book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, November 2015

November’s books are a varied lot, but they were all pretty great (with one notable exception–I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker).  You might find something you like.

  • NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman is a comprehensive and important history of autism.  He details how two researchers, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore, both discovered autism around the same time in the late 1930s, but came to radically different conclusions based on their observations.  Kanner viewed autism as a rare condition with a strict set of “fascinating peculiarities.”  Asperger, working under the shadow of the Third Reich, however saw it as “not at all rare” and as a continuum, but his work remained untranslated from the German for decades.  It wasn’t until Asperger’s views were rediscovered and disseminated in the 1980s by like-minded psychologists such as Lorna Wing and Uta Frith that views began to shift.  In the meantime, Kanner’s narrow view of autism meant that few got a diagnosis and the help that they needed, and of those that did, he proposed theories (popularized by Bruno Bettelheim) that parents were to blame, especially “refrigerator mothers.”  The continuum model, or spectrum as it is now called, finally took hold in the DSM-III-R of 1987.  One of Silberman’s chapters details the fascinating history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it relates to autism, and how with the inclusion of Asperger’s syndrome in DSM-IV in1994, the way was paved for many more individuals to get a diagnosis.  It is this new understanding of autism that has led to the “epidemic” of diagnoses in the last 20-30 years.  Autism has always been there, but now there is a label to attach to it.  Silberman slaps down the study by Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a link between vaccines and autism, showing how the study was seriously flawed in many respects and was later retracted by the journal that originally published it.  There were many other chapters that focused on different aspects of autism besides the clinical and diagnostic side.  One focused on the impact of the film Rain Man, which was a favorite of mine in high school (not sure how it holds up as it’s been a long time since I saw it).  Another detailed the connections between autism and ham radio and science fiction fandom.  Others chronicled how families cope with autism and how the autism community has begun to define itself.  Overall, it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in autism.
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.  The main narrative concerns Walter McMillian, a man wrongly sent to death row in Alabama for a murder he had nothing to do with.  The twists and turns in the case as they try to appeal his conviction against a hostile prosecutor and law enforcement officers and indifferent courts read like a John Grisham novel (Grisham himself gives the book a positive blurb).  I could barely put it down.  The structure of the book aided this quality: he interspersed the chapters on the McMillian case with chapters on other topics including juveniles tried as adults, mothers in prison, and the mentally ill, so the reader can’t stop.  The stories are forceful and worthy of indignation.  Ultimately, Stevenson has compiled a moral argument for criminal justice reform that is a perfect complement to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Adam Benforado’s Unfair (both of which I reviewed in May and mentioned before).  He provides the emotional heart of the argument in the stories of the imprisoned that the others make in detailed analysis of case law or social science research.  What is the point of our criminal justice system anyway?  Stevenson points out how inhumane it has become as we have overseen the era of mass incarceration: “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken” (290).  I can’t recommend this book enough.
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson is an important book of essays dealing with big topics like democracy, human nature, and the difficulty of history.  It’s not nearly as daunting as that sounds, but it is a bit daunting.  First, she knows a lot about history and literature.  Second, she doesn’t write down to her audience.  It’s not that she is showing off, but she packs so much into her analyses and probing that it sometimes does take a moment to soak it all in. Robinson has a style that meanders in a pleasant way, touching on matters that don’t always appear at first to be on topic, but that she brings around to great effect.  There are many passages I marked because they were so powerful.  For example, when talking about the Homestead Act, she points out that “housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together make the world salubrious, savory, and warm.  I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental” (93).  Or when discussing a number of books that attempt to debunk the Bible, especially the Old Testament for its violence, she proceeds to show how the Torah is heavily interested in the care of the poor, listing many laws that command making provision for those in need.  It’s a rich book, well worth the time and worth rereading.  I had the opportunity to meet Robinson once at a wine and cheese gathering before a reading.  She read from her then forthcoming novel Gilead, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.  At the time, I had only read one of her books, a different book of essays, but when I had a chance to shake her hand, I told her that I thought she wrote beautifully and that I planned on reading everything that she had written.  I’m still working on that project, and I’m the better for it.
