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Reviews of what you should be reading next.

Category: Politics

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE MILLION COPY BESTSELLER SAPIENS

Sapiens showed us where we came from. Homo Deus looked to the future. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century explores the present. In this new book, Harari helps us to grapple with a world that is increasingly hard to comprehend. How can we protect ourselves from nuclear war, ecological cataclysms and technological disruptions? What can we do about the epidemic of fake news? Which civilization dominates the world – the West, China, Islam? What can we do about terrorism?
With his trademark clarity and vision, Harari takes us on a thrilling journey into today’s most urgent issues as well as turning to more individual concerns. The golden thread running through this exhilarating new book is the challenge of maintaining our focus and attention in the face of constant and destabilizing change. Ultimately what we and our children will need is mental stability, compassion, resilience and reason. This is a crucial part of our ongoing education in the 21st Century.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

Once again, Harari has taken his unique perspective on life, economics, technology, and humanity and summarized his thoughts in an easy to read and thought-provoking book. At times terrifying, humorous, and learned, Harari applies his unique take on things such as biometric sensors that help us make decisions and the current state of politics today. His previous books discussed the past and the future; this one concentrates on the present (mostly) with an eye to the future. Statements such as “Once AI makes better decisions than us about careers and perhaps even relationships, our concept of humanity and of life will have to change” are equally interesting and scary. The author paints a picture of a 1984-like world where 1% of humanity owns all the wealth, property and beauty and the rest of us live a nearly decision-free existence.

Harari’s style is easy to digest with sly humor interspersed among the caveats. I think his main goal is to get the reader to consider our own humanity and what we can do to ensure we all stay “human” and connected. For those who have read his other books (Sapiens and Homo Deus) the themes will be familiar. He touches on religion, terrorism, and technology with equal strength. He notes in multiple places that our personal information is being taken from us slowly via Facebook and other sites, and this will have a bigger impact on our future lives more than we think. Part of me wants to be worried, and the other part feels that I’ll be too old to matter when/if that ever comes to be.

21 Lessons was a bit drier than his other two works – that being said I think Homo Deus was my favorite. That does not make this work any less important, however. There is definitely something to be learned from the book, even if it just makes you more aware of the multitude of problems in the world today.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up  here.

 

 

The End Of The Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher

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“The government in the past created one American Dream at the expense of almost all others: the dream of a house, a lawn, a picket fence, two children, and a car. But there is no single American Dream anymore.”

For nearly 70 years, the suburbs were as American as apple pie. As the middle class ballooned and single-family homes and cars became more affordable, we flocked to pre-fabricated communities in the suburbs, a place where open air and solitude offered a retreat from our dense, polluted cities. Before long, success became synonymous with a private home in a bedroom community complete with a yard, a two-car garage and a commute to the office, and subdivisions quickly blanketed our landscape.
But in recent years things have started to change. An epic housing crisis revealed existing problems with this unique pattern of development, while the steady pull of long-simmering economic, societal and demographic forces has culminated in a Perfect Storm that has led to a profound shift in the way we desire to live.
In The End of the Suburbs journalist Leigh Gallagher traces the rise and fall of American suburbia from the stately railroad suburbs that sprung up outside American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries to current-day sprawling exurbs where residents spend as much as four hours each day commuting. Along the way she shows why suburbia was unsustainable from the start and explores the hundreds of new, alternative communities that are springing up around the country and promise to reshape our way of life for the better.
Not all suburbs are going to vanish, of course, but Gallagher’s research and reporting show the trends are undeniable. Consider some of the forces at work:

