Manhood for Amateurs (review: 4/5)

Manhood for Amateurs
I became impatient with the few Michael Chabon books I’ve tried, never finished one. And historically I have had little patience with memoir. So what do I do? I go pick up Michael Chabon’s new memoir, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Good decision, it turns out.

On the title page there’s a spinner-type illustration like you’d see on a game board, with possible landing spots marked Hypocrisy, Sexuality, Innocence, Regret, Sincerity, Nostalgia, Experience, and Play. If I could oversimplify, it’s about the awesomeness and awkwardness of being a guy. Not “awesome” as in “cool” but “awesome” in the sense of actual awe, realizing as you grow older that you are part of a tradition that our entire half of the population all experiences. Luckily he’s not too cliché with the whole thing, in one section even going so far as to meditate on the clichédness of feeling like a cliché and turn it into something worthwhile.

Cup size, wires, padding, straps, clasps, the little flowers between the cups: You need a degree, a spec sheet. You need breasts. I don’t know what you need to truly understand brassieres, and what’s more, I don’t want to know. I’m sorry. Go ask your mother.

There you have it: the most flagrant cliché imaginable. As I utter it, I might as well reach for a trout lure, a socket wrench, the switch on my model train transformer. This may be the fundamental truth of parenthood: No matter how enlightened or well prepared you are by theory, principle, and the imperative not to repeat the mistakes of your own parents, you are no better a father or mother than the set of your own limitations permits you to be.

The essays cover things like being a brother, cooking, the man-purse, faking it when you’re in over your head, best friends, Jose Canseco, first love, failed love, fatherhood and more. Here’s a bit on marriage, from the excellent story The Hand on My Shoulder (which link takes you to Chabon reading it on NPR):

The meaning of divorce will elude us as long as we are blind to the meaning of marriage, as I think at the start we must all be. Marriage seems—at least it seemed to an absurdly young man in the summer of 1987, standing on the sun-drenched patio of an elegant house on Lake Washington—to be an activity, like chess or tennis or a rumba contest, that we embark upon in tandem while everyone who loves us stands around and hopes for the best. We have no inkling of the fervor of their hope, nor of the ways in which our marriage, that collective endeavor, will be constructed from and burdened with their love.

Yesterday I tumbled a great quote from his essay on the The Wilderness of Childhood. Here’s another:

We have this idea of armchair traveling, of the reader who seeks in the pages of a ripping yarn or a memoir of polar exploration the kind of heroism and danger, in unknown, half-legendary lands, that he or she could never hope to find in life.

This is a mistaken notion, in my view. People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity.

In “Cosmodemonic” he talks about being a “little shit” and basically, growing up:

We are accustomed to repeating the cliché, and to believing, that “our most precious resource is our children.” But we have plenty of children to go around, God knows, and as with Doritos, we can always make more. The true scarcity we face is of practicing adults, of people who know how marginal, how fragile, how finite their lives and their stories and their ambitions really are but who find value in this knowledge, even a sense of strange comfort, because they know their condition is universal, is shared.

Tyler Cowen said “This supposed paean to family life collapses quickly into narcissism, but that’s in fact what makes it work.” Much better than I’d expected.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (review: 5/5)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

This Sotsgorodok was a bare field knee-deep in snow, and for a start you’d be digging holes, knocking in fence posts, and stringing barbed wire around them to stop yourself from running away. After that—get building.

I knew I would love this book when I came across those lines, about five pages in. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes about a labor-camp worker/political prisoner named Shukhov. It’s only one full day, from just before sunrise until lights-out. I love the restraint to focus on one day, one character, one setting. That aside, I think my favorite part of the book was a sort of underlying optimism. There’s plenty of bold, revolutionary exposé-type stuff about injustice, deprivation, dehumanizing treatment, etc. (It’s probably because I grew up after this devastating period that I can write it off with an “etc”…) But more interesting to me were the little glimmers of endurance and good humor in truly awful conditions.

“Call the gang.”

Gopchik ran off.

