The Request by David Bell

Life is funny sometimes.  This is what I wrote almost exactly a year ago:

I will admit to being a fickle reader these days. My life has been rather crazy at the last four months or so, more anon on that perhaps, and so my mood seems to change regularly. Sometimes I am reading serious nonfiction, sometimes literary fiction but at other times what I really need is something to entertain and distract me from the chaos seemingly surrounding me. The search for intelligent books that still manage to do this, is always going on.

To say the last four months has been crazy is something of an understatement. What with my basement flooding the first day I started working from home due to a global pandemic which meant my kids engaging in digital learning at home with nearly half the house unusable and my daughter sleeping in the living room.  Somehow 2020 topped 2019.

Which brings us to David Bell for some reason.  The quote above comes from my review of Layover.  Coincidentally, I also read a David Bell book in June this year, this time The Request:

The Request Book Cover
The Request Thriller Berkley Books Kindle 416 NetGalley

Ryan Francis has it all–great job, wonderful wife, beautiful child–and he loves posting photos of his perfect life on social media. Until the night his friend Blake asks him to break into a woman’s home to retrieve incriminating items that implicate Blake in an affair. Ryan refuses to help, but when Blake threatens to reveal Ryan’s darkest secret–which could jeopardize everything in Ryan’s life–Ryan has no choice but to honor Blake’s request.

When he arrives at the woman’s home, Ryan is shocked to find her dead–and just as shocked to realize he knows her. Then his phone chimes, revealing a Facebook friend request from the woman. With police sirens rapidly approaching, Ryan flees, wondering why his friend was setting him up for murder.

Determined to keep his life intact and to clear his name, Ryan must find the real murderer–but solving the crime may lead him closer to home than he ever could have imagined.

This is basically a fast paced summer/beach read which is perfect for when you are seeking entertainment and distraction rather than art/deep thought. As is often the case with these sort of novels, you have to kind of suspend belief a bit as the characters are not always fully developed, believable or likable.  But it has a fast pace and a good sense of suspense which is also what you are looking for when you just want an escapists type read.

As with The Layover, the hook (in this case, “sorta estranged college best friend asks for a favor which opens Pandora’s box of secrets and problems”) is what gets you interested and the pacing keeps you reading even as you start to think that most of the characters are annoying and/or stupid.

Much to my chagrin, last year I said “Layover served its purpose in giving me an entertaining distraction but it wasn’t good enough to make me want to seek out more of David Bell’s writing.” So what did I do when offered a review copy? Decided to read more David Bell.

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Tiny Infinities by J.H. Diehl

I don’t even remember why I wanted to read Tiny Infinities.  Given my book addiction, I stumble across books from a wide variety of sources and rarely remember weeks later why I put something on a list.  But I requested it from Libby and when it became available I borrowed it and started reading it almost immediately. I am glad I did.

Tiny Infinities Book Cover
Tiny Infinities Middle Grade Chronicle Books Kindle 352 pages Libby

When Alice’s dad moves out, leaving her with her troubled mother, she does the only thing that feels right: she retreats to her family’s old Renaissance tent in the backyard, determined to live there until her dad comes home. In an attempt to keep at least one part of her summer from changing, Alice focuses on her quest to swim freestyle fast enough to get on her swim team’s record board. But summers contain multitudes, and soon Alice meets an odd new friend, Harriet, whose obsession with the school’s science fair is equal only to her conviction that Alice’s best stroke is backstroke, not freestyle. Most unexpected of all is an unusual babysitting charge, Piper, who is mute–until Alice hears her speak. A funny and honest middle-grade novel, this sharply observed depiction of family, friendship, and Alice’s determination to prove herself–as a babysitter, as a friend, as a daughter, as a person–rings loud and true.

It turned out to be exactly the palate cleanser type read I needed (I’m juggling some more serious works and just finished a thriller type and wanted something different).

It had great characters and an interesting plot; despite really being about the lead character Alice. It has a sort of after school special storyline that I often seek to avoid, divorce and its impact on kids, but the writing is so well done and the lead character held my attention. Perhaps, as a child of divorce I could relate. But Diehl really captures the feelings of family, friendship, summer and the awkwardness as you move from childhood to adulthood and seemingly get caught halfway between.

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Matt Taibbi: On “White Fragility”

At a time of catastrophe and national despair, when conservative nationalism is on the rise and violent confrontation on the streets is becoming commonplace, it’s extremely suspicious that the books politicians, the press, university administrators, and corporate consultants alike are asking us to read are urging us to put race even more at the center of our identities, and fetishize the unbridgeable nature of our differences. — Matt Taibbi, on White Fragility and its popularity

Celebrity Culture, Elected Officials & Leadership

Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt looks at the other side of the issue raised by Leonard Reed: leadership. He offers some wise words on interpreting what you see on TV or on social media:

Not every crime leads back to the suspect you already disliked. Sometimes the trail leads back to the people you thought better of, who you thought were on the right path, the people who you thought weren’t capable of this.

