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Books

Thoughts on books and book reviews

Private Sector

I have waited until the last minute to begin researching for a paper I need to write on the International Space Station. Thus, I am trying to find books related to it. I've been searching the online collections of the St. Paul Public Libraries, the CLICnet catalog (local liberal arts colleges), and the U of M libraries without finding much of anything.

Then it hit me, I'm using the wrong tool for a general search. Surfed over to amazon.com to do some searches and get titles of interesting books to plug into the deficient search engines of the various libraries. Success! Thank you amazon ... now can you share your search technology?

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Want a book recommendation? GGS! Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, answers the question of why Europeans conquered the globe rather than the Incas for instance. It is a compelling read. I just wrote a quick paper on it for my Environmental Classics course. Thought some might enjoy reading it. The question is whether Diamond's book let's the West off the hook for its actions (genocide and colonialism).

GGS: Geographic Determinism Is Not Apologism

Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel does not constitute an apology for imperialistic actions. The fact that this question has even arisen speaks more about the tensions surrounding modern politics than any failings of the book. Diamond seeks to explain why Europeans conquered the globe, rather than the Incas or Australian Aborigines. He does not argue one would have been better than the other or that European colonialism is justified. What he does argue is that the reasons for European domination come largely from geographic factors.

Diamond's look toward geographic explanations for European domination seems to reject a belief of cultural superiority. That being said, Diamond would argue that geography begets culture. Nonetheless, his argument does not center on some innate European superiority, but rather the logical outcome that whoever settled in this region would have significant advantages over continental neighbors in the long term.

GGS is arguing that some groups have advantages over others due to their geography. The ability to cultivate mass quantities of food creates a comparative advantage which can allow one population to overrun neighboring populations which may not have that advantage. This is an explanation for historical events. It does not suggest that those people have some sort of moral imperative to spread their population. That would be a justification for their actions. There is a significant difference between explanation and justification.

Ultimately, Europeans had major advantages over other cultures due to geographic advantages building up over time. The fact that they chose to colonize others is separate from the fact that they could. If any society has developed advantages over its neighbors and not used them, we would likely not know because they would not have developed into massive empires that left artifacts or wrote history. Thus we are left with a distorted view of history. The ability to do something starts being seen as having the right to do that thing. This is a false pairing.

Europeans have claimed to have a higher moral standard than primitive societies. This is their history of philosophy and civilization. Yet their actions have consistently been brutal and motivated by greed rather than the lofty ideals of their poets and philosophers. Jared Diamond is not looking at their actions in colonizing but rather what made their actions possible. This is that subtle distinctions between the ability to do something and actually doing it. Diamond does not attempt to justify the latter.

If anything, Diamond's politics seem to run in the opposite direction of justifying colonialism. His discussion of Yali's question actually suggests that Europeans are not more intelligent than those they colonize because they have been naturally selected for traits other than intelligence due to urban life. While this argument may be a bit specious, it does demolish the idea that Diamond approaches this subject with an air of Western superiority.

Nature's Metropolis

If you are looking for a good history book to read, check out Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon. I have seldom learned so much from a history book - but that may be from my high level of ignorance on the subject of 1800's midwest history.

This book focuses on the rolls played by both Chicago and the Great West in the 19th century. I had not realized the great interdependence of all the Great Plains on Chicago. I think that many of us view the rural areas as being totally separate from influences of the city. Cronon soundly refutes that idea.

All life on the Great Plains has been profoundly guided by both Chicago and the development of markets that ran through Chicago. I'm quite impressed with Cronon's style (he did win the '92 Bancroft Prize) which makes this book enjoyable for a history tome of its size. Give 'er a look if you are interested in this area.

Population Insight

Played basketball tonight ... it was good to throw the rock around - which is largely what my shots ended up being - around the rim but not really especially close to it.

We read The Population Bomb by Ehrlich in one of my classes and discussed it today. Written in '68, revised in '71, it predicted a catastrophic end to society as known then due to massive starvation from overpopulation. In case you are wondering, he turned out to be wrong.

