Book Review: On Tyranny

tyrannyOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
by Timothy Snyder
Nonfiction
126 pages
Published 2017

On Tyranny is a short little book. I don’t think it needs to be longer – it’s easy to read, succinct, and is meant to serve as a warning. If anyone wants to learn more about any of the twenty lessons, there are plenty of resources for that. It’s simply “HEY. This happened before. And this happened before. And this happened before and YOU NEED TO SEE THESE SIMILARITIES.” It was a very quick read, but has left me with a lot to think about.

The format is simple: Twenty sections, each beginning with a lesson title and a short summary paragraph, then going into more detail in the next two to three pages. For example:

Do Not Obey In Advance.
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

The next few pages talk about Austrian Nazis rounded up Jews and used them as forced labor, before the German government told them to. When Jewish businesses were marked as such, people immediately started avoiding them. Anticipatory obedience. (Relate this to the suddenly overt racism and Nazi marches we’re now facing in the US – where that used to be hidden.)

Another example:

Take Responsibility For The Face Of The World.
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

The next pages talk about propaganda, and signs. If we tolerate swastikas, we imply that we accept them. That we support them. And if the oppressed groups that those swastikas are aimed at see everyone around them supporting them, who do they look to for help? All it takes is one person deciding to scrub off or paint over the swastika, for people around them to realize that’s a thing that can be done. This plays into another section, which talked about Standing Out. Do the thing that makes you stand out – whether that’s standing up for a minority, or scrubbing swastikas off walls, or attending a protest. If you don’t stand out, you’re too easily ignored as part of the problem.

This book had lots of holds at my local library – while I was sad to have to wait so long, I was pleased that so many people wanted to read it. I was 35th in line at one point! Just knowing that so many people want to read it is a little reassuring. The author has written several books on the Holocaust, WWII, and the rise of Hitler, so he knows what he’s talking about, and it shows in his writing.

On Tyranny is a quick read and does an amazing job of boiling a lot of complicated concepts down into very succinct little points. I definitely recommend it as a jumping off point. Just don’t let it be all you read.

From the cover of On Tyranny:

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.  Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

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Book Review: The Journal of Best Practices

journalThe Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband
by David Finch
Memoir
222 pages
Published 2012

Well. I’m still not 100% back to health, but I’m well enough to get absorbed in a book again! This book was especially interesting to me because we are pretty sure that my husband is on the autism spectrum. What would have been called Asperger’s a few years ago, before they wrapped that back into autism, because it’s all the same syndrome – it just differs in how it impacts people. (The book was obviously written before that happened, though Asperger’s still seems to be shorthand for autistic people that don’t fit what most people think of as autistic – what some people would call high-functioning, I suppose, though that’s also not as cut and dried as it seems. Rebecca Burgess described it well in her comic on Tumblr.)

I read portions of this book aloud to my husband, because they described him to a T. The very first page mentions how Finch recalls his niece’s birthday, not because he’s a good uncle, but because it’s 3/14 – Pi. My husband remembers my birthday because it’s half a stick of RAM (well it used to be, anyway!) – 5/12. Now he remembers it as 2^9. The first chapter then goes on to describe how Finch’s wife sat him down with a self-diagnostic questionnaire (he received an official diagnosis later) and he was surprised at how many questions described him. While they didn’t list all 200 or so questions in the book, the ones that were mentioned I asked my husband. He was a Yes to all but one, and looked at me afterwards with a laugh and a joking “I’m feeling a little attacked right now!” That included questions like “Do you sometimes have an urge to jump over things?” (Yes) and “Have you been fascinated by making traps?” Husband told me about a book on survival he’d been given when he was 14 or so – he doesn’t remember much of it, but he can recall almost verbatim the chapter on traps and snares.

The book was a fascinating look into the mind of an adult with autism trying (and succeeding!) to navigate a relationship. It gave us a lot to talk about, and a few new strategies to try. If you know or love anyone on the autism spectrum, I highly recommend this book. It might help you understand how they see things.

I have another book on autism to read soon – Been There, Done That, Try This! – about coping strategies for autistic adults. I’m eager to see how much of that we can use in our daily lives.

From the cover of The Journal of Best Practices:

At some point in nearly every marriage, a wife finds herself asking, What the @#!% is wrong with my husband?! In David Finch’s case, this turns out to be an apt question. Five years after he married Kristen, the love of his life, they learn that he has Asperger syndrome. The diagnosis explains David’s ever-growing list of quirks and compulsions, his lifelong propensity to quack and otherwise melt down in social exchanges, and his clinical-strength inflexibility. But it doesn’t make him any easier to live with.

