Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What We Know and What We Never Will: The Michigan Murders: The True Story of the Ypsilanti Ripper’s Reign of Terror

The Michigan Murders: The True Story of the Ypsilanti Ripper’s Reign of Terror by Edward Keyes, tells the story of the brutal murder of six young woman and one thirteen year old girl in the college towns of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. These crimes occurred between 1967 and 1969, when hitchhiking and walking through deserted areas did not necessarily inspire fear or caution.

These were all brutal sexual murders.  As is so often the case, the killer was questioned early in the investigation, but police did not take him seriously, and did not have enough evidence to tie him to the murders until an additional six women were killed.  By that time, he had become sloppy and overconfident; when he was arrested, he never admitted to the crimes.  He continues to deny them to this day as he serves life behind bars.

He was only tried for the last murder, on circumstantial evidence, and one of the seven victims was tied through DNA evidence in 2014, to another man who was convicted of the murder.  So one is left with a curious sense of void at the center of these crimes.  Despite a conviction, questions linger.  Points don’t match up.  There is a curious sense that something is not yet resolved.  It gives one a sad sense of the human inability to both discover and punish the evil ones among us.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli lives up to its title.  The author explains the foundations of modern physics, doing so gently and easily.  He essentially lays out the importance of modern physics, which is so much at odds with our perception of the world.

We live in a very complicated universe modeled by mathematics and abstraction.  For Rovelli, the challenge is explicating the complicated (and in many ways, inexplicable) both clearly and meaningfully.  He accomplishes this in these finely crafted essays.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity

The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity by James D. Tabor, explores the very logically and historically sound thesis the early Christianity (and that word is anachronistic in this work) was a family enterprise.  After the death of Jesus, and for nearly a century afterward, the Jesus movement was run by members of his immediate family as heirs to the Davidic throne.

A particular standout in this chain of command is a brother of Jesus, James the Just.  We have records related to him in early Christian sources, and he was widely admired. Yet, he is largely written out of the record of the early Church. His teachings no longer remain.

Tabor shows, through archaeology and textual analysis, that the early Jesus movement had two core pillars.  The movement as led by James and the brothers and relatives of Jesus, in and around Judea and the Galilee.  And the one led by Paul, to non-Jews, in Greek speaking lands.  Paul’s version was hostile to Judaism and on the ascent when the gospels were written.  Stories of James and the family of Jesus are found in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, but in truncated form.  The Jesus movement was breaking away from Judaism into a new religion when the Gospels were written.

The Jewish context of its birth and early days, although evident, were downplayed for centuries. This books reclaims that, and it is really firm and indisputable evidence, unless one is clouded by theological concerns.

Monday, February 19, 2018

War by Sebastian Junger

Embedding journalists in combat units has been criticized.  The practice compromises the reporter’s objectivity.  By entering into the daily life of combat soldiers, a reporter will invariably feel more connected to the group than to the story.

Sebastian Junger’s War shows this is not an inevitability.  Junger is aware time and again that he can easily compromise his journalistic values. He regains balance by extended explanations of what an active, shooting war is like.  He is both observer and participant, and balances one against the other.  By experiencing war with the men, he provides  detailed prose about the costs (and often benefits) of a life at war.  No other way would accomplish this.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Longing: Jewish Meditations on a Hidden God by Justin David

Longing: Jewish Meditations on a Hidden God by Justin David, is a far ranging and engaging book.  David combines his early estrangement with his father, with the distance he/we feel from God.  

In the process, he tells his own story, and also the story of  human encounters with God through a Jewish lens.  He employs numerous sources: the Elijah/Elisha cycle of stories in second Kings, the kabbalah, Chasidic religious philosophy and practice, particularly Bratslav and Chabad.

David’s book has a message, but he takes some time to get there.  He loops back on the central trauma of his life, and works at placing it in the perspective of the dire problem of the “missing” God we sense in our life and world. 

He comes down on the side of the monist position that ‘all is God’ found in many early Chabad works.  Of course, that is my position, so I have no beef with where David lands!

Overall, this is a useful book for the 'searcher' who is burned out with the search.  David shows that we don’t have to look far to get what we need.  It is inside and all around us.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ron Chernow’s Grant

Ron Chernow’s Grant is monumental in its scope, yet remains a biography of one man.  Chernow is deft at painting the big picture of Grant’s life, while still maintaining intimacy with his subject.  And Grant is a study of contrasts that are hard to reconcile. 

In civilian life U.S. Grant was a failure.  He had no business sense, and for most of his life he was taken in by unscrupulous friends.  War was his element. He was a dogged general, who realized that the fight with the south would be a total war of attrition, and did not shy away from fighting that way, regardless of casualties.  

His two terms as president were beset by scandal, but without him at the helm it is unlikely Reconstruction would have lasted as long as it did.

Chernow’s biography is an exacting and detailed portrait of this American giant with soft underbelly.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann starts off as a true crime story, with elements of the genre that are a bit embarrassing.  Grann uses the slang of the time of the Osage murders liberally, giving the narrative a forced and silly feel.

But read on, and you quickly realize that Grann is telling an important story.  The Osage Indians grew rich from oil at the turn of the twentieth century.  The local white population, the Department of Indian Affairs, state law enforcement, all preyed upon them, stripped them of their wealth through rapacious paternalism and murder.

Grann’s book is an important piece of American history.  We tend to think that injustice against American Indians ended at some point, maybe when they were forced on reservations.  But no, it continued and continues as part of the fabric of American life.  Often, it was as egregious and despicable as what happened to the Osage.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and‎ Cass R. Sunstein

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and‎ Cass R. Sunstein has a simple premise.  Unlike classical economic theory, where people are fully rational and always do things in their best interest, we are really lazy, uninformed, and unmotivated.  We make bad decision because we lack information, or space out, or are too stupid to investigate what descisions will make our lives better.

Intuitively, this view appeals to me.  One example: create online retirement forms with a default setting which generally benefit employees, rather than no setting at all.  Most people don't really understand their retirement plans, if they even have one.  So make their laziness work for them.

Of course, the  “Libertarian Paternalism” proposed in this work is problematic.  Who makes the choices that we get to choose from? Can’t "they" rig the system for their benefit and not ours?

Despite this, I think the author’s view of human nature is sound, and can lead to more intelligent discussions about what we, as a species and individuals in that species, can hope to accomplish.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is quite extensive in its scope despite the sub-title.  Harari covers the entire history of the species he calls Sapiens, from their unexceptional rise in Africa to their domination, and ultimate transformation of the world.

Harari is so inclusive that he often runs two lines of thought without trying to rectify them.  He stresses, quite correctly, that human evolution and dominance of the planet was an accident, and is by no means secure. But in other areas, he writes as if it is the destiny of Sapiens to grow more complex in their social arrangements; that it is fated.

He juggles these two balls throughout the book.  The author often treats Sapiens as animals, no more special than any others.  At other times, he presents Sapiens as destined creatures, so unique that they will surpass natural selection entirely with intelligence and technology. 

This has been the cleavage that runs through our species self-conception since the rise of natural science.  In this book, the two streams can be a bit distracting, even annoying at times.  But Harari is presenting a work that is vast in its scope and aims; in a way, it seems fair to leave this part of the human experience unanswered and contradictory.  In the end it is the best approach to examine the history of our troubled species.