The question is, what do you think of when you think of overpopulation? My first thought is India. For most others it is either India, China, or Africa and the children therein. The odd thing is that the problem is not really the population. The problem is scarcity of resources resulting from too many people. If we accept this, then the issue is not so much how many people there are, but how many resources they use.

Given consumption patterns with that frame of thought, it is the suburban (now exurban) lifestyle which is causing overpopulation problems. Afterall, why should we get pissed at people elsewhere who even with their larger birth rates, will never come to close to consuming the scarce resources that our culture will?

Liberals Under the Bed

Daddyman tipped us off to this recent title on amazon, Help Mom, There are Liberals Under my Bed. This description comes from the publisher.

Would you let your child read blatantly liberal stories with titles such as "King & King," "No, George, No," or "It's Just a Plant"?

Unless you live in Haight-Ashbury or write for the New York Times, probably not. But with the nation’s libraries and classrooms filled with overtly liberal children’s books advocating everything from gay marriage to marijuana use, kids everywhere are being deluged with left-wing propaganda.

Actually, judging from its 54 page length, absurdly simple reductionist explanations, and creative illustrations, it may be better for many reactionary adults than for their children. I mean, it probably has a more coherent argument than anything Ann Coulter has put forth.

Ivy League Stripper

Although I've been to fewer strip clubs than anyone who knows me well would suspect, I've always had an interest. Sociologically speaking more than just for the sights. I've long been curious as to the reasons for a woman to strip in our somewhat puritanical culture. I mean other than the standard depressing reasons of paying drug debts, stuff like that.

I picked up Ivy League Stripper by Heidi Mattson when it came through my store knowing I wanted to read it, but figuring I would probably never get around to it. This happens quite often as we see more interesting titles than we have time.

For whatever reason, I found this more compelling than Wallis' The Politics of God to which I hope to return. The story is that Heidi couldn't afford Brown University on the financial aid so she eventually turned to stripping at a topless joint to pay the bills.

The book is well written - not to spoil the ending, but she did go Brown - and it captures your imagination. It isn't really adult oriented but gives a picture of life among the strippers. If you are looking for racy lit, this is not for you.

The most interesting subject matter is her reception among other Brown students who discover her occupation. Unsurprisingly, many students react negatively to it, which she attributes to mostly to their ignorance and perceptions that it degrades women.

I suspect their reaction has more to do with a reaction to class issues rather than feminist ones. I think many in the upper class associate stripping with the lower classes - though it doesn't stop them from visiting.

Heidi's observations on the roles of women in society are astute and her journey is worthwhile read. Of course, the girl-on-girl boxing, oil wrestling, and other escapades are fun too.

Bubbly Soros

I recently read The Bubble of American Supremacy: Confronting the misuse of American Power by George Soros. For someone in the know when it comes to politics, this book will offer little in terms of new information or insight. Quite honestly, I would not have read it if it were much longer. I was intrigued by my respect for his writings and the short amount of time it would take to digest.

I wonder how many reviews would start that way if people were entirely honest about the reasons a book appealed to them. At any rate, the first half of the book details the many ways in which Bush and his Neocon allies (dare I say, handlers?) have misused American power.

The interesting stuff starts later with Soros' Constructive Vision of ways the U.S.' unique role in the world could be used to better it. This leads to some times when I felt that Soros was entering in Pollyanna's world ... afterall, why would the U.S. not want to rule the world with its iron fist?

... Arguably, the Marshall Plan was not as altruistic as it seems. Europe was in danger of falling under Soviet domination, and American industry was badly in need of foreign markets. But the role I am advocating for the United States is based not on altruism but on enlightened self-interest. By that criterion, the Marshall Plan served its purpose well.

This understanding of enlightened self-interest is why his ideas become more plausible. All this talk of self interest may cause you to worry Ayn Rand is next on my reading list ... but before we go full tilt into yeah capitalism mode, let's take a look at what he says about the capitalism V communism battle.

In my opinion, it is more appropriate to attribute the victory of the West to the fact that it is an open society whereas the Soviet empire was a closed one.

