Don Hosek - Past reading - Sociology

A catch-all category to hold some of the general social scientific reading that I've done. Where would you put A Mouthful of Rocks?

What I've been read in the past - Sociology
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
[Finished 4 April 2017] I put in a hold request for this book in December. It wasn’t until the end of March that a copy finally became available. I’m not the only one looking for hope in the dark, it seems.

Written in the midst of the second Bush administration (after the Iraq war and before the 2004 election), things seemed grim for progressives. Republican control over congress had increased and there were no apparent consequences for the illegitimate invasion of Iraq. What Solnit endeavors to do is reinforce that “the dark” means the unknown and not the terrible and that while progress may be slower than we like, it is inevitable. I had hoped for some concrete plans of action to come from reading the book, but solace was an acceptable consolation.

Jewish Stories of Prague by V. V. Tomek
[Finished 11 January 2017] My disappointment with this book stems perhaps at least in part because I was expecting something that was more voice-driven, sort of a Jewish Brothers Grimm. But it turns out that Tomek wasn’t Jewish (and there are occasional parts of the book where Tomek seems at pains to make it clear that as the author of the book, he is a Christian even if his subject is not). The anonymous translator is also not Jewish and has minimal understanding of Jewish customs as he makes clear in his brief preface where in the first paragraph, he relates an encounter with an Orthodox Jew in tones on par with someone relating an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster.

Aside from telling the stories in a rather sterile style (frequently engaging in bits of irrelevant history), the choice of stories is very much those of someone on the outside looking in, with many of the stories involving Jews only tangentially or as the bogeymen of the gentile imagination.

On top of all that, the translator on at least one occasion interjected his own prose into the text (making a reference to the Holocaust which wasn’t to happen until a decade after Tomek’s death) which leaves me wondering how much of the other defects also belong to the translator.

History of the Breast by Marilyn Yalom
[Finished 25 April 2016] See my review at

I Did Not Interview the Dead by David P. Boder
[Finished 30 March 2016] A challenging read, this is a collection of interviews with people in D.P. camps after the end of World War II. The majority of those interviewed were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, but there was one woman who had ended up in the D.P. camps after fleeing the Soviets and who expressed an inversion of the expected views about the Germans. This is a difficult to locate book, but one well-worth reading.

In His Sights: A True Story of Love and Obsession by Kate Brennan
[Finished 23 March 2016] See my review at

The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men by Eric Lichtblau
[Finished 4 February 2016] See my review at

Unlocking the Census with GIS by Alan Peters and Heather MacDonald
[Finished 3 January 2016] See my review at

Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan
[Finished 18 November 2015] See my review at

Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
[Finished 14 April 2015] A dry and academic account, although that’s not the biggest failure of this book. Instead, it’s the fact that, even though it’s nominally about cuisine, there is very little writing about actual food. How did the meals of the ancien regime become the haute cuisine of post-revolutionary France? Beyond the move from banquet-style service to service a la Russe, there’s no real description of this.

Your Neighborhood Gives me the Creeps by Adam Selzer
[Finished 30 March 2015] See my review at

Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
[Finished 29 January 2014] The good: The book is lyrically written and doesn’t oversimplify mindfulness like some other books on the subject does. The bad: there seems to be a confusion of being attentive towards a child and being indulgent towards a child. There’s a fair amount in here which seems like a recipe for disaster in childrearing.

Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman
[Finished 22 January 2014] Part of my project to learn everything there is to know about parenting before the babies are born. My wife and I both read this; she went first. As she told me about the book and raised some objections about how it all seemed common sense to her (she’s Mexican), I told her that reading the book was likely to be a different experience for us. For me it would be about how the French parent, for her it would be about how Americans parent. With that insight she realized that this was precisely the case.

The book presents its insights in a memoir format, letting us discover the French parenting ideas through her eyes. At times, she seems to get the clue a little slowly.

Druckerman is clearly an aficionado of the French parenting style, and I can see why. There’s a lot to be learned from the French cadre. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Cesar Millan’s techniques in dog behavior management. A lot comes down to rules, boundaries and limitations, but with the added bonus that given that we’re working with human beings rather than animals, it’s possible to actually communicate rationally with children.

My wife says that there are a number of bad reviews of the book on amazon from people who mistake discipline for cruelty. That’s a pity. My experience is that children are pretty resilient, even the most spoiled children can grow up to be good adults. The big difference really is how pleasant the journey there will be for those around them.

Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy
[Finished 5 January 2014] A book from my book club, narrative nonfiction I would not have otherwise read. Percy tells a compelling story, intermixing the suicidal reaction of many soldiers to PTSD to their evangelical demon-haunted response to the condition.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
[Finished 1 December 2013] Graeber opens his book with a provocative statement: The idea of an age of barter is a myth. As an anthropologist, he’s able to make a persuasive argument on this case. The title of the book is a bit misleading, however, in that the first two-thirds of the book are more an anthropological survey of debt, slavery and interpersonal relationships. Still, more than anything else, Graeber manages to come up with a compelling explanation of just what money is (and along the way, without explicitly saying anything about it, gives justification for a mildly inflationary fiat currency and shows why Bitcoin will likely fail as currency.

