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Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

Image of a digital book cover. A graveyard is in the background. The book title is laid over it in white, with three red stars, and then the author's name.

Summary:
In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a Black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital, the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University) with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a white businessman. Covering the inequalities innate in cadaver harvesting through the mismanagement of discovered human remains on university property in the 1990s, journalist Chip Jones explores how organ transplant in the US reveals systemic inequalities and racism, not just in health care, but in other related fields as well.

Review:
Organ transplant science is something that can feel like it’s been around forever, but in fact it’s really still a fairly new form of treatment. The first transplant of any organ was in 1954, and the first heart transplant was in 1967. The Civil Rights Act was in 1964, so at the time this treatment was emerging, segregated health care was still present in the US.

This book first gives context to the inequities seen in organ donation and reception by looking at the topic of where student doctors get cadavers to practice dissection upon. Although currently there is a system in place for the ethical donation of remains for educational use, at the time there was no such system in place. Medical schools turned to grave-robbing – and they preferentially robbed from Black graveyards. Black families called these “night doctors.”

Parents even used the specter of “night doctors” to make their children stay in bed. “You’d better go to sleep,” they’d say, “or the student doctors will get you.”

(loc 3353)

This was also a time period where there was some debate about what counts as death. Legally, until 1968, death was the full cessation of the working of all organs. In 1968, with advancing science, the theory of brain death was proposed. This was partially due to new health care technology that allowed for a machine to keep the organs operating. In tandem, the science of organ transplantation was emerging. The fresher the organ, the better the chances for the transplant to succeed. With the emerging theory of brain death meaning organs were operating but the patient might be able to be considered dead, and I’m sure you can see where this was going.

Bruce Tucker was a blue collar worker. He was hanging out with friends having a few drinks of alcohol on a stone wall. He fell and suffered head trauma. He was brought to the hospital alone. In spite of having his brother’s business card in his pocket, no one called his brother. Police officers were sent to his home to try to find family, but he didn’t live with his brother. At the same time, a white businessman was waiting for a heart transplant at the same hospital.

The early conversations among the surgeons had little to do about his chances for survival but rather concerned using him for another purpose. No one was discussing whether he might recover and be rehabilitated….Men like Tucker, arriving with alcohol on their breath and seemingly no one to claim them were often written off as ‘charity patients.’ They weren’t expected to pay their bills, with the hospital absorbing any expenses.

loc 2064

Jones notes that Tucker thus suffered from what can be termed a social death. Arriving at the hospital with alcohol on his breath meant that he was looked down upon by society, on top of how he was already perceived as a Black man in a Segregated southern hospital. Add to that the fact that the hospital decided he seemed to have no loved ones, and he was viewed as disposable.

Tucker did have loved ones, though, and when his body was sent to the funeral home, the caretaker notified his family that he arrived without a heart. This is when Tucker’s brother started to pursue answers and justice.

The next part of the book deals with the lawsuit that came about and how the court case was ruled. I wasn’t surprised, but was still severely disappointed to see how the hospital and doctors got away with it, and the Tucker family was left without justice. Notably to me is the quote from the prosecuting lawyer,

It doesn’t change the fact that when they took his heart from him he was not dead according to the law. So they broke the law and never would admit it, and that’s what bothered me more than anything else.

(loc 4397)

A clarifying note that the defense team used the argument of brain death, which was not the law at the time. The defense team also organized for as many transplant experts as possible to be in town at the time of the trial. They arranged for a transplant conference that just so happened to coincide with the scheduled trial. The conference was sponsored by Pfizer. The book notes just how much sway having transplant experts on the stand had on the judgment.

What stood out to me in reading this book is how societal inequalities and judgements can and do severely impact the quality of care that a patient might receive. I also was surprised to learn how recently brain death became the standard, and to read about the arguments on both sides of that debate. Brain death is not as clear-cut as I once thought it was.

