About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

#80: Beijing Coma

Beijing Coma, by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008)

Summary: "Dai Wei has been unconscious for almost a decade. A PhD student at Beijing University and a pro-democracy protester at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, he was caught by a soldier's bullet and fell into a deep coma. As soon as the hospital authorities discovered that he had been an activist, his mother was forced to take him home. Dodging constant police surveillance, she took him to quack doctors in the remote countryside, hoping they might help bring him out of his coma. When her money ran out, she sold his left kidney and befriended Master Yao, a member of the outlawed Falun Gong sect, who was prepared to treat Dai Wei for free.

"Dai Wei lives on his iron bed and relives the past -- returning to his childhood in the Cultural Revolution, his three troubled love affairs, and the heady days of the democracy movement -- while all around him China continues to change. As the millenium draws near, a sparrow flies through the window and lands on Dai Wei's naked chest, a sign that he must emerge from his coma. But China has also undergone a massive transformation while Dai Wei lay unconscious. As he prepares to take leave of his bed, Dai Wei realizes that the rich, imaginative world afforded to him as a coma patient is in startling contrast with the death-in-life of the world outside.

"At once a powerful allegory of a rising China, racked by contradictions, and a seminal examination of the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing Coma is Ma Jian's masterpiece. Spiked with dark wit, poetic beauty, and deep rage, this extraordinary novel confirms his place as one of the world's most significant living writers."

Opening Lines: "Through the gaping hole where the covered balcony used to be, you see the bulldozed locust tree slowly begin to rise again. This is a clear sign that from now on you're going to have to take your life seriously."

My Take: I've lost track of how many times I've checked this book out and then returned it to the library spine unbent (at least by me). The first ten pages or so look promising. Let's see how it plays out.

Finally finished this one last night. Glad I finally did, but all in all, it was a bit disappointing. The novel alternates between two narrative streams: one takes place in 1989, when Dai Wei is in graduate school, in the months leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The second is set ten years later, on the eve of the millenium, as Beijing puts its best foot forward for its Olympic bid and fully cognizant Dai Wei lies, still comatose, in his mother's filthy flat. Surprisingly, it's the second that's far more compelling. The 1989 narrative, while interesting at the start and harrowing at the end, grows almost unbearably tedious in the middle. There may have been an intentional, meta-level component to this; if you've been in a coma for 10 years, completely aware of what's going on around you but totally incapable of communicating that fact, and have nothing to do but remember your past in excruciatingly minute detail, I suppose that would be pretty tedious -- but it still didn't make me eager to pick up the book and read about it for much of the past week. The Tiananmen Square student protests, naturally, featured a cast of thousands, and I had difficulty keeping most of the players straight. While some of this may be my own unfamiliarity with Chinese names, I don't think that's the bulk of it; rather, I think it's that Ma doesn't successfully portray more than 2 or 3 as having distinctive identities that set them apart from their classmates and comrades. Tian Yi is Dai Wei's histrionic and not very likable girlfriend; Nuwa is the stunning art student every man in the square is in love (or at least in lust) with; Ke Xi is the passionate but intemperate early leader of the student movement who regularly faints from the intensity of his own exertions; and Dai Wei seems to have a more-info-than-I-needed-thanks fascination with ladies' feet. After 400+ pages in the Square, I wanted to know more about these characters (and some of the others around them) than that. And while it seems almost inevitable that a burgeoning political movement + college students = a certain amount of internecine squabbling and jockeying for position, I wasn't sufficiently convinced of the characters' passion to see why they bothered to stick it out. (By contrast, when I read Les Miserables, I both appreciated the students' ideals and felt a certain sad sympathy for their doomed naivete -- though admittedly, not every novelist can be Victor Hugo.)

On the other hand, hearing the comatose Dai Wei's perspective on all that's happening around him as he lies abed motionless is by turns hair-raising and fascinating. While his mother's not a very sympathetic character, and you're shocked the first few times she urges her son to hurry up and die (assuming, of course, that he can't hear or understand her), you also can't help but muse on the toll serving as his caregiver almost single-handedly for a decade must take. Throughout most of the novel, she remains convinced that Dai Wei himself is to blame for his position -- just as she'd blamed his late father years before for being branded a rightist during the Cultural Revolution. Yet she continues for years to seek unorthodox treatments, desperately hoping that one day, something will finally wake him up. And I was both repulsed and curious to read about the increasingly filthy and cluttered state of her apartment; is this because she's simply exhausted from the burden of caring for her son, or is is a deliberate (and largely successful) attempt to keep the police (at first suspicious of Dai Wei's Tiananmen Square connections and later of her involvement in Falun Gong) at bay? It's also intriguing to see how much detail Dai Wei is able to discern from his bed, as he becomes more and more attuned to infinitesimal variations in sounds, movements, and smells ... and to follow the divergent paths of his fellow demonstrators over the years, as China's economy explodes.

I don't know that I'm sorry I read this book, but I also don't know that I'll be quick to recommend it to others. This is very likely one that's better to read with a book group than completely solo.

Friday, October 29, 2010

#78: Superfreakonomics

Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance, by Steve Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (New York: William Morrow, 2009)

Summary: "The New York Times bestselling Freakonomics was a worldwide sensation, selling more than four million copies in thirty-five languages and changing the way we look at the world. Now Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner return with Superfreakonomics, and fans and newcomers alike will find that the freakquel is even bolder, funnier, and more surprising than the first.

"Four years in the making, Superfreakonomics asks not only the tough questions, but the unexpected ones: What's more dangerous, driving drunk or walking drunk? Why is chemotherapy prescribed so often if it's ineffective? Can a sex change boost your salary?

"Superfreakonomics challenges the way we think all over again, exploring the hidden side of everything with such questions as:
  • How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?
  • Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands?
  • How much good do car seats do?
  • What's the best way to catch a terrorist?
  • Did TV cause a rise in crime?
  • What do hurricanes, heart attacks, and highway deaths have in common?
  • Are people hardwired for altruism or selfishness?
  • Can eating kangaroo save the planet?
  • Who adds more value: a pimp or a realtor?
"Levitt and Dubner mix smart thinking and great storytelling like no one else, whether investigating a solution to global arming or explaining why the price of oral sex has fallen so drastically. By examining how people respond to incentives, they show the world for what it really is -- good, bad, ugly, and in the final analysis, superfreaky.

"Freakonomics has been imitated many times over -- but only now, with Superfreakonomics, has it met its match."

