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Staff Picks: Books

The Verses we Would Rather Forget

This book is not anti-religion by any means, and it makes great pains to show that Islam stacks up very well against Christianity on the issue of violence, but the book does want to have a serious and detailed conversation about the violent passages that exist in our religious texts, in all major world religions (except Buddhism…I don’t think spends much time on that).

First, what violent verses are we talking about? Second, what are the historical atrocities that have been committed, using interpretations of those very verses as justification? Third, how to we keep that from happening in the future? This is a story about how religion has evolved, and is still evolved, and how interpretation matters, and how learning from the past saves us from future blunders.

For some reason I lost interest in the topic, and only got half-way through the book, but I did enjoy it.


Black People Behind Bars: How Did We Get Here?

Check your optimism at the door folks; this is going to be a bumpy ride. I give my whole-hearted recommendation for this book, and I did read the entire thing, with one caveat: it’s quite academic, sometimes dry, many times repetitive, and takes a lot of concentration and time and patience to get through. In other words, it’s not the best writing ever.

Mark Twain once said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

This is not engaging and entertaining writing, and the author takes great pains to take her opinions and personal thoughts out of it. After all, it’s published by Harvard, so it’s meant to be academic. But I felt like the first 100 pages were very repetitive—in other words, it feels like you keep reading the exact same sentence over and over again. However, the content and subject-matter and ambition of the book is essential reading. This book was depressingly fascinating, the research is extensive, the history is meticulous, and the sweeping history of incarcerating young black men is long and hard and consistent. Currently, we live in an era of mass incarceration, which disproportionately has affected young African American men. How’d we get here? This book will take you from beginning to end (wait…beginning to now); she will take you detail by detail, program by program, policy by policy, administration by administration, president by president—without gaps. Elizabeth Hinton will show you that, contrary to popular narrative, the War on Crime was first started by a Democrat, and his name was Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Great Society had an evil twin, and that evil twin spawned ideas, and policies, and legacies that grew into the greatest penal nation in the world.


Does the Critic Matter?

What is “criticism”, who are “critics” and what sort of social role should they play in determining taste and value judgments are just a couple of the questions that New York Times journalist A.O. Scott attempts to explore in his charming, new book Better Living Through Criticism: how to think about art, pleasure, beauty and truth. Scott’s interest in the topic is certainly personal given his livelihood is based upon the notion that open societies benefit from a profession that functions to analyze, probe, and lay bare deeper truths about our various forms of expression, communication and creativity. Scott's tone is warm and self-reflexive. He understands and in some cases, sympathizes with the anti-intellectual strain of discourse that mocks his profession as elitist or unnecessary nor does he shy away from discussing criticism's inherent flaws and blind spots but he also makes a strong case for its noble role as an exercise in thinking about important matters connected to a democratic and increasingly culturally, complex society.


Missing Brazil

Probably, like many of you, I spent a lot of time watching the Olympics over the past two weeks. Because of all the commercial breaks, I also got time to read. I reviewed my books-to-read list and discovered that there was not just one, but two books about Brazil.

Crossing the River: a Life in Brazil by Amy Ragsdale

Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio by Misha Glenny

I went with Amy Ragsdale’s story about her family’s year in Penedo, a small town in northeastern Brazil. Her father passed along to her the value of travel and experiencing other cultures. This was something she wanted to pass on to her children and she wanted to escape her fast-paced life in the United States.

If the Olympics gave you a little taste of Brazil and you want more, settle down with Ragsdale’s book and see how Brazilian culture transforms her family.


One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

 In 1980, the Chinese Government enacted a one child policy, mandating that each family could only have one child in hopes of curbing the rapid population growth of the country. This controversial policy was put into place to avoid facing another disaster like the Great Chinese Famine from 1959-1961 that killed an estimated 15 to 30 million people

However, there were unintended consequences. At the beginning of this year the one child policy was lifted, but millions of families are still have to live with the unique challenges it caused, such as the gender imbalance caused by widespread infanticide, and millions of unauthorized second children who live unacknowledged by the state, unable to attend school, or even get a library card.

In OneChild: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, Mei Fong explores the aftermath of this policy through well researched analysis, and by following families to capture the repercussions through a more personal lens. This book is a really fascinating, eye-opening read. I definitely recommend it. 


Under the Big Black Sun

In 1981, my family flew to Hermosa Beach, California to visit my Aunt Sally and enjoy the California sun. I was a 13 year old Middle School student, had never been outside of the Midwest, and my idea of California was all about Hollywood movies and a 1950’s idea of beach/surfing culture. Walking around the sleepy beach town that first day opened my eyes to the dark menace that was the early 80’s punk rock scene in and around LA, including sleepy Hermosa Beach. That brief glimpse, and the cassettes that I purchased during that trip, changed the trajectory of the remainder of my youth and ultimately influenced my view of the world. Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk provides the real story behind what I glimpsed when I was 13. Told through chapter-length tales from some of the scenesters that survived that dangerous and nihilistic time, Under the Big Black Sun is a vibrant front-row seat into a legendary scene the likes of which we aren’t likely to see again.


