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review 2016-12-14 19:08
Review: What We Do Now
What We Do Now - Valerie Merians,Dennis Loy Johnson

How soon we forget.

 

Or, if you are like me and were too young and clueless to really understand the implications of the 2004 election, how late we learn.

 

Following the election of La Naranja, a meme started circulating (shocking, I know). It was a picture of George W. Bush with his beady-eyed smile, accompanied by big, blocky yellow text: “Miss me yet?” I laughed and may even have agreed when I first saw it, even though I’m pretty sure this originated under Obama and is, quite frankly, insulting. (Despite what a lot of people seem to want to claim about “moving on” and “just accepting” election results, you may be surprised to hear that there was a tremendous amount of backlash to the election of our first black president.) The problem, of course, is that a large quantity of people did miss Bush, Jr. then and decided to do something about it now. They missed an America of religious fanaticism, deceptive economic bubbles, and the us-vs-them mentality of the War on Terror. So we decided to re-elect him in a new, more virulent form—quite possibly with Russia’s help and certainly with media complicity.

 

What We Do Now is an essay collection published by Melville House in direct response to Bush’s reelection. The parallels to this election and current political climate it contains are unnerving. Just as an example: the introduction opens on a story of election despair-inspired suicide—and the crashing of the Canadian immigration website.

 

I was just out of high school in 2004. I remember watching the events of 9/11 in every class just a few years before, but I was politically illiterate. The majority of my family has always been conservative, in degrees varying from quietly moderate to…less quiet and much less moderate. I felt divorced from their views from an early age, though I can’t exactly say why. I’d like to think it was because I’ve always been a voracious reader with wide interests but it’s just a guess.

 

It wasn’t until college that I started really paying attention, and even then that is a relative statement. I’ve still never comfortably affiliated myself with a party. For the sake of transparency, we’ll just go with “liberal,” though I suppose at this point “progressive” is more accurate.

 

I mention this simply for the sake of objectivity, which is not something I brought to this book.

 

What We Do Now is divided into nine sections: Attitude, Plans of Attack, Voting & Election Reform, Media, The Separation of Church & State, The Environment, Economics, International Relations, and Dissent. It’s a slim volume of just barely 200 pages but contains pieces from 24 contributors of varying backgrounds from journalists and politicians to editors and professors. The pieces are connected by their opposition to a Bush presidency and many share common themes but there are also contradictions that highlight the different ideas that take root within any group, no matter how unified in overall vision.

 

This has turned out to be one of those synchronicity-kismet-fate-whatever reads, one that arrived at exactly the time it was needed and could make the greatest impact on me. Perhaps it’s a bit odd that it was intended to be a product of its time, an immediate reaction to an imminent threat twelve years in the past and now feels so astonishingly relevant. Or perhaps that is to be expected since we obviously haven’t learned anything over the last few decades. The issues laid out in many of these essays are resurfacing in our political discourse in nearly identical form: “strong leaders;” racially-biased voter suppression; rust belt rage; Islamophobia; uninspiring candidates; reactionary politics vs. logic; the list goes on. Most of these essays could be repurposed for today with a simple search-and-replace for names and dates. Some of them have proven to be sadly prophetic, predicting our failures as a democracy with painful accuracy.

 

A few examples to demonstrate that no matter how things change, they still stay the same:

 

“We do, indeed, seem to have become a country where moderates, let alone liberals, simply don't stand a blessed chance, where anything other than an angry, intolerant, persecutorial attitude is scorned and mocked by a plentitude of bar bullies gone drunk with power.”

 

“One of the first issues we need to address if we’re going to get out the vote at a level required by a truly participatory democracy is the lack of excitement many people feel for the candidates put forth by our parties.”

 

“For many people, the most pressing issue is the fate of Roe V. Wade and women’s right to choose.”

 

“…America still maintains a segregated Apartheid voting system. Black, Hispanic, and Native American voters are the immediate targets, but all Americans dispossessed by the system are victims…”

 

“More important than any single botched campaign strategy is the overarching failure of the left to understand the role the corporate media plays in shaping public opinion, public policy, and ultimately, political leadership.”