Among Murderers: Life After Prison by Sabine Heinlein
[Finished 7 September 2013] Sadly superficial. I was hopig for a deeper sense of what was happening in the lives of the men profiled in this book, but we rarely get much beyond Heinlein’s surface perceptions.

The Best American Essays 2012 edited by David Brooks
[Finished 3 August 2013] I’m not really a non-fiction person. It’s always surprised me how little the fiction section comprises of most bookstores. So this is the first time I’ve given the Best American Essays series a go. I have to admit it hasn’t really changed my mind. The pieces that I enjoyed the most were those that formally could have been short stories rather than essays, such as David J. Lawless’s “My Father/My Husband” about his wife’s Alzheimer’s-related dementia, while those that veered into polemic, like Marcia Angell’s “The Crazy State of Psychiatry,” were difficult to get through (I almost wonder, given the tone of Angell’s piece whether she might be connected to the Scientologists).

Our Own: Adopting and Parenting the Older Child by Trish Maskew
[Finished 29 July 2013] At times humorous, this is mostly a sobering account of what’s involved in older child adoption. While Maskew talks about the benefits, she also believes that an honest appraisal of the challenges is also essential for parents to be successful in the adoption (or to realize that the challenges are beyond their abilities to cope).

It Chooses You by Miranda July
[Finished 5 June 2013] A book about more than its ostensible topic, the stories and people behind for sale listings from The Pennysaver. It’s also about July’s own creative process both in the writing of this book and in the writing of the movie she was working on at the same time. Unlike the short story collection that I read, there seemed to be an undercurrent of honesty and courage that her fiction lacked. It does make me more interested to see The Future having read the book.

The Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris
[Finished 23 April 2013] A lavishly illustrated book, with monochrome pictures on every text page and more than enough color plates to satisfy the visual appetite. As a picture book, it’s wonderful. As a book of text, on the other hand, it falls short on a few points. First, the choice of small type and light ink makes the book near-impossible to read in anything but ideal lighting conditions. As for the text itself, Koudounaris displays a good historical understanding of his subject, but fails at anything relating to Catholic religion. There are numbers of mistakes (e.g., confusing limbo and purgatory) that mar Koudounaris’s account.

The Spy's Bedside Book edited by Graham Greene and Hugh Greene
[Finished 17 January 2013] It makes me happy to see this book re-issued as it was one of the few bits of Greene’s oeuvre that I didn’t own, and hadn’t read. The preface, with its disclaimer of real-world espionage experience, is especially entertaining given what we now know of Greene’s continued involvement with the British intelligence services. Just another sign of Greene’s famous sense of humor showing through.

The contents of the book itself tend from the banal to the fascinating with selections drawn from a wide variety of sources, both fiction and non-fiction. Greene’s own contribution, a brief passage from The Basement Room marks an interesting choice given so many other more directly relevant choices Greene could have made from his own work—perhaps more of Greene’s humor at play here, possibly revealing some of how his espionage work and writing intersected.

Dynamite: A History of Class Violence in America by Louis Adamic
[Finished 23 May 2012] I’ve been on a bit of a radical reading tear. Here, Adamic gives a history of the labor movement from the early nineteenth century until the late 1920s, using violence as his framing device for understanding the development of relations between labor, capital and the state. Adamic’s socialist sympathies are clearly on display and he’s more sanguine about the use of violence than my own Menshevik sensibilities can allow. On the other hand, he clearly blames the use of violence by trade unions for the eventual takeover of those unions by organized crime, itself a development which he doesn’t have a clear view pro or con for.

Most surprising, though, is how much the economic conditions of today mirror those of the early twentieth century. It makes me even more fearful of a Republican takeover of the government in this year’s elections.

Orange County by Ray Bradbury, West Light
[Finished 3 May 2012] I stumbled on this at the going out of business sale at Dawson’s Books. The appearance of Ray Bradbury’s name on the spine and some of the photos showing an unrecognizable Orange County inspired me to add the book to the treasures that I grabbed from the shelves. Now that I’ve finally opened it, I was surprised to discover that Bradbury’s contribution to the book was limited to a brief essay at the start of the volume and the unrecognizable O.C. was just a year older than my first visit to the place myself.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is to see how much the county has changed since the book was published in 1985. It’s still full of Barry Goldwater wannabes, but increases in the Latino population have provided some liberal incursion into the county and the growth of the Asian population was completely unforeseen by Bradbury in his essay. The Catholics ended up buying the Crystal Cathedral from a bankrupt congregation, saving themselves the trouble of relocating the San Andreas fault to reduce it to rubble. Meanwhile, many of the views of the county already appear more than a quarter century distant.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
[Finished 8 April 2012] A difficult book to react to. I found myself reading this in the context of the criticism of The Help. Once again, we have a story of a white girl coming to the rescue of black folks, but this time, the story is true. Is it somehow more or less acceptable given that fact? And is this an oversimplification of the question? Had this been a straightforward piece of scientific writing, this issue wouldn’t be so prominent. Even by including the story of Henrietta Lacks’s life, we get a human dimension, but no questions of race rise up. But in the inclusion of Rebecca herself into the narrative, the white girl coming in to fix things (although unlike in The Help, one could make the argument that Skloot doesn’t really reach the same level of success—real life can be tricky that way).

