Archive for the ‘Political Science’ Category

CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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gettysburgHow many schoolchildren do you suppose have memorized The Gettysburg Address, then forgotten it? How many adults can complete the phrase “Fourscore and …”, but don’t understand what Lincoln meant by it?  Jonathan Hennessey, author of this sesquicentennial interpretation of Lincoln’s immortal speech, does both students and adults an immense service in breaking down the speech line by line to show what a radical statement the Gettysburg Address really was at the time.

Abraham Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four months after the three-day long bloodletting that is called the high tide of the Confederacy.  He was added to the program as a courtesy, but audiences nonetheless expected the kind of hours-long oration that served as inspiration and entertainment in the pre-broadcast days.  Lincoln had proved himself a master of the craft during his debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 campaign for the Illinois Senate seat, and was expected to use the forum to extol the Union effort.  Instead, in just 272 words he reiterated a vision which turned a common notion of the Civil War on its head.

The fourscore and seven years he referred to takes us back to the Declaration of Independence, not to the Constitution.  The Constitution was the root document cited over and over again in the escalating debates that led to the War.  Was the Constitution a compact voluntarily entered into by sovereign entities who could withdraw over differences of policy? Or was it the contract by which a single unbreakable entity was formed?  But Lincoln saw the Constitution as an outgrowth of the purposes of the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration as a testament to the values which created a uniquely American people.  The Gettysburg Address is his case for that interpretation.

The speech led listeners through American history from 1776 to 1863, forcing them to recall the political compromises, sectional divisions, and bloody skirmishes which had presaged secession then blossomed into an unequaled bloodletting on American soil.  By walking modern readers through those same questions, and bringing then-current events in (what did the California Gold Rush have to do with slavery?) Hennessey shows that the War was an organic part of all that had come before.  But he doesn’t stop at 1861 – he also carries the reader through the chaos and disaster of a battle that neither side sought nor wanted, and on to the tragic end of Lincoln’s life.

Aaron McConnell’s vivid illustrations are a perfect complement to the text, adapting styles from each historical period and pulling complex and dynamic action scenes together with simple but affecting drawings of contemplative landscapes to build an emotional impact into the story.  He uses a nameless, voiceless African-American woman touring contemporary Washington DC to create an overarching visual narrative, then plunges into the events and ideas Hennessey lays out.  Together, they teach an accessible but not dumbed-down lesson in American history.  The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation is a terrific resource for students wanting a survey of the issues and an illuminating read for adults looking to make deeper connections to their understanding of history.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

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DavidandGoliathEveryone knows that the phrase “David and Goliath” means big vs. small. And everyone also knows that in this Biblical story, against all odds, small won. Malcolm Gladwell famously likes to stand things on their heads and look at them from a new perspective. He starts his newest book with a historically detailed retelling of David and Goliath, and uses his wonderful storytelling skills to take the familiar and make us look at it in another light, so we see that even this well-known Biblical story has been interpreted incorrectly for thousands of years and sometimes being small or weak is a big advantage.

Malcolm Gladwell interviewed and features an assortment of ordinary people who fought their own Goliaths in a variety of ways, such as a middle school girls’ basketball team in Chapter One. They were a weak team in terms of height and usual skills, so they changed the way they played rather than trying to be better at standard basketball play. I don’t understand the strategy, being ignorant about basketball, but it involved more running than usual so the players had to be very fit and put in more effort, as Malcolm Gladwell says, “Underdog strategies are hard.

In another chapter he controversially argues against affirmative action in college admissions, describing how getting into a difficult college can make a student perform worse. He argues persuasively in the cases of the individuals whom he interviewed that they would have been better off in a less prestigious school because they would have been able to continue studying science, because in a prestigious college, a formerly outstanding student can become overwhelmed and discouraged. Colleges are the perfect example of big vs. small ponds and “Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside.” Apparently this is especially common for science students as “more than half of all American students who start out in science, technology and math programs… drop out after their first or second year.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s books are best selling but have been criticized  for making overly-broad and simplistic conclusions from single scientific papers. David and Goliath is a series of personal stories, so each story carries the authenticity which each of our own stories necessarily carry–maybe what happened in my life isn’t likely, but it did happen. But in some cases it seems he has extrapolated a personal story to too general a conclusion. For example, the story of the development of a cure for childhood leukemia is an astounding and moving story, but it seems a stretch to claim that it depended on developer Emil Freireich’s tragically early loss of his father and grueling childhood. Most people with difficult childhoods don’t excel the same way.

Certainly try David and Goliath if you enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s other books, but also try it if you like to be challenged by ideas that you won’t necessarily agree with. Even try it if you are usually a fiction reader, because, as always, Malcolm Gladwell, brings together disparate, and sometimes dry, facts in a very readable and entertaining way.

Check the WRL catalog for David and Goliath.

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barbariansOh no! Andrew is posting another Terry Jones book!

Much as the barbarians at the edges of Rome’s noble empire did, you’ll just have to get used to it. (Except that there was a seemingly never-ending supply of barbarians and this is running up on the end of Jones’ books.) So.

History. We all know who writes it, and in the case of the Roman Empire there is little doubt. Their portrayal of the people and territories they conquered is an unrelenting narrative of a superior culture overwhelming illiterate untutored savages and bringing the light of Civilization into their benighted lives. One of the ways they succeeded in creating this narrative was by destroying all evidence to the contrary. But, like murder, history will out, and medieval historian and humorist Terry Jones has taken the heavy lifting done by specialists, collated it and brought it to life in an entertaining way.

