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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

This is one of those books that give popular nonfiction a bad name. Which is unfortunate, because what could be better than books that both educate and entertain? But Outliers embodies everything that people who sneer at the genre are talking about: its conclusions are both obvious and simplistic, its writing persuasive but glib. It’s easy to see why Gladwell is a popular author: he’s a good storyteller, his writing accessible and entertaining. But this book is so riddled with oversimplified conclusions and strange contradictions that it should be read for entertainment, perhaps for gaining a little bit of knowledge on a few very specific subjects, but not to be taken too seriously.

Gladwell wants to examine why some people are wildly successful, and his basic thesis is pretty obvious: the most successful people benefit from advantages beyond their own talent. The first half of the book sticks mostly to this point, examining the advantages wildly successful people have had: much of it boils down to opportunities to hone their skills, though timing is also important. People who come of age in a favorable economy do better in their careers (no surprise there), while for skills where children are sorted into the gifted and the not at a young age, then given different levels of training, being born shortly after the cutoff date (and thus several months older than most of the competitors) confers a major advantage. The discussion of the effect of cutoff dates on hockey players (who are sorted at age 9 or 10) and on academics (with “gifted” classes often beginning in elementary school) is perhaps the best portion of the book, though Gladwell neglects to consider the psychological impacts of being classified gifted or not at a young age; it seems to me that even if kids aren’t separated out young, knowing you’re ahead of or behind your peers would affect your confidence.

The book takes an abrupt turn in the second half, to talk about cultural legacies: for instance, feuds used to be common in Appalachia due to an “honor culture,” while planes piloted by people from cultures with a high level of deference for authority used to crash more often, until people finally figured this out and started training flight crews to speak up when they saw danger. Interesting stuff, but only sort of related to the first half. Gladwell talks a lot about his theory that Asians are better at math because their ancestors farmed rice paddies, which is really hard work, and gave birth to a culture that values hard work. There may be something to this, but I suspect it’s a lot more complicated than that; check out Little Soldiers for an in-depth comparison between the Chinese and American school systems. The most startling thing about all this, though, is that Gladwell never asks why, if Asian cultures are so much better at hard work, and hard work is what leads to great success, why are all of his “outliers” Americans or Brits and not Chinese or Japanese? Why wasn’t the Internet invented in China, if Chinese rice-paddy culture is so perfect for math skills?

And the book is this way throughout, its analysis incomplete (and its outliers all white men). Gladwell coins the idea of the “10,000-hour rule” here – the notion that to become great at something, you have to practice for this magical number of hours. (He actually refers to this number as “magic” multiple times, despite the fact that the authors of the key study he relied on disagree with his analysis, pointing out that 10,000 hours was the average amount of practice put in by the best students at an elite music school, not a magic threshold between average and world-class. Gladwell, not the scientists, coined the idea of a 10,000-hour rule.) He talks at length about a study of violinists showing an apparently direct, linear correlation between hours practiced and skill, but that’s only one very specific talent (and those best violin students were merely expected to succeed, not yet embarked on their careers). Anyone who’s ever attended school knows that some people are just better at certain skills than others of similar backgrounds, even if nobody practices beyond their homework. And even Gladwell doesn’t quite seem to take his idea, that the number of hours practiced is all that matters, seriously. Within the same chapter he says, of the Beatles, “Lennon and McCartney had a musical gift of the sort that comes along once in a generation.” Wait, what? I thought this was a chapter about how it’s all about hours of practice, in a book that’s all about how the world is full of people whose talents are never realized because they didn’t get that lucky break. Huh.

There’s plenty of other intellectual shortcuts too. Gladwell says a couple of times that hockey players born in the latter half of the year “might as well not show up for tryouts at all” when they make up 30% of the teams – too low, obviously, but this hardly spells doom for the most talented. He conflates families who teach their kids how to work with the system and navigate institutions (as opposed to poorer families, which tend to impart the idea that the world happens to you and authority is always an antagonist) with families who hyper-schedule their kids, and then suggests that a hyper-scheduled childhood leads to success, despite the fact that this is a very recent phenomenon and generations of successful people have managed to do without it. (Current research even suggests that unstructured time is crucial for developing creativity and independence.) It’s clear why he makes this mistake, since hyper-scheduling is so common in today's middle- and upper-class families that, at least in the study he examines, it occurred in all the families who taught their kids effective self-advocacy. But these are two totally different parenting choices. He even refers a couple of times to the importance of having books in the home for children to read “if they’re bored,” a sad assumption from an author – that reading is a last-resort activity (of course, the schools and families he praises leave no time for it anyway).

I could go on, but plenty of others have reviewed this book already. Yes, the book has some interesting ideas and yes, it’s easy to read, but Gladwell is an intellectual lightweight. I wouldn’t recommend this one . . . unless, of course, you’re bored.