• The nuclear family is no more: Our marriage and birth rates are steadily declining, while the single-person households are on the rise. Thus, the good schools and family-friendly lifestyle the suburbs promised are increasingly unnecessary.
• We want out of our cars: As the price of oil continues to rise, the hours long commutes forced on us by sprawl have become unaffordable for many. Meanwhile, today’s younger generation has expressed a perplexing indifference toward cars and driving. Both shifts have fueled demand for denser, pedestrian-friendly communities.
• Cities are booming. Once abandoned by the wealthy, cities are experiencing a renaissance, especially among younger generations and families with young children. At the same time, suburbs across the country have had to confront never-before-seen rates of poverty and crime.
Blending powerful data with vivid on the ground reporting, Gallagher introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters, including the charismatic leader of the anti-sprawl movement; a mild-mannered Minnesotan who quit his job to convince the world that the suburbs are a financial Ponzi scheme; and the disaffected residents of suburbia, like the teacher whose punishing commute entailed leaving home at 4 a.m. and sleeping under her desk in her classroom.
Along the way, she explains why understanding the shifts taking place is imperative to any discussion about the future of our housing landscape and of our society itself—and why that future will bring us stronger, healthier, happier and more diverse communities for everyone.

Leigh Gallagher’s The End of the Suburbs is a book of social history in the same vein as, and of similar caliber to, the ancestral classic of its genre, Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth T. Jackson. Like that book, this one avoids several of my pet peeves. It shuns ostentatious language in favor of highly function, dense, understandable sentences. No word seems to be solely dedicated to creating emphasis without also fleshing out the meaning of what is being said.  The discipline in research displayed in this book, unfortunately, did not match the the discipline in language.

I understand that it is unfair to expect of any book the thorough and relentless inclusion of data and primary source material provided by Mr. Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier. However, I must note that the difference in reading experiences between these two books is probably founded in this lack. In Crabgrass, the reader doesn’t feel like he or she is being convinced of anything. There is hardly any deductive step in that wonderful book about which the reader must say, “I’ll give Mr. Jackson that one.” Instead, Mr. Jackson would support a statement with publicly accessible data or primary source material, deduce something from that statement, and then support the deduction with MORE data or primary source material. What is different in Gallagher’s work is that reading it is like crossing a bridge of ordinary construction, with what looks to me like enough structural support to safely get me from one side to the other. But hey, what do I know? I don’t build bridges for a living, and she does, so I’ll trust her and drive over the bridge. Reading Mr. Jackson’s book is like driving on what seems to be an ordinary road on solid ground, and then have your rendezvous partner at the end of your journey ask, “How was your passage over the river?” You reply, “There was a river?”

If you don’t mind deductive passages spanning fractions of entire chapters without references to sources (and I imagine that most will not mind) there is much to love in the potentially mind-expanding subject matter here. Mrs. Gallagher connects the decline in childhood outdoor activity not to the advent of television and electronic entertainment, but to changes in the design of suburban landscapes. She investigates the pressures of the Millennial generation on the demand for suburban accommodation, and she provides a rich historical backdrop for the future she predicts. The average reader of Mrs. Gallagher’s book will finish it much more informed about American modern history, demographics, architectonics, and demographics than he or she was before. Furthermore, the relative paucity of primary source material helps to make The End of the Suburbs more fluidly readable than Crabgrass Frontier. This accessibility, and Mrs. Gallagher’s lighter tone, will hearten her work to more casual readers than myself, i.e. nearly everyone.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up [easyazon_link identifier=”B00HTKAEDM” locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

Guest Post by Kevine Walcott, author of INSTITUTIONALISED

 

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Kevine Walcott was a successful businesswoman living a peaceful, prosperous life in the United Kingdom. In 2009, she opened a YouTube account and joined the social media world. She didn’t realize that this innocent decision would unravel her happy life.

Walcott, who was once a devout Christian, posted videos about her faith and viewed some clips about ancient Egyptian religions. Suddenly, vile and threatening messages from mysterious people flooded her YouTube in-box. At first, she asked the harassers to stop. Then, she simply ignored the messages. When they began posting videos about her and sharing her real name and personal information, Walcott turned to the authorities for help.

Ironically, seeking assistance would be her greatest mistake. Walcott discovered links between government agents, the National Health Service, and the cyber attacks. Soon, the attacks would make the leap from cyberspace to the real world, and Walcott would end up in a government psychiatric ward.

Her explosive new book exposes the terrifying dangers of unchecked government control, antiquated mental health laws, and the corrupt ties between the two.

