A beautifully written food memoir chronicling one cook's journey from her rural Midwestern hometown to the intoxicating world of New York City fine dining and back again in search of her culinary roots.
Before Amy Thielen frantically plated rings of truffled potatoes in some of New York City s finest kitchens for chefs David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten she grew up in a northern Minnesota town home to the nation s largest French fry factory, the headwaters of the fast food nation, with a mother whose generous cooking pulsed with joy, family drama, and an overabundance of butter.
Inspired by her grandmother s tales of cooking on the family farm, Thielen moves with her artist husband to the rustic, off-the-grid cabin he built in the woods. There, standing at the stove three times a day, she finds the seed of a growing food obsession that leads to the sensory madhouse of New York s top haute cuisine brigades. When she goes home, she comes face to face with her past, and a curious truth: that beneath every foie gras sauce lies a rural foundation of potatoes and onions, and that taste memory is the most important ingredient of all.
I spent a good portion of this memoir wondering why I listen to books like this. It is no secret that I like foodie books but why do I listen to books where the lovingly drawn out descriptions of the food make me think, “Oh my god, that sounds disgusting!”
I’m not sure I found an answer to that. I guess that will be the lot of wanna-be vegans who listen to chef memoirs. You’ve been warned if descriptions of organ meats and loving talk of bloody juices and fond rememberances of torturing live lobsters bother you.
Amy Thielen was an English major before becoming a chef and it shows in this memoir. The writing is of a more literary quality than a lot of memoirs.
This book starts with the story of how she and her husband started to live a seasonal existence. In the summer they were in their off-the-grid cabin in Minnesota with a huge garden and in the winter they lived in New York. This part of the book ends with their decision to move back to Minnesota full time.
The next part of the book goes back in time for a series of essays about events that take place before the first section. You never find out what happened after the move back from New York. I had never heard of the author prior to reading this book so I wasn’t sure what happened besides writing this book. I guess you are either expected to know that or expected to Google.
I was most fascinated by the story of her husband who actually managed to make a good living as a working artist in New York. I thought that was a fairy tale. The story of making a home in the woods was amazing to me.
The author narrates the audiobook which is normally a horrible decision but she did a very good job. She infuses her story with a lot of emotion as she reads.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But with a beak like a parrot, venom like a snake, and a tongue covered with teeth, how can such a being know anything? And what sort of thoughts could it think?
The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their color-changing camouflage techniques. Montgomery chronicles this growing appreciation of the octopus, but also tells a love story. By turns funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about consciousness and the meeting of two very different minds.
I love octopuses. I think they are fascinating. I’ve never had the chance to meet one though like this author did. She got to know three octopuses over the course of a few years. It was amazing to hear about the ways their physiology lets them interact with the world. They can taste with their skin, camouflage even though they are color blind, and work through complex puzzles.
She also lets you get to know the people working behind the scenes in the aquarium who love these animals.
This book is wonderful for anyone who is interested in finding out more about these animals. I am looking forward to reading more from this author.
Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollutionby Marcus Eriksen on July 4th 2017 Pages: 216 Length: 8:05 Published byBeacon Press Setting: Pacific Ocean
News media brought the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"--the famous swirling gyre of plastic pollution in the ocean--into the public consciousness. But when Marcus Eriksen cofounded the 5 Gyres Institute with his wife, Anna Cummins, and set out to study the world's oceans with hundreds of volunteers, they discovered a "plastic smog" of microscopic debris that permeates our oceans globally, defying simple clean-up efforts. What's more, these microplastics and their toxic chemistry have seeped into the food chain, threatening marine life and humans alike.
Far from being a gloomy treatise on an environmental catastrophe, though, Junk Raft tells the exciting story of Eriksen and his team's fight to solve the problem of plastic pollution. A scientist, activist, and inveterate adventurer, Eriksen is drawn to the sea by a desire to right an environmental injustice. Against long odds and common sense, he and his co-navigator, Joel Paschal, construct a "junk raft" made of plastic trash and set themselves adrift from Los Angeles to Hawaii, with no motor or support vessel, confronting perilous cyclones, food shortages, and a fast decaying raft.
Plastic pollution in the ocean is a huge problem but it doesn’t manifest in exactly the ways that it has been portrayed in the press. Most of the ocean is polluted with microparticles of plastic that make any clean up operation almost impossible. The author’s goal is to require companies to take on more of the burden for reusing or recycling plastics they produce. Now they are freed from responsibility by requiring consumers to recycle if they don’t want the plastic going into a landfill.
This book used the framework of the several month journey on Junk to tell the story of the Earth’s plastic pollution problem. It is full of ideas for making the problem better but there needs to be buy in from a lot of people to make it happen.
The stories in the book are scary. So much damage is being done through human carelessness. Getting the word out about what needs to be done is important.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
Good Friday on the Rez introduces readers to places and people that author, writer, and entrepreneur David Bunnell encounters during his one day, 280-mile road trip from his boyhood Nebraska hometown to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to visit his longtime friend, Vernell White Thunder, a full-blooded Oglala Lakota, descendant of a long line of prominent chiefs and medicine men.
This captivating narrative is part memoir and part history. Bunnell shares treasured memories of his time living on and teaching at the reservation. Sometimes raw and sometimes uplifting, Bunnell looks back to expose the difficult life and experiences faced by the descendants of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull while also illuminating their courageous resiliency.
The first thing that needs to be made clear is that this is not written by a Native American author. I didn’t realize that until I started reading the book.
The author is a white man who has lived on or near the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation off and on through his life. He is going to visit a man who he met when the author was teaching school on the reservation. Vernell White Thunder was one of his students in the 1970s.
The road trip is used as a narrative device to comment on events from history and current events that affect life on the reservation. As the author passes towns where events occurred, he discusses them. This is a good introduction to the history of United States military treatment of the Native people. He also touches on:
systemic and institutional racism faced by the tribe
the effects of alcoholism
the importance of Wounded Knee (both the massacre in the 1800s and the uprising in the 1970s)
As he gets closer to the reservation, he gives more information about Vernell. He is looking for Perrier and Dinty Moore beef stew to take to Vernell. He tells some jokes that Vernell tells that are very self-deprecating. I have seen reviews that tear this book apart because of this. In every case, the reviewer stopped reading the book at this point because they felt that the author was negatively portraying a native man. I thought that was interesting. I think it is more of a statement of the inherent expectations of the reviewer than the author. They seem to assume that Vernell is going to be a poor man living on the reservation who needs beef stew as charity and that this author is exploiting him.
When you meet Vernell, you find out that he is:
a mentor to local teens
the owner of a resort that gets guests from all over the world
a successful rancher raising buffalo and horses
a large landowner on several reservations
the son of a respected chief who was was taking over more of his father’s duties as his father’s health declined
Vernell White Thunder is so cool that he’s almost a rock star.
The author discusses the changes that he has seen in younger Native generations. He hopes that today’s young people are the Seventh Generation since the military suppression of the tribes that were foretold as the generation who will live up the tribes again. He is hopeful because of the resurgence of tribal language speakers and young people proud of their history.