1491 by Charles Mann

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus - Charles C. Mann

This is an important book. The author compiles historical and archaeological research to provide a history of the Americas before (and shortly after) the arrival of Europeans. And it’s a legit history, in ways I didn’t realize were even lacking in my previous acquaintance with early American history before reading the book. Compared to most other parts of the world, we know relatively little about the early Americas, but there’s a lot more information available than is generally taught to the public, and so much of what we do know tends to be couched in these dismissive frameworks where native Americans are some sort of separate species of people, barbarians or noble savages or quasi-mythological beings, depending on your persuasion, all political structures consisting of “tribes” and their “chiefs” no matter how large the groups or sophisticated their political organization, everyone “living lightly on the land” and “in tune with nature” and so on. We know there were actual empires in Mexico and the Andes, and yet we reduce them to barbarians drinking out of skulls or performing human sacrifice (see: the worthless “documentaries,” always shot at night in red and black, that my teachers showed in middle school). We don’t stop to ask about all the trappings of civilization that empires tend to have, or that cultures tend to develop on their way to becoming empires: what sort of political and economic systems did they have? What kinds of technology and writing systems were developed? What about poetry and philosophy? Who were the leaders, innovators and thinkers, and what were their ideas?

 

Much of the achievement of this book, then, is writing a history of the Americas in the same way one writes a history of European or Asian cultures, and in fact, Mann uses numerous helpful comparisons between similar practices in different cultures, stripping away the mythology of native America that gets in the way of viewing people as people. It isn’t nearly as complete as histories about anywhere in Eurasia, and reading this book drives home the magnitude of how much history and culture has been lost, but there is a ton of information and detail here that I’d never encountered before. Some of Mann’s broad points no longer quite seem like “new revelations”: I think it’s fairly well-known among educated people at this point that the more hospitable parts of the Americas were heavily populated upon European arrival, then overwhelmingly reduced by disease. But other theses were still new to me: the extent of the land management carried out throughout North and South America, for instance, from regular burning of forests to maintain a particular ecological balance, to the Mayan engineering of potable water by paving over toxic elements in the Yucatan’s swamps with limestone, to the human-created fertile soil in the Amazon that now covers between a few thousand square miles and 10% of the basin, depending on whose estimates you believe.

 

So I found this to be a really fascinating, enlightening book, told in an engaging style, though I do have a few caveats. The book spends a lot of time on drama amongst scientists, which at first I found out of place, though by the end I realized the importance of including it: our learning about history is by no means finished, and readers who know how the sausage is made are perhaps better qualified to analyze scientific differences of opinion in the future. The book also jumps around a fair bit, organized by very broad topics and then returning to discuss the same cultures in different segments; it’s best read when you have time to engage with it and flip back to earlier sections to refresh your memory. The section on the Amazon seems less complete and persuasive than the others. And the author’s obvious desire to turn the information in this book into an ecological lesson, or some kind of rebuke to the environmental movement (hah! The Americas were never pristine after all!) seems forced and unhelpful: the fact that native Americans engaged in more active stewardship and cultivation than previously supposed doesn’t make the idea of destroying everything for temporary economic gain any better. But this is a small part of the book, perhaps tacked on because the author felt like he was supposed to impart a lesson.

 

Overall though, I think this is a fantastic book despite those few caveats, because it is so eye-opening, a great, accessible source of information that will probably be new to most of its readers, and because it represents a shift in popular thought about North and South American history. It is thorough, well-sourced and engaging, and I definitely recommend it.

The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness - Elyn R. Saks

This seems to be the schizophrenia memoir, and it comes as no surprise that it’s written by a very accomplished, successful person: going public with an account of one’s psychosis and delusions could be career-ending for many people, but when you’re a tenured professor at a prestigious law school, with a stack of degrees and publications, you can basically do what you want. Still, it’s a gutsy thing to publish.

This is a chronological account of the author’s life from childhood up to probably her 50s, though the bulk of it takes place while she’s doing her graduate and law studies, which is when the schizophrenia really sets in. Fortunately for her, she’s in England on a Marshall scholarship when she’s first hospitalized, in an environment where patients’ personhood and wishes are respected – unfortunately, a sharp contrast to her hospitalization during law school back in the States, which is harrowing, as these stories tend to be. She is a tough lady though, and a strong sense of purpose in her studies and her work – as well as a few close friendships and a lot of psychoanalysis – gets her through.

I was surprised that Freudian psychoanalysis could actually do somebody with a serious mental illness much good, but it makes sense that having one-on-one time 4-5 times a week with someone who would listen nonjudgmentally to all her bizarre thoughts would help. She does eventually wind up having to be on medication long-term, and her discussion of all the reasons she resists this is really interesting. She doesn’t want to be “dependent on drugs,” the side effects of the antipsychotics available at the time were quite bad (including the risk of permanent, very visible nerve damage for those who took them long-term), but she also doesn’t want to view herself as damaged enough to need this. It doesn’t make logical sense and yet this seems to be a thing with the most stigmatized illnesses, that people often view taking medication for them as a symbolic capitulation, as if acknowledging the disease enough to treat it means turning over control of their lives to it.

Overall this is definitely an interesting memoir, though not a particularly artistic one; it’s told in a straightforward, chronological manner, albeit with a lot of dialogue that is probably not exact. Given how much the author has studied mental illness, I would have liked to see her broaden the scope of the book a little more, comment on how her experience of schizophrenia compares to that of others. That said, it works well as is, it’s accessible and engaging, and it’s a great window into a dreaded disease that’s generally discussed as if people who have it are incapable of contributing to the conversation themselves. Saks is living proof that people with schizophrenia are as capable as anyone else of living a full life, under the right circumstances: despite grave prognoses early on, and various crises along the way, she has a great career, is happily married and has a lot of strong friendships. At any rate, this is an eye-opening book and I recommend it.

Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Night At the Fiestas: Stories - Kirstin Valdez Quade

This is an intense literary short story collection, consisting of 10 stories mostly set in New Mexico, many but not all featuring Hispanic characters. The author does an excellent job with character, each of the protagonists seeming as real as a character in a good novel, drawn with specific traits that bring them to life as individuals. And the scene-setting is great too; the stories are immersive, with well-chosen details that bring them to life in the mind’s eye without interfering with the pace of the plot. And they are compelling, each one different.

The stories are on the darker side, often featuring broken families, domestic violence (typically off-screen), or just protagonists who feel alone in the world. My two global complaints are that the endings are often a little bit weak – Valdez Quade seems to struggle most with the last paragraph or two of a story – and that a few stories prominently feature secondary characters whose behavior doesn’t quite make sense. Short stories are made for ambiguity, and there’s plenty of that here – I wish I’d read it with someone else, to be able to discuss it, which is a sign of a good short story – but it needs to be calculated precisely.

But now for the stories (and I’d be interested to hear others’ interpretations):

“Nemecia”: The first story starts out strong, featuring a young girl growing up in the early 20th century looking up to her mysterious older cousin. It peters out toward the end, though.

“Mojave Rats”: This is a perfectly fine story about a blended family living (temporarily; the mother depends on it) in an RV park in the Mojave Desert. It spends a little too much time in the protagonist’s head though, and ends on a realization rather than an event; I can see why few reviewers mention it.

“The Five Wounds”: Seems to be the overall favorite of the collection, and it’s very strong: this story of a deadbeat father’s attempt at redemption through a violent religious ritual (one apparently actually carried out by the Penitentes in New Mexico) features a big, dramatic, culturally-specific set piece, and is well-crafted and intense.

“Night at the Fiestas”: On the one hand, I really enjoyed this story of a teenage girl who wants her life to be a drama, and encounters a moral dilemma on her way to the Fiestas de Santa Fe; it’s also an intense and well-crafted story. But the actions of the man on the bus didn’t make a lot of sense to me. How could he just forget the large amount of cash he was carrying, and why didn’t he try harder to retrieve it?

“The Guesthouse”: The dynamics of what feels like an archetypical broken middle-America family seem entirely believable here, but this story’s set piece – involving a boa constrictor – was a little over-the-top for me, and the story ends abruptly on an act of violence without letting us see the consequences.

“Family Reunion”: This is a great story about an 11-year-old who feels like an extra wheel in her blended family and an outcast as a non-Mormon in Salt Lake City. The friend’s mother’s behavior didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it’s an emotionally intense story that left me disturbed by just how alone this kid is.

“Jubilee”: This one is also great: a college student from a poor background intends to shame her father’s landowner boss with her reverse snobbery at a fancy party, but mostly reveals her own clumsiness and insecurities.

“Ordinary Sins”: The setting of this story is interesting, featuring the dynamics of a Catholic parish where the long-term, kindhearted but timid local priest is perhaps to be supplanted by a stern young Nigerian newcomer. But it spends a little too much time in the head of its protagonist, a pregnant young parish employee, as she overthinks a situation she encounters, and the end felt a little obligatory.

“Canute Commands the Tides”: This is an accomplished but disturbing story, about a retiree who, feeling a lack of purpose and connection in her life, befriends the woman she’s hired to help unpack and clean up her new house, only to encounter violence from the cleaning lady’s son. This story made me uncomfortable in part because of the violence (which is starker here than in any other story), and in part because several readers seem to have taken it as a parable about naïve white do-gooders. Certainly reaching out to others can result in being hurt yourself, but I think cautioning people against kindness and generosity is a pretty anti-social message; I also think the story isn’t actually that simplistic, that Margaret is more lonely than meddling and just has bad luck in the family she encounters.

“The Manzanos”: Like most readers, I didn’t think much of the final story. Its lack of plot is a weakness, but its larger problem is being told in the first person, present tense from the point-of-view of an 11-year-old with poor academic skills . . . whose “voice” nevertheless is that of a 30-something well-educated writer in both form and content. It’s jarring and not believable in the least. Presumably this was one of the author’s early stories.

Overall though, this collection really engaged me; it features well-developed protagonists and settings and engaging plots, and gave me a lot to think about. I look forward to seeing what this author does next; she is relatively young but well on her way to being a fantastic writer.

An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie

An African in Greenland - Tété-Michel Kpomassie, James Kirkup, A. Alvarez

This is the travelogue of a young man from Togo who determined at age 16 that he would go to Greenland, then spent the next 8 years working his way there. A quarter of the way through the book, he arrives, and spends the next 15 months traveling gradually further and further north, living with the Inuit, learning their methods of hunting and fishing, and adopting their way of life. His time in Greenland apparently took place in 1965-66, and the culture he found certainly bore the stamp of Danish colonial rulers (well-insulated turf dwellings almost entirely replaced with inferior wooden houses; people living in southern cities had largely given up hunting and depended on government handouts), but in many other ways it still seems quite unique. Families sleeping all together in a single bed with their children and visitors; hunting in kayaks and with dog sleds; packs of huskies that sometimes serve as food themselves when provisions are tight, but which also sometimes attack and eat humans; constant visiting from one home to another, with people wandering right into each other’s houses; butchering animals indoors and eating the meat raw, the children all winding up with blood in their hair; a complete lack of sexual jealousy or concern for fidelity, including in some places ritual “swinging”; it’s a colorful picture Kpomassie paints here. I couldn’t help wondering if his depictions of both Togo and Greenland were deliberately “exotic” to appeal to a European readership with little knowledge of other lands, though a quick online search turned up no evidence of this book having been debunked so far.

