#38 Republican Like Me by Ken Stern (2017)

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In the days leading up to and following Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, the former CEO of NPR Ken Stern realizes that his social and professional circles are comprised entirely of liberal progressives. He then proceeds to spend a year immersing himself in “Trump’s America”, attending gun shows and NASCAR events, and speaking with the people who feel that the American dream has left them behind. He wonders if the gap between Democrats and Republicans can’t be solved by a little human empathy and understanding.

I need to begin this review on a personal note. I am a liberal progressive from a family with deeply conservative, evangelical roots. To this day I cannot for the life of me figure out how I ended up on the completely other end of the ideological spectrum from the majority of my relatives. Part of me blames Harry Potter. Or the fact that I was one of the first members of my family to attend university (a liberal arts university at that). Whatever the reason, I can state with utter honesty that the 2016 election was a devastating blow towards my relationship with my family. I felt personally betrayed by their decision to vote for Donald Trump. I felt that they had been brainwashed by Fox News and the NRA, and that they had chosen to side with racism, intolerance, and misogyny. Was I being close minded, unfair, and more than a bit immature? Most definitely. But this knee-jerk offense that people tend to take in reaction to those who have different views from them is part of what author Ken Stern seeks to unravel in his book. I went in with very high hopes of a liberal’s fair and reasoned perspective on rural, white America.

It must be immediately addressed that Stern’s book focuses almost completely on white conservative America. At no point does he acknowledge the white, male privilege that allows him to blend in at a gun show, or to interview people in a depressed mining town. The entire book consists almost entirely of one middle-aged white man talking to other middle-aged white men, which gives an extremely limiting perspective. A young black man asking questions of Trump supporters at a NASCAR race would likely have written a very different book. And possibly a more interesting one.

In Republican Like Me, Stern tackles major “hot button issues” such as gun control, evangelism, climate change, and attitudes towards the media. His research is meticulous and well-cited. I enjoyed his use of statistics to blow holes in both conservative and liberal ideologies. For example, during his chapter on gun control he mentions that the majority of firearm deaths in the United States are committed using handguns, not assault rifles. And the vast majority of firearm homicides are either individual murders or suicides. Stern uses this data to draw the conclusion that the Democrats frenzied screaming for a ban on assault weapons will not significantly lower the percentage of gun deaths in the United States.

It might lower the rate at which (white) gunmen walk into public schools and shoot a bunch of children, but Stern doesn’t talk about that.

He does delve heavily into the economic factors which led people to vote for Trump. If a person from a West Virginia mining town sees Hilary Clinton speaking at an exclusive Manhattan banquet about “shutting down the coal industry”, of course they are not going to view her with favor. Stern does not address Clinton in his book, but I wish he had. I had to bite my cheek and grimace as I checked her name on the ballot in 2016. I imagine that a great deal of conservatives had to do the same thing when they voted for Trump. It was this idea more than anything else which caused me to pause and think.

I’ve been a liberal all my life, and I can say without pause that the Democratic party comes off as arrogant, condescending, patronizing, and sanctimonious. They have ceased to be the party of the working people. And while liberals, myself included, pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we will at least be on the “right side” of history, it doesn’t change the fact that 33 governorships, 51 senate seats, and 237 house seats are held by the GOP. If the Democratic party hopes to succeed, they need to remember that not everyone in the country lives in New York or California. But I digress.

I found myself consistently irritated and annoyed by this book. Stern wastes an opportunity to point out the hypocrisy that thrives on both sides of the aisle. He has a wonderful soapbox from which to describe the extreme discrepancy between the majority of reasonable Americans and the frothing lunatics who have been elected to represent them. Instead, he offers pithy platitude on top of condescending comment. “If we just listened to one another…” “If we just took the time to get to know one another…” “Republicans aren’t all that bad…”

On one hand he is absolutely correct. Republicans demonizing liberals and Democrats bashing conservatives doesn’t help anyone except the lobbyists and the corporations they serve. And it is much easier from a psychological standpoint to cater to our own confirmation bias than it is to logically and rationally consider new ideas. It’s easier to point the finger at the “dumb rednecks” who got duped into voting for Trump because they were to stupid to know any better. Most Republican voters are decent, middle-class people who are just trying to support their families and build a better life in a country that they perceive as falling into chaos. This is not new information, and it is not presented here in a new way.

