Always useful, often entertaining, rarely dull. (34 b&w illustrations)

WHO WE ARE NOW

THE CHANGING FACE OF AMERICA IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

A New York Times editor examines the 2000 US Census (along with much other data) and reports that we are in some ways the same as we always were—but very different, too.

Employing techniques similar to those he used in Who We Are: A Portrait of America Based on the 1990 Census (1994), Roberts stitches patches of statistical information together with a slender, though not always silken, narrative. He begins with this: the average American is a 35-year-old woman living in her own home in the metro West or South. In 1900, this statistical citizen was a 26-year-old man renting property in rural America. Roberts explains the importance of demographics, then devotes himself to such subjects as households, aging, transience, race, income, and education. (Intriguingly, there’s little on religion.) He ends with a view of how the US fits statistically into today’s world. Along the way, some data surprise: Only 52% of households contain a married couple. Two-thirds of black children are born out of wedlock. New York City hosts 26,402 people per square mile. One out of 32 adults is or has been in prison. Only 20% of college students fit what the author calls the “Joe College” model: a resident student in a four-year program. Other findings confirm common observation. Florida is the “oldest” state; our population is shifting to the Southwest; women and blacks earn less than white men in similar occupations. Some of the findings also have profound social implications. More than 10% of black men in their late 20s are in prison. Ballooning older generations challenge the capacity of the younger to support them. Meantime, the text and numerous charts are sometimes dense with numbers and allusions; one paragraph features Ehrenreich, Jefferson, Arnold, Fussell, Marx, Baritz, and Flaubert. To his credit, Roberts strives to maintain political neutrality, though he characterizes mandatory sentencing laws as “Draconian.”

Always useful, often entertaining, rarely dull. (34 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-8050-5555-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Times/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2004

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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