Archive for the ‘Current Issues’ Category

Review of Tell Me How It Ends, by Valeria Luiselli

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Tell Me How It Ends

An Essay in Forty Questions

by Valeria Luiselli

Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2017. 119 pages.
Starred Review

This little book is not pretentious, calling itself an “essay” rather than a “book” – but it packs a punch.

I was expecting forty short chapters. Instead there are four chapters of varying lengths. The questions of the title refer to the forty questions on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants used in the federal immigration court in New York City where the author began working as a volunteer interpreter in 2015.

Here’s how she describes this work:

My task there is a simple one: I interview children in court, following the intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories from Spanish to English.

But nothing is ever that simple. I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms. The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

I find I don’t have the heart to quote excerpts from the stories in this book from the children the author met. I’m left speechless. This book is eye-opening.

One of the stories is that of a teenage boy who found the same gang he was fleeing in Tegucigalpa was active in Hempstead, New York. Members of the gang beat him up in Hempstead, and another gang offers him protection if he’ll join them. He’s resisting.

She reflects on this story and on media reports about the child migrants coming from Central America:

Between Hempstead and Tegucigalpa there is a long chain of causes and effects. Both cities can be drawn on the same map: the map of violence related to drug trafficking. This fact is ignored, however, by almost all of the official reports. The media wouldn’t put Hempstead, a city in New York, on the same plane as one in Honduras. What a scandal! Official accounts in the United States – what circulates in the newspaper or on the radio, the message from Washington, and public opinion in general – almost always locate the dividing line between “civilization” and “barbarity” just below the Rio Grande….

The attitude in the United States toward child migrants is not always blatantly negative, but generally speaking, it is based on a kind of misunderstanding or voluntary ignorance. Debate around the matter has persistently and cynically overlooked the causes of the exodus. When causes are discussed, the general consensus and underlying assumption seem to be that the origins are circumscribed to “sending” countries and their many local problems. No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States – not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.

The belief that the migration of all of those children is “their” (the southern barbarians’) problem is often so deeply ingrained that “we” (the northern civilization) feel exempt from offering any solution. The devastation of the social fabric in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries is often thought of as a Central American “gang violence” problem that must be kept on the far side of the border. There is little said, for example, of arms being trafficked from the United States into Mexico or Central America, legally or not; little mention of the fact that the consumption of drugs in the United States is what fundamentally fuels drug trafficking in the continent.

Here’s where she explains where the book got its title:

The children who cross Mexico and arrive at the U.S. border are not “immigrants,” not “illegals,” not merely “undocumented minors.” Those children are refugees of a war, and, as such, they should all have the right to asylum. But not all of them have it.

Tell me how it ends, Mamma, my daughter asks me.

I don’t know.

Tell me what happens next.

Sometimes I make up an ending, a happy one. But most of the time I just say:

I don’t know how it ends yet.

It is very possible that our policies in the United States and our actions as citizens will determine how these stories end. Which is a sobering thought.

Highly recommended reading. It’s not pleasant reading, but it is eye-opening and thought-provoking.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

by Al Franken

Twelve (Hachette), 2017. 404 pages.

Okay, I’m going to stop being embarrassed for liking Al Franken’s books so much. Years ago, I read Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and enjoyed it, but I didn’t post a review because I wasn’t ready to admit how much I enjoyed it. (Though to be fair, he included more “jokes” in that one, and I thought went a little too far in spots.)

This book has a lot more restraint – and he talks about how difficult it was to learn that restraint! Yes, I also liked that he left out foul language. There’s a note right at the beginning of the book:

Throughought this volume, whenever you see a very mild oath like “Fiddlesticks!” (or some gentle name-calling like “numbskull” or “dimwit,” or some old-timey synonym for “bull—-” like “poppycock” or “flim-flummery”), followed by the letters “USS” in superscript, that means I’ve replaced something far more plainspoken with a less offensive phrase or expression. The “USS” stands for “United States Senate,” the body in which I now serve. I feel I have a duty to both my colleagues and my constituents to make at least a token effort to preserve its dignity and decorum. I wish I could say the same for that dunderhead [USS] Ted Cruz.

Call me a prude, but I found the result much more pleasant reading – and more creative language – than his earlier books where he didn’t show that restraint. (Though I did think the note was really funny!)

This book tells the story of how Al Franken got into politics and what he’s trying to do in the Senate (represent the people of Minnesota).

He’s a Progressive, and so am I, so that’s partly why I enjoyed his book so much. But it’s also an entertaining story (He does know how to write and how to entertain.) of politics in America today.

It’s funny, though – He does tell a lot of stories about jokes his staff wouldn’t let him tell! Way to get back at them! And most of them are quite funny. And the context tells the reader that they are, in fact, jokes. In almost all cases, you can see that his staff was right and he shouldn’t have told the jokes when he was initially tempted to.

The chapter on Health Care was enlightening – and timely. I also like the chapters where he shows that it is still possible to do good work on things both parties can agree on. And I like the chapters with stories of Minnesotans. These show why Al Franken is doing the work he does.

But I think my favorite chapter was the one on “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President.” He explains at the beginning that maybe it’s a little weird, but dishonesty has always gotten under his skin. I guess that rang true because I’ve always felt the same way. I feel like catching someone in a lie should be their utter disgrace.

But he goes on to say:

Back in the good old days, fact-checking politicians was a different ball game. Looking back now, it seems almost adorable that I made a decent living writing books about catching right-wing Republicans in their lies. What I did was effective, I realize now, mainly because a lot of their lies had the veneer of plausibility, and because at least some of the liars liked to pretend that they were telling the truth – which was of course a lie, but which was also part of the fun.

But now we seem to have entered an era where getting caught lying openly and shamelessly, lying in a manner that insults the intelligence of both your friends and foes, lying about lying, and lying for the sake of lying have all lost their power to damage a politician. In fact, the “Trump Effect” yields the opposite result: Trump supporters seem to approve of the fact that he lies constantly, including to them. Like a movie that is loosely based on a true story, Trump’s fans seem to feel that he is making the dull reality of politics more fun and interesting by augmenting it with gross exaggeration, and often utter fantasy.

