Review: Stamped From The Beginning

June 18th, 2017

Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From The Beginning has a lot to say about how Americans view Black Americans, and I’m impressed by his comprehensive research, analysis, and application. He has clearly walked American history carefully, broken down the ideas he’s found there and analyzed them thoughtfully.  He applies the understanding that he distills from all that work powerfully and without prejudice.

One of the most striking features of the work is that Kendi is unflinching.  I was surprised how critical he is of Lincoln, for example. In my sphere, the worst one commonly hears is that Abe was excessively practical in his approach to abolishing slavery.  Kendi remains fair and compassionate without giving any slack on Lincoln’s enduring opinions that the two races could not live together. That was a powerful reminder to me of my own biases and the biases of the media I consume.

Perhaps more striking – again from my perspective – is that Kendi is similarly clinical and sweeping in his analysis and criticism of Black leaders. Black Americans are Americans so he covers their thinking, too. He assesses the bodies of Booker Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass’s  thoughts and writings equally objectively. That objective application served me as a stark reminder that humans all make distinctions and take sides and underscores the difficulty of an objective analysis of such ideas.  Kendi’s proof by example that such an understanding is possible is quite remarkable.

He is an academic – and something of an, ugh, Aristotelian – so much of Stamped is about generating categories of though he believes are a basis for analysis and placing people’s evolving positions into them. I confess that I often had to check his definitions to track his analysis.  I’m not a pigeonhole fan, but I have to admit that Kendi’s analysis from that perspective gave me much to think about.  I think it does make for some dry reading in places.

Overall, a quite enlightening academic analysis of some explosive topics.  Recommended.

Review: Teddy Roosevelt In California

May 27th, 2017

I grabbed Teddy Roosevelt in California from the LAPL on a whim – shout out to their marketing. I’m a fan of history in general and California history and Roosevelt in particular so it was an easy sell.

The more history I read, the more I appreciate how different historians approach and present their work.  Chris Epting is a pretty hands-off presenter.  He has gathered a remarkable set of primary sources from Roosevelt’s trip through California.  He displays several full speech texts, many images, letters, and other direct expressions from the main actors. They are all organized thematically and chronologically for context, but otherwise Epting provides little analysis.

The reader’s reaction to the bare-bones approach will dominate their reaction to the book.  I have mixed reactions to the work.  I like the direct access to the primary sources.  Many times I was surprised by Roosevelt’s agility and intelligence throughout.  He always is present in the experience and communicates his reactions directly and articulately.  He goes well beyond making his policy points (mostly about irrigation of the West – an interesting point in light of current Colorado River issues).  He famously criticized hanging man-made objects from Redwoods in Yosemite and they were quickly removed.  By stepping back, Epting lets me hear Roosevelt in his full-throated roar.

There are certainly moments when I would have preferred deeper analysis.  I would love to know if his words about supporting Native American (he says “Indian” of course) rights in Arizona resulted in concrete changes from either locals or the federal governments.  I can certainly go find out, but I would also be curious what Epting thinks.

Overall, an interesting snappy read.


Review: Smart Baseball

May 26th, 2017

Smart Baseball is Keith Law’s introduction to the basics of sabermetric baseball statistics and why fans should care about them. I’ve been hearing about this revolution in baseball statistics for a while, albeit peripherally. Law does a fine job explaining the shortcomings in older statistics, explaining many of the new ones, and pointing out the effects this is having on statistics gathering and other ramifications for baseball going forward.

Honestly, I learned as much about the prevailing attitudes in baseball as I did about new statistics.  My conclusion is that if the baseball broadcasting, management, and fan constituency is resisting these ideas this to any extent – and I believe they are – hide-bound does not come close to expressing the status quo. I have enough of a traditionalist in me that I feel no pain in continuing to report saves and RBIs (and yes I prefer appending the ‘s’ for the plural), but as tools for understanding the game they are both baroque and broke.

