Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Honor Code, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions HappenThe Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Anthony Appiah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book on the strong recommendation of someone who is working very hard to create a moral revolution and a new code of honor; the message was compelling enough to seek out this book and see for myself the philosophical underpinnings of this movement.

Appiah writes of three historical examples where something was done a certain way, questioned, and eventually overturned as immoral. The custom of dueling collapsed under public scrutiny, Chinese female footbinding became looked on as grotesque when Chinese society opened to some Western influence, and Atlantic slavery underwent moral collapse when industrialized workers could not continue to ignore their enslaved counterparts in the southern US. Appiah then turns to honor killings in Pakistan, which continue today, but under much more scrutiny as social media and the modern world help shape public opinion.

Through his historical examination, it is clear that the tide of moral change happens very slowly, with a few brave but influential outliers speaking out and leading their respective societies to change their outlook and shape new behaviors over time. It is very interesting to look at certain events through his lens of honor and see how they hold up; politicians certainly do not turn out well.

If you are interested in honor and morality throughout history, or ever wondered why certain reprehensible customs were once widespread but now reviled and embarrassing, Appiah will help you understand exactly what happened, and what is still happening in our modern world as we work to fight injustice-- as well as what work still must happen to change hearts and minds. This is a very important book for anyone wishing to make more than superficial change in the world.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Art of Eating Well: Hemsley and Hemsley

The Art of Eating Well: Hemsley and HemsleyThe Art of Eating Well: Hemsley and Hemsley by Jasmine Hemsley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't remember where I got the recommendation for this book, but it was strong enough that I added it to a Christmas wish list and subsequently received it.

This is a cookbook with much explanation before and during the recipes, outlining the whole-foods, organic, high-quality ingredient, gluten-free, etc style of eating the authors espouse in their meals-to-order business and in their personal lives. Many of the recipes use easily obtained ingredients, but there are some things that are more difficult to source, and as they are based in the UK, some substitutions must be made.

I read this book during a time when my own calendar shifted from being on holiday, to handling serious family business, to starting a demanding many-hours-a-day job, so essentials like cooking a bone broth for six to twelve hours on the stove are well beyond the amount of time I am even awake in my own home. The fact that it took me nearly a month to get through a cookbook speaks eloquently about the amount of free time I currently have available.

This may be a good solution for someone with plenty of time and financial ability to purchase dozens of ingredients for a single dish-- for me, it's not practical at present; I will certainly incorporate some of the healthy ideas into my routine, but this book falls more into the aspirational cookbooks category for now.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New RussiaNothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This thoroughly compelling book explores some of the more extreme edges of "the New Russia," as told by the producer of several successful Russian reality TV programs.

We meet models, cult leaders, entrepreneurs, gangsters, religious extremists, wrongfully imprisoned businesswomen, prostitutes, the super-rich and the almost super-rich. Pomerantsev's work as a documentarian and reality show producer brought him into contact with compelling storytellers telling compelling stories, all competing for camera time, so understandably these are not average Russians. One must read this book knowing that these are people on the fringes of contemporary Russian society; thinking otherwise would be like believing that the United States can be understood by watching our reality programs.

Still, he gets at an interesting ideology that is gripping a culture only recently relieved of totalitarianism, and that is the joyful buoyancy of possibilities that the previous generation could not have imagined. It's like reading about an entire country of lottery winners, or millions of rags-to-riches tales all happening at once. Even the solidly middle-class have the opportunity to become stunningly wealthy with a few good business decisions (or well-timed bribes), and the knowledge that prosperity is around any corner has turned Russia from grim to giddy.

Pomerantsev talks about the elaborate system of bribery and graft that is required for one to conduct even the mundane operation of obtaining a driver's license, and the etiquette involved in delicately offering the money to an official in a way that is inoffensive and effective. These transactions dictate much of the commerce in Russia today, from minor necessities to multi-billion dollar deals, some of which end up as scandalous court cases toward the end of the book.

I ran the general ideas past another expat I know, an American friend who has lived and worked in Moscow for longer than the author was there, and he felt that this book is much too hard on Russian society; that any country can be made to look terrible via unflattering vignettes. He's right, and thus the caveat that this author worked with some very extreme citizens to make sensationalist television. But even with the shocking nature of some of the material, the Russian resiliency, ability to adapt and thrive during great upheaval, and willingness to make quite good lemonade out of a century of lemons, are all truly admirable. This quality of Russia comes through far more clearly than his condemnation of government corruption or claim that the media is a tool of government manipulation. That may be true, but one comes away from reading this wanting to know more about Russia and her people, and in that, this is an effective introduction to contemporary Russia.

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Monday, January 5, 2015

The First 20 Minutes, by Gretchen Reynolds

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live LongerThe First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The bottom line after reading this well-researched work is that if you want to live long and well, you'd better get moving.

Many of the current diet-type books emphasize the importance of balancing macronutrients for weight management, and I've found that to be true as a whole; I'm hungrier when I'm working out and tend to not lose much if any weight. But the caveat is that much, much more is happening at the cellular level.

At its core, this is an annotated literature review in which the author discusses the results of hundreds of studies and their implications and implementation for public use. Some of the results are not surprising (sedentary rats get fat) and others are eyebrow-raising (you sit, your telomeres shrink and your mitochondria die) -- if you have a body and are older than 18, there is important, behavior-changing information in here. I found it interesting how many scientists reported to Reynolds that after parsing the data, they and all their lab assistants became adherents to an exercise program.

Reynolds' work as a New York Times journalist shows in her ability to take rather dry information and present it in a lively, conversational tone, so it reads quickly and doesn't get dull. It's certainly worthwhile if you're looking to self-motivate for the new year-- or anytime.

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