He goes on to explain why this is important.

I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything….

I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t. It’s a lesson I fear our nation is about to learn the hard way.

That’s why my Global Jihad on Factual Inaccuracy will continue. I cling to the hope that national gullibility is a cyclical phenomenon, and that in a few short years we may find ourselves in an era of Neo-Sticklerism. And a glorious era it shall be.

One can only hope!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Thirty Million Words, by Dana Suskind, MD

Friday, March 10th, 2017

Thirty Million Words

Building a Child’s Brain

Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns

by Dana Suskind, M.D.

Dutton, 2015. 308 pages.
Starred Review

The thirty million words of the title refer to the number of words children hear from birth to 3 years of age. But that’s not the total number of words — that’s the gap between the number of words children from language-rich families hear and the number that children from language-poor families hear.

The number is based on a study done by Betty Hart and Todd Risley.

The data answered the paramount question: Was a child’s ultimate ability to learn related to the language heard in the first years of life? Three years of painstaking analysis left no doubt. It did. Counter to prevalent thought at the time, neither socioeconomic status, nor race, nor gender, nor birth order was the key component in a child’s ability to learn because, even within groups, whether professional or welfare, there was variation in language. The essential factor that determined the future learning trajectory of a child was the early language environment: how much and how a parent talked to a child. Children in homes in which there was a lot of parent talk, no matter the educational or economic status of that home, did better. It was as simple as that.

When they followed up with the children years later, the trend continued.

The essential wiring of the human brain, the foundation for all thinking and learning, occurs largely during our first three years of life. We now know, thanks to careful science, that optimum brain development is language dependent. The words we hear, how many we hear, and how they are said are determining factors in its development. The significance of this cannot be overemphasized since this window of time, if neglected, may be lost forever. When Hart and Risley looked at their data, the influence of early language on a child was unmistakable, the negative impact of a poor early language environment critical, including the effect on vocabulary acquision. Even more significant was evidence of the effect on IQ at three years of age.

Also important was what was said.

But quantity of words was only one part of the equation. While the number of words a child heard was important, imperatives and prohibitions appeared to stifle a child’s ability to acquire language.

“We saw the powerful dampening effects on development when [a child’s interaction with a parent] began with a parent-initiated imperative: ‘Don’t’ ‘Stop’ ‘Quit that.'”

Two other factors seemed to have an effect on language acquisition and IQ. The first was the variety of vocabulary the child heard. The less varied the vocabulary, the lower the child’s achievement at age three. The other influence was family conversational habits. Hart and Risley found that parents who talked less produced children who also spoke less.

This book is ultimately a book of hope, about teaching parents how important their words are.

The incredible power that helps nurture the brain into optimum intelligence and stability is parent talk. If the most profound mysteries of the brain are still to be discovered, that truth has already been revealed. And it shows you how smart the brain really is, because, in absolute evolutionary brilliance, it harnesses a plentiful, natural resource as the key catalyst for its own development. The process is so simple and hidden that you aren’t even aware it’s happening. You can’t sell it, you can’t store it, you can’t list it on the New York Stock Exchange, but a caregiver’s language is the essential resource of every country, every culture, every person, extending into every crevice of who we are, what we can do, and how we behave.

The book goes on to talk about how parent talk helps in every area of brain development.

But then it talks about how to turn this research into action. In the Thirty Million Words Initiative, parents are being taught effective ways to talk with their little ones.

I like the memorable Three Ts that parents are taught: Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns.

A little bit more about each one:

Of the Three Ts, Tune In is the most nuanced. It involves a parent’s making a conscious effort to notice what a baby or child is focused on, then, when it’s appropriate, talking with the child about it. In other words, focusing as the child is focused. Even if the child is too young to understand the words being spoken, even if the focus is constantly changing, Tuning In refers to a parent’s following and responding to a child’s lead. It represents the first step in harnessing the power of parent talk to build a child’s brain. If a parent is not Tuned In, the other Ts will not work.

The second T, Talk More, seems self-explanatory.

Talk More, which goes hand in hand with Tune In, refers to a parent’s increased talking with a child, especially about what the child is focusing on, not to him or her. While this may seem a subtle distinction, it is fundamental to the TMW approach. Talking More with a child requires a mutual level of engagement between the child and the parent. Like Tune In, it is another critical element of parent-child attachment and brain development.

And the final T puts it all together.

The final T, Take Turns, entails engaging a child in a conversational exchange. The gold standard of parent-child interaction, it is the most valuable of the Three Ts when it comes to developing a child’s brain. In order for the necessary serve-and-return of conversational interaction to be successful, there has to be active engagement between the parent and child. How does the parent achieve this? By Tuning In to what the child is focused on and Talking More about it. The key, whether a parent has initiated interaction or is responding to a child’s initiative, is for the parent to wait for the child to respond. That is what sets the stage for the critical Taking Turns.

The book goes on to talk about practicalities, and how this applies in many different ways and many different subject areas. But I like how nicely the content is summed up in the title alone.

As a children’s librarian, reading this book urges me to communicate these important principles to parents and helps me realize how important parent talk is, even from birth. I recommend this book for all parents, but also for anyone who works with babies or parents of babies. A powerful, hopeful message.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of $2.00 a Day, by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

2_dollars_a_day_large$2.00 a Day

Living on Almost Nothing in America

by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2015. 210 pages.
Starred Review

This book was published in 2015, so it was written before the election season got going, but it has strong political repercussions.

The book puts faces on extreme poverty, but the approach is a scientific one. Nothing here is sensationalized. The authors took statistics and facts, then dug deeper to give an understanding of what’s going on so that such deep poverty has become so widespread. At the end, they offer some ideas for things we can and should do about this.

This book is based on academic studies and census data. In the 1990s, author Kathryn Edin did an in-depth study of welfare recipients. But in 2010, she found more families in much worse shape.

