Category: Non-Fiction

The Book Thieves

Cover image for The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell translated by Henning Kochby Anders Rydell

Translated by Henning Koch

ISBN 978-0-73522123-9

 “The image of Nazis as anti-intellectual cultural vandals has been persistent, possibly to some degree because it is easy to comprehend, and possibly because we would like to see literature and the written word as fundamentally good. But even the Nazis realized that if there was something that gave more power than merely destroying the word, it was owning and controlling it. There was a power in books.”

The image of Nazis burning books is a striking and pervasive one, because of course it is based in the truth of the pyres that were made in public squares across Germany as the Third Reich rose to power. But in The Book Thieves, Anders Rydell tackles and attempts to recontextualize that image by uncovering the extent to which the Nazis were collectors of stolen literature—not just of valuable manuscripts as you might already be familiar with from Monuments Men—but of books of all types, from all across Europe. Rydell, a Swedish journalist, follows the trail of the pillagers from Berlin to Amsterdam and Paris, and beyond to Vilnius and Thessaloniki, demonstrating the far reach of the Nazi looters. Entire libraries disappeared, sometimes untraceably, into the mists of the war. Rydell chronicles the actors who seized and dispersed the libraries, as well as the modern librarians who now face the unenviable task of uncovering and facing up to the origins of their collections.

For decades, German libraries have tried to ignore or hide the provenance of many of the items in their collections acquired during or as a result of the war. Fly leaves were cut out, and ex libris labels were scraped or torn away. Some libraries went so far as to forge a different provenance for their acquisitions. But a new generation of library professionals have refused to look away any longer, and “they are fighting a retroactive battle against their former colleagues, who for decades have been rubbing out, tearing off, or falsifying the provenance of these books—all to make them blend into the collection.” Without an ex libris, or inscription, most privately owned books are untraceable. But others come from famous libraries, some of which are now lost to history, and others which still operate despite their losses.

While some books were stolen outright from synagogues, libraries, and Freemason’s Lodges, or plundered from abandoned Jewish residences, others were obtained by coercion. Some very rare and valuable items were added to the Goethe Archive by means of an extortionate deal with a Jewish book collector who knew that he would not be able to flee the country with these famous national treasures, and so was forced to sell them for a pittance. Only in 2006 were his descendants compensated for the discrepancy between the value of the collection, and what was paid for it at the time.

The darkest twist in Rydell’s narrative comes in the chapters that address the Jewish scholars and intellectuals whose forced labour made the creation of the Nazi book depositories possible. In Berlin, they were required to translate and explain Hebrew and Yiddish texts for the SS, because there were not enough “Aryan” translators who knew these languages. In Vilnius, Belarus, a group of Jews were put to work sorting the plunder that would be sent back to Germany by the occupiers. This “intellectual slave labor” forced the prisoners into a terrible choice between consigning their books to the invaders and hoping that they would survive the war to perhaps be reclaimed, or keeping them from Nazi hands and seeing them destroyed. They also knew that when the work ran out and there were no more books to sort, they too would be sent to the death camps. A resistance of book smugglers nevertheless emerged in the group.

What is perhaps most interesting about The Book Thieves is trying to understand why the Nazis stole various texts and libraries. The desire for books by national heroes, or to control the image of famous literary Germans shaped some of their work at home. To this end, they also seized control of publishing, literary awards, and even book clubs. In the Jewish libraries, they were seeking an understanding of their “enemy” and searching for evidence of the great Jewish world conspiracy that drove their hatred. The Freemasons were suspect thanks to their international connections, but certain groups within the party were nevertheless desirous of their rumoured occult knowledge, and the libraries that supported it. In the occupied territories, even books that were of no interest for the purposes of Nazi “research” were taken, and often destroyed, in an attempt to crush the unique cultural identities of the people in those countries. In short, it was never as simple as just seizing and burning the work of undesirables, or asking Germans to purge their own collections to this end. Various groups within the party were at work to further the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich,” and books played a part in many of their plans.

