Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

6452798Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than fifty years.  It depicts the urgent effort by American scientists, policymakers, and military officers to ensure that nuclear weapons can’t be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or detonated inadvertently. Schlosser also looks at the Cold War from a new perspective, offering history from the ground up, telling the stories of bomber pilots, missile commanders, maintenance crews, and other ordinary servicemen who risked their lives to avert a nuclear holocaust.  At the heart of the book lies the struggle, amid the rolling hills and small farms of Damascus, Arkansas, to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States.


While I’ve read books about nuclear power this was my first about nuclear weapons and woah. By all rights we should all be dead by now, maybe ten times over. There are two interleaving story arcs, one about the history of nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project through the early 2000s, and another that covers a Titan II missile accident.

I had no idea that there were so many mishaps, mistakes, and close calls – planes holding H-bombs catching fire on the runway, nukes lost at sea, early warning systems that misinterpret the moon rising over Sweden has incoming ballistic missiles.  I thought everyone would be behind more safeguards against human error because no one wants to blow up their town by mistake, but it turns out the military was largely against safety measures.  A well-protected weapon requires more checklist steps and time before launch, and those minutes would be crucial in a nuclear attack.

The narrative structure is similar to Columbine in that two separate timelines are alternated – here the history of atomic weapons and a missile accident in Arkansas.  I had never heard of the accident and didn’t know how it ended up so Schlosser’s account kept me riveted.  It also serves to break up the history portions and keep the narrative fresh.

I listened to this as an audiobook and really enjoyed it.  I had no problems with the reader and was able to push the speed over 2x, which is a help when the book is over 20 hours long.

My school history books didn’t do a good job covering the Cold War so Command and Control helped me reach a much needed deeper understanding. We should all know this history, if only to make sure we don’t repeat it.

You may also enjoy:

20820098 Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters by James Mahaffey


Depression and Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim

I picked up this book after seeing the Meonicorn’s lovely own voices review (check it out!) and watching Benaim perform what I think is the best poem, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother”.  Stop reading and take three minutes to watch – it’s amazing and has over six million views to prove it:

If you have ever experienced depression or anxiety or know someone who has these poems will speak to you, as they get right to the core of the experience.

at the grocery store i practice trying to make myself feel good by pretending i am a regular person buying her groceries & not a very sad person trying to distract herself from crying.

If you don’t know anyone with depression or anxiety the poems will open your eyes to what it’s like for you brain to go off in a direction you don’t like but are powerless to change.

36070215& this is why i have a hard time talking about my anxieties / not the big heavy anxieties / but the small ones / the ones that change my earrings / & chip at my general level of self-esteem / the ones that gorge on celery & watermelon after a heavy weekend / crying quietly / standing in line / behind you / the girl you’re pretending not to notice

In addition to these poems about mental health there are others about love, loneliness, abandonment, and memory.  With a couple of exceptions they don’t feel as strong but I’m having trouble pinpointing why.  Is it a personal thing, that they don’t speak to my lived experience? (Which seems silly, because I have loved boys who haven’t loved me back.)  Is it that the images aren’t as memorable or striking?  Or is my newbie poetry spidey sense picking up that they’re just not as “good”?  I’m not sure.

While this all sounds melancholy the poems aren’t fatalistic.  You sense that the author is working to understand herself and why things happen, all on the bedrock conviction that she will get through it.

i will let dance parties be the hospitals i heal in

if i need more help i will let the medication help me
i forgive my body for being a machine after all

A great read for anyone who has dipped their toes in these dark waters if only to know that:

i am not alone
because i feel alone


Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar II, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.


(First some trigger warnings, especially for suicidal ideation and an attempt, abuse, and eating disorders.)

