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Archive for the ‘Social Science’ Category

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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EmperorofAllMaladiesThe Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is as heart-wrenching as you’d expect from a book about a deadly disease, but it is also a majestically hopeful story because of its descriptions of the great strides in treatment. Practicing oncologist and researcher, Siddhartha Mukherjee, covers the vast sweeping history of cancer and its treatment, while focusing on a huge range of real people who played a role in cancer’s study, research and burgeoning cures. He always comes back to real individuals with cancer whom he has treated or studied and how their own struggles with their own disease are impacted by improvements in treatment. This is definitely a book about a disease but Siddhartha Mukherjee comes across as a deeply humane man writing a deeply humane book.

The earliest mention of cancer that the book talks about is a quote from scroll written by the Ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep over 4000 thousand years ago.  The scroll gives a perfect description of breast cancer, but unfortunately for breast cancer sufferers from that time up until recently Imhotep concluded that there was nothing that could be done to help. Two centuries ago the standard treatment became a mastectomy without an anesthetic which is horrible to even contemplate. Today a range of options including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation mean a much higher survival rate.

Siddhartha Mukherjee points out that cancer is actually more than one disease and survival rates for some forms of the disease have improved rapidly, while others haven’t changed much. One joyful and astonishing story is the treatment of some common forms of childhood  leukemia which went from a 5-year survival rate of less than 10% in the 1960s to a 5-year survival rate of over 90% today.

The Emperor of All Maladies is very readable and extremely compelling. It won the Pulitzer Prize for non fiction in 2011. Unless you are an oncologist be prepared to learn a lot from this 500-page epic of human ingenuity in overcoming a horrible disease that has caused untold suffering. I learned some astonishing facts, for instance that a chemical similar to mustard gas, the World War I trench horror, is used in chemotherapy.

As you’d expect from a reliable scientific book, The Emperor of All Maladies includes extensive notes with references, a glossary and an index. It also has some black and white photographs and drawings of notable people, events and procedures in the fight against cancer. The Emperor of All Maladies is a good choice if you like Oliver Sacks for his deep compassion for the people he treats and his profound knowledge of his area of expertise.

Check the WRL catalog for The Emperor of All Maladies.

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JustBabies On the arresting cover of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil we see one chubby baby’s arm labelled “Good” and the other labelled “Evil”. Like many people, I instinctively feel that babies as young as those pictured can’t be described as “good” or “evil,” no matter how annoying their habits, because their moral sense isn’t developed. I certainly feel older people can have these labels, so is the moral sense of older children and adults learned (Nurture) or innate (Nature)? This debate may never be completely settled but developmental psychologist and author Paul Bloom argues that “some aspects of morality come naturally to us.”

Paul Bloom is a working scientist and has performed numerous experiments and published several scientific papers designed to tease out the moral behavior of those who can not yet talk. He broadly concludes that babies of around six months feel empathy and compassion, have a sense of fairness, and are capable of judging the actions of others. He is not doing this as a parlor trick (see, I can upset a baby by pretending to be hurt) but because “an appreciation of the moral natures of babies can ground a new perspective on the moral psychology of adults.” He adds that “moral deliberation is ubiquitous” and all societies create a formal and informal moral code. Many observers over millennia have noted that “people everywhere have a natural disapproval toward actions such as lying, breaking a promise, and murder.” He then argues that the circumstances under which the great human capacity for kindness can turn into a terrible human capacity for horror occur when people assign other people to categories, and then decide that some categories are deserving of compassion and some are not. As travel, migration and communication have developed, many people are learning compassion for an ever widening circle, and Bloom asserts that this is a wonderful thing.

Paul Bloom concludes his book with a chapter called “How to be Good,” in case you were wondering how to achieve this. Babies have a strong desire to “be good” and see others around them being good, but so do adults although we usually express it a more sophisticated way. He points out that many real life moral challenges have no clear cut right answer, but if we are aware that some of our moral reasoning is innate, but that most importantly, we can use our reason and judgement as well to expand and reveal our full humanity because “our enhanced morality is the product of human interaction and human ingenuity.”

