Book review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado

Have you ever considered paying layaway, renting furniture, getting a 400% APR short term loan, or using a check-cashing service? If not, then congratulations, according to Tirado, you’re rich. This book can be cut up into three amalgamated parts. First is the description of poverty and the plight of being poor. Second is a tirade against the way poor people are treated in this country. And third is a set of recommendations and policy prescriptions for alleviating the problems of poverty.

The first part is amazing. Tirado does a fantastic job of showing that being poor is very very hard and that poor people are often mistreated in society or earn criticisms and abuse they don’t deserve. They go through hardships that are compounded by low expectations and unfairness, then they are summarily rejected or fired from positions from which they might improve their situation. The descriptions of the hardships are vivid and puts the problem in sharp relief. It is really very hard and miserable to live on minimum wage, especially if you’re white and not a college student and live in Ohio.

The second part gets a bit rocky. For one, Tirado is too angry and virtually encourages you to dislike her with her increasing shrillness and crudeness through the book, which turns preachy when she gets to recommendations. Her fury is also often misdirected as she overlooks her own contributions to her problems, such as glossing over why she deserves her low credit score, which disallows her from using banks. She actually tries to justify crapping out a bunch of kids and doesn’t even pretend that she is a good parent, instead insisting this on top of food stamps, welfare checks from two states, and government assisted housing doesn’t make her a welfare queen. Beyond a certain point, it’s hard to sympathize with her impoverishment when she drives a car and refuses public transportation or knowing that she never lacks for internet access or electricity. She struggles to hold down jobs but she admits she deserved or wanted to be fired.

Which leads to the third part, which is rubbish. Her talking points and especially her contempt for Republicans are cribbed entirely from Daily Show bits. In fact, it’s not clear she knows anything about politics outside of some Youtube videos of Jon Stewart. And for all her poverty, she concludes with recommendations that essentially says poor people good, rich people bad, an almost direct photo negative of the “Fox News” view she hates of rich people good, poor people bad. A lot of her caricatures of what rich people and Republicans supposedly think of the poor are basically straw men, although it is amusing that she also bemoans her despair that Democrats aren’t doing much for her either. Predictably, her final word can be summed up as “I’m not a welfare queen but give me more welfare”.

So I think the book is ultimately flawed in its moral but it does make good points along the way. Continuing the food analogies, this book is a fruit salad. The idea is great and there are some good bits of watermelon and some grapes in there, but ultimately it’s just a lot of big chunks of cantaloupe and sour pineapple. It becomes one of those books where everyone tells you that you should read it and you think it will be great too, but you won’t like it as much you should because it’s just not that good. Recommended.

Book review: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

This is a series of anecdotal stories from the perspective of a brain surgeon. He treats many different kinds of patients, showing what might be a surprising amount of empathy but also showing how he’s changed over his career from a eager young doctor who wants to treat everyone to a jaded old surgeon willing to let patients die. To be honest, most of the stories are pretty repetitive: there’s a problem, surgery carries a huge risk, Dr Marsh goes in, and generally all goes well and the patient survives, then Marsh drives off in his Ferrari. But the stories are pretty cool if you don’t know much about this world, which might sound like something of a criticism but in this case I did not know much so I found it interesting.

If you have watched the Knick, this book will be especially fascinating as a perspective from a modern doctor, about how much has changed and how much has not. Operating rooms are still called theaters, people still come to watch surgeons perform, and a lot of decisions determining success or failure still comes down to the surgeon’s judgment. It’s also very curious the way Marsh describes the structures of the brain and his descriptions of what cysts look like, both in the brain and after he pops them and scoops them out. Marsh also does a great job of describing the fear and anxiety in his patients, especially young ones who sometimes face the startling choice of a risky surgery to drill into their head or just go home knowing there’s a slight change every day that the cyst might pop in their heads and kill them, or the even greater agony when the surgeon makes a mistake and they wake up partially paralyzed, getting little more than a pat on the shoulder and reassurance that they can probably re-learn how to use the left half of their body again with enough time and effort.

If you’re curious about brain surgery or the practice of medicine in general, this is a good one. I would call this book a cheese danish – delicious all around, gets a little dense and intense in the middle, but good. Recommended.

Book review: The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Daniel Jurafsky

This book is an examination of the history of food from the perspective of linguistics, assuming that language reflects origins and attitudes about food. It is highly biased towards the author, as a Persian Jewish man married to a Chinese woman living in the Bay Area (they’re both professors at Stanford), so every chapter starts with a snippet about a portion of San Francisco food culture and most of the chapters involve borrowings from Persian or Chinese culture. But it is fine because the examples he looks at through its linguistic history and the way it spreads is fascinating, and the moral of the book is that much of our food originated somewhere else, mixed and mashed with local ideas, culminating to its ultimate form in a famous San Francisco restaurant. It’s worth mentioning because I got excited reading these places that I’ve been and consider well known, having lived in the Bay Area, but it won’t be as much fun if you’re not familiar with San Francisco treats.

