RivkaT (rivkat) wrote,
RivkaT
rivkat

Nonfiction

Karl Jacoby, The Strange Career of William EllisAlso known as Guillaume Elliseo and variations, Ellis seems to have been born into slavery in Texas, but in later life was involved in cross-border politics and even Wall Street finance as a Mexican who claimed Spanish descent, taking advantage of American uncertainties about racial meanings outside the US. Ellis/Elliseo promoted African-American colonization of Mexico, though it mostly failed, and otherwise acted as an entrepreneur and politician. Because of his many names, it was hard to trace him, and digitization has only helped somewhat. Jacoby tells his story as one about the permeability and manipulability of borders—he was often able to use American racial ideology against itself, even as white American and Mexican racism both tried to suppress those of African descent; he also didn’t completely succeed, as when he was excluded from railroad cars reserved for whites. But because of the uncertainties and poor record keeping surrounding the border, even a failure once didn’t necessarily stick the next time. Of course, the same could probably not be said today, with its more comprehensive surveillance and classification.
 
Anand Giridharas, The True American: Murder and Mercy in TexasShortly after 9/11, a white man murdered two immigrant gas station attendants and shot a third in the face. Giridharas tracks both the killer and his surviving victim as “true Americans”: the one whose persistent criminality didn’t prevent him defining himself as a patriot and rightful inheritor of white power in the country, and the other who emigrated from Pakistan to chase the American dream of self-invention and material success. Eventually, the survivor decided that the best way to honor his religion was to advocate for his assailant’s life (he’d been sentenced to death for one of the killings—but only because the prosecution argued that the hate crime aspects didn’t matter as much as the robbery, because in Texas that’s what could secure the death penalty). Readers are very much left to draw their own conclusions about, for example, the sincerity of the killer’s quasi-repentance—he went to his grave insisting that his motives were good even if he now knew his actions were bad—but it’s hard not to hear a story of deep, deep American rot. For example, being shot leaves the victim in crippling debt, and it’s almost accidental that he manages to get out with the help of a victim’s compensation fund; the killer was surrounded by people who knew he was both violent and an outspoken racist, but they still decided that he was joking when he said he wanted to kill nonwhites, because after all he was not too much different from them. His family was mired in poverty; one of his children seeks to get out by hoping to work her way to managing a McDonald’s, which seems like almost unimaginable security to her.
 
Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese AmericaNgai traces one family, starting with two Chinese immigrants who came as children and met in San Francisco. Christian missionaries adopted the girl; the boy worked for many people, including white families, ultimately building a transport business that depended on linking Chinese immigrants with white-owned shipping and railroads. Later, the family was heavily involved with immigration authorities in another way: several members worked for the US government, tracking down unlawful Chinese immigrants and purportedly distinguishing the truth-tellers from the liars (seemingly sometimes influenced by bribes). The family mostly held itself apart from Chinatown, living elsewhere and adopting “Western” clothes except in certain limited situations. Ngai suggests that this is a relatively typical story of how an immigrant family can advance financially and socially: by becoming an interface between other immigrants and the new society.
 
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French RevolutionA lot of the book is a lead-up to the Revolution proper, which Schama argues had major continuities with rationalizing reforms attempted but not fully carried out beforehand. Reading it now, my main takeaway was how fluid the situation was; it wasn’t clear what would stick and what would fail, and people could rise and fall and rise again, in ways that seem a little too much like the present situation for my comfort.
 
Stephanie Land, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to SurviveLand writes beautifully about being trapped in low-wage jobs and the residue of an abusive relationship, with not a penny to spare or a day to give to, say, a child’s illness without a further spiral. She’s a sharp observer of the houses she cleans and the miseries and happinesses of the wealthy or at least not-desperate people who paid her (or her employer) to clean. Her story is only as happy as it is (which is to say, it ends on an upwards trajectory) because she was actually able to access government benefits like subsidized housing, food stamps, and college assistance, and because she had friends—some made online—who could occasionally chip in, rather than themselves being just as desperate. 

Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of ScienceBiographies of some important figures of British-adjacent science at the end of the eighteenth century, including their perspectives on the relationship of science to the humanities. If you really enjoy reading about the eighteenth century, this is good; it was nice to learn about the German immigrant astronomer Caroline Herschel, whose discoveries were significant and celebrated in her day along with those of her brother William, despite his far greater opportunities.
 
Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and WorstThe conceit of the book is to look at the biological influences on behavior from distant (evolutionary, parental environment, prenatal environment, etc.) to microscopically close (how do neurons fire). It’s really too big to be grasped in one book, but I liked Sapolsky’s meticulous recounting of the evidence that even when genes strongly influence a behavior, they only do so in a particular environment; change the environment, and the same genes may strongly predict a completely different and even opposite set of behaviors (e.g., aggressiveness in mice). He also discusses the relationship between free will and biological explanations of behavior in a clear and useful, if potentially quite disturbing, way.
 
Mike Mullane, Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle AstronautWhat it says on the tin—Mullane is a mostly unrepentant sexist who wants you to take his acknowledgement that his sexism is unwarranted as sufficient excuse for hearing him recite it in a way that makes clear that he's only distancing himself from it now because he knows potential readers will dislike it. Because I’m basically inured to this kind of thing, I could read the rest of the book, which does effectively convey his excitement at the opportunity to be an astronaut, his frustration with NASA politics and the decisions that led to the Challenger disaster, and his other adventures.  

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Tags: au: giridharas, au: holmes, au: jacoby, au: land, au: mullane, au: ngai, au: sapolsky, au: schama, nonfiction, reviews
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