The author does a good job of making history personal by focusing on Bruce Tucker and his family but also fleshing out with enough surrounding historical details that the complex situation made sense to read about. I do think his epilogue was unnecessary, where he details trying to speak with Bruce Tucker’s son, who did not want to speak to him. I feel that truly leaving Bruce Tucker’s son alone would have entailed simply a note that he did not wish to be interviewed and leaving it at that.

Overall, this is a fascinating and sad read about the history of organ transplants and brain death in the US. Recommended if these topics interest you.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

January 19, 2021 Leave a comment

Summary:
From the Revisioning History series, this explores United States history with a focus on the Indigenous peoples. History is explored in 11 short to medium length chapters in chronological order.

Review:
I majored in US History and took a full-length course on the Indigenous peoples of the US. I also previously was interested in the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, so read a few books about and by the people of that movement. I was kind of expecting, since this is a short book targeted to a mainstream audience, that I would not encounter too much that was new, but I was pleased to discover my expectations were incorrect.

This book was published in 2014 and thus took a more modern perspective than even my course late in the first decade of the 2000s took. It ensures a perspective not of we’re studying these ancient lost peoples but rather we’re studying the history of people who exist now in modern society and how genocide was enacted against them. The exploration of colonization and how it impacted Indigenous peoples is much more nuanced than the simple guns, germs, and steel history I’d studied in college. What I learned through this book is that colonization was strategic. It wasn’t just a happenstance of how germs worked out when the nations met and greater firepower. Of course, my coursework did acknowledge colonization, but not to the extent it was delineated in this book.

Through economic penetration of Indigenous societies, the European and Euro-American colonial powers created economic dependency and imbalance of trade, then incorporated the Indigenous nations into spheres of influence and controlled them indirectly or as protectorates, with indispensable use of Christian missionaries and alcohol….a colonizing regime institutionalizes violence.

4%-5%

To me an interesting aspect of this book was its discussion of Indigenous peoples and alcohol. Growing up, I definitely heard the myth that Indigenous peoples are more genetically prone to alcoholism. In recent years, I heard the theory that rates of addiction are higher in oppressed peoples, which makes sense as alcohol and other addictive substances can provide temporary relief from trauma. This book pushed my understanding two steps further. First, alcohol being used as an intentional weapon of colonization, calling it a “weapon of war” (21%), and noting that it wasn’t just introduced, it was also promoted (13%). This book also drew my attention to the idea that, for at least some Indigenous peoples, acting the part of the “drunk Indian” can be a form of protest. I read the article the author cites as the origin of this theory, and reading fiction work by Indigenous peoples seems to support this theory as well, for at least some instances. (See the book Ceremony, I’ll be reviewing it soon).

After covering the American Indian Movement, the book wraps up with a discussion of the expanding US imperialism and modern day colonization by historic colonizers (the US and the UK are specifically discussed). Through this, I learned of a potential connection between the Monroe Doctrine and overpowered policing forces. I also learned about the modern forced removal of the Chagossian people from Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, which is now used by the US for a military based (rented from the UK). This is just one example of many given in the chapter, but it’s the one that stuck out the most to me, partially because I didn’t know the US even had a military base in the Indian Ocean but also because the book describes the forced removal including murdering every single pet dog on the island. While of course the forced removal alone is terrible there was just something about the added insult of murdering beloved pets that ground the whole event into my brain.

I have covered just a small snippet of what I learned in this book. It is well-written. The chapters are short to medium length and filled with information. There’s nothing extraneous here. It gets right to the point, which I appreciate. The chronological order is helpful as well for leaving the book and coming back to it as you have time. Highly recommended. I’ve already added several of the other books in this series to my wishlist.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 218 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin B. Curtice

January 5, 2021 4 comments

Summary:
This is simultaneously a memoir about her faith journey and an opinion piece from her perspective as both a Christian and a member of the Potawatomi nation (a nation Indigenous to both the US and Canada). Kaitlin fearlessly grapples with the historical and current weaponization of Christianity, how she interprets Christianity in her own life, and how her Potawatomi knowing comes into her faith.

