Review: Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t feel qualified to review this in my own words, but here are some of Coates’ own that struck me.


On writing/thinking:

“She also taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation.”

“It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort.”

“I remember watching her eat with her hands and feeling wholly uncivilized with my fork.”

“They gave the art of journalism, a powerful technology for seekers.”


On race/identity:

“My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams.”

“The violence rose from the fear, like smoke from a fire.”

“According to this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice.”

“We know that the authorities charged with investigating the shooting did very little to investigate the officer and did everything in their power to investigate Prince Jones.”

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Thoughts: Eichmann in Jerusalem

Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil
Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There was too much to think about so I wrote the review in point form.

>> I read the book after I watched the movie Hannah Arendt which is great. Despite the name, it’s actually a movie about an idea, and how that’s really inseparable from its author.

>> Despite Arendt being a philosopher, and one accused of being heartless, what drives her idea on the banality of evil is how disconcerted she is by Eichmann the person. He’s petty and mediocre: a paper pusher who is also a mass murderer. How do you reconcile that? How to make sense of a mass murderer that can say, “But I never killed,” and mean it? Her starting point was emotion, but it was backed by knowledge. She’d literally written the book on totalitarianism.

>>The book spends several chapters detailing the deportations from every country in Europe that came under German control, divided by regions. It’s tedious and horrifying, like Eichmann himself, and what he represents. Bureaucratic mass murder.

>> During those chapters Arendt refers to statelessness often. That almost every country began with deporting their foreign Jews who were also stateless, having fled from Germany or German occupied countries. Germany had made them stateless to facilitate this process. That got me wondering about this idea – that we’ve designed a system where you have to be a citizen to qualify for basic human rights. It turns out Arendt had written about that before too and that it’s a way bigger issue than just about Jews and WWII, though Jews were uniquely stateless since unlike a stateless Russian or Bulgarian, they didn’t have a homeland. Lots of implications of this.

>> It gets four stars for being important and readable, not for being good in a literary sense.

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Review: Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Fire Shut Up in My Bones
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve finished the book but I wrote this while I was still half way through. The overall sentiment didn’t change.

I started and read half of a book called “Fire shut up in my bones”. It’s a memoir of a writer who grew up poor in Louisiana on the black side of town. He was sensitive and likely gay and that made him an outsider in a place where being brash and aggressive, even gun-loving and angry and violent, was strength and everything else weakness.

There’s a constant of violence and death around him. His Mom shot at his Dad and his Dad was mostly absent, women regularly shot at husbands who regularly cheated, Grandma had a mean streak, two kids that lived across from Grandpa drowned at a neighborhood festival, and his gay second-cousin was found tied to a bed and murdered.

The writing is evocative but the rhythm doesn’t vary. There are a lot of these descriptions: half-witted, full-bodied, beer-can-swigging, foul-mouthed, and a lot of “they lived in a small run-down house at the bottom of a round hill near the field where Grandpa Joe raised the hogs.” It works but it gets old.

I like that he attributes so much importance to his loneliness at six years old, his near suicide attempt at 8. It’s unclear if he’s going back now and giving all that the meaning that it has now that he’s an adult, or if he knew it already then then — why he spent time in the house where the two drowned children had lived, his need of a sanctuary, his need to learn resilience in the face of ridicule, what he needed from his father, how he felt about Jed, his mother’s mother’s husband.

There are a few pages about race: the first time he’s called nigger, and the fact that a friendship between his grandmother and a white family saved him from the instinctive reverse racism of fear/anger of white people (his words), but this is not a race-identity story.

Update: Now that I’m finished the book, not much of my initial opinion has changed. It’s a book worth reading, an almost too-gentle account of what must have been a pretty rough beginning. (It probably deserves 4 stars but i’m stingy.)

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Wealth Inequality is the new Income Inequality

If you care about Piketty and his 900 page book on capital you should go read a review from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. (Good luck with that. There are hundreds.)

If you don’t care about Piketty and his views on income inequality you should not read the rest of this post because that’s what it’s about.

(If you don’t fit into either one of the above two categories, you don’t fit into my black and white worldview and I don’t know what to make of you.)

So I read Branco Milankovic’s 20 page review of Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century”, the wonderful How To Write a Thomas Piketty Think Piece in 10 Easy Steps, Piketty on Piketty  on Vox, and lots of tweets and headlines that said smart things about Piketty. These are my conclusions:

  • Capital = wealth = assets, real estate, stocks, machinery, businesses etc.
  • Wealth to income ratio is growing, which means that wealth is being concentrated in the hands of very few, and it’s becoming more important to hold on to wealth (inheritance etc.) than have a high income. In other words, it’s more worthwhile financially to marry a rich heir than get a good job.
  • Post WWII, when wealth-to-income ratio, was low was an anomaly and can’t be duplicated. It was because of really high growth rates, which an economy can’t sustain forever. Younger economies (China, India) may go through a period of low wealth-to-income ratios (or not, because the economy is more interconnected now) but will then end up in the same place as the US and Europe today.
  • We need global tax laws on wealth and inheritance if we want to stop the concentration of wealth. It will only work if there is global agreement because otherwise there will always be tax havens.