In the summer of 2010, Edin returned to the field to update her work on the very poor. She was struck by how markedly different things appeared from just fifteen years before. In the course of her interviews, she began to encounter many families living in conditions similar to those she would find when she met Susan and Devin Brown in 2012 — with no visible means of cash income from any source. These families weren’t just poor by American standards. They were the poorest of the poor. Some claimed food stamps, now called SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A few had a housing subsidy. Most had at least one household member covered by some form of government-funded health insurance. Some received an occasional bag of groceries from a food pantry. But what was so strikingly different from a decade and a half earlier was that there was virtually no cash coming into these homes. Not only were there no earnings, there was no welfare check either. These families didn’t just have too little cash to survive on, as was true for the welfare recipients Edin and Lein had met in the early 1990s. They often had no cash at all. And the absence of cash permeated every aspect of their lives. It seemed as though not only cash was missing, but hope as well.

Edin dug deeper and met Luke Shaefer, a leading expert on the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP).

That fall, during an early morning meeting in her office in Cambridge, Edin shared with Shaefer what she had been seeing on the ground. Shaefer immediately went to work to see if he could detect a trend in the SIPP data that matched Edin’s observations. First, though, he needed to determine what income threshold would capture people who were experiencing a level of destitution so deep as to be unthought-of in America. Accordingly, he borrowed inspiration from one of the World Bank’s metrics of global poverty in the developing world — $2 per person, per day. At the time, the official poverty line for a family of three in the United States worked out to about $16.50 per person, per day over the course of a year. The government’s designation of “deep poverty” — set at half the poverty line — equated to about $8.30 per person, per day. As far as Shaefer and Edin could tell, no one had ever looked to see whether any slice of the American poor fell below the even lower threshold of $2 a day for even part of a year. With the SIPP, it was fairly easy to estimate how many American families with children were reporting cash incomes below this very low threshold in any given month….

The results of Shaefer’s analysis were staggering. In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month. That’s about one out of every twenty-five families with children in America. What’s more, not only were these figures astoundingly high, but the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children had been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996 — and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.

It further appeared that the experience of living below the $2-a-day threshold didn’t discriminate by family type or race. While single-mother families were most at risk of falling into a spell of extreme destitution, more than a third of the households in $2-a-day poverty were headed by a married couple. And although the rate of growth was highest among African Americans and Hispanics, nearly half of the $2-a-day poor were white.

One piece of good news in these findings was that the government safety net was helping at least some households. When Shaefer added in SNAP as if it were cash — a problematic assumption because SNAP cannot legally be converted to cash, so it can’t be used to pay the light bill, the rent, or buy a bus pass — the number of families living in $2-a-day poverty fell by about half. This vital in-kind government program was clearly reaching many, though not all, of the poorest of the poor. Even counting SNAP as cash, though, Shaefer found that the increase in the number of families with children living in $2-a-day poverty remained large — up 70 percent in fifteen years. And even after throwing in any tax credits the household could have claimed in the prior year, plus the cash value of housing subsidies, the data still showed a 50 percent increase. Clearly, the nation was headed in the wrong direction.

Reflecting on these numbers, we, Shaefer and Edin, sought out even more confirmation that what we had found represented a real shift in the circumstances of families at the very bottom. With this in mind, we began to look for other evidence, beyond the SIPP, of the rise of $2-a-day poverty. Reports from the nation’s food banks showed a sizable rise in the number of households seeking emergency food assistance since the late 1990s. A look at government data on those receiving SNAP revealed a large increase in the number of families with no other source of income. And reports from the nation’s public schools showed that more and more children were facing homelessness. Taken together, these findings seemed to confirm the rise of a new form of poverty that defies every assumption about economic, political, and social progress made over the past three decades.

The questions the authors bring to these numbers reflect what they’re trying to explain in this book:

Statistics can help identify troubling trends like these, but they can’t tell us much about what’s going on beneath the numbers. In fact, these statistics led to more questions than answers. What had caused the rise in $2-a-day poverty among households with children? Was the landmark welfare reform of 1996 partly to blame? Were these families completely detached from the world of work? Or were they enmeshed in a low-wage labor market that was itself somehow prompting spells of extreme destitution? How was it even possible to live without cash in modern America? What were families in $2-a-day poverty doing to survive? And were these strategies different from those poor families had been using prior to welfare reform, when AFDC still offered such families a cash cushion against extreme destitution? What was so indispensable about cash — as opposed to in-kind resources such as SNAP — for families trying to survive in twenty-first-century America?

In 2012, they launched an in-depth study in four different areas in America.

In each of these places, we looked for families with children who had spent at least three months living on a cash income of less than $2 per person, per day. In most cases, these spells of such dire poverty proved to be much longer. We visited with these families over the course of many months — and, in some cases, years — talking with them frequently, sharing meals, and observing their daily lives. As common themes emerged from their stories — such as their surprisingly high level of attachment to the formal labor market and the frequency with which doubling up with family or friends precipitated a spell of $2-a-day poverty — we looked back to the SIPP and to other sources of data to see if we could see them there as well.

In the end, we followed eighteen families, eight of them featured here. As had been true of those Edin first encountered in the summer of 2010, some of these households received SNAP or lived in subsidized housing. But others weren’t getting even those benefits. During the course of our fieldwork, some of these families escaped $2-a-day poverty; others did not. Most escaped only to fall back into extreme destitution again.

The book does show the reader these families, helps the reader understand what’s going on, puts faces on this level of poverty. Rather than demonizing the poor as just looking for government hand-outs, we can see and begin to understand how people can get trapped in this.

