mini-reviews: my life on the road, freedom is a constant struggle

I have admired the work of Gloria Steinem and Angela Y. Davis for a while, but haven’t read any books or essays by either until this past year! Here are my thoughts on their 2015 releases:

I won an ARC of Steinem’s fascinating, engaging memoir My Life on the Road from Goodreads. I didn’t know anything about Steinem’s upbringing, and she was so relatable here. I really enjoyed learning about her nomadic childhood, with her father’s wanderlust taking the family on frequent road trips, and how those experiences shaped her adult life both personally and professionally. I think this would have been even better on audio. A few sections dragged, but overall I loved how she used travel to illustrate feminism, organizing, and more in our world. She had insightful things to say about Hillary Clinton and 2008 primaries and election season, which was interesting to read just before the 2016 election. [Read in Sept. 2016.]

Freedom is a Constant Struggle is a great collection of selected speeches and conversations of Angela Y. Davis. The speeches in the last half of the book especially stood out to me; they connect race, feminism, civil rights, intersectionality, fighting for freedom, and more. Despite some repetitiveness, I think this is a must-read in these times as it drives home the point that several complex struggles we’re facing in the United States are also global issues. Davis is a fascinating, inspiring figure, and I’m awed by her brilliance and bravery. She’s a radical thinker and activist, and this slim book pushed my thinking on several issues. [Read in February 2017.]

mini-reviews: black mass and the butcher

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by mafia culture. There’s a certain thrill and allure to the power, dangerous living, and rule defiance that the organized crime lifestyle affords. And true crime is always more interesting to me than fiction.

Black Mass by Dick Lher and Gerard O’Neill is a classic true crime book that I’ve wanted to read for years. I started it three or four years ago but unfortunately ended up DNF’ing due to the international move. I did end up seeing the movie a couple years ago, but I was happy to finally devote myself to the entire book this month on audio. Black Mass is the story of notorious Irish Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger and his manipulation of the FBI, specifically agent John Connolly, for decades. Bulger famously evaded the FBI and lived in hiding for another seventeen years before his capture in 2011 and sentencing in 2012–13. I was spellbound by the meticulous attention to detail in Lehr and O’Neill’s research. On one hand, it’s incredible and sickening the depth of corruption in the FBI and those with authoritative power in the law… but on the other, what else is new? It was interesting reading this after David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon for another example of dirty practices in the FBI. And as an FBI informant, Bulger took advantage of every opportunity to get away with all kinds of evil deeds, evading the law left and right. This behavior is also fascinating on a psychological level, as Bulger identified not only as a Southie gangster but also an Irish one, and being a “rat” is tantamount to the ultimate betrayal in both cultures… not to mention he was a completely ruthless psychopath. It doesn’t flow quite as well as other non-fiction narratives I’ve read, but overall it’s a great addition to mafia history literature. It actually makes me want to rewatch the eponymous movie and The Departed, even better! [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

Last month, I listened to The Butcher by Philip Carlo on audio. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t nearly as good as Black Mass or other mafia-themed books I’ve read before. This one is about Tommy “Karate” Pitera, a capo in the Bonanno family in the 1980s, who was famous for his cruelly grotesque murders. Pitera spent two years in Japan honing his martial arts skills and learning about Japanese militaristic strategy.  I was of course interested in the subject, but the writing was mediocre. It’s a good story told poorly. Carlo was redundant, used three or four words when one will do, and included more similes and metaphors than I could count. It’s very “good guys versus bad guys” throughout; no nuance or insight and more dramatization than research. It was a short book, so I ended up finishing it, but sadly I think I’ll remember The Butcher more for the bad writing than Pitera’s life story. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

chernobyl 01:23:40

Andrew Leatherbarrow’s Chernobyl 01:23:40 was in my library recommendations after I read The Radium Girls earlier this year. I’m fascinated by disasters, natural and man-made, so I thought this sounded like a good read. Edited from Goodreads:

At 01:23:40 on April 26, 1986, Alexander Akimov pressed the emergency shutdown button at Chernobyl’s fourth nuclear reactor. It was an act that forced the permanent evacuation of a city, killed thousands and crippled the Soviet Union. The event spawned decades of conflicting, exaggerated, and inaccurate stories. This book presents an accessible but comprehensive account of what really happened. From the desperate fight to prevent a burning reactor core from irradiating eastern Europe, to the self-sacrifice of the heroic men who entered fields of radiation so strong that machines wouldn’t work, to the surprising truth about the legendary “Chernobyl divers,” all the way through to the USSR’s final show-trial. The historical narrative is interwoven with a story of the author’s own spontaneous journey to Ukraine’s still-abandoned city of Pripyat and the wider Chernobyl Zone.