The Book Thieves gives greater depth to our understanding of how the Nazis treated books and literature both before and during the war. I also felt it as a sort of professional call to arms, a reminder to librarians everywhere that we can and have been complicit in atrocities for which full restitution can never be made. And the end of the war did not end the thefts; the Red Army stole in kind, not just taking back stolen books, but laying claim to the Russian books that had belonged to an expatriate library in Paris. Individual soldiers also stole books, scattering some of the lost volumes across the world when the armies dispersed. And more than a million books were sent to the Library of Congress by a delegation sent from Washington, D.C. The problem of restitution is not merely a German one, and The Book Thieves is a means to understand both oppression and complicity in an ongoing tragedy.

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You might also like In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

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Canada Reads Along 2018: Forgiveness

Cover image for Forgiveness by Mark Sakamotoby Mark Sakamoto

ISBN 9781443417990

History has proven all too many times that discrimination in any form is a downward spiral.”

On opposite sides of the Pacific, two Canadians become prisoners of World War II. In December 1941, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, and more than 1500 Canadian soldiers were captured and rounded up into camps. Among them was Ralph McLean, a young man from Canada’s eastern Magdalen Islands. For the remainder of the war, the prisoners would endure dire, often life threatening conditions. That same month, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ratcheted up anti-Asian sentiment in Canada, particularly on the West Coast. Mitsue Sakamoto, recently married, found herself and her family forced out of their homes, and given a choice between internment and hard labour on a farm to help supplement war rationing. They would never be able to return home to Vancouver. Decades later, these war survivors would be united by the marriage of their children, and the birth of their shared grandchildren. But tragedy would continue to touch the family down through the years, in the form of divorce and addiction and loss.

Forgiveness is a book with three main acts or movements. We first follow Grandpa Ralph through an abusive childhood with his alcoholic father through to his enlistment in the war in order to escape home. On the opposite coast, Mark’s grandmother, Mitsue, is beginning her career as a seamstress, meeting her husband-to-be, and facing the rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment fostered by their dominance in the coastal fishing industry. Mark Sakamoto follows his grandparents through the war, recounts the meeting and marriage of his parents, as well as the first dinner between his maternal and paternal grandparents. The third act of the book is concerned with his parents’ divorce, and his mother’s subsequent descent into alcoholism, near-homelessness, and an abusive relationship. Each section carries its own unique and heavy weight of tragedy and loss.

The cover copy for this book describes it as being about “two families on either side of the Second World War.” But what struck me about Forgiveness is that it is actually about two families that were supposed to be on the same side of the war. Mitsue was not even a Japanese citizen; she was born and raised in Canada, and had never set foot in the country of her parents’ birth. Grandpa Ralph was imprisoned by enemy combatants. Mitsue Sakamoto was forced out of her home and given a choice between near-slave labour and imprisonment by her fellow Canadian citizens and her own government. Throughout Canada Reads week, Grandpa Ralph was by far the most frequently spoken about by the panelists, but for me it was Mitsue whose story and character were of greatest interest. And while the theme of the book is forgiveness, it remains largely on a personal level, dealing with Ralph and Mitsue’s ability to put their pasts behind them in order to allow their families to come together, and then with Mark’s need to forgive himself for not being able to save his mother. The book never digs deeper to try to reckon with the much bigger forgiveness and reconciliation that needs to happen on a national level in order for Canada to move on from the wrong that was done to Canadians of Japanese descent during the war, and to ensure that such injustice is not repeated.

After the death of his paternal grandfather, Hideo Sakamoto, Mark helped his grandmother clean out their basement. There they found Ralph McLean’s war medals, and Mitsue asked Mark to return them to his maternal grandfather. In this early scene, Mark describes the profound respect that existed between Mitsue and Ralph, so I was disappointed that the book did not go on to recount many interactions between them. The first dinner between the two families is described, but very few other scenes place them together. Rather, after the war years, Mark’s focus turns to his parents’ marriage and divorce, and his mother’s struggle with addiction, and his own difficulties as a young man trying to find ways to help her, and eventually to free himself from her cycle of destruction. We never do circle back to those war medals, to the friendship that developed between the two sets of grandparents, and how the medals came to be gifted from one side to the other.

