Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

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?

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

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.

Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre

Posted by nliakos on November 4, 2017

by Gail Carson Levine (Harper 2017)

When I was at the library recently, I picked up two books for myself (neither was on my to-read list, but they looked interesting) and this one for my daughter, who loves The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I gave up on the two “adult” books (The (Fabulous) Fibonacci Numbers by Alfred S. Posamentier and Ingmar Lehmann; and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel) and instead read The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. 🙂 And enjoyed it.

Gail Carson Levine has written many books inspired by popular fairytales, such as Ella Enchanted (Cinderella) and Fairest (Snow White, sort of). The two Bamarre books are set in a fairytale world of Carson Levine’s own imagining, but there are elements of familiar tales; for example, the heroine, Peregrine (aka Perry), has hair which grows very rapidly and very long; when her adoptive father imprisons her in a tower with no door, Perry uses her hair to enable her friend Willem to climb up to her with food. Other examples are the seven-league boots which she uses to travel from place to place, the magic tablecloth that produces rich, delicious meals for its owner, and the snail shell that enables a person to hear conversations from a great distance. (The boots and the tablecloth also appear in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.)

Perry is a Bamarre, but the Bamarre have been conquered and subjugated by the fierce Lakti. (They are just too kind and empathetic to resist with violence.) As a baby, she is taken from her parents by the barren wife of Lord Tove, a Lakti aristocrat. They take her older sister Annet along for good measure, to serve as Perry’s nurse, leaving their parents bereft. Perry grows up believing herself to be a Lakti, undergoing the harsh training required of all the Lakti, both male and female, to turn them into fierce warriors.

The story takes place mostly when she is about fifteen. A fairy appears to her and reveals the secret of her birth, and announces that it is Perry’s destiny to liberate her people. Most of the book narrates how she manages to do this. There are dragons, gryphons, ogres, and other monsters to fight in the land beyond the Eskern Mountains where the Lakti came from originally, and in New Lakti (the kingdom stolen from the Bamarre by the invading Lakti), there are cruel Lakti, especially Lord Tove, whose all-encompassing love for his daughter turns to murderous hatred once he finds out the secret of her birth.

The treatment of the gentle, polite Bamarre people by the arrogant Lakti is reminiscent of the treatment of African slaves in America by white landowners. Lord Tove considers the Bamarre to be dirty, simple, and animal-like, and thinks nothing of subjecting them to ever-harsher laws. Perry has grown up with this racism, and must confront it in herself before she can accept herself and her birth family. She also has to learn to exist in a very different culture, where no one tells anyone else what to do and everyone’s speech is sprinkled with “Begging your pardon’s”. I enjoyed the small cultural details such as these that Carson Levine invents for her peoples.

There is only one character who appears in both Bamarre books, and that is Perry’s younger brother Drualt, who appears in The Two Princesses of Bamarre as a legendary hero. Presumably, that story of how Princess Addie saves her sister Princess Meryl from the Gray Death takes place many years after the Bamarre escape the persecution of the Lakti by crossing the Eskerns to resettle Old Lakti for themselves.

There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief required for all Carson Levine’s books, and this one is no exception!

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

Posted by nliakos on October 23, 2017

by Ashton Applewhite (Gale Cengage 2016)

As my birthdays pile up (seventy is now within view), I am coming to terms with my age and with my aging. Ashton Applewhite’s manifesto has given me plenty of ideas to consider, supported by research that contradicts society’s assumptions about “olders”, as she calls us (in contrast to “youngers,” aka “old people in training”). For example, dementia is not a given: serious mental decline is not inevitable (MacArthur Foundation Study of Successful Aging), and a fifth of folks in their nineties function cognitively as well as those in middle age (Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity). In other words, though we are all going to die some day, we have a fair chance of dying with our mental faculties intact. Or “the happiness U curve”: people over eighty tend to be happier than younger folks–as happy as children, in fact. They are “more self-aware and confident, less fearful of being judged, and authentically happy.” They are also more comfortable with the idea of dying than are younger folks, who tend to assume that the closer one gets to the end of life, the scarier it must be. Wrong. Around the world, the most contented people are the youngest and the oldest, with the working stiffs in the middle being the most unhappy.

I’m a pretty happy person overall, but I think it’s true that I am happier now that I am retired. That’s how it was with a lot of the ideas in the book: when I think about them, they just make sense, or my own experience bears them out.

