The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows is the story of the author, a trained ordnance disposal specialist who went to Iraq, twice, to dismantle roadside bombs and came back with post-traumatic stress disorder. The story is grisly, with body parts galore (and worse) and dead friends, and the PTSD symptoms are chilling. After the struggle, it’s hard to believe that he seems to have (finally) found the right meds and yoga, not to mention his ever-patient wife, to bring him some peace.
Monthly Archives: September 2012
Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale is the sober tale of how extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale of the title (in Pennsylvania and New York state) was conducted as a real-time experiment, from the “land men” who convinced hard-up farmers to sell their rights to mine the land to the various mishaps of drilling and production, including exploding toilets, heavy trucks at all hours on what was a quiet landscape, and, more worrisome, the enormous impact of an extraction process that needs vertiginous amounts of water and needs some place to dispose of the used water, laden with the mysterious chemicals required for the fracking. It’s the classic tragedy of the early adopters not realizing what they signed up for, both for the individual farmers who just needed a little income supplement and did not foresee the monster drills in their backyards, and for the local and state governments whose regulations were designed for standard wells, not the newfangled kind.
Written by a journalist with a deluge of facts, figures, and dates so on the tedious side as the story develops.
In contrast with Coming Apart, which covered the same ground of the growing divide between rich and poor in the US, The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It offers a thankfully less biased analysis of root causes of the problem along with practical solutions.The analysis is far-ranging, as the author does not hesitate to probe education, immigration, the supply of vitamins in food, offshoring for both low-skilled and high-skilled jobs, and many other potential factors. Some of the solutions made sense to me, such as increasing the quality of public services, and in particular education since social mobility is sadly lacking, and reforming the tax system to impose higher levels of taxation on the very rich. But others are more puzzling. Sure, increasing so-called skilled immigrants (those with H-1B visas) would help the technology sector but it’s not clear to me how it would improve the prospects of the poor — or do much to throttle the prodigious growth of the earnings of the super-rich.
Still, a thoughtful book on a thorny topic.
With a similar title, but on a completely different topic than the disappointing Money Well Spent reviewed a few months ago that focused on philanthropy, this book, Money Well Spent?: The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History explores the outcome of the stimulus. The picture is quite bleak, both because of the abundance of examples of misspent funds and also the very structure of the program, which appears to have spread itself too thin to make a visible impact — and that’s before the author considers the dysfnctions of the early Obama presidency, as described in exhaustive detail in Confidence Men,
Although the author does not go quite that far, it also seems that a major failure was a classic failure of defining metrics and targets ahead of time to decide how to measure success — apart from an unemployment percentage that was incautiously plucked from thin air at the last minute before presenting the package to Congress, and turned out to be a political disaster. Overall it’s very unclear what the government can do to fix economic problems. Perhaps doing nothing at all may be the better course of action…
I found The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion to be a most interesting, learned discussion of how people of different political persuasions have very different ways of thinking about what’s right or wrong. The author has developed (and tested) a theory of how people rely on a small number of values that govern their moral choices at a very primitive level. Different values, different choices, and we know that instantaneous, emotional choices (see Thinking, Fast and Slow) often prevail, and that we will make up logical explanations to match them, after the fact. So if your main value is Care, you will likely vote Democrat, but if you think Loyalty and Authority are more important, you will just as likely vote Republican.
I did have a couple of concerns about the book. One was that the theory seems to be overly focused on the American political system and it’s not clear that it would apply well for other systems. The other is that the author had no recommendations for how to make things better, save the obvious “try to see the other person’s side”. Great advice, but surely if it were that easy some of our politicians may have tried it already?
Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind tells of the author’s fascination with magic and his struggles to become competent at (difficult) card tricks. Along the way we go to a magic convention, taste the politics of magicians’ societies (much the same as the politics of any membership organization), go to magic school, and even get a lesson on how magicians exploit our psychological weaknesses to amaze us. I just could not quite get over the general geekiness of the narrative, which only peaked my interest when the author discussed the intriguing parallels between magic and sheer fraud. Think about it…
Do you like Georgian country houses, horses, servants, Victorian young ladies looking for husbands, families on the edge of financial ruin, and ghosts? Then you will like The Uninvited Guests with its beautifully detailed period scenes (with carefully anachronistic characters, in particular the plucky young ladies), its psychopathic villain, and its Jane Austen-like atmosphere. For me, I prefer to read Jane Austen herself.
Reminiscent of the delightful Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but mostly for the setting, also in the Arabian peninsula,A Hologram for the King tells the story of a middle-aged IT sales rep who finds himself waiting for the king to deign appear in a tent in the desert so he can demo his company’s marvelous hologram. And wait he does, along with his technical and much younger team. The story is not at all about the sales — which, as we suspect from the start, will never happen, but rather about regrets, losing friends and wives and perhaps children too, and where we belong, all that interspersed with funny and sometimes more serious moments of multicultural confusion. Very well done.
And as I realize that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen never made it to the blog: three stars to that story (which has seen been made into an overly mushy movie) of a fishery expert hired by a sheikh to bring not just salmon but salmon fishing to a dry bed in the desert. It sounds completely absurd but the story is beautifully told and highly recommended.
How Will You Measure Your Life could challenge the readers to define their values and contrast them with their everyday lives — and to be fair it does some of that, but I thought that it instead rambled into a rather incoherent mix of management tips, parenting bromides, and the sage advice we middle-aged people proffer at young graduates but so clumsily and boringly that it is ignored. So while I found some great gems in the book (e.g. look for verbs rather than adjectives in a resume), I cannot recommend it.
The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker tells the story of a young woman who started as a receptionist at the New Yorker in 1957… and left, 20 years later, still working as the receptionist on the same floor where she started. The gossip, occasionally catty, must be fun for New Yorker fans. As an outsider, I found the memoir rather sad, as a naive young woman in the big city with naive dreams and aspirations is charmed, exploited, and tricked by more cynical characters. After tens years of intensive therapy (she seems to imply that the magazine paid for it in lieu of paying her properly), she finally realized her worth and decamped to more lucrative and intellectually rewarding settings. The many writers who had depended on her so completely must have missed her tremendously.