Table of Contents:
  • An Explanatory Note: In which we admit to lying in our previous book
  • Introduction: Putting the Freak in Economics: In which the global financial meltdown is entirely ignored in favor of more engaging topics
  • Chapter 1: How Is a Street Prostitute Like a Department-Store Santa? In which we explore the various costs of being a woman
  • Chapter 2: Why Should Suicide Bombers Buy Life Insurance? In which we discuss compelling aspects of birth and death, though primarily death
  • Chapter 3: Unbelievable Stories About Apathy and Altruism: In which people are revealed to be less good than previously thought, but also less bad
  • Chapter 4: The Fix Is In -- and It's Cheap and Simple: In which big, seemingly intractable problems are solved in surprising ways
  • Chapter 5: What Do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo Have In Common? In which we take a cool, hard look at global warming
  • Epilogue: Monkeys Are People Too: In which it is revealed that -- aw, hell, you have to read it to believe it
My Take: Yes, I've gone from being bored with a mystery/ detective story to looking forward to being entertained by a book that's (at least tangentially) about economics. There is clearly something wrong with me.

Damn, but that was a good time! Don't take my word for it, as I'm an admitted econ geek wannabe -- but Filbert (a/k/a Mr. Hazelthyme) and Sprig (formerly Littlehazel) aren't, and the grand finale, what happens when capuchin monkeys are taught to use money chapter even had them laughing out loud!

picks up where the original Freakonomics left off, but you don't necessarily have to have read the earlier book (or even taken any econ classes) to enjoy this one.

(Much later) Life interfered, I got backlogged, and had to return the book before doing a thorough review. Sad to say, but hey -- at least you know I liked it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

#77 - Mr. Peanut

Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

Summary: "David Pepin has loved his wife, Alice, since the moment they met in a university seminar on Alfred Hitchcock. After thirteen years of marriage he still can't imagine living without her -- yet he obsessively contemplates her demise. Soon she is dead, and he is both deeply distraught and the prime suspect.

"The detectives investigating Alice's suspicious death have plenty of personal experience with conjugal enigmas: Ward Hastroll was happily married until his wife inexplicably became voluntarily and militantly bedridden; and Sam Sheppard is especially sensitive to the intricacies of marital guilt and innocence, having decades before been convicted and then exonerated of the brutal murder of his wife.

"Still, these men are in the business of figuring things out, even as Pepin's role in Alice's death grows even more confounding when they link him to a highly unusual hit man called Mobius. Like the Escher drawings that inspire the computer games David designs for a living, these complex, interlocking dramas are structurally and emotionally intense, subtle, and intriguing; they brilliantly explore the warring impulses of affection and hatred, and pose a host of arresting questions. Is it possible to know anyone fully, completely? Are murder and marriage two sides of the same coin, each endlessly recycling into the other? And what, in the end, is the truth about love?

"Mesmerizing, exhilarating, and profoundly moving, Mr. Peanut is a police procedural of the soul, a poignant investigation of the relentlessly mysterious human heart -- and a first novel of the highest order."

Opening Line: "When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself."

My Take: Yeah, after a 500+-page tome on the horrors of war and a much-shorter book so filled with higher-level math as to seem like another language, I think it's time for something a little lighter ... like a story about a guy who may or may not have murdered his wife, say.

Well, that was disappointing. The reviewers were all over this one; Scott Turow, in the New York Times, calls it "daring [and] arresting ... an enormous success -- forceful and involving, often deeply stirring and always impressively original." The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, while not quite as laudatory, were nonetheless mostly positive. While I can't say I found it awful, I did end up wondering if these reviewers read the same book I did. Even Turow acknowledges that the novel's point of view is "overwhelmingly male." I don't object to this per se; heck, half the population is male. However, what all the reviewers seem to miss is that if you're offering a compelling meditation on marriage, it helps to have all your principals be at least reasonably sympathetic. In this area, Mr. Peanut falls far short of the mark. I usually avoid published reviews while I'm actually reading a book, lest they unduly influence my own experience, but here, I broke the rule about halfway through because I was desperate to see what others saw in the novel. Turow calls the three wives withholding, but that's not the half of it; both Alice and the voluntarily-bedridden Hannah Hastroll are so dramatic, manipulative, and uncommunicative that I just couldn't see why David and Ward didn't, to quote Dan Savage, DTMFA. A grown woman feels like she's become invisible to her husband, and just plain stops getting out of bed, letting her husband bring meals on a tray, for months on end? (How she washes or goes to the bathroom remain a mystery.) Another adult pitches constant temper tantrums, walking out on or refusing to speak to her partner for some perceived slight? I mean, really. For one character in a novel to behave like this could have been intriguing, an exploration of the complicated, sometimes dysfunctional pas de deux that evolves over time between long-married partners. For two unconnected characters to do it, and a third (Marilyn Sheppard) to take at least some steps in this direction, makes me wonder if Ross is working through some issues of his own here. (At least Marilyn, despite her unilateral decision to have a sexless marriage, is rendered with some sympathetic qualities; Alice has precious few, and Hannah none.)

This is really too bad, because the story otherwise raises some interesting issues. To what extent might both partners in a marriage be complicit in one partner's affair? How does infertility affect a couple's relationship? (Had Ross toned down Alice's histrionics, the part about her having a second-trimester miscarriage while on vacation would have been far more moving.) If you've ever imagined the death of someone you love, what kind of guilt do you carry if and when that person does die? Unfortunately, Mr. Peanut seems too busy scratching the surface of many different issues to really do any one of them justice.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

#76 - The Calculus of Friendship

The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding About Math, by Steven H. Strogatz (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Summary: "The Calculus of Friendship is the story of an extraordinary connection between a teacher and a student, as chronicled through more than thirty years of letters between them. What makes their relationship unique is that it is based almost entirely on a shared love of calculus. For them, calculus is more than a branch of mathematics; it is a game they love playing together, a constant when all else is in flux. The teacher goes from the prime of his career to retirement, competes in whitewater kayaking at the international level, and loses a son. The student matures from high school math whiz to Ivy League professor, suffers the sudden death of a parent, and blunders into a marriage destined to fail. Yet through it all they take refuge in the haven of calculus -- until a day comes when calculus is no longer enough.

"Like calculus itself, The Calculus of Friendship is an exploration of change. It's about the transformation that takes place in a student's heart, as he and his teacher reverse roles, as they age, as they are buffeted by life itself. Written by a renowned teacher and communicator of mathematics, The Calculus of Friendship is warm, intimate, and deeply moving. The most inspiring ideas of calculus, differential equations, and chaos theory are explained through metaphors, images, and anecdotes in a way that all readers will find beautiful, and even poignant. Math enthusiasts, from high school students to professionals, will delight in the offbeat problems and lucid explanations in the letters. For anyone whose life has been changed by a mentor, The Calculus of Friendship will be an unforgettable journey."

Opening Lines: "Calculus thrives on continuity. At its core is the assumption that things change smoothly, that everything is only infintesimally different from what it was a moment before."

My Take: Coming to this as someone who never got calculus in high school but wishes I was in a position to tackle it anew today -- and someone who's always a sucker for a heartwarming, mentor-mentee story. Let's see ...

(Later, after finishing the book) Sigh. Guess this wasn't the book for me, or I wasn't the reader for it. If you either know calculus or are willing to spend a lot of time teaching yourself to follow the detailed, multi-page problems that form the bulk of Strogatz and Joffrey's correspondence, have at it. Sadly, I don't fall into either camp, and when you strip away the mathematical equations, there just wasn't much left. Oh well.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

#75 - Matterhorn

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010).

