Tag Archives: non-fiction

Abandoned Book #1: Strong by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove

strongThat’s right!  My first book review of 2017 is a book I abandoned.

tl;dr This book isn’t for me, but it might be for someone else.

This book was a recommendation from Kelly Coffey of Strong Coffey.  I know her in real life and she is the real deal.  Knowing that it’s going to be near impossible to book time in January with the trainers at my gym, I figured I’d give this book a try to learn about lifting.

The problem isn’t with the book.  I’m the type of person that needs someone to show me how to do the thing.  Learning a new game?  You read the directions and explain as we go.

Looking at pictures of exercising and then replicating them isn’t going to work for me.  I need someone there to explain how to move and where to adjust.  I can’t position myself to look in the mirror to see if it matches what I think was in the book.

I can totally see this book being someone else’s bible though.  There is great information here and I appreciated that Schuler looks for recent studies and isn’t using the latest trends unless there’s science to back it up.

It’s also super honest that you need to follow a plan in order for the plan to work.  WHAT?  LOGIC?  Readers who complain the most that they didn’t get results are the ones who changed everything to “make it work for them.”  Uhm.  No.

If you’re the type of person who can translate text and images into real life movement, then this book is totally for you.

If you need someone to show you how to do it, skim through this at the bookstore or get it from your library like I did and then use it as inspiration to get on the waiting list for the trainer at the gym.



#36: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Cold BloodBook groups are the best because not only do you get to pick books that have been on your To Be Read list since forever, but you also get to read books that you wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on your own.  In Cold Blood is the latter.  It’s one of those books that I’ve probably thought “Huh.  I should read that some day.”  Happily, a book group member had access to a ton of copies, so here we are.

I had very little background knowledge of this story.  I know the book itself is considered a great work and is often found on Books You Must Read list.  It also helped create a genre of fictionalized journalism where Capote took nonfiction and added in the details.  We don’t know what really happened, but Capote interviewed people and filled in the blanks with his own details.  This, of course, bothers some people who think it creates fiction.  Once you muddy the waters, it’s no longer a truthful account.

In November 1959 in a town in Kansas, four members of the Cutter family were murdered.  This was a place where things like this don’t happen.  There was no motive, no reason for the family to have been targeted and it looked like whoever had done it was going to get away with it.

Dick Hickock and Perry Smith didn’t choose the Cutter family randomly, but they should have gotten away with the murders.  They were careful and left only one clue behind – a bloody boot print.  The two planned to disappear from the States and live a rich life where they’d never have to work again.  Hickock had learned about the Cutter family from a fellow prisoner who had worked for Mr. Cutter.  He told Hickock that Mr. Cutter kept a safe filled with money and the house was isolated.  Hickock held on to this information for years, and when he hooked up with Smith he decided it was time to create a plan.  From the beginning, they both knew they were going to murder anyone involved.  They kept repeating that they would leave no witnesses.

The problem was that Mr. Cutter kept no cash in the house.  He rarely kept cash on his person, making a point of writing checks for everything so he’d have a record of what he had spent.  When Hickock and Smith arrived, they tied up Mrs. Cutter and Kenyon and Nancy, the two youngest Cutter children.  Mr. Cutter tried to tell them that there was no money and convince them to leave.  Frustrated, the men took a few things from the house and shot and killed all four family members.

The police were stuck.  No one could figure out a motive.  The entire family was well respected.  There were only a few incidents where someone came against Mr. Cutter, and these men were quickly dismissed as potential  suspects.  Mrs. Cutter had been mentally unstable for years, so there was some talk in the community that she finally snapped and killed everyone, but once details came out about how she was tied up, people let this trail off.  The community quickly turned on each other, and this was one of the most fascinating parts of the book for me.  Rumors  were everywhere and people found themselves suddenly suspicious of people they had known their entire lives.  If the Cutters could be murdered, then anyone could be.  Locks were changed on doors and people shut themselves off from people they didn’t know well.  Everyone was desperate for a reason so that they could convince themselves that it couldn’t happen to them, and if that meant quietly supposing that maybe a certain person should possibly be watched, then so be it.  It’s human nature to want a reason and to feel safe.

Hickock and Smith were not criminal masterminds.  The two had a strange relationship.  Smith at times was besotted with Hickock and his ability to make plans and take charge.  Hickock liked Smith’s nonchalant attitude about crime.  He thought Smith would be a great accomplice because he had gotten away with murder before and liked the idea of cashing in and starting a new life.  The problem was that Hickock was never content in the moment and was constantly looking for the next thing.  He also spent money faster than he could take it in and Smith watched him quickly lose what little they had.  Smith began to suspect that Hickock wasn’t interested in spending his life with Smith as a treasure hunter and Hickock began to resent that he had chained his life to Smith by committing the crime together.

