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Review: On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is the most terrifying thing you’ll read this HalloweenOn_Tyranny (outside of a presidential Twitter feed, that is). This is the book for this moment, and even if you’re not much on politics or nonfiction reading, please set aside the hour it will take to read this book.

That’s not too much to ask for the defense of democracy.

Saving western civilization as we know it is a tall order for such a short book, but for On Tyranny, Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, doesn’t waste space on academic masturbation. He draws lessons from the 20th century for guidance on how to defend democracy in 2017 and beyond. This book is direct, intense, and a call to action.

The result is an instruction manual with 20 tips for fighting back against tyranny, ranging from the minute (“Make eye contact and small talk”), to the macro (“Take responsibility for the face of the world”). But even the most ambitious items on this to-do list come with practical, everyday advice:

“Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.”

Lest you think this is a partisan polemic, Snyder does not target parties, but principles. Historically, the enemies of democracy have come from all over the political spectrum. Preventing tyranny requires a multi-party system and a vigilant, informed electorate.

“Any election can be the last,” Snyder writes, “or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”

Other advice includes protecting a free press, being wary of paramilitary groups and coded speech, and actively reading a wide variety of material—preferably on paper, not a screen. After all, interactive screens were tools of oppression in classic dystopian works by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

In particular, beware the mechanisms of terror management. From false flags to opportunistic dictators, real or perceived enemies at the gates have permitted internal threats to flourish. Let the Reichstag fire of 1933 be a lesson, he writes, as it is the blueprint for how would-be tyrants seize unchecked power: When the German parliament caught fire under suspicious circumstances, Hitler used the event to suspend civil liberties on an emergency basis.

Of course, these liberties were not restored once the dubious emergency was over. Liberties, once surrendered, are seldom returned without force.

“For tyrants,” Snyder writes, “the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.”

Fear is a powerful weapon. Politicians use it to gain power, and the media use it to boost ratings and readership. And fear is what makes our most-cherished institutions vulnerable.

“Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, when it seems most difficult to do so.”

Though the tyrants have their blueprint, Snyder has offered us a brilliant playbook for combating them. The important takeaway for me is that you don’t need to wait for the next election to do something productive. Simply engaging in the world beyond your head or screen (particularly in uncomfortable places) can make a difference.

“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen,” Snyder writes. We should meet new people, go different places, and generally be present in the three-dimensional world.

And take to heart this bullet point from Snyder—tape it to your front door, hang it on your fridge, tattoo it inside your eyelids:

“We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.”

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Review: Universal Harvester

John Darnielle’s second novel is the literary equivalent of getting lost on a country road.universal-harvester You think you know where you’re going, but after a random turn you’re not so sure. “Yep, that water tower over there is the landmark I’m looking for,” you say to assure yourself, but then that queasy feeling gets stronger, “Didn’t I drive past that barn a half-hour ago?”

In Universal Harvester, you’re not just unsure of where you are, but whom you’re traveling with.

At first, you’re hitching a ride with Jeremy, a recognizable small-town kid without ambition or direction. He works in a local video store in the late-1990s, and Darnielle does a great job of capturing the rural America of that time.

Jeremy, in his early 20s, lives with his widowed father, and their interactions are some of my favorite moments in the novel. Sadness backdrops all their conversations, as they struggle to communicate in the way all fathers and sons do at that age. Yet, there is clear, unstated affection for one another.

Initially, Universal Harvester reads like a pre-YouTube alternate reality game (ARG) or a snuff film. Whereas today, it’s common to come across snippets of unsettling videos that serve as clues to a narrative, this wasn’t as easy in the days of dial-up.

That’s why it’s so disturbing when Video Hut customers complain of creepy vignettes recorded over the rented tapes. The deeper we (through Jeremy and his boss, Sarah Jane) dive into the footage, the more certain we are that:

  1. Solving the ARG is the novel’s ultimate destination
  2. Sarah Jane is about to become the next victim when she locates the source of the videos and mysteriously stops coming into work

Then we take an unexpected turn down one country road, and then another, and Sarah Jane has the wheel, and then Lisa, and then Jeremy again. The abrupt shifts in perspective and storyline are jarring, and the polarized responses to this novel are probably deserved, with some readers feeling misled as to what type of book this is going to be.

Fair enough. Universal Harvester reads like straight horror at first, but then makes a hard left, thereby dialing down the menace, unfortunately.

But this is still a horror novel for my money, just of a different variety. It is about the isolation of small-town America pre-broadband, the slow suffocation of a life stuck in neutral, and the knowledge that not all mysteries can be solved.

And even when they are solved, the answers are seldom as satisfying, and the motives never as clear, as they are in an ARG. “We’re not hurt,” Jeremy rationalizes as he drives away from the farmhouse in the mysterious video clips.

