What I’ve been reading this month

the powerThe Power, by Naomi Alderman – Imagine if women developed the power to give off an electric shock, perhaps due to some environmental contamination. Suddenly the physical strength advantage that men have held (on average) is reversed. Does this new, female empowerment lead to utopian paradise of peace and wisdom? Or does power corrupt (“Why did they do it? … Because they could.”) regardless of gender? Alderman is unflinching in this page-turning (or in the case of the audiobook, “play-pressing”) novel of gender dynamics. Just awesome.

who gets whatWho Gets What – and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design, by Alvin Roth – Roth shared the 2012 Nobel prize in economics for “market design, and in this engaging, clear book, he describes his experiences in creating “matching markets”: “None of these things — kidneys, places in competitive schools, sought-after jobs — can be acquired by the person willing to pay the most or work for the lowest wage. In each case, a match must be made.” (There are cases where sought-after jobs can be acquired by the person willing to pay – see Weaver’s work, but I see what Roth is getting at.) Roth has been at the center of this movement, and he has the stories to prove it. This book provides clear examples of economics at work to improve the world. It also demonstrates both “markets as a tool for coordinating complicated human endeavors” but also that “many markets fail to work well because of poor design … There’s an opportunity to make them work better.”

nutshellNutshell, by Ian McEwan – Imagine a thriller, with a woman and her lover plotting the murder of the woman’s husband (the lover’s brother), all narrated from the womb, by the woman’s unborn child. Sound gimmicky? Not in the hands of McEwan. This baby has a lot of opinions (his mom listens to a lot of podcasts, apparently) and an amazing handle of the English language. Here’s what the fetus has to say on pessimism, reminiscent of the optimistic global trends that Max Roser and Dina Pomeranz highlight: “Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies. And now in commentaries. Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived?” As Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote, “The writing is lean and muscular, often relentlessly gorgeous.”

pushPush, by Sapphire – The almost interminably harrowing story of Precious Jones, an American teen who has suffered years of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both her parents. There is no simple happy ending, but there is hope. “‘Open your notebook, Precious.’ ‘I’m tired,’ I says. She says, ‘I know you are but you can’t stop now, Precious. You gotta push.’ And I do.” You may have seen the film, entitled Precious. In light of the World Bank’s World Development Report on education highlighting a global learning crisis (I know, the WDR was far from the first to note that; but it’s salient because it’s new and I helped write it), I noted that Precious reaches ninth grade completely illiterate (having been held back twice). Art imitates life.

scrappyScrappy Little Nobody, by Anna KendrickThe actress from Up in the Air and the Pitch Perfect movies holds forth on her life and philosophy, endearingly and entertainingly. She reveals that she is a sophisticated hyperbolic discounter: “I just want to be a man-child for another three months. Perpetually.” And her take on advice reflect how I feel whenever people ask me for career or publishing advice: “If you are expecting to find advice, I will be no help at all. I have no advice. I do have a truckload of opinions, which I will happily prattle on about to anyone who gives me an opening. I’d just like to add the ‘for entertainment purposes only’ disclaimer to everything in here, like I’m a psychic hotline.”

burning pointThe Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope, by Tracy McKay – The author (a friend of mine) discusses her life with and subsequent divorce from a husband addicted to opiates, as well as single parenting an autistic child (and two other children!), her experience with government safety nets, and more. The memoir demonstrates over and over the power of social capital, the value and importance of support from social groups – church groups, quilting groups, blogging groups. These social networks, not built primarily as safety nets, ultimately have the potential to save lives. From reflections – “When you’re a kid you think adults know stuff. You think being an adult means you have answers, that you will understand things and people and mysteries. … Being an actual adult lets you in on the big secret: there are no answers. None at all.” – to anecdotes – “MOM! Look! I made a bracelet out of explosive caps from my cap-gun. I’m wearing it to church in case I hate the songs.”

fireFire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story, by Peter Bagge – What a life! I knew Hurston from her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she traveled America (and beyond) gathering folklore and was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance. “She soon became willfully determined to celebrate all aspects of African-American life, to see and preserve the art and beauty in all of it. Yet this warts-and-all approach is the very thing that brought her criticism from most of her Black peers.”

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norseNorse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman – A retelling of the Norse myths: entertaining and surprising and kind of crazy (like all myths). In his introduction, Gaiman writes, “That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this.” And I found myself doing just that, sitting with my family around the lunch table and retelling the story of Odin rescuing the mead of poets from the giant Galar.

