Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776
: Over/badly written, repetitive, full of passive voice obscuring who did what, and choked with ten-dollar words where ten-cent words (or no words) would be better. I like my adverbs, I’ll admit, but describing a provocative action as one that “stirred the pot irately” comes a lot closer to “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” than an author should get. The basic argument, which is that slavery and the resulting threat of slave rebellions were behind many of the key decisions that England and the American colonists made that ultimately led to the Revolution, seems sound: white Americans defended slavery as a means to get rich, while the English were less certain that it was worth the costs especially since they were also concerned with the Carribean and its bloodier revolts.
Brendan Reilly, One Doctor
: Slice of life story by a doctor involved in taking care of very sick patients at a major NYC hospital. Reilly contrasts this with the historical model in which a doctor followed a patient both in and out of the hospital, in sickness and in health, thus gaining vital information that can affect diagnosis and treatment (and cause really bad results when it’s absent). I enjoyed his stories and reflections on the flaws that the benefits of modern medicine and the profit motive have generated.
Seamus McGraw, A Thirsty Land: The Making of an American Water Crisis
: McGraw gives a history of Texas water law and policy, suggesting that a too-heavy focus on individual property rights has encouraged mismanagement. It was a useful story, though I thought he was too forgiving to the “individualists,” for example describing one majority-white little town where lots of residents put in their own water tanks and solar panels so they didn’t have to pay for hookups as full of people who were independent. Pretty sure they didn’t manufacture those tanks and panels; they just fit the ideology of independence, hiding the ways in which they are dependent on others.
Kate Atherley, The Knitter’s Dictionary
: What it says on the tin, with a lot of explanatory diagrams. I am not really sure who the market for this is, given the existence of tutorials on the internet, but if you want hard copy when you look things up, this seems reasonably well-done.
Brian F. Haara, Bourbon Justice: How Whiskey Law Shaped America
: “Shaped” might be an overstatement, but it’s a decent account of how changes in American business fed and responded to changes in American law. Americans often have a lot of pride in their productions but there are also plenty of sharp dealers, and bourbon has a lot of both sets of characters. For example, in 1885 a recipe book offered a variety of recipes that could be passed off as bourbon and rye; “rectified” liquor was sold as “bourbon.” The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, which Haara identifies as the nation’s first consumer protection law, didn’t solve the problem, so President Taft formally defined “straight,” “blended,” and “imitation” whiskey in 1909. Where it’s not advertising/consumer protection law, it’s likely to be trademark law—plenty of producers copied and sued each other (sometimes both). These cases were part of the transformation of trademark from a narrow right against straight up fraud to a much more expansive right that allowed Maker’s Mark to prevail against Jose Cuervo’s red wax seal for its otherwise completely different-looking tequila. Recent years have seen less attention to consumer protection—bottlers no longer have to disclose the age of their product, though if they do disclose anything about the age of the components they have to specify the youngest (and least valuable).
Peter Lindsay, The Craft of University Teaching
: Thought-provoking discussion of various teaching dilemmas, including cheating, and suggestions for how to think about solving them for your own, individualized teaching persona. Teaching as craft, Lindsay suggests, means teaching as an end in itself, teaching people to want to learn. Advice I liked: “When teaching abstract concepts, start with concrete examples; in fact, it is best to reverse the common order used to explain a concept. … every step [in the conventional order] is an eﬀort to remedy the confusion created by the previous one: the definition seeks to capture the word, the explanation seeks to clarify the definition, and the examples seek to concretize the explanation. Instead of each step preparing students for the next one, each is reduced to doing damage control for the preceding one.” Likewise, Lindsay is no fan of rubrics: “if an assignment can be reduced to a set of boxes for my checking, it hardly seems worth my trouble to read it.” Nor is he a fan of technology in the classroom, unless it works for a particular teacher as a tool to generate excitement about learning.
