American Nations

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard (Penguin Books, 2011).

Since I’m very interested in regional cultures of the U.S., this book has been on my list to read for a long time and I finally bought a copy. It was absolutely fascinating. Woodard explains so much about American history by dividing North America into 11 “ethnocultural nations” instead of the usual 50 states. He explains the origins of these regional cultures and how (amazingly) they have persisted since the 18th century. The eleven nations are the Left Coast, the Far West, First Nation (in Canada only), El Norte (partly in Mexico), the Deep South, New France, Tidewater, New Netherland (New York City), the Midlands (Philadelphia area, the Midwest and Ontario), and Yankeedom (New England, upstate NY and Minnesota/Wisconsin). Woodard makes a very strong argument for American history being almost entirely explained by the influence of and shifting alliances between these nations. I would love to hear how he explains Trump; perhaps he can be persuaded to write a second edition.


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Filed under Nonfiction, Politics, Social Science

The map of salt and stars

The map of salt and stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (Touchstone, 2018)

This novel is two stories intertwined: the tale of a medieval Arabic mapmaker and his apprentices (one is a girl), and the story of a modern day Syrian refugee family. Although the main character in the modern story is a young teenage girl, her mother is also a mapmaker. So maps of the Middle East and North Africa are important to both stories, and the people follow similar paths in their journeys. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about a Syrian family before, but it is very timely. I learned a lot about their language and culture. Some of the poems were lovely. There were also distressing similarities between the horrific situations and traumatic losses that this Syrian family had to endure before they found safety in a new home, and the situations encountered by the undocumented immigrants to the US that I read about in another recent novel. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on out there in the world.

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How to stop time

How to stop time: a novel by Matt Haig (Viking, 2017)

This is one of those non-traditional style science fiction books where everything is normal and Earth-based except for one major alternative-world premise. In this case, the premise is that a few lucky people age 10 times more slowly than normal, so they live for 800-1,000 years. The main character is a man who appears to be in his forties but is actually over four hundred years old. Of course this kind of thing has a few problems, like outliving your spouse and scaring medieval witch hunters by your eternal youth. It’s not a time travel novel per se, but has some of the same elements. This is a good story based on a unique plot device.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction


Census: A novel by Jesse Ball (Harper Collins, 2018)

This was a much stranger novel than the book jacket described. Although the back flap says Jesse Ball was “born in New York” it doesn’t say where he lives now, and what country he imagines this story to take place in. It is certainly not the United States. I guess it takes place in a fictional country. He doesn’t bother to name the towns; he literally labels them A through Z. Conveniently there is a train running from Z back to A. I could buy the idea that a dying surgeon living alone with a Down syndrome son decides to travel the country working for the census bureau until he dies, but in modern times the census bureau mails you the form, the census takers don’t visit you in person. And they most definitely do not tattoo you to prove you’ve been counted. The novel is a vehicle for some worthwhile commentary about people and their attitudes towards individuals who are different, but it has a very strange vibe overall. There is an obsession with birds (specifically cormorants) and clowns that I don’t even begin to understand.

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Rules for Revolutionaries

Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything by Becky Bond and Zack Exley (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016).

This non-fiction book tells the story of the Bernie Sanders for President campaign from the unique perspective of mid-level paid staffers Becky Bond and Zack Exley. I was interested (as a CREDO Mobile customer) to learn that they came from CREDO. It is also literally a set of rules (one per chapter, alternating chapters by author) for organizing a political revolution in the sense of a mass populist movement, not a violent overthrowing of government. This is not the usual high level campaign retrospective, written by the candidate him or herself; this is about the day to day organizing problems and how they were solved, and the lessons that were learned for next time. Some of the takeaways include the advantages of the vast mobilization of volunteers for Bernie, and the way the paid staff were able to leverage consumer software tools to manage and fully utilize those volunteers.

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The Mothers: A Novel

The Mothers: A Novel by Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books, 2016)

This is not a terrible book, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. I guess I thought it would be about young married moms in their twenties and thirties, but it wasn’t. The title seems to refer to two groups of women: the judgmental older women (mostly grandmothers) who keep a black church in Southern California going, and the two young adult best friends who grew up in the church and went on to become very young mothers. Actually one of them did not become a mother, because she had an abortion, but she spends the rest of the book regretting both that choice and the choice to leave her first boyfriend who would have been that baby’s father. The novel is set in a present day African-American community, and promotes the idea that abortion is a mistake.

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Filed under Fiction, Uncategorized

Why Dinosaurs Matter

Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth  Lacovara (TED Books, Simon & Schuster, 2017)

This small (but bright orange) hardback is the book version of Dr. Lacovara’s TED talk, which I saw and which was also awesome. He is a surprisingly good writer for a paleontologist. Why Dinosaurs Matter  is charmingly illustrated by Mike Lemanski and is easily accessible to all high school and adult readers. In 2005, Dr. Lacovara (now at Rowan University in New Jersey), discovered one of the largest dinosaurs that ever lived, and named it Dreadnoughtus. This book is the story of that discovery, but also the story of how geology and paleontology became sciences, and how understanding our planet’s past is critical to its future. I was interested to realize that human have only known about dinosaurs for a couple hundred years; before the early 19th century, the widespread belief that the earth was only 6,000 years old kept people from interpreting fossils for what they were. Dr. Lacovara also emphasizes that dinosaurs are now known to have been killed off by an asteroid hitting the earth; they did not simply “fail to adapt” to changing conditions, as implied in Disney’s movie Fantasia. Also, they did not all become extinct; the “non-avian” ones evolved into birds. Science is amazing.



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Filed under Environment, Nonfiction, Science