Summary: "High in the mountains of South Vietnam, a young lieutenant is flown to an isolated, anonymous hill between Laos and the DMZ where a company of Marines is building a fire-support base. It is his first day in the jungle. From the moment his feet hit the mud -- the brass have named the hill Matterhorn -- his senses are assaulted by a chaotic swirl of monsoon rain and fog, screeching radios and bulldozers, and the stench of almost two hundred men who are some combination of sick, exhausted, filthy, sodden, and scared out of their minds. He has no idea if he is up to this.

"So begins this extraordinary story of second lieutenant Waino Mellas and his comrades in Bravo Company. The year is 1969 and Mellas, a reservist with an Ivy League education and a chip on his shoulder, has been assigned to lead a rifle platoon of forty Marines, most of whom are teenagers. He will need the help of his fellow officers: Fitch, the harried company commander who, at twenty-three, is already straining under the weight of his responsibilities; Hawke, the charismatic executive officer who is suspicious of Mellas's ambition; and Mellas's fellow platoon leaders, Goodwin and Kendall, who have troubles of their own.

"Soon the company is ordered to abandon Matterhorn and embark on a dangerous mission to sever a crucial North Vietnamese supply line. As the Marines navigate the bewildering valleys and switchbacks of the jungle they endure a series of deadly tests -- firefights, mortar attacks, snipers -- and are driven forward by a capricious colonel who, thanks to new technology, is trying to fight the war by long-range radio. They are also dogged by racial tension that threatens to tear the company apart. But when the Marines find themselves confronted by a massive enemy regiment, they are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. As each man fights for his life and the lives of his friends, Mellas must face the reality of war, the truth of his motives, and the depth of his commitments. The experience will change him forever."

Opening Line: "Mellas stood beneath the gray monsoon clouds on the narrow strip of cleared ground between the edge of the jungle and the relative safety of the perimeter wire."

My Take: Wow. A complex, gripping war novel that both evokes Catch-22 and leaves its own imprint on the genre. Stayed up till 11:30 last night (yes, this is late for me) turning the pages, because I just had to know how it ended. I don't think I'll ever read a war story or watch a war movie in quite the same way again.

As I wrote after having read just the first chapter, Marlantes isn't afraid to grab you by the throat right from the start, and let you know what kind of a story this is going to be. Even without the constant threat of guerrilla attacks, the raw brutality of the Vietnamese jungle is a character in itself. Within 3 pages of Mellas' arrival in the crude Matterhorn base camp, a squad leader is felled by a leech in his urethra. With the fog too thick to land a medevac chopper, a medic is forced to perform field surgery to save his life. Only then does the medevac helicopter arrive, whisking Fisher off for further treatment in Tokyo, leaving the rest of the company to wonder if he's paid for his survival with childlessness or impotence. Several chapters later, the unit suffers its first casualty (and loses what may be its only true race-transcending friendship) when a Marine is mauled by a tiger. Once again, weather and politics conspire to prevent medevac or even resupply helicopters from landing, and his surviving comrades must carry his body through the jungle for a week ... on no rations. At the risk of trivializing what's clearly as serious a story as they come, I had a similar reaction here as I did when reading the first battle scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which Rowling blithely kills off Hedwig: "Wow, the author isn't pulling any punches here." War ain't pretty, and Marlantes isn't afraid to say so -- very loudly and clearly, if necessary.

Part of what makes Matterhorn work so well is that it's not your basic action-packed, heroism-everywhere style narrative. As Washington Post reviewer David Maisel explains, comparing Matterhorn to other absurdist war novels,
"All those authors respond to the main shortcoming of traditional war stories, which show the horror of war, but invariably with the tug of adventurism and the beauty that comes through bravery, camaraderie or the glory of a meaningful death. ... [Matterhorn] reads like adventure and yet it makes even the toughest war stories seem a little pale by comparison."
While some scenes (particularly the climactic battle, in which a gravely depleted Bravo Company tries to retake Matterhorn from the NVA) do have a very cinematic feel to them, this seems almost inevitable given the subject matter. More to the point, Marlantes's characters are at least as important as the action sequences. In fact, much of what happens flows directly from individual, flawed human beings making the best decisions they can under urgent, chaotic circumstances. When the story opens, Mellas is a green-as-they-come reservist with political ambitions and a Yale Law School admission waiting for him back home. It's a given that this is going to change, and it does, but in a subtle, unforced way; Mellas is the protagonist, yes, but not the full story. Initially, he can't decide whether to befriend or steer clear of Marine lifer Hawke, the former leader of Mellas's own platoon who's now been promoted to XO -- especially as Hawke seems to recognize Mellas's ambitions immediately and isn't afraid to say so.

On their own, Mellas and Hawke might sound a bit like stock characters, and I guess there's some of that there; again, when you're telling an age-old story, it's fair to assume that you'll meet at least a few archetypes. Fortunately, the other members of the company are drawn with sufficient nuance that this isn't a game-stopper. I especially appreciated seeing how, given the civil rights struggle that was going on stateside at the same time, the individual conflicts and events in the book are (pardon the pun) colored by racial tensions and identities: Is perpetual headache sufferer Mallory a chicken$#!+ malingerer, or are his complaints poo-poohed because he's black? Why, why, why, when cerebral malaria afflicts the troops, is it the black soldier who dies and the white one who lives? Who knows better how to further Black Power in the bush: China, who eschews pot and alcohol while steadily stealing weapons to supply the struggle back home; or Henry, who's not above a few worldly vices (or above making a buck from others' vices) and favors a more direct approach?

Perhaps the strongest of Matterhorn's assets is Marlantes' ability to so perfectly capture the absurdity and confusion of war. The forced march with a body and no rations, later dubbed the Trail of Tears Op by its bruised-but-unbroken survivors, results from a pissing contest; blaming commander Fitch's lax discipline for the Marines' hunger and injuries, his own CO refuses to send resupply or medevac choppers, or to slow the companies' punishing pace. Mellas and other less-willing officers struggle time and again to make quick decisions that will save or cost lives, with little more to go on than gut feeling. While there are moments and scenes of devastating, bloody combat, the bulk of the war is tedium, jungle rot, hunger, and exhaustion -- all with a constant undercurrent of fear. As Sebastian Junger, whose New York Times review called it "one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam — or any war," put it, [Matterhorn is] not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