That said, it’s definitely an interesting account, allowing readers to armchair-travel to a far-flung place with a unique character. For all Kpomassie seems to love Greenland, it’s a warts-and-all depiction that probably won’t inspire many to follow his footsteps in person; this book isn’t for the squeamish, whether it’s describing the butchering and eating of raw meat, or canine and human bodily functions and sexual behavior. But it is well-written, closely-observed and engaging.

My biggest criticism is that the author’s inner life is oddly lacking, which contributes to the comparison to a fairy tale: there’s little sense of how Kpomassie thinks or feels about much of anything, especially after arriving in Greenland. He writes about his journey as if it were easy: working his way through West Africa and Europe, everywhere he goes he finds a job that allows him to support himself and save money, learns the language easily, finds people willing to take him in where he needs them, and generally gives the impression of being untouched by circumstance, of nothing truly bad ever happening. Perhaps I’m just too used to reading books about dire circumstances myself. But I couldn’t help wondering about the deeper story of his journey and what he did with his life afterwards.

I also have to comment on the bizarrely worthless introduction. The mysterious “A. Alvarez” is an awfully careless reader: stating multiple times, for instance, that Kpomassie spends an entire winter with his final host family, while he tells us quite specifically that he stayed there from July 3 until around September 22, when he took the last boat out before the pack ice set in. Alvarez also seems to seriously misread the python cult episode in Togo, claiming that the head priestess demanded Kpomassie as a devotee in exchange for healing, while actually, his father paid for the healing separately, and the request that he also become a priest was based on his personal qualities and considered an honor by his family. Why the publisher would even include this careless waste of ink in the book is beyond me.

Overall, an interesting and unusual book, and one I generally enjoyed while reading it, though I wasn’t always drawn to pick it up. Certainly worth a read for the armchair traveler.

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries - Terese Marie Mailhot

I don’t feel that I can rate this short, not-quite-chronological memoir. It’s certainly well-written, and deals with a lot of heavy topics, but this sparse, symbolic, stylized form of writing isn’t one that quite works for me. Entire stories are distilled into a single paragraph or even sentence, and so much of the way the author sees the world is figurative. Major elements are skipped over entirely: the author spends much of the book lamenting an intense relationship with a man who doesn’t seem to respect or care about her very much, who brings out the worst in her and whom she believes doesn’t understand her. And then suddenly, he’s her husband, and apparently remains so, in what seems like a terrible choice based on everything she’s written here, though it’s so brief it can hardly be the complete story. At the same time, it’s really great, polished writing, and highly re-readable. Those who enjoy very literary memoirs will probably eat this up. Others might be left confused or nonplussed.

Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai

Clear Light of Day - Anita Desai I liked this book a lot. It’s an emotionally rich and nuanced tale of four adult siblings and their formative years in an old home in Delhi, where the tough, passionate older sister, Bimla, still lives, teaching history and caring for their mentally challenged younger brother. The timid younger sister, Tara, now married to a diplomat, returns for a visit, and tries to bridge the gap between Bim and their absent older brother, with whom she’s had a falling-out. It’s not a fast-paced story, but it is a well-written, layered, and meaningful one, taking a close look at its complex, sympathetic characters and the nuances of their interactions and memories. It reminded me of Evening Is the Whole Day, which I also loved, though that book is almost lurid by comparison. I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoy insightful family stories, and who enjoy books driven more by strong characters and writing than by plot. A couple of notes: the book isn’t as short as the page count would make it seem (there’s a lot of words on a page), and the cover seems off-base, considering how often the siblings’ skin is referred to as “white.” Even granting that probably means something different in India than the U.S., I can’t help thinking there’s some exoticizing going on with that choice of image.

Maid by Stephanie Land

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive - Stephanie Land, Barbara Ehrenreich

I had a mixed reaction to this book. On the one hand, the author tells a compelling story about life in poverty, and about its physical and emotional effects. I kind of want people to read the book for that reason, because it’s a life that the comfortably-off don’t see or understand. But on the other hand, there’s a long list of things that trouble me about this book, from the author’s avoidance of her own responsibility to its scattershot messaging about poverty.

This is a memoir of a very difficult time in the author’s life, when she became a destitute single mother, winding up in transitional housing with her baby, and had to scramble to survive, working a demanding, low-paid job cleaning other people’s homes, piecing together government benefits whose requirements often frustrate their purposes, trying to raise her child well while always stressed out, both of them constantly sick due to their living and working conditions, without being able to depend on anyone but herself. She does a great job of letting the reader in to the reality of this grind, and for that I could see it being a really eye-opening book for a lot of readers. And she’s a pretty good storyteller; the car accident episode in particular is harrowing.