The great news was that the gruel was good today, the very best, oatmeal gruel. You don’t often get that. It’s usually magara or grits twice a day. The mushy stuff around the grains of oatmeal is filling, it’s precious.

Shukhov had fed any amount of oats to horses as a youngster and never thought that one day he’d be breaking his heart for a handful of the stuff.

“Bowls! Bowls!” came a shout from the serving hatch.

Another favorite bit is a sort of emotional shift that I found pretty remarkable. The oppression became sort of a background feature for me. With all that given, conscious sympathy sort of fades until you get about 90% finished…

Fetyukov passed down the hut, sobbing. He was bent double. His lips were smeared with blood. He must have been beaten up again for licking out bowls. He walked past the whole team without looking at anybody, not trying to hide his tears, climbed onto his bunk, and buried his face in his mattress.

You felt sorry for him, really. He wouldn’t see his time out. He didn’t know how to look after himself.

Very much a Literary Wow Moment for me. Our hero still manages feelings of pity for his fellow slave-laborer, while the reader has gotten kind of worn out. Just when you’ve gotten numb from reading about a full day of hardship, you feel the pang again because this one guy probably won’t make it. One last cool thing, also evident in the paragraph above, is that the third-person omniscient narration is peppered with asides and reactions from Shukhov himself:

The bosses were afraid the zeks would scatter and waste time in warming sheds. A zek’s day is a long one, though, and he can find time for everything. Every man entering the compound stooped to pick up a wood chip or two. Do nicely for our stove. Then quick as a flash into their shelters.

It’s a fairly short read. Totally worth it.

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (review: 4/5)

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

By now it should be clear that you’ll be most comfortable with my arguments if you fully accept yourself as a fitness-flaunting consumer narcissist who has been deluded, throughout your whole life, into irrational spending habits by advertising euphemisms and peer pressure. In other words, you’ll probably feel uneasy for much of the time you’re reading it.

That line comes about 100 pages into the book. I stumbled on it when I was flipping through and it’s the passage that convinced me to take it from the library. Geoffrey Miller’s book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior turned out to be very good. If I could just block-quote the entire thing right here, I probably would.

You get a sense of the tone from the quote above. It’s fairly conversational. There’s a counter-cultural bent to it that comes across as more detached and bemused, rather than left-wing-ish panic or conservative haughtiness. He picks on both perspectives fairly evenly. Some of it I found genuinely funny, some was awkward funny (“Mobile phones are already becoming too Lilliputian for adult males to use without feeling like a palsy-pawed giant ground sloth.”). Most of it offered plenty of brain-tweaking “I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments. The book got quite a collection of dog-ears by the time I got through with it.

He starts out with a discussion of the “Big Five” personality traits, explaining what they are and how he’ll be using them to guide the discussion. The discussion at hand hinges around the idea of signaling: basically, how we inform others (and exaggerate) our worthy traits and minimize the appearance of less worthy traits. We signal in really primitive ways based on evolutionary learning (e.g. nice, white teeth = healthy) and in really modern ways, such as conspicuous consumption (e.g. nice, white teeth covered with a grill = wealthy).

Anyway, as you make it to page 75, he lists a few reasonable assumptions for the rest of the book:

  • We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates.
  • We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits that fit their needs.
  • Over the past few million years, we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits.
  • Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies.

And a few pages later, he brings the connection with consumerism and marketing, and hints and hints at the anti-consumerist arguments that he’ll get into later in the book:

Consumerism depends on forgetting a truth and believing a falsehood. The truth that must be forgotten is that we humans have already spent millions of years evolving awesomely effective ways to display our mental and moral traits to one another through natural social behaviors such as language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology. We can all do so without credentials, careers, credit ratings, or crateloads of product.

The next bit ranges into a really interesting discussion on the three basic ways we signal: conspicuous waste, conspicuous precision, or conspicuous reputation. Conspicuous waste is fairly self-explanatory: gigantic cars, 30oz steaks, liquid-cooled gaming PCs. Conspicuously precise products rely on refinement, intricacy, low tolerances for error: luxury cars, fine sushi, Apple products. Conspicuous reputation is about envy or facade. Miller mentions BMWs and well-regarded postal codes in this category. Those aren’t perfect examples, and the categories can bleed, but you get the idea.