Guys, how about we don’t have a nuclear holocaust, ok? Truly, I already knew (based on reading HiroshimaThe Radium Girls, etc.) that radium poisoning and nuclear bombs are bad. Devastating. Chernobyl 01:23:40 is another entry into the case for scrupulous handling radioactive material, taking all necessary precautions, and taking its inherent danger to living things and the world with the utmost seriousness. Now of course, this was a power plant and not weaponry, and this incident was mostly an accident-by-neglect (faulty construction of the plant, procedural failure, improper training, etc.). I agree that nuclear energy is a newer phenomenon and something we’re still learning about. I’m not convinced we should abandon nuclear power entirely. By today’s standards, would the Chernobyl plant even be operational with all the shortcuts taken on construction and procedure? Likely not, so the accident cannot necessarily be blamed on nuclear power itself but rather on human error. Still, its catastrophic consequences can’t be ignored. It’s incredible to me that even after all we’ve learned from the Curies, the Radium Girls, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, and more, things like this seem to still be bound to happen. Look at Fukushima in 2011. Look at current threats between the person who won the electoral college and North Korea.

Leatherbarrow’s personal journey to the area was somewhat distracting from the horrific event and aftermath of the accident in April 1986, and I’m sorry to have missed photos in the paper book having listened on audio, but it was still a compelling, easily digestible, short read. I’m sure I can find his photos online, and I’ve seen some before anyway. The brief history of nuclear power in the first chapter was a great setup to the rest of the book. I think Chernobyl 01:23:40 is a good, accessible starting point if you want to learn more about this subject.

Listened to audiobook in October 2017.

mini-reviews: bury my heart and killer moon

I’m a day late, but I thought this “holiday” (it’s awesome and amazing that this is being reclaimed as Indigenous Peoples’ Day by more and more cities and states!) is a good time to share my thoughts on two excellent books I recently read about Native American Indian history:

I’ve had Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on my TBR list forever. I really wonder why this wasn’t in my high school history curriculum (along with Zinn’s A People’s History…). Bury My Heart is a dark but necessary piece of United States history that tells the truth about how this country was built on greed, slaughter, and oppression rather than Christian values and a desire for independence as is so often taught in school. Bury My Heart outlines the systematic decimation of Native Americans from the day Europeans landed through the nineteenth century. Time and again the Native Americans were tricked, threatened, robbed, and massacred, yet they still compromised with white men to avoid war. By the time they did fight, it was too little, too late. Bury My Heart is long and dense, but gripping. This is our shameful, racist story of genocide and crimes against humanity, and should be required reading for every American. This is one of the best books I read in 2016, and I regret not reading it earlier. This horrific era (and the events in Flowers of the Killer Moon) are closer to us and our time than we’d like to think. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2016.]

David Grann is a master of well-researched narrative non-fiction, and Killers of the Flower Moon ranks right up there with The Lost City of Z for me. This book starts as a true-crime murder mystery: in the 1920s, residents of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma begin to be killed off, an event called “The Reign of Terror.” This is after the Osage people profited from inhabiting oil-rich land… which they were forced onto from their native lands decades earlier. Local and federal government agencies found ways to take advantage of these riches (and take money out of the hands of these citizens) by manipulating laws and policies so that the Osage weren’t deemed fit to handle their own money. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was brand new, and this was its first big homicide investigation. Using this one case as his example, Grann deftly exposes the racist, deceitful, and shameful tactics used not only by individuals but by institutions of government and law enforcement to further exploit and oppress Native Americans after where Bury My Heart leaves off. This was just shy of a century ago; why haven’t I heard about it before? This book is full of secrets, twists, and layer upon layer of disgusting corruption. It’s another engrossing piece of must-read American history. [Listened to audiobook in August 2017.]

mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything—an actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight. It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants—they just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is an excellent companion piece to Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear. Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)—finding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer. This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed—a blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]

mini-reviews: black earth and on tyranny

In the last year, I ended up reading two books by Timothy Snyder. One is a couple years old, one is brand new, and both are terrifyingly pertinent to what the United States is going through right now.

Black Earth is a dense and extensive look at the Holocaust, but is told not only as an historical account but also as a warning that the past isn’t so unrepeatable as we may think. Snyder delves into how the Holocaust began—as a dark idea within Hitler’s mind—and each step Hitler took towards attempting to achieve his vision. Military strategies, individual heroes, the dangers of statelessness, and of course the horrors of mass human slaughter are all examined here. Snyder’s warning comes as a conclusion that we in early-twenty-first-century America are facing similar ecological and ideological issues that Europe did in the early twentieth century, and missing the lessons of the Holocaust has endangered our national and global futures. We’re not as removed from Hitler’s supposedly incomprehensible world as we want to believe. It’s a bleak read, but necessary. [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

On Tyranny was released in March this year, hot on the heels of the inauguration. It’s a slim volume of twenty ways to defy fascism, the dismantling of democracy, and an authoritarian governmental takeover, citing historical (mostly European) examples from the twentieth century. It doesn’t go into great depth the way Black Earth does—it reads more like daily devotionals or meditations. But still, On Tyranny does serve as a reminder that there are ways to fight back. Some lessons included are refusing to normalize the situation, defending institutions, doing your homework when it comes to information, opposing a one-party state, paying close attention to words, believing in and defending the truth, reading, refusing to obey in advance, and making human connections. This is another excellent addition to the abundant response resisting this administration and time in U.S. history. [Read in April 2017.]