But Land’s writing is defensive – I get the sense from it that she hasn’t really recovered from the constant teardowns from her unsupportive family and abusive ex, and still feels she can’t afford to admit fault, or perhaps that she shouldn’t have to. But memoirs are best when authors have achieved an understanding of their own past behavior and ability to admit their own mistakes, and Land doesn’t seem to be there. Now I’m not about to nitpick her spending choices, which is just mean, and lacks understanding of the importance of having some moments of happiness in a difficult life. But in the bigger picture, Land has a share in the fault for her situation. She becomes a poor single mother not at 18, not after a childhood of poverty and trauma, but at 28, after what she describes as a middle-class childhood. She never addresses what she did with the first decade of her adulthood, but here’s what she didn’t do: acquire higher education, develop job skills, build a stable relationship or strong support network, or save money. And when she accidentally gets pregnant by a guy she’s only known a few months, and who pushes hard for abortion, the only plan she develops is to live with that guy in his camper as a stay-at-home mom. To that end, she trashes her college applications, allegedly because “I knew I had to at least give him the opportunity to be a dad.” Of course this blows up in her face after several months, and this is how she winds up desperate and poor. And she becomes much more desperate when she gives up the housing subsidy she miraculously receives early in her journey – knowing that the wait lists are years long – to move in with another guy she’s only known for a few months, and with whom it turns out that she has nothing in common. That ends too, and then she’s lost her safe, affordable housing and has to wear herself out to make up for it.

And you know, we all make mistakes. I’m not arguing that people who screw up don’t deserve government assistance or our sympathy. But I think it’s important for a memoirist to acknowledge her mistakes and explore why she made them, and Land glosses over everything I just described. I think she clearly has some deep-seated issues with romantic relationships, given her decisions, but she never quite addresses that; instead she blames everything on the men themselves without considering why she chose them. Her ex is portrayed so negatively that I became uncomfortable with the thought of their now-12-year-old daughter reading this. The later boyfriend is presented as if he’s the villain for wanting to spend all his free time watching TV rather than discussing books or politics, but come on – Land should have discovered this basic incompatibility before moving in with him, especially when she had so much at stake. And overlooking her own bad decisions makes me more inclined to be critical.

Then too, I have some doubts about where this book fits into the larger cultural conversation about poverty. Somewhat awkwardly, it seems to have begun as a housemaid-tells-all exposé of her clients’ lives, and mostly but not entirely shed that skin; there was a little more in here about their homes than I felt I needed to know. Land comments sporadically on poverty-related policies, but not in an organized way. When raising these issues, she claims authority beyond her own experience, arguing that she can just see that the other people waiting at the social service offices are hardworking, without apparently having gotten to know them or done research.

In the end, I just wondered what purpose this narrative is intended to serve. The author is politically progressive, but her story seems to fit most neatly into a Republican narrative: she falls into poverty as an adult due to her own bad decisions, but gradually drags herself out of it through persistence and hard work. Admittedly, there are some aspects conservatives wouldn’t like so well: she only manages that feat due to numerous government benefits, and while she doesn’t examine her privilege as a white able-bodied woman, that clearly helps as well (a couple of times she talks her way into better housing situations where the landlord probably wouldn’t have taken on a ghetto-speaking black woman). It’s strange that she wants to rail against the injustice of poverty, and yet her ideas about why she succeeded better than others seem to boil down to her determination and not the ways in which she was dealt a better hand.

So I understand the mixed responses to this book. On the one hand, Land’s story shouldn’t be expected to fit all our preconceived ideas or to represent all impoverished Americans. And it’s the kind of story we ought to be hearing more often. On the other hand, there’s a lot of mess here, and I think it would have benefited from both more therapy and better editing. Interesting, but I was hoping for better.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout

This is a lovely collection and a depressing one. Strout is an excellent writer, with a great eye for nuance of character and feeling. But particularly in her short story collections, she seems drawn to quiet, deep sadness, to loneliness and unvoiced pain and marriages that fail their participants. This collection of linked stories – roughly every other story is about the title character, while the others focus on people she knows – features an older woman slowly losing her husband to medical problems, after they’ve lost and failed each other repeatedly over the years despite their love for one another. So expect a melancholy read.

But at the same time, it’s a great book. Strout is an expert crafter of characters, and I loved reading about the prickly, complex Olive. The stories about other people from her small town in Maine are also quite good, and allow the author a wider range for experimentation (I’m not sure I ever fully unpacked the subtly disturbing “Criminal”), though I would’ve appreciated getting some follow-up on these characters in the later entries. Especially at the beginning, I preferred the stories that covered a longer span of time (such as the phenomenal first story, “Pharmacy”) to the more compressed ones (“Incoming Tide” fell flat for me). Toward the end I was reading it more like a novel, and most interested in getting back to Olive rather than the one-off stories of other townspeople. At times I avoided reading it because it is so often sad, but it’s a great literary collection and one I could see myself returning to one day, there’s so much insight and humanity in it.

Also, the imaginative piece at the end, in which the publisher “interviews” Strout and Olive together, is creative and hilarious – definitely an achievement in supplementary material.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” - Zora Neale Hurston

In general, readers should be suspicious when a long-unpublished work by a famous author comes to light. More often than not, these mostly seem to be cash grabs by the publisher (see, for instance, Go Set a Watchman). Barracoon has some interesting content (and at least it isn't just an early draft of a classic!), but it’s also much less than its publishers suggest. Zora Neale Hurston – as a folklorist, before she became a well-known novelist – conducted a series of interviews with Cudjo Lewis, aka Kossola Oluale, an African native kidnapped and brought to the United States illegally on the last slave ship, in 1859. About half of this short book reproduces those interviews. The other half or more consists of fairly repetitive supplementary material, providing historical background, discussing Hurston’s plagiarism of the first article she wrote about Kossola, etc.

