Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Individualism and Economic Order

Individualism and Economic Order, by F. A. Hayek

This is the one book from my TBR Challenge last year that I didn't manage to read, because it is so very daunting.  So I decided it should be my first pick this year!  That way the scariest thing would be over with.  Imagine my dismay and consternation when I actually opened the book and read the words:

...I should in fairness warn the reader that the present volume is not intended for popular consumption.  Only a few of the essays collected here (chaps. i and vi, and possibly iv and v) may in a sense be regarded as supplementary...the rest are definitely addressed to fellow-students and are fairly technical in character.
 Now, I found Hayek's works for laypeople quite difficult enough.  I knew I couldn't wrap my brain around technical essays for fellow economists!   So I decided that I would read the four essays he thought regular people could handle, and call it good.  And indeed I bashed my way through them.  I found out that he was entirely correct to say that everything in those essays is also in The Road to Serfdom; evidently this book is just a technical expansion on that one.  So, don't read this.  Read that.

The essays were about philosophical or societal points: different definitions of 'individualism,' how knowledge works in a society, when and where 'free' enterprise can be free (or not), and various other things I didn't necessarily grasp.

Too high-level and technical for me, but I'm glad I tried.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Happiness Curve

The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch

All through his forties, Jonathan Rauch* was fairly miserable, and he didn't really have a good reason to be.  His career was doing well, he'd accomplished more than he'd dreamed of, his personal life was happy, he was healthy and strong -- and yet he couldn't stop telling himself that he should be doing far better.  He often felt like bolting from his perfectly good career.  Was this a midlife crisis?  Was he just a really ungrateful, terrible person who didn't appreciate his blessings?  The more he scolded himself, the worse he felt.

As a journalist, though, he could find out some things, and in fact he found out quite a bit.  It's quite stunning to me, but it turns out that it is normal to be kind of miserable in your 40s, approximately.  It happens across cultures, in every country.   In fact, it's hard-wired into us and other great apes do it, too.  Of course, our circumstances have a lot to do with it too; we're talking about an aggregate, shadow effect here, a tendency.

In this fascinating book, Rauch unpicks the causes of mid-40s malaise, calling it the U-curve of happiness.  It seems to be part of our brains reprogramming, changing from the ambition and high expectations of early adulthood to a more mellow, accepting, and even altruistic mindset.  American culture tells us that aging is terrible and we can expect to grow steadily unhappier after 45, but in fact it seems that people become, on the whole, happier after 50 -- even in the face of health problems and other life difficulties.  It becomes easier to be grateful and enjoy the moment.

Everybody over 35 should probably read this book, or the article that was its forerunner, or at least find out about it.  In fact, just knowing about the effect is a help, because then you know you're not just a terrible, ungrateful weirdo, or a person who needs to trash everything and escape your ordinary life; you're just going through a natural phase which will eventually end.  And Rauch hopes that we'll develop structures to help people transition, much like how we once assumed that teenagers were just gangly adults, but now have things like high school and a knowledge of adolescent development.

Check this book out from the library for your 40th birthday; you won't be sorry.

Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.” In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right.



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Jonathan Rauch is also the author of my Best Book for 2014, Kindly Inquisitors.  Read that too!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

1973 Annual World's Best SF

1973 Annual World's Best SF, ed. by Donald Wollheim

I think this series has been going forever!  I found the 1973 edition, with ten short stories, and about half were by people I'd heard of.  I really picked it up because it had a story by James Tiptree, Jr., and I've been hoping to read her (without any effort on my part, ideally -- no nearby libraries have any of her works and I've pretty much been relying on the donation table for vintage SF anyway, so I just sort books and hope something shows up).  On the whole, the stories were indeed pretty good!  Here are a few I liked:

"Goat Song," by Poul Anderson: long in the future, the world is governed by a god-computer, SUM, whose living representative is a woman rendered immortal.  Once a year people can petition her.  This guy is so sad that his girlfriend is dead, he petitions for her to be resurrected, and it's granted...but he has to walk all the way out without looking back.  Hello, Orpheus!