Hickock’s boredom and greed was their downfall.  He convinced Smith that they needed more money and it would be simple for them to return to Hickock’s hometown where he could pass a series of bad checks.  They’d leave with piles of money and be on to the next thing, and this would be a permanent place.  Smith disagreed, but went along with it.

By this time, Hickock and Smith were suspects in the murders.  The prisoner who had told Hickock about the Cutter family was able to pass the information on to the warden.  He remembered Hickock asking lots of questions about the family and the house and he realized that he must have been the one that killed them.

When Hickock and Smith were in Mexico, Smith realized he was going to have to get rid of some of his things.  He was a collector and hoarded things that were important to him.  He chose a few things he couldn’t part with and sent them to Las Vegas to be held at the post office until he could pick them up.  He figured at some point they’d be able to slip over the border, once they were set up for good in Mexico.  This was before Hickock decided to go home to make money from his bad checks.  The detectives on the case were quickly notified that the men were back in the area, almost on the other end of the state from the Cutter’s town.  Hickock passed all the checks in his own name and would have been easy to pick up, except they somehow left town before the police in the area realized it.  Once again, they could have gotten away with the entire thing.

When they got to Las Vegas, they didn’t change cars.  The local police quickly noticed the car and followed them to the post office.  The picked up the two men as Smith was walking out with his box of belongings that he had sent from Mexico.  In the box were the boots he wore to the Cutters – the ones that left the bloody boot print.

It was almost like they were trying to get caught.

They were tried and convicted in the Cutter’s town.  There was talk of moving the trial, but the lawyers for both men decided they had a good chance of avoiding the death penalty if they kept it there.  There were a lot of churches in town and informal polls showed that many were against the death penalty.  The case had gotten a lot of media attention, so moving the trial would have been difficult.

Both men were sentenced to death by hanging.

Capote spent six years working on this book.  Once the men were convicted, he realized the only way his book could end was when they died.  He started his research about two weeks after the murders were committed.  He had been friends with Harper Lee since they were kids, and she came with him.  She was able to convince the women in town to persuade their husbands to talk to Capote.

When the men were in jail, Capote spent a great deal of time with them.  He wanted to know who they were and how their life led to this moment.  Smith comes across more sympathetically in the book and a few people in my book group thought that he was gay and he and Capote had some sort of relationship.  Smith had been violently sexually abused as a boy and was disgusted by any type of deviant sexual activity.  Hickock planned on raping the Cutter daughter, but Smith stopped him.  I thought he was completely nonsexual, but others do think the two men had a relationship.

Hickock, on the other hand, comes across as cold and uncaring.  He wants what he wants and he will take it.  However, he had a good childhood and a loving family.  His father tried to convince the jurors that the only reason he was in trouble was because of a bad car accident.  He said his son was a decent boy until something happened to his brain.  The prosecution pointed out that Hickock started committing crimes before his accident and the jury dismissed the car accident.

There were several years of stays and they spent five years on death row.  Capote spent massive amounts of time with the men.  Between their stories and the research done in the Cutter’s town, he amassed some 8,000 pages of notes.  This was no longer just an article to him and the two men had become people, not just names in a newspaper.

The genre of nonfiction novel is tricky.  There were several times when I forgot I was reading about something that actually happened because Capote’s writing is so strong.  He described the farm and Mr. Cutter’s last day in vivid detail and it read like a novel.  I wanted to know more about the family, and then I’d realize that it’s possible he tried to interview the surviving members and they didn’t want to have anything to do with it.  I had to keep reminding myself that he wasn’t making things up and if someone didn’t want to talk to him, he couldn’t put them in the book.

He of course drew criticism because of this.  When people read the book, they denied certain parts.  Follow up visits from other writers led to accusations that Capote should not have published the book as a true account.  Still, it remains a celebrated book in the true crime genre.

I saw the movie Capote many years ago and I don’t remember much about it.  I do remember talking to my stepmom about it and saying that I was really uncomfortable with how Capote “befriended” the men in order to get their stories to write his book.  I understood why he had to do it, but it made me feel icky.  Capote knew he had the subject to write something amazing, and of course he was going to do what he had to in order to get their stories.  At the same time, the way he did it made me almost feel bad for these guys.  I knew they had murdered the Clutter family, but it felt like Capote was then taking advantage of them for his own gain.  I want to watch the movie again now that I’ve read the book to see how my opinion has changed, or if it has changed.

