Book Corner 2022.31

by Adam Platt

I really bought this based on the title. Adam Platt, with whom I was not familiar, is/was restaurant critic for New York (not The New Yorker) magazine. This is something of a food-focused memoir. We learn a little about his strange parents and stranger upbringing in Asian countries, then a little about his career in journalism and becoming a NYC restaurant critic. It’s somewhat repetitive. He uses the word “dyspeptic” to describe himself way too many times. There aren’t too many really stand-out moments. A chapter where he decides to bring five 4-year-olds to the fanciest restaurant in town is unusually lively and engaging, but it’s an exception.

Book Corner 2022.30

by Peter Singer

This is an oldish book (2009) I picked up; it’s a bit dated, and I’ve heard all of Singer’s arguments before, but I guess I just like hearing them.

Singer’s out to get everyone to give more of their resources to the poorest of the poor. If you wouldn’t pass by a child drowning in a pond, how can you not give a small sum of money to save a child’s life across the world?

He attempts to refute all the common reasons we have for not giving more. He emphasizes the goal is not to guilt people, but to create a culture where more giving becomes the norm.

One thing that surprised me, until I remembered how old the book was – he says that of course we don’t want to just give people money. That fosters dependence and doesn’t change the institutions that keep them poor. I think he has since changed his tune, since his website, https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/, now lists Give Directly as a recommended charity. Give Directly flat out gives money to people. That’s all they do. That’s why I love them. I am fully convinced that giving poor people money is the best way to go. They don’t become dependent. They improve their circumstances. They often start or improve their businesses. And that is how they can begin to change their own institutions.

Book Corner 2022.29

by Kati Marton

“WIr schaffen das.”

“We can handle it” is the translation given here. It is what Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a news conference about how Germany was going to handle the surging refugee crisis in 2015. I remember hearing this. In my memory, which may not be perfect, the question was particularly what was going to happen if the rest of Europe did not step up to the challenge. The emphasis was on the “Wir,” “we”, meaning Germany. If the rest of Europe did not step up, well, Germany would handle it. Germany would do what was right. And they did. This is when I first considered Merkel a personal hero.

“The fact that one million refugees had been allowed into Germany was, of course, the headline of 2015. However, an equally startling figure…: six million to seven million Germans helped them.”

“For Germany’s self-image – and how the rest of the world regards the former Third Reich – Angela Merkel’s regugee policy has been transformational. Nothing short of astonishing is the fact that the country responsible for the Holocaust is now regarded as the world’s moral center.”

This book is really a gem. It never devolves into a boring litany of Germany political mundanity (“first the Socialist Democrats formed a coalition with the Democratic Socialists who in turn…”). It has a somewhat chronological arc without being strictly chronological; after some straightforward early life biography, the book is divided into chapters which showcase different aspects of Merkel’s chancellorship: a chapter on the refugee crisis; one each on her relationships with W. Bush, Obama, and Trump; one on Ukraine (written alas before the latest invasion); etc. It really sustains interest.

Merkel has a doctorate in physics, as does her husband (who avoids all media attention and just likes to do his physics in peace). She honestly doesn’t seem to have gone into politics for any reason other than to get things done. She does her own shopping. The most lovable photo is captioned thus:

“Shortly after her heartfelt warning to the nation regarding the looming Covid pandemic, the chancellor was seen shopping in her neighborhood grocery store. Note that there are more bottles of wine in her cart than rolls of toilet paper. Merkel beseeched her countrymen not to hoard.”

Hero!

Book Corner 2022.28

by Lena Andersson

“From the day she found language and ideas and realized where her mission lay, she renounced expensive living, ate cheaply, was always careful about contraception, only traveled rationally, had never been in debt to the bank or to any private person, and did not get herself into situations that forced her away from what she wanted to spend her time doing: reading, thinking, writing, and debating.”

Until, of course, now.

This short novel is about the woman described above, and how she abruptly falls in love. It is a literally excruciating look at self-deception. Ester’s love is unrequited and undeserved. Over and over, we wince as we read some variation on: “She thought: I should walk away. But I don’t want to. I want to stand here with him. It’s the only place in the world I want to be.” As Lionel Shriver says on a back-cover blurb: “Alas, most women have lived this story.”