 

Kids’ stuff

I have kids and so I have an excuse to read kids’ books, although I reserve the right to read kids’ books long after I’m no longer reading to my children, because why not? I’ll read whatever I want!

moominsThe Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson (translated by David McDuff) – When I was in Finland a couple of years ago, I asked people what book every Finn would have read, and the immediate response was, the Moomin books! This is the first Moomin book ever written (in 1945) and the last to be translated into English (in 2005). It is fantastical and whimsical and gorgeously illustrated. Reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh but with magic and more delightful absurdity. And this book in particular includes a candy house that would be reminiscent of Willy Wonka if it hadn’t been published 19 years earlier.

awkward coverAwkward, by Svetlana Chmakova – Penelope Torres, the protagonist of this empathetic graphic novel, is starting at a new middle school, and the travails that she and her friends experience feel authentic even as the plot entertains. And remember…

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway, by Jeff Kinney – I have yet togetaway read a book in this series aloud and not have to stop because I’m laughing so hard, even as my kids demand, “Keep reading! Keep reading!” The Heffley family goes on an international vacation and – unsurprisingly – mayhem ensues. The art, the twists and turns of the plot, the way that every member of the family is deeply flawed, and the boldness of the story in skipping any redeeming sentimentality at the wrap-up: I love it all.

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The Best Books I Read in 2017

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Here are the best books I read or listened to in 2017 (out of a total of 42).

Best Fiction

  • #1 Overall Stay with Me, by Ayobami Adebayo. Gorgeous novel: delicious prose, constant surprises, deep emotion.
  • Most Fun Overall – Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. Delightful update of an old tale of prison and revenge. Advice: Review the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest before reading (for example, on Wikipedia). (My review. And in case you want another economist’s endorsement, here’s Tyler Cowen’s.)
  • Most darkly funny and Mrs. Doctor, by Julie Iromuanya. This book will make you groan, cringe, and shudder as the protagonist goes to increasingly precarious lengths to maintain his pretense of success in America after emigrating from Nigeria. (My review at Brittle Paper.)
  • Most uncomfortably funny A Horse Walks into a Bar, by David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen). “Magnificently comic and sucker-punch-tragic excursion into brilliance.” -Gary Shteyngart in the New York Times.
  • Most frightening as a parent and a husband – The Dinner, by Herman Koch. Serious questions about inheritability of character and responsibility to our children versus others, all wrapped up in a thriller.
  • Most eerieFever Dream, by Samanta Shweblin (translated by Megan McDowell). “This powerful and at times deeply sinister tale is anything but straightforward.” -Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian
  • Awesomely craziest audiobook Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Audiobook incorporates 166 different voice actors, several recognizable. Wild ride. Won this year’s Man Booker Prize.
  • Best botany-themed The Seed Thief, by Jacqui L’Ange. A botanist travels from South Africa to Brazil “to infiltrate a religious sect and find some seeds.” Excitement and botany ensue. (My review.)

 Best History

Best Memoir

  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay. Astute essays on living life as an obese woman in America. Powerful and traumatic. (My review.)
  • The Black Penguin, by Andrew Evans. Dual memoir of growing up gay and Mormon, and of taking buses from Washington, D.C., to southern Chile, en route to Antarctica. (My review.)

Best Economics and Social Science

Best Self-Improvement

Best Graphic Novel

  • Marvel (Volume 6): Civil War II, by Wilson and Miyazawa. This isn’t the best of the Ms. Marvel books (and I recommend all of them), but even so, it endearing and thought-provoking around the price we are willing to pay for safety, as well as family and friendship.

Best Children’s and Young Adult

What did I get wrong? What did you read and love?

I also read a number of books of religious history or religious thought. You can read about my favorites among those here.

 

Books by friends

One of the pleasures of getting older is enjoying the professional accomplishments of friends. This year, at least 10 friends wrote books. I’ve only read one so far, but I’m working on it!

dionne 1Global health — Doomed Interventions: The Failure of Global Responses to AIDS in Africa, by Kim Yi Dionne. Says Rachel Sullivan Robinson: “Dionne uses fascinating cases across a number of sub-Saharan African countries to demonstrate how the mismatch between donor and citizen priorities limits the effectiveness of HIV programming, as does the sheer number of actors involved at multiple levels of governance.”

