The Better Angels Of Our Nature

the_better_angels_coverMany years ago in Iran, my friends and I were discussing an interesting subject. Has mankind really improved over the course of history? Our discussion quickly evolved into the evolution of violence as the biggest threat to our well-being. I had a gut feeling that as an Iranian woman I was definitely better off living in the 21st century under the rule of Islamic Republic, than living as a peasant wife or daughter in the 12th century. I thought it was less likely for me to be killed, beaten or raped in my current state and time. Most of my friends didn’t share this view and thought I was underestimating the threat of modern warfare, crime and terrorism.

Imagine my delight when I  read this  book by Steven Pinker and recommended by Bill Gates, in which he demonstrates the decline of violence through scientific analysis and statistics. From chimps behavior to the great wars of our recent history,  I enjoyed  finding answers to my questions from this well-structured extensive account of human violence.

This book is long(800 pages), as the subject demands, but well worth reading for anyone interested in social science and humanity. I’ve listed a selection of my favorite parts below as well as the book’s outline so you can get an idea.

A selection of my favorite learnings:

  • Religion and violence

Pinker explains the moral rationale behind the horrible tortures of the Inquisition. “If you really believe that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing a person until he acknowledges this truth, is doing him the biggest favor of his life.

But why don’t modern fervent Christians practice the same kind of violence and call for burning heretics? Their holy texts to which they express unconditional loyalty imply that it would serve the greater good. “The answer is that the people in the west compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess the faiths that have barely changed in 2000 years, but when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and tolerance. A benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.”

The problem with Islamic version however is that majority of Muslims are still confused about this. In practice, the majority has  banished those customs advised by the holy book 1,400 years ago. They don’t own slave concubines or cut one’s hand for stealing, but they can’t let go of the idea that Sharia law should rule the society, which leads to the emergence of “True Caliphates” like Isis.

  • The Hobbesian Trap:

Imagine you live in a farm that has the main source of water in the area. Your neighbor doesn’t have a water source, but owns a small patch of forest that can be a great source of fuel. You  fear that the neighbor is going to initiate an attack to acquire your resource and so does he. That inclines you to eliminate him by a preemptive strike and so does he, even if you are both very peaceful people. How to avoid such dilemma?

“The most obvious way is through a “policy of deterrence”: a) Don’t strike first b)Be strong enough to survive the first strike c)Retaliate against any aggressor in kind”.

” The key to the deterrence policy though is the credibility of the threat that you will retaliate. If your adversary suspects that you are going to be wiped out in the first strike, he has no fear of retaliation. And if he thinks that once attacked you would rationally hold back from retaliation, because at that point it’s too late to do any good, he might exploit that rationality and attack you with impunity.”

  • Sharp decline of homicide rate in the US, After 1993
In 1993 crime in New York City and the rest of the US dropped by 45%, and has stayed low ever since.What changed? Not poverty and racism.
  1. The positive movements of the 1960s like women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights and children’s rights began to consolidate power in 1990s as the baby boomers became the establishment and turned them into laws.
  2. “Some of the goofier ideas of 1960s lost their appeal. the collapse of communism and the recognition of its economic and humanitarian catastrophes, took the romance out of the revolutionary violence and cast doubt on the redistribution of wealth at the point of a gun. A greater awareness of rape and sexual abuse, made the ethos “if it feels good, do it”, seem repugnant rather than liberating.”
  3. Increased number of police force and incarceration.
  4. One of the effective changes was an innovative urban police policy of punishing petty crimes like free rides on the subway, urinating in public and aggressive panhandling. New York City in particular took extreme measures to remove vandalism, i.e repainting subway trains everyday after they were covered with Graffiti. Finally graffiti kids gave up. These are the principles of the ” Broken Window” theory :”An orderly environment indicates that the police and the citizens are dedicated to keep the peace, while a vandalized and unruly one is a signal that no one is in charge.”Both correlation of crime drop with this phenomena, but also further independent studies validates the theory.
  • The list of deadliest events/governments ranked by number killed(includes deaths in the battlefields and indirect deaths of starvation and war triggered disease). Note that absolute numbers doesn’t account for population increase. For example the An Lushan revolt is the deadliest event of all times in which 1/6 of the world population was killed.
  1. Second world war,20th century: 55 Million
  2. Mao Tse Tung government caused famine, 20th Century: 40 Million
  3. Mongol conquests, 13th Century, 40 Million
  4. An Lushan Revolt, 8th Century, 36 Million
  5. Fall of the Ming Dynasty,17th century, 25 Million
  6. Taiping Rebellion, 19th Century, 20 Million
  7. Annihilation of native Americans, 15th through 18th Centuries, 20 Million
  8. Joseph Stalin rule, 20th Century, 20 Million
  9. Mid-East slave trade, 7th- 19th centuries, 19 Million
  10. Atlantic slave trade, 15th-19th Centuries,18 Milion
  11. Timur Lang, 14th and 15th centuries, 17 Million
  12. British India, preventable famine, 19th Century, 17th Million.
  13. First world war, 20th Century, 15 Million
  14. Russian civil war, 20th century, 9 Million
  15. Fall of Rome, 3rd-5th centuries, 8 Million
  16. Congo free state, 19th and 20th centuries, 8 Million
  17. 30 years war, 17th Century, 7 Million
  18. Russia’s time of troubles, 16th and 17th centuries, 5 Million
  19. Napoleonic wars,19th century, 4 Million
  20. Chinese civil war, 20th Century, 3 Million
  21. French wars of religion, 16th century, 3 Million