There is so much to admire here.  Allow me to list the ways:

  • Mailhot puts her story on the page in a way that’s both spare and evocative, simultaneously emotional and unsympathetic.  It’s like she takes the glass form of a memoir, smashes it at her feet, and rearranges it best for her truth, complete with stray debris and blood from her cut hands.
  • The writing is amazing.  Some chapters have an intricate internal logic that I’ll need to revisit to fully appreciate, and the one liners are art.

    I think of you often, but there are still spaces unchanged by you.

    I learned that any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion.

    Men objectify me, to such a degree that they forget I eat.  You feed your dog more kindly than you feed me.  That’s men.

  • Some chapters fairly jump off the page – the first is one of these and I was sure I had a five star read in my hands.  The good is blow the roof off amazing so maybe I’m greedy to want that all the way through, but some of the middle essays fell flat for me.  I’m hoping that changes on a reread.
  • The forward and Q&A afterward provide context and helped me build a framework to situate my thoughts.  Skip them at your own peril as they add so much to the work.  I’d also recommend reading Heart Berries in as large gulps as possible.  My own reading was spread over two weeks and feels diluted because of it.

Overall this is an unrelenting, masterfully written work – not my usual fare but I loved it all the same.

Thanks to Counterpoint and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

34127677Ehrlich visited Wyoming on assignment and, while there, her partner died.  She decided not to leave.  Her essays are a thoughtful, deep, well-observed look at the life, places, and people of the American West.

First things first – you should know that despite being raised in the country I’m a city girl, happier in canyons of concrete than wide open spaces.

My mother is the exact opposite and would be most at home at a ranch like the one Ehrlich worked on, and Solace has helped me see why.

Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.

She takes the myth of the cowboy straight on and describes how life on a ranch, mostly alone if not for the animals, molds them.

To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power.  More often than not, circumstances – like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzard – are overpowering him.  It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts.  In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival.

The writing is gorgeous, flowing, evocative.  Ehrlich’s love for this unforgiving landscape seeps from the page and while I won’t be moving out West any time soon I finally get the appeal.

The Solace of Open Spaces invites you to inhabit and know a place on its own terms and I’m so glad I did.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

1580804Atul Gawande explores how doctors strive to close the gap between best intentions and best performance in the face of obstacles that sometimes seem insurmountable. Gawande’s gripping stories of diligence, ingenuity, and what it means to do right by people take us to battlefield surgical tents in Iraq, to labor and delivery rooms in Boston, to a polio outbreak in India, and to malpractice courtrooms around the country. He discusses the ethical dilemmas of doctors participation in lethal injections, examines the influence of money on modern medicine, and recounts the astoundingly contentious history of hand washing. And Gawande gives us an inside look at his own life as a practicing surgeon, offering a searingly honest firsthand account of work in a field where mistakes are both unavoidable and unthinkable.


Medicine is unforgiving because every mistake could be a disaster.  Wrong prescription, wrong dose, wrong operation site, wrong treatment… any of these could kill a patient.  But how can you be error-free every time, never mind a job with so many technical details and judgement calls?

Perfection is impossible, of course, so Gawande looks at how doctors can improve their performance.  The three main sections cover diligence, doing right, and ingenuity, and while the stories are interesting only a few moments have stuck with me.  For example check out this cystic fibrosis doctor working with a teenager:

At school, new rules required her to go to the nurse for each dose of medicine during the day. So she skipped going. “It’s such a pain,” she said…. Warwick proposed a deal. Janelle would go home for a breathing treatment every day after school and get her best friend to hold her to it. She’d also keep key medications in her bag or her pocket at school and take them on her own. (“The nurse won’t let me.” “Don’t tell her,” he said, and deftly turned taking care of herself into an act of rebellion.)

Points of brilliance like this and the afterward with tips on how to become a “positive deviant” are my highlights.  Gawande’s writing is as good as ever but this isn’t as game-changing as The Checklist Manifesto. I’ll get back to you once I read Being Mortal. 😉

Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life by Jessica Nutik Zitter

32311672In medical school, no one teaches you how to let a patient die.

