Saturday, June 29, 2013

American Creation

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic
© Joseph Ellis
304 pages

In Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis used a series of nonfictional 'stories' about the founding fathers of the United States to illustrate how their personal relationships with one another shaped the struggle for independence and later the creation of the Republic.  In American Creation, he uses the same approach, a series of vignettes, to explore moments which defined the course that Republic would take. Most occur after the revolution is won, and demonstrate how differently the founders dreamed from one another despite their accomplishments working with one another.  The result is what I've come to expect of Joseph Ellis: colorful narrative history that doesn't begrudge sympathy to any founder and leaves the reader with a fuller appreciation for the Revolution -- one which sees the founders as men, not demigods, who struggled against not only the prejudices and foibles of third parties, but against one another and their own inner demons.

The titular triumphs are well known, like the Declaration of Independence and  the miraculous survival of the Continental Army after Valley Forge, which was effected by both the persistent support of the people for the struggle and Washington's adoption of a strategy that played to his strengths: avoid battle and focus instead on controlling the countryside. Even so, Ellis may pass along new information to students of the period: for instance,  months before the storied Declaration of Independence was presented and signed,  each American colony drew up a constitution for itself in preparation for the impending separation from England, asserting self-rule in a fashion with immediate practical effects and much less bombast.  Of the tragedies, there are three: the failure to strangle slavery, the lack of any effective and just "Indian policy", and the birth of vicious parties. All three have the same mother: the interests of Southern planters, asserting the sovereignty of their individual states and dismissing the authority of any central government influenced by merchants and bankers.  Although Ellis is not a partisan historian,  the verdict of his pen is more for the Federalists than the Republicans.  The closest he comes to outright favoritism is in the chapter on party politics, "The Conspiracy", in which he attempts to answer the question: why were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison so paranoid about the Federalists, acting as though men who had lead the assault against tyranny would become tyrants themselves?  Adam's authorization of the Alien and Sedition acts hadn't yet come into being, nor had Hamilton suggested to Adams that South America could do with a proper invasion, but both make the student of history wonder if maybe Republican concerns weren't justified to some degree. Jefferson emerges from the section seemingly like an ambitious lunatic, however  -- which, perhaps he was. Though regarded as a man of science, his romantic attachment to the French Revolution, which he devoted service to at the expense of the American government, reveals how profoundly irrational he could be.

None of the founders emerge from this narrative unscathed: even the divine Washington is revealed as only human, unable to will a perfect treaty with a native nation (the Creeks, here) into being:  not are the Creeks cleverly led by a man who is treacherous as any Congressional politician, but American settlers have the damndest habit of not doing what the government would wish them to do. They keep flooding into Creek territory without a care in the world for foreign policy. Parliament would no doubt sympathize -- and just wait until you try taxing them, George. Oh, wait -- the whiskey rebellion is also covered. Men who occupy lesser roles in most Revolution narratives get to shine more here, like Roger Livingston, the Forrest Gump of the revolution, always somehow in the middle of the biggest moments of American history.  American Creation is a fitting read for the Fourth, one which offers a vision hopeful yet sober of what was created, and what may yet be restored: a nation of the people, by the people, for the people.

Friday, June 28, 2013

GoodReads is *Weird*


Based on my "Alabama" shelf, it is recommending I read Understanding Power, by Noam Chomsky; Killing Hope, a history of CIA operations; a history of the Russian Revolution; a work detailing how human rights have been destroyed in the rise of corporate power; and a history of anarchism.

Because each of these things reminds me so much of Alabama.  On another page, it is insisting I check out an anthology of wisdom literature based on my Transportation and Urbanism shelves.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Story of My Experiments with Truth

The Story of my Experiments with Truth
 © 1927 Mohandas K. Gandhi
480 pages

Dover Press cover

The Story of my Experiments with Truth is a piecemeal autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi,  who earned acclaim by leading India to independence from the British Empire through nonviolent means. It includes only the early portions of his life, ending in the 1920s long before the most famous incidents of the Indian movement.   Gandhi establishes early on that he chose to downplay much discussion of his political activism in this work on the grounds that he had already written a history of his early struggles in South Africa, and that his later battles were so widely known they needed no further coverage from his pen.  Despite that intention, politics peppers this story of his life, as he viewed public service as inseparable from any other portion of his being, and especially from his sense of spirituality, the pursuit of truth. Politics was simply a means of acting on the truth, of proclaiming it to the world.

If not politics, what then is this autobiography?  Released in sections through a newsletter, it has no central focus;  his search for truth is at best a recurring theme. There's politics here, interwoven with the accounts of legal cases and the epic quest to find his ashram a hand loom (this merited two chapters), but his reflections on religion, spirituality, and ethics give the work most of its substance. The work allows readers to see the legend of the Mahatma slowly emerge from the life of a passionate Indian lawyer who seems beset by scrupulosity, constantly ashamed of his wretched failings, recoiling in horror from the great sins of marriage and drinking goat's milk.  Gandhi is not a moderate: after encountering a concept and deciding it worthy of an effort, the effort given is mighty: he adopts practices whole cloth. After being introduced to the concept of economic self reliance, he arranges for his newspaper staff to join him at a communal farm. When he became convinced of the spiritual and medical effects of total abstinence, he became celibate and began sleeping in a separate bed from his wife. Period. His ability to make radical changes in his life increased with practice: as a young man, avoiding meat seemed a terrible burden, one difficult to take up -- but a decade later, with much experience, he could declare war against his libido by refusing to engage in so much as an amorous thought, and developing a diet that wouldn't lead to excess 'interest'. (Meat and milk lead to sexy thoughts. Fruit, not so much. )  At the same time, he records some of his religious explorations, his reading of other sacred texts and comparing them to his own.  This was only a minor portion of the content, however.

