American Manifesto by Bob Garfield

9781640092808_e7adaAs is often observed, Trump is a symptom of a virus that has been incubating for at least fifty years. But not often observed is where the virus is embedded: in the psychic core of our identity. Garfield investigates how we’ve gotten to this moment when our identity is threatened by both the left and the right, when e pluribus unum is no longer a source of national pride, and why, when looking through this lens of identity, the rise of Trumpism is no surprise. Overlaying that crisis is the rise of the Facebook-Google duopoly and the filter-bubble archipelago where identity is tribal and immutable.

Review:

I was primed to like this book because I love On the Media, a public radio show Garfield co-hosts. He isn’t afraid to skewer received wisdom and group think, so I was curious to see what he thinks about the state of democracy in the United States.

Overall I agree with Garfield’s idea that we need to recognize that the internet has not been the democratization machine we’ve been hoping for (with some exceptions) and that Google and Facebook have an outsized influence on American society. I also agree that those in favor of democracy need to put aside some differences to work together for the common good.

The way these ideas are conveyed, though, is not my cup of tea. The first half of the book was hit or miss, with some chapters getting at interesting points and others feeling disconnected. It’s written in his voice, as he would write for radio, but some parts don’t work as well in print. The most glaring example is lists that are compelling when heard but easily skipped over on the page.

While the tone aims at irreverent it dips into coarse. Dick joke level coarse. I understand that he’s trying to get us mad, to funnel that anger into action, but I don’t think it works. At least not on me.

Near the end of his manifesto Garfield posits that America has split itself into too many “micro-identities”, casting themselves as a highly visible other. When you make yourself stick out, he implies, you shouldn’t be surprised that people backlash against you.

So that pissed me off.

And then he talks about a kind colleague that hinted that he shouldn’t start speeches with “ladies and gentlemen” because it’s subtly “oppressive”. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m on the colleague’s side and think that we should try to use inclusive language that works for all people, not just those on the gender binary. His answer? It’s wasted effort when there are bigger fish to fry.

My response – it costs nothing to change a few words and as a result be kinder and more understanding of those around you. You say you want us to unite, so why are you clinging to a phrase that divides?

I was prepared to give American Manifesto a ho-hum three star review until these sections near the end of the book. There are decent points here and there, but I think they could have presented in a more engaging way, with less unnecessary coarseness.

Thanks to Counterpoint Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

40265832Ibram X. Kendi’s concept of antiracism reenergizes and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in America–but even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. In How to be an Antiracist, Kendi asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it.

In this book, Kendi weaves together an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science, bringing it all together with an engaging personal narrative of his own awakening to antiracism. How to Be an Antiracist is an essential work for anyone who wants to go beyond an awareness of racism to the next step: contributing to the formation of a truly just and equitable society.

Review:

I first heard Kendi on the WNYC show On the Media being interviewed by Brooke Gladstone. He blew my mind twice in ten minutes so I knew I had to pick up How to Be an Antiracist.

The core tenet is that there is no such thing as being “not racist”. You either support and/or abide policies and actions that further racial inequities, as a racist, or you confront them, as an antiracist. Doing nothing, saying you’re “not racist”, only furthers the racist status quo.

Kendi breaks down a bunch of big ideas such as dueling consciousness and race as a construct, while interweaving stories from his own life. We watch him grow up from a boy who parrots the questionable ideas the world has taught him, to holding anti-white racist views in college, to appreciating and later fighting for not just antiracism but for those who fall at intersectionalities between race and gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and more. He’s not afraid to share ugly thoughts he’s had and how he worked past them – this is a man who has done the work and has the receipts.

The first few chapters of the book cover big concepts and I went through them slowly to take everything in. Once these basic concepts are set he talks about subsets and nuances before widening back out to end on the ideas of success and survival.

My ereader is chock-a-block with highlights – Kendi says so many things that are thoughtful and get at the core of an issue. He argues that antiracism and anticapitalism go hand in hand. That the idea that Black people can’t be racist is absurd. That racist ideas are born not of ignorance and hate but self-interest, and that holding up a mirror can be much more effective than trying to persuade those who support racist policies. You may not agree with every point but they are all presented clearly and grounded in history.

The historical overviews in the middle of each chapter may have been my favorite sections. Kendi summarizes history and scholarship in a way that provides all the essential details without being didactic. Sometimes I wanted to know more but I’m more than happy to read other books about the movements and people he mentions.