Review:
This book, to me, is first and foremost beautiful. I read it on my kindle fire just so I could enjoy its beauty in full-color and larger size than my paperwhite. There are five parts, and each part begins with an illustrated poem from Potawotami tradition that ties into the designated part.

A lot about this book is difficult to categorize, and that is part of its strength and beauty. It is partially a memoir, although not necessarily told in a linear fashion. In fact, it reminded me quite a bit of Braiding Sweetgrass (review). It is both about a topic the author has a lot of knowledge on (the experience of Christianity as an Indigenous person), but also is a memoir because her knowledge and herself cannot be separated as they inform each other.

Although I am not biracial myself, I imagine this book would be meaningful to readers who are. Kaitlin, while a full member of the Potawatomi nation, is half white and half Potawatomi. In addition to this, her parents split up when she was young, so she also experienced both living on the reservation and living off the reservation in a white town in a white church with folks essentially considering her to be white and ignoring her Potawatomi self. She discusses what it means to her to be able to pass for white and why she generally as an adult chooses not to. (She even flies with her tribal membership card, which while officially accepted, is usually not recognized by the first TSA agent she sees).

Her insights into how to improve what is broken or ostracizing in the church in the US were simultaneously interesting and challenging. I can imagine a reader very deeply enveloped in the church may feel challenged by her willingness to question what is often accepted as the word of God and also by her desire to draw in aspects of Potawatomi ways. Similarly, I can imagine a reader who has already cast aside the church might wonder why she bothers staying with something that may seem to them to be so obviously broken. This is the beauty of the book. Kaitlin refuses to do what might seem to either side to be the easiest and rather forges her own way, encouraging others to do the same.

The problem isn’t that we search for truth; the problem is that we become obsessed with our belief that we hold the truth, and we destroy entire cultures in the process.

52%

I know I am not the only person who has been wondering lately about other white women who support the patriarchy, and Kaitlin directly addresses this with her insight that comes from being a white passing Indigenous woman in white conservative spaces. I found what she had to say helped me both establish some understanding for something I previously could not understand at all and consider new ways to potentially reach these women.

Unless your lived experience is very similar to the author’s, I expect this will be a book that challenges you. It certainly challenged me. But to be challenged is to grow, and I thank the author for sharing her understanding of the world and her experiences. Being challenged helped me to grow in my understanding. Recommended for all but especially for those who are seeking a greater understanding of the church in the US.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 208 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

November 22, 2020 Leave a comment
Cover of the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Summary:
Dr. Cone is respected as the founder of Black liberation theology. In this book first published in 2011 he explores the connections between the Jesus’s crucifixion and the lynchings committed by white Americans against Black Americans. He also explores in a forthright manner how Christianity is experienced and expressed in Black American churches and directly addresses the seeming contradiction of Black Americans embracing the faith they encountered initially through white enslavers.

Review:
I think it’s important before giving my thoughts on this book to establish for those who may web search their way here who I am. I’m a white, US American woman with the privilege of a Masters degree. While I don’t hazard to guess who Dr. Cone intended to write for, I will say I found both a greater understanding of the Black Christian church in the US and simultaneously called out as a white US American – a couple of times as a white woman specifically. If you are a white US American and not a Christian, this is still a relevant read for you. 79% of Black US Americans consider themselves to be Christian (Pew Research Center) – a greater percent than either US Americans overall or when compared to white US Americans alone. If we are to be good allies, it’s important to understand how this faith intertwines with the atrocious history and (Dr. Cone argues, and I agree with him, continued presence of) lynching in the US.

Dr. Cone gives context for how Black US Americans, especially those who are descendants of enslaved people, came to find and embrace the Christian faith. He also discusses some prominent white and Black theologians, highlighting the differences in how they addressed or, in the case of white theologians, failed to address systemic racism in the US.

I could not find one sermon or theological essay, not to mention a book, opposing lynching by a prominent liberal white preacher.

(loc 79%)

I was particularly moved by the section that discussed how these theologians reacted to the 1963 Birmingham Baptist Church bombing, which resulted in the deaths of four Black girls – Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11). Dr. Cone’s justified palpable frustration at the general lack of response even in the face of such clear evil was important to hear.

