Saturday, 18 July 2020

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Anger. Fear. Guilt. Denial. Silence. These are the ways in which ordinary white people react when it is pointed out to them that they have done or said something that has - unintentionally - caused racial offence or hurt. After, all, a racist is the worst thing a person can be, right? But these reactions only serve to silence people of colour, who cannot give honest feedback to 'liberal' white people lest they provoke a dangerous emotional reaction.’

With the #BlackLivesMatter protest gaining traction with the recent events of police brutality in the US – the murder of George Floyd; it seemed appropriate to read about discrimination and racism to keep oneself better informed. The book is from a US perspective but the concept the author discusses can be applied anywhere as no part of the world is free from discrimination (some more than others).

The crux of the book is her establishment of the concept called white fragility – wherein, white people become defensive when confronted about potential privileges they have had or the racism that prevails in the society and even casual racist behaviour from them (intentional or not is a different debate). She discusses the discrimination people face institutionally and at the level of society. The book also aims at dispelling myths such as white supremacy need not emanate only from members of the ku klux klan but is ingrained in the society. Individualism – a basic tenet of the western society has ensured that it is very difficult to discuss discriminatory behaviour collectively considering the binaries established and people seeing themselves only as individuals – which in effect makes white fragility a very effective defence mechanism.

The book brings into light so many facts and behaviours exhibited by people. Someone people might react with awe, some with shock and a few might even be offended as the book’s underlying premise is that if you are white, there are privileges associated with it and the racism collectively followed has enabled the white person to rise; thereby accusing every person of being part of white supremacist behaviour (replace white with the dominant group in the place you live and it would still work). The prime message of the book is to keep oneself informed of the potential avenues of discrimination a black person might face and urges us to listen to them when they express their hardships rather than dismiss their journey or getting defensive.

One issue many moderates or even progressives might have had with her approach was an excessive finger pointing – if you are white, you are a white supremacist because the society has conditioned you that way. While it is true that the progressive white person whom in their private life is vocal about being anti-racist needs to evaluate their white privilege and acknowledge how consciously or inadvertently they might have been part of the behaviour exhibited by the community as a whole. But it is expected that when a charge so grave is made, the person is likely to be defensive and it defeats the very purpose of the author trying to make people realise the unintentional acts of discrimination that white people indulge in.

Very often, she changed definitions – to me, white supremacy means, to me racism means, etc. I always have an issue with writers changing the meanings of existing words / concepts to build their case. If there is a new definition, express it using new words – white fragility is a welcome example.

Her solution of acknowledging a belonging to the community was not convincing to me; for sure, people must evaluate the situation in the society, the privileges that they have acquired and the benefits that have accrued to an individual by being part of a community despite consciously not adhering to its values. Taking my own example, I come from a privileged community that has had a history of discriminating against the masses and effects continue to this date, but it is not an identity that I am proud of nor is it something that I would like to brandish. I would prefer to stick to individualism while acknowledging my benefits and hardships of others (which I used to refuse when I was in my late teens).

The book is informative, insightful and the urge to understand historical context was explained well (Re: Chapter in the book – White woman’s tears). While this book is specific to US, it can be extrapolated to other parts of the world. On that note, I would award this book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Monday, 1 June 2020

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘We are living in the era of the self, in an era of malleable truth and widespread personal and political delusion. In these nine interlinked essays, Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker’s brightest young talent, explores her own coming of age in this warped and confusing landscape.

From the rise of the internet to her own appearance on an early reality TV show; from her experiences of ecstasy – both religious and chemical – to her uneasy engagement with our culture’s endless drive towards ‘self-optimisation’; from the phenomenon of the successful American scammer to her generation’s obsession with extravagant weddings, Jia Tolentino writes with style, humour and a fierce clarity about these strangest of times.’

