, which is still readily available on supermarket shelves now despite the finding that it “has a physiologic effect . . . in every place, in every cell.” (It was briefly banned in the 1980s but was unbanned in 2000.) Despite convincing scientific evidence, the food industry has continued to fight for the right to poison the public, as long as it increases their profit margin.

Wiley focused both on banning harmful substances in food, drinks, and medicines, and on truthful, complete labeling and advertising, so that consumers could know what they were buying and ingesting. He was also a dedicated feminist. He married late in life (not for lack of trying, but his wife, Anna Kelton, refused him when he first proposed, when she was in her late twenties and he about twice that). He was an enthusiastic supporter of his wife’s political activism in the suffragist movement. (Favorite quote, when Anna was arrested and jailed for political activity: “He had fought all his life for a principle and hardly could deny her the same privilege.”

Wiley was uncompromising in his zeal to clean up the food supply and get rid of false claims about medicinal properties. Time and time again, he courageously stood up to his boss (and to his boss’s boss, the President) and to his numerous detractors and opponents. One cannot help but admire him.

Reading about the long years of struggle before the first Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the ensuing struggle over writing and enforcing the regulations, I was reminded of the seemingly never-ending struggle for gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association plays the role of the food industry executives who shamelessly attacked those who were trying to protect the public. Organizations like MomsRising and Every Town for Gun Safety and individuals like Jim Brady and Gabby Giffords and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students play the roles of Harvey Wiley, Alice Lakey, Sinclair Lewis, Lincoln Steffens and so many others who refused to admit defeat despite numerous losses. The only way to combat this incessant greed, it would seem, is to persist, no matter how long it takes. Once the legislative battle is won, however imperfectly, we must gear up for the regulatory battle. And with Donald Trump in the White House, even regulations that have long been in place to protect consumers are being rolled back to the detriment of consumer safety and to the delight of the  industrialists (such as gun manufacturers and food/beverage/drug industry tycoons). The fight against the food and drug industries is never over, as Blum shows in her Epilogue. We must be forever vigilant.

This book is a fascinating and educational read. I highly recommend it, but I would advise you not to read it over lunch!

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The Selfish Gene

Posted by nliakos on November 3, 2018

by Richard Dawkins (Oxford Univ. Press; originally published 1976; 40th Anniversary edition ed. 2016)

This one is a Darwinian classic and has been on my list for many, many years. It is pretty dense and long but is written in a very clear way, avoiding mathematical and scientific terms (or explaining them over and over). The basic premise is that natural selection works not at the level of the organism but at the level of the gene, which replicates itself endlessly so that any gene, at any moment, is present in many (billions? trillions?) organisms. Genes are “selfish”; that is to say, their goal, if they can be said to have a goal (they can’t, really) is to survive, at the expense of (or with the cooperation of, if that works better) their fellow genes. Individual organisms such as plants, fungi, or animals, including humans, are the “vehicles” or “survival machines” which the genes build to carry themselves into the future.

Ch. 1, “Why Are People?” Dawkins introduces the book by saying it is a statement of his belief of how living things evolved. It is not about morality, and it does not describe particular animal or human behaviors in detail. The concepts of selfishness and altruism, which are central to the book, are introduced.

Ch. 2, “The Replicators” A quick and dirty explanation of DNA, chromosomes, and genes. I’ve always been confused about whether chromosomes are parts of genes or vice versa (it’s vice versa). Errors during replication (i.e., mutations) lead to natural selection.

Ch. 3, “Immortal Coils” More about the replicators, basically, adding the concepts of  nucleotides and cistrons (smaller bits than in the previous chapter, if I am not mistaken), as well as the concept of crossing over, which means swapping chromosomal bits. A gene is defined as “any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection.” These two chapters are the toughest for the non-scientist reader.

Ch. 4, “The Gene Machine” Working up in size to animals, the vehicles for genetic transmission and survival. Behavior is “a trick of rapid movement”. Muscles are “gadgets to achieve rapid behavior”. Neurones (nerve cells) time movements. Communication is simply a type of behavior controlled by neurones. Astonishing fact: An axon is a long wire-like part of a nerve cell that, while microscopically tiny in width, can be as long as the neck of a giraffe!

Ch. 5, “Aggression: Stability and the Selfish Machine  The crucial concept of the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy or ESS: a strategy that, if adopted by most members of a population, proves superior to other strategies. Natural selection penalizes deviation from the ESS, which results in stable polymorphism, or an equilibrium of varied types in the gene pool. Addresses the issues of rivalry (and why animal rivals usually do not fight to the death), retaliation (behavior dependent on that of one’s opponent), and territorial defense.

Ch. 6, “Genesmanship” Reminder that a gene is not a single bit of DNA but all the replicas of that bit of DNA, wherever they are found (i.e., in whichever bodies they are “sitting”). Altruism can result from selfishness due to shared genes. (W. D. Hamilton calculated the probability of shared genes in a population.) Some altruistic behaviors, e.g., parental care, are advantageous to survival. (An animal must survive long enough to reproduce and must have lots of offspring for genes to be successful.)

