Category Archives: books

A Book on Policing

One of the heavier books I’ve read recently! Worth it though.

Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing by Bernard E. Harcourt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is a mix of empirical study analysis, theory survey, and rhetorical analysis. The author warns the reader that the empirical chapter is necessarily heavy in detail and can be skipped; however I slogged through it. I remembered enough from my one college course to recognize that he was asking good questions of prior studies, though I’d forgotten most of what i once knew about the actual formulas and their results. He used the analysis to separate “broken windows” policing out from other causes of a decrease in crime, thus removing claims that the policing method worked.

In the theoretical section he challenges the categorization of order/disorder using a Foucauldian analysis of subject creation. He questions the assumption that the category “disorder” is fixed and natural, pointing out disorders like white collar crimes and police use of excessive force that are not included among public drunkenness. In his analysis he claims that the manner of policing creates the category “disorder” as it is used then assumed preexistent.

In the rhetorical section he traces the history of the use of a “harm principle” to determinine when government can intervene in individual action. He shows a gradual movement from harm/no harm to analyses of multiple harms. And the “harm principle” doesn’t provide a way to weigh among harms. By the conclusion he is arguing that harms done by aggressive policing need to be considered along with harms of the act being constrained for a total anaysis of harm.

Although written in 2001, it still has relevance. I’m interested in following up to see how many of his ideas have been incorporated into later studies and also to see how his thinking has evolved.



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Historical Fiction: Dominican Republic

Since my education in history involves Greek and Roman classics, US and European history (and I keep realizing not a lot of those), I knew nothing of the dictatorshp of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic or of the resistance. Lucky for me, a friend recommended this 2010 novel. It was quite a way into the novel that I realized “butterflies” was the code name for the three sisters in a resistance that had code names for everyone. Without that, the title was jarring.

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I like historic fiction and I like multiple perspectives, and this book did both well. I was totally unfamiliar with the history presented, so that was all new as I read the story; however, from the dedication I knew of the three deaths at the end, so the only suspense was how it happened. And that was enough to make a page turner. From the comments of the author at the end, it appears that the broad outline of events is true and the different personalities of each of the four sisters seemed to be approved by the surviving sister, Dede. It prompts me to read more on the event.

The various viewpoints didn’t so much give different versions of a moment as spread out the telling, revealing personality along the way of chronologically exploring events and motivations. The pacing was well handled, sometimes hints in one sister’s segment of what was coming in another’s. Dede’s sections started in the “present” (1999) and moved to long flashbacks of the earlier times. Time and narrator were signaled by chapter headings as well as personality differences. The intensity increased up to the deaths, then a focus on Dede’s life after allowed for bringing a calm. Its function was much more than a filling in of the future. More a meditation on life, death, grief, and myth.





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Time-Travel Fiction

There wasn’t much reading happening while I was finishing the quilt, but I’m back to it.

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This was a good read after a slow beginning. The premise is really fun, producing some entertaining moments as well as angst in the time travel. It is also fun to have the father be a sci-fi writer who writes about time travel comments about good and bad time travel in a time-travel novel.

The description of Alice’s ordinary, moderately satisfying, something-missing life was vivid, but seemed to go on too long. After that, once the time travel began, the pacing was better, the page-turner quality entered. Several condensed scenes were well placed. Alice’s self understanding that developed over the whole was worth thinking about, as were her understandings of aging. The ending might not have pleased me in most novels, but it was fitting for this one.

Three characters were especially well developed: Alice, Sam, and Leonard, Alice’s father. I will read more by this author.



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More Fiction

Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


First of all, the long book is a page turner from the start. That’s pretty hard to sustain! There are three stories: Asher, a teen; Olivia, his mother; and Lily the girl he has just begun to date. There are only two narrators; Olivia and Lily–what we learn about Asher is through their eyes. In the afterward we are told that Picoult wrote Olivia and Boylan, Lily. Reading it, I didn’t feel shifts in style, probably because they edited the whole together. Lily’s story is told in reverse chronology, Olivia’s is mostly forward moving, though with many flashbacks. Asher’s chronology varies with who is narrating. This allows for interesting pacing of details and tensions.

There is a death/?murder and a trial and enough red herrings to keep readers shifting opinions. (I’d made a correct choice of whodunit, but it was one among several choices.) The main characters are fully deveoped, minor ones a little less so. I cared what happened to the main three and some of the minor ones. A couple were just hateful.

The information about bees was interesting, and I have a feeling it has more significance than I found on first reading, significance beyond something Olivia enjoys and goes to when she needs comfort or she and Asher do together when they need to communicate.

A good read and a good introduction to Boylan. Now her books are also on my to-read list.



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Time for Fiction

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Mostly a fascinating novel; occasionally the history takes over, moreso toward the end. In the begnning the history is more closely integrated with the characters and plot.

The plot moves well much of the time. About a third of the way in there is an abrupt shift from Spain to Chile, but the two plots become interconnected soon. Time is more condensed in the early part; later it becomes telescoped. Mostly the telescoped part avoids banal “how the people ended up,” though there are moments when that takes over. There are also moments of engaging plot. Sometimes it seems like too many successful opportunities occur to the same people, though all have difficulties as well.

The characters are mostly well rounded and believable–occasionally Roser seems too understanding and accepting. I did like Roser’s independence to develop her music while Victor developed himself as a medical doctor. Also admirable is the shared parenting of Marcel.

In some ways it is relevant to today. Set in the time of the Spanish Civil War, it provides interesting history, and it makes one think of the Ukraine war–and hope for better contemporary results. The section set in Chile gives some time to reflect on current refugee situations around the world and especially the US southern border.

A novel well worth reading.



