coraa: (bookses)
Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, by Tim Reiterman

One of my quirks: I am squeamish and easily frightened in general; I can't watch movies that are all gory or that are designed to make you jump, and most horror novels are also difficult to impossible for me to read. But I can read accounts of, say, the Charles Manson cult and murders right before bed with nary a qualm. In fact, I... enjoy them is kind of a ghoulish way of putting it, but I find them absolutely absorbing. (I suspect that growing up in a school run by a church that, um, bordered on the edge of cultlike fed my fascination.)

It was in that mindset that I went looking for more information about the People's Temple and Jonestown, site of an enormous and tragic mass suicide/murder. What I found was this book by Tim Reiterman, a journalist who researched the People's Temple and who was part of Congressman Leo Ryan's ill-fated visit to the jungle of Guyana and the People's Temple enclave, Jonestown.

This is not a small book. I read it on the Kindle, but in paper form it apparently runs nearly seven hundred pages, beginning with Jim Jones' childhood and ending with the mass suicide. On the way, it tracks the rise of the People's Temple, including biographical sketches of many of the participants: some of those sketches were necessary to the narrative (such as Tim and Grace Stoen, whose child—who Jim Jones claimed as his own—played a central role in the final tragedy), but some were not directly related. But I appreciated those, even though they made a long book even longer, because they really made me feel the disaster of their deaths. I spent a lot of the book chewing on my knuckles and thinking, "Oh, I hope he/she gets out before the end." Some of them did. Most didn't.

The other thing that the book is very good for is depicting the slow but steady way that a charismatic leader can take a group of people from an idea that is fairly normal (in this case, Christianity plus egalitarianism, social justice, and racial harmony) through intermediate stages to a bizarre conclusion (Jones depicted as God the Father, control of people via sex, beatings and humiliation of anyone who disagreed because they were 'elitists', and finally mass suicide/murder in the name of revolution).

This is not an easy book to read, because if you know anything about Jonestown, you can feel the weight of doom almost from the beginning. It's particularly hard to read about the journey the Concerned Relatives and Congressman Ryan make, knowing what the end result will be. But it's also fascinating, and very useful as a depiction of the psychology of charismatic leadership. (I also liked that, as tempting as it must have been, Reiterman refrained from armchair psychoanalysis. He gave details that you could draw conclusions from, but even when he mentioned Jones' delusions of grandeur and paranoia, he was quoting a psychiatrist who had actually examined Jones.)

Caveat: The book was originally published in 1982, and while I didn't notice anything egregious as regards mishandling of gender or race, it also wouldn't shock me if it was there.

Recommended, but only if you're in a buoyant mood.
coraa: (food love)
Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet, by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon

Plenty is written along the same lines as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle -- they only eat things that were produced within a certain radius of them, in this case 100 miles -- with two differences: the authors are in British Columbia (not too far from me, actually), and they don't 'cheat' at all. Where Kingsolver's family had some exceptions from the rule, Smith and Mackinnon don't 'cheat' at all -- if it's not grown or raised within a hundred miles, they don't eat it.

This was a really uneven read. Parts of it were amazing, and I loved the inspiration for eating locally myself. (Since they're from BC, the things they eat at various parts of the year are very similar to the things I eat at the same parts of the year.) I was entertained by their frustration -- very much like mine! -- with late winter/early spring, where they ate potato pancakes, more potato pancakes, still more potato pancakes. And some of the things they ate sounded both delicious and possible for me to cook -- and I was delighted by the acknowledgment that shucking, steaming, and de-kerneling ten pounds of corncobs is kind of a pain-in-the-ass job.

On the other hand, there was some serious unevenness. Right after the chapter about potatoes potatoes oh god please no more potatoes, there was a rather smug bit where the husband was like, 'hard? it's not that hard! it's easy!', which was... sort of contradictory (and a little overly pleased-with-self). (Indeed, while I did like the eating-locally stuff, the smugness made me roll my eyes -- yes, it's very nice that you can spend a full month living in the back end of nowhere in a house with no power gathering berries, but it's easy to sound painfully superior about it.) And there was a lot of 'marriage in trouble!' stuff that I found frankly uninteresting and skimmed in search of more writing about food. (I'm probably going to convince you all that I hate memoirs, and that's not true at all. I like memoirs! I just have very short patience with middle-class ennui.)

