What I’ve Been Reading This Month — August 2018

straight talk on tradeStraight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy, by Dani Rodrik — A few years ago, Dani Rodrik wrote one of my favorite economics books — Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science. Now he’s back with a nuanced discussion of globalization and trade. He lays out how much of the nuance around the impacts of trade gets lost somewhere between economists talking in a seminar room and economists talking to the media, and the profession is less credible as a result. He lays out an agenda for how to increase fairness in trade and how to deal with the losers from freer trade, as well as why trade policy often fails to do so. Rodrik weighs in on a few other topics, too, such as whether or not experts should advise repressive regimes on policy. As always, Rodrik proposes context-specific solutions. [Alice Evans called this book “pioneering, prescient, and likely to catalyse major public debate.”]

dead eyeThe Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea: A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery, by Vannak Anan Prum — A Cambodian man leaves his village to seek work and ends up enslaved on a Thai fishing vessel. He uses his artistic talents to help him survive. When he ultimately escapes, he draws the story of his ordeal. This graphic memoir is his story in his pictures. Heart-reading and terrifying. Highly recommended.

men explain 2Men Explain Things to Me — Updated edition with two new essays, by Rebecca Solnit — Solnit opens with an anecdote of a man explaining things to her that is by turns infuriating, absurd, and sadly hilarious. That essay and this whole collection goes on to discuss a range of gender issues with great fairness and deep thoughtfulness. I enjoyed this passage on the balance between hopefulness and realism: “Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.”

behold the dreamersBehold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue — A Cameroonian immigrant couple struggles in New York City. Fascinating, heart-reading interpersonal dynamics set against the backdrop of the 2007 recession. Jende, the husband, has this to say about intergenerational mobility in Cameroon: “In my country, sir, for you to become somebody, you have to be born somebody first. You do not come from a family with money, forget it. You do not come from a family with a name, forget it. That is just how it is, sir.” Cristina Henríquez of the New York Times called it “a capacious, big-hearted novel.”

your black friendYour Black Friend and Other Strangers, by Ben Passmore — In this collection of comics, Passmore lays out his experience of being black in America, the experience of being imprisoned (briefly), having white, Trump-supporting relatives. He also includes some fiction and even science fiction. It’s sometimes emotionally challenging and sometimes just kind of weird, but it’s well worth the read. Hillary Chute of the New York Times wrote, “when Passmore observes daily life — reporting on its own kind of mutancy — his work explodes with force.”

flintstones vol 1The Flintstones: Volume 1, by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh — Russell and Pugh use Flintstones characters and settings as backdrop for serious social satire, looking at topics from marriage equality to war to consumerism to animal rights. The main characters feel very human (and not at all prehistoric), and the backdrop is littered with artistic humor in Bedrock’s signage (“Tonight! Primitive art!”; “Hominid Resources”; “Neandertall and Big Men’s Clothing”; “Spears and Roebuck”). This was among the best graphic works of 2017.

killing floorKilling Floor, by Lee Child — “If there were some sort of prize for Most Widely Admired Thriller Writer, Lee Child would win it time and again,” writes Sam Leith for the Times Literary Supplement. Hearing him discuss Child’s work on the TLS podcast, I decided to see what the fuss was all about and read the original Jack Reacher novel. Reacher, an unemployed former military investigator, drifts into a Southern U.S. town and kills a bunch of people in the pursuit of justice. This passage sums up Reacher’s philosophy: “I had no laws to worry about, no inhibitions, no distractions. I wouldn’t have to think about Miranda, probable cause, constitutional rights. I wouldn’t have to think about reasonable doubt or rules of evidence. No appeal to any higher authority for these guys. Was that fair? You bet your ass. These were bad people. They’d stepped over the line a long time ago. Bad people.” Both satisfying — in fiction — and deeply problematic at the same time. Reacher does really well in one-on-many fight scenes.

crusader 2Crusader, by Joel Galloway — Crusader opens on a man buried in the desert up to his neck, one eye lying a few feet from him — removed by his torturers — as buzzards circle. In the next chapter, the priest of the modern incarnation of an ancient indigenous religion performs a human sacrifice. In the next, a young man is possessed by a demon and a mysterious priest casts it out. Later, we encounter tricked-out motorcycles and helicopters, a secret cavern of treasure in the wilderness, and hidden labyrinths beneath a cathedral. This first novel by a friend of mine has it all! [I wrote more about it here.]

