15 August 2007

China Road, by Rob Gifford

I must admit to only reading part, perhaps half, of this book. But it was new, and the library wouldn't let me keep it any longer. Lord knows I have to stay on good terms with that institution.

China is certainly an up-and-coming power and force in the world, in terms of economic and political influence. This book is a look at the state of the country from the viewpoint of NPR correspondent Rob Gifford, who takes and incredible long road trip along route 312, "the route 66 of China."

Gifford interviews "old hundred names," the traditional name for the common people of China, and provides a picture of what their lives are like. Whether they are truck drivers, coal miners, or prostitutes, Gifford talks to them and writes about their hopes and dreams, and their predictions for the future of the nation.

Whether Gifford's assessment of the politics and economy of China is correct I leave to experts. What I took away from this book was the feeling that I had met several contemporary Chinese working people and experienced their common humanity. They are, after all, no different than any of us who struggle to get by.

08 August 2007

The One Percent Doctrine, by Ron Suskind

Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11
Simon and Schuster, 2006. 367 pages.

OK, Americans. Required reading.

Think Dick Cheney's a little creepy?

This is a dispassionate analysis of where America's been going for the last six years. It is remarkably unbiased, and sticks to high standards of journalism, i.e. reporting as opposed to pontificating.

But you can't simply not draw some conclusions.

We haven't just become paranoid, we've discarded basic tenets of our system of government under the banner of fighting terrorism and Al Qaeda. Our latest President enjoys his second term in office with one of the lowest approval ratings ever given a US President. There is little or no doubt that he is at the very least guilty of perpetrating an enormous lie about the reason for the Iraq war, and yet he remains in office, and out of prison.

Read this well-written account of what our security services have been doing, and how public servants have been forced to either sacrifice their integrity or resign while the Cheney-Bush juggernaut rolls on.

Lincoln, by Gore Vidal

OK, the truth: I got tired of this book and abandoned it after reading about two-thirds of it.

I recall that I liked Gore Vidal when last I read his stuff, so maybe this was just my problem, or maybe this just wasn't his best book.

I recently heard a Lincoln biographer interviewed on NPR say that there have been something like 14,000 books written about Lincoln. Whew.

I grew tired of what seemed like stilted, unreal dialogue. I also became aware of a consistent use of segue to move from one scene to another. This is a legitimate and useful tool in storytelling, but it should (in my humble opinion) be transparent, or at least hardly noticeable, when used skillfully.

I did learn a few interesting things about Lincoln -- unfortunately in the context of fiction, so I'll have to do more research before I can truly "believe."

Big Coal, by Jeff Goodell

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future
Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 324 pages.

"Dirty Secret," indeed. What we have here is a man-made natural disaster in the process of unfolding, about to shower our children and grandchildren with disease, poverty, misery, cold, and darkness. And chaos. Is that gloomy enough?

In this thoroughly readable book, Goodell lays out the history and contemporary state of Coal, the business, industry, rock, and energy source. He explains where it comes from and how it's used, and who controls the mining, transport, and burning of this enormously important and dangerous natural resource. He travels around the USA, and visits China, to get a picture of how Coal figures in the contemporary global economy and environment.

Among other things, this book contains one of the best explanations of "global warming" that I have encountered. Goodell points out that the phenomena collected under this umbrella title include many more things than a simple rise in temperature. In many places, so-called global warming may actually produce lower average temperatures. For example, ocean currents that bring warm air to the British Isles could be disturbed if the salinity of the ocean is changed from Polar ice melting.

Global warming is driven mainly by Carbon Dioxide, released into the atmosphere from any number of sources. The burning of coal is an abundant source of carbon dioxide. Most of the electricity in the USA comes from coal-fired generators.

While serious and devoid of facile optimism, Big Coal is not a pessimistic book, but rather a cautionary one. Goodell leaves us on a note of hope that the coming crisis may be seen by many as an opportunity for profitable innovation, and that solutions to our problems may be found. If we are blessed with journalists like Goodell, we will have the information that we'll need to address the problems, and find the solutions.