I definitely think this one's worth reading, especially if you're a person in the Pacific Northwest interested in eating locally. There are just some parts that I thought lent themselves more to skimming.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 21
Fiction: 7
Non-Fiction: 14
POC Author: 6
coraa: (food love)
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan

I haven't been bookblogging because I've been putting off blogging these books, and the reason for that is twofold. One: I'm not totally sure what to say about them. Two: They're books that tend to, mm, inspire strong feelings, and I'm not sure I'm up to a rousing debate on the ecology, ethics, and politics of factory farming vs. local farming. Not that it's not a worthy discussion, just that I think of refereeing that discussion right now and I put my head in my hands.

So, with that caveat, I want to blog these anyway so I can move on through my list.

The title of The Omnivore's Dilemma can be unpacked in two different directions. The dilemma of which he speaks is the fact that, the more things you can eat, the more choices you have as to what to eat. If you are a koala, the decision is very simple: if it looks like a eucalyptus leaf and smells like a eucalyptus leaf, it's dinner. If it doesn't, it isn't dinner. But if you're a bear, rat, raven, human or other omnivore, and you're living in something other than subsistence-starvation, suddenly life gets a lot more complicated. Given a finite stomach capacity, and finite hunting/gathering/growing/buying resources, do you eat the wheat, the berries, the potato, the apple, the dead bird? If the answer is 'some of all of the above,' then in what proportion? And hey, look, there's a plant you've never seen before, growing in abundance in this place! ...Can you eat it? Should you eat it? Maybe it's a great source of food, and you'd be stupid to pass it by. Or maybe it'll make you sick, and you'd better stick to your wheat and your apples. How can you know? Pollan's point is that the brain of an omnivore has to support a lot more complicated prioritization and decision-making than the brain of a koala, which just does an 'is eucalyptus y/n?' pattern match and goes on from there. And modern humans aren't exempt from that: a trip to the local megamart is an extreme example of an omnivore's dilemma.

The other part of the title -- A Natural History of Four Meals -- describes the content of the book. Pollan obtains and eats four meals, each an extreme example of one modern food choice paradigm, and then examines its roots (so to speak). There's the first meal, the industrial meal, predicated on corn: corn-laden (in the form of corn protein, corn syrup, corn starch, corn oil, etc) mass-produced bread products, soda, and sweets, plus corn-fed factory farmed meats. There are the second and third meals, two variants on 'pastoral': the 'big organic' organic meal and the small-local-farm meal. And there's the fourth meal, most of the components of which he hunted or gathered himself. The book is largely about environmental impacts, and -- to hugely oversimplify -- those impacts trend better the farther along you get in the book. Industrial farming has some serious issues; 'big organic' avoids some of those -- at least you aren't dousing X-thousand square miles of farmland with pesticides that are literally poisonous -- but is still problematic in other ways; small farming has a smaller footprint; gathering for yourself is fairly defensible, with caveats, as long as what you're gathering isn't, you know, endangered species. That's a massive oversimplification, but there we go.

In Defense of Food is specifically about defending 'actual' food -- that is, food made of definable ingredients, where you know that the quiche has, e.g., wheat and lard and salt in the crust, eggs and salt and cheese and spinach and herbs in the filling, rather than having an ingredient list as long as your arm where you can't pronounce or recognize half of them. Where The Omnivore's Dilemma was mostly about the effects our food choices have ecologically, In Defense of Food is about their effects to health. Essentially, it's got two parts: an attack on 'nutritionism,' where food-as-food is considered vastly less important than food-as-a-collection-of-nutrients, and where nutrients go into and out of fashion (fat is bad! no, carbs are bad! no, it's refined carbs that are bad! and certain kinds of fats! but not others! did I mention antioxidants? coffee is good this week, better drink a lot before we decide next week that it isn't!). The other part of the book ties into this: nutritionism tends to lead to the belief that it doesn't matter what you eat, as long as you're eating the ratio of nutrients that's in fashion at the moment. So, because it's cheap and tastes good, we eat a lot of refined food, particularly refined grains, and a lot of meat -- as long as we can find a company to buy it from who will tinker with it so that it's low in this and high in that and has lots of added that other thing to make us feel as if it's still healthy.

