Seeing Through Myths and Stories

Nesrine Malik is a London-based journalist who writes for The Guardian and presents on the BBC. Born in the Sudan, Malik spent most of her early years in the mid-east before moving to the UK. She writes about contemporary politics, especially in the U.S. and England, Islam, and identity politics. Malik is very smart and unapologetic in her critiques. She provides a vital perspective, informed by her personal history.

Right before the pandemic, Malik’s book, We Need New Stories: The Myths That Subvert Freedom, was published. It is a short, accessible and thoughtful presentation of six “myths: that frame US/UK political culture. Do not think of Joseph Campbell. Instead, conjure up what everyone knows to be true but turns out is not, actually, true. Malik efficiently assesses and critiques these myths, or commonly accepted “truths”, as most definitely creative fictions. They are lies or misunderstandings with a purpose and impact. She effectively argues in the book that the myths stand in the way of human freedom.

Malik’s focus, accordingly, is not on just on using data to demonstrate what is and is not accurate. She is after something slightly different, the effect of mindset when it comes to how important big picture political issues are framed. The six myths Malik calls out are the myth of the reliable narrator, political correctness, a free speech crisis, harmful identity politics, national exceptionalism and gender equality. The terrain is all contemporary. Each chapter, though, provides some reference as each of these have lengthy and complicated historical roots. Woven throughout the exposition are examples and observations drawn from Malik’s personal history as an Islamic woman growing up in the Sudan. She sees things that many of us who have lived in the culture might not recognize.

For each of the myths, Malik presents data, resources and examples to illustrate the fundamental unsoundness of the commonly accepted story. The reliable narrators in the past two decades, for example, reliably get many things wrong and rarely apologize. She examines here the “wise leaders” who preach a particular course of action and the preeminent example is the invasion of Iraq. Untold numbers died, billions were expended, and accountability never really happened. In fact, the same leaders and leadership structures remain as influential today. Our narrators, in other words, need to be questioned. Malik’s argument is compelling. When it comes to political correctness and a crisis of free speech, Malik emphasizes that what is different today is that those with power and influence are peddling these issues for gain. Are we truly in a crisis where many are afraid to speak honestly because of the heavy weight of political correctness? Malik underscores the recurring strategy of creating a sense of victimhood to motivate identity and political action. Exactly who is being harmed and how when people celebrate their identities? Or interrogate stories of national exceptionalism?

The book is interesting, well-paced and solid. Malik delivers her claims effectively. Missing are discussions of why these myths are so prevalent and exist across countries, cultures and histories. She does not give much energy into exploring why these myths are so successful. In the marketplace of ideas and arguments, why does an imagined fear of political correctness have legs while other fears and issues do not? Malik hints at reasons, but does not travel that path. It is unfortunate, for many of her exploded myths tightly align with decades of provocative scholarship on nationalism. Stories of injustice and victim hood are effective tools at mobilizing political support and agency in some circumstances. It is key to remember, too, that victims are rarely asked to think of anything or anything other than themselves. Perhaps in another book.

I am looking forward to reading more from Nesrine Malik. We need her insights and perspective.

David Potash

Is the Meritocracy Fair of Foul?

How do you define a “meritocracy”? Editor and prolific author Adrian Wooldridge has an excellent answer. First, it is about people getting ahead because of their natural talents. Second, it is grounded in a society that provides education for all so that there is equality of opportunity. Third, it does not permit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or similar traits. Lastly, it provides jobs through fair processes, as opposed to nepotism or patronage. Most people approve of these basic characteristics, yet the term “meritocracy” has been losing favor for decades. In a lengthy exposition, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, Wooldridge provides a history of meritocracy and proposes a rehabilitation of the term.

An academic with strong credentials who moved into journalism as an editor and writer, Wooldridge has the background and interests to tackle this ambitious task. Aristocracy of Talent is encyclopedic, drawing heavily upon history, philosophy and politics for centuries. Wooldridge’s comfort in bringing extensive sources into mix, as well as forging broad arguments, drives the narrative smartly. He bypasses questions and concerns. It is a book brimming with assertions and confidence, moving from Plato to the Hapsburgs, from the French Revolution to the creation and implementation of IQ tests. Wooldridge draws upon a wide swath of references. For example, his use of the the history of the development of the Chinese state bureaucracy, the mandarins, is very strong. It reminded me of Max Weber’s work on the same topic. Wooldridge’s ability to use these kinds of references in this global context makes for a very provocative read. The book is at its best when it is the most historical, threading together different culture. As it moves closer to contemporary times, the assertions in Aristocracy of Talent are less effective.