The author died before publication of the book so it was bittersweet to read about the wonderful things that he wanted to live to see this generation accomplish. Although it discusses a lot of dark history, at the end this is a hopeful book. It is a testament to the people of Pine Ridge and one enduring friendship that started there.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
This is a book about an unlikely campaign that had an even more improbable ending: the closest outcome in history and an unprecedented eight-month recount saga, which is pretty funny in retrospect. It's a book about what happens when the nation's foremost progressive satirist gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate and, defying the low expectations of the pundit class, actually turns out to be good at it.It's a book about our deeply polarized, frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring political culture, written from inside the belly of the beast.
This book answers the question that so many people had – How did this man:
turn into this man?
Al Franken was best known as a writer for Saturday Night Live when he announced his candidacy for Senate in his home state of Minnesota. His candidacy was treated as a joke but he was very serious. He had written several books on political topics and had been hosting a three hour daily political radio show that taught him a lot about issues. He had campaigned for Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone prior to Wellstone’s death in a plane crash. When the Republican senator who took over Wellstone’s senate seat said that he was a 99% improvement over Democrat Wellstone, Franken decided that someone had to defeat that guy. He just didn’t realize yet that it was going to be him.
This memoir was very well done. It talked just a bit about his childhood and then moved quickly into his life as a satirical writer. This is important because as he says he spent 35 years learning to be funny professionally and the next decade learning not to be. He calls the Republican plan for dealing with him “The Dehumorizer”. Just assume that everything he ever wrote was absolute truth and not a joke – up to and including shooting elderly people over a river in a rocket. Turn that into “Franken hates the elderly” and you get the idea. It wasn’t like he hadn’t given them huge amounts of easy material to work with. He did write a story for Playboy called “Pornorama” after all.
Once he got into the Senate by winning the closest election in Senate history, he started working to prove that he was there work and not be a clown. What do Senators do every day? He discusses in detail how bills are made into laws; what compromises to do you have to make to get things done? He talks about working with people you totally disagree with in order to get laws passed. He tells what it is like to grill people you like personally but don’t want to get a cabinet position (Jeff Sessions). And there is a whole chapter on why everyone hates Ted Cruz. He also discusses what needs to be done now in the age of Trump.
Franken lets out a little of the vitriol that he needs to keep inside during his day job. There is more humor than he is allowed to show at work. Apparently he is only allowed by his staff to speak freely in car between events. I’d love to hear what actually happens in the car.
Franken reads the audiobook himself so you can feel the ideas that he is passionate about and feel his anguish at having funny lines in his head that he isn’t allowed to say.
I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know what it is really like to be a Senator. Now I’m watching the news and seeing the people who he spoke about in the book in a new light.
Importance of Topic
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
A journalist channels her ice-cream obsession, scouring the United States for the best artisanal brands and delving into the surprising history of ice cream and frozen treats in America.
Amy Ettinger is obsessed with ice cream. She says that she routinely eats ice cream 1 – 2 times a day. She’s the perfect person to go on an exploration of the state of ice cream in the United States.
In her journey she rides along on an ice cream truck route in New York. I had no idea that being an ice cream truck driver was such a dangerous job. The woman she was riding with freely admits to getting into fist fights with other drivers that she sees driving in the same neighborhoods as she does.
She visits frozen custard makers in Wisconsin to find out why true frozen custard is regional speciality. She investigates the rise of new soda shops and discusses the sometimes poisonous history of soda shops. She finds out what is behind the newest experiments with ice cream flavors – celery or foie gras or mealworms anyone? She also tries a revival of Dolley Madison’s recipe for oyster ice cream.
She wonders how frozen yogurt stores fit into the ice cream world and investigates the largest chains. She goes to Penn State’s ice cream course to find out how to make ice cream. (I will say that Penn State makes some amazing ice cream. It made all my trips there bearable back when I could eat it.)
She seems shocked to find out that because of federal regulations most ice cream shops don’t make their own base for the ice cream. They just add the flavors. She gets very judgy about it. Likewise she is horrified that ice cream sandwich makers outsource making the sandwiches. I found it hard to believe that anyone was actually this naive about how foods are made in the U.S.
If you like books that give you a culinary tour, this is a good book for you.
I just have a few complaints.
She points out that people in the midwest are fat and wonders if we have different standards of beauty than in California. It is a totally passive-aggressive insult to an entire region.
I cringed anytime she referred to sandwiches as “sammies”. Can that please not be a thing anymore?
She is absolutely dismissive of the idea of non-dairy ice cream. As a non-dairy eater, I assure her that just like dairy ice cream, some are horrible and some are amazing. I offer Ben and Jerry’s PB & Cookies as proof of awesomeness.
Kathleen Mcinerney does a wonderfully upbeat and perky narration that fits the subject matter perfectly.
About Amy Ettinger
Amy Ettinger is an essayist, journalist, and editor. She has written for the New York Times, New York magazine, The Washington Post, Salon, and the Huffington Post. She lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her husband and daughter.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
Picking up where The Tipping Point leaves off, respected journalist Lee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion is a provocative look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.
In 2009, tragedy struck the town of Palo Alto: A student from the local high school had died by suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Grief-stricken, the community mourned what they thought was an isolated loss. Until, a few weeks later, it happened again. And again. And again. In six months, the high school lost five students to suicide at those train tracks.
A recent transplant to the community and a new father himself, Lee Daniel Kravetz’s experience as a science journalist kicked in: what was causing this tragedy? More important, how was it possible that a suicide cluster could develop in a community of concerned, aware, hyper-vigilant adults?
The answer? Social contagion. We all know that ideas, emotions, and actions are communicable—from mirroring someone’s posture to mimicking their speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our
environment. But when just the right physiological, psychological, and social factors come together, we get what Kravetz calls a "strange contagion:" a perfect storm of highly common social viruses that, combined, form a highly volatile condition.
Strange Contagion is simultaneously a moving account of one community’s tragedy and a rigorous investigation of social phenomenon, as Kravetz draws on research and insights from experts worldwide to unlock the mystery of how ideas spread, why they take hold, and offer thoughts on our responsibility to one another as citizens of a globally and perpetually connected world.
The most interesting part of this book to me was the social science of how people interact with each other in a work environment. It seemed like scientific proof of the old adage “One bad apple ruins the barrel.” It is important to get rid of people who are going to bring team morale down. I’ve seen that a lot in different jobs.
The book doesn’t come to a conclusion about the suicide clusters in Palo Alto. He looks at this as an outsider. He talks to a teacher and a principal but doesn’t talk much to the kids. Whatever is going on in that school would be invisible to outsiders and may not have anything to do with too much homework or high societal pressure to achieve.
I did like the part of the book that discussed why Palo Alto schools have such high achievement rates. The kids appear to be intrinsically motivated to succeed. It would be great if this was not abnormal. I’ve never understood why people aren’t intrinsically motivated. It is in their best interest. Being able to export a culture that creates motivated students would be amazing.
Lee Daniel Kravetz has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a graduate of the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Journalism. He has written for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among other publications. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and children.
Critically acclaimed, award-winning British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard details his childhood, his first performances on the streets of London, his ascent to worldwide success on stage and screen, and his comedy shows which have won over audiences around the world.