"The Man Who Walked Home," by the aforementioned Tiptree:  Two perspectives on the same event.  Most people see a monster, for just a moment, once a year, for several hundred years.  The poor monster's perspective is different.

"The Gold at the Starbow's End," by Frederik Pohl:  a starship is sent out to colonize a planet spotted around Centauri (which might be there, or not).  The scientist in charge of the project hopes for great things, but he thought he'd be able to understand them when they came.

"Long Shot," by Vernor Vinge: a long-term space voyage, from the perspective of the ship. 

"Thus Love Betrays Us," by Phyllis MacLennon: stranded on a very alien planet, a botanist befriends a local inhabitant and learn to communicate.  Except that a culture so alien as this -- well, can you ever understand what the other is thinking?

I enjoyed reading them, and most haven't aged badly at all.  I would like to know who W. MacFarlane was.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Educated

Educated: a Memoir, by Tara Westover

I've been hearing about this memoir, but I wasn't going to seek it out.  A friend of mine is visiting and said I should read it, so she lent me her copy...and I was hooked.  I read it in three hours!

Tara Westover was raised in very rural Idaho as part of a survivalist-minded family.  Their dad was convinced that the government, doctors -- well, anything establishment -- was out to get them.  The Ruby Ridge incident convinced him a good deal further.  As is often the case, they got more extreme over time, so that the oldest kids went to public school for a while, but the younger kids did not have birth certificates and never went to school at all.  The mom, who started off a home herbalist, was encouraged (well, pushed) to become a not-quite-illegal midwife and full-time healer.  In theory, the family homeschooled, but the necessity for work overrode most educational pursuits, and after a while they figured as long as you could read, you were fine.  Tara was the youngest of this family.

Westover's dad worked very very hard, mostly in scrap and sometimes in construction.  But the need for money, and it seems his own issues, drove him to cut corners and totally disregard safety.  The whole memoir is thickly strewn with dreadful injuries and car crashes, paired with an utter refusal to go to doctors, take even the mildest pain-killers, or put on seatbelts. 

And then there was the abuse inflicted by one of the older brothers.  Tara recounts her experiences as a teen, but later realized that the other siblings suffered too -- it was just when she was much smaller, and not something she saw herself.  People, it's a horrific account.  But all of this was ignored and smoothed over by a family that was tightly interwoven and dependent on not recognizing reality.

Escape was offered by Tara's older brother Tyler, who was always the bookish one and had insisted on going to college.  He told a sixteen-year-old Tara that she could go to college, too.  BYU would take homeschoolers, so all she had to do was get a 27 on the ACT.  Tara could read very well (having been raised mostly on 19th-century religious texts), but her math was minimal and her science non-existent.  She didn't think she could possibly take the test or go to college, but Tyler helped and she did it.

I guess I can't summarize the whole story for you, but Westover details a long, hard struggle to become educated and extricate herself from the tangled mess of her deeply-loved, incredibly dysfunctional family.  That second one is the harder job.  As Westover moves through BYU, then Cambridge, and then Harvard, she slowly starts to figure out how bad the situation is.  Her dad is getting more erratic (she figures he is probably bipolar) and then is burned in a ghastly accident, which paradoxically launches the family into the essential oils field, where they are now a large business. 

The end result is that Westover is close with a couple of brothers -- the ones who also left -- but can't contact others.  The remaining family members say she is dangerous and deluded.  The entire memoir is causing a bit of a kerfuffle, as Westover is accused of lying and making up the stories in the book.  I don't really see why she would do that.

Tara's family is LDS, as am I, but I think she is quite correct in trying to emphasize that their religion was not material to the family problems.  Her dad's ideas were clearly based in mental illness and survivalist rhetoric, though of course he picked bits out of their religion to justify his narrative.  He seems to me to have ignored a lot more.  The only thing I would say is that during her time at BYU, Westover seems to have worried that she might have been the only female student around who wanted to go into academics.  I suspect that the difficulties she describes made it hard for her to see the others; I find it quite impossible to believe that that there were no other ambitious female students or  professors.  Tara is my baby sister's age, 15 years younger than I am, and I certainly knew quite a few back when I was a student in the early 90s (even at BYU, which I did not attend).  