In Darnielle’s Midwestern malaise, this is damn-near a happy ending.

Recommended Reads: 03.15.16

Redskins: Insult and Brand
C. Richard King

RedskinsUnder Roger Goodell’s watch, the NFL has done all it can to insult and offend its fans. As much as I love football, it’s getting harder to support the NFL and Goodell’s funhouse-mirror morality. One of the most egregious offenses is the league’s continued use of the “Redskins” team name.

In Redskins: Insult and Brand, C. Richard King explores the term and its unfortunate intersection with professional football. King expands his study beyond the current debate to reflect on the complicated views white Americans have of minorities and the role economics and brand value play in the inexplicable defense of a racial slur.

 

Why Quark Rhymes with Pork and Other Scientific Diversions
N. David MerminWhy Quark Rhymes with Pork

Yet another example of a book that, had I read this in high school, would have steered me toward the sciences. Mermin is a heavyweight theoretical physicist, and in this volume collects 43 essays, some not previously published and many of them culled from his columns in Physics Today.

Technical, yet light-hearted and accessible, Why Quark Rhymes with Pork will be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers, not just the science-minded. Fans of Sam Kean and Mary Roach should get a kick out of Mermin’s essays.

Review: Forked

Forked: A New Standard for American Dining

Saru Jayaraman

Having spent nearly half of my working life in restaurants, I was excited to read Jayaraman’s defense of the AmericanForked service worker — especially since I was once employed by two of what she considers to be two of the worst employers in the biz: Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Many of the back-of-the-house anecdotes in Forked are all too familiar to me, but Jayaraman, through her research and foundation, Restaurant Opportunities Center, augments these tales with stats and studies and facts that I, even as a fairly well-informed server/bartender/cook/dishwasher, didn’t realize. These include the history of the tipped economy and why it has lost favor in much of the world and that the federal minimum wage has remained at $2.13 an hour for nearly a quarter-century for those living off gratuities.

Jayaraman argues that the industry and its workers remain handcuffed by mid-1990s legislation put forth by Herman Cain, the National Restaurant Association, and Darden Restaurants, the largest restaurant company in the world. Darden’s flagship chain is the Olive Garden, and until 2014 it also owned Red Lobster.

Of the restaurants where I’ve worked, Darden’s were actually the nicest, which is more commentary on the sad state of the industry than a compliment to Darden. Jayaraman has an even lower opinion of their stores. In each section of Forked, she profiles a company taking the high road in its treatment of workers and a company taking the low road.

Not even unlimited cheddar bay biscuits could salvage a passing grade for Darden.

For me, the most illuminating aspect of Jayaraman’s manifesto is her discussion of sexual harassment. Now, it’s no secret (I don’t think) that restaurants are sexually charged work milieus. They are also an intersection of diverse populations. The back of the house, in my experience, was a mix of drifters, creative types, future scholars and criminals. Many of my co-workers went on to earn advanced degrees. Many of them came to work wearing house arrest anklets.

Meanwhile, the front of the house was mostly staffed by young women, some of them still in high school, who drew the salacious humor and advances of the boys’ club on the line. Some of it was naive or good-natured (I’m thinking of the potty humor and clumsy communication of teenaged boys), but some of it was creepy and misogynistic.

And all of it was inappropriate in the workplace, which is why I haven’t witnessed much of it since leaving the restaurant industry.

But even with this knowledge, Jayaraman’s research was alarming. Consider, she argues, that for millions of young women, hosting or waiting tables is their first job. “It is the industry through which they learn what is tolerable and acceptable in the workplace.”

She backs this up with data (higher rates of sexual harassment in states paying tipped workers differently from non-tipped workers) and anecdotally (women who failed to report sexual harassment in later employment because, compared to what they’d endured, “it was never as bad as it was” in restaurants.

But for all there is to recommend Forked, there is a bias that must be acknowledged. The book promotes the work of ROC, a nonprofit co-founded by Jayaraman, and lacks the outsider perspective of books like Nickel and Dimed and Fast Food Nation.

While this bias is worth keeping in mind, it doesn’t discredit her argument — her research and data are still valid, just maybe not as comprehensive as that of independent lab testing.

That only slightly tempers my enthusiasm for this book. Forked is well-written and informative, and I think it’s a must-read for American diners — especially if they’ve never known the joy of cleaning out the deep fryer.

Recommended Reads: 2.2.16

Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Changes Lives

David Denby

When I was in high school, I wanted to write my junior project on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I chose it 9780805095852_LitUp_JK.inddbecause it was a controversial and frequently banned book, and I thought, from the title, that it might be a horror novel. I went to our school’s library and looked it up in the card catalog (here is a link if you don’t know what that is), only to find that it was already checked out.

