RivkaT (rivkat) wrote,
RivkaT
rivkat

Nonfiction

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness: Fascinating book about evolution and consciousness, and the octopus. Describing an early roundish ancestor that doesn’t seem to have had much in the way of perceiving organs (and seems to have existed before predation was a thing), he describes them as “[m]acarons that pass in the night.” Much of the book is intriguing discussion of the nature of consciousness and the need for a moving being to be able to distinguish things that happen because it acted (e.g., my field of vision shows something different because I stepped forward) from things that happened for some other reason (e.g., my field of vision shows something different because a fish swam in front of me). Although some theories of cognition depend on embodiment being a specific kind of constraint (we have knees, we have arms of a certain length (aiding us in perceiving distance), etc.), the octopus body is almost completely unfixed—“a body of pure possibility”—and it still has some kind of problem-solving/interacting ability, though its scope is unclear. As one researcher said, fish have no idea they’re in a tank, but with octopuses, “[a]ll their behaviors are affected by their awareness of captivity.”
 
Michelle Obama, Becoming:Look, there’s just something about being the woman who looked at Barack Obama with a skeptical eyebrow raised but then, like so many of us, was won over (and, uniquely, won him over). Best line on that subject here, after she talks about the rusted-out car he was driving as a third-year law student: “It occurred to me, too, that quite possibly the man would never make any money.” Second best: “All this inborn confidence was admirable, of course, but honestly, try living with it.”
 
Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin: Ben Franklin’s sister never had his opportunities; she stayed home, got married young, buried a lot of children, and raised a few to adulthood without help from her ne’er-do-well husband. She never learned to spell very well, and many of her letters don’t survive because they weren’t often considered worth saving. Lepore uses her story—what can be recovered of it—to talk about who gets left out of history as well as who gets included. Unfortunately, Lepore’s verbal tics, repeating/hammering home her jokes, are too much in evidence.
 
Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “The American Dream”: Churchwell tracks the uses of these phrases to earlier than they’re usually identified (thank you, Google). Her main argument—and it’s probably not worth reading a whole book on this—is that the American dream starts out as a dream of equal opportunity and civic responsibility, rather than a solipsistic dream of personal wealth accumulation. America First, by contrast, pretty much always meant racism and exclusion. A good line: “[Code words like America First] are there to muddy the waters: to keep people from seeing their own faces in the pool.”
 
Kamala Harris, The Truths We Hold: Harris’s case for her presidency is her vision of a progressive prosecutor, one who attacks crime as the result of larger social problems and who wants to fight the bias of the existing system while retaining a system of rewards and penalties for good/bad behavior. Her foreign policy pitch is basically that she wants to protect us from bad actors like Russia, like a good law enforcer. I am not yet completely swayed (love you always, Sen. Warren) but if you want someone who has the requisite self-confidence without being Dunning-Kruger about it, she clearly qualifies and I'd be enthusiastic about her as the nominee.
 
Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland: Browning’s subjects were extensively interviewed after WWII, creating more extensive records than exist for other German groups. These men were largely not career go-getters, though they varied in their commitment to Nazism, and they were sent to Poland to keep the conquered territory in line and to carry out massacres. About 85% of them participated directly in killing Jews (and some non-Jewish Poles), while a limited amount of refusal to participate directly was tolerated (though they ended up standing guard or otherwise just standing there, rather than resisting). Browning argues that anti-Semitism, though clearly relevant, wasn’t something that distinguished most of the killers; they did it because it was their job, and because their comrades were doing it so refusal would just increase the burden on their mates. Many also became jaded over time—some retreated to alcohol and others to more absolute brutality.
 
Adam Tooze, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World: Tooze follows the crisis from mortgages in the US (where many of the big players were not technically US banks, but the crisis was perceived as US-driven anyway) to the Eurozone crisis a few years later. He argues that these were really the same underlying problems, although one looked like a public balance sheet problem and one looked like a private problem; only the US proved capable of truly taking on the challenge of putting enough liquidity into the system. He also explains how other economies, particularly China’s, responded (China built a lot of infrastructure to keep its economy growing, and now they have empty cities instead of accounting balance sheets; query if that’s any better).
 
Maria Francesca Piazzoni, The Real Fake: Authenticity and the Production of SpaceThrough a close study of Thames Town, a recently built community in China emulating “traditional” English design, Piazzoni examines how people make and contest spaces and create ideas of authenticity. Thames Town is less than half occupied, consistent with the large buildout of spaces in urbanizing China generally; sometimes manual laborers squat in the less desirable downtown areas, though they’re excluded from the guarded, gated communities of villas (which are still only half occupied). Prices are up to twice as high as those in non-themed communities, and the green spaces, water features, and general Westernness, including access to an “international” school, are part of what purchasers value. It’s “at once an enormous success and an evident failure.”

Situated relatively near Shanghai, it’s a tourist attraction—tourists come both to see the Englishness and to see the many engaged couples who get their engagement pictures taken against that backdrop. The villa residents may look down on the engaged couples or understand their desire to reach for a vision of Englishness, which they all know is a reconstruction but don’t much care about—Piazzoni argues that one version of “authenticity,” which is consistent with Chinese culture, is successful/useful reconstruction. The engaged couples also vary greatly—some pay for expensive salon packages, while others change on the street and insist on their right to do so equal to the couples with money enough to pay for a salon. “[T]he shoots commonly feature between two and six [clothing] styles, including traditional Chinese, ‘Modern Western,’ and ‘Revolutionary China.’ The photo shoot costs between 20 and 50 percent of the total wedding budget.”

Piazzoni explores the different uses of space by laborers, guards, residents, tourists, and engaged couples and their service providers, arguing that authenticity is both exclusionary and always under contestation. As she says, authenticity is always about “an unresolved tension between permanence and change.” Residents in particular have a lot invested in the exclusionary aspects of the community. “Most residents, for example, avoid hanging their laundry outside to dry—a very common practice in China—to safeguard the ‘English’ atmosphere. Some residents confine themselves to the non-English parts of their houses and leave the English areas untouched.” Others enjoy the contrast with an English exterior and a Chinese interior. And some people build glassed-in balconies so they can continue to dry laundry on lines without being socially condemned. Even the migrant laborers learn that they are more likely to avoid harassment if they keep laundry inside, though in the downtown areas some squatters still use the outside in traditional ways. Best fun fact: the souvenir shop outside the English cathedral, which is a copy of a Protestant cathedral, sells rosaries, pictures of the Pope and crucifixes, because that’s just as Christian as far as the visitors are concerned. Larger point of significance: there are many of these themed communities in China, often constructed to imitate some previous style of living, often Western European specifically. Sometimes, Piazzoni says, architects use the profits from these communities to experiment and build their own styles.

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Tags: au: browning, au: churchwell, au: godfrey-smith, au: harris, au: lepore, au: obama, au: piazzoni, au: tooze, nonfiction, reviews
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