It's hard to know exactly what I want to say about this. There were a lot of parts of the book that I had to agree with, while wincing -- it's difficult to read anything about the way factory meat farming is done and not feel kind of oogy about it, even if (as I am) you're a pretty content carnivore. It's hard to feel too great about a method of plant farming that's eerily reminiscent of strip mining. (And I say this as someone who doesn't have a knee-jerk 'chemicals BAD' reaction, necessarily.) And I'm not exactly a hard sell on buying local-and-in-season -- I mean, I do it myself, and (apart from the times like, uh, now, when I might scream if I see another bunch of kale) I enjoy the process. And I think that my health has improved hugely since I started making most of my food from scratch, even though I cook with an embarrassing lot of butter, because at least I know what the hell it is I'm eating. If I eat mashed potatoes laden with cream, at least I know what I'm doing -- if I eat mashed potatoes laden with hydrolyzed protein and added starch and, oh, by the way, a quarter cup of corn syrup, I don't even know what I'm doing to my body.

So there's that, and that much of it I tend to be pretty agreeable about. But. But there's another angle of it that I have a lot of problems with, and that's this: he seems to be advocating a revolution that's only available to people with a lot of money and a lot of time. Now, I am a person with the luxury of a lot of both, for which I am grateful. I can afford to spend quite a bit on food. More importantly, I have the time to cook from scratch basically every day -- and even more important than that, I like cooking. (You can bet that if the trendy thing was a 'locawear' movement, where you made all your own clothes from scratch, I'd be waaaaaay less favorably inclined to it, just because I don't like sewing that much -- and I recognize that it's a huge advantage that I do enjoy it for cooking.) But I have major problems with promoting something as the ethical solution to a major problem that's only available to people with the privilege of money to spare and time to spare, and both in pretty good quantities. More to the point, I have major problems with the occasional dismissal of the issue by saying that people should just buy fewer pairs of fancy shoes in order to buy the food, because -- because there are plenty of people in America right now who are already not buying fancy shoes, not ordering HBO, not wasting money, and still having trouble making ends meet. Inasmuch as the American food system is a problem to solve, it's only going to be solvable if your solution can reach those people, and not just people like me. (And trying to spread it to those people by lecturing them and making them feel guilty is both pretty darn high-and-mighty and still not very effective -- if the money and time aren't there, they just aren't there.) This isn't just a matter of ethics, it's a matter of pure pragmatism. Your revolution will never spread very far until it can be practiced by the mother working a job and a half while raising three kids, who has maybe twenty minutes a day to put together a meal for them, and who's already squeezing her food bill until it squeaks. I don't care how theoretically rewarding it is, it just won't, because practicality does mean something.

Still, it's an interesting read, and, as I say, already a number of things I put into practice and have found very rewarding. I just would like to see more practical suggestions for making this something other than a luxury movement.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 19
Fiction: 6
Non-Fiction: 13
POC Author: 6

Right now fiction is lagging so much because I got onto a rereading stint of Discworld novels, and I'm not counting rereads.
coraa: (bookses)
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, by Thomas Gilovich

It's a popular belief that infertile couples who adopt will not infrequently be able to conceive after their adoption. Many people accept this as true, and some can provide anecdotal evidence. The problem, Thomas Gilovich explains, is that it's not actually true: there's no statistical correlation to indicate that couples having fertility problems who choose to adopt are more likely to conceive than couples having fertility problems who do not. Certainly, some couples who adopt because they cannot have children of their own do become pregnant -- but some couples who are having similar infertility problems who don't adopt also eventually become pregnant.