Walcott’s discovery of the links between the NHS and law enforcement almost got her shut away for life. With the release of Institutionalised, she’s fighting back.

 

What if you wake up one day and find yourself at the centre of online trolling (abuse), and only months and years later to be told you are mentally ill when talking about your experience? What happens when the only witness of what goes on in your home is you and your perpetrator? When the police, intelligence services and doctors are in bed together there is no end to your suffering. Being told it is all inside your head and having no place to run and no one to turn to for help. These scenarios may sound like a nightmare, but for victims of government harassment these experiences are real. One in four of the population will suffer from a mental health condition at least once in their life, but to have mental illness being used as a punitive psychiatric policy is too much to stomach.

I was once a globe-trotting business owner; confident, happy and seemingly untouchable. However, after becoming the victim of YouTube cyber-attacks, I found myself institutionalised at an NHS facility and under the control of the country’s medieval mental health laws.

In ‘Institutionalised’, I bare all. Most shocking is that the cyber-attacks were not initiated by teenage trolls or a disgruntled former lover; but agents working for the UK Government. Prepare to learn about a shocking new form of modern oppression, because I have one searing story to tell.

My shocking and frightening new memoir describes my online victimisation at the hands of UK Government operatives, leading to my being institutionalised under the British government’s punitive psychiatric strategy. Fusing a memoir with activism, I pull no punches when exposing the illegal relationship between intelligence services and the NHS, while calling on readers to spread the world and end this new digital form of Governmental oppression.

 

“It is vital that the NHS separates and distances itself from Police and Intelligence Services. Right now, they are virtually in bed with each other.”

“Health professionals cannot make correct diagnoses while Government agents are part of the process and abusing their powers for the sake of control.”

“As a result, I became involved in the judiciary in ways I could never have imagined, and that entire process was also moulded around the Government’s mandate to control. If any case appears to be exposing Government abuse or their illegal activities, the Court will throw it out. It’s unbelievable, but true.”

People with a story to tell may also come under fire simply for putting pen to paper but these stories of truth must be told.

“They threatened to institutionalise me again just for wanting to tell my story. I now live my life treading on egg shells; a far cry from the beacon of confidence and independence that I was before. My advice to everyone is to watch your movements, be careful what you seek out online and – above all – trust nobody.”

Want your own copy? Click [easyazon_link identifier=”B00OJFOHY2″ locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

About the Author:

Kevine Walcott is a property professional with a masters degree from University College London. She had found herself at the centre of an online hate campaign after accessing videos on ancient Egyptian religion on YouTube. She had discovered that some of her harassers were government agents. She had fought with her harassers who took their campaign offline and onto the streets and into her home. She had documented her experience in this thrilling memoir where the accounts are frightening. She told how her experience left her institutionalised by those using mental health as a disguising veneer to cover up abuses by law enforcement and the intelligence services and the role religion and history places in these unfortunate events.

Silk Legacy by Richard Brawer

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In early twentieth century Paterson, New Jersey, dashing twenty-nine year old Abraham Bressler charms naïve nineteen year old Sarah Singer into marriage by making her believe he feels the same way she does about the new calling of a modern woman. He then turns around and gives her little more respect than he would a servant, demanding she stay home to care for “his” house and “his” children.

Feeling betrayed, Sarah defies him and joins women’s groups, actively participating in rallies for woman suffrage, child welfare and reproductive freedom. For a while she succeeds in treading delicately between the demands of her husband and her desire to be an independent woman. Her balancing act falters when a strike shuts down Paterson’s 300 silk mills. With many friends working in the mills, Sarah is forced to choose sides in the battle between her Capitalist husband and his Socialist brother, a union leader who happens to be her best friend’s husband.

Jealousy, infidelity, arrogance, greed—the characters’ titanic struggles will catapult you into the heights of their euphoria and the depths of their despair. Who will triumph and who will be humbled is not certain until the last page.

Thanks to the author for giving me this book in exchange for a review.