Wooldridge’s big picture lens is consistently focused on politics and political philosophy. It is with this priority that the example of the leadership of the Chinese emperors rings as so relevant. Absent from the book, though, is adequate examination the massive changes in western life from the late 1800s on: the development of the professions, the rise of science, and accompanying massive economic shifts. Societies may or may not seek the best trained when it comes to positions of political influence. The consequences of that may or may not be significant. However, indifference to education and talent is not possible when it comes to technological innovation, to research, or to the complexities of managing a modern business or corporation. Meritocratic paths of advancement became essential to economic effectiveness by the start of the twentieth century. That entire thread of change, the rise of professions and paths to professionalism, does not feature prominently in this book.

As many historians have studied, opportunities for wealth and career became significantly more tightly connected with education with professionalization, a process that began in the late 1800s and accelerated throughout the twentieth century. Political elites did not drive these tectonic changes. Instead, it was the demands of a new economy that sped the growth of the meritocratic ideal. Along like lines, the G.I. Bill after World War II, which Wooldridge examines in detail, did not have a profound impact simply because it put servicemen in college. College education after the war increasingly aligned itself with economic needs. College-educated veterans were able to find higher paying jobs and build long-lasting careers in fields that simply were not present decades earlier.

Challenges to points of access after WWII also impacted meritocratic practices. Advances for women and people of color was far from secure. It remains a challenging topic, particularly when supposedly “meritocractic” processes can serves as hurdles or gates to entry. Are we truly providing education for all in a society free of prejudice based on race, gender or other characteristics?

Wooldridge does not spend much time with these complaints. Instead, he asserts that more recent criticisms of meritocracy are driven by those who want society to have equality of outcomes. While that may be true for some, is it true for all? Wooldridge lumps together criticisms of meritocracy from those on the left with those coming from populists. Again, is that really the case?

Wooldridge is correct in attributing much of society’s growth to the rise of the intelligent. What are the alternatives? That said, he does not put his intellectual talents towards considerations of the distribution of wealth today and the factors that have reshaped economic equity in the past few decades. Can we confidently claim that rise in the number of billionaires and the persistence of poverty is due to intelligence and talent? Or are there other factors at play? Considering the growing inequality and the extraordinary gains of those at the top one percent of the wealthy, I would suggest looking beyond meritocracy. Unfortunately, that thread is not part of Aristocracy of Talent. Criticisms of wealth begetting privilege and data about who has and who does not are not in Wooldridge’s oeuvre.

The absence is frustrating, for Wooldridge most certainly has the skills, tools and context to appreciate arguments against meritocratic assertions that are neither grounded in idealistic liberalism nor resentful populism. Many complaints about the meritocracy, as currently practiced, are not ideological, but rather are empirical. What does the data show about access to high quality education and key jobs? Were Wooldridge to challenge himself, perhaps spending time at a public university, he might appreciate alternative viewpoints. All one has to do is listen to the millions of students who seek a fair shake at getting an excellent education and the opportunity to be hired at a top company to understand that many do not see meritocratic possibilities. They perceive unfairness. This is not about scandals or cheating, either, points that Wooldridge raises. Instead, it is about the over-representation of the wealthy in what many had hoped would be real opportunities. Declines in social mobility are not imaginary, and they are very much felt by those whose who know that there chances are slim when it comes to getting a strong education and a well-paying job.

I very much agree with Wooldridge’s initial argument regarding the value of meritocracy, especially when it comes to realizing the definition he sets out. Moreover, I agree, too, that meritocratic thinking and practice has been essential in building the modern world. Where I differ from The Aristocracy of Talent is that I do not see the evidence that we are currently living those meritocratic ideals that Wooldridge so eloquently provided. His bar is high. Let us see if it is possible for us to live it.