#74 - Red Families v. Blue Families

Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Summary: "Red Families v. Blue Familieseared for the post-industrial economy. Rooted in the urban middle class, the coasts and the 'blue states' in the last three presidential elections, the Blue Family Paradigm emphasizes the importance of women's as well as men's workforce participation, egalitarian gender roles, and the delay of family formation until both parents are emotionally and financially ready. By contrast, the Red Family Paradigm -- associated with the Bible Belt, the mountain west, and rural America -- rejects these new family norms, viewing the change in moral and sexual values as a crisis. In this world, the prospect of teen childbirth is the necessary deterrent to premarital sex, marriage is a sacred undertaking between a man and a woman, and divorce is society's greatest moral challenge. Yet the changing economy is rapidly eliminating the stable, blue collar jobs that have historically supported young families, and early marriage and childbearing derail the education needed to prosper. The result is that the areas of the country most committed to traditional values have the highest divorce and teen pregnancy rates, fueling greater calls to reinstill traditional values. Featuring the groundbreaking research first hailed in The New Yorker, this penetrating book will transform our understanding of contemporary American culture and law. The authors show how the Red-Blue divide goes much deeper than this value system conflict -- the Red States have increasingly said 'no' to Blue State legal norms, and as a result, family law has been rent in two. The authors close with a consideration of where these different family systems still overlap, and suggest solutions that permit rebuilding support for both types of families in changing economic circumstances. Incorporating results from the 2008 election, Red Families v. Blue Families will reshape the debate surrounding the culture wars and the emergence of red and blue America."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
Part 1: Family Maps
  • 1. Moral Demography
  • 2. Sexual History
  • 3. The Age of Division
  • 4. Personality, Politics, and Religion
Part 2: The Legal Map
  • 5. Contraception: Securing the Pathways to Blue Family Life
  • 6. Abortion, Law and the Cognitive Map
  • 7. The Irrationality of Adolescence: What the Adults Are Really Fighting Over
  • 8. The Marrying Laws
  • 9. Custody and Compromise
Part 3: The Map to the Future
  • 10. Marriage Advice in Shades of Pink
  • 11. Making Ready for Baby: Painting the Nursery Sky Blue
  • 12. Work and Family: Retooling the Foundation in Deep Purple
  • Conclusion
My Take: Some interesting ideas and a reasonably even-handed presentation, but overall, far too oversimplified to hold water. The authors' thesis, and what makes it problematic, are evident in the first two pages of the introduction:
"Families are on the front lines of the culture wars. Controversies over abortion, same-sex marriage, teen pregnancy, single parenthood, and divorce have all challenged our images of the American family. Some Americans seek a return to the 'mom, dad, and apple pie' family of the 1950s, while others embrace all of our families, including single mothers, gay and lesbian parents, and cohabiting couples. ... [T]he new information economy is transforming the family -- and doing so in ways that create a crisis for marriage-based communities across the country.

"The 'blue families of our title are on one side of the cultural controversy. These families have reaped the handsome rewards available to the well-educated middle class who are able to invest in both their daughters' and sons' earning potential. Their children defer family formation until both partners reach emotional maturity and financial independence. Blue family champions celebrate the commitment to equality that makes companionate relationships possible and the sexual freedom that allows women to fully participate in society. Those who have embraced the blue family model have low divorce rates, relatively few teen births, and good incomes. Yet the ability to realize the advantages of the new blue family system appears to be very much a class-based affair. Women who graduate from college are the only women in American society whose marriage rates have increased, and they and their partners form the group whose divorce rates have most appreciably declined.

"The terms of the successful blue family order -- embrace the pill, encourage education, and accept sexuality as a matter of private choice -- are a direct affront to the 'red families' of our title and to social conservatives who see their families in peril. Driven by religious teachings about sin and guilt, and based in communities whose social life centers around married couples with children, the red family paradigm continues to celebrate the unity of sex, marriage, and procreation. Red family champions correctly point out that the growing numbers of single-parent families threaten the well-being of the next generation, and they accurately observe that greater male fidelity and female 'virtue' strengthen relationships. Yet, red regions of the country have higher teen pregnancy rates, more shotgun marriages, and lower average ages at marriage and first birth. What the red family paradigm has not acknowledged is that the changing economy has undermined the path from abstinence through courtship to marriage. As a result. abstinence into the mid-20s is unrealistic, shotgun marriage correspond with escalating divorce rates, and early marriages, whether prompted by love or necessity, often founder on the economic realities of the modern economy, which disproportionately rewards investment in higher education. Efforts to insist on a return to traditional pieties thus inevitably clash with the structure of the modern economy and produce recurring cries of moral crisis."

So there's the argument in a nutshell. On the surface, it's an intriguing idea: that "[t]he biggest differences between red and blue families center on age: age at marriage and age at first birth," and that "[w]hat happens during the teen years establishes the paths to adulthood. If teens postpone their assumption of adult roles, such as parenting or leaving school, until their mid-20s, they invest more in education, acquire independence, and learn how to navigate in the world before they marry. Conversely, those who marry before they turn 21 and have children soon after are likely to bear more children, interrupt their educations, and negotiate the terms of adulthood within a more fragile relationship." And I don't argue with the statistics that show the highest teen birth and marriage rates to be in solidly red states, and the lowest in consistently blue ones. (I'm not sure Cahn and Carbone's approach -- they look at the most extreme 5 states on either end of several distributions -- is an altogether valid way to draw conclusions about states in the middle and/or smaller geopolitical entities, though that's not my biggest quibble with the book.)

I do think, though, that reducing most or all of the red/ blue divide to "red families marry and have kids young, blue families wait" is grossly oversimplified. Might there be some nugget of truth here, or at least something worth further study? Sure, but this is still only part of the story at best. What about the blue collar, organized labor strain of blue families -- admittedly, there are far fewer of them than there were a generation ago, but they're still out there? Or the upper middle class, "prosperity gospel" red families? Heck, what about the complicated relationship between race and political affiliation; in particular, African-Americans are overrepresented in lower income ranges and underrepresented at higher educational levels, but still disproportionately "blue" voters. While the authors touch upon race briefly, it's almost presented as an inconvenience: well, the highest and lowest teen and nonmarital birth rates don't quite fit our red state-blue state split here, but that's because these states have high minority populations and minorities' rates are different anyway.

This isn't to say that I found Red Families v. Blue Families completely without merit. The overview of American attitudes and laws around sexual behavior, contraception, abortion, and marriage was concise and well-written (though there's not much new ground here for anyone who's taken a family law class or is familiar with Stephanie Coontz's work). I also appreciated the context and perspective the authors provide on same-sex marriage and custody issues. I'm not sure, though, how I feel about the conclusion. On one hand, pointing out areas where the red and blue positions aren't too far apart (promoting stable marriage by supporting adolescents' transition to adulthood; reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies; reconsidering the relationship among work, family, and education) doesn't happen often enough ... on the other, it sidesteps some of the more contentious issues the authors touch upon (i.e., abortion rights and same-sex parenting), and probably overstates the areas of overlap. (Yes, expanded funding for contraceptives may well reduce abortions, but that still doesn't mean the redder states will go for it. Yes, our health care system needs a comprehensive overhaul, but unless you've been asleep for the last 2 years, you know what a huge issue this is -- which makes sticking it in a single paragraph in the conclusion seem like a not-very-skilled dodge.)