Over the course of a thirty-year career, Eddie Izzard has proved himself to be a creative chameleon, inhabiting the stage and film and television screen with an unbelievable fervor. Born in Yemen and raised in Northern Ireland, Wales, and England, he lost his mother at the age of six—a devastating event that affected the rest of his life. In his teens, he dropped out of university and took to the streets of London as part of a comedy double act. When his partner went on vacation, Izzard kept busy by inventing a one-man escape act, and thus a solo career was ignited. As a stand-up comedian, Izzard has captivated audiences with his surreal, stream-of-consciousness comedy— lines such as “Cake or Death?” “Death Star Canteen,” and “Do You Have a Flag?” have the status of great rock lyrics. As a self-proclaimed “action transvestite,” Izzard broke a mold performing in makeup and heels, and has become as famous for his “total clothing” rights as he has for his art. In Believe Me, he recounts the dizzying rise he made from the streets of London to West End theaters, to Wembley Arena, Madison Square Garden, and the Hollywood Bowl.
I’m a huge Eddie Izzard fan. That’s a requirement for listening to this audiobook. If you think he is slightly funny or if you aren’t really sure if you know who he is, read the book but don’t listen to the audio yet. I’ve never experienced an audiobook quite like this. I think it is an audiobook that only could have been made by Eddie Izzard.
He is reading his book but he keeps getting distracted. The tape just keeps rolling as he goes off on tangents – things that he remembers about what he was talking about in the book but didn’t write down; new things that have happened since he wrote the book; or just things that have popped into his head that are more interesting right now than the printed words of the book. These include asking questions of the audio engineers and getting out his cell phone to Google the answer to questions he has. When he realizes how far afield he’s gone, he signals that he’s heading back to the text by saying, “End…Of…Footnote.” I’m going to use that phrase from now on to close any rambling monologue I have.
Even as a fan I was bored by the beginning of the book. His mother died when he was six and he was sent off to boarding school. This is important but all the details of his childhood were not necessary. I wanted to hear about how he got started performing and his later life. Once he got to these sections, I was much more interested.
One thing I was curious about when picking up his book was hearing how he discusses his gender identity. He’s famous for his “Executive Transvestite” routine. I always think of this when people on Twitter get angry about the use of the term transvestite. Eddie came out publicly in 1985. He still uses the terms transvestite and transgender interchangeably when referring to himself. I think of him as a person out living his life openly in public while others are fighting over terminology that he doesn’t care about. I think if he was coming out now he would most likely be identified by others as genderfluid based on his descriptions of his life.
He’s an amazing person who has performed standup all over the world in several different languages, has raised millions for charity by running insane amounts of marathons back to back, and has had many serious dramatic roles in TV shows and movies. He still thinks that he is a boring person who has made a choice to try to make himself more interesting by getting out and doing things. You could do worse.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
This profoundly moving memoir is the remarkable and inspiring true story of Sandra Uwiringyimana, a girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who tells the tale of how she survived a massacre, immigrated to America, and overcame her trauma through art and activism.
Sandra and her family are part of the Banyamulenge tribe. Originally the tribe lived in Rwanda but migrated to the Congo. They are not considered citizens of any nation and they are persecuted in the Congo.
War was a constant backdrop in her life. Her family often had to flee because of an outbreak of fighting wherever they were living. It got worse when her oldest brother was kidnapped along with 200 other boys and taken to be used as a child solider. Her father dedicated himself to rescuing her brother.
Sandra was 10 when fighting forced them to flee the Congo and cross the border into Burundi.
They were in a refugee camp in Gatumba on August 13, 2004 when armed men singing Christian praise songs came into the camp and started killing people. Tents were set on fire to force people into the open where they were shot. Most of the people in her tent including her aunt and cousins were killed. Her mother was holding her six year old sister when she was shot repeatedly at point blank range. Sandra had a gun held to her head but her captor let her go.
In the morning she found out that her mother had survived because she was tossed into a pile of corpses and managed to crawl away before they were burned. Her little sister was dead. Her brother was severely injured.
The family eventually moved to Rwanda and then was resettled in the United States. They thought their lives would be fine then. They didn’t realize the problems of being a refugee in the United States. They had lived a comfortable life in the Congo. Now they were living in poverty. People asked her what it was like to learn to wear shoes assuming she had never done that in Africa. Although she was fluent in three languages, people ridiculed her poor English. The family survived numerous setbacks in America. Sandra emerged as a spokesman for her tribe. She educated groups at the UN about the massacre and the hardships of being a refugee.
Then when she was in college, it all came crashing down on her. The feelings she and her family had supressed for so long were too much. She describes her problems with survivor’s guilt, depression, and PTSD. How do you get help for this when you are ashamed to speak of it especially to your family? Her mother had endured so much and seemed fine. Sandra was ashamed for not being as strong as her mother. Opening up a dialogue with her family about what happened was the hardest part of her mental health journey.
This book is written very simply. It is very matter of fact without a lot of embellishment. It is geared towards YA readers.
I hadn’t heard of the Banyamulenge or the Gatumba massacre. The man who claimed responsibility for it has since run for President of Burundi. No charges have ever been brought against anyone for the murder of 166 people.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
A riveting, powerful telling of the story of the grassroots movement of activists, many of them in a life-or-death struggle, who seized upon scientific research to help develop the drugs that turned HIV from a mostly fatal infection to a manageable disease. Ignored by public officials, religious leaders, and the nation at large, and confronted with shame and hatred, this small group of men and women chose to fight for their right to live by educating themselves and demanding to become full partners in the race for effective treatments. Around the globe, 16 million people are alive today thanks to their efforts.
In dramatic fashion, we witness the founding of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), and the rise of an underground drug market in opposition to the prohibitively expensive (and sometimes toxic) AZT. We watch as these activists learn to become their own researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, and clinicians, establishing their own newspapers, research journals, and laboratories, and as they go on to force reform in the nation s disease-fighting agencies.
With his unparalleled access to this community David France illuminates the lives of extraordinary characters, including the closeted Wall Street trader-turned-activist, the high school dropout who found purpose battling pharmaceutical giants in New York, the South African physician who helped establish the first officially recognized buyers club at the height of the epidemic, and the public relations executive fighting to save his own life for the sake of his young daughter.
Expansive yet richly detailed, this is an insider's account of a pivotal moment in the history of American civil rights. Powerful, heart-wrenching, and finally exhilarating, How to Survive a Plague is destined to become an essential part of the literature of AIDS.
Think back to a time not that long ago when:
The New York Times banned the use of the words gay and lesbian in the newspaper
Hospitals and funeral homes turned away people they suspected were infected with AIDS
Weekly meetings of gay activists included a list of names of people who had been at the last meeting and who had died since
This book tells the story of ACT UP. This was a group founded to pressure scientists, politicians, and drug companies to increase the number of drugs being investigated for possible treatment for AIDS.