To hear them tell it, the Romans were surrounded by enemies actively seeking the destruction of their city and way of life. But looking at the maps and the archaeological evidence, it seems as though the Romans, in a never-ending quest for return on investment, were the ones actively seeking conflict. And boy, did they get it. And boy did they get their return on investment. The gold of the Celts and Dacians, wheat from Egypt, religion, knowledge, and military technology from Greece, slaves from all over the empire, foreigners brought into citizenship by enlisting in the Roman army–the benefits all flowed into the coffers of Rome. But the price to the Romans was also steep.

They required a certain amount of stability to ensure that the stream of money didn’t slow, and that the expenses of running the empire didn’t get out of hand. Conquest and prizes caused runaway inflation. And new ideas might give people dangerous thoughts that had to be controlled. The easiest way to do that was to stifle the kinds of questions that generate creativity and change. Sons were forbidden to leave their fathers’ professions. Incredible inventions were suppressed and inventors killed. The libraries of Carthage were destroyed or dispersed, the Punic language eliminated and all of Carthage’s knowledge lost to history. (Except one important element, which Rome faithfully copied.)

Culture by culture, Jones takes us around the edges of the Roman empire, showing that art, learning, technology, law, and military skill exceeded that of Rome. What those cultures didn’t have was a deep-seated need to conquer any perceived threat to their home, which was what relentlessly drove Rome on. In doing so, Rome got to tell their side of the story for nearly three millenia; now, with the benefit of skepticism, scholarship, and science, those “barbarian” contemporaries can begin to assume their place on the stage.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians was published to accompany the BBC series of the same name. Although the video isn’t widely available, the book more than makes up for the lack.

Check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Barbarians, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

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InfidelCoverOn the surface Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I have a lot in common: we are very close to the same age and we both read The Famous Five as little girls in the 1970s.  We both have one brother and one sister, and both lived in Holland in the late 1990s, after traveling the world in our early twenties.  Beyond that our lives diverged completely.

I grew up in a stable, prosperous English-speaking country while she spent her childhood fleeing her native Somalia to spend years in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya.  She began to cover herself as a teen to show her deeply-felt piety to Islam.  She was sent around the globe for an arranged marriage to a man she hardly knew, and ended up a Dutch member of parliament.

Ali is probably most famous in America for making the short film Submission with Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh.  Submission portrays four young women talking about their husbands’ abuses.  The actress portraying all four has verses from the Koran written on her naked body which can be glimpsed through a see-through Muslim covering garment or chador.  After the film was shown on Dutch television in 2004 Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim fanatic as revenge for what he saw as the film’s insults to Islam. This caused a fire storm in Holland and led to the dissolution of the Dutch parliament.  Due to threats on her life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding and eventually left Holland to move to America.

Ali is a controversial figure who called the book Infidel because that is what she has become in some people’s eyes as she went from an obedient Muslim girl to outspoken defender of women’s rights and strong critic of practices like female genital mutilation.  Whether you agree with her or not, Infidel is a heartfelt and moving portrait of an extraordinary life.  Her life started in Mogadisu, which I think of as a war-torn hell-hole, but she knew as a beautiful city of stone and brick buildings and white sand beaches.  She went on to live in several countries, squeezing more adventure into a few years, than most people fit into a lifetime.  She now lives in the United States and has a husband and small child.

Try Infidel if you enjoy biographies with the drama of novels, particularly those which cover true stories of women caught up in large historical events like Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror, by Susan Nagel or Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming.

I listened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali read her own story.  Occasionally her accent made words hard to understand, but I strongly recommend the audiobook as a way to meet her.

Check the WRL catalog for Infidel.
Check the WRL catalog for Infidel as an audiobook on CD.

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“Facts change all the time.”


How is this possible? A fact is a fact is a fact. What Samuel Arbesman means is not that fundamental laws of nature will suddenly reverse and good-bye gravity, but that our understanding of the universe is imperfect and that scientific “knowledge” is constantly being revised as we develop new techniques and discover new things.

For example he tells the astonishing story that in 1912 biologists found forty-eight chromosomes in the human cell, and it was accepted as established fact. After that, some other scientists found only forty-six chromosomes, but they assumed that they had made a mistake. Finally by 1956 the new lower number was recognized, and it is so universally accepted these days that I didn’t know there had ever been any doubt about it.

From my time as a Science Liaison Librarian in a university library, I know that science is iterative — one small discovery builds on another — and unpredictable as to which ones may be useful in another discovery. As I told students, chemical scientists write 30-page papers about one chemical (which are generally unintelligible, except to other chemists), and any paper may one day have an unexpected medical or industrial purpose.

Samuel Arbesman doesn’t claim to know which facts will become obsolete and change (obviously he’d be omniscient in that case). What he does argue is that the rate of change of facts is perfectly predictable by scientific models, like the radioactive decay of atoms. You cannot predict which atom will decay, just that in a set number of years that half of them will be decayed, thus a “half life” of either atoms or facts.

Samuel Arbesman uses dozens of examples, ancient and modern from child bed fever to computer speeds to make his arguments, and includes gentle humor: “Many of us only view ‘technology’ as anything invented after we were born.”  I find his basic premise about the impermanence of facts very plausible although I don’t always agree with his details.

Try The Half-Life of Facts if you are a science fan, especially if you like books about the way genuine science can be twisted to promote unscientific ends, such as Proofiness, by Charles Seife.

Check the WRL catalog for The Half-Life of Facts.

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famineI continually find myself involved in an internal argument–how can I respect and appreciate Great Britain’s contributions to the world without despising the way the Empire was actually run? While the catalogue of sins across their colonies is infamous, nowhere was their cold calculation of empire’s management more appalling than their treatment of Ireland.

