Road Reading, Part VII

Here are my super short reviews of books 60-70 I’ve read on our adventure. I still can’t believe we have the opportunity to go to so many amazing, far away places this year. But I equally am in awe that I get to soak in as many books as I can! We are learning a ton about our world, but it’s not all through our travels. A fair amount of our new knowledge comes right through our Kindles on couches, trains, and airports. All our books are from the Boston Public Library’s online e-book collection. Are you taking advantage of your local library? (Bet you’re closer to it than we are to ours!).

The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T. R. Reid
Like a lot of Americans (I hope), I am constantly confused by why our healthcare outcomes are some of the worst in the developed world but we pay the most for healthcare. We would never stand for this dynamic otherwise, but the healthcare system is too darn big and hulking for anyone to feel they can do anything about it. This book did just what I hoped: sorted out for me why our healthcare is so expensive and what we can actually do about it. (And has an Appendix that explains the Affordable Care Act!). Reid travels all over the world searching for alternative treatments for an injured shoulder and researching different healthcare models along the way. My main takeaway? “The United States is the only nation that lets insurance companies exact a profit from basic health coverage.” Not every other country is engaged in “socialized medicine” as we tend to fearfully think (but we are: the Veterans Health Administration), but none of them have for-profit insurance companies. It makes sense, right? This is healthcare, people’s lives, and we have made it into a business where some get filthy rich and some die because they can’t get the care they need.

But the sad truth is that, even with this ambitious reform, the United States will still have the most complicated, the most expensive, and the most inequitable healthcare system of any developed nation. The [Affordable Care Act] won’t get us to the destination all the other industrialized democracies have reached: universal health care coverage at reasonable cost. To achieve that goal, the United States will still have to take some lessons from the other national healthcare systems described in this book.

AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame by Paul Farmer
This is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read regarding the intersections of culture, history, and public health. Farmer highlights the personal histories of the first three AIDS victims in a rural Haitian village and the perceived etiologies of the disease in each case. He then goes on to provide a detailed summary of Haiti’s political history from the 1500s until today. He theorizes that you cannot look at AIDS in Haiti without also looking at how hundreds of years of colonization, oppression, imperialism (most often and most damaging from the United States), and widespread poverty affect people’s beliefs, attitudes, and condition today. Farmer makes fascinating connections and sadly surprising revelations while giving his typical credence and utmost respect to the Haitian informants who teach him about their culture and history. If you have ever entertained the thought that the poor are poor because of their own faults, this book will crumple your perspective and replace it with a chilling notion: the poor, in places like Haiti subject to decades of greedy US imperialism, are poor – and sick – because of us.

What does it mean for a literate, English-speaking audience to read that AIDS is an affliction that is “not simple” and may be willfully sent by an enemy? What of the other evoked associations, those drawn from the larger political-economic context, those that speak of North American imperialism, a lack of class solidarity among the poor, or the corruption of the ruling Haitian elite? What results from an exercise in reading Haitian conspiracy theories with a hermeneutic of generosity?…The anthropological literature on Haiti has tended toward the exotic, with lurid treatises on ritual sacrifice and possession, potent poison, and zombiism. As we have seen, AIDS slips all too neatly into the symbolic network, if theoretical precautions are not taken. The Haitians may be “exotic” to us (as that symbolic structure defines “us”), but “we” are not in the least exotic to Haitians like the inhabitants of Do Kay. We should pose once again Eric Wolf’s pointed query: “If there are connections everywhere, why do we persist in turning dynamic, interconnected phenomena into static, disconnected things?” For AIDS in Haiti is about proximity rather than distance. AIDS in Haiti is a tale of ties to the United States, rather than to Africa; it is a story of unemployment rates greater than 70%. AIDs in Haiti has far more to do with the pursuit of trade and tourism in a dirt-poor country than with, to cite Alfred Métraux again, “dark saturnalia celebrated by blood-maddened, sex-maddened, god-maddened negroes.”

The Partly-Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
This being the second Sarah Vowell book I’ve read on this trip, I can now begin to say: I truly love her. In this collection of essays, she explores what it means to be a “partly-cloudy patriot”, which is exactly how I’d describe my current feelings toward my homeland. The potential for beauty and innovation and freedom in America is incredible. But how we live out our pursuits has always been riddled with xenophobia and bigotry. Don’t be fooled: there are some heavy topics but Vowell approaches them with a striking lightheartedness. My favorite essay was one in which she turns to the characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to learn lessons of self-deprecation that could have aided Al Gore on the campaign trail: intersections of all my favorite things. Her sassy and poignant writing had me teasing out what I love and hate about my country and the twisted politics we’re surrounded by.