One of the main problems in the beginning, besides a lack of funding, was government scientists’ insistence on doing double-blind controlled studies. They weren’t wrong from a science perspective. These trials have patients in two groups. One group gets the treatment and the other gets a placebo. Neither the patient or the doctor knows who is in each group. The problem was that people with AIDS were dying so quickly that being in a placebo group for a few months, especially if you were required to go off all other medication, was basically a death sentence. There are stories of trials in this book where all the placebo group died in the course of the trial.
Without these studies to cover them from liability no one was willing to go on record and recommend using drugs off label. Doctors in the field, especially if they didn’t handle many AIDS cases, then didn’t know that giving a common antibiotic decreased the chances of patients dying of opportunistic pneumonia, for example. This was the leading cause of death in AIDS patients. It was almost entirely preventable and no one would officially say so. ACT UP worked to streamline and humanize the drug trials.
They were able to:
Stop people having to go off all other medications (like antibiotics to prevent pneumonia) to be in the trial
Allow drugs to be tested on women and people of color
Allow a parallel track where sick people who couldn’t wait for formal drug approval could try the drugs in the trial at their own risk and data could be collected about their experiences
Get drug companies to stop increasing prices of the drugs as demand went up.
I don’t remember hearing anything good about ACT UP at the time. I only knew of them from news coverage that was always negative because of their dramatic demonstrations. The first time I ever heard of ACT UP in a positive light was when I started watching Gay USA on TV. One of the hosts talked about being in ACT UP. Her name is Ann Northrup and she is in the movie a lot more than in the book. The associate producer of Gay USA is named Bill Bahlman. I know that because he does the intro to the podcast that I listen to now. What I didn’t know is what all he did during the early days of the AIDS epidemic to reach lawmakers.
This book is a long, slow read. It is very densely packed with names and actions and committee meetings. The author was a young, gay journalist reporting on AIDS in New York at the time. It is very focused on New York. Occasionally it talks about San Francisco but you could get the sense that except for occasional mentions of Africa, that AIDS was only a New York/California problem. It is also focused primarily on white gay men. This was one of the criticisms of the drug trials. They wouldn’t enroll women, people of color, or drug users. Although ACT UP seemed to give equal representation to women, those women aren’t discussed much in the book with a few exceptions.
When I was almost finished with the book I watched the documentary that the book came out of. It is also called How To Survive a Plague and is available on Netflix.
I don’t think that I would have understood the documentary as much if I didn’t already know what they were talking about from the book. Especially at the beginning of the documentary, there wasn’t a lot of context given for the video being shown. I understood where they were and what they were protesting from reading the book. It was interesting for me to see what I had read about but I don’t think the documentary did a good job of really explaining all the issues that they were fighting for.
This book is a must read for anyone interested in the history of medicine or the gay rights movement in the United States. It is heartbreaking and inspirational. This is civil action on so many levels. It is interesting to look back now and see how far the United States has come in just the last 30 years – even when we feel like there is so much that needs to be better.
Alyssa Mastromonaco worked for Barack Obama for almost a decade, long before his run for president. From the then-senator's early days in Congress to his years in the Oval Office, she made Hope and Change happen through blood, sweat, tears, and lots of briefing binders.
But for every historic occasion-meeting the queen at Buckingham Palace, bursting in on secret climate talks, or nailing a campaign speech in a hailstorm-there were dozens of less-than-perfect moments when it was up to Alyssa to save the day. Like the time she learned the hard way that there aren't nearly enough bathrooms at the Vatican.
Full of hilarious, never-before-told stories, WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? is an intimate portrait of a president, a book about how to get stuff done, and the story of how one woman challenged, again and again, what a "White House official" is supposed to look like. Here Alyssa shares the strategies that made her successful in politics and beyond, including the importance of confidence, the value of not being a jerk, and why ultimately everything comes down to hard work (and always carrying a spare tampon).
This isn’t a run of the mill political memoir. This is the story of what can and will go wrong. It is the story of friendships forged in stress and sleep deprivation. It is finding out how to stand up for yourself and your ideas when you are young and female in a job that has always been dominated by older men.
I loved a story that she discussed early in the book. She was in charge of scheduling Barack Obama’s time. During the 2008 campaign there was bad weather forecasted. She decided to have him go ahead with a live outdoor event in spite of the weather. It ended up being worse than expected and he was getting hit in the face with sleet through the whole speech.
We watched (in horror) as the event drew to a close, and Obama reached his hand to Reggie. As we were turning off the TV, my phone rang.
“Alyssa, it’s Obama.”
“Hi!” I said, with my head down on the desk, girding myself for the inevitable and deserved. “The event looked AWESOME! You heard John McCain canceled all of his events, right? He looked like a total old man!”
“Alyssa, where are you right now?”
I was not sure where he was going with this, but I knew it was somewhere bad. “My desk,” I replied cautiously.
“Must be nice.”
She doesn’t shy away from discussing the very personal aspects of the job. One of her proudest moments was getting tampon dispensers in the bathrooms of the White House. Most of the people working there had been men and post-menopausal women so it hadn’t been thought a priority. She also discusses her IBS and the problems that causes in a job where there is a lot of stress and questionable food choices.
She talks about the questions she gets about not having children. She was working all the time during her twenties and thirties. She didn’t marry until she was 37. People ask her now if she is sorry that she didn’t have children. I love that she is unapologetic about not being sorry. She proudly proclaims her status as child-free and having cats instead.
Her job encompassed everything from setting up the schedule for the President to coordinating federal emergency response to Hurricane Sandy and the Haitian earthquake. Where do you go from there? She talks about how hard it is to leave the White House and decide what to do with your life.
One of the hardest parts of reading this book was remembering what it was like once upon a time. You know, back when the U.S. Presidency wasn’t a total embarrassment. I liked hearing about the personal side of Obama. He introduced her to Mindy Kaling at an event because he knew she had been reading her book. He got Bruce Springsteen to call her from a campaign event because she had to stay at the White House after setting up the concert and she was a huge fan. He called her a year after she quit working at the White House because he heard her cat died that day. (Everyone knew her cat. He was famous. She had a conversation about his health problems with George W. Bush on the way to Nelson Mandela’s funeral.)
This is a short book and a quick read. I read it in one sitting. I’d recommend this book to everyone who wants to know what it is really like to work in the White House.
I just have two criticisms. First, she uses a lot of nicknames for people. It can be a bit hard to remember who these people actually are when she is using nicknames long after introducing them by their full names. Second, I feel like she underplays her accomplishments a bit. She talks about women being conditioned to not stand up and present their ideas and it seems like she is still doing that some here. If a man wrote a book about doing this job, I feel like it would be a lot more about “Look at me! I was awesome!” I wouldn’t necessarily like that book as much as I liked this one but what she did was pretty amazing and sometimes that gets lost.
About Alyssa Mastromonaco
Alyssa Mende Mastromonaco is the Chief Operating Officer of Vice Media. She is also a contributing editor at Marie Claire magazine. She previously served as White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in the administration of President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2014.She was the youngest woman to hold that position. Mastromonaco had worked for Obama since 2005 when he was on the United States Senate as his Director of Scheduling.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
An enthralling collection of nonfiction essays on myriad topics—from art and artists to dreams, myths, and memories—observed in Neil Gaiman’s probing, amusing, and distinctive style.