Tl;dr (which mean you couldn’t be bothered to read my 3 line review of the 20 page review of the 900 page book): Wealth inequality is the new income inequality.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The Solitude of Prime NumbersThe Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The idea is beautiful. Compare people to numbers, compare the loneliness of people who don’t know how to belong to the otherness of prime numbers, and thus imply that there could be resolution to their alienation because it’s part of a logical pattern, and if they can’t belong to everyone, at least they can belong to each other.

However, other than the fact that Mattia, one of the main characters, is a genius mathematician, and one passage where he introduces the concept of twin prime numbers, there’s really no mention of this theme.

In addition, the characters are dull and silent at best, and selfish and unlikable at worst. There is no progression. The relationships and the characters all follow the same motions, repeated endlessly for the 20 years that are covered in the book.

If prime numbers interest you and that’s how the title caught your attention, read pages 111-113.

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Blue is the warmest color (thoughts on, unedited)

It’s hard to judge a movie that comes highly recommended, but equally hard to judge one with no context.

“It’s a very well acted movie.”

“Where does a sex scene end and pornography begin?”

I was expecting lesbian sex and a girl with blue hair and magnetic charm, which I got. I didn’t know to expect that the blue haired girl is secondary. The main character is Adele, a high school junior who falls in love with the blue haired art student, Emma. It’s through Adele’s eyes that we see most of the film. The discovery or acceptance that she’s gay, love at first site, hopes raised when her love speaks to her, hopes dashed when she finds out she has a girlfriend, the budding romance, the passion, the plateau and the breakup.

Things move slowly. Every time you think there will be action, other plot lines to accompany the romance, they slink away. Everything is background only to their relationship, to Adele’s view of it. She’s desperately in love. We know before she does that it’s over.

It was there from the beginning. Emma and her parents, artists all of them, don’t believe that Adele truly wants to be a teacher. It’s only that she hasn’t thought bigger, they think. Emma encourages her to do something she loves. Adele insists that she is.

Emma’s family serves shrimp. Adele’s family serves spaghetti and homemade sauce. “The pasta is delicious,” Emma says. “Simple but… very good.” They come from different worlds. Adele’s parents see art as a luxury, working in art, something you do only once or if you have a stable source of income.

That’s ultimately what divides them.

Some movies are about a slice of time, about something that happened. This follows Adele’s life. It’s unclear for how many years. There are no captions to tell us. One minute she’s eating dinner as an 11th grader and the next she’s an assistant teacher and living with Emma.

The movie is also known as Adele: Chapters 1 & 2. This must be chapter 2.

Emma no longer has blue hair. Adele throws a party for Emma’s friends. She’s been modeling for Emma. She makes a giant pot of pasta. Can she cook anything else? But Emma tells her later, “You made a good impression on my friends.”

There’s something lost between them. Adele and Emma barely spend any time together at the party in their yard. Adele eyes Emma with Lise.

I loved watching Adele dance. She doesn’t dance with abandon. It always takes her a minute or two to get into it, and then she’s someone a little different, less deliberate, less sullen, more alive. I also liked the dialogue. There’s a lot of it. The conversations in Adele’s high school lit class about love –

“I want you to think about the idea of predestination in their encounters, okay? Like what happens with love at first sight.”

about Sartre in the park –

“He started an intellectual revolution which set an entire generation free.”

the art discussions at Emma’s party –

“I’m working on morbidity in Shiele’s oeuvre.”

The teacher sets up Adele’s meeting Emma, but would I have caught it if I hadn’t already known the premise of the movie?

There’s a lot of spaghetti eating, and Adele is constantly playing with her hair and almost always has a hair in her face. Why? Adele never makes it to New York, where “everything is possible.”

There’s a lot you see the second time around. You see the details instead of the big picture. The pieces are wonderful as standalone pieces. The whole? Maybe because I tried to read to much into it, to see a theme from beginning to end, to understand why these pieces were needed for this whole, it felt unfinished, unsatisfying.

It leaves you with a feeling of regret like Eli says in the beginning, “Regret. Regret about not filling the emptiness in your heart.” He’s talking about missed chances. I mean that Emma and Adele don’t remain together. It feels like they belong together, like it was true love. Emma should have given her another chance.