 

How many of these snippets could come directly from a New York Times article or Medium thinkpiece today?

 

And yet. We did make a turnabout for a little while, didn’t we? Obama will go down in history as a truly great president, even with some decided mistakes and all of the roadblocks the obstructionists in congress regularly threw in his path. We can perhaps credit our current situation to the inherent pendulum-swinging tendencies of the two-party system. But we might also be able to give some credit to our ability to rally in times of extremity; the writers in this collection show that Bush’s election taught us some nasty truths about our nation and its divisions and for a time they impacted us enough to bring Obama into office for two terms (something no one would have foreseen when this book was published).

 

While much of my attention was drawn to the parallels with the politics of now, many of the contributors offer predictions and advice for the future. Some of their advice has proven to be a failure (the Democratic party should go even more centrist to capture the moderate Republicans!) and some of it has yet to be put into any kind of measurable practice even now. But I take comfort from it and I hope that this time maybe, just maybe, we might make use of it. Many of the essays offer talking points and advice that will be of great use in the trials to come, especially pieces like “Fighting Words for a Secular America” by Robin Morgan and “Our Mandate: Making Media Matter” by Danny Schecter.

 

Immediately following the current election, many commentators have thrown out the idea that “our country is more divided than ever.” I have a feeling these people make poor history students. Even disregarding, well, THE CIVIL WAR, Reconstruction, the communist witch hunts, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam war, among many other things, just looking a little over a decade into the past at the situation in 2004 shows those divisions have never significantly dissipated. We keep taping over the cracks when we would do better to actually fix them, though how is another matter. My dream would be to take inspiration from the Japanese art form kintsugi* and repair our divisions in a way that keeps them alive in memory but makes them a beautiful reminder of progress and change. The cracks should always be remembered—they just shouldn’t be allowed to break us.

 

 

*The Japanese art of repairing cracked pottery with gold, highlighting rather than concealing the flaw and making the piece one-of-a-kind as well as a reminder that beauty comes from imperfection.

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text 2016-12-12 14:53
Reading progress update: I've read 76 out of 203 pages.
What We Do Now - Valerie Merians,Dennis Loy Johnson

From the introduction:

People are not upset, they are distraught. Even people who are staying put, who are going through their days and trying to get over it, are not upset in the way they usually are when their candidate loses. Something is different this time. They are feeling a sense of loss, yes, but in the sense of something leaving, something beloved getting away from them. And to an unprecedented degree, people are not getting over it.

 

We do, indeed, seem to have become a country where moderates, let alone liberals, simply don't stand a blessed chance, where anything other than an angry, intolerant, persecutorial attitude is scorned and mocked by a plentitude of bar bullies gone drunk with power.

 

This is talking about the 2004 reelection of Bush. Sound familiar? WILL WE EVER LEARN??

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review 2016-09-19 00:20
A Magician Among The Spirits by Harry Houdini
A Magician among the Spirits (Cambridge Library Collection - Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge) Reissue edition by Houdini, Harry (2011) Paperback - Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini and his exposure of the fraud spiritualist, spirit photography, spirit slate writing, ectoplasm, clairvoyance, and other quakery and cons perpetrated on the gullible, by the likes of the Boston Medium Margery, the Davenport Brothers, Annie Eva Fay, the Fox Sisters, Daniel Dunglas Home, Eusapia Pallandino, and other con artists of their ilk.The whole country got excited by Houdini's campaign against faking spiritualists. He careened through the country, offering money for spirit contacts he couldn't duplicate by admitted magical chicanery. It was a heyday not only for Houdini but for the spirit-callers and there was an equally famous protagonist who thought the spirits could indeed be contacted, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A photo at the front records a meeting between Houdini and Doyle and Houdini gives Doyle his own chapter. There's an earlier chapter on Daniel Dunglas Home, the English engineer of spectacular paranormal effects. Houdini raises hell with spiritualists who were giving their (usually paying) clients a vision of heavens to come, and shares the methods used to practice "fake" and sensational spiritualism. Houdini was nothing if not unrelenting. As a taste of things to come, he ends his introduction with the words: "Up to the present time everything that I have investigated has been the result of deluded brains."

