Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

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Review 2.6

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, a party of moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild. [Source]

 “I now walk into the wild.” – Christopher McCandless

The story of Christopher McCandless has become something of an urban legend crossed with a cautionary tale. I’m sure parents have warned their children that if they aren’t careful they’ll end up “dying in a bus somewhere in Alaska”. When I mentioned to my husband that I was reading this book, he scoffed and muttered something about idiot kids and white privilege. For some, McCandless is a cultural admonition about the foolishness of youth. For others, he is a symbol of wanderlust, that powerful urge to explore the wild places of the world and reconnect with nature that exists somewhere within all men.

It’s easy to write McCandless off as just a spoiled boy from an affluent background who got what he deserved when he walked into the Alaskan wilderness with no supplies. It’s easy to say that he was mentally ill, or suicidal, or just plain crazy. What Krakauer has done with Into the Wild is to tell the harder story, one of a charismatic and talented young man whose obsessive desire to connect with nature ended up costing his life.

“At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.”

Last year I read Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which chronicles the violent history of the Mormon faith and how it led to the death of an innocent woman and child. Krakauer has the remarkable ability to write nonfiction as if it were fiction. He weaves his plot and characters together with meticulous attention to detail and exhaustive research. Reading Into the Wild, it is obvious that Krakauer was profoundly moved by the death of McCandless. The book represents an homage of sorts, a chance to tell Christopher’s story in a way that makes him look brave but naive instead of just incredibly stupid. Krakauer brings a sense of tragic nobility to Christopher’s life and death while trying to explain what drove him to venture alone into the wilderness. He looks at journals, interviews friends and family members, and ultimately journeys to the hollowed out bus where McCandless’ body was found.

I am writing this review more than five days after finishing it, and I can’t get Christopher McCandless out of my head. At random times of the day, when I’m washing dishes or marking homework, the image of a lonely boy dying in a lonely bus in a cold, lonely forest comes into my mind. I had before heard the story of the idiot kid who died in the wilds of Alaska. Now I feel like I actually know the story of McCandless’ life. This book was amazing.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Into the Wild here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2007 it was adapted into a film starring Emile Hirsch and directed by Sean Penn.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan (2018)

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Review 2.4

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love. [Source]

Depression is such a tricky subject to write about. It’s so mercurial in nature, so difficult to define and diagnose and treat. The Astonishing Color of After triumphs as a portrayal of depression from all perspectives. The repercussions of Leigh’s mother’s suicide reverberate down the plotline when Leigh becomes convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird. Fearing for her mental state, Leigh’s father sends her to Taiwan to visit her grandparents for the first time. Once there, Leigh begins the long, slow process of healing.

The Astonishing Color of After blew me away with its depiction of depression and the effect it can have on a family. Instead of focusing on Leigh’s mother as she battles her inner demons, the perspective is Leigh’s, which helps to convey the constant stress and strain that mental illness places on family members. Humans can adapt to almost anything, and it’s sad that the warning symptoms of suicide can be overlooked because we see a person as always being “up and down” or just “having a rough patch”. For Leigh, her mother’s depression was just another part of life until it wasn’t.

Leigh’s adventures in China add a welcome lighter tone to the story. All the descriptions of the Mandarin language and culture and food made me miss my days spent living there. One scene set in an outdoor night market was particularly vivid, I could almost taste the stuffed bao buns and room temperature beer. For Leigh, the trip to Taiwan offers a chance to grieve her mother while learning more about her childhood and the circumstances that drove her to cut off all contact with her family.

The Astonishing Color of After evoked a stronger emotional reaction than I had anticipated. The combination of magic realism with the themes of loss and grief was a heady mix, and I found myself ugly crying towards the end. But it was a cathartic, healing kind of cry. The kind you didn’t know you needed until it’s over.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Astonishing Color of After here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2004)

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Review #77

This graphic novel tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran during the tumultuous years that include the fall of the Shah and the beginnings of the Islamic Republic. Marjane, raised by well-educated intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, finds herself struggling to understand the difference between the freedom of her home life and the sudden restrictions of public life.

