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.]

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.

our divided political heart

The last book I listened to on audio was E. J. Dionne, Jr.’s Our Divided Political Heart and whoo boy, was it a whopper. From Goodreads:

Offering an incisive analysis of how hyper-individualism is poisoning the nation’s political atmosphere, E. J. Dionne Jr. argues that Americans can’t agree on who we are because we can’t agree on who we’ve been, or what it is, philosophically and spiritually, that makes us Americans. Dionne takes on the Tea Party’s distortions of American history and shows that the true American tradition points not to radical individualism, but to a balance between our love of individualism and our devotion to community.

I enjoy learning about politics, and have read a number of books on the subject in the last few years. I find it especially interesting now, as the country is so divided on many issues—how did it come to this? How can this be resolved? Dionne’s book examines this topic and does so looking back at historical societal trends, the birth of socioeconomic philosophies, and our nation’s current events. While Dionne clearly leans towards liberalism (and says so), I appreciated his fair discussions of both conservatism and liberalism, democrats and republicans, and the many factions of both sides therein.

America’s identity is balanced by two threads: individual freedom and community. Mostly what resonates is Dionne’s assertion in the “American Experiment” is that the individual cannot exist without community, and vice versa. Our history is important, and it’s important to have the facts straight. All factions of the political spectrum in the United States (radical individualism, compassionate conservatism, progressive liberalism, and so on) are guilty of selective history, taking only what facts serve their current ideology that it’s easy to forget how much balance is needed. It’s interesting, too, how much these political factions have changed over the years, in some cases even flipping ideals entirely.

Our Divided Political Heart was a slow listen for me—I do best with audiobooks on a long road trip and wasn’t on one when I listened to this, so it was tough to find time for it in my normal routine. And it’s very dense, sometimes a little dry and “academic.” Nevertheless, it’s a thought-provoking, informative book and great for those interested in American history, current affairs, and politics.

Listened to audiobook from June 23 to July 19, 2014.

the devil and miss prym

I have had Paulo Coelho’s The Devil and Miss Prym on my bookcase for more than ten years—I remember buying it new before I went off to college—and it only ended up taking me two days to read. (DERP!) When I signed up for my reading challenges this year, I knew The Devil and Miss Prym would be included on one of them, and the themes fit perfectly with the KC Public Library’s While the City Sleeps program.

One day, a stranger arrives in the sleepy village of Viscos after having buried eleven gold bars in the neighboring forest. The stranger meets Chantal Prym, the hotel bartender, and tells her that he will give the townspeople the gold bars but only on one condition: that they murder one of their fellow citizens. Chantal is beside herself and weighs her options and the consequences of each. Eventually, the residents are presented with the stranger’s proposal, and make their fateful decision.

The Devil and Miss Prym is simple yet intricate fable about a man who seeks answers about good versus evil in human nature; a woman internally conflicted with boredom, temptation, and right versus wrong; and a society faced with a complicated moral dilemma. The gold bars would mean prosperity and growth for the community, but is the cost of a human life—one of their lifelong neighbors and friends—really worth it? Who should they chose? Why is that life expendable? What will happen to the people and the town afterwards, in their hearts and souls?

The Devil and Miss Prym is full of stories, from character histories to town legends, and philosophical discussions of religion and spirituality. I enjoy Coelho’s toned-down narrative style, and it was effective with a complex, profound themes such as this. I felt sorry for Chantal, all of a sudden having the unenviable responsibility of basically saving the town from itself, but I was cheering for her by the end. This short book is memorable for its well-developed characters and highly thought-provoking subject matter.

I have read two other Coelho books, The Alchemist and By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. From what I remember of it—I read them soooo long ago—I felt more strongly about The Alchemist, but I have to admit I sadly can’t recall anything about By the River Piedra.

The Devil and Miss Prym was my second read of five books total for the 2013 KC Library Adult Winter Reading Program: While the City Sleeps, hosted by the Kansas City Public Library.

Read from January 16 to 17, 2013.

life of pi

My birthday was yesterday (the big 3-0!) and my husband wanted to take me out for dinner and movie… except I don’t really keep up with what’s new in cinema these days. I did however hear about Life of Pi‘s recent film release, but I hadn’t read the book yet, so last weekend I bought a used copy and read it really quickly this week, finished just in time to see the film last night.

I remember when Yann Martel’s Life of Pi first came out about ten years ago—I was in college and some friends were reading it; most said it was amazing, and of course there was the media hype. I also heard some rants that it was too religious and preachy, which turned me off, and back then I wasn’t so interested in stories of adventure and survival either. The book quickly dropped from my radar (and again, I didn’t have much opportunity to read much for pleasure during college anyway).