Zitter started her career as an ICU doctor, one of the more intense specialties in medicine.  It’s your job to do stuff to turn around patient problems – put them on breathing machines and kidney machines when organs stop functioning, place a tube so they can be fed, use medications to stabilize blood pressure or prevent a clot.  It’s your job save a patient’s life, so why would you stop when there’s another procedure or a different medication you’ve yet to try?

This, she says, is why doctors are so awful at helping their patients have a good death.  A patient dying is akin to failure and no one, especially highly trained professionals with a wealth of options and technology at their disposal, wants to fail.  Add in a family that wants you to “do everything”, and it’s a recipe for more and more machines and care that will make it impossible for the patient to die peacefully at home.  Zitter calls it the “end-of-life conveyor belt” and she got certified in palliative care to help people navigate and possibly avoid it.

This book is an extension of that work.  She details how and why we got to this point and what we – both patients and health care professionals – can do to guide people towards the death they want.  Patient stories are woven through to illustrate what things look like when they go right, go wrong, or just… go.  End of life care is a minefield of pitfalls and potential missteps and she doesn’t shy away from any of it.

It’s a bit of a side note, but I want to give Zitter a great big hug for discussing my profession of medical interpreting in a chapter about cultural values.  She includes the interpreter as part of the care team, asking about cultural differences and how to approach a thorny topic.  In my experience interpreters can be treated like walking dictionaries, more a thing than a person, and it means a lot to me that Zitter accurately depicts and advocates for the important work we do.

The author reads the audiobook and I really liked it, though I did have to crank up the speed a little bit more than usual.  I liked it so much that I went back and relistened to sections so I could add them to my notebook word for word.  Here’s some of the wisdom she drops:

The human being is unknowable.  Unless, maybe, you ask.

While I may be the expert on the patient’s disease I am not the expert on the patient.

Sometimes it isn’t that the doctor needs to work harder to elicit the patient’s values, but that those values are simply different from the doctor’s.  Yet another lesson in listening.

An amazing must read for anyone with anything do to in medicine, and highly recommended to everyone else.

…and because I have an inkling it will come up in the comments – no, I haven’t read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal yet. 🙂  I hope to get to it sooner rather than later.  I’m curious to see how a surgeon approaches these same issues and where the two doctors’ views converge and divide.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

24510511In neurosurgery, more than in any other branch of medicine, the doctor’s oath to “do no harm” holds a bitter irony. Operations on the brain carry grave risks. Every day, leading neurosurgeon Henry Marsh must make agonizing decisions, often in the face of great urgency and uncertainty.

If you believe that brain surgery is a precise and exquisite craft, practiced by calm and detached doctors, this gripping, brutally honest account will make you think again. With astonishing compassion and candor, Marsh reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets, and the moments of black humor that characterize a brain surgeon’s life.


You know you’ve read a lot of medical nonfiction when you think, “This is an alright book by a neurosurgeon discussing the intricacies of brain surgery, but I’ve read better.”  (For the record I like When the Air Hits Your Brain by Frank T. Vertosick Jr. more.)

Marsh hits all the expected beats and themes – surgery that goes well despite all odds, surgery that doesn’t go well despite all efforts, kids you don’t want to see die, adults who face death with dignity. The cases are engaging and the writing solid.

But I’m not sure I get along with Marsh as a person.  He’s nearing the end of his career, which is good in that we can see how hospital conditions and doctor training have changed over time.  These changes, though, are often framed in terms of the good ol’ days and how they compare with the bad ol’ now.  For example, an anesthetist refused to do a big surgery at 4 pm because she didn’t have childcare for the evening.

“But we can’t cancel it,” I protested.  “She was cancelled once already!”

“Well I’m not doing it.” …

For a few moments I was struck dumb. I thought of how until a few years ago a problem like this would never have arisen… I envy the way in which the generation who trained me could relieve the intense stress of their work by losing their temper, at times quite outrageously, without fear of being had up for bullying and harassment.