An inquisitive observer, thoughtful commentator, and assiduous craftsman, Neil Gaiman has long been celebrated for the sharp intellect and startling imagination that informs his bestselling fiction. Now, The View from the Cheap Seats brings together for the first time ever more than sixty pieces of his outstanding nonfiction. Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood.
Insightful, incisive, witty, and wise, The View from the Cheap Seats explores the issues and subjects that matter most to Neil Gaiman—offering a glimpse into the head and heart of one of the most acclaimed, beloved, and influential artists of our time.
I learned two things from reading this collection of speeches and essays.
Neil Gaiman knows everyone. Seriously, if you can work him into your 6 Degrees of Separation list you can link to anyone.
He is the speaker that you want giving the keynote address at any event.
I loved this collection of his nonfiction writing from the very first essay.
“I believe that people and books and newspapers are containers for ideas, but that burning the people who hold the ideas will be as unsuccessful as firebombing the newspaper archives. It is already too late. It is always too late. The ideas are already out, hiding behind people’s eyes, waiting in their thoughts.”
He writes about the importance of libraries and about how not censoring what children read leads to children who love to read. He talks about how being too enthusiastic about supporting your child’s reading habits can turn her off Stephen King forever. (Oops). He writes about Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and the importance of Doctor Who. Is it any wonder that I’m a Neil Gaiman fan?
These essays and speeches were written over many years. It is fun to read him talking about his next novel that has a working title of American Gods but he doesn’t know what it will be called when it is published at the same time that I’m watching the TV adaptation. A few of the authors that he discusses I haven’t read but he makes me want to pick them up.
This is a book that isn’t made to be read straight through but instead to be picked up and read a piece at a time in order to savor the words and ideas. I’d recommend this for any Neil Gaiman fan but also for people who love discussing literacy and the need for the arts in society.
About Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains; the Sandman series of graphic novels; and the story collections Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and Trigger Warning. He is the winner of numerous literary honors, including the Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards, and the Newbery and Carnegie Medals. Originally from England, he now lives in the United States. He is Professor in the Arts at Bard College.
The Foundling tells the incredible and inspiring true story of Paul Fronczak, a man who recently discovered via a DNA test that he was not who he thought he was—and set out to solve two fifty-year-old mysteries at once. Along the way he upturned the genealogy industry, unearthed his family’s deepest secrets, and broke open the second longest cold-case in US history, all in a desperate bid to find out who he really is.
In 1964, when Paul Fronczak was 1 day old, he was kidnapped from the maternity ward of a hospital in Chicago. Fourteen months later a child was found abandoned in New Jersey. Very limited scientific tests were available at the time to determine paternity. All the FBI could say was that they could not rule out the possibility that the child found in New Jersey was Paul Fronczak. So they gave this child to the Fronczak family and considered both cases closed.
When he was 10 years old Paul found a box of newspaper clippings about his kidnapping case. He had never heard about it before. His parents refused to discuss it with him – ever. He grew up feeling like he didn’t really fit into his family. He wasn’t anything like them.
Then in his forties he decided it was time to investigate. He took a DNA test and convinced his parents to submit samples too. They later withdrew their consent but he sent their samples in anyway. This proved that he was not their biological child. Now he set out to answer two questions.
Who was he?
What happened to the real baby Paul Fronczak?
This book is a masterclass in the abilities and limitations of DNA analysis. It investigates the possibilities opened up by databases on the major genealogical websites to answer long standing family mysteries. (This happened in my husband’s family.)
What was fascinating to me was the reactions of the people around Paul during his search. They did not want him to find out the answers to his questions. I don’t understand that at all. His parents and brother cut all ties with him. If your child was kidnapped, wouldn’t you want to know what happened to him? Wouldn’t you want to know the truth about the child you raised? I don’t see why it would make any difference in your relationship to each other.
His wife wanted him to stop searching. I understand that it was taking up a lot of his time but how could you expect someone not to want to follow the clues he was getting? Maybe I just hate an unsolved mystery so much that I wouldn’t have been able to let it go. I can’t understand people who are insisting that you walk away from it.
Reading about his birth family may be hard for some people. A family situation that ends with dumping a toddler outside a department store is not going to be healthy and functional. There is a lot of abuse described.
He met so many fascinating people along the way. There were volunteer researchers who worked on his case. He met distant relatives identified through DNA who dug into their own family histories to try to find a link to him. He met other abandoned children who hoped that they would turn out to be the missing Fronczak child.
The book is not able to give definitive answers to all the questions that it raises but he does have a pretty good idea of what happened in his life and the life of his parents’ biological child at the end. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves genealogy and the science of genetic genealogy to see how it works in real life.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
London, 1947. He was the heir to an African kingdom. She was a white English insurance clerk. When they met and fell in love, it would change the world.
This is the inspiring true story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, whose marriage sent shockwaves through the establishment, defied an empire - and, finally, triumphed over the prejudices of their age.
I had never heard of Seretse and Ruth Khama until I saw an advertisement for the movie adaptation of Colour Bar. It was only playing for one night here and I wasn’t able to go. The story sounded interesting so as soon as I realized that it was based on a book, I got it from interlibrary loan.
Seretse Khama became the kgosi (chief) of his tribe at the age of four. His uncle was installed as his regent. They lived in Bechuanaland which is present day Botswana. At the time this was under the control of England. His uncle made sure that he was well educated by sending him to schools in South Africa and then sending him for a law degree in England. There he fell in love with Ruth Williams, a white woman.
When he announced their intention to marry in 1949, opposition came from all sides. They married anyway. Eventually, he was able to convince his tribe that this marriage was acceptable. He was not able to convince white people though.
The main objection came from South Africa. They were in the process of codifying apartheid law. They did not want the leader of a country on their border to be in an interracial marriage. Since this was an hereditary position, the next leader would be mixed race. If Bechuanaland was successful, it would make of mockery of the South African laws. South Africa was an important part of the British Empire. They fought to make sure that Seretse Khama was unable to lead his people.
What followed was years of exile from Africa and abuse at the hands of British officials. This book is exhaustively researched. It quotes from many, many letters and official documents to let the English racism speak for itself. It is brutal. There is also a lot of discussion about what type of woman Ruth must be to be willing to marry a black man.
This book was fascinating but it is a slow read. It is very dense with details of meetings. It focuses on the political aspects of the story, not the human ones. You don’t get much of a sense of Seretse and Ruth’s personalities except for in a few of their reactions to what is being said. It doesn’t delve much into what is going on in their minds or the true stresses on their relationship while all this is going on.
I wasn’t surprised by the racism that they encountered but there times when I had to take a minute to digest the absolute depth of the hatred and ignorance in the writings and public statements of British officials. They were so willing to appease the hatred of whites living in southern Africa that they would go to ridiculous lengths. There was always a problem of getting the Khamas to and from Bechuanaland from England. They had to land in Rhodesia which was strictly segregated. You’d think they were negotiating a nuclear treaty the way they had to deal to allow planes to land with them onboard or to let Ruth and the children stay in a hotel overnight. (They basically had to promise that the children would not be seen so they didn’t offend delicate white sensibilities.)