milk and honeymilk and honey, by Rupi Kaur — In this poetry collection, Kaur discusses sexual violence, love, sex, gender, and loss. The quality is widely varied. Some of the poems seem like lines I might find on a romantic bag of herbal tea (“you’ve touched me / without even / touching me”). But others effectively conveyed raw emotion or simple truth. Here’s one I enjoyed: “what terrifies me most is how we / foam at the mouth with envy / when others succeed / but sigh in relief / when they are failing // our struggle to / celebrate each other is / what’s proven most difficult / in being human.” (It reminded me of Gore Vidal’s quip: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”) Priya Khaira-Hanks writes in the Guardian, “The literary world is saturated with white male voices of dubious quality. Kaur’s poetry should be given the same freedom to be flawed.” Flawed, yes, but not without value.
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The Best Poetry Collections of Last Year

best poetry 201.PNGEarly in Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, one practitioner of herbal remedies “believed that poetry could cure, or at least go a long way towards curing, almost every ailment. He would prescribe poems to his patients the way other hakims prescribed medicine.” Later, one woman — Tilo — tells her lover, “Let’s read a poem before we sleep.”

I’ve inconsistently adopted Tilo’s habit of reading a little bit of poetry before bed or sometimes at other times. So where does a decided non-expert find great poetry?

I identified ten lists of the best poetry collections published in 2017. Between them, they recommend a whopping — not a word I’ve read in many poems — 110 collections. But just 10 collections are recommended on at least 3 lists. So here they are, the “top 10” poetry collections from 2017. You can find the full list of 100 collections here. May your soul be either soothed or agitated as you read, depending on the collection!

1. Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith (recommended on 5 lists)

2. Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier (4 lists)

And the remaining 8 of the top 10 are all tied for third, recommended on 3 lists each.

3.1 Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, by Frank Bidart

3.2 When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, by Chen Chen

3.3. My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, by Aja Monet

3.4. Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, by Mary Oliver

3.5. Nature Poem, by Tommy Pico

3.6. Good Bones, by Maggie Smith

3.7. Afterland, by Mai Der Vang

3.8. Phrasis, by Wendy Xu

Have you read any of these? Or others? What do you think?

What I’ve been reading this month – July 2018

July included a lot of family vacation, which — for me — translates to wonderful memories but less reading time. So it’s a short list for July!

The Goldilocks Challenge: Right-Fit Evidence for the Social Sector, by Mary Kay Gugerty and Dean Karlan — With an increasing emphasis on measuring the impact of non-profits and other pro-social organizations, simple monitoring can get neglected. Yet monitoring systems are fundamental to every organization, for understanding whether they’re delivering the services they intend to deliver. Gugerty and Karlan offer a set of clear principles for monitoring systems that aren’t too burdensome nor too slight, but just right. I wrote a fuller review at the Development Impact blog.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack, by Manuel Gonzales — There’s a team of women assassins. And they’re going up against another team of women assassins (the titular “regional office”), one of whom has a robot arm. There are references to the actual mission of the regional office — say, suppressing “a den of werewolves, or a nest of vampires” or battling someone’s “dead wife from the bowels of hell” or a “demon horde” — but the whole novel revolves around one assassin on each side and their stories. It’s lots of fun, full of pop-culture references (She had “one real option — to ‘Die Hard’ it John McClane style”) and life wisdom (“She’d rather they’d just given her her job to do and not this management position because what a pain in the ass managing people was turning out to be”). I found the pacing imperfect, but I had a great time. NY Times review by Kelly Braffet: “it’s rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places; underneath that surface, though, it’s thoughtful and well considered.”

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead — This is one of those books that is technically science fiction, but you wouldn’t know it until you’re well into the book. It opens like a 1970s family drama revolving around Miranda, a sixth-grader, and her single mom. Then anonymous notes start appearing with strange requests. It’s all mysterious, maybe even a little bit eerie, but it all comes together in grand fashion. I listened to the audiobook in the car with my whole family, and once we got going, we couldn’t stop. NY Times review by Monica Edinger: “Smart and mesmerizing.”