As with my reading The Hobbit last month, it took a movie release to kick my butt into gear with reading the book first. I don’t feel like Life of Pi completely lived up to the hype for me, but I was certainly entertained.

Pi is a bookish, sensitive, and curious boy who grew up in Pondicherry, India, where his father owned and ran the local zoo. His intellectual and spiritual curiosity leads him to begin practicing the three major religions concurrently: Hindu, Christianity, and Islam. With the onset of India’s Emergency under Prime Minister Indira Ghandi’s leadership, Pi’s family sells the zoo and embarks on a Japanese freighter to Canada, with several animals in tow for delivery to North American zoos. After the freighter sinks in a storm, Pi ends up castaway in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Before long, Richard Parker and Pi are the only souls left on the boat, and Pi must do all he can to survive the seas and his predatory travel companion.

I enjoyed Life of Pi a lot… until the ending sort of tainted it for me. Part I—Pi’s childhood in India—is enchanted and interesting, and his enthusiasm for all three religions is thought-provoking: faith and spirituality is personal, yet we don’t know about religion until we are introduced to it by someone. We can choose to express our faith within the organization of a religion, but how different are the many religions, really? Is one really “right” over any others? Why do we have to choose just one? and so on. I think if you can read all of Part I in one or two sittings, it is more effective. I can see how this section could drag if you have to break up your reading time a lot.

Part II—the survival adventure on the lifeboat—was exciting and I could hardly put the book down during this section. I’ve gradually become more interested in tales of survival, nonfiction mostly. But the danger element with the animals was so original and compelling to me, as well as the agonizing test of faith for such a devout person. There were many scenes on the lifeboat that left me breathless, horrified, intrigued, and in awe. The mysterious floating island was a powerful turning point in the book for Pi’s mental state.

But then Part III felt like Martel was shoving the moral and symbolism down my throat. Pi’s harrowing survival on the Pacific is really a story within the story of an author looking for something to write. For me, personally, I wish Life of Pi had been just that: the life of Pi. I think I would have been totally blown away by the book if it weren’t for the author character and that angle. I get why the epilogue is there for further exploration of the questions of faith, a tested psyche, animalistic survival instinct, and plausibility, imagination, and escapism in storytelling and how it all relates to belief in God that are brought up in the first parts of the book, but I felt suddenly yanked out of the amazing adventure I just experienced. The ending turned everything black and white for me instead of an array of breathtaking colors. You are either a believer or not. Are those really the only options? Of course, Pi doesn’t have a very high opinion of agnostics in Part I… so… there you go.

Life of Pi is great in that its message will be different for everyone, and if it doesn’t make you “believe in God” it will make you ponder your interpretation of events and the world.

As for the film, it was visually stunning and worth seeing, and the 3D was great too. The film follows the book pretty closely, almost as close as a movie can. However, they added an unnecessary love interest for Pi in the movie (OF COURSE, ugh) and I wish a few awesome scenes in the lifeboat had been included (no tiger fighting a shark??), but overall it was very respectful of the book’s tone and message.

Read from December 5 to 8, 2012.

day one | 30 day book challenge

Happy December! It is my favorite month, and not just because of my birthday (and ESPECIALLY not because of Christmas, ugh). I just like that halfway point in the season, we all get a little break, time to enjoy our families, and I do like the fun and celebration of the beginning of the new year. And who doesn’t love the cooler weather, being curled up on the couch under a comforter with a great book??

The 30 Day Book Challenge has been floating around lately and I’ve enjoyed following along on some others’ blogs. I thought December would be a good month for me to do it since my concerts, rehearsals, and jobs are all slowing down until January, and then on December 31 I can do a retrospective of the books I read in 2012.

I ended up making my own version of the 30 Day Book Challenge because each of the lists I found on the internet, while similar enough, had some questions I wanted to tackle that others didn’t, and they had some questions that were just ridiculous and I didn’t want to skip a day. So I compiled them and threw in some variations/random questions I found elsewhere online.

30 Day Book Challenge | Day 1 — Your favorite book(s)

Very difficult question for any serious reader. Do I list ten? Five? ONE? How am I supposed to pick just one favorite book; is that even possible? How can I answer this without duplicating and using the same book(s) in later answers (favorite non-fiction, favorite classic, etc.)? And of course, this is just for THIS moment in time. I’m certain there are many more “favorite” books of mine out there I haven’t read yet. Garrghh! Agony.

There are several that stay fresh in my memory and close to my heart, but I’m going to have to go with…

Le petit prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I just loved it—loved it as a kid, loved it when I read it in French in high school, loved it when I re-read it in college. Come to think of it, it’s due for a re-read soon. I have two copies of this book, a French edition and an English one. At least for me, it has a timeless feeling to it. Le petit prince is beautiful, philosophical, heartbreaking, and lovely.