It's a popular belief that a run of successes predicts further successes -- that a player who has sunk three baskets in a row has 'hot hand,' and is more likely to sink a fourth than his teammate who missed two baskets, even if the two have similar season-long averages; that if the cards or the dice are going your way, they will continue to go your way. Again, Gilovich points out, this just isn't true. Runs of good luck are just that -- good luck: the likelihood that a player will sink the next basket has something to do with his skill and long-term average but nothing to do with his prior streak, or lack thereof; the likelihood that the next dice roll will come up in your favor is pure chance, assuming nobody's rigging the dice.

So why do these beliefs persist? That's what the book is about -- not why the beliefs are wrong (although Gilovich explains the statistical background used to determine the falsity of these beliefs), but why people believe them anyway. Why people know things, firmly and without question, that are simply not true.

The book has three sections: "Cognitive Determinants of Questionable Belief" (that is, what's going on in your brain when you assume something that isn't true), "Motivational and Social Determinants of Questionable Belief" (that is, what about human psychology and social networks rewards you for assuming something that isn't true), and "Examples of Questionable Beliefs" (brief rundowns of several common types of questionable beliefs -- belief in certain kinds of alternative health practices, belief in certain interpersonal strategies of dubious usefulness, and belief in ESP and psi powers -- along with examinations of the research into their utility, and why they likely remain popular beliefs despite the lack of evidence).

(One thing to note; the book came out in 1993, which means it's... geez, 16 years old now? It doesn't seem dated, but I don't know how much research in the past decade-and-a-half has happened about these topics, so.)

I don't want to spoil the book too much, but I will give some examples of the kinds of reasons that people believe these things, which fall into a couple of broad categories. One is, ironically, not so much that we're rational as that we're sort of hyperrational: we look for patterns and explanations for data that has no pattern or explanation, data that is random. We believe that three things in a row -- successful baskets, coins that come up 'heads,' whatever -- must mean something. Another is that we try too much to extrapolate from small amounts of data, and we privilege anecdotes. This is why one example of a couple who adopted and was subsequently able to conceive trumps all the statistic in the world, for many people. But mostly, we see what we expect to see, what we want to see, and what we think others will see -- or what we think others will want us to see.

The book was written in a brisk, entertaining style without being too colloquial (some people can pull off colloquial, but some can't, and I'd much rather someone not try than try and fail). It was very readable, and in fact was a fast, compelling read. I don't have the expertise to asses their research, and, as I said, it's likely this is some degree of out-of-date, but it was really interesting either way, and made me think a lot about... well, the way I think.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 13
Fiction: 2
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 2
coraa: (bookses)
The Pluto Files, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I got this book because I saw Tyson on The Daily Show, talking about it, and the whole interview made me grin ear to ear, like a loon. (You can watch it here, if you like.) It's relatively rare that I watch an interview on a show like that and actually want to go get the book, but I did -- immediately. And I'm really glad I did.

The Pluto Files is about 'the rise and fall of America's favorite planet' -- it charts the history of Pluto's discovery, and its special status to Americans. (Pluto was the only planet discovered by an American, and, of course, there's the cartoon dog, named shortly after the planet's discovery.) And then, of course, the complicating factor of the discovery of other Pluto-like icy bodies, which threw into question: was Pluto really a planet at all?

At the heart of the book is a question: what makes a planet a planet? Apparently this question didn't have an actual answer for a surprisingly long time -- effectively, a planet was the set of things we called planets. This was more or less fine when the state of astronomy and astrophysics was such that we weren't aware of the other things out there... but that changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century, what with the Hubble Space Telescope and the various unmanned probes.

Much of the book is about this debate: what makes a planet a planet? When the other icy bodies orbiting beyond Neptune were discovered (the Kuiper belt objects), the question became: if we find another icy body as big as Pluto -- or bigger -- do we call it a planet, too? What if we find a bunch of them? Will we cheerfully up the number of planets to ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty? (Indeed, at least one Kuiper belt object was found that was bigger than Pluto; if Pluto was a planet, then Eris definitely was a planet, too.) Or does the presence of a wide variety of Kuiper belt objects, much more similar to one another than to the rest of the planets, mean that Pluto isn't really a planet at all? Indeed, the famous 2006 vote to de-planetize Pluto wasn't actually about Pluto at all, something I hadn't been aware of: the vote was to ratify the first formal definition of a planet, and that definition didn't include Pluto.