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
"The Jon Stewart of the Arabic World"—the creator of The Program, the most popular television show in Egypt’s history—chronicles his transformation from heart surgeon to political satirist, and offers crucial insight into the Arab Spring, the Egyptian Revolution, and the turmoil roiling the modern Middle East, all of which inspired the documentary about his life, Tickling Giants.
Bassem Youssef’s incendiary satirical news program, Al-Bernameg (The Program), chronicled the events of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, and the rise of Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi. Youssef not only captured his nation’s dissent but stamped it with his own brand of humorous political criticism, in which the Egyptian government became the prime laughing stock.
Bassem Youssef was an Egyptian cardiac surgeon trying to find a way to move out of Egypt in 2011. He was not politically active until the Arab Spring protests. A friend wanted to have a YouTube series discussing politics and he convinced Bassem to star in it mostly because he wouldn’t have to pay him. Suddenly, the series that they filmed in Bassem’s bathroom was an internet hit. Over the next few years they moved to TV and then to larger networks. The show was a hit. However, making fun of politicians in Egypt isn’t the safest life choice.
In a few years he rose from obscurity to being the most famous entertainer in Egypt to being forced to flee the country.
I loved this audiobook. I had never heard of Bassem Youssef before although he had been on The Daily Show and other U.S. TV shows. He says that he isn’t able to explain Egyptian or Islamic politics well but then explains them in an easy to understand manner. Now I understand who most of the players are and a little bit about what their goals are. His goal was to make fun of them all.
This is a scary book to read because you see so many parallels between Egypt and the path that the United States is on now. In fact, he came to the U.S. just in time to document the rise of Trump. Like Trevor Noah, he points out that Trump follows the same line of thinking as the African dictators. He talks about how people can convince themselves that everything is fine when everything is falling apart around them.
He shows how media can be manipulated to show whatever ‘truth’ the government wants you to believe.
Speaking satirical truth to power cost him his relationship with his family and his ability to go back to his country. His wife stayed with him but he isn’t really sure why. After all, she married a surgeon who a few months later decided that he was going to be a comedian in the country where it is illegal to make fun of the president and it went downhill from there.
There is a new documentary on the festival circuit called Tickling Giants about his life. I want to see it to be able to see many of the sketches that he describes in the audio book.
He is a huge fan of Jon Stewart. They ended up meeting and collaborating. (Or as it was charged in Egypt, he was recruited by Jon Stewart to work for the CIA.) Here’s Jon Stewart’s take on things the first time Bassem got in trouble.
If you want to understand more about the Arab Spring and the aftermath, this is a great book. If you want to know what resistance can look like, listen to this book. He narrates it himself and does a great job telling his story.
About Bassem Youssef
Bassem Raafat Muhammad Youssef is an Egyptian comedian, writer, producer, physician, media critic, and television host. He hosted Al-Bernameg, a satirical news program, from 2011 to 2014.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
Moneyball meets medicine in this remarkable chronicle of one of the greatest scientific quests of our time—the groundbreaking program to answer the most essential question for humanity: how do we live and die?—and the visionary mastermind behind it.
Medical doctor and economist Christopher Murray began the Global Burden of Disease studies to gain a truer understanding of how we live and how we die. While it is one of the largest scientific projects ever attempted—as breathtaking as the first moon landing or the Human Genome Project—the questions it answers are meaningful for every one of us: What are the world’s health problems? Who do they hurt? How much? Where? Why?
Murray argues that the ideal existence isn’t simply the longest but the one lived well and with the least illness. Until we can accurately measure how people live and die, we cannot understand what makes us sick or do much to improve it. Challenging the accepted wisdom of the WHO and the UN, the charismatic and controversial health maverick has made enemies—and some influential friends, including Bill Gates who gave Murray a $100 million grant.
In Epic Measures, journalist Jeremy N. Smith offers an intimate look at Murray and his groundbreaking work. From ranking countries’ healthcare systems (the U.S. is 37th) to unearthing the shocking reality that world governments are funding developing countries at only 30% of the potential maximum efficiency when it comes to health, Epic Measures introduces a visionary leader whose unwavering determination to improve global health standards has already changed the way the world addresses issues of health and wellness, sets policy, and distributes funding.
Christopher Murray is originally from New Zealand but he grew up around the world. His parents ran a clinic in west Africa for a year. The clinic was so understaffed when they got there that Chris and his older siblings had to do a lot of the care. During their time there the family noticed that malnourished people who were fed got sick from malaria. They found out that the virus requires iron to thrive. When people are starving they don’t have the iron stores for their bodies to support the virus. When they are refed, they are again good hosts for the disease. The family published their findings in Lancet. This led to Chris’ lifelong interest in scientific research – especially research into whether or not conventional wisdom is correct.
At the World Health Organization, he found that a lot of the health data used to make policy decisions was based on numbers that were made up. He worked with another researcher to develop a formula that figured out the true cost of disease in each country. He also took into consideration not just the deaths from that disease but the damage done from a disease causing less than optimal health in the population. I also appreciated his focus on adult health statistics and not just childhood disease.
Using this data lets countries and NGOs decide where the most effective places to put their money are. Does it help more people to treat malaria or diarrhea? If you can only vaccinate for one is it better to give polio vaccine or measles? Measles kills more people but if you survive it you are fine. Polio doesn’t kill as many people but survivors have more disability. These are the kinds of questions that they try to answer.
I found the subject matter interesting but the book got bogged down in a lot of interdepartmental politics in the middle. It picks up again at the end with ideas for living a better life based on the findings of the Global Burden of Disease study. If you are interested in the real life applications of science and mathematics, this is a great book for you.
Nestled in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, the town of Johnson City saw its first AIDS patient in August 1985. Working in Johnson City was Abraham Verghese, a young Indian doctor specializing in infectious diseases who became, by necessity, the local AIDS expert. Out of his experience comes a startling, ultimately uplifting portrait of the American heartland.
I have been coming across books in the most roundabout ways recently. For March’s 6 Degrees of Separation post I needed a book set in Ethiopia. I thought of Cutting for Stone which I’ve never read so I wasn’t absolutely sure that’s where it was set. I looked it up on Goodreads and saw that the author wrote this book about his life in Tennessee. Was I actually mixing up Ethiopia and Tennessee in my mind? Not exactly. He was in rural east Tennessee at about the same time I was in school there. That intrigued me.
In the late 1980s he finished his residency as an infectious disease specialist in Boston. He decided to take a job in Tennessee for the slower pace and better quality of life. He planned to split his time between a VA nursing home/hospital and a small public hospital.
At the same time he moved to Tennessee, the first AIDS cases were appearing in the area. He had seen AIDS patients in Boston. His experience in infectious disease made him the logical doctor for people to refer patients to in the area. At this point there was no real treatment. All he could do was monitor their blood counts and support them through their secondary diseases. At first the community of AIDS patients was small and he spent a lot of time going into their homes and getting to know them and their families.