Surprise graphic novels are the best kind of graphic novels! I was unaware when I requested this book from my local library that the story was going to be told using simple yet powerful black-and-white illustrations. I was expecting a painful story of a girl whose freedom was stripped away by a regime change. Instead, Persepolis is something far more unique. It is equally parts funny, heartbreaking, and triumphant.

The best part of Persepolis is its heroine. Marjane (Marji) is outspoken, honest, and at times contradictory. Spanning her life between ages ten and fourteen, Persepolis focuses on her changing attitudes towards religion, family, politics, and Iran itself. She begins the novel with a strong belief in God, and tells her parents that when she grows up she wants to be a prophet. Marji’s faith is shaken as the people she loves are exposed to persecution and violence. For a twelve year old girl to turn her back on religion is a devastating life choice, and we share Marji’s sadness and anger as she realizes that faith can be used as a tool for suppression.

This is a smaller, more personal viewpoint of a historically volatile time period. Marji has very little knowledge of exactly why these things are happening, and couldn’t get less about the larger international implications. Instead she just knows that one day she has to wear a veil to school when last year she didn’t, and she finds it uncomfortable and restrictive. She leaves her house one day in “modern” clothes and is accosted by a woman who shouts that she is a whore. Things go from bad to worse when her family experiences the loss of a beloved family member.

I loved this novel because even though the graphic panels are in a stark black and white, the plot itself exists in shades of gray. Marjane Shatrapi illustrates the horrors that were perpetuated during the Islamic Revolution, but also makes room for lightness and laughter. She presents the Iranian people as having a “philosophy of resignation”. When the Ayatollah rose to power, the vast majority of people went about their lives and loved their families and found small victories in listening to modern music and drinking contraband alcohol. The love between Marji and her family shines through every page of Persepolis. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.

Going in, I realized that I did not have enough information about Iran during the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. I did a little bit of research so that I could truly understand what was happening in this novel. I found this video to be particularly helpful if you are also interested in learning a little bit more about this time in history.

My rating: 5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (2013)

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Review #60

Acclaimed primatologist Frans de Waal presents the argument that human morality predates and exists outside of religion and spirituality. He uses years of research on groups of great apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees as evidence that it is evolution, not religion, that gives humanity their moral center.

I’m having a difficult time trying to define how I feel about this book, partially because I’m not sure how the author felt about writing it. I got the sense that Frans de Waal was trying to capitalize on the increasingly popularity of the anti-religion movement, but didn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

The basis of de Waal’s book relies on two simple questions. First, are animals capable of demonstrating basic morality and altruism? And does our belief in a deity define humanity’s concept of morality, or are humans capable of acting in a moral fashion without the strictures of organized religion? The problem is that both of these questions is that they can easily be answered with a resounding YES. There are thousands of viral videos on YouTube of animals helping one another with no expectation of personal gain, and “unlikely animal friendships” is one of the most popular channels on Instagram. In terms of morality predating religion, toddlers as young as two are capable of demonstrating altruistic and moral behavior. As it is highly unlikely that they have been indoctrinated into believing in a deity at such a young age, it can be determined that morality is trait shared by all of humanity.

Frans de Waal seems to realize that he doesn’t have a lot to say on this issue, and instead bounces wildly from topic to topic, sharing anecdotes and thoughts without really offering any new evidence to back up his statements. The most interesting chapters of this book are the ones that share various observations and studies on animal behavior. No on can look into the eyes of an ape without seeing a bit of ourselves reflected back. Dozens of anecdotes and studies from scientists around the globe have shown that apes are capable of interpreting fairness, social welfare, and empathy. The title The Bonobo and the Atheist is a bit misleading, since the overwhelming bulk of de Waal’s remarks come from the study of chimpanzees. I can only guess than he chose to put bonobos in the title because they are known as the “hippies” of the ape kingdom. They have a matriarchal society that relies heavily on sex as a peace-keeping and bonding tool. But there were very few instances of de Waal ever working directly with bonobos, so I assume that the title choice just felt sexier somehow.

Another distraction was de Waal’s constant need to play art critic. He draws constant references to Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. These references are completely out of place in a book about the morality and social bonds of apes and humans. He uses the painting to draw references to the religion portion of his argument, which is most definitely the thinner side. But these observations fall flat, mainly because I don’t care about art theory in a book about morality. I still can’t figure out exactly what the point was of these numerous interjections, except perhaps that de Waal really enjoys the work of Bosch.