Ch. 7, “Family Planning”  Bearing offspring and caring for them are separate behaviors. Most animals regulate their birthrates, and genes for the optimal number of young will eventually win out over genes for too few or too many young. In territorial animals, control of a territory can grant males “permission” to breed. Males without territories may never breed. Some attention is given to the problem of human over-population: leaders who forbid effective contraceptive methods “express a preference for ‘natural’ methods of population limitation, and a natural method is exactly what they are going to get. It is called starvation.”

Ch. 8, “Battle of the Generations”  “Parental Investment” (R. L. Trivers), or more accurately, “Altruism Investment” (Dawkins) refers to how many life resources an animal will invest in its young or other members of its family or group. Some young are better risks for a parent to invest in than others (e.g., runts). Addresses the issues of sibling rivalry (including fratricide) and parasitic bird behavior like cuckoos laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. Discusses how offspring may (unconsciously) manipulate their parents, forcing them to feed them by screaming, which attracts predators to the nest. Dawkins points out that altruism must be taught, as it does not come naturally.

Ch. 9, “Battle of the Sexes”  Mated pairs may cooperate to raise young, but they are naturally inclined to try to exploit one another. It is common for one parent to leave the other to raise the young, and whereas with animals that breed by copulating it is usually the male that runs off, leaving the female to bring up the young, with water-dwelling animals where the male fertilizes the eggs once they are released into the water, it is often the female who skips town, leaving the male to care for the young. It depends on who has the first opportunity to escape.

Animals where parents share the burden do so in response to genetic programming that has been determined to lead to a more successful outcome. In this case, females often try to spot signs that a potential mate will be faithful or not before they consent to mate. Different strategies for choosing a mate: “domestic bliss” or “he-man”. Females can be coy or fast, while males can be faithful or philanderers. Characteristics like the heavy tail of a bird of paradise or a peacock can demonstrate to a female that the male is strong enough to survive despite dragging around all that extra stuff behind him. What makes one animal male and the other female? It boils down to the gametes (sex cells): female gametes are larger (because they contain nutrition to feed the embryo) and fewer, while male gametes are tiny, more numerous, and faster. The optimal sex ratio is 50:50.

Ch. 10, “You Scratch My Back, I’ll Ride on Yours”  Interactions between different species or members of a population, including alarm calls and how they probably develop in a population of prey animals, and symbiosis, such as slave-holding, aphid-milking, and fungus-gardening ants, kamikaze bees, and grooming behaviors.

Ch. 11, “Memes: The New Replicators”  It turns out that Dawkins coined this popular term in this book. A meme is an element of human culture which can spread through a population just as a gene can. Memes can be pieces of language, music,  fashion, ways of making things, etc. God is a meme. (The musical oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach would constitute a “meme-complex”.) Memes replicate through imitation and are passed on in altered form, continuously mutating and blending. They can replicate much faster than genes.

Ch. 12, “Nice Guys Finish First”  Finally, the role of altruism in the success of certain genes. Dawkins uses Game Theory to explain that animals cooperate with each other because cooperation (“niceness”, “forgiveness”) leads to a more stable survival strategy. A group of strategies called Tit for Tat (only defect in retaliation for another’s defection; if the other cooperates, you cooperate as well) is the most stable of all. Dawkins has plenty of animal and also human examples of how this works, even using it to explain the cooperation between Allied and Axis troops during World War I (the famous Silent Night in the trenches being only one example).

Ch. 13, “The Long Reach of the Gene”  I suppose that this chapter was not part of the original publication, because Dawkins explains that it summarizes another book he wrote called The Extended Phenotype (1982). A phenotype is a physical manifestation of a gene, like eye color, skin color, or (I suppose) a propensity to do well in mathematics (just conjecture here). The idea is that genes can influence things beyond the body they are in; for example, a beaver is programmed by its genes to build dams, thus transforming its environment. The beautiful stone “houses” that the larvae of the caddis fly construct to protect their soft bodies are another example, as are, I suppose, the constructed landscape that humans build for themselves.

Dawkins also addresses the questions of why genes teamed up in cells, why cells teamed up in multi-cellular organisms, and most interestingly, why the lives of multi-celled animals begin and end with a single cell, a fertilized egg (a “bottle-necked” lifestyle). As Dawkins writes, “Really, I’d almost rather you stopped reading now and switched to The Extended Phenotype!”

Epilogue to Fortieth Anniversary Edition  Dawkins considers whether he would make major changes to The Selfish Gene and concludes that, except for a less inflammatory title (he suggests The Immortal Gene might have been better received and is also more poetic), he would not; current knowledge of gene structure presents no challenge to his ideas as long as his definition of gene is understood (Cf. Ch. 3).

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