The problem is that it is very difficult to have a logical and rational conversation regarding these ideas. I will absolutely listen to someone from a small, dying Rust Belt town as they lament that all of the factories are closed and the jobs are gone. I can and have discussed fracking versus solar versus coal as a viable form of energy for the future. But I cannot in good conscience listen and nod as someone lays all the blame for their misfortune on “the Muslim African” who got elected illegally by putting mind-control substances in America’s drinking water. I’ve had those exact words said to me by a former coworker. What does Ken Stern think a person should do in that situation? Am I supposed to say, “Ah, yes that’s a very good point and I respect it”? What about the man from my hometown who thinks that all Muslims should be deported whether or not they are legal American citizens? I would wager ninety-to-one odds that he has never met a Muslim in his life. But am I meant to shake this xenophobe’s hand and strive to find common ground?

I realize there are no easy answers, and this is not a conversation that can be solved with one book, or ten, or a thousand. But at the end of the day, Ken Stern pulls too many punches, wastes too many opportunities, and only acknowledges the “white working class” facet of an extremely convoluted issue. For now I will have to accept that we cannot “just all get along”. I guess I’ll just have to continue avoiding political conversations at family gatherings.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Republican Like Me here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

#33 Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

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In rural Utah, a nine year old girl and her family are driving back to Idaho on a dark night. The girl’s brother falls asleep at the wheel, loses control of the car, and crashes into a utility pole. All members of the family suffer injuries, including her mother who sustains major head trauma. None of them go to the hospital because of their father’s belief that doctors are evil figures put in place by the Illuminati. They will instead rely on herbal remedies and the power of their Mormon faith to heal their injuries. The girl’s mother suffers significant brain damage and is never the same again.

This event happens early on in Educated, a memoir by a girl who is raised by religiously fanatic family isolated in the mountains of southern Idaho. Tara Westover was seventeen years old before she ever entered a classroom. Her lack of formal education left her vulnerable to the manipulations and abuse of her mentally ill father and elder brother. What follows is an account of the struggle between one person’s desire to fulfill themselves and their duty to their family. It is also about the price that sometimes must be paid to extract oneself from a potentially destructive situation.

Tara Westover’s Educated will inevitably draw comparison to The Glass Castle, the  memoir by Jeannette Walls that I reviewed earlier this year. Both feature young women with highly unconventional childhoods who fight to rise above the circumstances of their birth. Both feature the importance of education and family solidarity. And both deal with the idea of having to sever the bonds of that same family in order to survive.

Compared the The Glass Castle, Educated tells the more bitter story. Some of this may have to do with the immediacy of the events detailed in Westover’s memoir. While Jeannette Walls was writing about her childhood through the tempered and nostalgic lens of decades, the events that Westover is describing bring us to the right up to the present day. Time has not been allowed to heal her suffering and create scars. The pain and grief that is still being felt by Westover is palpable. Because of this, we feel the catharsis present in every page, as if the writer is attempting to draw poison from a wound. While reading The Glass Castle, I found myself chuckling every once in awhile. There is not a single moment of joy present in Educated, and I felt my own bitterness rising as I continued reading.

Your opinion on Educated will be strongly connected to your feelings on homeopathic and alternative medicines. My personal feeling is that the creation of antibiotics and vaccinations are the most important advancements in human history since the printing press. The idea that people are resisting vaccinations and antibiotics is utterly baffling. However, if you are one of those people who believe that the government is holding the cure for cancer hostage in an underground bunker so that they can continue to exploit profits from sick people, you will probably be more likely to sympathize with Tara’s father. If so, make sure to get your tinfoil hat on nice and snug before picking up this memoir.

See what I meant about the bitterness?

My rating: 4/5

You can find Educated here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#32 Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)

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“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”

Most of us have looked up at the night sky at one time or another and asked ourselves about the nature of the universe. What is the relationship between time and space? What fills up the empty spaces of the cosmos? And what is our place in the scheme of it all? Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson boils these burning questions down to their essence, and explains them in a way that the average person is capable of understanding.

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy in the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period on the end of this sentence.”

Together with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson is on a short and esteemed list of scientists that are easily recognized by most adults. Part of this is because when you see him on television, his enthusiasm is purely and utterly infectious. Tyson never lost that wonder that so many children feel when they first learn of the universe spinning and burning outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. He combines this sense of excitement with an staggering intellect in his most recent book. Every line of Astrophysics is teeming with exhilaration. While reading, I sometimes got a mental image of an energetic five-year old, dragging me around by the hand to show me all of his favorite toys. That is, of course, if the five-year old then rattled off complex mathematical formulas to explain how those toys worked.