There are few cases where the appearance of the biographer in the biography manages to be a successful endeavor (Ian Hamilton’s The Search for J. D. Salinger comes to mind). I’m still not sure if this is one of those instances.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman
[Finished 24 March 2012] After reading Michael Capuzzo’s book on the Vidocq Society, I was expecting this to be similarly poorly written. Surprisingly, my expectations were not fulfilled. There’s some similarity in the books using genre conventions with the narrative starting with a teaser chapter before going back in time to fill in the background and bring things back to the present, but here we have something very well written, providing a compelling narrative, a fascinating protagonist and while some of Wittman’s hobbyhorses are very much on display here, they don’t distract, instead they inform the narrative.

The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases by Michael Capuzzo
[Finished 30 January 2012] Great subject matter, awful writing. The book is written like a pulp true crime book, full of overwrought prose. Worse still, Capuzzo tends to write with an omniscient point of view, the worst choice for writing what is, at heart, a mystery narrative. If it’s clear that the narrator knows everything, there’s no compelling reason for that narrator to hold back the truth.

The Vidocq society itself has some interesting characteristics, but I found myself surprised at how much superstition (e.g., psychics) and pseudo-science (e..g., polygraphs) played a role in their investigation. Furthermore, one of the central characters, a profiler, struck me as egotistical and willing to make unfounded accusations based on his dubious conclusions, although a passage where his process was broken down a bit more made his process seem a bit more reasonable.

Panther Baby by Jamal Joseph
[Finished 27 December 2011] A compulsively readable book. Another memoir I would not have picked up without my book club, I found Joseph’s story to be can’t-put-down compelling. The writing was plain and unpretentious, but the story, well, I could see myself being a happy supporter of the Black Panthers had I been more than an infant back in the day. Joseph’s story gets a bit less interesting after the dissolution of the Panthers, but his account of his time in Leavenworth became a bit more interesting and kept me from being annoyed at the saccharine uplift of the final chapter of the book.

The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein
[Finished 29 September 2011] I’m not sure what made me think that I would find this an interesting read, but ultimately, it came across as some interesting observations overwhelmed by an unhealthy dose of “get off my lawn” conservatism. Unless people have the same respect for the classics that Bauerlein does, they clearly are philistines and responsible for the decline of civilization. I was more annoyed than anything else reading this book. There are some good arguments to be made along the lines of what Bauerlein wants to say, but Bauerlein’s own limited horizons cause him to fail at the task.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
[Finished 14 September 2011] I’m not sure how this book ended up in my reading list, but I’m glad that it did. Sort of a nice counterpoint to all the Sherlock Holmes I’ve been reading of late, Summerscale manages to beautifully recreate the minutiae of Victorian life in her account of a mysterious murder, its investigation and the aftermath. Even better, it’s written well enough that I’ve finally been motivated to begin my collection of beautiful sentences that I’ve long meant to create. My samples:

While a murder went unsolved, everything was potentially significant, packed with secrets. The observers, like paranoiacs, saw messages everywhere. Objects could regain their innocence only when the killer was caught.
A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.

Tatoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle
[Finished 6 August 2011] OK, confession time: Greg Boyle could have put out two-hundred pages of “qwerty asdf” and I’d’ve bought it to support Homeboy Industries. I’ve known Father Greg since sometime in the early 90s when I met him through the Los Angeles Catholic Worker and I’ve been happy to do everything I can to support his ministry.

But that said, Tattoos on the Heart is definitely not 200 pages of gibberish. It’s more a collection of the stories of the young men and women he works with that he tells in his homilies and presentations, and a lot of what he writes here I’ve heard before, but even so, it was a delight to be able to read these again and hear Father Greg’s voice in my head. It’s a wonderfully inspiring collection along with a fun read. Definitely get this book and read it. Right now.

Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood by Gary S. Cross
[Finished 27 May 2011] In an academic fashion, Cross gives us a history of American childhood and toy marketing, purchasing and consumption. Perhaps the most stunning revelations are the extent to which childhood is a twentieth-century creation and how war toys weren’t really a part of boys’ play before the 1950s (so much for the “genetic” argument justifying the purchase of toy guns since boys would turn any object into guns otherwise—this is ultimately the consequence of pervasive marketing to children).

The Visiting Suit: Stories From My Prison Life by Xiaoda Xiao
[Finished 9 December 2010] I was left completely flat by this book. In general, memoir has little to appeal to me, and this book was no exception.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8 Lee
[Finished 15 June 2010] An interesting book, although there is a lengthy chapter on the best Chinese restaurant in the world which is indirectly acknowledged as an attempt to pad out the size of the book and is almost completely dispensable. Lee also has a tendency towards some of the organizational flaws which are all too common in contemporary narrative non-fiction, but even so, she does some great detective work in ferreting out the origins of not only the titular fortune cooke, but also chop suey (a staple of the Chinese restaurants of my childhood which is now almost completely extinct) and General Tso’s chicken, among other things.