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost
: History of the massive white violence in the Belgian Congo (and surrounds) that claimed ten million lives at the turn of the twentieth century in search of profit and control. It’s a chilling story, including cautionary elements about Leopold’s excellent press manipulation, as well as some significant heroes, including an African-American preacher/activist and a shipping accountant-turned-activist who noticed that cargoes weren’t going out with enough trade goods to account for the riches they brought back.
Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth
: Depressing short recap of the current situation; other than connecting the current spate of bad faith liars to the rise of postmodernism (mostly via Paul de Man, who turned out to be a Nazi) there’s not much here you won’t get in any other depressing article about the reign of Trump.
Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944
: What it says on the tin, with the interpretive lens of German military superiority in weapons and fighters. Though most of the Germans in Normandy weren’t their best (who’d been deployed, and often destroyed, in the Soviet Union), they still tended to outfight the Allies when roughly matched in numbers. It was superiority in materiel and supply chains that allowed the Allies to win anyway. Hastings also spends some time on the role of the air forces—critically, denying the Luftwaffe access to those supply chains, and eventually somewhat learning to support ground troops with forward observers calling down targeted fire on enemies, but not nearly enough.
Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell
: Stories of human altruism in natural disasters. Solnit argues that most people behave their best in natural(ish) disasters, rather than panicking or selfishly trampling others to survive. Though there are always a few bad apples, she points out that, both in San Francisco in 1906 and New Orleans after Katrina, it was the troops/police that did most of the greedy (nonsurvival) looting. In fact, it’s elites who tend to panic about property rights, causing much more suffering and even freewheeling, but often discriminatory, murder. The average person is much more likely, as people did in the Twin Towers, to help others escape danger at risk of their own lives. Solnit suggests that this is because most people have a powerful need to feel useful and to be part of something larger; because ordinary life under late capitalism is so draining—a disaster in slow motion—crisis brings not only loss and suffering but also opportunity to forget the past and the future and focus on taking care of each other in the moment. Solnit’s examples are heartening, but also limited by the fact that they involve people focused on physical, nonhuman threats—when we fight each other, we’re not quite as altruistic.
Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic
: You’ll always be able to tell when a book about Hitler was written post-Trump, I think. This one’s intro and conclusion emphasize Weimar citizens’ indifference to truth and Hitler’s lack of deep intelligence as opposed to pseudointellectualism; he was such a liar that he never even knew what the truth was. The rest of the book is a political history of the particular maneuvers that Hitler used to come to power in a regime where the Nazis lacked majority or even near-majority support until after they were firmly in charge. As we probably all know by now, it was the decision of non-fascist right-wingers that the Nazis provided needed energy and support to their movement, and their confidence that they could control Hitler, that made the difference. One described Hitler as chancellor not as the “head” of the nation, but as the “hat” to be put on and off as needed. Good metaphor, bad prediction.
Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want To Talk About Race
: As you might expect from the title, some good Racism in the US 101 directed at white people and POC, including practical reminders about conversations about race and white defensiveness as a barrier. I liked the tips on what to do when a conversation has gone horribly wrong, including advice on when you might have to give up and accept that you won’t get the resolution you want. “These conversations will always be emotional and loaded to various degrees—and if they are not, then you are likely not having the right conversation.” There’s always something I haven’t thought about, like Oluo’s point that she, like many people of color she knows, doesn’t like driving—she can’t feel the freedom of the open road that white Americans think of as our inheritance because of the worry about a bad police encounter.
As a supporter of noncommercial communities, I also winced when Oluo recounted declining participation as an uncompensated speaker at a woman’s march because women of color shouldn’t be asked to take on the “emotional and mental labor of discussing their racial oppression to a majority white audience for free …. I was very careful in my explanation of why I felt that this ask was problematic, and how important it is for us to not further exploitation and oppression within our movements. It wasn’t long before I got a message in response from a white woman I didn’t know…. Could I please take the time to explain to her further, personally (and, I’m assuming, for free), so she could understand?”
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