As a theoretical physicist, Tyson’s mission in life is to poke at the universe with a stick, trying to see what might pop out to say hello. He manages to sound colloquial even when he’s talking about immensely complicated topics such as dark matter and the theory of relativity. One of my favorite chapters was where Tyson lists half the elements in the periodic table and explains which ones have always been around and which one are more recent discoveries. As someone who barely passed high school chemistry, I was surprised how interesting the subject matter can become when you have a teacher who knows how to break a subject down to its core.

I will not lie to you and say that I understood all of what Neil deGrasse Tyson was trying to communicate. I’m an English teacher. I can rattle off big “literary” sounding words all day, but I struggle to comprehend the language of science. At a mere one hundred and ten pages, this should have been a reasonably quick read. However, I felt myself having to read each paragraph two or even three times to puzzle out the meaning. I think the most important thing that I took away from Astrophysics was a greater sense of wonder and curiosity. I still have no real idea what a quasar is. But I have a better understanding and respect for those who do. Some of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delight in the mysteries of the universe has rubbed off on me. I’m looking forward to the next time I am out in the country, where I can just look up at the night sky and try to puzzle out the magnitude of what I am seeing.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Astrophysics for People in a Hurry here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

P.S. It was while in the midst of this book that I heard about the death of Stephen Hawking. This post, meager and unworthy though it is, is dedicated to his wondrous lifetime of progress and achievement in the world of science.

#25 Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (2004)

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On July 24, 1984 fundamentalist Mormon brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty broke into the home of their sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty. They proceeded to slit the throat of Brenda’s fifteen-month old daughter before beating and murdering Brenda. When the brothers were eventually caught by the police, they claimed that they were following direct orders from God.

Whenever I think of Mormons, or Latter Day Saints (LDS), a strange dichotomy that comes to mind. On one hand, Mormons are the polite, well-dressed young men who occasionally showed up at my doorstep when I was younger. They abstain from almost all vices and raise their children to have a strong sense of family values. One the other hand, Mormons have been on the wrong side of almost every civil rights issue for the past two hundred years. The church elders only accepted that non-whites were capable of going to heaven in 1978. They fought hard against interracial marriage and are still on the forefront against gay rights. Even today, women of the LDS are banned from making any decisions regarding the direction of their church. Modern Mormons present themselves as upstanding and respectable Americans, but the history of Mormonism is bloody and secretive. In his novel. Jon Krakauer explores this duality of pacifism and violence as it pertains to the Lafferty brothers and the murders they committed.

Under the Banner of Heaven bounces back and forth between the early days of Mormonism, their exodus to Utah, and their eventual rise to a mainstream religion. This is juxtaposed with descriptions of the Lafferty family, their excommunication from the LDS, and the events that culminated in a double murder. The story of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s journey is a fascinating and unsettling story of the persecuted becoming the persecutors.

It’s important to note that the Lafferty brothers were members of the FLDS (Fundamental Latter Day Saints). This is the group that has become well-known with TV shows such as Big Love and Sister Wives. Those shows often depict plural marriage as a kooky, almost sitcom-esque situation. The reality of it is much more insidious. Child-marriage, rape, and incest are rampant within the FLDS, with girls as young as twelve years old regularly being married off to men in their seventies. Education is lacking and many members of the FLDS die unnecessarily due to a deep-rooted mistrust of modern medicine.

While the mainstream LDS church has widely condemned the actions of Dan and Ron Lafferty, Krakauer makes it clear that their hands are far from clean. Their history of violent actions towards the Native Americans and non-Mormon travelers in Utah are still hotly denied by the LDS Church, who has chosen to hide any documents related to the various massacres and scapegoating that took place in the late nineteenth century. Mormonism is openly acknowledged as the first “American” religion, and it cannot be denied that it carries with it a particularly American brand of religious extremism.

This was my first novel by Jon Krakauer, who is widely acknowledged as one of today’s most powerful journalists. I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for more of his novels, as I found Under the Banner of Heaven to be equal parts entertaining and informative.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#21 The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston (2017)

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The jungles of Honduras remain one of the few untouched environments left to us on Earth. Deep within this dark and dangerous rainforest, there is rumored to be a lost city, abandoned by a civilization that has remained undiscovered by modern society. In 2012, a group of scientists, archaeologists, filmmakers, and one journalist ventured into the jungles of Mosquitia in hopes of finding the lost White City.

