Monday, July 09, 2007

Summer Reading

So here's the post I was thinking about last time- reviews of some of the books I've read recently. By 'review' I mean 'Margaret's opinion', not anything thorough or scholarly. I wish I could figure out how to put the little pictures of the covers, but I'm not that savvy with my blog. If anyone can tell me how, I would appreciate it! In the meantime, links will have to do.

Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court (Greenburg). A detailed look at the choices for nomination to the Supreme Court over the last 25-30 years. This was very readable, not purposely obscure, and showed some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that goes on when there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The author interviewed several justices and also talks about their process of argument, discussion, and opinion writing. The book covered several of the failed nominations- Bork, Miers, etc- and the politics behind their failures, as well as the surprising shifts some justices have made once they were confirmed (Souter, etc). Being a new book, it covers all the way up to the recent Roberts and Alito nominations. I'm interested in the judicial branch, particularly the Court Supreme and the ways in which it uses or limits itself in scope, and this was really interesting to me. It helped me understand how great a departure from the past this season's slate of opinions was. It'll be interesting to see what the Roberts court does in the future.

Freakonomics (Levitt, Dubner) This book was very interesting, even though it had no overarching point (except, 'Look what economics can discover!') The author applied economic study to some unorthodox topics. This book got a lot of flack when it came out, particularly from the Christian right, because it postulates that the drop in crime in the early 1990s (after a steadily rising rate in the 80s) was because of the legalization of abortion in the early 70s and thus an eventual drop in teenage criminals. I don't think that's a flaw in the book, though- their conclusions deserve to be addressed, not just dismissed. Just because eugenics is a horrible practice, biblically, doesn't mean that it wouldn't 'work' if applied. It needs to be objected to on other grounds than practicality. However, this book mentions several times how important it is to make sure that one is really discovering a cause-effect relationship using economics, and not just parallel sets of data that aren't caused by each other, and I don't think it did the best job of proving that in its own arguments. It's still interesting, though. Other topics it covers are 'how much money do drug dealers really make?' and 'Does a certain name really help a child do better in life?' It's an interesting book, though not very applicable or useful.

The Bookseller of Kabul (Seierstad) This is an account by a Swedish journalist of an Afghan family she lived with. She met a bookseller in the city of Kabul, a middle-aged man who seemed to be what every Westerner would hope to proliferate in Afghanistan. He prized reading and education, tried hard to preserve his country's heritage and opposed the Taliban, and wanted to see his country make material progress. He would seem to be an example of the country's hope for a better future. However, the book mostly focuses on the women of the family and how they still have pretty miserable lives, subject to the whims of the males in the family. The bookseller has two wives, plays favorites, treats his daughters badly, and doesn't let them go to school or work. It's an interesting sociological case study, and (I thought) good evidence for how Islam distorts gender roles. It's hard to tell, though, how much of the family dynamics come from Islam, how much from tradition, and how much from just the bookseller's personality. It doesn't turn out to be the flattering portrayal the journalist had been expecting- it puts the bookseller in a very bad light- but it does highlight how deep the cultural differences are between Middle Eastern and Western thinking.

The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. (Albright) The former secretary of state under Clinton, Madeleine Albright, discusses the importance of religion in today's political climate. She discusses the rise of 'evangelicals' as a force in American culture, mostly with a negative slant. She seems to fall in the same category as most religious liberals- religion is a good and necessary force for teaching morality, but when it comes to specifics like abortion and gay marriage, well, the government shouldn't decide things like that. Nothing instructive or new that I hadn't heard before, though she writes well and honestly. It's definitely not a straight-out attack; she has some good things to say about the religious right, which gives the book a balanced and mature tone. No screeds in sight. She then talks about the current world climate, in which fundamentalism in many religions is rising, terrorism is on the rise, and Islam is a global issue. She applauds President Bush for taking a strong stand against terrorism- again, nice, coming from a Clinton admin official. (She then points out how mismanaged and short-sighted the war in Iraq was; true, again). Her basic conclusion is "Everyone slow down, take a deep breath, and try to understand the other side's point of view". That's not anything revolutionary, but it sure would be great if more countries and groups paid attention to it. A good book, but nothing essential or groundbreaking.

The work of Carl Barks, and Don Rosa. These two storytellers delighted me for many hours of my childhood. My dear husband downloaded some collections of stories, and I've been been amusing him by the number of times I laugh out loud at what I'm reading. Now, lest anyone turn up their nose at the idea of Donald Duck comics being worth any time in this world, I know for certain that those and National Geographic magazine were two of the most educational things I read as a child. Not only were the comics funny, but Donald, Uncle Scrooge, and Huey/Dewey/Louie went to just about every country on the globe. I learned more cultural and historical information than I would have from just about any other source, and had a great time doing it, too. I'm definitely going to make sure my kids have ready access to these great stories!

So. There are more to add to this list, but I'll save them till another time. In the meantime, please let me know any recommendations that you have, or even cautions of things to avoid. I love to hear what people are reading!