What Money Can’t Buy, Relish, The History of White People, This is How You Lose Her, The Checklist Manifesto

What Money Can’t Buy is a book from Michael Sandel, primarily famous for striking dramatic poses while talking about JUSTICE. The book primarily serves as a reaction against a school of economics that reduces every transaction to its market value. Sandel discusses social transactions, and attempts to place even free things into a broader context. For example, he talks about how Shakespeare in the Park offers tickets for free, and how rich people have begun hiring poorer people to stand in line to get the tickets.

From a market perspective, that’s fine - but Sandel feels that these practices violate the spirit of the Shakespeare in the Park’s free tickets. This is an interesting and helpful point the first time it’s made, but much of the book is just a reiteration of this relatively common sense reaction. The most interesting part is his exploration of life insurance and “death insurance” - basing a set of financial bets on the death of other people. Overall, Sandel seems to be responding to critics and theorists who are not present in his book, which means that his work comes off as repetitive rather than convincing. It may have been better written as a collaboration with someone who disagreed with him.

Relish. Oh my god Relish. It’s a graphic novel by Lucy Knisley, focusing on her family, life and relationship with food. The actual novel part of the book is excellent - it’s not an exaggeration to say that I devoured it *rimshot*. Kinsley talks about her life and experience in food, and how it lead her into art. The most impactful part for me was when she catered an event at DIA Beacon, and snuck away to see the Richard Serra sculptures - a museum I’ve been to, and an artist I took my online ‘nym after. What I didn’t like were the recipes, which go between the narrative chapters. The sushi recipe did not include vinegar for the rice, for god’s sake. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much the most basic mistake you can make. However, I consider this book a great counterpoint to Blood, Bones and Butter, which I’ll review next week. 

The History of White People was a book that I enjoyed, despite the copious stares it got me on the airplane when I was reading it. It’s a history of the construction of whiteness - revealing racial identity for the social construct that it is. Strangely, my problem with this book is really that it was too focused on specific white people. Nell Painter Irvin told the story through a series of vignettes about major racial theorists, which worked well to describe some of the origins of the theories commonly employed today (including words like Caucasian) but by the end was mindnumbingly boring. I was optimistic that the book would eventually get to a broader conception of how whiteness was characterized - from primary sources like newspapers or histories of immigration quotas, but it really stayed focus on the racial theory rather than practice. Still, I loved the concept of this book, and some of the discussions of how Caucasian came to mean white were fascinating. But all in all, the focus made it feel more like a history of white male thinking on race rather than a history of whiteness. Perhaps a little too apropos.

This Is How You Lose Her is by Junot Diaz, and was truly unlike anything else I read this year. It’s a set of stories about an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, told through the lens of his romantic relationships. The female characters are often a little one-dimensional, but even that is okay - because it’s so clearly the protagonist’s lens and view of women, told with a self-consciousness that means that I’m confidant that it doesn’t represent Diaz. The writing is amazing - lyrical, beautiful, and frantic. I learned so much Spanish slang. It actually may be a little hard to read if you don’t have at least some background Spanish (or don’t want to sit with the book and Google).

What I enjoyed most is that the book is deeply different from my experience of the world (even though the end of the book is set in Cambridge.) It’s also hard to tell how much of Diaz’s writing is strictly autobiographical. When I was reading This is How You Lose Her, I was at a bar and at the table over was someone who I was pretty sure was Diaz (he teaches at MIT). I was struck by the desire to go over and start asking him about the book. That doesn’t happen to me very often - either the running into a writer, or wanting to shake him/her for answers on what happened post book.

The Checklist Manifesto was kind of forgettable; in fact, I’ve already forgotten most of it. The core concept is that well-constructed checklists can improve outcomes in even the most rigorous of areas with highly trained experts, like flying and surgery. Like most books based around a single, simple core concept, it can be kind of repetitive.