Those interested in the formative years and experience of Gandhi may find this book of interest; it is also marginally useful to those seeking information about his South African years, in which he fought to help Indians relegated to indentured servitude reclaim their dignity before the law and before themselves.  It is not a cohesive work, however, and doesn't contain any extensive, in-depth writing on any given subject: instead, one sees the big ideas slowly developed over the course of his early life,  coming together year by year, a worldview given life one practice and one belief at a time.  Gandhi is at once inspiring and unsettling in the extremes of his life, dedicated to truth.

Nehru: the Invention of India; Shashi Tharoor
The Confessions,  St. Augustine (who was also given to literary self-flagellation)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

This week at the, Gandhi, and the American revolution

This week at the library, I am in the middle of my Revolutionary War reading, having finally finished the massive biography of Alexander Hamilton. I found it lived up to the recommendation as an antidote to the anti-Hamilton bias of other Revolutionary books I've read. Next in the series is American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, by Joseph Ellis who I read so much of last year.  After that, if there's time, I'll be reading his take on George Washington, His Excellency. (That's the book title. I'm going to guess it's somewhat sympathetic, but then any biography of Washington written by an American would have to be.)

I just finished off an interlibrary loan book called The History of Money by Jack Weatherford, which is just as it says. It's not nearly as comprehensive as Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money, which tracked money and finance from coins to paper to bonds to credit and securities.  Weatherford's work doesn't touch on bonds and securities:  the focus is on  ordinary money, which appeared first as a commodity, became coins, then paper backed by specie, then paper backed by nothing, which he finds alarming, and then completely electronic. It's a bit dated at this point; he offers (in 1997) that while the Internet's online marketplace once deem poised to wreak havoc on conventional merchants, it seems that it will remain catering to niche markets.  After all, you can't download a shirt from your computer! (You can get it on your doorstop within two days, though, and you can download books..)  The author is at his best when commenting on how money effects human culture: at one point he offered an analysis of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, writing that it was a commentary on the debate over gold-backed currency vs. silver-backed currency.  Dorothy, the average American citizen, marches off to fairlyland to confront the sinister financiers, backed by the American farmer (Scarecrow), the American worker (the Tinman), and William Jennings Bryan (the...Cowardly Lion).  

In the post this week I'm expecting the rest of a Star Trek trilogy I began in February (Cold Equations: the Persistence of Memory) but forgot to review (oops). I didn't realize that 'til today, when updating GoodReads and Shelfari (they're almost completely current, save for this week's reading), and noting I couldn't find that Geordi-Soong cover.  It's been too long since I got my Trek on. I'm also expecting Getting There: the Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century, since I haven't read any train books recently.

Reviews and/or comments are pending for Jayber Crow and The Story of my Experiments with Truth.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
© 2005 Rob Chernow
832 pages

Who is  Alexander Hamilton? The greatest founder save George Washington, or the Antichrist?  The latter is the view of Hamilton one may derive from the accounts of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, whereas Rob Chernow’s biography views him in a far more sympathetic light. Though not quite a hagiography, it rings a tribute to a man whose accomplishments are impressive, even to his critics. Hamilton’s life is the story of a boy twice orphaned (losing not only his parents, but two sets of guardians), who emigrated to the American colonies and became not only a leading member of the Revolution, but an architect of its destiny, whose power and influence rivaled and even surpassed that of some of the early presidents. His opinions and policies were at the heart of the controversies and feuds of the early Republic, and though shot down in a duel, his legacy is all but dead, and this grand treatment of his life is a powerful aid to understanding the first decades of the United States' life.

 Unlike most of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton was not born in the American colonies, at least not the 'proper' thirteen. He hailed instead from the isle of Nevis, in the West Indies, growing up amid scenes of the sugar trade, of ships from various nations plying the Caribbean routes, hauling trade goods and slaves hither and yon, between islands baked by the sun and hit alternatively with bouts of hurricanes and disease. Orphaned early on, Hamilton found employment as a clerk in a trading firm, and his success there led him to New York, working first on the firm's behalf and then on his own, as he became involved in the colonies' struggle for independence. After completing his education there, Hamilton put his mind to work outside the exchequer's office, engaged as a lawyer and putting his pen to work arguing for independence. During the Revolutionary War, he served first as a captain of artillery, and then as George Washington's attache, a position which forged his destiny. By war's end, he had become Washington's de facto chief of staff, and when 'his excellency' became president,  their long relationship and the strength of Hamilton's writings on politics and economics (including most of The Federalist Papers) earned him a seat in the first cabinet, as Secretary of the Treasury.  There, he helped to create a nation, pushing forward a much-hated plan for the new union to absorb the debts of the old, a move that established the young country's credit and strengthened the position of the federal government over the states.  Hamilton's belief in a strong, efficient central government made him the foe of states-rights proponents like Jefferson, who saw in him the antithesis the revolution. Hamilton and they engaged in ferocious battles of words, railing against one another  in the press. When Washington retired and John Adams became president, it was Hamilton, and not Adams, who led the Federalist party against the attacks of Jefferson and the anti-federalist Republicans. (Such a fact was very much not appreciated by John Adams, whose cabinetmen stayed in constant correspondence with Hamilton and forwarded his advice as their own)  Although Hamilton accomplished his dream of a strong union backed by a strong currency (backed by a strong, national bank), his reputation fell into disrepute through his constant bickering with others, especially after he engaged in a no-holds barred assault on then-president John Adams, splintering the federalists and allowing for decades of Republican domination. His highly colorful career -- festooned with accomplishments and embarrassment -- came to an end in 1804, when he engaged Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel and was shot down, dying in the same fashion as his son a year prior.