Book Corner 2022.27

by Thomas Sowell

He comes across as a really belligerent person. On one page, he’ s in a shouting match with a VP in his organization, and on the next, he is referring to a copy editor’s “idiotic questions.”

I also thought it was weird he never once mentioned the name of his first wife; married 9 years and mother of his two children. She’s just “my wife.” Also, I didn’t bookmark it, but I was floored in a passing remark he makes about this wife “insisting” on resuming her career after the children were born. The nerve.

So how was it as a memoir? In the preface, he promises that he will not try to “tell an exhaustive story.” But I did feel at the beginning that we were getting every little nook and cranny of remembrance he could come up with, which often felt like paths that led nowhere. I picked up this book because I thought it would be interesting to read about the life and intellectual development of a Black conservative thinker. Sowell started out as a Marxist. How did his thinking evolve? How did he come to be at odds with with Marxism and with the other Black “leaders” (he always puts that in quotes) of his time? There wasn’t much narrative arc to answer that question. The book read more like an overgrown curriculum vitae.

Book Corner 2022.26

by Chuck Klosterman

You say it’s two thousand WHAT? And I’m fifty-WHO? The nineties were just a few years ago, weren’t they?

This book was absolutely scrumptious. If I have a complaint, it was that it was almost too good to read for an hour at a time. It’s essays, and almost every one is fantastic; and getting to the end of one was often like when you want to turn off the music when one of your favorite songs ends. Maybe I’m the only one who does that? Oh. Moving on…

The essays don’t follow a narrative or temporal arc. Normally I might feel that to be a detraction. I loves me some strong plot lines. But real life doesn’t follow arcs, and that’s what this was about: what the nineties were really like. You have to accept whatever comes next.

Let’s put it this way, which is a good starting point: “Among the generations that have yet to go extinct, Generation X remains the least annoying.” Two words: Hear and Hear!

The “remember when” vibe is there in full force, but in ways that make you think. “Modern people worry about smartphone addiction, despite the fact that landlines exercised much more control over the owner. If you needed to take an important call, you just had to sit in the living room and wait for it.”

The most important thing about the nineties, though, and what he gets, over and over, is… how GOOD they were. Everything was really going… well. The economy? Boom. The cold war? Over. It was all going to be fine, and it didn’t really matter all that much who was going to be president or not… really, at the end of the day, one choice was as good as another. “Did the direction of change even matter? What’s the worst that could happen?” Exactly. I fooled around with third party candidates and affiliations; it was a good time to do that. I distinctly remember a friend of mine feeling slightly put off to see a protest against George W. Bush winning the election. Making a big deal about it seemed almost unseemly.

The entire Ted Kaczynski chapter was phenomenal. I take it back that I had only one complaint; this isn’t so much a complaint as a reaction of shock: WHERE ARE THE SIMPSONS? Could it be Klosterman just wasn’t that into them? But… sputter… that couldn’t be. Could it be he didn’t think they really had that much effect on the culture? I’m not culturally literate enough to really opine; but they were HUGE to me and everyone I knew. They got literally one reference.

It started with NEVERMIND and ended with the Twin Towers. Those were the nineties. And I’m Gen X, so the nineties are me: they were when I built myself.

Book Corner 2022.24

by Alice Munro

These are classic short stories, the kind that end on a heavy ponderous note, without really have taught you anything or done anything other than get you really invested in a plot that then suddenly ends. And that is why I am not a fan of short stories – I read this for book club. I prefer the strong narrative arc of a novel. I was particularly invested when one of the stories was a continuation of the previous one, but then that streak ended at two. It also became tiresome to me that all the stories took place in the past, during a time when women wore dresses and had no worries other than who they would marry. If I’m going to read a book about a past era, I want it written in that era; then I guess I know I’m dealing with something authentic, and not an author who’s just guessing. There, I think that sums up all my negativity; at least I’ll say, I was interested in each story and character. Just vaguely annoyed each time a story ended and I was reminded, “Oh, that’s right, short story”.

