How Angus Deaton thinks you can make the world a better place

When Princeton students come to talk with me, bringing their deep moral commitment to helping make the world a better, richer place, it is these ideas that I like to discuss, steering them away from plans to tithe from their future incomes, and from using their often formidable talents of persuasion to increase the amounts of foreign aid. I tell them to work on and within their own governments, persuading them to stop policies that hurt poor people, and to support international policies that make globalization work for poor people, not against them.

This is (almost) the end of Deaton’s book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. This counsel reminds me of the Commitment to Development Index, which shows that there are many policies that rich countries can enact to help the poor beyond their borders besides providing foreign aid, such as easier migration rules and lower tariffs.

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What I’ve been reading this month

what it meansWhat It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah — A breathtaking collection of stories. The prose is beautiful; it made other books I read or listened to at the same time seem pedestrian. Some of the stories are realistic, others incorporate magical realism. Some take place in Nigeria, others in the U.S., other in both. I’d read a novel by Arimah on any of these stories. One woman observes about her boyfriend: “He didn’t seem to mind how joy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume.” Or a father comments on his daughter: “He should chastise the girl, he knows that, but she is his brightest ember and he would not have her dimmed.” As Marina Warner wrote in the New York Times, “It would be wrong not to hail Arimah’s exhilarating originality: She is conducting adventures in narrative on her own terms, keeping her streak of light, that bright ember, burning fiercely, undimmed.”

economismEconomism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality, by James Kwak — Kwak walks through how a number of simplistic economic models break down in the face of empirical evidence — e.g., the minimum wage, health care markets, the pay of chief executives — and yet a religious adherence to these Economics 101 models often serves to advance the interests of the rich. This is what he calls economism, a “misleading caricature of economic knowledge.” Martin Sandbu wrote in the Financial Times, “Kwak’s book is didactic in the best possible way, and it proves beyond doubt how dangerous a little knowledge can be.” Not an indictment of economics but rather of its misuses.

tadunoTaduno’s Song, by Odafe Atogun — A music superstar – Taduno – who has used his music against a Nigerian dictator returns home after a few months in exile to find that no one remembers him. He has to unravel the mystery and seek to rescue his girlfriend, who has been kidnapped by government forces. Of the premise, one character said, “It all sounds so complicated and strange.” Yes, but also beautiful. The simplicity of Atogun’s prose let me read almost the entire book on one long flight (Addis Ababa – Washington, DC). Taduno reminds us, “When music is silent you hear the laughter of the tyrant.” As George Shankar wrote in the FT, Atogun’s “simple prose lends the narrative a gentle urgency… A powerful, lingering fable.”

browseBrowse: The World in Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings — I love bookshops, and I’ve enjoyed exploring the offerings from open market book stalls in Dar es Salaam to a piled-high dolly of books on the sidewalk in Addis Ababa, to proper brick-and-morter bookshops in Rio de Janeiro, Kigali, and Mexico City. In this delightful, creative collection, authors from India, China, Turkey, Colombia, Kenya, the U.K., Denmark, Italy, Germany, the Ukraine, and the U.S. reflect on the role of bookshops — used and new — in their lives. In his essay on bookshops in Bogotá, Colombia, Juan Gabriel Vasquez writes “A good bookshop is a place we go into looking for a book and come out of with one we didn’t know existed. That’s how the literary conversation gets widened and that’s how we push the frontiers of our experience, rebelling against its limits.” This reminds me of sociologist James Evans’s work on how the shift to electronic journals led to a narrowing of citations: “By drawing researchers through unrelated articles, print browsing and perusal may have facilitated broader comparisons and led researchers into the past.”

bintiBinti, by Nnedi Okorafor — Binti leaves her home in Nigeria to attend a university across the galaxy, where only 5 percent of the students are human. (It’s a nice corrective to the Star Trek universe, where humans remain remarkably dominant.) On the way, her ship is attacked, and Binti must try to save her life. Okorafor creates cultures and worlds that deeply value knowledge. (In her book Akata Witch, students who learn new magic are rewarded with currency raining down on them.) In Binti’s tribe, some are born with the “gift of mathematical sight”: and Binti uses equations to calm herself (“my mind cleared as the equations flew through it”) and to wield power. This fast-paced, 90-page novella is a quick, easy introduction to a great contemporary writer of science fiction and fantasy.