Determined to change, David sets out to understand Asperger syndrome and learn to be a better husband – no easy task for a guy whose inability to express himself rivals his two-year-old daughter’s, who thinks his responsibility for laundry extends no further than throwing things in (or at) the hamper, and whose autism-spectrum condition makes seeing his wife’s point of view a near impossibility.

Nevertheless, David devotes himself to improving his marriage with an endearing yet hilarious zeal that involves excessive note-taking, performance reviews, and most of all, the Journal of Best Practices: a collection of hundreds of maxims and hard-won epiphanies that result from self-reflection both comic and painful. They include “Don’t change the radio station when she’s singing along,” “Apologies do not count when you shout them,” and “Be her friend, first and always.” Guided by the Journal of Best Practices, David transforms himself over the course of two years from the world’s most trying husband to the husband who tries the hardest, the husband he’d always meant to be.

Book Review: Tears We Cannot Stop

tearsTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
by Michael Eric Dyson
Nonfiction
228 pages
Published 2017

I’m always trying to continue to educate myself on my white privilege, America’s racist history, and civil rights and activism in general. Tears We Cannot Stop fits neatly into that category, but it’s not an easy-to-read book. I mean, it is – in the sense that it’s well-written and flows very well. But it’s not easy to read because of what it says. Dyson is a black pastor, and he wrote this book as if he was preaching to the white people of America, trying to make them understand the plight of the minorities we oppress. Black people specifically.

It’s a short book, but a very powerful one. It’s separated into sections like a sermon would be, with a Call to Worship, Hymns of Praise, Scripture Reading, the Sermon, a Benediction, and more. He’s correlated these sections of a sermon with that of the book – The Offering Plate, for example, is a short little section talking about how one university – Georgetown – apologized for their past use of slavery, and established an institute to study slavery and its effects. Tried to make reparations, in a way. In the scripture reading he quotes a lot of Martin Luther King. In the Benediction he actually talks about a lot of other books to read about the subject of slavery, all of which I’ve added to my already extensive Goodreads shelf on the subject of civil rights and activism. (I’ll be attempting to read as many of those books as I can.)

Tears is a really good opening book to read on the topic, especially for white people. It’s eye-opening, and both invites and provides guidance for further investigation into just how big of a mess we’ve made of things in this country. I highly recommend it.

And, if you happen to be local to Baltimore, the author will be speaking at the Baltimore Book Festival this Friday, September 22nd! Unfortunately, I can’t make it on Friday, so I’m going on Sunday. Sunday I’m planning to catch Daniel Jose Older, the author of the Bone Street Rumba series and Shadowshaper, and Kevin Shird, the author of Uprising in the City, about the Baltimore Riots in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray. I’m really excited about it, even if it is going to be the hottest day we’ve had in a couple of weeks. (Still only mid-80s, though, so it could be worse!)

From the cover of Tears We Cannot Stop:

As the country grapples with racial division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice is heard above the rest. In his 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. In the tradition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time – short, emotional, literary, powerful – this is the book that all Americans who care about the current and long-burning crisis in race relations will want to read.

Book Review: Angry Optimist – The Life and Times of Jon Stewart

angryoptAngry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart
Lisa Rogak
Biography
225 pages
Published 2014

So I’m a little ambivalent about this book. Jon Stewart took over at The Daily Show the same year I graduated high school. I was 16 and only starting to pay attention to politics. I was also raised quite conservative Christian – the pundit we listened to the most was Rush Limbaugh. And here was a man saying things that were the total opposite of what I’d been taught – but also things that resonated a lot more with me. Many years later, when The Daily Show and Jon Stewart were labeled the most trusted voices in news media, I had no trouble at all believing it. He not only knew how to speak to my generation, he also spoke for us. All the things we were thinking, he was out there shouting. He was our window into this grown up, corrupted world of politics, and we loved him for it.

Not to say he’s perfect. I’d heard – and Angry Optimist mentions – that he can occasionally be a rage-filled asshole. That the staff of The Daily Show has a woman problem. (As in, not enough of them, and can’t keep them.) So while I do admire the man, I am not blind to his flaws.

The book is interesting – I learned more about his early life and career – but nothing really game-changing. And perhaps that says something about Stewart. There aren’t really any skeletons in his closet, or scandalous stories. He’s just an angry Jewish comedian.

