Notes from the Now

Posts Tagged ‘barack_obama’

My January 2010 in Books

In Books, History on February 2, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Haphazard Notes on Reading Books from January 2010


A View from Above by Wilt Chamberlain

The Other Side of the River by Alex Kotlowitz

The Book of Basketball By Bill Simmons

The Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King

Notes from Gaza by Joe Sacco


New Year’s Eve / Day

“Project Project”

Haiti Earthquake


USA Politics – MA Election / State of the Union

Apple Tablet (iPad)

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Best Books of the Decade?

In literature on November 27, 2009 at 12:49 am

I don’t believe we’ve already reached this year’s season of lists, much less that we’ve reached the point where “Best Blanks of the Decade” lists are being circulated.  But, as Pete Lit points out, we’ve already got the Times Online UK’s Best Books of the Decade list to ponder.  For the most part, I think ranked lists of literature like this are only useful in establishing what books are well regarded generally, and not useful in any comparative sense. So #98 is not necessarily much “worse” than #12.  Still, I have to admit that I’m always interested (from a cultural literacy standpoint) in finding out what’s what.

Here are the books from the the Times UK list that I’ve read, and a quick comment:

  • #89 The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (2008) — Certainly the best book of Rushdie’s from the past decade.
  • #81 The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (2006) — A meditation on morality that leaves you liking almost none of the characters.
  • #50 No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies by Naomi Klein (2000) — Klein is very persuasive & thorough in looking at the psychology of branding and corporate identity formation (her subsequent books on economics are nowhere near as solid)
  • #44 Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005) — Uchicago prof makes you go hm…
  • #33 Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan (2004) — I was stunned by how good Chronicles was.  The distinctness of Dylan’s voice and the uniqueness of the literary style made this a thoroughly enjoyable read.
  • #24 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) — Ishiguro steps lightly into the world of science fiction with magnificent results.
  • #20 White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000) — Eventhough the story fell apart in the end, Smith’s pacing and voice was fresh.
  • #12 A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000) — I didn’t much like AHWOSG when I read it in 2001, but have loved everything else by Eggers that I’ve read since then.  Makes me want to revisit this book.
  • #6 The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000) —  Gladwell’s gift is his engaging writing-style and the fresh perspective he brings to most topics.   He’s often guilty of over-simplification, and of ignoring established disciplines when they don’t suit him, but he always makes you think.
  • #3 Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (2004) — A great book that was really released in 1995, Obama would have been lauded as a great writer had he not ventured into American politics.
  • #2 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003) — A remarkably good graphic novel, packed with much more history than the film version.

The rest of these are on my “to read” shelf or a wish list of some variety

  • #1 The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) — I’ve been meaning to read this for a year now, and am now going to wait until we get to the desolate part of the Chicago winter
  • #98 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007) — want to read
  • #54 Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (2003) — Bought, traded away, still want to read
  • #32 Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002) — On my waiting to read shelf at home
  • #28 The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross (2007) — On my waiting to read shelf at home
  • #The plot against america by Philip Roth (2004) — On my waiting to read shelf at home
  • #14 Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (2003) — On my waiting to read shelf at home

The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation

In History, literature, sociology on October 18, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Early this year, I read Pauline Maier’s document history of the Declaration of Independence. It looked at the Declaration as the end point of a process and made some fascinating comparisons to other document sources, the conventions of the day, the competing interests in the revolutionary movement, as well as the genius of the primary author (and of the drafting committee). The declaration itself was a fascinating hodge-podge of old & new, (and ‘er, “something borrowed & something blue”) that has shown itself to be much more than the sum of its parts.

Drew Hansen’s “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation” tries to do something very similar with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (audio). Hansen puts the speech in its context at the March on Washington, in the Civil Rights Movement of the day, and in Dr. King’s career up to that point. Hansen illuminates which aspects of the speech were part of Dr. King’s usual ministerial stump speech, which parts were crafted specifically for the context of the March on Washington, and what was simply inspiration that came to him at the moment.  In so doing, Hansen gives us tremendous insight into the man, the moment, and the times.

As interesting as the textual analysis itself was, Hansen succeeds most in putting the speech as a whole in its context during it’s time, in its immediate aftermath, and talking about the process (of decontextualization) that made it iconic.

For as much of a watershed moment as it’s “remembered” as being, and in spite of the powerful impact that it had on those who were listening at the times, the speech was essentially forgotten for most of the interval before Dr. King’s assassination.  King himself had begun to lose his luster as moving the struggle for civil rights outside of the South brought him new detractors, and challenging the Vietnam war further complicated his relationship with the powers that be.  Sadly, it is his martyrdom that allowed for his entire career to be looked at beyond the individual news-cycles of the day, and helped society at large to appreciate the affection that African-Americans had for Dr. King.   It is only further after the fact that the speech was recalled and elevated to be a stand-in for the entirety of the Civil Rights Era.