<i>How to Be an Antiracist</i> is an in-depth examination that encourages all of us, regardless of race and level of knowledge, to do our part to stamp out racism. I am thankful to Kendi for writing about his life experience and scholarship so openly and honestly, and now I’m looking forward to reading his other book, Stamped from the Beginning. I feel a bit changed inside, for the better.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

42771901When the technologies we use every day collapse our experiences into 24/7 availability, platforms for personal branding, and products to be monetized, nothing can be quite so radical as… doing nothing. Here, Jenny Odell sends up a flare from the heart of Silicon Valley, delivering an action plan to resist capitalist narratives of productivity and techno-determinism, and to become more meaningfully connected in the process.

Review:

Reading How to Do Nothing was an odd experience, mostly because I was intensely interested in some sections and was utterly bored through others. It didn’t feel coherent, which is weird and unfortunate because Odell obviously put a lot of thought into each chapter.

She starts by pointing out that social media and apps that increasingly demand our attention have changed the way we think, work, and spend our time. We aim for productivity, work in a gig economy, and scroll through addictive feeds while simultaneously feeling more worried about and separate from the world around us. After explaining the impossibility of running away completely she touches on ways we can refuse the attention economy, how to open ourselves to new ways of seeing, and the importance of connecting with where we live – its history, ecology, and the fellow humans living there.

Odell discusses some amazing concepts, and some will stick with me. There’s the idea that we can different people in different real-life groups – a happy drunk with college friends, a hard-working professional with coworkers, an erudite conversationalist at a dinner party. Once you put yourself on social media, however, you’re the same person to everyone from childhood friends to potential employers. As a result you have to water yourself down to the most innocuous version, else risk offending someone today or years down the line. You go from many identities to just one.

There’s the thought that algorithms on Facebook and Spotify do such an amazing job of predicting what you’ll like that it’s unlikely you’ll try something new or find a favorite song in a genre you usually don’t listen to. That we’re constantly pressured to be more productive… but who does that productivity serve?

They’re fascinating ideas to think about. Some chapters, though, are duds for me. I did not need to read dozens of pages about why various communes failed in the 1960s. I also didn’t like the long descriptions of paintings and performance art. I flashed back to reading Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking, but this is nonfiction and the writing isn’t as strong.

As a result I’m a fan of the concepts but not of the telling, and the dead boring sections prevent me from giving it anything more than three stars.

From the Periphery: Real-life Stories of Disability by Pia Justesen

44313724From the Periphery consists of nearly forty first-person narratives from activists and everyday people who describe what it’s like to be treated differently by society because of their disabilities. Their stories are raw and painful but also surprisingly funny and deeply moving—describing anger, independence, bigotry, solidarity, and love, in the family, at school, and in the workplace.

Review:

I’m a fan of oral histories so when I saw this book of narratives from folks with disabilities I knew I had to pick it up.

The good:

  • First and foremost, I learned a ton from this book. The interviewees are forthcoming about their experience, worries, and triumphs. In the process they taught me the difference between impairment and disability, rafts of stereotypes we need to smash post-haste, and how to be a better ally.
  • We meet people with a wide range of disability – visible and invisible, mental and physical. At the same time, we see how life for people with the same disability can very different depending on other factors.
  • I especially appreciated the interviews with more than one person. A mom might talk about what it was like to raise a small child with cerebral palsy, then we would hear from the child, now a teenager, about what their life is like. It provides a multi-faceted, insightful view on how disability can affect an entire family.
  • The book is intersectional across race, class, and generations. We see how disability is viewed within various communities, such as the African-American and Latinx communities. However, I have trouble remembering a single person who is not cis-gender and straight.
  • Justesen lets people self-identify, which I love. Most people say what their medical condition is right off the top, but not always. This is the way it should be – people are sharing their stories with us, and we have no right to demand certain information from them. Now and then you get to the end of narrative and realize that the exact disability was never stated and you know what? It doesn’t take anything away from their story.

