#BookReview: The Peer Effect by Syed Ali and Margaret M. Chin

Overt Racism And Extensive Elitism Mar Otherwise Intriguing Premise. In “shit sandwich” form, let’s start out with something good, shall we? The premise here, that peer groups affect behavior more than most other factors, is one that few sociologists – at least those I’ve seen in my 20+ years on the outskirts of that field – have openly espoused. Thus, this book was immediately intriguing and in fact had at least some promise here.

But then we get to the overt racism against anything white male and the extensive elitism in promoting New York City and in particular one particularly exclusive high school as the epitome of virtually everything, openly declaring multiple times that NYC is the cultural heart of the US, among several other elitist (and typical New Yorker) claims. The longer the text goes, the more and more overt the authors get in showing their anti-white male racist misandry, until finally at one point, after clearly establishing “cultures that are longstanding” and similar phrases to mean “white male”, the authors openly state “Cultures that are longstanding have a built-in legitimacy to them; to change them means that people inside and outside of that culture *have to see aspects of their identity, their culture, as illegitimate, as immoral, as wrong.*” (emphasis mine). Imagine the outcry if a white author had made the same statement in reference to virtually any other demographic – and *that* is my standard for detecting bigotry: invert the demographics involved. If there would be outcry, it is likely bigoted. Thus, one star is deducted for the overt racism in particular, and the other star is deducted for the pervasive elitism.

Finally, I can say that the bibliography being roughly 20% of the text was perhaps a touch low, but at least on the low end of *normal* in my extensive experience with Advance Reviewer Copies. And yes, as I am writing this review almost fully six months prior to publication, this means that I am in fact reading and reviewing an ARC here.

Overall, there is enough positive and worthy of consideration here to keep this fairly safely above my dreaded “gold mine” label, but there is still enough detritus here that one should approach the text a bit warily. Still, it does in fact bring some worthy wrinkles to the public discourse, and for that reason it *should* be widely read. Recommended.

This review of The Peer Effect by Syed Ali and Margaret M. Chin was originally written on May 24, 2023.

#BookReview: Waco by Jeff Guinn

Precisely Detailed. Needs Better Bibliography. You know that time when a friend has already read an ARC of a book that somewhat interests you and you go on a cruise for your 40th birthday only to come back to an email from the publisher asking if you’d also like to ARC review the same book? A book that happens to be about an event that happened when you were 10 yrs old but which was overshadowed in your own memory by another, much larger and much more directly impactful event (The Storm of the Century in 1993), but you still remember some details of this event itself live? No? Only me? Ok. Well then.

For everyone *else*, this is actually a remarkably detailed book, as Guinn’s histories tend to be (as evidenced by the only other book I’ve read from him – 2021’s War On The Border). Indeed, while only 83% or so of this book is narrative – more on that momentarily – we don’t actually begin the tale of the siege itself until around the 52% mark. Meaning over half of the actual narrative of the book focuses on detailed histories of everything that got us to that particular moment in time at that particular place with these particular players. We get an entire history of the Branch Davidian religion, including how it formed and some other offshoots that seem to have come to play to certain extents. We get a history of the ATF and what exactly it was dealing with in that moment (an embarrassing sex scandal and looming budget hearings, which were rarely ‘friendly’ in the best of times). We get a detailed history of this particular Branch Davidian organization and how it came to be exactly where it was and exactly in the state it was, both physically and mentally, including biographies of the man who came to claim the name “David Koresh” and earlier leaders of the group and their internal rivalries. We get all of this richly detailed setup…

And then we get a near second by second play by play of exactly what went down and when and by whom, told from both sides and clearly showing when the evidence seems to support one side or another and when each side differs in their views and exclusive claims. This is no celebration of the man who called himself “David Koresh”, nor is it a celebration of the various police agencies and politicians and political appointees who executed the raid. Instead, it is a remarkably balanced look at just how these people came to be where they were and what happened when these two groups came to such explosive conflict. It is a remarkable look at how a clearly gifted orator could become so twisted in his own thinking – and use his gifts to twist the beliefs of so many, including some who continued in these beliefs long after the orator himself was dead. It is a remarkable look at the mistakes made by each side of the conflict and just how many points there were where history could have changed for a more peaceable outcome. It is truly a remarkable tale of the entire event seared into the American zeitgeist as simply “Waco”.

And yet, getting back to the 83% narrative bit: It is specifically because the bibliography clocks in a touch short at 17% – 25-40% is a more normal bibliography length in my extensive experience with nonfiction ARCs – that I had to drop the overall rating by a single star. The tale told here is remarkable – but remarkable claims require remarkable evidence, and the cited evidence here needed to be more extensive, at least to this reader.

Still, this is absolutely a book every American should read and understand in full, as this truly was a seminal moment in American history, one that foretold much of what was to come over the next 30 years. Very much recommended.

This review of Waco by Jeff Guinn was originally written on January 27, 2023.

#BookReview: Tremors In The Blood by Amit Katwala

Evocative Evisceration Of Everyday “Evidence”. In this text, Katwala shows the origins and history of the polygraph “lie detector” device that has been banned from many courtrooms due to its unreliability yet which lives on in the American zeitgeist. Katwala tells the tale via narrative nonfiction that places the reader in the center of the action and cases in question, then follows the principle players throughout their lifetimes as they try to justify their life’s work. In the process, Katwala does a tremendous job of showing how truly unreliable these devices are, and even includes a brief discussion of more modern successor technologies such as brain wave scanners. Anyone interested in the American justice system absolutely needs to read this history of this long-debunked zombie junk science. Indeed, the only negative here is that the bibliography is scant at just 12% or so of the narrative, compared to a more common 20-30% in my experience, and thus the single star deduction. Very much recommended.

This review of Tremors In The Blood by Amit Katwala was originally written on December 6, 2022.

#BookReview: In Their Names by Lenore Anderson

Timely Conversation Needs Even Better Documentation. The timing of this book, releasing just a week before Election Day in the United States, could perhaps be *slightly* better – a month earlier would have allowed it and its ideas to be discussed more during the final days of the campaign. And to be clear, this book does in fact present a mostly compelling argument and certainly a wrinkle on the American justice system that needs to be more openly examined and more critically debated by those who can actually change things – the various elected officials and bureaucrats who create and implement the very rules in question. The only truly noticeable objective-ish problem with the text here is that while the documentation provided is on the low-ish side of average in my experience (23%, compared to 20-33% being average), there is a *lot* of hand-waving, undocumented claims, that could have used much better documentation. These claims may in fact be accurate – but they needed sources rather than just claims, and for those more ardently opposed to the proposals here, the added documentation to these claims could be crucial in defense of Anderson’s points and proposals. Thus, the one star deduction here. Still, this book truly does add yet another necessary wrinkle into an already truly complicated discussion, and for that reason it is very much recommended.

This review of In Their Names by Lenore Anderson was originally written on October 2, 2022.