The book is divided into eight chapters:

  1. “The Problem with Ageism” – What ageism is and how it affects us. Aging isn’t the problem; ageism is.
  2. “Our Ages, Ourselves–Identity” – Why we are reluctant to own up to our true age after some arbitrary number, like 30 or 40 (thinking that after that number, it’s just a long slide into oblivion), and how we internalize the negative stereotypes of aging
  3. “Forget Memory — The Older Brain” – the stigmatization of cognitive decline, the assumption that it will happen to everyone, and how in some ways our brains get better as we age (e.g., we deal with negative emotions better, are more emotionally mature and adaptable to change, and are less anxious in social situations); there is a “neurological basis” to wisdom.
  4. “Health, Not Youth — The Older Body” – Longevity is a good thing. Yes, there is some physical decline as we age, but a large majority of folks over 65 “report no limitation in major activities.” We won’t live forever, but we can live long and well, as long as we take care of ourselves and have adequate medical care (which we might not have if ageism is allowed to influence decisions about who should have which treatment). By itself, getting older is not an illness!
  5. No Expiration Date–Sex and Intimacy – Why are so many people repelled by the idea of olders having sex? The many variations on sexual intimacy.
  6. “Not Done Yet–The Workplace” – how older people continue to be productive in old age, whether in a paying job (if they can get one despite ageist hiring policies) or a non-paying one, such as caregiving (for spouses, grandchildren, and others). Negative stereotypes hurt older workers, who have much to contribute to the workplace and to society.
  7. “Long Life Is a Team Sport–The Independence Trap” – how isolation is harmful, and some ideas for ageing in community; we all rely on each other (at any age, but certainly in old age); the importance of interaction with people of all ages, all the time
  8. “The Bull Looks Different–The End of Life” – how the older we get, the more reconciled, and less fearful, we are of death. Death (the bull) looks different when we get closer to it (when the matador enters the bullring). Knowing that we are not immortal helps us to appreciate each passing day more.
  9. “Occupy Age! Beyond Ageism” – We need to change our thinking about aging. We are all ageist to some extent, but we can overcome it in ourselves and help others to overcome it as well. An example would be how we self-deprecatingly claim “a senior moment” if we make a mistake or forget something. I’m one who has said that on numerous occasions, but I have vowed to stop. If I make a mistake, I will no longer justify it by claiming advancing age! This chapter has lots of ideas for making our society “all-age-friendly”, such as including older people in medical studies and trials, adequately funding the Elder Justice Act of 2010, and helping older people to stay in the workforce longer by providing more flexibility.

Each chapter includes a section called “Push Back!”, which suggests ways we can fight ageism.

Applewhite’s book is a must-read for everyone, not only those of us who are over sixty. Few people choose to die young, so most people will confront the fact of aging at some point. (We all aspire to be old.) We would all be happier if our aging were not complicated by ageist prejudice (our own or that of others) and discrimination.

Applewhite blogs at and

Watch her passionate TED talk (around 10 minutes long) at

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

America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2017

by Steven Brill (Random House 2015)

Did you think I had given up books because I had not posted in a while? Actually, I was slogging through this 455-page look at the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare–how it came into being, the fight to pass the bill, the disastrous launch, and all the pros and cons. It wasn’t an easy read by any means, but I came away with a better understanding of some basic truths.

First, America got off on the wrong foot with healthcare  in the 1940s, when the National War Labor Board’s ruling that benefits (including health insurance) were not subject to wage controls encouraged employers to offer workers health insurance, letting the government off the hook for either insuring or providing healthcare to its citizens. The fact that health benefits were not taxed exacerbated the effect of this ruling, which “would forever change the course of healthcare in the United States.”

Second, the ACA became law only because people made a lot of compromises that included giving up some of the most crucial aspects of the original plan, like including a public option. Some of these sacrificed items constituted broken promises to people, companies and industries that gave their support to reform.

Third, random events like Democratic candidate Martha Coakley’s vacation, which ostensibly cost her the election (for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat), jeopardized the passage of the bill and necessitated still more compromises to appease reluctant Members of Congress and induce them to vote for it. Much of what transpired was due to pure chance.

Fourth, the ACA was designed to expand coverage to the uninsured, not to improve coverage for the majority who already had it. The framers of the ACA made a conscious decision not to tackle the obscene cost of healthcare in the United States compared with other developed countries. Their bill purported only to solve the problem of the millions of Americans who had no health insurance; it did not address the related problem of soaring costs. In this (increasing coverage) it has been fairly successful, but because costs continue to skyrocket, premiums are bound to reflect that. Provisions within the ACA ensured that billions of dollars in new business would accrue to the hospital industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical devices industry. Meanwhile, doctors and insurance companies (yes! because they, like the patients, have to pay the bills) were squeezed.