 So, the story of Alexander Hamilton is something kin to a rags-to-riches tale, or it would if he actually died rich.  His ascent is stupefying, and Chernow's admiration is hard for a reader not to share. Although I'd expected the book to sing Hamilton's praises, Chernow chronicles the man's persistent faults faithfully. He does couch the criticism in such a way as to soften the blows, frequently mourning over dear Hamilton's all-too frequent lapses in judgment the way readers might tut-tut over their grandparents' foibles.  Chief among them was Hamilton's ability to hold a grudge, and the power grudges held over his opinion, moving him to rail against  opponents so scathingly that even John Adams was taken aback.  Chernow doesn't fault Hamilton's basic approach to governance, which tended toward the cautious: Hamilton was the anti-Jefferson, and promoted more a strong, centralzied government run by 'cool, cool, considerate men', rather than a republic of states run by the mob, which is what he imagined democracy to be.  Although Jefferson & company's skepticism of Hamilton's strongman approach is warranted (as is skepticism of Jefferson's own approach),  his fiscal accomplishments seem to validate them. Chernow goes to bat for his chosen subject, engaging in little arguments to defend claims that Hamilton was corrupt or intending to replace the government with the rule of some Hannoverian scion. Of course, considering he once entertained ideas for conquering South America in the event of a French victory during the Napoleonic wars, maybe his enemies' paranoia was justified. The degree to which Jefferson and others engaged in conspiracy theories with Hamilton at the center is baffling , but Jefferson is as much the villain of the piece as Hamilton is the hero. If Chernow is fair with Hamiliton, being honest with his faults, he is less so with the man's foes.  John Adams receives the kindest treatment,  notable given how hostile he became toward 'that Creole bastard' during his adminstration.

Alexander Hamilton is quite the biography. Not only was his a life fascinating to behold -- an orphaned turned national puppetmaster -- but through it, readers get a glimpse at how debates over the fate of the nation were enacted. Hamilton's personal life is included, but shoved to the side: this is a work about the relationships between Hamilton and other founders, especially George Washington and their relation to the first decade of American politics: it emphasizes policy more than cozy scenes of family life.  Chernow is an able storyteller, and proved to be more fair than I gave him credit for.  This is a massive piece, but I found it very much worth my while, given how anti-Hamiltonian my previous Revolutionary War reads have been. I think next year I shall have to read a biography of Jefferson, since he's much abused in both treatments of John Adams' and Alexander Hamilton's lives.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Disrupting the Rabblement

Disrupting the Rabblement: Think  For Yourself, Face Your Fears, Live Your Dreams, and Piss off some Zombies
© 2012 Niall Doherty
~138 pages

There are those who live, and those who simply exist. The majority of people, the rabblement, simply exist, and it's Niall Doherty's mission in life to wake them up, or failing that, to at least ruffle their feathers. Looking to live life more abundantly, Doherty left the trappings of ordinary living behind: he's traveling across the world with his every possession in a 42 liter backpack, and occasionally posts from internet cafes to ask provocative questions and offer advice for better living. Disrupting the Rabblement is an extension of his blog; more than a collection of posts, but not quite a book in its own right. It reads more like an anthology than a cohesive book, but one certainly of interest.

In Disrupting the Rabblement, Doherty calls for readers to ask themselves probing questions to suss out what they really want out of life, to establish their values and then to boldly compare the life they live now, their actions, to their ideals. He suggests practices, like freethought and minimalism, that help people to sort out what is real and what is important from what is assumed, and what we only think is important. This is followed by advice on how to begin creating a more fulfilling life, and here Doherty draws partially from Stoicism, with frequent references to Buddha; he suggests people reflect on and engage their fears.  There are proper reasons to be afraid, of course: it is probably wise to resist that urge to pet the jaguar at the zoo. But why not say hello to the astonishingly interesting girl at the bar?  Sure, people may not respond to us as we wish, but most of the time, the potential rewards far outweigh the potential consequences. One of the more useful sections here is his guide to establishing habits that allow people to learn new skills and wean themselves off of destructive behaviors while establishing healthy ones.