Trick Mirror is a collection of essays from Jia Tolentino, who is currently (May 2020) a staff writer for The New Yorker. The essays are supposed to reflections on self-delusion. The topics covered over the course of the essays are the internet and social media at large, reality shows, stereotypes surrounding women, the economy and the origins of extravagant weddings and the culture in some of the universities in US (racial divides, the rape culture – with particular focus on the university where she studied, University of Virginia).

To add a bit of context to her essays, Tolentino is of Filipino origin and grew up in Texas. The first essay on the internet and the culture that is in the internet today was brought out – about how speech that is no longer considered acceptable in public has now found itself a platform on the internet like the Gamergate scandal. She herself was a former employee for internet-based platforms such as The Hairpin and Jezebel. With that said, this was the only essay that was even remotely interesting.

Talking of the internet, we have the term called ‘clickbaits’ and talking of those, the cover of this book is the ultimate clickbait or pickbait (depending on whichever format of the book you chose – digital or print) ; as the cover gives us a passing impression of talking of self-delusions in general; of course, authors corroborate their assertions with their personal experiences. However, here I was effectively reading a diary or at best, a personal blog of someone with a penchant for writing and has opinions on various topics. There is nothing wrong in either of those, but I would not have put up a misleading title; but of course, Trick Mirror: My opinions on various topics is far less impressive than what she put out.

We often observe that a like or dislike for a non-fiction book is often linked to one’s own positions on the issues. In this case, if any, what I faced was an issue of confirmation bias because from what I could reckon, the author and I are politically aligned on most issues. The book contained a several discrete topics, some talking of scams in general (and not linked to her personally) – but the problem with that was all of which she picked up was so widely covered in the media and also in popular culture – with films and documentaries in Netflix and thus, there was nothing new we were getting out of reading these sections.

Her essay – Pure Heroines, her observation that heroines in fiction needed an element of trauma in the past; I found it to be a common feature across leads in fiction (regardless of whether they were male or female). A common theme in a lot of these stories is how they were coping despite the odds against them and thus, has an element of trauma present (orphaned at a young age, divorce or death of a family member, personal trauma, etc. ). She quoted several books in this chapter and I have good reason to believe that she has not read some of them considering a few references were factually incorrect.

I shall not get deep into where I disagreed with her analysis in the essays because a difference of opinion is to do with an individual and does not impact the value of the book.

My relationship with the book was weird, at no point was I entirely bored and it could often be interesting to read the diary (with consent, of course!) or personal blogs of others. That was not the objective of the book or the projection; her essays were supposed to reflect self-delusions and what I got in exchange was random opinions on various topics.

I extended a benefit of doubt till I read the acknowledgements; that she had probably written these essays at different points of time and compiled all of them into this book. But then, she had disclosed in the acknowledgements section that all the essays were specifically written for this book.

To sum up, for all her talk against toxic capitalism and the internet business models based on user engagement – here is her book, one that merely grabs attention. The essays were disconnected, an expression of personal opinions of issues she feels strongly about (with little connection to the title). I enjoy some of the long reads from The New Yorker, but I have never read one from Tolentino – this book might interest those who know her through her works for the magazine. 

I award the book a rating of two on ten.

Rating – 2/10

Have a nice day,

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Why would a man in Morocco who doesn’t have enough to eat buy a television? Why do the poorest in India spend 7 per cent of their food budget on sugar?

This eye-opening book overturns the myths about what it is like to live on very little, revealing the unexpected decisions that millions of people make every day.’

Poor Economics was written in 2011 by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, years before they were eventually awarded the Nobel prize. This book explores the life of the poor in developing countries, with samples mainly from India, Indonesia, Kenya and a few from Latin America. The book is split into two parts – Private Lives where the authors explore the lives and management of personal finances of the poor – the classic question of ‘how do you live with 99 cents a day?’ ; and the latter that focuses on institutions, both government and private (like microfinance).

The economists were known for implementing their randomised controlled trials, used primarily in medicine in the field of economics. We do not have clear answers as to whether welfare schemes or other public policies work and despite that, economists and people in general have strong views on their effectiveness. To explore the same, the authors use randomised controlled trials across various parts of the developing world.