Excerpt:

Sarah pushed aside the muslin curtain on her bedroom window and stared at the sidewalk.  She was glad her father had invited him after dinner, rather than in the daytime.  The shops had closed.  The streets were empty of commercial traffic.  Most people had settled into their evening rituals of reading, sewing, playing a game of cards or checkers in their parlors, or sitting and gossiping on the building’s stoops enjoying this splendid May evening.  Even in the flickering light of the gas street lamps she would have no trouble spotting him coming down the sidewalk.
She first noticed him across the room at her best friend’s wedding.  When their eyes met and he smiled, her heart fluttered and she almost swooned.  He was so handsome, so distinguished with his sweeping handlebar mustache.  He carried himself straight and tall, sure of himself, not like the other men in the congregation who cowered when they walked, as if they were trying to draw themselves into a cocoon they thought would protect them from the outside world.
She ached to meet him right then and there, but women weren’t allowed to mix with men at weddings.  That Biblical edict did not stop her from discretely inquiring as to who he was.  When she learned he was the groom’s brother, she was overjoyed.  Her father had to know him.  He had taught all the Bresslers.  On their walk home from the wedding she asked her father about him.
Before her father could answer, her mother cut in and said, “He’s no one you are to concern yourself with, Sarah.”
“Why?  What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing,” her father said.  “He was one of my best students.”  Looking quizzically at his wife, he said, “I invited him to our house Wednesday evening.”
Delight engulfed Sarah.  But her brief moment of ecstasy crashed into desolation when her mother shrieked, “You didn’t!”
Her father cowered at the rebuke, and offered his daughter no help when her mother told her, “You will be confined to your room.”
“Why?” Sarah cried.
“Because I said so.  That is all you have to know.”
Despite her mother’s forbidding, Sarah readied herself anyway in hopes her mother would have a last minute change of heart.  She put her hair up, and dressed in the white linen shirt-waist with flowing sleeves and ruffled cuffs trimmed in pink satin ribbon.
“Sarah, come away from the window.”
Startled by her mother’s voice, Sarah withdrew her hand from the curtain as if she had grabbed the hot handle of a skillet.  “Why won’t you let me meet him?” she asked.
Her mother crossed to the bed, sat down and patted a place next to her.  “Come, sit by me.”
Sarah obeyed and fidgeted with a strand of hair that had escaped from her bun.
Taking her daughter’s hand, her mother said, “He’s not right for you, my darling.  He’s too old.”
“But he’s only ten years older than I.  Father is twelve years older than you.”
“That’s true, but your father is a learned man—a scholar, a teacher.  He is counting on you to carry on for him.”
“And I will.”
“Not if you were to become attached to Mr. Bressler.”
“Why?  Mr. Bressler is an educated man.  He knows the value of learning.”
“Does he?”
“Father said he taught him.”
“But it does not mean he learned anything.”
Confused, Sarah stared at her mother.
“You know all the places you read about and are aching to see—the Eiffel Tower, Rome, the Great Wall of China?  You will never see them if you marry Mr. Bressler.”
“How do you know that?  My friend, Cecelia, Mr. Bressler’s sister-in-law, told me Mr. Bressler makes a wonderful living from his business.”
“Yes, a saloon.”
“He’s not a shiker?”
“His father is.”
“But he’s not a drunkard?”
“Not that I know.”
Sarah sighed with relief.  “Then why won’t you let me meet him?” 
“Sarah, please.  You knew the Bressler family back in Latvia.  The father is a carouser.  The uncle is an azes ponim—an arrogant man.  You are aware the uncle tried to get your father fired for teaching the writings of Karl Marx?”
Sarah didn’t answer, thinking, yes the father did neglect his family, and the uncle lorded his riches over everyone.  But that did not mean Abe was like them.  Her best friend, Cecelia—Abe’s new sister-in-law—said her husband was a wonderful man.
“You do know what a sow is?”  Sarah’s mother asked.
“Of course.  Trayf.  Not kosher.”
“There is a saying I picked up in this city of silk which fits Mr. Bressler very well. ‘You cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.’  Let him go.  He will stifle you.”