Rogak’s style of writing is easily consumed; I read the entire book in about three hours. Perhaps part of why I find it so anticlimactic is that she ends it with this sense of not knowing what Stewart might be up to next, and whether, if he does decide to leave The Daily Show eventually, if the show will end with him – and we know those answers now, three years after the book was published. Stewart has retired (barring the occasional appearance on Colbert’s show) and Trevor Noah is doing an admirable job of holding down the fort after Stewart’s exit. (With less anger, and a little more befuddlement, which is a fun change.) I was also a little disappointed that she mentions Stewart’s friendship with Anthony Weiner – but doesn’t say anything about how he took the ribbing from Stewart over Weiner’s rather unglamorous exit from politics.

I have also heard that the audio book is not good – apparently the narrator is boring. So I’d recommend the print book over the audio, if you choose to read it.

From the cover of Angry Optimist

Since his arrival at The Daily Show in 1999, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media. In Angry Optimist, biographer Lisa Rogak charts his unlikely rise to stardom. She follows him from his early days growing up in New Jersey, through his years as a struggling stand-up comic in New York, and on the short-lived but acclaimed The Jon Stewart Show. And she charts his humbling string of near-misses – passed over as a replacement for shows hosted by Conan O’Brien, Tom Snyder, and even the fictional Larry Sanders – before landing on a half-hour comedy show that at the time was still finding its footing amidst roiling internal drama. 

Once there, Stewart transformed The Daily Show into one of the most influential new programs on television today. Drawing on interviews with his current and former colleagues, Rogak reveals how things work – and sometimes don’t work – behind the scenes at The Daily Show, led by Jon Stewart, a comedian who has come to wield incredible power in American politics. 

Book Review: This Common Secret

commonsecThis Common Secret
Susan Wicklund with Alan Kesselheim
Memoir
268 pages
Published 2007

Let me begin by saying I am a feminist. I am pro-choice. This was a difficult read because it talks about the lengths people will go to infringe on the rights of women like me to make that choice. Dr. Wicklund goes into detail about the dangers she personally has faced as an abortion provider – from stalking, to assault, to arson and death threats. The murders of Dr. Hill and Dr. Britton are mentioned, and the attempted murder of Dr. Tiller. (An attempt on Dr. Tiller’s life was successful two years after the publication of the book.) She resorted to wildly varying routines, different methods of transportation, elaborate disguises, as well as hiring private security guards, none of it really alleviating her fear that she could be next.

Running throughout the entire book is Dr. Wicklund’s concern for her patients. She is a dedicated, compassionate woman who wants nothing but the best for the women in her care. In many cases, that’s not actually abortion. One of the things that makes her an excellent doctor is ferreting out what is really in her patients’ best interests.

The book is mercifully short; I have no doubt she had many more stories she could have told, but the topic is brutal and hard to read, and keeping it concise and on-message was well done. I still had to set it down and play some mindless video games when I was done, as it was a little overwhelming.

In the ten years since the book was published, nothing has really changed. The New York Times has a short read on the major acts of violence against abortion clinics and providers. The National Abortion Federation has a longer database on all acts of violence against clinics. Their summary is eye-opening – all statistics below are from 1977 to present. (They have it broken down further by decade and year on a downloadable pdf.)

Murders – 11
Attempted Murders – 26
Bombing – 42
Arson – 186
Attempted Bombing/Arson – 98
Invasion – 411
Vandalism – 1643
Trespassing – 2925
Acid Attacks – 100
Anthrax/Bioterrorism Threats – 663
Assault & Battery – 239
Death Threats – 545
Kidnapping – 4
Burglary – 255
Stalking – 583

That doesn’t include the pure amounts of hate mail, picketers, hate mail, and blockades. This is what providers persevere through to give us health care. To provide a LEGAL PROCEDURE so women don’t die from performing it on themselves in an unsafe manner.

This Common Secret also touches on why people keep it a secret. Why people don’t talk about their abortion. And why people should. If more people realize that the women that get abortions are your neighbor, your sister, your grandmother – not just that “whore that slept around” – although she, too, deserves an abortion if that is the right choice for her. Maybe they would rethink their opposition to it.

I’m honestly probably not giving this book justice – it’s a decade old, but could have been written yesterday. And I am infuriated by anti-choice assholes.

From the cover of This Common Secret:

Susan Wicklund was twenty-two-years old and juggling three jobs in Portland, Oregon when she endured a difficult abortion. Partly in response to that experience, she later embarked on an improbable life journey devoted to women’s reproductive health, attending both undergraduate and medical school as a single mother. It was not until she became a doctor that she realized how many women share the ordeal of unwanted pregnancies – and how hidden this common experience remains.