His open society philosophy (and work toward it) are the reasons I listen to what he has to say. I think he is on to something here - but that is not really the focus of the book or this short review.

The most useful thoughts in this book come from his discussion of international assistance in the constructive vision. He offers suggestions to improve the defects of foreign aid. The two most important are huge - he notes that foreign aid is often serving the interests of the donor country rather than recipient and recipients rarely have ownership of the projects.

I think these two points are elementary to anyone who has worked in the field of international assistance (which I have not) but they are totally lost on the vast majority of people who want to know why U.S. to country X has not solved its problems for example.

Eleven and Island

I just read Eleven On Top which is Janet Evanovich's 11th book in the Stephanie Plum detective series. I was really down on book 10, so I have been both nervous and excited for this one.

Books 1-9 had my laughing out loud and wanting more. The latest book is better than 10 but I find it lacking when compared to the others. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is but it seems that Evanovich has not been hitting the climax with her usual zeal.

Now book 10 ended absurdly and I was afraid book 11 would be the same as the climax approaches with few pages left. While the climax was quick, the ending was far more plausible and didn't make me think she was about to miss her deadline when conceiving it.

To give her some credit, she has masterfully kept the same gags from book to book (for the most part) while keeping each one fresh. One wonders how long Stephanie can explode cars before either the insurance company or reader wigs out. I think that this accomplishment ranks among Evanovich's highest.

Well worth the incredibly quick read it was. I just wish they didn't continue the mystery hard cover tradition of using college paper format rules to make it look longer. Stop wasting paper and admit these 3 book a year authors can only write 150 pages rather than shrinking the margins to waste twice as many pages.

I also recently had the chance to read Island of the Sequinned Love Nun by Christopher Moore who duels with Evanovich for the spot of my favorite popular fiction writer. Island was undoubtedly the weakest novel of Moore's that I have read which still puts it above most fiction I guess.

I would describe it as sorta captivating in that I found it more fun to read than staring out the window at Interstate views throughout my recent road trip. It does have its moments though and crucially introduces Roberto (the talking fruit bat) which is a recurring character in Moore's books.

I definitely wouldn't start reading Moore with this book - pick up The Dumbest Angel to see if you like his style before diving into this one.

Freakonomics

I just flew through Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - one of the most popular nonfiction books available now. I'm not sure what to say to do it justice - I really liked it but it is hard to sum up.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the book is comprised of six chapters which have no relation to each other save the occasional cross reference. The book is essentially 6 minimally related essays on interesting questions Levitt asks.

The worth of this book lies not in the answers but in learning ways to ask innovative questions. I'm not sure just anyone can do this - Levitt certainly can and I have met some people who often come up with interesting questions but I don't see this ability often.

The rest of the book is essentially the path Levitt takes to answer his questions. This becomes interesting as he warns against common mistakes while explaining his methodology. If you want to dig deeper, he points to additional papers exploring each topic at the end of the book.

I found this a fascinating book. It's a book for geeks. People who are not interested in looking deeper into everyday interactions will be bored by this fascinating (though short and quick) read. However, if you are curious what happens to late pickups when a daycare in Haifa begins charging late parents, the you'll have to crack this beast.

Harry Potter (no spoiler)

Finished the Harry Potter book the other day. Had to read it late into a night before an early morning because I got hooked. But I finished it and fully enjoyed it. I know some people have favorites but I really don't. I definitely enjoyed the way Rowling focused on Ron, Hermione, and Harry in this one. The focus on their lives - coming of age - as well as the circumstances of the greater wizard war going on around them was well balanced.

As for what she did with all the characters and the plot - well, let's just say I think we will all have to wait for the next one to see what is up. I have my doubts as to where the story is heading, but I think I have an inkling, and it could be really good.

On the other hand, those who get all mad at authors for going one way with their books are often full of it. The authors spend significant portions of their lives coming up with these characters and I think it is somewhat lame for us to get upset. I just enjoy being allowed into the author's head for awhile.

So that was my general review of the book. If anyone wants to talk about it in depth, I would love to.

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