Forgiveness was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by fashion television host Jeanne Beker. In her opening argument, Beker highlighted the importance of remembering the darker chapters in Canada’s history, while also forgiving them in order for healing to take place. The hopefulness of Mark Sakamoto’s narrative became a key pillar in her defense of the book throughout the week, with Beker arguing that it is necessary to heal our own hurts before we can turn to healing anything outside of ourselves.

Working on this basis, Beker took relentless aim at the darkness and tragedy in other books on the table, particularly The Marrow Thieves, and American War. She described The Marrow Thieves as being too fearful, since much of the book is spent on the run in the woods, and ascribed her aversion as being a product of hearing her parents’ stories about being Holocaust survivors, and fleeing the Nazis. Beker took a similar tactic against American War, describing the book as a “soul destroying” revenge narrative. Despite these arguments, on Day Two, Beker cast the tie breaking vote between American War and Precious Cargo, which eliminated Precious Cargo from the competition, leading some viewers to speculate that she was voting strategically, since it was the only book on the table that was more upbeat and arguably more hopeful than her own. Beker went on to explain her vote by saying she didn’t feel that Precious Cargo had the “gravitas” to compete against the other books.

Going into the final day of debates, not one panelist had cast a vote to eliminate Forgiveness. By contrast, the last opponent standing, American War, had been voted against every day, and narrowly survived the Day Two tie against Precious Cargo. With the only other memoir having been eliminated, Beker dodged many questions by refusing to compare fiction and non-fiction, selecting Ralph McLean as her favourite character in the books because he was real, and describing the question “what does Forgiveness have that American War doesn’t” as “ridiculous,” because the two books were apples and oranges. Beker closed with an appeal to the values of the book, including forgiveness, healing, and remembrance. By contrast, Tahmoh Penikett asked his fellow panelists to be open to hearing and acknowledging the hard truths of American War, and thanking them for their passionate defenses of their own books. Jully Black, who had fiercely challenged Beker’s negative characterization of difficult books throughout the week, voted with Penikett against Forgiveness. However, Beker’s appeals to positivity and true stories over fiction were effective with Greg Johnson and Mozdah Jamalzadah, who voted with Beker to make Forgiveness the winner of Canada Reads 2018.

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That’s it for Canada Reads Along 2018! Catch up on my recaps starting here.

Canada Reads Along 2018: Precious Cargo

Cover image for Precious Cargo by Craig Davidsonby Craig Davidson

ISBN 978-0-345-81051-9

Failure carries weight. Nobody tells you this. Cinderblocks stacked on your chest and piled atop your skull; you develop a persistent slump, your shoulders round in defeat. People can sense it. They avoid you as if you’ve got scabies.”

In the summer of 2008, Craig Davidson was broke and unemployed, a struggling writer who felt he had blown his one chance at success. After being rejected for a lunch monitor position, a flyer landed in his mailbox advertising school bus driver jobs—no experience necessary! By simple chance, the route closest to home was a mini-bus that transported five students with various disabilities to their middle and high schools. Over the course of the school year, the kids on the bus unwound Davidson’s sense of failure, and soon helped him begin writing again. Precious Cargo is his account of that year on the bus, and what he learned along the way.

Precious Cargo is divided into four sections by the seasons of the school year, beginning with Craig’s hiring and training, and progressing through to the following June. Interspersed with these main sections are chapters from an unpublished novel called The Seekers. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what was going on with these excerpts, which are not explained, but I soon realized that Davidson had cast the kids from his bus as heroes in an adventure novel about time travel. Over the course of the book, as we get to know the five kids, it becomes evident that they are largely geeky and creative, enjoying science fiction and fantasy, and making up their own stories as well. I wondered if Davidson had shared his invention with them, or involved them in it, but this is never touched on.

The portrayals of the five kids who rode Davidson’s bus are a bit uneven. Jake, a teenager with Cerebral Palsy who loves science fiction, and wants to be a writer, by far receives the most attention and detail, followed by Oliver, a dramatic character who has Fragile X syndrome. Vincent and Gavin (who is non-verbal) fall in between, and Nadja receives very little attention at all. I had wondered if this is might have been at the request or the kids or their families, but that turned out not to be the case. When this was brought up during the Canada Reads debates, defender Greg Johnson raised it with the author, who admitted that he connected more with some of the kids, and that the book reflects that. I think this was one thing that always felt awkward to me as I was reading the book; Davidson was an adult in a position of responsibility with these kids, but he clearly had favourites.

