Category Archives: nonfiction

General nonfiction books.

Review 167: A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

History is, in its way, a fiction.

While it is made up of facts, things that are verifiable or at least reliably accepted as being what really happened, our understanding of history rests on a certain assumption that doesn’t always hold up – that what we are reading or hearing is The Truth. It’s how we learn about history when we’re kids – that this happened and that happened, and that’s all we really need to know.

The problem, however, is that what we got in our history books wasn’t the entire story. Oh, it was true, for a given value of “true,” but the historian who wrote the book did so with a specific narrative in mind, one that fit his or her perception of the past and which – more importantly – would sell textbooks to hundreds of schools across the country. The history that we get from those books is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of a populace that is already inclined to think well of its nation, and rarely deviates from the theme. While they do try to note the excesses, injustices and impropriety of the past, they tend to bury it in the glorious achievements of governments and industry.

AMURRICUH!!

Unfortunately, doing so means that there’s a lot of history that gets left on the cutting room floor. Incidents, people, whole populations get brushed aside because either there’s not enough room for them or because telling their story in detail ruins the mood that the historian is trying to set – usually one of bright optimism for a good and just nation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, either. An historian cannot practically include all of the historical viewpoints, good and bad, into a book meant to be used for only 180 days out of the year. So out of expedience, if not a conscious desire to tell an uplifting tale, they write books that look upon our past as favorably as possible, while including just enough criticism of our failures to fend off any serious accusations of bias.

As Zinn tells us, though, there’s no such thing as an historian without bias. Every historian has a story to tell, and Zinn has decided that he doesn’t want to tell the one we’re all used to hearing.

He starts in much the same place as most American history books – with the coming of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Immediately he reminds us that Columbus’ mission was not one of exploration but of commerce, and that the first question he asked the natives of what he would label Hispanola was, “Where is your gold?”

It all went downhill from there.

Reading this book, it would be very easy to get depressed. I can see how those who were brought up with a healthy dose of American Exceptionalism (the idea that the United States obeys different rules from the rest of the world and, more importantly, cannot do wrong) would really dislike this book. It is page after page of lies, misdeeds, cruelty, greed and deception. It is the story of a nation built not on the principle that all men are created equal, but that all men must be leashed to the yoke of the capitalist overclass. It’s a tale of genocide and oppression, of revolts both peaceful and violent, and it never lets up for a moment.

To his credit, Zinn tells us right up front that he’s going to take the side of the oppressed, the dispossessed and the put-down, and there’s no way you can tell that story without it being really depressing. It’s pretty clear pretty quickly, though, where his sympathies lie:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Hey, even executioners got problems, buddy...

His portrayal of the underclass, rebellious or not, is one of suffering nobility, and the System as a deliberately malevolent entity. Any good that it does is simply whatever was necessary to maintain its power, and the above quote speaks to that. The parallel structure that he uses effectively groups all of the upper class into the “persecutor” role, and the lower class into the “victims.” And while there is some truth to that – human history, after all, is a long story of rich and powerful elites governing poor and powerless people – it is painting with too broad a brush, in my opinion. He seems to work from the premise that all those with power are bad, and so those without must therefore be good.

As much as I wish that admitting bias was an excuse for it, it isn’t. It does a disservice to all involved to flatten your view of the American class system into a two-dimensional shadow play. Not all of the populist agitators were good and noble people, nor were all politicians cunning manipulators. Just keep that in mind as you read.

It’s a sobering read, though, to say the least. The best simile I could come up with is that it’s like watching your parents have sex. It’s something that you always suspected went on, but you could have gone your whole life without being presented with the reality of it. So it is no surprise that, after reading this book, some people become absolutely insufferable, cynical and disillusioned.

If you’ve already gone through that stage of your political thinking, however, you find something else in this book – hope. It’s something you have to dig for, but it is there, buried in the larger narrative that Zinn is telling us.

Not sure he saw this coming...

Given the amount of detail he goes into, it’s very easy to lose sight of the larger picture at work. Zinn details slave rebellions, gives stories of workers pushed to the extremes of human existence, soldiers thrown away for nothing, and entire segments of the population ignored or actively persecuted. But alongside these horror stories come tales of resistance. Whether it’s the quiet contemplation by a poor white farmer over whether he might have more in common with his black neighbors than his white landlords, riots of prisoners and guards against a corrupt prison system, or the militant, city-wide shutdowns organized by the Wobblies, the people can only be pushed so far. And while the Powers That Be are very good at figuring out how to distract, scare or defy the people, they eventually do make changes for the better, and everyone benefits a little bit.

Inasmuch as this book is a chronicle of America’s misdeeds over the last few centuries, it is also a tale of Americans’ triumphs. It is a tribute to the will of the people who, no matter how difficult it may have been, decided to stand up and demand respect from the men who held the reins of power. It is a testament to the women who wanted equality, the socialists who wanted a better world, the workers who wanted safe jobs at living wages, the blacks who wanted to be full citizens, and the Indians who wanted the wrongs of the past redressed.

Not everybody has gotten what they wanted – America is still very much a work in progress, and there is bound to be some backsliding as we go. What Zinn shows in this book is that no matter how bad the American government can be or how greedy American business might become, the American people want what’s best for themselves and, when the time comes, will stand up and shout for it. Given enough time, and enough courage, The United States will continue to be a better and better nation, and perhaps someday – someday – it will finally fulfill our expectations for it.

