Review of “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell

The failure to communicate accurately with one another is the subject of Gladwell’s latest compendium of anecdotes and scientific studies that can explain them. Looking at incidents ranging from confrontations between black Americans and police, to the inability of supposedly expert authorities to evaluate criminal behavior and lies, Gladwell argues that human beings are more prone to misunderstand each other than the reverse, and he believes he knows why.

Gladwell documents several tendencies in assessing strangers that have been discovered by research. He reports that our default assumption is that a person – even a stranger – is telling the truth if his or her demeanor seems persuasive. If there is a “match” between the message and the facial expressions and appearance of the person delivering the message, we tend to give such people the benefit of the doubt; we prefer to think we are not subject to being deceived, and respond accordingly. On the other hand, if a person is a stranger, perhaps someone with whom we do not share a culture and history, and whose language, behavior, and appearance differ from our own, we might just as easily default to distrust.

Does this sound a little glib and empirically messy? Once again, as in previous books, Gladwell takes a Procrustean approach to data and conclusions. (In Greek mythology, Procrustes either cut up or stretched out his guests to fit his iron bed. Therefore a “procrustean bed” refers to a theory for which data is manipulated in order to fit its premises.)

Gladwell has decided that problems in interpreting stressful encounters can be explained because “we do not know how to talk to strangers.” But take the case of Sandra Bland, about which he begins and ends his book. Sandra Bland, a black woman, was pulled over by a white policeman for not using her turn signal when she was in fact moving her car out of the way of the policeman! The tension escalated, with Gladwell providing a transcript made at the time of the encounter revealing exactly what happened. Gladwell concluded that the whole ordeal – so traumatic Bland ended up committing suicide three days after being incarcerated by the policeman – was a manifestation of the stranger problem.

At no time does Gladwell consider other factors that may have played an even larger role, such as endemic racism and the preconceived notions that accompany it; the legacy of that racism both in the behavior by whites in power against blacks, and the reactions by blacks to that behavior; positive reinforcement for toughness and racism from the very top of government; or even the recruiting practices of police and the type of people who (a) apply for the opportunity to wield power with a weapon and (b) are hired to do so.

[In an interview with The UK Guardian, Gladwell was asked why he didn’t mention race. He responded:

“‘The problems with framing it in terms of race is not that it is inaccurate, it absolutely is effective,’ Gladwell says, when I bring this up, ‘but the minute you raise race, you derail the conversation and it becomes possible to dismiss this whole story as a story about a racist cop. Now he may be a racist cop, but that is not the issue, the issue is that the system with the best intentions set him up in a certain way.’”]

Or maybe the issue is that he was a racist cop. Or, perhaps, something else entirely.

The case studies supplied by Gladwell support his thesis, only because we never hear about either counterfactual cases or competing theories that would be just as explanatory, if not more so. Some of the data he cites as definitive appears to be more anecdotal than representative. Even the concept of what constitutes a “stranger” morphs as needed to make his analysis work.

Gladwell’s conclusion shows the same questionable relevance. He emphasizes that society cannot function without a certain level of trust. But, he asserts, we also need to abandon trust when it is appropriate. We need to exercise thoughtfulness, he urges. What is required, he suggests, is “restraint and humility.” Right – admonitions about as effective as “thoughts and prayers” after episodes of gun violence.

Evaluation: This book is darker than Gladwell’s previous works, which dealt with subjects like the love of ketchup or the talent of the Beatles. Moreover, in wanting to impress the seriousness of the subject matter on readers, he seemed a little too inclined, in my view, to include sordid details of sexual assaults that weren’t essential to proving his points. His default [to borrow one of his favorite verbs in this book] to catchphrases can be confusing rather than illuminating.

Throughout, Gladwell’s reasoning was not persuasive to me; he cherry-picked stories that matched his thesis, and cherry-picked explanations for them as well.

