Books

What I’ve been reading

by on January 15, 2017 at 12:34 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Ousmane Oumar Kane, Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa.  This excellent book clarified many aspects of West African and also Nigerian history for me, most of all how it connects to the earlier North African civilizations.

2. Sheelah Kolhatkar, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street.  I cannot vouch for the contents and allegations, which focus on Steven A. Cohen and his hedge fund career, but this is a highly engaging and better researched than usual look at the legal case against him.

3. Mark R. Patterson, Google, Yelp, LIBOR, and the Control of Information.  Data fraud, data fraud, data fraud, welcome to 2016 yes you should be reading more books on this topic.

4. Kevin Vallier, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation, “…public reason liberalism, properly understood, realizes foundational liberal values while according religion a prominent and powerful role in public life.  I claim that, in theory and practice, public reason liberalism is far friendlier to religion in public life than both its proponents and opponents believe.”  There is a Straussian reading of this book too.

5. Aurelian Craiutu, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes.  A much-needed perspective these days, from a very thoughtful scholar.

6. Gary Taubes, The Case Against Sugar.  My intuitions agree with this argument, plus jelly donuts don’t taste that good anyway.

I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace.  Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions.  In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.

[laughter]…

LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.

LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.

It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.

And:

COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?

LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?

Jhumpa on Kolkaata:

…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.

Do read (or listen to) the whole thing.  Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated.  One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.

How about calling the series “Lonely Planet”?

Years before penning Metamorphosis, considered by some to be the greatest short story ever written, Franz Kafka hoped to make his fortune writing a series of budget European travel guides.

Kafka conceived a business plan for the books, dubbed “on the cheap”, while travelling across the continent with his friend Max Brod in the summer of 1911. This detail was revealed in volume three of Reiner Stach’s biography, Kafka: The Early Years, published in translation (by Shelley Frisch) last month.

The ahead-of-its-time idea (considering the popularity of budget travel tips today) sought to take on the traditional Baedeker travel guides, which then consisted primarily of hotel and restaurant listings, but lacked the insider knowledge Kafka felt was truly valuable to a traveller.

Questions that his guides proposed to address are ones that tourists still seek answers for now. On which days do museums have reduced fees? Are there any free concerts? Should you travel by taxi or tram? How much should you tip? There was also a suggestion to include advice on where to find erotic and sexual entertainment for a fair price.

Stach writes: “Kafka and Brod were convinced that a travel guide that answered all these questions candidly and supplied a select few reasonable and reliable recommendations would instantly beat out the competition … With a series of this kind, they could earn millions, especially if it was published in several languages.”

Yet it seems they were a wee bit clueless on their own travels:

For example, after discovering that Zurich’s city library was closed on Sundays, the pair believed they could still gain entry by asking at the tourist office.

And:

…the pair were so afraid that their idea would be stolen that they wouldn’t reveal the full details of their pitch to a publisher without first securing an advance.

I would have enjoyed hearing the Swiss travel office response.  Here is the full story, via Ted Gioia.

Two employees at the East Lake County Library created a fictional patron called Chuck Finley — entering fake driver’s license and address details into the library system — and then used the account to check out 2,361 books over nine months in 2016, in order to trick the system into believing that the books they loved were being circulated to the library’s patrons, thus rescuing the books from automated purges of low-popularity titles.

Library branch supervisor George Dore was suspended for his role in the episode; he said that he was trying to game the algorithm because he knew that these books would come back into vogue and that his library would have to spend extra money re-purchasing them later. He said that other libraries were doing the same thing.

Data falsification will be one of the biggest stories of the next five years.  That is from BoingBoing, via Ted Gioia.

I receive requests for recommendations in this area fairly often.  I don’t feel I am qualified to judge the outputs, but here are three that have come across my path as of late and seem to me very good:

Connor Boyack, illustrated by Elijah Stanfield, The Tuttle Twins and The Road to Surfdom.  Recommended ages 5-11.

I.M. Lerner and Catherine L. Osornio, The Secret Under the Staircase, and The Hidden Entrance.  Here the age range seems to be higher, maybe 10-12?  I feel I could have read them younger than that, however.

Someone should write a bibliographic essay on the books in this category.  What else can you recommend?

I’ve been wondering about this question, and the internet isn’t much help (here is background from Jonathan Adler if you are starting from scratch).  Say a foreign power pays money to my publisher, agent, or speaker’s bureau — does that count?  Intuitively, I would think so, even though the income is legally domestic.  But then it seems the clause is very difficult to define.  If I own an overseas business, or receive overseas royalties, or sell intellectual property overseas, must I trace the identity of every customer?  What if Angela Merkel bought a copy of one of my books translated into German?  Am I then, through the medium of royalties, taking money from a foreign power?  What if the Chinese government bought up a million copies of one of my books?  What if it is a Chinese shell company of unknown origins (they are common), which might be either state-owned or private, did so?  Or what the company is private, but itself owned by a state-owned company?  49 percent?  51 percent?  What if a state-owned Chinese company makes a large grant to a private individual, who then buys a million copies of a book?  Don’t library systems buy books, and aren’t most of them state-owned?

