Review: Dear Los Angeles

March 24th, 2019

Because I look at everything through the lens of 1980’s comic books, I see David Kipen’s Dear Los Angeles as Ozymandias‘s video wall turned on Los Angeles’s history.

Kipen accomplishes this by collecting and sequencing snippets of first-person letters and diary entries written in LA that span 1542 to 2018. Having sifted unguarded glimpses of the place from those sources he curates the collection by arranging them by on day of the year on which they were written. The resulting temporally unanchored panopticon synthesizes a unique view of the place.

There are myriad ways for this to fail, but I really enjoyed this literary kaleidoscope.


Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

February 18th, 2019

Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told effectively ties the personal accounts of American Slavery to the power of the institution as an economic engine. Though I’ve read many accounts of the period, I’ve never felt the impact of the events on individuals at the same time feeling the incentives that drove Americans to enslave people and torture them. It’s powerful writing.

I have heard many of the individual accounts before – and they’re appalling – but when he connects the inhuman treatment of people to the insane economic growth that it fuels, it becomes more believable that people continued expanding the geographical scope of slavery and the inhumanity of the physical torture.

People who are getting rich exploiting others can insulate themselves from the horrors they are inflicting on others. They can convince themselves that their hands are clean. It is easy to see people perpetuating similar cycles of exploitation and denial today.

Baptist makes an impersonal and compelling case that these forces held sway in antebellum America. Their echos certainly continue to ring in modern America as well. To me, the power of the argument is that one can accept and promote terrible justifications for atrocities without malice in one’s heart. Individual prosperity combined with rising national prestige is a powerful brew.

Baptist also traces fairly subtle changes in attitudes toward slavery. As the nation’s productivity fuels national prestige, people tied to the economic methods naturally tribalize. The people directly benefiting from slavery have a direct connection to perpetuating the atrocity. Baptist connects the communities that indirectly benefit to that tribe as well. Merchants who transport cotton or operate textile mills also support it. The more direct supporters propagate plausible (or only vaguely plausible) justifications that are easier for more distant supporters to accept because of the community sense and income.

Troublingly, the argument works for abolitionists and Northerners as well. If one believes Baptist, part of the nation’s failure to make good on promises of freedom in Reconstruction stems from the idea that Northern sentiment was more about taking power from the South by destroying slavery than by ending and atoning for the horror. If the moralizing of the North (even though factual) was mostly justification for the War, that is consistent with people losing ardor when the short term goal – destroy the institution – is complete.

I don’t think people fundamentally change a lot. To the extent that Baptist is right about these tendencies toward self-delusion and herd mentality, we need to look at how we are exploiting others in pursuit of prosperity.

Though I believe a lot of Baptist’s arguments, he is gathering and interpreting facts and analyses from many disciplines. One could summarize one of his positions as asserting that the toxic masculinity that a torture-based economy imbued Andrew Jackson with spurred him to both sweep Native Americans from their tribal lands to fuel substantive expansion of slave-driven cotton production at the same time he destroyed the banking system that accelerated that growth. That’s a bold statement.

Baptist does not shy away from showing his work. Half is well sourced and pours supporting facts out in torrents. I find he strikes a good balance between support and narrative, but it is a fine line. I suspect there are some who nit-pick some of the economic arguments as well. My preference is Baptist’s abundance and transparency.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Big Picture

February 9th, 2019

The Big Picture aims to propagate a physics-based philosophy and worldview. I am sympathetic to an overall non-supernatural outlook and science as a basis for finding objective fact in a confusing world viewed through imperfect senses and idiosyncratic thinking organs. I think Sean Carroll reaches further than he reasonably can in an effort to build a theory of everything, but his attempt includes many perceptive and thought provoking ideas.

Carroll is a physicist well versed in cosmology and quantum theory. He starts by combining our incomplete understanding of these disciplines into an overall description of the physical universe. Though I mentioned that our understanding of those ideas is incomplete, one of the compelling ideas that Carroll puts forth is that our understanding is complete enough to resolve the overall state of the universe. He supports the justification the consistency of, explanatory power of, and evidence for those theories justifies relying on them. I think that’s compelling, but then I showed up pretty close to that; not everyone will agree, but he lays out a clear position.

When he begins to apply Bayesian analysis and conditional probability theory to belief levels, I start wanting to argue about it. As he extrapolates further from other mathematics and physics into a life philosophy and moral basis, I find more to disagree with. I reject parts of his worldview, but my personal views are incongruent with most people’s. I don’t think any two people will agree completely on those big issues.

The value I see in Picture is that Carroll builds his perspective clearly and directly from modern cosmology. He uses mathematics and other ideas as metaphors when not directly applicable. The book sparked some interesting ideas even when I disagreed with them.


Review: Rivers Of Gold

February 2nd, 2019

Rivers of Gold is the first volume of Hugh Thomas’s trilogy of books on the Spanish Empire. I picked it up as part of my ongoing interest in South and Central America.

Thomas is an old school British historian and Rivers is correspondingly well researched and clearly delivered. His style is unexpectedly accessible and almost inviting. The combination of invitation and educational focus makes it feel like a great history class.

The research and references are all solid without being overbearing. I think the notes and bibliography provide a solid basis for further exploration.

