Monday, October 19, 2009

Book Recommendations

One can't read only the Goldstone Report from cover to cover without respite; there have to be other readings to balance it. So here are three quick recommendations about books I've been reading.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes. This is a rather revisionist look at the New Deal of the 1930s, so it's relevant reading as we watch President Obama revamp the American economy, or not. Shlaes starts with the non-controversial, indeed straightforward fact that for all the fine things Roosevelt's New Deal accomplished, it didn't pull the American economy out of the recession. World War II did that. Her thesis is that it didn't, because it did the wrong things, encouraging various statist experiments while interfering with the power of the free market and especially innovators and industrialists to do it on their own.

It's a provocative thesis, and yes, it's oh-so-very-relevant. Alas, however, she doesn't do much to prove it. She's a fine storyteller, she consistently keeps us engaged in her flowing descriptions. She's convincing that Roosevelt was a master politician, but we already knew that, just as we knew the New Deal wasn't a careful application of a fully consistent economic world view. She likes Wendell Willkie, the head of an electric company who eventually ran against Roosevelt as a Republican in 1944, and she positions him as a counter-Roosevelt figure. (Interestingly, Willkie was almost the last Republican presidential candidate ever to be endorsed by the New York Times, but that's a different story).

The problem is that for her thesis to carry weight, not merely to intrigue, it would have had to offer a lot more economics than it does. The book probably would then have been a much slower read, and less fun, but it would have been more convincing, or at least more challenging. As it is, it's more a book of jounalism than economic history. I do recommend it though, for its interesting perspective and cast of fascinating characters and events.

In a dramatic leap we turn to David A. Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Kessler is a physician, lawyer, and top FDA bureaucrat who in spite of being as well informed as anyone, didn't manage not to be fat. So eventually he went looking for the science behind this, which he presents in this book. It's almost 300 pages long, and he could have written it in 30 - but again, as with Shlaes, those 30 would have been intense and demanding (and wouldn't have counted as a book). This way, it's a readable book that can be skimmed with no major intellectual challenge.

Kessler's thesis, in one sentence, is that sugar fat and salt make us want to eat more sugar salt and fat. Whether they understand the science or not, the food industry has cracked this truth and does its best to offer what Kessler calls hyper-palatable food, which means irresistible.

I came away from the book with the conviction that the only food one should eat is unprocessed food. As an acquaintance of mine (who hasn't read the book but gets the message) has been saying all along: I never eat anything that was created in a factory.

Near the end of the book Kessler tries to offer ways to free oneself from the tyranny of industrial sugar-salt-fat. He recommends formulating and applying counter-commands, that will block the imperatives of the enticing food we see all around us. It occurs to me that this really may work. I eat only kosher food, so all those yummy-looking extravagances I see all around me when I'm in America: I've never had them, I have no chemically inbuilt memories of how much I crave them, and were I to reach for one of them, my own repulsion would be stronger. I'll bet they taste heavenly, but I have no urge to eat them. On the contrary.

Finally, let's go to Kazau Ishiguro's Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, which just came out a few months ago. It's not his magnificent The Remains of the Day, one of the better books I've read, but it is a very good book. Five short stories, very lightly interwoven, about itinerant musicians (and one itinerant English teacher) and their world.

I liked the way Ishiguro used American English when his narrators are American (or East European), but English English when they're Brits - but maybe that's banal when dealing with a master wordsmith. His depiction of the itinerant's world was new to me: folks who spend their career on the edge of the normative family-work-walking-the-dog-saving-for-retirement world, indeed, they live off that world and encounter it every day, without any apparent feeling of regret for not being in it. Artists who make a living from their art, without high-flying aspirations nor the despondency of not achieving them.

Not that they all live lives of serene contentment: if so, what would the author write about? Most face a flaw in their lives, or several of them; and the stories are not about how they get resolved, either. It being reality Ishiguro would like to comment on, none of the flaws actually go away. At best, they evolve, moving from one state to another. As Jane says in Mr. and Mrs. Smith - hardly a profound cultural creation, that - happy ending are merely stories that haven't ended yet. Ishiguro, however, can be profound, and this is a wistful book, beautifully written, that may well cause you to notice the band in a cafe alongside a piazza in a new way.

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