In one great leveling passage, he writes:

Each signaling principle has its distinctive pros and cons from the viewpoint of the signaler, the audience, and the population and ecology at large. These distinctions are significant but often overlooked. For example, socialist and environmentalist critiques of runaway consumerism apply most forcibly to cruder forms of conspicuous waste, which sequester matter and energy for the rich at the expense of the poor, and which impose the largest ecological footprint (resource and energy requirements). It is much harder to raise socioecological objections to an iPod nano than to an H1 Hummer. Aristocrats differ from the nouveaux riches not in their freedom from consumerism, but in their preference for conspicuous precision and reputation (“the finer things in life”) over conspicuous waste (“the crass and the vulgar”).

Later parts brought to mind the idea of social objects: “As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient to buy new, branded, mass-produced products from stores at the full manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The product comes into one’s life naked and mute, without any social context, memorable circumstances, or narrative value.” It’s not just what you have, but how you earned it and how it brings you closer to those you love.

And I just love this one bit, about 3/4 through the book. He’s spent a couple sentences talking about buying a Toyota Camry or a comparable Lexus. Both are made by the same mother company to similar quality levels:

If you must have the Lexus, that’s OK, as long as you consciously accept two things: (1) apart from its higher mass, you are paying an extra $40,000 for the Lexus badge, and (2) everyone who sees you driving the Lexus, and who has read this book, will assume that you could think of nothing in the world more creative, kind, or conscientious to do with $40,000.

Zing! Boom! That’s something to think on.

The last 10% or so of the book wasn’t as good the beginning. It got more prescriptive than descriptive, and it just wasn’t as interesting. But man, that first 90% was so worth it.

More elsewhere:

Love Is a Mixtape (review: 4/5)

Love Is a Mixtape
If you like love and/or music, I think you will like Love Is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. Rob Sheffield wrote the book after the unexpected death of his wife of five years, Reneee. He didn’t write it right away—the story came welling up again as he was moving to a new apartment, unpacking some old tapes of theirs. The book’s 15 chapters each touch on a different mixtape and a different time. It explores the music and life and love they shared. It captures part of the Charlottesville music scene (they were both DJs) and the bigger stuff in the ’90s: Nirvana, Pavement, R.E.M., etc.

I liked Sheffield’s writing. The passage of time helps to bring out this sort of humorous self-awareness, like when he describes a moment shortly after they were married:

Now we were alone with each other.

Which meant we had all these neighbors to deal with. The old lady next door dropped by with a plate of muffins one Sunday afternoon, right in the middle of Studs. Renee explained that in the South, this is normal—you just drop in on your married neighbors. I was aghast. I was a husband in the South now. We had married into this alien landscape with its strange customs.

Or when he talks about his love as a supporting role, after a moment when he was driving and singing back-up on “Midnight Train to Georgia”:

When we got to the final fade-out with Gladys on board the train and the Pips choo-chooing their goodbyes, Reneee cocked an eyebrow and said, ‘You make a good Pip.’ That’s all I ever wanted to hear a girl tell me. That’s all I ever dreamed of being. Some of us are born Gladys Knights, and some of us are born Pips. I marveled unto my Pip soul how lucky I was to choo-choo and woo-woo behind a real Gladys girl.

And everywhere it’s saturated with pop-culture references, so the time comes alive. And that’s what makes it (and other good memoirs?) special: that the story is so specific. It’s not just a love story, but a story about what it’s like to be a music-lover in love with a music-lover mostly in Charlottesville in the early and mid-’90s. And when you read his enthusiasm (“how lucky I was to choo-choo”), you can’t help be a bit jealous/understanding of what he has, and you feel the loss more acutely than in a story that seems like it could be set anywhere (The Notebook, maybe, or how about Romeo and Juliet?). I think you should read it.