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“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will….”
– Frederick Douglass, 1857
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Filed under american history, criticism, culture, history, Howard Zinn, nonfiction, revolution, society, The United States

Review 166: Sex at Dawn

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Hey! Hey, baby, baby, waitwaitwaitwait. Wait. Wait! Baby, don’t… don’t freak out

Okay, okay, I know what this looks like, but I can explain! Quiet, Chad, let me handle this. I can explain! I’m just – please, stop crying and listen – I’m just fulfilling my evolutionary heritage and helping to cement social bonds with… um… the pizza boy, but that’snotthepoint!! That’s not the point! Look, before you do anything, y’know, drastic, you just need to read this book….

Image from wearscience.com - buy their stuff.

Humans are really good at figuring things out. As far as we go, we have a real knack for taking things apart and figuring out how they work. Though determined curiosity and perseverance, we know what’s happening at the center of the sun, we know how the continents slide across the surface of the earth, how plants turn sunlight into potatoes. We can smash atoms and cure disease and peer back to the moment of creation itself. There is almost nothing that humans cannot comprehend if we put our minds to it.

Except ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong – we have made great strides in philosophy and psychology, and come very far in understanding human origins and our spread across the planet. But there is a fundamental problem that we have when we study ourselves, and that is that we cannot do so objectively. Try as we might, it is impossible to completely put aside our own biases, judgments and backgrounds when we study how humans behave and try to understand why they do what they do. They are still there, if you look for them, and nowhere are they more evident than in the search for the origins or foundations of human sexuality.

The standard model, as it’s often called, goes something like this: ancient men and women established a pattern of monogamy based on mutual self-interest. The man would keep to one mate in order to be absolutely sure that he was dedicating his efforts towards raising his own kids and not someone else’s. If a man had multiple partners, he wouldn’t be able to provide for them all, and his genetic investment would die out. So, in terms of efficiency, it is much better for the man to keep himself to one woman, focusing all his attention on the children he knows he has fathered and making sure they live to have children of their own.

Not all women need the protection of a man, however.

As far as women are concerned, they require the resources that the men bring. When pregnant, a woman’s physical capacities are reduced and she is in a vulnerable state, so by staying monogamous, she is essentially purchasing security and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to her in a world that brought quick and merciless death. If she slept around, the man wouldn’t be sure that the child she bore was his, and would therefore have less interest in taking care of the both of them. Thus, monogamy is the best bet to assure the survival of herself and her child.

This is the story that’s been told for a long time, and it’s considered by most to be the truth. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, however, disagree. Not only do they think the standard model is wrong, but they think it is nothing more than a relic of our own modern biases and hang-ups. The process, they say, can be referred to as “Flintstonization.”

As you know, the characters in “The Flintstones” were more or less just like us. They went to work, they had houses and appliances and domestic disputes. They had the same issues and amusements as we did, because we overlaid our own society onto a prehistoric setting. Now in cartoons, that’s good entertainment, and in the right hands it can be used as powerful satire and commentary. In science, though, it’s just no good.

Ladies...

Starting with Darwin, people have imagined prehistoric humans to have the same sexual values that we have: a demure, reluctant female who is very choosy in deciding which male she will mate with. A bond forms, and they are faithful to each other until the end of their days. Later researchers, looking at our ape cousins, have plenty of observational research to support the idea that very early humans were monogamous. They look at chimps and gorillas and baboons and confirm what they had always suspected – that our natural sexual state is one of monogamy.

The logical conclusion, then, is that our modern attitude towards sexuality, with the rising rates of divorce and teen sexuality, represents a deviation from the way things “should” be, and must therefore be fixed. A loveless marriage, a man’s roving eye, a woman who cuckolds her husband, serial monogamists, all of these, according to the standard model, result from our attempts to go against our nature.

Or is it the other way around?

Ryan and Jetha have put together a very compelling argument that the standard model of pre-agricultural human sexuality is not only wrong, but dangerously so. By looking at modern foraging tribes and the way they live, as well as doing a comparative analysis of humans against our nearest ape cousins, they have come to this conclusion: our “natural” sexual state is one of promiscuity. Back in the day, communities were small and tightly bonded, and sex was one of the things that held those bonds tight. Rather than one man and one woman struggling to protect their own genetic line, their entire community made sure that children were cared for and raised well. Everyone was everyone else’s responsibility, and in a world of plenty there was no reason to try and enforce any kind of sexual exclusivity.

MINE!

It was only with the rise of agriculture that it became important to know what was yours, as opposed to someone else’s, and that quickly extended from fields and livestock to wives and children. Now that people were keeping their own food and making sure to divide their lands from their neighbor’s lands, sharing went out of style. With so much work put into growing crops, that’s where the standard model of economic monogamy settled in, and it’s been with us ever since. The advent of agriculture changed everything, and not everything for the better.

In addition, the very biology of humans, from the way sperm behaves to the shape of the penis, to the anatomy of the clitoris to the noises women make in the throes of orgasm – all of these point to an evolutionary history of sexual promiscuity. The evidence of our bodies tell us that being locked into a lifetime monogamous pair-bond is not what we evolved to do.

