so you’ve been publicly shamed

Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed has been on my TBR pretty much since it came out a couple years ago. I’m not exactly sure what compelled me to read it now in particular…? But I decided to borrow the ebook from the library just because. Edited from Goodreads:

For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us—people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life, full of eye-opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws—and the very scary part we all play in it.

We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of in our lives—honest, stupid mistakes because (surprise!) we’re all flawed human beings. Imagine having your life ruined because of something you did or said, thinking it was just harmless, silly, and trivial in the moment. Remember Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her ~100 followers, got on an 11-hour flight, and found upon landing that her tweet had gone viral… and not in a good way? She meant it as a mockery of white ignorance and privilege, but the joke was tasteless and fell flat. Twitter ruthlessly destroyed her, so much so that she lost her job and social life, and embarrassed her family. Only recently has she gotten her life and reputation back on track.

What does such a brutal public shaming do to a person? How does one recover from such profound humiliation? Ronson’s book covers Sacco’s story, as well as a handful of others to varying degrees of disgrace, to illustrate the point that pitchfork-wielding angry mobs are still alive and well—they (we) tar and feather the “offender” behind the anonymous safety of the internet now instead of in the streets. Some people were afraid to leave the house after their shamings, some felt no shame at all and were practically unscathed. Why do we do this? Simply put: because we can. But Ronson shows yes, it’s because we can, but also much more.

Was I experiencing some schadenfreude by reading about these people’s shamings in this book? Maybe? I wanted to find out if their professional and personal lives survived, though—I wanted them to come out the other side with a new life. I never bullied anyone, I don’t participate in dragging people online or get into heated debates. But still. I’m aware of them. I lurk and I read through them sometimes. I have opinions on what perpetrators of certain offenses deserve (like the sexual harassment/assault stories recently exposed in Hollywood and, well, every industry and field). Why do we derive pleasure from hearing about and witnessing others’ misfortunes? How has public online shaming become a new kind of social justice system, and why do we feel entitled to dole out the punishment?

There’s a lot of psychology to unpack, a lot of questions to ask yourself after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I would have liked more insight and depth to the fact that today’s public shamings are overwhelmingly misogynistic, in that women get violent threats of rape and death almost immediately when they transgress whereas men do not. It’s more difficult for women to rebound from a shaming, both personally and professionally. This sexism is mentioned, but Ronson doesn’t elaborate. (Maybe follow up reading this one with Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why).

Regardless of that minor criticism, this is just the kind of accessible research I like, in the same vein and as interesting as anything Mary Roach has written. Even though this book ultimately contains more questions than answers, it’s a thought-provoking book worth a read.

Read ebook in February 2018.

mini-reviews: stranger in the woods, teacher wars, new odyssey, pandemic

I missed Non-Fiction November… but for good reason: I was in Wisconsin visiting family and without my computer. Catching up on posting now! Although these four books are on totally different subjects, I thought that they’re all interesting, gripping, and worth a read:

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel was a great book. When Christopher Knight was 20, he abandoned his conventional lifestyle and retreated to the deep woods. For the next 27 years, he lived the solitary life of a hermit… except for the numerous burglaries he committed for supplies. I read the original GQ article about Christopher Knight which Finkel expanded here, so some information was familiar. I think I would have liked a little more depth to the historical and cultural info on hermits in general. But wow, some of the details here—his family didn’t look for him or report him missing? He didn’t use a fire or see a doctor for all those years? I was really interested in how he constructed and maintained his compound. How did no one find it, mere yards away from populated camping areas? Overall it was an enjoyable, fascinating look into the mind and experience of a man who left civilization behind (well… almost) for nearly 30 years. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

Dana Goldstein does a wonderful job of outlining the turbulent history of teaching and education in America over the past two centuries in The Teacher Wars. She shows the origins of often controversial topics, like teacher tenure and charter schools, as well as the creation of Teach for America, and how politics has always clashed with education (the disdain for unions, as a major example). I was really interested in the teacher strikes of the 1960s and 70s, and her coverage of teacher evaluations. As a musician and artist, and someone who has advanced degrees and worked in higher education for nearly a decade, I’ve had many discussions with my friends and colleagues who teach in the arts—their own objective vs. subjective metrics, and how does the State evaluate educators in a subjective field like the arts? It’s usually complicated and often not logical or applicable to arts and music education. I gave this book to my mom (a teacher) right after I finished, and she loved it too. [Read in May 2017.]