Sewers and the Rats That Love Them

There are some kids out there who ask why the sky is blue, what stars are made of, and if magic is real. Then there are kids who ask where the stuff in the toilet goes after you flush. And some adults wonder too. Or maybe I’m the only one.

Anyway, I stumbled across Sewers and the Rats That Love Them, by Kelly Barnhill, after reading The Mostly True Story of Jack and searching Barnhill in the catalog to see what else she has written. I was delighted to discover this book of gross and learned from its 28 pages of sanitation information facts about the history of waste removal, the steps of wastewater treatment, and why sewers make terrific homes for rats. I thought the book was really cool and it made me grateful for indoor plumbing, which is probably my favorite modern invention. Indulge your kids’ or your own curiosity with this interesting book, and maybe look into Barnhill’s other peculiar nonfiction titles, such as Sick, Nasty Medical Practices, The Bloody Book of Blood, and Animals with No Eyes, among others. I won’t even think you’re that weird.


Required Reading

Toni Morrison said it best: this book is required reading.

In college I'll never forget reading one of the greatest works of African American literature ever to be put on paper: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. For a white person first understanding what it's like to be black in America, this was a powerful experience for me. I was finding my way into an empathetic and complex understanding of the greatest tragedies in America. I distinctly remember the end of the book (or was it the beginning?): the narrator sitting in a basement room, with many lights, and books, and jazz and whiskey, plotting his reemergence into the great white world.

Now, many books and years later, Between the World and Me reawakens me. This book had the same effect on me as Invisible Man and There Eyes Were Watching God and The New Jim Crow, probably greater. The weight of the words and sentences has a physical effect on the body, a sad truth that slowly settles and creeps in. It's personal. He makes it personal. Every single word and sentence of this little book was chosen carefully for maximum effect and truth.

Another fascinating theme of this book is its atheistic, materialistic, physical outlook on the issue of racism in America. He says it as plain and real and physical as possible, and he says it many times: racism is the destruction of the black body.


The Long and Winding Road

Here’s a new one that’s really fun to look at. It was for me, anyway, since I was around when the Beatles first started singing and I am familiar with the vast majority of the songs included. This book has all the lyrics the Beatles wrote, and according to its cover, author Steve Turner “has tracked down and interviewed the real-life subjects of the songs, probed public records and newspaper archives and spoken in depth to the people closest to the band, making this the most comprehensive exploration of the stories behind every Beatles song.” I always liked “Eight Days a Week,” but page 91 says that John Lennon thought it was “lousy,” and that they struggled to write it as well as record it. This year another of my favorites has special significance -- “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm (you fill in the number here).”

 


Mess!

After hearing Barry Yourgrau interviewed on NPR Weekend Edition, I was drawn to read Mess: One Man's Struggle to clean up his House and his Act. 

Yourgrau’s girlfriend delivered an ultimatum. Basically it was: clean this place (and your life) up, or we are over! Yourgrau loves his girlfriend, and he wanted the relationship, so he had to figure out how to clean up his mess. He began to research, interviewing many people and reading quite a lot, seeking to understand why people clutter and hoard and how they overcome that issue, if/when they do.

I found most of the book fascinating, though I bristled with discomfort reading the author’s description of a Clutterers Anonymous meeting (p. 43.) It seemed he attended as a voyeur, an ‘objective’ researcher, instead of honestly owning his own issues. I found it unethical that he shared the details of that meeting in his book. Many anonymous 12-Step groups say: “What you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here.” Yourgrau didn’t give real names to any of the speakers, but he shared enough details that if one of those people should read his book, I’d think they would recognize themselves. Not cool, when you’re attending an anonymous meeting! His writing displayed a condescending attitude toward the other people at the meeting. I sensed he was hiding from his feelings about himself and his own clutter by judging the other people around the table.

That said, that experience appears fairly early in the book. Yourgrau’s attitude toward other clutterers seemed to soften as his book progressed, as he learned more about why people clutter and hoard, and as he understood and accepted more about his own issues with said behavior. Ultimately, it was very interesting how the author shared of his personal story/experience, wove it into what he learned about cluttering and hoarding, then would weave what he learned back into his own understanding of himself. All told, I liked the book and I liked Yourgrau.

It’s a shame he didn’t include a bibliography, because the book is packed with references.