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Book Review: Weather by Jenny Offill

One of the attributes I always revere when reading novels is an author’s ability to create characters that demonstrate both the ideals and fears of an age and the dreams and realities of individuals. In Jenny Offill’s Weather, we meet Lizzie, a mother and wife who is balancing a multitude of personal issues that are exacerbated by the real and perceived ills of society. Among the personal demons she battles are her unrealized academic potential, her own critique of her abilities in motherhood and marriage, a recovering addict of a brother and allusions to her own substance dependence/abuse, and a general question how to be a good person. Offill weaves these with more communal issues, an intersection of emotional, environmental, and economic problems and, again, how to be a good person. Lizzie stars in her own show, providing light-hearted punchline after punchline to heavyweight topics that more accurately reflect how we think about these issues ourselves than we probably realize.

Lizzie is a college librarian who has just started assisting a former professor by handling questions users send to a podcast called Hell and High Water. She seems to have underachieved, although if it is by her own expectations or others is not always clear. We learn a lot about her through a play-by-play of her inner consciousness, one that alludes to a divorced mother, an addict brother, an unremarkable marriage, and the challenge of parenthood.

At the beginning of the book, we see things aren’t perfect, but they seem to be functioning. As the book develops, we realize the character holds things together with sleight-of-hand – whether it’s through substances (“One good thing about being addicted to sleeping pills,” Lizzie notes, “is that they don’t call it ‘addicted’; they call it ‘habituated’.”) or burying the turmoil that is evident in Offill’s short-yet-powerful paragraphs of emotion. Once, Lizzie remembers, her son Eli asks “Are you sure you’re my mother? Sometimes you don’t seem like good enough person.” Lizzie, highlighting those moments in our lives that just stick with us, remarks “He was just a kid, so I let it go. And now, years later, I probably only think of it, I don’t know, once or twice a day.”

 “I keep wondering how we might channel all of this dread into action” – Lizzie in Weather by Jenny Offill.

The switch from the perfunctory job of college librarian to the world of answering existential questions allows Offill to riff on things large and small without a hitch. At the college desk, Lizzie’s world reminds one of Seinfeld, a show about nothing, one in which the character is driven crazy by the minutiae of daily life and interactions with a cast of people.  “Don’t use bacterial soap,” Catherine (Henry’s new beau) tells her,” because lalalalalalalala.” “Who cares!?!,” Lizzie is screaming – it is just another opinion on one topic in a sea of seven billion, and those opinions cover every possibility from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Environmentalists and doomsday preachers who write into the podcast clearly get in her head, adding another layer of mystique to an already cloudy worldview. As her fascination with the end of the world grows with her work on the podcast, her natural rhythms begin to falter. How is she supposed to prepare for the end of the world when her day-to-day life is so maddening? Everyone seems on the verge of breakdown, anger, or righteous rhetoric – how are we supposed to live? How are we supposed to die?

In Weather, Offills’s seemingly random outbursts of thoughts are actually carefully constructed arguments. They are engineered to seem meandering while remaining cognizant, each blurb its own story that contributes to a sum greater than its parts. On a personal level, one gets the sense that the current level of human interaction over-stimulates individuals to points of chaos. On a larger (and more disheartening) level, Offill seems to proffer that we should reset the bar of the American Dream. Lizzie (and us) may do better to stop hoping for good things to come and lower our expectations to a new standard: the hope that terrible things will not.

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Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is one of the best authors on race in America. He has particular skill in taking the racial history of this country and weaving his literary characters around them – characters that are reactive to the bigotry of the period and who leave a legacy of resistance in the face of hate and discrimination. His most recent work, The Nickel Boys, is a fictionalized tale loosely based on tragic real-life events at the Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Nominally a biracial reform school, the institution is instead more corrupt than the worst of its captives, resorting to beatings, extortion, and mass murder as a means of pleasure (and a way to enforce the strict enforcement that allows the enrichment of politicians and the heads of the school.) Although in many respects the white boys and black boys are treated very similarly, the worst of the abuse is reserved for the segregated black boys that lie at the center of Whitehead’s story.

The prologue introduces us to the corrupt nature of the Nickel Academy (the Dozier Academy mentioned above) and foreshadows the ominous future that awaits the boys sentenced to the reform school. A mass grave is discovered by a 21st-century construction crew and we are shown glimpses of the troubling world of 1950’s and 1960’s Nickel reform, full of secret graveyards, beating houses, and get-rich schemes. This discovery temporarily interrupts construction of a not-important building, prompting Whitehead to remark that “even in death the boys were in trouble.” The graveyard was a finally validation to claims that had been aired by survivors of Nickel for a half-century. Yet, highlighting the powerlessness of supposed “troubled black youth”, Whitehead writes that “no one believed them until someone else said it.”

From there, the book follows main character Elwood and reads like a part fictional memoir/part overview of African-American history and culture – Elwood’s early life is littered with segregation, civil rights, and, contradictorily, a directive (from his grandmother, Harriet) to stay in his lane. He was a third-generation worker at the Richmond Hotel, although we learn his mother and father deserted him and moved to California, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. In the midst of his time at Nickel, we are given some context to Elwood’s family life, especially the restrained behavior of his grandmother. We find out that the unfortunate circumstances which have levelled Elwood’s optimism have plagued generation after generation of black men in his family, demonstrating that Elwood’s future situation is not a simple case of “wrong place at the wrong time” but an example of systematic racism against blacks in most facets of life, from criminal justice, to housing, to government assistance.  

Despite the prodding from Harriet, Whitehead creates an idealistic Elwood character, one who seemed to live by his own set of moral conduct, a genuine belief in morality regardless of personal consequences. As a reader, this was sometimes hard to believe, but serves well to highlight the amount of systemic racism in place – to this writer it reminded me of the adage a black person must work twice as hard to get half as far. Even Elwood’s superior intellect and rationale cannot save him from a corrupt system of oppression that only sees color, not character. Whitehead ties Elwood closely with MLK, modeling Elwood’s defining mindset from a quote from King at Zion Hill – “We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of every life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” Elwood never seems to grasp that others in the school may have had a promising future just like him – through his vision (as the new kid) they others all seem hardened by the school they lived.

Pre-Nickel Academy Elwood seems to grow with the Civil Rights Movement, at first hearing about and then participating in marches, sit-ins, and boycotts synonymous with the era. Whitehead fools the reader a bit here – we know the noble Elwood winds up in reform school and it was easy to picture the march he takes part in as the beginning of his delinquency. Instead, a long line of morally-correct-yet-individually-disastrous decisions lead him on a disadvantageous path – one that winds up with him hitchhiking in a car on the way to college. Predictably, he runs into trouble with the white law enforcement on a southern road, upending the promising future Whitehead painted for him.

Once Elwood is at Nickel, Whitehead builds the tension by narrating things that Elwood notices. Scars on other boys. Hunting dogs. Graveyards. A White House that no one goes near voluntarily. All throughout, the men in charge of Nickel seem to be convinced they are the moral saviors of wandering youth. There is an arbitrary ranking system at Nickel, one in which you can win your freedom by rising four levels by deeds and acts deemed virtuous. The “students” (Nickel portrays itself as a school, remember) are separated into dorms, their lives largely dictated by superiors who students attempt to avoid at all costs.

