My May and June 2021 Reads

Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner (2021) Book cover - I read the titular essay when it was published in the New Yorker and enjoyed reading the full collection. Zauner’s portrait of her relationship with her late mother is tender, but never sugar-coated. Funny at times, often sad, a lovely book.

Descender: Machine Moon, Jeff Lemire (2016) - This continues to be a new (to me!) favorite comic series. Dustin Nguyen’s watercolor art is beautiful and unique, the characters are memorable, and the story gets into some interesting philosophical territory around the status of sentient robots.

Monstress: The Chosen, Marjorie Liu (2019) - I have very, very little idea what actually happened plot-wise in this book, but I keep coming back to this series for the amazing art of Sana Takeda–and also for Kippa!

Taste of Control, René Alexander D. Orquiza Jr. (2020) - An interesting survey of American colonialism as expressed in the material food culture of the Philippines–menus, advertisements, cookbooks, home ec textbooks, and so on. The exaltation of processed and imported foods to the detriment of local foodways very much continues to this day in the Philippines–I think to some degree it’s the case in all developing countries, due to multinational food corporations, but probably stronger in the Philippines due to the colonial history. At times I found myself wishing that the author would go deeper analytically–for me, the book largely presented fairly unsurprising theses about how Western food was portrayed by the government and corporations as superior, and then a proliferation of supporting examples.

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Bernard Williams (1985) - I borrowed this from my dad after DNF’ing Derek Parfit’s book On What Matters–I wasn’t especially convinced by Parfit, but in the part where he was arguing against Bernard Williams, I was like, this guys sounds like he might have a better approach. I found the book a little difficult (though I feel like anyone would seem unclear when compared to the supremely organized Parfit), but at least partially convincing. My very crude summary of Williams is that he believes it is a wrong-headed enterprise to try to develop a single overarching system of morality that could be unfailingly applied to all morally difficult situations to tell us The Right Thing to Do, and moreover, that the attempts of moral philosophers to do so (in 1985 anyway) have driven them far from relevance to actual moral concerns. I believe Williams is essentially correct in this contention, and I note in passing that his critique is similar to modern critical views of macroeconomics from heterodox academics such as J.W. Mason. I believe our moral intuitions have developed via evolution, and since evolution is a local satisficer, I see no reason to believe there should be a single coherent underlying pattern that we could divine. And the irrelevance of (some) moral philosophy to practical living could not be illustrated better than by statements like Parfit’s grand conclusion in OWM, “Everyone ought to follow the principles whose being universal laws would make things go best, because these are the only principles whose being universal laws everyone could rationally will.” In his singleminded attempt to climb the mountain, Parfit is reduced to such unenlightening assertions as “pain is bad” to illustrate his contentions. Could this really get us back to a useful moral theory? Anyway, I think Williams is closer to the right track, but am unsure where he leaves us as people who want to live well.

Natural Goodness, Philippa Foot (2001) - My dad sent this as a bonus book when I asked him to borrow the Bernard Williams book. Like Williams, I take her to be arguing against morality systems that might apply to all rational agents. Instead, Foot argues that our moral category of “good” is not that distinct from statements like “it’s good for a German Shepherd to have lots of room to run around”–both being, at the most general level, judgments about what is most conducive to a creature’s flourishing within its distinctive form of life. Thus, what is “morally good” for humans is distinctively “for humans.” I think this is a correct assertion, and relates to the point I mentioned above–our intuitions about morality are evolutionarily determined, and therefore relate to what has on average over time promoted the survival and reproduction of human societies. Foot is at pains to say that this observation shouldn’t be taken to mean that morality should be taken to center on those things that simply maximize reproduction and survival, because a core part of our humanity is our rationality and our consequent ability to select our own ends. But this ability leaves open such a wide range of ends that I’m not certain how far Foot’s argument really gets us. At worst, we end up where Alasdair MacIntyre contends that we are in After Virtue: we use moral language that implicitly depends on having a single teleological conception of the good, but having abandoned the idea of having such a singular conception, we are now speaking nonsense. I don’t think the situation is quite as bad as that, though. In particular, I think Foot’s conception works well with the “basic capabilities” approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. While humans may reasonably choose a wide variety of ends and of life forms, these are not totally unconstrained–in particular, there is some core set of principles that, over time, have been consistently required for human flourishing in all of its varied forms: we may call these the basic capabilities. Divining this list is as much art as science, and there’s no particular reason to expect it to have an elegant form, but I think it’s very reasonable to contend that such a list exists and is more or less as people like Sen and Nussbaum have outlined. I was a bit surprised that Foot didn’t cite either of them (other than an unrelated citation of Sen).