I wish it were different. I wish that we privileged knowledge in politicians, that the ones who know things didn’t have to hide it behind brown pants, and that the know-not-enoughs were laughed all the way to the Maine border on their first New Hampshire meet and greet. I wish that in order to secure his party’s nomination, a presidential candidate would be required to point at the sky and name all the stars; have the periodic table of the elements memorized; rattle off the kings and queens of Spain; define the significance of the Gatling gun; joke around in Latin; interpret the symbolism in seventeenth-century Dutch painting; explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old; recite Emily Dickinson; bake a perfect popover; build a shortwave radio out of a coconut; and know all the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Two Sleepy People,” Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising,” and “You Got the Silver” by the Rolling Stones. After all, the United States is the greatest country on earth dealing with the most complicated problems in the history of the world — poverty, pollution, justice, Jerusalem. What we need is a president who is at least twelve kinds of nerd, a nerd messiah to come along every four years, acquire the Secret Service code name Poindexter, install a Revenge of the Nerds screen saver on the Oval Office computer, and one by one decrypt our woes.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Apparently, this riveting story set is 2044 is being made into a movie set to be released in 2017, so this won’t be the last you hear of it. If you are an aficionado of the ’80s and/or classic video games, you will ironically revel in this futuristic novel. The greatest quest of the times is on as a billionaire leaves his entire fortune to the one person who can crack his many codes within the ubiquitous virtual reality world he created. The lines between reality and virtual reality often become blurred as the story twists and turns and there are more than a few “inception” type moments: a game within a game within a game. I was more than happy to spend five or six hours at a time gulping down this colorful, energetic story on a beautiful Thai island beach. If you’re looking for a fun book to take you on a journey without too many big words or depressing allusions to modern-day woes: this is it.

“I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life, right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
In the past few decades, the market for cognitively stimulating products for infants and toddlers has exploded, apparently leading to “high-achieving” students. And a share of children, as always, has been left behind: those with single, working parents, minorities, and those who are poor. Paul Tough takes a look at the new neuroscience of non-cognitive skills, or character, for the purpose of finding how we can better serve kids who seem so consistently left behind and finds that “improving executive function seems like a potentially promising vehicle for narrowing the achievement gap between poor kids and middle-class kids”. Executive function’s biggest enemy comes in the form of consistently high-stress environments, which a lot of poor kids grow up in. The chemical reactions in their brains are trained fundamentally different from those in kids who grow up in a nurturing and supportive environment. Tough goes on to show how intentional infant nurturing, even in high-stress environments (ie: addiction, abuse, poverty) can have a profound effect on helping to shape children’s executive functions and character from a very young age, and how some educators are working to retrain brains much later in junior high and high schools. This is a fascinating book that not only lights a path towards effective early interventions, but also shows us all how important the “little things” we do truly are in the long run.

Yes. it feels a little ridiculous to use the word character when you’re talking about a toddler. And yes, the development of an individual’s character depends on all sorts of mysterious interactions among culture and family and genes and free will and fate. But to me, the most profound discovery this new generation of neuroscientists has made is the powerful connection between infant brain chemistry and adult psychology. Lying deep beneath those noble, complex human qualities we call character, these scientists have found, is the mundane mechanical interaction of specific chemicals in the brains and bodies of developing infants. Chemistry is not destiny, certainly. But these scientists have demonstrated that the most reliable way to produce an adult who is brave and curious and kind and prudent is to ensure that when he is in infant, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well. And how do you do that? It’s not magic. First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress; then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two. That’s not the whole secret of success but it is a big, big part of it.

Where the typical conservative argument on poverty falls short is that it often stops right there: Character matters…and that’s it. There’s not much society can do until poor people shape up and somehow develop better character. In the meantime, the rest of us are off the hook. We can lecture poor people, and we can punish them if they don’t behave the way we tell them to, but that’s where our responsibility ends. But in fact, the science suggests a very different reality. It says the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up. That means the rest of us – society as a whole – can do an enormous amount to influence their development in children. We now know a great deal about what kind of interventions will help children develop those strengths and skills, starting at birth and going all the way through college. Parents are an excellent vehicle for those interventions, but they are not the only vehicle. Transformative help also comes regularly from social workers, teachers, clergy members, pediatricians, and neighbors. We can argue about whether those interventions should be provided by the government, or nonprofit organizations, or religious institutions, or a combo of the three but what we can’t argue anymore is that there’s nothing we can do. 

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni
This book made me look back on teams I have been a part of with a fresh perspective. I’m a big fan of this model, but wonder how it really plays out in real life. (If you’ve ever used this with a team, please let me know!). Lencioni purports there are five main dysfunctions of a team, all based on trust. His approach in applying this model is to increase vulnerability (huge fan of this) and also increase the amount of conflict a group engages in, assuming that healthy conflict brings about more buy-in, commitment, and accountability. His book is told as a story: a new executive takes on a dysfunctional team that doesn’t even realize its flaws. Her prowess in leading this team through team retreats, strategy changes, and staffing crises is incredible to witness, but a little optimistic, too. It’s a model and approach I’m tempted to have a lot of faith in, I’m just hungry to see its application in the real world.

