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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

How to Live or A Life of Montaigne; The First Human; The Tipping Point; The Conquistadors; The Orphan Master’s Son; and Metamorphosis

Sarah Bakewell.  How to Live or A Life of Montaigne.  ©2010  Perhaps one should just read Montaigne, but this books serves a useful purpose in that it organizes what is known about his life, something he never did.  I guess this is a biography.  I certainly came away with an appreciation of his place in intellectual history and a strong interest in reading his work.  December 2013
Ann Gibbons.  The First Human.  ©2005  If you have any doubts that academics can be competitive and petty, read this book.  Perhaps all that competition was a good thing because following the Leakey’s discoveries in Oldevai in Kenya and Donald Johanson’s discovery of Lucy in Ethiopia in 1974, further exploration in Ethiopia and Chad seems to have filled in the record of human development fairly well and pinpointed, if you can call it that, our first ancestor at about 5 to 7 million years ago.  December 2013
Malcolm Gladwell.  The Tipping Point.  ©2000   What sets off an epidemic?  When syphilis spiked in Baltimore in the mid-1990s, three experts gave three different explanations:  Crack cocaine which drew buyers to the neighborhood where syphilis was endemic, a budgetary decision to reduce the number of clinicians and doctors available to treat the 36,000 active cases, and the razing of certain public housing projects which spread their inhabitants to other parts of the city.  Apparently all three were factors, but what is demonstrated is that epidemics can be set off in unexpected ways and quickly metastasize when a disease escapes its host population.  This is a demonstration of the law of the few.  Two other rules of the tipping point are the Stickiness factor and the power of context.  The ungrammatical slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” demonstrates the stickiness factor.  It carried the brand to number one.  Context is demonstrated by the willingness of bystanders to react and assist in dangerous situations – when many people witness an accident, they are much less likely to render assistance than if they are alone or there are only a few people in the area.  Everyone assumes someone else will act.  38 people heard Kitty Genovese’s screams but no one called the police.  The book is loaded with examples to bring out these points.  My favorite is the Hush Puppies mystery.  Some hip young people in the Village wanted to wear something different and started buying Hush Puppies in second hand stores if they didn’t already have a pair in the back of the closet.  The shoes had been out of style and production was almost nil.  Suddenly there was demand in malls all over the country and the company was ramping up production to 40 million pairs a year.  January 2014
Hammond Innes.  The Conquistadors.  ©1969  This is a detailed account of the conquests of Mexico and Peru.  I had always wanted to read William H. Prescott’s famous works on the Spanish conquest of the new world, but now I suppose I never will.  Innes probably goes beyond Prescott in that he doesn’t limit himself to political and military affairs.  Still what comes through most of all is the incredible energy and vision of Cortez and Velasquez, both of whom conquered large and developed societies with only a handful of Spanish soldiers.  December 2013

Adam Johnson.  The Orphan Master’s Son.  ©2012  Jun Do was a soldier trained to fight in the dark in the tunnels under the DMZ.  Eventually he is sent to English language school and then to a fishing boat where his job is to monitor foreign radio.  That jobs morphs into one that involves kidnapping Japanese for forced service in North Korean language schools.  Next he is sent to Texas with a delegation empowered to bargain to release an American woman in return for a Japanese nuclear monitoring device that Kim Jong-il thinks was stolen from North Korea.  The plane that takes them is the one that goes all over the world buying goodies for Kim.  The Koreans can only see things in terms of their own society and misunderstand everything the Texans try to do for them.  When Jun Do gets back, he is sent to a camp from which there is no return.  An old woman there, a former university professor, teaches him how to survive  -- you won’t believe what they do to feed themselves – and eventually he escapes by killing the Minister of Prison Mines in one of the tunnels and taking his uniform.  According to Johnson, in North Korea fiction making — state-sponsored storytelling— reigns supreme.  It doesn’t matter what actually happened, only what makes a good story that glorifies the country and dear leader.  So Jun Do is able to replace the Minister and move in as the head of his family.  Everyone, even dear leader, pretends he is the Minister.  His wife is the most famous actress in North Korea.  She draws the line at the bedroom door – for a while.  Eventually the exchange of the American woman for the device is arranged (there’s no way the device will do what the Koreans think it will do) and Jun Do and his wife and her two children plan to escape on the plane.  What reigns supreme throughout the novel is the horror of this Orwellian society where no one is safe, and the slightest mistake or misstatement can result in death by torture or starvation in one of the camps.  January 2014

 Franz Kafka.  Metamorphosis.  Translation ©2002  I had read about Metamorphosis, but I had never actually read it.  I came away wondering how one would write this story in the early 21st C.   December 2013

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