Finally, I thought the book could have been condensed into a long magazine article without losing much in the process.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2019

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Review of “Never Have I Ever: A Novel” by Joshilyn Jackson

Amy Whey, 42, feels lucky to have a solid, loving family with her husband Davis, stepdaughter Maddie, and her eight-month-old baby Oliver. She has a nice home and a best friend in Charlotte Baxter, who has a little girl of her own. But Amy has a secret past that isn’t so nice. She thinks there is no way anyone will know, until a newcomer, Angelica Roux, comes to her neighborhood bookclub, and hints that she knows all about Amy. Amy’s world, one she thought was safe and protected, is about to be upended, unless she can come up with a way out. But “Roux” as Angelica calls herself, brings pathological skills and hard-core experience to this game she is playing with Amy, and Amy fears she will lose everything good in her life.

Amy is much like the characters we are used to from Joshilyn Jackson – overflowing with strong, nurturing love for family and friends. But Amy does have a history that takes this character beyond the more quotidian flaws of previous protagonists. Roux, on the other hand, is something new for Jackson: a repugnant and remorseless spider who snares everyone she can into her web and then coldly devours their lives.

Tension and twists keep readers on the edge of their seats until an unexpected revelation about Roux changes the nature of the game.

Evaluation: The writing is as good as usual for Jackson, but some of the characters are beyond despicable, so it’s hard to say I “liked” the story. I’m also still not sure how I felt about Amy’s past. Somewhat ironically, since the story begins with a book club meeting (gone bad), I would love to attend a (normal) book club meeting to hear what other readers make of this story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2019

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Kid Lit Review of “Nikola Tesla for Kids: His Life, Ideas, and Inventions” by Amy M. O’Quinn

I’m guessing a number of kids would recognize “Tesla” as the name of a car, but not so many would know the car was named for the engineer Nikola Tesla.

This book, part of the excellent series by Chicago Review Press featuring educational content plus twenty-one related activities, will help remedy that information gap. Tesla, born in 1856, came up with inventions that laid the foundation for many technological advances from which we continue to benefit more than 100 years later.

The author, a former teacher, begins with a timeline of Tesla’s life so kids can situate him in history, and then moves on to “Electrified Beginnings.”

Tesla was born in what is now Croatia to a Serbian family. (If you travel to Croatia, you will get a sense of how the Serbian-Croatian rivalry extends to Tesla and to which country gets to “claim” him. When we were in Croatia, none of the celebratory tributes mentioned Tesla was an ethnic Serb.)

He was a brilliant student; at the Austrian Polytechnic School in Graz in the Austrian Empire, the list of classes he took his first year is stunning: arithmetic, geometry, physics, calculus, chemistry, mineralogy, machinery construction, botany, wave theory, optics, French, and English. In his “spare” time, he started a club for Serbian students. Then he changed his major and added yet more courses to his schedule. (He reported later “I regularly started my work at three o’clock in the morning and continued until eleven at night, no Sundays or holidays excepted.”) For a while he dropped out of school and turned to obsessive gambling instead, sometimes going for 24 hours straight. (He also counted steps, calculated the mathematical volume of his soup, insisted the numbers of everything with which he was provided was divisible by three, etc. In fact, one of the sidebars explains that historians now believe Tesla had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Oh really? How could they tell?)

Nikola Tesla

Tesla received an advanced education in engineering and physics in the 1870s and gained practical experience in the early 1880s. In 1884 he emigrated to the United States, where he would eventually become a naturalized citizen. One of the many informative sidebars in the book describes what Tesla would have seen upon his arrival in New York City in 1884. (The Brooklyn Bridge had just been completed, and Chester Arthur was president. The cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty was laid that year, and the Washington Monument was completed in Washington, D.C.)

Most notably for Tesla, he would have learned that almost all electrical systems in America were run by direct current (DC), whereas Tesla believed alternating current (AC) held more promise. (Another sidebar explains the difference.)

Tesla worked for a short time for Thomas Edison in New York City. A sidebar lauds Edison as “the Wizard of Menlo Park,” with 1,093 patents to his credit. But Edison’s achievements did not extend to the development of his character. Edison took credit for inventions by Granville Woods, an African-American, because at that time, black inventors had little if any protection for their intellectual property. He also stiffed Tesla, not once, but twice.