Elwood at first sees Nickel as a simple setback – he will do all he can to achieve everything at Nickel as fast as he can. He is not like these boys, he reasons. He is virtuous and industrious, capable of more than most if he simply followed the moral principles that guided his life – and supposedly guide the institution.  Unfortunately, his righteous behavior again is punished, this time with a trip to the White House – the name of a place for midnight beatings and punishments. The final portions of the book bounce us back and forth from the rest of Elwood’s time at the Academy to a post-graduate Elwood living in New York. The tension mounts as we realize that most, but not all, of Elwood’s pre-Nickel aspirations have dissipated (for instance, he has no college education but rather has just received his GED), his moralistic inclinations have been mitigated, and his general outlook is much more pessimistic than the character from the middle passages of the book. In one portion Whitehead narrates his character thinking he had “outwitted Nickel because he got along and kept out of trouble. In fact, he had been ruined. He was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed.” This is in direct contradiction to the “somebody-ness” King and Elwood had strove for in the beginning of the book. We know something drastic has happened; it is not until Whitehead revealed the final weeks of Elwood’s time at the academy that the reader realizes that the events were worse than they probably imagined.

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a transformative and inspiring book. The author, Ocean Vuong, was born in Saigon, was not literate in English until age 11, and yet has wrote some of the most eloquent poetry and fiction in the language over the past five years. On Earth is Vuong’s first piece of long-form fiction, yet it reads as a real-life memoir of a coming-of-age son writing a letter to a powerful yet distant mother. Vuong creates imagery so jarring and punctuates the scenery with emotion so intense that you cannot help but feel that this is only part fictionalized and that the author draws heavily from his own past in its creation.

Vuong’s main character is known as Little Dog, and the beginning words (“Let me begin again…”) suggest that this version is not his first attempt to convey his feelings. The audience is his mother, yet he reveals that he can only be so open with the stories set to flow out of his soul onto the paper because he thinks there is very little chance she will ever read it. (Ma, as Little Dog calls her, does not grasp English.) He traces his history from the Vietnam War, where his Vietnamese grandmother Nan meets Paul, a white American soldier. It is revealed in the book that Paul is not his true grandfather, but Little Dog insists he is truly family “through action.” This past coincides with Vuong’s real life, where his grandmother and grandfather truly do meet because of the Vietnam War. (In a poetry piece from 2016, Vuong writes No Bombs=No Family=No Me.)

As Little Dog traverses the various components of coming-of-age in America, we are introduced to factors that make his experience unique. The strands of homosexuality, the immigrant experience, and class conflict are woven together to form a mosaic of obstacles in Little Dog’s life, yet the words that flow from his pen evoke emotions of a reluctant embrace of his lukewarm standing in the world. He seems to never be an ostracized outcast because he oscillates between worlds, yet never fully accepted because he can’t plant both feet on the ground.

As Little Dog deals with the complexities of his haphazard sexual, racial, and economic standing in late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century Hartford, we see other perils of modern society develop around him – opiate addiction, the absence of health care, violence, and a gay sexual tension hidden to those around him. It is through these trials that Vuong evokes the mastery of the English language, describing feelings and emotions in a poetic prose that pulsates with beauty and wonder from paragraph to paragraph. Sometimes it is tragic (“I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck…”), sometimes profound (“To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”)

The persistent theme throughout the Little Dog’s journey is that we are constantly in a sort of transition – from place to place, form to form, being to being, life to life. Vuong remarks that we often think of things as their briefest yet most beautiful (or ugly form) form (a bloomed rose, an uncocooned butterfly, a firing squad) yet the process that results in those things can be just as profound as the final product – their true nature just a fleeting moment in a greater scheme of transition.

Towards the end of the book, Vuong punctuates this point by describing death in Saigon. When death occurs at inopportune times and city coroners can’t immediately come pronounce a death, there is a limbo where the person is neither alive nor officially dead. Neighbors of the deceased developed a tradition of hiring drag dancers to “delay sadness” and to attempt to heal. In a world where being queer was still a sin, for a short while, these otherwise taboo dancers became an appropriate response to an unreal state of being. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a testament to this transitory nature – leaving the reader to ponder beauty, growth, decay, and rebirth through what we value and cherish or lose and mourn.

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Local Author Spotlight: Wendy O’Leary

Our most popular book through the Christmas season and to begin the new year is local author Wendy O’Leary’s Breathing Makes It Better. I conducted the following interview with Wendy to shed some insight into her motivation for writing the children’s book.

R&P: What is your academic background and how has your education led you down the path of mental wellbeing?

Wendy: I have a M. Ed. with a focus in Health and Wellness.  Much of my undergraduate and graduate studies also crossed over into Psychology, which has also been an area of interest.  Following my formal education, I continued to educate myself by taking classes, workshops and participating in multiple certification programs which supported a career direction focused on children and youth wellness.

Though my academic background and formal education is connected to my current work, in truth it is my personal experience and, in particular, my own mindfulness practice that converged with my desire to help children that put me on this particular path. I saw in my own life, the power and possibilities available through the practice of mindfulness.  Having worked with young people I knew how beneficial it could be if we only tailored these skills to met the needs and learning styles of young people. I began reading everything I could on this topic and taking courses and programs to support my learning.  I researched mental health modalities that utilize mindfulness, investigated and looked at research behind yoga and mindfulness for children and took classes to support a deep dive into this field.

I was training myself to learn about ways to support individuals (children, families and even adults) by teaching tools and skills and helping individuals access their own capacity for well being based on my own personal experience as well as post graduate classes and programs. I believe the potential for well being and happiness resides in each of us and finding age appropriate ways to support the development of these skills in children has been a passion ever since.

R&P: At the store, you have told me you have less interest in being known as an author than in exposing others to the book as a “tool” for children. Have you had any incidents where these two agendas conflict?

I remember that conversation and the context.  First I would be remiss if I didn’t confess that I am very excited about the publication of my first book and being an author.  That said, being an author wasn’t really ever on my radar. My passion has been teaching and specifically teaching skills and strategies that could be of benefit to others, especially children and their families. 

I began writing when I was teaching many years ago and wrote “stories” as teaching tools that were tied to the concepts and skills I was sharing with children and the people who care for them.  These stories gave me another vehicle to share my message with children.  Now having the book published has added the possibility of spreading that message and teaching beyond my personal reach in the community and that is very exciting.  I recently saw that a woman in Australia posted about the benefits of my book and that meant so much to me!

For me this is about intention.  My intention is to get these skills and tools into the hands of individuals who could benefit by using them. So my focus isn’t necessarily to write books but to have books as a vehicle to help children. I am passionate about the possibilities inherent in this way of being in the world and think it is so important in our society and we need to start with the children. What better way to do this then through the reach of a book.

So far these two perspectives haven’t conflicted.  In fact, I have found that being focused on my intention has helped me to be clear on what I do and how I do it.  For example, I confess that I struggle with social media both personally and from a technology aspect.  Just ask my adult children who have been recruited to help me!  However, when I frame my need to be on social media as a way to get this book in more hands and get more people to experience the benefits of mindfulness then it helps me to get on board.  More generally, I am uncomfortable with the self-promotion aspect of being an author. However, when I am able to be really clear that what I am promoting isn’t myself as an author but is this book and these teachings that I know can be useful to so many, it no longer feels like self promotion. 

R&P: Besides writing, do you offer the community any other services?

Yes!  I am so passionate about the benefits of mindfulness and love having the opportunities to share with others.

My work with young people includes direct instruction with children as well as professional development for staff on strategies for emotional regulation Pre K – high school.  Most of what I teach is mindfulness based strategies and I do that in schools and non profit organizations.  I also do workshops and programs for parents on mindfulness as well as workshops for professional organizations.  I am excited to be working with prospective teachers at a local college so that these tools and skills can be integrated into their professional training which I feel is essential to make access to these practices sustainable and systemic.