The question that authors explore is the existence of poverty trap – wherein, if people are within the poverty trap, they would never be able to reach levels of income that could help them escape this trap. Economists have conflicting views on this subject where some deny the existence of this trap. The authors discuss the results of the trials he conducted on people escaping the poverty trap.

We have certain fundamental notions that in developing economies – being sent to school and higher income levels could be a panacea to the problem of poverty. However, many children who have been through several years of education in Kenya or India are unable to read a basic paragraph in any language (their native language or the lingua franca). Similar issues were noticed in terms of rising income levels – where people were not consuming more calories, but were preferring to have tastier food (high spending on sugar, higher quality rice, etc.)

The book provides an insight into the average lives of the poor – especially the issue of short term versus long term view. Much as there consensus on the political inclination of the writers of this book, the book was objective in each of their examples; also exploring the arguments of the economists who have opposite views (I could be accused of confirmation bias in picking this book considering my alignment with the economists in terms of politics).
The first part took us through the world of the poor and even dispelled some of the popular notions that schemes are difficult to implement among the poor because of illiteracy or ignorance whereas their beliefs triggering resistance are often traded for a small welfare measure (like a bag of lentils for vaccinating your child).

The second part on institutions was the weaker section of the book, where the authors explore microfinance, policies and the politics that surround it and, entrepreneurs (both success stories and otherwise). The analysis was less on the institutions and seemed like an extension of the first part of the book where the authors had yet again analysed on the impact on individual lives based on the aid extended by the institution. While I understand that through these randomised controlled trials, it ultimately resorts to analysing individual lives, the title was a misnomer which gave me a different expectation.

A strength as well as a weakness of this book was that it was simplified. You do not need a degree in economics to understand or appreciate the book and you are not overloaded with equations or incomprehensible curves and the graphs used were explained in detail by the authors. However, I would have liked it better if they had used more illustrations to demonstrate some of their results. Someone who is well versed with economics might have felt that the book lacked the depth.

The book did not promise any solutions and in fact, the title of the concluding chapter is In Place of a Sweeping Conclusion. For those who do not have much experience or knowledge about life in developing countries, this book could provide insights – on both the economic and social factors that come into play.

On that note, I would award the book a rating of eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben – Book Review

The Hidden Life of Trees is a book from the forester Peter Wohlleben exploring the life of trees – do they communicate with their kind like sentient beings? Do they share resources? Do they protect their young and come together to manage a crisis? Or are they just objects performing life processes only for themselves? These are some of the questions that Peter Wohlleben answers based on his research and observation during his own profession.

‘In Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing, Chris J. Cuomo critiques the animal rights stance that proceeds solely from the logic that some animals are sentient and can feel pain, because it privileges sentience in an ecology that relies on both sentient and non-sentient beings. This privileging, she writes, “comes out of the assumption that human beings are paradigmatic ethical objects, and that other life-forms are valuable only in so far as they are seen as similar to humans.”’

-          How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell (click for reading the review) – chapter 5: Ecology of Strangers

I have quoted this passage from a book that I previously read; I am not here to discuss the merits of the quote or ethics of animal rights activists – many may not even believe that life-forms are valuable so long as they resemble human characteristics. However, it is true that ethical treatment of members of the ‘plant kingdom’ has not been a topic of discussion. Thus, in this book – the author brings in the features of trees that resemble sentient beings – their experience of pain, how they provide for resources to each other, their defence mechanisms and sense of a community.

The author observed trees primarily in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in western Germany – and analysed the behaviours and the community spirit of the beech trees. Even though most of the book was focused on Central Europe – most people who are familiar with forests can relate to the author’s anecdotes – as expressed by different people knowledgeable on the topic in the foreword to the book.