Thomas Edison circa 1922

Tesla was denied a bonus with Edison’s company in Paris, and he was later denied a bonus promised by Edison himself in 1885. Tesla had tripled the output of Edison’s generators, a feat for which Edison promised Tesla fifty thousand dollars if he could accomplish it. When Tesla asked for his bonus, Edison replied, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.”

That incident caused Tesla to start his own company, where he was finally able to work on the AC motor he envisioned. He filed his first patent on April 30, 1887, “marking the beginning of Tesla’s successful 15-year inventive streak.”

George Westinghouse attended a lecture by Tesla and was intrigued by his ideas. Westinghouse, a pioneer in the electrical industry, held over 300 patents during his lifetime. But, as the author points out, he was also a savvy businessman, a quality Tesla could not claim for himself. Westinghouse was interested in the commercial potential for alternating current, but knew the associated high voltage was a problem, one that his own engineers could not solve. Westinghouse offered Tesla a consultancy, which Tesla accepted. (As the Tesla Society explains, direct current was inadequate for long distance transmission. Consequently, a DC power station was required at intervals every two miles. If the danger of AC’s high voltage could be minimized, AC would be a better and less expensive choice for long distances.)

“The War of the Currents” via allabtinstru.blogspot.com

Thereafter began “The War of the Currents” between Edison and Westinghouse (with Tesla’s help). Edison realized that if AC systems gained in popularity, his DC empire could be destroyed. Edison employed fear tactics to sway the public, arguing that AC was too dangerous. He and an electrical engineer who had a talent for adverse propaganda electrocuted live animals – including abducted area pets! – to show the dangers of AC. Edison was also adept at coming up with catchy nicknames and sayings to play upon the prejudices of the public. O’Quinn writes, “Edison began to refer to deaths by electrocution as being ‘Westinghoused!’” When the New York prison system voted to replace death by hanging with an electric chair, Edison had his engineer design one for them – using a Westinghouse AC motor.

But thanks to the Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) in May 1893, many visitors became aware of, and impressed by, the uses of alternating current. The Fair helped decide the outcome of the War of the Currents, which ended with a victory for Westinghouse and Tesla.

Chicago World’s Fair 1893

Tesla’s AC induction motor and related AC patents, licensed by Westinghouse Electric in 1888, became the cornerstone of the system used to distribute alternating-current electrical power.

Tesla suffered a serious personal and professional setback when his lab caught fire in 1895. Everything was destroyed, from expensive equipment to notes, models, and plans. Tesla plunged into a depression, and this allowed Guglielmo Marconi to advance in the race for the transmission of radio waves (not surprisingly, known as the “Radio Wars”). Marconi went on to “beat” Tesla, albeit using at least 17 of Tesla’s patents in the process. Nevertheless, Marconi was proclaimed the “father” of radio. Moreover, in 1909, Marconi shared the Nobel Prize in physics for contributions to wireless telegraphy. The author writes: “Not until after his death in 1943 did the U.S. Supreme Court finally rule that Tesla, and not Marconi, was the true inventor of the radio.”

Guglielmo Marconi

During the 1920s and 1930s, short on cash, Tesla tweaked old inventions, designed some new ones, and worked on an autobiography. He developed an obsession with pigeons, and ran up bills at a series of hotels, being kicked out of them one by one (in part, because of excessive pigeon droppings in his rooms). Finally, the Westinghouse Corporation came to an agreement with the New Yorker Hotel, allowing Tesla to live there rent free for the rest of life.

Like the other books in this series, this one has twenty-one projects for kids that extend the lessons imparted in its history to other subject areas. Readers will learn how to build a simple electric circuit, communicate with Morse Code, make a soda bottle submarine, build a waterwheel, and mix fluorescent slime, inter alia. The activities are fun, easy, and educational.

Evaluation: This book and the others in the series provide an outstanding supplement to school materials for older kids. There is also plenty here to help readers develop an understanding of the importance of “research and development” and adequate funding for it, as well as what “intellectual property” entails and why patents matter so much. The narration is appealing and accessible, and is interspersed with plenty of photos and graphics and to mix it up and keep it interesting.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by the Chicago Review Press, 2019

Tesla sits below the Tesla Coil in his laboratory, via the Tesla Society

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Review of “Spying on the South” by Tony Horwitz

Tony Horwitz was a Pulitzer Prize winning author who made a name for himself by approaching history not as an academic but as a reporter. In Confederates in the Attic, for example, he participated in Civil War battle reenactments to learn just what drove the passionate appeal for this activity. Along the way, he delivered a good deal of history, providing background to flesh out his entertaining interviews.