The interviews are definitely interesting, and tell a sad story. Kossola was kidnapped as a young man by soldiers from the nearby kingdom of Dahomey, which seems to have been operating practically as a pirate state, attacking other groups in the area on a pretext, kidnapping the young people to sell as slaves and murdering all the rest. This wiped out entire nations, including apparently Kossola’s. He, along with more than 100 others, was then taken to the Mississippi, where he was forced to work on cargo boats until being freed at the end of the Civil War several years later. Along with the other African natives, he soon realized he would never be able to afford passage back home, and they founded their own town in Alabama. Unfortunately, Kossola outlived his wife and all six of their children; the book focuses largely on this and on the initial massacre and kidnapping, and less so on the Middle Passage and slavery, which seem to have been difficult but less memorable times for him by comparison.

While there’s something to be said for reading someone’s own words, the way they actually spoke, I would have appreciated the book more if Hurston had used her interviews with Kossola as the starting point for a more complete and well-researched biography or history. I’m not sure she ever intended this to be a book, though – she did a little bit of fact-checking, but it’s mostly just a reproduction of the interview, which doesn’t go into any great depth on any of the eras in Kossola’s life upon which it briefly touches. I was left with questions even about major aspects of his life, like: was his wife from the same village? Did they meet in Africa or in the U.S.? It’s worth reading – it’s very short and you can skim much of the supplementary material – but turning it into a full-length book is a stretch, so that I can’t help feeling it was a bit of a cash grab.

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education - Mychal Denzel Smith

This disappointed me. It’s not really a memoir – which is probably for the best; the author wrote it at age 29 and his life to that point doesn’t sound especially remarkable – but instead it’s a 220-page op-ed piece without a single citation. It’s all the author’s opinions about various contemporary events and social justice issues, including lengthy descriptions of news and pop cultural events, including entire segments of the Dave Chappelle Show, excerpts from Obama’s speeches, descriptions of events in sports, etc.

The book begins by talking about unarmed black men sometimes being shot by the police, which clearly makes the author angry and upset (rightly so), but he doesn’t have anything original to say about it, unless you count the offhand claim that this is a deliberate effort to keep the black community down. By whom, he doesn’t say. Does he think police officers are doing this on purpose, rather than making bad snap judgments because they, like everyone else, grew up in a stew of racism in which the evening news constantly associates black men with crime? Or is it that these shootings have the effect of keeping people fearful, even without dastardly intentions? How does the rate of police shootings of unarmed black people compare to the rate of police shootings of unarmed people of other races? Why doesn't he talk about the racist genesis of the drug war? The facts are out there, but Smith seems interested only in sharing his own opinions, which might be more valuable without all the unsupported claims.

But then, shocking but unsupported claims seem to be his trademark; he writes about an incident in college where a protest in support of the Jena Six at his HBCU was preempted by a last-minute pep rally, and he responded with an op-ed entitled “Hampton University Hates Black People.” A professor later pointed out to him that the university (which is 90% black) consists of a lot more people than the one administrator who made that decision, and Smith acknowledges the point, but clearly hasn’t changed his style.

People have also praised Smith as a black male feminist, but I found this portion of the book to be the least valuable. Yes, the civil rights movement sidelined black women, and today’s black culture (as well as white culture) could certainly do better. But Smith’s criticism is over-the-top. He takes lengthy aim at a rap song (“Brenda's Got a Baby”) for insufficiently specifying what makes its female subject unintelligent, but it seems to me “the girl can barely spell her name” makes things clear enough in this context; it's a song, not a novel. Then there's this passage: “There isn’t a man alive who hasn’t abused a woman in some way. Through outright lies and lies of omission, deception and manipulation, exploitation and judgment, silencing and ignoring.” At the point that you define every negative behavior as “abuse,” the word becomes meaningless. And it’s unhelpful to paint gender relations with such a broad brush – claiming that all these behaviors carry more weight when enacted by men due to patriarchy – when African-American women do better than their male counterparts in important areas such as educational attainment. It’s a subject that requires nuanced analysis, and Smith doesn’t offer any, apparently opting instead to just prove himself “woke” and move on.

There are a couple of chapters that are better, though. To me the best is the chapter about homosexuality, where Smith writes honestly about dealing with his own homophobia, and about the ways that the homophobia and macho requirements of black male culture are damaging to everyone involved, and about realizing his own heterosexual privilege. The chapter on mental illness is also decent – he writes about his own struggles with depression and anxiety, and how long it took him to acknowledge this as a genuine problem, and how dealing with discrimination and violence causes mental health issues. Again, though, this chapter would have benefited a lot from some research to back up Smith’s opinions; some studies, some interviews with experts, some statistics would have improved it immeasurably.