If some of the kids were barely sketched in, others are very closely described. I was left wondering how Jake and his family felt about the intimate portrayal of their situation. Davidson states that he told the kids and their families that he was a writer, but we never hear from them directly. In Jake’s case in particular, enough identifying details are provided that, although a pseudonym is used in the book, the family is easily identifiable with the most cursory internet search. Davidson very much centered himself and his journey in this account of his year on the bus, and I hope that it has not been at the expense of his subjects. While he seems to have genuine feeling for the kids, he also falls into common tropes, like referring to Jake as being “trapped inside his own diminishing body.”

Precious Cargo was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by tornado chaser Greg Johnson. In his opening arguments, Johnson lauded the book for opening his eyes on a personal level—this year’s theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes—and for using humour to tackle difficult issues. Certainly, its tone is different from the other books selected for this year’s competition. In his final rebuttal, he pointed out that this is the first time that a book about disabilities has been selected in the seventeen years of Canada Reads. However, it is a book that is told from an outside perspective.

The discussion of Precious Cargo on Day Two centered on whether or not the characters were fully realized. Although many of the panelists enjoyed the book, they also felt unable to connect with many of the kids other than Jake. Jully Black said that Jake’s father, Calvin, reminded her of her own mother, who cares for Jully’s sister who has a disability. Tahmoh Penikett also argued that while Precious Cargo was humourous and heart-warming, it does not deal with the most pressing issues that are facing humanity today, such as climate change, war, and radicalization. This led into a heated and sometimes chaotic debate about the darkness of American War, and the role of hopefulness and humour in delivering a message.

When it came time to vote, Greg Johnson and Jully Black voted against American War, while Tahmoh Penikett and Mozhdah Jamalzadah cast their ballots against Precious Cargo. Jeanne Beker was the sole vote for The Marrow Thieves, and was called on to cast the tie-breaking vote between American War and Precious Cargo. Surprisingly, given her vehement arguments against the darkness and despair of American War in the course of the Day Two debates, she chose to eliminate Precious Cargo from Canada Reads 2018. Asked to elucidate her decision in the Q&A after the show, Beker explained that as much as she enjoyed Precious Cargo, she didn’t feel that it had the gravitas to compete with the other books, and that it felt more lightweight than the others. She did not feel it was the book that most adult Canadians needed to open their eyes.

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Catch up with yesterday’s recap of the elimination of The Boat People by Sharon Bala. Or tune in to the Canada Reads debates on CBC.

Death in the Air

Cover image for Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawsonby Kate Winkler Dawson

ISBN 978-0-316-50686-1

The fuel was cheap, effective, and crucial—it was the only major source of domestic heating in the city at that time. But the smoke could be suffocating, and the sulphur dioxide released into the air was deadly. It triggered acid rain strong enough to bend iron, erode statues, poison land, and contaminate waterways—the pollution could destroy lungs and cause cancer. But still the coal burned.

On December 5, 1952, a thick fog descended on London. This was nothing unusual for the British capital in winter, but as the fog bank up to seven hundred feet thick settled over the city, and then refused to budge for five days, the event become something more than the average peasouper. Transportation ground to a halt, schools and businesses closed, and people huddled up at home in front of their coal fires. Britain was still recovering from the war, and high-quality coal was at a premium, so most people were burning dirty, inefficient “nutty slack,” or coal dust, which was cheaply available and encouraged by the government. As the fires burned, and more and more air pollution was trapped in the fog, Londoners began to wheeze, and then they began to die by the hundreds. By the time the fog lifted, more than four thousand would be dead. But in the months that followed the tragedy, as the official opposition pushed for an inquiry in Parliament, the headlines were grabbed instead by the lurid details of a serial killer that had been living among them. Four bodies had been found in the abandoned apartment of one John Reginald Christie of 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, and two more women were buried in the garden. So while Londoners cried out for justice for the murders of the six women, they were missing the fact that as many as twelve thousand of their fellow citizens had died during or after the Great Smog.