The title of the book alludes to the answer to a couple of questions I’ve heard people ask before – how is the Black Christian experience different from that of white Christians and how did the descendants of enslaved people come to embrace the faith of those who enslaved their ancestors? According to Dr. Cone, Black US Americans saw a fellow sufferer in Jesus and a clear connection between how he was crucified and how Black US Americans are unjustly treated. He also draws attention to how Black churches pay attention to different aspects of the Bible than what you might hear in white churches.

One cannot correctly understand the black religious experience without an affirmation of deep faith informed by profound doubt. Suffering naturally gives rise to doubt. How can one believe in God in the face of such horrendous suffering as slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree? Under these circumstances, doubt is not a denial but an integral part of faith. It keeps faith from being sure of itself. But doubt does not have the final word. The final word is faith giving rise to hope.

(loc 64%)

Dr. Cone directly addresses the frustration of the white people who enforce segregation and lynching and Black people suffering from these things both laying claim to the same faith and how painful that is. My takeaway was that, rather than ask how white supremacists and Black US Americans can lay claim to the same faith, acknowledge that white supremacy is twisting the faith of white US Americans.

Hate and white supremacy lead to violence and alienation, while love and the cross lead to nonviolence and reconciliation.

(loc 46%)

White supremacy tears faith to pieces and turns the heart away from God.

(loc 94%)

Dr. Cone also dedicates space to Black women’s voices, and I was particularly moved by this part as it features Black women directly calling out white women as having the ability to bring change to white supremacy. I have so often heard the opposite, disempowering message that our options of action as white women are limited due to the patriarchy, but that is an overly limited viewpoint. While it is true the patriarchy limits us, we do have the ears of other white folks in a way that Black people often do not, and white women may have more influence over the men in our lives than we may realize. (When I say men in our lives I mean this in the most inclusive way possible – family members, sons, friends, colleagues, etc…) Black women in this book see and call out the power that we white women clearly have with specific examples of how white supremacy responds to perceived affronts on white women. If we have the power to cause harm to Black folks in this way, then we have the power to, at the very least disengage from it by not allowing our experiences to be used as the spark to start off the firestorm, but perhaps we can also use it to quench the violence to begin with. I think it’s important for those reading this not to mistake this as a call for white saviors but rather as a call for white women to cease (knowingly or unknowingly) inciting violence and to work against it. I think of it as the Bible says – take the log out of our own eyes first.

This book also includes some very meaningful explorations of the blues and Gospel music, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King’s theology. It ends with a call to address continued issues, especially as seen through the prison system. As a white woman who grew up rural poor with a large local issue when I was in high school being whether or not to bring in a prison as a source of jobs to an economically depressed area, I viewed this as yet another reason to address efforts toward our incredibly problematic private prison industrial complex in the US.

Through private prisons and the “war against drugs,” whites have turned the brutality of their racist legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America.

(loc 97%)

This clearly was a meaningful read for me, and I can easily see what an important read it is for my fellow white US Americans. It does not give easy answers for what to do, but it demonstrates how white supremacy hurts everyone and leaves one with an urge to be part of the change for good.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 226 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: purchased

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Book Review: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

February 21, 2020 Leave a comment

First, a note….

If you’ve subscribed to this blog, bless you for still being around. I hadn’t posted since July 2018! I’ve still been actively discussing books but mostly on my Instagram where I’ve been enjoying the bookstagram community. However, I have missed having a more permanent, long-form place to talk about books. I wasn’t enjoying the monthly round-ups I was doing but I also simply cannot devote the time to blog post about every book I read. So I’ve decided to aim for reviewing one book a month – the book I found most meaningful to read in some way in the month prior. Maybe sometimes I’ll review more, maybe less, but no longer take this blog to be a record of every single book I read. Moving right along.