If this review seems a bit all over the place, it’s because that was the overall tone of The Bonobo and the Atheist. Frans de Waal may be a renowned primatologist, but this does not give him any weight to make pronouncements on the need and desire for religion among societies. He spends a fair bit of time disparaging atheists for fighting so furiously against something that they view as imaginary. But de Waal shies away from making any grand declarations on the existence of nonexistence of a higher power. He seems to understand that no one can make that statement, and focuses much more of his time and attention making an argument for the existence of morality in mammalian species.

Overall, this book contained a lot of interesting observations on the animal kingdom. I enjoyed learning more about chimpanzee and bonobo society. But at no time did I ever feel that the author had a strong opinion on the argument he was trying to make. Which made this book feel ultimately like a cynical cash grab. Which if you think about it, is not a terribly moral action.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Bonobo and the Atheist here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

This post is dedicated to Koko the gorilla, who taught us so much about the existence of souls in animals.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Ten Amazing Books to Take on a Camping Trip

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I absolutely love camping. Every year I await the chance to get away from all the noise and crowds of the city and just drive into the middle of nowhere for a week. My husband and I are avid campers who are both from “indoor” families. Growing up, my mother’s idea of camping would have been a night at the Motel 8. I think part of that may have been because we already lived in the country, where open space, fresh air, and solitude were readily available. As much as I adore living in the Toronto area, I feel more at home in the country.

My husband and I generally go camping rather early in the season, around the end of June. This means that the temperatures average in the low twenties (70*F). For comparison, today it was 33* (93*F) in my Midwestern hometown.  There are numerous benefits to camping at the start of summer in Canada. First of all, schools are still in session so we don’t have to deal with hoards of families crowding the area. We’re both teachers, so our vacations generally mean trying to avoid small children as much as possible. Also, the insects haven’t had the chance to truly come out in force. And my remarkably Day-Glo pale skin has a better chance of avoiding a blistering sunburn. There are a myriad of benefits to camping in cool weather.

Nevertheless, it does have its drawbacks, mainly in that it isn’t exactly bathing suit season yet. This year we are headed to the Bruce Peninsula, near Lake Huron. If you’ve ever wondered how Jack Dawson felt when he went into the waters with the Titanic, take a quick dip in Lake Huron in June. Due to the cooler temperatures, recreational swimming isn’t really an option. Instead, we spend our time kayaking, naming the squirrels that invade our campsite, drinking beer, and reading.

The reading is what has most likely brought you to this post. As I would hate to become one of those horrid cooking blogs which feel the need to bore you with two thousand words of personal nonsense before giving you what you came for, let’s get to the books!

I’ve put together a list of ten books that would be perfect for reading around a campfire or while relaxing in a tent on a rainy day. The first five are all horror novels, because being scared in the woods is fun for everyone. The next five are more family-friendly, in case you don’t want your children waking up at three in the morning because a stick cracked in the darkness and they’re certain it was a beast from the depths of hell.

1) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

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Nine year old Trisha is separated from her family while hiking in the woods of northern New England. Lost for days, dehydrated and scared, Trisha relies on her small radio for solace, tuning into the Boston Red Sox and her hero, pitcher Tom Gordon. But hunger and insects aren’t Trisha’s only problems. Something is stalking the small girl as she wanders through the forest. Something hungry and unnatural.

No list of horror novels is complete without at least one addition from Stephen King . This book is short (for King), atmospheric, and draws on the readers’ fear of the small noises that seem huge when you’re alone in the dark woods.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Keep on the path!

2) The Ritual by Adam Nevill

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A group of four middle-aged men reunite for a hiking trip in the wilds of northern Sweden. When they attempt to take a shortcut through a patch of untouched forest, they find more than they bargained for.

This novel was on my list of favorite books that I read last year. It is a masterpiece of suspense and dread as the four men realize that their formerly fit bodies are beginning to betray them, and they are unable to outrun that which is hunting them.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: If you see a creepy cabin in the middle of the woods, keep walking!