In summary, worth a read (especially if you read anything, like me) and a discussion, but makes a far lesser contribution to the discussion than I'd hoped.

Monday, October 18, 2010

#73 - The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, by Beverly Jensen (New York: Viking, 2010).

Summary: "In 1916, Idella and Avis Hillock live on the edge of a chilly bluff in New Brunswick -- a hardscrabble world of potato farms and lobster traps, rough men, hard work, and baffling beauty. From 'Gone,' the heartbreaking account of the crisis that changed their lives forever, through 'Wake,' a darkly comic saga of funeral plans gone awry, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay chronicles their trials, adventures, loves, and losses over seven decades. The lively supporting cast includes the unforgettable 'Wild Bill' Hillock; Idella's philandering husband Eddie; Avis's string of ne'er-do-well men; and a collection of locals whom Idella entertains at her small Maine General Store. Beverly Jensen has fashioned a richly textured and vivid record of a bygone era, a classic American tale of resilience and the strength of family ties."

Opening Line: "They had strung their shoes by the laces from a solitary elm before entering the woods edging the back field."

My Take: A nice, old-fashioned, make-you-feel-good story that I enjoyed much more than I'd expected. The book is essentially a collection of vignettes, most of which would stand quite well on their own as independent short stories. While I'm not usually a short-story fan, and tend to prefer a bit more plot in my novels, Jensen's approach works here -- probably because it's so well-suited to her understated but complex character sketches.

"Gone," the first chapter, was absolutely devastating. Set at the Hillocks' isolated home on the eve of World War I, it opens with eight-year-old Idella and little sister Avis scouring a nearby wood for mayflowers, secretly planning to pick a nosegay for their very pregnant mother for Mayday. However, that very night, Mom's water breaks. With the aid of her neighbors and a country doctor, she gives birth at home to another daughter, disappointing husband Bill, who'd hoped for a second son. The delivery is quick and smooth, but the following day, she inexplicably begins to hemorrhage. Within hours, she is dead. Gradually, Idella, who's been quietly sitting outside her parents' bedroom watching the commotion, comes to understand that there's been a grave mistake: the pills the doctor gave her mother to promote uterine cramping were the wrong kind. Together with the neighbor ladies, she keeps this information secret from her father, knowing it can only do more harm than good.

Subsequent chapters provide a window into what it's like for Idella and Avis to grow up motherless and poor in this stark landscape, with a stoic and heartbroken father. Baby Emma is sent off to be raised by an aunt and uncle, and teenaged brother Dalton mostly fends for himself while he's not out helping Dad with the lobstering, leaving the two middle sisters to torment a series of short-term French-Canadian housekeepers/ nannies. Then comes Maddie, a large, homely refugee from the lobster cannery who seems ... different, somehow. Anne of Green Gables she ain't, but slowly, Avis and then the rest of the Hillocks become fond of her. Unfortunately, though, all good things must end (though not, in this case, for the reason you'd expect), and ultimately, Maddie is packed off to another job, and Idella and Avis sent to live with relatives in Maine. Surprisingly, they thrive here, and Idella proves to be an outstanding student when given the chance. But this is not to be her lot; on the heels of her eighth grade graduation, Bill is injured in a hunting accident, and summons his girls home to keep house and care for him.

In these conditions, both girls grow up quickly. Idella becomes a skilled but resentful housekeeper, while the flashier and wilder Avis is her father's pet. Years later, the 19-year-old Idella decides she's had enough, catches a ride on the mail truck, and returns to Maine, where she takes a job as a live-in housekeeper, and ultimately falls in love with and marries the charming if not always faithful Eddie Jensen. Avis's path is both more exciting and more difficult; left alone with her father and the increasingly-remote Dalton, she grows closer to Bill in ways that spark ugly rumors among the neighbors. Eventually, she, too, leaves, becomes a hairdresser, and runs through a string of lively but unreliable beaux -- one of whom manages to land her in jail.

We get a much clearer picture of Idella's adult life than we do of Avis's: her struggles with Jessie, Eddie's awful mother; the tireless but satisfying process of building and maintaining her store; her recognition of Eddie's fling with Iris; an ordinary but memorable drive in the country with daughter Barbara and Avis. Avis, by contrast, offers only one chapter, in which she briefly sketches her views on men and hints at her experience in jail (which Idella's letters always called "the hotel.") It didn't escape my notice that one of Idella and Ed's four daughters is named Beverly Jensen, just like the author -- making me wonder if the book was inspired at least in part by what she knew of her mother's or grandmother's life.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book was Jensen's refusal to reduce her characters to stereotypes. Bill drinks heavily and demands too much of his young daughters, yes -- but he also tries, in his fashion, to be a loving father, and is clearly if undramatically shattered by the death of his beloved wife. Eddie is unfaithful to Idella, but is portrayed as more PITA than monster; the mix of drive-each-other-crazy tics and fond, sweet memories the couple share will ring true for anyone who's been married a while. The final chapters, in which we attend Bill's baroque-meets-maritime wake and then peek at the last days of Idella, Eddie, and Avis's lives, provide a fitting, satisfying conclusion to the collection. A simple, gentle, and memorable book, well worth your time.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

EXTRA! EXTRA! Book Sale Haul

Still slogging through Hot, Flat, and Crowded, but I interrupt this blog to report on our family's trip to opening day of the Friends of the Library Book Sale last weekend.

For those of you not from around these parts, the Book Sale is truly a thing to behold. Yeah, pretty much every public library has an annual clear-out-the-stacks book sale, but this one's different. Their URL is just www.booksale.org. and believe me, it's the gold standard. People camp out overnight for the privilege of being first in line on opening day -- no joke. Yours truly arrived at 5:30 on a Saturday morning -- 2.5 hours before the doors opened -- and was #103 in line. (Yes, they make you sign in and get a number.) The Friends of the Library organization owns its own warehouse -- the event is far too big to hold in the library itself -- and when we got there, the tents stood shoulder-to-shoulder for the better part of a city block. We're not nearly that hard-core, but we did bring our camp chairs. The bagel shop around the corner opens extra-early for the occasion, and I'm mighty glad they do; if I'm up before dawn on a Saturday, that extra-large cuppa hazelnut hits the spot, and my first bagel in 6 months was well worth the wait.

We were even blessed with mild weather for the occasion. I love the fall, but October mornings in upstate New York are a crap shoot. There've been years when I hauled my Bean parka out for the occasion, and/or when I couldn't feel my toes by the time 8 am rolled around. Not this year, though; I didn't even need my gloves.