The book moves easily and you’ll learn a surprising amount about linguistics, food history, and the way that ideas exchange and evolve over time. For instance, Chinese has neither a word or concept for dessert nor do they serve salad. Salad of raw vegetables is considered anathema to Chinese culture, which values cooking as the distinction between humans and beasts, so anybody eating raw food is considered barbaric. It does have a practical side, which is that plants and water often carry microbes or are poisonous, and cooking often kills the microbes or takes the lethality out of toxins, so they do have a point that cooking all of your food makes it all much safer. Fortune cookies in America evolved in Chinese restaurants as a grudging concession that Americans like ending their meals with sweets. Ironically, dessert has its roots in Persia as a small sweet bite to signify the end of meals, usually a long and enjoyable affair, which they contrasted with the barbarism of Europeans who crammed their meal into their mouths and moved on.

I thought it was a really cool book and even though it aggregates from and nods to other excellent books, it stands on its own as one of the best. I’m pretty happy that the last ten years or so have seen a surge of excellent work done in food history and I hope to see more. As a food, this book is a baklava. Sweet and delicious, and it seems to go by too quickly. Recommend this for sure.

Book review: The School of Hard Knocks: Combat Leadership in the American Expeditionary Forces by Richard Faulkner

This book starts out with a simple premise – as a group, American officers in World War I were crap. Faulkner makes a strong and persuasive case for it and describes how it happened and its consequences in battle, especially among junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). This was definitely a transition period for the United States between its 19th century militias to a 20th century industrialized army, and unfortunately America learned almost everything the hard way and the iron price was paid with the lives of conscript soldiers who deserved better. Given the standards to be an officer in the US Army, which remain relatively constant to this day (college education, high physical standards, no criminal record, track record of unique skills or talents, etc.), Faulkner clearly believes the problem was training and not the raw material – to the contrary, Faulkner is emphatic that American officers fought bravely but unskillfully.

Training problems came down to stubbornness. The Army remained convinced in the old standards of teaching bayonet fighting and formation marching, and they were particularly insistent that they had absolutely nothing of value to learn from the French, they were in fact dismissive of their experiences and lessons from the war and they were almost spiteful in their refusal to teach or study Verdun. For example, traditionalist Americans were disdainful that the French wanted to throw out bayonet fighting in the curriculum and double down on crawling through simulated artillery and gas mask drills, even when the French pointed out that over 95% of Allied casualties in the war had been related to German artillery. Command also clashed with the French over the need to teach map reading and trigonometry, and they grew stubborn when the British also insisted upon it.

Personnel problems were also an issue. The Army maintained its insistence on higher education and advanced course work, which was admirable, but it resulted in so many transfers and cycles of officers and NCOs that it was difficult to build unit cohesion and it hurt morale. Nobody seemed to understand the training schedule, which made the Army reform it several times over the course of the war, adding to the confusion. High officers like Pershing tended to be real chap-asses and they instantly fired subordinates that they deemed inadequate, whether setbacks and delays were their fault or not. As with most things, the shit rolled downhill and there became a strange irony that mid-level officers would complain about micromanagement and harsh standards even as they micromanaged and leveled stiff and unfair penalties on their own subordinates.

As I mentioned, this created a brutal cost on the battlefield, as American soldiers attempted bayonet charges and took frightful casualties for minimal gain. Faulkner makes a beautiful analogy that prior to the war, America believed it would be an expert swordsman, parrying and striking quickly with precision. Instead, it was a blind lumbering giant, confusedly walking around the battlefield and taking terrible wounds, but ultimately crushing its enemies when it finally found them. It’s worth grimly noting that Americans were excellent at close quarters combat when they reached enemy trenches and they did in fact win all of the bayonet fights with the Germans. But this is in the context that bayonet casualties among Americans, as with all the other combatants of the war, amounted to less than 1% of the total casualties.

The title of the book comes from the fact that American JOs and NCOs learned all of their lessons from the Germans in hard battle. If German artillery didn’t teach you to avoid standing in the trenches, German snipers provided quick reminders. Americans never really learned gas mask drills and seemed to almost consider it a point of pride to avoid fleeing from gas and die from it instead. Small patrol coordination was generally learned when officers had lost their entire platoon or company and had to make do with broken squads. And the biggest indictment is that all of the Congressional Medals of Honor were issued for individual valor, which meant an officer fought heroically but he did so alone, in nearly all cases abandoning his command or refusing to lead. Faulkner points out that unit discipline and combat effectiveness broke down severely because of poor management, and he claims in the epilogue that America re-learned this in Vietnam. American improvements in World War II and Korea were guided almost entirely by generals who were embittered by their own inadequate training.