3) The Ruins by Scott Smith

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Hoping to find a lost friend in the jungles of Mexico, four friends stumble upon an ancient ruin and a creeping horror instead. As they become increasingly hungry and panicked, paranoia and hysteria begin to set in.

This novel is also a really great horror film by the same name. It is a creepy combination of psychological and physical horror. What is more dangerous, the jungle or each other?

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Don’t touch unidentified plants! 

4) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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Five short stories centered around the woods and the horrors within, combined with truly disturbing illustrations.

I wrote a review for this graphic novel just a few weeks ago, and I still can’t get it out of my head. The haunting prose and unsettling drawings come together to create a really creepy reading experience.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Curiosity killed the camper!

5) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

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A collection of short folktakes from around the world. This is still a favorite with older and braver children, and continues to send shivers up the spine of many an adult. Make sure you get an edition with the original artwork by Stephen Gammell, as they are an integral part of this reading experience!

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Close your eyes and hope for the best.

 

6) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

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The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and is a bucket-list item for any avid hiker. Bill Bryson is not an avid hiker, yet he and an equally unfit companion set off to complete the AT in the course of one summer. Bryson details the ecology and history of the area as well as his encounters with the local people and wildlife.

Not so long ago, the Appalachian Trail was a relatively unknown area of the United States, favored only by experienced backpackers and campers. From what I hear, it is now overridden by idiot hipsters who think a hiking GPS makes them an expert. This book is a fun expedition through the woods from someone who knows the does not belong there.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: A sense of humor is essential.

7) Hatchet by Gary Paulson

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This ever-popular children’s novella centers on a boy named Brian who finds himself stranded in the wilderness of Northern Canada after his bush-plane crashes. Armed with only a small hatchet, Brian must find a way to survive until he can be rescued.

Hatchet has been a hit with people of all ages for more than thirty years because we as readers identify so strongly with Brian. His early cluelessness and mistakes are the results of a boy growing up away from nature, as so many of us do. This would be a fun novel to read with children.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Never give up.

8) The Call of the Wild by Jack London

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Buck the dog is kidnapped from his easygoing life in Santa Clara and forced into work as a sled dog in the unforgiving winter of the Yukon. Faced with constant danger from the climate, the wildlife, and the cruelty of both his fellow dogs and man, Buck must struggle to survive and reclaim his position as master.

Another book that is very popular with young readers, The Call of the Wild is an enduring story of survival and spirit. Because the main character is a dog, he is easy to root for and we celebrate Buck’s victories as much as we weep for his setbacks.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Be kind to animals.

9) Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Laura Ingalls and her family live in a small wood cabin in the forests of Wisconsin in the mid 18th century. This book describes the struggle and successes of the Ingalls family as they work hard to make a life for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Eternally beloved author Laura Ingalls Wilder as captured the imaginations of generations of children with her Little House books. They are a good reminder of how much the world has changed, and yet how many things remain the same.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Your family is there to love and protect you.

10) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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In the dense forests of medieval Russia, a small village is buried in snow for eight months out of the year. Vasilisa Petrovna grows up wild in the woods, giving offerings to the various sprites and spirits that inhabit the wilderness. When a Catholic priest begins to interfere with village life, Vasilisa must make a choice that will affect her entire future.

I reviewed this novel earlier in the year and I absolutely adored it. A dark fairy tale with religious undertones, The Bear and the Nightingale features a wonderful protagonist who never behaves quite as expected.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: When in doubt, trust your instincts.

Well there you have it, folks! I hope that you enjoy some of these books on your next venture into the forests. Whether you are looking for a scare or for more tame entertainment, you can’t go wrong with a good book! I’ll be on hiatus next week while I am on a camping trip. I hope to return with more recommendations for our readers who love the woods.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

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Review #43

In 2014, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post to try and express her frustration with the way race and racism are discussed in Britain. The post, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, triggered an immediate and intense response from both white and black voices. In her first book, Eddo-Lodge expands upon her initial idea with a series of essays exploring topics such as white dominance, race in feminism, and the link between race and class.

In her preface, Eddo-Lodge explains that she finds it difficult to converse with white people about race because they tend to become either disinterested, defensive, or deflective. Because race is a topic that largely does not affect white people, the author feels that they instead try to turn the conversation around to focus on things from their perspective, and by doing so they shut out the minority viewpoint. On one hand, I completely agree. I have attempted to have conversations about race with my family and friends and the results have been uncomfortable at best or aggressive at worst.