Law does a fabulous job of laying out the case for adding on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentage (SLG) and their stable mates to common usage.  Law’s approach is reasonable and clear.  He never argues that the new statistics are somehow perfect or should be used as matters of religion.  All statistics and observational frameworks illuminate and emphasize different aspects of the game.  Nothing emphasized that more for me than the slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG).  Characterizing a batter by the triple of traditional batting average, an on-base metric, and slugging lets me understand a batter better.  I can get the gut feel that a historical batting average gives me, the more sound OBP indication of out avoidance, and the marginal value of each hit (how often the guy goes extra bases).  That historical value will keep going down, so eventually the slash line will probably get smaller.

How does one even marshal an argument against that?  Ink costs?

As the he explains more data-driven metrics like those used to evaluate fielding and then the overarching wins above replacement (WAR) formalisms, he makes the source of the numbers clear.  I should be clear that he explains the process of getting and evaluating the data, not the formulas.  Some of the formulas are – surprisingly to me – proprietary anyway.  As a result I understand the formulation and limitation of these combination metrics better. And they do have limitations.  While I find the simple batting metrics to be fairly objective, WAR and the fielding evaluations include a healthy dose of subjective evaluation.  Which ones light up which aspects of the game is trickier to see.  If one wants to make those evaluations, Law shows you what to investigate.

Finally he describes how these stats (and the old ones) are used today in scouting and other player evaluations.  He also describes Baseball’s new commitment to providing a torrent of detailed data.  One assumes that this is to even out data collection’s marginal value to teams as well as amortizing collection costs.  The result is an incredible mine of information, though.

Overall a cool book from which I learned a lot.


Review: Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?

May 26th, 2017

I’m not really in Alyssa Mastromonaco’s target audience for Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?  but I quite enjoyed it. She’s pretty clear that this is a combination memoir of her time in the White House with the Obama administration and an inspirational work for young women who want to blaze these kinds of trails.  Her resume marks her as an overachiever – one of the youngest women to work at as high a position in an executive administration as she occupied. In addition to coordinating Obama’s appointments for years, she ran the emergency response to Hurricane Sandy.

There are many such memoirs, especially as administrations turn over, and I pass over the vast majority of them.  Many of them are primarily interesting to political aspirants.  I’m not really one of those, but Mastromonaco caught my ear when she appeared with Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood on Make Me Smart. She sounded particularly genuine and interesting. I picked up her book based on that.

Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? lives up to her introduction. It distinguishes itself through her clear and compelling writing voice. It is rare to hear someone who is both as honest as she is about private areas of her life that many share and as engaging about her unique experiences in the high levels of government.  She’s also aware enough to notice the difference.  As a result, the relateable human who talks to us about quitting a wrong job is the same one telling us about the President of the United States thanking her for years of service.  As an inspirational and aspirational piece that relatability makes it unsurpassed.

As I say, I don’t get the full intended effect.  I’m not a young person – especially a young woman – just setting out into the world.  I do hear a genuine, expressive, compassionate, truthful voice narrating a unique life and drawing valuable insight from it.  And she’s fun to listen to as well.


Review: Breakfast of Champions

May 26th, 2017

One of the consolations of aging is the experience of revisiting authors and works that impressed me previously.  Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors who I first read in college, but who I’ve kept up with reading throughout my life.  I received a copy of Breakfast Of Champions as a high school graduation gift.  (I read an e-book version from the LAPL this time, though.)

Vonnegut claims that Breakfast is his 50th birthday gift to himself, which my high-school-graduating self failed to grok but 50-year-old me appreciated deeply. In fact, as a kid I recall putting off reading Breakfast for some time.  I had to be drawn to Vonnegut through Deadeye Dick and some other work first.  Breakfast seems to be a more challenging read to me, even now.  Vonnegut eschews a lot of narrative convention and tradition and moves into metafiction. There is little suspense.  He is explicit about the “plot,” many of these characters come from other stories, and he appears himself as a character.  As much metafiction does, it made me think about what a story is and why one writes them; it’s easy to see writing this as gift to oneself.

Inside this ungainly shape, Vonnegut’s observational skills and precise, evocative writing really shine.  Only Vonnegut could write “Their imaginations were flywheels on the ramshackle machinery of the awful truth.” There are many other brilliant searchlights thrown up on the human condition.