As Coogan demonstrates, the potato famine presented a golden opportunity for absentee landlords to rid their land of their least important asset–the people who actually created the wealth that gave landlords status. The spectrum of  methods landlords used to accomplish this depopulation ranged from ‘merciful’ to monstrous. The end results were the same: the Irish were pushed from the homes they’d built, the work that gave their lives structure, the cottage industries that added to their meager income, the churches where they worshipped, and the graveyards where their history lay.

The famine opportunity was also a chance to put in place theories by Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and Edmund Burke.  From drawing room discussions, British policy makers took the idea that markets seek their own level, that poor people should just stop reproducing, that selfishness is a virtue, and that interfering in business is a crime against God. Working behind the scenes as advisors to parliamentary ministers and wealthy landowners (often the same people), they managed to implement a system that deprived the peasantry of even life’s basic necessities.

Of course, they never went to Ireland to see people dead and dying along the roadsides, or working under brutal and humiliating conditions in the workhouses, or rendered homeless by the destruction of their cottages. Those who did–especially the Society of Friends–pleaded with all levels of government and with the English population as a whole for some form of assistance. Contributions also flooded in from around the world, including $170 from the Choctaw Indians in the United States, but the scale of the disaster was so great that even the Quakers gave up their efforts when it became apparent that only funding for food, housing, and work from a willing government could end it.

Tim Pat Coogan points an especially damning finger at Sir Charles Trevelyan, a bureaucrat working for the Home Secretary and Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. His virulent anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bent combined with his adherence to Smith and Bentham enabled him to block relief supplies and use his position to steer public opinion onto his course. Under his instruction, others created workhouse and roadbuilding schemes so onerous that even those clinging to the last strand at the ends of their ropes didn’t qualify. At every turn, he frustrated even basic humanitarian acts and promoted the most monstrous of the depopulation schemes.

The end result of the famine was right in line with Trevelyan’s goals and those of whom he served. The generally accepted numbers show that between 1841 and 1852, the Irish population declined from 8.1 million to around 6.2 million. Whether from death or emigration, Ireland lost an enormous part of its population in a short period. While historians in the past have been somewhat passive in tracking causes, Tim Pat Coogan does not hesitate to search out and indict the people he places at the heart of a deliberate genocide.

Check the WRL catalog for The Famine Plot

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bullspottingFor one brief shining moment, the Internet showed its possibilities. Then some shark-livered varmints screwed it up. Somewhere along the line some crazy learned HTML and it was off to the races with conspiracy theories (There’s a special place in Internet hell where the souls of people who used spam to spread their conspiracy theories will reside. Dial-up is only the beginning of their torment). A tool meant to disseminate knowledge became a loudspeaker to spout misinformation and shout facts down. What used to be some nutjob on the corner muttering and passing out mimeographed sheets took on the air of authority, and a chorus spread across the land: “I read it on the Internet.”

Based on his own conversion experience, Loren Collins decided to walk out of the mudpit of one particular argument to examine the short supply of critical thinking skills. By looking in detail at a select few Internet memes, he distills the methodology of online “discussions” to illustrate the many paths people take to passionately uphold their beliefs in spite of evidence that they are wrong:

  • Denialism – It didn’t happen because I want it to not have happened.
  • Conspiracy theory – It happened, but not the way everybody else thinks it happened, and only I know the truth.
  • Rumor – It happened!  It really happened!  I know somebody whose sister had a friend…
  • Quotations – This famous person said it perfectly, and it just so happens to apply.
  • Hoaxes – You’re never going to believe what happened!
  • Pseudoscience – It happens, but not when anybody can actually study it.
  • Pseudohistory - This person says it happened, and I believe him even if so-called historians don’t
  • Pseudolaw – I happen to have read the Constitution, and the Supreme Court is wrong.

As a librarian, I like to think of myself as a dispassionate consumer of information with the ability to analyze and spot the kinds of fallacies Collins describes. I am certain that in my professional life I provide patrons with their requests even when I believe those materials are patently poor sources of information. But I utilize selective news and information sources to check when I hear a fact too good to be true or too inflammatory to be tolerated (I hope I’m wary enough to take their information with a grain of salt). And even though it never does any good, I still don’t let my wingnut uncle get away with his stunts over the Thanksgiving turkey. After all, Josh Billings said, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

Wait a minute.  That was Mark TwainWill Rogers?

Maybe I better stick with “Ignorance is bliss.  Knowledge is power. You’ve got a choice to make.”

Check the WRL catalog for Bullspotting

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injusticeSo a businessman and his son go into a downtown Miami hotel suite to meet with a potential client who might help boost their meager income. Instead, a man with whom they have a dispute steps out, shoots the father in the knee, drags the son up some stairs, then shoots him execution-style. The father escapes, gets out the door, and bangs on the door across the hall, leaving blood in the hall, but the import-export businessman in that room doesn’t hear a thing, including the shots that then kill the father. Neville Butler, who has been held hostage in the room since before the father and son arrived, is then released.

Following Butler’s call to the police, British businessman Krishna Maharaj is detained. After waiving his Miranda rights, he makes inconsistent statements to the investigators, who hold him long enough to discover that his fingerprints are in the hotel room, and Maharaj is arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the executions of Dwight and Duane Moo Young, former associates and now rivals for Maharaj’s Caribbean newspaper. The case goes to trial. Maharaj, a flamboyant millionaire, hires the lowest bidder, Mark Hendon, as his attorney. The trial proceeds in a swift and orderly manner, except that the presiding judge is replaced after three days of testimony. Based on fingerprint evidence, a ballistics expert’s identification of Maharaj’s gun, and Neville Butler’s testimony, Maharaj is given life in prison for Dwight’s murder, and the death sentence for Duane’s.

