Archive for June, 2008

Guns, Germs, and Steel

June 27, 2008


This was my second time trying to read Guns Germs and Steel and I still could not get through it.  It attempts to explain why Europeans went out and colonized the rest of world and not the other way around.  The book argues it was because of three factors the Europeans had on their side just by sheer geographic coincidence.  They had steel tools, they were immune to a lot of diseases, and they had guns.  It wasn’t because they were smarter, they were better, or European civilizations were more advanced than others.  I didn’t read the entire book, but that’s the main argument. 


This should be one of my favorite books given my dorky love of all things natural history and science, but sadly, I just cannot finish this book for the life of me.  Some paragraphs are interesting and engaging while others are repetitive and boring.  (The chapter on animal domestication was really good.)  It seems like the author never really gets to the meat of his argument but he takes pages and pages to set up his argument.  So, whatever, I’m done trying to like this book. 


The good thing about this book is that it makes for very interesting conversations with some super smart people – my work buddy Sashana and Manny.  Which lead to the following thoughts: .


Civilizations all over the world have been colonizing and taking over neighboring villages and building empires forever.  But what makes European colonization different is that they didn’t just take over their neighbors, they took over half the world.  Areas like North Africa, the Middle East, China, India, and central America all had civilizations that were just has advanced, just as populous as western Europe.  So why was it the Europeans who left their own shores in search of more?  Maybe because they had less.  


Europeans started exploring the Americas in search of trading routes that would bring them wealth and in natural resources that would make them more powerful.  Maybe this is because they did not have enough natural resources of their own.  England, France, Spain: these were the countries that did most of initial colonizing.  Portugal too.  These are pretty small countries compared to China, India and Mexico, which, I think, have larger landmasses.  Larger landmass means more land diversity and more diverse natural resources.  Maybe this is why China, Mexico and India didn’t have to go around the world looking for them and England, France and Spain did. 


This sort of reframes the argument.  Instead of asking what made this civilization so advanced that they were able to conquer half the world, maybe we should be asking what was this civilization lacking that they had to get it from everyone else?


Maybe this concept is explored in the book.  Maybe this argument has been made before.  I don’t know.  But fighting over control natural resources is still going on, especially over oil.  Who’s going out and doing the fighting and invading other countries?  It’s not the countries that already have their own oil, it’s those who don’t have it and want it for power and wealth. 


So in summary – interesting topic, uninteresting book.  If anyone else out there in the blog world can recommend another book about this topic let me know.  In the meantime, I’ve picked up a book about Darwin by my favorite science writer David Quammen that I’m really looking forward to. 

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao

June 19, 2008

What do you with your favorite books? And what are your absolute favorites?  Right now, off the top of my head, I can think of East of Eden, The Life of Pi, The Color Purple and now, Oscar Wao.  Do you have a little group of favorite books that go wherever you go?  To college, to camp, to an internship, to a new house, across the country or overseas.  Maybe you read your favorites more than once, like I do.  Maybe you’re like me, and you bookmark your favorite passages and quotes so you can go back and reread them when you’re feeling lonely or you can’t sleep at night.  Maybe you like to think the characters of these books exist in some alternate book-universe, because even though they are fictional characters they become so real when you read about them.  What makes these books so special, what makes them your favorite?  Is it the characters, the writing style, the use of language, the plot, or how everything comes together to form a beautiful story, a piece of art? 

Reading Oscar Wao is like listening to a storyteller weave a tale.  It is like you’re sitting with Yunior (the narrator) on the train, and you have a really long ride, so Yunior decides to tell you a story about his friend from Rutgers, a dorky kid named Oscar Wao who is the exact opposite of the Dominican/Latino male stereotype.  Oscar is overweight and he’s a complete sci-fi fantasy nerd.  Oscar is afraid he will be the only Dominican man in history to die a virgin.  And his family is cursed.  While Yunior is telling you Oscar’s story, he goes into tangents about the history of the Dominican Republic and he tells you terrifying unbelievable horrifiying stories about its former dictator Trujillo and Trujillo’s influence on Oscar’s family.  I randomly came across this review of Oscar Wao in a WordPress blog where the author perfectly describes the writing style that I will quote here instead of trying to write something of my own:

Perhaps this really is today’s new literature – one that is a mix of brands, words that bitch-slap you with their power, and sentences that challenge you with brazen cultural references (not caring if don’t share them).  Its rap brought into novel form – or maybe the other way around – but grounded in enough history and straight-up storytelling to mesmerize instead of confuse.