Fog is an indelible feature of British life, much tied up in the very image of London, as evidenced by the epigraphs Dawson includes at the beginning of each chapter. From Robert Louis Stevenson to T.S. Eliot, and Arthur Conan Doyle to Charles Dickens, famous writers described and referenced London’s fogs, and were even charmed by them. The French impressionist painter Claude Monet said that London would not be a beautiful city without them. But romanticized as the image has been, smoky fog made London dirty and dangerous, and the government contributed to the problem. By selling the best coal overseas to help rebuild the post-war economy, and encouraging Londoners to burn dirty nutty slack, the problem was worsened. Nor did the city’s new diesel buses, forty coal-fired power plants, or 200 steam powered locomotives help the situation. Transportation continued to try to run throughout the event, with limited success, and there was no warning system in place to tell vulnerable people to stay indoors, or discourage people from operating cars, or otherwise contributing to the disaster. Dawson clearly sketches out the tragedy, and the many ways in which the government contributed to it, and then tried to deny and cover it up. The press meanwhile, was too distracted by crime stories to pay much attention.

Death in the Air has been compared to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and certainly the structure is similar. But it was quite different in one important respect; the fog has little or nothing to do with the murders, while the Chicago World’s Fair was actively used as a hunting ground and cover for the murders committed there. Christie had killed two women and buried them in his garden long before the Great Smog, and none of his victims were killed during the event. The author speculates that being cooped up for his wife for days during the fog might have nudged Christie towards killing her in mid-December 1952, but this is about the extent of the connection between the two events, as well as the fact that both left strangled victims behind. Rather, Dawson seems to be drawing on the fact that while the serial killer is still (in)famous, the Great Smog, though it killed many more people, is much less remembered, despite eventually ushering in some of the first clean air regulations.

Nevertheless, Dawson balances well between the Great Smog and its aftermath, and the murders and the subsequent trial. I was engaged by both stories, though they didn’t quite gel, continuing to move along on parallel tracks. Dawson also employs some secondary characters, including a policeman who patrolled during the smog, and a young girl whose father died during the event, forever altering the lives of her family. I particularly wanted to hear more from Rosemary Sargent about her experiences and recollections, and felt that Dawson could have used her to better effect. The tremendous number of deaths tells one part of the tale, but Rosemary helps to personalize the fall out of such an event.

Death in the Air is a story with plenty of contemporary relevance. As Dawson points out, four thousand people now die from the effects of smog every day in China. This little remembered English tragedy is being repeated on a daily basis in the fastest growing industrial nation in the world, with no sign of slowing. And the vagaries of the Christie case, including his bizarre confession to having been responsible for two murders a neighbour was convicted of, and executed for, several years earlier, raise the spectre of injustice, and the finality of the death penalty in the face of fallible human judgement. In short, while the two stories do not work perfectly together, I was fascinated by this book nevertheless.

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You might also like Tinseltown by William J. Mann

The Radium Girls

Cover image for The Radium Girls by Kate Moore by Kate Moore

ISBN 9781492649359

With war raging in Europe, the demand for luminous watch dials and airplane instruments panels was voracious when Katherine Schaub began work the United States Radium Company’s dial painting studio in Orange, New Jersey in February 1917 at the age of fourteen. And when the United States joined the war only a few months later, demand exploded even further. Schaub would be only one of hundreds of young women who applied the patented luminous paint to the watch faces, dipping her brush into the radioactive material, and using her lips to point the brush for the finely detailed work of applying the paint to the numbers. She and her fellow dial painters had no idea that the miraculous element that caused them all to glow in the dark as they left work each night was slowly burrowing into their bones, with health consequences that would not be felt for years, long after many of the women had left dial painting behind. In The Radium Girls, Kate Moore chronicles the medical mystery that perplexed doctors and dentists for years, and the uphill legal battle that the women faced as they raced against their decaying bodies for acknowledgement of what their employers had done to them.