The initial patients he saw were gay men who had moved away from the area in order to lead more open lives in big cities. Now they were sick and were coming home for help from their families. There was a huge stigma. AIDS was a curse handed down for sinful behavior in a lot of the minds of the people of the area. Even the local gay community didn’t think it was in their local group. Many nurses refused to work with the patients. Some protested even offering them treatment in the hospital at all since it was ultimately futile.
Dr. Verghese had to confront his own bigotry. He was uncomfortable at first with gay men. He later concerned that he was showing preferential treatment to an elderly couple who had been infected by the husband’s blood transfusion. Was he falling into the “innocent victim” mentality towards AIDS? How did he feel about the man with AIDS-related dementia who had infected both his wife and her sister?
Even though this book was written in 1995, I would recommend it for anyone interested in medical history. This is an account of the front lines of an AIDS epidemic as it moved into an area. He is a very empathetic and compassionate writer who gave so much of himself to the patients that he ended up destroying his own marriage.
About Abraham Verghese
Born of Indian parents who were teachers in Ethiopia, he grew up near Addis Ababa and began his medical training there. When Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, he completed his training at Madras Medical College and went to the United States for his residency as one of many foreign medical graduates.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
In August 2003, Jim Beaver, a character actor, and his wife Cecily learned what they thought was the worst news possible- their daughter Maddie was autistic. Then six weeks later the roof fell in-Cecily was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer.
Jim immediately began writing a nightly e-mail as a way to keep more than one hundred family and friends up to date about Cecily's condition. Soon four thousand people a day, from all around the world, were receiving them. Initially a cathartic exercise for Jim, the prose turned into an unforgettable journey for his readers.
I came to this book in a roundabout way. In Lauren Graham’s memoir she talks about a friend of hers writing a book. I looked that book up on goodreads. I scrolled down to the comments to see if anyone else liked it. One of the first comments mentioned that he was also friends with the author. I looked over at the icon and saw Jim Beaver’s picture.
My first thought was, “Bobby Fisher wrote a book?” I know that he is not the character that he played on Supernatural but the idea was intriguing. I wanted to read it.
Towards the end of 2003, Beaver and his wife Cecily Adams’s 2 year old daughter Maddie had stopped talking and was having melt downs. She was diagnosed as autistic. They were also in the process of building their dream house. They had moved out of their current house and into a rental until their house was finished. His father was slowly slipping into advanced dementia. Then Cecily was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
A few days after the diagnosis, he sat down and wrote a group email to family and friends explaining what was going on with Cecily. He started writing nightly updates to the group. People started forwarding his emails to other people who didn’t even know him. I didn’t understand why until I read the book.
The book is a sampling of the emails. They don’t cover every day of the time he wrote from the day of her diagnosis until 1 year later. The emails themselves haven’t been edited though. This is a day by day account of what it is like to watch your spouse die of cancer and what grieving looks like in real time.
That may sound incredibly depressing to read but it isn’t. It is sad but not depressing. He notes the many kindnesses that their friends showed them. He especially talks about the people involved with That 70s Show, where Cecily was working as a casting director. They came over and decorated the house for Christmas for them. One woman who Cecily just knew hated her cleaned their house for them. He talks about what was helpful and what wasn’t. This is a great book for anyone who ever wanted to help someone but didn’t know what to do.
He’s an amazing writer. He was incredibly open about what he was feeling each day. He talks about his fears – of losing his wife, of having to go away to jobs to earn money while his wife was sick, of dealing with a child who was already in crisis. He talks of the joys along the way. He talks about grief hitting you unaware just when you thought you were starting to function again. He remembers his life with his wife –both the good and the bad.
This is a hopeful book about what you can endure if you have to even if you don’t want to. It helps to have a great support structure of friends and family around you like he did. I kept thinking that he must be a great guy to have friends like these.
About Jim Beaver
im Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series Deadwood and as Bobby Singer on Supernatural, he has also starred in such series as Harper’s Island, John from Cincinnati, and Thunder Alley and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. He lives with his daughter Madeline in Los Angeles.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version.
At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.
Wow. I read this book in one sitting. I spent the whole time nodding my head. I got out of bed to start writing this to make of the thoughts flying around my brain. Before reading the book I had heard that it was controversial. After reading it I have no idea why.
This is the story of most of the people I know.
I’ve often summed up my husband and I like this:
My husband is what happens when you educate a hillbilly.
I’m what happens when two educated hillbillies breed.
In my life I’ve lived in Western Pennsylvania, East Tennessee, Central Ohio, and Northeast Ohio. I don’t wander far from Appalachia. Most white people I know have roots somewhere deeper in Appalachia. I had never considered that the reason for this was a migration north of people from coal mining country to the industrial centers farther north in the 40s and 50s even though that fits part of my family history.
“It was not simply that the Appalachian migrants, as rural strangers ‘out of place’ in the city, were upsetting to Midwestern, urban whites. Rather, these migrants disrupted a broad set of assumptions held by northern whites about how white people appeared, spoke, and behaved…the disturbing aspect of hillbillies was their racialness. Ostensibly, there were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economic, political, and social power in local and national arenas. But hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit.”
One of the author’s central points is that one of the major problems facing people in these areas is a lack of imagination. I may be an overly educated person but all my coworkers are not. Most are high school graduates who never imagined going on to do any college or ever leaving their hometowns. If no one you know ever leaves, how can someone even imagine that it is an option? There needs to be people to model what healthy relationships look like or what steps you take to go to college in order for someone to aspire to that. The author talks a lot about the very small worldview people have. I keep threatening to buy a world map and teach geography lessons to my coworkers between appointments at work because not only can they not identify some cities as belonging in certain states, they can’t identify certain names as belonging to real states. They’ve never been there so why would they care? They just shrug.
“It’s not like parents and teachers never mention hard work. Nor do they walk around loudly proclaiming that they expect their children to turn out poorly. These attitudes lurk below the surface, less in what people say than in how they act. One of our neighbors was a lifetime welfare recipient, but in between asking my grandmother to borrow her car or offering to trade food stamps for cash at a premium, she’d blather on about the importance of industriousness. ‘So many people abuse the system, it’s impossible for the hardworking people to get the help they need,’ she’d say. This was the construct she’d built in her head: Most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she–despite never having worked a day in her life–was an obvious exception.”
Oh yes. I love that one. I know people who have used every government program out there who expound at length about immigrants coming here and getting benefits that “hard working” Americans don’t get. I also found the discussion in the book about how people overestimate how many hours they work because they think they are more industrious than they are fascinating. If they are working so hard (in their minds) and aren’t getting ahead, obviously someone is out to get them. I think this is a big part of the reason why I hate the terms ‘working class’ and ‘working man’. It is like the rest of us magically make a living by waving our hands and the money rains down from on high.
The author’s story is rough. His mother was a drug addict with a never ending stream of boyfriends. He found stability in his Memaw. That wasn’t a given because she was an incredibly unstable person who didn’t model healthy living to her daughter. She got herself together in her later years and was able to help her grandson.