  • My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner is a startling and poetic memoir of an Iraq War veteran.  The book is divided into short, numbered sections, and it’s not surprising that some of them read like brief poems since Turner has written two well received books of poetry before this memoir.  To give an idea of what I’m talking about here’s the closing paragraph of an early section where he describes his time in Bosnia, where he was also deployed:  “Fires burned in Mostar and Visegrad, Gradacac, Gorazde and Sarajevo.  Season by season, the dead sank deeper into the soil—each enduring the severe and exacting labor of leaves and rain and sun in their compression of mineral and stone, there within the worm-driven kingdom of hunger, phyla of the blind.” (32)A later section about a house raid in Iraq begins with “The soldiers enter the house” and repeats the phrase like a refrain over and over, each time with a different description of how they enter the house (e.g. “with shouting and curses and muzzle flash” or “with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms”) (The entire section can be read at this link; I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it; it’s worth your time).  I had the opportunity to hear Turner give a reading last month, and he chose this passage from the book.  It’s the centerpiece to the book, a moving description that humanizes the soldiers bursting into the home as well as the Iraqis who are disrupted and traumatized.  The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Turner to play around with memory and time.  Memory often works likes this, brief glimpses of the past disconnected from what came before, a moment captured, but then sometimes intertwined with an image or a person or a feeling to some other moment, leading to another glimpse.  One of the themes of the book is the legacy that Turner feels as he tries to explain why he joined the Army.  He recounts the war experiences of many relatives, including his father and grandfather, and the bonds that are forged by that experience and how it never leaves a person.  In fact, another part of the book explores how anyone can come back from a war zone and try to re-integrate into civilian life.  He describes himself as two persons, one Sgt. Turner who, although dead, still watches the other, civilian Brian Turner, from the cameras of a drone.  It’s a remarkably potent image of the nature of identity integration and the trauma of war as it is carried out in the 21st century.  I began reading the book on Veteran’s Day because I felt that I need to grapple with the experiences of our soldiers and the costs of our country’s decisions to go to war, even when I didn’t agree with the reasons for going to war.  Those men and women went on my behalf whether I asked them to or not.  Turner’s story is only one soldier’s story, but it’s worth knowing when it’s told this well.  [Here’s a great interview with Turner as well]
  • Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, written by Jason Aaron with artist John Cassaday, is essentially a placeholder comic, not really worth the time.  I was pretty disappointed at how predictable it all was: the first arc especially is simply another small band of heroes infiltrating an enemy base.  Set between the first two movies (Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), it is very constrained in what it can do in terms of story and character development.  These first six issues of the comic feature only familiar characters from the movies (with one notable exception at the very end of the collection).  For what it is, a retread of familiar characters in familiar situations, it actually is well done.  Aaron has the voices of the characters down, and the art by Cassaday is top notch, reproducing the facial expressions of the actors with real skill.  But I expected much more from these two creators who have written or provided art for some of my favorite comics (e.g. Aaron’s writing on Scalped and Cassaday’s art for Planetary and Astonishing X-Men).  I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you absolutely cannot wait until the new Star Wars movies come out, and you can read it for free (like I did, from the library).
  • Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok is another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.  Davita’s Harp is the only one of Potok’s novels with a female protagonist.  Davita herself tells the story of her childhood, growing up in New York City during the Great Depression.  Her mother is a Jewish immigrant, but not religiously observant, and her father is from New England privilege, but has renounced the wealth that he came from.  They are Communists (when that wasn’t quite as unfashionable as it would be today) with hopes and beliefs about making the world a better place.  Her father is a journalist who travels a lot to cover strikes and other important events, eventually traveling to Europe to cover the Spanish civil war in 1937.  Her mother is a social worker and very active in the party.  Davita never quite understands her parents and their beliefs, but she loves them dearly and respects their desire to make the world better.  She wants to understand how they changed so profoundly: her mother had been brought up in a Hasidic family (a very strict Jewish sect) but had lost her faith, and her father had renounced capitalism and his wealthy heritage because of some event in his past.  It’s all quite mysterious to Davita.  As she grows, she learns more about her parents and about her place in the world, both as a girl and the daughter of Communists.  There’s a lot of connections to the history of the period, to Jewish identity, and even to characters from other Potok novels, though it’s not necessary to read the other books to find pleasure in this one.  I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and I’m glad that it wasn’t another story about fathers and sons like so many of his others (though I liked those a lot, too).
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book reviews, comics, faith, history, literature, poetry, politics, science