The Book’s outline:  

Five “historical forces” that have driven the decline of violence:

  • The Leviathan – The state’s monopoly to use legitimate force in order to resolve individual conflicts.
  • Commerce – Trade becoming more favorable than conquest, or the positive sum game.
  • Feminization – Increase in respect and consideration for female values, stemming from women’s evolutionary tendency to favor compassion and care over aggression.
  • Cosmopolitanism – Literacy, mobility, and mass media, enabled people to “take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.”
  • The Escalator of Reason – an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to re-frame violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.

Six trends of declining violence:

  1. The Pacification Process
  2. The Civilizing Process
  3. The Humanitarian Revolution
  4. The Long Peace
  5. The New Peace
  6. The Rights Revolutions

Five Inner Demons:

  1. Predatory or Practical Violence:
  2. Dominance
  3. Revenge
  4. Sadism
  5. Ideology

Four Better Angels:

  1. Empathy
  2. Self control
  3. Moral sense
  4. Reason

 

The Looming Tower

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“The Looming Tower” digs deep into Islamist terrorism, its roots and its evolution up to the momentous day of 9/11. What makes the book fascinating to me, is the story of the core leaders’ “breaking bad” process from their early youth to their final crimes;three men who were instrumental to the formation of  the most extreme Jihadi groups.

Sayyid Qutb(1906-1966), Egyptian, Islamic author and theorist, member of the Egyptiam Muslim Brotherhood

Ayman Al-Zawahiri(1951), Egyptian, Surgeon and current Emir of Al-Qaeda.

Osama Bin Ladan(1957-2011), Saudi Arabian/Stateless, former Emir of Al-Qaeda.

I am going to summarize the first half of the book which describes the links between Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, Palestinian and Afghan movements and specifically the above mentioned individuals. I loved this part of the book because it connected a lot of fragmented information I had about the region I grew up in and care a lot about. This part is dedicated to the years that shaped the Jihadi Ideology, prior to the strategic planning for the attack on twin towers.

The second half is the detailed account of the attack’s planning and recruitment, in parallel with FBI and CIA’s investigations of Al-Qaeda, which is super interesting too.

1-Sayyid Qutb

Qutb

In the late 1940s, Qutb was a fervent Egyptian nationalist and anti-communist, but not yet a fundamentalist. His political and social criticism of the British occupation of Egypt and the King Farouq’s submission, was starting to annoy the government. Before they could arrest him, his friends arranged for his departure to the US to continue his education. Sayyid was in his forties at the time and single. He stated that he couldn’t find a suitable wife among so many immodest women and abstained from sex, as the mere force against salvation. He was often challenging his own motivations and identity, to make sure if he wanted to be a true Muslim or a sinful westerner. The journey to the United States was his final test to shape that firm identity.

He felt lonely in the US, finding himself more sophisticated that Americans who liked to talk about money and Hollywood stars all the time. He was appalled by sexual freedom he observed in New York city and found it to be the root of cultural corruption. Later, in his year-long stay in Greeley, Colorado, he was first charmed by the puritan community he found there. Their abstinence from alcohol and their love for their families and gardens seemed decent. But again, it was also a college town where the majority of students were assertive females, whom Qutb didn’t appreciate. He was also shocked by the racism against African-Americans.  He observed that although considered a religious country, materialism was the real American god and the soul had no value. Basically, instead of liberalizing, his American experience radicalized him. His American friends however never noticed the resentment. He reserved his criticism to be published safely back home, where his radical writings would change the minds of Muslim masses about the United States. His criticism was not directed just to the US, but to modernity. “Modern values, secularism, rationality, democracy, individualism and mixing of the sexes had been infecting Islam since the start of colonialism. he intended to show that Islam and modernity were completely incompatible. Separation of religion and state was the barrier to the divine unity of humanity and god. Islam was total and uncompromising.”

When he went back to Egypt, the country was in bad shape. Government corruption and humiliation of the war with Israel had made the ruling system unpopular. Qutb became a member of the “Muslim Brotherhood” immediately. The brotherhood seemed to be the only organization actually caring about the Egyptian people. They built hospitals and schools, even their own army to fight Israel. Their founders rejected the secular ideas of government and politics and they had created their own “society”, based on Islamic “Sharia”. But the main reason they found so much support and membership in Egypt’s lower middle class, was the fact that they effectively opposed the British Occupation. They had a secret apparatus section too that carried out the more violent operations. As early as 1948, they operated numerous attacks on movie theaters and police and judges assassinations.