The Zapatista Reader edited by Tom Hayden
[Finished 9 November 2009] I had decided that I needed to know a bit more about the Zapatista movement than my casual acquaintance with the facts provided (and that the wikipedia article covered), so based on a citation of this book by wikipedia, I decided to dig a bit deeper.

As might be expected in a book edited by Tom Hayden, there is a strong leftist slant in the information provided, something which left me a little dissatisfied as I found a fair amount of the writing felt more like hagiography than analysis (although there were a few token dissenting pieces, I would expect there to be a greater depth of serious critique of the Zapatista project in existence. Then again, given the intellectual bankruptcy of American conservatism, perhaps not). Most appealing were the direct interactions with Subcommandante Marcos whose intelligence, wit and charisma show in his writings and his interviews with others. I also found a wealth of background on the history and sociology of Mexico in general and Chiapas in particular.

My primary complaint about the book is that the choice of organization fails to provide a comprehensive narrative and Hayden’s introductions tended to be redundant rather than illuminating.

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
[Finished 5 November 2009] A long long book on Gary Gilmore, the first person executed after the Supreme Court ban on the death penalty was lifted in the 1970s. I have vague memories of the execution in the news (I was eight at the time, so more concerned with legos and dinosaurs than with someone being executed in a distant state), but the book does a lot to illuminate events using the non-fiction novel format to detail Gilmore’s life as well as the lives of those around him.

Mailer manages to weave the materials he had (he came onto the project after Gilmore’s death and relied on interviews with Gilmore gathered by others as well as is own interviews with principals of the events) into a compelling interview which has left Gilmore a weighty presence in my consciousness even after finishing the book.

Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organizationm and Strategy in the California Farm Workers Movement by Marshall Ganz
[Finished 24 September 2009] My wife saw this book sitting on my desk while I was reading and asked whether I had been inspired by an exhibit of photographs of Chicano history we had seen a week earlier. I told her no, I needed to learn how to organize farm workers for a short story that I was writing.

And given that I had this rather prosaic goal in mind, this book did a great job of explaining what made the UFW movement so successful. Ganz was one of the early outside volunteers with the movement who later moved into an organizational position with the UFW. He provides a clear-eyed accounting of what happened, and is never afraid to talk about mistakes that were made, nor does he treat Cesar Chavez as an infallible saint (the final chapter that talks about the decline of the UFW is especially noteworthy in this respect; it’s very common for progressives to want to overlook the faults of their leaders, especially charismatic and successful leaders like Chavez. Ganz has no such illusions and while he is able to point to the successful moves of Chavez with the rest of them, he has no problem discussing Chavez’s failings and the organizational problems of the latter-day UFW).

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel
[Finished 8 September 2009] Much of the core of the story in this book I learned from Koeppel’s interviews on NPR (he was on Fresh Air and, I think, Science Friday), but it’s still interesting to get the details filled in, to see how banana cultivation represents the ultimate monoculture, with all bananas in a given variety being genetically identical.

Koeppel makes a compelling case for the importance of GM techniques in creating a future for the banana and points out that since bananas are sterile and propagate only through cloning that many of the concerns about GM techniques in other plants are inapplicable when it comes to the banana. Given that in Africa the banana is a central part of the diet (in some areas 70% of the caloric intake comes from bananas), preserving a future for the banana makes for a critical concern on the continent.

Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames by Pete Earley
[Finished 15 August 2009] It’s infrequently that I decide to read a book and then read it right away. I have nine shelves of unread books at my side right now, and I keep a list of books that I plan to check out from the library which currently has over 100 titles in it (I’d never counted until just now: I’m shocked at how long the list is). All of which means that when I come to a book, I may have no reason how I heard of it or what motivated me to read it (perhaps I should start adding notes into the library book list, at least).

This is the third Pete Earley book on spies which appeared in my library list. How I decided to read this batch of books eludes my recall, but I find myself thinking that perhaps one day I might write a spy novel. One thing that I find intriguing are the common threads in the stories that Earley tells. Is this because of Earley’s own editorial bias (unconscious or not), or because his subjects read the earlier books and imposed others’ motivations on their own stories, or possibly that’s just the way things are. For example, I notice that it seems that many of the men profiled found themselves frustrate by how much both the US and the USSR were uninterested in the intelligence that the future double agents thought was really important. When men like Ames considered intelligence to be little more than a game, there may have been a grain of truth in that.

The Film Club: A Memoir by David Gilmour
[Finished 28 July 2009] As a movie buff, when I first heard about this book, about a father who lets his son drop out of school and not work in exchange for watching three movies a week with him was one that I couldn’t pass up.

As a memoir, it has the usual not-quite-story-arc structure of real life, and at times Gilmour’s teenage son’s travails in his love life can get repetitive, and the film commentary which is pretty dense in the early days of the story start to fade away later in the book. But on the other hand, it’s an interesting account of hands-off parenting (eventually) turning out alright, although the route there is circuitous and leads the reader (and Gilmour) to wonder whether it’s all a big mistake.