Book Reviews, October 2015

I’m trying something new with October’s batch of book reviews.  The first review is twice as long as usual so that I could go into more depth on the important history of voting rights in America.  I think I’ll try doing this again when the subject warrants it.  As for the rest, it’s more poetry, science, and faith stuff, which is pretty typical for me.  [edit: I’ve added another review at the bottom of a scary comic book I read on Halloween but didn’t have time to review until a few days later]

  • Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman is a vital look at the history of the Voting Rights Act from its passage in 1965 until today.  It traces the many challenges to the law, the Supreme Court decisions that defined how the law could be interpreted, and ultimately how the law has been rendered mostly toothless by the recent Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013.  It’s easy to think that when constitutional amendments or major legislative victories pass that they have solved the problems, but it’s not like those who were on the losing side of the argument suddenly give up at that point.  The 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited all levels of government from denying the vote to any citizen based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  But after Reconstruction ended in 1877, the south passed numerous Jim Crow laws that essentially denied the vote to African Americans through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and the like.  For nearly one hundred years, the constitution was not enforced.  The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 with bipartisan support and signed by Lyndon B. Johnson after the dramatic march from Selma to Montgomery illustrated the extreme lengths that the state of Alabama was willing to go to deny the vote to blacks (the recent film Selma does a fantastic job showing the efforts of civil rights protesters).  But again, those who lost the battle of the VRA did not give up the war against minority voting.  For instance, say a city had 60% white people and 40% black people and had heretofore always elected a white city council by suppressing the black vote.  But now that blacks could register to vote because of the VRA, they had the opportunity to elect, say, two black city council members because two of these hypothetical districts were majority black.  In such a case, many cities switched from having district voting to citywide at-large voting so they could continue voting in an all white city council.  This type of effort to dilute or further suppress the black vote continued to happen in the southern counties covered by the VRA after it was passed.  Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan courted southern states by promising to water down the VRA in what has been termed the southern strategy.  Reagan even went so far as to fill the Justice Department with lawyers who were not eager to enforce the VRA, including some who were outright hostile towards the law such as future Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.  Other methods of suppressing minority voting include voter roll purges (where voters are removed from the registration list in an effort to update the rolls, but often leads to errors where lawfully registered voters are removed for no good reason) and voter ID laws (promoted to prevent in person voter fraud, a problem that does not in fact exist, but which hurts minority, student, and elderly voters who may not have the required identifications).  In the 2000 election, the Florida recount made famous the confusing butterfly ballots and hanging chads that made it difficult to determine who received more votes in the presidential election.  What got less attention was the voter roll purge that took place before the election.  Florida purged the names of ex-felons (because by law in FL they did not have the right to vote), but they did so even if the names were a 70% match.  That means that even if voters had a different middle initial or suffix or even their race or sex data didn’t match, they might be purged.  The company that did the work for FL later went through the names again using stricter criteria and found 12,000 names that shouldn’t have been purged.  Some of those people definitely tried to vote but were not able to because when they showed up at the polls, they were turned away since they were no longer registered based on mistakenly being identified as a felon.  More recently, Indiana’s 2008 voter ID law was found constitutional despite zero instances of in person voter fraud in the state.  After the Shelby County decision in 2013, which struck down section 4 of the VRA, numerous states that had been under the VRA rushed to try and pass voter ID laws.  Section 4 of the VRA used a formula to stipulate which counties in the country would be subject to preclearance by the Justice Department of changes in election laws.  With no formula, the preclearance portion of Section 5 was rendered inert.  The Republican controlled Congress, despite overwhelmingly reauthorizing the VRA in 2006, has made no effort to rewrite the formula since the Shelby decision in 2013.  In general, Republicans do not come out looking great in this book based on their actions, with a few exceptions like Everett Dirksen, Bob Dole, and James Sensenbrenner, who respectively each played a role in passing the VRA and renewing it in 1982 and 2006.  However, I did not care for the few times Berman took cheap shots at Republicans based on irrelevant details or issues not involved in voting rights (e.g. mentioning that John Ashcroft spent taxpayer money to cover a statue of Lady Liberty at an event or insinuating that Hans von Spakovsky has a sinister sounding name).  It didn’t happen often, but it hurts his credibility in telling the vital history of voting rights in America.
  • The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean is a fascinating tour through the elements.  True to its title, Kean’s book includes interesting stories and anecdotes for every entry on the periodic table, from the probable zinc mixed with King Midas’s bronze (itself an alloy of tin and copper) that made it a much shinier brass and perhaps mistaken for gold to the effects of lithium on the brain of a poet like Robert Lowell (e.g. resetting the circadian rhythm).  Kean goes out of his way to include humor and arcane tidbits as he tells his stories.  It’s partly a history of science, but it also touches on other historical events when an element plays a prominent role.  I never took a chemistry class in high school or college, so I feel a little behind in my scientific understanding, but this is the kind of book that goes down easy.  It’s science for the rest of us.  I found myself dipping into the book frequently, and having a hard time putting it down as each new story sounded alluring.  I’d recommend this grab bag of chemistry to anyone who finds science interesting.  My only (admittedly minor) complaint is that there isn’t really an overall theme or point to the book beyond being a delightful collection of diverse stories about or related to the elements.  The title of the book refers to gallium, a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees, so that a teaspoon made of gallium would literally melt in a hot beverage as a nerdy prank.  Oh, science!