Ryan and Jetha know that their view of the fundamental nature of human sexuality will not be popular, mainly because it completely undermines our vision of who we are. So much law, tradition, education, entertainment and just plain common sense relies on humans being naturally monogamous. It’s something that seems so obvious to us that we cannot imagine a society built any other way. Unfortunately, if Ryan and Jetha are right, society is the problem. We have established a cultural norm that goes completely against our biological and evolutionary nature, and which makes people miserable on a daily basis.

I bought this book mainly to stop Dan Savage from nagging me about it. If you listen to Savage’s podcast – and you should – you will soon realize that monogamy is something that a lot of people aren’t good at. We look at other people with lust in our hearts, we cheat, we stay in relationships where we’re sexually miserable just because that’s what we “should” do. For most people, our sexual urges are to be fought against, with everything from self-restraint to social shame to law itself. It seems like staying monogamous is one of the hardest things for many people to do.

This, of course, raises the question: if it were natural, would it really be so hard?

My mother is a SAINT!!

It is a fascinating read, which covers a lot of ground and makes some very compelling arguments. It’s also quite funny in places, which was quite welcome. In discussing the standard model the authors note that this is, fundamentally, prostitution, wherein the woman uses sex for material resources. This sexual barter system has been assumed to be true for years, leading the authors to write, “Darwin says your mother’s a whore. Simple as that.” They also put in some special notes for adventurous grad students in the field of sexual research (especially genital to genital rubbing, something popular in bonobo apes, but which is rarely studied in humans) and re-titling the extremely popular song “When A Man Loves a Woman” as “When a Man Becomes Pathologically Obsessed and Sacrifices All Self-Respect and Dignity by Making a Complete Ass of Himself (and Losing the Woman Anyway Because Really, Who Wants a Boyfriend Who Sleeps Out in the Rain Because Someone Told Him To?)”

I don’t really know what can be made of the serious information proposed in this book. No matter how it may seem, the authors are not proposing a dissolution of marriage or compulsory orgies or anything like that, nor is this book a “Get Out of Cheating Free” card. We’ve spent thousands of years putting these restraints on human sexuality, and they’re not going to come off anytime soon. The best we can do right now is to be aware of where our ideas about relationships come from, and stop to think about the difference between what is true and what we wish were true. This understanding might help to save relationships that would otherwise fail. People cheat not because they’re scum or whores, but because they’re human. Being monogamous is really hard not because we’re weak or flawed, but because it’s not what our bodies want for us.

The search for a better understanding of human nature should lead us to being better humans, and nothing should be left out. Not even our most sacred beliefs. Not even sex.

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“Asking whether our species is naturally peaceful or warlike, generous or possessive, free-loving or jealous, is like asking whether H2O is naturally a solid, liquid or gas. The only meaningful answer to such a question is: It depends.”
– Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn
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Okay? Okay, baby? So you see, I wasn’t really cheating – okay, I was, but you can see why, right? I was just acting in accordance with my fundamental humanity, following the biological impulses as determined by millions of years of evolution when we… Hey, where are you going? Where are you? Oh, hell, he’s going for the shotgun. Run, Chad, leave your pants, you don’t have time, run!

Sex at Dawn on Wikipedia
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Sex at Dawn on Amazon.com

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Filed under anthropology, biology, Cacilda Jetha, Christopher Ryan, evolution, history, nonfiction, science, sexuality, society

Review 165: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is awesome. At first glance, you might not think so – she’s a short, squeaky-voiced New Yorker who has a driving phobia, gets motion sickness and is allergic to damn near everything. She fits into the category of “nerd” with remarkable appropriateness. So if you’re the kind of person who dismisses the Nerd as someone without consequence or someone you should just disregard, then, well, you’re missing out.

Vowell used to write rock music reviews, loves Abe Lincoln, and thinks that it’s the height of fun to go to Places of Historical Interest on her vacations. She’s an unapologetic nerd, deeply cynical and not afraid to assume that other people are as interested in esoteric matters of history as she is. She’s a self-confessed history nerd, and she makes you want to become one with her.

There's nothing about this man that doesn't say, "I'm nuts enough to shoot a President."

I read another of her works a while ago, Assassination Vacation, about her journey to learn more about our assassinated Presidents and the men who’d done them in. It was a fascinating trip through three out of the four major assassinations that happened in this country, and far more interesting than one would think. Especially with regards to the lesser-cared about presidents Garfield and McKinley.

This book is a little different – it’s a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. It starts, of course, with Lincoln, but goes off in all kinds of directions from there. For example, she talks about her time working for one of the world’s foremost antique map collectors, Graham Arader, and the persistent myth, up until about the middle of the 18th century, that California was an island. As part of this job, she was able to look at how the way we saw the world changed over time, and how maps become a part of the historical record of a civilization.

In the essay, “Pop-A-Shot,” she talks about her uncanny ability to shoot baskets in the Pop-A-Shot arcade game. While most of us would scoff at someone taking pride in a game where all you have to do is shoot balls into a hoop for forty seconds, Vowell shows us why this peculiar talent means something important to her, ties her to a sense of greater meaning and accomplishment and, more importantly, gives her something to lord over her male friends.

She talks about why she thinks she’s secretly a Canadian, given how generally polite and non-confrontational she is. And then there’s how much she and her sister have in common with Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twins who were the child leaders of God’s Army in Thailand. She talks about the incredibly painful feeling in her gut while she attended the inauguration of George W. Bush and the irritation she feels whenever someone compares someone else to Rosa Parks. And then there’s the advice to Bill Clinton on how to handle his Presidential library.