The comprehensive Aristocracy of Talent is a provocative book, a work that engages and requires the thoughtful reader to question assumptions and assertions. And while I believe that the book misses the mark on several key arguments, it is and will remain an important work in the field. The question of how we see more of those meritocratic ideals in our lives is the necessary next question.

David Potash

Wealth, Glamour and Hollywood Sleaze

Two approaches tend to shape biographical studies. Most common, especially when it comes to figures of historical significance, is a focus on what the subject did. Be it writing, actions, discovery, crime, salvation or creative creation, these works give most of their attention to the subject’s accomplishments, good and bad. The second approach and more complicated approach is to focus on the subject as a person. Where did the come from? What were the major contours of their life? Celebrities often are treated this way, as we already know about their accomplishments. The second approach offers us a peek behind the curtain, a promise of what the subject was “really” like.

Karina Longworth’s Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes Hollywood appears, at first glance, to fall into the latter camp, a celebrity focused tell-all. Beautiful movies stars adorn the cover and are featured in photographs. That, however, is not the case for Longworth has a much different story to tell. Her dogged research and informed eye focuses on many of the key women in Howard Hughes’ life. It is not a pretty picture, one that runs counter to glossy accounts of “womanizing” and glamour. Seduction, which is far from a simple biography, explores the practice and culture of exploitation in Hughes’ Hollywood. Howard Hughes was not alone. Though not its intent, it is easy to understand draw a line from Hughes to Harvey Weinstein and his crimes.

First, a brief refresher on Howard Hughes. The richest man in the world, or close to it, he profited from his father’s creation, Hughes Tool, and spun that into many other successful businesses. He was a record-setting aviator, the founder of Hughes Aircraft and later the primary owner of TWA, Trans World Airlines. Hughes produced movies and purchased RKO studios, as well as becoming a significant philanthropist. Eccentric, Hughes’ became increasingly psychologically disturbed after several aircraft crashes. His latter years were spent in self-imposed hermit-like isolation, afraid of human contact.

Longworth is a writer, scholar, and the creator/host of You Must Remember This, a popular podcast about early Hollywood. In Seduction, she is interested in “what it was like to be a woman in Hollywood during what historians call the Classical Hollywood Era – roughly the mid-1920s through the end of the 1950s, the exact period Hughes was active in Hollywood.” After a brief marriage, Hughes’ relationships with women were all products of Hollywood, begging the question whether his was really keen on making movies or in finding attractive women. The answer is “both.” Seduction a multi-person biography and a study of Hollywood exploitation and power.

Many of the women linked with Hughes were supremely talented and famous. Billie Dove, Jean Harlow, Ida Lupino, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Russell, Ava Gardner, Faith Domergue, Jean Peters and Terry Monroe all figure prominently in the book. Not all these women were in serious relationships with Hughes, though he seemed to have pressed for sex and promised marriage to nearly all. There were many other stars, too, that may or have not been in a relationship with Hughes, from Marlene Dietrich to Joan Fontaine. Hughes could be generous, and his philanthropy to the medical research, remains important to this day. He could also be extremely difficult to those around him, especially women. Hughes lied consistently and constantly. It was a function of his interpersonal behavior. He did all that he could to control many of the women in the book, from promises and bankrolling projects (or not), to hiring detectives to spy on them. Some of the relationships ended well. Others did not. After he hit Ava Gardner, she beat Hughes with a bronze bell and then a chair, splitting his forehead and knocking teeth loose. Violence like that was “fixed” by Hughes’ wealth and the culture and practice of Hollywood.

It is difficult to determine how many stars, starlets and aspiring actresses’ careers were derailed by Hughes. He certainly helped some, though there were many others who fell into semi-professional purgatory, hoping for a break that Hughes would never provide. While Howard Hughes was not alone in this kind of power game, he seems to have done it at scale for decades.

Longworth treats her women subjects as fully formed individuals, with hopes, histories and challenges. She humanizes the stars, making sure that we have an appreciation for where they had agency and where they did not. Longworth is also a film critic. Her accounts of the key films referenced in the book are very well done, giving well-known movie classics a different critical review.