Book cover of The FiveSummary:
You’ve heard of Jack the Ripper – the serial killer who murdered five women in London in 1888. Most people know the name Jack the Ripper but what about the names of his victims? Here, meet the women whose lives were cut short by Jack the Ripper – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary. Get to know their world, their personal struggles, and come to see them as people rather than simply victims.

Review:
I learned so much reading this book, and none of it was dry. It was entirely fascinating. I liked the structure very much – Rubenhold goes through the intricacies of the lives of each of the women in the order they were murdered. She also doesn’t just stop at the moment they died – she follows through with who identified the body, who grieved for them (and every single one had someone grieving for them).

A large misconception is that all five of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper were homeless prostitutes. Of course even if that were the case it wouldn’t make the murders less tragic. However, it is simply not true of these women. Four of the five were not prostitutes but rather were simply sleeping on the street because they were homeless. The fifth (Mary Jane) was a prostitute but had a home and was murdered in it.

I found it very interesting how different all of their lives began and yet how most of them ended up on the street regardless. In a way this is really the story of how society failed these women long before it failed to find their killer by allowing them to end up living on the streets to begin with.

I personally found Annie’s story to be the most meaningful, but I think everyone will connect with a different woman in a different way. Annie ended up on the street due to a failed battle with alcoholism. She had a loving family, had climbed up to the middle class, and even did a stint in rehab. But she still lost the battle with her addiction.

Interestingly, her sisters chose the sobriety movement and prospered from it. I found this to be a meaningful passage:

The complete rejection of alcohol resonated with those who found themselves balanced precariously on the edge of middle-class life. By eschewing drink, a hardworking man or woman could save money and build a better life for themself and their family. Annie’s sisters not only adhered to this creed but prospered by it financially. (27% location)

Although her sisters were able to give up the drink, Annie was not. Her brother also still drank alcohol at the time of her murder. Even though she was on the street, he would still see her sometimes and imbibe with her. After her murder, he left the UK for Texas and achieved sobriety.

This hit me hard:

What her murderer claimed on that night was simply all that remained of what drink had left behind. (33% location)

To me, Annie’s full life story was sorrowful, although some beauty did come out of it in that her brother’s life was saved by observing her downfall. I still reflect on her story sometimes. I hope through Rubenhold’s work, Annie’s unfortunate downfall will come to affect change in more people than solely Annie’s brother’s.

I’ve spoken at length about the woman’s story I found the most personally moving and meaningful, but there is also a story of an immigrant, a woman scorned by her husband, a prostitute and the man she loved, and a working class woman who worked in a tin factory and ran from an abusive husband. I am sure you will find one that connects with you and that you will find meaningful.

Those who are disturbed by the gruesome will be pleased to note that there are not gruesome details in this book. The focus is on the women’s lives, not their deaths.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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March 2018 Book Review – Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (#nonfiction)

FullSizeRender (11)

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Hello my lovely readers! Notice how that says book review and not books reviews? Well that’s because I somehow managed to only finish one book in the entire month of March. :-O

I know the reason for this. It’s because my print book I was reading was a real chunkster. So while I read religiously throughout the month, I just didn’t quite finish the print book within the month of March. But I’m actually ok with this book getting to take center stage, because it’s a cool one.

John Henry is an American folk song that I thought was famous until I was reading this book and had to keep explaining it to people. (I couldn’t find the version I grew up listening to on YouTube but here it is on Spotify – John Henry as sung by Wee Sing on the album America). Essentially the lyrics tell the story of John Henry, a black man who worked on the railroad and beat the steam drill at going through a mountain but died doing so. There are many different versions of the lyrics, but this is the closest to the version I grew up listening to. What’s the point of singing this song to and with children? Well, that depends on who you ask and what version you sang. The gospel version focuses on John Henry’s rewards in Heaven. The blues version focuses on the unfairness of the job and the fear (warranted or not) of machines replacing blue collar labor.

(I did find it comforting that the book indicates that this is an extremely popular folk song in the United States – with the librarians at the Library of Congress telling the author it’s the most researched folk song in the US.)