Try Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil if you are interested in the intersection of science, social science, and everyday behavior, such as in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by the popular Malcolm Gladwell. It is also a good choice if you are fascinated with questions of justice, retribution and meaning in books like Man’s Search for Meaning. Or just read it for a well-written, very readable book written by a real scientist explaining his own life work.

Check the WRL catalog for Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

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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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MansSearchforMeaning

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.

It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.

The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:

I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.

Check the WRL catalog for Man’s Search for Meaning.

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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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JacketIn one of those great moments you could call coincidence or synchronicity, as I was writing my post on The Famine Plot, I heard an interview with author Kathryn Miles about her book on one of the “famine ships” that carried Ireland’s emigres to new worlds.  Also called coffin ships for their appallingly high rates of shipboard mortality, they were barely a step above dying of starvation in the streets, and more than one story is recorded of people succumbing to hunger and disease while still in the harbor.

The remarkable confluence of four men made the Jeanie Johnston a exception to this rule.  In the New World, there was John Munn, a renowned shipbuilder who kept his workers employed during an economic downturn by building the vessel at a time when there was no market for new ships.  In Ireland, there was Nicholas Donovan, an upstart Catholic businessman who had made his fortune and was determined to find profit in the successive waves of Irish people fleeing or being driven off their land.  And aboard ship, Captain James Attridge and Dr. Richard Blennerhassett were determined to maintain the health of their passengers during the journey.

Of the four, Dr. Blennerhassett seemed to me the most heroic.  In a time when cholera was ravaging all of Europe, he made sure that clean drinking water and efficient waste disposal was available.  He encouraged exercise and cleaning of bedding that prevented an outbreak of typhus-carrying lice.  And he spent time in the passenger hold watching for any outbreaks of illness that might spread.  While sailing conditions didn’t always allow full practice of this regimen, it was successful enough that Blennerhassett did not lose a single passenger on any of the voyages he took.  Unfortunately that didn’t prevent him from being lumped in with the incompetents that sailed on most coffin ships, and he was personally attacked in legal actions and the press.

In addition to the dangerous ocean crossing, emigrants faced hardships when arriving in their hoped-for new homes.  In Canada, all ships were held until they could be inspected for cholera and typhus, and the flood of victims could not be contained in the fever sheds set up by the ports’ medical inspectors.  Disease swept through ships stuck in the St. Lawrence river while waiting their turn, even as thousands more died ashore.  When they were able to land, some passengers still carried disease, and were blamed for outbreaks on land.  Mobs rioted to prevent them staying and local governments pushed them out of town to starve, freeze, or make their own way.

Even here there were heroes – the doctors, nurses, priests, and ordinary people who came forward to help the immigrants, all too frequently at the cost of their own lives.  Orphaned children were adopted, and families given shelter and opportunity in the New World.

Miles folds another story into the narrative, bringing it all the way down to the personal.  She tracks the story of Daniel and Margaret Reilly, a young married couple who left their farm to sail aboard the Jeanie Johnston, and their son Nicholas, who was born aboard ship.  Daniel would work on the railroad, buy land, and start a farm in Michigan, while Margaret raised their children.  Nicholas would marry, raise six children, run his own business, and own his own home.  An immigrant family, overcoming prejudice in a new culture, finding their way into a niche and succeeding – that’s the real strength of the United States.

Check the WRL catalog for All Standing

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UnapologeticFatGirlHanne Blank is most definitely “unapologetic.” One of her earlier books was Big Big Love: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them).  In The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts her premise is that “the culture we live in is so hateful and abusive to everybody and every body that doesn’t measure up to its constantly shifting targets for ‘perfect’” that many women are ashamed to be seen exercising, although “it doesn’t seem to matter what size someone is. The beneficial side effects movement has on the body’s ability to maintain a healthy physical equilibrium appear to be among the few things in the world that seem genuinely to be one-size-fits-all.”

