Archive for March, 2023

Review: California Crackup

Saturday, March 18th, 2023

This is kind of a bad book review; I get wrapped around the axle of the authors’ political suggestions, so don’t expect a lot of writing discussion.

I forget how this came to my attention, but I know I was looking for a history of how California’s ballot propositions evolved. I should have paid more attention to Matthews’s and Paul’s subtitle: “How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.” I saw it, but somehow was hoping I could focus on the history and keep an open mind for the fix. I didn’t do a very good job.

I did learn some history and some detail of how the current state of California state government. There are clear details and valid criticisms in the “How Reform Broke the Golden State” part. I did come back knowing more, but I still could use some more context.

The fix isn’t anything special to me. Even to a non-expert it seems kind of academically reasonable. Modify the voting system to produce a more balanced unicameral legislature that focuses on governing. And I grok the game theoretical benefits of the voting scheme that Matthews and Paul like. It’s a sound scheme and I understand it’s in use.

My skepticism comes from two fronts. First, any systemic solution is just a new set of rules to be gamed. It will work until someone does the work to exploit its attack surface. Secondly, a wholesale change like a new voting system seems like a non-starter to me. You’ve got to convince the folks who have secured power under the old system that they can do better under the new one. Since the selling point is to change that balance, it’s a tough sell. We can’t even seem agree on how to redistrict.

I would like to see a bunch more voting districts. It stuns me that the most populous county in the nation has 5 legislators. To me, the possibility that we’ve elected 5 people who can each balance the concerns of nearly 2 million constituents apiece is ludicrous on its face. So I’m even sympathetic to the idea. But if you’re one of the 5 people controlling 30 billion dollars, it’s tough to imagine letting go. Imaging a whole house of the state legislature going quietly into that good night is similarly unconvincing.

As a book, it’s a good description of what they think. I just disagree.

Review: Portrait of a Thief

Saturday, March 18th, 2023

Grace Li fooled me. Looking at the book jacket and hearing the basic plot, I thought this was a literary debut novel about young first generation children of immigrants. That’s what it’s about, but it’s a heist story. And a pretty good one.

When I say it’s not literary, I mean that the characters are less deep than I imagine when I hear that description. Even that’s a not quite right. It’s not Melville literature that needs to be rediscovered years later. It’s Dumas or Dickens literature where people line up for the next installment.

There’s meat in here, but if the choice is between flashy writing, psychological development, or commentary and a zippy thriller, Li picks the second.

Once I got on board, I warmed to the novel pretty well. I can pick nits with the best of them and this isn’t immune. But in the end it was a fun heist movie with a lot of blockbuster vibes that features a lot of engaging protagonists. They represent a lot of folks who don’t get a lot of attention in blockbusters and they’re front and center here.

It’s a fun read.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Indomitable Florence Finch

Saturday, March 18th, 2023

This is a pretty straightforward history of war from a ground level. Specifically it is mostly a history of Florence Finch’s extraordinary efforts to support American POWs when the Philippines were overrun in World War II. Robert Mrazak does a great job bringing in other people’s histories and general context that makes the scope very clear.

War is always terrible for people caught up in it and the events in the Philippines that Mrazak centers on bring that into focus. Americans know that the loss of Pearl Harbor basically destroyed the US Pacific Fleet. This book turns that academic statement into real events and effects. And they’re horrible events.

The US presence in the Philippines lost any support it had. The Philippines were basically a US colony at the time and the loss of the fleet meant that there was no way to supply the islands externally. The Philippines have resources of their own, of course, but they didn’t include things like arms production or reinforcements. Removing the access those was Japan’s point and they took control of the islands.

Again, that sounds very academic. Mrazak brings that all to life. The fears of the people – military and civilian – in the line of fire. Personal losses as the fighting commences. The loss of control as well: soldiers fought bravely, but their backs were to the wall. They couldn’t get out of harm’s way if they wanted to. Occupation includes both general privations and the horrors of POW camps. The risks that Florence runs to help fellow civilians and soldiers are remarkable here.

As the tide turns, the conditions for all concerned get worse and Mrazak doesn’t look away. It can be a harrowing read, but it illuminates the horror of war and the valor of people in the middle of it.

It’s well researched, but I didn’t find the writing extraordinary. Actually, though, in the best parts, the spare prose gets out of the way and lets the peoples’ stories speak.