After several years, the case comes to the attention of Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney specializing in capital cases. On his own, taking time away from his fledgling non-profit practice focusing on Louisiana death penalty cases, Smith begins reviewing the case, and this open-and-shut case turns out to have been far more complex than the trial transcript would indicate. His early investigation turns up boxes of evidence and interview materials that hadn’t been made available to the defense, prosecutors’ notes indicating that they instructed the detectives and their chief witness how to perjure themselves, and witnesses that prove that Maharaj wasn’t even in Miami at the time of the killings. Some of his basic rights—over and above their violation of his Miranda rights—were not explained to him or put into practice. Forensic evidence was questionable, but Maharaj’s trial attorney didn’t cross-examine, and even rested without calling a single witness. Confident that the reams of documentary evidence show that Maharaj did not receive a fair trial and that his counsel was (to put it mildly) incompetent, Smith heads into the appeals process.

But door after legal door is slammed in Maharaj’s face. The appeals courts won’t consider new evidence—it wasn’t presented in a timely manner and appellate courts don’t try the facts of the case. Each attempt to reopen the case takes months, if not years, to litigate, partially because a prosecutor won’t accept plentiful evidence that her colleagues convicted an innocent man. When he’s finally granted a new trial, Smith can’t introduce all the new evidence and Maharaj is again found guilty. But because the jury doesn’t prescribe the death penalty, Maharaj’s future opportunities for appeal are severely limited—capital cases usually get at least a cursory glance. Based on all the trials and appeals that go before, Maharaj’s last chance—a reprieve from Florida Governor Charlie Crist—is denied.

Unfortunately, as Smith details, Maharaj’s case is only one example of the miscarriage of justice that capital crimes nearly always involve. From personal experience and well-documented cases, Smith demonstrates that each individual misstep in the justice system that Maharaj experienced is echoed across the country, even in non-capital cases. Part of it is the culture, and he shows that from the patrol officer to the US Supreme Court, the fundamental conservatism of the law is geared towards convictions, not justice or even truth. The real poverty of this view is that convicting the innocent allows the guilty to go unpunished.

Smith’s writing is urgent, and his construction of the story maximizes both the drama and the documentation of his fundamental thesis. As he breaks the case down, the depth of the law enforcement and judicial errors becomes appallingly clear. The parallels he establishes between Maharaj’s case and convictions across the country point to the idea that the American justice system has reversed its supposed ideal. At the same time, his admiration for Maharaj (which is echoed by everyone from business associates to prison guards) as a man shines through. Even after being in prison since 1987—including 10 years on Death Row—Maharaj remains kind, gentle, and positive.

This is a timely book. States have begun to revisit their commitments to the death penalty after subsequent investigations and trials have freed other innocent people from Death Row. It is increasingly likely that people known to be innocent were executed anyway. If someone heeds Clive Stafford Smith’s plea to come forward and exonerate Krishna Maharaj, it would be a miracle; if others use his case to strengthen their calls for an end to the death penalty, it would be a huge step to ending the gaping flaws in our (in)justice system.

Check the WRL catalog for The Injustice System

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BehindtheBeautifulForeversReading this book was like watching a car accident, I was compelled and horrified at the same time.  Katherine Boo spent almost four years interviewing and living alongside some of the world’s poorest people in the slum of Annawadi near Mumbai’s international airport. She has written the results of her researches into an un-put-downable book that reads like a novel.

A myriad of characters from different religions and at different places in the hierarchy of the slum, come living, smelling, fighting, struggling and striving off the page. But don’t get too attached, as several of them die in sordid, pointless and horrible circumstances. Others are entangled in a web of police corruption that just keeps on getting worse. I found myself wanting it to be fiction so that it could have a happy ending for some of the characters, but Annawadi is a place with few happy endings.

Katherine Boo says that when she gave a character thoughts, she has based this on extensive interviews where her subjects revealed their actual thoughts about life in general or a particular incident. What makes me uncomfortable is the extremely personal nature of some of the thoughts she puts in the book. If I revealed to a friend in quite crass terms that I was annoyed with my father for being too sick to work, but not too sick to get my mother pregnant ten times, then I don’t think I’d want my annoyance–perhaps understandable, but definitely tactless–revealed to my father in a New York Times bestseller.

This book has won lots of prizes, and was suggested to me in my book club as a must-read. I agree that is an important book because it paints a picture of a life that I cannot imagine, but a real life that these people often cannot escape through no fault of their own. It is a book that puts human faces and lives on news stories of India’s growth or India’s problems of TB. This is a great book for fans of fiction about the poor of India like A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. I also recommend it for readers who want to get a glimpse of a whole society through the lives of some of the most powerless, like in Margaret Powell’s  Below Stairs,  or readers of popular sociology books like The Big Necessity by Rose George.  It is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the underside of India. Just don’t expect to feel comfortable after you finish the book.

Check the WRL catalog for Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

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Hot CoffeeEveryone knows about the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit in the mid-90s. Or at least, they think they know. Hot Coffee, a recent HBO documentary, strives to tell the truth about this case, and other civil lawsuits, that have been deemed “frivolous” and the impact of tort reform on the United States’ civil justice system. Sound kinda boring? I thought so too – at first.