The author started very well in the book – trying to ‘humanise’ trees in every way – talking about the networks they create for communication, the defence mechanisms they develop for protecting themselves, etc. The book was structured well wherein the author made it clear on what he was going to establish in each chapter heading. To keep the reader engaged, he often made some very strong simplistic conclusion which are totally against a common perception and then went on to elaborate how it is not simple as that. One such example is how he made an observation as to how high carbon emissions helped trees to grow faster but with the flipside that trees that trees have evolved in a manner where they are meant to take time to mature.

The book also provided a whole new perspective on the kind of trees we plant in gardens or public parks for ‘beauty’, their life is not much different from the life of cattle in a cruel dairy farm. It was interesting to know that the beech tree with red leaves which we find beautiful is a consequence of a negative ‘health condition’ of the tree.

With that said, the author assumes a lot about the reader – first that most of us have some knowledge of forests / trees in general. If I am asked shown a picture of ten different commonly found trees – I would be surprised if I can identify more than even two. Moreover, I am someone who has never taken a keen interest in forests or nature tourism at large – and the author often makes statements like ‘as we all love being in forests’; in fact, I have visited the Rhineland-Palatinate region myself but more so to visit Karl Marx's house than forests.

That is at least a problem with me and not the book as such (except for his assumptions), but many of the conclusions made were mere conjectures with statements like, ‘the tree is still obtaining resources which means there must be some kind of communication’ (paraphrased). The author could have merely stated it as his belief and cited that further research is ongoing.

A minor issue I felt was that the book was translated a little too much – having all measures in gallons, Fahrenheit, miles, inches, etc. that it was a mathematical exercise for me to visualise most of the measures he had cited.

To conclude, this book could be of great interest to those with a green thumb and a love for forests. In my case, this could well be another case of a right book in the wrong hands. It was informative to begin with, but I lost him in the middle of the book when he went too deep into forests and forest behaviour. If the author had some images in the book to illustrate his observations, the book could have helped a reader like myself better. To the extent that he gave me a new perspective when it comes to looking at trees, forests, the fungi around them – I would consider that the author has successfully communicated his message.

Owing to these mixed feeling I have had on the book, I would sit on the fence regarding this book and award it a rating of five on ten.

Rating – 5/10

Have a nice day,

Sunday, 26 April 2020

The American Crusade by Mark Spivak – Book Review

Note: I received an advance reader's copy of the book from TCK Publishing – if you are interested in the book following the review – refer to external links below. Your support to writers is always appreciated. 

The American Crusade is a political narrative with a plot set in early 21st century. A terrorist attack in the American Midwest has led to the loss of over 3,000 civilian lives. A terror outfit based out of Kabulistan assumed responsibility leading to a sentiment of anger among the American public and a demand for reaction with politicians across party lines identifying opportunities to further their own cause.

The incumbent president is George Cane, from the GOP and a powerful political family which has had a president in the recent past. He was facing the biggest crisis his country had faced in the recent times, with a potential military invasion in the middle east yet again, within a span of ten years. In the meantime, the vice-president – Richard Hornsby, is the man running the show from behind the scenes, an astute and pragmatic politician who ensures to send the right message to Cane’s core base – and dubbing the invasion as the final crusade. The opposition had its own issues to deal with – that an opposition to the war could be perceived as lack of patriotism, making their chances of winning back the White House remote.

The plot also has various other issues touched upon – the underlying opposition to homosexuality back in the day and how an exposé could be a political suicide for any politician. Both Cane and Hornsby were not shown to have a particular opinion on the issue but were not hesitant to use it to undermine their opponents or appealing to their core voters. From a reader’s perspective, it is quite strange to look back and realise as to how these were highly contentious less than two decades ago and from there, it is comforting today that an openly gay politician could carry two states in the 2020 Presidential Primaries – but there is still a long way to go and I would not digress further in the review.

The multiple issues covered in the book could make the readers lose track unless they are politically aware, as there are multiple characters and if we do not understand the context, we would find the plot to be going nowhere. This meant that there was little scope for character building – with the exception of Hornsby and George Cane himself – neither of whom were particularly likeable (owing to my own political leanings which is no secret).