However, when Gamal Abdel Nasser ceased the government in 1952 through a military coup, Muslim Brotherhood had little part in it. Both the Nasser’s “Modern Arab Socialism”organization and Muslim Brotherhood felt their organizations righteous to rule. “In a story that would repeat again and again in the middle east, the contest quickly narrowed to the choice between a military society and a religious one.” Nasser prevailed in the beginning and appeased to Muslim Brotherhood by inviting them to the advisory council. But the vast doctrine difference between the two left little room for compromise. For example when Nasser was negotiating a treaty with the British to end the occupation, Qutb published an article urging Egyptians to Jihad against them.

In 1954, Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate him, but failed. Nasser retaliated by hanging six members and imprisoning thousands in concentration camps. Qutb was one of the prisoners. Tortured and mistreated in prison, Qutb re-introduced the Takfir idea, by deeming his prisoners non-Muslim due to their behavior towards their Muslim behavior, hence giving real muslims permission to kill hum. Then he issued his ultra-radical doctrine from prison, “The Milestones”, a book that became the bible of Jihadis. ” The world divides in two camps: Islam and Jahaliat(the period of barbarity that existed before Muhammed). Pure primitive Islam or the doom of mankind are the only choices.” With the help of Saudi Arabia, Qutb led the regeneration of the Brotherhood’s secret apparatus to form another assassination plan, . His plot was revealed by captured members and he was sentenced to death. Before carrying out the execution, streets filled with protests and Nasser realized Qutb would be more dangerous dead than alive. He sent a message to Qutb that if he would appeal his sentence, he would spare him. But Qutb wanted to become a martyr and became one, inspiring thousands of young Jihadis to avenge him.

2-Ayman al-Zawahiri

Ayman_al-Zawahiri_portrait

Ayman was born in an old and prominent Egyptian family. His father’s family were all top rated doctors, judges and lawyers. They were also very influential in the most credible Islamic school in the world, Al-Azhar. His mother’s side was equally famous with opposition politics. One of Ayman’s maternal uncles was Qutb’s personal lawyer. Young Ayman heard repeatedly glorified stories of Qutb from his uncle. Ayman was a headstrong, self-righteous and rebellious against the authority in power. He was extremely disciplined and organized as a teenager, preventing him from acting impulsive and irrational upon his beliefs. At the age 15, he formed an underground cell dedicated to over-throw of Nasser government and initiating an Islamic state.

Around the same time(1967), Israel’s decisive victory in the 6 day war humiliated Muslims of the Arab world which made Arabs believed that God was on Israel’s side. They lost faith in their countries and governments. Mosques all over Muslim countries united their voices:” God had turned against the Muslims and the only way to get back to him was to return to the pure Islam.” The primary target for the Egyptian Islamist was then the Nasser impure and semi-religious regime first, and after establishing a pure islamic state, confronting the west and Israel.

Nasser’s successor, Anvar Sadat, desperate to make his rule legitimate, tried to make peace with Islamists. He freed all the Muslim brotherhood prisoners ignoring their radicalization influenced by Qutb and the threat they proposed to his government. “The Islamic Group” formed after Anvar Sadat’s support, and quickly radicalized most of Egypt’s schools and   campuses.

In 1980, Zawahiri, then a young practicing doctor was preoccupied with the problem of finding a secure base for Jihad, which wasn’t possible in Egypt. He volunteered to provide medical help to Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan. He went back to Egypt after 4 months and became one of the leaders of the group “Egyptian Islamic Jihad”. In the meantime, in Egypt, Sadat’s peace agreement with Israel and his wife’s help to enforce a law granting women the right to divorce enraged Islamists. They responded by Takfiring him, meaning they characterized him as a heretic, therefore an open invitation to his assassination(Takfir doctrine later became a very common tool for extremists like Zawahiri to justify murdering muslims). Sadat then dissolved all religious student associations. Zawahiri started planning for a complete overthrow of the government, by recruiting Egyptian military officers like Al-Zumar.

In September 1981, “The Islamic Group” hired an assassin who shot and killed Sadat. The new government of Hosni Mubarak, arrested all the conspirators, including Zawahiri. They were then imprisoned in a 12th century dungeon and sadistically tortured. “Egypt prisons became factories for producing militants whose need for retribution(they called it justice) was all-consuming”. Under torture, Zawahiri pointed fingers to his friends, which was further humiliating for him. In 1985, after doing his term, Zawahiri moved to Jeddah, Saudi to work in a hospital as a surgeon. He had now officially turned into an extremist.