In the end, Smith touches on a lot of important topics, but he doesn’t do so in a way that seems helpful in moving the conversation forward. This is essentially a book-length op-ed, but like most op-eds, it offers simply rhetoric, which will have people who already agree with the writer nodding along without coming away armed with new facts or knowledge, and people who disagree dismissing the piece for its inflated language and unsupported claims. And in his criticism of Obama for talking about the complaints of working-class white people alongside those of black people, he comes across more interested in proving his righteousness than in finding solutions; ironically, the exact same attitude shared by Trump voters. A quick read, but as a cultural contribution it’s lightweight.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned From Online Dating by Paul Oyer

Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Economics I Learned from Online Dating - Paul Oyer

I shouldn’t have ignored the negative tilt to the reviews of this awkwardly-titled book, but the concept was interesting and so I read it anyway. It’s a quick read, with only 215 pages of text followed by endnotes and an index, and the writing is fairly engaging. But it is also shallow. It does explain some concepts from microeconomics, using examples from online dating as a starting point before seguing into other examples. But even without knowing much about economics, I didn’t feel like I learned very much from it, aside from becoming more familiar with some econ vocabulary. And there’s not a lot of substance on the online dating portion either.

Meanwhile, the author seems to have this relentless desire to put a positive spin on everything, as if he feels that economics sometimes leading to bad results would make the field of study somehow less worthwhile. For instance, he takes pains to insist that statistical discrimination isn’t based on animus, as if this somehow makes racial profiling or gender pay gaps more acceptable. It’s weirdest when he’s discussing the effect of physical attractiveness on wages: he blithely insists that being overweight doesn’t really have an impact once you “control for attractiveness,” as if weight somehow weren’t a factor in attractiveness. And then after noting that more attractive people get more promotions regardless of talent, he considers the argument that this is actually discrimination against unattractive people, only to dismiss it on the grounds that attractive people are in some unspecified way “worth more,” as if to say, “well, that’s all okay then.”

On the other hand, I did find the book quick and engaging reading, and many of its examples are relatively interesting. It’s probably not worth going out of your way to pick this up, but if you want some nonfiction beach reading, it could fit the bill.

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo

Welcome to Lagos - Chibundu Onuzo

This is an interesting book, generally fun and humorous but also inconsistent in plotting and tone; the author is young and probably still finding her feet. It begins with two young men deserting the Nigerian army after being asked to participate in the massacre of a Niger Delta village; on their way to Lagos to start a new life, they attract a motley crew including a well-off woman fleeing an abusive marriage, a teenage girl who has just lost her parents, and a young man chasing his dream to be a radio producer. The five band together and are struggling to make ends meet when their paths cross with a corrupt ex-government minister, toting a stolen $20 million.

Initially this book reminded me of I Do Not Come to You by Chance, as a lighthearted portrayal of serious issues in Nigeria. But I think this book is not quite as good. And perhaps it isn’t even intended to be lighthearted; it seems that way due to its short chapters and optimistic, rather superficial portrayal of the motley band that soon comes to form a sort of family, but its ending is sobering enough to make me wonder if the author intended something more serious all along.

Unfortunately, its plotting also suffers, especially in the second half, where a large chunk of pages are spent on drama among journalists. I only really cared about our original band of five and what would become of them and the ex-minister, and the romance between two journalists and rivalry between another two – almost all of these people not introduced until the second half of the book, and most of them not Nigerian – felt like an intrusion in a book that wasn’t about them. But all this takes a significant amount of pages away from the principals, and leaves our original main characters to be carried along by others’ actions as we lose track of them in the crowd.

Still, this was enjoyable enough and a quick read. It’s a confidently Nigerian book, with some characters speaking in pidgin, and with the author not stopping to explain historical and cultural references. It has a strong and vibrant sense of place, and a quickly moving plot with a lot of dialogue. You could do worse, but the unevenness makes it hard to recommend.

The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero

The Affairs of the Falcóns - Melissa Rivero

There’s a real dearth of books about undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States. I read in large part to learn about other people’s experiences, and this is a community that’s so nearby and yet so foreign to most Americans. I think what I really want is a popular ethnography – something like Just Like Us, but more representative; something like Two Dollars a Day, but about undocumented immigrants – but memoirs, and fiction by people who know what they’re talking about, can be great too.

So I came to this book with great hopes: it’s about a family of undocumented Peruvian immigrants living in New York in the mid-90s, written by an author who was an undocumented Peruvian immigrant herself as a child. And if this book helps other readers to better understand and sympathize with people in the characters’ situations, then that is a wonderful thing. But this one didn’t work for me as literature, and frankly I wound up not really understanding or sympathizing much with its protagonist either.

The book covers about a month in the life of Ana, a 27-year-old married mother of two who is determined to make a life for herself and her family in New York, but faces serious financial difficulties and family strife. She, her husband Lucho, and their 6-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, are currently living in one room in Lucho’s cousin’s apartment; unfortunately the cousin has never liked Ana, Lucho has recently lost his job, and when Ana discovers she’s accidentally pregnant again, she knows they can’t afford it.

Unfortunately, the characters and writing are flat. Nobody has much personality, though everyone – Ana included – has a nasty tendency to kick everyone else when they’re down; I wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be an unfortunate result of their poverty and long-term stress or just a cheap technique to keep enough conflict in the book to tell a story with, but it tended to feel like the latter. It’s a quick, easy read, but the writing is bland, and though everyone is supposedly speaking Spanish, it doesn’t feel like it; characters say things like “Yes, I do,” which don’t really translate (Spanish doesn’t use the helping verb “do”). The plot is lacking too, mostly consisting of Ana going around arguing with her friends, family, and neighborhood loan shark. And the writing has a tendency to over-explain concepts and feelings in a very simplified way.