The problems began with their teeth. Terrible toothaches, and bleeding gums. Most dentists had never seen anything like it, and the ones that had thought their patients must be suffering phosphorous poisoning. But when the decaying teeth were pulled, the wounds they left behind did not heal, and the pain only grew worse. And that was just the beginning. One surprised dentist went to extract a dial painter’s tooth, and came away instead with a piece of her jawbone. Another accidentally broke a patient’s jaw simply by touching it. Moore chronicles all this in brutal detail, not sparing the reader the horrifying specifics of the terrible pain these women suffered in life, and the still more horrifying ways they finally met their ends. One of the earliest deaths Moore depicts is that of an Orange dial painter who drowned in her own blood after the radium ate away at her face and throat until her carotid artery gave way. Making the reality clear could not be described as gratuitous, but nor is this a book for the squeamish or faint of heart.

The Radium Girls features a very large cast of characters spread out between two different factories. The book opens in Orange, New Jersey, and then moves back and forth between Orange and Ottawa, Illinois. Moore has the unenviable struggle of trying to concisely portray a situation that was geographically distributed, and strung out over many years, as the companies involved concealed and denied their culpability for the women’s illnesses. The vast cast makes it difficult to get to know many of the women well. Grace Fryer and Katherine Schaub stand out in New Jersey, while Catherine Wolfe Donohue makes a strong impression from among the Illinois women. Fryer and Donohue were the backbones of the coalitions of former workers who sued their employers, while Schaub is notable for leaving behind extensive writings about her life and experiences. Many others are less documented, but suffered no less than their better remembered peers. The very nature of the tragedy Moore is trying to document is that many of these women did not live long enough to speak for themselves.

The narrative of The Radium Girls stretches over the more than twenty years it would take for the women to win any meaningful legal victory over their former employers. It is not a medical or legal or labour rights text, unlike the academic chronicles that have gone before, and on which Moore drew extensively, but all of these elements are present, and well explained for the general reader. Rather, Moore takes a more personal approach, focusing on the experiences of the women as far as they can be reconstructed. Moore is far from a dispassionate chronicler; she has a rage that is nearly incandescent as she cries out against the injustices these women suffered. She calls for their sacrifice to be given meaning, and for their suffering to be remembered, though they are gone. It is a fitting tribute, but one that can hardly make up for everything the women suffered.

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You might also like The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2017

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2017. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Born a Crime

ISBN 978-0-385-68922-9

Cover image for Born a Crime by Trevor NoahWhen Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. Noah is observant, and able to clearly convey the absurdity of the system he was born under while also explaining its function for a North American audience that is probably not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of apartheid. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating. Noah is known as a comedian, successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, but while there is an understated humour present in Born a Crime, for the most part it is memoir, not comedy. The humour comes mostly in the form of sly comments, though some of the stories are indeed laugh out loud funny. I actually read this book twice this year, once in print, and again as an audiobook, and would highly recommend it in either form.

Categories: Memoir, Humour

March: Book Two

ISBN 978-1-60309-400-9

Cover image for March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew AydinThis is a shout out to the entire March Trilogy, written by Congressman John Lewis with former congressional aid Andrew Aydin, and art by Nate Powell. The trilogy captures Lewis’ experiences as a civil rights leader and organizer, before going on to represent Georgia’s fifth congressional district for more than thirty years. In March: Book Two, Lewis and Aydin really master the structure of the frame narrative, which was a little stilted in the first volume. Lewis’ recollections of his time as an activist are framed by memories of Inauguration Day 2009, an especially striking juxtaposition with the violence that met peaceful civil rights protests. Book Two powerfully covers key events in the movement’s history, such as the lunch counter protests, the Freedom Rides, and the March on Washington.

Categories: Memoir, History, Graphic Novel

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World

ISBN 978-1-61620-586-7

Cover image for Here We Are, Edited by Kelly JensenFeminism is a concept that has been loaded down with a lot of cultural baggage. In this collection of essays, poems, comics, and lists, editor Kelly Jensen has pulled together a selection of pieces for a teen audience that aim to clarify misconceptions, share experiences, and reinforce empathy for a variety of journeys and perspectives. Here We Are contains enough broad variety that no doubt different pieces will speak to different readers. It is reaffirming to read about people who share your experiences, and enlightening to read about different ones. Interspersed with the longer essays are short, fun pieces, such as feminist music playlists, poems, and comics. There were only a few things I thought were notably absent, such as a piece about affirmative consent to complement the discussion of rape culture. The chapter on romance and sexuality could also have used an essay about asexuality and aromanticism. Overall, however, I was pleased with the diversity of this introduction to feminism, and would heartily recommend it.