It analyzes and discusses four cases and how each one relates to “tort reform.” It begins with the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case in 1994, which has practically entered into urban legend. I certainly thought I knew the details of the case, but I only knew the inaccuracies and the game of Chinese whispers I had heard in the media. In truth, Ms. Liebeck was a 79-year old lady, sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car, who, while trying to add cream and sugar to her coffee, pulled off the lid and spilled the cup of coffee on her lap. Coffee that, in keeping with McDonald’s franchise instructions, had been kept at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. And indeed, Ms. Liebeck suffered severe third-degree burns in her pelvic area, and the documentary does not skimp on the photographic evidence – the burns are appalling. Nor was Ms. Liebeck the first to suffer terrible burns because of their coffee – there had been over 700 prior complaints. (And these are just the individuals who made the effort to lodge a formal complaint.)

As well Ms. Liebeck’s case, the documentary goes on to discuss Colin Gourley’s malpractice lawsuit and caps on damages; the prosecution of Mississippi Justice Oliver Diaz and the buying of judicial elections; Jamie Leigh Jones v. Halliburton Co. and the growing pervasiveness of mandatory arbitration.

The documentary concludes by examining how the plague of mandatory arbitration is swiftly erasing many individuals’ ability to take complaints to the courts. Own a credit card? Cell phone? Well, if you do, it’s almost certain you have signed away your right to a civil trial in your contract and if you ever have a serious complaint and feel entitled to claiming damages, you will be forced into secret mandatory arbitration with an arbitrator who – wait for it – has been chosen by the corporation itself!

Hot Coffee is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping documentary that exposes how corporations have spent millions on a propaganda campaign to distort the average American’s view of these civil lawsuits. This documentary will forever change what you think you know about “frivolous lawsuits” – in reality, what you’ve been told by corporations and doctors afraid of being sued.

The way that the individual’s rights have been infringed upon by mandatory arbitration, caps on damages, and corporate campaign contributions is unacceptable. Hot Coffee shows how access to the courts has been blocked by greed, corruption, and the power of special interests and how the U.S. civil justice system has been changed – maybe forever.

Check the WRL catalog for Hot Coffee.

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secretlivesIn advance appreciation of President’s Day, read about the contributions of the First Ladies.

Cormac O’Brien’s book gives brief biographies from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. After describing each woman’s background and marriage to the man who would be president, there are two or three tidbits about “what your teachers never told you.”

Some of these facts I already knew:  that Abigail Fillmore (First Lady from 1850-1853) is credited with starting the White House library or that Nancy Reagan (First Lady from 1981-1989) consulted an astrologer. But other “secrets” were new to me.

Take the fascinating story of Louisa Catherine Adams’s (John Quincy’s wife, First Lady 1825-1829) trip from Russia to Paris with her son Charles Francis and a few servants. The journey took six weeks and was one of the most harrowing ever for a First Wife. At one point Louisa used her son’s toy sword to deter marching brigades from attacking her carriage in France (this being the time Napoleon was making his triumphant return). And did you know that Bess Truman (First Lady 1945-1953) sent her laundry to Kansas City for washing because she didn’t think the establishments in Washington could do a good job?

It was interesting to see how many of the wives, particularly at the beginning of the new nation, dreaded having their husbands take on the presidency. But even contemporary First Ladies had their reservations about their new role. Laura Bush was asked by reporters what her concerns were upon becoming First Lady. She replied, “It’s a major life change. I’m not particularly worried about safety. Privacy. I’m very worried about privacy.”

Because the book is set up in short chapters dedicated to each First Lady, you can spend a few minutes reading one or two entries, or a whole afternoon soaking up decades of history. Either way, pick up Secret Lives and brush up on some little-known chapters in America’s past.

Check the WRL catalog for Secret Lives of the First Ladies

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“How human encroachment hurts wildlife has been… common knowledge for decades. This knowledge isn’t wrong but it is only half the story.”  page 269

My first view of my new North American home was as my plane descended to land in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.  I was struck by the verdant summer landscape – from above it looked like a forest – which was odd, because it was then a city of 750,000 people.  After reading Nature Wars by Jim Sterba I am not surprised by my puzzled reaction, because as he says, “Three out of four residents [in the Northeast of the United States] live in or near land under enough trees to be called forestland if they weren’t there.” page 52

How can this be true? Haven’t we and our ancestors been busily and irreversibly destroying nature for hundreds, if not thousands of years?  Jim Sterba argues that we have certainly changed nature, but not in the ways many of us assume. He reports that a huge regenerated forest stretches from Norfolk, Virginia to Maine, and most of the book is about this area.  Modern people like trees, and we like to live among them, so as our houses sprawl further apart in suburbs and exurbs we plant trees in the gaps.

The deforestation of the Northeast was at its peak in the late 1890s.  It has taken 100 years for the forest to grow back.  We’ve been able to let it grow back because we don’t have our ancestors’ desperate need to use trees for fuel and building materials, and also because we don’t need to farm marginal East Coast land because so much of our food comes from the hugely productive Midwest.

Significantly, with the regenerating forest comes resurgent populations of some of the forest animals.  Jim Sterba devotes chapters to the burgeoning populations of beavers, deer, Canada geese, wild turkeys, black bears, and feral cats.  All of these, except feral cats, live naturally in this area. Their populations dropped after Europeans came to North America,  but they are doing very well under the way modern people manage the landscape.  So well, in fact that Jim Sterba notes that some estimates put the population of white tailed deer at the highest it has ever been.

It seems strange that there could be so many large wild animals living among so many people, but I thought of the deer I regularly see and also thought of the deer-car collision I saw in the highway lane next to me.  As the wild animal populations have grown and the human population has grown, conflicts are inevitable, accounting for the word War in the title.

