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.

#90sinJuly – July 4 – No Rain

“And I don’t understand why I sleep all day
And I start to complain that there’s no rain
And all I can do is read a book to stay awake
And it rips my life away but it’s a great escape
Escape, escape, escape”

Oooo I identify with this. I’m hypothyroid, and despite being medicated, I still have bad fatigue days sometimes. Sometimes that means I can’t pull myself out of bed to go do things I’d planned to do. I tend to write and schedule a bunch of blog posts on my good days, so even if I have a bad fatigue day, something still posts on the blog here. So this is my book today – it’s taught me a lot about my condition and what I can do to mitigate it.20170626_134908

#90sinJuly – July 3 – Whatta Man

“What a man, what a man, what a man, what a mighty good maaaann….” Yeah, Obama immediately popped into my head. I miss him. He’s not completely without problems – drone strikes, privacy issues – but damn he was one of our best presidents in years. I read The Audacity of Hope during his first campaign for President. It was part of what won my vote.

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Book Review: Walking Baltimore

 

WalkingBaltimoreWalking Baltimore
by Evan Balkan
280 pages
Published 2013
Nonfiction – Guidebook

So the first book I want to talk about is a series of walking tours of Baltimore. I’ve only been on two of these walks so far, but I plan to take many more of them. It’s just been SO. HOT. And I’m not a person who likes walking much to begin with! But there’s a new game out that’s made walking so much more fun – yes, I’m talking about Pokemon Go. (Go Team Mystic!) That little bit of motivation of “well, I’ll walk to that Pokestop. Alright, there’s another Pokestop two blocks away, I can make it to that one. Maybe a little further to that next Pokestop. OOoo there’s a Tangela nearby!” It makes it just enough fun that I walk a lot more before I’ve even realized it.

Walking Baltimore gives me general guides for walks so I’m not just wandering Pokestop to Pokestop until I get lost! It has very detailed instructions – turn left at this corner, cross the street here so you can see this monument, then look up at the architecture in front of you – it’s really well done. My only wish is that there was an appendix that rated the walks in order of difficulty – each walk has a rating, from easy to moderate to strenuous – but there’s no way to see all of the difficulties side by side. With 33 walks all over Baltimore, with all levels of difficulty and lengths, there’s definitely something here for everyone, and the history and points of interest covered by the walks are fascinating.

The two that I’ve actually walked are half of #4, Inner Harbor Promenade, and #11, The Civil War Trail: Path of the War’s First Bloodshed. Both are mostly on the Inner Harbor, where my husband works, so I hitched a ride down with him, walked, and caught Pokemon until he got off work and we came home. (We live outside Baltimore City limits.) I’d been down in the area many times, but had no idea the Civil War’s first bloodshed occurred when a mob waylaid Union troops travelling through Baltimore! There are medallions laid in the sidewalks commemorating some of the events of the Civil War march, and most of those are Pokestops too.

Currently I have this book out from the library, but I think this is one I’ll be adding to my personal library soon. I want the walking guides! The author has also written 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Baltimore and Best in Tent Camping: Maryland. So he knows his stuff.

From the back of Walking Baltimore:

BALTIMORE – famous for spectacular harbor views, myriad historical monuments and landmarks, and important cultural institutions. But it’s also much more – a patchwork of small, unique neighborhoods with terrific bars and restaurants, and more recreation and green space than most people realize. All of this combines to make Baltimore one of America’s most fascinating and walkable cities. 

In Walking Baltimore, longtime insider Evan Balkan leads you on 33 self-guided tours from Fells Point to the Inner Harbor, Mount Vernon to Mount Washington, and all the diverse neighborhoods in between. This book will show locals and visitors alike how and why Baltimore was an essential player in the country’s early history and continues to be influential today. You’ll soak up Charm City’s incredible history, culture, architectural trivia, and quirky vibe. Plus, you’ll find tips on where to dine or have a drink. Clear neighborhood maps and vital public transportation and parking details make exploring easy. Whether you’re looking for an afternoon stroll or full-day’s entertainment, grab this book, step outside, and walk Baltimore!