Categories: Young Adult, Essays

A Mother’s Reckoning

ISBN 978-1-10190-276-9

Cover image for A Mother's Reckoning by Sue KleboldIt is with caution that I include on this list a book that has stuck with me, perhaps even haunted me, since I read it this fall. Sue Klebold’s memoir is an intimate and gut-wrenching look inside the home of an ordinary little boy who grew up to be a high school mass murderer. When her son committed suicide in the school library following the rampage, she was left with more questions than answers, and a difficult public reckoning that continues to flare up to this day. Klebold does her best to recount the events in a way that is compatible with existing guidelines for responsible reporting on such tragedies in order to prevent imitation, something which she sharply calls out the media for failing to do in their treatment of the events at Columbine High School. It is a harrowing read because it shows people who commit terrible acts of evil as human, leaving aside the question of whether those who do monstrous things need to be humanized. I can’t imagine how upsetting this account might be for anyone who lost loved ones at Columbine, and it is for this reason that place a caveat on my recommendation of this title. Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about this book.

Categories: Memoir

How to Survive a Plague

ISBN 978-0-30770-063-6

Cover image for How to Survive a Plague by David FranceThis history is an insider’s look at the activists who advocated for AIDS treatments and victim’s rights in the early days of the epidemic. France’s account centers on New York, and the founding of such organizations as ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group, as well as the safe sex movement. France truly makes the reader feel the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery. How to Survive a Plague also delves into the bureaucracy and homophobia that delayed the development of effective AIDS treatments by researchers and public health officials. Desperation led to thriving experimental drug undergrounds without proper oversight or data collection. Especially if you were born after AIDS went from being a death sentence to a manageable health condition, this is an essential and illuminating read about a key aspect of LGBTQ+ history.

Categories: History, LGBTQ+

And that’s it for 2017. See you all  on the other side.

Fall 2017 Non-Fiction Mini-Reviews

We’re three weeks post-move now, and I’m still digging out from under the chaos, and trying not to think too hard about the fact that the holidays are basically upon us! Unpacking will barely be finished before its time to start hauling out the Christmas decorations. In the meantime, here are a few more mini-reviews of some of the non-fiction I’ve been reading over the last few months while I was on hiatus.

A Really Good Day

Cover image for A Really Good Day by Ayeley Waldmanby Ayelet Waldman

ISBN 9780451494092

This memoir chronicles Waldman’s unique and illegal experiment using microdoses of LSD to regulate her mood disorder. The book follows the experiment diary-style, but also incorporates discursions on drug history and policy. In her career as a lawyer, Waldman has consulted on drug policy and taught courses covering drug history, so she has a solid grounding in the context of what she is undertaking. Much of the existing data she is able to bring up is compromised by the fact that early experimenters, in addition to giving the drugs to their subjects, were also sampling their own wares, and seem more like psychedelic enthusiasts than legitimate investigators. Along the way she must cope with questions like what she will tell her children about what she is doing when they inevitably notice the shifts in her mood, and what she will do once her very limited supply of LSD runs out. Every disclosure about her drug use risks both her reputation and potential legal repercussions, and the idea of purchasing on the illegal market is even more fraught. Ultimately, she concludes that what she really wants is “the kind of answer only real research by legitimate scientists under controlled circumstances can provide.”

A Mother’s Reckoning

Cover image for A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Kleboldby Sue Klebold

ISBN 9781101902769

This memoir is an intimate and gut-wrenching look inside the home of an ordinary little boy who grew up to be a high school mass murderer. Her son’s suicide inside the school library following the rampage left Sue Klebold heartbroken and in search of answers, with no one to whom she could pose the questions. She comes to conclude that a deep depression she failed to recognize played a significant role in her son’s involvement in the shooting, and advocates strongly for health care and suicide prevention—though she also clearly states that mental illness should not be assumed to lead to violence. Klebold does her best to recount the events in a way that is compatible with existing guidelines for responsible reporting on such tragedies in order to prevent imitation, something which she sharply calls out the media for failing to do in their treatment of the events at Columbine High School. It is a harrowing read because it shows people who commit terrible acts of evil as human, leaving aside the question of whether those who do monstrous things need to be humanized. I can’t imagine how upsetting this account might be for anyone who lost loved ones at Columbine.