In addition, I work with adults and facilitate several weekly mindfulness groups  and run programs tied to mindfulness. I am facilitating a monthly book group where we read a book connected to mindfulness and support each other in integrating the practices into our lives. My most popular program has been a workshop series on happiness!

For more information on my work people can check out my website at www.wendyoleary.com

R&P: What is the best way to support children’s happiness?

Love this question!! Please see my blog on this very topic.

Blog – Supporting Children’s Happiness

R&P: We often hear that breathing is an art – how does the breath help people who are angry or sad?

I like to teach about attention to breathing as an anchor to the present moment.  Paying attention to the breath gives us the ability to drop our story that is fueling the feeling and also helps us to come back to what is actually happening in the moment.  It supports the calming of the nervous system and creates a pause between the stimulus (what is happening to lead to the feelings) and the response (how we typically react to those feelings). Though our focus and practice is on paying attention to the breathing, slower breathing it is worth mentioning that diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing) and a longer exhale is especially beneficial to bring the parasympathetic nervous system online and support the calming of body and mind.

R&P: In the book, you say that the book was inspired by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. His library is extensive – what in particular struck you about his work?

Thich Nhat Hanh is an amazing teacher and his books have been an inspiration to me in many ways.  I feel so grateful that I was able to see him teach in person many years ago. In fact, the first book on mindfulness that I read was given to me by a dear friend and was a Thich Nhat Hanh book called Peace Is Every Step.

One of the practices that he teaches is using the breath and imagery for the cultivation of well being. 

For example:

Breathing in I am a mountain, breathing out I am secure

in mountain, out secure

in mountain,  out secure

As you see in our book we also use the idea of tapping into our capacity for imagery to cultivate states of well being and in particular imagery tied to nature.  Just yesterday a kindergartener in one of my classes said when “I am in nature it helps me feel calm.”  We want to teach children how to tap into that inner resource. Even if they aren’t in nature, they can cultivate that sense of how it feels.  The other skills integrated into this book include, naming the feeling, which we know is incredibly powerful to bring the prefrontal cortex back on line (or the wise librarian as I tell the children). We also encourage children to pay attention to where they feel the emotion in their body.  Finally of course, using your breath as an anchor to calm the nervous system (alarm as I call it for little ones) is the key focus throughout the book.  More information about these strategies and additional practices are included in the blog I wrote in connection with the book.

Blog – Breathing Makes It Better

R&P: To parents that buy the book, you included a practice section to help children. How can parents encourage their children to do this breathing? Forcing them seems counter-productive.

This is such an important question!  Please, do not force this or make it yet another thing on the to do list!  Mindfulness has certain attitudinal factors which make it useful and among them is curiosity, patience and acceptance. I do an entire session on tips for adults who want to teach mindfulness to children which addresses this issue.  Briefly some suggestions would include not starting to practice in the midst of a problem.  You want to give your child a chance to learn the skill so it is accessible when needed.  You wouldn’t practice a piano piece for the first time at the music recital. Start slow and support your child being curious about how they are feeling and what they can do about it. Make it fun and connecting…..there are lots of practices that support connection between adults and children and it is great to get a morning and/or bedtime routine that includes mindfulness and the calming and collecting of the mind and body. I am actually beginning to post on my instagram account a weekly practice or tip for practice with children so if people want to follow me they can learn more….this really could be an entire workshop!

@wendy_oleary_mindfulmatters

R&P: Any final words?

I would like to express my gratitude to my co-author Dr. Christopher Willard who is an incredibly talented individual and is an equally kind person and to our illustrator Alea Marley for her incredible illustrations, which brought the story to life.

I also want to share the Educators Guide, which has some “book specific” information and also has some additional mindfulness tools.

Breathing Makes It Better Educators Guide

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Land of Tears by Robert Harms

In Land of Tears, Yale historian Robert Harms ties together the Arabian, French, and Belgian “opening” of the Congo River in the interior of Africa in the late 19th-century. Historians have previously studied the Belgian, French, and Arabic settlements as individual, independent entities. Harms argues, however, that these settlements were more reliant on and reactive to one another than historians have previously given them credit for. The interconnected history is a much more introspective read – one that allows us to travel from the Congo to Paris, from London to Brussels (and even in Harm’s backyard in Connecticut) in the late 19th-century. Harm’s talent is achieving this feat without the reader feeling as if they are in a globalization tailspin of actors and actresses.

The three main sources Harms uses are Henry Stanley Morgan, an American explorer working for King Leopold of Belgium, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who was employed by France, and Tippu Tip, a governor-type figure for the Sultan of Zanzibar, a tiny microstate off the eastern coast of Africa. These three men would carve out claims on the interior of Africa through diplomacy, force, economic pressure, and outright exploitation and chicanery, although to different degrees and often without the intent of the devastation they would cause.

The initial chapters of Land of Tears are a foray into equatorial Africa pre-1870. One of the first motifs Harms addresses is the pervasion of Africa as the “dark continent” by turn-of-the-20th-century chroniclers who described the interior of Africa as a land of cannibalism, isolation, low economic activity, and demonic religious practices. 19th-century Europeans frequently cite the laziness of the men in African societies and the lack of developed government/civic/religious institutions as proof of the backwardness of indigenous cultures. (Researchers of Native American history will undoubtedly find similar charges against the indigenous peoples of America.)

The leaders of the incursion into Africa argued that westerners could bring Civilization, Christianity, and Commerce to the continent. (These buzzwords are really just cover for pillage, exploitation, and rape of the land, but shhh.) The Atlantic slave trade had receded throughout the early-to-middle 19th-century and altruistic statesmen saw African slavery as their cause du jour, justifying their presence in the region and intrusion into domestic affairs of the faraway communities, although these were largely pretenses for economic ambition and enrichment.

(Slavery did exist, but it was demonstrably different than the American version I was most familiar with. Harms reports there were four classes in the interior of equatorial Africa. The first were rural slaves who worked the land for owners. Yet, these workers had days off to grow their own food for themselves and their family and could take a food surplus to town for sale. A second group, urban slaves often working as porters – split pay with the master.  Concubines was a third class whose descendants could inherit rights to a plantation of and even become sultan. A fourth category – trusted guards of powerful men, could rise to power in a sort of meritocracy.)

Harms demonstrates that there were dynamic systems of land use, trade, and economic mobility already prevalent in the region prior to 1870. For instance, small African power brokers had developed boundaries and trade areas through centuries of barter, war, and utilization of the natural geography, allowing various ethnic groups to control divisions of the Congo River, sending goods (including slaves) east (to the sultan in Zanzibar) or west (to Atlantic ports) depending on price and ease of transport.

The bulk of the book, however, covers the destruction of the Congo basin by European statesmen and explorers acting under the guise of humanitarian missions. One particular chapter Harms calls the “Torrent of Treaties” shows in heartbreaking fashion how quickly African leaders lost control of their realms as European powers raced to claim their stake in the region. Perhaps the most famous conference to decide the fate of Africa was the Berlin Conference in 1884-85, a farce that allowed European nations to rape the continent of resources by developing a system where European nations exercised control over the region. No African states or leaders were represented at the convention.

The stories, as in any slave/colonization narrative, are utterly gut-wrenching. Here, Harms describes the implementation of concession companies, groups formed with the sole intent of maximizing the procurement of rubber. (Ivory, the main focus of earlier exploitation, had become too rare to provide consistent revenue.) The stationary Europeans resorted to drastic measures to force the locals to acquire the product, forcing rubber frontiers to shift further and further from their permanent posts. The extensive travel to active vines made village life unmanageable, yet Europeans showed no compassion when villagers were short of their quota. Sometimes the commissioners of the concession companies would shoot an “employee” dead on the spot if they showed up with less than necessary, other times they would hold the women and children of a man captive until the quota was met.