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

After reading the nonfiction work The Witch of Lime Street by David Jafer, I was curious to know more about that story, particularly the details behind the strain in the friendship between magician Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was surprised to discover that they were even friends, let alone had a bit of a falling out over the topic of Spiritualism! Recently I came across a copy of A Magician Among The Spirits, written by Houdini himself in which he not only gives his own version of what went down between him and Doyle but also how Houdini came to be such a force in bringing down the Spiritualism movement as a whole. 

 

As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should have ever been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime. 

 

Houdini is quick to affirm that he most definitely believed in a higher power and an afterlife. His issue was with the lengths supposed mediums went to dupe grieving people into believing that their loved ones were trying to reach them. Houdini admits that if he could have found anything, anything at all, that would've struck him as irrefutably paranormal then he would've enthusiastically become the movement's greatest supporter / advocate. In this book, originally published in 1924, Houdini discusses the project he carried out, spending the year of 1919 sitting in on over 100 seances, hoping for anything definitely otherworldly. Instead, he says, he realized he was able to explain virtually everything he saw in terms of distraction and slight of hand tricks magicians employ all the time. It infuriated him that these so-called spiritual mediums were making quite comfortable livings off the grief of people desperate for any connection with their lost loved ones. 

 

Houdini points out that the popularity of Spiritualism cannot be dismissed as just something uneducated suckers fell into. In fact, quite a few of the era's great scientific and literary minds fell prey to the hope that these mediums could put them in contact with friends and family who had passed over. Houidini says he himself had arrangements with 14 different people, including his wife and his personal secretary, to give the agreed upon sign (handshake or code word) if any of them should pass. Fourteen people and not one of them (of the ones that had passed away by then, that is,) came through any of the 100+ seances Houdini attended. Houdini also points to his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, clearly a man of great intellect but swayed by the deaths of a son, brother and brother-in-law during WW1, making him desperate for contact.  There's also the story of poet couple Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning -- Elizabeth initially became quite taken with the movement, but after one particularly off reading came away feeling very much duped and dismayed.

 

" I heard of your remarkable feat in Bristol. My dear chap, why do you go around the world seeking a demonstration of the occult when you are giving one all the time? "

 

~ from a letter Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Harry Houdini

 

Houdini also notes that it was also highly suspect how these mediums often lived the lives of celebrities, winning themselves the patronage of members of society's elite. They would be draped in the finest clothes and jewels, put up in lavish residences, enjoying the benefits of a nicely padded bank account. If the day came that their popularity was showing signs of waning, these mediums would often quietly announce their retirement before the truth behind their act was sniffed out. In the instances where mediums were taken to court on charges of fraud, oftentimes there would be only light penalties put upon them even when it was PROVEN they had duped clients out of money. 

 

In the end, Houdini chalks the whole thing up to largely being a case of what he calls mal-observation. In essence, it's not that people are kidding themselves necessarily, or willfully in denial. Houdini is saying "I believe you believe what you saw, but what you saw is not what you think." Clients of these mediums were just not versed enough in carnival-like showmanship to recognize telltale signs of trickery. They can't explain it, so they see no other explanation other than paranormal. One pretty funny example he gives is a reprint of an article someone wrote about one of his performances, claiming that Houdini couldn't possibly be human to pull off the feats he did. After the article, Houdini responds with a verbal "this is what was really going on" peek behind the curtain of his shows. 

 

While I didn't always fully agree with Houdini's personal thoughts on the topic, this was one highly fascinating read. I think it is important to keep in mind the time in which he was writing this, take into account that he's saying that in his time he had yet to see anything he could not explain. These are the days before EVP, spirit voice box technology, all that stuff that we commonly see paranormal investigators use now. I honestly do believe there are things we (or at least I, I guess I should say lol) have experienced that don't easily have scientific explanation. Then again, I (like Houdini) remain skeptical of 99% of the professed psychic mediums out there today. 

