Monday, October 04, 2021

The Deepest South of All by Richard Grant

The Deepest South of All by Richard Grant is an interesting work of nonfiction about Natchez, Mississippi. The book is noted to be part history and part travelogue and details a very different world than most people know.

Natchez is a town of ~15,000 on the Mississippi River across from Louisiana and is described as more like New Orleans than the rest of Mississippi and a city conflicted about whether it should be celebrating its past or breaking free from it. Natchez elected with 91% of the vote a gay black man for mayor, yet prominent white families dress up in elaborate hoopskirts and confederate uniforms for celebrations of the Old South. The book jacket notes that Natchez once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in America, with much of that wealth built on cotton slavery, and the town and surrounding area contain the greatest concentration of antebellum homes in the American South. Women from two competing garden clubs ever year host Pilgrimage, where they put on hoopskirts and receive, or welcome visitors into their homes and ply them with tales of confederate days. Additionally, the Tableaux is an annual pageant that started in 1932 and features celebration of the good old days. 

Grant portrays a town where most people, even those hosting events like this, aren’t racist, but don’t want to let go of celebrating a past which clearly was racist. The description from a quote is that they love their history, but their own self-serving mythological version of that history. It’s such an interesting conflict between people respecting history as it actually was and those wanting to keep up the parts of the past they like, such as the pretty buildings, while also trying to have tourism money keep flowing into the town.

Also in the book are the stories of Prince Ibrahima from Futa Jalon (what is now Guinea) and his enslavement in Natchez and his late in life effort to return to his homeland, the failing public schools, the famous thriller writer Greg Iles who lives in town, and the Santa Claus Parade that features men getting drunk and driving around behind police escorts and giving out Christmas presents and dinners to the poor.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

High Conflict by Amanda Ripley

High Conflict by Amanda Ripley is a good book subtitled Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Ripley wrote The Smartest Kids in the World and this latest one examines conflict that devolves into an us vs. them paradigm (often leading to everyone being worse off), what causes high conflict, and how to escape it. 

The first story she covers is that of Gary Friedman, a conflict mediator, author, and former trial lawyer who ran for and won a seat on the Community Services District Board of Directors in his small town of Muir Beach, CA and then wound up in high conflict. Additionally, Ripley writes of a former gang leader in Chicago who would have killed to avenge a death not actually caused by what he thought, Columbia financially supporting people who forsake conflict with the government of the country and lay down their weapons, and the interactions between groups of conservative Michigan corrections officers and liberal Manhattan Jews.

Some of the terms that Ripley notes as important in examining whether a given situation is one of high conflict as opposed to healthy conflict are confirmation bias (interpreting new information as confirmation of one’s preexisting beliefs), looping for understanding (actively listening by reflecting back to someone what they seem to have said and checking to see if that summary was correct), and saturation point (that point in a conflict where the losses seem heavier than the gains and there’s opportunity for change).

In the appendix, Ripley notes that some of characteristics of healthy conflict vs. high conflict: 

Humility, fluidity, complexity, novelty, passion, curiosity, and questions.

Certainty, rigidity, simplicity, predictability, righteousness, assumption, and advocacy.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson is a solid book subtitled The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. It was published in 2017 and Thompson notes that he wrote a book about hits, those products and ideas that achieve extraordinary popularity and commercial success in pop culture and media. There's a focus on the secret to making things that people like in culture and why some things fail while similar things become hits.

Thompson notes that people like things that are familiar but presented in an original way, or the marrying of the old and new. People gravitate to the theory of MAYA (most advanced, yet acceptable); otherwise stated, people are attracted to the new, yet resistant to the unfamiliar. This is why people often compare companies to other better-known ones, with phrases like “Uber for…” A huge commercial success example of this idea of new, but still familiar was the movie Star Wars, something popular in part because it was written by George Lucas as a space western, alluding to stories people had seen from the past. Around the idea of myth-making, Thompson refers to the PBS show The Power of Myth on Joseph Campbell and his writing. Also in reference to the success of Star Wars is how Lucas wrote it for a 10-year-old boy, with that an example of how the biggest hits are often created for the smallest audiences, it’s good to have a tightly defined target.

Another example of a hit that Thompson covers is that of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book written as Twilight Fan fiction with the main character Edward reimagined as a corporate tycoon. Additionally, Thompson notes that repeated exposure is also a huge factor, you see something more frequently and as it becomes familiar, it rises in your esteem. This correlates to the notion that we like things we generally agree with, which of course can lead to harmful like-mindedness. 

Also of interest from Hit Makers is Thompson’s mention of various rhetorical devices in writing: epistrophe, anaphora, tricolon, epizeuxis, diacope, antithesis, parallelism, and what Thompson notes as the king of speech-making tricks, antimetabole. When Jon Favreau wrote for President Obama, he kept in mind that speeches are like songs, they require hooks, choruses, and clear structures, as well as repetition.