Category Archives: Current Affairs

About Time I Read It: Reappraisals by Tony Judt

Tony Judt is one of those writers I’ve wanted to read, yet never have. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always wanted start with his multiple prize-wining Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 but I’ve been scared to do so since it’s well over 800 pages. Even my attempts to read his shorter books like The Memory Chalet and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century ended in failure because I had to return both books to the library before even starting them.

As you might remember from my previous post, I’ve been hankering to read some quality 20th century history. Therefore, during my recent flurry of book borrowing I decided to once again give Judt a try. In my quest to greater understand the 20th century a few weeks ago I secured a copy of Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century from my public library.

Instead of a conventional history book devoted to a selected time period that proceeds in tidy chronological order Reappraisals is a collection of essays, mostly in the form of book reviews for publications like the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Rest assured, these are not puff pieces but thoughtful and intelligent reflections on the notable personalities and key events of the last century.

Reappraisals isn’t light reading. Judt was erudite as hell and his writing reflects a rich and sophisticated vocabulary. While one might expect to find chapters on Pope John Paul II, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair in a book like this, perhaps only the extremely well read weren’t surprised to see lengthy essays on the life and significance of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Austrian-French novelist Manès Sperber and Polish philosopher and intellectual dissident Leszek Kołakowski. But for readers who want to learn and be intellectually challenged this book is ideal. Judt’s chapter length discussions on pivotal events like the Cuban Missile Crises, Six Day War or Fall of France are done with considerable depth and opinion. Reappraisals is definitely the thinking person’s guide to the 20th century.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Europe, History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Immigrant Stories: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

Since 2003 my local public library has sponsored an annual Everybody Reads program. Even though I’ve never attended any of the related events like the discussion groups or lectures nevertheless I’ve read and enjoyed the different books my library has selected over the years, be it The Kite Runner, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World or The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. While it might have taken me a few years to get around to reading some of the selections like The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and Midnight at the Dragon Cafe none of these books left me disappointed.

In early 2016 the library went with Cristina Henríquez’s novel The Book of Unknown Americans for its annual Everybody Reads selection. Last year, upon hearing that news I had every intention of reading it but I was probably up to my eyeballs in other books so I soon forgot. Then last week I found myself at the library and came across a slightly dog-eared paperback copy of The Book of Unknown Americans. Feeling this was as good a time as any to finally read it, I helped myself to it. After burning through Henríquez’s novel in mere days I’m happy to say once again, my local public library chose a fine piece of fiction for its Everybody Reads program.

The Book of Unknown Americans is set in an apartment complex in Delaware that’s populated almost exclusively by immigrants from across Latin America. The main story revolves around two teenagers. One is 15-year-old Maribel Rivera, newly arrived from Mexico and strikingly beautiful, her struggle adjusting to life in America is made worse thanks to a traumatic brain injury. The other youth is Mayor Toro, originally from Panama and the son of a family whose middle class origins belies its current predicament of working immigrant poor. The first time Mayor spies Maribel in a neighborhood discount shop it’s love at first sight. Later, as he gets to know Maribel and witnesses her vulnerability the more protective he becomes of her. But beauty can be a curse as well as a blessing, as the guileless Maribel catches the eye of a local young ne’erdo-well. Their brief encounter will set in motion of chain of events that in the end will profoundly impact all their lives.

The Book of Unknown Americans has inspired me to read other novels dealing with the immigrant experience. Specifically, I’m thinking Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents as well as Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. My guess is in the future you’ll be seeing these novels as well as others like them featured on my blog.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Fiction, Latin America/Caribbean

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

I was happy when my book club elected to read Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy because I’d heard great things about it for months. Happier still once I found an available copy through my public library. And yes, happy again was I to have enjoyed her book.

Cathy O’Neil’s life story is almost as interesting as the book she’s written. After earning a PhD in math from Harvard and spending a little time in academia she went to work as a quantitative analyst or “quant” on Wall Street. After a few years working for a hedge fund she left the industry horribly disillusioned, upset and angry the algorithms of big data were being misused by the rich and powerful, especially those in the financial and home mortgage industries against the powerless. So angered by all this O’Neil lent her services to the Occupy Movement in hopes of bringing those injustices to light. This book grew out of O’Neil’s fight for justice.

According to O’Neil, those holding the upper hand in society like district attorneys, banks, insurance companies, credit bureaus and pre-hire investigation services employ complex and little understood algorithms designed to maximize profit and/or improve efficiency. Unfortunately, more often than not those being scrutinized by these algorithms tend to be society’s most vulnerable: accused criminals on trial, poor or working poor in need of loans or affordable insurance, and job applicants. This is all made worse because outside of a relatively small pool of industry experts no one in the general public comes close to understanding how any of this highly technical stuff works.