Nor did I need a bag. Believe you me, the Book Sale volunteers are organized; the first thing you see when they let you in is a mammoth stack of cardboard boxes, yours for the taking to cart your haul away. And Mrhazel, though never a Boy Scout, was nonetheless prepared, with a backpack for himself and several cloth shopping bags to go around. I took a bag just in case, but resolved not to use it; I figured if I limited myself to what I could carry just in my arms, I couldn't get into TOO much trouble. Right? Well, you've gotta remember that a) I used to work in a library, and b) I've been trolling bookshelves and stacks for as long as I can remember ... so what I can carry in my arms isn't too shabby:

[photo coming soon]

One True Thing, by Anna Quindlen (New York: Random House, 1994). I'm sure I've picked this one up numerous times and just not gotten around to reading it. (If I read it years ago and forgot it, I'll be embarrassed, but hey -- that's why I started my book blog.) Chick lit, for sure, but if I remember what I've heard about it, fairly compelling and engaging at that.
Summary: "A mother. A daughter. A shattering choice. From Anna Quindlen, bestselling author of Black and Blue, comes a novel of life, love and everyday acts of mercy."
Trinity, by Leon Uris (New York: Bantam, 1977). Probably the oldest of the novels I selected; I distinctly remember my mother reading this in hardcover when I was a little girl. Not a title I went in looking for, but long one that's been in the back of my mind as a book I might like to read some day. When I saw it on the paperback table, I figured, "Hey, it's gotta be worth a buck."
Summary: "The 'terrible beauty' that is Ireland comes alive in this mighty epic that recreates the Emerald Isle's fierce struggle for independence. Trinity is a saga of glories and defeats, triumphs and tragedies, lived by a young Catholic rebel and the beautiful and valiant Protestant girl who defied her heritage to join him."
The Bean Trees (New York: Harper & Row, 1988) and Pigs in Heaven (New York: HarperTorch, 1993), by Barbara Kingsolver. Because I chew through books so quickly and share a modest-sized home with 2 other bibliophiles, I'm pretty picky about what books I actually want to own. I read a ton, sure, but for the vast majority of books, once is enough. Before I'll actually commit to adding a title to my library, I need to either read a borrowed copy and know for certain that I'll want to come back to it again and again or know the author and/or subject matter well enough that it's unlikely to disappoint. These titles pass both tests. I adore Kingsolver's work in general, and have a special soft spot for these books in particular; they were my first introduction to a favorite author, and The Bean Trees was the book I read on the morning of my wedding. (OK, truth be told, I read the same page for about half an hour, but the seed was planted and I did come back to it later.)

The Bean Trees, [readers] found a spirited protagonist, Taylor Greer, who grew up in poor rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when Taylor heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time she arrives in Tucson, she has acquired a completely unexpected child and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots."
"[In Pigs in Heaven] Six year old Turtle Greer witnesses a freak accident at the Hoover Dam, leading to a man's dramatic rescue. But Turtle's moment of celebrity draws her into a crisis of historical proportions that will envelop not only her and her mother, Taylor, but everyone else who touched their lives in a complex web connecting their future with their past."
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984). Here's one that's been on my wish list for a long time, but also serves a sneakier motive: it's (so I've been told -- I haven't yet read it myself) an accessible but thought-provoking piece of literary fiction that just might appeal to advanced middle-school aged readers. Just sayin'.
Summary: "The greatly admired and bestselling book about a young girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous, this novel depicts a new American landscape through its multiple characters."
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith (New York: Harper Collins, 1943). OK, guess this beats out Trinity for the "oldest book" title by quite a bit. I read this one years ago but don't think I ever owned a copy; it satisfies several of my favorite literary cravings (historical fiction, poverty/ social class, and coming-of-age stories), and falls into the same advanced middle-school camp as Mango Street. Yowza.
Summary: "The American classic about a young girl's coming of age at the turn of the [twentieth] century. ... The Nolans live in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn from 1902 until 1919. Their daughter Francie and their son Neely knew more than their fair share of privations and sufferings that are the lot of a great city's poor. Primarily this is Francie's book. She is a superb feat of characterization, an imaginative, alert, and resourceful child. And Francie's growing up and beginnings of wisdom are the substance of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
The Reader, by Bernard Schlink (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997). I don't know why exactly I chose this one, but it was in spite of rather than because of the movie tie-in photo of Kate Winslet on the cover. Really.
Summary: "Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of live and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany. When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover -- then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder."
The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett (New York: New American Library, 1989). Never read any of Follett's books before, but he's got a new one out that's been getting some press, and again, I love me some sweeping historical sagas. (See also "hey, it's worth a buck" under the Trinity entry.)
Summary: "A story of passion and idealism, which describes a group of men and women in the Middle Ages whose destinies are fatefully linked with the building of a cathedral."
The Tortilla Curtain, by T. Coraghessan Boyle (New York: Penguin Group, 1995). Love, love, love Boyle, and this is probably my favorite of his books. It was also the first I remember reading. Like the 2 Kingsolver titles above, it's taken more than a decade, but I finally took the plunge and brought a copy home.
Summary: "Candido Rincon, 33, and America, his pregnant common law wife, 17, are two Mexicans who enter the United States illegally, dreaming of the good life in their own little house somewhere in California. Meanwhile, they are homeless and camping at the bottom of the Topanga Canyon area of Los Angeles, in the hills above Malibu. Another couple, Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, have recently moved into a gated community on top of Topanga, in order to be closer to nature yet close enough to the city to enjoy those amenities. Kyra is a successful real estate agent while Delaney keeps house, looks after Kyra's son by her first marriage and writes a regular column for an environmentalist magazine.

"The two couples' paths cross unexpectedly when Candido is hit and injured by Delaney, who is driving his car along the suburban roads near his home. For different reasons, each man prefers not to call the police or an ambulance, and Delaney soothes his conscience by giving Candido '$20 blood money,' explaining to Kyra that 'He's a Mexican.' From that moment on, the lives of the two couples are constantly influenced by the others."
Diary of a Bad Year, by J.M. Coetzee (New York: Viking, 2008). Coetzee isn't quite a favorite author yet, as I've only read one of his other books and that probably wasn't the best place to start. He is, however, an acclaimed South African author and Nobel laureate. Giving this one a try and adding it to my collection didn't seem like too much of a stretch. If I can't stand it, the Book Sale does accept donations.
Summary: "In this brilliant new work of fiction, J.M. Coetzee once again breaks new literary ground with a book that is, in the words of its main character, 'a response to the present in which I find myself.' Diary of a Bad Year takes on the world of politics -- a new topic for Coetzee -- and explores the role of the writer in our times with an extraordinary moral compass. At the center of the book is Senor C., an aging author who has been asked to write his thoughts on the state of the world by his German publisher. These thoughts, called 'Strong Opinions,' address a wide range of subjects and include a scathing indictment of Bush, Cheney, and Blair, as well as a witheringly honest examination of everything from Machiavelli and the current state of the university to music, literature, and intelligent design, offering unexpected perceptions and insightful arguments along the way. Meanwhile, someone new enters the writer's life: Anya, the beautiful young woman whom he hires to type his manuscript. The relationship that develops between Senor C and Anya has a profound effect on both of them. It also changes the course of Anya's relationship with Alan, the successful, swaggering man whom she lives with -- and who has designs on Senor C's bank account. Through these characters, Coetzee creates an ingenious literary game that will enthrall readers and surprise them with its emotional power."
The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich (New York: Harper Collins, 2005). Erdrich is one of those authors I've danced around quite a bit, but don't know if I've actually read. Shortlisted for the Pulitzer in 2009, Native American themes ... sounds good to me.
Summary: "When a woman named Faye Travers is called upon to appraise the estate of a family in her small New Hampshire town, she isn't surprised to discover a forgotten cache of valuable Native American artifacts. After all, the family descends from an Indian agent who worked on the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation that is home to her mother's family. However, she stops dead in her tracks when she finds in the collection a rare drum ... especially since, without touching the instrument, she hears it sound.

