Book–Andi Zeisler, co-founder of feminist nonprofit Bitch Media, has spent her career examining popular culture through a feminist lens. Zeisler argues that lately feminist has become a coveted ‘cool’ label. In contrast to the 1980s retrenchment of conservative values that repudiated feminism, now it’s a label that everyone wants to claim. Popular celebrities regularly affirm that they are feminist, brands like Dove are embracing body positivity as a marketing technique, and even innocuous products like underwear are being marketed using empowerment jargon. According to Zeisler, if everything is suddenly feminist, than it’s as if nothing is feminist. Using feminism to categorize everything from pop music to sanitary pads dilutes the meaning of the word and sidesteps the systemic inequalites that feminism should rightly address. Because people face an unequal range of opportunities, feminism is not as simple as people just making the choices they would have made anyway then calling themselves feminist for it. Zeisler calls this “Marketplace Feminism,” though others have called it choice feminism.
While I did enjoy this book, I thought it suffered from too many examples and observations and not enough solutions and conclusions. Any reader who frequents the feminist blogosphere will be more than familiar with most of the examples that Zeisler uses to illustrate her points. We Were Feminists Once would be a great read for someone just getting interested in feminism or who just wants a brief overview of the quasi-feminist listicle-generating culture that Zeisler critiques.
Book – I’ve been hearing about Stanford’s life design course for a few years now, one of those bits of news that makes me nostalgic for being in college. Run through Stanford’s Institute of Design, it teaches students how to develop a life they will enjoy to the fullest, using design mindsets and principles. It sounds terrific – and the class has been full every year for nine years.
Well, for those of us who no longer have any hope of getting into a Stanford class, waitlisted or not, the course designers have written a book. It’s not the same – you’ll need to develop your own group of peers, and you’re probably starting from a very different place than a college junior or senior – but it’s a great start. After introducing the basic concepts, the book dives right into exercises you can try (based on one of the five core design principles, bias to action, or as the authors put it: Try Stuff). If you want the full schoolwork experience, you can even download worksheets from their website.
There isn’t a lot of direct advice in this book – the authors aren’t trying to get you to do anything specific with your life, but to think differently about your life and the choices you make about it. Maybe that means making a few small changes so that you appreciate what you have all the more; maybe it means quitting your job and moving to Alaska. Either way, a few hours spent with this book would be a great way to kick off the new year.
Book – Simple Matters is about making a home. “The simple decisions and practices and objects and habits that make up the backdrop of our tumultuous lives….based on the premise that a simple home is filled with hardworking things.” It’s divided into nine chapters, including Decluttering, Bath & Beauty, Cooking & Entertaining and Cleaning. Boyle is a blogger and photographer who has moved with her husband and child into five apartments in the last ten years. The process of moving helped her prioritize her possessions and streamline her processes. I like her approach to a simpler, more thoughtful, more engaged lifestyle. She gives practical suggestions and creative solutions that are economical and simple. The format and illustrations of the book were appealing. I feel inspired to reexamine my possessions and habits toward achieving a simpler, more fulfilling life.
Book – Every once in a while, a book picked up on a whim can be surprising in wonderful ways. That was my reaction to Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World. I was expecting a conventional history of precious stones and jewelry. I got both less and more than that, and wasn’t at all disappointed in the exchange.
Stoned is to traditional, chronological histories as a volume of short stories is to a novel. Chapters jump around in time, but each is a fascinating and complete slice of history in its own right. Chapter subjects are chosen not only to entertain and inform, but used to explore the larger question why human beings value what we value, becoming far less mineralogical or artistic than social and psychological history. For example, the first chapter explores the popular myth that the Dutch purchase of New Amsterdam (later New York) was somehow a swindle because Venetian beads were used as currency, pointing out that glass beads were, at the time, a rare and precious commodity with a globally recognized worth. We wouldn’t balk today at someone purchasing land rights with a sackful of diamonds–why do we respect one variety of shiny bauble but look down on past peoples for prizing another? And what’s going on in our brains that makes us value gems in the first place?
Author Raden does a great job choosing subjects that are both interesting and significant, from the pearl that changed Tudor history to the role of Faberge eggs in the Russian Revolution to the conquistadors’ emeralds to how cultured pearls helped Japan become a world power. Her voice is entertaining and pacing is brisk, making Stoned a quick and fascinating read. It’s perfect for anyone who loves popular and casual histories like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Book – There’s a building in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in the country, where something terrible happened. A lot of terrible things happen in Brownsville — right on the Mexican border, it’s a center for drug trafficking as well as immigration, both legal and not, and the usual urban crimes born of poverty and desperation — but this was bad enough that the whole building lies under its shadow.
This isn’t the usual kind of true crime book, and if you try to read it that way you’re going to be disappointed. The facts were never really in doubt. In the spring of 2003, John Allen Rubio, with the assistance of his common-law wife, horribly murdered his three children. The oldest girl was only three years old. Less than a day later, they both confessed to the police; Rubio believed the children were possessed. Or maybe, he admitted when questioned, it was the spray paint he’d been huffing.
But Tillman isn’t telling that story as much as she’s telling the story of the community in which that crime occurred. What did the neighbors think of John and Angela, both before and after the murders? What was it like, to be them, to live in their world? And if John truly, sincerely believed that the children were possessed when he killed them, does that make him not guilty by reason of insanity? What if he had schizophrenia? What if he had brain damage from long-term drug use, or a low IQ from his mother’s long-term drug use? If the state of Texas executes him for his crime, what does that say about us, and the world we live in? And can the community ever come to terms with what happened? Tillman doesn’t offer answers to these questions, but she asks them with care, and I think they’re important ones.