Here’s the concluding section of the Introduction:

America’s cash welfare program — the main government program that caught people when they fell — was not merely replaced with the 1996 welfare reform; it was very nearly destroyed. In its place arose a different kind of safety net, one that provides a powerful hand up to some — the working poor — but offers much less to others, those who can’t manage to find or keep a job. This book is about what happens when a government safety net that is built on the assumption of full-time, stable employment at a living wage combines with a low-wage labor market that fails to deliver on any of the above. It is this toxic alchemy, we argue, that is spurring the increasing numbers of $2-a-day poor in America. A hidden but growing landscape of survival strategies among those who experience this level of destitution has been the result. At the community level, these strategies can pull families into a web of exploitation and illegality that turns conventional morality upside down.

None of the people whose stories appear in this book see a hand-out from the government — the kind that the old system provided prior to welfare reform — as a solution to their plight. Instead, what they want more than anything else is the chance to work. They would like nothing better than to have a full-time job paying $12 or $13 an hour, a modest dwelling in a safe neighborhood, and some stability above all else. In the 1990s, we, as a country, began a transformation of the social safety net that serves poor families with children. More aid has been rendered to a group that was previously without much in the way of government assistance — the working poor. Extending the nation’s safety net in this way has improved the lives of millions of Americans. But there are simply not enough jobs, much less good jobs, to go around. And for those without work, there is no longer a guarantee of cash assistance.

$2.00 a Day shows that the transformation of the social safety net is incomplete, with dire consequences. We believe the time has come to finish the job. Doing something more to help these families won’t be easy; it will require a commitment by all of us. The government’s emphasis on personal responsibility must be matched by bold action to expand access to, and improve the quality of, jobs. But there will always be circumstances in which work as a primary approach to alleviating poverty won’t work. In those cases, we need a system that truly acts as a safety net for families in crisis, catching them when they fall.

The bulk of the book looks at the lives of these eight families in detail. It helps you understand and feel the pain of the plight they face. You have to admire some of the creative ways they’re finding to survive.

The authors particularly look at things like “perilous work” — jobs that even endanger health, that don’t offer reliable hours and terminate employment at the slightest “offense.” They look at housing problems and cobbled-together solutions, and what the poor will do to try to keep their children safe.

This is an academic study, but the authors are good at telling the stories of the people they encountered.

In their chapter on solutions, the authors don’t advocate going back to welfare, since it robbed people of their dignity and self-worth. They point out that the Earned Income Tax Credit has the opposite effect.

In-dept interviews with 209 EITC claimants in the Northeast and Midwest in 2007 showed that while TANF receipt confers stigma and shame, claiming the EITC gives people dignity and restores their pride. First, the EITC is tied to employment. Second, tax credits are included as part of your federal tax refund — along with wages that were overwithheld. This lends the impression that the government benefit is “earned,” a just reward for hard work. Third, you don’t have to go to a welfare office to apply — an address that in and of itself connotes stigma. Instead, roughly 70 percent of EITC beneficiaries find their way to a professional tax preparation firm such as H&R Block, Liberty Tax Service, or Taxman. There you are not a supplicant. Instead you are a customer, there to claim your tax refund like any other American.

I could relate to this because, when my husband joined the Air Force, before I found a job at our new assignment, we qualified for WIC. But to get the benefits, we had to sit through a “class” teaching about nutrition, and all the staff pretty much treated the applicants as idiots. I never went back. Fortunately, I found a part-time job, but I remembered that getting this government assistance meant giving up my dignity. (The Earned Income Credit, though, was another story.) That’s one thing I love about libraries. We offer help to all, and there is no shame tied to it.

The authors go on:

We are not arguing here that the EITC is a solution to $2-a-day poverty. But it does offer a critical lesson in how antipoverty policy ought to be crafted. Too often, America has gone down the road of trying to shame those in need. We’ve put up barriers. We’ve made people jump through hoop after hoop — all based on the not-so-subtle presumption that they are lazy and immoral, intent on trying to put something over on the system. TANF is a perfect example. Yet research shows that the intrusive treatment people typically receive at the welfare office can undermine their confidence in government and erode political participation. It stands to reason that this kind of treatment could also erode the very confidence that is so necessary for pulling yourself out of $2-a-day poverty. Shame may act as a barrier to claiming that little bit of cash that might stop a downward spiral. As a nation, the question we have to ask ourselves is, Whose side are we on? Can our desire for, and sense of, community induce those of us with resources to come alongside the extremely poor among us in a more supportive, and ultimately more effective, way?

There are many more ideas of things we can do in that final chapter.

Our approach to ending $2-a-day poverty is guided by three principles: (1) all deserve the opportunity to work; (2) parents should be able to raise their children in a place of their own; and (3) not every parent will be able to work, or work all of the time, but parents’ well-being, and the well-being of their children, should nonetheless be ensured.

There’s so much more in this book I’d like to copy out. Don’t rely on my review, because you’ll miss so much. This book is worth reading! It’s impeccably researched and clearly presented, and it will stir your heart.

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

men_explain_things_to_me_largeMen Explain Things to Me

by Rebecca Solnit

Dispatch Books, Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2014. 130 pages.
Starred Review

I’m afraid most intelligent women need to hear nothing more than the title of this book to give a knowing smile. Rebecca Solnit starts the essay with a particularly stunning example of a man who knew nothing about a topic Rebecca had written a book about, trying to explain things to her. He even mentioned an “important book” she should have read, which it turned out he had not actually read but had read about in the New York Times Book Review. This was the book she had written.

I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.

Yes, people of both genders pop up at events and hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

Now, she does make clear that she’s not talking about all men, nor even the majority of men. But there are men out there who don’t respect women’s knowledge or opinions and feel they automatically have more important things to say. My first Master’s degree was in mathematics, and I always felt like I had to prove myself. And always, I must admit, took great delight in getting higher scores than my male classmates on math tests – which was more about me than about them. But where did I get the idea I had to prove myself?

The rest of the essays in this book talk about other ways women are silenced and marginalized. There’s also some discussion about marriage equality in that context.

The phrase [“marriage equality”] is ordinarily employed to mean that same-sex couples will have the rights different-sexed couples do. But it could also mean that marriage is between equals. That’s not what traditional marriage was. Throughout much of its history in the West, the laws defining marriage made the husband essentially an owner and the wife a possession. Or the man a boss and the woman a servant or slave.