"From Faye's discovery, we trace the drum's passage both backward and forward in time, from the reservation on the northern plains to New Hampshire and back. Through the voice of Bernard Shaawano, an Ojibwe, we hear how his grandfather fashioned the drum after years of mourning his young daughter's death, and how it changes the lives of those whose paths it crosses. And through Faye we hear of her anguished relationship with a local sculptor, who himself mourns the loss of a daughter, and of the life she has made alone with her mother, in the shadow of the death of Faye's sister."
The Alchemist, by Paolo Coehlo (New York: Harper One, 1993). So sue me; I fell for the hype. I'm curious, and again: it's gotta be worth a buck.
Summary: "An Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasures found within."
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003). Right up there with Coetzee, another highly acclaimed author I've only just begun to discover. Unaccustomed Earth was so gorgeous it blew me away, so I don't expect I'll be disappointed here.
Summary: "The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Names for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name. Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves."
Straight Man, by Richard Russo (New York: Vintage Books, 1997). Russo's one of those authors on my Kingsolver list. Ever since reading Empire Falls on a long-ago business trip to Baltimore, his name on the jacket is enough to convince me a book will be worth reading. My only trouble here was deciding which one of his novels I wanted to take home. Can you guess what I'll be looking for in the picked-over discount bins on brown bag weekend?
Summary: "Russo's protagonist is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Devereaux's reluctance is partly rooted in his character -- he is a born anarchist -- and partly in the fact that his department is more savagely divided than the Balkans. In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits, and threaten to execute a goose on local television. All this while coming to terms with his philandering father, the dereliction of his youthful promise, and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions. In short, Straight Man is classic Russo -- side-splitting and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down."
My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult (New York: Atria, 2004). A guilty pleasure about which I refuse to truly feel guilty. Yes, Picoult's a bit formulaic; I won't buy her books new or in hardcover, because they're not worth the precious shelf space ... but say it with me, it's worth a buck. Heck, for the bonus parent-tween bonding potential, maybe it's even worth two.
Summary: "Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate -- a life and role that she has never challenged ... until now. Like most teenagers, Anna is beginning to question who she truly is. But unlike most teenagers, she has always been defined in terms of her sister -- and so Anna makes a decision that for most would be unthinkable, a decision that will tear her family apart and have perhaps fatal consequences for the sister she loves."
How Rude! The Teenagers' Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out, by Alex J. Packer (Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 1997). Even my little-known quirks betray my inner nerd. Specifically, I've always had a weakness for etiquette books and columns. I've been a Miss Manners fan since my age was in the single digits. I'm That Person who actually looks up proper attire for an evening wedding when the need arises. (Yeah, I need to get out more.) This was the first of my new-to-me Book Sale books that I actually cracked open when I got home, and while it's probably a bit dated (no mention at all of cell phone/ smart phone technologies, Facebook, etc.), it's still hilarious.
Summary: "A humorous but practical guide to good manners and social skills, discussing such areas as family life, behavior in public, manners in school, and clothes."
Not shown above: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II, by Julia Child (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), which I felt compelled to buy after watching Julie and Julia last weekend (sadly, I couldn't find Vol. I). Also, a book of short fugues and preludes for piano by Bach, because I do play now and again and was feeling ambitious that day.

Friday, October 8, 2010

#72 - Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America, by Thomas L. Friedman (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

Jacket Summary: "Thomas L. Friedman's phenomenal number-one-bestseller The World Is Flat helped millions of readers to see the world in a new way. In his brilliant, essential new book, Friedman takes a fresh and provocative look at two of the biggest challenges we face today: America's surprising loss of focus and national purpose since 9/11; and the global environmental crisis, which is affecting everything from food to fuel to forests. In this groundbreaking account of where we stand now, he shows us how the solutions to these two big problems are linked -- how we can restore the world and revive America at the same time.

"Friedman explains how global warming, rapidly growing populations, and the astonishing expansion of the world's middle class through globalization have produced a planet that is 'hot, flat, and crowded.' Already the earth is being affected in ways that threaten to make it dangerously unstable. In just a few years, it will be too late to fix things -- unless the United States steps up now and takes the lead in a worldwide effort to replace our wasteful, inefficient energy practices with a strategy for clean energy, energy efficiency, and conservation that Friedman calls Code Green.

"This is a great challenge, Friedman explains, but also a great opportunity, and one that America cannot afford to miss. Not only is American leadership the key to the healing of the earth; it is also our best strategy for the renewal of America.

"In vivid, entertaining chapters, Friedman makes it clear that the green revolution we need is like no other revolution the world has seen. It will be the biggest innovation project in American history; it will be hard, not easy; and it will change everything from what you put into your car to what you see on your electric bill. But the payoff for America will be more than just cleaner air. It will inspire Americans to something we haven't seen in a long time -- nation building in American -- by summoning the intelligence, creativity, boldness, and concern for the common good that are our nation's greatest national resources."

Table of Contents:

Part I: Where We Are
  • 1. Where Birds Don't Fly
  • 2. Today's Date: 1 E.C.E. Today's Weather: Hot, Flat, and Crowded
Part II: How We Got Here
  • 3. Our Carbon Copies (or, Too Many Americans)
  • 4. Fill 'Er Up with Dictators
  • 5. Global Weirding
  • 6. The Age of Noah
  • 7. Energy Poverty
  • 8. Green Is the New Red, White, and Blue
Part III: How We Move Forward
  • 9. 205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth
  • 10. The Energy Internet: When IT Meets ET
  • 11. The Stone Age Didn't End Because We Ran Out of Stones
  • 12. If It Isn't Boring, It Isn't Green
  • 13. A Million Noahs, a Million Arks
  • 14. Outgreening al-Quaeda (or, Buy One, Get Four Free)
Part IV: China
  • 15. Can Red China Become Green China?
Part V: America
  • 16. China for a Day (but Not for Two)
  • 17. A Democratic China, or a Banana Republic?
My Take: Typical Friedman (though I have only The World Is Flat to compare it to): sweeping and occasionally overwhelming, but an engaging, provocative, and well-written volume. The author does a better job than you might expect of combining climate change and American hegemony without putting the reader to sleep. No mean feat, that.