Still, despite these ubiquitous harsh methods, King Leopold authorized a Colonial Exhibition in Tervuren in 1897 where happy Congolese paraded around the Belgian city, supposedly thankful for the opening of Africa to the rest of the world. Despite these charades, some in the European community were still wise to the worst of European colonization. A young French philosophy teacher remarked in  1909 that the land reminded him of the ‘Land of Tears’ in Dante’s Inferno, recording “Abandon all hope; rivulets of blood; land of tears; abyss of pain; regions of eternal grievance…For as long as I live, I will retain the sadness of having seen a genuine hell with my own eyes.” Harms derived the name of his book after this description, written less than a generation after the Europeans had even mapped out the area.

Harms bounces back and forth between the actions of de Brazza, Stanley, and Tippu Tip, and while on the surface this may seem confusing to the reader, it is the only effective way to demonstrate the way each was acting within the ripple effects of the others. Land of Tears is meticulously researched and uses the journals of a bevy of explorers, commissioners, statesmen and soldiers to convey information to the reader. While the sources tilt decidedly toward European origin, Harms uses ethnographical and anthropological research to fill the void left by the loss of African primary sources. The result is a ‘glocal’ work similar to Harm’s previous work The Diligent – a piece that focuses on local transformations within global contexts.

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Review: “The End Is Always Near” by Dan Carlin

What if I told you that someone walking the earth in present day Manhattan in the year 2200 had no idea there once a place named New York City? Imagine they had no idea of a place called America. What kind of apocalyptic thoughts race through your head? Surely, you could envision doomsday scenarios of how this could happen– just look at the variety of science-fiction movies to get an idea of what this would look like. But, would you believe something like this happened before? And how likely do you think it is that it could happen again?

Dan Carlin, journalist and host of the podcast “Hardcore History”, often takes what he calls a Martian view of history. Others refer to it as Big History. This perspective involves assuming the role of an alien to the human race by watching people interact for longer periods of time than historians customarily analyze an era. His first book, The End is Always Near is more think-piece than assertion, yet the analysis is profound and the assertions he does make will make your hair stand on its end.

The main thrust of the book deals with the progress and regression of civilization over time. While Carlin uses what some would consider questionable markers of civility such as trade or wealth, he also uses some that most historians ignore because they are hard to quantify – basic human decency, access to food, and standards of etiquette in peace and war. Carlin warns that humans today seem to have been conditioned that the world is largely immovable – the political and social norms we have today are more rigid than fluid, and a drastic upending of the systems that run the globalized world are on pretty solid footing. To those in the West, Carlin argues, this is a relatively good thing, and it has led us to believe that the arc of history leads to sustained progress.

If you were to connect various dots in history, however, you would see that there are dips in the progression at many points throughout our past. Carlin separates the book into chapters dealing with the heralded collapses of history and how they would seem utterly unfathomable to the people who lived through them. For instance, the Bronze Age societies in the Near East were thriving for hundreds of years until their collapse ca. 1200-1150 B.C.E. The Assyrian Empire, the inspiration for the introduction to this review, were the power brokers of a region for hundreds of years until, within three years, they had completely been wiped off the map. The fate of the Roman Empire has been considered for hundreds of years, with various stabs at the true cause of decline. Plagues, hunger, and warfare are also covered extensively.

All of these examples are roundabout ways to consider our present day. Despite these obvious lessons from the past, Carlin notes that we are hardwired to “think in terms of continuous improvement and modernization because it broadly reflects how things have been for many centuries. The advent of nuclear weapons has bestowed on humans the capability to reorient the world (or destroy it) in mere minutes, either with direct intended strikes on enemies or with a miscalculation of a rival’s maneuvers. Has our capacity to be citizens of the world and possess these weapons responsibly grown with our increased technology? Or are we the same creatures on a collision course with disaster, once again the victims of our own hubris? On the precarious nature of a world littered with nuclear weapons, Carlin lets his pessimism show by quoting the philosopher Bertrand Russell – “you may reasonably expect a man to walk a tightrope safely for ten minutes; it would be unreasonable to do so without accident for two hundred years.”

To highlight the irrationality of humans, Carlin mentions to the election of 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The Cold War loomed, the geopolitical future was uncertain, and a new world order had formed headed by nations with a variety of nuclear weapons, bombs, and airplanes. Many nations possessed the capability of erasing the existence of entire rival nations. You would think, Carlin writes, that such an election would rest primarily on the capabilities of a leader to handle such responsibility, especially as the United States had the largest arsenal in the world. Yet, he notes, the election seems to have come down to factors that were decidedly non-geopolitical – the personal charisma, likability, and political party of the candidates, for instance – and from an outsider’s view, this would seem a very strange reality. “In a game of geopolitical multideck poker,” Carlin writes, “humans would potentially pick the guy with the best hair?”

As stated in his introduction, Carlin doesn’t really have a thesis but rather a collection of ideas on the vulnerabilities of our social fabrics. Unless we “break patterns of collective behavior that are older than history itself” our descendants may be doomed to wake up not knowing New York City. Although Carlin seems somewhat optimistic in the expanded capabilities and forethought of humans of the present age, he also notes we are only “seventy years into an on-going experiment” with nuclear weapons, and we have not even considered other phenomena, such as climate change, asteroids, viruses, or some other unknown factor of societal collapse. “We assume such a fate won’t be ours,” Carlin closes his chapter on the Assyrians. “But once upon a time, so did they.”  

Dan Carlin is the host of the podcast “Hardcore History.” This is his first book.

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Review “One Day” by Gene Weingarten

Have you ever looked up what happened on your birthday? What were the biggest news events? What lead the news at 6:00? Who else shares the birthday with you? Who died? Was someone of note married?

Most of us were not born on, say, December 7th, 1941. Yet, author Gene Weingarten demonstrates, any day of yesteryear, even the seemingly forgotten, contain significant events that are manifestations of the past and send waves into the future. Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the Washington Post, came up with an idea with his editor to “select an ordinary day at random, report on it deeply, then tell it like it happened – from midnight to midnight, the most basic, irreducible unit of human experience.”

“Nothing provokes anger quite so much as venturing too close to an uncomfortable truth.”

Gene Weingarten

Although we may theoretically know this, Weingarten is using this device to demonstrate the oft-forgotten tenet that there is no such thing as an ordinary day. Although our day-to-day lives often fall victim to the laborious monotony of eat-sleep-work, somewhere, to someone, defining moments are occurring. In the moment, we are robbed of the benefit of retrospect – what may seem innocuous in the moment may be a defining moment when looked upon in twenty or thirty years.

To pick a day, Weingarten put the names of dates, months and years in  hats and had associates pick them. (They settled on a 20-year period 1969-89, so they would have a “historical” date they could analyze, but also have witnesses and first-hand accounts of the stories that they discovered.) The winning date was December 28th, 1986. To a journalist like Weingarten, this day was unfortunate – it was a Sunday, for one, and it was nestled in the middle of a holiday week, both of which were notoriously slow for news items. As the author writes, “Sunday is the slowest news day of the week, and what little news there is often goes underreported by skeleton newsroom staffs. That’s why…the local newspaper that would on all other days thud on your driveway like a sack of wet succotash, would, on Mondays, settle like a leaf.”

The stories Weingarten rediscovers and illuminates are both nationally covered and intimately personal, a blend of the momentarily noteworthy and the instantly disregarded. He sets the scene first by introducing the scene in late 1986 – Chernobyl and Challenger are still lucid memories, Bill Cosby has a bestselling book on fatherhood, the Bangles are all over the radio, AIDS is taboo, Reagan is in office (these last two are redundant, I know), car sales are skyrocketing, eyeglasses are large and pronounced, there are three major networks that dominate the television, and the computers are about to take over the world.

