Q4 Reading Roundup (1 of 2)

Oops, it’s now December. And, the time of year The Economist and New York Times publish their best of the year: both contain some really great ones. Because I’m lazy and my readership is deliberately limited, I’m only covering Oct-Dec. I’ve read over 100 books this year: ain’t nobody got time for that shit. I will supplement my laziness with other peoples’ reviews — sometimes negative ones — and all reviews are limited to one paragraph, in classic millennial TL;DR style.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress | I am currently reading this, but figured I’d include it anyway. Quite honestly I find this a bit boring, but it’s not Pinker’s fault, it’s mine; I read too many books that end up confirming my world view (I don’t necessarily mean to) and am familiar with (thus far) all of his included references. Many sweeping societal views are deeply flawed: one that I find consistently bothersome is the belief that today’s world is worse. This book is filled with the work of Kahneman & Tversky; Johann Norberg and many others who have commented on this erroneous belief and why people believe this. This book was not widely loved and admired, for obvious reasons. Here’s a positive review, and here are two critical ones, one from the New York Times, and one from Vox (a site I reference because it tends to occasionally feature writers who are not sanctimonious assholes). The New York Times review is particularly interesting, as the group of people who would be inclined to agree with the reviewer’s argument (‘things are overall better, but not individually’) are the same ones who would bleed upper-middle and upper class individuals for the sake of the argument that collectively, society would be better if they paid more taxes. This book is simple, even for Pinker; thus far it reads as a light, data-centric but emotional argument defending prosperity. Some current issues, especially societal polarization, are glazed over. Chapter 4, about how progressives hate progress, made me laugh, though it was cynical laughter, and a point driven home by my own personal experience of gifting Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future to some of my most progressive friends a number of years ago… not one of them has read it. I like Pinker’s books for the references to other books; this one was a bit light on that as well. I will always read his books, this one is my least favorite, but only due to standards set by his previous work. As an aside, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the subtle silver lining to the current ‘life sucks more than it used to’ narrative: it could, and likely will, in some instances, perpetuate further progress. Gratitude is not required to raise the bar even higher in the future.

Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool | I wasn’t a huge fan of this when I began reading, but by the end I was pleased I did. While her distaste for libertarians is obvious throughout the book, I think she makes some good arguments for the high utility of shame, and its misuses, as well as further opportunities to wield it to change corporate behavior (and possibly public policy, but not holding my breath). I was pleased to see a pet issue of mine featured in many chapters: big agriculture (her specialty is environmental protection, and it is a much larger source of ire than industrial farming). Her lack of interest in including the presence of government subsidies seems to fall in line with her political views; shame has diminished utility in agriculture, pharma, biotech and many other industries where government subsidies exist, and she could have made a better case for the shame brought about by modern writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, which increased consumer demand for organic food and humanely reared meat, both of which were incredibly difficult to find 15 years ago. Shame has also not worked for American airlines, where consumers can only purchase sub-par services due to government constraints on supply and competition. Environmental protection shaming will also not help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, due to the relationship between ASRC and the government; the ideas are good, and the book is thoughtfully written, but I think there’s a limit to the power of shame where government and lobbying are involved. It’d be impossible to shame the postal service for arbitrarily closing yesterday due to the GWB ‘day of mourning,’ but consumers could shame a grocery store for doing the same. For that reason, there is a lot of disparity in the power of shame. Chicago Tribune review of two books on shame; I chose this one instead of the other.

The Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire | This was an impulse buy following reading The Economist review. Read with a lot of scrutiny; its style echoes Psychopathia Sexualis, in a way, and to the writer’s credit, many of the stories encompass mental issues I’ve never heard of (and I am a person who spends hours scrolling through articles and photos of infectious disease and obscure mental and physical illnesses). I don’t love his writing style, he has a way of weaving his general psych knowledge into the chapters and then being self-deprecating in a way that annoys me, but the mental problems he covers in the chapters are really interesting. These characters are fascinating and deranged; it’s difficult to ignore their innocence, the author displays a lot of empathy and curiosity, traits which, when combined, are not always attractive or unbiased.