In Steel Drivin Man, Scott Reynolds Nelson seeks to find the origins of this folk tale and see if there was a real man behind it. Fascinatingly, he successfully found who most likely was the real John Henry. Perhaps not surprisingly, John Henry was a free black man who in the immediately post Civil War era (Reconstruction) Virgina was arrested on what may have been fair charges of shoplifting (no one can really say if a crime actually occurred or not) that was then escalated to a higher charge (most likely falsely). In spite of the North attempts at forcing the South to treat black men and women equally to white, some districts in the South pulled off the Jim Crow laws, which led to unequal punishment for equal crimes, which meant John Henry got put away in prison for a very long time for a very small crime. Unfortunately for him, this was about the time that people got it into their heads that they could use prison labor in the form of chain gangs much like they used to use slave labor. John Henry was sent out to work on the railroad and died there, as working on the railroad was essentially a death sentence.

Some prisoners escaped, and some were killed by guards for what the railroad labeled “mutiny,” but the remainder entered tunnels where tiny bits of microscopic rock floated in the air, entered their lungs, and over a period of six months to three years, strangled them. These prisoners died gasping for air. (location 34%)

I for one after reading that passage couldn’t help but think of Eric Garner and was saddened by how little some things have changed.

Many American folk songs, including this one, were actually originally work songs. I learned through this book that rock and roll refers to these work songs, as the two man crew who drilled had one man to shake the stake and another to hit it, which was called rocking and rolling. Songs were sung to a particular beat both to pass the time and to help ensure no one’s fingers got smashed.

The original blues version of John Henry as opposed to praising his work ethic actually was memorializing his strength and the unfair situation. His status as a prisoner wasn’t so much rewritten as not mentioned (because it didn’t matter), and his strength of character was symbolized by being a man of large stature, even though the real John Henry was actually quite short (under 5’4″). The gospel version focuses more on his strong Protestant work ethic and the rewards he’ll see in Heaven.

The author speaks some about the song and the groups that attached themselves to it over time. I found it interesting that Communist groups in America liked it because of its demonstration of an unfair use of labor. Also interesting was that he found that schools in historically black neighborhoods would devote entire music classes to the song and its history. He also traces John Henry in everything from comic books to Disney shows. I admit that I found the beginning of the book about the real John Henry and the early versions of the song to be the most interesting.

I would have given this book 5 stars but the ending let me down, particularly when the author postulates what message John Henry’s bones might tell us, and I thought that message was very far off the mark, speaking about working less when in fact John Henry was mistreated due to racism, not out of any workaholicism of his own!

Overall, though, I’m not sad this was the only book I read in the month of March. I learned so much, and I really did enjoy it.
(4 out of 5 stars, buy it)
(source: Amazon)

My total for the month of March 2018:

  • 1 book
    • 0 fiction; 1 nonfiction
    • 0 female authors; 1 male author
    • 1 ebooks; 0 print books; 0 audiobooks

A trio of #nonfiction Reviewed in #Haiku

August 5, 2017 2 comments

anne frank

We All Wore Stars: Memories of Anne Frank from Her Classmates
By: Theo Coster

Summary:
Theo Coster was one of 28 Jewish Dutch students segregated into their own classroom by the Nazis. Another one of these students was Anne Frank. Theo gathers stories from other surviving students and himself both of their experiences of the Holocaust and their memories of Anne.

Haiku Review:
All together yet
Each experience unique
Grounding reminder.

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Gift
Buy It

crazyenough.jpg

Crazy Enough: A Memoir
By: Storm Large

Summary:
Storm knew growing up her mother was crazy so it was pretty scary when a doctor responded to her inquiry if she was crazy like her mother that she wasn’t yet but was going to be. Follow Storm through her journey of multiple diagnoses and a search to be more than just crazy.

Haiku Review:
A one-woman show
Reflects in the narrative
Left with some questions

3 out of 5 stars
Source: Publisher
Buy It

tidying up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
By: Marie Kondo

Summary:
Japanese cleaning consultant vows she’s never had a client relapse after following her sort everything once by category not by room and then organize it method. You may have heard jokes in social media about her sorting method being based on “does this spark joy?”

