Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

33395053As the country grapples with racist division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice soars above the rest with conviction and compassion. In his 2016 New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot Stop—a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted.

“The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.”

Review:

A must-read primer to race in America, especially for people who are new to racial justice.  Aimed specifically at white people but readable by anyone, Dyson explains why history, police brutality, and white fragility matter.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the author is a minister – he’s not pushing a god on anyone, much appreciated by this agnostic.  Using the framework of a sermon Dyson goes through the stages of white guilt, the construction of whiteness, the specter of slavery, and more.  As a primer he avoids going overly deep, which is perfect for what he’s doing.  Other authors have covered the specifics elsewhere and he lists dozens of them if you’d like to read more.

What gets to me is that the people who need to read this most – whites with no grounding in racial justice – are the least likely to pick it up.  So read it yourself and put it in other people’s hands.  We need to get the message out.

Advertisements

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

32191677The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate—there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.

A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America—a land half gutted before the fires even began.

Review:

I went into this book blind, knowing nothing about the Accomack fires, and Hesse is a surefooted and well-spoken guide.  She spent months living on the Eastern Shore and it shows in the way she paints the community and pulls us into the crime.  While the culprit is pointed out early on the whydunit aspects kept me reading – what would drive someone to do this?  What does it mean when you’ll do literally anything for someone?

The reporting and particulars of the case are handled exceptionally well, with the crimes, apprehension, interrogation, and court aspects carrying equal weight.  However, I was hoping that Hesse would spend more time digging into the social and economic trends that led to Ammomack’s fall in the first place.  Many factors are briefly touched on – the importance of the railroad, the rise of chicken farming – but it never gets to the point of an overarching theme.

Even though I was hoping for more thematic heft American Fire is a fascinating look at what happens when you find an arsonist in your midst.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

33917107An historian of fascism offers a guide for surviving and resisting America’s turn towards authoritarianism.

Timothy Snyder is one of the most celebrated historians of the Holocaust. With Twenty Lessons, Snyder draws from the darkest hours of the twentieth century to provide hope for the twenty-first. As he writes, “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Twenty Lessons is a call to arms and a guide to resistance, with invaluable ideas for how we can preserve our freedoms in the uncertain years to come.

Review:

I came across Snyder’s 20 Lessons Facebook post soon after the election of Donald Trump and immediately saved it.  The lessons are simple – believe in truth, be wary of paramilitaries, take responsibility for the face of the world – but we need to hear and be reminded of them.  Totalitarianism has a way of sneaking up on you and Snyder is determined not to let that happen.

This book is those twenty lessons, fleshed out.  Sorta.  Historical examples are added and context is hinted at, but I would like a more detailed explanation of what has gone before. While the book clocks in at 120 pages it’s thanks to the formatting more than anything.  I would have finished it in one sitting if not interrupted (silly work).

If you haven’t seen the viral post On Tyranny is a great introduction to how power is taken away from the people.  If you’re looking for a deeper explanation you may want to tackle Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism instead.

300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso

I’m having trouble writing this review and one of Manguso’s “arguments” (aka aphorisms) explains why:

29875902I like writing that is unsummarizable, a kernel that cannot be condensed, that must be uttered exactly as it is.

She succeeds, time and time again, at doing just that.  Some of the arguments are memorizable and I want to have them on the tip on my tongue, the same way I can spout ‘many hands make light work’ and ‘she who hesitates loses’ on command.

Worry is impatience for the next horror.

Happiness begins to deteriorate once it is named.

Others are slightly longer, sometimes funny, and no less true.

Every year it feels like a greater insult when a student arrives late with no excuse.  I’m going to die so many years before you do! I want to say, pointing to the clock.

The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.

300 Arguments a rarity, a book that you can re-re-re-re-re-read and never stop marveling.  Five awe-filled stars.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson

32920307Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion.

Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coroner provides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.

Review:

As a lover of medical and medically-adjacent nonfiction I happily dug into Education of a Coroner.  CSI without all the fake glamour? I’m there!

The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is from Holmes’ point of view but we’re actually following the author, a professional acquaintance.  Bateson goes through Holmes’ records and conducts a series of interviews that form the backbone of the book.  I found myself wishing he had done more synthesis of the material and gotten into Holmes’ head instead of quoting him verbatum.  There’s a big difference between “Holmes thought” and “When I asked Holmes about it he said, ‘Well, I thought…'”

Luckily this distance only occurs in the sections dealing with Holmes’ career.  A large portion book is chock-a-block with fascinating cases from his 36 years on the job – suicides that may not have been suicides, genius (and not so genius) murder methods, clues that make or break an investigation.