These events provide a mere backdrop to the next three hundred pages of reporting, short-stories that Weingarten makes feel like part of a larger picture, a mosaic of individual events that happen to occur in the same “23 hours 56 minutes and 4.0916 seconds of a planet speeding around Earth’s axis at the velocity of a bullet.” The core of the book is its best part, from a heart surgeon dealing with the complex web of tragedy and hope of renewal at 12:01 AM in Charlottesville Virginia, to a concert in Oakland at 11:55 P.M., Weingarten takes us on a journey that illuminates the day, and hence the era, in a unique manner. This is bottom-up history at its ideal, the neglected personal stories of the period illuminating a generation.

Although the date seems tangential to a few of the stories (i.e. a wedding anniversary from the day although the “action” of the story has little to do with the date itself.) Yet, I feel this is a personal choice by Weingarten rather than a signal of a dearth of information. He certainly could have found more events centered on the date but I believe he wanted to demonstrate that the day can not only culminate in action but also be the start of a story to be played out later. From medical achievements and failures to civil rights, from sports and culture to Cold War politics, from love stories to tragic crimes, Weingarten rebroadcasts the day for us in a truly gifted manner and reminds us that each moment is part of something greater and each day is remembered by someone for something until it “fades into imperfect memory.”

Gene Weingarten is a journalist for the Washington Post.

For the Post, Weingarten once documented a world-class violinist playing in a subway station – free of charge – as commuters blitzed by unknowingly – an article that won him the Pulitzer Prize.

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New Releases: Get Ready for Hot Takes

Every now and then, a book drops that dominates the literary landscape. Sometimes they are highly anticipated releases of noteworthy fiction, other times a new book about a life or even cookbooks that highlight a new dietary fad or nutritional-based lifestyle change. This month, the headliner is a sobering account of the capabilities of the leader of the free world.

Warning, by Anonymous has been on booksellers radars for a month or so now. The author, a vetted “senior official” in President Donald Trump’s Whitehouse, first wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in September. Since then, many have tried to figure out the man or woman’s identity. I will be reviewing the book this week – there are dozens and dozens of reviews already out there – but just know this: this reviewer feels this is a necessary read for voters of all stripes before the 2020 election.

Ship of Dreams by Gareth Russell

In April 1912, six notable people were among those privileged to experience the height of luxury—first class passage on “the ship of dreams,” the RMS Titanic: Lucy Leslie, Countess of Rothes; son of the British Empire, Tommy Andrews; American captain of industry John Thayer and his son Jack; Jewish-American immigrant Ida Straus; and American model and movie star Dorothy Gibson. Within a week of setting sail, they were all caught up in the horrifying disaster of the Titanic’s sinking, one of the biggest news stories of the century. Today, we can see their stories and the Titanic’s voyage as the beginning of the end of the established hierarchy of the Edwardian era.

Writing in his elegant signature prose and using previously unpublished sources, deck plans, journal entries, and surviving artifacts, Gareth Russell peers through the portholes of these first-class travelers to immerse us in a time of unprecedented change in British and American history. Through their intertwining lives, he examines social, technological, political, and economic forces such as the nuances of the British class system, the explosion of competition in the shipping trade, the birth of the movie industry, the Irish Home Rule Crisis, and the Jewish-American immigrant experience while also recounting their intimate stories of bravery, tragedy, and selflessness.

Masterful in its superb grasp of the forces of history, gripping in its moment-by-moment account of the sinking, revelatory in discounting long-held myths, and lavishly illustrated with color and black and white photographs, this absorbing, accessible, and authoritative account of the Titanic’s life and death is destined to become the definitive book on the subject. – Simon and Schuster

The Captain and the Glory by Dave Eggers

A savage satire of the United States in the throes of insanity, this blisteringly funny novel tells the story of a noble ship, the Glory, and the loud, clownish, and foul Captain who steers it to the brink of disaster.

When the decorated Captain of a great ship descends the gangplank for the final time, a new leader, a man with a yellow feather in his hair, vows to step forward. Though he has no experience, no knowledge of nautical navigation or maritime law, and though he has often remarked he doesn’t much like boats, he solemnly swears to shake things up. Together with his band of petty thieves and confidence men known as the Upskirt Boys, the Captain thrills his passengers, writing his dreams and notions on the cafeteria wipe-away board, boasting of his exemplary anatomy, devouring cheeseburgers, and tossing overboard anyone who displeases him. Until one day a famous pirate, long feared by passengers of the Glory but revered by the Captain for how phenomenally masculine he looked without a shirt while riding a horse, appears on the horizon . . . Absurd, hilarious, and all too recognizable, The Captain and the Glory is a wicked farce of contemporary America only Dave Eggers could dream up. – Penguin

Yoga For the Inflexible Male by Yoga Matt

A yoga book for the chronically inflexible, with practical, down-to-earth advice for weekend warriors, aging athletes, and anyone else who could benefit from a bit more flexibility in their lives.

The benefits of yoga–greater strength, flexibility, and presence of mind–are for anyone, no matter their skill level. But most classes don’t feel that way if you’re a first-timer–or an inflexible male. Enter Yoga for the Inflexible Male, a welcoming and humorous guide for people of all stripes that gives three vetted hour-long yoga routines, each with roughly a dozen yoga poses. The poses are illustrated and described in depth, and each one contains variations so that they are accessible to anyone, no matter their flexibility. The back of the book also has sequences geared for practitioners of specific sports, like running, biking, climbing, and so on. As more and more men are encouraged to increase their flexibility, the health advantages of yoga are no longer beyond their reach. – Penguin

A Warning by Anonymous

An unprecedented behind-the-scenes portrait of the Trump presidency from the anonymous senior official whose first words of warning about the president rocked the nation’s capital.

On September 5, 2018, the New York Times published a bombshell essay and took the rare step of granting its writer anonymity. Described only as “a senior official in the Trump administration,” the author provided eyewitness insight into White House chaos, administration instability, and the people working to keep Donald Trump’s reckless impulses in check.

With the 2020 election on the horizon, Anonymous is speaking out once again. In this book, the original author pulls back the curtain even further, offering a first-of-its-kind look at the president and his record — a must-read before Election Day. It will surprise and challenge both Democrats and Republicans, motivate them to consider how we judge our nation’s leaders, and illuminate the consequences of re-electing a commander in chief unfit for the role.

This book is a sobering assessment of the man in the Oval Office and a warning about something even more important — who we are as a people. – Twelve Books

Great Society: A New History by Amity Shlaes

The New York Times bestselling author of The Forgotten Man and Coolidge offers a stunning revision of our last great period of idealism, the 1960s, with burning relevance for our contemporary challenges.

Today, a battle rages in our country. Many Americans are attracted to socialism and economic redistribution while opponents of those ideas argue for purer capitalism. In the 1960s, Americans sought the same goals many seek now: an end to poverty, higher standards of living for the middle class, a better environment and more access to health care and education. Then, too, we debated socialism and capitalism, public sector reform versus private sector advancement. Time and again, whether under John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon, the country chose the public sector. Yet the targets of our idealism proved elusive. What’s more, Johnson’s and Nixon’s programs shackled millions of families in permanent government dependence. Ironically, Shlaes argues, the costs of entitlement commitments made a half century ago preclude the very reforms that Americans will need in coming decades.