The book starts with the premise that the US and the larger geopolitical economy have one foreboding thing in common: namely, right now, it looks like their best days are behind them. On the international stage, Friedman summarizes his earlier argument about the world's being flat: with the technological advances and the collapse of Soviet-style Communism we've seen over the last few decades, we have a more level global playing field, which increasingly allows workers in China, India, and elsewhere to compete for the same good jobs and aspire to the same high-consumption lifestyle that was once the exclusive providence of North America and Western Europe. On top of this, he suggests, it's also become hot and crowded, i.e., affected by global warming, and more heavily populated. Friedman expands upon the oft-cited fact that the world's population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 with some alarming details: nearly 8 billion of these people will live in developing countries, and the bulk of this growth is expected to show up in the developing world's smaller cities, which already lack the infrastructure to support current populations. Closer to home, we in the U.S. have become steadily more disconnected from what's going on in the larger, warmer and flatter world, and too bogged down in petty red state-blue state cat fighting to tackle significant domestic issues (let alone international ones).

Those of us (or more accurately, those of you) who like warmer weather might not care, except that these trends have other, more troublesome consequences:
  1. Energy and resource supply and demand: Deep down, most of us know that the world's supply of fossil fuels isn't inexhaustible. Bottlenecks for many natural resources already becoming apparent; witness the 2004 gas crisis, which Friedman attributes to a sudden spike in China's demand for oil. With worldwide energy consumption needs projected to double by 2050, and three times as many people living or approaching US levels of consumption, short. The problem is exacerbated by a long-standing American tradition of heavily subsidizing the energy industry, which lessens the impact of rising prices on demand, and thus reduces our incentives to cut back on our use and/or focus more on cleaner, greener alternatives.
  2. Petrodictatorships: Yes, this is another of Friedman's catchy neologisms, but despite the sarcastic title phrase ("Fill 'Er Up with Dictators"), I found this to be one of the more intriguing parts of his argument. That our seemingly-limitless appetite for as much oil as we can get regardless of cost keeps prices high and funnels massive amounts of wealth to those countries that produce it is self-evident. What's interesting is where Friedman goes from here. For starters, he states that this is a bonanza for those countries' leaders; they've got enough money coming in to keep themselves and their friends in power without needing to tax their citizens. This isn't as good a deal for the citizens as you might think, though; few taxes means little incentive for the government to build public support through, oh, investing in education, or in infrastructure other than what's required to get the oil out of the country and to market. Not only does this pattern fund precisely the most intolerant, anti-modern, and anti-Western strands of Islam in the Middle East; it's also helped beat back many of the hard-won pro-democracy gains in Russia and Latin America, and helps subsidize both sides of the War on Terror.
  3. Climate change: Here, Friedman borrows his catch phrase from environmentalist Hunter Lovins, writing not about global warming but "global weirding" -- greater and more rapid extremes, be they hot or wet or dry; tremendous geographical variability; and multiple changes that interact in ways we can't begin to predict. He asserts that the vast majority of scientists may disagree on the rate and degree of climate change we can expect, but that there's little question change is happening, and draws an analogy to a car driving towards a cliff on a dark, foggy night: even if you don't know exactly where the drop-off is, it's still a good idea to use your brakes.
  4. Energy poverty: This was probably the least well-argued of Friedman's "consequences of hot, flat, and crowded" chapters, but still not without merit. Here, he argues that the world isn't completely flat ... and those yet untouched by the information revolution are at a greater comparative disadvantage than they were 50 years ago. With reliable energy, heat is more tolerable and (if fewer people are forced to move to megacities for work) crowds more comfortable. Without it, it's precisely those people most at risk from climate change who have the least ability to adapt, i.e., by digging deeper wells or desalinating water. While I'm not sure I agree fully with all his claims here, I certainly can't argue that regular rolling blackouts can't be good for political stability ... and that if and when those at the bottom of the world's economic ladder do come online, we'd better darned well hope it's powered by clean technology.
  5. Biodiversity loss: Here again, our warming, "weirding" atmosphere and increasingly crowded cities have a tremendous impact on the world's non-human species. A few snapshots, according to Friedman: half the Earth's forests are now gone, along with 90% of our large predator fish and 20% of our corals.
Just when you've started to get good and depressed about the current state of affairs, Friedman presents a plan for what he thinks we should do about it. The world desperately wants and needs a new clean energy system, and whoever invents and deploys it will be all but guaranteed a dominant place in the 21st century global economy. The United States, with its well-established capitalist framework and unparalleled research universities, is particularly well-poised to be that someone. In addition to the obvious financial benefits, doing so would restore our international moral authority to a degree we haven't seen since World War II. If, however, we fail to seize the opportunity, we can rest assured that India or China will ... and reap all the rewards thereof.

A viable clean energy system requires three components: clean electrons, efficiency, and conservation. Since the Industrial Revolution, the world economy has been driven by "dirty fuels" (oil, coal, and gas) -- which are highly efficient, but not sustainable. Future growth will need to be powered by cleaner fuels that are reliable, abundant, and cheap. We can't get there without both increasing the level of research funding and finding ways to make those clean technologies we already have (i.e., wind, solar voltaic, solar thermal) more efficient and scalable. Moreover, our growth needs to be efficient, with producers supplying and consumers demanding buildings, appliances, cars, and packages that use less energy. Lastly, it must be predicated on an ethic of conservation, in which seeking to minimize one's energy impact is the norm.

Despite the plethora of "205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth!" articles in the media, a transformation of this nature is far more revolution than fad or party, and won't be easy. Our circumstances call for fundamental overhaul of our energy, transportation, and agricultural systems, to name a few -- a long-term, multi-trillion-dollar investment. To date, we haven't begun to exert even a fraction of the effort needed to make this work. Friedman argues that only the free market can effectively foster the supply of and demand for clean energy that we need, and that our current energy infrastructure is far from a free market; it's a system designed by coal, gas, and oil interests to keep those fuels cheap and pre-eminent. Appropriate tax and regulatory policy, coupled with adequate research funding, would (if you will) flatten the energy playing field, thus nurturing a variety of nascent clean energy options and allowing the market to cultivate the best ones.

Perhaps it was information overload, but I found the latter (Part III and subsequent) sections of the book significantly less compelling than the earlier pieces. I enjoyed the "Energy Internet" chapter, in which Friedman lays out a comprehensive, entertaining vision for how everyday life might look in a kinder, greener America, but couldn't help wondering if it wasn't a tad simplistic, or just how we might get from here to there in the time frame Friedman proposes. His skill at laying out a big picture that's both broad enough to seem important and sufficiently detailed to hold your interest is impressive, but by the latter half of the book, the overreliance on zippy phrases and colorful anecdotes starts to wear thin. Vignettes loosely tied together by broad brushstrokes are fine for sketching out a problem, but seem disjointed and superficial when it comes to the solution part of the argument. This quality is made more problematic by the lack of any endnotes or sources other than those referenced in the text -- which seems unusual in a book of this nature, and made me a bit skeptical about how well-founded some of Friedman's claims might be. I still think it's worth a read, but really wish I had a class or study group to chew it over with.