Shadows of Doubt, Brendan O’Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi (2019) - Dan O’Flaherty advised my undergrad honors economics thesis at Columbia, and is famous among me and my friends for drily beginning an analysis with, “Assume the gunshots are normally distributed around the target.” This book, written with his Barnard colleague Rajiv Sethi, is a comprehensive and informative overview of the roles that stereotypes play at all levels of the criminal justice system–from crime to policing to trials to sentencing. There are many insightful analyses in the book, but two stood out to me. First, the authors show that there is wide variation in police use of deadly force across geographies in the US, which can lead to incorrect inferences if not accounted for. There are high rates of police killing civilians in both majority-Black neighborhoods of major cities and in heavily white rural areas. The causes of these hotspots of police violence are probably quite distinct, and aggregate analyses can and do fall afoul of Simpson’s paradox. Second, I found interesting their discussion of retributive versus consequentialist criminal sentencing. Our system contains a mix of both approaches (giving people punishments that “fit” their crimes, and setting punishments that will generate an appropriate balance of deterrence and mercy). O’Flaherty and Sethi show how this mixed system can plausibly result in a “ratchet” of increasingly harsh sentences, as we have seen from the 1960s through today–sentences may be increased during high-crime periods for consequentialist reasons, but be difficult to reduce when crime falls later, with the higher sentences having been established as the retributive standard.

Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn, Lafcadio Hearn (2019) - I’m a sucker for ghost stories and also enjoy learning about folktales from non-European cultures, so this was right up my alley. It’s one of two recently published Hearn collections reviewed in the New Yorker in 2019–I actually saw them both at the same bookstore, and somewhat arbitrarily picked this one on the theory that the non-Penguin volume would be less boring. Much like Pu Songling’s Chinese ghost tales, these are for the most part not horror stories, but rather just recountings of weird stories involving ghosts. The first story, “The Dream of a Summer Day,” gave me high hopes for the collection–it’s a weirdly self-referential and multi-level story–but the remaining stories are all more straightforward weird tales. Definitely enjoyable and very readable, though.

Avatar: North and South, Gene Luen Yang (2017) - A decent entry in the series, but doesn’t add much depth to the characters in the Gaang. Definitely continues building the “bending vs. technology” arc to bridge to Legend of Korra, as well as setting up the tradition of evil waterbender villains.

Never Have I Ever, Isabel Yap (2021) - As a book of fantasy/horror short stories incorporating Filipino mythology, this was pitched squarely up my alley. There were a few real stand-outs for me, which oddly came in order in the book. “Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” engages with Duterte’s extrajudicial “drug-related” killings without being heavy-handed or didactic. “Hurricane Heels” is a fun romp that, as I said on Twitter, should be made into an anime series–it’s magical girls meets Rat Queens. Probably my favorite entry was “Only Unclench Your Hand,” where Yap portrays the uncertainty of a city girl in the countryside, and questions the boundary between good and evil folk magic.

In The Shadow of the Ivory Tower, Davarian Baldwin (2021) - Also in the category of books pitched squarely up my alley, a book about campus-city relations focusing on Trinity in Hartford (where my partner is a professor and where we live), Columbia in NYC (where I was an undergrad during the Manhattanville campus expansion debate), and a few other schools. I really appreciated the opportunity to learn some more of the modern history of Hartford, as well as to catch up on what happened with Columbia’s expansion after I left in 2007. Baldwin’s references also pointed me to some great articles in the Columbia Spectator, where I used to work! Reading this book makes both the full tax exemption for nonprofit universities and the delegation of policing powers to university police forces seem like very questionable societal decisions. I appreciated that Baldwin didn’t claim that any one university had “done it right,” but still identified respects in which things could be done better.

Democracy, Race, and Justice: The Writings of Sadie T. M. Alexander, ed. Nina Banks (2021) - I got interested in this from reading the NYT profile of Nina Banks. Sadie Alexander was the first Black American to receive a Ph.D in economics in the US (UPenn, 1921), and this book is an edited volume of her writings and speeches. Unfortunately, due to a combination of discrimination and personal circumstances, Alexander didn’t become an academic economist, and ended up working as a lawyer. So the excerpts collected in the book come from things like speeches to clubs. Thus, we only get a taste of what her economic insights or worldview would have been, had they been allowed to develop more fully. Still, we see comments here and there that are far ahead of their time, such as her analysis of how Black workers tended to be the last hired and the first fired, meaning that running the economy at capacity is even more important for them than it is for workers in general. Sadly, this is still true today, a century after Alexander received her doctorate!

Asymmetric Killing, Neil Renic (2020) - This was a fascinating DNF. I got interested in it after reading this New Yorker article. It’s only a DNF because I skipped several middle chapters because I didn’t feel like I needed to read the full weight of evidence Renic was bringing on historical cases–actually I think reading the NYer article probably would have been sufficient. The book is basically about whether lethal drone warfare undermines the very basis of the “rules of war” as we currently understand them; author says yes. I’d like to write some more about this one.

Arsenic and Adobo, Mia Manansala (2021) - Did not finish. I loved the idea of a Fil-Am murder mystery, but it’s just not my genre.