Friday, September 30, 2016

Insider Baseball by Joan Didion

Insider Baseball  

by Joan Didion

The author blurb at the end of this short summarizes my feelings nicely:  "a disturbing portrait of the American political landscape, providing essential reading on our democracy".

Because yes, this was quite a disturbing read. Even though you know as an American voter that the "story lines" and editorials are all fake in their own way, it's quite another thing to have it shoved in your face the way Didion does here. She is/was a political reporter, and this short centers around her experiences and observations during the Dukasis/Jackson DNC nomination race of 1988. She speaks about "the process", how contrived it is and yet how everyone buys into it completely, from the media creating the stories to the staffers feeding them.

There is one story she tells about a stop on the Dukasis campaign trail where he throws a baseball with a staffer on a tarmac. This was a completely set-up press shot (actually reenacted since there wasn't enough coverage the first time they did it), and yet the stories that were written about it made the whole thing look organic; this was a man of the people just tossing a ball to relax. This story in particular made me really think about how we are forced to believe a lot of the news that is presented to us simply because it's the only story we are going to get. Where is the story in the Times or the Herald that refutes what that moment was about? No where. So what are we forced to believe, at least just a little?

Such a thought provoking piece, though in a bit of a aggravating way. Didion manages to make you righteously angry about the whole... well, process.

This is a short from her larger book Political Fictions which I now have every intention of reading, though I have a feeling it will be one of those books that takes me a very long time and many bit-sized sessions to finish.

Copy courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/Vintage, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Obama White House and the Supreme Court

The Obama White House and the Supreme Court 
from The Oath

By Jeffrey Toobin

This "Vintage Short" is a selection from The Oath: The Obama White House and The Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. I have several of Toobin's books on my shelf, but haven't quite gotten around to them yet. 

I really, really need to.

This short begins with the kerfuffle over Obama's oath of office at his first swearing in. Do you remember that? I do, and it was entertaining to read about how freaked out the brand new staffers were over whether or not Obama was actually President or not after having not actually completed the oath correctly. The Constitution is weirdly specific about the oath that must be taken by the most powerful member of the executive branch, so if you're going to mess something up you probably shouldn't let it be that.

After that Toobin goes on to briefly describe the heart of all Constitutional debates: traditionalism (ie, the only rights we have are what the founders/future lawmakers explicitly wrote in there) vs living constitution (society changes and confers new rights onto the people based on basic rights already given). Then we enter into a long and, frankly, wandering bit about how Obama has felt about the debate. 

Hint: He's a traditionalist. 

Didn't know that did you?

Overall this was an interesting little short, and definitely makes me look at my shelf longingly (specifically at you [book:The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court|280410]). It was a quick read, maybe thirty minutes, that was well written on a very relevant topic to today.

Copy courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/Vintage, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History

Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History

By Steven Grasse

I have somehow found myself in the midst of reading several books that I am just "meh" about, but feel like they deserve more stars than my actual enjoyment would indicate. My personal feeling on this book is a 3, but the book delivering on what it states is a 5, so I'm comprising on 4. I think a ton of people would really enjoy this book, I just wanted a bit more substance. I mostly picked this book up because I greatly enjoy the YouTube channel Jas. Townsend and Son, Inc. which has a series about 17/18th century American cooking, so that was kind of what I was looking for here. 

Let's begin this by saying that I don't drink very much. Alcohol of all kinds tends to either make me instantly sleepy or trigger migraines so I've just learned to stay away for my personal well-being. That being said, the history of the alchemy of alcohol intrigues me, a lot. I mean, really, who came up with this stuff? Some of the methods of fermentation and cooking the liqueurs and alcohols in this book are just mind boggling. It would never occur to me to attempt any of them and think they would work, but obviously someone did. The author does an amazing job of detailing the exact ways to make everything from traditional mixed drinks, to ciders, to rum, to even non-alcoholic drinks. It was truly impressive to read about since I don't have any background in backyard-brewing.

Interspersed between the sections of recipes are the authors stories of the colonial era (with an obvious slant towards the imbibing side of things), and various historical facts. It all seems quite well researched, but I could never pick up on the cadence of the writing. It seemed to be trying to mix modern with colonial vernacular, but it just came off as awkward most of the time. There were a few spots that were confusing enough for me to read, re-read, re-read again, and still not understand what was being conveyed. This is my major gripe with the book, because it really took away from my enjoyment of the history which is given just as much importance here as the recipes.

Taken all together, I did like this book and was impressed with what it was trying to do. I haven't mentioned the artwork, but it's absolutely lovely. The cover is an example of the cute little watercolors found all throughout as simple images of foods, or scenes illustrating a point in history. This is definitely a worthwhile read if you want to try the recipes, but maybe not as much if you're just in it for the history. 

Copy courtesy of ABRAMS/Abrams Image, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Great Eulogies Throughout History

Great Eulogies Throughout History
Edited by James Daley

This book feels a bit weird to review. It's really just a compilation of eulogies, both spoken and written throughout history, with a heavy slant towards Americans. There is just a short two or three sentence blurb before each begins explaining who the deceased is, and who was giving the eulogy. I suppose my main disappointment in this volume was not having more background given, or any reasons at all given about why this particular eulogy was chosen for the collection; what made it "great". The whole thing just came off as a bunch of perfectly fine eulogies for "great" people, not the other way around.

