Category Archives: Recommendations

“Herbert Hoover”, by William Leuchtenburg, 2009

Herbert Hoover may not be the worst US president in history, but he’s among the worst.  His actions following the stock market crash of 1929 exacerbated the Great Depression and greatly increased the suffering of the American people during the early 1930’s.  In 2007 he was ranked as the worst president of the 20th century by an International Relations faculty group on the basis of foreign affairs, especially in Asia, where he “failed to draw the line at Manchuria (against the Japanese invasion in 1931) and gave a green light to Tokyo, Berlin, and Rome.”
He was largely misunderstood in his own time regarding his political philosophy due to his apparent reversals of opinion and his lack of openness.  For example, early in his career he made a fortune operating a mine, ruthlessly exploiting miners with oppressive working conditions and low pay;  a few years later in another job he championed the cause of labor for better pay, benefits, and working conditions.  In another example, during World War I he oversaw a relief effort raising money, buying, and distributing food to millions of hungry people in Europe; yet during the Great Depression he refused to give any aid to the millions of unemployed and hungry Americans on the grounds that it would “lead to the debauchery of the poor.”  Before his first presidential election in 1928, many liberals expected him to be progressive based on his humanitarian efforts.   He was widely thought to be the most capable person around for accomplishing difficult large-scale tasks and taking the country in the right direction.  He won by a huge landslide and after the first few weeks in office he demonstrated dismal political ineptitude.  Even before the stock market crash in October of his first year in office, he alienated the Republican (his party) led congress and failed to pass nearly all his initiatives.  Most historians believe that even without the market crash, he still would have been an unsuccessful president.  By the time he campaigned for a second term in 1932, he was so despised by nearly all Americans that he was booed at his speeches, his campaign train was pelted with tomatoes, and before making a speech at Stanford University, his alma mater, he was handed a telegram that said “Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous!”  After his presidency he remained a bitter critic of FDR and stayed on the sidelines until President Truman offered him a position helping ease the hunger crisis in Europe after World War II.  Even Truman said Hoover’s politics were somewhere to the right of Louis XIV.  He met with Hitler and Goering in 1938 (as a private citizen), and came away with the opinion that the Nazis could improve the government of Czechoslovakia, and that the devouring of Austria by the Nazis was not a problem.

William Leuchtenburg illuminates the details of Herbert Hoover’s life and character providing insight into this enigmatic president with this compact biography.  Hoover had a strict religious Quaker upbringing and became an orphan at a young age.  He was extremely hardworking and enterprising.  He saw and heard only what conformed to his preconceived ideas and made up facts when evidence refuted him.  He demanded complete control in his projects and became enraged with anyone who challenged him, and he often resorted to deceptive or illegal tactics to accomplish his goals.

The entire time period of Hoover’s career including before and after his Presidency had several crises that were critical to America.  Two World Wars, economic “panics”, the 1929 stock market crash, and the ensuing Great Depression, were all crucial pivot points in US and world history.  Other large developments such as the Spanish-American War, women’s suffrage, prohibition, Jim Crow laws, the urbanization of America, and rapid technology advancements add to the historical significance of the times.  William Leuchtenburg’s biography of Herbert Hoover combines the happenings of the day with the personal story of Hoover to bring alive the era in a compelling story.  William Leuchtenburg is a professor emeritus of history at University of North Carolina and the author of more than a dozen books on 20th century history.  This one is his contribution to The American Presidents Series from Times Books.

Here is a video with footage of Hoover and the Great Depression from a source unrelated to the book:

 

William Sargeant

“A Walk In The Woods” by Bill Bryson, 1998

DCF 1.0In this autobiographical book Bill Bryson chronicles his hikes on the Appalachian Trail with Katz, a friend he hasn’t seen in twenty years.  The two of them start off in Georgia with a goal of hiking 2,200 miles to the other end of the trail in Maine.  It combines adventure and humor with digressions into history, ecology, botany, zoology, and geology.  The characters Bill and Katz, along with the people they meet on the trail are fully fleshed out and vividly presented.  Some life lessons are gained from the trail and at the end of the hike Bill and Katz are in a different place metaphorically as well as physically.  The movie, coming out in days, makes some changes in the story.  For one, in the book Bill and Katz are in their 40’s, and in the movie they’re an improbable 70 something. The trailer for the movie contains a lot of broad humor which is quite a bit different from the wittiness of the book.  Having hiked sections of the trail myself, I was attracted to the book.  It was captivating from the first page.  Although the book is written primarily to entertain, it’s not without meaningful themes and interesting information.