The only aspect of Breakfast that jarred me unpleasantly this time was how clumsily he represents black characters.  His non-white characters all read like 70’s blacksploitation stereotypes to me.  I’m still turning over how to interpret this, but it feels like a limitation of experience.  As a fan of Vonnegut as an observer of the human condition, that troubles me a bit.  More to think about.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: A Black History of The White House

May 7th, 2017

It is both true that Clarance Lusane’s A Black History of the While House is simply described by its title and evokes complex reactions.  On the simple side of the equation, he creates a direct telling of the historical facts that surround the landmark, its historical occupants, and the nation they lead.  That telling adopts the perspective of Black America.  His unflinching adherence to that perspective and direct language that expresses it is sure to ruffle some feathers.  History should ruffle feathers.

Historians writing from a non-conventional perspective expect readers to nitpick their facts.  Lusane meets such challenges with solid, well-documented research and citations that clearly direct readers to its basis.  This is a scholarly work.

The scholarly nature of the work does not preclude Lusane from including fresh and speculative histories as well.  History is an ongoing excavation and he includes current work – specifically allegations and investigations into discrimination faced by the first Balck Secret Service agent to work in the White House and its effects on the Kennedy assassination. Touching those topics tests Lusane’s scholarship and he meets the challenge handily, making it clear what’s established and what’s speculation, without taking unwarranted stands.

Lusane does not flinch from underscoring his perspective through his expression, which is certain to offend some readers.  Because he is taking the Black American perspective to this history, he  tends to refer to the positions of principals on slavery and discrimination more directly than conventional histories: “slave owner George Washington” rather than “First president […].” The effect is strong.  A reader who uses it as a door into the viewpoint of a downtrodden people can broaden their perspective through it.  An offended reader may close the book.  I prefer the broadening of perspective, but even I feel my knee jerk the other way.

Overall, a clear, expressive, well written history from a clear perspective.  A worthy voice added to history’s discussion.


Review: Curiosities of Elmira

April 22nd, 2017

I enjoy poking around in the less illuminated corners of history.  Kelli Huggins’s Curiosities of Elmira gave me a chance to do so in my old home town. I’m very fond of my first home though I recognize that it’s gauzed up a bit with age and youth.  Elmira’s one of those small Middle Atlantic towns that used to house a mix of manufacturing and agriculture that supported a stable population.  The living was good enough to afford folks their eccentricities while keeping them close to the practicalities. In the last half century many towns with that profile have begun to slide into obscurity.  I suspect that the writing is on the wall for Elmira as well.  Against that backdrop, it’s great to see people working hard to capture its legacy.

Huggins has been working at the county historical museum and blogging enthusiastically for a while now.  I’ve seen first cuts at some of these chapters on the museum’s web site.  That lent a glow of familiarity to the proceedings and having the articles all together made for a lively and friendly reunion.

She thematically breaks the book into collections of short articles.  Each of those sections reflects both her interests and Elmira’s quirky past.  In its heyday, the place was much more of a crossroads both logistically and intellectually.  Most of the heyday described here is in the later half of the 19th century into the 20th.  It makes for a breezy mix of sciences being born and society being rattled by the Civil War.  Huggins treats all the times with introspection and affection, though she does not shy away from criticism when it it due.

It’s a well written and organized survey of the middle history of an interesting place.


Review: Saturn’s Children

April 14th, 2017

Saturn’s Children starts with a deliberate and fond nod to Asimov and Heinlein and carries that legacy forward admirably. A pastiche or homage to those two by a writer of Stross’s caliber would be an entertaining read.  Stross launches from these classic works and peels away their 1960’s literary context and constraints.  He dissects both the kind of logical tight constraints imposed by Asmiov’s Laws of Robotics and the libertarianism (and scoped sexual liberation) of Heinlein’s later work through a modern historical perspective on Western Society. Stross carries the flag for stories that entertain and make you think, values at the core of Asimov’s and Heinlein’s legacies.

Children is set in a world without humans – or really without intelligent biological life of any kind – extrapolated from both our technical limitations and our societal perspectives.  In front of the plot is a Friday-ish sexy courier on the run, but the real whodunnit is about how these automata formed a society.  Along the way, Stross weighs in on the mechanics of space travel and other SF tropes.