The first few pages the novel are about fuku, which is like the Dominican version of a family curse.  Fuku follows a family through generations and across oceans into different countries.  A theme through the book is: do bad things happen because a person is cursed or because sometimes bad things just happen?  I found an interview with Diaz on PBS NewsHour.  He says:

If you think about it, a curse is just a story that you may or may not inherit.  I mean, you can believe your famiy is cursed or you can say it’s not . . . I was really fascinated by that idea, that like, you know, this is a book about this idea that you can wake up, you can be born inheriting a story that you had nothing to do with

There was also an interesting quote about the importance of books in Diaz’s life when he was a kid, after his family moved to the US from the DR when he was 6 years old:

I think part of my desire and my love of books wasn’t just this kind of random encounter with them.  It was an attempt for a kid who, in some ways, miraculously teleported out of one world and appeared in another that’s so radically different.  It was an attempt of me to understand where I came from, where I was, how I got there . . . And I needed them, man, because it’s real confusing, though, to jump from the third world to the first world.

I was telling Manny about fuku while walking in Brooklyn a few days ago.  We turned a corner and there it was, the word spray painted in white on a security gate across the street: “Fuku”

Book Updates

June 14, 2008

FIrst off, I’m totally sad about the sudden death of Tim Russert.  The guy was the gold standard of American journalism, in a class of his own.  My dad and I watched Meet the Press every Sunday.  And I loved Tim Russert’s work during the primaries.  Manny and I watched MSNBC coverage for every single primary.  Does anyone remember when he declared Obama as the democratic nominee before anyone else?  Did anyone else get to see that moment live?  How sad that he didn’t live to see the outcome of this election.  I’m sure he’ll be watching everything unfold from a better place.  I will miss him.

On to books, I finished reading The Giver and had my first book club meeting about it.  There’s only three of us in the book club, but we had a really good discussion about the book.  The Giver is sort of a post-apocalyptic book for children.  Jonas, the main character, lives in a world everything is decided for you – your job, your parents, your spouse, your clothes, your food, your house, etc.  Everyone in the community looks the same.  There are no feelings, no free will, no love.  Except Jonas possesses characteristics that makes him different from the rest of his community.  I read The Giver in elementary school, but I didn’t understand it.  I couldn’t grasp the concept that this book takes place in the future.  I still don’t like reading sci-fi books that take place in other worlds or in the future, I am too realistic and pratical to enjoy fantasy books.  But I am glad I read this book again, for a young adult book it has a lot of adult concepts.  Our book club had a really good discussion about dystopian novels and movies.  Manny is a fan of the dystopian genre of film.  What’s the point of making these films and writing these books?  I always viewed them as warnings; they show us that if we don’t stop waging war all over the world and don’t start doing something about global warming, we are going fuck everything up and have a huge nuclear disaster that destroys everything.  And after that, the only way people will able to live is in these communities where every aspect of your life is decided for you and planned out.  Next up for BOSS, Guns Germs and Steel.

After The Giver, I read Michael Pollan’s latest book In Defense of Food. I am a huge Michael Pollan fan.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma completely changed how I eat and how I think about food.  In Defense of Food summarizes the arguments made in Dilemma. The first half of this book just a big essay about how the American way of eating, or the “western diet” is the most unhealthy eating culture in the world.  The western diet is about convenience and instant gratification.  The western diet reduces food into individual nutrients.  Instead of eating a carrot, according to the western diet you’re only eating beta carotene.  According the western diet, a food is only equal to the sum of all its parts.  But Pollan asks, maybe what makes a carrot healthy is not just its nutrients, but the entire carrot as a whole.  For example, nutritionists noticed that people who ate a lot of carrots had a decreased risk of colon cancer.  Researchers isolated the nutrient beta carotene from the carrot and decided this must be what was protecting people from cancer.  Researchers gave people beta carotene supplements to test this theory, but found beta carotene actually increased the risk of cancer in the group that took supplements compared with the group who did not.