"Look, I'm not being a nerd here, it's just that there is NO way Han didn't shoot first. None. Seriously."

It’s a rather covert style of writing. She is funny enough and light enough that you don’t really think you’re in it for any useful information or heavy thought. But before you know it, you’re wondering to yourself, “Yeah, what is the media’s responsibility to the truth, and why do we let them charactature our leaders?” Not something you would normally think about, but the longer essay “The Nerd Voice” takes a look at the way Gore was misquoted and misrepresented during the 2000 campaign because the media had decided that he was the arrogant nerd and Bush was the homespun dummy. What’s more, she suggests that Gore might have had more success had he embraced his inner nerd and, like Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, made the jokes about himself before anyone else could.

Vowell is a thinker, and most definitely a nerd, and she lets her thoughts go off into strange and interesting places. She has a kind of temporal persistence of vision, where she looks at how the past and the present intersect. “I can’t even use a cotton ball,” she says, “without spacing out about slavery’s favorite cash crop.” And, above all, she’s funny, which is a rarity in those who write about history. Check her out.

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“I wish that in order to secure his party’s nomination, a presidential candidate would be required to point at the sky and name all the stars; have the periodic table of the elements memorized; rattle off the kings and queens of Spain; define the significance of the Gatling gun; joke around in Latin; interpret the symbolism in seventeenth-century Dutch painting; explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old; recite Emily Dickinson; bake a perfect popover; build a shortwave radio out of a coconut; and know all the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Two Sleepy People,’ Johnny Cash’s ‘Five Feet High and Rising,’ and ‘You Got the Silver’ by the Rolling Stones.”
– Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot
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Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Amazon.com

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Filed under american history, autobiography, culture, history, humor, memoir, nonfiction, Sarah Vowell

Review 159: Alphabet Juice

Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr.

When I was last home for Christmas, my mother pretty much shoved this book into my hands and said, “You have to read this.” And far be it from me to ignore my mother’s advice, except possibly that little tidbit about being trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space. I kinda spaced out on that one. Probably wasn’t important….

Anyway, Mom was right. Like nearly everyone else in my family, I am a lover of language. I read voraciously (as you well know), I’ve dabbled in writing – songs, stories and poems – and I make a living teaching non-speakers the joys of being English speakers. I grew up in a literate household, with a mother who used to teach me Latin roots whenever I asked “What does this mean?” My words are the way I express my thoughts and the way I understand the world, and as such they are as precious jewels – to be cherished and admired, used with elegance and style, and not wasted on fripperies and tacky indulgence.

He's much funnier than he looks. Really.

Roy Blount Jr is a kindred spirit indeed. He’s a humorist, the author of about two dozen books and a regular panelist on one of my favorite radio shows – Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…. He talks with a slow southern drawl and never seems to hurry. This is the kind of person who savors his language and treasures his words. He’s not only interested in the meanings of words, or the sounds, but in the very feel of them. And if you’re the kind of person who never thought about how words feel when you say them, this book might do you some good.

Think of a word. Any word. How about doldrums? It’s a great word, a “sonicky” word, to use the term that Blount coins in this book to mean “a word whose sound doesn’t imitate the concept it represents (like boom or poof), but rather evokes the essence of the word.” Say that word out loud – doldrums. Doldrummmmsss…. If you were asked to come up with a word that describes a seemingly endless, unchanging environment, you could do worse than this one. It’s got flat vowels, heavy and pendulous, that practically sit in the bottom of your mouth, defying your tongue’s attempt to shift them. Then it ends in a flat hum that becomes a thin and lifeless hiss. Doldrums.

It is clear that Blount takes great pleasure in the sounds of words and the feelings of words as phonemes slide, crash and bump together, but he’s also interested in the etymology of words. He looks into the origins of some of the most innocuous words in the language – and some of the most useful – and looks at how they descend from the same ancient Proto-Indo-European roots. Take the P.I.E. room pag- which has given us such a diverse crop of words as pagan, compact, pole, pace and pageant. All this from a little word that meant, roughly, “to fasten.” The words that we speak have taken a long and wild journey to get into our minds and our mouths. Some were ported directly from Latin, others took a longer route. But every word that you speak has great history behind it.

There is no other name that this man could have. Not a coincidence, I'm sure.

Finally, of course, there is meaning. Without meaning, words are just sounds and aggregations of letters. One of the big questions that Blount hits over and over again is whether words mean something for a reason or if they’ve just been arbitrarily assigned to ideas and things. There are those who hold to that idea – that a word like “go” is no better or worse suited to its job than iku or jít or aller (Japanese, Czech and French, respectively). There’s something to that, I suppose – after all, if one sound really were perfectly suited to a concept, why would other languages bother to use so many variations? Or, y’know, exist? You would think that eventually the speakers of other languages would hear “Go” and think, “That’s IT! That’s the word!” If that were the case, it would probably have put me out of a job.

So there probably is some element of arbitrariness in language, but Blount isn’t very convinced by that idea. He says that there are so many words – such as doldrums or go, which fit their ideas so very, very well – how could such an appropriate set of sounds have just been arbitrarily given to these ideas? Words like scribble, itch, wrest, pool – words whose sounds and meanings match so very well, how could they be arbitrary?