There was also an interesting sub plot involving a boy named Abdul in Baghdad, who was appealed by radical Islamist ideas and was listening to radio from the neighbouring Persepostan (fictionalised version of Iran). His parents’ struggle to take him away from the path and Abdul’s skulduggery in continuing with it were my favourite parts of the novel.

Indeed, the book is a work of fiction but at the same time, it is hard to classify it as such considering it is written in a manner that makes it feel real; mainly as most of the events in the story are inspired by events fresh in most of readers’ memories. The anecdotes linking it with the previous crusade was also interesting; but that is entirely upto the reader as skipping them would cause no impact on the flow of the plot.

However, the contemporary nature of the book was also its weakness; for instance – there is a Republican president whose family member was also a president less than a decade ago, a powerful vice president, a terror attack leading to a war in the middle east, a senator who is worried about damaging her presidential aspirations – who also happens to have been the first lady in the past, a budding senator who is gaining a lot of attention and has familial connections to Indonesia, and the list goes on. By now, have you been able to identify the real-world equivalents of these characters? If not, you have an amazing political book coming your way.

To me, I felt that I was going through the news of the past with names of the people changed. One could ask what’s in a name but when you could use ‘United States’, ‘France’, ‘UK’, ‘Republicans’, ‘Democrats’, etc. I do not understand the reason behind fictionalising Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran with Sumeristan, Kabulistan and Persepostan respectively. In fact, Sumeristan even has Baghdad and the Anbar province within its boundaries. I do not understand the reason behind replacing the names of the sovereign states.

This is a fast-paced political narrative – and is enjoyable for those who wish to have a glimpse into the conversations and power struggles among the politicians in power. I understand that there is going to be a sequel to the book and I shall be looking forward to it. On that note, I would award the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

External links:

Amazon link: (US Link - available in Europe as well)

Have a nice day,

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Letters of a French Soldier by Reymond Molle – Book Review

Backround: Peace Palace, The Hague - where the letters are stored today

Note: I read this book in French

In the Champs Elysées in Paris, at Arc de Triomphe, you have the eternal flame commemorating the ‘unknown soldier’ who lost their lives during the several wars (mainly the First and the Second World wars). However, the term ‘unknown’ might be pejorative as each of them had their own story, their own emotions during those darks times which we have unfortunately not yet uncovered. Reymond Molle is one such ‘unknown’ soldier, whom we get to know through the letters he wrote to his wife during the war.

Reymond’s family comprised him, his wife Emma and their son Georges who was three years old when the war had started. In this anthology, we have letters starting from November 1914, when he was posted in Villefranche-sur-Mer next to the border of Italy in the south of France till he was moved to the trenches in the north of France. He wrote several times during the war to his wife and most of them were regarding his concern over the health of his wife and son.

Several films and books have romanticised war and the heroism of the soldiers to the extent that we have developed an image where soldiers have been trained to lose all their emotions, develop a hatred towards the enemy and are ready to die for their country. However, the reality of a frontline soldier is very different and most of them are merely longing for the day when the war is over, and they could return to their families.

In the letters in this book, Reymond wrote more about farming and was giving advice on how to go about the job as his wife was now managing their farm alone, than about the war and the politics surrounding it. He never expressed any hatred towards Germans in these letters and in fact, prayed for the dead of both the sides. While writing about villages occupied by German forces, he did not write on how he was longing to take it back for France but wrote more about his concern for the families that were split by this and had no news of their members in the occupied villages.

This is a sad story – Reymond had a young doting family and at the start, he was expressing hope for the day when the devastation would be over and could return to normalcy but as it progressed, he lost hope and I could sense that he was beginning to foresee his own death.

Wars achieve nothing, for example, this particular war started with a political conflict between Austria and Serbia but then, more Germans, Russians and the French died than Austrians and Serbians put together (not that a statistic otherwise would have given a meaning to the war). It is a cliché but true – that war is a game played by old politicians where the young lose their lives. And in the end, what did this war achieve? Another war, a bigger one where there was more loss of life.