All great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow. This is true in marriage, parenthood, friendship, and certainly business. 

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver, as always, helps us to fall in love with nature through her writing, and this novel is no exception. Prodigal Summer follows the interwoven stories of three individuals in the same Appalachian valley, and through their narratives readers learn about the land and eco-system in a way only Kingsolver can reveal. As you read their dialogues about pesticides, natural predators, predator hunting, species extinction, and foraging, you also realize that these fine folks you’re reading about are as interconnected as the food chain of the deep Appalachian woods. A comforting and interesting read, his book serves as a good reminder that we are all animals and all linked.

Crys eventually gave up the chase and lay on her back staring into the treetops after while she declared, “You could cut down all these trees and make a pile of money.”
“I could,” Lusa said. “Then I’d have a pile of money and no tress.”
“So? Who needs trees?”
“About nineteen million bugs, for starters. They live in the teaves, under the bark, everywhere. Just close your eyes and point, and you’re pointing at a bug.”
“So? Who needs nineteen million bugs?”
“Nineteen thousand birds that eat them.”
“So? Who needs birds?”
“I do. You do.” She so often wondered whether Crys was relly heartless or only trying to be. “Not to mention, the rain would run straight down the mountain and take all the topsoil off my fields. The creek would be pure mud. This place would be a dead place.”
Crys shrugged. “Trees grow back.”
“That’s what you think. This forest took hundreds of years to get like this.”
“Like what?”
“Just how it is, a whole complicated thing with parts that all need each other, like a living body.”

Grant Writing for Dummies by Beverly A. Browning
Yes, it’s slightly embarrassing to read a _______ for Dummies book. I’m not a dummy, but I did assume there were some gaps in my grant writing knowledge and this was a great overview. Nate and I have been doing a lot of thinking about what we love to do, what our skills are, and the intersection of those things in preparation for returning to a settled version of our lives in a few months. As tedious and nerve-wracking as it can sometimes be, I actually love grant writing. I haven’t done it extensively, but I have worked on a few very large federal grants and some smaller grants, too. Since I learned on the job as I went and never took any grant-specific courses in graduate school (how do I have a Nonprofit Management degree and no grant writing classes?), I figured I’d browse this book for any tips or tricks I may have missed. It is a great starting place for anyone who has done zero grant writing, but I found enough helpful hints and resources to make reading it worth it. I love helping organizations tell clear, compelling stories about their work and hope I have the opportunity to do it more when we return to the states!

Bumpology: The Myth-Busting Pregnancy Book for Curious Parents-To-Be by Linda Geddes
No, despite the subtitle you are not finding out some big news about our family growing. Learning about pregnancy and birth topics has been a hobby of mine for a few years. So just like I recently read a book about adoption in preparation for someday, I saw this in our library’s digital collection and thought it would be good to read without the pressure of an impending little one’s arrival. The author presents a lot of studies and research but, at least in the Kindle version, there were no accompanying footnotes citing their sources so I tended to glaze over them. This book isn’t the all-powerful, go-to book for pregnancy related queries, but it did give a good overview of typical questions and concerns, and even some interesting random information. For example: the woman who had the most children ever recorded was from Russia and gave birth to 69 children in her lifetime over 27 pregnancies (all multiple births). This book gave me a deeper respect for the intricacies and nuances of the process of pregnancy, the delicate balance of hormones and bacteria in our bodies and the amazing things they do. If our family growth plan ever includes a pregnancy of our own, this book is a great place to start learning.

Newborns seem to cry in a melody befitting their native tongue. A recent study of French and German newborns found differences in the intonation patterns of their cries. Whereas the wails of French babies start low and end on a high note, German babies cry in a falling melody – patterns that chime with the intonation of adult speakers of these languages.

A Trip Around the Sun: Turning Your Everyday Life into the Adventure of a Lifetime by Mark Batterson and Richard Foth
A light and inspiring read, A Trip Around the Sun is a series of short essays written by mentor/mentee pair Batterson and Foth. We had the pleasure of attending Batterson’s church, National Community Church, in Washington, DC this summer. This book was given to us by good friends a few months ago – how fitting it is for us on this trip! Even while traveling around the world, life can feel mundane and everyday decisions can become exhausting. This book was a great reminder that everyday is an adventure, especially when we are waking up, talking to the creator of the universe, and then living life with faith as Jesus did.

You don’t have to go looking for adventure. If you follow Jesus, adventure comes looking for you. Jesus didn’t carry a cross to Calvary so that we could live a halfway life. He died so that we could come alive in the truest and fullest sense of the word.

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