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Review: Nectar in a Sieve

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Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled across this book in a used bookstore--my favorite place to find such gems. I had likely heard of this book before in title but not in content. The novel follows the life of Rukmani, a child-bride in early 20th century rural India and her life as she moves from her family into her husband's Nathan's home. As a third daughter, the dowry she could provide was insubstantial and thus she is married away to a poor (but kind) man who works the rice fields. Together, they work year after year to yield life from the land but encounter increasing hardships as they have children--some who stick around but more who go--and deal with the inevitable ways life is made infinitely harder and more nuanced for the poor. After dealing with a particularly harsh drought, they continued to decline in their ability to sustain themselves and eventually, even the land they work on is taken from them. They make a final effort to see…

Review: The Melting Pot Drama in Four Acts

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The Melting Pot Drama in Four Acts by Israel Zangwill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After coming across the title in about four times in two weeks, I decided that I needed to fill this gap in my reading experience. So this book is the supposed original reference for the concept of the United States as a "melting pot". In that regard, it reminds me of Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the first use of the term robots. And that comparison works in a lot of ways in that it's often surprising to see what something fairly common in our language and to see that its first use was not particularly striking or surprising. In this case, The Melting-Pot is a 4 act play about David Quixano, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who plays the violin and writes music. He lives with his uncle and his grandmother in New York since his parents were killed in one of the Russian pogroms. The play opens with a woman, Vera arriving and talking with his uncle and grandmother about wa…

Storytelling and The Mosquito

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So--as a friend likes to say--I did a thing. During a weekend in October, my partner and I went to Provincetown to celebrate our anniversary.  While there, since we're not into drinking much nor bands, we looked for things to do in the evening and stumbled upon The Mosquito Story Slam. It draws its inspiration from The Moth but looks for a bit more spontaneity.  They provide a theme for the night and when people arrive, they can put their name into a hat.  Assuming there's a reasonable number (no more than 10-12), then they will have each person come up on stage and tell their 5-minute story.  You can check out the different shows and seasons on their Soundcloud channel

We learned about the show sometime in the morning and decided we would go.  In the back of my head, I started wondering if I would go up and tell a story.  The theme was:  Road trips, wanderlust, and getting lost.  I figured I had something I could talk about but would it be clear enough for an audience. 

I put…

Review: Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

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Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick A. Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bell uses allegoric storytelling to explore the legal, cultural, and philosophical racial underpinnings of American white culture and its impact on black identity and methods of surviving in this hostile racialize structure. His approach in many ways reminds me of the philosophical dialogues that we see in the works of Plato and the like. They are sometimes clear and simple settings and other times fantastical, but with each, the story's context and the fictional protagonist (Bell, himself) engages in a tete-a-tete with other characters including one recurring character, Geneva Crenshaw. Through these discussions and thought experiments, Bell draws upon the legal and cultural history as well as contemporary thinkers such as Kimberley Crenshaw and bell hooks to which help him explain a nuanced understanding of race, racial power structures, freedom, and oppression in the US. Though pu…

Review: The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

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The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rose undermines a deep assumption of the modern world; the primacy of average. He illustrates that throughout society, we use the average as a litmus test for judging all things, even though no singular person ever meets all the criteria of the average. After unpacking where the concept of the average came from and how it came to dominate our society, he then questions the usefulness of it in a variety of situations. He flips the idea of trying to get everyone to adhere to the average and asks what happens when we make thinks flexible to the individual. His iconic example is fighter pilot cockpits and how until they were made to be adjustable to the individual, rather than the "average" body, they inevitably failed in making humans more effective flyers and fighters. Anchoring this as his most visceral point, he then moves into looking at how different aspects of society (he…

Review: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

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12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Peterson's book has much to say but I'm not sure it has much to offer. In many ways, it reminds of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. On one level, both serve as guides for how individuals can build themselves up and strive in a modern, complex society. On the other hand, the ideological tenants that drive the authors and infuse the texts are detrimental in the social sense. For Rand, it creates sociopathic selfish individuals when enacted as a social practice, but for Peterson, he woefully mixes shoddy-history and pseudo-scientific views with a hodge-podge of theological and literary interpretations to create a tapestry that swings back and forth between our Darwinian and biblical origin, making it fit nicely by disregarding all the many things that don't fit neatly into how he is ordering the book. Layered upon this is a gendered vision (man is order, woman is chaos) that renders what he writ…

Review: American Amnesia

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American Amnesia: American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper by Jacob S. Hacker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hacker and Pierson present a striking, convincing, and important argument for the American electorate: government has and continues to be an important facet of growth, success, and improvements for individuals, businesses, and society as a whole, but a sustained and broad-sweeping effort by conservatives over the last 80 years has left many Americans blind to this. They structure their argument first by delving into history to show the ways in which a prominent government that played an active role in a mixed-market (as opposed to free market) was the foundation of the United States and the ways in which it has done so through from the 1800s and the expansion of the railroads to providing increasing balance and protection for citizens against the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age and then, of course, in the Post-WOrld War II boom in which they…

Review: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

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Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Forman takes a delicate position in the discourse on racism within the criminal justice system. He easily articulates the points that many others have offered up to illustrate that since the end of slavery, the criminal justice system within the United States has been used to disproportionately disrupt and disenfranchise the lives of people of color. He never waivers from that but offers an insightful and critical consideration of the role that the African American community has played in the mass incarceration of other African Americans. In this way, his work fits in nicely with From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Forman is not trying to undermine ceaseless battles that people have had to fight but rather draw out the nuance of how those battles have le…

Review: Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made

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Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Schreier provides a bird's eye view of the development process of some of the most established games of the late 2000s and 2010s. Through some 100 interviews, he explores a mixture of indie games to mega-production games and how they came into being (including one that did not). Each chapter delves into a different game and Schreier creates a narrative structural arc of how the game concept came into being to how it was released, including appropriate quotes and context as needed, often ending the story just after launch (sometimes with a follow up of 1-2 years after). In general, the chapters provide great contrasts such as when he explores the development off indie games like Stardew Valley (an ode to Harvest Moon) or Shovel Knight (a 2-D side-scroller in the tradition of Mega-Man) compared to Uncharted 4, Halo Wars, and The Witcher 3. These explora…

Review: Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

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Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the center of Leovy's masterful investigation is a nuanced critique of how American society investigates crime and where it so often puts its resources and emphasis in the criminal justice system. By examining how a determined homicide detective pursues the murder of a fellow officer's son in Los Angeles, Leovy shows that there's a fascinating intersection between the historical racism of the criminal justice system with the underfunding of homicide departments, particularly in urban and impoverished area that create a system of violence and murder that impacts many people's lives in urban environments. What I appreciate about the author's work is that she humanizes both the police, the criminals, and the people who must navigate their lives between them. Additionally, the book as a whole is constructed around the murder of and pursuit of the murderer through the officers' dedi…