This book gives a personal angle of a soldier during a war and gives us a new perspective of wars different from what we might have had based on what we have seen and read in popular culture. Sometimes, it feels like invading a personal space while reading these letters, but the stories of war are best told through personal stories, like the diary of Anne Frank.

It would be a good experience if we are able to collect all the stories of unknown soldiers around the world to understand the redundancy of war. For this experience, I give this book a rating of eight on ten.

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

Saturday, 18 April 2020

How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Nothing is harder to do these days than nothing. But in a world where our value is determined by our 24/7 data productivity . . . doing nothing may be our most important form of resistance.

So argues artist and critic Jenny Odell in this field guide to doing nothing (at least as capitalism defines it). Odell sees our attention as the most precious—and overdrawn—resource we have. Once we can start paying a new kind of attention, she writes, we can undertake bolder forms of political action, reimagine humankind’s role in the environment, and arrive at more meaningful understandings of happiness and progress.

Far from the simple anti-technology screed, or the back-to-nature meditation we read so often, How to do Nothing is an action plan for thinking outside of capitalist narratives of efficiency and techno-determinism. Provocative, timely, and utterly persuasive, this book is a four-course meal in the age of Soylent.’

How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy is a book by the artist Jenny Odell – where she focuses on how to do ‘nothing’, and avoiding the aspects of the modern world that highly demand your attention such as the social media apps and the corporate world that we have built.

She starts with describing her neighbourhood in Oakland, California and her visits to the rose garden to observe the nature around her and watch the birds. She goes on to describe the joy of eventually beginning to identify different kinds of birds in her neighbourhood by the sounds that they make. However, volunteering in the rose garden or admiring the nature in today’s world would be considered as ‘doing nothing’ as it does not generate any value to the economy.

From thereon, she moves on to explaining the manner in which social media applications work – that their primary measure is user engagement and thus, do everything possible to grab your attention. She also has segments on social and political movements of the past, ranging from Thoreau to the workers movement in San Francisco in 1940s. There are also a lot of anecdotes to works of art throughout the book.

As you can observe from above, in a 200 page book, she talks about social media, nature and bird watching, building neighbourhood networks, political movements of the past and also works of art – most of it with a fair amount of detail. This is the reason why I felt the book was lacking focus – where her broad message was conveyed– which is to engage more with the local community and enjoy small things around you rather than being stuck in the ‘attention economy’; but her anecdotes seemed unnecessary.

The title was misleading too, to add a bit of context, I read this book during the lockdown enforced by the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, the title seemed rather intriguing and even useful during this period. However, this book was far from a ‘how to do’ than presenting her own opinions and her very definition of negative was vague. To quote her:

‘For me, doing nothing means disengaging from one framework (the attention economy) not only to give myself time to think, but to do something else in another framework.’ – page 179

To her, nothing merely means what is not deemed ‘productive’ by the capitalist society such as bird watching or enjoying the rose garden. She goes on to urge us to come out of such perceptions to avoid the attention economy and enjoy the nature around us. While that is a very good suggestion, investigating the varieties of plants and birds in a locality is unlikely to be the interest of every person; for instance, my very act of reading her book was not ‘productive’ because that does not contribute to the economy in anyway (yes, I did pay for the book but then, that is where the ‘economic value’ of the transaction ended). Thus, her definition of the word nothing was vague and what she largely seems to mean is doing something not deemed productive (which frankly should cover even watching a free to air television channel).

To conclude, I appreciate the broad message of the book and based on my discussions on the book with local book clubs around (by video!), a lot of us agree that we may have a new perspective while meeting neighbours or looking at birds in the sky. That small change in our lives could be attributed as a success of the writer. However, presentation is very important in a non-fiction work and this book was neither easy to read nor was it worth the arduous reading effort.

On that note, I would award the book a rating four on ten.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,

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