I think this is a fantastic vignette of history and an excellent look at how a modern military should train its officers. It reads well, it’s highly informative, and it moves fairly briskly in an interesting manner. As a food, this is a lasagna – lots of dense layers but delicious and filling. Highly recommended, especially for you history or military buffs.

Book review: Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy

I didn’t enjoy this book and I felt it reflected the typical “foreign” mindset about Japan, the twin condescension that everything good or normal about Japan was ripped off from somewhere else and everything unique about Japan is bad and wrong. It examines Japanese politics through the lens of Japan as an American vassal state and falls hard into the trap of concluding that the Japanese are weird and completely stupid. Oh, but the people are great.

It starts off with a ramping up of contextual history from Japan’s Heian period to Abenomics, ending literally with Hanyu Yuzuru’s gold medal in men’s figure skating at the Sochi Olympics as a beacon for Japan’s future. The historical survey is fine if a bit loose. I liked the little tidbits like Japan’s initial disgust to Christianity and its heralding of its deity being tied to a wooden stick and tortured until they thought he was dead but he didn’t die (I imagine everyone sitting around a fire telling stories and they react to that one with an awkward “thanks for that…so our next story is about a boy born in a giant peach…”).

There are a lot of little editorials about various Japan topics, everything from why Japanese like tentacle porn to the legacy of Yasukuni shrine. The long and short of it is that he’s disgusted with Japanese politics and is very pessimistic about its future. But because Murphy looks at everything from the perspective of Japan wriggling under the thumb of the United States, it leads him to very strange and IMO inaccurate portrayals and arguments. I wouldn’t call it Japan-bashing per se, but there’s a lot of rubbing in of Japan’s social issues and it goes to even weirder places, like concluding women are so fed up with Japanese society that they don’t like sex any more. I found it to be one of those really bad tendencies of Americans at least to get really socially conservative when talking about the ideal place society should be, in the same vein of when Americans do a lot of hand-wringing about the high divorce rate or falling fertility rates.

The sad thing is Murphy is apparently a business professor at Tsukuba University in Japan, so he should know better. The book doesn’t have a bibliography (which is okay), but it appears Murphy didn’t consult any Japanese language sources at all for topics on history, sociology, or politics. I would guess from the reading that Murphy is not literate in Japanese, at least not enough to consult or read Japanese materials on the subject.

I don’t recommend this as a read. There are better and more accurate Japan books out there. As a food, this is like really battered tempura in Japanese restaurants in America. You’re eating it in a Japanese restaurant so it’s Japanese I guess, but there isn’t much meat and the excessive fried batter is kind of gross. And it’s not a good representation of what tempura is like in Japan.

Book review: Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 by Pierre Asselin

What I really enjoyed about this book is that it contrasts from most histories of the Vietnam War by considering Vietnamese policy front and center. Whereas most histories treat the Vietnamese as little more than background, passive viewers to their own events or faceless and unruly natives, this book looks deeply into Vietnamese opinions and strategies in their context of the Cold War.

The brilliant point of Vietnamese strategy was the way they argued against the single-mindedness of Soviet and American opinion, that strategy in the nuclear age could only be either total war resulting in annihilation of one or both sides or peaceful if tense co-existence. The Vietnamese pointed out that Korea had neither of these things – Korea remained in a state of war where the US reserved (to this day) the option to resume hostilities at any point and skirmishes occurred regularly, but the US remained reluctant to commit to a major war, much less a nuclear one. The US also proved through the Cuban Missile Crisis and its resulting policies (also to this day) that there were other instances in which it could deviate from an all or nothing attitude of hostility. Vietnam also saw itself in the margins in which the United States would be reluctant to engage in all-out war and could be forced to give concessions to an enemy that wasn’t worth fighting, particularly one it could not choke out economically.

Hanoi also had to deal in interesting ways with its position in relation to the Communist bloc, especially after the Sino-Soviet split, where both sides demanded obeisance from Hanoi but neither got it. The Vietnamese skillfully navigated itself politically to getting resources from both countries without giving away a commitment or alienating people it could not afford. The book also points out the persistence of low morale among the Vietnamese public, north and south, and how Hanoi continually had to purge dissent from its ranks.