Capote was an incredibly gifted writer and this book is a great mix of beautiful descriptions and simple and cold fact.  Parts read like interviews and parts read like a novel.  It was not a quick read, but I enjoyed it.

#25: Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities by Chris Kluwe

Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies

I didn’t know who Chris Kluwe was until his wrote his amazing piece for Deadspin that many know as Lustful Cockmonsters.  Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote an open letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to force his players to shut up about civil rights.  Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke out in favor of gay marriage and Burns decided he should use his position to try and silence free speech.  It was disgusting.

Kluwe’s response was beautiful.  Click that title up there and read it if you haven’t.  I respect a man who uses “Holy fucking shitballs” when making an informed argument.

As his response exploded all over the internet, I found his twitter account (@ChrisWarcraft) and found out he was in a band AND was a gamer.  Holy shit, this guy was awesome.  NFL punter AND a nerd?  Fuck yeah.

When I found out he was writing a book I was super excited.  Here’s a guy who is smart, loves to read, plays games, and has a realistic understanding of how an NFL career works.  I heard him on a few podcasts and he’s really funny and clearly does his research about things that are important to him.  I especially like his attitude about the NFL and how it doesn’t last forever and you better have backup plans.

I really wanted to love this book, but it was just a solid OK.  He chose a few pieces that had already been published and I agreed with those choices.  For a few of them he added commentary or quick notes about things that have changed since the original publication.

Like all collections, there are going to be some parts that you like more than others.  For me, the fiction all fell flat.  Kluwe is incredibly smart and well read and unfortunately it didn’t come across in his fiction.  There were too many times I felt like he was trying too hard.  It felt like he was jumping up and down and waving his arms while yelling “Look!  Look what I did here!  Do you see how clever it is?  Right here?  Look at how clever I am being!  Wink wink, nudge nudge!”  It bummed me out because he really is clever.  I can listen to him on a podcast or giving an interview and it’s great, but when it comes to his fiction, it fell apart.  (Check him out on The Colbert Report.  It’s worth the internet time.)

My favorite chapters were the ones about football and I think it’s because he’s got such a great attitude about it.  He understands the limitations of the job and knows that it will end.  For him, it is a job, not his entire life.  He has a family to spend time with and books to read and video games to play and band practice to get to.  Yes, he loves the sport, but his life isn’t going to stop when he’s no longer playing.  This is a good attitude to have, especially since he was released by the Vikings in May and was then released be the Raiders a few weeks ago.  For some people, they’d be done.  For Kluwe, he knows this is how things work.

Overall I was disappointed with the book.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.  I know he will continue to fight hate and ignorance and I’m glad he’s out there.  Right now he’s probably 15 hours in to GTA:V but at some point he’ll put the controller down, go to sleep, and then reemerge to fight the good fight.

PS:  Lollygagger wrote a great review of this book on the Cannonball Read blog.  I agree with it and wanted to steal it for my own.

#14: Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius, MD

BuddhasBrainMECH.inddWhen I’m not being judgmental, cold, cynical, sarcastic, fatalistic, angry, or hopeless, I try to be a better person.  Have a positive attitude, practice active kindness, find beauty and good in the world and all that crap.

My therapist recommended Buddha’s Brain to me after I tried to explain that I sort of understood that my brain was telling me things that weren’t necessarily true.  I understand on a logical level that my brain is trying to keep me alive and to fear change, even though in the long run these changes will be better than what I’m currently doing.

Buddha’s Brain is an incredible resource.  It starts with the neuroscience of what happens in our bodies when we react to situations.  Without being textbook boring, Hanson looks at current (2009) advances in neuroscience and what science is continually learning about the brain.  It’s fascinating and helped me understand how biological reactions immediately become emotional responses.

Hanson takes his time exploring the brain and giving solid examples of how this biological response becomes emotional response.  Even in the heaviest parts of science, he still includes emotional examples.  I often found myself thinking “Oh… OK, that’s happened to me.  This makes sense.”  Logically I understand how emotions can trick me into thinking something is dangerous, but having a neuroscience explanation made me slow down and really think about what my brain was doing to my entire body and how that was then affecting my emotions and behavior.

It’s really fascinating and I think people who are turned off by hippie-crunchy dirt worshiping drum circles of healing will respond to the facts and explanation of what is happening in your brain, why evolution has caused this to happen and how it then affects how your body feels.


A big part, if not the biggest part, of changing my attitude and behavior and not letting the cycle of panic and spinning thoughts take me over is practicing mindfulness.  And yes, here’s where the people who hate hippie-crunchy dirt worshiping drum circles of healing will cringe.  Please trust me when I say that you don’t have to participate in the drum circle.  It’s not required.