Another essay is about a powerful international figure who raped a hotel maid in his luxury suite – and how that can be a metaphor for many things.

The opening essay begins with what is really a humorous scene. But this is not a humorous book. Overall, it’s about feminism and how we’ve made progress, but there is still progress that needs to be made.

Rebecca Solnit will make you think and consider and speak.

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Review of Beyond Magenta, by Susan Kuklin

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

beyond_magenta_largeBeyond Magenta

Transgender Teens Speak Out

written and photographed by Susan Kuklin

Candlewick Press, 2014. 182 pages.
Starred Review
Stonewall Honor Book, 2015.

I checked out this book after it won a Stonewall Honor. It looked interesting, but I had a lot of books to read, and I figured this one didn’t really apply to me, and wasn’t really anything I needed to know about, so I turned it back in. (Oh such arrogance!) Then this summer, my 27-year-old son told me they were changing gender, so now they are my daughter. When I got home, one of the first things I did was check out this book.

Whether you have such a personal connection or not, this book helps you see the world through other people’s eyes. I think one reason some have a problem with transgender people is a failure of empathy, and an inability to even imagine how someone could possibly want to be identified as anything other than the gender they were assigned at birth. This book goes a long way toward helping the reader understand.

The author tells the stories, with photos, of six individuals. She chose a diverse group of teens and young adults. She uses the highlighted individual’s actual words from in-depth interviews, interspersed with her own narration.

There’s a great deal of variety in the people featured, their gender expressions, their ethnicities, their backgrounds, and their ways of telling their stories. I like the way the book finishes up with a poet-performer.

Most of all, I wish I had read this book before I had such a personal reason. This is a book of people’s stories. Those stories are far outside my experience. As I try to understand their stories, I believe I grow as a person in empathy and compassion.

Yes, transgender people are in the news and popular culture more than ever before. I’m coming to realize that I may have been encountering many without even knowing it. I love that this book gives a group of transgender teens a voice. It helps others know that they are not alone, and helps cisgender folks understand that those who are different are people, too, people with hopes and dreams and interesting loves and lives.

And even if it weren’t for the timely topic, this book is an outstanding work of art in the way it presents these six lives.

I like what the first featured individual has to say:

When most trans men go through transition, they don’t want anything to do with femininity. They don’t want anything to do with being a woman. They just want to be completely accepted in the straight world. When I first started my transition, I wanted it to be complete, from one side to the other. But now I’m embracing my in-between-ness. I’m embracing this whole mix I have inside myself. And I’m happy. So forget the category. Just talk to me. Get to know me.

This book is a way to do that, to see the people under the outward appearance.

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Review of Breaking Free, by Abby Sher

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

breaking_free_largeBreaking Free

True Stories of Girls Who Escaped Modern Slavery

by Abby Sher

Barron’s, 2014. 226 pages.
Starred Review

Wow. I intended to read this book slowly over a long period of time, as I do with most nonfiction. But the stories are riveting. Today after dipping in less than halfway through, I sat down and finished the book.

The book tells the true stories of three women who, as girls, were sold into the sex trade. One of those girls was sold repeatedly by her own parents — in America. All of them were trapped by circumstances beyond their resources — but all of them did eventually escape.

Reading this book will open your eyes. I am horrified that such things could happen to young girls today. I am happy to say that many resources are listed at the back to enable the reader to do something to help. You will want to do something to help as soon as you read it.

Here’s what the author has to say in the Preface:

Sex trafficking happens all over the world, including here. Sex trafficking is defined as the act of forcing, coercing, or conning someone into performing any sexual act. According to U.S. law, anyone younger than eighteen who is selling or being sold for sex acts is a victim of sex trafficking, whether it’s done by force or not.

The girls and women in these pages are not only brave survivors of sex trafficking; they are also inspiring leaders in the anti-trafficking movement. After they broke free, they chose to dedicate their lives to activism to help other sex-trafficking victims become empowered survivors, too. They each work every day with the hope of creating a world where sex trafficking has been stopped once and for all. They speak to everyone from convicted traffickers to the leaders of the United Nations, because they know that change can only happen when we all work together….

It’s much easier to see survivors of sex trafficking as superhuman warriors, or their stories as too horrible to be true, but that only makes it easier to think of sex trafficking as someone else’s problem. Superheroes wear jetpacks and capes and appear in comic books. They don’t need help, except for maybe a sidekick to dust them off when they fall.

Talking to these women made it clear that I had to rethink my image of them and of myself. As I often heard them say, most importantly: We are human, just like you. No matter where we come from, no matter what brought us to today, we are not so different at all….

These women didn’t break free from sex trafficking because of any superpowers. They didn’t get to fly away in a rocket ship or on some magic carpet. They made it out because they are and always will be human. We all deserve to be treated as humans, not as property. And when nobody was treating them humanely, they found a single friend, a mentor, or an inner voice that screamed I believe in you!

Though the first story comes from a small village with no running water or light bulbs, I hope you’ll still see how Somaly’s hopes, dreams, and fears could be any little girl’s — anywhere in the world. I hope you’ll see how the cycle of human trafficking affects us all, and that to stop it we must believe in one another and in ourselves.

I hope you’ll read these words and believe that we all can and will break free.

This is how it starts, by reading one story and seeing how it’s your story, too.

And yours.

And yours.

And mine.

And ours.

I love that this book approaches the topic via stories. The stories of three survivors are simply told. Those stories have power, and indeed help you see that they were children just like anyone else — children caught in a horrible situation.

I have to add: I looked on the book’s webpage, and there’s a note from the publisher that includes these paragraphs:

Within a few weeks of the book’s release, Newsweek Magazine published an article (May 30th, 2014 issue) reporting that Somaly Mam had fabricated and embellished her life story. As a result, Somaly Mam has resigned as president of her Foundation.