Hanne Blank has a witty, irreverent, and conversational style. She refers to her readers as “my glorious plumpling” and advises us to “flail proudly.” She claims to be “as intrinsically athletic as an oyster” and entitles a chapter about unsolicited, mean-spirited comments about size “Chub, Sweat and Jeers.”

The book includes lots of practical advice on things like how to choose a gym, bearing in mind factors like size of toilets stalls and general concerns like parking, friendliness and hours. Also how to choose a form exercise that you will enjoy and therefore continue doing. She gives two sample workouts and practical advice for swimsuits such as Aquatards you can buy if you prefer more coverage than a traditional swimsuit, and includes a Resource Guide with more books, DVDs, exercise programs and equipment.

The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts is affirming whether you consider yourself “a fat girl” or not. Hanne Blank points out the simple truism that, “your body will inevitably change in shape and size, contour and proportion over the course of your life.” And as an antidote to the constant harping she has experienced throughout her life, she counsels that, “Hunger is not a moral issue. It is not your body’s way of trying to trick you into doing something that is bad for you” and significantly, “the number on the scale… does not measure virtue or goodness.”

I recommend this book for anyone who has ever curtailed any activity because they feared others judging their body. Read it alongside books like Fat! So? : Because You Don’t Have to Apologize for Your Size! by Marilyn Wann.  And always remember what Hanne Blank says in her introduction, “Apologizing for having a body is basically the same thing as apologizing for being alive. “

Check the WRL catalog for The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts.

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“Facts change all the time.”

HalfLifeFacts

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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lexiconYou aren’t you, you know. You are a type to be identified, evaluated, measured, sorted, and slotted in with everyone else your type. It’s just a way for businesses, political parties, and non-profits of finding the people most responsive to their message, right? But what if that type isn’t the accretion of your life’s experiences, your current situation, your relationships–in other words, you–but a deep-seated biologically programmed identity vulnerable to direct manipulation? And what if there were people dedicated to learning specific words and sounds that turn the key to your identity and make you want to obey them? Enter the poets.

Barry, whose interest in language and manipulation runs through books such as Jennifer Government and Company, takes a direct run at the topic in this complex thriller. He posits an organization dedicated to exploring ways to control the nearly 300 personality types they’ve identified. Potential students are recruited and tested, and those that pass enter a rigorous and disturbingly competitive education program on their way to analyzing personality types, running experiments on them, and providing the sanitized results to those who will use them in some kind of marketplace. Those who rise to the top of this select group become poets, able to utter a series of nonsense syllables that make the hearer suggestible. To what? In the course of the story, to involuntary sex, giving away money and cars, even committing murder and mayhem, with the implication that these are long-standing and frequently used methods that reach to all levels of society. Those poets are themselves rebranded with the names of real poets, which is why Tom Eliot and Virginia Woolf are playing cat-and-mouse from Australia to Washington, DC. Woolf is a rogue poet capable of suborning even the most experienced of the organization, and Eliot wants to stop her before she executes a horrific plan.

Barry structures the story with intertwined past-and-present narratives. We learn about street kid Emily’s recruitment and training into the organization, and the colossal mistake she makes when she’s sent to Broken Hill, Australia as punishment for another major mistake (A word of warning to the actual Broken Hill Chamber of Commerce: Barry makes it sound like the place where they recruit garbage men for the last stop on the road to the back-of-beyond; it sounds like a cool place in real life). In the present storyline, Eliot violently kidnaps an innocent man from the airport and dodges pursuers on a nonstop quest to find out why the man has been targeted by opposing poets. As the storylines begin to merge, we slowly come to understand why the factions have moved into open warfare with each other.

Barry departs from the cynical humor of his earlier work as he creates this speculative look at power and language. The real tension in his ideas is that the ongoing quest to motivate (command?) masses of people may actually succeed by reducing that mass to precisely defined individuals. If there is humor, it is found in occasional side notes from chat room comments on erroneous news stories which come off as conspiracy theories but are closer to the truth than the commenters know. He also takes those ordinary Website quizzes and polls and gives them a more sinister purpose. I’ll certainly look twice at those ‘recruiting for psychology experiments’ posters and ‘take this online quiz to discover your true self’ with a little more skepticism than I have in the past.