Incidentally, the children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time plays a role in both The Regional Office and When You Reach Me, although unfortunately not in The Goldilocks Challenge. (Come on, Gugerty and Karlan!)

What I’ve been reading this month – May/June 2018

PachinkoPachinko, by Min Jin Lee — This captivating epic follows a Korean family over decades during the Japanese occupation of Korea, migrating to Japan early in the novel. Tash Aw (Guardian): “A long, intimate hymn to the struggles of people in a foreign land.” Krys Lee (NY Times): “Each time the novel seems to find its locus — Japan’s colonization of Korea, World War II as experienced in East Asia, Christianity, family, love, the changing role of women — it becomes something else. It becomes even more than it was.” I loved everything except when a character warned me, “If you like everything you read, I can’t take you that seriously.” Hey, I don’t like everything I read.

freshwaterFreshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi — When Ada is born in southern Nigeria, she brings a spirit along with her. Not her spirit, though. It’s another, who shares control of her thoughts and actions. Over time, more spirits appear, one after a sexual assault in college. The result is wild swings of personality and shifts in gender identity. Emezi (who has told their own story of gender dysphoria) provides a potent voice to depression and despair. Emezi writes, “After you have let the wilderness in you come out and play, after you have spilled your darkness in front of a stranger, it can be difficult to look at them in the sentience of daylight.” And later, “it was as if staying alive just gave everyone else time to leave you.” I never completely got lost in the story emotionally, but I respected it. Susan Straight (LA Times): “Emezi’s lyrical writing, her alliterative and symmetrical prose, explores the deep questions of otherness, of a single heart and soul hovering between, the gates open, fighting for peace.” Tariro Mzezewa (NY Times): “Remarkable and daring… “Freshwater” builds slowly, but that only crystallizes how fractured Ada and her personalities are. As the voices in her head get louder and grow hungrier, the story gains momentum.”

dionne 1Doomed Interventions: The Failure of Global Responses to AIDS in Africa, by Kim Yi Dionne — Through a healthy mix of ethnographic fieldwork, original survey collection, and large-scale survey analysis, Dionne shows that international donors care a lot more about HIV/AIDS than African do. And yes, that includes Africans who have family members with HIV. One reason is that even Africans who are infected with HIV share a lot of their needs with their neighbors — clean water and good jobs, to start. “By privileging donor priorities over citizen priorities, global elites cripple states’ abilities to implement policies representing citizens’ interests.” The title is overstated: Internationally funded AIDS treatment has saved countless lives. But “looking at our failures to improve the human condition can help us formulate better strategies and approaches going forward.”

therecoveringThe Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, by Leslie Jamison — I just loved this mix of recovery memoir, an exploration of the historical link between addiction and literary creativity, the racial and class divide of addiction public policy, and more. “All my life I had believed — at first unwittingly, then explicitly — that I had to earn affection and love by being interesting, and so I had frantically tried to become really…interesting.” A little sprawling but I really enjoyed it. As an added bonus, development economists Dean Jamison and Julian Jamison make cameos in the book. “My oldest brother, Julian, taught me how to solve an equation for x when I was seven. ‘Great,’ he said, ‘but can you solve when x is on both sides?”

three shadowsThree Shadows, by Cyril Pedrosa (translated from French by Edward Gauvin) — How far will a parent go to save their child from death? This is an urgent little fable in a graphic novel format. “In this our springtime there is no better, there is no worse. Blossoming branches burgeon as they must. Some are long, some are short.”

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, by Kate Raworth — Raworth proposes that the field of economics has led to a narrow global focus on economic growth, and that instead we should focus on a social foundation for all the world’s citizens, as well as protecting the environment. The book is filled with nuggets on the history of economic thought (“At the end of the nineteenth century, the sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen berated economic theory for depicting man as a ‘self-contained globule of desire'”) and the power of a good diagram (“if drawing new pictures sounds frivolous to doughnutyou — like mere child’s play — believe me it is not”). Raworth includes lots of policy proposals (including LOTS of taxes) with little consideration of the incentive effects of taxes, and I sometimes felt like she was attributing self-interest itself to economics — whereas I’m inclined to believe it predates the discipline. I also didn’t feel like she reckoned with how attractive a single goal — or a handful of goals — is to get your mind around (more stuff — i.e., GDP growth! less poverty!) as opposed to a long list of items (social equity! clean water! housing! protect ozone! something about phosphorous!). Still, I admire her consistent optimism, boldness, and creativity, and as she quotes the poet Taylor Mali, “Changing your mind is one of the best ways of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