Although I wouldn't go so far as to call Disrupting the Rabblement a book, its informality doesn't diminish from the accuracy of Doherty's observations or the usefulness of his advice, especially considering that he really does practice what he preaches: while writing this, Doherty was a vegetarian, something he adopted after a thirty-day trial. In recent months, however, he has left the vegetarian diet, and done so after subjecting some of his assumptions to scrutiny. He's not afraid to court unpopularity (one wonders if he's ever read the Cynics):  his recent blog and video on quitting vegetarianism have caused quite a stir.

If these ideas interest you, I would suggest  watching some of his videos (like "What would it take to change your mind?")  or reading his posts to get an idea as to whether or not they would be worth your while. I found Doherty accidentally, while looking for videos on simple living, I discovered his "What Minimalism Is Not".  I enjoy his videos, and so figured the $3 ebook would be worth it; and, though I wish it was meatier, worth it it was.  It's not offered as a 'real' book.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Summer reading (Top Ten Tuesday)

Summertime, and the livin's easy...the asphalt's melting,  and sunstroke is nigh...

The summer is a good time for reading, because if you're outside in the Alabama heat you're going to boil in your own sweat. Seriously, this is not a good time to visit us.  If you have a hankering to see the Deep South, wait until October. It'll still be warm, but you can go outside without drawing up a will.  In the summer time I venture outside ever so briefly in the mornings, then hide inside for most of the day listening to the air conditioner spend money. Inside it's a time for reading, and this summer I have quite a few books waiting to be devoured..

1. Gulp, Mary Roach

I love Mary Roach. You have to have a good sense of humor to carry a surname like Roach, and boy does she ever have one -- and she combines it with popular science writing to produce fascinating books with names like Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and Stiff: the Curious Lifes of Human Cadavers.

2. An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage

Last summer I read A History of the World in Six Glasses, which looked at agriculture through beer,  mercantilism through tea, and  industrial consumerism through Coca-Cola, among others. Definitely light history, but I'm looking forward to this, which I assume takes a similar tack. Related is Michael Pollan's Cooked, which I am definitely interested in. I don't know if my library will acquire it, though, so it may be a while before I pick up a used copy.

3.Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein

I've yet to read Heinlein, and this is supposedly his most controversial work, mixing SF with political philosophy.

4.  Independence Day celebratory set

Each year it is my custom to honor the Fourth of July with a reading touching the American Revolution. This year I'm planning to tackle a biography of Alexander Hamilton (by Rob Chernow) to start off with.

5. Bastille Day tribute

The French revolution transformed a continent and the world, and it's worth commemorating for the glory of "La Marseillaise" alone.  I like to explore French culture in general around July 14th, and last year I got a bit carried away by it. I had Edith Piaf singing in my head clear into November, I'll tell you. I don't rightly know what I'll be reading just yet: French Kids Eat Everything  would be a way to build on Bringing up Bebe and French Women Don't Get Fat,  and I've heard good things about The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography.

7. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market by Susan Strasser
Susan Strasser's a fantastic social historian of America, and I've been anticipating this one for a while. I may read it in the same week as I finally read Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic, but that may be a bit much. Oh, and then there's Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole... Reading three books on consumerism seems problematic.  But one is history, one is more philosophical, and the other is more political, so...I have to read all three, just to get the whole picture. maybe I should throw in Hooked: Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume, too. That would...round things out nicely.

Once I've read all four I won't be as much a consumer afterward, I promise!

8. Hannah Coulter or A Place on Earth, Wendell Berry

I'm not particular as to which, but I just finished Jayber Crow and found it to be one of the most intensely moving novels I've ever read. There aren't too many other books I'd put in the same neighborhood -- Big Rock Candy Mountain and Once an Eagle, maybe -- but I definitely want to read more Berry.

9. Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin

I misplaced this one for a little bit, but it's returned to me.

10. Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman

Or something's been a while since I did any religious history.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Kindles and Consumption

Earlier in the week I installed Kindle for the PC onto my computer, the second step of mine on the dark side that will eventually end in my possessing – gasp – a gadget.  I’m thinking about it seriously, not only for practical reasons (my library now lends e-books) but because of the variety of titles which are electronic only. Some are quite cheap, and they don’t take up any space on my sagging, groaning shelves. So…I will probably have an electronic device within the next couple of years, and considering how much business I already do with Amazon, it will presumably be a Kindle of some kind. What kind, I don’t know:  I had been planning on going with a basic model until I realized to download library books I’d have to hook the Kindle into a PC.  The library’s training Kindle has an internet browser,  so I’ve been spoiled on the ease-of-use.  Part of me is slightly mesmerized by the idea of the Kindle Fire – ooh, it can do so many things! – and another part of me is repulsed by the being mesmerized bit.

Yesterday I stood for ten minutes in front of two “ActiveWear” shirts. One was a shiny Nike, one was a not-so-shiny other brand.  I wanted the Nike; it looked better and felt better, but it had that Swoosh on the chest and if I’m going to advertise someone I insist they pay me for the privilege, not the other way around.  The clincher was that it cost twice as much as the off-brand. In the end, I ended up questioning: why am I even looking at these shirts?  Not because I  need another running shirt, when I have a drawer full of boring cotton t-shirts I used for the same purpose, but because these were Real Running Shirts, made with fancy-smancy materials that magic away sweat. I ended up buying neither at all, and the experience makes me doubt my increasing interest in the Kindle family, especially the lure of the Fire.  Again I ask myself: what am I ultimately looking for? A small, portable device that can store e-books.  The browser might be nice,  but do I need it? And do I need a device that can do computery-things? Not...really. Frankly,  considering that I just purchased a cell phone for emergency purposes, I might have been best off looking for a phone with a wide screen, wireless access, and the ability to use Kindle/Adobe Digital Editions applications. I assumed, though, that such  phones were only offered with monthly contracts and data plans, so I didn’t look very far into that. I just bought a tracphone that lets me buy minutes and then work through them at my leisure.