American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good | I read this because I read the one below, which blew my mind to some degree. Woodard is not the first to divide America into ideological regions, but his book helped me answer some of my own questions: I spent a long time ruminating on the underlying causes of feeling unimpressed living in Boston, yet having undying love and admiration for New York: this writer’s theories on the subcultures of the US really fascinated me, and a lot of American Character refers back to his former work, though the author spends an awful lot of time railing on the apparently stupid libertarian ideals and making fun of Hayek. He comes to a fairly reasonable conclusion: that we need a blend of ideologies for real progress. Overall, the book below is the better read, but American Character is an easy read that gave me things to think about. Bonus points for the Ceaușescu reference. WSJ review here. Side note, it surprises me so many authors believe there is an adequately straight solution: I find it highly likely, especially due to so many regional subcultures and states’ rights, that America will always oscillate between federalist and anti-federalist, between excessive laissez-faire and over-regulation. It’s especially American to fight and bitch and argue about everything, and to run constant experiments in different states and regions. The squabbling has been a pretty important part of our so-called exceptionalism.

My Struggle, Book 3 | I loved Book 1 and 2 of this series, I found Book 3 to be boring but probably necessary. Thankfully it is shorter than the others. Much of this revolves around the author’s relationship with his father, and the fear conveyed in this book adds a lot of context. I love the order of this series so far… only in book 3 does he return to his childhood. I had no idea how I would feel about the series as a whole, the books take absolutely forever to get through. I’m “reading” this with Audible.  The reader is theatrical, which is an incredible and probably underappreciated feature of the audio version: Scandinavian languages have a completely different cadence, and this feature doubtless increases my enjoyment of the material. A somewhat monotonous Book 3 has not dissuaded me from continuing, and Book 4 is coming up in the queue quickly. I imagine this is the kind of work you either love or hate. I expected to hate it. I’m linking to the Book 6 review in The Economist, where the reviewer implies the high readership is perhaps partially attributed to his “craggy good looks.” This one sentence in an otherwise insightful review earned The Economist another pissed off note from me; after all, it would be taboo to make a statement like that about a female author. His outrageous honesty, in all things relevant and irrelevant, is what makes this an incredible project, especially for a Norwegian (though his honesty would be even more scandalous if he were a Swede).

Part 2 of this roundup coming before the end of the year. I promise.

October Roundup: Matinee

I’m so old and boring that I’ve been on a matinee movie binge. Unless they are blockbusters*, they appear in Anchorage a few weeks or months behind their actual release dates, thus the reason for the delay.

2018-10-25_10-00-44A Star is Born. I don’t typically see these kinds of movies, though I admit when something is wildly popular, my curiosity tends to get the best of me. Capitalism tends to allow people to express their beliefs via consumption, so it’s always interesting to see what people are avidly purchasing at any given time and take it as a reflection of current societal values.

I am going to partially defer to my Facebook post for this. I am willing to admit that Hollywood perpetuates a lot of social/societal degeneracy; I think I was taken aback by the steady stream of people exiting the theater with stifled sobs. Everyone has pet peeves, one of mine is the way addiction is portrayed: in this case, as ‘a rite of passage for rockstars’ and, often, a sort of requirement for a talented artist, musician or the like. I linked to an article on Vox, and though I am typically averse to sharing feminazi rants, this article does mirror the reasons for my disgust and contempt for the message(s). Without yammering on for too long, I’ll simply say it’s disturbing to think that young people, especially girls who look up to Gaga, may see this codependent-narcissist relationship as one to emanate. This movie did an amazing job of glossing over major red flags and deep toxicity, not to mention the Vox article is largely right about a lack of consent. Gaga is a really talented musician (and an overall interesting person); I was disappointed in the role she chose to take in this film.