Fifth, the disastrous launch of the ACA, following years of delay writing the regulations needed to implement the law, could have been averted if the administration had managed the website build better, by making one person responsible for its success, by hiring more competent professionals to build it, and by thoroughly testing it prior to the actual launch (duh)–as the state of Kentucky did with its kynect exchange, which worked as expected because the extensive testing had uncovered the glitches before the launch, leaving time to fix them. As it was, when a group of Silicon Valley stars was brought in to rescue the federal exchange, they had to correct almost every detail of the website. It was embarrassing to read about how incompetent everyone else was.

In the final chapter, Brill proposes a way to fix the mess we are in by encouraging giant hospital chains to become insurers (or giant insurers to buy hospital chains). He points out that what at first glance seems like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse would actually work better because doctors and hospitals would be motivated to keep patients healthy, and not to over-treat them or order needless expensive tests. In fact, this was exactly why I loved Kaiser Permanente so much when I was a member. I trusted them to do the right thing because it was in their interest to do the right thing. This was especially true when I was pregnant, at a time when C-sections were becoming almost routine. I didn’t want a C-section, and I felt confident that my Kaiser doctor wouldn’t advise me to have one unless there was really no good alternative. Kaiser didn’t have its own hospital in the Washington, D.C. region (as it does in northern California, and as  does the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center [UPMC], which insures its own patients–this was the example Brill provides of how his suggestion might play out), but as everyone probably knows, Kaiser doctors and nurse practitioners provide the vast majority of care that its members receive outside of a true hospital setting, in Kaiser centers around the region.

I think Brill’s view of the ACA is pretty balanced. He describes the good, the bad, and the ugly (and there is a lot of bad and ugly) objectively and fairly. The reader who makes it through to the end will come away with a much better understanding of how we got into this mess in the first place and why the ACA has met with such resistance. It’s a pretty depressing read, but it’s an important topic that we should all understand better.

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

Not Tonight, Josephine: A Road Trip Through Small-Town America

Posted by nliakos on September 1, 2017

by George Mahood (2016)

George Mahood publishes his own work, apparently; I can’t find any mention of a publisher anywhere. This may explain why this book cost only $2.99 (Kindle edition), and it was well worth it. It’s a travelogue by a young Britisher traveling around the United States (first with a boyhood friend, then with his girlfriend) in an old rattletrap of a Dodge Caravan (the eponymous Josephine). which breaks down frequently, requiring regular infusions of cash. It’s the usual compendium of encounters with surprisingly friendly folks, with the slight twist that it was written for a British audience, including little explanations like, “There was no real equivalent to the UK’s MOT test. . . .” Also, the subtitle implies that Mahood spent most of his time in small American towns; however, he actually visited quite a lot of tourist sights and national parks, which is not a bad thing; they just aren’t what I would call small-town America. But that’s not really a criticism, just an observation. I enjoyed reading about the national parks.

Mahood is very funny and I enjoyed his humorous descriptions of the many odd situations he and his friends found themselves in. And I liked the fact that he liked the U.S.A. He writes, “My travels across America had exceeded all of my expectations. Its cities were bigger, its mountains higher, roads straighter, rivers wider, lowlands sparser, buildings taller, lakes greater, winters colder, gas cheaper, portions larger, canyons grander, badlands badder, deserts desertier, desserts dessertier, taxis yellowier, Halloweens scarier, bears grizzlier, corn palaces cornier, ski slopes snowier, Brians greasier, prairie dogs dafter, walks hikier, bacon crispier, green salads beefier, park rangers speedier, mechanics wackier (and sometimes grease-you-up-and-screwier), crazy golf crazier, drive-thrus noisier, and its people friendlier than I could have ever possibly imagined.” (You just have to read the book to understand some of those references.)

Posted in Memoir, Travel | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Posted by nliakos on August 11, 2017

by Margot Lee Shetterly (HarperCollins 2016, in various editions)

Like many others, I suppose, I was inspired to read this story of the women of color who worked for NASA , formerly NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), as human computers, beginning during World War II and continuing though the era of space flight until NASA’s mission and budget were curtailed by shifting priorities  and goals in the 1970s.  The film of the same name, which also dates from 2016, focused on the stories of three of these women: Dorothy “Dot” Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. The book also follows these women (although their close camaraderie may have been an invention of the film’s director), but it provides details about many others as well: Dorothy Hoover, Christine Darden, and others too numerous to mention. Unfortunately, no photographs were included, leading me to try to imagine the women as the actors who portrayed them in the film. Photographs surely exist (If I remember correctly, some were shown at the end of the film.) and would have been helpful in keeping the many characters straight in my mind.