In Great Society, Shlaes offers a powerful companion to her legendary history of the 1930s, The Forgotten Man, and shows that in fact there was scant difference between two presidents we consider opposites: Johnson and Nixon. Just as technocratic military planning by “the Best and the Brightest” made failure in Vietnam inevitable, so planning by a team of the domestic best and brightest guaranteed fiasco at home. At once history and biography, Great Society sketches moving portraits of the characters in this transformative period, from U.S. Presidents to the visionary UAW leader Walter Reuther, the founders of Intel, and Federal Reserve chairmen William McChesney Martin and Arthur Burns. Great Society casts new light on other figures too, from Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, to the socialist Michael Harrington and the protest movement leader Tom Hayden. Drawing on her classic economic expertise and deep historical knowledge, Shlaes upends the traditional narrative of the era, providing a damning indictment of the consequences of thoughtless idealism with striking relevance for today. Great Society captures a dramatic contest with lessons both dark and bright for our own time. – Harper Collins

Science Comics: Skyscrapers by John Kerschbaum

Leave no brick unturned in John Kerschbaum’s Science Comics: Skyscrapers, the latest volume in First Second’s action-packed nonfiction graphic novel series for middle-grade readers!

Every volume of Science Comics offers a complete introduction to a particular topic—dinosaurs, the solar system, volcanoes, bats, robots, and more. These gorgeously illustrated graphic novels offer wildly entertaining views of their subjects. Whether you’re a fourth grader doing a natural science unit at school or a thirty-year-old with a secret passion for airplanes, these books are for you!

In this volume, join a pair of superheroes as they uncover the secrets of skyscrapers, from the great Egyptians pyramids to the world’s tallest building. Read along and learn how skyscrapers are a bold combination of applied physics, ingenuity, and a lot of hard work! – Macmillan

Little Legends by Vashti Harrison

New York Times bestselling author-illustrator Vashti Harrison shines a bold, joyous light on black men through history.

An important book for readers of all ages, this beautifully illustrated and engagingly written volume brings to life true stories of black men in history.
Among these biographies, readers will find aviators and artists, politicians and pop stars, athletes and activists. The exceptional men featured include artist Aaron Douglas, civil rights leader John Lewis, dancer Alvin Ailey, filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, musician Prince, photographer Gordon Parks, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, and writer James Baldwin.
The legends in this book span centuries and continents, but what they have in common is that each one has blazed a trail for generations to come. – Little, Brown

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The Cockroach by Ian McEwan

In a spin on Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis,’ Booker-Prize winning author Ian McEwan has created a world in which a cockroach has transitioned into a man, and this man has the control of the British government. We meet the cockroach/human after he has already awakened in the body of what is the Prime Minister of Britain, and the creature has a “natural-born” ability to speak, tie his shoes, dress, walk, and talk. All is not normal inside his conscience, the frame with which we view much of this short novel, as the character is singularly bent on one issue obviously meant to allude to the current Brexit crisis unfolding now.

Perhaps the time has passed for satire to be effective and instead we are now living out the dreams (or nightmares) of satirists every day.

The plotline in the book centers around the absurd idea of “reversing” the flow of money – meaning you would have to pay to work, you would get money to buy things, a hotel would have to pay guests to stay, etc. The followers of Jim Sams, the cockroach in disguise, are known as “Reversalists” while their opponents are known collectively as “Clockwisers.” McEwan mirrors the political spectrum prevalent today in Britain – “Hard Reversalists” and “Soft Reversalists” are clearly meant to invoke the spirit of current British Hard and Soft Brexiters – and he exaggerates the the political maneuverings and logical fallacies of both parties, although the Brexiters/Reversalists undoubtedly take the brunt of the punishment. He is surrounded by many ministers that are also cockroaches/humans in disguise, and they are on the lookout for “closet Clockwisers” who look to subvert the actions of the Reversalists.

In a tone meant to besmirch the politicians looking for a hard Brexit and the citizens who voted narrowly for the measure, McEwan’s Reversalists concoct outrageous slogans and political strategies to undermine the Clockwise cause, with a dubious public sphere along for the ride. His goal is to highlight the absurdity of arguing for an economic platform under the guise of unyielding nationalistic impulses – all while noting the political effectiveness these calls for “patriotism” have on the general public. I will leave exactly how the policy would work (and its faux history) for the book, but needless to say is absurd as it sounds – a point McEwan would probably also attribute to a Boris Johnson imposed Brexit.

Those familiar with Kafka’s work will notice the similarities between the two works, especially in regard to the sheer disgust each respective transformed character has for their new bodies. For instance, McEwan’s cockroach-turned-human (named Jim Sams) is especially revolted by the “slab of slippery meat” in his mouth that can slide “across the immensity of his teeth,” – yet the characters can embrace their new bodies with relative ease once they are used to it. The Sams character is witty – he is more than capable at pushing his agenda through Parliament with all sorts of unsavory human behavior that most cockroaches would be envious to permanently obtain. Yet, there seems to always be the question of motive – why has this cockroach taken on a human disguise and to what end are Sams and others working?

Satires are meant to be parodies, yet unfortunately for McEwan, the real-life happenings in the UK (and the US) seem to outshine even the most outrageous of satiric prose. In another time and age such a work may have been more effective – as I was reading it many of the plot lines were all-to-familiar tropes used by political parties to enact their agendas. Late Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald once wrote “You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.” Perhaps the time has passed for satire to be effective and instead we are now living out the dreams (or nightmares) of satirists every day.

Perhaps the book is best looked at as not a satire, but a more pure moral tale, one in which blind agendas to benefit one subset of people are manufactured, packaged, and delivered to a populace that has fallen for the same tricks in the media, commercial, and industrial sectors. At one point in the book, Sams is attempting to maintain his belief in the program even as it seems doomed to fail. He begins to ask himself why he is so in love with the idea of Reversalism. His inner conscience gives him the answer: “Because. Because that’s what we’re doing. Because that’s what we believe in. Because that’s what the people said they wanted. Because I’ve come to the rescue. Because. That, ultimately was the only answer: because.

The book is a short, brisk read, although people who love current events, government, and literature will probably enjoy the read, even if just for the story-telling.


The Cockroach

by Ian McEwan

The author has written 18 books, including Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize.

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New Releases 11/12/19

This is a big week for LGBT releases. Also new literature on cultural appropriation, the state of Trump, the Pentagon and the environment (and Greta!), a 2019 Economics Nobel Prize Winner and some new history and award-winning fiction. Check em’ out below.

Most of these titles will be available starting tomorrow at Root and Press (a few are on a shipment due in tomorrow.)

The Queering of Corporate America by Carlos A. Ball

An accurate picture of the LGBTQ rights movement’s achievements is incomplete without this surprising history of how corporate America joined the cause.

Legal scholar Carlos Ball tells the overlooked story of how LGBTQ activism aimed at corporations since the Stonewall riots helped turn them from enterprises either indifferent to or openly hostile toward sexual minorities and transgender individuals into reliable and powerful allies of the movement for queer equality. As a result of street protests and boycotts during the 1970s, AIDS activism directed at pharmaceutical companies in the 1980s, and the push for corporate nondiscrimination policies and domestic partnership benefits in the 1990s, LGBTQ activism changed big business’s understanding and treatment of the queer community. By the 2000s, corporations were frequently and vigorously promoting LGBTQ equality, both within their walls and in the public sphere. Large companies such as American Airlines, Apple, Google, Marriott, and Walmart have been crucial allies in promoting marriage equality and opposing anti-LGBTQ regulations such as transgender bathroom laws.