I balked when I was first learning how to be mindful.  It felt like a waste of time.  Why sit with my thoughts when I already know how I feel?  And I don’t WANT to pay attention to how I feel because I feel anxious, panicked, sad and hopeless.  Yeah, this sounds like a great idea.

However, I slowly came to understand how it works and how it helps.  It took me months before my emotional brain shut up for five seconds so my logical brain could process that no, this wasn’t going to kill me.  I fought it because I really thought it was a waste of time and energy.

But once I let myself just sit, I realized it was actually helpful.  Taking time to just sit in the moment and not do anything was OK and usually it was better than OK.  I realized that the things I was dwelling on were things I couldn’t do anything about in that moment, so why not pause that out of control voice and just sit and let my mind slow down and only pay attention to what’s happening right now.

When I finally understood this, holy shit you guys, it was like taking a huge breath of air after being underwater for a bit too long.  I realized my body was in this crazy tense state where my shoulders were pretty much level with my ears, my teeth were clenched, my stomach was tight, my hands were in fists and my brows were furrowed.  I didn’t even know I was doing this.  I wasn’t even particularly freaked out about anything.  I had trained my body to stay in this default setting so I’d be ready when my emotional brain started doing the dance of insanity.  Letting my muscles slowly loosen, I was astounded at how tired I felt.  I was spending all this energy ready to freak the fuck out, and in this moment of mindfulness I was giving myself permission to calm the fuck down.  There was no pressure though.  I just sat and breathed and didn’t really think about much other than sitting and breathing.

It was awesome.

Buddha’s Brain is all about these moments.  As Hanson explains the science of our brains he also gives practical examples and guided instructions on how to change what you’re doing and be mindful.  There are instructions for many different exercises and you can pick and choose what you want to work on.

I hesitate to use the word “instruction” because it sounds like you have to do it a specific way that someone else has come up with, but it’s not like that.  This is a framework that you adjust to what works for you.  There are parts that push you to go into a different direction, but mindfulness isn’t about having to do it This Way and where everyone does the exact same thing.

One thing I really liked about this book is that you can jump around.  If you’re not really interested in a part you can skim through it.  If it comes up later, Hanson refers you back to that part so if you’re confused, you can go back.  If there are practices or guidance for your behavior and thoughts that you’re not interested in, don’t do them.  There were a few that made me roll my eyes, but several times I realized that I knew I wasn’t there yet.  It’s so much easier to judge and dismiss something that acknowledge that it’s actually helpful but is going to take some work.

One of the things I like about mindfulness is that it’s not about being perfect or doing it all the time or following a certain set of rules or having to do it exactly like someone tells you to.  You get to figure out for yourself what is working.  After awhile you can branch out and try new things.  You learn to trust yourself and take those moments to just be.  What you’re doing in this moment is enough.  If you’re making dinner, why spend extra energy thinking of all the things that need to get done?  You’re not going to do them right now, so take a breath and pay attention to how it feels to simply stand at the counter and chop shit up.  Take just 60 seconds to think about how that food looks, the feeling of the bowl in your hand, the sounds of the knife against the cutting board, your breath filling  your lungs…  Yes, you do need to get a bunch of stuff done before going to bed, but right now you’re making dinner and that’s enough.  Let it be enough and let yourself just be in that moment.

It’s quite amazing.

It takes time and practice (which is another reason I fought against it.  I want immediate results!) and there are plenty of times where I’m not actively practicing happiness, love and wisdom.  Using this book will help you retrain your brain without having to play Hacky Sack, grow dreadlocks and buying a drum for the drum circle.  If that’s what you want to do, of course, then let your dreadlocks fly.  Please don’t use patchouli though.  No one needs to smell that.

Get this book.  Tag the pages that are interesting to you.  (Mine is filled with little sticky flags.)  Pick something that seems simple and start doing it.  When you feel like you need a little nudge to get back into a better mindset, pick an exercise and practice it.  If you feel like you are currently the mindfulness champion of the fucking world, flip through and see if there’s something you haven’t tried yet.

It’s an amazing book and I want to buy a copy for pretty much everyone I know. Even if you just flip through it, flip through it.  Maybe you’ll get some ideas about how to let yourself quiet those thoughts that never seem to go away.

Also, if you have to pick a spiritual leader to guide you, don’t you want to hang out with a fat and happy guy?

Happy Buddha

Seriously.  The dude knows how to have a good time.