The most likely answer, of course, is that language defines how you understand the world. As an English speaker Blount has inextricably connected these words and ideas in his head, and to suggest that, say, berceuse is perfectly suited to describe a soft song sung to children to get them to sleep would be asking an English speaker to put aside a whole lot of the associations he or she had made about lullaby.

This isn’t an academic book, though, so don’t worry about that. Blount has made a career out of entertaining with his words, and he doesn’t put that aside just because he’s doing language analysis. He brings up common words, unusual words, thought-provoking and laugh-inducing topics, all arranged – of course – alphabetically. You can jump backwards and forwards through the book, following the cross-references, and still enjoy it to its fullest. In fact, Blount recommends that you do so.

Genius!

Language is our way of making the world make sense, no matter what language it is. For those of us who are native English speakers, we look at the world through a complex and sometimes baffling language. It’s hard to learn (and hard to teach), sometimes frustrating to deal with and occasionally incapable of doing what we need it to do. But it’s part of our cultural heritage – our cultural DNA, if you will – and deserves appreciation. So take a gander at this book – read it, savor it, enjoy it, and then look at your language afresh. You’ll be glad you did.

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“English is an outrageous tangle of those derivations and other multifarious linguistic influences, from Yiddish to Shoshone, which has grown up around a gnarly core of chewy, clangorous yawps derived from ancestors who painted themselves blue to frighten their enemies.”
– Roy Blount, Jr., Alphabet Juice
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Roy Blount, Jr. on Wikipedia
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Filed under humor, language, nonfiction, Roy Blount Jr

Review 158: Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents AND Hail to the Chiefs

Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents by Cormac O’Brien

Yes, a double-header today, mainly because it’s what makes the most sense with these books.

As we come up to another Presidential election, we’re being asked to make a very important choice. We’re electing someone to join a very powerful and elite group of men who have shaped the history of the world in the last 200-odd years. It’s an important decision, to be sure, and not one to be taken lightly. Will our next President be a political powerhouse, a man who is able to take the reins of the country and lead it into a better and more just future? Will he be inept or corrupt, allowing his cronies and his pals to use the nation for their own personal gain? Or perhaps he’ll simply be a cipher, one of those Presidents who is forgotten by everyone except for over-achieving elementary school kids who think that everyone will be impressed that they know who Zachary Taylor was.

We don’t know, and we can’t know, and that’s one of the most interesting lessons of this book. Every President, from Washington to Obama, was elected by the people in the hopes that he was the right man to lead the country. Every President was praised and damned. Every President was, before the election, sold as the one man who could save the nation from ruin and despair. If not all of those Presidents lived up to their hype, well, therein lies the lesson….

This is the kind of history I like... (image by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

For people who like their history to be amusing and bite-sized, this is the book for you. It’s a “gateway book” for Presidential history – you read this and then go on to read more serious treatments of the Presidents, hopefully becoming more appreciative of the vast spectrum of personalities that have guided our nation. And what an interesting group it’s been.

There are, of course, the heavy-hitters that everyone knows. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew), all men who made their marks on America. Washington, of course, set the entire tone of the Presidency. He demanded formality, and the acknowledgment that the office of President was one that should be treated with respect. At the same time, he didn’t want to be revered, or treated like American royalty. His decision to serve only two terms of office became unbreakable tradition, at least until FDR, and then law with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment. While the stories that are attributed to him are mostly apocryphal – chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a dollar across the Rappahannock, wooden teeth – the real stories are even better. He spent vast sums of money on alcohol, had a terrible temper, and probably wouldn’t even have been the President if he hadn’t married Martha Custis. In short, Washington was human, just like the other forty-two who followed him.

Then there are the infamous – the Presidents who are excoriated for their misdeeds and who are the ones we all wish never actually happened. Nixon, Hoover, Buchannan, Harding, Pierce…. These are the ones you tell your children about when they turn 18 and they’re wondering who to vote for. Warren G. Harding, for example, was only President for two years before his death, but manages to make the bottom of the “Best Presidents” list nearly every time. For one thing, he never wanted to be the President – it was all his wife’s idea. But Warren didn’t like to say no, didn’t like to stand up to people, so he let her railroad him into running for and winning the office. Once he was in the White House, he was perfectly happy to let Congress govern while he had sex with his mistresses and lost vast sums of money – and the occasional priceless White House tea set – to his poker buddies. It’s said that his father told him he was lucky not to have been born a girl, “because you’d be in the family way all the time. You can’t say no.” While he amused himself, his cabinet and his friends did their best to rob the government blind. He was lucky that his ineptitude wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1923.

There are, of course, the ciphers. These are the Presidents that no one really remembers much about. The middle-of-the-pack Presidents, neither good enough nor bad enough to be really memorable. James Polk, for example. Ever dress up as him for a history class skit? No, I didn’t think so. This is because he was a boring, humorless workaholic who had about as much personality as a table lamp. Still, he did get us into a war with Mexico, which resulted in the annexation of what we now know as the American Southwest, so there is that. How about Chester Arthur? He became President when Garfield was shot, and was most renowned for the fact that he was a very snappy dresser. He restricted Chinese immigration, so there’s a point against, but supported the Pendleton Act, which made it harder to appoint unqualified drinking buddies to important civil service posts. Other than that, he had parties, drank a lot and was kicked out after finishing his term.