On the other hand, it is generally difficult for humans  to imagine a viewpoint outside of their own. Sympathy and empathy are developed by asking ourselves that age old question, “How would I feel if this happened to me?” By asking that question it seems only natural that one would need to use their own life experiences as a lens through which to view the question. In order to open a dialogue about race and racism in the modern world, we first have to view the world through our own lens and come to an understanding before we can attempt to view the world through the lens of another. If Reni Eddo-Lodge wants to have a conversation about race and racism, this would be a good place to start. But, in this reader’s opinion, she doesn’t want to open a dialogue. She wants to lecture.

Right away, I hear voices in my head saying that I missed the entire point of the book and that I can never understand because I am white. However, I am simply referring to the preface. I actually found the majority of the book to be thought-provoking and insightful. My initial interest was sparked when I found out that it was focused primarily on race in Britain. When it comes to racially charged controversy, so much of the attention is focused on the United States that one tends to forget that it is alive and thriving in other areas as well. In her first essay, “Histories”, Eddo-Lodge points out that while Great Britain greatly benefited financially from the slave trade, they never had to witness the horrors of slavery at their doorstep, due to most of their “assets” being shipped to the Caribbean islands. So while America continues to deal with the aftershocks of slavery and segregation, Britain has allowed itself a certain level of moral superiority that it certainly hasn’t earned. Eddo-Lodge goes on to detail the difficult and violent history of racial minorities and immigrants in England, particularly when it comes to police violence and mob mentality.

The other essay that I particularly enjoyed was entitled “The Feminism Question”. Here, Eddo-Lodge and I agree very closely. Her argument is that the feminist movement is largely made up of white, middle-class women who have more liberty to expound their feminist views both in the workplace and in society at large. I was strongly reminded of the Women’s March last year, wherein thousands of women around the world took the day off of work to march through the streets. I recall reading about women walking in to restaurants and other stores and disparaging the women who had not taken the day off. What I feel that feminism often forgets to take into account is that not everyone has the support structure to just take a day off work. If you are a salaried employee whose children are in daycare, it’s easy enough to take a vacation day. However, if you are an hourly paid worker who is struggling to make ends meet at forty hours a week, it simply isn’t feasible. And since a disproportionate number of these service and hourly waged jobs are occupied by minority race, that they are often left out of the feminist discussion simply by not being invited to the conversation.

The one section of the book that I had serious issues with was the one entitled, “What is White Privilege”. Now do not get me wrong, I have absolutely benefited from white privilege. I accept this fact without condition. My problem is when Reni Eddo-Lodge equates white privilege with racism. At one point she says:

“White privilege is the perverse situation of feeling more comfortable with openly racist, far-right extremists, because at least you know where you stand with them; the boundaries are clear.”

Really? Would she really prefer to live in a world of active racists rather than a world of people who are trying (and perhaps failing but trying) to understand an outside perspective? The problem is that in Eddo-Lodge’s worldview, she leaves no room for disagreement. Either I accept everything that Eddo-Lodge states or I am somehow complicit in the racist treatment that she has had to endure in her life. There’s no room for conversation here. All white people have benefited from white privilege, there’s no denying that. But I actively disagree with the premise that this makes all white people inherently racist. Which, according to her, makes me a racist? One cannot prove a negative, so how am I meant to convince anyone that I am not a racist? Is it even possible if they already assume that you are?

If Reni Eddo-Lodge wanted to challenge people’s views on race and racism, she definitely succeeded with me. Consider that most of my reviews on this site average around 400 words, and this one is pushing one thousand. While reading this book I found myself constantly pausing and re-reading, going back over her arguments to think about them and how they pertain to the larger conversation of racism in the world. And while I did not agree with everything, this is definitely a book that will continue to stick in my brain for a long time.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race here on Amazon and here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Republican Like Me by Ken Stern (2017)

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Review #38

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!

 

 

Book Review: Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

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Review #33

 

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!

 

Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)

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Review #32

 

“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.

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

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Review #25

 

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!