Category Archives: Adult Nonfiction

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C Mann

1491

Holy crap, this book. I had to check it out 3 times to get through it – it’s dense, and can get bogged down in details, and I had to skip backward a lot to figure out what I must have missed. But it’s worth the effort, because the picture it gives of the Americas before and immediately after the Europeans first landed is eye-opening. Be warned, though, if you are as susceptible to white guilt as I tend to be, you will be horrified. As well you should be, but…it’s excruciating at times. It’s interesting to note that the world of historians and anthropologists isn’t any different from the world of their larger societies – unpopular ideas, even with extraordinary amounts of evidence behind them, get squashed by the more powerful factions.

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Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

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Go to the bookstore or library right now and pick up this book. Don’t listen to the audio like I did, the pictures are the best part. As an audio, it’s too much like listening to someone read lists, or a timeline. So get the book and admire the artistic genius. After reading this and Sonya Sotomayor’s biographies, I am going to need to read every single biography that exists of Supreme Court justices. They are apparently all fascinating people (half the fun of this book is the exploration of the friendship between RBG and Antonin Scalia). Or maybe I will just start reading dissents – from the ones featured in this book and the one I read online the other day, each one could teach me more about law than I ever thought possible.

Seriously, if you consider yourself a feminist you have to read this. RBG has spent her life taking on cases of sex discrimination – against both men and women – hoping to establish the precedent that discrimination on the basis of sex is always wrong. She figures once that is accepted as a given that white men shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their gender, it will follow that discrimination against women is also wrong – and by extension, that discrimination on the basis of race is also wrong. She’s playing the long game, and I personally hope she lives forever, or at least long enough to see her dream realized.

The Education of Kevin Powell by Kevin Powell

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Ever choose a book to read based only on its cover? This was one of those. I was shelving holds and came across this adorable little boy (look at that outfit!) and wanted to read his story, even though I had never heard of Kevin Powell and had no idea why I should. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can tell you that the reason to read this book is that he’s a human, and he has something to say, and he is in a constant process of learning from his own mistakes, which makes him interesting.

Anyway, now I know who Kevin Powell is (I can’t believe I didn’t, but then I went through a period in my life where I didn’t watch TV, listen to new music, or read magazines much). He is a writer, a political organizer, a reality TV star, and a (so far) failed state congressional candidate. Most famously, he wrote for Vibe magazine and was one of the first people to write about Tupac Shakur. But the details of his life (which reads like a who’s who of American pop culture at times – this guy knows everybody) are less important than the insight he provides into a generation of African-American men who were steered strongly by their parents to get a good education and a better life, but simultaneously pulled away from that goal by circumstance, random choices, and the culture of their schools/ neighborhoods. Powell’s life story reminded me somewhat of both Wes Moores (The Other Wes Moore – reviewed earlier) – each of these men wanted badly to succeed, but each was constantly tempted down other paths or manipulated by systems in our society that many people don’t even see. For all of those people out there who don’t think that society is skewed to discriminate against people of color and poor people of all colors, this book (and The Other Wes Moore) will make it obvious that poor young people of color suffer a great deal more than their white, middle-class counterparts when a setback occurs. One poor choice, one bad grade, one random accident that a more affluent young person could overcome easily can completely derail a young person who has no safety net.

Warning: you might not actually like Kevin Powell at a few points. He is learning to manage his anger, and learning to let down his guard a little, but there’s no denying that for most of the book he is a very angry, defensive man who doesn’t like himself very much. He has some definite misogynistic leanings, and doesn’t like white people very much either. But what redeems him is that he knows these things about himself, and he’s working on it.  You can’t ask for more than that.

 

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

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Jon Ronson became interested in the concept of public shaming after he was impersonated on Twitter by a spambot that tweeted inane, random comments under his name. He approached the creators of the bot and asked them to stop, but they would not – so he asked if he could interview them. He posted the resulting interview on YouTube, and the outcry from viewers convinced the bot-creators to deactivate the fake Jon Ronson account. At first, Ronson was vindicated and even elated that people were on his side, but as the comments grew more vicious in nature, he grew frightened – what had he started?