This western obsession with nutrients instead of food leads to unhealthy eating fads.  Pollan gives the example of the low fat diet.  In the 1970s it was decided that saturated fat was bad for you.  Instead of encouraging people to eat less high-fat food, the food-industry-controlled USDA encouraged people to eat more low-saturated fat food.  Enter margarine, the perfect healthy substitute to the evil saturated fat butter.  In an effort to reduce saturated fat intake, people ate more margarine and vegetable oil-based substitutes.   But now, years later, turns out that the trans fat in margarine and many vegetable oil based foods is actually worse for you than the saturated fat it was supposed to replace.  Oops.  Pollan’s message is this: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.  The second half the book gives you tips on how to do this.  In summary, don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, and don’t buy low fat food-like substitutes and use this money to buy locally grown whole foods from local farmers markets.  This Sunday am I am hauling ass to the farmer’s market first thing in the morning and buying a freezer full of grass fed beef and poultry.  No more joking around.  Because really, after reading three of Pollan’s books I am disgusted with the entire industrial food chain that values money and profits over public health.  It is really outrageous.  Read his books, but read Omnivore’s Dilemma first.  If you’re in New York state, find your local farmer’s market now.

Last but definitely not least, I read Drown, a collection of short stories by Dominican author Junot Diaz.  His stories are intense and show the realities of immigrant life and of people who life in transnational communities.  His characters live in both the slums of Santo Domingo and the streets of central New Jersey.  Despite the extreme hardships they go through, Diaz never asks for pity from his readers.  He demands respect for his characters and for their experiences because most people cannot imagine what an immigrant goes through in trying to live in this country.  Right now I’m reading his novel, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize, so I’ll definitely be writing more about Diaz.  This quote is on the first page of Drown:

The fact that I

am writing to you

in English

already falsifies what I

wanted to tell you.

My subject:

how to explain to you that I

don’t belong to English

though I belong nowhere else

– Gustavo Perez Firmat

Summer Snapshots

June 10, 2008

I think if you live anywhere in the Eastern U.S. you know that its summer and its really hot right now. I am not complaining about the heat. How can I when I go from air conditioned bedroom to air conditioned car to air conditioned train to air conditioned workplace and vice versa? I always used to ask my dad how he could fight fires in this heat. Imagine its the hottest day of the year in the city, with a heat index of 110 with all the humidity, and you have to go into a burning building? I thought my dad must have superhuman strength to do that. But he always told me it was much worse in the bitter cold, when water from the hose froze all over and guys felt cold for days. I’m not going to be cranky about the heat, that’s one thing about the summer that I like, is that you cannot stress out. Walk down the sidewalk nice and slow, take your time, you cannot let anything bother you or get under your skin. Because if it does, your heart rate increases and your body beings to tense up and you feel additional, unnecessary heat waves come over you. Over the weekend we put the air conditioners in our windows, something my mom doesn’t like to do until July. But after spending all day in air conditioning I just want to be outside. After work I take my book, my dinner, my dog and my glass of ice water and sit out in the porch until it gets dark and just enjoy the first heat of the summer.

Right now a thunderstorm is approaching. Our neighbors have lost power and branches fell down across the street. My mom is afraid of lightning. She has turned off the TV, will not answer the phone, placed candles around the kitchen, and is flipping through a magazine while holding on to her flashlight. We always loose power during the hottest days of the summer. Tonight one side of the train station had power but the other side was dark. When I was younger my neighborhood lost power for 2 days. Every kid on our street spent the day in our little backyard pool. Parents brought over meat they had sitting in their freezers and we barbecued every last piece of meat on the block so it wouldn’t spoil. At night the kids went to bed and the adults took over the pool. Someone brought over floating candles and someone else made the cocktails. My bedroom window looked down into our backyard and I stayed up most of the night, unable to sleep in the heat, listening to the conversations outside. I looked down into the glowing pool thinking I had rarely seen parents – moms and dads – just hanging out like that having fun without children, like normal people! They told stories and laughed and drank in the pool all night. I always sort of liked blackouts. They shake things up a little, a little deviation from the typical routine. There are two exceptions: the 2003 blackout, because after you have no power for 2 days, its not fun anymore; and the time I had to babysit two of the brattiest kids ever and there was no power. This meant no TV, no movies, no video games and two very bored, very hot, very cranky children to watch all day, for 10 hours. It was too hot to go outside, too hot to go to the park, too hot to do anything. We played battleship. Many, many games of battleship.