Making judgements about the behavior of an historical figure is almost always fraught. Humans are complicated creatures, mixtures of conflicting impulses and characteristics that rarely add up. Moreover, our behavior is greatly determined by our circumstances. All that said, despite his many accomplishments, it is impossible to read Seduction and come away with a positive feeling about Howard Hughes. He was a damaged person, and as a colleague once reminded me, “hurt people hurt people.” Hughes hurt many of those around him. The glowing press, the womanizing, the parties and excess were products of a media machine. Longworth’s research reveals a wealthy many doing what he could when he could with little consideration for others – especially women. Take a close look at this “playboy” and it’s clear that there was very little play and a definite absence of good cheer, care or love.

Seduction is valuable contribution and corrective to our understanding of the “golden” years of Hollywood and Howard Hughes.

David Potash

Coffeeland: What’s In Your Cup Of Java?

Augustine Sedgewick is an innovative thinker, a scholar with strong research skills and the ability to tell a story with big ideas. An historian who teaches at the City University of New York, Sedgewick’s award-winning book Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug is a provocative, complex and fascinating work. It is accessible history, to be sure, and it offers more.

The book’s subtitle is “One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug.” It opens with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the inter-connectedness of the global supply chain, a tip off that this is no traditional popular history of a commodity. Sedgewick’s topic is coffee and its impact reshaping the economy, politics and social life of El Salvador. He provides a grounding in El Salvador’s history through the 1800s. The country became independent from Spain in 1821 and for centuries was a relatively quiet place, dependent upon subsistence farmers and rich natural resources. The “story” of coffee’s transformation of El Salvador begins in earnest in 1889, with the arrival of James Hill, an ambitious young Scot with tremendous business skills.

Over the decades Hill builds a coffee empire, plot by plot. Sedgewick steers us through the emergence of coffee as a popular drink, its proponents across the globe, and international forces that shaped its growing popularity. A cheap and tasty drink, it steadily replaced tea through the industrializing world of the nineteenth century. South American, Latin America, and Africa were all sources of coffee beans. How the business organized itself, adopted new technologies and developed new markets, is extremely interesting, akin to the ways that other major commodities transformed the planet. Think, for instance, of the world’s reliance on sugar or corn. These things do not happen organically or automatically; they are the outcome of many choices and actions.

Hill’s skill and business acumen led to greater production and a realignment of the coffee business, moving away from beans chosen by appearance and instead by taste. The El Salvadorean beans were not as attractive as those from Brazil, but they tasted better. Hill was a leader in the packing of coffee beans as well as securing the market on the west coast of America. It’s not part of Sedgewick’s history, but I now understand better why coffee is so important to shipping cities such as San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Ships plied the west coast of the Americas.

Coffeeland’s scope, though, is much greater than a commodity specific study. As Hill’s empire expanded, along with those of other major coffee producers, so, too, did colonial policies and concerns. The Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s lowered coffee prices, leading to deep hardship in El Salvador. A coup in 1931, led by the armed forces, removed the left leaning elected president and put in place a military president. These changes were actively resisted by many, especially the communist party, which had a strong following among many of the poorer indigenous people. An armed revolt in the west of the country, called The Matanza, was a short-lived success and was brutally repressed by the military government. 10,000 to 40,000 people were murdered, many from the Pipil, an indigenous community. Sedgewick tells this history well, making sure that the reader appreciates the threads of power and influence that set in movement these horrific acts of violence. It took until 2010 for the El Salvadorean government to issue an apology for the genocidal violence. Coffee production, though, continued after the uprising and it remains central to El Salvador’s economy and way of life.

The latter part of Coffeeland is an exploration of the many ways that the history of coffee production and exploitation affected various individuals. Jaime Hill, a descendant of the original Hill, was kidnapped and released in the 1970s. He eventually redirected his life toward social justice. Sedgewick raises important questions about the real meaning of “fair trade” and “certified ethical” coffees. These may ease the feelings of concerned coffee drinkers, but on the plantations and farms, many of the workers struggle to have enough to eat.

Coffeeland is informative history that underscores the connection between everyday commodities and the world, while raising knotty ethical questions about global capitalism. Sedgewick does all this while keeping the reader engaged in a very interesting history. Coffeeland is a very good book.

David Potash

120 Years On – Still Gripping!

Widely considered one of the best spy novels of all time, The Riddle of the Sands remains a riveting read. I had difficulty putting it down. The book really engaged me in unexpected ways.