Haiku Review:
Some good tips mixed with
Animism but take it
With a grain of salt

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
Buy It

Book Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

March 6, 2017 4 comments

Book Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by SusannahSummary:
When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

Review:
Written by a journalist, the reader soon discovers this memoir is a survivor’s tale of brain encephalitis. Divided into three parts, the first establishes Susannah’s life when she came down with the illness and the first appearance of symptoms. The second covers the time period of her illness that she actually can’t remember, and features her own investigative journalism into what happened during that time. The third part covers the first part of her recovery time in the first year or so after she recovers her memory.

The first two thirds of the book are quite strong for different reasons. In the first third, Susannah recalls with such clarity the feeling of is this really happening or am I losing my mind? Specifically, the first thing that happens is she’s sure she has bed bugs but other people (including the exterminator) see no evidence of them. To this day, no one knows if Susannah really had bed bugs or if hallucinating them was a first symptom of her illness.

The second third of the book highlights her skills as an investigative journalist. Since she herself doesn’t remember the worst of her sickness immediately prior to or during her hospitalization, she is able to take an impartial distance to the whole situation and report on how her divorced parents put aside their differences to care for her together, as well as look at how the medical system both cared for her but also almost missed her critical diagnosis. Susannah recognizes how lucky she was to have people on her side advocating with the hospital for her, as well as to be in a city with such high-quality and cutting edge medical care.

The last third where she talks about her years of recovery and her life now was the weakest. The level of insight and analysis found in the first two parts was absent. While Susannah clearly empathizes with those with mental illness, there’s a clear sense that she thinks that all mental illness is just an illness making you look mental and not actually maybe a different way of interacting with the world. A different kind of normal you’re just born with. I think Susannah fails to take into consideration what if she was just born seeing colors more brightly and seeing the walls breathe? What if that was just always her normal? That’s the reality for many with a mental illness, and she kind of just glosses over that and comes down on the it’s all just a physical illness side. I’m more of a believer that it’s ok for there to be different ways to be “normal” and maybe society should stop shoving us all into the same shaped peghole. While it’s true that situations like Susannah’s where your whole personality changes overnight are devastating, that’s not how all mental illness presents, and I think she misses that in her quest to find and diagnose those with a brain inflammation misdiagnosed.

Overall, this is an intensely readable book that leaves you questioning what is truly madness and what is just abnormality? And what makes us who we are? If a person is unable to remember what they are doing, does that mean they’re behaving as themselves authentically or as quite the opposite?

4 out of 5 stars

Source: ARC from publisher in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

January 29, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara DemickSummary:
Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years–a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today–an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.

Review:
One thing the official blurb doesn’t mention is that all 6 of the North Korean escapees Demick interviewed were from the same town of Chongjin. This allowed for her to get multiple perspectives of life in the same town over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. I think this is key because it allowed her to, through their eyes, get a well-rounded sense of what life in Chongjin was like in those decades.

Since I had just read The Girl with Seven Names (review), the extent of the brainwashing North Korean citizens go through their entire lives and how difficult it is to escape (physically and mentally) were not revelatory to me. However, I do think this information is presented quite well by Demick, and there is added value in getting it from 6 different voices, instead of the one in the memoir I started out with.

What struck me the most as new information in this book was actually the famine in North Korea. I hadn’t heard of it, and every single person interviewed by Demick was touched by it. Some more than others. One of the people interviewed was a homeless child during the famine whose growth was permanently stunted by his starvation. For those wondering, the famine was the result of North Korea’s various trade agreements falling through after the fall of the USSR. Humanitarian agencies did send aid, but the North Korean officials intercepted it and either took it or sold it on the black market. Demick speaks at length how this incredibly long-lasting famine impacted not just people’s bodies but their psyche and can lead them to do things they normally wouldn’t for survival.