#13: The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future by Fawzia Koofi

Prior knowledge and wild guesses about Afghanistan:

  • Al-Qaeda
  • Taliban
  • We’re at war with them?  We went there because something.  Bin Laden, I think?  I should know this.
  • We have troops on the ground.  It’s been like ten years.
  • We’re leaving now.  Have we already left?
  • People say it’s made up of isolated villages and cannot be considered a unified country because people who live there don’t even really know what a country is, let alone know that they live in Afghanistan
  • I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini a long time ago.  Some women had more freedom and were forced to give it up when the Taliban came into power.
  • I read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  I know that it’s about Iran, but I think there might be some similarities.  Maybe?
  • I could probably eventually find it on a map.
  • I really don’t know anything abut Afghanistan, but I think life there sucks, especially for women.

Favored DaughterI picked up The Favored Daughter after seeing an interview with Koofi on The Daily Show.  She was promoting her book, speaking about her plans to continue in Afghanistan’s government, and the importance of fighting for her country.  She was calm and serious and you could tell that she lives her life with clear purpose.  She doesn’t have time to waste time, especially knowing that people want to kill her.  She plans to run for president and knows her life will continue to be in danger.  John Stewart was clearly in awe of her and his sincerity and respect for her story made me want to get her book.

I wanted to know why she is willing to die for her country.

The Favored Daughter is a wonderful mix of memoir and history.  Koofi tells her life story through the politics of Afghanistan because she cannot separate the two.  When explaining why she had to drop out of medical school, she first has to explain how her country changed when other countries interfered.  She has to explain how quickly the Taliban moved in.  She needs you to understand that although it was a patriarchal society where women had little to no rights, some women did thrive in their households.  She knows she cannot explain why a husband would beat his wife so that they could both be proud, but she does want to show you the love and community of her people.  Families are huge and will always be welcomed and helped  however possible.

Her story starts out with her intended death.  Girls were useless and when her mother bore this daughter, she left her in the sun to die.  Koofi did not die and her mother vowed to love and protect her more than any of her children.  Koofi’s father had several wives and she had many brothers and sisters.  Her mother ruled that entire household and it was amazing to see how she managed the other wives in a way that created a family and kept jealousy and anger away.

Koofi was born willful and stubborn.  Refusing to die was the first of her many steps to change her life.  She persuaded her parents and brothers to allow her to attend school.  She was rarely dissuaded from goals.  She would achieve as much as her brothers, for she too was her father’s child.  In fact, she was the only girl child her father asked to see.

As Koofi got older, she saw the power and danger of politics.  Her father served as a government official and people respected him a great deal.  However, this also made him a target and he was assassinated.  During this time, Koofi’s older family members and their neighbors did their best to protect the younger children, especially the boys.

As war explodes in Afghanistan from within (and yes, I still cannot explain the specifics), Koofi and her mother go to Kabul where they are safe.  Koofi loves it there.  She is free to go to school, to wear shorter skirts and a bit of makeup (as long as her brothers don’t see) and walk the streets with her girl friends.  She is a strong student and plans on becoming a doctor.

And then the Taliban move in.

And they move in fast.

She hears tales of this extremist group but no one seems to understand the threat or see what is about to happen.  One day she was happily out with friends and then the very next day she wakes up to young members of the Taliban who refuse to let a woman leave her house without a burqa.  Men and women are randomly gathered to be beaten.  No one can figure out the rules.  A Taliban soldier might decide he’s bored and target someone for not upholding the tenets of what it means to be Muslim.   Men and women are whipped in the streets, their homes are raided, stores are destroyed and forced to close, and anyone can be sent to jail at any time, simply because the Taliban is suspicious of something.

Koofi’s heart breaks when this happens.  She is furious with this perversion of  her Muslim faith.  These men are extremists and she hates how they’ve twisted words to gain power and how they’ve poisoned the minds of Americans and others into believing that this is what it means to be Muslim.

She watches as men who are against what is happening are forced to join in so they can get a job to feed their families.  Some are willing to help quietly, knowing that they could be beaten or imprisoned themselves.  The theme of community and family come up again and again as Koofi shows the kindness of her fellow Afghani.  On the other hand, young men who had no power before the Taliban came in are now greedy with their new positions.  They happily and mercilessly beat women in the streets.  They gleefully collect contraband and destroy it in front of families.  The report everyone they see.  They’ve been given power and it corrupts them quickly and completely.

Koofi watches in horror and shame as her country destroys knowledge and culture.  The Buddhas of Bamiyan are destroyed.  Colleges are shut down.  There is no entertainment.  Wedding ceremonies and celebrations are forbidden.  It’s painful and nearly unbearable, especially since such a short time ago Koofi and other women were able to go to school, to learn, and to begin better lives than their mothers had.  They still have moments of love and safety behind closed doors, but bombs have begun to fall and no one knows where the next threat will come from.

