Friday, January 12, 2018

Gang Leader For a Day

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (2008)

by Sudhir Venkatesh

The author describes himself as a "rogue sociologist," a bold bit of branding that's more than just posturing.  Tired of the stilted questionnaires and lack of human feeling in poverty research, Venkatesh one day takes it upon himself to walk straight up to a high-rise in Chicago and talk to the drug dealers.  He's accosted roughly and initially mistaken for a Hispanic, but one charismatic middle-level dealer, JT, is impressed with Venkatesh's bravado and allows him to see the day to day life of the people in the projects as well as some of the seedier aspects of gang life in the Black Kings.  For ten years, Venkatesh remained a somewhat trusted figure, an outsider for sure, albeit one with privileges as a sympathetic observer, and every once in a while getting his hands dirty (or his feet – at one point he joins in the beatdown of a woman-abusing junkie).  Eventually Venkatesh is even allowed to make the rounds of the South Side and even suggest ways to iron out squabbles and problems that JT deals with.

There are problems with this sort of rogue ethnography, of course.  Venkatesh is for better or worse an ally of the Black Kings, and thus may not be allowed to see the toll their protection racket may take on civilians, small business owners, and others trying to get by.  However, it's fascinating to hear how the gangs act as de facto police in the area, dispensing favors and settling disputes.  The real police, like EMTs, rarely come to the projects, so certainly the Kings are providing a needed service, but are they filling a need left by a racist system or, through violence, creating a reason for their interference and growing power?  It's more likely closer to the latter; JT isn't stupid, and uses Venkatesh for his own ends, as when he takes economic data recorded by the sociologist to extract more tribute.  In all, this is an eye-opening and enthralling look at a too-often hidden side of poverty in America, although since it's through the lens of a crack dealer in a high-rise in the '90s, it's a bit skewed.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Why Good Things Happen to Good People

Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Exciting New Research That proves the Link Between Doing Good and Living a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life (2007)

by Stephen Post and Jill Neimark

The (main) author, Stephen Post, is a professor of bioethics at Case Western, and the president and founder of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL), located at the school.  In this book, he makes the claim that possessing and acting on loving traits such as generosity, courage, listening, respect, creativity, humor, compassion, and so on help improve one's outlook, health, and lifespan.  Citing dozens of studies commissioned and funded by his own IRUL institute, and with some dubious phrases such as "compassion may be oxytocin, the feel-good hormone" and "drumming in groups can boost the immune system" (these statements probably not approved by the FDA), he does show some evidence that altruism is linked to health.  Of course there is also a lot of reliance on correlation as well: veterans who performed acts of bravery were found to score high on maturity and emotional stability; those who volunteer to help others tend to live longer.  But does volunteering make you live longer, or do healthier, positive, stress-free people volunteer?  The passages on forgiveness and listening are the strongest, in my view.  With practical advice including how to use Tonglen breathing, a Tibetan Buddhist technique for sending compassion into the universe, and great quotes such as "you can't hear with your heart until you silence the noise of the ego," these chapters give readers ways to improve their daily life by reducing stress.  I also enjoyed some of the advice on conflict: while listening to others, accept what they say, check how your body is reacting, and instead of replying, ask yourself, how can I meet this with kindness?  In all, Post's "proofs" of the benefits of living with love fall somewhere between dubious science and cultish zealotry, but shouldn't we all act like it is true anyway?  After all, "compassion is the basis of morality."  Until we have more rigorous proof, that's good enough.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The House Of the Scorpion

by Nancy Farmer

In a future where a wide swath between Mexico and the US is a recognized fiefdom known as Opium ruled by opium warlords and cultivated by lobotomized “eedjit” zombies, a young boy named Matt lives on the compound of a feared drug lord named El Patron.  Early on, he learns that he is a clone of the ancient, decrepit kingpin himself.  Aside from a friendly bodyguard and the woman who raised him, he’s treated with scorn and disgust by most of the family and employees, although El Patron orders everyone to act normally around him.  Gradually, Matt realized why El Patron needs a clone, and it’s not because he wants an heir.  Making his escape, he spends some time in a pseudo-socialist Mexican orphanage workhouse before finding his childhood friend, and some measure of meaning in his life.

This is an interesting and original book; Matt’s slow realization as he learns what the reader already assumed gives it a chilling suspense, and the pacing is good.  I thought the quality fell a bit in the Mexico section; Farmer seems to have been intent on critiquing the hypocrisy of an Orwellian socialism, which is not only attacking a strawman, but is rather out of place compared to the overall tone of the book.  Worse, the main resolution of the book happens off-scene, and Matt is simply told of the fate of everyone he knew at the hacienda in Drugland.   It’s a bit of dramatic let-down, though it sets things up nicely for a sequel. 

four stars

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


by Cornelia Funke
translated by Althea Bell

Meggie and her bookbinder father live alone in a house crammed with books and the joy of reading.  When a mysterious visitor named Dustfinger arrives, calling Meggie’s father “Silvertongue,” Mo acts secretive and alarmed.  They take a trip to the house of a relative, Elinor, who is just as book mad as they are.  There, however, they are set upon by kidnappers who want a specific book, and Mo himself.  When they’re captured, Mo reveals his terrible secret.  When he reads aloud from books, he brings the characters to life, literally. Ten years previously, he read so lyrically from the book Inkheart that a pair of the book’s villains appeared in our world, while his wife was spirited into the book!  With some help from Dustfinger, who is by no means an ally but wholly self-interested, the three try desperately to work out a plan that will end the villain Capricorn’s reign of terror as well as get his wife back – a plan that depends on help from Inkheart’s own author.