Aside from these thoughts, it’s been a quiet week: not because I’m not reading, but because I’m in the middle of an 832 page biography on Alexander Hamilton, which will kick off my Fourth of July tribute. There are some smaller titles I also have an interest in, but The History of Money will take priority considering that it’s an interlibrary loan book and they’re so very attached to it that they sent along a note: item may not be renewed.

Friday, June 7, 2013

This Week at the Library: Star Wars, bikes, and evil farms

Fool's Bargain, Timothy Zahn
Just Ride, Grant Peterson
Against the Grain, Richard Manning

This week my  local library began officially offering electronic books via membership in a regional e-book collective.  Although I much prefer real books (see my printed-book snobbery? "real books", I said), I've been checking titles out and reading them on my computer to practice with the software...since I'll soon be explaining to people how to use it.  My first read was a Star Wars novella by Timothy Zahn called Fool's Bargain. Set sometime after the destruction of the empire and starring a squad of stormtroopers who are loyal to "The Empire of the Hand", it follows them as they attempt to capture a warlord in a secret underground hideout. The tension comes from their having to recruit allies on the ground...possibly treacherous ones. It's more a short story than anything else, but I enjoyed it.

My second e-read through this system is one of the rare nonfiction titles available through our consortium, and it's called Just Ride.  As you might guess from the cover, its subject is bicycling. The author is a cycling advocate, and believes that the United States bicycling culture has for too long been dominated by the racing scene, which sees bikes as Serious Business, demanding special pedals, special shoes with clips for the special pedals, special clothes, hi-tech gadgets, and hours upon hours of grueling practice. Nonsense! Phooey! Quatsch! Baloney! says he. Bikes are fun. Bikes take you places. Explore that more.  After introductions in which he grumbles about this or that aspect of race culture,  most of the book consists of simple advice on how to get the most out of cycling. Wear street clothes;  ride anytime you like, just for fun, no matter how little a distance;  rig your bike with practical accessories, like baskets; don't try to turn a bicycle into a weight-loss machine. He also provides day-to-day maintenance tips along with actual cycling advice, as with the chapter on how to drift in turning. Just Ride was a fun read, and if you're on facebook there is a "Slow Bicycle" group dedicated to ideas like the author's.

In terms of 'real' reading, May was a fairly fat month. I'm not sure why, but that was also true last year: after a quiet April, May exploded.  It helped that a lot of the reads were on the shorter side, with some energetic authors, especially Jim Kunstler and Joel Salatin. I'm apparently doing a series on food at the moment; something about the explosion of color in the produce isle in late spring brings out my inner foodie. I've just finished Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization, which isn't quite what I was expecting. The author's primary contention is that agriculture isn't about producing food, it's about the accumulation of wealth. Considering the health disparities between hunter-gatherers, who had a broad diet, and agriculturalists who subsisted on  grains (leading to malnutrition, stunted growth, and early death), early agriculture didn't feed people fully so much as it  kept workers alive so they could continue working to enrich the plantation owners. Also, monocultures and processed foods suck. These were the author's chief contentions, but they weren't developed in any thorough, systematic way; the book was more a collection of musings than an argument.  A recurring theme was that of sensualism; in the author's view, agriculture keeps us from experiencing life fully, both because hunting enlivens the senses in a way that farming and buying food don't, and because farming is a dull, monotonous, body-killing lifestyle that only succeeded through imperialism, both military and ecological. 

My next read in that neighborhood may be Diet for a Hot Planet, but after the last couple of months I'm in the mood for something light, fun, and comforting, so I think I'll try a Wendell Berry novel. Also, seeing as the Fourth of July is less than a month away, I'm beginning to think of what my  celebratory reading will be. I'm currently considering a biography of George Washington by Joseph Ellis, whose work I like, and a biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, which was reccommended to me as an antidote to all of the anti-Hamiltonian views I was exposed to in my John Adams obsession last year.

In the post this week I received three books: Glimpses of World History, by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first president of India;  The Story of my Experiments with Truth, by Mohandas Gandhi, and An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage. Actually, that may be my light-and-fun read.  A confession:  while most of my books come from libraries or used stores online, whenever I drive to the "big city" of Montgomery, I stop in at a Books-A-Million to look at the magazines.  Somehow in the bible belt they manage to sell magazines as scurrilous as Free Inquiry, and even offer magazines for obscure hobbies like model train collecting. (Not that I've bought one, I just see it when I'm getting my own copies of Trains and Classic Trains and...well, you get the picture.)   Invariably I am harassed by the clerk who wants me to buy one of those membership cards, in which you pay $20 and then get discounts on books and shipping. Well, the clerk at the BAM! I tend to go to the most is very persuasive, and a couple of months ago I finally broke down and bought one of the things. (I was in a good mood: I'd been to the zoo and to a most excellent play, a performance of "Around the World in 80 Days").  Early this week I decided to go to the BAM website to see there were any opportunities for recouping my $20 investment, and so help me if they weren't offering a copy of a book on my to-read-eventually list (Edible History) in the online bargain bin, for such a low price that I'd pay more to borrow it through interlibrary loan.  Assuming I saved something like $3 for shipping (I would have never gone for express were it not "Free"), I figure the card's real cost is now $17. I suppose if I bought more, I could recoup more of that, but that's exactly what they want me to do, so I'm just going to see if I can earn that $17 back on bargain books that I would have paid $3 for interlibrary loan shipping anyway.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Salt, Sugar, Fat

Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
© 2013 Michael Moss
480 pages

Between the fresh produce, meat, and dairy sections that ring the perimeter of the average supermarket,  millions of unique foodstuffs are offered and advertised. But their apparent variety is a lie, for the bulk of these food products are nothing more than combinations of  three additives: salt, sugar, and fat. In this book named after the unholy trinity,  author Michael Moss  offers a history of how these additives came to dominate so much of the American, and now global, diet, one which also examines the nutritional consequences of each. Its combination of dietary science, history, marketing, and politics signals out a few products in particular (Lunchables take a beating) and pose the question: if the creators of these products avoid eating them, why shouldn’t we?

I developed an avid interest in this topic after my doctor urged me to reduce my salt intake, a bit of advice that led to me avoiding supermarket interiors in general, preparing most of my meals from fresh produce and meat. Avoiding salt meant avoiding almost everything else, from obvious junk food like potato chips to ‘health’ food like cereal and canned vegetables.  I started losing four pounds a week, eventually a little over 120 after four months. The lesson that processed foods are a health catastrophe, evidenced in the book, needs no further development for me, but Salt, Sugar, and Fat was doubly interesting for given so much attention to how these foods were marketed. Although companies like Coca-Cola whine about consumer choice when government entities attempt to regulate them with a view towards improving the public’s health, their self-serving defense of free choice is given the lie by their deliberate attempts to cultivate cravings for their specific products,  both through advertising saturation and by adding ingredients which light up the pleasure centers of our brain and compel us to see more, even at our own demise. Can a nicotine addict really say his continuing purchase of cigarettes is one made freely?  The 20th century has turned this trio of elements, each healthy in the right proportions, into narcotics. (Fittingly, many of the food companies featured in the book are owned by a tobacco company, Phillip Morris.)

But these companies -- General Mills,, Kraft, Pepsi, and others -- depend on these additives for more than enticing customers to come back again and again.  They need food that can stay on the shelves for weeks and months, surviving trips across the  globe on ship and truck,  and taste and feel exactly the same way time after time.  That means preservatives like salt and sugars, and it also means denaturing the foods so they don’t go and rot, and then applying more stable fat to make sure no taste is lost.  Salt, sugar, and fat not only alter the taste of foods: they change their appearances and how they feel in our mouths. Moss is given the opportunity to try name-brand products offered without the additives, and never records a positive experience: one might as well be eating soggy cardboard for all the pleasures these ‘foods’ bring.   In the light of such experiences, one can’t help but agree with Michael Pollan, who refuses to call things like Cheez-Its  food, and who instead refers to them as edible, food-like products.   If these items taste so abhorrent without the inclusion of ingredients harmful to our health in these amounts, why exactly are we eating them?

While the  aggressive marketing of these goods and their physically addicting nature is largely to blame, it helps that they’re convenient and  cheap, far cheaper than ‘real’ food.  Although on the whole Salt, Sugar, and Fat is a robust book, it misses a step when Moss tries to work out the solution: he never mentions the subsidies that allow additives like high-fructose corn syrup (featured in the Sugar section) to be so cheap on the shelves to the consumer, and thus more enticing to parents with a tight budget than bunches of red-leaf lettuce and broccoli. Considering that Moss spends time demonstrating how parts of the national government are at odds with one another -- one urging us to consume more of the same product to help "American farmers", while another urges us to consume less for health reasons -- it would have fitted in there nicely. Another answer to the mystery of our eating trash is the magic of branding: Naomi Klein's excellent No Logo demonstrated how certain companies have gotten rich not by producing quality products, but by effectively mystifying people, by associating their products with good feelings, popularity, or wealth, and the importance of brand loyalty pops up several times through this text.

Salt, Sugar, and Fat  makes a powerful case against processed foods, one which those with an interest in health (or marketing) will find fascinating.