boustan 1Economic history — Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, by Leah Platt Boustan. Says Amazon: “Traditionally, the Great Black Migration has been lauded as a path to general black economic progress. Leah Boustan challenges this view, arguing instead that the migration produced winners and losers within the black community. Boustan shows that migrants themselves gained tremendously, more than doubling their earnings by moving North. But these new arrivals competed with existing black workers, limiting black–white wage convergence in Northern labor markets and slowing black economic growth.”

hendrickson 1Religious history — The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó: America’s Miraculous Church, by Brett Hendrickson. Says Amazon: “Nestled in a valley at the feet of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, the Santuario de Chimayó has been called the most important Catholic pilgrimage site in America… The book tells the fascinating stories of the Pueblo and Nuevomexicano Catholic origins of the site and the building of the church, the eventual transfer of the property to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and the modern pilgrimage of believers alongside thousands of tourists.”

steenblik 1PoetryMother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother, by Rachel Steenblik. This is a beautiful collection of reflections on the divine feminine.

NovelArchaeopteryx, by Dan Darling. Says Amazon: “John Stick, zoodarling 1 keeper and giant, just wants to sit alone in a dark room with his pet tarantula. However, when ten thousand birds fall dead from the New Mexican sky, the woman he loves, an ornithologist with severe facial deformity, begs him to decipher the cause.”

black penguin1Memoir — The Black Penguin, by Andrew Evans. My cousin (and good friend!) wrote this account of growing up, coming out, and traveling to Antarctica almost entirely by bus. (I raved more about it here.)

Another memoir — The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope, by Tracy McKay Lamb.lamb 1 Says Joanna Brooks: “For every woman who makes the heartbreaking but utterly necessary choice to leave, to start over, to make a new home, for her kids, for herself; for every woman who will wake up alone this morning and do by herself the hard work of holding a family together; for every woman who puts one foot in front of the other, this book offers a safe space of wisdom, warmth, and understanding.”

taylor 1Young adult science fiction — Twists in Time, by Angie Taylor. Says Amazon: “Grant and Ava begin a mysterious journey of love and risk that extend beyond their past and present and possibly into a future that transcends time.”

Bible studies — The Sun Has Burned My Skin: A Modest Paraphrase of Solomon’s Song of Songs, by Adam Miller. Says Amazon: “A loosemiller 1 paraphrase that aims more for the replication of a certain mood than for the correspondence of particular words and phrases. The songs themselves are a collection of age-old Israelite love songs, searing and intense, sung principally by a young woman who is bold, confident, and only just exposed to the tidal pull of love and sex.”

narayanan 2And a little something else — Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica, by Amrita Narayanan. Says the publisher: “The erotic tradition in India is thousands of years old. In The Parrots of Desire, the modern reader, to whom the anthology is dedicated, will find a wealth of Indian erotic writing—beyond the famously unbridled passages of the Kama Sutra and Koka Shastra.”

a breezy, entertaining journey through Indonesia – a review of Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc.

indonesia etcIndonesia is the fourth most populated nation in the world, and it’s the fifteenth largest in land area. More than 700 languages are spoken there. It has the largest Muslim population the world, ahead of India and Pakistan. And yet, until now, I know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth Pisani’s recent book — Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation — helped to close that gap. Pisani has written an entertaining mix of travelogue, history, and current affairs. Years ago, Pisani worked in Indonesia as a journalist and then later returned as an epidemiologist. Most recently, she spent a year traveling between Jakarta to remote villages across Indonesia’s jungles and coasts. In this book, she brings it all together. It reminds me of the book I might write if I were traveling around Indonesia and sending weekly emails home to friends. The history and the current affairs are mixed in with funny anecdotes and observations, with the result being a not-too-structured approach. But in addition to all the enjoyable, colorful anecdotes, I definitely learned about the history, for example, about early colonization by the Dutch and major differences between the first two presidents, Sukarno and Suharto.

Pisani writes in a deeply familiar and affectionate tone, but I never felt that she condescended. To give you a sense, here is a line on Sukarno, who was “a demagogue whose political recipe was one part populism and three parts theatre, seasoned with mischief and served with a large glass of charisma” and “always better at vision than delivery.” Later, she talks about Indonesia poor showing in international student assessments: “The dismal results are a result of dismal teaching, and that is in turn the result of patronage. A teaching job is the easiest way to squeeze into the coveted beige uniform of the civil servant; local politicians give jobs in schools to their political supporters all the time. That means the schools are rammed with people whose goal is to be a bureaucrat, not an educator. And they behave just other bureaucrats in Indonesia: they see working hours as a movable feast and take time off more or less at will.” And later, students describe the challenge of being taught in English: “The teachers, they cannot speak English too.”

