~ Politics, Society & Culture ~
“Reading is an act of civilization; it’s one of the greatest acts of civilization because it takes the free raw material of the mind and builds castles of possibilities.”
~ Ben Okri
The Big Book of Death by Bronwyn Carlton
This book is a must for those who like their graphic and comic art with a big dose of fun facts. 67 comic artists illustrate articles about all different aspects of death, including the art of war, suicide, provisions for the afterlife, and historic cemeteries. The artwork is fascinating and the writing is informative and humorous. Morbid but entertaining, this is perfect bedtime reading, or for waiting at the bus stop.
The imprint Factoid Books publishes other Big Books about freaks, little criminals, conspiracies, and urban legends. They’re all worth checking out if you enjoy The Big Book of Death!
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is what anthropologists might call a participant-observer. She writes about what she experiences, as in Nickel and Dimed, where she takes a series of minimum wage jobs to see if one could actually survive and thrive on that income. Bright-Sided begins with her diagnosis of cancer and the culture of positive thinking to which she was exposed as a consequence.
Ehrenreich argues that positive thinking is not in itself a bad thing, but that it is used as a technique to keep people complacent and unquestioning. Downsized workers are told they can find new and better jobs if they have a better attitude. It is insinuated to cancer patients that happy people are healthy people. Evangelists preach that prosperity comes to those with a positive mindset. Millions of books recordings are sold saying exactly the same thing. We’re discouraged from asking the questions: Why am I sick and where is my health care? Who benefits from my downsizing? Why is wealth so important, and what are the circumstances preventing my upward mobility? Instead, a relentless emphasis on positive thinking encourages blaming the victim, a sense of shame. It’s your fault you’re sick, poor, and jobless. If you just thought positively, your problems would disappear.
Barbara Ehrenreich is always a fascinating read, a very incisive and thought-provoking writer, who does her homework and is passionate about her subjects.
Grave Matters: A Journey Through The Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris
I discovered this book on the shelves at A Novel Idea recently and knew I had to read it. I have long been interested in alternatives to the modern way of dealing with death (embalming the body, dressing-up and making-up the deceased, and final interment in an expensive coffin that will be on display for a few hours only to be buried underground) and I was very interested to learn about the options that others have chosen for themselves or their loved ones. This book discusses the history of burial in America, the process of embalming (and the environmental aftermath), and the various ‘green’ alternatives. A few of the methods detailed are cremation, burial at sea, and (my personal preference) the memorial reef. Death is something we all must face someday, but I find it comforting to think that even in death we can give back to the planet and those we leave behind on it. I recommend this book to all who care about the environment and wish to do what they can for it, even after they are gone.
Apocalypse Pretty Soon, by Alex Heard
The sky is falling! The sky is falling! At least, that’s what a wide range of Americans living today are saying, either in public or simply muttering it to themselves. Alex Heard is on the job, trekking across the nation and giving us the 411 on the numerous religious, secular, and just plain strange groups of folks that are dead certain that the end times (or at least a completely unorthodox social upheaval) are just over the horizon. Fascinating, hilarious and terrifying (for entirely the wrong reasons); If you though Scientology was a wacky, you’ve not seen anything yet! Pretty Soon can be taken in bits at a time, with each chapter focusing on an entirely different phenomena or group from that which preceded it. It’s got UFOs, secret militants, die hard conspirators, futurists, new-agers, everything you can think of at the absolute fringes of Americana.
Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison
If there is one book on this planet I would encourage anyone to read regarding suicide, whether they be dealing with depression, an academic, a counselor, or someone who has been affected by it, this is the book. Never have I read something so intelligent, so compassionate, or so heart-wrenching. Dr. Jamison has worked with this subject professionally for most of her adult life as a clinical psychiatrist and personally dealing with her own manic-depressive illness and suicidal thoughts. Expertly, she weaves in facts and figures in one chapter, detailing trends, statistics, and studies; the next chapter she inserts accounts from those who have attempted or commited suicide and those who were left with its devestating effects. This back and forth throughout the book gives you time to breathe and contemplate before diving back into the real life implications. It is an intense and eye-opening ride. A definite must for anyone who has interest in this subject personally or professionally.