The library had one other Vonnegut book, so I figured I’d give that one a try. That book was Cat’s Cradle, and it’s not hyperbole to say that it changed my life forever.

That’s what great books are supposed to do. Great books stay with you. They inspire you. They grow with you. I’ve read Cat’s Cradle two more times since high school, and I look forward to reading it a few more times before I die.

I may have never picked up that book — and pursued a literary life — were it not for that junior project. This is why education and youth literacy is so important — and why New Yorker staff writer and culture critic David Denby’s new book, Lit Up, is a must-read.

In something of a sequel to his Great Books, Denby returns to 10th grade English class to see what literature is being taught and how it is being received by youth whose lives are dominated by LCD screens.

I hope that somewhere, some alienated teenager has flipped to the last page of Cat’s Cradle, intoxicated by its madhouse narrative, and is reading that devastating final paragraph that begins, “If I were a younger man, I’d write a history of human stupidity…”

I also recommend Denby’s 2009 book, Snark.

 

The Sound of Time

Jeremy Essex

This book may as well have been custom made for me. It involves the graveyard shift, factory workers and aThe Sound of Time psychology student. There wasn’t much I enjoyed about working in a steel mill, but one thing I loved was the creepiness of the rusted factory.

Cleaning the warehouse evoked a unique sense of dread. I was alone, sweeping the aisles between stacks of steel coils fifteen feet high. Knowing that if one of the coils fell, it would be a long time before they found me.

Essex’s novel is less about the physical threats of factory work, but more about the ghosts allegedly haunting the place. Essex incorporates quantum physics to add another layer of creepy.

Forget ghosts. The spooky implications of quantum physics can elicit more chills than a campfire tale.

The combination of setting, science and quality storytelling make The Sound of Time a hit for horror fans.

Recommended Reads: 01.26.16

New year, new reading list. Here are some January releases to kick-start 2016.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

Jane Mayer

In recent years the Koch brothers have become liberal bogeymen, invoked in political ads, petitions and editorials to maximize fear factor. Certainly, the truth behind these billionaire brothers is more complicated than that, but they are rightly the focus of Mayer’s history of how the wealthiest Americans have rigged the political system in their favor. Folks of different political persuasions may disagree on ideology, but we should all be able to agree on the importance of transparency. That is what Mayer hopes to provide in this highly acclaimed investigation.

 

DemocracyinBlackDemocracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul

Eddie S. Glaude

Staying in the political realm, Princeton professor Eddie Glaude offers this poignant and difficult narrative about the state of race relations in America. For a brief time, we lived under the comfortable illusion of a post-racial country, but since electing its first black president, America has grown more racially divided. Glaude chronicles recent injustices and proposes a bold fix in Democracy in Black.

 

TheConfidenceGame

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time

Maria Konnikova

At some point, the market will grow weary of the Gladwellian genre, but not yet. There’s a good reason for that. We are learning more about our brains and our behavior every year, and the findings are compelling. Perhaps the mind has its own ego that loves to read about itself? So much for navel gazing. Now it’s all about the brain gazing, and in Konnikova’s new book she shows why even the brightest among us are capable of being conned.

Author Interview: Joanna Mishtal, The Politics of Morality

Growing up in the west, I had a fairly uncomplicated view of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, they were the EvilThe Politics of Morality Empire. Then down comes the Berlin Wall. The Iron Curtain crumbles. Freedom wins the day. Roll credits.

Of course, history is never that simple.

Anthropologist Joanna Mishtal grew up in Soviet Poland, defected to the United States as a teenager, and now studies reproductive rights in her country of birth. Her research uncovers a thornier narrative of post-Soviet Poland. Rather than a secular democracy, the Catholic church has assumed a dominant political role.

As a result, Poland has some of the strictest abortion laws of any European Union country, and Mishtal explores the effect this has had on women and women’s rights in her first book, The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland.

The book, published by Ohio University Press, blends politics, personal narrative, Polish history and peer-reviewed research. Full disclosure: I have known Mishtal for close to a decade and I proofread early drafts of a few chapters.

Mishtal provides a unique view of Polish politics, having experienced both Soviet and post-Soviet culture as well as having lived in the west. Most impressively, she is able to switch easily between detached observation and insider familiarity, lending a unique voice to her research. Her personal insights enhance the narrative while her use of case studies give flesh and bone to the academics.

With Russia once again a wild card, the EU in crisis and Poland’s recent swing even further to the right, The Politics of Morality is a timely and important read. We are still figuring out both the history and consequences of the end of the Cold War, and Mishtal’s is an important and necessary voice in the discussion.

She recently sat down with Ensuing Chapters to discuss The Politics of Morality.