Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

by Eric Weiner

According to studies by happiness researchers, the people of certain countries are, on average, much happier than those of other countries. Obviously, people living in hunger or abject poverty are likely to be unhappy, but how about those countries where people are relatively well-off? For instance, why are people in Moldova so much less happy than people in Bhutan? Why are Icelanders happier than Brits? Eric Weiner (yes, pronounced "Whiner,") a self-described neurotic and public radio commentator, travels around the world to find out.

First he stops in Amsterdam to, among other things, check in with Ruut Veenhoven, who created the World Database of Happiness. He asks how, exactly, happiness could be measured. What, exactly, is it - is it pleasure? Is it the satisfaction of doing good deeds? Is it spiritual enlightenment? And how accurate are people at knowing their own happiness levels?

Weiner brings the perfect mixture of cynicism and wonder to the task; he spends time in each country he visits, getting to know the people, the culture, the basic philosophies people live by. I found it an entertaining and thought-provoking philosophical travelogue.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square

by Ned Sublette

Near the end of his history of early New Orleans, Ned Sublette says of Katrina and those hellish months afterwards: "To lose any American city would have been unthinkable. But to lose New Orleans..." Those of us who have lived in New Orleans or visited often have an understandable affection for the place. But the rest of us may wonder: what's so special about this low-lying, poverty-stricken city at the dirty end of the Mississippi? It's one of the oldest cities in America, but its history stood very much apart from the thirteen colonies. It was always an outsider, not quite French, not quite Spanish, not quite American, but the music that originated there came to define the American sound. It was a major center for slave trading, but at the same time had more free people of color than any other town in America.

True to the title of the book, Sublette ranges far and wide, from Africa to South America, from the Caribbean to Canada, to tell the story of the deep roots of New Orleans. I learned much more about Havana and Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) than I'd ever known. New Orleans was apparently even more heavily influenced by the Caribbean than by France or Spain. And, though the effects of the Haitian Revolution sent deep reverberations all across the early United States, I had certainly never been taught about it in school. Though at times it seems Sublette is talking about anywhere but New Orleans, he keeps beautifully connecting it all, until the reader understands what a miraculous and unlikely culture New Orleans evolved into.

Friday, May 01, 2009


by M. T. Anderson

Science fiction fulfills many roles. It can be escapism, a fun ride, a prescient look at things to come. But great science fiction seems to do its best work when you're not reading it, when you've put the book down and you're walking around in your life and you get that vertiginous feeling that what you've been reading about is happening RIGHT NOW.

M. T. Anderson's Feed is one of those books, a short but potent tale of a generation who lives their entire lives connected to the Feed, the equivalent of our internet/ iPhone/instant messaging/satellite TV, so well integrated into the human body that it picks up our tiniest chemical surges and barest hints of desire. Wondering about something? You've already got the answer. Admire somebody's shirt? It's available from the following vendors at these incredible prices. It's not a new idea, but Anderson's gifts of language and characterization put you so vividly in the head of a Feed-connected teen that soon you'll be speaking the language.

Titus is visiting the moon with some of his friends, and, despite the Feed's constant hype about how awesome everything on the moon is, Titus and his friends are quickly getting bored. Then he meets Violet. She's beautiful, but she's also... different. She's connected to the Feed, of course, but talks more like someone who spends her time reading books. Together, they're caught in a terrorist attack, which shuts down their Feed connection, and technicians are called in to operate. Soon they're back up and running, but their lives may never be the same.

The audio version of Feed brings to life the barrage of advertisements, news items, and pop songs Anderson includes between chapters, giving the listener an even more vivid sense of being jacked in to the Feed. Anderson perfectly captures not only the dystopian landscape of corporately-sponsored youth culture, but also the teenage dilemma: enthusiastically accept what the world wants to sell you -- making you an "insider" -- or reject your culture and fight the system, making you an "outsider." Most of us get caught in-between.