Oblivion (review: 4/5)


James Tanner’s Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace is a nice parody of the writer’s style. A little absurd but kind of spot-on. Amusing for a little while, just like it always is when you’re watching someone else work. But if you get a chance to read a bit of Wallace (granted, I’m no expert—I’ve only got maybe 3-400 pages under my belt, but more is on the way), you get a sense of how crazy inventive this guy was, whether you like the stories or not.

In the stories in Oblivion, all these layers of ambiguity or inexactness juxtapose with excessive detail. I like the way the narrators/protagonists/Wallace zip around making associations and adjustments and corrections, sentences accumulating detail as you read. At its best it’s kind of like a mural with words. Everything, large, all at once.

Let me get fetishy with a couple sentences. My favorite bit in recent memory, from The Soul Is Not a Smithy:

I was often the first to register the sound of my father’s key in the front door. It took only four steps and a brief sockslide into the foyer to be able to see him first as he entered on a wave of outside air.

Four steps and a sockslide and a wave of outside air. Lord, that’s perfect. I’m willing to grant that I especially like that one because it makes me think of Dad, but I haven’t read something so compact but evocative in a long time. Here’s a funny bit from the opening story, Mister Squishy, mostly set in a market research office:

Attached to the breast pocket on the same side of his shirt as his nametag was also a large pin or button emblazoned with the familiar Mister Squishy brand icon, which was a plump and childlike cartoon face of indeterminate ethnicity with its eyes squeezed parly shut in an expression that somehow connoted delight, satiation, and rapacious desire all at the same time.

You can certainly read the verbosity as annoying and peacockish, but I can’t help but love seeing the product of a mind at work, like he’s been doing some serious thinking and noticing. Likewise, a couple dozen pages further into the story, some clever meeting room cynicism:

All that ever changed were the jargon and mechanisms and gilt rococo with which everyone in the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted…

I’d say Good Old Neon was the highlight for me, but the title story Oblivion gives it good competition. The first is imagined reflections before a suicide. The second a husband’s retelling of an ongoing dispute with his wife about his alleged snoring. Neither of those summaries do them justice. Read those two at least.

A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism (review: 4.5/5)

A Theory of Socialism & Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics
The first book by Hans-Hermann Hoppe that I read was the most excellent Democracy: The God That Failed. In the introduction to that book, Hoppe talks about competing social theories and, in face of conflicting arguments about society or politics or economics, how we can decide between them:

The data of history are logically compatible with… rival interpretations, and historians, insofar as they are just historians, have no way of deciding in favor of one or the other. If one is to make a rational choice among such rival and incompatible interpretations, this is only possible if one has a theory at one’s disposal, or at least a theoretical proposition, whose validity does not depend on historical experience but can be established a priori, i.e. once and for all by means of the intellectual apprehension or comprehension of the nature of things.

In other words, disagreements can’t be solved only by appealing to historical data. In the end “a priori theory trumps and corrects experience (and logic overrules observation), and not vice-versa.” A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism: Economics, Politics, Ethics [full text, pdf] takes this deductive approach. Hoppe starts by building a theory of property. We only need property because things are scarce; where there is no scarcity (e.g. ideas) there is no property…

And the rest flows from that. Sorry I don’t remember much more than that off-hand, because I finished the book almost a year ago. This draft has been sitting neglected for months and months. Just wanted to clear out the archives. Highly recommended, though.

American Nerd (review: 3/5)

American Nerd: The Story of My People

In the imagination of the fake nerd, the nerd is attractive because he is unaffected, untrendy to the point of primitivism, a kind of inert noble savage.

American Nerd: The Story of My People covers a pretty good range of history and culture, tying together various forms of the outcast and how this one particular version came together: the unathletic, socially dysfunctional, mathlete type (did I mention I was captain of my HS academic team?). It starts to get really good a few chapters into the book, when Benjamin Nugent dives into historical/literary precedent for today’s nerds and normals, e.g. Mary Bennet vs. Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice, Tibby in Howard’s End, Victor Frankenstein. He also has a great section on the history of sport and the beginnings of the nerd/jock split, and why it became so important for young men to be strapping and not Jewish (see: Muscular Christianity).