The Manitous: The Supernatural World of the Ojibwayby Basil Johnston
Translated simply, “Manitou” means “mystery” in the Ojibway language. I picked this book out of our Native American literature section initially because I wanted to study another culture through the lens of its mythology. However, I learned much more about the vital nature of respect within the Ojibway culture: respect for the mysteries observed within the natural world, the mysteries within our human selves that we can begin to know through introspection, and the mysteries within all other beings encountered in day-to-day life. The text itself is enjoyable – as Johnston states in the introduction, the syntax of the Ojibway oral tradition is both highly symbolic and carefully chosen. He has compiled a collection of the stories that guide and define the Ojibway connection to spirit. Each chapter of the book is devoted to a single supernatural entity, from the selfless creation of the world by Kitchi-Manitou (“Most Immense Mystery”), to the four brothers who together represent all that is light and dark in human behavior, to the ghoulish forest beings that would steal disobedient children from their villages. I delighted in each story, though I could only read a chapter or two at a time. The Manitous is the perfect book for anyone wanting to learn about Ojibway culture, the place of traditional storytelling within society, or for those seeking a refreshing depiction of the world and its value.
Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery by Siddharth Kara
In this year of 2012, we don’t like to think that the buying and selling of human beings continues to take place, particularly for the purpose of sex. In fact, sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry that thrives around the world, including in the United States. Siddharth Kara shows us the dimensions of this problem and suggests steps we can take to curtail the slavery industry.
Kara is a trained economist and uses this to describe sex trafficking as a modern business, including how globalization has made this business so much easier and more profitable. Sex trafficking flourishes with political and economic instability and has a higher profit margin than trafficking in weapons or drugs. These products are only used a few times, while sex slaves can be used hundreds or thousands of times before being discarded.
Sex Trafficking is an extremely upsetting read, to be sure. Yet, Siddharth Kara uses his economic model not just for outlining the horrors of sexual slavery but also for providing ways to combat and hopefully eliminate sex trafficking. This book is for those who want to learn about this global problem and get fired up on behalf of the victims. We can make a difference, and Kara shows us how.
The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot, by Russell Kirk
While all of us may have had our fill of politics lately, I promise this is not one of *those* books. Mr. Kirk does a great job of bringing the reader through the evolution of conservatism, the paradigms ingrained within, and offers a rational look at how this political philosophy has gone askew in modern times. This is an excellent, enlightening and educational read; a must-read for anyone (conservative, liberal, progressive, etc) interested in continuing to expand their philosophical, political and intellectual experience.
Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman
I can’t help but think of Chuck Klosterman as a genius. You ever happen upon an author’s (or band’s, politician’s[!]…) work and find yourself loving/agreeing with every single idea they’ve ever conceived? Well that pretty much sums up my reaction to this dude’s body of work. So as you can imagine it’s maybe a little difficult to settle on just one of his books to review here but I’m going with Fargo Rock City partly because that’s the one I blindly picked out of the hat but mostly because it is my fave.
This book is an account of the 80’s heavy metal/glam metal music scene going on on the Sunset Strip as experienced by the author whilst growing up in rural North Dakota. Metal was his life. However, I am in no way or have ever been a metal fan (though I did like a few bands he writes about) but that did not stop me from enjoying this book. It was still very hilarious and wildly entertaining to the point where I find myself rereading whole passages multiple times just because its so good. And really, each chapter is more like an essay on whichever topic he is writing about (in more or less chronological order) such as his favorite essential metal records from the era to a whole chapter on everyone’s favorite all female band, Poison. This works out so well that when you go back to reread it you (like me, oh about once a year…) you don’t necessarily need to read each chapter in order. I just like to open the book and read from whichever random page I land on. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes music and not just to fans of this type of music.