To say the least, this news came as a complete surprise to us. These accusations are extremely disturbing and disappointing, and we sincerely apologize for any alleged fictitious content in our book regarding Somaly’s story. Nonetheless, we continue to believe that the work of Minh, Maria, and other human rights activists and organizations should not be tarnished as a result of these revelations concerning one individual. The work they do to rescue girls who have fallen victim to the scourge of human trafficking can and should be respected, even in light of this recent development.

Somaly’s story is one of the three featured in this book, and the one of the three that didn’t happen in the United States. And whether it is true or not doesn’t change the horrible statistics given about human trafficking at the back of the book.

May we do everything we can to stop this from happening.

A good way to start is to read these stories.
Links for Getting Involved

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Review of The End of the Suburbs, by Leigh Gallagher

Friday, January 30th, 2015

end_of_the_suburbs_largeThe End of the Suburbs

Where the American Dream Is Moving

by Leigh Gallagher
read by Jessica Geffen

Gildan Media, 2013. 7 ½ hours on 7 compact discs.

I checked out this book because I’ve been interested in the topic ever since I read Suburban Nation, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. That book was more about how America should change – this book is more about how America is changing.

And it’s mostly good news, I think. Cities are attracting young people, and even outside the city, new construction is designed to be more walkable, more urbanized.

I thought my own 26-year-old son was the only young person in the country living without a driver’s license, but it turns out that’s a trend. He lives near the center of Portland and rides public transportation. And more and more Millennials are opting for car-free living.

Baby Boomers are ageing, and don’t necessarily want to own a house and yard any more, and the next generation doesn’t necessarily want to buy what they’re leaving. Long commutes have lost their luster, and more and more people are looking for lifestyle changes that don’t necessarily fit with the suburbs.

The book is somewhat repetitive and seemed a bit longer than it needed to be. The narrator has a voice that sounds like a teenager, which seemed a little bit of an odd choice. Most of all, it felt ironic to listen to it as I drove through construction, taking almost an hour to get home from work.

The author did convince me that times are changing, that more people are moving to the cities, and that new construction is going to be designed to be walkable.

But she honestly didn’t convince me that the suburbs are really ending any time soon. When I was looking to buy in the suburbs of Washington, DC, I found it’s still true that the most affordable properties are further out. Places like Gainesville, Virginia, are now centers of new construction.

But I do think they’re building that new construction to a different model than the one that went before. They are going to look very different from what Baby Boomers think of when you use the word “suburb.” There are lots of townhomes and condominiums available. As stated in the book, developers brag that they are building walkable neighborhoods. So they’re outside the big city, but you’ll still find urbanized neighborhoods, places with a community feel and a town center. Can that be a bad thing?

It will be interesting to see how these trends play out.

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Review of A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren

Friday, November 21st, 2014

fighting_chance_largeA Fighting Chance

by Elizabeth Warren

Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt), 2014. 365 pages.
Starred Review

I checked out this book on a whim, knowing almost nothing about Elizabeth Warren; now having read her book, I am her total fan. She’s someone who’s gotten into politics not because she has a desire for personal power, but because she wants to help people. And I so respect that.

My background is that my ex-husband and I started out our life together plummeting into debt. We dared to try to live in California and have one and a half jobs between us so that we didn’t have to put our son in day care. (He came along only a year after we got married.) When my husband enlisted in the military, it only made things worse. They told us what he’d be making after he joined the Air Force. They didn’t tell us it would be significantly less while he was in Basic Training, and we were still paying California rent, for another few thousand dollars of debt. And I still needed to find a job when we moved to New Jersey.

All that is to say that I gained appreciation, years ago, for the fact that all people embroiled in credit card debt are not lazy freeloaders who want a hand-out. We were eventually able to pay off our debts – but then I got into a whole new pile of debt when my husband left me, and of course I lost my job since we had to leave Germany and then the divorce cost me thousands of dollars. This is not to grumble – I will eventually pay it off. But I can’t help but wonder how people in my situation cope if they don’t have my education level, and like me never thought they’d have to work full-time, and maybe have trouble finding a full-time job, and maybe have younger kids who need daycare. I just don’t have it in my heart to look down on people who find themselves in the position of filing for bankruptcy.

So when I found out how Elizabeth Warren got started in what led to her political career, it was with a big cheer. Finally someone is saying what I have believed for years and years!

She was teaching a class on bankruptcy law. She discovered that “experts” believed “that the people who filed were mostly day laborers and housemaids who lived at the economic margins and always would.”

Ms Warren kept thinking about this:

As I dug deeper into my study of bankruptcy and the new law, I kept bumping into the same question over and over: Why were people going bankrupt? I couldn’t find solid answers anywhere. In those days, almost all young law professors specialized in theory. They wrote articles and books about the theory of this and the philosophy of that. But theory wouldn’t provide answers that anyone could count on, answers that would explain what had gone wrong. I clung to the idea that the people in bankruptcy were different and everyone else would be safe. I might not have said so at the time, but I think I was on the lookout for cheaters and deadbeats as a way to explain who was filing for bankruptcy.

She did a study on bankruptcy and why it happens. She visited bankruptcy court in San Antonio and saw, not down and out deadbeats, but people who looked just like her and her students.

Later, our data would confirm what I had seen in San Antonio that day. The people seeking the judge’s decree were once solidly middle-class. They had gone to college, found good jobs, gotten married, and bought homes. Now they were flat busted, standing in front of that judge and all the world, ready to give up nearly everything they owned just to get some relief from the bill collectors.

As the data continued to come in, the story got scarier. San Antonio was no exception: all around the country, the overwhelming majority of people filing for bankruptcy were regular families who had hit hard times. Over time, we learned that nearly 90 percent were declaring bankruptcy for one of three reasons: a job loss, a medical problem, or a family breakup (typically divorce, sometimes the death of a husband or wife). By the time these families arrived in the bankruptcy court, they had pretty much run out of options. Dad had lost his job or Mom had gotten cancer, and they had been battling for financial survival for a year or longer. They had no savings, no pension plan, and no homes or cars that weren’t already smothered by mortgages. Many owed at least a full year’s income in credit card debt alone. They owed so much that even if they never bought another thing – even if Dad got his job back tomorrow and Mom had a miraculous recovery – the mountain of debt would keep growing on its own, fueled by penalties and compounding interest rates that doubled their debts every few years. By the time they came before a bankruptcy judge, they were so deep in debt that being flat broke – owning nothing, but free from debt – looked like a huge step up and worth deep personal embarrassment.

