Review of Nicholas A. Christakis' Apollo's Arrow
It's not much of an exaggeration to say that no one on the planet would be surprised that COVID-19 keeps its grip on us as a hot topic. But even nearly a year into the pandemic going global, there's still a lack of good, comprehensive books on the disease written for readers who aren't medical professionals.
Nicholas Christakis is both physician and sociologist, putting him in a unique position to examine all the pandemic's layers. And he gives us the best broad survey so far: succeeding as a readable recounting of the pandemic's first year, a snapshot of a moment in history, and a portrayal of the multiple overlapping levels of things that we are trying to understand and come to grips with - not just the disease itself but how it is affecting us and our societies today, and what profound and permanent effects it might have wrought on our futures.
Starting with the mysterious circumstances of a virus that had lurked in Chinese bats for decades jumping to humans, Christakis lays out the next year roughly chronologically and thematically, tackling the issues as they arose, exploring them in depth whenever they arrive on the scene. Sometimes, like the appearance of COVID in humans, those depths are murky. Sometimes, like the genetic mapping of the disease or scientists often foiled in getting out information about COVID by their own standard processes, he can draw a straight line (or arrow shot!). Often, though, there are crooked lines and divergences. Sometimes those are by design of those involved, like politicians denying the seriousness of the disease, or born from seeking the origins of anti-maskers, conspiracy theories, and the tight-knit and occasionally impenetrable anti-vax communities. Wherever Christakis goes, though, he himself is always clear and always makes sense, even when it's a struggle to make sense of what he's discussing.
Above all, Christakis is even-handed. He does not hesitate to call out situations that resulted in preventable deaths. Neither does he hesitate to defend what may have been unpopular positions at the time when they made sense, or criticize popular positions or actions that he argues aren't worth the trade-offs they present. He does not judge people for being frightened, but also explains where fear and action are warranted, and where fear does more harm than good. He examines events and trends in "real time", while making educated speculations about where they will lead. He concludes by using history and science to tell us, to quote the title of the final chapter, how plagues end.
It's almost guaranteed that eventually we'll be inundated with countless books and articles gazing back on the COVID pandemic in detail. Maybe those future works will reveal all kinds of information that is still hidden or undiscovered, throwing light on a lot of items from the last year that currently remain dark. Until then, at this writing Apollo's Arrow remains far and away the best all-in-one source for readers who want the big and small pictures about how we got here and where we really are now.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: RA 644.C67 C57 2020
January 19, 2021
Review of Josephine Wolff's You'll see this message when it is too late
If you're afraid of computer hacking, cyberattacks, or cyberwarfare, this book is likely not at the top of your to-read list. You should read it anyway. Maybe not at night before going to bed - but perhaps, for instance, if you're thinking about using some unsecured public wireless network to check your bank account or place online orders.
Wolff’s detailed chronicle about “the legal and economic aftermath of cybersecurity breaches”, as the subtitle goes, published by MIT, is both unsettling and strangely comforting. Unsettling in that it is one of the most accessible recent records of just how many and how powerful the cybercriminals are, including national governments like China and North Korea. There are a lot of familiar names of victims in this book: Sony and Playstation, Paypal, not to mention the U.S. and state governments. But there’s also comfort in a back-handed way that the big criminals typically have big targets—or if not, like China, their aim isn’t usually individual financial fraud but larger actions like cyberespionage—and from Wolff’s chapters about what numerous government, law enforcement, and private agencies and companies are doing to combat cybercrime. Her chapters on computer defense are thorough—sometimes clinically so, but always understandable.
This isn’t to say that readers should be casual about their own security. You may not have North Korea threatening you if you don’t do what they want (as Sony faced), but there could be a criminal, say, sitting right outside your hotel lobby snagging your credit card number as it flies through an inadequately secured network accessed with an unprotected or only partially-protected computer.
There is no way to make yourself completely invulnerable to cybercrime, of course, just like any crime. And Wolff’s book isn’t really a how-to manual of personal defense. Between the good and bad it portrays, the diligent bloodhounds hunting the criminals and the often stupid, preventable mistakes companies and governments have made, by the end it might not make you feel better or worse about the cybersecurity situation. But it will give you a much vaster picture of the state of that situation today. Not to mention a deeper sense that, like so many other things, some care, vigilance, and precautions could save you a lot of trouble.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: HV6773 .W655 2018
November 23, 2020
Review of Stephen F. Knott's The Lost Soul of the American Presidency
Published last year, Stephen F. Knott’s The Lost Soul of the American Presidency makes for a timely, if somewhat discouraging, read for the final days before the 2020 election—and one way or another will likely remain so afterward. The discouraging part isn’t simply due to recent events, though, but Knott’s detailed illustrations of how far back some trends we’ve seen emerging in such a big way in recent years really go. Yet he adds that while history may not give cause for optimism, the situation isn’t entirely hopeless.