In A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, he again blended historical anecdotes from the past with impressions from the present. The latter were gained through a great deal of audacity and humor, as he attempted to retrace the footsteps of the earliest explorers in the New World.

For Spying on the South, Horwitz decided to follow in the path of Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted, who lived from 1822 to 1903, is mostly known today for his landscape designs, which included Central Park in Manhattan. As a young man, however, Olmsted worked as a reporter for the “New York Times.” On assignment, Olmsted travelled through the South from 1852 to 1857, sending back periodic dispatches to the newspaper about the lives and beliefs of Southerners. Olmsted was convinced – at first, anyway – that there had to be common ground between the two increasingly bellicose sides, if only he (and they) could discover what it was.

Frederick Law OlmstedCreditCreditU.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service/Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Olmsted’s articles were eventually collected into three volumes: A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey Through Texas (1857), and A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853-4 (1860). Horwitz, who was writing around the time of the 2016 election, wondered if the same sort of divisions were tearing apart the country as had characterized the pre-Civil War years. Thus, to get a better handle on what was happening in America, Horwitz used Omsted’s books as tour guides to plan his own trip, or, as he called it, “a ramble across America with long-dead Fred as my guide.”

Olmsted traveled for fourteen months, using steamboats, stagecoaches, horses, and mules, and Horwitz wanted to do the same. We follow Horwitz’s adventures on a coal towboat and on a mule, but also in the occasional rental car. Nevertheless, Horwitz gamely mimicked Olmsted’s trip whenever possible, even eating food that I must admit would never cross my lips. He bravely ventured into what was often hostile territory since he was a Northerner, regarded as one of the “elites” so despised by the many “Trumpers” he encountered. What he found during his own journey was similar to what Olmsted discovered: a vast fissure in the country. While the chasm between North and South was greatest in rural areas, there were still rather stark differences between the South and the North no matter where he ventured.

A Marquette River boat towing a barge full of coal

For a time Olmsted was accompanied by his brother John, and similarly, Horwitz was joined for a while by his Australian comedian friend Andrew Denton. Andrew’s observations were not only hilarious, but much less diplomatic than those of Horwitz.

Horwitz didn’t always get into political discussions, but when they occurred, Horwitz despaired as much as Olmstead had done some 160 years earlier. Horwitz was shocked at hearing unapologetically racist views, and could relate to Olmsted’s “melancholy” over the same phenomenon.

Horwitz’s sojourn through Texas revealed to him quite distinctive regions but also commonalities no matter the region, setting it apart from other states. In particular, he observed widespread support for secessionist movements, or at least, secessionist sympathies – now called “Texit” after Brexit.

As Daniel Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement explained about what attracted Texans to the idea of Texit:

“Texas is politically, culturally and economically distinct from the United States as a whole. Texans by and large believe in very limited government, a large measure of economic freedom, and absolute personal liberty.”

[It should be noted that a number of investigations, such as those compiled here, have established ties between Texas secession movements and Kremlin-funded actors in Russia. The interference is reported to be part of larger efforts to foment chaos in the United States and dissatisfaction with the government. At one point, the Russian-created Facebook page “Heart of Texas” had more followers than the official Texas Democrat and Texas Republican pages combined.]

By the end of Horwitz’s odyssey, he, like Olmsted, didn’t feel hopeful about the prospects for seeing any abatement to the polarization of the country. And it has only gotten worse since his book was written.

Discussion: Soon after I began listening to this on audio, the author died unexpectedly on May 27, 2019, at age 60. I felt bereft. I had thoroughly enjoyed “spending time with him” in his other books. But also, as I began this book, my immediate reaction was, “Gee, it’s a wonder he doesn’t have a heart attack from what he is eating on this trip.” Horwitz indeed died of cardiac arrest; I hope this excursion of his wasn’t the tipping point.