Forty-three different men, forty-three different stories. It’s very easy to forget that these were Real People, complex human beings with incredible merits and flaws. Franklin Pierce was so despised that his own party came up with the slogan, “Anybody But Pierce.” John Tyler was so hated that he was burned in effigy and was the first President to receive a full-time bodyguard. On the other hand, Lincoln had a soft spot for pardoning soldiers who were to be shot for unmeritorious conduct, and Theodore Roosevelt once opened a speech with: “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.” Now THAT is hard-core….

It’s also hard to remember that, for all the mistakes made by Presidents in our lifetimes, they’re hardly new ones. Clinton was not the first guy to be unfaithful to his wife while President – in fact, compared to what some others got up to, a little hummer under the desk is practically innocent. And Bush is not the first dim bulb with delusions of grandeur either.

Bush has said, many times, that history will be the final judge of his administration, and I think he’s right about that. Very few people in President Monroe’s time would have known the horrors that would eventually emerge from the Missouri Compromise, and there were countless people who thought that FDR’s New Deal would spell the end of American capitalism. It’s hard to objectively judge the Presidents we still remember so vividly, but we can compare them to the ones who have gone before them.

I'm sure this really happened. It must have. (art by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

If you’re new to Presidential history, or if you want an easily accessible refresher, this is an excellent text to have. Mind you, it’s slightly incomplete – it was published prior to Bush’s second term, so there’s a little bit missing at the end, but I think we can all remember four years back. And maybe, just maybe, our next President will be so special that Mr. O’Brien will be moved to update and re-publish in, say, four to eight years.

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“As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
– Martin Van Buren
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Hail to the Chiefs by Barbara Holland

What was true for Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents is just as true for this one: we’ve had 43 incredibly interesting and varied men in the White House in our 221 years as a nation. We’ve had men of passion and energy, men who were weak-willed and lazy, men who preferred golf to governance and men who worked themselves to death. Good men, bad men, tall men, short men – this book reminds us of something we need to recall from time to time:

The President is a human being, with all that goes with being one.

Being the President inevitably means becoming a larger-than-life figure. People despised Bush, people adore Obama, venerate Reagan, abhor Clinton, all for what they see as virtues or flaws that only they possess. As if being the President not only means you have to be better than everyone else, but that your failings must be that much deeper.

The point of this book, and of any book on the Presidents, is that they were human beings just like the rest of us. Being President doesn’t make you immune to the fundamental flaws of being human – greed, apathy, short-sightedness – nor does it bless you with any trans-human virtues. Learning about and humanizing these 43 men is a grounding and humbling experience, and can keep you from both setting your expectations too high and allowing your disappointments to overwhelm you when your President doesn’t live up to your expectations.

Having said all that – if you want to read a book on the Presidents, this is a very funny one to read. The style is more narrative than O’Brien’s, and exceptionally snarky. Holland wields her pen like a dagger, stabbing and poking as she goes. She’s not really mean, but she has no problem making fun of these men when it can get a good laugh. And I certainly laughed a lot while reading this, much to the dismay of my co-workers. They come in short shots: “[Clinton] was a big affable fellow who hugged total strangers and felt their pain, like some ancient Norse bear-god, probably named Potus, good-natured but with a weakness for milkmaids.” And they come in longer passages, i.e. the Spanish-American War and the rather clever means by which we got the Panama Canal.

"The Great Communicator" indeed...

It’s a hilarious, irreverent read… until she gets to Reagan, which is where either she’s being so sarcastic that it’s impossible to be sure what’s serious and what isn’t, or she’s absolutely gushing over the Great Communicator. She imbues him with the same invulnerability that he seemed to have while he was President – showing the complaints of his critics, but then deftly removing the sting. George W. Bush gets much the same treatment, which disturbs me a bit, although since the book was published in 2004, I might be willing to chalk that up to post 9/11 fervor. But it does seem that, from 1981 to the present, she’s not being quite as fair and balanced as she was to the other Commanders in Chief. Perhaps it’s harder to be objective when you actually had to decide whether to vote for the guy in office….

Anyway, the final four Presidents aside, it’s a fun book to read and another way to bone up on your Presidential history. They really all were interesting people, in their own ways. Even William Henry Harrison, who may have been too sick to be in interesting President, but still made for a fascinating person.

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“Many people consider James Buchanan the very worst President ever. I suppose they think they would have done better. I suppose they wouldn’t have let Dred Scott happen, or John Brown, or secession, and there wouldn’t have been any Civil War and everyone would have lived happily ever after. Too many Monday-morning quarterbacks, that’s what we’ve got.”
– Barbara Holland, Hail to the Chiefs
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Filed under american history, Barbara Holland, biography, Cormac O'Brien, history, nonfiction, politics, presidential history

Review 157: The Elements

The Elements by Theodore Gray

When I was a kid, my father had the entire Time/Life science series. For you young whippersnappers, Time/Life books were educational series that covered all kinds of topics – history, science, literature, you name it. The idea was that you sign up and they send you books, once a month, until the series was finished or you decided you no longer wanted to receive it.

The Science series focused on, of course, science, with books devoted to every facet of physics, medicine, chemistry, biology…. It was a fantastic compendium of human knowledge in those pre-internet days, and I just loved it. I learned about how traveling at lightspeed squashes things by reading a story about spies chasing each other on the Lightspeed Express. I learned about how different drugs affect the mind and body. I learned about how important the wheel was, what water could do, and how the food we eat determines almost everything about our lives.