Check the WRL catalog for Lexicon

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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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grace_silenceToday’s review is written by Tova.

“How well do you know the people who raised you?”

Journalist Michele Norris presents this question to the reader in the epilogue of her book The Grace of Silence: A Memoir. In her work—as much an investigation of the painful historical realities of race in America as a memoir—Norris reaches deep into the depths of her own family history and illuminates this country’s racial past along the way.

Originally intent on writing a book about the “hidden conversation” on race taking place in a supposedly “postracial” America in the wake of Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency, Norris changed course when she discovered that the conversation on race within her own African American family had not been honest. She discovered two family secrets: her maternal Grandmother Ione had been a traveling “Aunt Jemima” in the Midwest, and her father Belvin Norris had been shot in the leg by a white police officer in Birmingham shortly after his discharge from the Navy at the conclusion of World War II. Uncovering these secrets shakes Norris’s sense of her identity: “These revelations suggest to me that in certain ways I’ve never had a full understanding of my parents or of the formation of my own racial identity.” The majority of the book is devoted to discovering who her parents really are and, by extension, who she herself is. Why did her parents intentionally keep these secrets from her?

Most jarring about these revelations, for Norris, is that they are incongruous with her conception of her parents. Norris writes of her father: “how could a man who always observed stop signs, a man who always filed his taxes early and preached that jaywalking proved a weakness of character have been involved in an altercation with Alabama policemen? . . . Why would he impart life lessons to us about looking the other way, turning the other cheek, respecting those who lived across the color line in spite of insults hurled our way, when he himself had not?”

What Norris discovers along the way in her journey to answer these questions is surprising, revealing, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking for both her and the reader. I found myself getting emotional at times while reading the book. My eyes watered when Norris described brutal attacks on African American World War II veterans and their families. I found myself groaning inside when a relative of one of the officers involved in the shooting of Belvin Norris remarked to the author, “I don’t have anything against [African Americans], only the ones who are snooty or trying to prove themselves,” and then referenced President Obama as an example. But that’s what this book does. It hits you in the gut. I suspect that no matter your racial or cultural background, this book will “ping” your emotions in many different ways.

While this is not an “easy” book—as it challenges you emotionally and makes you think about certain ugly truths that some would rather not acknowledge—it has its moments of levity. You will smile wryly at the ingenious ways in which Norris’s mother foils the attempts of her neighbors to sell their houses and flee the neighborhood after the Norris family integrates it. You will also be touched by the loving relationship Norris has with her father. In a sense, this book is an extended love letter to her father. Even while championing an open dialogue about race, Michele Norris appreciates that her father early-on made the decision to remain silent as part of a strategy to ensure that his children would not be hindered by bitterness and acrimony in their struggle to achieve.

When I read the premise of the book, I was immediately drawn to it. I, too, am African American. I am familiar with the silences surrounding family secrets dealing with race. As a result, I found myself constantly comparing the strategies adopted by Norris’s family in dealing with racism to those of my own family. Norris’s mother and father concerned themselves with trying to be “model minorities.” My mother, a single parent and Black Power activist, made a different choice and took a different route in raising her children. My mother, just like her father, taught us that we should be angry about racism. This anger provides the fuel for my activism. Norris’s book exposes a particular truth, that we, as African Americans, have adopted multiple and varying strategies for navigating within a racially hostile world.

In the end, Norris suggests that we can come to a fuller understanding of who we are individually and as a nation by being more open about race. One thing Norris discovers is that white families also have their racial secrets and silences. Most of the families of the police officers involved in her father’s shooting either had no clue of their family member’s involvement in the shooting, or the family members did not want to talk about the incident.

How many of our families, regardless of our racial or cultural backgrounds, harbor secrets relative to race? What do these silences tell us about the state of race in America? Norris’s work, The Grace of Silence: A Memoir, is a call to all of us to sit down and ask questions. If we are to truly move racially forward as a nation, we must hear our family stories. We must question our elders, and we must listen to not just what is said, but what is not said.