Tony Horwitz

Evaluation: Horowitz was an adept raconteur whose observations remain valuable. He comes across as personable, curious, and willing to hear any and all sides of an issue, and in this way, gets almost everyone to open up to him. I always learn a great deal when reading his books, even while being hugely entertained.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Penguin Press, 2019

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This book was expertly narrated by Mark Deakins. He did an outstanding job with accents, especially when reproducing dialogue between Horwitz and his part-time travel Australian companion Andrew. Deakins successfully made clear whether the voices he articulated were women rather than men; southerners rather than northerners; or for that matter, Germans or French.

Published unabridged on 14 CDs (approximately 17 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2019

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Review of “This Tender Land” by William Kent Krueger

Five motifs dominate this novel: the struggle with belief in God in the face of so much evil and pain in the world; the shameful legacy of mistreatment of Native Americans and disrespect for their culture by whites; the Great Depression of the 1930s and the evangelical response to it; and reflections of the main themes from both “The Odyssey” and “The Wizard of Oz.” If this sounds like a lot to pack into one story, it is, and moreover, there are other issues that receive cameos in the story. For the most part, Krueger manages the melange adeptly, although occasionally the author seems to be “kitchen sinking it” as publishers call over-plotting of stories.

Odie (short for Odysseus) O’Banion is in his eighties as the book begins, looking back at the summer of 1932 and the journey taken by him and his comrades, “The Vagabonds.” Like the Greek hero Odysseus after whom Odie is named, he was on a quest to get home. Traveling by water (in this case, by canoe on rivers), he and his companions encountered a number of challenges – including mortal threats, temptations, and struggles with the ire of the gods. Eventually, Odysseus reached his destination.

“The Wizard of Oz” comes into play as the four Vagabonds on the trip search for something lacking in their lives while encountering witches both good and bad. Odie wants a home. His older brother Albert wants to protect Odie. Their best friend Mose, a Sioux Indian who had his tongue cut out as a child, wants to know who he is. And Emmy Frost is searching for her role in life.

The four met at the Lincoln School for Native Americans near the Gilead River in Minnesota. Although the school is fictional, the horrific conditions described therein echo stories of abuse which actually occurred in such places. In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, Krueger writes:

“The history of our nation’s treatment of Native Americans is one of the saddest litanies of human cruelty imaginable. . . . Beginning in the 1870s and continuing until the mid-twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Native children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to live in boarding schools far from their reservation homes. . . . Life in an Indian boarding school wasn’t just harsh, it was soul-crushing. . . . They were punished for speaking their native language. They were emotionally, physically, and sexually abused. . . . many of these schools functioned as a pipeline for free labor, offering up the children as field hands or domestic help for local citizens.”

Orphan brothers Odie and Albert were the only whites at the school. We don’t find out how and why they got there until revelations at the end of the story. The boys formed a bond with Mose, who was never able to communicate with anyone before Odie and Albert taught him the sign language they learned from their deaf mother. Emmy is the daughter of a widowed teacher at the school; Mrs. Frost was one of the nicer people among a fairly frightening group of abusive adults.

The tragedy that took the life of Mrs. Frost triggered a series of additional calamities that led Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy to take off by canoe and set out for the Mississippi River. But the cruel superintendent of the school had no intention of letting them escape, and the Vagabonds were often one step away from capture. This tension, as well as the people they met along the way and the adventures they had, changed their lives, and gave them a new awareness of what the world was like, who they were, and what their destinies would be.

Odie characterizes himself as a storyteller, and justifies some of the fantastical elements of his tale by arguing:

“Our eyes perceive so dimly, and our brains are so easily confused. Far better, I believe, to be like children and open ourselves to every beautiful possibility, for there is nothing our hearts can imagine that is not so.”

Evaluation: I am a fan of Krueger, but I wasn’t as enamored with this book as with some of his previous works. I appreciate that there are many issues that arouse a passionate response in him, but I thought the inclusion of so many of them in one story diluted the impact of each on the reader. Nevertheless, the saga is memorable in a number of ways, and would give book clubs a great deal to discuss.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2019

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