Worse yet, the number of bankrupt families was climbing. In the early 1980s, when my partners and I first started collecting data, the number of families annually filing for bankruptcy topped a quarter of a million. True, a recession had hobbled the nation’s economy and squeezed a lot of families, but as the 1980s wore on and the economy recovered, the number of bankruptcies unexpectedly doubled. Suddenly, there was a lot of talk about how Americans had lost their sense of right and wrong, how people were buying piles of stuff they didn’t actually need and then running away when the bills came due. Banks complained loudly about unpaid credit card bills. The word deadbeat got tossed around a lot. It seemed that people filing for bankruptcy weren’t just financial failures – they had also committed an unforgivable sin.

Part of me still wanted to buy the deadbeat story because it was so comforting. But somewhere along the way, while collecting all those bits of data, I came to know who these people were.

I have never filed for bankruptcy. But it’s so easy to see how I could have ended up in that situation. I like that Elizabeth Warren sees that, too.

I ran my fingers over one of the papers, thinking about a woman who had tried to explain how her life had become such a disaster. A turn here, a turn there, and her life might have been very different.

Divorce, an unhappy second marriage, a serious illness, no job. A turn here, a turn there, and my life might have been very different, too.

She still wasn’t in politics, but she continued to teach bankruptcy law.

I kept teaching bankruptcy, but the world outside my classroom was changing, too. The numbers of people going bankrupt kept climbing, in good times and bad. By 1990, more than seven hundred thousand families filed for bankruptcy in a single year – the number had more than doubled in the decade since I had started teaching. That shocked me….

At school, I heard from secretaries and cafeteria workers. I heard from other professors whose children or old friends were in trouble. Sometimes someone would stop me in the mailroom or while I was waiting in line for a sandwich. Most people didn’t ask for help. They just seemed to want me to know. I think they hoped to hear me say, “There are a lot of good people who end up bankrupt.” At least, that’s what I believed, so that’s what I always said.

And then, in the early 1990s, the big banks began pushing for tougher bankruptcy laws.

At this point, the book briefly explains the history behind the explosion of both bankruptcies and bank profits.

With usury laws and the 1930s banking regulations as a backdrop, banks played a really important role in helping America’s economy grow. They lent the money for families to buy homes, and those monthly payments became a sort of giant savings plan, so that by the time people retired, they owned a valuable asset – and a place where they could live without paying rent. Over time, banks financed cars and college educations. They helped small businesses get a start. A handful of larger banks served the biggest corporate clients, giving them access to the money they needed to expand and create jobs. Banking was all about evaluating customers, making sure that they would be able to repay loans, and keeping interest rates competitive with the bank across the street.

It all worked pretty well. Until the 1980s, that is.

At that point, with scant notice and very little public discussion, a momentous event occurred: thanks to a Supreme Court ruling about a century-old banking law and an amendment quietly passed by Congress, the cap on interest rates was effectively eliminated. Suddenly, banking was changed forever. The usury ban for large American banks disappeared, and deregulation became the new watchword. The bigger banks were now unleashed, and they started loading up credit cards with fees and escalating interest rates – tactics that would have been illegal just a few years earlier. Once the banks began to figure out just how lucrative these cards could be, they started juicing their profits by lending money at super-high interest rates to people who were a lot less likely to repay all those loans. By the 1990s, they were targeting people who were barely hanging on – those with modest or erratic income, those who had lost their jobs and were scrambling. In other words, the banks were targeting people just like the folks who ended up in the bankruptcy courts….

Why would the big banks do this? Here was the trick: Even with the bankruptcy losses, the banks could make more money if they kept giving credit to people who were in trouble. Yes, the banks had to absorb bigger losses when people went bankrupt. But in the meantime, they could make a lot more money from all those people on the edge who didn’t file for bankruptcy protection, or at least didn’t file for another year or so. Interest rates and fees were so high that, in the end, the banks came out ahead – way ahead.

Even with profits breaking records every year, the banks weren’t satisfied. They thought of more fees to tack on, more ways to escalate interest rates, and more aggressive ways to market their cards. Credit card vendors started showing up on college campuses, targeting kids with promises that there would be no credit checks and no need for their parents to sign. Children were preapproved. And occasionally even a dog would get his fifteen minutes of fame, when a local newspaper heard about some cute little pooch who had just been offered a credit card.

To pump up their returns even more, the banks tried a new tactic: What if they could persuade the government to limit bankruptcy protections? Sure, a lot of families were broke, but maybe some of them could be pressed to pay just a little more. If they couldn’t file for bankruptcy, maybe more families would decide to move in with their in-laws, or borrow from their neighbors, or hock their wedding rings, or cancel their health insurance – who knows? If several hundred thousand families a year could be squeezed just a little harder, maybe the banks could add yet more profit to their bottom lines.

The bankers might not have said it in so many words, but gradually their strategy emerged: Target families who were already in a little trouble, lend them more money, get them entangled in high fees and astronomical interest rates, and then block the doors to the bankruptcy exit if they really got in over their heads.

If you knew anything about bankruptcy law – and by now I knew a lot – you could see exactly what the big banks were up to. I was just a law school professor, so I didn’t have the power to change anything, but the deep cynicism behind these new tactics infuriated me. For the banks, a change in the bankruptcy laws was just one more opportunity to try to boost profits. For the families – the moms, dads, kids, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – who would lose their last chance to recover from the financial blow of a layoff or a frightening medical diagnosis, the pain could never be measured.