It's an excellently-written, gripping, harrowing memoir that deserves the attention it's getting.  My only caveat is to say that if you come from a family with severe mental illness and abuse problems, it will probably be too difficult for you to read.  Everybody else should take a look.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Agricola and Germania

Agricola and Germania, by Tacitus

I've been meaning to read Tacitus (well, the easy bits) for some time, but what kicked me into gear was the book on my shelf all about the influence of Germania on European culture and history.  I am allowed to start reading it after I write this post!

Tacitus is considered the best Roman historian -- at least, he's the best we've got!  We certainly don't have everything he wrote.  Large chunks are missing from one of his longer works.  I read two really short things; a life of Agricola, Tacitus' father-in-law, and this sort of tour of the territory of Germania, which was most of Northern Europe.

The largest part of Agricola's biography covers his time as governor of Roman Britain.  It has a short description of Britannia, and of how Agricola extended Roman rule right up to the Pictish territory; I think this is as far as it ever got, up to the Firth of Forth.  There are famous stories in here.  This is how we know about Boudicca and the Iceni rebellion, and where we hear of the Ninth Legion in border skirmishes (I have really got to read The Eagle of the Ninth).  The account of the occupation of Britannia finishes off with a fiery speech from a Caledonian chieftain to his remaining British allies, Agricola's corresponding speech to his troops, and the ensuing battle, which was a horrible slaughter for the Britons.  Of course, the speech from the chieftain is necessarily fictitious, and it's an eloquent condemnation of Roman brutality and decadence.

Tacitus recounts that after retiring from the British command, Agricola should have been in line for a really important post in Asia or Africa, but the emperor, Domitian, was jealous of Agricola's brilliant career and the general was forced to keep a low profile and refuse the opportunity.  Soon afterwards, he died....of poison?  Tacitus is clearly suspicious but doesn't want to openly accuse any particular person.

Germania is a description of Northern Europe as cold, dreary, and full of trees.  The inhabitants are strong but lazy, virtuous but dim, and tough but uncivilized.  They wear trousers.  They live in tiny scattered villages in houses made of wood (ugh), and have no interest in building cities.  Here we find the sentence that became the seed of 500 years of ugliness and horror:
...I accept the view of those who think that the peoples of Germania have never been tainted by intermarriage with other nations, and stand out as a race distinctive, pure and unique of its kind.
As the footnote points out, Tacitus then goes on to describe the Germanii in exactly the same terms as the Gauls are stereotypically portrayed: red hair, blue eyes, huge of frame, can't stand hard work or heat but good in the cold.  The account is actually short on praise, and where it does laud the Germans it's really to point out flaws in the Roman character; Tacitus contrasts German honesty and virtue with Roman cunning and decadence in order to tell Romans to shape up, not because he thinks the Germans are great.  Northern straightforwardness was held to come with a corresponding lack of intelligence.

And of course, that sentence is also pretty well meaningless.  What does it even mean to be a pure race?  Do we know what Tacitus meant by it, and could he have even said what he meant?.  Are they supposed to have sprung fully-formed from the earth or something?

All this only takes a few pages.  The rest of the very short book is taken up with describing where various tribes live, and any special characteristics they have (one group wears their hair in a different way, one is identified with a tribe that once sacked Rome long ago).

Both of these books are extremely short and easy to read -- together, they take up just about 60 pages in my book -- so they are a good taste of Roman history and literature for the nervous beginner.  Like me!  I'm not bad at Greek literature, but Roman is a whole different kettle of fish as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What If This Were Enough?

Looks beige, is in fact a bit sparkly
What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky writes this kind of oddball advice column, Ask Polly, for the Cut.  At least, I've never read any advice columnist like that before!  I like it a lot, so when she put out a book of essays recently, I picked it up.

