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Sunday, January 30, 2011

God is Not Great

Christopher Hitchens has had a large amount of media coverage lately because he is dying and he is completely unapologetic about being an atheist. I've been reading his articles on Slate.com for years but never knew much about his life until this book was published and the media coverage on it started. I was fortunate enough to come across a copy and gave it a read last fall.  It's taken me a while to write about it because it took me some time to gather my thoughts about it.

Hitchens spends the greater share of this book on a criticism of Christianity. I believe most of his criticisms were apt.  Hitchens makes the claim (and the subtitle of this book) "religion poisons everything." His main hypothesis is that people would be better off altogether if religion did not exist and that a great share of the bad acts that have happened throughout human history are directly inspired and caused by religion.

Hitchens describes a question he was once asked, about if he came across a group of men at night would be less afraid if they were coming from a prayer meeting. Hitchens does a creative description of some of the places he has visited that just start with the letter B.  He then goes over Belfast with it's Catholic radicals, Beiruit and the Muslim radicals, Bombay and how its radical religious activists have taken over the city, and caused the recent name change to Mumbai. Hitchens concludes that in many cases he would feel much better if he knew a group of strange men at night had not come from a prayer meeting.

Hitchens also describes his role as the devil's advocate in the beautification of Mother Theresa, yes the real one he discusses being invited to the Vatican to testify.  He describes how according to his investigation, a woman claimed that she had a tumor that was cured by the healing powers of the deceased nun, but that the woman was undergoing medical treatment at the same time. Hitchens posits that the beautification of Mother Theresa may cause the prolonged illnesses or deaths of several people in India and elsewhere as they turn to faith healing for relief rather than to medicine.

A smaller portion of the book but more rare is a critique of eastern religions.  Many of the people who find themselves disaffected with Christian religions turn to Buddhism or other religions that they see as less tainted by greed and corruption. I myself have been attracted to Taoist philosophy as an alternative to Christian philosophies. Hitchens brings up several events in Hindu and Buddhist history that are as egregious and immoral as the inquisition or the crusades. In fact he titles the chapter "There is no Eastern Solution."

I've read quite a few critiques of this book, many of them focus on the fact that many religious people are good and fine people. None of the critiques I've read have been able to refute the assertion by Hitchens that people who are good are good regardless of belief, not because of it. He discussed the good works of several atheists and agnostics like Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell, and Charles Darwin. He then discusses how we may be counting several historical figures as religious simply because they did not feel free to discuss their doubts of the prevailing religion publicly. I believe he is probably right about this, the lessons of Socrates, Shelley and Scopes were probably well learned by those who were afraid to challenge the moral order. The other day in an advice column I read the story of a woman who was afraid to discuss her lack of religious beliefs on Facebook because she was afraid of the consequences she would face at work.  I'm sad that this type of thing is still going on on modern day America.

One criticism I thought of was what about the evil acts of those that do not profess any religious belief? Several communists come to mind and several dictators such as Hitler and Hussein only seemed to use religion tangentially. In fact if you compare Iraq under Hussein to its neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the religious freedom allowed looks somewhat liberal. Looking at evil behavior on a deeper level makes me believe that there is something other than a belief in God that turns an institution evil. Perhaps anarchists have a valid point when they say that all institutions and organized groups will turn to evil at some point if their power is unchecked.

I found this book to be a very interesting read.  It is certainly one of my favorite books of the past while. I will miss Christopher Hitchens when he's gone.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Russian Debutante's Handbook and last Gary Shteyngart post

I finally memorized how to spell Shteyngart but it will not do me much good because I have finished all three of his books.  I haven't faithfully read the entire cannon of a single author since I went on Stephen King, Mario Puzo and Piers Anthony binges in high school.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook is about a Russian Jewish man named Vladmir Girshkin who works as an immigration officer.  A retired Russian sailor offers Vladmir a deal where if Vladmir can get the sailor U.S. Citizenship, Vladmir can have a job working for his son, who is the Russian Mafia head of the fictional city of Prava.  The story is set in the early 1990s and Prava is a stand in for Prague, a destination that was idolized as a post communist, but not without some creature comforts city where the misanthropic grunge youth of my day could run away to and become artists.  When I was adventuring in the early 1990s I badly wanted to run away to Prague myself.  I was always fascinated by the Levi's commercial where a man trades a couple of pairs of jeans for a Yugo.  I never had the guts or imagination to get a passport though so my Prague dreams never came true.