3- Osama Bin Ladan

index

Osama was the only child of Mohammad Bin Ladan and his fourth wife. His Father was a self made Arab billionaire originally from Yemen, who made a fortune with his construction company by implementing Saudi Arabia’s most grand building projects. When Osama was still a young child, his father divorced his mother and married her off to one of his staff, as was his habit. According to his childhood best friend “Osama was a shy and calm boy, almost girlish.”. He loved watching western movies on TV. In his teenage years he changed though. Under the influence of a charismatic Syrian teacher, he went through a political and religious awakening. He stopped watching American shows and wearing western clothes, and became intensely passionate about Palestinian cause. He would wake up at 1 am to pray in addition to the 5 daily prayers. “Many young Saudis found refuge in intense religiosity, being exposed to so few alternative ways of thinking, even about Islam.”

At the age seventeen, he joined Muslim Brotherhood and married his fourteen year old second cousin. The members of Muslim Brotherhood were not plotting against Saudi government, but met secretly discussing the formation of a real Islamic state, somewhere in the world. In his first years at the university, Osama and his brotherhood friends met for soccer and horse riding in the dessert, they also read an discussed Saeed Qutb’s books and were greatly influenced by him.

Unlike his father, Osama was a caring and attentive father to his children. He was very stern to them too, going out of his way to toughen them up for the cruel world. he took them camping in the dessert and made them dig and cover themselves with sand and sleep under the stars. He also home-schooled all his children by hiring tutors to supervise all their schooling. Osama and his best friend pledged to practice “Fair polygamy”, at the time that polygamy was socially unacceptable in Saudi. Osama married his second wife in 1982, a highly educated woman with a PHD in child psychology. He eventually would marry two other women.

Still in university, Osama met Sheikh Abdollah Azam, a Palestinian Islamic scholar who was at the time preaching to recruit Muslims to help the Afghan Mujahideen in war against the Soviets. He was the warrior-priest type leader that Osama had been looking for. He was both pious and fierce, with his slogan being:” Jihad and the rifle alone, no negotiation, no conferences, no dialogues.” Azam had been to Afghanistan and had many tales about pre-modern Mujahideen troops defeating mechanized Soviets with the help of God’s miracles. According to his preaching, the struggle was between Islam and Jahelia(any system existing before or other than Islam). This was why Saudi and other Arab volunteers who couldn’t care less about Afghanistan as a country, joined this Jihad. He used Bin Ladan’s guest apartment for recruiting sessions. He was impressed by Osama’s humble lifestyle, who lived with minimum house furniture and didn’t even use his Air Conditioning. “On the other hand he would write a million Rials check for Mujaideen, if need be.”

Abdullah_Azzam

Abdullah Azam

In 1985, Afghan Mujahidin consisted of many disorganized armed militias. ISI(Pakistan) and Saudi Arabia tried to organize them in 7 main parties. One of them was a Bin Ladan founded group headed by Afghan Abdorasoul Sayyaf, Called “Etehad Eslami”. Bin Ladan and Azam were also part of the group’s leadership. According to his subordinates at the time, Bin Ladan was not a charismatic leader. Overshadowed by Azam’s power and eloquence, Bin Ladan is remembered as shy and naive. When asked to talk for a group of Mujahidin, he talked about nothing but horses, one witness recalled.

Despite his leadership flaws, Bin Ladan was an excellent employer for young unemployed Arabs. He paid for their ticket and accommodation in Pishavar and paid them a handsome salary for their participation in Jihad. The main difference between Arab Mujahidin and their Afghan counterparts was that Afghans were fighting for their countries, but Arabs were there for martyrdom. Inexperienced Arab fighters were also quite a liability to Afghan mujaheddin, who found them useless in battle. In response, Bin Ladan started an Arab-only camp to prove their capabilities. After a few miserable defeats, Arab camp finally succeeded in one battle against Russians which boosted their confidence.

Around the same time, Bin Ladan met Zawahiri in Jedda and they immediately clicked. Each of them filled a need in the other. Zawahiri needed money and contacts, and Bin Ladan sought ideological direction, which Zawahiri as a seasoned propagandist supplied. Zawahiri joined Bin Ladan’s group in Afghanistan and from the beginning had ideological disagreements with Azam. Azam had an all inclusive vision of Jihad which was opposed to Zawahiri’s Takfeeri ideas. Azam was not trusted by Saudi government financiers to lead Arab Mujahidin, as much as Bin Ladan was. He was undermined and eventually assassinated in a car bomb. In 1988, Bin Ladan and Zawahiri founded Al-Qaeda together, based on their own idea of Islamic Jihad.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

OmnivoresDilemma_full

I think of myself as an Omnivore, both physically and intellectually. I eat a bowl of salad as passionately as I chew a crispy bacon, and I like to hear the arguments about feeding billions as much as those of animal rights. That being said, this book was perfect for my food choice dilemma.

The author structures the book into four main food chains, each of which he personally explores from start to end:

  1. Industrial
  2. Industrial organic
  3. Beyond organic
  4. Personal(hunting and foraging)

In this blog I am going to mainly summarize 1-3, since those are the practical ways that most of us can feed ourselves.