Koofi’s brother arranges a marriage for her, and she is pleased with the man, Hamid.  He came several times to seek Koofi from her brother and was turned away again and again.  He finally persuades the family and they are married, but without the traditional ceremony and celebration, which Koofi aches for.

They have two daughters.  Hamid is delighted with the first, but angry at the second for not being a boy.  Koofi never gets over this betrayal and anger.  However, she does not have much time to dwell on her hurt.  Soon after they marry, Hamid is thrown into jail by the Taliban.  Koofi goes there every day, demanding his release.  She doesn’t not know what the charges are or what is happening to him.  He is finally released and comes home, sick and weak.  She becomes pregnant with their second daughter, but he is taken in again.  This time he gets tuberculosis and they both know he will not live long.

As her story continues, she explains the changes in her country and her different levels of freedom helped me understand what was happening.  The women have their rights taken away, given back, made strong, made weaker, and all of this spurs Koofi into action.  A new government is being formed and it is time for her to take her family’s place.

She seeks the approval from her brothers, and of course is told she is forbidden. They have chosen the family’s candidate and will not let their sister be involved. Like always, she simply refused to hear the word “no” and pushes and pushes until they back down.  Although the ballots were tampered with, she wins.

And then she soars.

Watching her come into her own power is amazing and fantastic and humbled me greatly.  She’s given up everything in order to give others more.  She knows if she continues to work and work and work and make people from her country and from other countries listen, she will make Afghanistan stronger.  She loves her country.  She loves her countrymen.  She loves who she is and what she can do.

It’s beautiful.

I  hate that I’m waiting to hear a news story that she’s been killed.

She has been attacked several times and knows that her convoys are being monitored.  She travels throughout her country to speak with different members of different villages.  She is shocked into tears many times when elders greet her as her father’s daughter and respect her because they loved him.

Each chapter of the book starts out with a letter to her two daughters, Shuhra and Shaharzad.  She talks to them briefly about her history, their country’s history, and why she must dedicate her life to the people.  She often speaks candidly about the fact that people want her dead.  She acknowledges that she feels like she is abandoning them when she travels.  She lets them know how proud of them she is and how her mother would have loved them so much.  It’s inspiring and sad and makes me realize that I really don’t have any idea what’s happening in our world.

Again, I really liked how she tells her story through Afghanistan’s story.  She simply cannot separate the two because she is the child of her country and this connection has brought her through the terrifying times and pushed her through the ranks of Parliament.  There is much corruption in Afghanistan (and really, anywhere there are politicians) and she seeks to end it.  The largest part of her platform is women’s rights.  She is a threat to many in the country and this just makes her stronger.

If you know little to nothing about Afghanistan (that would be me!) then this is a great book because it explains things without being too overwhelming.  I’m not much interested in further reading, but I bet many people have gone on to read more about the country.  If you know a lot about Afghanistan, then I think this book will still be good for you because you get to follow one person and see the changes from a first hand view.

This was a good read.  It wasn’t a quick one, but it was fascinating and inspiring and I look forward to seeing what else she will do with her life.  I hope that it will be a long life.

#1: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Welcome to 2013, my pretties.  I’m already behind on my reviews, but I’m up to date on my reading, so we’re good.

Henrietta LacksI’ve wanted to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for quite some time.  It started showing up in lots of different places and on lots of lists.  I learned a tiny bit about the book and it sounded interesting, but then it was submerged in my To Be Read list and stayed there.  Happily, my book group picked it for our first meeting of the year.

For those who don’t know the story, here’s the simple version:

In the early 1950s, Henrietta Lacks went to  Johns Hopkins because she knew something wrong wrong with her womb.  She was diagnosed with cervical cancer.  As part of the examination, her doctor took cell samples from her tumor and passed them along to researcher George Gey, which was common practice at the time.  After a brutal course of cancer treatment, Henrietta died, leaving behind five children.

Her cells, however, did not die.  Gey had been struggling to find human cells that would continue to grow in a lab in  order to study them.  Henrietta’s tumor cells did not die.  He was able to ship them all over the world and her cells were used in seemingly infinite biological and medical research.  Henrietta was gone, but HeLa, the name given to her cells from her first and last name, was left behind.  Her cells were used to research AIDS, cancer treatments, vaccines, the effects of radiation, the effects of weightlessness in space, and much much more.

Her family didn’t know.

Decades later, researchers noticed a genetic marker that was contaminating samples and realized that every lab had been taken over by HeLa and that many research projects were tainted with their potency.

To learn more about this genetic marker, researchers tracked down her family for blood samples to learn more about their DNA.  Her family became suspicious, wanting to know who these doctors were and why they were asking about their mother.