Book – As I mentioned earlier this month, I’m fascinated by stories of wilderness adventures gone terribly, irrevocably wrong. Living in the suburbs it’s easy to forget the immensity of the natural world – and its unforgiving nature. As the authors of Over the Edge say, nature is not Disney World, and there’s no guarantee that the unprepared will make it out alive.
And not to be morbid, but this collection of stories about deaths in one of America’s most impressive natural features is fascinating stuff. While there are a fair number of suicides (although not as many as you might think), most of the deaths they talk about are the result of just that kind of lack of preparation – hikers, cavers, rafters who thought they could do more than they could, and found out too late that they were wrong. It’s a comprehensive catalog of things not to do, and anybody interested in hiking Grand Canyon probably ought to read this first, just to make sure they don’t get too cocky.
I stumbled upon this book after reading the fascinating saga of the discovery of the Death Valley Germans – a family of tourists who disappeared into the California desert in 1996, and whose remains were finally discovered by search & rescue volunteer Tom Mahood in 2010. From this and from Over the Edge, I have learned never to drive a minivan offroad in the desert, to always carry twice as much water as I think I’ll need, and also to stay far, far away from Death Valley.
Book – Tig is a stand-up comedian. She experienced a streak of devastating personal tragedies in 2012, including C-Diff, the death of her mother, the break-up of girlfriend and a stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis. She turned to comedy to channel her grief. The result was a set that went viral and was released as the album “Live,” which was nominated for a Grammy. In her book, Tig recounts her journey. The first chapter depicts her early life and unconventional upbringing and was my favorite chapter of the book. However, after a promising beginning, the book went flat for me. Tig states her feelings, then gives examples, rather than illuminating truths through the story. Other memoirs I have read have been better at conveying difficult character traits of people in their lives, while also managing to express their redeeming qualities. Although I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, I admire Tig for overcoming the adversity she was confronted with and for sharing her personal story through stand-up comedy.
Books – It’s summertime, and what better time to read about people dying alone in the wilderness. Right? No? Just me then. I’m not a camping person, and maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by stories of outdoors adventures going horribly wrong. It’s safely scary: while it’s real, I can be comfortably certain that I will never starve to death in the Alaskan wilderness, because there is no way I would be there in the first place.
But somehow I’d never read Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, a young man who trekked across the country alone, then survived more than a hundred days in central Alaska, on his own with virtually no supplies other than what he could hunt or gather, before succumbing to the elements (and, Krakauer argues, some toxic potato seeds). I knew I had to read it, though, when I saw that Chris’s sister, Carine McCandless, had written her own memoir, The Wild Truth.
A lot of people, after reading Into the Wild or seeing the movie based on the book, thought of Chris as an irresponsible, immature kid, who never thought about what his disappearance would do to his family. Really, Carine says, their parents were physically and emotionally abusive, and Chris had tried over and over again to reconcile with them before cutting them out of his life completely just before embarking on his fatal trip – a hard, painful separation that Carine herself took decades later. She’d asked Krakauer not to write the truth about their parents in his book, hoping then that her relationship with them could still be saved. The two books together are a powerful story about how our families shape our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world, and the lengths people will go to when they need to escape that influence.
Book – One of last year’s Bluestem Book Award Nominated children’s selections was Susan E. Goodman’s How Do You Burp in Space?: and Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know. Mary Roach could easily have used the same title for her endlessly entertaining adult nonfiction offering, but she instead chose Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.
Packing for Mars (also available as an audiobook, digital or on CD) is in many ways the opposite of most stories about space travel. Expect none of the rose-tinted romanticism of Space-as-Manifest-Destiny narratives that glamorize the patriotic thrill of being first among the stars, or any white-knuckled moments facing down the many terrors of space. Roach’s down-to-earth focus on the humbler details of space exploration may not justify a John Williams soundtrack, but it makes for a hilarious, fascinating read.
As Roach points out, “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.” Humans are the most fallible component in the precise and delicate machinery of space travel, and Packing for Mars examines the many measures that NASA and other space agencies have taken to address our physical and psychological needs in the harsh environment of space. From an expedition into the remote and otherworldly Canadian arctic where personnel and equipment are tested for moon missions, to the hospital ward where “terranauts” are paid to lie in bed for months to simulate the effects of zero-gravity on bone density, to a parabolic (“vomit-comet”) flight in the upper atmosphere in search of a cure for space-sickness, Mary Roach traveled all over this planet learning how space agencies meticulously plan to reach the next one. The resulting book provides answers to all the questions about space travel that you never thought of or wouldn’t have dared to ask, conveyed with an irreverent wit that makes reading a pleasure.
Book – What do AIDS, malaria, the Spanish Flu, and Ebola all have in common? Aside from being some of the scariest diseases humanity has to face, they all originated in animals. In Spillover, David Quammen explores how diseases cross over from animals into humans, how researchers figure out where those diseases come from, and what that means for the future of human disease.
That sounds like a combination of boring and terrifying, but really, the book is neither – Quammen’s writing is incredibly clear and easy to follow. He doesn’t assume you know anything about biology, nevermind viral microbiology, and both his own explanations and his conversations with experts make the whole topic seem reasonable and comprehensible. I felt smarter after reading this book. And safer, too – as the conclusion describes, one of the biggest factors in how diseases spread is how infected hosts react to being sick, and as humans, with intelligence and forethought, we can do a lot from preventing the Next Big One from being as big as we fear.
This is a little outdated; published (to great acclaim) in 2012, the most recent epidemic it covers is SARS, missing the most recent Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus. (Although there is a lengthy chapter on Ebola, in which he clarifies that it does not actually liquefy its victims, Richard Preston notwithstanding.) But it’s thorough enough to show light on those situations anyway. Pick this one up now, before next flu season comes around.