I'm kind of mixed on the essays.  Several of them are critiques of pop-culture things -- TV shows and such -- that I have never seen, so it's kind of hard to care about them.  On the other hand, never having seen The Sopranos was not a big barrier to understanding the critique, which was excellent.  And she's usually drawing pointers about the larger American culture, which I do live in, so it's not like they're totally irrelevant...but still, I don't know anything about most current TV shows (by which I mean virtually any TV of the last 15+ years) and I don't feel like I need to.*

When Havrilesky is not writing about TV, which is over half the time, I'm pretty enchanted by her sharp insights and sincere pleas for more sanity in the world.  Her writing is fantastic, and kind of unusual; get used to her voice, and you can spot it anywhere. There's an incredible essay on Shirley Jackson called "Haunted," several on family themes, and just a bunch of neat stuff.

Worth a read, enjoyable, especially if you watch TV.



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*I've been known to watch modern TV.  I finally got to Stranger Things and am now waiting for season 3 just like everybody else, even though I nearly quit seven minutes in to the first episode.  And we're currently watching the second season of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the books but is certainly interesting.  

Monday, January 7, 2019

Beyond the Sound of Guns

Anachronistic 1962 cover!
Beyond the Sound of Guns, by Emilie Loring

My brother got me this great little paperback romance novel for Christmas (off his work book-trade table; we don't really buy gifts for adult siblings, just for the kids).  It was published in 1945, but as you see, my copy is from 1962.  The blurb on the back is irresistible:
As the Second World War raged across the world, lovely, raven-haired Kit Marlowe and her brother sought peace and quiet at her brother's Double-H Ranch.  Then war came to this remote cattle country. Enemy agents were stealing the Double-H beeves needed to feed our fighting men. And Kit knew her luck was bad when she stumbled on the identity of the head of the saboteurs, for this fanatical enemy would use any means to silence her forever. Irrevocably trapped, only one man could help her - bold and charming Colonel Rex Danton, the man who had stolen her brother's fiancée - the man she had sworn to hate!
 Cattle-rustling Nazis, who doesn't want to read that?  In true paperback fashion, however, the plot is not really quite like the blurb.  Kit's brother, an ex-Army officer suffering from war trauma, has bought the ranch as his new career and Kit is there to look after him.  An evil, conniving ex-fiancée, dodgy cowhands, an overly-persistent suitor, and many other elements combine to make Kit's life a lot more exciting than she bargained for.  Are escaped German POW's plotting to high-jack (sic!) the Double-H beeves?  No they are not!  That's a cover-up for their much more dastardly plot.

The text is bizarrely educational in spots, citing (for example) the exact number of acres of Wyoming ranch land taken over by the military for training grounds, or what the most important industry for Our Fighting Men is.  There is a lot about Our Fighting Men!  There is also, less surprisingly, a lot about fashion; Kit looks beautiful in everything, and since this is a romance novel, she has WAY more clothes than your average young woman did in 1944.  Otherwise, she is a model young woman who is desperate to help with the war effort, and has to keep reminding herself that the job she's doing is valuable too.

It was an entertaining historical artifact, so I had fun.  Emilie Loring was pretty popular back in the day (so I gather) and it was neat to see what people read for light pleasure back then.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Teacher of Cheops

The Teacher of Cheops, by Albert Salvadó

Literary works by Andorran writers that are translated into English are not thick on the ground, since the principality of Andorra only has about 77,000 people (according to a quick check on Wikipedia).  My town has more people than that, and it has several authors -- but I bet none of them are translated into another language.  So I lifted a page from Ann Morgan's "Year of Reading the World" list, and read Albert Salvadó, who has one novel translated into English from the original Catalan.  And it's a historical novel about ancient Egypt!

This is the life story of Sedum, born into slavery, whose single goal in life is to become free and bequeath that freedom to his children.  He becomes a junior accountant for the Pharaoh Huni and becomes free while still a young man.  Surviving the intricacies of Pharaoh's court is tricky even for a junior accountant, but Sedum rises during Snefru's reign, even becoming a tutor to the Pharaoh's young sons, Kennefer and Cheops.*  Then it's back to accounting, but this time Sedum is in charge of the accounts for building pyramids, a very difficult job indeed.  Powerful officials around the king are finding Sedum inconvenient, and he may not be able to survive.

