March, books 1, 2, and 3

I actually read all of these over the course of February, but I think I can cover them in one post.

This series is basically the story of civil rights in the US from the perspective of John Lewis. The story is framed by his interactions with President Obama as Obama is inaugurated.

I’m gonna say something a little heretical about these books. Although they’re excellent, for me they were somewhat victims of their hype. As a graphic way to tell John Lewis’ version of events, they were quite good, but at times, the story felt mildly disjointed. Some of this is, I presume, because the subject matter is just John Lewis recollecting things. But, I would’ve liked to see it organized in a way that carried the emotional arc more. I know this is asking a lot of a memoir, but compare it to, for example, Maus by Spiegelman. The latter is also a true story, and also a memoir of sorts, but every moment seems to be there for a reason.

One way in which the books are similar, yet different, is the use of framing devices. In Maus, it’s the son of the Shoah survivor’s attempt to make sense of himself and his relationship to his parents. I found it very strong, in part because it’s non-obvious – the father and son spend most of their time together fighting. It results in a beautifully nuanced character. The framing device in March is a bit more obvious and sentimental, and it’s not clear to me what it adds artistically.

That said, it’s still a fine series, and a great addition to your graphic novel collection. For me, it was kind of like Persepolis – great stuff, but it was missing that deeper note that the author seemed capable of.

March, books 1, 2, and 3 (Lewis)

Standard Deviations

Gary Smith is my kind of curmudgeon. This book is basically a long set of essays on how people screw up their stats. Sometimes this is particular complaints about particular (often famous) scholars. Sometimes it’s discussion of common conceptual errors. I especially enjoy how pretty much nobody is spared, from politicians to famous scholars, to beloved intellectuals like Steve Levitt of “Freakonomics” fame.

If you’re into turning a skeptical eye on everything, or if you want to learn how to think more clearly about science, the news, politics, economics, and anywhere else people are likely to abuse stats, this is a a great book for you.

Standard Deviations (Smith)

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich

What a delightful history of the Nazi relation (and Hitler’s relation in particular) to drugs, particularly methamphetamine. The author makes a compelling that the role of these drugs (which were used en masse during the Battle of France) has been underestimated. Similarly, the fact that Hitler had a personal physician who prescribed him all manner of drugs, up to and including speedballs, may have also been overlooked as an explanation of erratic behavior.

It’s a book full of stories I hadn’t heard elsewhere, and the perspective of history as viewed through pharmacology was new to me.

Blitzed (Ohler)

Martian Time-Slip

Not Philip K Dick’s finest work. It has lots of interesting moments, and all the elements that make Dick amazing are there, but… somehow it just doesn’t seem to coalesce. Almost all Dick novels follow a pattern, in which a number of small stories are set up in a very strange future reality. The stories are advanced as they bounce against each other, ultimately coming to some sort of resolution. When this works (as in Dr. Bloodmoney, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Man in the High Castle) it’s magnificent. It’s that part of Mozart’s 40th where suddenly all the melodies intertwine and change.

When it doesn’t work, it just feels confusing and discordant. I’d put Martian Time-Slip in this category. Worth reading if you’re a fan of the author, but otherwise probably not.

Martian Time-Slip (Dick)

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Okay, it’s an inflammatory title, but I really enjoyed the book! In some ways it reminds me “In Defense of Flogging” by Moskos, in the sense that the author isn’t exactly in favor the what the title claims, but nevertheless argues that our current alternative is even worse.

The basic idea here is that empathy is overvalued is a criterion for judgment, in that empathy (in the specific sense of “walking in someone else’s shoes” mentally) is very prone to cognitive bias. For example, you may be more likely to give to a charity that tugs at your heartstrings than one that accomplishes the goals you logically desire. More ominously, the part of your brain that engages in empathy is probably at least a bit racist and xenophobic.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s kind of a mix between behavioral economics and utilitarian ethics, but it’s still a quick fun read.

Against Empathy (Bloom)

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

I have a love-hate relationship with Pollan. He writes well, but for popular science I often find it a bit lighter on science than I’d like. As with many writers who fall somewhere between journalism and pop science, you often get a long story about visiting a person and place instead of a detailed description of the science at hand.

Then again, I have never failed to enjoy one of his books. This one is about plants that have so deeply satisfied human desires (marijuana, apples, potatoes, and tulips) that humans have cultivated them extensively. The conceit here is that the plants have tapped our desire as a means of reproduction. This isn’t a new idea, and I suspect it wasn’t new in 2001, but it is very well explored. And, like all Pollan’s books, it has an engaging structure as it moves from topic to topic – tulips are beauty, apples are sweetness, potatoes are control, and marijuana is intoxication.

In short, I enjoyed it, and to the extent I have criticisms, they are basically unfair. I would prefer more depth in a book that is supposed to read more like an adventure travelogue of food. If that sounds like something you’d like, I recommend it.

The Botany of Desire (Pollan)

The Complete Persepolis

This is a graphic novel about the author’s life growing up during the Iranian Revolution as the daughter of secular leftist parents. It’s not the most beautiful of graphic novels, but the art hits the right tone. Although I enjoyed it, and recommend it if you’re interested in the history, I have trouble putting it on the same pedestal as books like Fun House by Bechdel. Bechdel’s book both recounts stories from her life and weaves them into a sort of visual poem. Satrapi’s stories are fascinating (viscerally, they are more interesting than Bechdel’s), but they don’t really come together as something.

They are vignettes from her life, and that of itself is quite enjoyable, but I came away wanting something more. Perhaps it’s just my ignorance, but it wasn’t clear to me why a story or moment went in one place and not another, other than mere chronology.

The Complete Persepolis (Satrapi)

The Way of Strangers

Wood does an excellent job of trying to make you understand how people in the Islamic State think. A lot of it is personal memoirs and history, but most interesting of all, Wood argues that the West has often misunderstood Islamic State members, by either claiming that they’re purely the product of our own influence, or that they are not truly a religion, or that the people in charge are mere power seekers. To oversimplify a bit, Wood’s big point is that these people are best understood as religious people with a great deal of conviction, who believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qu’ran, that leads to their awful behavior. Particularly memorable for me was a part where he mentions a conservative American scholar who believes we fail to understand ISIS because most of us in the secular West no longer understand the basic ideological framework that would lead someone to endure war and privation for religious beliefs.

The Way of Strangers (Wood)