When there is a direct conflict of one individual’s or species’ needs over another’s, then inevitably someone doesn’t get their needs met.  In the events described in Nature Wars it is not so clear whose needs should come first, and people can vehemently, sometimes violently, disagree.  Is it more important for deer to be able to run free or people to be able to successfully grow gardens?  This problem has even been addressed in our library collection:  Fifty Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants: The Prettiest Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Shrubs That Deer Don’t Eat, by Ruth Rogers Clausen. Or what about when the conflict is between two animal species?  Do humans intervene to save the song birds at the expense of the feral cats or let things fall out as they will?  For those who say that we should just leave nature alone, Jim Sterba argues Americans “are actively managing the nature around them in ways they barely recognize or think about – with their gardens, lawns, landscapes, mulch bins, garbage cans, bird feeders, pets, cars, and species partisanship, to name a few examples.” page 293.  We must accept that we are stewards and caretakers of the land and the animals whether we particularly want to be or not.

In my native New Zealand the isolated islands have a very delicate and unique ecosystem.  Introduced cats and dogs wreck havoc on the native birds, so feral cats are generally, and not too controversially,  killed in native forests.  Jim Sterba points out that in America feral cats have partisans who sometimes resort to death threats of those they feel threaten the cats.  The partisans for and against the  “Trap, Neuter, Release” program for feral cats are so strident, that the American Veterinary Medical Association refuses to support it or say they don’t support it.

I found this book enlightening and kept saying to myself  “Really? That can’t be true!” but Jim Sterba talked to and quotes dozens of working scientists, park rangers, and other experts, and he documents it his research in the extensive notes.  Nature Wars will certainly interest people who read nature books, and those who like to garden, bird watch, feed stray cats, drive along deer-free highways or use goose poop-free parks, to name a few.  It also provides a unique perspective on the social history of the settlement of the United States.  And most importantly it opens up conversations on very contentious issues that aren’t going away.

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We Americans have always prided ourselves on our democracy, our opportunity to go into a private place and select the people who most closely represent the policies we want to see.  And yet… in Virginia’s 2009 election cycle, which included a gubernatorial race, fewer than half of registered voters cast a ballot.  Even in Presidential election years, only around three-quarters of registered voters go to the polls.  And those who actually voted are about one-third the number of people who are eligible to vote.  Obviously, participation in our democracy is less than optimal.  What happens, though, when those who want to cast a ballot don’t trust the system as it stands?  That’s what worries Richard L. Hasen, creator of the Election Law Journal, which examines the cultures and technicalities of the voting process.

Hasen looks at the entire process and the potential points of conflict in our election system, which suffers from the fractured nature of county-based administration overseen by partisan state officials and guided by nearly incomprehensible law.  He surveys the charges and counter-charges of both Democrats and Republicans in the way voters are registered and identified at the polls, and the way votes are counted, or not, after they are cast.  He also envisions an election where the chaos of the Florida 2000 election looks tame by comparison.

Hasen identifies the two sides of the battle in terms of goals.  One side, usually Democratic, wants to include everyone who wants to vote, accepting that a marginal amount of fraud is possible.  The other, usually Republican, wants a strict process that eliminates any hint of fraud, even if it leads to the disenfranchisement of tens or hundreds of thousands of voters.  Of the two, Hasen identifies a real and organized threat on one side, and debunks claims against another threat.  He examines other issues that he believes to be more important to the integrity of the electoral process and ends with a pessimistic view of a future without reform.

If you tune into Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, or read the myriad of conservative newspapers and magazines, you’d inevitably hear from those Hasen identifies as “the Fraudulent Fraud Squad.”  With credibility established by their national careers, people like Karl Rove and Hans von Spakovsky are able to present their unchallenged narrative and build support for voter ID laws.   They also extend their power into the polling booths through an organization calling itself “True the Vote,” which trains volunteers to work as aggressive purgers of voter rolls and as observers primed to overwhelm poll workers and voters with challenges.

On the other hand, voter *registration* fraud, which is usefully conflated with voter fraud by ID proponents, brings up the specter of ACORN organizing waves of illegal voters.  Those accusations, which discredited the advocacy organization, made it possible for subsequent false allegations to break its back and shut it down.  When closely examined, though, it turns out that one ACORN employee violated the law in Nevada by using incentives on his workers, and that ACORN itself was defrauded by temporary workers who were later convicted.  But none of those fraudulent voters ever turned up at the polls.

Moving up the chain, Hasen discussed the problems of partisan election officials.  He’s quick to point out that both sides are guilty of manipulating their positions to take advantage of unclear vote-counting procedures, especially in recounts.  Both sides are also closely studying election laws and regulations, which may lead to a tidal wave of litigation for contested results.  That will put election outcomes in the hands of judges, who may themselves be partisan.  That kind of scenario is discouraging to both new voters and people who believe that participation in democracy is the highest form of citizenship.

He also examines and dismisses the “fringe left” theory that voting machines are subject to hacking, which probably requires a perfect storm of opportunities.  However, he is troubled by the secrecy involved in creating the machines and software, and in the unreliability of electronic machines that don’t produce a paper trail for audits.  (I would be interested in his take on the slot machine/voting equipment comparison, but he only links to it on his blog without comment.)   The good news is that problems have decreased; the bad news is that they aren’t resolved, especially for military and overseas voters.

So where does this leave us?  Hasen is glum about the likelihood of top-to-bottom reform which would standardize registration and elections, put them in the hands of competent nonpartisan professionals, and make them transparent to anyone interested in auditing results.  He’s also glum (even frightened?) by the possibility that social media has further polarized partisans and made the likelihood of finding a compromise more difficult.  My own concern is that the invective of anonymity on the Internet will boil over into public turmoil that will make the “Brooks Brothers Riot” of 2000 look like nuns playing touch football.  In any case, Hasen’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in how democracy in the United States moves forward.

