Tag Archives: politics

** Human Acts by Han Kang

Human Acts tells the story of a teenager killed in riots that erupted in South Korea in 1980 through multiple points of view, always staying in an impressionistic mode that keeps us readers on our toes. It would be impossible to tell upbeat stories about what is essentially civil war but this book is particularly dark. I much preferred The Vegetarian by the same author but I admired this achievement.

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** Strangers In Their Own Lands by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right starts with a wonderful mission: to listen to conservative voters in the Louisiana bayou and understand how their lives and circumstances brought them to support the Tea Party and Donald Trump. It’s a noble cause, embraced somewhat naively as the author starts with a conviction that people who have suffered many disastrous pollution events should naturally lean left — but of course there are more reasons to choose sides than the environment, and in any case regulations and government interventions post-disasters have left locals bitter about slow and ineffective solutions.

That said, it is very interesting to see how deep-seated emotions such as the disgust at people taking advantage of government benefits (sometimes, interestingly, themselves!) and the deep-seated beliefs that oppressed people should rise up and resist rather than leave their countries can be stirred and exploited by political parties and candidates into cries for lower taxes and fewer refugees.

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** The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman

The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline is a puzzling book, as it claims to share stories of  positive political change but starts with a gloomy introduction that claims that the world is in utter crisis. Somehow I can think of even relatively recent times when the gloom was darker. The author then proceeds to tell 10 good-news stories, pleasingly drawn from all corners of the globe. But despite his attempts to bring them together at the end into a set of reproducible best practices, most stories seem to have required that most elusive of treasure, a selfless, incorruptible, charismatic, visionary, hands-on leader — or have serious side effects (which the author volunteers, refreshingly). As I said, it is a rather puzzling book…

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*** Pacific by Simon Winchester

The hyperactive subtitle of Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers announces it: this book may be focused on the Pacific Ocean, but adeptly serves stories as diverse as navigating without instruments, how Larry Ellison spends his money (apparently paying someone to retrieve basketballs shot from his yacht), the discovery of entirely new life forms at the dark bottom of the ocean, and how a mostly unknown American Colonel divided Korea into two countries. There are lighter moments, such the history of surfing, but each chapter cleverly moves from a specific anecdote to a larger topic. Entirely enjoyable, even for readers who do not live right by the Pacific.

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** White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

The United States often thinks of itself as a classless society, but of course that’s a delusion, as the author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America demonstrates, starting with the first immigrants who promptly created local versions of aristocracy — and very familiar patterns of contempt and exclusion of the poor, in particular through nonexistent or substandard education.  Along the way she introduces many elitists, including Harriett Beecher Stowe, who wrote rather disturbing anti-poor literature, and the eugenists who sterilized Carrie Buck, and (a few) others who introduced more inclusive politics. Class may not be as explosive a topic as race, but perhaps it should be.

 

 

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** Free Speech by Timothy Garton Ash

Free speech is 100% good, right? Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that. In Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, the author illustrates how difficult it is both to define what should be censored (because there are limits, for everyone, inconveniently tied to cultural norms) and how it should be censored. He focuses on the twin ideas that, if most speech today is through the Internet, then (1) individual nations cannot regulate what is essentially happening worldwide and (2) that the companies that control the storage and distribution of speech are put in a situation of control, often above what nations can do.

I found the book to be surprisingly confusing in its structure (in particular, I cannot recall any of the ten principles of the title) but the many examples and detailed investigations of why, exactly, it is hard to speak freely.

 

 

 

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** The Highest Glass Ceiling by Ellen Fitzpatrick

Congrats to Hillary! Am I the only one to think it’s a little weird to call the female presidential candidate by her first name and the male candidate by his last name? A little disrespectful, perhaps? In any case, Ms. Clinton is not the first woman to run for president, and more interestingly she is not the first one to be on the ballot: she is the first one to be nominated by a major party. The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency tells the story of three women who ran before her, one who created her own party in the process (at a time when most women could not vote at all!) and two who campaigned all the way to their parties’ conventions. It’s so interesting to see a candidate in 1871 arguing that equality is not just a concept, but must be made concrete, or that the smear campaign against her focused on her supposed sexual escapades. Or that the second one, Margaret Chase Smith, was the only female senator upon her election in 1949. The most sobering lesson from this book is the historically gigantic financial gap between male and female candidates. It’s hard to be heard on a shoestring.

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Filed under Non fiction