league of denial

Last summer, I listened to the excellent audiobook version of League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. With football season upon us, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at this one. Edited from Goodreads:

“Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.”

So concluded the National Football League in a December 2005 scientific paper on concussions in America’s most popular sport. That judgment, implausible even to a casual fan, also contradicted the opinion of a growing cadre of neuroscientists who worked in vain to convince the NFL that it was facing a deadly new scourge: a chronic brain disease that was driving an alarming number of players—including some of the all-time greats—to madness.

League of Denial reveals how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage.

If you read my little slice of the internet here, you know I’m a rabid Green Bay Packers fan. My mother grew up in De Pere, in a house just a mile from Vince Lombardi’s house. Lombardi frequented my grandparents’ church. My grandparents went on dates to games. We have coveted, hard-to-get season tickets. As a fan, as someone who cares and is curious, I decided to read League of Denial. I already knew there are health consequences to playing contact sports, but I had no idea just how disturbingly deep the CTE controversy goes in the NFL.

League of Denial exposes the fraud of “safety” in football, from the physically violent way the game is played to attempting to solve the CTE issue with advances in helmet construction and technology, from medical teams to owners to the highest levels of administration. It was just like how Big Tobacco convinced everyone for the longest time that smoking cigarettes was safe. There’s no helmet that can keep the brain from experiencing trauma and damage inside the skull when a player is hit, whether it’s football, baseball, boxing, or anything else.

The amount of research and countless interviews that went into League of Denial is staggering. I know Brett Favre is concerned and vocal about his own future health regarding CTE, and the distressing experiences of football greats like Troy Aikman and Dan Marino in this book really bring home CTE’s seriousness, as well as the NFL’s denial and inaction. The most disquieting story, though, is the life and tragic downward spiral of four-time Super Bowl champion Mike Webster. He was from Wisconsin, where he grew up on a farm, rooted for the Packers, and was a center for the Badgers in college at UW-Madison. It’s a very typical Wisconsin upbringing that hits close to home for me.

This is a compulsively readable book. The only downside of the audio is I’m sure I missed out on a photo section on paper. I haven’t been able to denounce and boycott the game, primarily because the Packers are such a huge part of my homestate’s culture and my family’s bond and history. But I’m paying closer attention for sure to this issue and how the NFL handles it going forward. As a sports fan, and particularly a football fan—one with a conscious—I’m glad I read this informative book. It serves as a warning for exactly how more and more rampant CTE will become each year, and makes the reader question why we as a society are so obsessed with a sport that mimics war and glorifies violence.

Listened to audiobook in July 2016.

life’s work

I learned about Life’s Work by Dr. Willie Parker from Lizz Winstead’s excellent podcast Repro Madness, produced by women’s health and abortion advocate group Lady Parts Justice. Edited from Goodreads:

In Life’s Work, an outspoken, Christian reproductive justice advocate and abortion provider (one of the few doctors to provide such services to women in Mississippi and Alabama) pulls from his personal and professional journeys as well as the scientific training he received as a doctor to reveal how he came to believe, unequivocally, that helping women in need, without judgment, is precisely the Christian thing to do.

I was blown away by Dr. Parker’s rational take on why abortion does not contradict with Christian values. I appreciate that he acknowledges he was not always a proponent of choice, detailing out how his view changed through his upbringing in the poverty-stricken South, and his education and experience in the medical field coupled with a deeper examination of his faith. I have frequently questioned tenants of Catholicism, the religion in which I was raised (and made it through all the rites except marriage—that was in the courthouse for me), so of course hearing the account of a pro-choice Christian piqued my interest. Life’s Work is fairly short and I admit I’m already pro-choice, so I’m predisposed to like this book and agree with a pro-choice viewpoint, but I still learned things from Dr. Parker, like the ulterior motives of elderly, right-wing white men bringing legislation down to try to ban abortion entirely. Obviously they twist Christian beliefs to try to achieve this, claiming it’s about “saving unborn children,” when really it’s about resistance to (our wonderfully inevitable) future racial and cultural diversity.

I hope that people of all different ideological outlooks and faiths read Life’s Work. It’s an eloquent, though-provoking, brave memoir that I highly recommend.

Listened to audiobook in May 2017.

a little life

After seeing many, many rave reviews and landing on numerous best-of lists at the end of 2015, I decided to give A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara a try despite my reservations due it to being a major chunkster. From Goodreads:

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

I will agree with most reviewers: A Little Life is an emotionally taxing book; the story is affecting, complicated, and distressing, to say the least. I found the word “devastating” in a lot of comments, however, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m naturally attracted to dark, disturbing material sometimes, but I wasn’t so upset and “destroyed” as some readers were after finishing.

My issues with A Little Life are less with the bad stuff that happens (and I agree they are truly horrid, unspeakable, unfair abuses). Let’s be honest—these (and worse) things really happen to people every day all over the world. The characters’ unwavering commitment to and deep, often unrequited love for Jude baffled me at times. I also had trouble buying that all four friends became rich and wildly successful in their highly competitive careers. And fair warning: apologies occur frequently in this book. The words “I’m sorry” appear pretty much on every single page. I started rolling my eyes at each utterance after a while. Despite being 720 pages, the vagueness throughout the story must have been intentional, too: how are 9/11 and HIV never once mentioned in a book set in New York City spanning several (seemingly recent/current) decades featuring gay characters? It bothered me while reading but on reflection I suppose to give the story a timeless atmosphere.