How to Survive a Plague

Cover image for How to Survive a Plague by David France by David France

ISBN 9780307700636

This history is an insider’s look at the activists who advocated for AIDS treatments and victim’s rights in the early days of the epidemic. France’s account centers on New York, and the founding of such organizations as ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group, as well as the safe sex movement. France truly makes the reader feel the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery. Some early and influential activists believed that AIDS was the result of immune overload in “promiscuous” gay men, and advocated abstinence as treatment. While this theory was controversial and eventually thoroughly debunked, it did lead to the creation and promotion of the safer sex guidelines that helped curtail transmission of the disease. France also delves into the bureaucracy and homophobia that delayed the development of effective AIDS treatments by researchers and public health officials. Desperation led to thriving experimental drug undergrounds without proper oversight or data collection. Especially if you were born after AIDS went from being a death sentence to a manageable health condition, this is an essential and illuminating read.

On Tyranny

Cover image for On Tyranny by Timothy Snyderby Timothy Snyder

ISBN 978-0-8041-9011-4

“The mistake is to assume that rulers who come to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions.”

In On Tyranny, Yale History professor Timothy Snyder offers twenty principles for resisting authoritarian government, drawing cautionary examples from twentieth century European history. It grew out of a Facebook post Snyder made in the aftermath of America’s 2016 election. In it, he attempts to bring his wide knowledge of European history, and the collapse of democracies, to bear on the current political moment.

On Tyranny follows an arc that moves from the early days of rising authoritarianism, through the arrival and culmination of overt authoritarian government. Snyder’s first principle is “Do not obey in advance,” and the final principle is “Be as courageous as you can.” On that last point, he offers only one sentence of explanation: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” In between, he offers, and expounds upon, suggestions such as “Remember professional ethics” and “Investigate” the truth for yourself, detailing how the compromise of such values led to problems in the past.

A significant number of the examples used in On Tyranny are drawn from Nazi Germany. This makes sense given that this is part of Snyder’s area of expertise, but will no doubt prove problematic with some readers, for whom comparing anything at all to Hitler or Nazism is tantamount to hysteria. But central to Snyder’s argument is that the collapse of German democracy is not as unique as we might like believe. “Never again” is a commitment to remember and prevent such tragedies, not a statement that such things are no longer possible. Combine that with a certain strain of American exceptionalism that holds that the United States’ love of freedom makes such a thing impossible, and you have a dangerous brew. However, fascist Italy, Communist and modern Russia, and Czechoslovakia also provide cautionary examples that show this is not merely about the Holocaust. Synder is also explicitly concerned with the current political moment, and when relevant, he provides contemporary American examples of things that might be cause for worry.

Snyder is perhaps a little too dismissive of the internet. This is not to say that he does not make valid points about the vulnerabilities it opens us up to. But he warns against it even as he cites the example of Ukrainian success at countering Russian attempts to disseminate misinformation online. Moreover, he completely misses the warning sign that authoritarian states often seek to control the internet, in order to keep dissidents from sharing information, or spreading the truth about what is occurring in their country. Whereas the Nazis only allowed state-sanctioned radiobroadcasts, and banned listening to overseas stations, modern dictators seek to control television programming and internet access. We should be just as concerned about authoritarian attempts to control the internet as we are about curtailments in freedom of the press.

On Tyranny is a brief tract that can be read in an hour, but offers up thoughts and ideas that deserve much longer attention and consideration. It is a very short and accessible primer on the warning signs of authoritarianism, and the early actions that can be taken by ordinary people to guard against it. It is by no means comprehensive, but is excellent food for thought nevertheless. Think of this as politic disaster preparedness. You hope that you’ll never need that earthquake kit in your closet, but if the big one hits, you’ll be happy you prepared.