I wish I could say that I loved Becoming, and I did not. But I loved many aspects of it, in particular how direct she is sharing her family’s life (without ever giving details too private to be shared), how she details the many limitations of living life in the glare of media, unable to take a stroll or escape the White House unaccompanied, and how she was able to raise functioning children in a very un-child friendly environment.
What I did not like so much was the workaday prose, the sometimes stifling avoidance of political controversies, and the overall feeling of how much she sacrificed to her famous husband’s career. Still, I know you want to read the book, and you should!
We take it for granted that our milk contains milk, maple syrup something more than mere corn syrup, and that canned meat won’t kill us. The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century recalls a time when early food manufacturers felt free to sell pretty much anything, in the absence of any legislation. The book describes the difficult fight of a chemist, Dr. Wiley, to research safe products and push for regulations, the 1906 Food and Drug Act, against the strong objections of the food industry. That should make for a great, inspiring story, and there are indeed some delightful moments, as when roomfuls of young men are enlisted to eat their way through doubtful preservatives (well, maybe not so delightful for the young men!). But the pace is slow and the details somewhat mind-numbing.
I thoroughly enjoyed Twisted Prey, which stars a demonic female senator who will stop at nothing to annihilate her enemies in her quest to become president of the United States. The investigator, a calm Minnesotan, strategizes while his two wonderful sidekicks gleefully execute dangerous deeds. As the body count mounts, his final hint comes from her perfume, which I thought was perhaps the one weakness of the book, an awkward and old-fashioned concept of an otherwise perfectly terrifying woman.
It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear sagely notices the world is a pretty good place, and generally getting better. In the first part of the book the author organizes the discussion around standard catastrophe scenarios (“Why don’t we starve?”, “Will nature collapse?”, “Will the economy collapse?”), each smoothly feeding into the other as in a mystery novel. Using publicly available statistics, the author calmly demolishes each argument, weaving in the real reasons for the concerns: we like to worry, and politicians and others have a built-in interest to keep us worried. The second part I found less successful, because the author just rehashes the reasons that were already introduced in the first part of the book — and also, uncomfortably, argues time and again against regulations of any type, destroying his own argument. Perhaps the economy is not collapsing not solely because it just thrives on its own, but also because some amount of regulation make it work a bit better. Minimum wage anyone?
At its best, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose is the very moving story of a family living through the last days of one of theirs, dying of a brain tumor. But it’s also a book about politics, since Joe Biden continued to serve as vice-president throughout the ordeal and was pressed to decide whether to run for the presidency to boot. And at times the narrative reminds us of how necessarily detached from regular folks’ lives privileged people can live — with private planes, round-the-clock security, and a certainty that access to care or specialists is always possible. I thought I would think solely of the private suffering, but I found myself uneasy with the privilege.
Ever wondered why city A (Richmond, say, in the San Francisco Bay Area, which the author uses abundantly as an example) is black while another (Milpitas) is not? The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America shows how many decades of zoning and building law boldly laid out cities where races were kept well separated. The federal government, through the Federal Housing Agency (FHA) for a long time would only guarantee mortgages to developments that excluded African Americans. Local zoning often prohibited apartment buildings in single-family home neighborhoods, at a time when non-white families could rarely afford single-family homes. Famously, during the Great Depression banks redlined entire neighborhoods and were supported by government agencies to do so. And the list goes on — to a scandalous length.
That said, I felt that the outraged tone of the book detracted somewhat from the message. Let the facts speak for themselves: they are appalling enough to persuade.
I’m not sure many readers of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America have managed to read all 650 pages of it carefully. I certainly did not, and I found the detailed stories of the various political machinations and scandals very tedious.
That said, I found it most interesting to see the how some of the themes of the early start of the movement, during the Great Awakening, sound quite modern. The author also does a great job of showing how the thirst for political influence shapes the values that are put forth — abortion restrictions rather than anti-poverty campaigns, for instance. We are quite far from religious values and