The result is two completely different stories that are impossible to separate.

On one hand you have medical research and the common procedures of the day.  Because of what was done, many things were created and developed that have helped people all over the world.

On the other hand you have the treatment of a black patient in the 1950s.  Uneducated patients deferred to their doctors, especially when they didn’t understand.  When a white man with a degree told you something, you’d nod politely.  Sometimes you’d follow orders (Henrietta’s cancer treatments) and sometimes you’d walk away knowing that the doctors had no clue what your reality was like and that their suggestions were pointless (Henrietta’s refusal to have her STDs treated because she knew her husband would continue to infect her).

This was the part that drew me into the book and I thought it would be easy.  White doctors used her cells for research, but they also made money.  Her family never had money, didn’t know what had happened and now couldn’t afford their own medical care.  They should be reimbursed.  Simple.

Only it’s not.

Standard practice in the 1950s had nothing to do with consent, and if doctors did request it, they still didn’t inform their patients of what was happening.  Doctors would inject cancer cells into a test subject’s arm to see what happened.  They’d then remove the lumps if they were becoming tumors.  Did the patient know this?  Probably not.  They might not even know they were part of a cancer research study.

The ethics of the time… well… there sort of were no ethics.  Everything was seen as being up for grabs, especially after it was removed from a patient.  Alive or dead, that part of you was gone from you, so why not pass it along to someone who might make great medical gains?

I was angry for the Lacks and I did want something to happen to make things OK, but I soon realized it just isn’t that easy.  The advancements that were made because of Henrietta and HeLa are astounding.  Her cells brought life to others.  The doctors and researchers didn’t stop to think about what the individual  human effect on the Lacks family because they were thinking of the universal gains for all humans.

Skloot made excellent decisions when writing this book.  She starts with Henrietta’s life; a biography of who this woman was and what she meant to people.  She then transitions to what HeLa meant, and continues to mean, to medicine.  She explains the science of the time, the doctors involved, the social obligations of the day, and how research was done.  It was easy to see how Henrietta the person disappeared when looking at HeLa.  She then moves back to the present by catching up with Henrietta’s children as they not only try to learn who their mother was, but what science had done with her.  She does jump around in time (A+ to whoever decided to add the timeline to each new chapter!) but she follows a theme and everything makes sense.

I was astounded with the amount of research that she had to do.  Not only did she need to understand the science, she had to explain it in a way that wasn’t watered down but would make sense to the reader.  She then had to explain the ethics and policies of Henrietta’s time, including the world of blacks and whites in the 1950s.  She then had to gain the trust of the family and work with them in a way that showed respect to Henrietta and her family but also let her learn the truth.  At times the book barely balances on the barest of an edge, and I could feel the anxiety and exhaustion that Skloot must have herself felt.  But then there are times when she is completely supported as she travels with Henrietta and HeLa.  This isn’t her story, but her voice is there.  Over and over I was impressed with her research, the way she structured the story, and her own voice and tone.

I wish this had been an easy read in the sense of right and wrong, but like everything else, things just don’t work that way.  I wanted to be firmly on one side, but I couldn’t.  While feeling the pain and confusion of the Henrietta’s family, I celebrated in the advancements that came about because of HeLa.  I was frustrated and grateful.  Most of all, I was on Skloot’s side as she pulled all the threads together and tried to weave the full picture.

I’m very appreciative of the work she did to write this book.  It’s both a study and explanation of medical ethics and practices over the year, but also a beautiful biography of Henrietta herself and the children she left behind.

This book is a success no matter how you approach it – medical, research and science to ethics, social standing, race relations, and education.  Ten people can read this book and have twenty different responses.

It’s a fantastic book club book and I’m glad I finally read it.

#41: Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas

Why oh why do I not keep a stack of little sticky notes next to the bed, especially when I’m reading a book like this?  I kept thinking “Oooh, I’m going to want to talk about this part!” and then I guess I thought I’d magically remember the page when I sat down to write my review.  I’m awesome, but I’m not that awesome.

I love non-fiction books that are solidly researched and then written in a conversational tone.  There’s a time for textbook-like writing, but I prefer non-fiction where the author’s voice comes through.  Sarah Vowell does it and whenever I read her historical books I feel like we’re hanging out and she’s all “Oh, hey!  Did I tell you about President Lincoln getting assassinated?  Check this out…” and then we laugh and laugh and are best friend forever.