Girshkin ends up taking the deal, not out of desire to move to Prava but because he narrowly escapes being raped by a gangster in what shouldn't be, but is, the most hilarious hotel male rape scene I've ever read.  My tastes must lean heavily towards the vulgar because just like in Choke, the tragic debauchery made me keep laughing out loud which made my wife keep asking what was so funny. Shteyngart brings an overweight dominatrix, a self obsessed writer, a whole slew of stereotypical Russian gangsters and a whole avant-garde eurotrash youth scene along for what was a fairly pleasurable ride.

I absolutely loved the layout of this book, every chapter was concise and read as if it could have been a complete short story.  I love when authors show that kind of literary talent and are able to being a series of short narratives together to show an arcing storyline with a plausible ending that is triggered by the action of the main character.  Actually after reading this book I have to ask what happened in Shteyngart's other books, it seems as if his imagination improved but his skills somehow deteriorated.

The book wasn't all perfect, this one had the best ending of any of his three books but the last couple of hundred pages could have used some serious cutting.  It includes a 25 page chapter of the main character visiting Auschwitz.  It's an interesting read and a great description of a tourist visit to Auschwitz but it really didn't have anything to do with the story or develop the characters.  The main character was well defined as an athiest Jew early on in the first chapters so this visit-right in the middle of the resolution of the novel no less-didn't add to the story.

I'd give this book a thumbs up to a prospective reader.  Yes it's not a perfect novel but it's hard to find one that is and it's one of the better  literary style novels I've read in a while.  Of course be forewarned that Shteyngart is not for the kids or for those that want to remain pure of heart and spirit.  He's absolutely on the vulgar side but like Palahniuk he handles it well and the scenes are rib tickling and move the plot along.

So to discuss Shteyngart overall, I'm satisfied after reading his books that it was time well spent.  If I end up attending a cocktail party and the conversation goes down a literary path I feel well prepared to say that I can discuss something current.  Shteyngart is a master at creating dystopian worlds.  While I've almost forgotten about the characters in Super Sad True Love Story the world is a place where I spend quite a bit of my idle mental time.  Every time I see an article about oversharing, social networking, web privacy breaches or nasty politics I think a bit about that novel.  It's so haunting that I feel like the man in Stephen King's story "The Man in the Black Suit", who is pursued by thoughts of  his demon until he is too old and helpless to do anything if the demon decides to come for him.  Absurdistan was set in what was the present at its time of publication and The Russian Debutante's Handbook was in the past, although since Shteyngart is the same age as me it may be a novel he started as a young man in his twenties and polished enough to publish over the next few years.  His earlier two novels are much more character driven and his over the top character casts will be what I return to when I daydream about them.

Shteyngart has the pernicious literary habit of worshiping New York City.  While I have no problem with novels being set in New York, after all those millions of stories in the naked city must be told, I'm growing weary of the starry eyed worship of the city that was better explained and better left alone to the time period when Woody Allen was making watchable movies.  Each of Shteyngart's characters is a secular Russian Jewish immigrant, which I assume is how Shteyngart sees himself, however the characters spend a whole lot of time lamenting their genetic fate even though those laments don't end up driving a lot of plot.  Shteyngart should really go out and get some family therapy instead of trying to foist his insecurities onto his characters and thereby his readers.  In my opinion if the characters' background was left as background and not as a place for them to wallow between scenes his novels would be much more punchy and his Amazon star ratings would improve by a whole star.

Shteyngart is such a master of human nature and the English language though that his sins are forgivable and his novels well worth reading.  His character's actions are unexpected but exactly in character and his sense of place and human motivation are right on target.  His tragic and deeply flawed characters are all lovable which is exactly what makes good literature.  He knows that what we all want is to be loved for our flaws and his descriptions of that love are so apt and transcendent that I believe that people will be reading his books for years to come.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Public Finance and Public Policy

Jonathan Gruber is an MIT economist who is writes prolifically about public policy issues.  I was very interested in taking this class because I'm interested in the financial aspects of government, as in how does the government decide if a project is worth undertaking based on interest rates and other financing costs.  Sadly this course and book had very little to do with financing, most of the book was about policy issues.

This did not make it a bad book or a worthless course, it just means that if you want to look more at the actuarial side of government you'll need to look elsewhere.  Some of the things I learned about were why insurance markets fail and why the government is the primary provider of social insurance, why we try to create progressive tax systems and why the government should be involved in education.  Most of the models were simple microeconomic models that are at least hinted at in first level economics courses so if you're paid attention there this book just goes more into depth on those topics.  It was good to become familiar with terms like the Coase theorem and Pigou taxes though, those were topics that I'd read before on economic blogs but didn't really know what they meant and how they are applied to government policies today.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


As I go through school I'll review my textbooks, I consider them a perfectly legitimate way to get close to 52 books a year. Besides that idea, if a class is worth taking a textbook is worth reading. This last semester one of my classes was macroeconomic theory, which is going deeper into the variables that move the economy such as money supply, interest rates, the marginal propensity to invest or save and so on.

