RivkaT (rivkat) wrote,
RivkaT
rivkat

Nonfiction

Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History: This would’ve made a great 10,000 word essay, and is possibly adapted from a series of speeches/papers, which might explain the repetition of anecdotes and arguments. The core argument is clearly correct: when people condemn Black Lives Matter and compare modern freedom movements unfavorably with the civil rights movement because of the latter’s supposedly more uniting tactics, they are ignoring the real history, which is that King and Parks were highly unpopular with whites, and controversial even among some African-Americans, while they were in the midst of demanding justice. Also, there were long struggles in the North and the South, instead of transformative moments in which real Americans realized that racism was bad. Northern whites in particular seized on the rhetoric of cultural disadvantage to explain why Brown v. Board didn’t mean that their kids had to go to school with black and brown kids, and busing had been used in Boston for many years before desegregation—indeed, busing had been a tool of segregation so that whites and blacks living within a block of one another got different schools. (By the way, the black schools were so overcrowded that the school board proposed doing half-day shifts—they didn’t propose letting the kids go to less crowded white schools, though.)
Margaret O'Mara, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America: Essentially a long series of newspaper articles about various businesses, or at least about the CEOs thereof, with occasional reminders of how white and male that world was. Very little detail about what the technologies actually did, and calling Obama "the social media president" has very different resonance in the age of Trump (which the book does end on, but without a lot of Silicon Valley soul-searching).
Karen L. Cox, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South: Two white ladies, both remnants of the white enslaver lifestyle who grew up after the Civil War but in a society that wished it didn't happen, have a feud; one of them squats/lives in a decrepit house with the mentally incapacitated man for whom she cares. One night, with the involvement of a black man who's returned to town from Chicago and the black woman he was courting, the other white lady is killed and her house robbed. Then the black man was killed, and then the black woman--who doesn't seem to have known the plan--is sent to jail for murder (the fact that she isn't lynched or executed seems to suggest that the whites knew she wasn't really guilty; they were content to send her to a horrific penal facility). Then the other white lady and her companion become famous for how decrepit their house was--goats wander through it, among other things. It was a delightful scandal, even a tourist attraction, in Depression-era America. A relatively slight story overall, but a lot of local color.
 
Randall Munroe, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems: Witty scientific explorations of how to do silly things like filling a swimming pool with bottled water. It was as well-done as previous volumes, but it was hard not to read an undercurrent of doubt about whether we as a species/planet will survive the next few hundred years in anything like our current state of capability.

Cecilia Aragon & Katie Davis, Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring: Argues that the distributed feedback available from fellow fans can help young writers in particular develop their talents, and uses big data to suggest it’s happening in real time. Number of reviews is correlated with increased lexical diversity (a measure of writing quality) even holding popularity, aging of writer, and practice constant: 650 reviews produce a year’s worth of improvement. Although they don’t go into it, the biggest limitation on getting educational lessons from this seems to be the dropouts—the people who leave fandom or at least leave fan writing. The power law distribution of popularity was no surprise, but it is interesting that anime fans produce more stories and fewer reviews compared to other fandoms, and book fandoms get longer stories on average.
 
Linda E. Fisher & Judith Fox, The Foreclosure Echo: How the Hardest Hit Have Been Left Out of the Economic Recovery: Exploration of what happened and all the legal doctrines that were used to harm ordinary homeowners, as well as the incompetence and dirty tricks that further immiserated them when the crisis began. Alternates big-picture explanations with individual stories illustrating how mortgage fraud, foreclosure fraud, and foreclosure relief fraud interacted, often without recourse even if people found help like the authors’ law school clinics. I didn’t realize just how high a percentage of foreclosures were abandoned/zombie foreclosures—that is, foreclosures that weren’t finished by the lenders, so that the borrower still owns the house for purposes of taxes and maintenance but often doesn’t know that and gets in worse trouble; the authors’ sample found 37.8% of cases in limbo of some kind, while other estimates are 23-25%. Sometimes the lenders even asked courts to set aside completed foreclosures so that they wouldn’t have to be responsible, and courts often did, or let lenders restart foreclosures after adding on more late fees. Government aid to borrowers was too little, too late, and left in the hands of the very entities that had screwed things up and continued to do so; even people with modifications often ended up with higher rates and as their payments reset with no wage increases in sight they’ll still be unable to afford the payments. Housing stock has been transferred to rentiers who will minimize maintenance and maximize rent extraction, contributing to ordinary citizens’ inability to build wealth or permanence. And banks are still hoping to collect (or sell to third parties to collect) deficiency judgments from foreclosures, in states where that’s allowed, so this weight will not be removed from around survivors’ necks any time soon. Although they end with some ideas for solutions, frankly revolution sounds more reliable.

Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist: Kendi’s biggest divergence from other things I’m reading is his insistence that black people can be racist, because racism is a mode of thought and not just an exercise of power. (His argument that people like Clarence Thomas can be anti-black racists does not entail this, but he also argues that anti-white beliefs wrongly blame races rather than people for bad behavior.) He argues for political change first, attitude change to follow maybe.

David I. Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe: The Pope helped Mussolini get and keep power in return for making Catholicism mandatory in Italy, paving the way for Hitler’s rise. He wasn’t an aggressive anti-Semite, but did nothing to fight the anti-Semitism in the Catholic church, some of whose official publications in this period sound like they came straight from Goebbels. Ultimately, he seems to have felt a little bad about what he enabled, but not awfully bad (except perhaps for the fate of converted Jews who married Catholics, whose marriages he would’ve strongly preferred to recognize in contravention of the racial measures enacted under Nazi pressure).

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence: Armstrong wants to argue that religion isn’t inherently violent. Half of the argument works, but half descends into “no true Scotsman” territory wherein every religious justification for violence is followed by her reminding us that other people in the same faith tradition rejected violence. Sure, but does religion make violence more likely? Armstrong argues that, for much of human history, religion couldn’t be separated from the state, and it was the state (or even the tribe) that made war. As religion was separated from the state, she argued, it became harder for universalist claims about the equal dignity of persons to push back against nationalism, so national and ethnic hatreds did much more damage than religious hatreds. The Nazis, she suggests, waged ethnic war rather than religious war—though she doesn’t actually spend much time on German religion.


Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts: Richter traces colonial America further than most histories, to roots in the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. He argues that overlapping and conflicting groups, including “progenitors,” conquistadors, planters, traders, and others shaped the places and peoples that ultimately had a civil war that turned into independence for thirteen of Britain’s numerous colonies in the hemisphere.

Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam: The long, slow fall of the French and the rise of the Vietnamese Communists. Tragic decisions—trying to run out the clock, trying to assuage national pride, trying so defeat wouldn’t have to be admitted—make things worse at almost every turn.

David Grann, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Collected New Yorker (and similar) type stories of strange, usually obsessive characters and the passions that drive them—one for the definitive biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, another for the giant squid—or occasionally stories about important projects that require years of heartbreaking and dangerous work, like building a new water tunnel for New York City (this story is legitimately terrifying about what happens if we don’t fix the existing decaying infrastructure soon) or fighting corruption in a deindustrialized area of Pennsylvania.

Kristin L. Hoganson, The Heartland: An American History:Interesting take on the “heartland,” specifically Illinois around Springfield. Although transnational histories usually focus on borders, Hoganson argues, that actually helps reinforce the idea of an unpenetrated “heartland,” which couldn’t be further from the truth. Illinois was constantly both influenced by and influencing the rest of the world—driving Native Americans out, seeking to build a world-class university using new principles from Germany and elsewhere, seeking markets for farmers, seeking new breeds of animals and plants for farming, and so on. The most interesting tidbit about how racism works: white farmers didn’t like pigs with black coats and spent considerable time and resources on whitening the pigs through breeding, even though the coat had no relationship to the quality of the flesh, so that they could tout the whiteness of their pigs.

Gary Krist, Empire of Sin: Jumps back and forth in time a bit too much, but it’s a history of how white reformers fought the fleshpots of New Orleans, and the African Americans of New Orleans, into outlaw/endangered status after Reconstruction and into the Prohibition era. As my husband commented, the recollections from jazz performers aren’t all that helpful because they tend to be vaguer and more apocryphal than the other sources in the book, but if you’re into true crime, this might be of interest.

David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBITold in three parts. The first is a murder mystery: the Osage, wealthy because of the discovery of oil in the place they’d been exiled to, are being killed in overt and covert ways in the late 1910s/1920s. The second is the story of the investigation, which Hoover used to legitimate his newly reformed and power-seeking FBI, and certainly the feds were more interested in punishing the killers than the Oklahoma white power structure was, though that was a relatively low bar to clear. The third is the author’s account of talking to children of survivors and going through remaining records to add to the story, making clear that the FBI didn’t find every killer despite some sincere individuals trying hard to do the jobs they were assigned to do. It’s an appalling story and I’d never even heard of it before.

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Tags: au: aragon & davis, au: armstrong, au: cox, au: fisher & fox, au: grann, au: hoganson, au: kendi, au: kertzer, au: krist, au: logevall, au: munroe, au: o'mara, au: richter, au: theoharis, nonfiction, reviews
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