I wondered how much of this story was based on known history, and the answer was that we know almost nothing about the three Pharaohs featured in the novel; we don't even know how they were related.  So, by necessity, the details are all speculation, but it's pretty interesting and it's reasonable enough as a story, and the historical background provided is very well researched (a pleasant surprise for me, since I tend to be overly critical of historical fiction).   I did not love the somewhat graphic (and not very well-written -- possibly translation difficulties there) sex scenes.  I prefer not to have those in my fiction.

Amid Sedum's cautious navigation of court problems, which brings up issues of honesty, tact, and greed, there is also a strong thread of...not exactly mysticism, and not exactly philosophy, but what are billed as principles of the universe.  Seven are collected at the end of the book, and Salvadó says there is an eighth principle hidden in the text; if you find it, you should contact him directly and tell him about it.

It's a reasonably interesting story; I enjoyed it pretty well, and it works as historical fiction.


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*Cheops is more widely known as Khufu in English these days; he built the Great Pyramid.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Earthworks

Earthworks, by Brian Aldiss

Here's my first Vintage Sci-Fi book for January!  Brian Aldiss started writing in the mid-50s, so this isn't quite an early novel, but it is fairly early on in his decades-long career.  It was published in 1965.

A couple hundred years in the future, Earth is living a Malthusian nightmare.  The population is 24 billion, nearly everyone is desperately poor and malnourished, and practically all the land is turned over to farming in the poisoned and depleted soil, so everything is massively toxic.  Synthetic, poisonous food is routine, and the whole world is a police state.  Robots are more valuable than people and do most of the work.  African nations now lead the globe, and their unifying president is the only person who can hold the whole thing together.

Against this background, Knowle Noland chronicles his life.  He is one of the few literate people in the world, and he used to be the captain of the Trieste Star, a practically-unmanned freight ship that he beached in a hallucinatory frenzy.  (Knowle hallucinates a lot.)  The story is somewhat disjointed, but he tells about his past and then wanders around the new coastal city of Walvis Bay, captured by a fanatic pair who plan to assassinate the African president in order to start a giant war that will mercifully kill everybody off.

I wasn't too wild about this story; I just didn't enjoy it much at all.  It wasn't entertaining or compelling or fun.   There's a lot about overpopulation and how everybody keeps having children because they don't know any better.  At the same time, there are only two women in the whole book; one is a fanatic who thinks having children is a crime, and the other an elderly housekeeper who had 15.  The men pretty much never meet any women, and nobody except the housekeeper has any children.  Anyway, this is a world where high-yield crops were never developed and birth control never caught on.  Maybe 50 years ago that was a more persuasive storyline.  Now, we're set to have world population start falling steeply in about 30 years, and we've massively increased crop yields and virtually stopped increasing acres under cultivation.

So, meh. 

Jim at the Corner

Jim at the Corner, by Eleanor Farjeon

Just a little post to tell you about the lovely storybook I got for Christmas.  I've always been a dedicated Eleanor Farjeon fan, and wore out the copy of The Little Bookroom I had when I was a kid.  I only got to read her other works after I was grown up and could use the power of the internet to buy used books!  Happily for me and for many children, the New York Review re-published The Little Bookroom and another Farjeon title I'd never seen before -- Jim at the Corner.  It's not a long book at all.

On the corner of Derry's street, a retired sailor spends his days sitting on an old orange box.  The people on the street take care of Jim, and the children crowd around him to hear his stories of when he was a youngster sailing as mate on the good ship Rocking-horse.  Each chapter has a tale taller than the last -- the time Jim's ship was stuck fast in the ice in Antarctica for three months, and made friends with the penguins, or the time they were becalmed and the fog was so thick that Jim swam right through it to the Isle of Plenty.  Or what about the time Jim caught a kittenfish, which was green and became the ship's cat, but eventually had to be given back to the Queen of the Catfish, who held Jim hostage under the sea until she got her kitten back?

This is a really nice little collection of fun tales and would be a perfect nightly read-aloud for a lucky 5-7 year old.  I wish it had been in print when my kids were that age!  Plus, it's illustrated by Ardizzone, which always fits so nicely with Farjeon's writing.