It’s tough to read something like this without comparing the story to the happenings in the present day, and there’s a consistency in the style (and substance) of the attacks — all usually prefaced with “I’m not a racist” — made on Dr. King and President Obama that’s startling and ultimately disheartening.   Dr. King suffered through a line of attack that should be familiar to the modern American — from being accused of trying to enslave the white man, to being a socialist, being more orator than “doer”, winning an under-deserved Nobel Prize, taking attacks on personal conduct/history — and ultimately came to understand that while he had seen the promised land, that he was unlikely to get there with us.

Fortunately, one piece of his legacy is still making the journey to that promised land with us.


Catching Up: March and April 2009

In Africa, Chicago, History, photography, sociology on May 31, 2009 at 8:02 pm

The trouble with this kind of endeavor is that when you fall behind, you tend to fall way behind!

I’ll blame Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor for getting me behind on this project.  I wanted to say something meaningful about how easily the underground economies he writes about in 90s housing-project Chicago could stand in for situations of poverty anywhere. Changing the locations or currencies wouldn’t change anything essential about the kinds of social networks and webs that the poor need to survive in the face of the obstacles they encounter.  “Off the Books” is a bit of a tough read though, as it’s caught somewhere between an old-school ethnography and the kind of literary pop-sociology that’s in vogue these days.    I’ve got Venkatesh’s “Gang Leader for a Day” on the list for later this year (and saw Venkatesh speak at uchicago earlier this year).

Next, I indulged in a comparison of the photographic imagery of Harold Washington and Barack Obama.  We often forget the momentousness of the occasion of Harold Washington’s election as mayor of Chicago held for Chicagoans (of every sort) and African-Americans across the nation.   Harold Washington was elected Mayor of Daley’s Chicago!  Needless to say that without Washington, you simply do not create the environment from which a Barack Obama could rise to prominence.

Being obsessed with the professionalization of do-goodery, I was drawn to Michael Maren’s scathing look at USAID, the UN, and to a lesser degree the Peace Corps, in “The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity“, which focuses on his post-peace corps experiences in Somalia working with USAID, CARE, and Save the Children.  I’d like to believe that the wild west of rampantly unaccountable /unethical foreign aid and international charity that Maren exposes is a thing of the past.  I can’t really believe that it’s over though, and know that the structural ties between the foreign AID industry, the farm and pharmaceutical industries, the charities, and the US Government (and the UN too) are all still in place.   Maren’s accounting of his time in Somalia showed how the short-sightedness of the development industry exacerbated existing problems and created new (worse) problems, and ultimately did very little to help the intended people.  The open questions now are to what degree have these kinds of programs / problems been solved, and to what degree do they still exist?

I also read J.M. Coetzee’s Human Rights classic “Waiting for the Barbarians” in April.  That, I’ll write about separately.


First Take: Paul Tough on Geoffrey Canada in “Whatever it Takes…”

In Education, sociology on May 3, 2009 at 2:35 pm

I bought a copy of Paul Tough’s “Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America” for a very specific reason.  The level of seriousness of the discussion about a Chicago neighborhood applying for one of President Obama’s “Promise Neighborhoods”, which are very much inspired by the successes of Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, seems to intensify daily.  I wanted to take a look at the HCZ with an eye to the question of what can really be replicated (in Chicago), and what is simply the product of serendipity and/or the charisma of a uniquely special individual.

52 pages into Tough’s book on Canada and the HCZ, I have to say that I’m impressed!  The book gives us a rather nice history of the arguments about poverty, childhood development, and education that have played out in the social / political / academic realms over the past 50 years.  It lends a much appreciated background to situating Canada’s efforts, and helps to advance the notion that some of the ideas are, in fact, transferable and not specific to their milieu.

I am, by nature, hesitant to discount the importance of the personal charisma of individual leaders in making change or moving communities to action, so I’m nowhere near convinced that any committee (even working with HCZ as a model) could replace Geoffrey Canada himself in the process.

Let’s see if the next 200 pages can compel me to look at this differently!


William Julius Wilson

In Events, sociology on February 26, 2009 at 1:21 pm

I got the opportunity to hear William Julius Wilson speak at the University of Chicago this week (on the topic of “Race in the Age of Obama”).  Back in the day, as an undergrad sociologist at UCHICAGO, I read quite a few of WJW’s classic books.  I’d recommend:

Side note:  Wilson mentioned that he was ecstatic to learn that Season 2 of The Wire was based loosely on “When Work Disappears”.