Books: non-fiction, early spring reviews by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion by David McRaney offers what could be an eye-opening look at how to talk to “the other.” It’s about much more than when every day becomes Thanksgiving Day and seemingly reasonable people turn out to be crazy Uncle Harry. McRaney shares what he has learned from people experimenting with different ways of talking to people, including “deep canvassing.” That requires resisting the temptation to debate (debates have winners and losers and so harden positions), establishing rapport, exploring how people come to their conclusions even more than what those conclusions are.  McRaney’s book goes deep into the neuroscience of how brains process information, assimilate new facts, resist or accommodate to new ideas. He goes into studies by social scientists of how membership in groups or tribes influences our willingness to open our minds, the comfort of bias confirmation, how we use facts selectively to rationalize our opinions, how group attitudes may change over time.

As one who has spent decades in advocacy journalism, predicated on the idea that all we have to do is present the facts and, bingo, others will see the light, this book is unsettling and revelatory. What is the best way to talk to those who, to us, are so “wrong?” To what extent have we given up on trying to communicate? Is it easier living in our bubble? Probably, but McRaney’s book is a must read for those who are exhausted from the polarization and think that, however difficult, it’s worth looking for another way out.

In True Face by Jonna Mendez is a fascinating memoir by a woman with a spirit of adventure, intellectual curiosity, and desire for international travel, who satisfies all those needs by becoming an operative in the CIA. It was a time when the Agency employed women only in a secretarial capacity, and then just in the lowest paying jobs providing support for their husbands. It was the guys who were deemed to be highly skilled operatives with upwardly mobile career opportunities. From her start as a 21-year-old in the typist pool, Mendez learned to navigate an intensely misogynistic work environment.

Mendez got her first break when her skills at photography led to overseas assignments, finally enabling her to work undercover. She worked harder than many of the men did, availing herself of every chance to learn new skills, especially designing and implementing brilliant, technically sophisticated disguises. She helped to turn “assets,” extract them from danger when compromised, and apply her skills to a range of other espionage activities. Eventually, she became Chief of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services.

In deference to Agency protocol and security considerations, Mendez changes some of the people’s names and refers to overseas postings in broad terms (e.g., southeast Asia) rather than specific countries. This is a fascinating peek inside the administrative apparatus of our premier intelligence operation.  Clearly, this book will resonate for women clawing up the ladder in any male-dominated culture, especially those whose work culture still smacks of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

American Woman: The Transformation of the Modern First Lady from Hillary Clinton to Jill Biden by Katie Rogers will be of interest to general readers and news junkies alike. Rogers, a NY Times White House reporter covering the Trump and Biden administrations, starts with an overview of traditional First Ladies, who they were and how their official roles were defined. Moving from Hillary Clinton to Michelle Obama, Melania Trump and Jill Clinton, Rogers explores their roots, their interests and levels of engagement, their values and how each left an imprint on our expectations of First Ladies. She even devotes a chapter to the nation’s First Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, as he travels the country in support of Vice President Kamala Harris.

When covering Hillary’s novel path of heading a major health care task force, Rogers lays bare the difficulties of shaping an unprecedented role. Under the glare of klieg lights, Hillary faced highly publicized policy failure to press obsession with her foibles, flaws, seeming stoicism and thinly veiled anger during her husband’s sexual transgressions. By contrast, Michele Obama quietly stepped away from her high-powered career but may have found her true self as First Lady by carving out initiatives to fight obesity and introduce healthy eating into school systems.  Rogers writes of Melania Trump’s “whatever” attitude toward politics, her apparent comfort in being an outsider (except when step-daughter Ivanka usurped “First Lady” roles) and her setting up a “swag room” in the White House to dispense Trump trinkets to MAGA supporters.

Rogers spent a majority of the book on Jill Clinton, from her family life as a protected daughter, to a college co-ed, her first husband, and her entrance – at the age of 23 – into the Biden family, where she assumed responsibility for becoming mom to Senator Joe Biden’s two sons, who had lost their mommy and sister in a tragic car crash. She has three primary commitments: family, education and her teaching job (the first time ever in the White House that a First Lady continued her career) , and supporting and protecting her husband.

First Lady Biden is ferocious about all.  Typically, she does not weigh in on policy deliberations (her push for making two years of community college free fell flat on its face) but sits in on virtually every decision about staffing – her own and her husband’s.  She is the praetorian guard of Biden’s inner circle as well and is a clear-eyed critic when a key staff person errs.  She is fully on board with his bid for a second term and rabidly committed that the Biden administration “finish the job.”

There are no big reveals for anyone who follows the news. Many if not most of the stories are known, but they are woven together to create the perceived reality of whatever administration Rogers is covering.  While written is a largely spare reportorial style, she still manages to provide background, context and, intermittently, add color to round out the scene. All in all, it’s a not-indispensable but a decent read.

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