Many of the speeches and articles displayed here were written/spoken in a time period very removed from our vernacular. I understood them just fine, but for some reason that style of writing can't hold my attention very well and I often found my mind wandering. It didn't help that I didn't personally have much connection with many of the people spoken of, or the context of a lot of the references made (see my complaints about not having more in depth information about why each one was chosen). 

I obviously did not enjoy this book, but I think that was more an issue of my expectations vs reality which is why I am leaving my rating at 4 stars. I think this book delivers on what it says it will, I was just looking for something a bit more thoughtful and in-depth. That's my problem, not the books. 

Copy courtesy of Dover Publications, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The National Book Award Long List 2016

The National Book Award Long List 2016
I've never been one for awards lists, especially regarding books. They always somehow manage to find the most esoteric publications of the year, the more obscure the better. When the (case in point) Man Booker prize announced their shortlist earlier this week, it left me wanting a list of non-fic recommendations. Books so good, they were being considered for an award.

 There's nothing quite like trying to watch all of the Academy Award Best Picture Winners, and the same I believe holds true for book awards. The National Book Award's are not a list I am familiar with, but I'm more than willing to give it a go. I'm not going to be able/interested in everything on their list, but I would like to read a few before the winners are chosen. The shortlist is to be announced 10.13, with the winners announcement on 11.16There are also categories for Fiction, Poetry and YA.

Below are the Non-Fiction nominations for their long list.
 Wow, there are a lot more books here that I am interested in than I expected there to be... My shortlist for reading selections is below. We'll see how many I can finish before the winners announcements!
  1. Adam CohenImbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck
  2. Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America 
  3. Heather Ann ThompsonBlood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy 
  4. Arlie Russell HochschildStrangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right 
  5. Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History OR Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

On The Parole Board by Frederic G Reamer

tldr: This review got LONG, so the short of it is GO BUY THIS BOOK! No, seriously, I don't care who you are, you need to read this. It's fascinating and makes you think, and really, isn't that what good non-fiction is all about?

I enjoy non-fiction that introduces me to information I didn't know about before, but I especially love when it can challenge my way of thinking. It has been a long time since I've read a book that made me confront my own thoughts in this way, and all the credit goes to Reamer for his writing style and handling of this subject. I'm still mentally processing this book, but I'm going to give reviewing it a try anyway.

Reamer has made his career in corrections as a social worker, but the bulk of this book centers around his time on the parole board of Rhode Island where he served for several decades. I've never had a friend or family member incarcerated or even charged with a crime, so I don't know anything about this system other than it's existence. Reamer does a great job of breaking down exactly what parole boards are meant do, their daily processes, and the struggles of working on one. He digs into classic philosophy, religious tenants, and modern psychology to grapple with making decisions about whether someone can be released from prison early, or if they need to continue their sentence. The level of understanding and introspection he provides is deeply satisfying to read, and makes me feel hopeful.

I think my ultimate take-aways are going to come from two sections. One was on the very real issue of metal illness among prisoners, and the morality of imprisoning someone who has demonstrable issues. When he spoke about the widespread shut down of public mental health facilities in the mid twentieth century, it really made me ponder the problem those closures are raising today and will continue raising since funding for those programs isn't likely to be forthcoming. The number of inmates who have some kind of mental illness or personality disorder is astounding, and a bit disheartening. This could seriously be a book in itself, and I'm now looking for recommendations on one.

The second story was from his chapter on "Redemption and Hope", which was probably my favorite in the entire book. The story was about a young man he called "Felix Bertaina", an 18-year old kid who was just a few days away from going to college on a basketball scholarship when he accidentally killed a girl at a going-away party. I'm unsure what exactly he was found guilty of (it wasn't specified) but it sounded like manslaughter and he was given a 15 year sentence. At his parole hearing he displayed exactly the emotional thoughtfulness Reamer looks for in inmates, and he worked hard at all of the programs he was put into while in prison. He was also a surprising lover of the stock market and talked about his spreadsheets and how much he wanted to learn and become a part of it when he got out. Due to all of this he greatly impressed the board, but they could not "in good conscience" parole him because he had only served five years of his 15 year sentence. As Reamer says "After all, his victim had died." I was debating this with my husband last night, and he is of the mind that two wrongs cannot make a right; why should this model inmate, a kid with his whole life ahead of him, stay in prison longer regardless of his sentence when it isn't doing him or anyone else any good. If the idea of prison is reform, this kid is doing great. I'm not sure where I land on that argument, but the fact that it has me thinking, rethinking, and then thinking again means it's worth considering.

In the end, I think this is a book I'm going to carry with me in my head for years to come, and I can't express how excited I am to talk about these issues with other people. I am a very black and white kind of person, and have difficulty with shades of grey. It's something I try to work on, and this book helped me see the criminal justice system in a whole new light. I'll be buying my own copy of this for sure when it comes out just so I can reference and reread later.

Copy courtesy of Columbia University Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review Publish date: November 8th 2016.