  • Transformations by Anne Sexton is an off-kilter poetry collection retelling familiar fairy tales. The stories from Grimm may be familiar, but the tone and the telling are decidedly fresh and exciting. Take the scene in “Cinderella,” where the sisters are trying on the slipper:The eldest went into a room to try the slipper on
    but her big toe got in the way so she simply
    sliced it off and put on the slipper.
    The prince rode away with her until the white dove
    told him to look at the blood pouring forth.
    That is the way with amputations.
    They don’t just heal up like a wish.
    The other sister cut off her heel
    but the blood told as blood will.
    The prince was getting tired.
    He began to feel like a shoe salesman.
    But he gave it one last try.
    This time Cinderella fit into the shoe
    like a love letter into its envelope.But it’s not long before the lovely image of the letter and envelope are undercut by Cinderella and the prince living happily ever after “like two dolls in a museum case” with “their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.” (read the whole poem here)  Many other tales such as “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” and “The Frog Prince” get the same sardonic treatment. I especially enjoyed some of the tales that I wasn’t already familiar with like “One-eye, Two-eyes, Three-eyes.” It’s a deeply weird meditation on parenthood and disability in which three sisters each have a different number of eyes. The odd-eyed sisters are favored by their mother, and the normal two-eyed girl is an outcast. Of course, in the usual manner, that means she will come out on top through magic and the love of a knight. But Sexton frames the tale with the deeply conflicted thoughts of parents dealing with children with disabilities. Parents can see their child as a gift from God, a cosmic mistake, a cause for martyrdom, or a millstone around the neck. The tale ends with Two-Eyes taking in her sisters out of pity and because they are like magic talismans. She can’t help but have them. It’s a poem that I’ll be returning to again and again out of sheer fascination. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes fairy tales.
  • The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus by Robin Meyers is a provocative look at church.  The main problem with the church, as Meyers sees it, is that it has been co-opted by Empire (first the Roman Empire under Constantine, today the American church by the government and/or political parties).  He outlines ways in which the church should disentangle from Empire and get back to its roots as a countercultural force.  Meyers envisions followers of Jesus from all denominations and theological beliefs coming together to live the faith that we profess.  To him, faith is not a list of beliefs, but radically embodied trust, or “an orientation toward the mystery of God [… b]ecause we trust in spite of what we cannot know” (118).  Another key element for Meyers is that the Underground Church he envisions is nonviolent: we are called to peace and to love our enemies.  It’s something that has been lost from many Christian traditions outside of the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish (and perhaps a few others).  He has lots of other ideas about how the church can be true to its roots: by making communion an actual meal that is shared with not only the congregation but also with any who may be hungry and in need, by budgeting as much money for outreach as for keeping the lights on and staff paid, by standing up against injustice wherever it may be, and by taking care of God’s creation and not exploiting it out of greed and selfishness, among many others.  I felt convicted by some of his exhortations.  I really liked his sense of shared mission in living out unconditional love no matter what church background.  For myself, I’ve found a home in the Episcopal church.  But just recently my mom was telling me about the wonderful after school program for inner city kids that her evangelical church (the one I grew up in) has been running for close to 15 years.  We may not see eye to eye on every bit of theology, but she and her church are showing the love of God to those kids.  My only complaint about the book is that I wanted Meyers to provide more depth to some of his historical analyses.  I appreciated what he did say about the early church and the time of Constantine, but I wanted more.  I thought the idea of church being co-opted by Empire important so I wanted even more analysis.  His book read more like extended sermons, though, which makes sense since he is a pastor.  He comes from the United Church of Christ, so though he wants to find common ground with Christians of all stripes, it might be harder for those who are more conservative to overlook some of his more liberal statements.  But I think it’s worth the effort in trying to find common ground with other Christians if we truly want to love God and our neighbors. [Disclosure: I received the book from the Carol Mann Agency via a Goodreads giveaway in the hopes that I would give it an honest review.]
  • Wytches Volume 1, written by Scott Snyder and penciled by Jock, is a pretty terrifying horror comic book.  Primarily, it’s the story of a family who has moved to a small town in New England in an attempt to start over.  The mother is still recovering from an accident that confines her to a wheelchair, the father needs time and space to work, and their daughter Sailor is trying to start over after a terrible confrontation with a bully in her old town.  But the past cannot be outrun.  And there is something evil in the woods, something old that preys on human greed and selfishness.  These aren’t the witches of Oz or Macbeth, but something more primal and awful.  But it’s not just a story of confronting evil, but a story of confronting limits, the limits of a parent in protecting a child, or the limits of a teenager’s control of anxiety.  The story is well paced, divided as it is in six parts (originally it was published in single issue comic books, each with an effective cliffhanger).  It was hard to put down.  Also, I was glad I read it during the day so I didn’t have to think about the scary parts in the dark.  The artwork by Jock has two modes: during daylight it is fairly realistic, but when it is dark or there are supernatural elements, the artwork becomes more jagged and exaggerated, like it is more about the sensation of the characters or setting rather than their literal presentation.  The art is a perfect match for Snyder’s story.  The book also contains some extra material at the end that allows the reader to see some of the process of the artwork from penciling to the finished product.  From this material it becomes clear that the colorist Matt Hollingsworth is also a vital member of the team to make this story work.  Though Wytches is an ongoing work, this first volume can be read as a standalone story with a clear climax and ending to this part of the story.  Having said that, I’ll be eager to find out where it goes next.  I’d recommend this to anyone who likes scary stories.