Douglas writes in this same way here and I really enjoyed it.  A different author could have easily made this a book of facts and I would have zoned out quickly and put it aside as things I sort of already knew, but am not interested in reading about in terms of numbers and percentages.  Instead, Douglas pulls from the research and applies it to pop culture and media and says “OK, look.  Here’s what the data tells us, but let’s look at what’s happening on TV.”  I appreciated this approach, and while it still didn’t make for a quick read over a day or two, it was a pleasure to spend time with it and think about my own stance on feminism.

Back in March of 2011, I wrote a review for Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and More by Marina Warner.  As I was reading I was already formulating how I would talk about this book in a way where I could refer to being a feminist without sounding like That Type of feminist.  Here’s what I managed to stammer out:

It’s a huge pain in the ass that I can’t just be a feminist anymore.  I have to be a humanist.  Or I get to be a “feminist AND” or a “feminist BUT”. Everything is so watered down and angry that you have to explain what you are by immediately pointing out what you aren’t.

So…I’m a feminist BUT I don’t hate men.  I’m a feminist AND I think we need to work to make sure everyone is treated fairly.

Mostly I just hate people.  But I try to do it equally.

I think I really nailed it with those last two sentences.

So here we are again.  The conservative right wing has infiltrated the media so thoroughly that feminists back away from the word and try to come up with something more politically correct and not off-putting.  We all know that feminists hate men, don’t wear makeup and wear ugly shoes.  They have no sense of humor and will drag your ass to HR if you only use male pronouns.  And of course they are all exhausted from killing their children, practicing witchcraft, and becoming lesbians.

This really pisses me off.  Not only has “feminism” become a bad word, but I’m totally on board with trying to find a new word!  Why do we have to reclaim our own word?  For fucks’ sake people!

However, this isn’t a book arguing about the merits of defending feminism.  It is a book about how many of us have been tricked into setting that term aside, and now we can put on booty shorts and beat the shit out of each other on reality TV because it’s our choice, not any man’s.

We won, you guys women!  We totally won!!!

There’s so much to talk about with this book, but I think I’m going to stick with reality TV.  Douglas brilliantly deconstructs the roles women play on reality TV and I was pretty pissed that I didn’t always realize what was happening.  There are shows where women are put together for the sole purpose of getting drunk and ripping out each other’s hair.  The producers carefully pick girls who they know will be combative, then fill the house with booze and cameras, sit back and wait.  These shows are easy to identify and can be avoided.  After all, we’re not all those kind of girls and we can roll our eyes at immaturity and location.  It sucks that girls aspire to get onto that kind of show, but we know what we’re getting into if we stumble onto a marathon.  And we can laugh about how much better we are than the participants.  Need examples?  The Bachelor, Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire, Bad Girls’ Club, Super Sweet Sixteen, later seasons of The Real World… I don’t want to continue.

But then there are the supposedly balanced shows, and here’s where things get scary.

The Survivor and The Apprentice, chose to show women and men equally.  Here was a reality where everyone came in at the same level and anyone could win.  But what happens?  The women all turn on each other.  Women are “emotional”.  They are “bitches”.  They are “two-faced”.  They criticize each other using women-only terms.  And there’s always the double standard where men are aggressive and powerful but when women behave the same way they are ball busting bitches.  There’s a way to win, ladies, and you don’t do it by behaving like a man.  Say “please” and “thank you” and guide activities.  Don’t ever demand and don’t be too assertive.

The message these “balanced” shows teach us is that reality always ends up with women backstabbing each other and refusing to work together.  Even if all-female teams win challenges, they do it with name calling and are dysfunctional.  And since this is a reality show, this what all women are like.  No one scripted these fights.  No one told a woman what to say.  These are real women behaving in real ways that happen in real life.

This is reality.

And how frustrating is it that real women watch these “reality” women and cringe when they act this way?  “Oh me?  Well… I wouldn’t call myself a feminist…  At least not that kind feminist.  I mean, I wouldn’t ever act like she does.  It’s so… off putting.  She should be nicer.  People would like her if she would just be nicer.”

There’s so much more to talk about with this book, but I really want everyone to just get it and read it.  If you’re turned off by the term “feminist” then this book is for you.  If you identify yourself as a feminist, then this book is for you.  If you’re curious about how mass media shapes decisions women make and how males view us, both positively and negatively, this book is for you.  Especially the sections where women are in power positions on TV dramas.  If you hate women and think we should all be having babies and making sandwiches, well… first, you’re going to get voted out of office, and second, you’re probably not reading this.  But you should, because you’re ignorant and should be embarrassed.  And stop talking about vaginal ultrasounds and deciding what the true definition of rape is.

This book is smart, funny, incredibly well-written, unapologetic and thoroughly researched.  Even if you only have time to flip through it the next time you’re in the library or a book store, check out the table of contents and find something you’re curious about.  We need to get this reality out there.