Oh, I’m sorry that asshole-ry is no longer tolerated.  Geesh.  This doesn’t take away from the amazing work Marsh has done in his life, including humanitarian work in rural Ukraine, but neurosurgeon as god thing turns me off.

In sum the book is good but there’s better out there – check out Vertosick’s first.

Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum

34144408By grappling with novels, recipes, travelogues, pop culture, and his own upbringing, Naben Ruthnum depicts how the distinctive taste of curry has often become maladroit shorthand for brown identity. With the sardonic wit of Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola and the refined, obsessive palette of Bill Buford’s Heat, Ruthnum sinks his teeth into the story of how the beloved flavor calcified into an aesthetic genre that limits the imaginations of writers, readers, and eaters. Following in the footsteps of Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands, Curry cracks open anew the staid narrative of an authentically Indian diasporic experience.


A deep and thoughtful look at what Ruthnum calls “currybooks”, or books of the South Asian diaspora.  Curry has adapted to the many parts of the world it has been brought to, with spices and cream added and subtracted to cater to the tastes of a particular people.  Likewise, currybooks charge form based on different factors but have nostalgia, authenticity, and the idea of getting back to one’s roots as overarching themes.

Is there a problem with these expectations in the genre?  Only that they constrain and limit the potential methods of expression for brown writers.

Ruthnum examines novels, cookbooks, movies, and touches on his own experience as the son of Mauritian immigrants.  The writing is well-done and interesting, falling more on the educational side of things than entertaining.  There’s nothing wrong with that,  but go in knowing that Curry will require (and reward) your mental effort.  My e-copy is full of highlights that I suspect I’ll be returning to as I read more books set in and by authors from this part of the world.

Great for those interested in representation, the immigrant experience, race, and how they’re expressed in literature.

Thanks to Coach House Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman

34802624John Hodgman has written a memoir about his cursed travels through two wildernesses: from the woods of his home in Massachusetts, birthplace of rage, to his exile on the coast of Maine, so-called Vacationland, home to the most painful beaches on Earth

Vacationland is also about Hodgman’s wandering in the metaphoric wilderness of his forties, those years when dudes especially must painfully stop pretending to be the children of bright potential they were and settle into the failing bodies of the wiser, weirder dads that they are.

Other subjects covered include the horror of freshwater clams, the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, which animals to keep as pets and which to kill with traps and poison, and advice on how to react when the people of coastal Maine try to sacrifice you to their strange god.

Short review:

Do you like John Hodgman?  Then you’ll like this book. Go get it!

Longer review:

You’ve probably heard of and like Hodgman already via This American Life, the “I’m a PC” Mac ads, or his podcast Judge John Hodgman.  I was lucky enough to meet him at a book signing years ago and can confirm that he is a stellar human being.  (He signed my book “I know you are not a villain”, so it must be so.)

I am I biased? Sure. But his awesome human-ness is what comes out in this memoir essay collection. And first up is that he recognizes his white, upper middle class privilege and calls himself out throughout the book.

I am grateful to be reminded at how vigilant I need to be about my skin and its thinness and the responsibilities both entail.

The essays range over the course of Hodgman’s life but concentrate on his second act, namely being a middle-aged, once-kinda-famous dad who vacations in Maine. Come for the stories, stay for the amazing writing, humor, and insight.  It’s very Ira Glass-y in that bits of story are followed by pulling back to get a wider view.

We said good-bye to our new friends, who seemed happy to leave.  I do not know where they went in their lives after that, but I have learned to be comfortable with that.

A turn away from his books of fake facts, the essays of Vacationland are funny and earnest and make you glad that there’s a guy like John Hodgman out there, sharing his thoughts with the world.  A must read for Jh fans as well as a starting place for those unfamiliar.

Thanks to Viking and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

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.”


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.