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Whether you love to run or not, Born to Run will have you gasping in pure wonder over what the human body is capable of accomplishing. This book goes against what most of us have been taught when it comes to how our bodies react to running insanely long distances, and it all started with one question: Why does my foot hurt? Christopher McDougall’s adventures amongst the Tarahumara, a hidden tribe in the Copper Canyons who are known for running over a hundred miles at a time in sandals and rarely get injured, and his deep look into the evolutionary science behind humans illustrates how the current lifestyle humans have now actually goes against our very nature. Through his search for the answer to the question, Christopher McDougall takes a look into the sneaker industry, why runners get injured, and the need for running as a means for survival. All of this sets the stage for the greatest race the world has ever seen. McDougall will have you eagerly turning the page as he dives headfirst into a quest for finding what it takes to become a better runner and why some people, like the Tarahumara, are willing to dedicate their lives to ultra-running.
Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families by Bill McKibben
In this book Bill McKibben puts forth a compelling argument for single-child families. Dividing the book into four sections (Family, Species, Nation, and Self) he shows how the child, humanity, America, and the parents all benefit from a single child family. In “Family,” he disproves the stereotypes of only children as spoiled, selfish, and antisocial. “Species” argues the benefits to humanity and the planet from smaller families. “Nation” examines how everything from schools to Social Security would be affected by single-child families. In “Self,” McKibben discusses the decisions parents face when deciding to limit the size of their family. Throughout the book McKibben utilizes scientific research and studies to back up his claims.
While Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families is definitely a pro-single-child book, it never comes across as preachy or dogmatic. McKibben isn’t arguing that everyone ought to have only one child, but that everyone ought to give conscious thought to their family size and not rely on stereotypes and myths about only children. I recommend this book to anyone who is contemplating whether to have one child or more.
Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
I first read this book during a course examining cultural literacy and its importance: Reading Lolita in Tehran is the account of Iranian professor Azar Nafisi during her time teaching English in the nation’s capital, particularly the private lectures she gave to her best, female students concerning banned western novels. As they discuss Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Reading Lolita shows not only the student’s reactions to the texts but also delves into their personal lives and Nafisi’s own reflections concerning the political and cultural climate in Iran. This is a phenomenal book to read if you’re interested in textual criticism or simply the power of books, and it also sheds a great deal of light on the world Iranian’s have lived in since the rise of the Ayatollah.
Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki
A machine has been developed that predicts, based on a blood sample, how a person will die. It is never wrong, although it can be ambiguous in its pronouncements. For example, if your cause of death is “drowning,” it could mean a boating accident, a bathtub mishap, or pneumonia. “Old age” might ensure a long life, or you may be run over in the parking lot by a senior citizen. What impact would this have on a person’s psyche, and society at large?
The contributors to this anthology explore these questions skillfully and from a variety of angles. Insurance, government mandates, medical care, traditional rites of passage, euthanasia, corporate structure and rebellion all play a part. One of my favorite stories in this book is a gentle one, about a young woman and her grandfather, both of whom have drawn a slip from the machine of death that is utterly blank. Their conversation is touching and memorable.
I enjoy short story anthologies very much as they lead me to investigate authors I might not have read before. This collection drew me in more for the ethical and emotional questions it raises, and encouraged me to think deeply about my feelings about death…and therefore life itself.
The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community by Mary Pipher
It was a UNL History professor who first introduced me to the works of Mary Pipher when he assigned The Middle of Everywhere to our class. I was instantly entranced. Her intimate and relatable writing style make you feel like you are having a conversation with an old friend. This non-fiction story about refugees from many nations coming to Lincoln, Nebraska emphasizes the need for all of us to be “cultural brokers” – aiding the newest Americans in navigating their new homeland. And Pipher gives us a roadmap to do so, as she relates her own personal experiences with the refugees and gives concrete examples of what each of us can do to help. In our increasingly multi-cultural society I would recommend this book to anyone with a mind and heart to help their fellow human being.