William Sargeant

“An Attar of Roses” by Jane Eschrich, 2014

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This novel explores the hazards for the protagonist/narrator, Geneva, in allowing romantic longings towards an unavailable person to carry her away from her better judgement.   This all-too-common trap for human beings, and frequent theme in literature, comes to life here in yet another rendering with an uncommon twist at the end. The particulars in this story involve Geneva Aberdeen, a music history graduate, who works in an Indian catering kitchen and dates Mark Bergstrom, an intellectual nursery owner in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.  Although compatible in many ways, their lukewarm romance can’t seem to develop sufficient emotional depth for marriage.  A re-emergence of a youthful crush from college, Dr. Nikolaus Gaetjens, causes Geneva’s previous obsessive passion for him to awaken.  One major obstacle is that Nikolaus is married and has a child.  Additionally, his feelings for Geneva are expressed with such vagueness and subtlety that she can’t be sure how much of what she infers is really just her wishful thinking.  A parallel thread in the story is the examination of the love theme in the works of the Russian novelist,  Ivan Turgenev.  A literary club, “Fortnight”, led by Mark and attended by Geneva, holds a series of lectures given by Mark which focus on Turgenev and the romantic complications of his characters which coincidently mirror that of Geneva, Mark, and Nikolaus.  As Mark and Geneva’s relationship stalls out, a trip to Montreal for a music history conference brings Geneva and Nikolaus together in a climax and resolution of the main theme.

Unlike many modern novels rife with “F-bombs” and other earthly colloquialisms, Ms. Eschrich has chosen a quaint and formal narrative tone of writing that is more akin to the vocabulary and phrasing of Jane Austen, etc.   I enjoyed the delicate beauty of this elevated and stylized language and the nuances it conveys.  It also casts an appropriately introspective mood and suggests to me a psychological dislocation of the three main characters away from modern American popular culture and into the historical periods they have spent their lives studying and teaching.  The following example is representative of the language employed:

“The discovery that I had not yet cast aside the unformed ardor of my youth was greeted with sadness as well as dismay, and I was astounded to perceive that the mere image of Nikolaus Gaetjens, no doubt ennobled in my mind over the years, was enough to elicit an emotional response not at all sensible.”

Much of the story takes place in the Indian food establishment where Geneva works as a prep cook, with the lives of the owners, the Joshi family, providing a contrast in values and lifestyle.  Where Geneva has become preoccupied with romantic love and attaining an all but unattainable partner, the Joshi’s have come together through an arranged marriage with little or no romance and focus instead on running a business and raising children.  Geneva occupies a psychological space of times and cultures outside her own late 20th century American milieu whereas the Joshi’s are firmly ensconced in their own culture and remain within its enclave, albeit as immigrants to America.  The Joshi’s are practical and Geneva is an idealist.  Between the two worlds is Dorothy, an Indian immigrant and Geneva’s best friend. Through Dorothy, the first allusion to the title’s metaphor “attar of roses” appears as a gift from her to Mrs. Joshi.  At the end of the story the metaphor returns as a catalyst for Geneva’s epiphany.

Throughout the book an impressive amount of research is apparent ranging in subject matter from Turgenev, Indian cuisine and culture, botany, Renaissance music, and the colonial Potomac region.  Some of my most educational reading is through fiction and this book serves amply with knowledge to that ends.

In full disclosure, the author is a personal friend of mine and although I have attempted to present her book on its own merits, my reading experience was influenced by knowing her and seeing some of the influences from her personal life filter into the story.  I am also well acquainted with the D.C. metro area, having spent several years there, so both means of familiarity have enhanced my reading of “An Attar of Roses”.

