Review: California Crackup

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

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

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.


Review: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72

October 30th, 2022

I’m a big Hunter Thompson fan from long before I was putting these posts up on the Internet. I somehow never got around to reading Campaign Trail 72 though I’ve certainly seen excerpts in various collections. I caught up on it recently and it reminds me that people – especially powerful ones – don’t change much. You can pick nearly any political trope that pundits are currently wringing their hands about now and see it in Campaign Trail.

I get the impression that many folks think of Thompson as strictly a hedonist and maybe a nihilist. I think he’s both those things, I think he’s also got a core of hope that people will use the influence they have to make a better world. Any of his writing on The Sixties characterizes much of it as a tragically missed opportunity. Even that’s a bit simplistic – and I think his later writings show he knows that – but I do think he never lost that bit of hope. I see the nihilism and misplaced hope both in Campaign Trail.

That may be projection on my part, of course. Thompson makes that kind of thing easy in his gonzo style. There are incidents and facts in here that are easily confirmed. There are incidents in here that are clearly fabricated. But most of what he writes can’t be confirmed, but is or isn’t plausible depending on your own beliefs. It’s a powerful reminder about how subjective all political writing and punditry is.

It is Hunter at the peak of his powers, so the best of the prose crackles with insanity that feels like prophesy. Worth dipping into just for the style of it all.


Review: I Fight for a Living

September 25th, 2022

If you have an interest in the intersection of sports and civil rights, Louis Moore is a great follow on twitter. He has deeply researched the topic, continues to do so, and communicates what he finds very well. I Fight for a Living is his research about black boxers in America in the late 1880s. If you want to know about the roots of segregation, bombast, and personal branding in American sport, this is a good place to start.

Moore has a pro-equality point of view, and he does not shy from racial interpretations of this history. But the historical record doesn’t make that hard. Sports talk wasn’t shy about throwing racial cards on the table, and neither were the fighters and promoters themselves. If you think sports has been free of racial controversy and protest, this is a fine demonstration that we’ve been arguing about it since around the time the phone was invented (no correlation implied).


Review: Cat’s Eye

September 24th, 2022

I love Margaret Atwood, partially because I read this book twenty years ago for the most Internet of reasons. My roommate had a bunch of quotes from it rotating in his .sig file and they were all great. I asked about it and he said it was good. So I read it. I re-read it recently.

I’ve never read a bad Atwood book, but in may ways this is still my favorite. I get the impression that most people think of her as the writer of A Handmaid’s Tale and think of her as exclusively writing books with a feminist message. I think she’s certainly written works that suit that to a tee and that she’s always writing from a woman’s perspective. Where I think A Handmaid’s Tale is focused on sounding an alarm, I think Cat’s Eye captures some of a life and the bruises one accumulates living it with compassion. No call to action, except perhaps a little understanding.

My roommate told me that after reading Cat’s Eye he thought anyone could tell her the story of their childhood and she’d understand. That’s probably the best review I’ve ever heard of it.

She’s writing about are from growing up female in rural Canada in the 50’s, but I always related with it. I understood this childhood, though I lived a different one. There are details that people of that time probably find familiar, but that I never found off-putting. One determined to find a feminist message in here won’t have any trouble, but I think a reasonable reading sees much more. No one here is exclusively a symbol.

And she’s Margaret Atwood. Practically every third sentence would make you stop short and admire its perfection if it weren’t so much a part of a stream of language telling an immersive story. A joy.

A must.

Review: Born A Crime

September 24th, 2022

I have read a few celebrity-penned books that I would read again, and Born A Crime is one of them. It’s a memoir of Trevor Noah growing up in Post-Aparthied South Africa. I don’t watch much late night TV, so I didn’t have a particular attachment to him coming in. He’s a talented writer and I liked this not-very -veiled tribute to his mother.

He does a great job making events in a country that US readers would find a bit otherworldly very familiar by drawing out the universal human points of growing up. I completely believe these stories are true, not because I fact checked them or know South Africa, but because I believe the perspective. (Yes, a talented writer can do the same thing in fiction, go with me.)

There are lots of parts of these stories that can be eye opening about prejudice, poverty, or abuse, but I never feel preached to. I think he’s making a bunch of points by bringing the reader into these stories so completely, but it’s never “a very special episode.”