Bonk:The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach I want to live next door to Mary Roach. I want to have tea with her, be at her elbow at dinners and cocktail parties, trade furtive notes during academic lectures. She may not be a “scientist” or a “sociologist”. She could, however, be a “socioscientist”. Oooh, rare to find one still out in the wild and able to publish! Mary Roach’s most recent book is titled Bonk:The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex , in which she describes how the scientific community has dealt with sex. And wow, is it difficult to write about that without puns! Roach doesn’t bother avoiding the humor as she documents the scientific research inflicted on humans and animals in attempts to understand this “simple” biological function. All of Mary Roach’s books have made me think deeply and laugh right out loud at the same time. This book is no exception. I wonder if next time she’ll tackle the idea of what laughter is and what function it serves…
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
As a journalist, Jon Ronson specializes in what folks might call the “fringe” element in society. In The Men Who Stare At Goats, Ronson investigates some of the crazier projects the United States government and military have indulged in. Them details excursions among paramilitary groups, alien abductees, and end-of-the-worlders. Ronson has often maintained a distance between himself and his subjects (with good reason), affecting a “look at the crazy people” mentality. The Psychopath Test is the book in which his distance narrows considerably.
The Psychopath Test discusses our definitions of madness and how arbitrary they might be. Who decides who is crazy, mad, a psychopath? Using what criteria? Can madness be an adaptive response to crazy situations, or an adaptive trait that crazy situations reward? Is the field of psychology actually a science? An art? What does a diagnosis of madness really mean?
As in his other books, Jon Ronson writes about the odd people he gets to know in the course of his investigations. His writing is always touched with a broad sense of humor about these individuals and the state of their worlds, as well as the world at large. In The Psychopath Test, however, Ronson comes much closer to identifying himself as one of these odd people. He turns his sharp perception inward and shows how short a distance it actually is from “normal” to “mad.”
Anyone who likes to read about quirky people and the societies they create within a larger one will appreciate any of Ronson’s writing, but I recommend The Psychopath Test most of all. It feels like his most revealing and honest book yet, and I’m looking forward to see what he does in the future.
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet
There is great difficulty in describing such a complex book, especially in the light of its knee-jerk and provocative subtitle. Typically, it seems inadvisable to allow oneself to get sucked in to these pseudo-conspiracy theories. Though it is well researched and written in an accessible manner, more than once I found myself wondering how much was exaggerated for effect or if certain parts of the true narrative had been left out. Doesn’t sound like high praise? The book is downright freaky. One wants to believe this leans more into ‘Loch Ness Monster’ territory than ‘a small group of people is trying to manipulate the theology of a religion and ideas of a nation in order to gain power’. Jeff Sharlet pulls into his book personal stories of the members, a comprehensive history of the organization, and an eerie vision into the future of this movement.
It should be made clear, this book is not some left-wing, atheist, fascist commentary on religion and government. Though sometimes the cynic, Sharlet treads carefully in order to be faithfully present a group of like-minded individuals whose religion and politics are tightly fused together. And like any other group of people, they’ve had their struggles and triumphs. Mr. Sharlet does an excellent job of reminding the reader that this isn’t just a group; these are people who succeed and fail. Who, for better or for worse, are passionate and driven. It is a book that is difficult to describe, challenging to stomach, and above all else, hard to put down.
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts
The AIDS epidemic is older than I am. I was -3 when the tall ships sailed into New York Harbor in 1976, and by the time I started listening to what was on the news, Ryan White was getting kicked out of school. I tell my mother that this twisted time is one of the reasons that I find such offensiveness as South Park so funny… but as sick as my sense of humor may be, nothing about this book is even remotely amusing. Beginning with the first diagnosed human cases of HIV and tracking the rise of the epidemic into the 1980’s, Randy Shilts’ masterpiece presents a jarringly scientific and thoroughly alarming study of the biggest embarrassment of my lifetime. Very few things have ever inspired as much anger in my heart as reading of America’s complete refusal to protect its own from what it selfishly declared to be a threat only to those for which it could care less. What chain of events led to innocent children and cultural icons, people far from the dregs of society, dying of AIDS? Check this out: “By the time President Reagan had delivered his first speech on the epidemic of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease; 20,849 had died.” And that was in 1987, four years after Isaac Asimov contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, more than ten years after the virus landed in the US. Now, read the whole book – there are things in here that we all ought to know, as appalling as they may be.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot has written a book of both science and family history, weaving the two threads together seamlessly. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a young black woman who died in 1951 of an extremely aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her cancer cells were removed without her permission and cultured to form the HeLa cell line, an important tool in medicinal research. Skloot examines the medical ethics surrounding this action while looking at Henrietta Lacks and her family, suffering from extreme poverty while scientists made money and their careers from Henrietta’s tissue.