As a medical interpreter I found the chapter on death notifications the most interesting.  If Holmes tried to couch the news in niceties it wouldn’t be conveyed at all.

He also learned to avoid saying something like “she succumbed” or “she didn’t survive” or “it was fatal”.  he had to say the word dead or killed.  If he didn’t, if he said something like, “Unfortunately, she didn’t make it,” the next questions were “How bad was it?” “Where is she?” “Can I go talk to her?” because the person didn’t hear. It was way too much information coming from a total stranger without any context or preamble.

All in all Education of a Coroner is a fun read for those who want to know what the job involves in real life.  While I found the beginning and end slow the amazing cases in the middle make up for it.

Thanks to Scribner and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

24399756On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man is shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of the thousands of black Americans murdered that year. His assailant runs down the street, jumps into an SUV, and vanishes, hoping to join the scores of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes.

But as soon as the case is assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shift.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

Review:

I’ve made the mistake of not writing this review right away so particulars have flown out of my brain, gah. Check out Doing Dewey’s review for a more proper look but let me give you my overall impression – wow.

Leovy’s writing is outstanding and is just as amazing on audiobook as I imagine it is on the page. She weaves background and context into the story of a single murder so that we understand not just what happened in one case, but in South Central LA over the course of decades.

The only thing that gives me pause is there is a whiff of white savior narrative going on, though Leovy does her best to squash the impression. And looking at Goodreads there isn’t a single person of color (as gleaned from avatars) in the top page of reviews, which makes me wonder what I’m missing. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is going on my TBR to make sure I get another perspective.

Even so, this book – part police procedural, part court drama, part whodunit – is narrative nonfiction at its best.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

25189315Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession.

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

Review:

This isn’t the book for everyone, but at the same time, the more you resist the more you should probably read it. (Passes given for the truly squeemish and triggered, of course.)

In this memoir-of-sorts Doughty explores her life-long fascination with death and what it means to have a “good” one. She relates what it’s actually like to work at a crematory, how bodies of all descriptions get to their final resting place, Western culture’s relationship with death and how it’s changed over the centuries, and more.

Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?) and things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?). Working in medicine I’ve already given thought to my own “good death” but she pushed me a step farther – what would I like to happen <i>after</i> I die? What would donating my body to science entail? What kind of rituals or ceremonies would help my family cope?

I won’t lie, parts of the book made my eyes leak, a ‘wow that’s so beautiful/touching/wrenching’ that hits you (lovingly) in the solar plexus. This is stuff we should all be thinking about it and as the author argues, turning a blind eye to death makes for an unhealthy relationship with it.

A hearty recommend for anyone interested by the title, and even those who aren’t.

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero

Translated by Frances Riddle

30347690Every year, at the height of summer, the remote Argentine village of Laborde holds the national malambo contest. Centuries-old, this shatteringly demanding traditional gaucho dance is governed by the most rigid rules. And this festival has one stipulation that makes it unique: the malambo is danced for up to five minutes. That may seem like nothing, but consider the world record for the hundred-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. The dance contest is an obsession for countless young men, who sacrifice their bodies and money as they strive to become the champion, knowing that if they win—in order to safeguard the title’s prestige—they can never compete again.

When Leila Guerriero traveled to Laborde, one dancer’s performance took her breath away, and she spent a year following him as he prepared for the next festival. The result is this superlative piece of journalism, told with tremendous economy and power.

Review:

The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. It’s athletic, takes massive skill and commitment, and is just fun to watch.  I mean, look:

As Guerriero writes:

At three minutes, the malambo is a wall of sound, a jumble of boots, drum, and guitar that picks up speed at an asphyxiating rate.  At four minutes, his feet pound the stage with savage fury, the guitar, drum, and boots are a solid mass of blows, and at four minutes fifty seconds, the man lowers his head, raises one leg, and with colossal force, bashes it into the wood, his heart monstrously swollen, with the lucid yet frenzied expression of someone who’s just experienced a revelation.  After a few seconds of unnatural stillness, in which the public claps and shouts, the man, like someone emptying a gun into a dead body, dances off the stage with a short, furious storm of tapping, and every cell in his body seems to scream: This is what I’m made of.  I am capable of absolutely anything.