SILK LEGACY is two stories in one–a romance and a Capitalist/Socialist struggle pitting brother against brother. The first part of the book goes by smoothly, as we are introduced to the Bressler family. As the years go by the struggles surface, and while I was firmly in Sarah’s corner (as she struggles against the mighty thumb of opppression wielded by her husband, Abe), I was not sure who to support regarding the labor wars, Abe or Solomon. Both sides are equally represented, and the author paints a wonderfully accurate picture of working class struggles in burgeoning Paterson, NJ.

This book was written so well, I had to stop to double check the author’s name on the front! It could have easily been composed by Ken Follett or Colleen McCullough. There is history, romance, intrigue, and the setting is authentic. I especially was moved during the suffragette’s parade in Washington, as I read about their high hopes and what actually took place.

It is always interesting to see how an author handles a roman a clef, and Brawer intersperses real and fictional characters seamlessly. The dialogue flows smooothly and there are no awkward transitions that are the hallmark of a less talented author.

The only caveat I have to note is that the plot is taken over by the politics and labor talk, to the exclusion of everything else as the story progresses. It started to seem a bit unbalanced and I found myself becoming less enthralled with the story. Just as things move away from the union struggles, the book comes to an abrupt ending. It was a bit hard for me to see how Solomon would have acted the way he did, given his previous behavior, but there it is. That was the only stutter in an otherwise wonderfully written novel.

There is a great deal of history in these pages—anyone with an interest in how the unions came to be will want to pick this up. You can get your own copy [easyazon_link identifier=”B003BVJFJW” locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

 

Biography Review: Russell Long by Michael Martin.

The Short Version

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Russell Long: A Life in Politics starts off even before he was born to one of the most powerful American politicians outside the Capital, Huey Long. We come to know Russell as a man who seems to have ideals: whichever ones suit his purpose. We meet a chameleon who grows more conspicuous and powerful . He skillfully harnessed his father’s controversial legacy to shape his own. Many biographies are stories of rags-to-riches. This one shows us political royalty begetting political royalty. Like father like son.

Cinderella stories and train wrecks are interesting, sure. But at the heights of national politics, all things ordinary are extraordinary. You just need to be close enough to see what’s actually going on. Michael Martin points his microscope at characters who can raise up or ruin thousands of lives with a phone call. More than just a biography, Russell Long is a life-size portrait of some of the invisible forces that shaped American civil rights and economic intervention policy from the 1920s through the 1980s. I had mixed feelings about how Mr. Martin treated some topics, but overall this book was a joy to read, and particularly transformative for my personal understanding of Congressional politics in the middle of the last century.

You in a hurry? Take your coat off, why don’tcha? Keep reading!

 

My Full Review:

Excellence in the Biographical Craft

I read a lot of really dry books. I like’em that way. I’m all about the information density. Crank it up to 11! Don’t get me wrong. I love good narration and storytelling, but I’ve left mountains of biographies more relatable than Russell Long unfinished. Why did I finish Russell Long, but not the others?

As long as a biography helps me understand the place and importance of the person in the title, I’m happy. There are plenty of ways to do this. Some authors use personal accounts of people who knew the title character to construct a story. These biographies usually have a very personal touch. Their success or failure depends on how easy it is for the reader to get to know the person they’re reading about. Russell Long doesn’t even try to do this, so I won’t judge it on this basis.

This book wants to teach you about Russell, not introduce you to him. Enjoyment doesn’t issue from its style or wit, but from its combination of clarity and insight. Every page is pressurized to the bursting point with information. Russell Long is such a dense piece of pulp that the absence of any one sentence would immediately stand out to most mildly-attentive readers. Even being as dense as it is, however, it’s still easily accessible. Usually, accessibility correlates well with the complexity or depth of the content. I believe Mr. Martin created this outlier by focusing on a narrative structure before thinking in terms of timelines, events, and explanations.

Russell Long’s overall structure is evidence that Mr. Martin took spectacular care to produce an account that covers a wide canvas without becoming obtuse. The lesson other biographers can learn here is that contextual information is not a commodity. What does that mean?