The overall narrative balances the push and pull of Spanish royalty in Europe and the almost internecine Caribbean politics. Having gobbled up Conquistador and basking in the Western Hemisphere insanity, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the European politics has a different complimentary flavor.


Reading List 2018

January 13th, 2019

I read 34 books in 2018. Here are the ones I strongly recommended

I either read better stuff, or my grading is getting softer. You can see the full list of my 2018 capsules.

Review: The Library Book

January 13th, 2019

Susan Orlean opens obscure cultures and places to readers through her insightful writing. In The Library Book she takes on one of my favorite institutions – the Los Angeles Central Library (and the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) in general)

The LAPL anchors LA’s literary landscape, educational resources, and community outreach. It is a powerful and fascinating resource and I am delighted to be a contributor to it, just to slap a bias on the table.

Beyond that, the history of the place is in the center of the unique and chaotic confluence of forces that is the insanity of LA history. The parade of people and politics that swirl about the founding and evolution of the early history of the LAPL routinely drops your jaw. It’s lively and delightful, including an early (female) director who is voted out and basically responds by saying – “you want the keys? Come and get ’em.”

That’s without considering the 1986 arson that nearly destroyed the place and the subsequent conspiracy-theory-fertile legal wrangling after it. As remarkable is the powerful restorative response of so many parts of LA’s community. Orlean relates this all with the power and mystery it deserves.

Beyond the historical, Orlean takes pains to capture the eclectic feeling of the library. It is a backbone of so many facets of the city and community that no one view could capture it all. She builds a lively collage of perspectives that illuminates the library’s many roles in LA’s pageant.

Any admirer of libraries, history, or community will find much to love here.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

November 25th, 2018

Critics were nearly universal in their acclaim for The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven when it first appeared, and the book has held its reputation and has been republished several times. In my opinion, the critics nailed it.  Sherman Alexie’s perspective encompasses the universal experiences of society’s forgotten and the specific context of Native American Reservation life. He can sling poetic prose like few others.

The result is a series of potent shots of rotgut language that appall and enlighten with unbalancing power.  It’s the kind of book that one can go on a bender with or nurse over time.  One way or another, I encourage readers to try some.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Legends & Myths of Hawaii

November 25th, 2018

People build their world from shared stories and I enjoy hearing others’ stories.  This narrative wanderlust led me over to the retelling of a set of Hawaiian myths by no lesser a source than King David Kalakaua.  He was the last male monarch of Hawaii, and seems to have a respect for the material tempered with a scholar’s instinct for context.  He is well versed in Hawaiian and Western traditions.

Hawaii has a shorter history than Europe or America.  The islands were unsettled before a few hundred years CE, and settlement seems to have been transient until circa 800 CE.  They can sustain humanity but they’re far enough from human settlement that bootstrapping their habitation was difficult.  One interesting aspect of that history is that the islanders claim a merged history and mythology that remains in the dim clouds of human memory.  Kalakaua imbues his discussion with both a realism for historical accuracy and a literary appreciation for the power of myth.

The legends are a combination of cheer leading for the various royal lines and tribal powers and general chauvinism for the emerging nation.  Kalakaua frames each with a political and social framing that helped me understand who has a stake in the power of the legend.  Then he dives in and tells the story as a story.  It’s enlightening in ways that many tellings of Western myths are not.


Review: The Fifth Season

November 10th, 2018

N. K. Jemisin has won the Hugo award for Best Novel for the last three years in a row.  It’s the kind of thing that eventually catches my attention, and I’m happy that it did.  The Fifth Season is the first of these three and a well deserved honor.  Jemisin shows off so many of the things I love about SF: careful world building, believable characters, and beautiful writing.

She creates an world that is exotic and intriguing while remaining connected to ours.  As most great SF authors do, she twists the world in a few comprehensible ways while keeping closely enough in touch to mirror reality. There is meaty commentary here on both fiction and reality that lands with a light touch. That is to say that the world is immersive and the story crackles along snappily.  One can enjoy the ride without deep thought.  If you like deep thinking, the world ignites and supports it.

Key to making a believable world is looking out at it through the eyes of a real person and seeing other real people.  Nemisin’s people are clearly of her world while being comprehensible to those from ours.  While much is indubitably made of the racial and sexual inclusiveness of her players, I find them at least as diverse in their worldviews and social backgrounds.  They are all genuine and interesting and complex enough that none of them is completely admirable or static.

True characters in a wide world are the catalysts for a great story but Jemisin’s writing is the cherry on top.  Her writing is structurally powerful.  It reveals the world and characters in a Salome-like dance, simultaneously enticing, propulsive and deceptive.  Plot, character, and theme all appear and deepen with brilliant timing.  The specific writing is a delight as well.  Individual sentences sometimes twirl as they conclude, bringing insight, horror, or power to the narrative.

And that closer…

Strongly Recommended.

Most Perfect Album

October 28th, 2018

Many of the cool kids know that RadioLab is one of my regular podcast listens and the US Constitution is my favorite government spec.  RadioLab has taken the Constitution and mixed it liberally with Schoolhouse Rock – another favorite – to produce The Most Perfect Album.  These are original songs based on the 27 Amendments to the Constitution.

If that description didn’t start you downloading it, I’ll point out a few highlights:

It’s free! Check it out!