And so began his quest to understand the nature of public shaming. He explores the stories of several people who have been shamed either online or in the press (or both). He studies the history of public shaming (whippings, being put in the stocks, etc.). He visits a judge from Texas famed for unusual shame-based punishments. Along the way, he gets interested in the difference between people who are destroyed by their shaming, and people who emerge unscathed – what is the secret to shrugging off shame, and can these people teach us how?

As a recovering Catholic, the concepts of guilt and shame are always intriguing to me, but what made Ronson’s book so compelling was the human element. He presented his shaming victims so sympathetically – and yet he didn’t demonize their shamers, either. His examples show that often the shamers as well as the shamed suffer in these cases, and there is sometimes no clear victim when all is said (or posted) and done.

If you are interested in social media as a cultural phenomenon, this book is worth reading. I’d put Ronson right up there with Mary Roach and Henry Alford for making exhaustive research interesting and entertaining. One lesson you will come away with if you read it: THINK BEFORE YOU POST.

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

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Did you love the movie and/or the book The Princess Bride? Then read this book. Cary Elwes obviously had the time of his life filming this movie, and he tells you all about it. He loved his fellow cast members, his director, and the crew, and he tells you all about them, too. The cynical me kept waiting for some bitter, tell-all moments of sniping about bad blood between the stars, but none ever happened. (Inconceivable!) Could it be that the reason everyone loves this movie is because it was made with love and roses and sunshine and rainbows by kind loving people who were all fantastic to work with? Apparently, yes! So go ahead, read it, it’ll make you feel good. Plus you’ll want to watch Princess Bride again with your kid, which I did, and I am here to tell you the movie stands the test of time and can still make an 11-year-old (and his parents) laugh out loud.

I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan

i was

You may not think you know who Bruce Eric Kaplan is, but once you see the illustrations and know that he goes by his initials (and if you ever read The New Yorker just for the comics), you’ll recognize him.

The book is a series of tiny snippets of Kaplan’s childhood, a sort of prose version of his trademark single-panel cartoons. The story is loosely arranged, hopping around chronologically so that I was never quite sure how old he was supposed to be at any given moment, but that was part of the book’s charm. It was like having someone tell you about his life in snippets of conversation, so that maybe you don’t know the whole life story in perfect order, but you have a feel for what made him who he is.

Anyway, if you like cartoons, if you like memoirs, if you like stories about people who grew up Generation X in America, you might like it. I think the moments of recognition were the best reason that I enjoyed the book – often, Kaplan starts or ends a passage with “I always thought” or “I wondered why” or “I felt like”… and I realized reading those passages that I’d thought/wondered/felt the exact same thing. The best parts are when he finishes one of those passage with “…and I still do.”

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

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This book may be about mortality, but surprisingly it isn’t depressing at all (though it may trigger depressing thoughts in those with relatives in end-of-life care situations). My book club just finished discussing it Sunday, and since most of us have dealt with or are currently dealing with end-of-life care for our relatives, it sparked good discussion.

Gawande is a medical doctor. In this book, he shares the stories of patients with terminal illnesses and patients who are looking for options as they age and become unable to care for themselves independently. He tells of some approaches that have work for nursing homes, assisted living communities, and hospice. Most importantly, he discusses the elephant in the room: why are so many doctors focusing on treatment to prolong patients’ lives, and not on palliative care to make what time they have left more pleasant?

Basically, Gawande comes to the conclusion that doctors and nurses really need to be taught how to get patients to discuss their wishes and goals for long-term care, so that medical staff and the patient (and his or her family) can be more comfortable making the decisions that will make patients’ final days as good as they can be, while avoiding outcomes that the patient doesn’t want.

If you don’t have time to read the book, a list of the questions Gawande suggests that patitents be asked appears in this interview. I suggest that whether or not you choose to read this book, you should read the article and talk to your loved ones about it. Pleasant? Probably not, but useful? Definitely.