But the book is so much more than the stories of the women of West Computing, the segregated pool where most of them began their careers as human calculators. It is also a history of NACA/NASA, a history of the Civil Rights Movement, and to some extent a history of the women’s rights movement. Shetterly also weaves in events from general American history to help us situate the events in the book in time.

The book helped me to learn about the extensive black middle class–the doctors, teachers, and other professionals who earned college and graduate degrees but who were shut out of professional careers around the country because of their race. They took the jobs that were available to them, staffing the nation’s segregated black colleges with some of the finest minds of the 20th century. Reading about this in an era when historically black colleges are struggling to survive, I am reminded of the double-edged sword of inclusion that has dealt a death blow to our women’s colleges, too. Plenty of leadership opportunities and other paths to academic and professional excellence were available to students of color in historically black colleges and to women in historically female ones. When they found themselves in integrated or co-ed settings, however, forced to compete with white males for those same opportunities, women sometimes found themselves taking a back seat to the men,  while black students sometimes found themselves criticized as trying to act white if they prioritized studying over sports or social life (which can happen to white students too, but that is another story.).  Once the rock stars of black academia (such as William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, the brilliant math professor who mentored Katherine Johnson when she was in college)  began to be wooed by traditionally white institutions, the black colleges could not compete, and they suffered a brain drain that impacted the quality of the instruction they could offer, making them less attractive to students of any color. Integration: a good thing, but with some negative consequences too. (Think also: the now-defunct Negro baseball league.)

I liked the book (though it was not as satisfying as the film, being about real life and historical facts and not designed to keep a reader on the edge of her seat), but I found some of the writing kind of overdone and pretentious.

Agonizingly typed and retyped on my Samsung tablet.  This keyboard drives me bonkers! I think I might be able to fix some of its problems in settings, but am not sure how. I type a word (say, ‘not’) and it auto-corrects to some non-existent word (e.g., ”nother”). Or it inserts spaces or letters willy-nilly, sentences into gobbledy-gook. Example in the previous sentence: I wrote “turning sentences…”. Why did it make up some crazy email address???

One thing I really miss about home is my laptop. Can’t wait to return to normal typing!

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The Soul of the First Amendment

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

By Floyd Abrams (Yale University Press, 2017)

The complete text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution is as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But Floyd Abrams focuses his little book on the second part only–“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” This, to Abrams, is the “soul” of the amendment.

Reading the book definitely helped me to understand what the first amendment does and does not do. It concerns what the government, specifically the Congress,  can and cannot do. It does not prevent private companies or citizens from repressing speech.

Abrams gives the reader some history–which framer advocated for what, and why. Some of them did not think it was necessary to explicitly prevent the government from infringing on free speech. Others disagreed. In the end, the reference to free speech and a free press were included; they might just as easily have been left out, and we would be a different country today. Yet for the first couple of hundred years of the republic, nobody paid much attention to the amendment, and freedom of expression was routinely curtailed and censored. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that case law began to develop based on the rights set down in this amendment. I had no idea that that was so, and I think probably few people do. (N.B., The history part was pretty dense and tough going for me; it isn’t written in legalese, but it’s challenging.)

Then there is a lengthy comparison of how freedom of expression and a free press are viewed by Americans and according to American law, as opposed to how they are viewed in Europe and in other democratic societies (very different). In other societies, other rights may take precedence over free speech, such as Europe’s right to be forgotten, which allows people to request that articles written about them be suppressed if they are no longer relevant, whatever that means, and the control over hate speech. It’s instructive to consider what happens when two or more essential human rights are in conflict with each other.

He nearly lost me in the final chapter, which deals with the infamous Citizens United decision, the one that opened the door to treating corporations as people who have the right to express themselves politically by donating enormous sums of money to political causes and candidates. Liberals such as I am have a kind of knee-jerk negative reaction to this Supreme Court decision, but Abrams argues the case that prevailed (he was actually one of the attorneys who argued it before the Supreme Court), and I admit that at times he was very convincing. It’s useful to consider the arguments on both sides.

(Painfully typed on my tablet in Karpenisi,  Evrytania, Greece)

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