Before I took this class I thought I was much more interested in microeconomics. Macroeconomics focuses on what moves large groups of people to make changes while microeconomics tends to focus on smaller groups. After this class though I'm impresses at how much macroeconomics matters.

What interests me most about the subject is how logical and explanatory the models are at explaining what has happened in the past, yet how poor they are at giving a good explanation of what will happen in the future. The models are constantly refined and pondered over and updated.  It reminds me of psychology which attempts to look at the human mind and discover a pattern of behavior that will have some predictive power over future behavior and allow us to change it. The more I learn about social sciences the more I realize that either we as humans behave in completely random ways when unexpected events happen, or that we know so little about ourselves that these pursuits are far from being exhausted.

My favorite part of the course was wrapping my head around IS/LM/BP models. It was so fascinating to see how changes in local interest rates may change the economy and foreign exchange rates. It also finally explained all that time in algebra playing with matrices, and learning how to manipulate three lines to find an equilibrium point. I imagine the math gets really fun and mind bending when you're not treating the lines as straight.

The other best part of the course was the professor, Ron Olive. I think this review on his rate my professor page sums it up perfectly:

Get the Book. If you're looking for an easy class go elsewhere. If you want to learn Economics take Ron Olive. 10 Problem Sets, 2 take home tests and one in class final (T/F, matching, definitions) He will make you work for it, but grades fairly.

The Froyen book was a perfect companion to this teaching style, it explained the models well, showed the math and explained the concepts perfectly. It's one of those books that I really wanted to keep, but Amazon's textbook buyback program offered a price far too lucrative for me to pass it up. Also, the glorious thing about textbooks is that I will be able to buy it back for a few paltry dollars once a new version comes out in a year or so. If you're looking to learn economics, I'd say buy this book and if you're looking for a companion class, I would seek out Professor Olive and take his course.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Absurdistan and Marginalia

One thing I will miss about paper books is finding things in them when I buy them used.  I frequently find things like business cards and addresses.  I always wonder if the book affected the person who read it before the same way it affected me.  I'd love to have a conversation with the previous owner and tell them how much I enjoyed the sacrifice they made by donating it or to tell them how much I agree with the decision to purge it from their shelves.

My favorite things to find are inside cover inscriptions and notes.  That's when you really get a chance to know a bit about what the previous owner - or the person who bought it for them - really thought about the book.  Here's what I found inside Absurdistan:

[caption id="attachment_432" align="aligncenter" width="224" caption="Mary's note."][/caption]

Absurdistan is another novel by Gary Shteyngart the same author who wrote Super Sad True Love Story.  The main character, Misha Vainberg, is another Russian Jewish man like the main character in Shteyngart's other novels.  Misha is fat, way fat, and spends almost the whole of the book having sex with larger women.  I don't know if that was the grossness that turned Mary off or if it was Misha's constant eating.  This book is the penthouse letters of Russian cuisine.  Misha eats platefuls of sturgeon, caviar, boiled eggs and all manor of sausages and pickled vegetable relishes before this novel winds down.

The general plot of the novel is that Misha is trapped in Russia because of his mobster father's crimes.  He had attended college in America thanks to his father's insistence that he become an American Jew.  He also spends a good share of the novel trying to come to come to grips with his botched back alley circumcision that his father arranged after rediscovering his Jewish heritage (I'm sure that Mary wasn't impressed with the detailed descriptions of Misha's mangled member either).  His father is assassinated and Misha is offered a deal by the "family" to take his share of the money and get out of the family business.  Misha hears that he can buy a passport in a small country on the shores of the Black Sea called Absurdistan and decides to go in order to get out of Russia and return to his beloved New York City.

Once Misha arrives in Absurdistan, a war breaks out.  Through his travels throughout the tiny country it is revealed that the war is orchestrated by the U.S. department of defense and Halliburton.  At first I thought Mary was totally off base about how this is a parody of the crazy world stage but after I finished I decided to do a little googling of some of the terms that Stheyngart's Halliburton characters used like "cost plus" and "logcap".  After that I started to feel a little ill.

The book comes to a satisfying  ending which actually made it a little better than Super Sad True Love Story. I've actually Started on another Shteyngart novel and if I finish in a timely manner Shteyngart will be the first multi-novel author who's books I will have read in entirety in a long time.

So RD, I'm glad you decided to pass this book on to the used book store.  I throughly enjoyed it.