Check the WRL catalog for The Grace of Silence

It’s also available as a CD audiobook, read by the author.

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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.

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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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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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My recent post on the immortality of your online presence offered a consoling, even redemptive, view of the digital world.  This Beautiful Life offers a searing look at the other side of that coin.  And even though the conceit centers on the Web, the impact of events illuminates a web of fissures within one family and hints at a network of flaws that will inform the direction of our society.

The Bergamot family recently relocated to Manhattan from a comfortable life in Ithaca, New York.  As the public face of Columbia University’s program to build a new campus in an area of urban blight, Richard capably dances the fine line between vision and community politics with delight. That leaves his wife Liz, with her Ph.D. in Art History and sporadic history of teaching as an adjunct at Cornell, managing their Upper West Side apartment and preparing for the move to a faculty home provided by the University.  In other words, the slightly bored housewife is watching her professional dreams fading in the rear-view mirror, with little to occupy her but the endless cycle of dropping off and picking up her daughter at school.

And what a school it is.   One of the perks of Richard’s position of power and prestige is that his children have a tuition-free guaranteed spot at Wildwood, a premier academy for the 1%.  Jake, the fifteen-year old, is at the Upper School with bored, sophisticated, seemingly self-confident kids already immune to the ravages of the outer world but still struggling with the fears of adolescence.  Coco, their six-year old Chinese adopted daughter, is at the Lower School, enjoying sleepovers at the Plaza Hotel, round-the-island birthday cruises, and other events created by wealthy and competitive moms for the City’s princesses.

Then Jake makes a mistake.  Or rather he takes someone else’s mistake and compounds it.  After a bored Saturday night spent trolling through the City for something to do, they wander up to a schoolmate’s party.  The girl is in eighth grade, home alone in her family’s mansion (her parents are on Cyprus, dodging taxes), a place with lots of beer and bedrooms.  A drunken Jake winds up making out with her, but pushes her away when his classmates mock him for robbing the cradle.  When Jake wakes up hungover the next morning, he opens a message from the girl on his cell phone, and discovers that she’s filmed herself in an explicit video.  Without thinking, he forwards it to a friend.  And from there…you can imagine.

The ensuing scandal gets Jake and the guys who forwarded the video suspended from school.  Richard is also invited to take a step back from his project–his name has been connected to the video, making him toxic for a project that requires a squeaky clean leader.  Liz finds herself searching the Web, appalled and fascinated by the quantity and variety of porn she sees.  And Coco is influenced in ways no one expects.  Trapped in their small apartment, with no friends to support them, and advice bombarding them from every direction, the pressure builds until their underlying issues burst forth and the family’s defining moment looks like it’s going to be their dividing moment.

While the topic might be sensational, Schulman digs past the surface muck to the real heart of the story, which is a family’s response to the high profile screw-up by one of its members.  Schulman leads the reader to think about parental involvement, the use and misuse of technology, and the early sexualization of both boys and girls, but doesn’t apportion blame–the mirror she holds up to us is enough to show us the fools whose knowledge will always exceed their wisdom.

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The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage and Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to be a Better Husband.  This quirky title really had me because I had been interested in learning more about Asperger Syndrome.

Reading David Finch’s book helped satisfy my curiosity and also endeared me to this amazing story about a man who isn’t diagnosed with Asberger until after he’s married with children.  The diagnosis explains a lot for him, but his approach to dealing with the problems it has caused in his relationship is so intense that he actually saves his marriage.  Wow, if only every spouse would be willing to do whatever it takes to adjust behavior and communication skills and to make such a powerful difference for his family!

This book was hilariously funny, and I did not want to put it down.  Sometimes, a memoir is just a one-time deal, but I think Finch should write more of them on a variety of subjects that touch his life.  His odd personality and easygoing writing style were the perfect ingredients for a very entertaining read.

Check the WRL catalog for The Journal of Best Practices.

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