At a time when the LGBTQ movement is facing considerable political backlash, The Queering of Corporate America complicates the narrative of corporate conservatism and provides insights into the future legal, political, and cultural implications of this unexpected relationship. – Beacon

Becoming Eve by Abby Chava Stein

The powerful coming-of-age story of an ultra-Orthodox child who was born to become a rabbinic leader and instead became a woman

Abby Stein was raised in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, isolated in a culture that lives according to the laws and practices of eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, speaking only Yiddish and Hebrew and shunning modern life. Stein was born as the first son in a dynastic rabbinical family, poised to become a leader of the next generation of Hasidic Jews.

But Abby felt certain at a young age that she was a girl. She suppressed her desire for a new body while looking for answers wherever she could find them, from forbidden religious texts to smuggled secular examinations of faith. Finally, she orchestrated a personal exodus from ultra-Orthodox manhood to mainstream femininity-a radical choice that forced her to leave her home, her family, her way of life.

Powerful in the truths it reveals about biology, culture, faith, and identity, Becoming Eve poses the enduring question: How far will you go to become the person you were meant to be? – Hatchette Book Group

What We Will Become by Mimi Lemay

A mother’s memoir of her transgender child’s odyssey, and her journey outside the boundaries of the faith and culture that shaped her.

From the age of two-and-a-half, Jacob, born “Em,” adamantly told his family he was a boy. While his mother Mimi struggled to understand and come to terms with the fact that her child may be transgender, she experienced a sense of déjà vu—the journey to uncover the source of her child’s inner turmoil unearthed ghosts from Mimi’s past and her own struggle to live an authentic life.

Mimi was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, every aspect of her life dictated by ancient rules and her role as a woman largely preordained from cradle to grave. As a young woman, Mimi wrestled with the demands of her faith and eventually made the painful decision to leave her religious community and the strict gender roles it upheld.

Having risen from the ashes of her former life, Mimi was prepared to help her son forge a new one — at a time when there was little consensus on how best to help young transgender children. Dual narratives of faith and motherhood weave together to form a heartfelt portrait of an unforgettable family. Brimming with love and courage, What We Will Become is a powerful testament to how painful events from the past can be redeemed to give us hope for the future. – HMH

Color Outside the Lines Edited by Sandu Mandanna

This modern, groundbreaking YA anthology explores the complexity and beauty of interracial and LGBTQ+ relationships where differences are front and center.

When people ask me what this anthology is about, I’m often tempted to give them the complicated answer: it’s about race, and about how being different from the person you love can matter but how it can also not matter, and it’s about Chinese pirate ghosts, black girl vigilantes, colonial India, a flower festival, a garden of poisons, and so, so much else. Honestly, though? I think the answer’s much simpler than that. Color outside the Lines is a collection of stories about young, fierce, brilliantly hopeful people in love.—Sangu Mandanna, editor of Color outside the Lines


With stories by:
Samira Ahmed | Elsie Chapman | Lauren Gibaldi | Lydia Kang | Michelle Ruiz Keil | Lori M. Lee | Sangu Mandanna | L.L. McKinney | Anna-Marie McLemore | Danielle Paige | Karuna Riazi | Caroline Tung Richmond | Adam Silvera | Tara Sim | Eric Smith | Kelly Zekas & Tarun Shanker – Penguin

Dictionary of the Undoing by John Freeman

For John Freeman—literary critic, essayist, editor, poet, “one of the preeminent book people of our time” (Dave Eggers)—it is the rare moment when words are not enough. But in the wake of the election of 2016, words felt useless, even indulgent. Action was the only reasonable response. He took to the streets in protest, and the sense of community and collective conviction felt right. But the assaults continued—on citizens’ rights and long-held compacts, on the core principles of our culture and civilization, and on our language itself. Words seemed to be losing the meanings they once had and Freeman was compelled to return to their defense. The result is his Dictionary of the Undoing.

From A to Z, “Agitate” to “Zygote,” Freeman assembled the words that felt most essential, most potent, and began to build a case for their renewed power and authority, each word building on the last. The message that emerged was not to retreat behind books, but to emphatically engage in the public sphere, to redefine what it means to be a literary citizen.

With an afterword by Valeria Luiselli, Dictionary of the Undoing is a necessary, resounding cri de coeur in defense of language, meaning, and our ability to imagine, describe, and build a better world. – Macmillan

With All Due Respect by Nikki R. Haley

A revealing, dramatic, deeply personal book about the most significant events of our time, written by the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations

Nikki Haley is widely admired for her forthright manner (“With all due respect, I don’t get confused”), her sensitive approach to tragic events, and her confident representation of America’s interests as our Ambassador to the United Nations during times of crisis and consequence.

In this book, Haley offers a first-hand perspective on major national and international matters, as well as a behind-the-scenes account of her tenure in the Trump administration.

This book reveals a woman who can hold her own—and better—in domestic and international power politics, a diplomat who is unafraid to take a principled stand even when it is unpopular, and a leader who seeks to bring Americans together in divisive times. – Macmillan

White Negroes by Lauren Michele Jackson

Exposes the new generation of whiteness thriving at the expense and borrowed ingenuity of black people—and explores how this intensifies racial inequality.

American culture loves blackness. From music and fashion to activism and language, black culture constantly achieves worldwide influence. Yet, when it comes to who is allowed to thrive from black hipness, the pioneers are usually left behind as black aesthetics are converted into mainstream success—and white profit.

Weaving together narrative, scholarship, and critique, Lauren Michele Jackson reveals why cultural appropriation—something that’s become embedded in our daily lives—deserves serious attention. It is a blueprint for taking wealth and power, and ultimately exacerbates the economic, political, and social inequity that persists in America. She unravels the racial contradictions lurking behind American culture as we know it—from shapeshifting celebrities and memes gone viral to brazen poets, loveable potheads, and faulty political leaders.

An audacious debut, White Negroes brilliantly summons a re-interrogation of Norman Mailer’s infamous 1957 essay of a similar name. It also introduces a bold new voice in Jackson. Piercing, curious, and bursting with pop cultural touchstones, White Negroes is a dispatch in awe of black creativity everywhere and an urgent call for our thoughtful consumption. – Beacon

All Hell Breaking Loose by Michael T. Klare

All Hell Breaking Loose is an eye-opening examination of climate change from the perspective of the U.S. military.

The Pentagon, unsentimental and politically conservative, might not seem likely to be worried about climate change—still linked, for many people, with polar bears and coral reefs. Yet of all the major institutions in American society, none take climate change as seriously as the U.S. military. Both as participants in climate-triggered conflicts abroad, and as first responders to hurricanes and other disasters on American soil, the armed services are already confronting the impacts of global warming. The military now regards climate change as one of the top threats to American national security—and is busy developing strategies to cope with it.

Drawing on previously obscure reports and government documents, renowned security expert Michael Klare shows that the U.S. military sees the climate threat as imperiling the country on several fronts at once. Droughts and food shortages are stoking conflicts in ethnically divided nations, with “climate refugees” producing worldwide havoc. Pandemics and other humanitarian disasters will increasingly require extensive military involvement. The melting Arctic is creating new seaways to defend. And rising seas threaten American cities and military bases themselves.

While others still debate the causes of global warming, the Pentagon is intensely focused on its effects. Its response makes it clear that where it counts, the immense impact of climate change is not in doubt. – Macmillan

No One is Too Small to Make A Difference by Greta Thunberg

The history-making, ground-breaking speeches of Greta Thunberg, the young activist who has become the voice of a generation

‘Everything needs to change. And it has to start today’

In August 2018 a fifteen-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, decided not to go to school one day. Her actions ended up sparking a global movement for action against the climate crisis, inspiring millions of pupils to go on strike for our planet, forcing governments to listen, and earning her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

This book brings you Greta in her own words, for the first time. Collecting her speeches that have made history across Europe, from the UN to mass street protests, No One Is Too Small to Make A Difference is a rallying cry for why we must all wake up and fight to protect the living planet, no matter how powerless we feel. Our future depends upon it. – Penguin

Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

A searing and revelatory account of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls of Highway 16, and an indictment of the society that failed them.