 

One thing I did particularly like about this book were all the photographs of Houdini with the mediums and other Spiritualists he got to know during this project. He also includes interesting diagrams where he lays out the "okay, this is how the medium did that" behind such things as spirit knockings, rappings, slate writings, etc that were commonplace in seances of the time. Some sections, such as some of the stuff on slate writing, rappings, and spiritual photography, did run a bit long for me but there are so many other worthwhile historical tidbits Houdini offers up that I would definitely recommend this to any fans of paranormal or even sideshow history. 

 

 

 

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review 2016-03-11 09:45
Review | Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading (Memoir) by Maureen Corrigan
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books - Maureen Corrigan

As book reviewer for NPR’s "Fresh Air" and contributor to many publications, Maureen Corrigan literally reads for a living. For as long as she can remember, books have been at the center of her life, a never-failing source of astonishment, hard truths, new horizons, and welcome companionship. Now Corrigan has added a volume of her own to the shelf of classics, by reading her life of reading with all the attention to complexity, wit, and intelligence that any good book–or life–deserves. Part memoir, part coming-of-age story, and part reflection on favorite and influential books, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading views the world through an open book. From her unpretentious girlhood in the working-class neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens, to her bemused years in an Ivy League Ph.D. program, from the whirl of falling in love and marrying (a fellow bookworm, of course), to the ordeal of adopting a baby overseas, Corrigan has always had a book at her side. Moving from page to life and back again, Corrigan writes ultimately of fashioning a complicated, sometimes contradictory self out of her class background, her classroom teaching, and her own classics of literature; a list of favorite books is also included. In Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, Maureen Corrigan invites us to accompany her on the journey of a lifetime.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Corrigan is an Edgar Award winning book critic / reviewer who, along with being a book reviewer on NPR's "Fresh Air" segment, also teaches literature at Georgetown University. This short memoir chronicles different pivotal moments in her life -- childhood; college experiences; trying to heal from the death of her beloved father; infertility struggles & becoming an adoptive mother -- and how her reading life tied into those moments. For readers who have an interest in infertility or adoption stories, Corrigan does go over reading recommendations just on this topic that she enjoyed. 

 

Regarding her sharing how she got the NPR job, I thought it was pretty funny that she was initially turned down for the position because NPR told her she seemed too academic. TOO academic. For NPR. LOL. 

 

 

From what I've seen with online reviews, the general consensus for this memoir seems to be mixed. I can't speak for others, obviously, but being a book blogger / vlogger myself, I really enjoyed Corrigan's stories for the most part. I'd say the one thing I struggled with were the sections where some of the books she discussed seemed pretty obscure to me (though she kept referencing them as bestsellers). Also, her favorites in genres are closer to my least favorite. Can't blame that on the author though! She's writing about her experiences and preferences, not mine. The section that aggravated me the most was when she was discussing the Catholic memoir duology Karen and With Love, From Karen by Marie Killilea. While mildly interesting at first, Corrigan goes on to talk about this set of books for 30+ pages! I have to admit, it's a little difficult to maintain interest for that many pages about books I've never heard of and, by Corrigan's description of them, didn't sound like my kind of read. Aside from that, there was a lot in this memoir that I did enjoy. I especially loved what she had to say in the Introduction essay, where she talks about what makes reading and books so special and what leads some of us to have such an obsession for the written word. 

 

Distraction, sure. but essential nourishment for the mind and soul as well. Books are always necessary cargo. So many of us reach for them, irrationally, even in potentially dangerous situations that threaten to wreck our ability to concentrate... Such is the power of words, of writing, of books. Words can summon up a skyline from the dark; they can bring back the people you loved and will always yearn for. They can inspire you with possibilities you otherwise would never have imagined; they can fill your head with misleading fantasies. They can give you back your seemingly seamless past and place it right along your chaotic present. 

 

"But that only happens in books," my mother, pretty much immune to the power of the written word, would say.

 

Exactly. That's why I can't stop reading them. 

 

Corrigan also provides a pages-long list of reading recommendations, helpfully sorted by genre. I would recommend taking a look through those titles because it seemed like some of those listed in the back of the book were not ones she mentioned within the actual memoir. Might be worth a look-over to see if anything stirs your curiosity.