In short, the Vietnamese knew what they were doing when they fought the war and they had a clear strategy of how to win. They made mistakes, of course, and they could not know that the price they had to pay for winning the war would be colossal, but they grimly paid the iron price. They were very good at exploiting problems with the South Vietnamese government and excellent at finding weak targets to attack, as well as maintaining supply lines and using propaganda against capitalism, the South Vietnamese, and the Americans.

If this book has any weaknesses, it does little to illuminate the people pulling the strings and the way Hanoi made decisions, i.e. whether there were any big debates and how they were settled. To be fair, I don’t think anybody really knows how any communist government makes decisions, and Asian politics seem to be particularly complex with ill-defined sides.

I liked this book a lot and I think it is a great addition to new branches of history about the Vietnam War, where we pay far more attention to the motivations and thoughts of the Vietnamese rather than treating them as props in an American story. As a food, this book is pho. It tastes great and has all kinds of interesting tidbits in it. I might wish for a little more flavor and spiciness, but that’s just being greedy. Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist

This book is the black version of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, the dark underbelly told from the perspective of slavery and its fundamental importance to the formation and survival of our country. Its key point is that capitalism and slavery go hand in hand in the American experience; rather than being an inherent goodness, it was a pragmatic reality.

But like Zinn’s book, the first chapters hit hardest. It’s one thing to write about slaves treated and traded as chattel, quite another to write the human experience of their appalling mistreatment and the way white people, most of them ardent Christians, twisted their beliefs to justify and even celebrate the institution of slavery. Arguably harder hitting than that is the way Baptist portrays Southern slavers not as paternalistic hillbillies who like beating up blacks for their own good but as entrepreneurs ruthlessly whipping slaves to earn a buck. There’s a deep irony that cotton production fell precipitously in the Reconstruction era, as it turned out wages and money incentives were not good or even adequate substitutes for bites from the black snake (as whipping was called), among other forms of crude torture.

The book is less good as it rolls on and the stories of abuse get repetitive, sort of inuring you to the shock. He diminishes the value of the work by trying to take a more casual tone, such as profanity and some half-clever one-liners. It also takes some weird turns when Baptist tries to imply and conclude that black contributions are more important to the creativity and innovation of the South than white contributions. The chapter titles and the stories bear less relevance to the content and history as it goes on, which also hurts it in later chapters.

This book is like chicken and waffles. At first you think it’s a crazy idea and you’re blown away when it actually works. But it’s kind of a gimmick and it isn’t something you’ll want to incorporate into your daily diet. I think this is the kind of history that makes you think differently and it connects some dots in an interesting way, so it’s a valuable book and it will blow you away in the early chapters. But it won’t and shouldn’t replace mainstream history. Recommended.

Book Review: A Companion to Japanese History by William Tsutsui

This is a snapshot from 2009 about Japanese historiography, a picture of that current state of various topics in Japanese history and society. As such, it’s probably not appropriate for a casual reader unless you’re a history nerd, because it seems geared mostly for finding a good jumping off point if you’re intending to do some serious studies of Japanese history or sociology, something like PhD thesis or a book.

That said, it’s really interesting to see the evidence and references that represent the cutting edge of the field, and there are a lot of fascinating points about all sorts of topics in Japanese history. For me, the most thought-provoking piece comes on Japan’s postwar identity.

I didn’t know this before and it puts calls about Japanese apologies as insincere in context, but Japanese reparations paid to other Asian countries were conditioned on purchases of Japanese goods and technology, meaning they helped Japan’s budding exporters by inducing countries that otherwise couldn’t afford or wouldn’t buy Japanese products to get used to them. In short, they were subsidies for Japanese companies.

More directly, Japan is treated as a model country for development because of its position as a de facto US colony, a client state trading almost exclusively with US markets with a permanent US military presence. This is what the US pushes on other countries as conditions of being US allies, which you could arguably see with places like Pakistan, Iraq, and Colombia.

As for Japan, it is stuck in the paradox that for the last two centuries, they’ve been told and have told themselves that Asian countries are primitive, weak, and bad, while Western (i.e. white) countries are progressive, strong, and good. So Japan does not want to be Asian but they are reminded on a fairly regular and humiliating basis that they are not equals to white countries. It leads to a schizophrenic attitude that they’re told to normalize and be just another Asian country but that makes them very anxious about whether that means they will be considered or be in fact a primitive, weak, and bad country. Hence the weirdness of things like being sorry for the violence of the war but glorifying Japan’s brief moment of greatness, that moment when Japan was considered as big or a bigger threat to the Anglo world order as Germany, even if it means being equated to the Nazis. It’s one of the best things I’ve read to summarize Japanese attitudes on the subject. You could probably argue it’s not that way but it is certainly a very interesting and different way of looking at it.