For decades, Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been found murdered along an isolated stretch of highway in northwestern British Columbia. The highway is known as the Highway of Tears, and it has come to symbolize a national crisis.

Journalist Jessica McDiarmid investigates the devastating effect these tragedies have had on the families of the victims and their communities, and how systemic racism and indifference have created a climate where Indigenous women and girls are over-policed, yet under-protected. Through interviews with those closest to the victims—mothers and fathers, siblings and friends—McDiarmid offers an intimate, first-hand account of their loss and relentless fight for justice. Examining the historically fraught social and cultural tensions between settlers and Indigenous peoples in the region, McDiarmid links these cases to others across Canada—now estimated to number up to 4,000—contextualizing them within a broader examination of the undervaluing of Indigenous lives in this country.

Highway of Tears is a powerful story about our ongoing failure to provide justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and a testament to their families and communities’ unwavering determination to find it. – Penguin

The Zookeepers’ War by J.W. Mohnhaupt

The unbelievable true story of the Cold War’s strangest proxy warfought between the zoos on either side of the Berlin Wall.

Living in West Berlin in the 1960s often felt like living in a zoo, everyone packed together behind a wall, with the world always watching. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the East Berlin zoo was spacious and lush, a socialist utopia where everything was perfectly planned…and then rarely successfully finished.

Berlin’s two zoos quickly became symbols of the divided city’s two halves. And so no one was terribly surprised when the head zookeepers on either side started an animal arms race—rather than stockpiling nuclear warheads, competing to have the most pandas and hippos. Soon, state funds were being quietly diverted to give these new animals lavish welcomes worthy of visiting dignitaries. West German presidential candidates were talking about zoo policy on the campaign trail. And eventually politicians on both side of the Wall became convinced that if their zoo were proved to be inferior, then that would mean their country’s whole ideology was too.

A quirky piece of Cold War history unlike anything you’ve heard before, The Zookeepers’ War is an epic tale of desperate rivalries, human follies, and an animal-mad city in which zookeeping became a way of continuing politics by other means. – Simon and Schuster

Good Economics for Hard Times by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

FROM THE WINNERS OF THE 2019 NOBEL PRIZE IN ECONOMICS

‘Wonderfully refreshing . . . A must read’ Thomas Piketty

In this revolutionary book, prize-winning economists Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo show how economics, when done right, can help us solve the thorniest social and political problems of our day. From immigration to inequality, slowing growth to accelerating climate change, we have the resources to address the challenges we face but we are so often blinded by ideology.

Original, provocative and urgent, Good Economics for Hard Times offers the new
thinking that we need. It builds on cutting-edge research in economics – and years of exploring the most effective solutions to alleviate extreme poverty – to make a persuasive case for an intelligent interventionism and a society built on compassion and respect. A much-needed antidote to polarized discourse, this book shines a light to help us appreciate and understand our precariously balanced world. – Penguin UK

Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell

Just like us, medieval men and women worried about growing old, got blisters and indigestion, fell in love and had children. And yet their lives were full of miraculous and richly metaphorical experiences radically different to our own, unfolding in a world where deadly wounds might be healed overnight by divine intervention, or the heart of a king, plucked from his corpse, could be held aloft as a powerful symbol of political rule.

In this richly-illustrated and unusual history, Jack Hartnell uncovers the fascinating ways in which people thought about, explored and experienced their physical selves in the Middle Ages, from Constantinople to Cairo and Canterbury. Unfolding like a medieval pageant, and filled with saints, soldiers, caliphs, queens, monks and monstrous beasts, it throws light on the medieval body from head to toe – revealing the surprisingly sophisticated medical knowledge of the time in the process.

Bringing together medicine, art, music, politics, philosophy and social history, there is no better guide to what life was really like for the men and women who lived and died in the Middle Ages. – Welcome Collection

Beyond the Known by Andrew Rader

From brilliant young polymath Andrew Rader—an MIT-credentialed scientist, popular podcast host, and SpaceX mission manager—an illuminating chronicle of exploration that spotlights humans’ insatiable desire to continually push into new and uncharted territory, from civilization’s earliest days to current planning for interstellar travel.

For the first time in history, the human species has the technology to destroy itself. But having developed that power, humans are also able to leave Earth and voyage into the vastness of space. After millions of years of evolution, we’ve arrived at the point where we can settle other worlds and begin the process of becoming multi-planetary. How did we get here? What does the future hold for us?

Divided into four accessible sections, Beyond the Known examines major periods of discovery and rediscovery, from Classical Times, when Phoenicians, Persians and Greeks ventured forth; to The Age of European Exploration, which saw colonies sprout on nearly continent; to The Era of Scientific Inquiry, when researchers developed brand new tools for mapping and traveling farther; to Our Spacefaring Future, which unveils plans currently underway for settling other planets and, eventually, traveling to the stars.

A Mission Manager at SpaceX with a light, engaging voice, Andrew Rader is at the forefront of space exploration. As a gifted historian, Rader, who has won global acclaim for his stunning breadth of knowledge, is singularly positioned to reveal the story of human exploration that is also the story of scientific achievement. Told with an infectious zeal for traveling beyond the known, Beyond the Known illuminates how very human it is to emerge from the cave and walk toward an infinitely expanding horizon. – Simon and Schuster

The Andromeda Evolution by Michael Crichton (Novel by Daniel H. Wilson)

Fifty years after The Andromeda Strain made Michael Crichton a household name and spawned a new genre, the techno-thriller, the threat returns in a gripping sequel that is terrifyingly realistic and resonant.

In 1967, an extraterrestrial microbe designated the Andromeda Strain came crashing down to Earth and nearly ended the human race. A team of top scientists assigned to Project Wildfire worked valiantly to save the world from an epidemic of unimaginable proportions. In the ensuing decades, research on the micro particle continued. And the world thought it was safe.

Deep inside Fairchild Air Force Base, Project Eternal Vigilance has continued to watch and wait for the Andromeda Strain to reappear. For years, the project has registered no activity until now. A Brazilian terrain-mapping drone has detected a bizarre anomaly of otherworldly matter, and, worse yet, the telltale chemical signature of the deadly micro particle.

With this shocking discovery, the next-generation Project Wildfire is activated, and a diverse team of experts hailing from all over the world is dispatched to investigate the potentially apocalyptic threat.

But the microbe is growing and evolving. And if the Wildfire team cant reach the quarantine zone, enter the anomaly and figure out how to stop it, this new Andromeda Evolution will annihilate all life as we know it. – Harper Collins

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

A brother and sister are orphaned in an isolated cove on Newfoundland’s northern coastline. Their home is a stretch of rocky shore governed by the feral ocean, by a relentless pendulum of abundance and murderous scarcity. Still children with only the barest notion of the outside world, they have nothing but the family’s boat and the little knowledge passed on haphazardly by their mother and father to keep them.

Muddling though the severe round of the seasons, through years of meagre catches and storms and ravaging illness, it is their fierce loyalty to each other that motivates and sustains them. But as seasons pass and they wade deeper into the mystery of their own natures, even that loyalty will be tested.

The Innocents is richly imagined and compulsively readable, a riveting story of hardship and survival, and an unflinching exploration of the bond between brother and sister. By turns electrifying and heartbreaking, it is a testament to the bounty and barbarity of the world, to the wonders and strangeness of our individual selves. – Penguin