The Lost City of the Monkey God opens with a very dramatic speech given by one of the team leaders. He details all the dangers that await the researchers as they begin the process of entering the untouched jungles of Honduras. The horrible diseases that are spread by insect bites. The fire ants and the spiders. Jaguars that could be waiting in low tree limbs. And the fer-de-lance, which is a snake I had never heard of and hope never to encounter. At one point, the narrator asks his readers not to Google the results of a fer-de-lance bite. I didn’t listen. I pass the warning on to you. Do not Google the results of a fer-de-lance bite if you hope to keep your lunch down.

After this promising introduction, The Lost City of the Monkey God spends the next one hundred pages slogging through the build-up that eventually brings the narrator into the jungles. The reader is given the history of the region and the legend of the lost city. The thick rainforest and high mountains have been a beacon for explorers for hundreds of years, and numerous expeditions have ventured into the area to search for cities to loot and pillage from the native tribes. The way that this modern team uses highly advanced lidar technology is really impressive, but other than that I was tempted to skim past the numerous descriptions of various failed expeditions.

The second part deals with the modern-day exploration of the region, and is easily the most interesting. The third part of the book deals with the aftermath. The fact that none of the team members escaped the journey without some kind of injury was a bit unsettling. I’ve always wanted to visit the jungles of South and Central America, but I might have to rethink that idea.

I’m going to be very honest and say that I’m having trouble writing this review because this book didn’t really leave much of an impression on me. Despite the scary descriptions of creepy-crawlies and drug cartels, I was never transported into Mosquitia. I never felt as if I were breathing the humid air of a thousand-year old jungle. It felt more like I was reading about it over someone else’s shoulder.

This book might have a very good future in an anthropology or archaeology classroom. It’s just not a book that I would want to curl up on my couch and read with a nice cup of tea.

Note: The city itself is rarely referred to as “The city of the monkey god”. It is more popularly known by locals as “Cuidad Blanca” or “White City”. My guess is that writer Douglas Preston correctly realized that titling his book “The Lost White City” sounded like white-nationalist propaganda.

My rating: 3/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#16 Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (2013)

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In January of 1959, nine experienced Russian hikers lead by twenty-three old Igor Dyatlov began a hiking expedition deep into the Ural Mountains. Weeks later, all nine hikers were found dead under mysterious circumstances, scattered throughout the snow without proper clothing, bearing strange injuries, and with traces of radiation on their clothing. Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, this occurrence has become a popular unsolved mystery. Everything from an avalanche to the KGB to the yeti to UFOs has been suggested to try and figure out what happened to the nine hikers. When documentary maker Donnie Eichar’s imagination is sparked by this story, he delves into the case files, flies to Russia, and even attempts to recreate the Dyatlov group’s journey in order to find a definitive explanation for the incident.

I first learned about the Dyatlov Pass Incident through a 2013 found-footage horror film called Devil’s Pass. The film is actually pretty good if you are a fan of found-footage horror films, and I was immediately intrigued by the unsolved mystery of the Russian hikers. I fell down a Wikipedia hole and tried to learn everything I could about it. I am a junkie for unsolved mysteries, so this was a delightful new find. When I heard about Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain, I immediately put myself on a wait list at my local library for the chance to learn more about this strange occurence.

Eichar’s book reads like a written version of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. He sets roughly half of the chapters in 1959, recreating the last few days of the doomed hikers. He manages to put a human face on the young Russian students, and uses diary entries and photographs to paint a picture of a group of young people who are passionate about nature and enthusiastic about life in general. This easily answers the most obvious question, which is why in the world nine people would go hiking in northern Russia in the middle of winter. Eichar also gives us a broad stroke lesson on the historical context of the time. Stalin has recently died, and while Russia is still under the heavy hand of Communism, the country is slowly healing from the cultural and military wars of the previous decade. These chapters are interspersed with others set in 1959, and told from the perspective of the rescue team workers who are utterly baffled by strange deaths of the nine young hikers.

The rest of the book takes places in 2012. We follow Eichar as he chases down lead after lead. He manages to track down Yuri Kuntsevich, the president of the Dyatlov Foundation. He flies to Russia and somehow secures an interview with Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the original Dyatlov team who had to turn back on the first day due to illness and therefore managed to escape the fate of his friends.