Bill Sargeant

“Galileo’s Middle Finger, Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science” by Alice Dreger, 2015

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This non-fictional work revolves around the theme of scientists reporting facts and being persecuted for it by religious authorities, other scientists, activists, and organizations who feel threatened by the truth or who have a vested interest in the perpetuation of non-truth.  The book starts off with Galileo and his cohorts, such as Versalius, Copernicus, and Bruno (burned at the stake for heresy) who challenged the dogma of the Catholic church with ideas born of keen observation and logical reasoning thus making new discoveries and ushering in the beginning of the scientific revolution.  Galileo’s middle finger, which he once pointed up at the heavens, is now mummified and on display in the Uffizi museum in Florence, Italy. Flashing forward to modern times, Alice Dreger picks up the narrative with several examples of contemporary push-back against scientific facts which ruined careers of researchers, obfuscated the truth, and in some cases, perpetuated harmful medical practices. Each of the these instances is told in thorough detail beginning with the author’s involvement in reporting on the medical establishment’s surgical modification of babies who are born with sexually ambiguous anatomies.  This long- standing practice to make intersex babies conform to traditional male or female anatomies frequently bears a psychological cost to the patient and is often done without their parents’ consent or knowledge. The author and her colleagues had considerable opposition to their research.  The next story is related and concerns research and theories by a psychologist, Michael Bailey about transexuals.  His book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transexualism” painted a more complicated picture of the topic than the transgender activists felt would be helpful to them in their pursuit of acceptance in society.  As a result, Bailey became a target of the activists and a campaign was mounted to slander him and his family and put him out of business.  Ironically, Bailey was an advocate for transgender people and his research was scientifically valid.  Another story involves anthropologist, Nap Changnon, who lived with and studied the Yanomano tribe in Venezuela.  Due to his coarse personality and some politically unpopular, albeit factual findings his study revealed about the Yanomano, he became a target for criticism and defamation.  Another anthropologist wrote a takedown book about him which was later proved to be all fabrication.  The American Anthropological Association failed to clear up the issue due to politics and Bailey was ruined.  The last story involves a pediatric endocrinologist who became entrenched in a harmful and scientifically unfounded practise of giving pregnant women who are genetic carriers of an intersex condition called CAH (congenital adrenal hyperplasia) the synthetic steroid, dexamethasone.  In spite of no proven benefits and considerable risks to the patients this doctor is unfortunately continuing this practice while misleading the mothers and others as to the risks. The doctor, Maria New, has managed to outmaneuver her critics who are trying to bring the facts out, and she continues to get grant money from the NIH to administer this disproven, deleterious drug therapy.

Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and has written a previous book on the related topic of hermaphrodites.  Her book left me with several ideas to keep in mind, such as: truth tellers and whistleblowers in science are not necessarily going to win with valid facts if they challenge the interests of politically dominant people and organizations.   Another being, as Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, puts it; “in activism as in war, truth is the first casualty”.  For this reason, narratives of movements, organizations, or individuals, even from causes that we feel aligned to, need to be examined on a point-by-point basis for accuracy, and that no amount of credentials or prestige makes institutions and individuals invulnerable to intellectual corruption.

“Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime-From Global Epidemic to Your Front Door” by Brian Krebs, 2014

DCF 1.0“Spam Nation”  is an account of the various internet scams and the story behind the major players in this mostly Russian based crime arena. The time period Brian Krebs covers is from the late nineties through the first half of 2014.  At the end of the book is a summary of the state of internet crime in 2014 and steps that individuals can take to mitigate theirs risks of becoming victims. The types of scams he goes into include: spam, internet pharmacies, scareware (bogus threats pretending to be from law enforcement to intimidate users into paying ransom to get their computers unlocked), fake anti-malware (intended to bait users into downloading and thereby introducing a virus into their system that can take over their machine), identity and password theft.  He doesn’t include hacking by governments and hacking aimed at corporations.