In some accounts, the researcher seeks to be an invisible observer. Pisani doesn’t hide her role as participant, always discussing her interactions with the people around her and often reflecting on people’s perceptions of her: “The possibilities for a short-haired white woman with a face battered by months of boat travel, dressed in long-sleeved cottons, sensible shoes and a black photographer’s waistcoat, a woman who spoke with a Jakarta accent and was always scribbling in a notebook were: in Sumba, a researcher on a malaria study; in Tanimbar and Kei, an anthropologist. In Flores, a nun (!) When I got over to post-tsunami, pre-ballot Aceh, I was either an aid worker or an election monitor. In Kalimantan, I must be from an environmental NGO. In the smaller regions of Indonesia, an English teacher. Here in Weda they assumed I was an engineer.”

For those of us who know little about this giant of a nation, Pisani provides a deeply accessible introduction. I listened to and enjoyed the unabridged audiobook, narrated by Jan Cramer.

I looked at 8 other reviews (below), and only the New York Times comes away with a negative take on the book.
  • Misha Glenny, The Guardian: “Although Pisani cannot really explain all of Indonesia’s et ceteras, she does project a more optimistic and warmer picture of a fascinating country than most outside commentators. For anyone about to visit the place, her book is an essential companion.”
  • Joshua Kurlantzick, The New York Times: “For the most part, [Pisani] remains content to drift back into anecdotes rather than pull them together…. Pisani falls back on easy clichés about Jakarta, reform, and the population itself…. Another opportunity to know the unknown giant is lost.”
  • Ashlee Betteridge, DevPolicy blog: “Part adventurous travelogue, part investigation into nationbuilding, Indonesia Etc. is easy and entertaining to read. For those who have spent some time in the country, you will likely find yourself nodding along with the author’s observations and experiences. For those who know little of our neighbour, it’s a worthy and engaging overview.”
  • The Economist: “There are very few good books in English to help the general reader to understand it. Ms Pisani’s is probably the best. Into a beautifully written, richly entertaining account of a year spent travelling around the archipelago, she weaves a deep knowledge of the country acquired first as a reporter there, and then as an epidemiologist.”
  • Ben Bland, Financial Times: “Occasionally, she overreaches in her pursuit of the colourful phrase (she describes a town on the island of Flores as smelling of “stale sex” after the meat from a whale hunt is hung out to dry) and her insistence on “just saying yes” to new experiences can give her the air of a worthier-than-thou backpacker. But her regular comic mishaps, punchy insights and journalist’s eye for the telling detail more than compensate.”
  • Pallavi Aiyar, L.A. Review of Books: “A rollicking good adventure that knits together a complex of stories and insights, in a feat that rivals the knitting together of the sprawling nation it describes…. To read Indonesia, Etc. is to grow rather fond of both author and country.”
  • Jim Della-Giacoma, New Mandala: “Pisani has produced a book on Indonesia that is as fresh for the novice as for those who have a lifetime of experience in the country.”
  • Kirkus Reviews: “A brave, lively writer opens up a wondrous, changing nation.”

Walking in the world with a visible hurt — Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

“The story of my body is not a story of triumph.” So begins the second chapter of Roxane Gay’s haunting, mesmerizing memoir. Gay has been, as she describes it, “super morbidly obese,” reaching 577 pounds. (“I am still very fat, but I weigh about 150 pounds less than that.”) This is the story of the horrible sexual violence that began Gay’s quest to hide in her size. This is the story of a thousand daily indignities faced by overweight people in a “fat-phobic world.”

This is a story of contradictions, of being a “victim” and a “survivor” and many other things, all at once. This is a story of feeling like efforts to change are “futile.” This is a story of sharing a trauma experience and fearing the reaction, almost any reaction: “I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me. I don’t want my personality to be consumed in that way. … If I must share my story, I want to do so on my terms, without the attention that inevitably follows. I do not want pity or appreciation or advice.” This is a story of reality television and visits to the doctor’s office and embarrassing interactions with flight attendants and families that both love and judge us.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Gay. Her prose is beautiful. Her story is powerful. I couldn’t stop listening.

Here are a few other reviews…

POSITIVE
Kate Kellaway, The Guardian: “Fat is more than a feminist issue – as this extraordinary memoir by novelist and essayist Roxane Gay reveals.”