crazy rish asiansCrazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan — An untenured economics professor at NYU takes a ten-week summer vacation during which she doesn’t once think about her research? Now THAT sounds like fantasy! Seriously, it’s a fun, light book about a Chinese-American economics professor who doesn’t realize that her boyfriend — also a professor — is one of the wealthiest (and sought-after) men in Singapore until she joins him on a summer vacation. Lots of drama ensues!

Truly Madly Guilty, by Liane Moriarty — Three families attend a barbecue in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Something bad happens. The effects ripple. This multi-family drama reveals itself bit by bit with great humanity. Moriarty truly madly guiltyemploys rotating narrators but focuses on two women who have been uncomfortable friends since childhood. On childhood: “No one warned you that having children reduced you right down to some smaller, rudimentary, rudimentary, primitive version of yourself, where your talents and your education and your achievements meant nothing.“ On white collar malaise: “Sam felt himself break out in a cold sweat at the thought of how little he was achieving at work. He had to get something done today. This couldn’t go on much longer. He was going to lose his job if he didn’t find a way to focus his mind.”

chastGoing into Town: A Love Letter to New York, by Roz Chast — Chast — whogoing into town - detail you might know from her New Yorker cartoons — writes that “this book is a sort-of guide and also a thank-you letter and a love letter to my hometown and New Yorkers everywhere.” It’s fun and useful. I laughed aloud repeatedly, and I will surely give a copy to future New York-bound friends. Chast loves New York! She shows that you can do ANYTHING in that city.

shadeShade the Changing Girl (Volume 1): Earth Girl Made Easy, by Cecil Castellucci et al. — Okay, so a bird creature (Loma Shade) from another planet steals a “madness coat” from a museum and uses it to take over the body of an teenage earth girl in a coma. It turns out that the earth girl was manipulative and mean, and people on Loma’s home planet are after her — they want that coat! Occasionallyshade - detail confusing but gorgeous visuals and fun story, with a healthy appreciation of poetry: “There is a poem for every feeling. It’s what gets me through when fear threatens to overwhelm.” Included among the “best graphic books of 2017.”

Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor — In this, the climax to binti masqueradethe Binti trilogy, Okorafor fuses taut, tragic action and surprises while furthering the themes of alienation (in this case, with actual aliens!) and personal growth.

Ms. Marvel: Mecca, by G. Willow Wilson et al. — If you haven’t read the meccaadventures of Kamala Khan — aka Ms. Marvel, Pakistani-American Muslim superhero — then go do it right now! Start with No Normal. Mecca — volume 8 in the series — continues the tradition!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling — I just read this harry potterto a couple of my kids. It’s still a great read!

Imagine Wanting Only This, by Kristen Radtke — “There is little linear plot in Imagine Wanting Only This, even though each of the eight chapters finds Radtke at a slightly different stage of her life … becoming obsessed with the history of ruins and disasters. At each point, she seeks answers to her nagging life questions while alsoimagine attempting to escape her reality” (Arnav Adhikari in The Atlantic). I had trouble engaging with the existential questions at the heart of this book, but Radtke captures perfectly the reason that I go to sleep listening to things — to escape the million thoughts in my head (see picture). Included among the “best graphic books of 2017.”
imagine - detail

How I retain insights from my reading

I read and listen to a fair number of books. Yesterday I received this query.

I tend to remember little of what I read. That’s why I write it all down. In the words of Henry Jones, Sr., “I wrote them down…so that I wouldn’t *have* to remember.”

I have two strategies for remembering. First, I take notes. I use the note-taking and note-managing app Evernote. For each new book I read, I create a new note. As I listen to an audiobook or read a print book, I pause and make a note of a line or passage that I find particularly insightful. If it’s an audiobook, I’ll use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to search for the exact wording. At the end of reading the book, I have a list of the lines and insights I learned from. I’ll often label them with a topic. Evernote has a good search function, so it’s relatively easy for me to find those lines later, even if I don’t remember what book it was from.