Much of Yanagihara’s writing is lovely, though, even hinging on poetic at times. You do get a sense for the trauma and sorrow the characters experience, as well as their happy times. I really enjoyed the backstories for JB and especially Willem in the first part of the book. I think she does a fantastic job of making these relationships all feel tangible. While there is a lot of writing here, it never felt too dense or difficult to pick up wherever I left off. Bottom line: I would recommend A Little Life to anyone interested. Give it 100 pages and see what you think at that point.

Read from January 9 to February 18, 2016.

brain on fire

I know it’s only the first month of the year, but I’m on track so far for my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge! The first book I decided to read from my list was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. From Goodreads:

When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened? In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

In August 2013 I actually attended Cahalan’s appearance in Kansas City for an author event sponsored by Rainy Day Books. She was bubbly and personable, and there was a particularly sweet moment when, during the Q&A, a mother expressed her gratitude at Cahalan’s book raising awareness for neurological diseases such as these, of which her young daughter suffered as well. The girl was there too, and Cahalan took her up on stage to sit with her.

Brain on Fire is an interesting read—her descent into “madness,” to the bafflement of many doctors, was harrowing and shocking. The best part is that Cahalan brings to light the prospect that perhaps those with undiagnosed “mystery” illnesses, or illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism, say, may actually have a disease that’s treatable and curable. How many people have died in situations like the one Cahalan faced? The brain is a fascinating and enigmatic subject.

While I do think the pacing and layout was done well, the writing lacked in places for me. Some of it was repetitive and some of it felt like trying to hard to be literary, like the book couldn’t decide whether to be a narrative memoir (too many adverb…) or an investigative scientific research piece—admittedly I glazed over many of the scientific descriptions. I also didn’t get a great sense of who Cahalan was before the onset of the disease. A bizarre behavior manifests seemingly out of nowhere, and we just take her word for it that it was uncharacteristic? I mean, yeah, I guess so… I just wish we would have gotten to know Cahalan better beforehand so the unusual symptoms could carry more cause for alarm. I didn’t feel emotionally invested or connected to her.

But, if you like the TV show House and have an interest in books about science, health, and mysteries, I think this one is worth a read.

Brain on Fire is my first of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from January 23 to 25, 2015.

men we reaped

Here’s another I put on hold at the library, which came through this week. I considered buying a copy of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped a while back, but was nervous it was going to be emotionally tough to read. I was right, but it was worth it. From Goodreads:

In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth—and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.

Men We Reaped left me a little breathless. Ward’s grief is raw and palpable… practically oozes off the pages. It just hurt my heart, reading about her brother—I almost dreaded reading the final chapter dealing with his death. I too have fierce, unshakable feelings of love, pride, and protectiveness for my brother. I’ve often said I can’t imagine who I would be without him. I just cannot even imagine the agony of losing a sibling. Ward eloquently describes these important, special people in her life that tragically left this world all too soon. Her articulate prose is full of pain, love, and grace.

I ended up rating this a 5-star on Goodreads because I found it so affecting, and of course timely considering the recent national attention to deaths of young black men like these in Men We Reaped. This was an excellent complement to The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, which I read earlier this month—urban and rural, Northeast and South. Men We Reaped was even more potent for me, though, probably because it was written in first-person by someone who was born into these race and socioeconomic issues. While she does state these issues have a damaging effect on so many lives and communities, it’s kind of treated as a given, not too deeply examined… but perhaps that’s for a different, more research-based book to accomplish. Men We Reaped is for the heart.

Anyway, I was so moved by this beautiful book, a testament to love, loyalty, community, family… and a heartbreaking account of some of the harsh, tragic realities of life for millions of Americans, particularly in the rural South.

Read from January 19 to 22, 2015.

the end of your life book club

I picked up a copy of The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe several months ago when it was making the book blog rounds, but put off reading it in the wake of both my grandmothers’ recent deaths. I just thought it might cut too deep at the moment, but finally I decided to give it a read, despite my tender heart right now. From Goodreads:

This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will [Schwalbe] and [his mother] Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.

I enjoyed The End of Your Life Book Club overall. It beautifully demonstrated how books can bond people together and open up a dialogue about the world, culture, events, and more that we experience in this life, and how books act as a bridge between the past, present, and future. I admired Mary Anne’s humanitarianism and accomplishments, even though she seemed like a pretty intense person in general (and some of her achievements and personality seemed too good to be true). I interpreted this memoir as a loving tribute, detecting nothing but love and respect from Will for his mother, if sort of extra carefully, from arm’s length.

There are a few parts of the book that made me raise an eyebrow. I didn’t personally need to know about Mary Anne’s struggle to decide what to do with her money, who was getting her frequent flier miles, etc. The privilege and elitism of this family was too much sometimes; it reminded me of the beginning of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (I DNF’d because of the elitism), which is also a book discussed in EoYLBC. However I think that Schwalbe described his family’s privilege much more delicately than Didion, palpable but easier to swallow. I also perceived Mary Anne as a person needing to be in control and have things go as planned, which was a bit off-putting for me.

Apparently, EoYLBC is a fairly polarizing memoir. It’s pretty specific and narrow in its focus—more about the relationship of Will and Mary Anne, the book club, Mary Anne’s life and less about books, which disappointed many readers. On one hand I agree with that sentiment, but on the other I wouldn’t want spoilers.

The ending resonated with me most of all, though, even prompting a few tears—the part when the family stands vigil by Mary Anne’s bedside in her last hours. I just went through this with one of my grandmothers last year, and it was an experience I will never forget.

Read from December 1 to 11, 2014.