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
Why We Get Sick, Nesse and Williams
American Mania: When More Isn't Enough, Peter Whybrow
No Logo, Naomi Klein
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan

Mmm, dopamine!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Brilliant Harry Potter fanfiction

Last while I heard a fanfiction series, "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality", mentioned on a podcast. In it, Harry is raised not by the abusive and smallminded Dursleys, but by a scientist, and thought to think critically. For him, the world is run by rules, and they can be sussed out by observation and experimentation. You might think that getting a letter from Hogwarts inviting him to a school of witchcraft and wizardry meant an end to that, but it isn't: instead, he realizes that the fundamental rules of the universe must be different than current thinking. And so he decides to figure out the rules. Not only is the quest is side-shakingly funny, but the characterization and writing are captivating so far. Harry is strides the thin line between madness and insanity, and his ambition to conquer the magical world with science is interpreted by some as the sign that he might well be the next Dark Lord,  a position the reader might well sympathize with given his penchant for hanging around Draco Malfoy.  The story as written so far is a charming combination of the familiar -- an eccentric Dumbledore, the stern McGonnagal, the fun of exploring an entirely new world -- with  intriguing twists.  Harry and Draco's first meeting, for instance, begins in conflict, but ends with them being intrigued by the other instead of loathing him. Their tête-à-têtes are perversely interesting.  While the author gives parts of Rowling's world much more depth -- the three "other" houses, Quirrel, Malfoy, and Hermione so far -- other parts are ignored completely (Quidditch) or taken down a peg (Gryffindor). The characters are also a bit more self-aware and make sly references to gaming culture ("Fine, I'll put my quest items in my inventory") and literature (wherein Dumbledore quotes Gandalf, with a twinkle in his eye and reveals that Mugglborn students insist on giving him copies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

If you've a mind for some good laughs, interesting conversations, and some tantalizing development of characters of the Harry Potter universe, do look it up...but be revised, it's hard to stop reading.

"In any case, Mr. Potter, you have not answered my original question," said Professor Quirrell finally. "What is your ambition?"
"Oh," said Harry. "Um.." He organized his thoughts. "To understand everything important there is to know about the universe, apply that knowledge to become omnipotent, and use that power to rewrite reality because I have some objections to the way it works now."
There was a slight pause.
"Forgive me if this is a stupid question, Mr. Potter," said Professor Quirrell, "but are you sure you did not just confess to wanting to be a Dark Lord?"
"That's only if you use your power for evil," explained Harry. "If you use the power for good, you're a Light Lord."
"I see," Professor Quirrell said. He tapped his other cheek with a finger. "I suppose I can work with that. But Mr. Potter, while the scope of your ambition is worthy of Salazar himself, how exactly do you propose to go about it? Is step one to become a great fighting wizard, or Head Unspeakable, or Minister of Magic, or -"
"Step one is to become a scientist."
Professor Quirrell was looking at Harry as if he'd just turned into a cat.
"A scientist," Professor Quirrell said after a while.
Harry nodded.
"A scientist?" repeated Professor Quirrell.
"Yes," Harry said. "I shall achieve my objectives through the power... of Science!"

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Long Emergency

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
© 2005 James Howard Kunstler
336 pages

Well, we're in for it. Such is the lesson of The Long Emergency, which predicts that the end of the 21st century will resemble the end of the 18th far more than the 20th. In it, author James Howard Kunstler posits that the systems that run our society are about to run out of the very fuel that  keeps them going. Oil is about to peak, leading to global disruption, resource wars, the total collapse of civilization, and all manner of unpleasantness. And that's before climate change wreaks havoc.

But last week The Atlantic ran an article that said we'll never run out of oil! It even had a smiley face! Surely a smiley face couldn't be wrong?  Perhaps it's true that we'll never wring the Earth completely dry of its sticky, black goodness -- but without a steady stream of oil to keep the global economy well-fed and lubricated, like any machine with moving parts it will seize up and die long before the last drop has been siphoned. We don't just use oil to get ourselves hither and yon -- we use petroleum for everything.  Your refrigerator and pantry are stocked with oil, not food -- from the pesticides to the tractors to the transfer trucks and ships that got the food (along with virtually ever other consumer good) to your door,  every morsel you eat is dripping with petrol.  They're literally covered in it, given the amount of petroleum-derived plastic wrapping that so many of the goods in the grocery come in. The entire system of globalization depends on oil to keep commerce flowing.

People have been predicting peak oil since the 1970s, but Kunstler's argument that we're approaching the critical mark begs some consideration given how intensively the wealthiest entities on Earth are combing the globe for any trace of anything that be converted to oil. Demand for petroleum products is ever-increasing as billions more in the developing world demand cars and shrinkwrapped food, the blessings of civilization. We're already experiencing diminishing returns, working hard to obtain the oil that used to come out of the ground all on its own, and the more energy we put in to extract oil, the more expensive the product will be. Considering that we're been reduced to smashing rocks to look for fuel, the fact that we're increasingly desperate for energy can't be overlooked.
Unfortunately for us, there are no real energy alternatives. Natural gas is finite as well, and its price is already rising;  biofuels and hydrogen are energy losers, and even renewables like solar and wind depend on oil for their parts and manufacture. Nuclear energy and electrified rail lines are our best bet, in Kunstler's view, but even that is limited by  the fact that a cheap-oil economy produces what they're made of .  Instead, Kunstler predicts catastrophe: contraction, not growth, will define the world to come (contraction referring not only to the amount of economic activity, not only to traffic, but to the human population as well; Kunstler expects a massive die-off though he never dwells on such morbidity).  Kunstler predicts that local agriculture will soon become the only viable kind, that cities placed on waterways will suddenly reexperience their golden ages,  that much of our energy will soon be provided by animals and humans.  Writing chiefly for Americans (who, thanks to car-centric urban policy, are going to be up peak oil creek without a paddle), Kunstler divides the country into different cultural and environmental areas and speculates on how they might adapt to the world to come, the world made by hand. The "Old Union, all but the southern  of the original 13 colonies, are best poised for survival: the topography is well suited to water mills,  there are many cities built to a traditional walkable pattern, and the people don't have a history of going outside the law to settle disputes....unlike the South, which will be taken over by crazy religious militias driven to madness by the summer heat once the air conditioners quit. The Pacific Northwest may cope, but it all depends on how much abuse they take from the refugee hordes swarming in from California, for the southwest and "old west" are doomed.