The not-so-good stuff:

  • While there is a wide range of scope in some ways, most everyone interviewed is from the Chicago area and somehow affiliated with a particular advocacy group. This isn’t all bad – advocates are amazing at telling their story – I would have liked a wider range of experiences.
  • I’m not sure about Justesen’s chops as an interviewer. She has some amazing conversations with advocate spokespeople who are used to talking about themselves, but interviews with less media-savvy folks fall a little flat. I feel like there’s more insight there, waiting to be unearthed, but she didn’t get down to it.
  • There is very little by way of explanation, which is good because it’s places the focus on the interviewees, but I wanted more background. For example, many older folks talk about going to Catholic school. Why is that? Was there one Catholic school in Chicago that was accessible? Did the Church have a policy of providing education when public schools couldn’t or wouldn’t?

These detractors are relatively minor, though. I’m grateful that these folks shared their stories and in the process taught me so much – I gained all kinds of understanding feel like I’m on the path to being a better ally.

Thanks to Lawrence Hill Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Study is Hard Work by William H. Armstrong

1156272The text down the left side of the cover says that Study is Hard Work is “the most accessible and lucid text available on acquiring and keeping study skills through a lifetime”, and the table of contents points in that direction with headings like “The Desire to Learn” and “Acquiring Skill in Methods”.

I gobbled up the first few chapters which discuss the importance of listening, getting more from what you read, and the merits of scheduling your study. I found myself nodding and marking a couple of well written lines that I agree with.

After that Armstrong breaks out study strategies by subject, and it quickly becomes apparent that this book is aimed at middle and high school readers. How to build your vocabulary using prefixes and suffixes. How to outline a textbook chapter. How to structure a paragraph. While I could glean some tidbits from the first section there was nothing for me here.

Something that struck me is how much education has changed since this book was written in 1956. Armstrong talks extensively about tests that require paragraphs and full essays as answers, while much of what I encountered in school was short answer or multiple choice. I suspect that the balance has shifted even more in that direction since I graduated.  It’s refreshing that he doesn’t resort to “hacks” or how to rig technology to make your study more efficient, but the focus on middle school level material doesn’t suit me well. Might be good for a young person, but lifelong learners can move on.

Who Says You’re Dead? Medical and Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious and Concerned by Jacob M. Appel

46221669._SY475_Drawing upon the author’s two decades teaching medical ethics, as well as his work as a practicing psychiatrist, this profound and addictive little book offers up challenging ethical dilemmas and asks readers, What would you do?

In short, engaging scenarios, Dr. Appel takes on hot-button issues that many of us will confront: genetic screening, sexuality, privacy, doctor-patient confidentiality. He unpacks each hypothetical with a brief reflection drawing from science, philosophy, and history, explaining how others have approached these controversies in real-world cases. Who Says You’re Dead? is designed to defy easy answers and to stimulate thought and even debate among professionals and armchair ethicists alike.

Review:

3.5 stars

I wasn’t sure if I should pick up this book, but when I saw that the author is not only a practicing psychiatrist but also a bioethicist and attorney, I couldn’t resist.

Appel looks at 79 dilemmas, some rare (can a millionaire advertise for a new liver?) to situations many of us will face (decisions regarding end of life care). Each case is introduced in a succinct vignette and followed up with a reflection covering legal, ethical, and personal issues that may affect the decision made. It truly is a reflection – Appel doesn’t rule for one side or the other, and he’s sure to mention factors that could make a seemingly off-putting choice rational. The setup gives you a moment to sit and reflect on what you would do in that situation. If a patient revealed that he’s gotten away with murder, would you report it to the police? Would you give someone on death row a liver transplant? What do you do when the sisters of a dying patient disagree about treatment?

The situations themselves are crafted with care. Some are edge cases pushing beyond settled law, some straddle an ethical line, and others show the most sympathetic patient for a particular treatment or intervention. While the vignettes are fictional (doctors Scarpetta, Hawkeye, and Jekyll make appearances) they’re based on actual people and cases, mostly in the US and UK. If you’d like more info there’s a robust appendix pointing to related papers, articles, and books for each dilemma.

With the heavy and at times disturbing medical content it’s not a book I can recommend to everyone, but I found it fascinating. It helped clarify (or occasionally muddy) my thinking about these ethical issues, and pointed me towards some that I didn’t even know existed. Did you know that with gene editing technology it may be possible to use ancient DNA to bring a Neanderthal to term in a human woman? It’s creepy and seems like an absolute no-go, and while Appel leans heavily in that direction he does imagine a semi-apocalyptic scenario where it might make sense.