So lets talk about summer reading. I secretly loved summer reading assignments because I got to pick any book I wanted from my school’s summer reading list. To me, reading is more fun when you choose what book to read. This is why I hated English in school, because we had to read whatever the teacher assigned. Even though I like reading, I hated doing it for school because I had to. Yes I’m that stubborn. I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately and I’m feeling like I want to read some history and science this summer. I’d like to read something by Bill Bryson, I hear good things about him. I’d also like to read more books by David Quammen because I think he’s a great science writer. (Here’s a NY Times Review of his book Monster of God, which I read last year.) If I’m feeling especially smart, maybe I’ll try reading The Fabric of the Cosmos or The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, who organized the World Science Festival that I was so impressed with. Maybe I’ll check out Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin, which I found while browsing today, now tell me that doesn’t sound like a fascinating book?

As for reading right now, I’ve finished The Giver for my book club, then finished In Defense of Food and almost finished with Drown. So more book blogging is coming. After this heat wave is over.

Saving the World

June 4, 2008


OK, I lied when I wrote that I would not have finished Saving the World had I not been in the middle of nowhere with nothing else to do.  I always finish books, unless they are incredibly outrageously horrible.  I can’t remember the last time I started a book and couldn’t finish it.  There was wire damage on my train line yesterday evening, so it took me an hour and half to get home.  I sat on a train that was going nowhere, and thought about Saving the World.


This novel has a parallel story line.  There is Alma, a Dominican author with writer’s block and depression living in Vermont with her husband who works for an international aide agency trying to safe the world from poverty.  And there is Isabel, a character from the early 1800’s, who works in a boy’s orphanage in Spain.  A doctor from Spain wants to go on an expedition around the world spreading the smallpox vaccine.  Only problem is he needs human carriers for the vaccine.  He asks Isabel if she and 22 boys from her orphanage, who will act as live vaccine carriers, will come on his expedition to save the world from smallpox. 


Compared to Isabel, Alma’s problems seemed trivial and unimportant, making her character seem uninteresting and dull.  Alma is a modern woman, she is a successful author and has everything in terms of material comforts, and yet she suffers from depression.  Her husband is leaving for 3 months to build a green center in her home country of the Dominican Republic.  She chooses to stay at home to work through her writer’s block.  Isabel faces an ocean-going journey around the globe and is responsible for the health and well-being of 22 orphan boys serving as live vaccine carriers trying to safe the world from smallpox.  What an important mission when compared to Alma.  What is Alma trying to do to save the world?  Nothing, she is at home while her husband saves the world.


Maybe this is what Alvarez wants her readers to realize; that one person cannot save the world by themselves.  Even though she stays home, Alma provides support for her husband during his dangerous mission.  And even though Isabel is responsible for the health and safety of the boys and the vaccine they are carrying, she is one part of a large mission from Spain set out to spread the vaccine.  With her are a team of doctors and nurses, and as they travel around South America, they are only successful when they are working together.  How can one person save the entire world by themselves?  They cannot. Isabel’s team couldn’t administer the vaccine when their director offended the host country’s leaders.  Alma’s husband can’t save the Dominican Republic village from poverty because he doesn’t fully understand the roots of this poverty. Progress is only possible with collaboration.


There is phrase that Alvarez uses in the beginning of the novel, I don’t have the book in front of me so I cannot write the exact quote but it goes something like this: Our lives don’t belong to us, but to those who love us.  Some people like to think of themselves as independent, free spirits, not belonging to anyone, not tied down to the system, just going out and selflessly trying to save the world.  Alvarez reminds us that this is an illusion.  We are all living on the same planet together, so it’s up to all of us, not just the chosen few, to save it. 




PS – Go Obama!