If that doesn’t make you want to watch through to the end I don’t know what will.

The yearly festival at Laborde is only known to other dancers and the title comes with a price – you can never dance the malambo in competition again.  Why do these dancers work so hard to end their career?

Guerriero examines Laborde from all sides – the dancers and their families, the practice and sacrifice required to be a contender, the place of the malambo in Argentinian society, and so much more.  The prose is powerful and comes through full force thanks to Riddle’s translation.  I purposefully limited myself to small doses so I could spread my enjoyment out as long as possible.

This book is a perfect case for non-fiction in translation: it opens our eyes to something we never knew existed that, like all things, relates back to us.  Check it out for the story, for the prose, for the dance, and for the experience.  My second five star read of the year – I heap my love upon it.

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time by Brooke Gladstone

34525527Reality. It used to seem so simple—reality just was, like the weather. Why question it, let alone disagree about it? And then came the assault, an unending stream of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and lies disguised as truths that is overwhelming our notions of reality. Now we can’t even agree on what a fact is, let alone what is real. How on earth did we get here?

Reality, as Gladstone shows us, was never what we thought it was—there is always a bubble, people are always subjective and prey to stereotypes. And that makes reality more vulnerable than we ever thought. Enter Donald J. Trump and his team of advisors. For them, as she writes, lying is the point. The more blatant the lie, the easier it is to hijack reality and assert power over the truth. Drawing on writers as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Walter Lippmann, and Jonathan Swift, she dissects this strategy straight out of the authoritarian playbook and shows how the Trump team mastered it.

And she offers hope—the inevitable reckoning history tells us we can count on—and a way to recover both our belief in reality and our sanity.

Review:

‘What is reality, anyway?’ seems like an impossible question but Gladstone has us covered.   The answer starts from a single core idea – that each of us has our own personal reality – and builds out bit by bit to explain how we got to where we are today.

I highlighted so many passages it’s slightly ridiculous.  Complex ideas are articulated clearly and memorably, and many have been rattling around my head as the news cycle spins on – how beliefs and conspiracies affect our realities.  How Huxley and Orwell’s dystopian fears translate to our times.  How demagogues get and lose their power.  How to avoid pitfalls in messaging and what we can do to affect change.  “Meaningful action is a time-tested treatment for moral panic,” she says, and we’re pointed in the right direction.

This is one of those reviews that’s hard to write not because of a lack of things to say but because I have trouble putting all the awesome into a few paragraphs. Let’s try this: if you’re looking for an insight into current times, if you want a timely read that will make you think and wonder and gasp in recognition, or if you’d like to plot where things go from here, The Trouble with Reality is a must read.  Much love.

Watching the English by Kate Fox

Synopsis:

288448In Watching the English anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour. The rules of weather-speak. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo and many more …Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments (using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig), Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness.

Review:

I’ve met a lot of Brits here in Japan so I thought I would learn what makes them tick. I feel empowered in a way – I now know how to order at a pub and properly “moan” about the weather.

But oh, the quibbles.

  • The book feels looooong. It’s not (only) due to the page count, but because Fox ends each chapter with a summary. I get that she’s doing the “tell him what you’re going to tell him, tell him, tell him what you told him” thing but it feels like blatant rehashing. The conclusion at the end of the book would have been enough.
  • “Liminal” seems to pop up twice a page. Ditto “dis-ease”. There isn’t any difference between unease and dis-ease, right? It was a cute visual joke the first time but grated after that.
  • Woah, there’s a lot here about class. It was interesting in short bursts but some sections never seem to end. Names were used as stand ins for lower and upper class teenagers – Darren and Chantelle, Jamie and Saskia – and for the life of me I could never remember which was which. To my American ear it’s two normal guy names and two uncommon girl names, so… yeah. I guess I fail that test.
  • If most of the class comparisons were between working and upper classes I may have been able to deal with it, but the fine differences between lower-middle, middle-middle, and upper-middle were a bit much for me.
  • Even though it took me a long time to get through the book repeated phrases and jokes kept jumping out at me. “The English have satire instead of revolutions” is great the first time, but by the fourth I’m rolling my eyes.

As much as I learned I’m glad to have this one behind me.