Finally, I like how he draws his relationship with his mother. He understands that they’re very different in many ways, but that they’re in life together and committed to one another. It’s nice to see such a real rendering.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The War on the Border

September 5th, 2022

I quite liked Jeff Guinn’s The War on the Border, which is a lively, readable, well researched history of a series of US incursions into Mexico in the 1910’s and the general mayhem that precipitated them. It’s stuff like this that I missed in history class and that explains so much.

There’s a lot of nasty feeling in the Southwest on both sides of the border that was hard for me to internalize until I read this and learned that people on both sides of the US/Mexico border have been committing mayhem on a scale I hadn’t realized. Some of it at the behest of governments and some freelance. Pancho Villa did his best to wipe out a New Mexico town in 1916 and there was a document called la Plan de San Diego that claimed to lay out a terrorist strategy predicated on destroying US towns. On the other side Texas Rangers acted as judge and jury and retaliated with little regard for guilt.

It’s easy to forget that US history is full of border wars with these sort of violent confrontations between families wronged by folks on the other side of the border, who in turn commit mayhem, gangs form that turn into armies and generations of hate bore into the land. Guinn doesn’t go into all of that, but it’s hard not to see it all from these events.

Beyond the lawless land grabbery and revenge battles, there is international intrigue in the forms of Mexican revolutions, counter revolutions, and local warlords that are exacerbated by actual German interference to keep the pot bubbling to keep the US distracted and out of World War I.

Guinn does a great job bringing all those levels into focus as well as highlighting some genuinely dramatic figures – Pancho Villa, “Black Jack” Pershing, Patton. Quite a good read.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Shifting Grounds of Race

July 10th, 2022

I find Los Angeles history to be a fascinating topic and this book is another peek into it. Growing up in the East, I found the West to have a pretty short idea of what the past comprises. That turns out to be a preconception that the West in general and Los Angeles does take steps to reinforce, but it’s more ludicrous the longer one thinks about it. The West coast’s history of European occupation – not to mention the lengthy history of the indigenous – was long underway when the Massachusetts Bay and Virginia colonies were just getting sited. This book doesn’t go that far back, but it’s no less rich for its recency.

LA has long been a major crossroads attracting populations from all over the continent and Pacific, accelerated by physical and metaphorical gold rushes and land marketing. As it became a hub for industry and trade in the period leading up to WWII, it attracted workers. These were often not citizens and treated as much less than people. To add to that, the land marketers often erased these immigrant populations to sell an American paradise.

WWII complicated matters by excusing explicitly removing Japanese immigrants and citizens into camps. Those people’s labor was replaced by additional labor from within and without the nation, and the frictions between these people make up a significant part of Grounds. It’s not an endorsement of Americans’ record in fairness and inclusion by any means. It’s important to know, though.

While I find the research and interpretation of it excellent, I won’t say Grounds is a page turner. Scott Kurashige’s skills are more in scholarship than in wordsmithing. Some of that may be taking extra care with ideas that may be explosive and I can’t blame him. He never says that, so it’s just a guess.


Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

May 8th, 2022

Left Hand is another classic I have somehow missed to now, written by an acknowledged master, Ursula LeGuin. It was well worth it, even though it took a while.

It tells a great story with interesting characters that holds your attention. Like some other great SF, it balances a new environment and world building with adventure and character advancement. LeGuin displays a deft hand here, with both an engaging plot that features timely twists and an overall composition peppered with sparkling phrasing. It’s a great novel.

What impressed me even more than getting to read a great novel is how powerfully she manipulates ideas. She puts at least two fundamentally challenging ideas into the reader’s mind – how an expanding culture/nation can open relations with a fundamentally non-aggressive agenda and the extent to which rigid sexuality defines a society. I was even more impressed that she approached these ideas without resolving them. So much speculative fiction introduces such ideas in such a way that they are intrinsically bound with the author’s judgements on them. LeGuin builds an interesting story around these ideas that reaches a satisfying end without being inevitable.

I was left with the feeling that there were other ways that these theses could end, but not in the sense that they were sequels to this story. Both telling a great story and planting an intellectual seed is a remarkable feat.

Strongly recommended.