This line about China struck me:

Print sales, dominated by the country’s 580 state-owned publishing houses, are now worth 44 billion yuan ($7 billion).

Of course much of the income for the Obamas, during his time in office, came from royalties from book sales, including abroad and also in China.  For instance:

A large portion of the royalties came from sales overseas, an indication of the president’s popularity abroad. The tax return indicates that $1.6 million of the total book income was taxable in “various” foreign countries.

I cannot trace whether Obama’s Chinese publishers are state-owned companies, but most likely they are.  Some of the other Obama foreign publishers might be too.  Does that count as a violation of the clause?  Presumably there are foreign translations of some of Trump’s books too, or there will be.  JFK also had published books before he became president, and likely there were foreign rights sales of those too.

I get that this is a smaller issue, quantitatively speaking, than Trump’s foreign ventures, though foreign income was significant for President Obama in 2009 as a share of the total.  (Not to mention the difference in transparency or other possible differences in administration…I am not not not not not saying this is equivalence, so please don’t throw your weak-minded, question-begging, mood affiliated doctrine of “false equivalence” at me!)  And besides, the constitutional clause doesn’t say the payment has to be a large one.  At the time, I don’t recall anyone, myself included, thinking this was a violation of the emoluments clause, so again I am back to wondering what the clause exactly means.  In any case, you can imagine critics charging, rightly or wrongly, that a president might try too hard to be popular abroad.

Is selling intellectual property somehow different than selling hotel rooms?  Or is the unorthodox, Putin-oriented, “in your face” side of the Trump administration why we are framing the cases so differently?

“To whom” does a payment really go anyway?  And what is a “foreign power”?  What is a “state-owned company”?  The people at the WTO will tell you such questions can make your head spin.

china-books

Is the future equilibrium simply that future American presidents can be bribed through the sale of book and other IP rights, combined with aggressive “marketing” from foreign state-owned companies?  I would gladly learn more about this topic, and I am afraid that this year I am about to.

Derek Parfit has passed away

by on January 2, 2017 at 2:05 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

Here is the account from Daily Nous.  Here is Parfit on why there is a universe.  Here is the famed New Yorker profile of Parfit, amazing if you have not already read it.  Here is Parfit on death, a major preoccupation in his writings, even if it did not always come through.  And more on death here.  Of all the people I have met, no one comes closer to embodying the ideal of a questioning philosopher than did Derek Parfit.  He was relentless in the best sense of the word, and unforgettable.  And Reasons and Persons is one of the books that has influenced me most.

I wanted to like this book, as I am keen to discover new perspectives on the arts, even if I don’t agree with them.  “False” books on the arts often illuminate the artworks themselves, sometimes more than do the “true” treatments.  Yet this work I had a tough time making sense of.  I will confess to having read only about a third of it, and browsed some more.  As I understand the book’s thesis, the plasticity of the brain, as it changes across historical eras, helps explain changes in the content of the visual arts.  But I view brain plasticity as a generally overrated idea, evidence for such claims about the arts is hard to come by (how much do we know about differences in brains in ancient Athens for instance? And how good is our theory linking brain differences to artistic content?), and most of all neuroscience itself so often disappears during the book’s exposition.  Even the Amazon summary indicates the rather mysterious nature of the book’s main argument.  It is a beautifully produced volume, and it feels important, and maybe there is finally scope for a book of this kind, but…

Here is a (very) negative review by Matthew Rampley.  Some of you may nonetheless find this interesting.  It is a big ideas book, and perhaps it can prompt you to write a more clearly defined big ideas book in response.

He is from Brown University, we met at a tacqueria, here is the interview, here is one bit from it, from me:

Popular culture is not nearly pro-science enough…. It should be much higher status to be in science. This would boost the rate of innovation. I think people privately can just choose to respect science more. In a sense it’s a free lunch! You don’t have to spend money, people just have to actually believe science is really good. So that’s what I advocate. And that’s a question of role models and exposure when you’re young. I think TV shows are very important… Star Trek and even Gilligan’s Island I think made science cool to a lot of people. I think President Obama actually has done a pretty good job of being a pro-science role model and how he talks about science. His powers are limited but I think he actually gets this pretty well, because he’s made a real concerted attempt rhetorically to work that into what he’s about. I think historically, America has not been all that pro-science, but we invented the atomic bomb, we industrialized in this fantastic manner. In a bunch of ways pro-science and nationalism should overlap. Being the first country to put a man on the moon gave a huge boost to science. That boost has proven temporary, much to my dismay.

Here are bits and pieces on the very smart Noah Cowan, who was a Jeopardy champion at a very young age.

Yup, I’m here.  I made this list before setting off:

1. Popular music: Few from any country come close to Fela Kuti, the main question is how many you should buy, not which ones.  Most of them!  On the CD medium, that old series of “two albums on one CD” was the best way to consume Fela.  On streaming, you can probably just let it rip.  And rip.  And rip.  Other favorites are King Sunny Ade and I.K. Dairo, I don’t love Fema Kuti.  You also might try Nigerian psychedelic funk rock from the late 60s and early 70s, for instance found here.  Most of all, there are thousands of wonderful local performers in Nigeria, you can watch a few of them on the Netflix documentary on the Nigerian music scene, titled Konkombe, recommended and only an hour long.

There is now a good deal of hit Nigerian and Nigerian-American music, such as Wizkid.  It is enjoyable but does not compare to Fela in terms of staying power.

2. Basketball player: The Dream is one of my three or four favorite players of all time.  My favorite Hakeem was watching him pick apart David Robinson play after play after play…see the final clip on the immediately preceding link.

3. Novel: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.  Honorable mentions go to Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, and my colleague Helon Habila.  There are also the Nigerian-American writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Teju Cole is worth reading, including his non-fiction.

4. Movie: Well, I’ve seen parts of some of them, and you should at least sample some Nollywood if you haven’t already.  It’s kinetic.  The documentary “Nollywood Babylon” (Netflix) gives you some background.  As for “Movie, set in,” I draw a blank.  “Album, set in and recorded in” would be Band on the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings.

5. Actor: Chiwetal Ejiofor, he starred in “Twelve Years a Slave,” and is from a Nigerian family in Britain.

6. Presidential name: Goodluck Jonathan.

7. Artist: Prince Twins Seven Seven, or more formally Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Wyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki.  He received his nickname because he was the only surviving child from seven distinct sets of twins.

prince_twins_seven-seven_1

8. Food dish: At least for now I have to say jollof rice, a precursor dish to jambalaya, further reports to come however!

The bottom line: Lots of talent here, plenty more on the way.

“The convulsions of a civilized state usually compose the most instructive and most interesting part of its history”

That is from Hume’s History of England, via Dan Klein and also Andrew Sabl.

A Yoruba tongue twister

by on December 26, 2016 at 3:06 am in Books, Science | Permalink

Opolopo opolo ni ko mo pe opolopo eniyan l’opolo l’opolopo

That means “many frogs do not know that many people are intelligent.”

That is from Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things, a book of essays.

And here is yet a further update on Nigerian plastic rice.

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Petinal Gappah, The Book of Memory

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.

Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, used or Kindle edition is recommended

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.

Primo Levi, If This is a Man

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1, also on-line.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Reputations

Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act

 

Movies: Difret, Court, The Chinese Mayor, A Separation

That is by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, published this November, a great book, could it be the very best book on the charm and importance of the Caribbean?  Not the Caribbean of the cruise, but rather the real cultural Caribbean as found in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad.  The Caribbean was open, globalized, multiracial, vulnerable, and deindustrialized before it was “cool” to be so, and so it stands as a warning to us all.  Yet so few seem to care.  The Caribbean cultural blossoming of the 20th century remains one of the most remarkable yet understudied sagas, but this book, among its other historical virtues, gives you a very good look under the hood.

Did you know that in the 1930s Cuba received more visitors from the U.S. than did Canada?

This is one of the very best non-fiction books of this year, and its depth of knowledge and understanding truly impressed me.  Just to prod your memories here is the broader list.

What I’ve been reading

by on December 24, 2016 at 12:10 am in Books, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix, Beyond Earth; Our Path to a New Home in the Planets.  The core claim is that humans can (will?) colonize Titan, the moon of Saturn.  But what are we to make of sentences such as: “The temperature is around -180 Celsius (-290 Fahrenheit), but clothing with thick insulation or heating elements would keep you comfortable.  A rip wouldn’t kill you as long as you didn’t freeze.”  Pregnancy would be tricky too.

2. Ian Thomson, Primo Levi.  One of my favorite literary biographies, ever.  This is also a first-rate look at the history of the Holocaust, and the postwar Italian literary world.  Definitely recommended.

3. Philippe Girard, Toussaint Louverture.  One of the best and most readable treatments of the Haitian revolution, with a focus on Louverture of course.  Here is one good bit:

When it came time to pick between two extremes — slavery and unfettered freedom — Louverture stopped well short of the latter.  By order of General Louverture, all former field slaves, even those who had settled in urban areas during the Revolution, would return to their original plantations, sometimes under their former masters.  Those who refused would be “arrested and punished as severely as soldiers,” which implied that plantation runaways could be shot as deserters.  He thereby merged the two worlds he knew best — the sugar plantation and the army camp — into a kind of military-agricultural complex.

According to many critics at the time, rebel leaders were in essence confiscating the slave plantations of their former white masters.  Furthermore, the importation of laborers from Africa was to continue.

4. Lewis Glinert, The Story of Hebrew, delivers exactly what it promises: “For many young Israelis, Arial is virtually the only font they read.”

Also in various stages of undress are:

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable, foreword by Bernie Sanders.

Niall Kishtainy, A Little History of Economics, a modern-day Heilbroner.

Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, a Julian Simon-esque take on the case for optimism.