PS: I wrote this post on October 26, and on the 27th, the Washington Post ran this story.  Just goes to show that we have a lot of work to do to get from here to some semblance of a national election that represents the popular will.

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Alan Bernstein’s review:

In The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman offers a narrative account of the fateful first month of World War I, a war that had been planned for and rehearsed by the two main European continental powers–France and Germany–practically ever since the end of their last war, the Franco-Prussian War, 44 years earlier in 1870.  Although the book is primarily concerned with military matters–differing philosophies of warfare; military strategy, doctrine, and education; logistics; proper martial spirit; and command structure–the author writes so well and organizes her material so skillfully that the book has the narrative flow of a superior novel instead of a musty tome of military and diplomatic history of a bygone era.  Mrs. Tuchman also provides enough background information to explain how and why Europe allowed itself to fall into this war.

What animates the author’s narrative is the human element of the major actors–the senior diplomats, government officials, rulers, and generals–who conceived, made, implemented, or reacted to the policies and events of their time.  She is superb in her thumbnail portraits of all the leading figures, and she has the knack of describing each of them with a few telling words.  Of General Ferdinand Foch, who was the molder of French military theory leading up to the war, she writes “His mind, like a heart, contained two valves: one pumped spirit into strategy; the other circulated common sense.”  However, what strikes Mrs. Tuchman most strongly is the level of stupidity, malevolence, self-deception, cruelty, and wishful thinking that appeared in varying degrees in almost every actor on the scene.  France and Germany had 42 years to think about and prepare for this war and yet from the beginning hardly anything went according to plan.

One of the unintended ironies of the book is that it was published in 1962, just as the United States was beginning its involvement in Vietnam.  Within a few years every unlearned lesson from World War I was repeated by us in Vietnam.  It seems that the military and the supporting civilian mindsets are universal and are doomed to repeat themselves.  And 40 years later the same human failings surfaced again in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guns of August, read this way, becomes a meditation on human nature.

The book also gives insight into the German military psyche and its civilian component that goes far to explain the Nazi barbarism of World War II. Germany felt it had the moral right to ignore all international conventions of war and conduct war anyway it wanted because in the years leading up to World War I it felt itself to be the aggrieved party.  Its eventual defeat in that  war just magnified its grievances after the war.

One note of caution: the maps in The Library of America edition of The Guns of August (which also contains the author’s The Proud Tower) are superior to those I have seen in other editions.

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” There was plague somewhere in Europe almost every year between 1348 and 1680″ page 34

“Most poignant of all are the expressions of the pain and loss created by one of plague’s cruelest features: the heavy mortality it inflicted on single families and households, as relatives and servants died one after the other” page 66

The library owns over sixty volumes in an interesting series that are literally easy to miss, because they are slim books less than seven inches tall, with covers I can only describe as boring.  They are Very Short Introductions published by Oxford University Press.
Our titles range from Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction, by Robin Le Poidevin to World Music: A Very Short Introduction by Philip V. Bohlman, stopping on their polymath way to visit The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction by Linda Greenhouse and Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack.

The topics are all serious, including subjects that many people would like to get to know better, but don’t have the time to study in depth.  These little volumes are just the place to start if you don’t want commit to a lengthy book.  Despite their small size every Very Short Introduction includes references, further reading and an index.  They are written by learned people who do a good job of making their subjects accessible without dumbing them down.

Plague: A Very Short Introduction is about the Bubonic Plague, the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but the book covers other plagues with uncertain causes that were recorded right back to Biblical times and beyond.  Author Paul Slack points out that virulent epidemic diseases can have similar effects in human lives, no matter what their causes or when they occur. One effect can be a loss of population and seemingly empty cities ” ‘Grass grew in the streets,’ says Paul the Deacon in Rome about a plague in 680, and Samuel Pepys about London a thousand years later in the plague of 1665.”

Plague: A Very Short Introduction covers the biology of the disease but it is mainly about its history and social effects.  It is often argued that the decline in population from the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s caused the end of Serfdom, a system that tied Serfs to their Lords and the Lord’s land.  Other people think that it also led to the Industrial Revolution because technology was needed to fill in for labor shortages.  Paul Slack argues that this is too simplistic a view.  The long term effects of plague depended on the situation before the disease hit.  Some places, like Sicily recovered more quickly, even though they had a higher mortality rate.  Serfdom did decline in Western Europe, but in Eastern Europe the lords were powerful enough to impose serfdom on previously free populations.

The book also uses written accounts from the time to look at the effects of the plague on individuals, even those who survived.  Despite not knowing about bacteria and viruses medieval people observed that human contact made disease spread.  They frequently instituted quarantines that kept people in as well as keeping people out, sometimes cruelly as family members or servants were thrown out of their homes at the first sign of disease.  Other people showed a better side of humanity, nursing abandoned strangers at the risk of their own lives.

Unsettlingly for the future, Paul Slack says that we don’t know the exact reasons that the plague became so devastating.  Changes in climate (possibly caused by a meteor), changes in animal populations, expanding trade routes and increasing urbanization are all possibilities.  We don’t even know why it ended:  “The end of the first pandemic remains a puzzle, the greatest mystery in the whole history of plague.”  Maybe it hasn’t ended, Bubonic Plague still occurs naturally in the Western United States and infects up to 5000 people worldwide every year.  In terrifyingly dry language, the World Health Organization classifies plague as a “re-emerging” disease.

Plague: A Very Short Introduction is a good choice for readers of historical medical non-fiction such as The Ghost Map and I recommend the entire Very Short Introduction series  for anyone who ever needs any short introduction to a topic (and who doesn’t?).