Weapons of Math Destruction is a breezy read that still manages to cover a lot of ground as it addresses in detail how big data is abused by a diverse array of industries and organizations. Because it takes a long, hard looks at both the injustices inflicted, as well as the rich and powerful guilty of committing them Weapons of Math Destruction makes a great follow-up book to two other books my book club also read, specifically Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical RightIf you consider yourself an intelligent and informed person I’d strongly encourage you to read all three of these quality books.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Science

About Time I Read It: God and His Demons by Michael Parenti

I was introduced to the writing of Michael Parenti a million years ago. During my freshman year in college the professor of my Introduction to American Politics class assigned four or five books to read and one of which was Parenti’s  Democracy for the Few. Impressed by Parenti’s radical approach to addressing the pressing political and social issues of the day, during my early post college years I went on to read a pair of his other books, namely The Sword and the Dollar: Imperialism, Revolution, and the Arms Race and Inventing Reality: The Politics of New Media. Then, as the years went by like many of us I lost much of of my youthful idealism and with it my hunger for the writing of Michael Parenti But like an old friend you slowly drifted away from but never forget, I always perked up whenever hearing he’d written something new.

In 2010 I learned he’d written yet another book, called God and His DemonsInstead taking on the evils of unchecked capitalism or modern-day imperialism Parenti turned his sights on the abuses of religion, especially how it’s used to fleece and control the unsuspecting masses. Since Parenti is a leftist critic of the prevailing political and social order, I was curious to see how he would approach the topic of religion. I mentally added God and His Demons to my To Be Read List (TBR) and like I did so many other books promptly forgot about it.

Then a few months ago I requested my public library add the book to its catalog of available Kindle books via Overdrive. Not long after submitting my request I received an email from the library letting me know they’d purchased a copy, and that copy was available for me to check out. I downloaded God and His Demons to my Kindle Paperwhite and promptly began reading it.

If one is to properly critique something, it’s best to define exactly what one is critiquing. With that in mind Parenti begins his book by looking at what we in the West consider God. According to him, God is seen as being one of two things. One, God viewed as some kind of impersonal, supernatural life force that governs or in some way provides order to the universe. On the other hand, others see God a personified being, not only anthropomorphized but also according to critics like Parenti prone to fits of jealousy, wrath and genocide (and the occasional loving father or deliverer from evil). From there Parenti goes on to show how throughout history many have used religion as a handy tool to oppress, enslave or manipulate.

Even though Parenti is an atheist I got the impression from reading this book his goal isn’t to attack religion per se, and certainly not all religious believers. I think he mainly wants to show how religion has been used by those in power to maintain control. In contrast to many critics of religion, his targets aren’t entirely the Abrahamic faiths of the West. In one of his later chapters he spends a great deal of time showing how the ruling Buddhist clerics of Tibet maintained their oppressive feudal control over the country’s peasantry before deposed by the Chinese.

While books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The End of Faith might have made headlines, God and his Demons never achieved the same level of notoriety. That seems unfair because it’s a worthy book in its own right and deserves to be read along the three above mentioned religious critiques. I’m not sure God and His Demons rank among the best books I’ve read this year, but I enjoyed it. And trust me, that’s never a bad thing.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, Current Affairs, History

Books About Books: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

A book entitled The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts has got to be a bibliophile’s dream. About a year after seeing reviews of Joshua Hammer’s book flood the Internet I spotted an available copy at my public library. So, with a title like that of course I grabbed it.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the story, 500 hundred years ago the North African city of Timbuktu was the Oxford or Cambridge of the medieval Islamic world. Scholars, clerics, jurists and doctors from across the  Muslim realms came to Timbuktu to do research and exchange ideas. This was made possible in no small part by the city’s extensive collection of manuscripts covering a diverse array of subjects including philosophy, religion, science and medicine. Over time, even though Timbuktu slipped into obscurity, the manuscripts nevertheless remained hidden away in places like mosques and privates homes. Until about 10 years ago, Abdul Kader Haidara, a forward thinking Malian realized it was high time to gather the countless manuscripts spread throughout the city and place them in one climate controlled library. This would not only make the aged texts easily accessible for the world’s scholars, but more importantly it would protect them from the ravages of time and the elements.

But as the old saying goes, no good plan survives contact. In 2012 when Islamist fighters conquered the area and began imposing their interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s new rulers took a dim view of the manuscripts. Fearing for good reason the Muslim extremists saw the texts as religiously impure, Haidara made sure the library’s manuscripts were secretly extracted and hidden away throughout the area. With out saying too much, had it not been for Haidara and a number of ordinary Malian citizens who risked their lives to hide the manuscripts countless irreplaceable writings would have went up in smoke.