I understood his story completely. Everything that happens to him has happened to someone I know. It hasn’t all happened to the same person but there was nothing in his story that I haven’t heard at least once from someone in casual conversation. I kept pointing out parallels to my husband’s life to him. There is a passage at the end where he talks about his non-hillbilly wife being shocked that he had several bank accounts spread out in different banks. He attributes that to a childhood habit of spreading out his money in several hiding places so no one in his house could steal it all at once. I just handed the book over to the husband at that point. One of the ‘in case of death’ paperwork things I keep meaning to do is to get him to write down all the banks he has accounts in. I’m not talking multiple accounts in a few local banks. I’m talking about small accounts in multiple states that he can’t bring himself to close.
Some of the major criticisms of this book is the idea that the author hates poor people. They accuse him of saying that he worked hard and got out so everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do it too. I feel like this a lot too. I look at people and think, “You have all the opportunities in the world available to you. You have people who are begging to help you and you just don’t care.” Maybe that isn’t the case in other poor communities but it is true here. Kids graduate having never given a thought to what they want to do with their lives. It isn’t because no one ever asked. It is just pessimism and lethargy. I don’t know how else to explain it. They are smart and capable of doing more than scraping to survive in dead end jobs but it never seems to occur to them that there is more possible in life.
You see this dynamic in the author’s life. He acknowledges that he had good schools with caring teachers who couldn’t help him learn because he was too preoccupied with the chaos of his home life. His high school was poorly rated but he considered that to be at least partially due to a lack of student caring. He talks about good teachers there too. He talks about the programs that are available to help kids go to school but the pessimism of people may make them assume that there is no help available so they don’t look for them. The insularity of the group means that no one talks about family problems (until they are over) so people aren’t getting help. People are suspicious of outsiders so they don’t believe anything an outsider tells them. Change and hope need to come from inside the community.
It seems like a lot of people wanted this book to explain Trump voters to them. It has been touted as the book to read to understand “those people.” They are criticizing it for not explaining them. It doesn’t try to. This is his story. It doesn’t have a political bent to it. It was written before the current election. People need to stop projecting what they want this book to be and see it for what it is.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
Since retiring from professional basketball as the NBA's all-time leading scorer, six-time MVP, and Hall of Fame inductee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has become a lauded observer of culture and society, a New York Times bestselling author, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, TIME magazine and TIME.com.
He now brings that keen insight to the fore in Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White, his most incisive and important work of non-fiction in years. He uses his unique blend of erudition, street smarts and authentic experience in essays on the country's seemingly irreconcilable partisan divide - both racial and political, parenthood, and his own experiences as an athlete, African-American, and a Muslim. The book is not just a collection of expositions; he also offers keen assessments of and solutions to problems such as racism in sports while speaking candidly about his experiences on the court and off.
This is the first book by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that I have read. I didn’t even know that he was an author until last year at BEA when he was there. I didn’t try to get a ticket to his signing but I was working my way through a crowd at one point and ended up standing right beside him. The crowd was actually his line. I now know that I’m the same height as Kareem when he is sitting in a chair.
“One thing all that history has taught me is the dangers of the uninformed, quickly formed and ill-informed opinion. Passionate defense of bad logic is the main cause of most of the world’s misery.”
That is the main theme of this book. Don’t be lazy. Learn about issues. Look at all the sides before coming to a conclusion. Be willing to change your mind as you learn more.
“When I was a child, I remember adults complaining that voting often came down to selecting the lesser of two evils. I still hear that today. But while it feels cathartic to blame elected officials and demonize them for their many failings, the sad truth is that we voters are the real villains in this story. Our profound laziness and unyielding arrogance as voters have allowed our system to become polluted by hucksters, egomaniacs, dimwits and mack-daddy pimps willing to rent out their stable of votes.”
I started out wanting to underline everything in this book. Kareem has a strong point of view on many issues. He explains them well, often using pop culture references to get his point across. I think the broad scope of the book wore me down by the end. It started to feel like, “And another thing I’m mad about is…” I think this book would be better read by dipping in and out of chapters over a longer period of time instead of reading it straight through in order to get it back to the library. That being said, I think this is a book that is very worth reading. He ties in his own life experience as a person who has lived most of his life in the public eye, including during his conversion to Islam. I will look into some of his other books also after reading this one.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
Bestselling Christian author, activist, and scholar Tony Campolo and his son Bart, an avowed Humanist, debate their spiritual differences and explore similarities involving faith, belief, and hope that they share.
Over a Thanksgiving dinner, fifty-year-old Bart Campolo announced to his Evangelical pastor father, Tony Campolo, that after a lifetime immersed in the Christian faith, he no longer believed in God. The revelation shook the Campolo family dynamic and forced father and son to each reconsider his own personal journey of faith—dual spiritual investigations into theology, faith, and Humanism that eventually led Bart and Tony back to one another.
The last time I read a book by Tony Campolo I ended up in a police manhunt so I was a little concerned about picking up this one. I had heard about Bart Campolo leaving Christianity and working as a Humanist chaplain. It was big news in the Christian community. Either it was seen as proof that you can escape your upbringing or it was seen as proof that the Campolos had always been too liberal anyway so obviously they are going to go astray.
This book comes from the discussions that they had after Bart came out as not believing in God. The book is written in alternating chapters with each man expressing their point of view on a particular topic.
The first thing that surprised me was a preface chapter written by Peggy Campolo, Tony’s wife and Bart’s mom. She talks about how she didn’t identify with Christianity during the early years of the Tony’s ministry while her kids were growing up. She has since become a believer and seems to feel a lot of guilt. She thinks that if she was a Christian while Bart was growing up then he wouldn’t have left as an adult. This is typical of the baggage that gets put on parents if the children leave a religion.
I was frustrated while reading Tony’s chapters. Because Bart has now lived on both sides of the debate, he is able to discuss options openly. Tony freely states that he has never known a life where he wasn’t certain of the presence of God in his life. It is obvious that he sees Bart as a wandering child who he hopes gets back to the right path. In the meantime he not really listening to what he has to say. He just seems to be patting him on the head as he speaks and then saying, “Oh, you don’t mean that.”
“For the Christian parents of positive secular humanists like Bart, however, I have some advice: Take every opportunity to affirm and encourage your children whenever they say or do something that reflects your Kingdom values, and let them know that you see a direct connection between their behavior and the love of God, even if they don’t. Doing so demonstrates that you notice and appreciate your kids’ goodness while maintaining your own understanding of its ultimate source, and also opens up opportunities for you to talk about what gets lost when God drops out of the picture.”
Obviously he is still hung up on the idea that you can’t be a good person if you don’t have a God dictating what is right and what is wrong. Bart does a good job discussing why this isn’t true. Too bad his father wasn’t listening.
Tony also talks a lot about guilt. He doesn’t understand how people without God handle all their guilt. He says he lies awake at night feeling guilty about all the harm he does until he is able to let God take the guilt away from him. I don’t think most people have those kinds of guilty feelings. Has he ever considered that maybe the guilt comes from following a religion that teaches that you are a horrible person?
The idea behind this book was to help families have conversations about some members leaving Christianity. I don’t think this book fosters productive conversation because it felt to me like the humanist was explaining over and over and the Christian was just waiting for him to see things the “right” way again. This might be better for people who need to talk to Christians. Bart gives answers to a lot of the questions that he’s been asked. It could help to have some well thought out answers on hand for the common questions.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: