Category Archives: Current Affairs

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

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016

Although I don’t read them at the rate I used to, I’m a big fan of anthologies. You know, those end of the year compilations featuring the year’s best writing in a particular genre, whether it’s short story, essay or mystery. While I don’t consider myself a true crime aficionado, I love The Best American Crime Writing, finding those collections hard to resist whenever an available copy surfaces at my public library. But the one anthology I’ve always loved is the Best American Science and Nature Writing. So when one of my book clubs voted to read The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I went running to the public library in search of a copy. After finding one, I leisurely plodded my way through it, reading the selections out-of-order just as I usually do with these anthologies. In the end, I was happy with The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016.

Traditionally, the knock of these kind of books is they’re”uneven”, meaning some of the selections are great, some are OK and some, well are meh. With this particular offering, I didn’t get that feeling. Of the pieces chosen for inclusion by guest editor Amy Stewart only Amy Leach’s “The Modern Moose” was not to my liking. In what some might consider a no brainer, Stewart elected to include Kathryn Schulz’s outstanding Pulitzer-prize winning New Yorker article on the horrors of a possible Cascadia mega quake “The Really Big One. ” (When her piece appeared in the New Yorker it generated a ton of buzz here in my fair city of Portland, Oregon.) On a bittersweet note, there’s a short offering from the late Oliver Sacks, one of the last things he wrote before losing his battle with cancer.

I believe behind every successful anthology is a talented editor. With that in mind, there’s pair of pieces in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I thought for sure I wouldn’t like, but loved the hell out of them. Their very inclusion in this anthology proves Stewart was the right editor for the job. Being male, I had no desire to read Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” but her powerful and well-written expose of the serious health risks facing nail salon workers is top-notch. Likewise, with every Tom, Dick and Harry weighing in online with their varying opinions on autism, I figured Apoorva Mandavilli’s article “The Lost Girls” on the little known and misunderstood challenges faced by autistic females wouldn’t hold my interest. Much to my surprise it would up being one of my favorites in the anthology.

Reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 reminded how much I miss reading these anthologies. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you start seeing more of them featured on my blog.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Science

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick

If I may for a moment, channel The Most Interesting Man in the World and say I don’t always read young adult books, but when I do, I prefer something that’s socially and politically relevant. When I saw my public library had an available copy of Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 memoir I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World I decided to grab it lest someone beat me to it. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to read something authored by history’s youngest Nobel laureate. Plus, with my interest in the history and politics of South Asia, I’d be fool to pass up a chance to read I Am Malala. Lastly, considering she spoke in town about six months ago it might be wise to read Yousafzai’s memoir in the event I find myself in a conversation with someone who saw her speak that night in my hometown of Portland. (Remember, one of the keys to being a great conversationist is knowing your audience. And that requires preparation, possibly even research.)

But I was hesitant to read it because the edition I’d selection was billed as the Young Reader Edition. Was this some dumbed-down, Dick and Jane Reader version of what I assumed was a powerful memoir? So, like any decent American who needs to know something, I went running to the Internet. Luckily for me, I came across Kasey’s blog PhDs and Pigtails. Back in March of 2015 she posted an outstanding piece in which she weighed in on the pros and cons of both the original version of I Am Malala and its Young Reader Edition. In the end, while she suggested it’s best to read both versions, she preferred the Young Reader Edition. Feeling enlightened by Kasey’s recommendation I began reading I Am Malala. After whipping through it in mere days I’m happy to report Kasey did not lead my astray. I Am Malala did not disappoint me.

If you’re a half-way intelligent person who’s spent even a modicum of time reading or watching the news over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with Malala’s story. After surviving being shot three times in the head by militants who found her views on female education an affront to Islam, the Pakistani teen became an international human rights celebrity and eventual co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s about I knew about her before reading this book.

Thanks to I Am Malala I learned there’s a lot more to her story. For one, I had no idea prior to her assassination attempt she was such a vocal proponent of female eduction, doing interviews and meeting with officials. I also didn’t know how close she came to either dying or suffering major brain damage. (Or that she sought treatment in a series of four hospitals, with the last one in the United Kingdom.) But what will really stick with me after reading I am Malala is this young woman’s sense of purpose and belief in the importance of her cause, aided in no small part by her vast reservoir of self-confidence.

Not only did I enjoy this memoir, there’s a good chance at the end of the year when I look back on all the books I’ve read that I Am Malala could earn an honorable mention. This is a great book for young readers, as well as the not so young like myself.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Indian Subcontinent, Islam, Memoir

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Economics, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Israel, Latin America/Caribbean, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Girl at War by Sara Nović

Girl at WarAfter reading one excellent novel set in the former Yugoslavia I was definitely in the mood for another. Right after finishing The Wolf of Sarajevo I found myself cruising my public library’s online catalog when Sara Nović’s 2015 novel Girl at War caught my eye. Reading the book’s brief description, I was happy to see Nović’s novel is set in the small Balkan nation of Croatia. I was even happier to see Girl at War received a ton of accolades, including being named a finalist for LA Times Book Prize. Feeling optimistic I helped myself to an available copy. Before long I was whipping through Nović’s novel at a fast clip and much to my satisfaction enjoying every bit of it. I’m happy to report Girl at War is an outstanding debut novel and worthy of the praise it’s received.

Girl at War begins one hot and humid day in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. The year is 1991 and Yugoslavia has yet to fragment into a patchwork quilt of nations. Like the proverbial calm before the storm, before long 10-year-old tomboy Ana Jurić will experience the horrors of war once Croatia declares independence and the Serb-dominated Yugoslavian National Army and their allied paramilitaries attack the newly independent nation. From there the story shifts to 2001 with Ana a college student in New York City. Suffering from PTSD and probably some from of survivor’s guilt, she feels disconnected and unsatisfied to the world around her. With her relationship with her boyfriend Brian mediocre at best, the only person she shares a meaningful connection to is one of her college professors. Sensing Ana is not just a refugee, but more importantly also a survivor he supplies her with books by Primo Levi and W. G. Sebald, individuals like her who suffered the horrors of totalitarianism. But deep down, Ana knows she must confront the ghosts of her past and face her old fears. She must return to Croatia.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a terrific novel. Luckily for me I picked a great piece of fiction as a follow-up novel to The Wolf of Sarajevo. Please consider Girl at War highly recommended.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History

The Wolf of Sarajevo by Matthew Palmer

The Wolf of SarajevoTo me there’s nothing like taking a chance on a book you knew nothing about but in the end you thoroughly enjoyed. Recently, I noticed my public library had an available copy of Matthew Palmer’s The Wolf of Sarajevo. Knowing only that it’s set in Bosnia and therefore applicable to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed it. (Being the cynic that I am, I tried not to put too much stock in the favorable comments on Amazon.) After just a few pages I was completely sucked  in. The Wolf of Sarajevo is one of this year’s early pleasant surprises.

Published last may, The Wolf of Sarajevo is set in present day Bosnia. Even though today’s headlines are all about North Korea and the Middle East, (or President Trump’s train wreck Presidency) back in the 90s the war in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia was all over the news. While the fighting might have ended decades ago, old wounds haven’t fully healed and the young nation limps along held together by an uneasy peace between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Just when it looks like a landmark peace agreement is about to be struck, a deal that could finally fully heal the fractured nation as well grant it membership in the EU, Bosnia’s Serb leader suddenly and inexplicably pulls out. The State Department’s man on the ground Eric Petrosian, along with Danish EU rep Annika Sondergaard are at a loss why, but after doing a little investigative work soon learn a shadowy figure with the nom de guerre Marko Barcelona is pulling strings behind the scenes. His goal isn’t just to scuttle the peace process but reenergize simmering animosities and ultimately plunge Bosnia and probably the entire region into another round of bloody warfare.

Holy cow what a fun novel. I found The Wolf of Sarajevo fast-paced, intelligent, dark and at times, even wickedly funny. (Perhaps for those reasons it reminded me a bit of Chris Pavone’s outstanding 2012 debut novel The Expats.) Palmer knows Bosnia and its history and none of this should be a surprise since he spent 25 years in the State Department, much of it in the former Yugoslavia. Believe me, I have no problem recommending this terrific page-turner.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, International Crime

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Probably the coolest thing about Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is it makes a person read books set in, or about countries all over Europe. That’s always been fine with me. Over the years it’s discovered a ton of great books that who knows, had it not been for the European Reading Challenge I might never had read. And trust me, when is that ever a bad thing?

My quest to find yet another book to read for the challenge led me to Tim Judah’s 2015 book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine. Until it was overshadowed by the tumultuous American election, the conflict in Ukraine seemed to always be in the news. So, when I found an available copy at my public library I helped myself. After a few fits and starts I eventually made my way through it, finishing it last night just before bed.  While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine. Judah travels from one end of the country to another interviewing an almost endless series of people who’ve been involved in, or at least significantly impacted by the ongoing conflict. Like many wars, civil wars and combinations of both, the roots of today’s conflict go deep into the past. As Ukraine struggles define itself as a distinct nation state and plot a political trajectory somewhere between East and West, it must deal with a restive eastern population as well as a resurgent Putinist Russia that sees Ukraine as traditionally part of it homeland.

I’m a sucker for good, on the ground reporting like this. In Wartime reminded me of other books written about Easter Europe like Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, Lawrence Scott Sheets’ 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Former Soviet Union and last but not least Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History. Of course, since I am a sucker for this kind of writing, you’ll be sure to see a more books like this featured on my blog in the coming year.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History