Blowout by Rachel Maddow
In 2010, the words “earthquake swarm” entered the lexicon in Oklahoma. That same year, a trove of Michael Jackson memorabilia—including his iconic crystal-encrusted white glove—was sold at auction for over $1 million to a guy who was, officially, just the lowly forestry minister of the tiny nation of Equatorial Guinea. And in 2014, Ukrainian revolutionaries raided the palace of their ousted president and found a zoo of peacocks, gilded toilets, and a floating restaurant modeled after a Spanish galleon. Unlikely as it might seem, there is a thread connecting these events, and Rachel Maddow follows it to its crooked source: the unimaginably lucrative and equally corrupting oil and gas industry.
With her trademark black humor, Maddow takes us on a switchback journey around the globe, revealing the greed and incompetence of Big Oil and Gas along the way, and drawing a surprising conclusion about why the Russian government hacked the 2016 U.S. election. She deftly shows how Russia’s rich reserves of crude have, paradoxically, stunted its growth, forcing Putin to maintain his power by spreading Russia’s rot into its rivals, its neighbors, the West’s most important alliances, and the United States. Chevron, BP, and a host of other industry players get their star turn, most notably ExxonMobil and the deceptively well-behaved Rex Tillerson. The oil and gas industry has weakened democracies in developed and developing countries, fouled oceans and rivers, and propped up authoritarian thieves and killers. But being outraged at it is, according to Maddow, “like being indignant when a lion takes down and eats a gazelle. You can’t really blame the lion. It’s in her nature.”
Blowout is a call to contain the lion: to stop subsidizing the wealthiest businesses on earth, to fight for transparency, and to check the influence of the world’s most destructive industry and its enablers. The stakes have never been higher. As Maddow writes, “Democracy either wins this one or disappears.”
One of my goals for 2020 is to read as many of the Goodreads Choice Award nominees from 2019 as I can. First up was Blowout by Rachel Maddow. Despite being pretty liberal, I’ve never actually watched Rachel Maddow, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into here.
I’m not incredibly interested in the oil industry or anything, but this book was fine. Maddow is obviously very intelligent, she’s a good writer, and the book comes across as incredibly well-researched. The problem I had with it is that it’s long, not necessarily in page count, but just that it goes on and on and on and on. I found myself kind of zoning out when the book would get a little rambly, but something would inevitably pull me back in later.
Interestingly, the part of this book I found most interesting was on Russian spies. Maybe that’s the kind of book I should have been reading instead.
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
Publication Date: November 5, 2019
From “one of America’s most courageous young journalists” (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.
For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people — sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society — went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry’s labels. Forced to remain inside until they’d “proven” themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan’s watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.
But, as Cahalan’s explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?
As a book about David Rosenhan and his “pseudopatient” experiment, I can’t say that The Great Pretender really succeeds. It’s messy, it goes off on tangents, it frequently repeats itself, and (possible spoiler?) it doesn’t really have a conclusion.
As a book on psychiatry as a whole, I think it’s a lot more successful. Cahalan covers a lot of ground, and while it’s often confusing and kind of meanders around (as I said, frequently repeating itself), it’s also incredibly interesting. I feel like I learned a lot about the field of psychiatry and almost like I read a mystery.
When it comes to the actual advertised topic of this book, it almost feels like Cahalan ran out of material. Maybe this would have been better as a long academic paper than a nearly 400-page book.
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
This thrilling critique of the forces vying for our attention re-defines what we think of as productivity, shows us a new way to connect with our environment and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about our selves and our world.
When the technologies we use every day collapse our experiences into 24/7 availability, platforms for personal branding, and products to be monetized, nothing can be quite so radical as… doing nothing. Here, Jenny Odell sends up a flare from the heart of Silicon Valley, delivering an action plan to resist capitalist narratives of productivity and techno-determinism, and to become more meaningfully connected in the process.
It seems like forever ago when I put a hold on How to Do Nothing. It ended up coming in during the first couple weeks of isolation, and what better time, really, for a book with that title. Nobody’s doing anything right now.
The thing about this book is that it’s less of “an action plan to resist capitalist narratives of productivity” and more of every pretentious thought the author had after thinking, “yeah, I should write a book about how much better I am than everyone else.”
Really, I appreciate what she was getting at. I think it’s important to disconnect from technology, appreciate nature, and get back to basics. I think it’s clear that Odell can write well, but overall, I found this book incredibly disappointing.
Have you read any of these books? Have you read any good nonfiction recently?
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