Book Review: Looking at politically incorrect history of Latin America

Historia Políticamente Incorrecta de América LatinaHistoria Políticamente Incorrecta de América Latina by Leandro Narloch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a tough book to review. Narloch is absolutely brutal in his dissection of the idols of the Latin American left. I don’t disagree with his conclusions and that these idols do not deserve to be idolized as they are and that the left has chosen to be willfully ignorant in continuing to raise them up onto a pedestal. However, I can’t shake the feeling that it feels a bit like a hatchet job. I am not suggesting that the research was poorly done, and I realize that the objective of the book was to confront the left with its own hypocrisy, something I greatly appreciate, as the left has often ignored deplorable actions done by those on their side while shrilly attacking (and rightfully so) the deplorable acts done by the right. However, the lack of any positive message makes it at times hard reading, and I suspect will make its impact less as it probably won’t be read much by leftists who may become immediately defensive. I wonder if Narloch would have offered alternative leftist leaders who demonstrated some of the more humane characteristics it would have made the whole story more impactful. Narloch also does not focus his criticism much on the right. This is understandable as the Latin American right has gotten a fair amount of criticism in the recent past, but by not including much of this in the book it might not feel completely fair. Nevertheless, if you can get past these limitations, I think the book is definitely worth reading. I especially would like social liberals to read this to reconsider some of the absurd hero worship that has been done on some very deplorable historical figures, and at least try to be just as critical and demanding of those on our side of the ideological spectrum as we are of those on the opposite side.

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Book Review: Equality and Efficiency the Big TradeOff

Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff (A Brookings Classic)Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff by Arthur M. Okun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very interesting book, written back in the 1970s, and still relevant. While this was written 40 years ago, the challenges between equality and efficiency is one that continues to bedevil us, and has recently returned to to forefront of discussion. Considering this, I think that this book is definitely worth revisiting especially considering the very pragmatic way that Okun approaches the subject. I really liked the way that Okun presented the issue of having to balance social good with economic efficiency. I found his frank discussion appealing, especially with how objective he tried to be showing both the pros and cons of different decisions that each society must make, as well as his own preference of where he would have liked society to have come to.

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Book Review: The Price of Civilization

The Price Of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue And ProsperityThe Price Of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue And Prosperity by Jeffrey D. Sachs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I often find reading any book by Jeffrey Sachs requires that I first remove my general dislike for an arrogance that comes through in his books with a know-it-all like characteristic that feels like he is slowly leading along a bunch of slow children to the “correct” answer. Once I was able to get past this, there was actually quite a bit that I found interesting or agreed with in this book. Sachs looks at many of the issues currently challenging our society, and I found the book a good addition to the recent literature exploring the challenges of declining social capital and trust in a post-modern world, as well as the challenges of inequality that is confronting the country

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Book Review: The World Until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies?

The World until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? By Jared Diamond

My Rating 3 out of 5 Stars

Good, but not great. There is a lot of interesting pieces in this book. I particularly liked the chapters reviewing the diversity of ways children are raised, and how elders are treated in traditional societies. I found these 2 chapters very thought provoking, and on their own make the book worth reading. Additionally, the chapter on the value of languages, and multilingualism was also very interesting, and is encouraging for a multilingual person to read to see there are a lot of long term mental benefits. The chapter about diet was also very interesting and he makes some strong points, particularly about trying to reincorporate traditional diets to help mitigate the many non-communicable diseases that are now plaguing modern western societies (diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, etc.).

In this book, Diamond provides a valuable resource, giving a wide view of what human life was likely like before the development of the state and larger societies. While he clearly respects and values traditional societies, he is also very realistic, and tries his best not idealize them. He fairly highlights both the positive and negative aspects of traditional societies. He also understands the difficulty of trying to reincorporate some of the beneficial parts of traditional societies. While there are some that we can easily do on an individual basis (adopt a more traditional diet for example), many would require communities as a whole to agree to mutually adopt new practices (i.e. more communal child rearing).

So, why does the book only get 3 stars? Well, the book is not written in a way that encourages reading the book from front to back. Every chapter is a separate study focusing on one particular difference between modern western societies and traditional societies. Several of these chapter (violence, multilingualism, and diet) are not particularly new or groundbreaking. While it makes sense to include the chapters in the overall book, the way that it was done makes it difficult to get into a groove reading the book. Diamond’s books also have a tendency to feel somewhat redundant. If you’ve read any of his other books you will notice a lot of his anecdotes are similar to ones he used in his other books.

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Book Review: Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, by Geoffrey Canada

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think the book brings some interesting points to the table, especially on the impact of the proliferation of firearms, and the way they destroyed the previous order. He makes some good points about how firearms don’t really provide deterrence to violence, but instead increase chaos and instability, which breeds more violence. I do think Canada is a bit too nostalgic about the old days. While he readily accepts the brutality of the streets before the entry of firearms in mass, there is still a nostalgic sentiment of the supposed honor and controls that once existed in the pre-gun society. I think this book is a good companion to Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, which is a more in depth psychological look at the human roots of violence and cruelty.

Canada doesn’t go into great detail on the solutions to the challenges of poverty and violence and of breaking these vicious cycles. However, this is more due to the shortness of the book, and not due to a lack of practical knowledge of the policies that are being tried and are having some successes. He highlights some of the work that he has done in Boston and New York, but what you get from these positive stories is more an insight into Canada’s overall philosophy of community-centric investments focused on education and responsive services, than a concrete policy proposal. He seems happy to share his experiences as examples of ideas that might work, but is more interesting in trying to get the reader off the sidelines and involved in finding a solution to the problem.

Overall, this is a good look at issues surrounding violence in inner-cities in the U.S. Canada draws on a wealth of personal experiences having grown up in Brooklyn and having dedicated his life to trying to reclaim inner-city communities from endemic violence and poverty. It is interesting and easy to read.

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Book Review: Invisible Armies: The Impact of Disease on American History

Invisible Armies

Invisible Armies: The Impact of Disease on American History by Howard N. Simpson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By now, we take for granted that disease was important, but the categorical way that Simpson documents hundreds of moments where disease played a deciding role in critical outcomes was shocking. Many of the stories were already familiar to me, but having all of them stringed together in a single 500 year narrative lends an impressive weight to the effects of micro-organisms in the development of the modern world.

This book isn’t the newest, having been published in 1980. So some of the novelty of the issue of the effects of disease on civilization and history has been lost if you have read more recent books like Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Nevertheless, this book is an interesting look at the often critical impact of disease on the development of the United States. It is also a fairly easy and quick read. If you have limited time don’t want to read multiple books on the topic I would recommend Guns, Germs, and Steel before Invisible Armies. However, I still think this book is pretty interesting and worth reading despite it being over 30 years since its publication.