I was not bowled over by this book.  It’s an interesting premise, even if it has been done before, but the book is overlong at 540 pages or so.  The characters are flat (the villains uninterestingly and thoroughly villainous; Meggie and her father are selfless and beatific), as well as obtuse, which I found irksome.  It’s absurd to think after you’ve been kidnapped from your own home by a mad, violent, powerful man who wants something from you, and then escaped, that you can simply meander back to that home with your ordeal over.  It’s downright stupid to think that situation can be resolved by talking. Some of the conceits of the plot are also a bit ridiculous: a normal, illiterate man from a magical but medieval world appearing here with nothing but the clothes on his back, somehow rising to become a crime lord?  And even established as he is in the story, Capricorn is the sort of tyrant who could be dealt with by two men with handguns; hardly an indefatigable enemy.  Finally, once the main conflict has been established, the book drags; the plot repeats itself and Funke takes a dreadfully long time to get to the real point of Capricorn’s plan, to unleash a murderous magical creature on this world.  For all that it is a love letter to classic children’s literature (Tinkerbell is appropriated as a minor character, as is a figure from The Thousand and One Nights), I found it more boring than engrossing.  I’d rather reread E. Nesbitt.

three stars

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

by Gabrielle Hamilton

The author recounts her life, both personal and professional, from growing up in a large tight-knit family with a French mother who taught her kids about real food, crusty bread, creamy cheeses, and the like, through the parents’ divorce and Hamilton’s rise from thirteen-year-old waitress to line cook to chef.  She also discusses her marriage of convenience to an Italian man and her trips to Italy, which grow more bittersweet with every year.

I have mixed feelings about this book, because as a reader I take the narrator’s tone very personally; other readers might not.  At first, I enjoyed the book with unalloyed pleasure.  I got the title from a list of food writing Anthony Bourdain recommended, and it’s easy to see why the book appeals to him.  Hamilton is an unflinchingly honest narrator, and a brilliant writer.  She matches Bourdain's opinionated partisanship, visceral attitude, and past replete with scofflaw delinquency, and, I dare say, her writing is more fluid and expansive.  Her commentary on the value of hard work, making one’s own way, and dealing with hardships is admirable.  Her opinion of the perennial hand-wringing over “where are women in cooking” question has a steely practicality and impatience for attention seekers (“cook, ladies, cook!” – and the rest will follow).  But it’s her section on her marriage that marred the book for me.  Just as I couldn’t stand the fictional Jane Eyre’s dithering and self-pity, I can’t stand the real-life Hamilton’s dithering and solemnity about her unhappy marriage.  She knew she was marrying him “as performance art,” as she puts it several times (to get him his Green Card actually).  She’s unhappy, yet she won’t leave him.  Only a complete ignorant fool – which she is not – would think that marrying a doctor means that you’re marrying a good husband, or that an Italian man is somehow a good or exciting man.  So it may be because of my own life, which this book hits too close to the bone, but I just soured on Hamilton as a person and narrator after that.  Too bad really; she writes vividly and has a good story to tell.  I just want to hear the professional part.

four stars

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones

by Anthony Bourdain

Just what it says on the cover, a collection of previously published pieces of food, chefs, travel, and cultural commentary (plus one fiction piece).  I’m a Bourdain fan, but most of these essays are simply too short to have any real impact.  That’s not to say they’re not bad; they have his trademark snide remarks, the New York swagger tempered by open-minded desire to learn more about others.  In a magazine I’m sure they’re fine.  But, for example, a mere three printed pages on Bourdain’s first taste of Szechuan food is nearly pointless; he barely begins to describe the taste before the essay is over.  A lengthy examination of Brazilian food and culture demonstrates how much more powerful his travel writing can be when he has room (on the page) to explore.  This edition had some commentary by Bourdain on his own pieces since their publication; some of his opinions have changed, and it’s fun to read him mocking his old self as briskly as he used to mock TV chefs.

three stars

Friday, October 18, 2013

Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable

by Dan Gutman

Twin 12-year-olds Coke and Pepsi McDonald, on a cross-county vacation with their professor father and writer mother, uncover a secret government plot to use “YAGs,” or Young American Geniuses, to solve the complex problems of the nation, and find that they are on the list.  When they learn that a shadowy group is preparing a terrorist attack at (one of) the country’s biggest ball(s) of twine, their road trip becomes a race against time, made all the more desperate by the fact that their parents know nothing about their mission and by the fact that dangerous “dudes with bowler hats,” as well as their old health teacher, are trying to kill them.

It’s a very light, silly book, crammed with gimmicks like codes presented within the book and a suggestion that readers follow the trip via Google Maps.  With lots of actual spots of Americana oddities mentioned, such as the Donner Party Memorial, the PEZ museum, a Yo-yo museum, and the House on the Rock, the book is at times more gimmick than plot.  Some parents might find it troubling that the preteens are instructed by a stranger to keep secrets from their parents, but it’s all in fun, with no real violence.  It’s a simplistic kid’s book with some humor, such as when the kids gets their spy bags with Frisbees, cards, and fruit, which the kids are disappointed to learn are not laser Frisbees, spy camera cards, and bomb fruit, but actually just plastic toys and food.

four stars