Stross is a penetrating thinker.  He realizes that the sorts of behavioral rules that Asimov posits as edicts from an intelligent designer would instead evolve from an existing society.  Asimov’s Laws are logical; Stross’s are cultural and societal.  As with any societal rules, he recognizes that they arise from a melange of class, role, and sex.  The last may be surprising, but represents the kind of insight I respect from Stross.  Given the way humans interact with their automata (he says clinically) we’re going to screw intelligent robots as we build them.  Any intelligent and emotional entity will bend under that weight.

In addition to the deep cultural thinking, Stross projects the sense of wonder that these great writers captured in an interplanetary civilization.  One can give the statistics of a space elevator, but capturing both the sense of awe that a contemporary human would feel on seeing one while also positing the blase air that a member of that world feels is a bit of writing that elevates the work.


Review: The Sellout

March 26th, 2017

I’ve been rolling The Sellout around in my head for a few days and I think Paul Beatty’s work may be that rarest of books, one that deserves to become a classic.

Like the underlying societal issues it addresses, Sellout is surprisingly complex. On its surface the story of the protagonist, a black urban farmer cum Supreme Court defendant charged with holding another black man in willing bondage, is – perhaps unexpectedly – pretty direct. If he’s walking a tightrope to avoid suspension of disbelief, Beatty does so with such panache that any crevasse, rope, or danger curls up invisibly.

In order to tell the tale, Beatty creates an exaggerated view of America and LA rife with magical elements.  The most comic and dynamic such elements – e.g.,  the protagonist’s weed with surprisingly specific effects and the acrobatic city bus his girlfriend drives – sharply define borders with the real world.  Other elements, e.g., the miraculous neighborhoods of LA being systemically removed from maps and consciousness by gentrifying forces, delineate hazier borders between magic and reality.  Different people will see the line different places and each may learn something by trying to work out the border together – “Wait; who changed the area’s name?  OK, I mean put up the signs…”  “Was it really that unusual a place?”  “How? You’re kidding, right?!”

Anyone who’s pulled on a thread that touches on race or gender and privilege in America with an informed, intimate interlocutor will recognize the process of enlightenment and discovery. Every plot point in The Sellout seems to me that it could launch that kind of discovery.  It could also be met with simple disbelief and hostility as well.  These are the dangers of the examined life and of literary contemplation.  What’s remarkable about The Sellout is how fertile a ground it is for both examination and contemplation.

Even if you have no interest in society, race, Los Angeles or any of the other issues I see reflected in the book, it’s well worth reading just to bask in Beatty’s beautiful and powerful expressions.  He displays the rhythm and rhyme of a poet – or a musical virtuoso – while simultaneously grabbing imagery and vocabulary that snares meaning without caging it.  I understand that makes no sense; I can’t write like Beatty, either.

A lot of the book feels uncomfortable. Beatty’s world lets the reader sneak into the difficult and unsettling hollows of our world, but their essence is to be difficult and unsettling. Herein lies the power of The Sellout.  Beatty takes his readers to the nexus of clarity and ambiguity of so many spots where society’s fabric binds that talking about it with anyone will lead somewhere unexpected.  And it’s too compelling to shut up about.

A must.

Review: A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power

March 12th, 2017

My admiration for Jimmy Carter’s accomplishments is nearly boundless.  He’s a former US president who has dedicated his career to promoting justice internationally.  His view of justice is informed by his strong religious beliefs, which is refreshing.  Even as he holds to his Baptist faith and remains active in that church, he calls the church leaders to task when they make unjust decisions.  I admire his drive, dedication, and pride.

A Call To Action brings those beliefs and experience to bear on the state of womens’ rights across the world.  He is, as ever, unflinching in his assessment and optimistic in his outlook.

I do wish he wrote more dynamically.  His analysis of the state of the world and underlying causes seems to be exhaustive and even-handed. He augments telling personal anecdotes with well-chosen and clearly presented statistics.  He never shies away from a conclusion informed by his sense of justice, even when there is significant dissent on the matter.  Even when that dissent is driven by personal friends or professional collaborators.

But, man, his text is dry.

The message is worth digging through it.