The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley is an eye-opening book about the refugee crisis happening now in Europe. Kingsley traveled extensively and interviewed countless people about their experiences and reasoning for fleeing, helping those who flee, or pursuing those who flee. Homes are destroyed in these war-torn countries— there’s nothing left, no infrastructure, jobs, schools, homes—so families abandon their homelands in order to survive and hopefully secure a better, safe life for their children. It’s a harrowing, dangerous journey but they’re left with no choice but to go. The other side of this is that after landing in a new country (if they survive the journey), now the refugees face culture shock, as well as rejection, suspicion, racism, and sometime violence from their new communities. I was moved by many of the stories in this important book. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

Sonia Shah’s Pandemic was a really fascinating, easy-to-follow book for a non-sciencey person like me. She mostly uses the development and history of cholera to drive the point home that there will be another pandemic that devastates the population. I’d like to have faith in human ingenuity to do all we can to combat it! But Shah also covers all sorts of factors that contribute to how and why pandemics happen and are largely unpredictable, including medical treatments and Big Pharma, habitats and environment (and the destruction of and/or industrial developments of these), animals and cross contamination, worldwide travel, population growth, and more. Her engaging, narrative style almost makes the contagions themselves “living” characters (well, I suppose they are living). Also, human beings are stupid and disgusting. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

mini-reviews: hidden figures and packing for mars

Early this year I finally got around to a couple of books on the subject of the history and mechanics of space travel that I’d been excited about. Even though I’m artsy fartsy by nature and vocation I still love learning about some science, especially when it involves kick-ass women!

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly features an excellent, important subject: the true-life story of the brilliant NASA mathematicians who did the calculations to send Americans to the moon in the 1960s were a team of black women. I loved the anecdotes about the women’s lives—who they were; their families; dealing with racial segregation in work, education, and neighborhoods, etc. But you have to slog through several chapters that have technical language and read like a textbook. I really struggled through these parts and ended up skimming a lot, which I should have resorted to in a 265–page book. I feel badly, because again I love the topic, but this is a case where the movie is actually better than the book. [Read ebook in March 2017.]

I’m had a lot of fun reading Packing for Mars,  recommended by my husband who is a big Mary Roach fan (and I turned him on to her books in the first place!). In this one, Roach delves deeply into the topic of the effect of space travel on the human body. What happens to your body when you don’t walk on the ground for a year? Can you have sex in space? How do you go to the bathroom? And other urgent inquiries along these lines, as well as the history of space travel in general, are investigated by Roach with her usual wit, charm, and down-to-earth (sorry) writing. She embarks on many on-ground simulations designed by NASA to test I wish I had read this back-to-back with The Martian; they’d make a great complementary pair. This made me want to go watch Apollo 13 and The Simpsons’ “Deep Space Homer” again soon! Some chapters dragged for me, but more were good, informative, and engaging. Mars wasn’t as good as Stiff (a new non-fiction classic, in my opinion), but it’s still a fun, interesting book. [Read in January 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.

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.

the radium girls

I really love narrative non-fiction and The Radium Girls by Kate Moore utterly entranced me. I first learned about the Radium Girls from a few paragraphs in The Emperor of All Maladies, which I’m still reading, but as soon as I saw this book come through on my library website I had to borrow it immediately. Edited from Goodreads:

As World War I raged across the globe, hundreds of young women toiled away at the radium-dial factories, where they painted clock faces with a mysterious new substance called radium. Assured by their bosses that the luminous material was safe, the women themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered from head to toe with the glowing dust. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” were considered the luckiest alive—until they began to fall mysteriously ill. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, they found themselves embroiled in one of America’s biggest scandals and a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights.

This could almost be classified as a true crime book the way that the radium industry lead women (and while we’re at it, Americans as a whole) to believe that the extremely dangerous chemical element was a curative, while in fact it slowly (or in some cases quickly) poisoned these innocent factory workers. It’s yet another perfect example of corporate greed for money and power at the expense of human lives. These innocent women suffered horrific pain and disfigurements as the radium took hold of their bones after weeks, months, years of dipping their brushes in the chemical-laced paint and between their lips. (I don’t like to even go through the full-body scanners at the airport… I always refuse, in fact.) I listened to The Radium Girls on audiobook so I suppose there may be images I missed in the paper book, so I can only imagine what their “glowing” and deteriorating bodies must have looked like, and it chills me to my (non-glowing) bones.

If I have one complaint, it’s that there are so many women covered that at times I had a little trouble keeping track of them all, but maybe that was a downfall of listening on audio with no pictures to place faces to names for me. Despite that, I’m glad this was told from a human perspective, focusing on not only the women’s personalities and lives but also their families, doctors, and lawyers and how they were all in this together. Moore did a fantastic job researching everyone involved and conveying the hardships and triumphs in The Radium Girls. It’s important to note that the EPA is still—now, today—cleaning up one of the radium dial company’s sites in Ottawa, Illinois, which was active during the time period of this book all the way into the 1970s.

I was in awe of the strength, sisterhood, and tenacity of these women who fought the system for safety disclosures in the workplace, amounting to an epic win for workers’ rights—sometimes fighting literally from their deathbed until their final breaths. I have to admit I felt a small sense of pride as a woman reading this account, which brings this now-immortal phrase to mind: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” The Radium Girls is a heartbreaking and fascinating book about a hidden part of women’s and labor histories in America.

Listened to audiobook in May 2017.