  1. Industrial

The backbone of the industrial food chain in the US is undoubtedly the industrial corn. Fifty percent of an average Americans human biomass, can be traced to corn consumption. We know this thanks to corn’s unique carbon signature. This is much higher than an average Mexican. See below other fun facts about corn.

Corn facts

But is there anything wrong with this? Isn’t Corn is delicious and nutritious? The author first addresses the question of how corn became so dominant in the US and along the way we understand how this domination affects us, on an individual and global level. There are a few biological advantages of the corn crop that makes it superior to other grains in terms of quick and easy yield, but the US surplus of corn really started after the introduction of Nitrogen-based fertilizers in 1920s. This type of fertilizer is a product of petroleum and was the force behind the “Green Revolution”, which saved millions from starvation around the world. By 1930s there was so much corn surplus in the US that the price of corn plummeted to its lowest, and the Government had to step in and save the farmers from bankruptcy. I tried to illustrate the timeline of politic and economic ups and downs of corn production in an infograph. Long story short, the Government was supporting the farmers in the beginning, but later in the century when bigger players like food processing companies started lobbying, regulations shifted to support them instead of farmers. As a result, corn production increased drastically and corn market prices decreased, making it the most efficient commodity food for the food industries to make money off of.

Economical history of corn

Economical History Of Corn

Along the way small farmers were forced to convert their diverse-crop farms to huge corn/soy farms and their grass-based animal farms to CAFOs(Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) that feeds the cattle with corn. Here is a diagram of what the whole chain works.

Industrial Food process

Pollan actually bought a calf and followed it through his short life from the first few months of happy grass eating with his mom, to his stinky CAFO period. But what’s so wrong about a CAFO?

  • Bacteria: Cows are not evolved to eat corn. Eating corn makes them bloat painfully. It also causes excessive acid in their rumen, creating dangerous bacteria like e-coli. If not treated by antibiotics and other medication, they would die from diseases, before slaughter. Overuse of antibiotics, develop antibiotics resistant bacteria which eventually find their way to our bodies and there is no cure for them.
  • Malnutrition: Corn fed beef contains significantly higher amounts of saturated fat compared to grass-fed. In fact the heart disease problems associated with red meat are specific to corn fed beef. It also has much less Omega3.
  • Toxic waste: CAFOs waste is not usable for compost or agricultural use due to its high levels of hormone, heavy metal and Nitro/Phosphate chemicals. The waste finds its way into the bodies of water, poisoning the environment.
  • Hormones:  An accumulated amount of the growth hormones injected to industrial cattle, can cause infertility and hormon disorders in humans.
  • Petroleum use: It takes 35 Gallons of oil to produce enough corn for raising one industrial cow.

2. Industrial Organic

In this chapter, the author digs into the Organic food in its current grocery store distribution. Starting his journey in a whole Foods supermarket and reading Organic stories on labels, to some of the biggest suppliers of these organic products in California. Pollan argues that the perception given by the Organic food’s marketing is deceptive. A lot of Whole Foods customers imagine a utopia in which they live in perfect harmony with numerous small farms and happy animals. The reality is that Organic farming regulations don’t enforce that utopia. In fact, Whole Foods buys from a handful of organic mega farmers. True, those farms substitute chemical fertilizer and pesticides with organic compost which is much less harmful to the land and the consumer. But it does have other ecological disadvantages. Large organic farms need constant tilling and weeding, which releases a great amount of nitrogen to the air and requiring large amounts of compost, needed to be shipped in tons from overseas and cross-country.

As to organic animals, government organic regulations don’t mandate cattle to be raised outside Cafos or eat grass. As long as a cow eats “Organically farmed corn”, its meat and milk is considered Organic. The worst part is the origin of “Free Range” eggs and organic chicken meat. Those chickens live a very similar life to their non-organic industrial farm chickens. The “Free Range” means that in their CAFO, they have a narrow door leading to a small grassy yard, which stays shut for the first 6 weeks of the chicken’s life and they are slaughtered 2 weeks after it opens. None of them practice this freedom, after 6 weeks of confinement.

Here is a summary of the industrial Organic food advantages and disadvantages:

  • Environment: Industrial organic farms don’t harm the soil by adding chemicals to it, but they do break the ecological cycle of the soil by planting mono culture and remove the natural Nitrogen by over-tilling.
  • Nutrition: Organic plants are proven to be more nutritious than plants grown with aid of chemical fertilizer. Basically, a plant’s struggle to fight pests is one of the important factors in the development of its nutritious elements.
  • Petroleum use: Organic food industry is not sustainable from energy perspective. The long distance transportation of huge amounts of compost and the non-local supply chain of organic food is more energy-intensive than industrial food.