Penned in 1903 by Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands was very popular in England before World War I. It became an international best seller and was read, too, by government officials. Some credit it with changing military strategy. The novel has remained a staple in the genre and has been made into movies and television.

The Riddle of the Sands was new to me. There are more than a few forgotten classics out there. Search those used book stores!

The story is told in the first person by a minor official in England’s foreign service office, their state department. An old friend, more acquaintance than confidant, contacts him about some duck hunting in the Baltic. Who would say no to a yachting holiday? However, it was no pleasure cruise. As truths unfold, we’re led into a complicated game of exploration, discovery and espionage. The characters are expertly drawn and there is anticipation as we all try to figure out what is and is not going on.

What sets the book apart is that it is extraordinarily grounded in detail, from the particulars of the ships to the description of places. I opened up my laptop several times to look up nautical terms and to map the action. While a work of fiction, there is nothing fantastical about it. It is still easy to trace what happens where. In all candor, though, I would need to spend significant time on a sailing ship to understand the sailing with the same degree of authenticity.

The author, Childers, is worthy of historical investigation and contemplation in his own right. A writer, soldier, explorer and lawyer, he led an extraordinary life of adventure, from work in Parliament to military service and honors. He sailed the Baltic several times. The novel was based, in part, on his direct experiences. Childers support of the British empire, strong in his early years, waned as he became an ever greater proponent of Irish nationalism. That led to his involvement in the Irish revolution and his execution. It was a hasty, brutish affair yet Childers, ever with presence, shook the hands of all of his executioners. Childers’ son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, would grow and later become president of Ireland.

Who could make this up? I certainly lack the imagination, so instead, I heartily recommend The Riddle of the Sands, a century plus page-turner.

David Potash

King Does MacDonald – and More

Just like millions of other readers, I greatly enjoy curling up with Stephen King’s writing. While King may not always receive the critical accolades, many in the know appreciate his creativity, his skill and his extraordinary ability to tell fascinating stories. From what I’ve seen, other writers tend to appreciate King more than literary critics. In turn, I’ve read King writing about the many writers he admires. High on his list is John D. MacDonald. MacDonald wrote many different genres, but perhaps is best known for his Travis McGee mysteries, all of which are set in Florida. Count me as a fan.

Thoughts of McGee haunted my reading of Stephen King’s 2008 novel, Duma Key. A national best seller, Duma Key has sold untold copies and has been optioned for a move (though not yet made). It’s an extremely well-known book. I don’t know why it took so long for me to pick it up. Perhaps it is the 600 plus pages? It’s a very heavy tome to carry around?

There’s no real need to to review or report in general about the book. The plot is easy enough to find and King’s writing is solid, throughout. Perhaps it is not his most interesting or important work (who has read them all?), but Duma Key nevertheless resonated with me for two key reasons.

First, the main character in the novel is recovering from a life-threatening accident, having nearly died in a vehicular crash. Our hero lost his arm and is in pain throughout the book. The physical condition of our protagonist, his aches, pains and limitations, shape the narrative. In 1999, King was hit by car while walking on the side of a highway. He, too, nearly died. It wasn’t difficult to see King’s perspective and thoughts in Duma’s hero.

Second, while there is but one direct reference to MacDonald in the novel, his prose, his characters, and his asides are woven throughout Duma. This was the first of King’s books to be set in Florida. It also has the kind of semi-cynical asides and observations that are reminiscent of Travis McGee. I wondered: if John D. MacDonald were to try to write a Stephen King story, would it be like Duma Key? My sense is “yes.”

Duma borrows both King’s personal history and King’s admiration of John D. MacDonald. For these reasons – above and beyond the usual good horror writing from Stephen King – are more than enough to warrant picking up Duma Key. That is, of course, if you haven’t already read it.

And if you’re at it, don’t forget read some Travis McGee.

David Potash

Writing and Laughing Through Tears

Hannah Pittard is a novelist, a successful writer, and a teacher at the University of Kentucky. She also knows, firsthand, hardship and heartbreak. Her marriage dissolved when her husband had an affair with the woman Pittard thought was her best friend. It was a double betrayal of epic proportions.