I think Rebecca Skloot does a fantastic job placing the science in context of the cultural and racial history of the 1950’s and she deals very honestly and sympathetically with both the scientists and the Lacks family. All in all, this is a book that’s hard to put down – I simply raced through it!
A Gathering of Zion, by Wallace Stegner
The history of the Mormon faith is entwined with the history of westward expansion in this country, as Wallace Stegner asserts in A Gathering of Zion. Stegner chronicles the development of Mormonism from Joseph Smith in the eastern United States across the Mormon trail and on to Brigham Young and the founding of the state of Utah. Along the way he elaborates on shifting church doctrines and the trials of the faithful. I found Stegner’s writing informative yet informal, making this a page-turner even for those of us who have found history dull in the past. In fact, this book led me to other Mormon and western histories, and I have read other Stegner titles which I found delightful.
America: The Book, by Jon Stewart
America (The Book) is almost too funny. Structured so as to mimic a high school textbook (it even has the “issued to student x” stamp on the inside cover), the book is fully-illustrated and packed with activities. I’ve never seen a book packed thicker with belly-laughs in all my time. You’ll find something to laugh out loud about on every page no matter if you’re a liberal, conservative or communist. The best part is, you might actually even learn a thing or two about American Government that you may have forgotten or even glossed over back in High School. Funny *and* informative!
When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone
As sometimes happens, it was the title that originally drew me to this book. How could the feminist in me resist it? But what I found beyond the provocative title was a well-researched, well-written text on a subject that is as important today as it was millennia ago. Beyond a simple survey of ancient, long-dead religious practices, this book examines the implications for women of a female-centered, Goddess-worshiping culture versus a patriarchal Judeo-Christian culture. Through meticulous archaeological documentation, the author shows the decrease in women’s status when deities became male instead of female. Whereas under a goddess women bought and sold property and inheritance was passed from mother to daughter, under a god women themselves became little more than property. The author further details how this happened: by the rewriting of myth and dogma, the Goddess went from a wise creator and the one source of universal order to a wanton, depraved figure. The very readable text is accented with a plethora of maps, date charts, a bibliography, and an index. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in ancient cultures and religions, history and archaeology, and particularly women’s and gender studies.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
What is education, and what does it mean to be “educated”? These are questions that Tara Westover never directly asks in her memoir, Educated, but her life has revolved around them and has informed who she has become. Westover grew up in a survivalist family in Idaho that rejected government interference, and she learned her roles and responsibilities well. She became adept at herbal medicine and first aid, scrapping metal and operating heavy machinery – and dodging blows and questions. In secret and with aid, she taught herself enough to leave home, get into college, and earn enough recognition to study at Harvard and Cambridge Universities. Yet her hardest education involved navigating a social world with which she had no relationship and discovering who she actually was.Westover’s memoir challenged some of my own preconceptions about being educated really means, especially “highly educated”, and illuminated the idea that education is to be treasured, even if life’s tuition is steep.
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham
“The human ancestral environment was full of uniform problems: how to get fuel, how to regulate feeding competition, how to organize society around fire… We must find ways to make our ancient dependence on cooked food healthier.” Richard Wrangham, a well-known primatologist and author, has laid out a multi-part hypothesis to explain the complex evolution of cooking behaviors. Humans spend more time preparing food than actually consuming it. Is it possible that cooked food led to our big brains? Wrangham touches on the benefits of a raw food diet, but also discusses the importance of eating meat in the human evolutionary past. Other chapters are devoted to the social changes that may have evolved due to cooking. Language, community and even the beginnings of religion could be traced back to a time/energy trade-off: the increased nutritive value of cooked food enabled early humans to spend less time eating and more time doing other things, such as inventing new tools. Anyone interested in modern dietary choices or the evolution of the human body, brain and social structures will love reading this book!