3. Beyond Organic

Beyond Organic is the food chain that the author next explores and finds the most healthy and sustainable. As a successful model, he explores the Polyface farm  in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, managed by Joel Salatin, .

http://www.polyfacefarms.com.Joel Salatin

Joel calls his agricultural method “Grass farming”, utilizing the latest scientific methods to grow, rotate and graze grass, creating a full ecological circle within his  productive farm. The circle starts with grass, feeds a variety of animals and ends as compost that feeds the same pasture of grass.

Polyculture
The cows only feed on grass and hay(in winter). The chickens get a large part of their food from eating grass and the worms from the cow manure, sanitizing the pasture. The pigs are used as the farm’s compost machine as described by Joel:” When we feed hay to the cows, they eat and lounge in a pole shed that we bed down with wood chips, sawdust, and old hay to absorb the excrement. This bedding ferments in the anaerobic conditions created by the heavy cows walking on it. Added corn ferments and offers a tasty salary for pigs to aerate the bedding–hence PIGAERATOR. The oxygenation turns the entire deep bedding into a compost pile, which is the backbone of the farm’s fertility program. During the summer and fall, the pigs are in special savannah pastures rotated every few days with electric fence.”

Ok, we may argue that the above mentioned farm output is mainly animals products and a lot of energy is wasted when we eat an animal, instead of a plant. But if all that energy is from the sun, “That meal comes as close as it can get to a free lunch.” And instead of diminishing the soil it enriches it.

Sustainability of Polyface farm doesn’t stop at production. The farm doesn’t ship food long distance. They distribute their products locally to nearby restaurants, farmers markets and direct to consumers at the farm or online “Metropolitan buying club”.  In Joel’s view this is a start of a movement that can reform food economy, with consumers who are willing to go into trouble and expense of buying from farmers they know.

I actually tried to buy our meat and eggs for a month from a farm rather than a store. It cost about 20% higher. Sounds a lot? Well, for us it translates to maximum $40 per month. That amounts to one happy hour for two, a movie night with popcorn, or a pair of pants.  And if that means more nutritious food, helping local farmers and healing our environment I am more than happy to pay that premium.

Me Talk Pretty One Day

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This is a book that I’m glad to have heard rather than read, because David Sedaris is a great narrator and performer and I love his North Carolina accent impressions. This is the first David Sedaris Book that I’ve listened to and when I don’t want to listen to the radio in my car, I always enjoy playing it back for the tenth time. The jokes are clever and subtle and he is a good storyteller. Like many other comedians his humor is mostly a self-deprecating autobiography, but what’s unique about him is that he is really good at shifting from tragedy to comedy. When he talks about his troubles as a lisping gay 12 year old, you do feel sorry for him being such a misfit in school, but right when it is getting too bitter, he adds a witty twist to the situation and makes you laugh.

The most funny parts of the book are the stories about his eccentric family members, especially his dad. I also love the French class piece where he makes fun of the mean French teacher that dissuades him from learning French all together. That really resonates with me, because I had a similar experience in Germany. There is a funny part where the christian French language students try to explain Easter to a Moroccan classmate:

it is a party for the little boy of god, who calls his self Jesus and…” “and he die one day on two morsels of lumber”. “he die one day and then he go above my head to live with your father. He weared of himself the long hair and after he die the first day, he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.He nice, the Jesus.He make the good things and on Easter we sad because somebody make him dead today.”

He is by no means a laugh out loud type of comedian. Yet, he has a way of writing about his boring peculiarities and make them sound interesting. Like the fact that after living in Paris for so many years, he hasn’t visited the Louvre or Notre Dame and his favorite pastime is sitting in a movie theater, because movie theaters are still popular and respected in Paris. Maybe I like his work, because I am sometime as weird as he is and would like to make my stories as marketable as he does!

Man’s Search For Meaning

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This is a profound and straightforward read that sheds light on life’s most essential questions. It is like a psychological and philosophical handbook that both religious and atheists can use, and a terminally ill person can be inspired by. It is a breath of fresh air at modern times when years of Freudian psychology and pleasure oriented pop culture has shaped our identities, failing to prepare us to deal with inevitable tragedies of life.

The first half of the book is Dr Frankl’s personal account of his years in WWII concentration camps. This part is like no other holocaust story, as the author puts it:” this isn’t the story of big horrors of those camps, but the smaller horrors told over and over again”. It is basically an account of how the prisoners reacted and dealt with those atrocities on a day to day basis, hence a psychological study of the camp. The prisoner goes through different phases. In the beginning it is shock, as they are stripped of all their belonging, reduced to a shaved naked existence and a prison number. This shock is accompanied by a certain curiosity of wanting to know how much worse it can get.