Several interesting points came up as I was reading this.  The first is that so much, perhaps most of the cybercrime is based in Russia and some of the former Soviet countries like Belarus and the Ukraine. There are historical reasons he gives for this.  Another interesting point is the subject of “Botnets” and how individual computers can be subverted to spam other machines without the owner even realizing it.  Armies of these machines are commandeered and sold in the underground market for perpetrating attacks and other nefarious purposes. The most interesting section of the book to me was about internet pharmacies.  Many of these sites pose as “Canadian pharmacies” and are actually based in Russia and source their drugs anywhere in the world they can find the cheapest price at that given moment.  One impediment to stopping them has been that the pharmaceutical industry and the US government have resisted having samples analyzed because  99.9% of the time they are chemically identical to the medications that we pay so much for in the US.  The problem for customers is that using them for long periods of time increases the chance of getting a bad drug.  Some customers have purchased drugs with lead or uranium in them, for example, and suffered severe consequences.  Also interesting to note is that in Europe and other countries where medications aren’t as expensive or are covered, the greater number of sales tend to be for recreational purposes such as opioid pain killers and Viagra.  In the US where legitimate medications are unaffordable for many people, the greatest sales are for drugs to treat serious illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.  There are a few licensed pharmacies online, but they are vastly outnumbered by the fraudulent ones.  It is illegal for Americans to have drugs shipped to the US from foreign sources even if purchased through a licensed foreign pharmacy with a prescription.

Brian Krebs is an investigative journalist specializing in internet security.  His research for this book even included going to Russia and meeting with some of the cybercriminals in person (at some risk to himself).  The subject of cybercrime and cybersecurity is a rapidly evolving one and Brian Krebs maintains a website for the latest information; at http://krebsonsecurity.com/.  He also does frequent speaking and media appearances.  A final thought occurred to me while reading this book: how could so many revelations about cybercrime be uncovered by an individual reporter while eluding so many government agencies and internet corporations who have a stake in security?

“Gray Mountain” by John Grisham, 2014

“Gray Mountain”,  is the latest offering by John Grisham, and number one on the New York Times bestsellers list,DCF 1.0 at the time of this writing.  As almost all of his other novels, this is a story of injustice, and a legal system that’s unable to rectify it.  The main character, Samantha, a young lawyer, is furloughed by her Wall Street law firm in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008.  She reluctantly takes an unpaid internship at a legal clinic in rural Appalachia.  Here, instead of 80 hours a week of reading and writing contracts, she is providing free legal assistance to poor people who are victims of the coal industry and seeing how her efforts can impact individual lives for the better .  Reluctantly, she takes a central role in fighting the coal companies’ illegal practices in strip mining and disregard for worker safety.  There is transformation of the main character and the broad view of how the legal system is manipulated by corporations to allow them to pursue their destruction of the environment and communities in the coal mining areas of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.  John Grisham’s background as a lawyer allows him to write legal stories with authenticity and accuracy in regards to the process of law.

I found the book exciting and greatly entertaining.  It was a quick and easy read and illuminating in the area of strip mining and its costs to the environment and people in Appalachia.  John Grisham has, once again, created a more just world in his story than the real world legal system can render.  In the back of the book he lists some of the real world champions of this struggle.

“Dataclysm, Who We Are When no one is looking”, by Christian Rudder

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“Dataclysm” by Christian Rudder in 2014, describes the recent and still emerging ability to analyze the human psyche  with data gleaned from the internet.   This method solves a number of problems researchers have had previously.  One being the lack of accuracy when asking people directly about personal attitudes and preferences, since people are usually less than totally candid about their true feelings.  Another being the greater number and variety of cohorts to coalesce data from.  This is especially true when studying subjects from narrow demographics who are not otherwise practical to gather in large numbers for traditional polling.  So for example, rather than asking college volunteers (because their the most available subjects in universities where such studies are done) questions about sexuality, or attitudes toward races, politics, or other personal inclinations and getting answers shaded by how the subjects want to appear, researchers can comb through data online and get more accurate answers by analyzing the data.   Christian Rudder is a statistician as well as one of the founders of “OKCupid”, an online dating site.  He gives numerous examples of questions that can now be answered more accurately.  One example is measuring the percentage of same-sex attracted men in the population.  One of his methods was to look at the number of searches for gay pornography in different parts of the country.  He found that it is relatively the same everywhere, in contrast to the number of self identified gay men which was lower in conservative areas.   Another example is the attitude of whites towards blacks.  When asked directly it is very difficult to find racist attitudes because people want to answer in politically correct terms.  However, when looking at the google searches for “n*gg**” around events as Obama’s first election, there are huge spikes indicating an underlying sentiment. The book contains a lot of graphs and statistics.  There are lots of specific examples to flesh out the general point that data from the internet offers social scientists a new way of getting a clear accurate answer to questions that couldn’t be done with prior methods.