How does one make sense of the dissolution of a marriage? How can we take the all too common problems of a couple and render it into something special? Pittard takes that task to heart in We Are Too Many: A Memoir [Kind Of]. It is her story and also the stories of her ex-husband and ex-friend. Yet is it not non-fiction and it does not attempt to tell universal truths. The book works to imagine the friendships, the relationships, and the actions and the betrayals from multiple perspectives. She imagines her friend and ex, she questions her own narrative and understanding – and she does it in a pseudo-factual manner. The prose is akin to reporting. The result is an intrusive, somewhat uncomfortable look at lies, love, and relationships – friendships and marriage.

One observation, too, that rings true from Pittard’s closely watched observations. If her semi-reporting is close to what happened and what was said, then the novel makes a strong case for reminding all to think through the things that we do and say after drinking too much. The scenes at bars and restaurants, the times when the characters have tippled, have a painful awkwardness to them that hurts while ringing true.

It is also clear – at least from my perspective – that as painful as the experience may have been, Pittard is going to be OK. She is no romantic heroine, destined for weeping and isolation. A strong and insightful woman, she is processing and working things through. I admire her for putting this book together.

We Are Too Many is an intriguing read. I laughed, at times, but more often there was a sense of inevitability to it. We know – from the start – how things do not work out. That is not tragedy, but instead something more real, more everyday, and certain something familiar. Relationships can be painful and messy things.

David Potash

Cadillac Desert

Non-fiction that makes you think is rare. Rarer still is a work non-fiction with legs that makes you think, decades after it was written. Marc Reisner’s 1986 environmental classic, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water is one of those exceptional works. Updated in 1993 and recently re-issued, it’s a massive tome, chock-filled with history, passion and a powerfully unique perspective on American history and development. Reisner writes with rage and urgency. While some things are very different in 2023 than they were in 1986, many of the same issues remain, shaped by the same history and forces. It remains an important and relevant book.

Reisner’s big picture approach starts with a fundamental fact that many Americans have ignored for decades: much of the western half of the United States has little rainfall and water. “Desert, semidesert, call it what you will,” Reisner stresses, the vast majority of the American west will never be changed simply because of limited water. Where there has been development – in Los Angeles, in Las Vegas, in the Imperial Valley – it has happened because of massive human effort. Each of these initiatives, many implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, came with tremendous costs – and not just dollars. In fact, that is one of Cadillac Deserts big takeaways: the distribution of water in the American west has been about money and power, not conservation, common sense, or sound engineering. The book may be about the environment, but it’s even more about politics. He quite carefully chose the title of Chapter One: “A Country of Illusion.”

Some of the chapters in Cadillac Desert talk with each other, reinforcing a larger story. Others, though, stand on their own. These are set pieces, history framed with an angle. Reisner writes beautifully throughout, well-researched but miles away from pedantic. The chapter on the creation (or theft, depending upon your point of view) of Los Angeles’s water supply is a gem. Reisner highlights the deals, the contingencies and the ambition (naked and clothed) necessary to develop the city’s infrastructure. The book’s larger thread, a critical look at the Bureau of Reclamation, emerges in Chapter Three and again later. I had no idea of the tremendous push to build dams. It was extraordinary. The complicated history of the Colorado River is the backbone of one chapter, but it is a history that emerges again and again. The power and influence of the Army Corps on Engineers emerges in the work’s latter half. Founded during the Revolutionary War, the Army Corps’ impact on the west truly took off after World War II. They all wanted to build dams – for power, for irrigation, and for political capital. The eventual impact reshaped economics in the west, heavily subsidizing larger entities and reshaping politics. Larger than life characters drive the action. Floyd Dominy, for example, headed the Bureau of Reclamation, was a notorious womanizer and power broker. His leadership was essential in the decision to construct the Glen Canyon Dam and its progeny, Lake Powell, one of the largest man-made reservoirs on the planet when there’s consistent precipitation.

Digesting all of Cadillac Desert took time to process and think through. More than once, while going through a chapter, I reached for the laptop to gain a broader context on the issue at hand. Reisner’s history is far from dry. He has arguments to make, and while they sharpen the prose, they also raise questions and heighten curiosity. This is a book that will make you reconsider traditional history of American expansion and development in the west.