So that was what motivated Elizabeth Warren to step into politics. First, she was offered a position at Harvard, which she knew would enable her voice to be heard more clearly. Then she was asked to serve on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission.

I told him no. I was deep in my research, and I thought the way I could make a difference was by writing books and doing more research about who was filing for bankruptcy and what had gone wrong in their lives. I didn’t know anything about Washington, but the bits I picked up from the press made it sound pretty awful.

But her friend was persistent, and said if she’d join the commission, he would ask her to supply three good changes in the bankruptcy laws.

And that’s what I thought about, all the way home. My office was stacked with piles of questionnaires from people in bankruptcy, and many of them told personal stories about what had gone wrong in their lives and described the sense of defeat that they carried to the bankruptcy court. I thought about the family that finally got a shot at their lifelong dream to launch a new restaurant – and it went belly-up. The young and very tired woman who described how she finally managed to leave her abusive ex-husband, but now she was alone with a pack of small children and a pile of bills. The elderly couple who had cashed out everything they owned and then went into debt to bail out their son and put him through rehab again and again.

So she joined the commission, and joined what turned out to be a long drawn-out battle with the big banks and their lobbyists. And eventually, they lost the battle.

On good days, I reminded myself that our fight to protect America’s middle class had held off the banking industry for nearly a decade. From the day President Clinton appointed Mike Synar to launch the National Bankruptcy Review Commission to the final passage of the bill, millions of families had gotten some relief from their debts. On bad days, I admitted that right from the beginning, the game was so rigged that working families never had a fighting chance. The big banks would eventually win. They simply had too much power….

David really did get the slingshot shoved down his throat sideways. It hurt then, and it still hurts now.

The bankruptcy wars changed me forever. Even before this grinding battle, I had begun to understand the terrible squeeze on the middle class. But it was this fight that showed me how badly the playing field was tilted and taught me that the squeeze wasn’t accidental.

We had lost the bankruptcy battle, but this war wasn’t over. People were getting pounded, debts were mounting, and the squeeze was getting more intense than ever.

Then came the mortgage crisis. To give you a hint on how Elizabeth Warren feels about the bank bailout, she names that chapter “Bailing Out the Wrong People.” During that time, she served on a Congressional Oversight Panel, though it was a panel without a lot of power. She summarizes it this way:

Our oversight of the bailout wasn’t perfect, not by any stretch. But I saw what was possible. We took an obscure little panel that could have disappeared without a trace and worked hard to become the eyes and ears and voice for a lot of people who had been cut out of the system. And every now and again we landed a blow for the people who were getting pounded by the economic crash.

That felt good. It felt really good.

Next came the battle to establish a Consumer Protection Agency. She won this battle, though she made enough banking enemies that she could not be confirmed as its permanent director.

And she doesn’t boast about the win:

But in the end, I think most of the credit for this win goes to the American people. Sometimes they were organized – through nonprofit groups and unions and coalitions. Sometimes they were a little disorganized, as single voices burst forth in funny videos and online blogs and old-fashioned letters to the editor. But organized or not, the people made themselves heard.

In the chapter about getting the Consumer Protection Agency off the ground, she also speaks up for the dedicated government workers she encountered and the wonderful people who wanted to do their bit.

America has faced difficult problems before – and we’ve solved them together. We passed laws to get children out of factories. We set up a system that allowed aging workers to retire with dignity. We built schools so that every child would have a chance for a better life, and we created a network of highway and mass transit systems so people could get to work. We built an astonishingly tough military, superb police forces, and squadrons of first-class professional firefighters.

No, the market didn’t build those things: Americans built them. Working through our government, we built them together. And as a consequence, we are all better off.

We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that if “big government” disappears, so will society’s toughest problems. That’s just magical thinking – and it’s also dangerous thinking. Our problems are getting bigger by the day, and we need to develop some hardheaded, realistic responses. Instead of trying to starve government or drown it in the bathtub, we need to tackle our problems head-on, and that will require better government.

After the Consumer Protection Agency was established, she was going to simply go back to teaching at Harvard. But people – ordinary people – asked her to run for the U.S. Senate, asked her to fight for them.

And, against all odds, she won. She has this to say about her victory:

This victory wasn’t mine. That’s not some kind of fake modesty talk – no, that statement is deep-down truth. This victory belonged to all the families who have been chipped away at, squeezed, and hammered. This time, they fought together and won. And now they were sending me to Washington to fight for them and for every hardworking family who just wants a fighting chance to live the American dream.

I’ve quoted extensively from the book, but there’s a lot more if you actually read the book. Elizabeth Warren’s personality comes through, and I find myself just liking this woman. She’s smart, she’s done her research, and, bottom line, she cares about people and got into politics to serve.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Review of Think Like a Freak, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

think_like_a_freak_largeThink Like a Freak

The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain

by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
read by Stephen J. Dubner

HarperCollins, 2014. 5 ½ hours on 5 compact discs.
Starred Review

I reviewed Freakonomics back in 2005. It presented a different way of looking at problems than common “wisdom” suggests. In this book, Think Like a Freak, the authors not only show you problems they have solved, but they offer tips and suggestions for how you can solve problems the Freakonomics way.

As well as giving problem-solving tips, they also give you advice on persuading people who don’t want to be persuaded. One piece of advice is to tell stories. And this book abounds with stories and examples for every principle given. Even if you don’t take their advice, you’ll find the stories entertaining. But I’m guessing that you will also find them persuasive.

For example, to go with the tip of having gardens weed themselves, we’re told why Nigerian scammers are actually smart to mention Nigeria. It weeds out all but the very most gullible people.

In light of the principle that we should get rid of the idea that quitting is always bad, the authors tell about a huge experiment they ran, offering to make people’s decisions for them with a coin flip.

Those are just a few of the entertaining and informative examples, which are presented in an engaging way and may get you looking at the world differently. Unlike many authors, this one’s voice is as mellifluous as an actor’s. I found myself looking forward to my commute to hear more of what he had to say.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.