Fallout. This movie was fucking stupid. The action sequences weren’t even that good. My roommate told me if I loved The Fast and the Furious movies (I did) I would love this. No, this was lame.

MV5BMDBhOTMxN2UtYjllYS00NWNiLWE1MzAtZjg3NmExODliMDQ0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjMxOTE0ODA@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The First Man. Slow to start, but ultimately good, not so much for the story line (which was OK at best), but because this is the first film I’ve seen that did not hesitate to show the sheer terror that comes with an astronaut’s job. On top of it being an extremely dangerous career in the 60s, leaving and reentering the atmosphere are awful experiences. There are plenty of of g-force losses of consciousness and vomit-stained helmets in this movie, and I appreciated that.

I, like many other young kids, was obsessed with space in my childhood and teenage years. I wanted nothing more than a career in the space industry (I think back to being in Huntsville at ASA, deeply annoyed that two hours of my short week there was spent watching Spaceballs. I was a very serious kid), so apart from feeling anxious nostalgia for the US Space and Rocket Center‘s centrifuge, I was enamored by how frightening the movie was in terms of the astronauts’ experiences. I was talking to a friend lately about hopes and dreams, I think we all have to make peace with the fact that you win some, you lose some: I look back and think about how much I wanted that life in my past, and what a different one I have now, and I think on a personal level it’s been an interesting transition over the last ten years, of transforming a feeling of loss into a feeling I have gained many other unexpected things. Long story short, for a combination of personal feelings and some realistic elements of the film, I really enjoyed this.

*I always wondered what the etymology of this term was, and my guess was completely wrong.

October Roundup: Streaming

My last blog featured a regular reading roundup, but I’m especially committed to laziness with this project, so I’m going to stick with ‘monthly,’ ‘abbreviated’ and extra random. I’m also going to break them up into multiple posts, because there’s nothing lazier than making three posts out of one.

Streaming.

Hold the Dark (Netflix). A little loose on the plot, but great production. This was sufficiently creepy and interesting, especially due to the occult vibe and the fact you really had no idea where the movie was going. Also, set in Alaska (though filmed in Alberta)… additionally, Alexander Skarsgård. The end.

Fortitude (series, Amazon Prime). fortitude-mainTough to turn down a series set in Svalbard, though I realized about halfway through season 1 it was mostly filmed in Iceland, which is easy to mistake for the former. I was skeptical, and initially watching to enjoy the beautiful, desolate Arctic vistas, but the show eventually became fairly interesting. I again felt like I had no idea what was going on, so either I am becoming dumber as I age or I happened to watch two unpredictable things consecutively. I’ve now watched both seasons and it sounds like a third will be released eventually. I would say it’s sort of a historical thriller-mystery, though I find their characters are not remotely representative of the Norwegian transplants who actually live there: they are way too brazen and honest. I made peace with what I found to be a lot of tedious inadequacies, and once people start showing their alcohol binges and rampant cheating and brawling, it starts to look a lot more like the real North.

Mandy. Mandy_(2018_film)I’m still not sure whether or not this movie was supposed to be funny. I’m pretty sure it was. It’s a sort of homage to the occult late 70s/early 80s (I just looked it up, it was apparently set in 1983, but these people could easily be mistaken for 2018 Cascadia hipsters). In any case, this movie was incredibly entertaining. It’s a new cult classic style horror film. Also, Nicolas Cage.

Dogtooth. The most confusing thing about this film is that on the front/poster/whatever, it says “HILARIOUS” in giant letters. It’s basically about a Greek guy who locks his wife and his children up in his sprawling compound, showers them with lies and they eventually start licking each other inappropriately. I still don’t know what I think about it. I suppose the effects of being completely removed from the outside world make for interesting conversation fodder. May or may not watch again.

Next up, Books and (Mostly) Shitty Movies I Saw in the Theater.