My favorite volume of all of them was titled Matter, and it was about all the stuff there is. At the center of it was a pictorial representation of all the elements known to science in 1968. Everything from Hydrogen to Uranium and beyond. I could pore over those pages for hours, amazed by the idea that these things were all there was, made up everything around me. Learning that just six of them (Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium and Phosphorus) made up most of, well, me was just mind-bending.

I don’t know where that book is now – probably in a box at my mother’s house – but the effect that it had on me has lasted ever since my childhood. In fact, as I was researching this review, I found the place that sells coins stamped from elemental metals and got completely distracted by the struggle to not buy any of them. So that’s how Time/Life made me into a science nerd. Nevertheless, I was thrilled when I saw this book, and had to snap it up as soon as I could. It cost a whole lot less than a 1/10 troy ounce Rhodium coin

Theodore Gray is an element hunter – something I didn’t even know existed when I was a kid. He has made a hobby of trying to collect samples of every element that is is possible to (legally) own, and he’s even built a special table to hold them all. A periodic table, as it were, which won him the IgNobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002. He and Nick Mann went through the collection to make outstanding, high-quality photographs and compile them into a fantastic book about “everything you can drop on your foot.”

My old chemistry teacher would have had these all over the classroom, I'm sure...

It starts, of course, with a basic rundown of what an element is – a substance made of only one type of atom – and what the Periodic Table is – an organization of the elements by their common properties. There’s also a page explaining the physics behind the shape of the table, what an “electron filling order” is, and why the atomic emission spectrum is so important. Fortunately for us non-professionals, he does this is a way that is amusing and understandable. Gray knows that his audience isn’t professional chemists or grad students – it’s people like me. People who are fans of science, but who, for one reason or another, never got into the real nitty-gritty of it. All of this means that it’s a book you can enjoy even if you remember nothing from high school chemistry other than “BIFF=WANG.” [1]

The book starts, of course, at hydrogen, the element that makes the sun burn (“Even at night,” alleges the author, but I’ll believe that when I see it) and ends with Ununoctium, which will no doubt get a proper name once those crazy kids in the high-energy physics lab get around to assembling it. It includes the spectre of the modern age, Uranium, and its evil twin Plutonium. There’s Carbon, without which none of us would be here, and Arsenic, which does a fine job of seeing to it that we cease to be. There’s Iron, which we use in abundance, and Dysprosium, which has almost no uses that you’ve ever heard of. Cesium tells us what time it is, and Krypton, which used to tell us how long things were (before we figured out the speed of light.) Strontium and Calcium, Sodium and Americium, Gold, Silver, Copper and Lead – every element is in here, waiting for you.

All the kids in the playground called me mad - MAD!!!

They’re accompanied by wonderful photographs that illustrate the applications of each element, as well as diagrams showing its emission spectrum, crystal structure, and other information that you may or may not be interested in. Regardless of how much you know about chemistry, you should find this to be a fascinating and enjoyable book. Moreover, if you have kids and you want them to be exposed to science in a way that engages their fascination and imagination, then this is the book for you. Just be ready to raise a science nerd, and if they ask for an elemental coin for their birthday, remember – Lead isn’t just for toys anymore!

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“When you throw a large enough lump of sodium into a lake, the result is a huge explosion a few seconds later. Depending on whether you took the right precautions, this is either a thrilling and beautiful experience or the end of your life as you have known it when molten sodium sprays into your eyes, permanently blinding you. Chemistry is a bit like that: powerful enough to do great things in the world, but also dangerous enough to do terrible things just as easily. If you don’t respect it, chemistry bites.”
– Theodore Gray, The Elements
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[1] Thanks, Mr. Hiza!

Theodore Gray on Wikipedia
Theodore Gray’s homepage
The Elements on Amazon.com

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Review 154: :59 Seconds

:59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman

(If you want, I’ll give you one marshmallow now. If you read through the whole review, however, I’ll give you two. Ready? Let’s go!)

Do you have problems? Of course you have problems. We all have problems. Maybe you want to land a new job, or lose weight or finish a project you’re working on. Maybe you find that you procrastinate too much, or you don’t get along with people, or you can’t be creative. Maybe you just want to be happy, you poor, sad little person.

These are the kinds of problems that have spawned an entire industry of books – the Self Help genre. Go to your local bookstore and look around. There are countless books that tell you how you can make yourself better through positive thinking, creative visualization, listening to Mozart or joining up with groups. They’ll tell you that if you want to find romance, you should look for an opposite, you should play hard to get, or you should plan a perfectly romantic evening. They’ll cite ancient wisdom or have countless testimonials from people who have tried their methods, and almost all of them have one thing in common: they don’t work.

The self-help genre rests on a foundation of common sense ideas, things that sound like they should work, rather than an understanding of how the human mind actually does work. Often, much to our chagrin, our minds don’t follow the rules, and we fail. Take positive thinking, for example. The general gist of positive thinking is that you should never allow a negative thought to enter your mind. If one pops up, just push it away and focus on the positive.

Quick experiment: I want you, for the next minute, to not – I repeat not – think of a pink hippopotamus. Ready? GO!

(Waiting… waiting… waiting…)

How’d you do? I don’t know about you, but my pink hippo is rather contentedly sitting on my sofa right now. The fact is, the more we try not to think of something, the harder it is to not think about it. You then end up obsessing over the thing you’re trying not to think of, which is what you were trying to avoid in the first place!