Her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.  (location 2109)

I already knew of the horrible gulags (prison camps) in North Korea but some of the people Demick interviewed had actually been in some of the less severe ones. They spoke of familial bribery and overcrowding as ways they got out. The crimes they commited to be sent to these concentration camp style prison camps, by the way, were things like smuggling goods and escaping to China. One new fact I learned about these prison camps that will haunt me for a while is this:

North Koreans have multiple words for prison in much the same way the Inuit do for snow. (location 2740)

Demick goes more in-depth into what happens to the North Koreans who do manage to escape to South Korea. How well do they acclimate? What are their lives like? She speaks about how many of them are struggling to save money to pay to have human smugglers help sneak their remaining family members out of North Korea. The most heartbreaking of these stories is the mother who escaped to China and had to leave her two children behind with their father who was still loyal to North Korea. Her children are grown now, and she’s still trying to get in contact with them to help them escape. In addition to the difficulties of trying to save remaining family members there’s the fact that capitalism is new to the North Korean escapees, and that South Korea really has a different culture at this point. There’s a lot of struggles to adapt to both that Demick does a good job demonstrating by letting her interviewees speak for themselves.

Demick did a wonderful job interviewing and assembling the stories of these 6 refugees. She both lets their stories speak for themselves and interjects at appropriate times with astute analysis. Recommended to those with an interest in North Korea who want some narrative story with critical analysis.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

January 22, 2017 3 comments

Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story by Hyeonseo LeeSummary:
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realize that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumors of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

Review:
I’ll never forget the first time I learned about North Korea’s terrifying dictatorship. I was discussing the horror of the concentration camps with someone as a young teen, and a person nearby said, “You know those still exist. North Korea calls them gulags.” I looked it up, and one of the first things I found was a child’s drawings of life inside. I later found out that we only have stories from the least bad of the gulags. The worst tier no one has escaped from to tell us what happens inside them. It’s really horrifying. Last fall, I decided it was time I learned more about North Korea, so I went looking and this book spoke to me as a place to start. I like first-hand accounts, it’s from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, and I liked the title. I got more than I had bargained for. While this memoir would be good regardless of the writing style because Hyeonseo’s life is just that interesting, her writing is articulate and insightful.

Hyeonseo does a wonderful job writing realistically and yet with empathy about herself as a child who had been fully fooled by the North Korean government. It can sometimes be difficult to understand how people can believe x, y, z but this book makes it easy to understand how it can happen and amazing that anyone manages to start doubting such an all-encompassing worldview.

One of the more surprising parts of the book to me was that at first Hyeonseo just wanted to see China. She had no intention of leaving North Korea forever. It’s just once she got out and visiting relatives in China she dragged her feet about going back until it was too dangerous for her to go back. (She would have been captured upon return and put in a prison camp for daring to leave at all). She now was in China with a totally different life path than she’d initially imagined. What was originally a vacation was now most likely a lifetime of being a fugitive. I think this part of the book is where Hyeonseo’s practicality and iron will first shine through:

Now that I was to stay indefinitely in China, I had to learn Mandarin. And I had the best teacher – necessity. You can study a language for years at school, but nothing helps you succeed like need, and mine was clear, and urgent. (location 1781)

I learned so much in this book beyond the horrors of what happens in North Korea. Like that China has an extradition agreement with North Korea which means that if any refugees are caught in China they are brought back to North Korea to face certain imprisonment and possibly death. I can’t imagine what it would be like to escape a dictatorship into the neighboring country and know at any moment you could be seized and sent back.

I also learned that South Korea has declared any North Koreans who make it to their land to be South Koreans and actually provide a lot of repatriation assistance but that the divide is growing between North and South Korean cultures the longer the divide is up, and some are concerned about how the two can ever be reunified once the North Koreans are freed from the dictatorship.

Hyeonseo provides a lot of insightful commentary about living under a dictatorship, human nature, brainwashing, and more. My favorite though was this:

There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens. The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in a brutal system, implicating all, from the highest to the lowest, blurring morals so that no one is blameless. (location 2368)

The only other thing I wish to say is that everyone should read this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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