Drawing on T.S. Eliot’s essay, The Metaphysical Poets, he also delves into a split between feeling and thinking, the intellectual and the reflective. The works of Donne and his comrades were a sort of pinnacle of heart/brain unity; later writers like Tennyson, rebelling against the “rationative,” not so much. Eliot:

The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets… Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Quality of the poetry aside, the split between feeling and thinking anticipates a social divide. Nugent:

Since the Romantic era, we have been in an age in which machines have the capacity for some minimal semblance of rational thought, performing tasks that once would have been the exclusive domain of humans. Reason is no longer quintessentially human; spontaneity is. People more inclined toward logical deliberation than spontaneous expression have started to become somehow less totally human…

The pathos of being a nerd is to feel that because you are comfortable with rational thought, you are cut off from the experiences of spontaneous feelings, of romance, of nonrational connection to other people. A nerd is so often self-loathing because he accepts the thinking/feeling rift, and he knows and cares that other people accept it, too. To be a nerd is often to live with a nagging feeling of one’s own incurable heartlessness.

The first half is great, but the book goes astray in the second. The second used more case studies and memoir. It had an anthropological observation sort of bent that doesn’t hold up nearly as well compared with the earlier chapters. I preferred Nugent’s wide reinterpretation of culture and history and literature.

But the second half does have a nice section on hipsters and the contemporary appeal of the nerd aesthetic, where I got the opening quote from. He ties it in with Norman Mailer’s essay The White Negro. There’s a nice connection between hipsterdom and the creative professions…

… a choice on the part of the privileged to identify with the outsider. The outsider in this case is the nerd, because nerds are people incapable of, or at least averse to, riding cultural trends. When your greatest fear is that you will become a loser because your intuition will fail to keep up with tastes, you embrace the nerd…

There’s also a nice bit on the connection between nerdiness and autism:

The idea that having a capacity for empathy, for expressing and understanding emotion, is part of being a normal male is fundamentally contemporary and a way of asking that men learn a traditionally feminine virtue. When men were in an unquestioned position of control in the economy—when the bedrock of the nuclear family was a single male wage, a flow of income largely unavailable to women—there was less force compelling men to make themselves attractive mates through understanding the feelings of others and expressing affection. The Asperger’s population is 90 percent male; it’s likely that one reason Asperger’s got “discovered” and then “boomed” is that the rest of us have slowly been revising our expectations of men.

Miles on Miles (review: 4/5)

You don’t know how to play better just because you’ve suffered. The blues don’t come from picking cotton.

I’ve never read anything quite like Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis. The book collects about four decades’ worth of his life, broken up across a couple dozen interviews that were published in small jazz magazines all the way up to big serials like Newsweek and Rolling Stone. Some were with notable music journalists, a few with overmatched college radio station DJs.

The interviews start up in the late 1950s, about 10 years after he got his start with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and a couple years after he kicked his heroin habit. The general consensus, even back then: he was bleeping brilliant, charismatic, deeply flawed. Behind the gruff, badass facade was a sensitive, needy man. As the book goes on, it’s cool to see how the different interviewers sum up the career to date, through the shifting bands, radical changes in style, divorces, illness, new addictions. At some points in his life, he’s gregarious, absurdly fit from boxing, full of ideas. Later, for several years, he pretty much didn’t do much aside from drugs, rarely even leaving his house.

I don’t like to lay back. I don’t like to relax. Show me a motherfucker that’s relaxed, and I’ll show you a motherfucker that’s afraid of success.

You might have to like Miles to make it through his harangues. There weren’t a whole lot of brilliant comments or analysis of music. He usually avoided commenting on his own music, insistent that the past is dead, and I didn’t see a whole lot of criticism of other artists.

I usually don’t buy jazz records. They make me tired and depressed.

But I loved seeing how he phrased things, how he responds to similar questions over the years, and how he remembers and retells things differently. And there are occasional asides that I never would have expected:

I don’t know where I want to live. But the best time I ever had in my life, other than playing trumpet, was when I was out in the country riding horses.

The Bin Ladens (review: 5/5)

The Bin Ladens
Before 9/11, I don’t think I could have named one living person from Saudi Arabia. Afterward, I could name one. So I didn’t know much going into Steve Coll‘s book.

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century starts near the turn of the century, with Awadh Bin Laden’s beginnings in Yemen. His sons Mohamed and Abdullah would leave for Saudi Arabia and begin the Bin Laden Construction Company. The close ties that Mohamed managed to develop with the first king of Saudi Arabia helped cement his fortunes, earned with a combination of pluck, overwhelming work ethic, and obsequiousness. He and his kids would become involved in construction projects in Riyadh, Medina, Mecca, and other spots in Saudi Arabia. The Bin Ladens were in on a pretty incredible list of projects: lots royal palaces and getaways, highways, telecommunications, infrastructure, renovations on the Prophet’s Mosque and the Grand Mosque, and some semi-suspicious military-related projects near the Yemeni border. The Bin Laden family relied on the royal family.

Mohamed had at least 54 children. His oldest son Salem became the new family patriarch after Mohamed’s death and continued the ties with the royal family and launched a new wave of international investments. The family businesses and the family itself spread across the globe. Miami, California, D.C., Boston, London, Geneva, Egypt, Syria, everywhere. His brother Bakr rose to leadership when Salem died.

Osama was the 17th son of the family. His story, like the rest of the family, seems to get a pretty fair treatment. It’s easy to paint a one-dimensional villain as we now see him, but the whole story is told. There’s a sense of appreciation for some of the energy and courage of Mohamed, the ineluctable cheer of Salem, the maturation of Bakr. Coll doesn’t hesitate to point out contradictions or hypocritical behavior of anyone in the family. He’s also quick to qualify when his research is incomplete (“the best evidence suggests that…”).

I could have done with fewer anecdotes about shopping sprees for planes and jewelry. Otherwise, a great read and a surprising page-turner for its heft.

Crisis & Leviathan (review: 5/5)

Crisis & Leviathan
I had been meaning to read Robert Higgs‚Äô book for years and I’m very glad I got to it. And I’ve been sitting on my review for a while because I always fear sounding like a shrill, libertarian paranoid.

Crisis & Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government explores the past century of American history, the national response to the nation’s worst crises (whether genuine or contrived), and the aftermath of each. The government’s scope and power exploded in response to World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. And after each, the powers were mostly disassembled.

Mostly. The so-called ratchet effect meant that after each event, the government never fully relinquished all its powers. Some of that was due to bureaucratic inertia or cronyism—some agencies never disappeared, but continued or assumed new roles in the aftermath. And a large part was of course due to changing ideology and public support for the government’s new roles. There were the lingering effects of decades of propaganda and new generations raised in those times. We grew comfortable with the new role, learning that it “wasn’t all that bad”—we could still worship as we pleased, and the news wasn’t yet nationalized. We looked to the progressive examples of the European states. The costs of the larger government were hidden with clever schemes like income tax withholding—you never miss what you never had—and the ever-growing number of people included in the tax base. Mind-blowing trivia: in 1913, the highest income tax bracket was 7% and 98% of the population owed no income tax. Times change.

One of the big assumptions in the book, one that makes me uncomfortable for our present, is that “government has substantial autonomy in its policy-making”. Like we saw recently, even with widespread opposition to the first bailout, we got one anyway. And the strategy seems to change with every day. We probably have even more on the way. Especially in these crisis situations,

Few people outside the government have enough information to identify the precise contours of the emergency or to formulate comprehensive plans for dealing with it. Citizens tend simultaneously to demand (a) more governmental action and (b) less research, public consultation, debate of alternative, and general “due process” in governmental decision-making.

Higgs’ study of each era ranges through the socionomic and political conditions before, during and after; the prevailing ideologies; the leading elites and interest groups; emergency orders and agencies; court challenges and decisions; and the institutional fallout—what society learned. He ranges through statistical analyses, Supreme Court decisions, legislative studies, executive backroom dealing and more. While there is a clear growth trend, Higgs makes the distinction between big government and Big Government. The first is an issue of size, the second has more to do with intrusion in peaceful affairs. We’ve had increase in both. I find it astounding that, during World War II for example, we so easily accepted conscription and price controls—even the courts went along with it. And once you give in to those, what are a few other small sacrifices here and there?

The book was published in the late 1980s, but you can see the same patterns repeated in the wake of 9/11 and our current financial awkwardness. This does not bode well.

By the second week of March 1933 an extraordinary conjuncture had developed: 1) a genuine economic crisis, especially the massive unemployment and the pitifully depressed production and consumption; 2) and artificial economic crisis produced by the nationwide banking shutdown; 3) a widespread sense of crisis and a feeling that only extraordinary measures could prevent an even greater catastrophe, sentiments manifested in the numerous and diverse calls to “do something” even if dictatorial powers were required to do it; and 4) a new administration taking office unencumbered by perceived responsibility for past ill fortunes and unchecked by opposition from a partisan Congress eager to obstruct and embarrass the President.

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (review: 3.5/5)

how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken
How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken collects some of the criticism of Daniel Mendelsohn. Books, movies, theatre. Mendelsohn is a Classics scholar so his work is constantly making connections with the old Greek and Roman tragedies and epics.

I didn’t read all the essays because sometimes I just wasn’t familiar with what he was criticizing. But among the ones I liked were:

Daniel Mendelsohn had a good interview on NPR last month.

The Best American Crime Reporting 2007 (review: 3/5)

best american crime reporting 2007
There are a couple real standouts here, though this collection wasn’t as sharp as some of the others in the Best American series that I’ve read (Science 2007, Science & Nature 2007, Comics 2006). As is tradition, here are my picks:

The Loved Ones is the must-read of the bunch. Tom Junod’s awesome reporting starts with Sal and Mabel Mangano. The two New Orleans nursing home operators were accused of negligent homicide when many in their care died in post-Katrina flooding (the couple was later acquitted). Along the way he hits on broader themes of journalist ethics, family, love, blame, and responsibility. One of the best pieces I’ve come across this year.

The School is another great one. C.J. Chivers narrates the horrifying Beslan school hostage crisis, when Chechen rebels took 1000+ kids and adults hostage, using them as leverage against the Russian government. It’s dramatic, troubling stuff.

My Roommate, the Diamond Thief is pretty much what it sounds like.

The Inside Job is Neil Swidey’s reporting how an employee of John Ferreira embezzled about $7 million dollars over a couple years, without his knowledge.

A Romance on Three Legs (review: 4/5)

a romance on three legs by katie hafner
Spoiler: Katie Hafner‘s book, A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, is one of the most enjoyable I’ve read this year, a really nice little page-turner.

Glenn Gould was one of the great pianists of the 20th century, known as much for his personal quirks as for his musicianship. Gould’s eccentricities are pretty well documented. His increasingly reclusive, kind of paranoid personality led him to eventually abandon the concert stage in favor of the recording studio:

Gould had come to hate the risk-taking associated with live performances and grew tired of what he called the “non-take-two-ness” of the concert experience. He believed that people were just waiting for him to mess up, and he resented it. ‘To me this is heartless and ruthless and senseless. It is exactly what prompts savages like Latin Americans to go to bullfights.’

The new-to-me, perhaps even more interesting character in this book is Verne Edquist. Edquist got cataracts as a child. Surgery didn’t work and he lost most of his sight. He was sent to a school for the blind to learn a trade, where he took up piano tuning. His ears were very good, and he gradually worked his way up the ranks from basic tuning, to regulating the piano action (tweaking the mechanics), to tone regulating (tweaking the timbre and tone color across the full range of the instrument).

The third character in this book is CD 318, a Steinway concert grand piano. Gould was an extremely sensitive musician. His enviable technique and his own neuroses made it especially hard to find a decent piano. After flirting with a couple other pianos, the light, fast touch of CD 318 won him over. Edquist would become the primary tuner to understand Gould’s needs and service his instrument. The book tells their story.