The second phase of the prisoners reactions start once they are well integrated with the camp life, which is only achieved after months of physical and verbal abuse and malnutrition. At this phase, the inmate has acquired enough apathy to keep eating his bowl of watery soup while watching a friend’s frostbitten toes being clipped by the camp doctor. This defense mechanism was necessary for survival, so that the inmates remaining energy was fully focused on saving his life and others close to him, forcing their inner world to a more primitive state. However, Frankl observes that the more spiritual and sensitive the inmates, the better they coped with this stage. They were able to draw back from the harsh external realities and find a safe place within themselves for refuge. It could be religious faith or love for another human being, in Frankl’s case. At the end Frankl makes the crucial clarification:” I may give the impression that the human being completely influenced by his surroundings. But what about human liberty? Isn’t there any spiritual freedom in regard to behavior to any given surroundings? The experience of camp life, shows that man does have a choice of action. He remembers men giving away their last pieces of bread. They may be few, but still sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man, but one thing, the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Choices which determined whether or not you would submit to those powers threatening to rub you from your very self and inner freedom.” To be worthy of their suffering. This is the essence of this book and the idea that Frankl’s Logotherapy theory stems from.

In the second half of the book, “Logo-therapy” is explained more theoretically, but with frequent references to the first half. The author argues that mental health is based on a tension between the meaning one has realized and the meaning he still needs to fulfill, as opposed to a tension-less state which is the goal in some other schools. The meaning is unique per person and shouldn’t be generalized as “the meaning of life”. Each person is responsible to find and fulfill the meaning life asks of him. Frankl talks about three main areas in which one can find their meaning:

1-Achievement, as a professional success or a meaningful service

2-Experience, as the experience of love for another person

3-Suffering. He insists that “suffering is NOT necessary to find meaning, but meaning is possible even in spite of suffering, provided that suffering is unavoidable. If the suffering is avoidable, the meaning could be found in the struggle to remove the cause of suffering.” 

He also challenges the United states culture of “Pursuit of happiness”, arguing that similar to orgasm, the stronger one’s intention for happiness, the harder it is to experience it. Forceful pursuit of happiness in another words, is a fun-spoiler. Happiness would ensues a person’s realization of meaning of their life.

I recommend this book for anyone who is weary of Freudian psychology or is interested in a person’s responsibility to the world and their own life.

Middlesex

How would you write a novel about a hermaphrodite growing up in the 60s and 70s? How would you go about involving your readers with the protagonist’s emotions and fate? Would you start with her childhood and girly roles she had to play, charm readers with her innocence and happiness, and then shock them in the middle of the book with the difficult discovery at her puberty? That’s one way to do it for sure, but it wouldn’t have worked for me. It wouldn’t have made me savor every chapter of the book, the way Eugenides has.

He instead tells a condensed version of Calliope Stephanides’ sexual identity, right in the first page of the book in first person. He is a handsome man attracted to women, with whom he can not have sex or even get naked because he doesn’t have a normal penis. His frank and humorous account of his fate in the beginning of the book is a powerful core that dictates the color and themes of the rest of the book. From now on, everything happens to make a mutated gene find its human body.

The story starts  in Asia minor, amidst an ongoing conflict with Turks led by Ata Turk. The theme in this part of the book is very much like Marquez’s Magical Realism in 100 years of solitude, with a more humorous tone. And just like 100 years the ancestors are guilty of a sin that would eventually create a weirdo, remember the iguana child at the end of that book? Despite the bizarre and horrible things that happen in this chapter, the couple’s sweetness and passion for survival charms us. We want the characters to get away from burning Smirna and get to America, forget their past and start a new life.

Next comes a beautiful depiction of immigrant life in the 20s and 30s in Detroit. Our lovely Greek couple do anything to fit in in their new country. There is a brilliant scene of a Henry Ford workers graduation show, in which immigrant workers dressed in their native clothing walk into a symbolic “Melting Pot” and come out in gray and blue suits. Desdemona fakes being half Muslim despite her hatred for Turks to find a job as a silk maker for  a group of people whose identity I don’t want to reveal and spoil the fun for you. The way the author lets us glide through the historical context of these years through these weird and sweet Greek couple and then their children, is enjoyable and powerful. We see the world war II through the love story of Calliope’s parents, and civil rights movements through Calliope as a young girl.

All along this engaging and eventful generational story, there is another layer of narrative about the genes, birth, eggs and sperms, which is as interesting and compelling, thanks to the writing. There are great analogies used to give meaning to the underlying biological event that’s about to happen. The whole story is compared to a cocoon from Desdemona’s silk worm box that Calliope needs to reel to find the answers. The way these two layers are connected, is what makes Calliope’s life bearable and take away some of his loneliness. The way he finds a long thread of love and suffering in his past, both leads to his fate and lightens up his burden. As he once says he is in search of Einheit, like Berlin.

Middlesex

Lolita

Lolita2

I heard about this controversial book as a teenager. Being a precocious reader, I asked my mother what this book was about. She reluctantly answered it was about an older guy falling in love with a young girl, because she reminds him of his childhood love. Although she didn’t mention the eroticism, it was pretty obvious from her tone of voice that there was something wrong about the book in her opinion. I forgot about it until I read Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” and her interesting comparison between Humbert and the Islamic Republic captivating female youth. Azar’s review of the book was indeed very intriguing and I decided to watch the old Lolita movie,which I wasn’t crazy about.