Eichar manages to avoid the “conspiracy nut” path that I think could have been very easy to follow. He immediately discredits the idea that the mountain the hikers were found on (Holatchahl) is supposedly cursed by the local native groups and named “The Mountain of the Dead”. He argues that this is a mistranslation, and the mountain is in fact called “Dead Mountain” due to the fact that nothing grows on it. He discounts the theories of aliens and yetis without giving them much thought. Eichar is utterly practical and devoted to legitimate research and citable sources. He devotes a sizable chunk of the book to methodically listing out all of the possible things that could have caused the deaths of the Dyatlov party and systemically ruling them out. Afterwards, he presents his own theory which he believes can finally explain what happened on that February night. Whether or not you choose to believe him is left up to the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed this book because it appealed to the part of me that loves the inexplicable. I would definitely recommend it, but perhaps not on a ski trip.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Dead Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#11 Communion by Whitley Strieber (1988)

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“Mister Mulder, why are those like yourself, who believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life on this Earth, not dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary?”

“Because, all the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive.”

“Precisely”

The X-Files (1993-2002)

Reading Whitley’s Strieber’s Communion, this quote from The X-Files kept flashing into my mind. According to the preface, this book was considered highly controversial when it was released in 1988. However, thirty years of science fiction in the form of the aforementioned TV show, as well as other television programs such as Falling Skies and V, films such as The Fourth Kind and Dark Skies, and even children’s books such as the Animorphs series have all prepped my imagination to accept the idea of alien abduction and invasion with a far more open mind than would have been normal at this time of this book’s publication. I did not find anything particularly “shocking” between the pages of Communion.

Instead, I was left wondering how many of the alien abduction tropes that pop up in so much of pop culture originated, or were at least fueled by Strieber’s memoir. The running theme of anal probing makes an appearance, as does the idea of owls as a screen memory for the alien visitors. The unnaturally thin aliens with huge black eyes that are depicted here are the same ones that people have been describing for decades.

Communion is split into roughly three parts. The first segment details the events that forced Strieber to wonder if he was being taken by “visitors”. (Note: he rarely uses the word “aliens” and instead offers up several theories that these beings aren’t from outer space at all). Strieber is able to give an immense about of detail about the physical appearance of these visitors and everything that was done to him one night in December of 1986. These early chapters are probably the most interesting, but also read the most like fiction.

The second segment deals with Strieber trying to figure out if he is losing his mind. He visits hypnotherapists and discovers repressed memories of these visitors from his early childhood. There are full transcripts offered from these hypnosis session, which are stream-of-consciousness in style and incredibly difficult to follow. (Note: We also know now that hypnotherapy is an incredibly imprecise branch of psychiatry, and can often result in the placing of false memories inside the mind of the patient). Strieber then wonders if he has epilepsy, and explores that route through a variety of medical professionals. Strieber adamantly wants his readers to believe that he explored every viable medical and scientific option to explain away his memories before he was forced to admit that he truly was being taken against his will by visitors. (Note: The now popular explanation of sleep paralysis is never explored, possibly because it was not fully understood in the late 1980’s).

The third section of Communion is the gathering of witnesses. Strieber convinces his wife to undergo hypnosis, and her transcripts seem to corroborate his account. We are then presented with transcripts from group sessions, wherein Strieber and other self-proclaimed abductees compare and contrast their various stories. This part was actually very interesting, and the strange similarities between the stories are worth a second look.

The last twenty pages go completely off the rails. This was the only part of the book where I thought that Strieber may have been under the influence of a great deal of marijuana. He uses obscure Aztec, Hindu, and Sumerian poetry to discuss the importance of the duality and trinity of life. He uses the mystery of the Sphinx to talk about the idea of ascending to a higher state of consciousness. He throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and then tosses the kitchen sink in for good measure. While reading the final section of Communion, I found myself wishing that I too were under the influence of a great deal of marijuana.

It is completely impossible when reading Communion to leave your preconceptions at the door. If you are a hardcore skeptic, than the memoir will read as the ramblings of an attention-seeking man spouting nonsense. The fact that Whitley Strieber was a moderately successful horror writer before the publication of this book is a pretty damning black mark in favor of the skeptics. If you are an affirmed believer in UFOs and abduction theories, than this book will only confirm and intensify your previously held beliefs. Personally, I’ve always tried to maintain an open mind when it comes to the unexplained things experienced on the Earth. It is impossible to prove a negative, therefore I cannot state with any certainty that Earth hasn’t been visited by creatures from another world. Therefore, I left Communion with very much the same opinions that I entered with. Alien abduction is a possibility, but not a likely one.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Communion here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!