Maxed Out: Hard Times in the Age of Easy Credit by James D. Scurlock
[Finished 28 July 2008] It’s hard to read this book and not get angry. So many of the contemporary problems in the economy were foreseeable and foreseen. Especially if we dig deeper, we can see that things are even worse than they seem.

Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
[Finished 4 June 2008] Reading this book really changed how I saw those around me. I checked this out of the library the day that I began a three-day business trip and finished it two days later. Understanding a bit of the lives of those toil for low wages in the face of this made me see the invisible services that took place behind the trip quite differently. Realizing that the maids who cleaned my hotel room each day faced a grueling schedule (and with a shift towards paying them by the room, rather than by the hour, they were quite possibly making less than minimum wage).

Perhaps most startling is to think about how hard Ehrenreich had making ends meet with gasoline at $2 a gallon. Now that gasoline is more than double that, small wonder that bicycle and transit use has skyrocketed.

Inside the Company: CIA Diary by Philip Agee
[Finished 15 April 2008] It’s not often that a book mentions in its closing passages exactly what’s wrong with it. As a book written to serve a particular agenda, in this case to expose the CIA’s efforts to undermine democracies in Latin America in the name of fighting communism.

Parts of the book are fascinating, particularly when Agee manages to give a good accounting of his own personal experiences, but large parts of it are a dump of classified information whether code names for CIA operations or listings of CIA operatives. If Agee were a better writer, it could have been a better book, but instead it ends up being little more than an attempt to harm the CIA (and this from a leftist who is fully in agreement with Agee’s beliefs).

The Perfect $100,000 House by Karrie Jacobs
[Finished 4 May 2007] It sounds like a great concept: An architecture writer with $100,000 in the house sets out to see what she can buy for that money somewhere in America. And the first chapter, where she goes to “architecture camp” in Vermont sets us up for something promising.

But the promise isn’t fulfilled because for a book like this which is as much travelogue as reporting requires that we have a guide that we enjoy spending the trip with, and Jacobs is that most obnoxious sort of New Yorker: No place is good enough because it just isn’t New York. The other cities in America, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, are just places to get through on the way to another rural area which will be dismissed because it’s just some remote area where there aren’t enough hip people (or too many hip people) for it to be comfortably similar to living in Manhattan.

Worse still, in a book about architecture, there is one essential ingredient which is painfully absent. PICTURES. I’m sorry Ms Jacobs, but your prose is not sufficient to convey the feel of the homes you describe without abundant illustration to accompany them. Instead we’re treated to one(!) illustration per chapter, which often isn’t even the most interesting-sounding building from the chapter.

From Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Svejk: A Dictionary of Czech Popular Culture edited by Andrew Lawrence Roberts
[Finished 23 December 2006] I picked this up as research on my current novel, although as the author pointed out to me in an e-mail after I’d ordered it, it tells me more about how contemporary Czechs view things than providing the kind of historical background that I needed. But even so, given the conservative nature of Czech tastes (for example, the Czech diet remains largely unchanged even after the transition from Hapsburg dependency to republic to communism to the current state of affairs). Even just for some pointers on some of the names and locations of some chief landmarks, it has been invaluable. The compilation of pop culture is also, for its own sake, a significant work.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
[Finished 23 August 2006] Every so often a book comes along that can radically change the way that you lead your life. For me this is one of those books. I first heard of Michael Pollan when he was interviewed on NPR’s Science Friday (if you don’t read the book, at least listen to the interview).

My wife and I generally make an effort to eat healthy foods, and whenever possible organics, but I hadn’t considered the implications of some of what’s happening in the industrial food chain in America. The realization that local food is probably more important than organic food, for example (the food that Americans eat travels an average of 1500 miles to get to their table). Or the thought that a huge percentage of what we eat has its origins as corn grown in Iowa (not just the obvious things like corn syrup, but most of the other ingredients that don’t sound like food on the label of your processed food come from corn). Add in that most of our meat is corn-fed now, whether or not that animal is designed to eat it and we have some serious recipes for disaster. The various e. coli outbreaks in the meat supply chain are a direct consequence of feeding beef cows corn (these sorts of infections are not an issue for grass-fed cows). This leads us to such abuses of the food chain like irradiated meat and the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed which leads primarily to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

So what changes have been made? The big one is a stronger drive towards eating local foods. It’s a hard habit to break, especially when you walk into the supermarket in August and see stacks of gorgeous-looking Australian-grown oranges (although the high price should be a deterrent). Avoiding high fructose corn syrup means avoiding almost all processed foods which is a frightening prospect (take a look at the labels sometime: It’s in everything: Bread, lunch meat, soup, salad dressing...).

Living in L.A. we have access to a superabundance of farmer’s markets at least, although there seems to only be one Community Supported Agriculture farm that serves our area.

The first two sections of the book are definitely the best part. The hunter-gatherer meal, was less interesting to me, if only because I really don’t see myself willing to get so close to my food chain as to actually hunt my own wild meat (although my wife and I have contemplated the possibility that game meat might be the healthiest possible option, on second thought though, we just don’t eat that much meat to begin with).