It’s an idea that sounds like it should work, but it doesn’t, and that’s what Wiseman has collected in this book. Wiseman is a psychologist from the UK, and he has a particular interest not only in the science of self-help, but also magic, optical illusions and the paranormal. In other words, he’s very good at knowing how we humans fool ourselves. And boy, do we know how to fool ourselves.

We want to believe that humans are rational creatures, intelligently designed evolved to make the best decisions. We spent years studying the world around us, trying to figure out how to motivate ourselves and others, and operating under the assumption that we know what our brains are doing at any given time. Problem is, we don’t. We have no idea what our brains are doing while we’re trying to get things done. The good news is that there’s are entire branches of psychology that are doing their damndest to figure it out. Wiseman combed through the literature, looking at scientific studies on human psychology and behavior to try and find simple, clear and effective ways of making your life better. The bonus is that many of these things can be done in under a minute.

Some of the things he presents are so simple that you don’t want to believe they’d work. For example, do you want to be a little more cheerful, to have a brighter outlook on life and be generally more pleasant to be around? Go get a pencil and hold it with your teeth, making sure your lips don’t touch the pencil. Your mouth will basically be making a grin, which will have a positive impact on your mood. Seriously. While you’re at it, sit up straight, use more expressive gestures when you talk, and try to use a wider range of pitch in your speech. Your body and mind are hooked up in such a way that your body can tell your mind what it’s feeling. So if you have a grin on your face, and you’re talking in an animated and upbeat way, your brain will think, “Well, these are all physical conditions that are associated with happiness, so… I guess I must be happy.”

You can use the same trick on a first date. Instead of a nice, placid picnic in the park or a boat ride on the river, go to an amusement park and hit the roller coaster together. The fear and excitement will make your date’s heart beat faster, breathe harder, and generally be more excited. These are also physical reactions to being attracted to someone, and your brain really can’t tell the difference very well. It feels your heart pounding, your blood rushing, your adrenaline flowing, and it thinks, “Huh. I guess I must really like this person.” So, once you get off that ride, you have a little window of opportunity to increase the attraction you have for each other.

Now let’s say you’re angry about something. I mean, you’re hitting George Constanza levels here, and all you want to do is just hit something. There is a way of thinking that says you should go hit your pillow. Or go to the gym and do some work on the heavy bag, punching your anger away. If you live far enough away from others, maybe you could do some primal screaming or something. It makes sense, right? You have to let your anger out somewhere, right?

Wrong. Studies have shown that kicking and screaming and beating up your pillow will make you more aggressive and irritable, not less. It’s like trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline. What you should do, then, is to look for the benefits to your experience. Researchers asked subjects to think about a painful and unpleasant incident in their lives and to focus on their anger. Another group was asked to instead focus on the benefits – they had learned an important lesson, had become an emotionally stronger person, or had otherwise changed for the better. When questioned later, the second group turned out to be much less angry than the first, and to be more likely to forgive the person who had hurt them.

Okay, one more – you want to be creative, right? We all want that. So, should you brainstorm with your colleagues? Focus on the creative task at hand? Listen to Mozart? No, no and no, although there’s really never any reason not to listen to Mozart. Again, research has shown that people tend to work less hard in groups than they do on their own. Being in a group makes you lazier, so if you want to get good ideas from a whole bunch of people, have them work alone first. You’ll get more and better ideas that way. As for focusing on the problem at hand, other studies have shown that the best thing to do is to distract yourself with something totally unrelated so that your unconscious mind can get some work done. Work on a puzzle, draw a picture, think of a hundred ways to use a brick – anything but the problem you’re trying to solve. Then, when you come back to the problem, you’re more likely to generate better ideas.

As for the Mozart, it turns out that listening to Mozart does make you slightly more creative and intelligent…. for about fifteen minutes. Neither you nor your baby will become a genius if you listen to Wolfie’s music every day. What’s actually more effective is modern art – especially art that breaks our expectations. In one study, two groups were given a creativity task. One was seated in a room with a large print that featured twelve dark green crosses on a light green background. The other had almost an identical picture, except that one of the crosses was yellow, and they came up with the more creative ideas. Why should this be? The idea is that the impression of unconventionality, of a pattern being broken, may be enough to stimulate our own creativity. Now it won’t turn you into DaVinci or anything like that, but it should help at least a little.

And that’s what this book is – lots of little ideas that are designed to help you out. Put a mirror in your kitchen, put a baby photograph in your wallet, buy small gifts for no reason. Put a plant on your desk, start keeping a journal, and don’t praise your kids for how clever they are – praise them for the work they’ve done. Everything Wiseman puts in this book is a small thing, a little effort, but when put together they add up.

Even if you don’t really need a lot of alteration to your life – maybe you’re as happy as happy can be – it’s still a fascinating look into how our minds work, and the different ways that they can be hacked.

(Good work! Here are your marshmallows!)

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“Now if you take part in a study and the researchers explain that they need your telephone number in case of a hard-disk failure, they are up to something.”
– Richard Wiseman, :59 Seconds

All images in this post come from Despair.com – go and give them money. They’ve earned it.
Richard Wiseman on Wikipedia
59 Seconds on Amazon.com
Richard Wiseman’s homepage

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Filed under nonfiction, psychology, Richard Wiseman, science, self-help