Check the WRL catalog for Plague: A Very Short Introduction

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It’s a popular question these days, mostly because the closest we get to oil is the pump at the nearest gas station.  But at ground level, in a place where there’s no safety, no regulation, and no hope of the wealth being shared, it’s entirely possible that the residents reverse the question.

Helon Habila takes us deep into Nigeria, where the promise of oil wealth has long been transmuted into the reality of oil industry.  The countryside is locked in a battle between lawless militants, many of whom say they’re fighting to share in the supposed prosperity, and the lawless military which is supposed to protect the oil infrastructure.  Caught in the middle (as usual) are the ordinary people who want to stay on their ancestral lands, worship at their shrines, and fish their waters.

The journey into this particular heart of darkness is narrated by Rufus, a young journalist looking to take his first step into the big time.  An Englishwoman, wife of a petroleum engineer working in-country, has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers want to open negotiations by proving she’s alive.  They issue an open invitation to the country’s media, and Rufus is among those to take up the challenge.  Along with several other reporters, including his idol Zaq, Rufus heads upriver for the meeting.

Nothing goes as it should, and Rufus becomes a firsthand witness to the brutality of both sides, and to the devastation of the environment.  The water is choked with oil.  Dead birds and fish are everywhere.  Abandoned drilling rigs overshadow villages.  Gas flares light the night sky.  No place is safe because the military suspects everyone of helping the militants, and the militants suspect everyone of helping the soldiers.  Raiders from both sides descend at will, stealing food, burning homes and boats, interrogating, even torturing and murdering random residents in sight of their neighbors and families.  Rufus, searching for what Zaq calls “the perfect story”, barely survives to return to his home in Port Harcourt.

The story behind the story, the true story, is the result of the ubiquitous oil drillers.  Using the implied promise of jobs and the practical demonstration of power, these men and the Company they work for represent the worst vestiges of colonialism left in the world.  Even as they rape the land, buy the leaders, and ship money and oil out of the country, they live lives of ease in their city strongholds.  Like oil and water, they do not–they cannot–mix.  But they are vulnerable to the blackmail and terror raids of the militants, and the kidnapping of Company employees has become the militants’ most lucrative industry.  When Isabel Floode disappears, her value to the various factions skyrockets and a miniature war breaks out as everyone tries to get their hands on her.  But even her kidnapping isn’t what it appears to be, and the deception has fatal consequences.

Habila immerses the reader in the chaos, heat, disease, and distress of the Niger Delta, where the rivers and waterways braid in myriad paths and where each turn may yield danger or comfort.  He also writes much of the dialogue between Rufus, Zaq, and the people they encounter in the pidgin of the Delta, which houses a multitude of ethnic groups and languages.  While the language may seem odd at first, context and growing familiarity make it easy to comprehend, and even to get some sense of the cultures that lie behind it.  I suspect, though, that those interested in learning about these cultures or reading Mr. Habila’s book aren’t the ones who need to understand that “our” oil carries a much higher cost than we see at the pump.

Check the WRL catalog for Oil on Water


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The time has come to forever mark New York’s grief and loss from the September 11 terrorist attacks.  5000 blind submissions, all trace of the artist’s identity removed, have been sorted through by a jury of political appointees, academics, artists, and a representative of the families.  The field is winnowed down to two entries – one, a ten-story high black boulder thrusting up from the ground, with the names of the dead engraved up and down its sides.  The other, a walled garden divided symmetrically by canals, with living trees interspersed with steel trees sculpted from Twin Towers’ beams, and the names of the dead inscribed on the walls.  After debate and lobbying, the jury selects the garden, which was designed by…

Mohammed Khan.

Or, as the governor’s representative says, “Jesus f—–g Christ!  It’s a g—–n Muslim!” (This is a family blog.)

The selection is supposed to be confidential, but it’s no time before second-rate reporter Alyssa Spiers gets her scoop on the front pages of the tabloid New York Post and all hell breaks loose.  Suddenly the memorial is the sole property of the understandably angry families.  Or a cause celebre for liberals rejecting knee-jerk hatred.  Or the target of right-wing rabblerousers who proclaim it only lacking 72 virgins to make it a complete Islamic paradise for victorious terrorists.  A chance for Muslim activists to reach a broader audience.  A headache for the committee chair.  A political liability.

A personal and professional triumph for its creator, who demands recognition for his achievement without any need to defend his heritage or his design.

Mo Khan considers himself a plain vanilla American—born to non-religious parents who immigrated from India, raised in Alexandria, Virginia, trained as an architect, promoted for his skill.  No different from any other ambitious single-minded young man.  Now he finds himself treated as a stranger in his own country, interrogated by the FBI on his first post-9/11 flight, his career derailed, and now his breakthrough achievement threatened.  Mo now draws the line at sacrificing his vision, and the irresistible force of public opinion meets the immovable force of a proud man.

Amy Waldman does a terrific job exploring the needs and sensitivities of all the people with a personal stake in this controversy.  Some are confused, unable to distinguish between their sorrow and their anger.  Others are struggling with the balance between doing what is right and doing what is realistic.  Still others cannot see a reason for the collective emotions, insisting on keeping the memory of their own loved one independent of the memorial’s politics.

If the premise of The Submission sounds familiar, you may remember Maya Lin’s controversial design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.  You may remember the hoo-hah over the Park51 project. (Waldman’s work on the book preceded that episode, and could even have been the blueprint for how it played out.)  You may even know that the real memorial is not without controversy.  As Waldman shows in a very effective epilogue, Americans tend not to hold grudges, even when our social progress is made in fits and starts.   If only there was a way to speed up the process.

Check the WRL catalog for The Submission

The Submission is also available as a Gab Bag.


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