One of the cool surprises of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is Hammer devotes a significant amount of time showing how Mali found itself in such a dire situation. In only a few years Mali went from West African backwater to a hip, up and coming cultural Mecca, once the world discovered the nation’s vibrant indigenous music scene. But once Mali’s ethnic rivalries were amplified by larger geopolitical struggles the country became a battleground. Therefore, when the Islamists do come to Timbuktu, you the reader are able to understand the conflict in its fuller context.

Combining elements of travelogue, battlefield reporting and historical writing The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu did not leave this bibliophile disappointed.

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Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, History, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Conclave by Robert Harris

I love Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Since the rules state “each book must be by a different author and set in a different country” intrepid participants are inspired to read books representing the breadth of Europe. Let’s face it, as I’ve mentioned before on my blog, it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. (Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill.) Nothing against papal biographies, but I wondered if there were other books about or set in Vatican City that I could read for the European Reading Challenge.

As luck would have it, I found a solution. Thanks to my public library I learned British novelist Robert Harris has a new novel out and it’s set in of all places the Vatican. Excited the author of the outstanding alternate history novel Fatherland had turned his literary attention to the world of high-stakes Vatican politics excited me. So I grabbed a copy of Conclave and began reading it. After weathering a few distractions I eagerly ripped through it. I’m happy to say Conclave did not disappoint me. Ian Samson writing for the Guardian called the novel “unputdownable” and I’m tempted to agree because it’s one hell of a page turner.

Named after an assembly of cardinals who meet under lock and key in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, Conclave begins with the somewhat mysterious death of a revered reformist pope and moves quickly to the quest to elect his successor. Sequestered from the outside world, the Conclave is rife with high drama and intrigue. Like any sizable voting assembly there are factions. Not only is there a rivalry  between conservative elements (called “Trads” for their traditionalist or Pre-Vatican II views) and progressives (some from Continental Europe and America sharing liberal outlooks with a few Liberation Theologians from Latin Americans) but there’s also blocks of cardinals representing Italian, Latin American, African and Anglophone interests. Just to make things even more interesting, a mysterious Cardinal arrives in Rome just in time for the Conclave. A Filipino with a long but unpublicized history of humanitarian work in Africa and the Middle East, thanks to his secret elevation to Cardinal by the late Pope he too can vote in the Conclave.

Like any good page-turner, the story moves quickly and there’s no shortage of twists and turns. Conclave is one of those light, fast-paced pieces of contemporary fiction that’s entertaining as hell and a pleasure to read. So naturally, I have no problem recommending this wonderful novel.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Europe, Fiction

About Time I Read It: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

My last post featured The Golem and the Jinni, a novel we read for my fiction-oriented book club. The post before that featured The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, an anthology we read for my science and nature themed book club. The subject of this post, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness we read for my nonfiction book club. Three posts, three books, three book clubs. That’s how we roll at Maphead’s Book Blog.

Published back in 2012, The New Jim Crow has been on my list to read for half a decade or so, ever since I saw it mentioned on a number of my favorite book blogs. Alexander’s insightful, hard-hitting and heavily footnoted analysis of how and why our supposedly colorblind criminal justice system has stacked the deck against the nation’s African-American and Hispanic communities has generated and continues to generate a ton of buzz, especially among those involved in the Black Lives Matter campaign. With more considerably more African-American men languishing in prisons, jails or subject to some sort of parole or probationary restrictions than enrolled in college, all of this happening in a nation that recently boasted a two term African-American President, not to mention countless anti-discrimination laws on the books should cause any intelligent American to take a step back and ask what’s wrong with this picture.

After taking a detailed and focused look at our nation’s history Alexander concludes while America successful dismantled the old Jim Crow system of laws and practices that kept African-Americans away from voting booths, jury boxes and decent public schools and colleges a more subtle and sophisticated means of societal control has arisen in its place. This one, while officially racially blind, targets black and brown-skinned individuals in the guise of the War on Drugs and assorted get tough on crime measures. Focussing these aggressive policing measures on the nation’s African-American and Hispanic communities has resulted in not only high incarceration rates, but also political disenfranchisement; (in many states felons can’t vote) and high unemployment; (most employers are hesitant to hire ex-cons). In The New Jim Crow Alexander asserts our nation’s zealous anti-drug crusades have produced an American version of Apartheid.

I guess my only knock on The New Jim Crow is it could have used a tad more editing. Reading it, I felt Alexander’s editor could have cut about quarter of the material. By doing so it could have created a tighter and more focused book without sacrificing the author’s powerful message. Lastly, while her critics might accuse of her of bias or promoting her own political agenda, one must remember her book is a call to arms. And you can’t have a call to arms without passion.

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Filed under Current Affairs, History