But the other key topic of the book was the intersection between culture and science. Several people, scientists among them, argued for a cultural definition of 'planet' that could keep Pluto under sort of a historical grandfather clause. In other words, the argument was that Pluto is a planet because 'planet' has more to do with public opinion and historical tradition than scientific definition. And this part of the book included all kinds of fascinating things: songs about Pluto, letters from elementary school students (in the interview, Stewart says, "You got some hate mail about this decision, didn't you?" and Tyson laughs and clarifies: "Hate mail from third graders."), explorations of the effect that nearly eighty years of the Disney dog had on perceptions of Pluto's status, descriptions of the various 'funerals' for Pluto.

One of the things that I really liked about it, too, is that Tyson doesn't pretend neutrality. He's clear from the beginning that his opinion was that Pluto wasn't a planet, and the book is partly an argument for that opinion. I liked that it was straightforward in its biases, and that's part of what made it so entertaining and so... not-textbook-like.

This book was, as far as I'm concerned, a rare find: a pop science book, accessible to practically anyone, but still written by an expert in the field; a book that is informative and funny and opinionated and absolutely delightful. Highly recommended -- and I'm going to track down more of Tyson's books soon.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 11
Fiction: 1
Non-Fiction: 10
POC Author: 1
coraa: (vetinari politics)
Posting before I head off to lunch -- expect more tonight; I have a backlog to catch up.

The Final Days, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

All the President's Men left off at the press conference where Nixon announced that he was "not a crook" and would not resign; The Final Days picks up from almost exactly that point, and continues through Nixon leaving the White House. Despite the continuity of time, though, it's not at all the same book as All the President's Men -- instead of an investigative thriller viewed from outside the halls of power looking in, it's entirely from the inside perspective of the Nixon White House in its last year of sliding into ruin. Ironically, where All The President's Men was all about uncovering, The Final Days was all about concealing.

The book begins with an explanation of the process they used to research the book, which sums up to: about a squillion interviews. Plus memos, transcripts, supporting documents, etc. -- specifically, they say that any information that could not be confirmed by two separate accounts was left out. And then we dive right into the Nixon White House in its death throes -- even before they realize that the flailing will turn out to be death throes.

There is a lot of flailing.

The thing that's interesting is that I-the-reader, of course, know that Nixon won't wriggle out of the charges in the end. I know he'll have to resign. But, in the book, there's no such awareness, of course -- at the beginning pretty much everyone except two of Nixon's lawyers seem to think that they can make the problem go away somehow, or at least downplay it enough that it will be a survivable blow. And over the course of the book, one by one, they lose their faith that it's possible to avert the looming disaster, until there's nobody but Nixon left.

In that sense, it reads a great deal like a tragedy. Which was interesting as a reader, because I really wanted to see Nixon get taken down for hisbehavior, which was both illegal and unethical. And yet, at times, it was hard not to feel -- well, not pity, exactly, but more like embarrassment-squick; as he resorted more and more to alcohol, and as his behavior became more and more irrational, I didn't exactly feel sorry for him, but I did flinch every time he did something self-destructive. I wanted him gone, but the flailing was painful. (I have to admit, I kept thinking in Internet memes: OH RICHARD NIXON NO, and I C WHAT U DID THAR, and so on. I can't help it.)

As a political thriller, though, it's absolutely fascinating: informative, interesting, and surprisingly suspenseful given that I do know how it's going to turn out. The feint-and-parry of the Nixon White House versus the court, where the court demanded tapes and the White House requested time, requested the right to censor for 'national security reasons', and stalled, and then the court overturned their requests, and on and on -- it's just fascinating. Worth a read, if you have any interest in 20th-century US political history, or in nonfiction thrillers.

(I need a new Vetinari-related politics icon that isn't quite so dated.)

Running Tally:

Total Books: 10
Fiction: 1
Non-Fiction: 9
POC Author: 0
coraa: (bookses)
(Side note: these are numbered according to when I get around to blogging them, not according to when I finish them.)

