Nonfiction for November

I have to admit, I choose fiction over non-fiction writing most of the time.  Since my life is non-fiction, my inclination is to “escape” some of the “fun” of politics, mass shootings, celebrity scandals, and cleaning up cat vomit.

HOWEVER…sometimes the non-fiction is good enough to pull me in.  So I’ll share a couple of the titles that have grabbed my attention and see if anyone else finds them appealing.

Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed / Jared Diamond

If books that make you think are not what you are into, then you can probably stop reading this review right now.  If you have no interest in the environment, please move along – nothing to see here, folks.  Finally, if you’ve never felt the slightest interest in Easter Island, or the Anasazi, or the Mayans, then Stranger Things: Season 2 is now out on Netflix.

But if the poem Ozymandias [below] by Shelley ever stirred something in you, or if the movie Apocalypto kept your attention, or even just because you might be from Montana, then this book has something for you.

The author, Dr. Jared Diamond, is a professor in geography at UCLA.  He’s got degrees from Harvard and from Cambridge, and has studied physiology and biophysics, ecology, history, and environmental science.  He’s won the National Medal of Science and the Pulitzer Prize.   The man knows what he is talking about.  And what he’s talking about is why some human societies have collapsed and failed.

I guess you could say he had me from hello; he starts with the aforementioned poem just after the dedication, and that’s always been one of my favorite works from Shelley.  Then he plunges into talking about Montana, my home state.  He gives one of the most clear-headed and concise summations on where Montana has been and where it is now, and that contributed to and built my interest.  And I have to admit that those images of deserted ruins, such as you see in abandoned cliff pueblos from the US Southwest, or those jungle-overgrown temples from Central America, or even just those funky giant statues from Easter Island have always intrigued me.  And he does more than just carry through on these initial points of interest.  His global thesis is how not paying attention to the environment can have the most serious of catastrophic consequences (such as wars, mass starvation, and cannibalism).

On the way, he goes from Montana (formerly known for mining, logging, and food production and now one of the poorest states in the US) to Easter Island and its amazing statues.  From there he takes us to the island where the mutineers from Mutiny on the Bounty landed (known as Pitcairn), and then to the stories of the Anasazi and the Mayans and their vanished cultures. He even goes into detail on why the Vikings failed in Greenland while the Inuit people are still there (although some of the latest research refutes some of what he says about that – historical research marches on, I guess).

The last third of the book moves into the modern realm:  why the Rwanda massacres were linked to environmental circumstances, why Haiti is known for its starving poor while the Dominican Republic is known for baseball (and they share the same island), and why Australia and China face some similar environmental challenges.  He devotes time to how even “extraction” industries (oil, mining) can take completely different routes to achieve their ends, and either minimize or maximize their impact on the environment.  While he is clearly on the environmentalist side of the issues, he does present some pro-business viewpoints and breaks lockstep with the standard environmentalist propaganda.  If you are interested in business, environmental science, history, or just find some of the issues in this book review compelling, you owe it to yourself to read this best-selling nonfiction title.


Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything / Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Economics has been called “the dismal science” – when many people think about it, the image of obscure charts with lots of statistics (“sadistics”?) and being bored out of one’s skull is what comes to mind.  Face it, there are no little Janes or Johnnies who want to grow up to be an economist.  But this book could really change your mind about what economists can do and what they can reveal.

Dubner is a writer for the New York Times and The New Yorker.  Levitt (Harvard undergrad, PhD from MIT, professor at the University of Chicago) is seen by some as the most brilliant economist under 60 years old in America.  Between the two, they present a well-written and fascinating look at economics, which turns out to REALLY be about incentives.  In other words, how people get what they need or want, and specifically when others need or want the same thing.  Looking at economics and the way it analyzes the world this way can challenge both liberal and conservative group-think, and can jack up what passes as conventional wisdom.

The book is written in a style that is both intelligent and easy to read – it’s not a chore to get through the 200 or so pages. And there are several questions raised and answered that are striking and memorable.  You’ll find yourself wanting to talk to someone about things you will discover in this book. For example, some parents might not let their little kid visit some other kid’s homes when they discover that the parents are gun owners.  And of course it’s just fine if their child’s little playmate happens to live in a home that owns a swimming pool.  Yet statistics reveal that a swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than a gun. So just say “yes” to letting your kid visit the kid whose parents are NRA members.

Another question that comes up is “Why do drug dealers live with their moms?”  It turns out that a fellow economist actually (through an extremely interesting set of circumstances) got possession of the “books” of a street gang’s drug business.  Analysis showed that the gang members doing the actual dealing only made about as much as someone working at McDonald’s.  In fact, some of them DID work at McDonald’s on the side to help make money.  (It is the gang leader who makes the big money)

One of the most fun parts of the book comes towards the end where an interesting question reveals some interesting data.  The premise is that parents want their kids to succeed, so one of the first things some parents obsess about is “What to name the baby?”  The book reveals the outcome of how names CAN influence how your life turns out (but not always how you might think – read the case of the two brothers named Winner and Loser).  The chapter dealing with this is called “A Roshanda by Any Other Name”.  Besides lists like “The Twenty ‘Whitest’ Girl Names” and “The Twenty ‘Blackest’ Boy Names” (see page 184 to see where your name ranks), there’s cogent analysis of what is REALLY going on with names, especially factoring in time, race, family economic status, and the number of years of parental education.  (On page 227 there’s a lengthy list of girl’s names and the link between the name and how many years of education the mother had) With chapter titles like “What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?” and “How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?” you’ll probably find something to interest you.  There is one fairly controversial chapter that claims that legal abortions are the primary factor in the crime reduction seen in the 1990s.  Levitt’s research here has seen several challenges, especially in the years since publication.  Another controversy has come from Levitt seemingly disproving fellow economist John R. Lott’s theory concerning gun regulation, with Lott going so far as to launch a defamation lawsuit against Levitt.   So with controversy, intrigue and downright “truth is stranger than fiction” material, how can you pass up this book? (although I hear “Stranger Things” is really good…)


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”