 

----------------------------

 

Note To Readers: It's not uncommon for reading memoirs / "books about books" type titles to inevitably included spoilers for other books. Some are not too bad on this front but Corrigan got especially spoiler-heavy with her story. So, consider this a spoiler alert for the following titles -- Corrigan gives away either the endings or major plot twists / reveals of: The Maltese Falcon and the short story "The Gutting Of Couffignal" both by Dashiell Hammett, Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre and Villette (both) by Charlotte Bronte, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

 

 

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review 2016-01-19 12:30
Review | The Little Book of Heartbreak by Meghan Laslocky
The Little Book of Heartbreak: Love Gone Wrong Through the Ages - Meghan Laslocky

The perfect anti-valentine: a whirlwind tour through love’s most crushing moments

What’s the best way to mend a broken heart? Forget ice cream, wine, and sappy movies. Journalist Meghan Laslocky advises: Read through the pain. From forbidden love in 12th century Paris to the art of crafting the perfect “I’m over you” mix CD, The Little Book of Heartbreak is a quirky exploration of all things lovelorn, including:
• How serial cheater Ernest Hemingway stole his wife’s job just as their marriage was collapsing
• Kinky spells cast by lovesick men in ancient Greece
• Painter Oscar Kokoschka’s attempt to get over an ex by creating (and having liaisons with!) her life-size replica
• Brooding crooner Morrissey’s personal creed about how romantic love is useless
• The surprising science behind heartbreak and love addiction
• The connection between World War II and what you talk about with your therapist
• Insights into the tricky chemistry of monogamy and infidelity, courtesy of tiny rodents

• And other lessons learned from ill-fated romances, lovers’ quarrels, and hell-hath-no-fury spats throughout the ages

Featuring anecdotes from history, literature, culture, art and music, The Little Book of Heartbreak shares the entertaining, empowering and occasionally absurd things that happen when love is on its last legs.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

If you're already cringing at the thought of Valentine's Day being just a few weeks away, this might be just the read for you! Laslocky puts together a casual collection of essays looking at some of the most iconic love-gone-wrong stories in history and literature, not to mention some laughable wooing practices from back in the day. It all made for some quick bites of fluffy & entertaining reading, minus that one bit that made me want to chuck the book at the wall when she refers to people who like / believe in monogamy as being caught up by "a little misunderstanding... or willful ignorance." Whaa? Like monogamy is too big a concept for the brain to take on so it's better we just bow out and make a sampler plate? I don't know, just seemed kinda harsh to knock the non-polyamorous type. But anyyyywaaay...

 

I really enjoyed the section on literature and the way romance is portrayed (duh, I'm a book blogger, 'course this is gonna get my feelers up!). I especially liked the comparison of different examples from across the world. For example, she points out that much European lit. seems to like to push the idea that romantic, passionate love is dangerous so it's better to go for more prudent, financially comfortable matches. Case in point, one of the most famous opening lines in literature: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. In contrast, she explains, one can look into a fair amount of Asian literature and find passionate couples embracing healthy adventurous sex lives. 

 

(Sidenote on the lit. section -- the author does drop some spoiler bombs on some classic lit titles, so here's a heads up if you've been wanting to read and want to avoid spoilers for: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Tess of the d'Urbervilles.)

 

"Ohhh, Alright" by Roy Lichtenstein,

a painting referenced in this book 

 

While that section was one of the more interesting ones, I think my favorite part was the Music & Art unit. I was particularly intrigued by the stories of composers Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms (focusing largely on his friendship / maybe flirtation with pianist Clara Schumann, the wife of a close friend of Brahms). Laslocky even does a little bit on Leonard Cohen, a favorite musician of mine. 

 

A fun read for what it is, light fluffy bits of humor and snark, having a laugh at how silly we humans can get sometimes when it comes to our hearts. I will say, one of my favorite lines in this one was "Agony incubates empathy." Good stuff, that.

 

 

above: a neat little historical tidbit on the Miss Havisham character

from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations

 

 

 

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