Along the way, there are a couple nice digressions that lead into how pianos are made, how piano tuners work, the origins of sponsored musicians with exclusive company endorsements, and the history of Steinway & Sons (during wartime they were forced into making coffins and airplanes, among other things). And there are a couple nice tidbits like, “in the early twentieth century, piano tuners outnumbered members of any other trade in English insane asylums.”

Super Spy (review: 3.5/5)

Super Spy
I picked up Super Spy at the Decatur Book Festival last month. I was talking with the guys at the Top Shelf Comics booth, asking them to steer me away from ennui and towards something a bit more exciting. This was their pick of the pile, on the genre fiction side of the spectrum. Matt Kindt‘s book is a spy novel.

It story starts off really well, and then settled down to a comfortable “good.” The different chapters jump around in time, changing focus among a cast of characters whose stories intertwine. The pace of the storytelling is very quick. People you get to know in 4 or 5 panels are dispatched a page or two later. I don’t think I spoil much by saying it happens a lot. Lots of dispatching. Or that’s how it seemed when I was reading.

The art gave me pause for a second, but grew on me. It’s not super-realistic or refined, but more slashy and dramatic, lots of contrast and rough edges and changes in perspective. It’s a muted palette throughout. The design of the book is pretty cool. Each chapter is a dossier and the space behind the panels is colored to look like a worn folder. In one scene, a death in the panels is underscored with blood spatter in the gutters:

excerpt from Matt Kindt's book, Super Spy

Nice detail there. The whole thing is worth a look. Here are some sample pages from Super Spy.

The Best American Science Writing 2007 (review: 3/5)

best american science writing 2007
I usually like these annual collections because I can sample a bunch of authors I don’t know writing about topics I’m not too familiar with in periodicals I haven’t read much. The Best American Science Writing 2007 comes up a bit short on all counts, but here are the ones I liked…

A clear favorite for me is Atul Gawande‘s article about the childbirth industry, The Score. Women used to die in labor at amazing rates. Even in the 1930s about 1 of every 150 mothers died. But ever since Virginia Apgar invented what’s now known as the Apgar score—basically a 0-10 rating on how healthy a baby comes out, based on the first 5 minutes of observation—mortality rates for parent and child have dropped steadily. Gawande talks in kind of squeamish, horrifying detail about how delivering babies has changed and the different technologies (prayer, forceps, C-sections) and maneuvers that we’ve developed. It’s really great. I almost never like writing about biology or medicine, but looking at list of Gawande’s writing on his website, it turns out I’ve enjoyed just about all of his that I read.

My next favorite is Being There. Imagine for a second your spouse or parent or sibling or friend were dying. Like right now. In the emergency room. Would you want to be there as doctors tried to resuscitate him? And should the hospital allow you to watch what is usually a stressful, brutal, and unsuccessful effort? Jerome Groopman writes about the dilemma of “family presence,” and it’s one of those things that’s just cool to read about because I’d never thought much about it before.

Yes, that’s 2 (two) medicine-related articles that I enjoyed.

Manifold Destiny was a cool article about the reclusive Grigori Perlman, the guy who proved the Poincar?© conjecture and thereby dismissed a problem that mainstream mathematicians had been working on for a century. There’s some cool personalities and professional intrigue here, and it was a nice break from the bio/ medicine/ health/ human interest articles in the rest of the book. Written by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber.

Lastly, Oliver Sacks wrote Stereo Sue, a woman who didn’t have binocular vision, so everything looked flat. After surgery and some long-term eye therapy, she finally started to see fully in three dimensions:

I went back to my car and happened to glance at the steering wheel. It had ‘popped out’ from the dashboard. I closed one eye, then the other, then looked with both eyes again, and the steering wheel looked different. I decided that the light from the setting sun was playing tricks on me and drove home. But the next day I got up, did the eye exercises, and got into the car to drive to work. When I looked at the rear-view mirror, it had popped out from the windshield.

Crazy!