In the Land of the Confusing, Context is King

Some contextual information pairs best with its related content when nestled in with a tangentially related account. We learn of Earl Long’s ultimate fate early, to lose his marbles while in the Senate in 1960. Seemingly a non-sequitur at first, this knowledge casts its foreshadow over Earl’s actions leading up to that year. At no time does Mr. Martin suggest any relationship between Earl’s escalating political aggressiveness and his meltdown. Even so, I would expect any reader to make his or her own judgment about the cause for his behavior, and whether his actions or his meltdown were the chicken or the egg. Regardless of the determination you make, the very fact that I was involved so deeply for so long leading up to the reveal is thanks to a masterful measuring of just the right amount of suggestion early on and an otherwise-innocuous lead-up to the event in question. You could argue that leaving the cause for his meltdown for the reader to intuit is unsatisfying, but remember, this book is interested in the facts. Guessing and wondering is the reader’s half of the contract here. Besides, have you ever called a book that left your brain chewing on its contents long afterward a “bad book”?

Russell Long is loaded with foreshadowing that seems like fact-stating at first blush, but produces satisfying “Aha!” moments throughout the proceeding text. Much of this foreshadowing occurs in the meaty first chapter entirely devoted to the life and career of Huey Long, Russell’s father. Mr. Martin depicts him as a powerful and ruthless Louisiana governor and political boss. Huey was a New Deal-era populist, and early on we come to know Russell as a Truman/Kennedy/LBJ Fair-Deal-era/Great Society-era populist. The account of Russell’s time striving toward and later working within the U.S. Senate during this period stands tall on its own, but it benefits tremendously from the foreshadowing earlier on.

As for sections of the book that trace the cause of a significant even to its effect, Mr. Martin provides context in step with the content. He seldom leaves the reader wondering what motives the actors might have had. Often, when an author does not give particular consideration to the distribution of contextual knowledge, the reader is burdened with wondering if he or she missed something until the author gets around to providing helpful context. The combination of foreshadowing and unconstructive inline explanation makes Russell Long a relatively effortless read.

Small Book, Big Ambition: The Compromise Shows.

In spite of all of the great things that I have to say about this biography, I do have complaints. Mr. Martin’s application of foreshadowing sometimes seems to guide the book’s focus away from very important details in favor of events that mesh well with the scaffold of foreshadowing upon which the biography seems to be built. Mr. Martin glosses over, and sometimes neglects even to account for, very important transitions in Russell Long’s political career. I found the explanation of the machinations by which Russell became Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, for example, to be unsatisfying. In sections describing the use of connections by either Long to usurp the function of government agencies, some more detail regarding how these connections were formed and maintained would have been beneficial.

Am I nitpicking? You may not even think twice about the informational gaps if you give this mainly solid book a read. I’m probably asking too much from a book in the range of 300 pages. If an editor demanded that I tamp down the word count, I might have nixed these details, too. Regardless, fleshing out these details in a longer book would have been well worth the longer read. In the end, every book must stand on it’s own two… covers. Russell Long certainly suffers from several unsatisfactory, unsatisfying, and sometimes missing explanations of what I though should have been key elements of a complete narrative.

The Last Word

To get hung up on any of these qualms would be to miss out on appreciating this book’s most important feature. Before Michael Martin’s Russell Long became available, there had been no quality account of Russell Long’s place in American history accessible to the layperson. The alternative for the average person seeking to learn about the younger Long would be a greatly fruitless Google search. Even Wikipedia, with it hordes of fanatical volunteer editors, hosts relatively little quality, cross-referenced information about this troubled, controversial, and interesting man. The publication of this book fills a conspicuous void, and there’s nothing but good in that.

The information density of Russell Long is actually dumbfounding. That Mr. Martin was able to make such a dense work so easy to read is a testament to his mastery of the biographical form. I swallowed about 300 pages of pure knowledge in hardly more than four hours. (If I’m being honest, the speed was just as much thanks to the “Spritz” reading software I use as to Mr. Martin, but I digress.) If all non-fiction books were like Russell Long, we would all be far more knowledgeable. People would read more books. People would patronize their libraries and coffee shops with equal frequency. Heck. The coffee shops would probably just be in the libraries.

 

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