Second, I try to write a short review of each book. Nowadays I post those here on this blog. The micro-review allows me to crystallize my main takeaways and whether I’d recommend the book to others.

What do you do to remember what you’ve learned from books?

What I’ve been reading this month – April 2018

exit westExit West, by Mohsin Hamid — “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class…but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.” Gorgeously written, fast-paced novel about a couple falling in love and then forcing to seek refuge beyond the borders of their country. “The novel feels immediately canonical, so firm and unerring is Hamid’s understanding of our time and its most pressing questions” (Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker).

archaeopterix2Archaeopteryx, by Dan Darling — In a moment, all the birds flying over a nature reserve in New Mexico fall to the earth, dead. John Stick, a literal giant of a man who wants nothing more than to be left alone to care for the reptiles at the zoo, is pushed and prodded by a colorful array of characters to find out what happened. This magical realist thriller leads us to a corporation tampering with nature — with echoes of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau — while somehow also tackling Mexico-U.S. border issues. It’s a nonstop thrill ride, full of surprises, with heart (“If you memorized enough of TV, you didn’t ever have to say what you meant.”) and humor (“You’re liquid plumber. Your job is to flush away the evil block up the universe.”), all set in beautiful New Mexico. I couldn’t put it down.

an american marriageAn American Marriage, by Tayari Jones — When an African-American man is unjustly imprisoned, what’s the impact on the marriage that he and his wife share, barely a year old? “punishing questions, but they’re spun with tender patience by Jones, who cradles each of these characters in a story that pulls our sympathies in different directions” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post). Heartbreaking.

how to write shortHow to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, by Roy Peter Clark — “In the hands of careful writers, a few good words can be worth a thousand pictures.” In the age of twitter and blogs, Clark instructs on how to write all things short. He provides beautiful examples of short writing throughout history (think The Gettysburg Address). “Identify and follow the work of literary men and women known for their ability to write short texts with focus, wit, and polish.” Speaking of wit, Clark provides it (and sometimes borrows it — with attribution — in spades): “As Dorothy Parker explained, ‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie.'”

binti homeBinti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor — “I hadn’t told my family about my hair not being hair anymore, that it was now a series of alien tentacles.” After stopping a war in Binti, the titular character returns to earth and begins to unlearn her own old prejudices about the peoples of her homeland. Okorafor explores how we choose new identities, how they sometimes are chosen for us, and how it both alienates us from our old life but opens doors to new lives.

flammableEverything Is Flammable, by Gabrielle Bell — In this meandering graphic memoir, Bell documents her anxieties and day-to-day struggles to help her mother. A few of the panels spoke deep truth to me. This graphic memoir was recommended on at least 6 “best of” lists for 2017.

The Black Monday Murders Volume 1, by Jonathan Hickman and Tommblack monday Coker — Schools of economics date back to ancient days and manipulate society for wealth. Oh, and cannibalism? Or drinking blood?

give and takeGive and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, by Adam Grant — A few years ago, I read a compelling profile of Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant in the New York Times Magazine. Grant’s philosophy is that giving generously can be a strategy not just to happiness but also to business success. In this book, he marshals a wide array of social psychology evidence to argue that many of the most successful — as well as the least successful — businesspeople are givers, with strategies for how to be in the former group, not the latter. Essentially, he’s trying to make kindness respectable.

spinning2Spinning, by Tillie Walden — A tween grows up and comes out while competing as an ice skater. The stress and fear is palpable. This graphic memoir was recommended on at least 4 “best of” lists for 2017.

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, by Anne Lamott –small victories– “Getting found almost always means being lost for a while.” With witty irreverence, Lamott’s essays explore kindness, forgiveness, and love. Her own reflections are thoughtful, and she selects just the right passages to quote from other authors, like this one from Wendell Berry: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

And before I go, here’s a thought on a particular brand of economics from the Black Monday Murders:
economicsprofessor

For complex debates, an alternative to social media

There is an alternative to Twitter, Facebook and all those indignant op-eds that we use to confirm the superiority of our beliefs. It’s a flexible, troll-free, hacker-resistant platform on which complex social and moral questions can be carefully explored. It simultaneously engages our empathy and models the action of empathy for us. It’s called a novel.

That’s Ron Charles in the Washington Post.