Now to find the L.A.-area restaurants that use local foods...

Stations of the Cross: A Latin American Pilgrimage by Dorothee Soelle
[Finished 27 March 2006] It startles me to think how much the concerns of the late 80s and early 90s have melted away. Which is not to say that the underlying problems have disappeared, but rather that they no longer demand our attention in the same way that they did 10-20 years ago.

Reading this book was a reminder of this sort of shift in attention. When I bought this (1992 or 1993, I think), Latin America was a big issue for me. Now, I rarely think about it, unless Hugo Chavez is mentioned in the news (which seems reasonably frequently), it having been pushed out of the forefront of my consciousness by such horrors as the current war in Iraq, or the problems of Africa. This is not to say that the problems are gone away, however, and this book is a good reminder of just what was and is at stake in Latin America.

The book provides a good ground-level view of the issues facing the poor of South and Central America, and while Soelle falls into the bad habit of glamorizing the pre-Columbian native American lifestyle, a fault which conservative critics would likely use as ammunition to attempt to discredit the whole of her work, it’s a compelling read. It’s a pity that it’s fallen out of print, showing that I’m not the only one whose attention has been diverted from Latin America.

The Know-It-All : One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A. J. Jacobs
[Finished 16 December 2005] I’d heard about this book before I picked it up after the buy 2 get 1 free table at Border’s. The author is also a contributor to NPR and I’d heard him interviewed on ATC or Morning Edition. I remembered thinking that reading the encyclopedia seemed like it would be fun, although I have yet to make the endeavor myself.

The organization of the book, which is a sort of autobiography mixed with some philosophy and nuggets of knowledge from the pages of The Encyclopaedia Brittanica is an entertaining and quick read. Plus anytime I felt self-congratulatory because I knew, for example, just why the Brittanica seems to say so much about type designers (Stanley Morrison, who had been publicity director of Monotype during their golden age of the 20s and early 30s was later on the editorial board of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica), I only had to note that this is Jacobs’ fourth published book. I have yet to make it to number one.

My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan
[Finished 15 October 2005] A fascinating account of an anthropology professor’s study of college students. Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym), took a year off of teaching, and entered the university where she taught as a freshman using only her high school transcripts for placement. She moved into the dorms for the year and took classes with the students.

There are some things that I read and my thought was, “duh, of course,” but much that I didn’t. The experience of attending a large state school is quite different than my own undergraduate experience of nearly twenty years ago at a small private college, and this is helps me get some insight into what my own students are going through. (It’s worth noting that my community college students have a different experience than do my Cal State students).

There are some insights here which I doubt that I would have ever found on my own, like the role of ethnic societies on campuses (non-majority students primarily interact with people who are not like them. This gives them a chance to spend time with people like them), and a handful of ideas which directly will impact my teaching, although much less of that than I had hoped.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
[Finished 8 July 2004] Very hard to put down, Larson intertwines the story of the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair with the story of Dr H. H. Holmes, one of America’s first serial killers. I had had some familiarity with Holmes’ story already from the book Chicago by Gaslight, so this wasn’t completely new to me, but Larson’s ability to reconstruct the events in what he terms in his notes as “a plausible recreation” made the story that much more compelling.

At times the interweaving of the stories (along with the events leading to the assassination of Chicago mayor Carter H. Harrison) seemed a bit forced--I’m not entirely certain that the World’s Fair and Holmes were so closely intertwined--but it remains a compelling read. I understand the movie rights have been bought. It will be interesting to see how it turns into a film.

My one complaint is that there is a severe paucity of pictures: Certainly the World’s Fair itself merits a few pages of photos, and there is at least one photo of Holmes’ building in Englewood in existence which I’d seen in Chicago by Gaslight.

Made in America: Immigrant Students in our Public Schools by Laurie Olsen
[Finished 9 May 2004] A thought-provoking case study of the socialization of immigrant students in a northern California high school.

Olsen’s writing begins with a sense that we’re going to get a rather ideologically driven work, but thankfully, reality intervenes and her ideology is not a driving force in the work.

Few if any solutions are offered. Primarily this is a book about raising questions, designed to make teachers and administrators (and presumably also students and parents) think about questions of race, class and culture in American schools. I don’t see this as a book that will give me solutions for dealing with immigrant students in my classroom, but it is a book that will make me aware of the questions relating to their presence in the classroom.

Fraud: Essays by David Rakoff
[Finished 9 April 2004] Some of these essays I’d heard versions of previously on NPR (mostly This American Life, but I seem to remember one or two popping up on All Things Considered. They seemed to work a lot better as radio pieces, and after the first essay I kind of lost interest for a lot of the book. The essay on Austrian teachers in New York was interesting, but didn’t go into those aspects of the teachers’ lives that I was most interested in. Oh well.

Strange Deaths: More than 375 Freakish Fatalities by Ian Simmons
[Finished 24 July 2003] A Barnes and Noble publication given to me by my fiancée, this is a News of the Weird-style collection of odd deaths. Some I’d heard about, some were new to me. An entertaining way to spend a plane trip.