I don't have anything extensive to say about these -- which is why I didn't get around to blogging them until now, even though I read them in late January, and why I'm rounding them up and reviewing them in brief paragraphs. I periodically go through a kick of reading personal finance books, not because I expect them to teach me anything new, but sort of for... moral support, I guess, when I'm making financial resolutions. (Because, yeah, they all say 'spend less than you make, try not to go too deeply into debt, sock some money away in case the car explodes or you lose your job, it would be nice to retire someday,' all of which I do actually know.) Uh, yeah. That embarrassing revelation aside....

Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny, by Suze Orman

Didn't really teach me anything new. Spent a lot of time on setting up a living trust and will and so on. Lots of stuff about how many women don't know anything about their own finances (ie, they let their husband handle everything), which is a bad idea, which I agree with but didn't need to be told. Some stuff about saying a firm but kind 'no' that I probably do need but not in the realm of money (as I do not -- knock wood -- have relatives asking me for money). Pretty par-for-the-course: regular personal finance advice, plus 'don't just let your husband handle everything and leave you in the dark.' (Got it free from when the Oprah site was giving it away, actually.)

Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes And How To Correct Them: Lessons From The New Science Of Behavioral Economics, by Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich

This was the most interesting of the lot, because it actually wasn't just 'don't spend more money than you make you idiot.' It was about -- well, a lot of ways that people think about money that seem sensible from the inside but that don't actually make all that much sense. Loss aversion and the sunk cost fallacy, "mental accounting" that actually hurts you (like keeping an inheritance in a safe, low-interest savings account, while racking up interest on high-interest debt), why peoples' sense of scale goes wonky when the numbers get big, and so on. It really was interesting, and I'd give it a bigger write-up, except that it's really just a specific example case of a lot of the ideas in Gilovich's other book How We Know What Isn't So, and I'll save my full write-up for that.

Spend Well, Live Rich: How to Get What You Want with the Money You Have, by Michelle Singletary

Really standard personal finance -- just straight-up cheerleading of stuff that I already knew. Fast read, entertaining enough (I like Michelle Singletary's style; I listen to her NPR podcast), nothing new. Some thrift tips. Successful for the cheerleading purposes, though.

So, yeah. Useful cheerleading. Not sure I'd recommend them otherwise.

(Note to self: books I finished and still need to write up:

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
The Final Days, by Woodward and Bernstein
The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
How We Know What Isn't So, by Thomas Gilovich)

I have a bunch of fiction coming to me, which is good! I'm ready for some more fantasy/science fiction.
coraa: (critic)
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, by Ruth Reichl

I told you I'd eventually do a book I didn't care for!

I've been reading a lot of food writing, in the same way that (I assume) poker players read poker theory, or knitters read about knitting -- because right now cooking is one of my primary hobbies. And there's a lot of great food writing out there. In doing my food reading, the name "Ruth Reichl" came up many times, so I finally picked up her three memoir-esque food books (Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, and this one -- I didn't blog the first two separately because I read them last year, but I'll go ahead and discuss them all together, though with focus on the last.) And sure enough, they do have a ton of interesting and often good writing about food, about becoming a cook, and about reviewing good restaurants. (Garlic and Sapphires is about her tenure as the New York Times food critic, during which time she went to restaurants in disguise -- to prevent them from treating her differently because she was the critic. Reprints of the reviews themselves are scattered through the book.)

The problem was that, as I read, I increasingly found that I just didn't like Ruth Reichl very much. In fact, by the end, I pendulum-swung between feeling apathetic toward her, and actually disliking her. I feel weird saying that, because I feel like I ought to critique the book and not the author... but when the book is a memoir, that's a really fuzzy line, isn't it? So I'll give you the caveat that I'm willing to believe that Ruth Reichl-the-character-in-her-own-memoir is not quite the same person as Ruth Reichl-the-author, and that my criticisms below are about the former, without claim about the latter. And if you through some chance happen to be a close personal friend of Reichl, it might be better for us both if you just skip over this one. Okay? Okay.

Spoilers ahoy, for all three books.