David Potash

Pulling The Climate Thread

Most Americans are concerned about changes to the climate. The percentage of folks paying attention has been steadily climbing over the decades, in sync with rises in temperatures and episodes of extreme weather. So we now know more. But what can one individual do? Is it possible to be an informed “green” consumer, to live an ethical life that does not unduly contribute to climate change?

It’s an extraordinarily difficult question to answer as I learned in Tatiana Schlossberg‘s engaging book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have. Schlossberg is a science journalist who writes for the mainstream press and did a stint as an environmental reporter for the New York Times. Her first book, Inconspicuous Consumption is a rambling effort that nevertheless finds a way to strike home. It won awards and for good reasons. Schlossberg loves details and her cheerful curiosity that loves to dig deeper renders her a complete guide to gaining an appreciation of the complexity of modern life and its impact on the environment. She aims to inform and to do so in a way that does not overwhelm – all the while making sure that the reader appreciates the absence of easy solutions. That is a difficult and impressive line to walk.

The book is organized into four sections: Technology and the Internet; Food; Fashion, and Fuel. For each, Schlossberg writes in the first person, sometimes intimately, about her questions and the difficulty in untangling environmental issues from those of economics, culture, politics, business, history, and much more. The internet, as an example, can be an extraordinarily inefficient consumer of energy. Schlossberg provides some history (power lines following telegraph lines, which in turn were strung to follow the railroads) as well as laws, policies and economics that create our current state of affairs. That’s just the internet as a physical thing. Schlossberg moves beyond direct costs to explore internet consumption and delivery. This relative new way of shopping has led to all manner of changes – in business, in supply, in patterns of consumption. The number and cost of consumers returning goods has soared. Consumption extends to viewing, too, and I learned that Netflix accounts for 15% of all internet bandwidth.

Schlossberg researches “common sense” rules as well. For example, when it comes to food, buying local does not necessarily reduce the carbon footprint. Some foods are more “green” when they are single source and shipped large distances. Polyester and cotton are both made with significant back end energy costs. Pick the subject and Schlossberg effectively problematizes it, highlighting the deep interconnectedness and complexity of the modern economy.

While all that may feel overwhelming, a difficulty Schlossberg acknowledges up front, she also works to humanize her quest for better understanding. This is a book with many asides and direct appeals, from writer to reader. If she is stumped, she tells us – just as she lets us know when facts depress or intrigue her. There’s a cheerfulness to her account that is sometimes in conflict with the information she imparts. More than anything else, Schlossberg wants us to comprehend that climate change is about everything we do as humans. If we grasp this, we will be much farther along in talking about it, appreciate it, and be willing to look for answers about how to lead a more just life.

An ambitious agenda – and well worth considering.

David Potash

Native American Horror

Stephen Graham JonesThe Only Good Indians is a terrific horror novel. It is also a very good novel, a work of fiction that need not be pigeonholed into a genre.

Jones is a prolific and successful writer who has published a great deal, from experimental fiction to comic books. A member of the Blackfeet Nation, Jones has garnered many awards. He’s also an accomplished academic, with a PhD in English from Florida State University. Jones holds the Ivena Baldwin chair of English and the University of Colorado Boulder.

The Only Good Indians is a character study, an exploration of tradition and non-tradition, and a tale of violence and revenge. There’s quite a bit of gore, and some of it is staged in ways that are indelible. Jones, though, writes about more than horror and it’s clear that he has more on his mind than scaring the reader.

At the book’s core is a tale of four men, Blackfeet, who hunt elk on land that was prohibited. The four kill a pregnant elk, compounding their crime, and the costs of that hunt haunt the four. Over time, something else – an Elk Woman spirit – actually does haunt the men and their families. Like a fairy tale, when there is a transgression, consequences are inevitable.

Jones’ mixture of the spiritual and fantastic with the day-to-day specifics of everyday life is outstanding. He brings authentic voice to the task. No native American copy of Stephen King, the book plays with narration, with language and perspective. It’s darkly funny, too. The characters are distinct, carefully drawn, and complex. There’s a sense of place and culture throughout that rings as true.

A difficult novel to put down, The Only Good Indians is an outstanding read, one that will stay with you for a long time.

David Potash