Adolescent Diversity in Ethnic, Economic and Cultural Contexts edited by Raymond Montemayor, Gerald Adams and Thomas P. Gulotta
[Finished 26 May 2003] A rather dense academic treatise on how non-prosperous, non-white kids do in school and other contexts

Inside Rikers by Jennifer Wynn
[Finished 16 May 2003] More reading about prisons. In this case Wynn looks at what happens inside the Rikers Island penal colony and how it affects those who pass through it.

Double Cross : The Explosive, Inside Story of the Mobster Who Controlled America by Sam and Chuck Giancana
[Finished 18 February 2003] The genre of true crime can be a fascinating one, if the stories are told well and in this case, a biography of Sam Giancana written by Giancana’s brother and nephew is quite well told indeed. There are some claims in the book that are a bit dubious (e.g., that the outfit was responsible for the assassination of JFK), but even then, it’s well worth reading. And you’ll never call it the Mafia again.

Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of our most Primal Fear by Jan Bondeson
[Finished 20 January 2003] I have no recollection of how I came across this book, but what a strange, bizarre and wonderful book it is.

Bondeson debunks the myth that live burials were ever really a serious issue, and while he’s not really able to get to why the fear should be so great (other than recurrence of the motif in fiction), he does provide some interesting history of the steps that were taken to avoid live burial.

The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope by Andrew Delbanco
[Finished 16 July 2002] Writing this two years after the fact, sadly, I just can’t remember this book. At all. I don’t remember buying it, I don’t remember reading it. I don’t remember owning it.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
[Finished 10 July 2002] This is one of those books which was furtively passed around in my childhood, but as an upright youth, I never partook back then. I did now as a warped adult instead.

I knew a little about the Manson family from assorted news accounts (the usual three paragraph summary whenever Manson’s parole comes up), but this book does a pretty good job at attempting to reconstruct the actions and motives of the Manson family. There’s a limit to which one can explain such horrific acts, but this is about as good as you can hope for.

The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison by Robert Ellis Gordon
[Finished 28 June 2002] The title of this book plays with the meaning of reflection: This is not merely a reflection on what prisons are about, but also a look at how prisons reflect society. And while the funhouse mirror might not reflect ourselves as we think we look, it still reveals something about who we are. Prisons in the U.S. in particular reflect just how messed up we are as a society, how willing to throw away the lives of people without any real concern for what will become of them when they, inevitibly, are released back into society. But as long as our society is built around vengeance rather than justice, I suppose it shall always be that way.

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict by Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall
[Finished 26 June 2002] It’s kind of funny when we have a president who claims Jesus as his favorite philosopher but doesn’t seem to understand any of Jesus’ teachings. There’s nothing exclusively Christian in non-violence, but there’s nothing authentically Christian in violence.

A combination of philosophy and history, this book looks at why non-violence works and considers a number of case studies (including a number of cases where the non-violent protestors ultimately failed in their aims, which gives this a much more authoritative vantage point than approaches to non-violence which point to India and say look, it worked there without addressing the whys of other non-violent causes.

And perhaps the most striking thing comes from the early chapters where we learn that no one can be governed without their consent, and therein is where the true power of non-violence lies: In being willing to say no.

Return Flight: Community Development Through Reneighboring Our Cities by Robert Lupton
[Finished 21 June 2002] A stunning tract: Lupton proposes that the solution to the ills of the inner city is to have the middle class move in, reversing the trend of white flight. There’s a lot to be said for this: If no one in the neighborhood has a job it’s difficult to get the concept that having a job is a normal thing to do. This is one of the big causes of the failure of public housing in the late twentieth century (in Chicago, this is partly the consequence of changes in rent policies which eliminated any sort of economic diversity in the projects).

Lupton has, in fact, put his money (or more accurately, his family) where his mouth is, and has actually moved into the inner city with his family and the stories here come from his own experiences.

The big failure that I can see here, however, is that Lupton doesn’t really address questions of gentrification. In many cities, there is a movement of the middle class back into the city center, but rather than helping raise up the poor who live in that area, they are instead being pushed out.

Streetwise Chicago by Don Hayner and Tom McNamee
[Finished 15 August 2001] An accounting of the origins of the names of streets in Chicago along with occasional bits of history (although this latter is a bit thin and disappointing).

Chicago by Gaslight: A History of Chicago's Netherworld, 1880-1920 by Richard Lindberg
[Finished 13 May 2001] An enthralling account of the dark side of Chicago at the turn of the last century. It was fascinating to read about the assorted vice criminals, murderers and corrupt politicians of the era (not to mention connecting some of the addresses mentioned to what’s there today).

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister
[Finished 12 May 2001] Baumeister is fast becoming one of my favorite non-fiction writers. His journal articles are especially fascinating. In this book, Baumeister turns to the question of evil. He makes a conscious point of avoiding literary depictions of evil and instead tries to apply social scientific tools to the question. What he found is that people tend to prefer not being evil in general and attempts to identify some of the root causes (one that stands out is that “evil” behavior is not generally rooted in a lack of self-esteem, but in fact the opposite: It’s generally a consequence of a surfeit of esteem.