My problems would be less, well, problematic if the books weren't so very much All About Ruth. )
coraa: (bookses)
All the President's Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

First, an embarrassing admission. I knew there was a famous and generally well-regarded writer named Bob Woodward who wrote books on Washington politics. I also knew that the famous investigative journalists who were instrumental in cracking the Watergate case were Woodward and Bernstein. I did not know until right before I picked up All the President's Men that they were the same person. Duh.

...That's probably as good an intro as any to my second point, which is that 20th century political history is not an area where I know very much. I mean, I knew the general outline of the incident, but it basically boiled down to "There was a break-in, and a coverup, and Woodward and Bernstein, and some tapes, and an 18 1/2 minute gap, and Spiro Agnew resigned for some reason, and a smoking gun, and then Nixon resigned. And somewhere in there he said he wasn't a crook." So in some ways I was in the perfect place for reading the book: I knew enough to be interested, but not so much that I could predict what was going to happen next.

And of course I knew that there was a lot more going on than that brief synopsis. )

I promise I will at some point post a review of a book I don't care for, just so I look less like a shill. ;)
coraa: (bookses)
Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, by Mitchell Zuckoff

Yes, I got this book after reading about the Madoff scandal/brouhaha/scam.

More to the point, I got this book because Michelle Singletary (a personal finance columnist whose podcasts on NPR I enjoy) recommended it to help readers understand what a Ponzi scheme – named after Charles Ponzi, the subject of this biography – is. I'd known that a Ponzi scheme was a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul deal, similar to a pyramid scheme, where the profits paid to early investors came not from actual interest or profits per se, but straight out of the money brought in by later investors. (Despite having been recommended by a personal finance person, this is far more a biography and a history than it is a finance book; it just happens to be a history of a huge financial scam. This to me is a good thing, but then, I'm a history freak.)

(Mild spoilers below the cut. I mean, nothing you probably don't already know or couldn't already figure out, but better safe than sorry.)

To simplify hugely, Ponzi created a massive pyramid scheme -- and then, for reasons that have more to do with personality than money, didn't run with the cash.  )
coraa: (bookses)
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver (Nonfiction)

I really enjoyed this book, and yet I'm not sure how to recommend it.

I think the first thing to say is: the author is a particular kind of liberal (class-conscious, ecology-conscious, tending to skepticism and mistrust of big business, invested in social change). If you are at least moderately sympathetic to this kind of liberalism, the book is probably fine for you -- but if you aren't, the book doesn't spend a lot of time trying to convince you. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is about convincing people who lean liberal to care about agriculture, not convincing people who don't lean liberal to do so. If you don't sympathize with those viewpoints to start with, you'll probably want to throw the book at the wall, and so probably shouldn't bother.

That said. If you are, at least, sympathetic to that strain of liberalism, I'd recommend the book.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a diary of Kingsolver's family's attempt to eat entirely local food for a year. They have a few starting exemptions: the whole family will continue to use wheat flour, even though wheat doesn't grow in their Virginia home, and each family member has one personal exemption (coffee, spices, and dried fruit are among the exemptions), but apart from those limited exceptions, if they didn't buy it in season (or grow it themselves -- they have a deeply impressive, envy-worthy vegetable garden), they don't eat it.

As someone who has been eating local produce for the past year, this book was absolutely fascinating to me. )
coraa: (bookses)
The Informant, Kurt Eichenwald (Nonfiction)

I bought this book because I'd loved the This American Life episode "The Fix Is In," which was based on the book, and I wanted to learn more. I wasn't disappointed, although having heard the episode it meant that I already knew a lot of the plot twists. But not all of them.

Because this is a book full of twists, so many that at times it's unbelievable -- until you get to the end, where Eichenwald extensively and meticulously documents the sources for every twist, turn, plot, and even line of dialogue. The first eighty percent of the book is written in a compelling, thriller-esque style that makes the banal workings of white-collar crime seem extremely exciting even without, you know, explosions and car chases -- and the last twenty percent backs up the facts. It's a great technique, and one that I think works well.

The "setting" is Archer Daniels Midland Company (aka ADM)... )

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