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book reviews, comics, literature

Women Can, and Should, Be Superheroes, Too!

A brief follow up to my post from last summer where I talked about, among other things, the poor representation of women in comic books.  I’m here to report that there are some encouraging signs (though, as ever, there are still problems like Spider-woman’s butt and the poor treatment of Batwoman from editors and writers).  I just finished reading three of Marvel’s recent series featuring female characters, and they were all pretty great (plus two were actually written by women!).

Captain Marvel (written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrated by David Lopez) and She-Hulk (written by Charles Soule and illustrated by Javier Pulido, primarily) are well rounded and capable heroes.  Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, is an Avenger, but she leaves Earth to patrol the galaxy.  I didn’t used to care much for cosmic heroes and stories because I thought it was too unrealistic (as if any superhero was “realistic”).  Now I’m simply looking for a good story well told, regardless of setting.  Carol is brave, if not a bit rash, but even when she bites off more than she can chew, she manages against the odds, just as any superhero does.  She doesn’t need to be rescued.  Jennifer Walters, aka She-Hulk, is a lawyer, despite her green skin, and a good one at that.  This new series takes her work as a lawyer seriously (which makes sense as the writer Soule is a practicing lawyer himself), foregrounding it more than the superhero action, though it has that, too.  Both series are refreshing in their portrayals of real women in superhero stories.  And the art in both books, though drawn by men in each instance, refrains from the cheesecake that so often mars comic books.

But the most exciting series of the bunch is Ms. Marvel (written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona).  It stars Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenage girl, who takes on the name of her hero Carol Danvers.  In many ways, Kamala is the new Spider-Man, a teenager who suddenly finds herself with superpowers, but still has to deal with the confusing world of being a teenager.  The story takes her seriously on every level, with her family, her friends, and her religion.  And, oh yeah, with her new powers and her new life as a superhero.  The art by Alphona gets teenagers right, which is no surprise after his previous work on Runaways.  It’s simultaneously a surprise and no wonder that the book is a success.  A book this complete should be a hit, but so often a book starring a character not the typical stereotype hero though written well is a critical darling before getting an early cancellation.  Fortunately, Kamala seems to be the exception.  I hope this is beginning of more and better representations of women for the comics industry.  This is a good start.

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