Like many well-done history books examining sacred cows, Lost Soul is either going to offer up plenty to offend readers, or things they will find amazingly interesting—or both. Knott has a great deal to say, not all of it pleasant, about presidents like Jefferson, Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Trump. But whatever else one can say about Knott’s take on these presidents, he adheres to historical accuracy.
Some readers may encounter another issue. For those not already thoroughly familiar with the creation of the Constitution and the early American presidency, there is one large potential hurdle in order getting through the book: the fact that the ideas of “popular rule” and a partisan presidency have become so thoroughly entrenched in American culture since the 19th century, it might be hard to accept that this isn’t what most of the Founders intended. On the other hand, it’s also a mistake to assumethat the Founders were anti-majority rule. Knott points out that what they frequently warned about were what they called “passions”—the shifting emotional waves and crests of popular opinion without logic, thoughtfulness, or careful consideration.
Their answer to this was supposed to be the office of the presidency. They envisioned the president as a chief of state above party politics (easy enough to do since parties hadn’t quite been invented yet) who would act as a national unifying force.
What we’ve come to with the presidency, of course, is something very different. But Knott insists that this is not a path we started down in recent memory. He argues that much of it began with the “experimentation” of Woodrow Wilson, but that some threads can be traced back all the way to America’ third president, Thomas Jefferson.
Not surprisingly, Knott says the one president who exemplified the original ideals of the Chief Executive was George Washington. While his presidency was not without its turmoil—at one point Philadelphia rioters demanded his removal—Washington, chief hero of the American Revolution, wasn’t just an easy figure to unify around but someone who could personally bring people together, including his own sometimes fractious cabinet. But the decline of the office started early: John Adams’ Alien and Sedition laws; Thomas Jefferson’s “Revolution of 1800” that began emphasizing the “passions” of the majority, along with starting the disenfranchisement of free blacks, in order to gather more power around his party; and the populist Andrew Jackson, who wielded the passions of the majority like a cudgel, famously battled the judiciary, and often threatened—sometimes physically—those who opposed him. Knott also explains that it was Jackson who did the most early on to tie the presidency to class warfare when his attack against the Bank of the United States became seen as a battle between the elite and “common” Americans.
American history as outlined in Knott’s book isn’t unending decline. He harbors a great admiration for the steady hand of John Quincy Adams, a president who recognized his own inability to be charismatic and fight off constant and usually false negative attacks by his opponents; the even-handedness that Abraham Lincoln showed long before the Civil War despite originally being a Jackson appointee; the devotion to office and country by Ulysses S. Grant, whose administration’s history has long since been overshadowed by its other members’ scandals; and the attempts at more fair-mindedness (except concerning civil rights) by the now almost-forgotten William Howard Taft, who had the misfortune of being sandwiched between two presidency-expanding giants, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
What Knott does is portray not so subtly, but with intense accuracy, a system where degradation runs deeper than the good things done by the office holders, making it extremely difficult to fix. We see the demagoguery of Andrew Johnson, the truest executive ancestor of Donald Trump; Johnson’s rhetoric could reach such extremes he occasionally even made some Southerners uncomfortable despite being pro-South. Woodrow Wilson is presented as a major turning point, the culmination of the worst elements of the presidency up till then, including using “passions” as a weapon, racism (being a major civil rights-buster), enflaming class warfare, and heavy propagandizing in the case of America’s entry into World War I. Knott goes on to contrast FDR and Truman, then Eisenhower—a pinnacle in American’s 20th century trust of the presidency—with the popular and “revolutionary” Kennedy who believed making the presidency more powerful was the only way to meet the late 20th century’s challenges. From Wilson on, whatever power the Executive Branch successfully claimed for its own stayed its own. The history concludes with Donald Trump, of course, who has—as Knott puts it mildly at one point—done a lot of negative unprecedented things which would have horrified the founders, including attacking specific judges by name and threatening to imprison his opponents’ relatives, or only had precedent in the disastrous presidency of Andrew Johnson.
The final chapter, “The Prospects for Renewal” (that name also part of the book’s subtitle), is a hopeful summary, though not overly optimistic: “But if history is any guide,” Knott writes, “(Trump) could eventually be followed by Trump squared”. Like the presidency never surrendering a power it has successfully taken, norms that are broken are not easily fixed. “But this is not inevitable,” Knott adds. History is our guide for the possibilities. There is also the factor that people’s trust in government being at an all-time low is necessarily a situation Americans want. But it is noteworthy that the chapter about our prospects for staving off the presidency’s “decline and demagoguery” is the shortest in the book, at just 11 pages.