But this section on what it means to serve in elected office is important too:

The combination of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread urban violence should be reinforcing to all Americans the hard lesson that elected office is not about being a celebrity. It is not about looking good on television, or an opportunity to manipulate and control the lives of human beings like moving pawns on a chess board. It is not about soaring rhetoric and pretty words.

Leadership in elected office is often about telling people difficult truths that they don’t want to hear, making hard decisions that will fully satisfy no one, and accepting the responsibility for making those decisions. If you are not willing to accept that, don’t run for the job.

For more insight on celebrity platform versus character building institutions and leadership, I highly recommend A Time To Build by Yuval Levin which I hope to review here soon. Recent events have only highlighted how important these issues are to a vision for moving forward.

On Thinking for Self – Leonard E. Reed

A conversation on Twitter prompted me to think about the dozens of books on conservatism I have and further to actually pull some of them off the shelf.  This in turn induced in me both despair and desire.  Despair at the time it would take to even make a dent in this collection but also a desire to dive into this sea of knowledge in the hopes of rekindling the love and wonder I had in college and grad school.

All of this by way of introduction to why I stumbled on Accent on the Right by Leonard E. Reed (famous for the essay I, Pencil and for founding the Foundation for Economic Education) and decided to finally read the slim volume.  I did so today and found it an odd but still insightful libertarian essay on freedom, progress and persuasion.

There was a chapter, On Thinking for Self, however, that I thought was worth sharing.

Reed starts with, to him at the time, a frightening thought:

What a fearful thought-if this situation is general: a nation of people the vast majority of whom do no thinking for themselves in the area political economy! Positions on matters of the deepest social import formed from nothing more profound than radio, TV, and newspaper commentaries, or casual, off-the-cuff opinions, or the outpourings of popularity seekers!

Reed than explores the impact of such a climate on politics:

Assume a people who do no thinking for themselves.  Theirs is a stunted skepticism.  Such people only react and are easy prey of the cliche, the plausibility, the shallow promise, the lie.  Emotional appeals, and petty words are their only guidelines. The market is made up of no-thinks. Statesmen-men of integrity and intellectual stature-are hopelessly out of demand.  When this is the situation, such statesmen will not be found among the politically active.

And who may we expect to respond to a market where thinking for self is absent?  Charlatans! Word mongers! Power seekers! Deception artists! They come out of their obscurity as termites out of a rotten stump; the worst rise to the political top.  And when our only choice is “the lesser of two evils,” voting is a sham.

[…]

When thinking for self is declining, more charlatans and fewer statesmen will vie for office.  Look at the political horizon to learn what the thinking is, just as you look at a thermometer to learn what the temperature is.  So blame not the political opportunists for the state of the nation.  Our failure to think for ourselves put them there-indeed, brought them into being. For we are the market; they are but the reflections!

An interesting fact intrudes itself into this analysis: approximately 50 percent of those who do not think for themselves are furious with what they see on the political horizon-which is but their own reflections! And to assuage their discontent they exert vigorous effort to change the reflections from Republican to Democrat, or vice versa.  As should be expected, they get no more for their pains than new face making mentalities remarkably similar to those unseated. It cannot be otherwise.

I will leave it to the reader whether any of this is applicable to our time…

A Visit to Vanity Fair by Alan Jacobs

It is hard to top the publisher’s description of A Visit to Vanity Fair:

These perceptive moral essays crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. A cultural hawk eye delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations on the way we live now. “A Visit to Vanity Fair” blends personal reflection with cultural criticism to address such topics as reading with children, sitting with a dying friend, and watching TV documentaries.

I mean it really does “crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. and Jacobs is a “cultural hawk eye” who “delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations” and “blends personal reflection with cultural criticism.

The sad thing is that I have had this book on my shelf for quite some time.  I have long been enamored with Jacobs and his writing.  I have read a number of his books and have followed his writing online for many, many years.  But like so many of the authors and topics I collect and mean to dive into, I get distracted and end up just dipping into a book here or there.  For the last year or so I have thought about trying to read as much of Jacobs catalog as I could but have mostly failed.  So I recently girded my loins, so to speak, and grabbed this book of the shelf and forced myself to concentrate and spend time reading until I finished.

And it was worth it. It truly is a wonderful collection of thought provoking and well crafted essays. Published nearly 20 years ago, it nevertheless feels as engaging and relevant as ever. Whether dealing with Bob Dylan or Harry Potter, Jacobs gets at issues that remain not frothy debates of the minute. Instead, philosophy, literature, faith and writing are explored with verve and wit.

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Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

I have an on-again, off-again fascination with productivity and attention management. Which is what prompted me to request Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee from NetGalley.

Do Nothing Book Cover
Do Nothing Self-Help Harmony Kindle 288 pages NetGalley

Despite our constant search for new ways to “hack” our bodies and minds for peak performance, human beings are working more instead of less, living harder not smarter, and becoming more lonely and anxious. We strive for the absolute best in every aspect of our lives, ignoring what we do well naturally and reaching for a bar that keeps rising higher and higher. Why do we measure our time in terms of efficiency instead of meaning? Why can’t we just take a break?