I had small quibbles with two scenarios. One struck me as slightly ableist and used small d deaf to refer to capital D Deaf culture and people. The other talked about wrongful birth, where a doctor is negligent tying tubes and the woman becomes pregnant and ends up giving birth to a child, her fifth. Juries find it difficult to award damages for having a healthy baby, wanted or not, but the discussion didn’t touch on ways that settlement money could help the family meet the unexpected expenses of raising another child, not to mention psychological impacts. The other scenarios offer nuanced thoughts so this one felt out of place.

Those are only two small concerns, though – overall I found Who Says You’re Dead? fascinating and engrossing. I put it down now and then to take a breath – who wouldn’t after delving into the ethics of full-body transplants? – but it’s a compulsive read for medical nonfiction fans and armchair ethicists.

Thanks to Algonquin Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

34374331In this inimitable, beloved classic Anne Morrow Lindbergh shares her meditations on youth and age; love and marriage; peace, solitude and contentment as she set them down during a brief vacation by the sea. Drawing inspiration from the shells on the shore, Lindbergh’s musings on the shape of a woman’s life bring new understanding to both men and women at any stage of life. She casts an unsentimental eye on the trappings of modernity that threaten to overwhelm us: the time-saving gadgets that complicate rather than simplify, the multiple commitments that take us from our families. And by recording her thoughts during a brief escape from everyday demands, she helps readers find a space for contemplation and creativity within their own lives.

Review:

I picked up this book in high school because, as someone who grew up nowhere near an ocean, I loved the ocean. It was probably a cover buy because, oooo, the sea! I didn’t connect with it at 17, though, so I put it aside.

Other people may enjoy it at any age, but it’s definitely a mid-life book for me. Lindbergh’s writing is timeless in style, and while written in 1955 much connects to our modern, digital lives today. She talks about how women are expected to give of themselves – to their husbands, the upkeep of their households, the rearing of kids, caring for whomever needs to be taken care of.

I believe that what woman resents is not so much giving herself in pieces as giving herself purposefully. What we fear is not so much that our energy may be leaking away through small outlets as that it may be going “down the drain”. We do not see the results of our giving as concretely as a man does in his work… except for the child, woman’s creation is so often invisible, especially today.

Chapters like this resonated with me. On the other hand, some chapters didn’t resonate with me at all. For example, there’s a section talking about what it’s like when your kids leave the nest and a woman realizes she’s left with so little… not a concern for child-free me.

So while some parts, isolated, are amazing, others I could have passed over completely. If you like this idea of this book do pick it up though – your mileage is likely to vary.

A Little Tea Book: All the Essentials from Leaf to Cup by Sebastian Beckwith

41118705._SX318_Tea, the most popular beverage in the world after water, has brought nations to war, defined cultures, bankrupted coffers, and toppled kings. And yet in many ways this fragrantly comforting and storied brew remains elusive, even to its devotees. As down-to-earth yet stylishly refined as the drink itself, A Little Tea Book submerges readers into tea, exploring its varieties, subtleties, and pleasures right down to the process of selecting and brewing the perfect cup. Featuring featuring charming, colorful charts, graphs, and illustrations by bestselling illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and Beckwith’s sumptuous photographs, A Little Tea Book is a friendly, handsome, and illuminating primer with a dash of sass and sophistication.

Review:

Beckwith, with the help of beautiful illustrations by MacNaughton, has put together an adorable book that provides a wide and just-deep-enough look at the world of tea.

He’s obviously passionate about tea and eager to share his knowledge with us. I thought I knew most everything I needed or wanted to, but I still learned some neat tidbits. We also hear about his travels in tea growing regions as part of his work sourcing ethically made, single estate tea.

I appreciate that he doesn’t shy away from tea’s sordid past – Brits outright stole the bush from China then planted it in their colonies to feed the ever expanding demand of England. Beckwith also touches on how climate change is affecting how the drink is being produced.

The text has many beautiful photographs and illustrations, and the 144 pages flew by in a little over an hour. A fine stocking stuffer or birthday present book for the tea lover in your life – be sure to pair it with some tasty loose leaf, of course.