Only after I listened to the unabridged audio book, read skillfully by Jeremy Irons, I realized what the fuss was about. The literary genius of this book is all based on the first person unreliable narrator, which is not possible to replicate in a movie. (An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whose credibility has been seriously compromised). Lolita’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, fascinates the reader with the intensity of his obsession and appalls her with great lengths he goes to satisfy it.

Humbert never tries to justify his crime. He informs us early on that he is a pedophile and he is only interested in a very specific female age range and characteristics, called “Nymphets”. “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets. It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see ‘nine’ and ‘fourteen’ as the boundaries—the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks—of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea.”

All his life, he hasn’t  dared getting close to a real nymphet, because he is completely aware of its immorality and criminal consequences. The “Long hairy hand of fate” however, brings him to the house of a widower and her 12-year-old daughter. In less than 3 months, the woman falls for him, marries him while Humbert creeps around the house watching and falling for the daughter, Dolores. While Lolita is in summer camp, her mother dies in an accident, and leaves the predator free to hunt down the prey. He picks her up from the summer camp and takes her on a year-long road trip around the US. His initial intention was to just drug her every night and fondle her in her sleep, but the very first night they are alone together, playful Lolita “seduces” him, by trying to play with him the sex games she had played with a young boy at the summer camp, which leads to Hum “Letting her have her way” but doing what he wants to her as well. “I’m trying to describe these things not to relive in my present boundless misery, but to sort out the portion of hell and the portion of heaven in that strange awful maddening world, nymphet love.The beastly and beautiful merged at one point, and it is that border line I would like to fix, and I feel I failed to do so utterly. Why?”

And then follows a year Lolita being his orphan prostitute, having nowhere else to go. Humbert doesn’t tell the story as simple, of course. The year is described in intervals of Humbert’s mad love for Lolita’s beauty and her ways, followed by his frustration at her selfishness and their endless moves from town to town to remain inconspicuous. His beautiful words of adoration are intercepted once in a while with the reality of Lolita’s misery. She sobs every night, after Humbert feigns sleep. She collects change that she earns in exchange for her “non-basic” performances and hides them in cracks of the walls and books, which Humbert always finds. These rare clues are given in a matter of fact fashion, in the first 90% of the book, (before he loses Lolita) deceiving us into seeing her from his point of view. Only in the last chapter, overcome by grief and depression, Humbert confesses to the deeper damage he has caused to the child.

I think the absence of Lolita’s voice throughout the story is brilliant, because it relies on readers intelligence and conscience to hate Humbert before he gets miserable and remorseful himself. It is easy to judge a thick stupid rapist as criminal, but a witty criminal who does magic with word play? Not so much. You want to save an ounce of compassion for him to keep on reading his weird love story. Then you reflect on your feelings toward him and you feel guilty, because he is horrible. This is how smart Nabokov is and how good at language. And English is not even his native tongue!

The Corrections

The Corrections

The book is about a dysfunctional family from the imaginary town of St. Jude somewhere in the Midwest.

The story starts with the account of the parents, Enid and Alfred Lambert living their seemingly uneventful retired life. The lucid and life-loving Enid is concerned by her husband’s rapid downfall to dementia and Parkinson, trying in vain to interest him in life. Alfred who has always been emotionally unavailable to his wife, has worked for a Midwestern railroad company for decades, has made bad investment decisions due to his strict work ethics and loyalty to the company. Enid is ashamed that they have lost so many opportunities to be rich.

Then we hear about Chip, the middle child whose story shakes us up with its tragic and hilarious turns. Chip has taken a drug called “Mexican A” which makes its user incapable of feeling shame. The result of giving in to this magical drug is a 3 day long sexual relationship with his student, followed by his unemployment, and further failures. We learn all of these through flashback, while Chip is hiding a stolen salmon fillet in his jacket, hoping to cook a decent meal for his parents, who are stopping by his apartment on their way to a cruise trip. After getting dumped by his girlfriend on the same day, he meets the girlfriend’s husband, a Lithuanian politician and gets hired by him and flies out to Lithuania.

I am not going to give away all the other amazing plot twists of the novel, but they kept me awake at night. The writing is so smooth and amazing that all the bizarre events are totally believable. Characters are so real and dear that you feel like you have known them for ages. Franzen has done a fantastic job in writing Alfred’s paranoia and Enid’s relentless determination for a last family Christmas, making your heart overflow with love for them.

This is a very humane novel, in my opinion. Shame is the major affliction of the Lambert family, making Enid so judgmental and Alfred so angry. It is the reason for Denise’s crazy love experiments and Gary’s loneliness in his perfect family. And only through reunion and confessions of love and guilt to each-other, at least some of the Lamberts can find redemptions.

My brief rationalization doesn’t do justice to this beautiful book. Just read it if you like complex characters and intimate narrative.