Carina Chocano, New York Times: At its simplest, it’s a memoir about being fat — Gay’s preferred term — in a hostile, fat-phobic world. At its most symphonic, it’s an intellectually rigorous and deeply moving exploration of the ways in which trauma, stories, desire, language and metaphor shape our experiences and construct our reality.”

Lucy Scholes, The Independent: “The tender beauty of this memoir – testament to her bravery and resilience – has much to teach us about kindness and compassion.”

Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books: “Is Hunger an angry polemic? Is it an apologia? Is it a confession? It is social commentary? TV criticism? A collection of magazine pieces? Self-help musings? A tell-all by a literary celebrity? A memoir of sexual abuse? Hunger is none of those things and a little bit of all of those things, but mostly it is true.”

MIXED
Clifford Thompson, The Los Angeles Times: “The great strength of Hunger is in Gay’s unflinching look at herself and her life. … The great weakness of Hunger is that what might have made a knockout 40-page essay is instead a 307-page book.”

Doreen St. Félix, The New Yorker: “There are a few moments when Gay gives us a glimpse of the deeper account that “Hunger” might have been—one in which she pursues, rather than merely dispatches with, the contradictions that have so painfully defined her life.”

What books to read on Rwanda?

rwanda booksRwanda is an exciting country with a tragic history. Before a recent work trip there, I asked the Twitterverse for book recommendations about the land of a thousand hills. Here is what I heard back, along with a few of my own. (Asterisks are on the ones I’ve actually read.)

On Rwanda today

On the genocide

Many thanks to Adolfo Avalos-Lozano, Sarah Baird, Danielle Beswick, Erika Edwards Decaster, Alice EvansAndrew Gerard, Seva Gunitsky, Mike Holmes, Robert MartenJonathan Mazumdar, Gaby Saade, for Elisabeth Turner for suggestions.

[Updated 8/23/2017 at 2:30pm]

A history of Liberia’s women? A review of Helene Cooper’s Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

madame presidentIn 2005, Liberia elected its first woman president. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was also Africa’s first elected woman president. (Guinea-Bissau and Burundi both briefly had women as acting presidents.)

In Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Helene Cooper recounts the story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s life: from precocious child to teen mom to victim of domestic violence to Harvard graduate to international financier and — ultimately — to head of state.

But of course, any such biography also gives a history of the country, and here Cooper does something special. As she tells individual stories to make broader movements more concrete, she chooses stories of women. She tells the stories of
  • “Josephine, who cooked every day for the Taylor soldiers who raped her,” and
  • “a terrified Mary Warner [who] strapped her four-year-old son on her back and ran from place to place, finally pressed up against a gate outside the United Nations compound, desperately seeking shelter,” and
  • Louise Yarsiah, who was leading a group of women in prayers for peace when Charles Taylor’s security chief showed up. Yeaten’s soldiers drew their guns, and Yarsiah’s women kept praying. Ultimately, the soldiers stood down.

Cooper also demonstrates how women organizing women brought about Sirleaf’s election and then re-election. She tells of other powerful women within Sirleaf’s government, like Mary Broh, mayor of Monrovia. This is not just the extraordinary journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but also the story of thousands of other extraordinary Liberian women. Cooper imagines how Liberia’s brutal history grew a generation of women activists: “Little girls do not come out of the womb vowing to become activists for female power. They don’t spend their childhood thinking about how they will repair the indignities, large and small, that bleed women daily. It’s a series of things that multiply and turn ordinary women into movements of female determination.”

As Johnson Sirleaf achieves gains in the country over the course of her presidency, I couldn’t help but feel a growing dread, knowing that the devastating Ebola epidemic of 2014-2015 was on its way. I actually met the author, Helene Cooper, during the Ebola epidemic, when we appeared on the same news program after she had returned from a trip to Liberia and I had worked on estimates of the potential economic impact of the epidemic. She was deeply knowledgeable, and it shows in her reporting here.

This is a sympathetic biography; Jina Moore wrote in the New York Times that it “valorizes Johnson Sirleaf rather than complicates her.” But Cooper also doesn’t whitewash: Johnson Sirleaf’s supporters aren’t above buying voter cards from their opponent’s supporters for booze money in the run-up to an election, and Johnson Sirleaf appoints her own son to a key government position.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully narrated by the author’s sister Marlene Cooper Vasilic. As Audiofile puts it, the narration makes the story “all the more powerful. … Vasilic’s facility with pidgin makes the few direct quotes come alive.”