Ocha no Jikan (Tea Time) by Masuda Miri

41ZtGQ-YydL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_(jacket copy loosely translated by me)

Thoughts cross your mind at tea time.
We say there’s a “turning point” in someone’s life,
but does anyone make a u-turn?
You puzzle over it while drinking coffee
and forget everything once you leave the cafe.
Tea time is when we contemplate these
deep, unexpected thoughts.
–Masuda Miri–

“What is that group of women so excited about?”
“Aw, they look like they’re on a first date.”
“I wonder what he’s doing on his laptop.”
Looking around at others, your thoughts turn back on yourself.
The extremely popular Masuda Miri gives us these new, tranquil manga essays.

Review:

I love that there’s an indie bookshop close to my new apartment. I can stop in before going to the supermarket, on the way back from the station, just for the heck of it – heaven! I spotted this book on the new release shelf and was smitten as I read the first few pages.

Masuda Miri is a mangaka and essayist best known for her comic strip Su-chan. Her books vary, some with more text and some with more comics, and this book is 100% manga.

Most of the 5-10 page pieces start with Masuda going to a cafe, meeting somebody there, and relating things she saw or thoughts she had while there. Some are pure fun – visiting a all-dessert buffet, a cafe that serves a picnic complete with checked cloth and basket at your table. One cafe serves their drinks on a tray that looks like grass, and despite the rain outside her mood is lifted. There are funny moments in the vein of observational comedy, things that we all do but don’t think about.

Masuda gets into some deeper stuff as well, like how lives diverge and change once you have kids. One of the most touching manga essays is her thoughts when she’s stuck on a train because someone completed suicide by jumping at the station ahead. Sadly this is not unusual in Japan, and the way she relates the experience is spare, eloquent, and moving.

I’m sad that Masuda’s work hasn’t been translated into English as far as I can tell, and at the same time I’m selfishly glad that I get to enjoy it in Japanese. It’s not profound, it’s not on the pulse of pop culture, but it was a fun, at times deep read that I’d like to share with more people.

The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai

translated by William Johnson

1030303On Thursday, August 9, 1945, at two minutes past eleven in the morning, Nagasaki was wiped out by a plutonium atomic bomb which exploded at a height of five hundred meters over the city. Among the wounded on that fateful day was the young doctor Takashi Nagai, professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki. Nagai succeeded in gathering a tiny group of survivors — doctors, nurses, and students — and together they worked heroically for the wounded until they themselves collapsed from exhaustion and atomic sickness.

As he lay dying of leukemia, Dr. Nagai wrote The Bells of Nagasaki, vividly recounting what he had seen with his own eyes and heard from his associates.

Review:

Trigger warning for the horror of war with a medical bent.

The Bells of Nagasaki is a first-person account of the bombing of Nagasaki, which is often forgotten in the shadow of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nagai is in a unique position to discuss an atomic bomb because he was researching radioactivity in a medical context. He had basically given himself leukemia by being exposed to radiation during his experiments.

Much like Hersey’s Hiroshima, we hear the accounts of many people at the time the bomb went off, many colleagues of Nagai. We see how fate/blind luck determined who lived and died. A professor hollowing out a dugout shelter survived, but two students hauling out the dirt were killed immediately. A medical student was trapped in the rubble of his classroom. Fires soon started, and he listened to his classmates being consumed alive by the flames, and resigned to that fate himself, before working free and escaping.

This plurality of experience at the start soon narrows down to Nagai and his fellow doctors and nurses who took it upon themselves to treat as many people as they could. Like many survivors they made their way to the villages surrounding the city, helping those affected before being bedridden with radiation sickness themselves.

Nagai isn’t afraid to talk about the illness from a medical standpoint. At one point he outlines how you die – if not immediately, days later in this manner. If not then, weeks later from this and that. Some explanations call on high school physics but I didn’t find it overly technical. Then again, I work in hospitals so your mileage may vary.

The introduction is by the translator and does a good job placing the book in context and telling us about the whole of Nagai’s life. At the end he goes on about how big a role religion played in his thinking, which worried me. Thankfully there’s almost no mention of his faith until page 102 of a 115 page work but wow, he gets preachy fast. If religion isn’t your thing know you can safely skip those pages without missing anything.

As a side note – I knocked on Hiroshima for having a strong Catholic element, but Nagasaki is the most Catholic city in all of Japan. It had secret churches and harbored people when the government actively prosecuted Catholics, so if there’s going to be a large Christian influence anywhere in the country, it’s here.

Overall I found the book interesting and a good read, a valuable account of the bombing Americans overlook. It appears to be out of print right now, so check with your local library if you’d like to give it a try.