I attempted once to replicate one of his studies in which he found that submissives outnumbered dominators in the alternative newspaper classifieds. In the issue of the Reader that I looked at, the opposite was quite the case.

Chicanos, Catholicsm And Political Ideology by Lawrence J. Mosqueda
[Finished 14 April 2001] Heavy number crunching looking at the patterns of religiosity and political belief among Mexican immigrants in the American southwest. Much of what the mainstream media seems to find surprising (they’re not all Catholics and they’re not all democrats) is quite clearly outlined here.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B. F. Skinner
[Finished 9 February 2001] Skinner’s controversial work in which he argues for using behavioralist techniques to shape society. But ultimately, it’s much less controversial than the title would imply. Perhaps it’s just that I’m sympathetic to the behavioralist viewpoint (although not necessarily to the extremes that Skinner sometimes espoused, although I’m not sure that Skinner himself believed in those extremes--rather he was just being provocative to get his ideas debated), but much of Skinner’s arguments seemed eminently sensible.

The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood by Louis Rosen
[Finished November 2000] Chicago is a remarkably segregated city, and Rosen, in this book, decided to do a case study of his own neighborhood on the far south side of Chicago to see the processes that led to his neighborhood turning from a predominantly white neighborhood to a predominantly black neighborhood.

Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell
[Finished May 2000] An interesting look into the American class system. Definitely something that I should track down and re-read.

J'Accuse: The Dark Side of Nice by Graham Greene
[Finished February 2000] I doubt that this would be notable if not for its author. Actually, I’m not sure it’s notable even with its author.

The Undertaking: Life Stories from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch
[Finished 9 April 1999] A great collection of essays from an accomplished writer who happens to also run a funeral home.

Male Homosexual Behavior and the Effects of AIDS Education: A Study of Behavior and Safer Sex in New Zealand and S Austr by B. R. Simon Rosser
[Finished 19 January 1999] Rosser does a good job presenting the results of a series of related studies and discussing the implications of their findings, especially in their broader context.

Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States by Rita Nakashima Brock and Susan Thistlethwaite
[Finished 1 October 1998] Rather a jumbled mess. Prostitution, at least at the surface, presents a bit of a paradoxical situation for feminist thinkers (more problematic, even, than pornography, I think) and Brock and Thistlethwaite do a poor job of approaching the problem. A further problem is the insistence on linking prostitution with militarism (which may be the case in some contexts but is certainly not universal) and which was apparently done in an effort to enlist the support of people in the peace and justice community in addressing the prostitution problem.

Meanings of Life by Roy F. Baumeister
[Finished 17 September 1998] A systematic exploration of where people derive the meanings in their life from a primarily social psychological standpoint. Baumeister tends to be rather dismissive of religion in general and Christianity in particular and occasionally dramatically demonstrates his lack of knowledge in the subject area (“Damn it Jim, I’m a psychologist, not a theologian!”), but still manages to provide a well-written, thoughtful exploration. His defining meaningfulness in terms of its objects rather than its loci is especially interesting to me.

The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
[Finished 12 February 1998] Surprise: The Loved One was not as much of an exaggeration as you might have thought.

I heard Mitford on the radio a couple years ago. It’s all still true. The death industry in America is coldly calculated to separate you from as much of your money as possible.

At Home in the Loop: How Clout and Community Built Chicago's Dearborn Park by Lois Wille
[Finished 26 January 1998] How a book about real estate development in Chicago can omit all mention of Charlie Swibel I’ll never know. It’s the sort of omission that leads me to look at the rest of the book with a somewhat jaded eye (the curious mention of the then-unknown John Kass also struck me as odd). Nevertheless it’s still an interesting read and if read in conjunction with Ross Miller’s Here’s the Deal about block 39 a pretty good history of what’s involved in Chicago real estate development can be had.

Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago by LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newmand with David Isay
[Finished 13 September 1997] Begun as a radio segment for NPR, this book is very much a sequel of sorts to There are No Children Here (below). Jones and Newman conducted a series of interviews over a six year span with their friends and neighbors in and around the Ida B. Wells housing project on the south side of Chicago. You may recall the name as the place where 5-year old Eric Morse was dropped to his death from a fourteenth-floor window. We’re exposed to the brutality and despair of the neighborhood although there’s some hope as well. Perhaps most striking is the outcome of Jones and Newman. As the book closes, Jones is preparing to begin college. Newman has been held back a year for discipline problems. Both are intelligent and articulate boys, in the same environment.

There are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America by Alex Kotlowitz
[Finished 9 September 1997] The west side has long been familiar to me, whether driving down Washington or taking the “L”. Still, much of the space between Cicero and Racine is terra incognita to me. This book is a personal account of a couple years in the lives of two young boys growing up in the Henry Horner homes. I’ve seen these buildings many times and have spent a long time in their shadows. Still, the lives of their residents have been largely unknown to me (in Chicago, even if your social relations break racial barriers as do mine, crossing class barriers is still quite difficult). The neglect of the projects and the people who live in them is criminal and yet there are still glimmers of hope. This book is one of those few that everyone should read.