In Do Nothing, award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee illuminates a new path ahead, seeking to institute a global shift in our thinking so we can stop sabotaging our well-being, put work aside, and start living instead of doing. As it turns out, we’re searching for external solutions to an internal problem. We won’t find what we’re searching for in punishing diets or productivity apps. Celeste’s strategies will allow you to regain control over your life and break your addiction to false efficiency. You’ll learn how to increase your time perception to determine how your hours are being spent, invest in quality idle time, and focus on end goals instead of mean goals. It’s time to reverse the trend that’s making us all sadder, sicker, and less productive, and return to a way of life that allows us to thrive.

It took me quite some time to really get into the book, but eventually I found my rhythm and enjoyed it.

One problem was its seeming simplistic view of economics (at least to me). The tone and approach seemed very anti-free market and at times even seemed to have a whiff of a conspiratorial philosophy that big business is and has been controlling our lives (corporations and marketers seem to be controlling consumers rather than seeking to meet their needs; although there is a tangent on why we became addicted to disposable goods too). Lastly, I had the feeling that as a journalist she was trying to pack as much information as she could into the argument and give it a respectable amount of depth and intellectual history.

In the end, this story is about how the industrialist desire to have fewer workers doing more hours of work merged with the religious belief that work is good and idleness is bad, along with a capitalist faith in constant growth.  When time is money, the need to get more time out of workers became urgent if profit targets were to be made.

Suffice it to say, that Headlee offers a lot of provocative and even interesting arguments about how Western society has viewed work and how the industrial, technology and knowledge revolutions have impacted that view in unhealthy ways.  But that is an argument that would take a great deal of unpacking just to get your hand arounds let alone make a persuasive argument about.

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The Failure of Satire – The Cockroach by Ian McEwan

For the last couple of years I have come very close to reading 100 books in a single year.  This year I decided to commit to actual doing it.  In one of my intermittent attempts to restart this blog, I had the idea of logging each book here not just on Goodreads (see here for #1).

With this in mind, and back when libraries were actually open, I would often look for interesting books that were relatively short in the hopes that I might actually achieve my goal (is this cheating? You be the judge).  In one such visit I stumbled on The Cockroach by Ian McEwan:

The Cockroach Book Cover
The Cockroach Satire Anchor Paperback 112 Library

That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature.

Jim Sams has undergone a metamorphosis. In his previous life he was ignored or loathed, but in his new incarnation he is the most powerful man in Britain – and it is his mission to carry out the will of the people. Nothing must get in his way: not the opposition, nor the dissenters within his own party. Not even the rules of parliamentary democracy.

With trademark intelligence, insight and scabrous humour, Ian McEwan pays tribute to Franz Kafka’s most famous work to engage with a world turned on its head.

Political satire inspired by classic literature?  Sounds like my kind of read. Just over 100 pages? Even better!

Except, it left me very much unsatisfied.

My lack of understanding of British politics might be a factor but I was unimpressed by this supposed masterpiece of satire. The concept-a reverse Kafka if you will-is intriguing, hence my picking it up at the library, and in many ways well done. But I think the problem is that if you don’t believe that Brexit is an on its face stupid, disastrous policy then the satire comes off not as comic genius but as another example of the mindset that leads to populist revolts. The satire of politics is amusing but the story is so short that if you don’t buy the concept of Brexit as the equivalent of “reversalism” then there is a low level annoyance running throughout. Maybe my politics got in the way on this one.

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You can have enlightenment for ninepence but you prefer ignorance

Alan Jacobs offers some advice (that he is confident will not be taken but that is another matter):

What I’m asking you to do is to act like a grown-up.

Don’t just cherry-pick the one number that seems to fit your narrative. Do a comparative study. Look at numbers from all over. Add and divide.

Discover how many people have died in this country from COVID–19 and over what period of time. Now compare that to deaths in the last few flu seasons, and ask yourself this: How long is a flu season? This page might give you a hint. Do the adjustments to correct for differences in the lengths of time you’re looking at, because that’s what grown-ups do.

He ends this mini-rant with a literary flourish which I quite like (hence this post):

C. S. Lewis’s old tutor, whom he called Kirk or Knock or The Great Knock, was an irascible old Ulsterman who would regularly get exasperated by people who lacked intellectual discipline and even basic curiosity. He would sometimes say to such people, “You can have enlightenment for ninepence but you prefer ignorance.” That’s you. You can do better, and God help your sorry-ass soul if you don’t try.

As Jonah Goldberg has said, this virus should be known as “reinforces my priors” virus for they way everyone immediately began to use the economic, cultural, and political implications and potential impacts as further proof that they were right all along.  Social media has always been like this to some extent but the seriousness and stress of this seems to have ramped it up a couple of notches or ten.

I personally have no interest in trying to master the data or argue about it, but if you choose to wade into those waters then acting like an adult seems appropriate.