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Back to the Animals

Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are by Frans de Waal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is written to upend the imbalance that Social Darwinism has produced. De Waal asks us why we use “humane” to describe bonobolike behavior and “bestial” to describe chimpanzeelike behavior when both are part of the human gene pool. He challenges the view of human nature of the 60s that humans are basically competitive individualists with a fragile shell of civilization controlling us, stating that that theory depends on looking exclusively at chimplike behavior.

It isn’t a simple chimpanzees are individualistic and bonobos are community minded. He takes pains to show both in each. In the “Power” chapter he presents the chimpanzees’ competitive spirit modulated by cooperation and in the “Sex” chapter the subtle competition among the otherwise cooperative bonobos. That complexity continues as he discusses “Violence” and “Kindness.”

The book is richly descriptive of various ape societies–we get to know some of them quite well–which makes for entertaining reading. De Waal’s comparisons to human politics and speculations of how traits developed from the simple form observed in the apes to human behaviors are convincing to variable degrees, but all worth thinking on. Perhaps mostly the ones I was tempted to instantly reject. One can’t help wondering how these observations might be modified since the book’s publication in 2005.



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More History I Didn’t Learn in High School

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W. French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I love revisionist history. As a historian once said (alas I forget who): The facts don’t change but the questions the historians ask do. And so this book opens up many events and shows how Africans are central to a story in which we haven’t heard their parts. It is time to hear them.

It starts with a questioning of the Asian, spice trade goal having inspired the Age of Exploration, a story in which Africa is a blob in the way. Instead it presents empires of Africa, their gold becoming known and prompting exploration of Africa, starting with the west coast and working in and south. Instead of backward savages, Africa is presented as empires with rulers who relate with Europe as equals in treaties to set up trading posts first for gold then later for the slave trade. This portion of the book presents Portugal’s role in the slave trade and exploration, a good addition to the English and Spanish focus of what I had learned before. It covers the slaving business history in the context of European struggles with each other for supremacy. It explores colonies and their products–mostly sugar cane–and how that integrated industry presaged industrialization. There is a section on the effects on Africa of the slave trade, on various colonies in the West Indies, and on the slaves’ importance to US development as well as to Europe’s industrialization. French takes a serious look at myths and dispels many.

Because most of the detail is new, it is slow reading. And in the rare chapters where I already knew something it started out as a relief to be in familiar territory, but soon I was learning new bits as well. My understanding of colonialism and the slave trade is increasing from the British focus I’d started with back in school days. With various books I’ve been reading, first I added Spanish colonies and trade, then French, and now in this book, Portuguese. (French mentions that the first slave in what will become the US is landed in 1585, not 1619, in a Spanish colony, not Virginia, and that was a reminder of the British focus that has predominated.) The expanding history enables a fuller more complex picture.

An important and good read.



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Rosa Parks: Myth Debunked and Explained

Christmas knitting is almost finished (obviously not photos yet). Reading continues.

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Theoharis engages in important myth debunking even while she traces the growth of the dangerous myth. The danger is that in losing site of the real person’s ongoing actions against systemic racism, the symbol portrays a safe past action and a finished project and opens the door to blaming individual responsibility. This is a very readable biography, mostly chronological, but also thematic.

After an exploration of Parks’s family and youth, the myth of the tired seamstress is questioned and Parks’s strength, determination, and anger are explored. But the beginning of the myth in its strategic use at the time is also explored. And with the bus boycott’s ending, the book is only midway. She did more, who knew? Her life in Detroit allows for exploration of the form racism has in the north. Especially interesting is the chapter on Parks’s relationship to the Black Power movement: “Mrs. Parks’s political activities and associations in 1960s and 1970s Detroit illustrate the continuities and connections between the civil rights and Black power movements” (203).

A very important book.



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A World War II Narrative of More Than War

Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II by Daniel James Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book totally lived up to my expectations. Just as Boys in the Boat overcame my reluctance to read sports books, this one overcame my reluctance to read war narratives. As in the first book, Facing the Mountain focuses on a few people (Kats, Fred, Rudy, and Gordon are major players) to tell a much larger history of more than Japanese heroism, though it brilliantly tells that story. It also tells of the imprisonment of Issei Japanese men, the concentration (euphemistically called “relocation” at the time) camps, and some resisters. The focus on people–their thoughts, actions and reactions–kept the details of war strategizing present but background.

By juxtaposing thoughts of many, Brown is able to present complexities. Going to war for the sons of imprisoned fathers and families contained behind barbed wire was not a clear cut decision, nor was refusal. Instant response may be necessary for effective action but can be disastrous when orders are poorly thought through. And unity among troops segregated by race is not guaranteed: the clash between Hawaiian boys and mainland boys was dramatic until wisely resolved.

The book presents an important history to know and provides an excellent way to learn it.



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On Dealing with Information, Misinformation, and Communication

What the Fact?: Debunking Disinformation to Detangle the Truth by Seema Yasmin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I think this book does what it intended to do: introduces readers to a complex topic in a readable way. The chatty tone keeps interest going even when technical terms are being introduced. And the bibliography is there for readers who want to follow up on an idea.

There were new illustrations and recent analyses given where a topic was familiar to me, and there were some solutions I’d heard before but need constant reminders because they are not my natural reaction. There were also new solutions to ponder.

Strong points: the history of journalism was fascinating. I found the distinction between “High conflict” and “Good conflict” illuminating and may follow up by reading the source quoted. I found the section near the end where Yasmin addressed ways to react when my views are challenged an excellent addition to ways to address differences with others. Now to remember and do it! And useful is the reminder that we are human and will make mistakes, but forge on.

The book is a good antidote for the attitude that had been brewing to distrust everything; one piece of which is the awareness of degrees of certainty and how they can (and should) change with the search for additional information



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