At the very least, and whether they are in favor or opposed to Knott's arguments, Lost Soul should give its readers a clear idea of just what they want the presidency to be.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: JK511 .K66 2019
October 26, 2020
Review of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments
The Testaments doesn’t try to recapture the dark magic of its predecessor but produces a different kind of magic all its own, sharp and grinding, filled with terror and small acts of heroism that add up to great ones. It’s a grueling and beautifully-written story of fighting, scraping, and discovering that even when you escape there might still be a bloody mess to deal with. It’s the excellent sequel that Atwood’s readers have spent years waiting for.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: Leisure Reading Atwood
It’s odd to say that this is the sequel of Atwood’s iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale that fans of the book have spent years waiting for, considering that for most of that time Atwood herself had no intention of ever writing a sequel. But in a testament of its own to our connected global age, Atwood came around to the idea of doing it not just because of the increasingly disturbing Gilead-esque events around the world she was witnessing, but also because so many people over the years – decades – asked her for one, and often asked the same questions. These included How did Gilead fall?, a collapse alluded to in the original book’s epilogue.
Atwood doesn’t give us a direct sequel – the story of Offred ends (one way or another) at the end of Handmaid’s Tale. But she does answer the question about the end of Gilead. In a way she gives us three answers ultimately woven into one, by way of three characters – all women - telling their stories separately before they thread together. The first, a professional and political woman in Washington D.C. at the time Gilead dissolved the United States, who vowed not only to survive but doing whatever was necessary to fight her way to the upper echelons of power; a teenager named Daisy living in Canada who mistakenly thinks that she has no connection with Gilead until her connection finds her violently; and Agnes, daughter of a Commander, a child born into the wealth and privilege of the Gilead system, groomed to be a future Commander’s wife. All three stories are told as “testaments”. The first, by the dreaded Aunt Lydia, tells her story through a hidden manuscript, while the other two are given as “witness” testimonies.
Atwood has carefully crafted each story to engage the reader in a different way and on a different level. Aunt Lydia is at the heart of Gilead’s power structure, is one of its arteries. She knows where the secrets are hidden, where the bodies are buried, and which people are most likely about to become buried bodies. We get a deeper look at the society than would have ever been possible through Offred. In the case of Daisy, between her secretive parents and Atwood’s subtle foreshadowing, there is clearly more going on just behind the curtain than she knows. Readers catching the clues will figure out early on who she really is and will be turning pages to find out what part she eventually plays in Gilead’s destruction. The story of Agnes, who has known nothing but Gilead, may strike some as the thinnest of the three initially, but patience is rewarded. Following the death of someone beloved her story is one of gradually overcoming her fears and her upbringing to eventually (if not inevitably) question her own role first, then larger parts of the society itself.
Atwood faced two daunting tasks in writing the book: first to create something following up a work that has become deeply embedded in American culture; then to believably detail how three people could bring a society crashing down. For the second challenge, as each character presents a unique perspective to the reader, each is also uniquely placed to chip away (or hack, or bulldoze) at Gilead’s weakening underpinnings. Aunt Lydia the secret-holder, who knows those weak spots intimately; Agnes’ privileged “purity”; and Daisy, a wild card, raised in an independent and non-conformist atmosphere while also placed in an ideal position to be used by others towards their own ends. Throw in a constant war that has depleted Gilead’s resources and forced increasing austerity on its citizens, and you have a boiling recipe for collapse.
As to the first challenge, something that seemed nearly impossible to pull off but countless fans had asked her to do, Atwood doesn’t try to recreate her first book – to the point where the reader only gets cursory glimpses of handmaidens – but portrays a world of contradictions. We get scenes every bit as grim and stark as those in Handmaid’s Tale, including a look at the savagery Aunt Lydia endured both to survive at Gilead’s genesis as well as to rise in the ranks later, but also, paradoxically, the things that she and Agnes consider to be good and beautiful. It’s Atwood’s poignant reminder that there are beautiful things in life even among evil circumstances, though they are not enough to justify preserving the evil.
But while The Testaments doesn’t try to recapture the dark magic of its predecessor, it produces a different kind of magic all its own, sharp and grinding, filled with terror and small acts of heroism that add up to great ones. It’s a grueling and beautifully-written story of fighting, scraping, and discovering that even when you escape there might still be a bloody mess to deal with. It’s the excellent sequel that Atwood’s readers have spent years waiting for.
(Note: The Testaments was the co-winner, with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other for the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction – the annual award given for the best English-language fiction book published in the United Kingdom.)
November 4, 2019