This is like sampling vegetables with professional chefs at the farmer’s market. It’s very technical and it’s not about whether it tastes good or bad since they’re looking for certain flavors to combine rather than eating it for sustenance. It’s very interesting and I don’t regret reading it, but it’s not for everyone.

Book Review: Master Of The Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro

This is volume 3 of Caro’s epic series about LBJ, covering the context of 40s politics and Johnson’s rapid rise to power in the Senate through the 50s, culminating with the passage of the 1957 civil rights bill, setting the stage for his vice presidency in 1960.

The most striking feature, which I posted about before, is seeing American politics through the prism of the North-South divide. Southerners were very bitter about their low place in American politics, considered the backwater hicks, idiots, and racists of the American population, which I think could still characterize them today. They also chafed at the way Northerners, particularly liberals, wanted to jam federal legislation, particularly social policy. down the throats of their states and citizens, seeming to revel all the more when it contradicted or damaged existing Southern cultural norms, which might also arguably persist today. Not that the South did themselves any favors with their habits of revising all instances of Senate transcripts to use “nigger” instead of Negro and ignoring the appalling lack of justice and equality with regard to black Americans in the South.

But Southern politicians were very canny, led by Richard Russell of Georgia, who passed his torch to an upstart from Texas named Lyndon B Johnson. They stacked Democratic and Congressional leadership positions with Southern candidates, used the filibuster generously to ensure their concerns were always compromised and baked into legislation, and made sure their interests were always represented in media accounts of Congressional and Washington debates. LBJ eventually also flipped the script with the presidency, where no Southerner had been elected president in the century before him (i.e. since the Civil War), since then 4 of the 8 presidents have been Southerners (Carter, HW Bush, Clinton, W Bush). You could argue that the South comprises 11 states and a quarter of the US population, but they wield half the power of the United States. Interestingly, throughout this period, the South’s great rallying cry was that they were a minority, possibly the realest minority of the United States, hence their continued death-grip on the filibuster.

There are two types of fascinating stories woven into the fabric of this book, besides these cultural tidbits:

There are the personal stories, the stories of the men making the deals in the cloakrooms and wielding power on the floor. Russell is the flawed, grizzled old hero, a genius politician who has the unfortunate burden of being a Southern racist. I love the phraseology that his biggest problems when he aspired to the White House occurred in the same way as Robert E Lee’s tragic mistake, campaigning in the North. Russell shows off his eloquence and genius by castrating Douglas MacArthur and sealing America’s commitment to containing communism, and he shows his uglier colors when he unleashes his fury at the North over social policy, being restrained only by his profound and unwavering respect for Senate conduct rules. Johnson is also flawed but shows signs of budding genius himself. He openly scratches his balls, sexually harasses and all but rapes his secretaries, and he’s a pathological liar. But he knows how to make a deal and the book proves in great detail that Johnson is the best one-on-one salesman who ever lived, which is critical in the manipulations and backroom deals he had to make in order to get his crowning Senate achievement of passing the first civil rights bill and setting the stage for himself to be part of the White House and ultimately pass a better civil rights bill.

Then there are the Senate stories, the politics and sausage-making. Caro does a brilliant job of putting everything in context of the times and illustrating what people were thinking and why. McCarthyism was frightening and wrong, but it got a lot of traction for good reason before McCarthy blew himself up by going after prominent members of his own Republican Party and especially after its constituent groups, most notably the military. The Korean War and the uncertainties of the postwar 50s are held together by the popularity and wisdom of Eisenhower, and Caro goes into great detail about just how much Americans liked Ike and especially how Democrats struggled to comprehend and understand that, eventually using brilliant political judo to make Eisenhower turn on his own party in the name of bipartisanship. As with the other book, it’s quite obvious from the reading that Caro is an ardent Democrat and he’s very dismissive of Republicans and especially conservative contributions to American policy and progress of the time, but his painting of politics is still outstanding.

It won basically every non-fiction award it was possible to win when it was released in 2002 and it deserved more. It’s a beauty of writing and a must-read if you have any interest in LBJ, legislative politics, or postwar US history. As a meal, this is the perfect Thanksgiving spread. You’ve got the roast turkey browned perfectly with stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. You’ve got the honey-baked ham in beautiful pink slices. You’ve got your green bean casserole, your mac and cheese, your mashed potatoes, and some butternut squash. And you’ve got pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and ice cream to finish it off. So brace yourself because the tale runs about 1200 pages or 50 hours on audiobook. But it’s going to be one of the best big meals you’ve ever had.