Then there’s Ana, our protagonist, who is by turns baffling and unsympathetic. Ana grew up poor, in a small village, is of mostly indigenous descent, and seems to have little education, yet is inexplicably married to Lucho, who grew up privileged in Lima, is of Spanish descent and college-educated and a professional. Predictably, the two don’t understand each other or communicate at all, and I was never convinced by Ana’s insistence that at some point they’d fallen in love; their marriage seemed more like a device to educate readers about differences of class and ethnicity within Peru than a real relationship. Ana doesn’t understand why Lucho would care about having a fulfilling job rather than doing menial labor, and seems to see this as a frivolous desire; meanwhile she doesn’t consult him about major decisions affecting their marriage, then becomes enraged when he doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices she’s kept to herself. I didn’t understand why Lucho would have agreed to immigrate illegally in the first place – couldn’t he have gotten a visa to go to Spain, as his brother did? – especially since this leaves their kids, too, leading an insecure existence when his background might have afforded them better opportunities back home. As the family’s problems compound and their reasons for being in the U.S. are stripped away, it seems as if Ana prefers to make her whole family third-class non-citizens in New York rather than being a second-class citizen by herself in Peru. Aside from all that, she just comes across as an unpleasant person; for instance, when the cousin’s husband – who is consistently kind to her and sticks up for her to his villainous wife – confesses that his wife can be abusive, her response is an internal tirade about how he, with his own home and money, has no right to feel sorry for himself, and she hopes his kids will abandon him (sure, he had an affair, but yikes).

So, overall, this book was a quick read but didn’t do much for me, and features characters who seem unrepresentative of undocumented immigrants in ways that make them less sympathetic. It didn't help that I got the sense we were supposed to take Ana's side and see her as a heroine instead of the deeply flawed and difficult person that she is, but even without that issue, this book is awfully simplistic. Hopefully someone else will tackle this topic more successfully.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures - Anne Fadiman

This is a fantastic work of journalistic nonfiction. It begins with a toddler, Lia Lee, living in California in the 1980s. The daughter of Hmong refugees, Lia begins suffering epileptic seizures as an infant, but her treatment goes wrong as her parents and the American doctors are unable to understand and respect one another. The book expands outward from there, exploring the history and culture of the Hmong, their enlistment in the U.S.’s secret war in Laos, and their subsequent refugee experiences. And then too it is about medicine, the goals of American medicine and what it means for health care providers to be culturally competent.

Fadiman packs so much into just 300 pages (and that’s counting the 2012 afterword, which you should definitely read). And it’s so brilliantly done. She conveys tons of information, but in such an accessible and compelling way that the book is a page-turner; I sped through it in just a few days. She’s a fantastic storyteller, keeping the reader always wanting more, and at the same time, shows humility and a willingness to engage with difficult issues. She presents arguments from many different viewpoints, and all of them sympathetically; she isn't afraid of facts that run counter to her arguments, nor does she dismiss opposing opinions out of hand. After wrestling herself with a collision of two cultures, she comes out of it able to portray both worldviews, seeing the merits in everyone's arguments, and looking for better systems to solve problems rather than casting blame on individuals.

Overall, an incredibly thorough, thoughtful, and engaging work that I would absolutely recommend, regardless of whether you’re in the medical field (I am not). Happily, one can now also read memoirs by Hmong authors, such as The Latehomecomer, which tracks the experiences recorded in this book closely but from a first-person perspective.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party and Other Stories - Katherine Mansfield, Lorna Sage

This is a collection of sharply-observed short stories, very well-written, that bring their realistic characters and vivid scenes quickly to life. I admired but didn’t love them; Mansfield was (famously as it turns out) less focused on plot than on character and mood, and I like stronger endings to short stories than these have. At the same time, they’re so obviously good that I wish they’d done more for me than they did.

Even so, I often did enjoy them, particularly the longer stories. “At the Bay,” the first and longest of the collection, is a panorama of a family vacation community, in which not too much happens but the characters and their surroundings come vividly to life. “The Garden Party,” also very strong, follows a teenage girl whose humanitarian instincts are thwarted by family and society, a story marred only by a rather vague ending.

Then too, the stories show an impressive understanding for a young woman (Mansfield died at 34, not long after the publication of this collection). “Marriage a la Mode” and “The Ideal Family” showcase men whose wives and children – and in the former case, a whole frivolous circle of the wife’s friends – live blithely off their earnings without quite seeing them as people; I am not sure if Mansfield would have seen this as a criticism of patriarchy, but this is how they read to the modern eye. The stories of the woes of working-class characters seemed less successful to me, as they are shorter and do less to develop their protagonists’ inner lives.

The shorter stories overall didn’t do a lot for me; scenes from “The Voyage,” for instance, stand out vividly, but without more of a plot to tie it all together, these are disconnected images rather than part of a coherent whole. There are brilliant characters here, and I wish I could have seen more of them. I would happily read more of Mansfield’s writing; it’s such a shame she didn’t have the chance to further develop her art.