Here is an emotional and dramatic story covering twenty years on the front lines of the abortion war. For years Wicklund commuted between clinics in different states and disguised herself from protesters – often wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a .38 caliber revolver. Her daughter, Sonja, experienced seeing wanted posters with her mother’s face on them and riding to school in police cars to get through the human blockades at the end of their driveway.

Wicklund also tells the stories of the women she serves, women whose options are increasingly limited: counseling sessions in which women confide that they had used combinations of herbs – or worse – to attempt a miscarriage; or patients who have been protesters, but then find themselves bearing an unwanted pregnancy; and women who claim to want an abortion, but nothing they say or do convinces Wicklund that the decision is whole-hearted.

This Common Secret brims with the compassion and urgency of a woman who has witnessed the struggles of real patients. It also offers an honest portrait of the clinics that anti-abortion activists portray as little more than slaughterhouses for the unborn. As we enter the most fevered political fight over abortion that America has ever seen, Wicklund’s raw and revealing memoir shows us what is at stake.

 

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

astroAn Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Colonel Chris Hadfield
Memoir
284 pages
Published 2013

Wow. Just wow. I woke up far earlier than I wanted to this morning, so I picked up one of the nonfiction books I had from the library, expecting it to put me back to sleep. Three hours later I was still awake, nearly done with the book, and absolutely enthralled. I’m not sure why I thought it would be otherwise – I’d been one of the millions fascinated with Hadfield’s videos and tweets when he was Commander of the ISS. His particular voice is very clear throughout this book. In 284 pages he takes us from his childhood, through his career path to becoming an astronaut, to his 5 months in the International Space Station, and back home. Nothing felt rushed, nothing felt like it didn’t get the attention it deserved. I’m pretty sure this is going to be one of my favorite books of 2017 – I have several months to read more things, but this book just absolutely blew me away.

It does appeal to how I like to read about science, though. I love reading about scientists. How they worked, how they made their discoveries, the paths they took. Who they were. I’m less interested in the actual science. (As opposed to my husband, who cares only about the science, and isn’t interested in hearing much about the scientists.) This is part of why I loved A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, so much. I borrowed that book from the library and read it cover to cover, fascinated. Finally had to buy my own copy.

Hadfield took space exploration and made it accessible to everyone. According to the book, he didn’t even quite realize how big of an impact he was making at first. But between tweeting pictures from the ISS, making videos of how different life was in space, and making music videos, he really did become the most well-known astronaut of our generation. I remember putting his video of I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing) on repeat when it came out – and it STILL gives me chills today.

He only briefly talked about this video in the book, which I found surprising, given it was the one that hit me the hardest. He spent more time talking about filming and recording Space Oddity – which does have 36 million views, to I.S.S.’s 2 million. So I suppose that makes sense!

One thing he keeps coming back to in his book is his philosophy of trying to be a zero. That doesn’t sound very ambitious on the surface – but what he means is you can be one of three things in a group. You can be a negative impact (a -1) a neutral impact (a zero) or a positive impact (a +1). If you try to be a +1, it’s far likelier that you’ll try too hard, fuck up, and instead become a negative impact. So aim to be a zero. And most of the time you’ll wind up as a positive impact. I thought that was a very unique philosophy.

He’s also written a children’s book, The Darkest Dark, about a kid who wants to be an astronaut but is afraid of the dark.

This is the second book I’ve read for the Canadian Book Challenge, and I’m so glad I finally got around to it. (It’s the first one I’m reviewing, though, the first book I read I’ll be reviewing in August.)

From the cover of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth:

Col. Chris Hadfield has spend decades training as an astronaut and has logged nearly four thousand hours in space. During this time he has broken into a space station with a Swiss Army knife, disposed of a live snake while piloting a plane, and been temporarily blinded while clinging to the exterior of an orbiting spacecraft. The secret to Col. Hadfield’s success – and survival – is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: Prepare for the worst – and enjoy every moment of it.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Col. Hadfield takes readers deep into his years of training and space exploration to show how to make the impossible possible. Through eye-opening, entertaining stories that convey the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of space walks, and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises, he explains how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement – and happiness. His own extraordinary education in space has taught him some counterintuitive lessons: Don’t visualize success, do care what others think, and always sweat the small stuff. 

You may never be able to build a robot, pilot a spacecraft, make a music video, or perform basic surgery in zero gravity like Col. Hadfield. But his vivid and refreshing insights will teach you how to think like an astronaut and will change, completely, the way you view life on earth – especially your own.