my favorite thingMy Favorite Thing Is Monsters – Volume 1, by Emil Ferris — The protagonist of My Favorite Thing Is Monsters would rather imagine herself a monster than admit certain truths about herself. Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s (??), she escapes into horror comics and tries to solve the mystery of her neighbor’s demise. But that description doesn’t do it justice. I found this book kind of astonishing — the depth of adolescent feeling, the sprawling art, at times pulpy and at other times subdued, the exciting story. I can’t wait for Volume 2. (The author’s story is as compelling as the book. Dana Jennings tells it well in the New York Times.)

i am malalaI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb — Many people know that Malala Yousafzai is an education activist, shot by the Taliban, and eventual winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. This compelling memoir gives an example of passionate activism at great personal sacrifice, at the same time demonstrating the uncertainty and fear around living in an area suffused with violence. “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” This is the kind of book that makes you ask, “What have I been doing with my life?” in the best of ways.

hostageHostage, by Guy Delisle (translated by Helge Dascher) — In 1997, Christophe Andre was kidnapped from the Doctors Without Borders office where he was working in Russia. He was held for ransom, and Delisle tells his story through this taut graphic novel, which is excruciating in the best way, as we follow the Andre’s thoughts and his efforts to escape. “What gives ‘Hostage’ its most resonant power is not the rush of action but rather the attention to minute detail over the hundreds of pages of relative inaction” (Michael Cavna). I also really enjoyed Delisle’s graphic memoir of his time living in Pyongyang, North Korea.

gratitudeGratitude, by Oliver Sacks — You may know Sacks as the neuroscientist cum storyteller who brought us Awakenings (made into a movie with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro), and many other books. This quartet of essays, published as a book posthumously, discusses work and love and rest. The audiobook is a contemplative 35 minutes long. “Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and to work, the two most important things, Feud insisted, in life.”

african kaiserAfrican Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi — I knew little of World War I in Africa, and I still feel like I know little. The book relies heavily on accounts from British soldier Richard Meinertzhagen, who seems to have fabricated many of his tales. These tales are included here, with the justification being that they “have the ring of truth.” Separately, the heavy Eurocentrism seems out of place for a book published in 2017: I can count the named Africans in the book on one hand (maybe a six-fingered hand, like Count Rugen in The Princess Bride). And I have little patience for a book with lines like “Tom von Prince, more savage than the savages he fought…” I did enjoy learning about how the Germans and the British would read each other’s captured fiction: “Von Lettow and the Germans, however, were disappointed in the quality of the literature they captured from their enemies from time to time during the war — most cheap detective fiction from the English.” Michael Dirda of the Washington Post loved this book; Allan Mallinson in the Spectator not so much: “Gaudi’s book is so error-strewn that it would fail to qualify even as historical fiction.”

maze runnerThe Maze Runner, by James Dashner — Kids trapped in an artificial environment, battling to survive. Pedestrian prose, and I feel no compulsion to find out what happens next. (Maybe one of my kids will tell me.) I feel like I’d have really liked this if it had been written with a strong female protagonist, preferably with archery skills. (I loved The Hunger Games — the whole series, but especially the first book.)

Kids’ stuff

braveBrave, by Svetlana Chmakova — This graphic novel is a wonderful treatment of bullying (even among “friends”). It’s technically a sequel to Chmakova’s Awkward (which I wrote about last month and also loved) but it can be read as a stand-alone.

Lastly, here are images from two of the three graphic works that I read this month.

Best Valentine’s Day cards ever, from Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
monsters clip

A bullied young man imagines getting through the school day as a dangerous video game in Svetlana Chmakova’s Brave
brave clip

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.”

fire clip

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…

awkward clip

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.

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.”