It's a daunting picture, one I first heard painted five years ago when Kunstler gave a lecture on 'the long emergency' at my university. I've since heard elements within it constantly, through regular listening of Kunstler's podcast and reading his articles online. Yet I'd never read the book properly until now, and I rather expected something World Altering.  I must have read The Geography of Nowhere  over ten times in the three years I've owned it: it delivers.   Perhaps the impact of Long Emergency was lessened for me because I've been hearing its arguments consistently for the last five years and take part of them for granted.  I suppose it doen't hurt that the book is edging on dated now, Kunstler issued an update in the form of Too Much Magic, released last year, in which he declared that we can't just rely on  throwing money around or technology magicking up a solution, where he uses fracking as an example of both.  As far as presenting the case for peak oil, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet  does a better job of presenting data and exploring global consequences. What that book misses, though, is Kunstler's prose and scathing commentary, which for me are a ball to read.  Kunstler steadfastly maintains what Americans lack, most of all, is a "coherent narrative" about what has happened to us, and this he spins here, with a story of how cheap energy allowed for high levels of entropy to manifest themselves in our system, increasing the nation's fragility.  Kunstler's chief weakness is his enthusiasm for urgent predictions that never quite come true: here, Kunstler predicts peak oil by 2008, and that hasn't quite happened. The only room for uncertainty he gives is that we may not know we've peaked until after the fact.  

Although not as potent as The Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency carries sting enough to merit the attention of Americans concerned about the country's future.

Never Done

Never Done: A History of American Housework
© 1982 Susan Strasser
365 pages

Every time I turn around there's something else to do
Cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two…
(“Gonna Be an Engineer”, Peggy Seeger)

Never Done: A History of American Houswork is a history of the American home, focusing on the work done within it, one which demonstrates how households became centers of consumption, instead of production.  It’s a marvelously meaty work, divided into sections that not only show how chores evolved, but other elements within the household – like the now abandoned practice of taking in boarders.  But more than a history of the home, it’s the story of American housewives, whose labors used to provide material value, not just aesthetic comfort;  their  chores carried meaning beyond keeping the carpet free of dust and the dishwasher full.  

            Those who complain about the chore of laundry today – “Put the clothes into the washer! Take them out! Put them into the dryer! Take them out!! When will it ever end?” are, in a word, wimps.  Maintaining a household’s laundry- - clothes, towels, sheets – used to entail an entire week of labor, beginning with extended soaks before laborious hand-washing period, which included a separate ‘bluing’ phase to preserve the whiteness of said sheets. And at the same time, mother laundress would be cooking full meals from scratch, often tending a fire to do – and depending on where she lived, usually fetching entire tubs of water per day to do the washing, cooking, and cleaning with. And the cleaning! Cleaning meant more than washing the dishes and dusting the tables. Cooking with fire or oil meant soot, and processing food from scratch produced grease, and this soot and grease got everywhere; little wonder spring cleaning was seen with such dread. And at the same time, household materials had to be produced – preserves for the winter, candles for the night, clothes for the children. And we complain about vacuuming!

            Such labors were eased first by fundamental innovations – the introduction of indoor plumbing,  gas lines, and electricity – and then by convenience appliances (washing machines, which in their first stages still required an awful lot of work)  gadgets (which did most of the work) and still later by completely processed goods (ready-made meals, disposable utensils) that took the work out of it completely.  After having witnessed the demands of household labor prior to the late 19th century, the appearance of such aides is welcome….but the avalanche of consumer goods that appears in the final chapters gives one pause.  As industry left the home – as the services that ran it became things to be purchased –   the home and housework lost its meaning;  decaying into chores,. Strasser covers the response of women to this, the attempt to elevate Home Economics to the status of business and industry by making it more ‘efficient’’ – but ultimately, the home was abandoned as women chose instead to pursue careers, and in fact had to help pay for all the new services and products they were being acculturated to expect. After growing up on canned biscuits, after all, who wants to start making dough by hand? 

            Although our lives have plainly become easier, there’s a certain wistfulness to the author’s writing; in some of the interviews, mothers express regret over some of the way their lives have changed. One in particular misses the time she spent with her kids washing dishes after supper; such moments of togetherness are increasingly hard to find, and emphasized the importance of the family taking care of one another’s needs; a childhood chore like keeping one’s bedroom straightened doesn’t make that connection.  Strasser is more distinctly uncomfortable with the reduction of wives and mothers – of people in general – into consumers, something she presumably explores further in Satisfaction Guaranteed, and touched on  in Waste and Want.

            Never Done was Strasser’s first work, and it's quite an introduction. It's slightly more academic than Waste and Want, but considering how broad an audience Waste and Want was written for, that's not saying much: this is still very lively, closer to narrative history than textbook -- and yet it's carrying as much information as a text, covering virtually everything that happens within its walls.  This is wonderful social and domestic history.