Book Corner 2022.23

by David Graeber & David Wengrow

Where to begin reviewing a book weighing in at nearly 700 pages from title page to end of index?

We open and close with a lot about freedom. Our first section is totally arresting, as we delve into how the Americans who preceded Europeans on this continent viewed European culture: with disbelief and disdain at our lack of freedom. While we Eurocentric people have always tended to view ourselves as being quite free, our “formal” freedoms were as nothing compared to the “substantive” freedoms found in America.

More on that in a moment, but notice my avoidance of terms like “indigenous people” or “Native Americans”. They were Americans. They lived here. I love the radical respect that the authors give to those people who lived in this place before us. And those Americans who engaged in thoughtful substantive debate with their European interlocuters, they rightfully refer to as philosophers, even “philosopher-statesmen”.

So about those freedoms: we theoretically have the right to travel, but if we haven’t got moolah, we effectively must stay put. Many of the earlier American societies had kinship networks far and wide, and people really could travel whenever and almost wherever they wanted, knowing they would have kin that would have their backs. We formally have the freedom to do whatever we like, but we have authorities we must obey. North Americans the Europeans first contacted often did not. Their chiefs had no real authority to make anyone do anything. In a great turn of phrase, the authors say “the Wendat [Huron tribe of native Quebec] had play chiefs and real freedoms, while most of us today have to make do with real chiefs and play freedoms.”

And so the book continue with more of its radical upendings of our typical outlook on things. Pre-historical societies experimented with vast, vastly different ways of self-organizing. We weren’t just “bands” (they always put that word in quotes) of ape-like hunter-gatherers, living in one particular default way, until bam, finally agriculture changed everything. We weren’t always all the same and agriculture didn’t all of a sudden change everything everywhere.

One item I couldn’t help but bookmark: “There is an obvious objection to evolutionary models which assume that our strongest social ties are based on close biological kinship: many humans just don’t like their families very much.” I’m sorry, why isn’t this called out more often? Most of us, given the slimmest of chances, will get as far away from our families as the train tracks will take us. Not that I have an axe to grind on this particular topic.

I’m sorry I can’t do justice to more of the book, because there is much, much more. But these were my takeaways.

Book Corner 2022.22

by Weike Wang

In the middle, it can feel rather depressing. The first-person protagonist, who I believe remains unnamed, had horrible parents, can’t finish her PhD, and can’t commit to the boyfriend who wants to marry her. There’s a quote which I’m afraid I didn’t bookmark, but which I think I got right: “The optimist believes the glass is half full. The pessimist believes it is half empty. The chemist believes it is full, half with liquid and half with gas, both of which are probably poisonous.” That’s the protagonist’s attitude all the way through.

You think she must have redeeming qualities which are not on display, this being written in the first-person depressive. Because why does Eric stay with her? She sounds relentlessly negative. But he is devoted to her; plus, she has a very warm relationship with “the best friend”. This is like the main character of Joan Is OK – she’s an oddball but things don’t quite go where you think they’re going to. These oddballs aren’t total losses. They function and have relationships. They are just human.

I want to shout out that the author has degrees in chemistry and public health as well as an MFA. Yay for scientists writing books!

Book Corner 2022.21

by Octavia E. Butler

Such wonderful theology, such a wonderful main character. I wish it hadn’t been embedded in such a horror movie.

Cannibalism, burning people alive, relentless killing. It reminded me in that sense of Geraldine Brooks’ YEAR OF WONDERS, which was about the plague. There you had people suffocating in pig manure, someone carrying around a dead baby till its head fell off… same kind of thing, has me reading with steel guardrails around my brain so as not to actually internalize anything.

So about the good parts! Theology! God is change. Your job is to do your best to mold that God to serve your ends.

Main character! It’s all led by a supernaturally strong young African American woman. She is the sower. She calls her religion Earthseed. Each chapter begins with some of her “verses”. “The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” “Create no images of God… The universe is God’s self-portrait.”½