Review: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

I almost reviewed James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on my education blog rather than here, where I mainly talk about books and other things. I consider it professional reading in addition to personal reading. However, I think I will write there more generally about the educational implications of this book and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I finished earlier this week as well.

Baldwin writes lucidly and persuasively about the oppression of African Americans in 1963. I wonder what he would make of the world we live in today. Not much seems to have changed, and Baldwin’s warnings about the dangers we face if we cannot begin to love one another, if we cannot be free, seem to be boiling over in our current political climate. One wonders if what we see around us is the last gasp of white supremacy before it is submerged finally. I hope this is true, but I cannot tell.

The structure of this book takes the form of two letters: one letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the second letter to Americans in general. It was a little hard not to underline everything Baldwin says in the book. Not a word seems out of place or unnecessary. Like one of the best sermons or gospel songs, the entire book and every letter of every word in it is critical. Baldwin argues that Americans fear freedom and that none of us, black or white, is truly free. Baldwin could be writing about our current political movement when he says

We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster. (89)

Baldwin says that our only constants are birth, death, and love, “though we may not always think so” and “safety… or money, or power” are “chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed” (92). Clinging to safety, money, and power will result in the disappearance of “the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom” (92). We do have a chance if we are willing to take it.

[I]f we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them. (94)

Baldwin concludes that “we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are to become a nation” (97). The way forward is through love. Radical love, which is the theme of the post I will write on my education blog if I can manage to string together my thoughts coherently. Radical love is what we need if we are going to survive, for “hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry” (99).

Reading Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator writing about the effects of oppression on education, and Baldwin, writing about the impact of racism on human dignity, has helped me understand what happened in our recent election with a little more clarity. Some of us are afraid. The oppressed are not staying in “their place.” But as long as continue to think of each other in terms of superiority and inferiority and cannot love each other, we will none of us be free. I wish the world around us had changed since Baldwin wrote this book in 1963 and Freire wrote his in 1970, but alas, both books speak all too clearly about and to our times.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I don’t remember when I added this book to my TBR list, but I certainly wasn’t serious about moving up the list until recently. I have definitely wanted to read it since I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The title of Coates’s book comes from The Fire Next Time. I definitely want to read The Fire This Time. now.

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Review: The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

I bought Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give last March, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. It was published at the end of February last year, and the buzz around this novel has been incredible. The buzz is completely justified. This book tells an important story.

Starr Carter lives between two worlds. She goes mostly-white Williamson Prep, but she lives in Garden Heights, a neighborhood in the crosshairs of gang violence and drug abuse. Her parents send her to Williamson after one of her childhood best friends, Natasha, is killed in a drive-by shooting. As the story begins, Starr has agreed to go to a neighborhood party with her friend Kenya. She catches up with her other childhood best friend Khalil, whom she hasn’t seen in months. A fight erupts at the party, and Starr and Khalil flee the party after hearing shots. After a few moments in the car, they see the blue lights of a police car behind them. In an echo of the story that has become a refrain, the officer kills Khalil. Starr must decide how and when to speak up.

This novel is the book we need to document this moment. I don’t think I’ve ever run across a novel that captured the times we live in so well. Of course, Angie Thomas makes the point that violence against African-Americans has existed always, but what is new is the documentation of it and the awareness we see among people who were previously blind to what was happening right in front of them.

The Hate U Give

This book is wake-up call to America’s conscience. I think everyone should read it. I’d like to think we could read it again in ten or twenty years and think about the distance we have come. Like Starr, I’m not sure when things will change, but I have hope they will. I sense they will. I know I’m sometimes accused of being overly optimistic, but what does it say about us if we don’t have hope that we can change? That things can be better? For the first time, it seems like people can see and hear each other. Not everyone, but a critical mass that didn’t seem to exist before. People are not forgetting. People are remembering the names. People are using their words. Not everyone sees and hears. Yet. But books like The Hate U Give help. One thing I plan to do as a teacher is put this book into as many hands as I can.

Rating: ★★★★★

Beat the BacklistWhile this book was not on my backlist when I started the Beat the Backlist reading challenge, it has been on my backlist for a while. I’m counting it anyway—I’m not in any danger of completing the challenge with the boost this single book will give me.

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Review: Meddling Kids, Edgar Cantero

Edgar Cantero’s latest book Meddling Kids is what would happen if you mashed together Scooby DooBuffy the Vampire Slayer, the Cthulhu Mythos, the Famous Five, and the Hardy Boys. It’s a glorious postmodern pastiche of teen detective mysteries and Lovecraftian horror along with a dash of bananapants comedy.

In 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club—Kerri, Andy, Nate, Pete, and Sean the Weimaraner—cracked their biggest case and made the papers. They nabbed Thomas X. Wickley masked as an overgrown salamander running around the creepy Deboën Mansion and trying to find Damian Deboën’s gold mine. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for… well, you know.

Underneath the news story, however, lay a secret. Wickley was more than happy to spend 13 years in prison if it meant being safe from whatever was in that house. The meddling kids themselves were never the same either. Brainiac Kerri, set on a path to become a biologist, drifts from one low-paying job to the next. Andy is wanted in Texas and has done prison time. Nate is locked away in Arkham Asylum in Massachusetts. And Pete has committed suicide. Knowing their unfinished business will follow them for the rest of their lives if they don’t return to Blyton Hills and the Deboën Mansion and confront the evil lurking in its halls, Andy gathers the gang back together, including their dog Sean’s great-grandson Tim, and the group heads back to Blyton Hills to solve their biggest case once and for all.

This book is drawing a lot of comparisons to Scooby Doo, including my own, and while it’s an homage to the show, it has its separate charms. It’s hilarious in some parts, and the self-awareness with which Cantero writes is a lot of fun. I enjoyed the notion that there are real monsters out there, not just men in masks, and the last fifty pages or so of the novel were a breakneck climax with some surprising twists.

I had a lot of fun with this book. It’s a perfect selection for the R. I. P. Challenge. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who loved teen mystery shows like Scooby Doo (which is still a favorite of mine, even as an adult).

Rating: ★★★★★

R. I. P. XII

 

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Review: The Hearts We Sold, Emily Lloyd-Jones

Emily Lloyd-Jones’s novel The Hearts We Sold is probably not a book I’d have picked up on my own, but it shipped in my last Owl Crate. I read the book’s cover blurb and realized it would be perfect for theR. I. P. Challenge, so I dove in.

The Hearts We Sold is the story of Dee Moreno, a student at a boarding school in Portland, Oregon. Dee discovers that the school doesn’t have the funds to continue her scholarship, and knowing her parents, abusive and neglectful alcoholics, will never give her the money she needs to keep attending school, she finds herself willing to try something desperate. So she makes a deal with a demon. She trades her heart to him for two years in exchange for money to attend school. But her deal comes with a price—she must help him wage a war against strange monsters appearing in voids. Dee befriends the other members of the demon’s other “heartless” gang, but she quickly realizes that she has chosen a dangerous path, and she might have more to lose than her heart.

This book kept me turning pages. I think it’s intended teen audience would enjoy it. It’s honest, and it includes some diversity in its cast, including a lesbian character and a transgender character; however, they aren’t exactly major characters. Dee shows strength in dealing with her family’s problems, but her parents are bit one-dimensional, and it bugged me for some reason that the author referred to them, when she named them, as Mr. Moreno and Mrs. Moreno. It felt like they didn’t have any identities. I think I would even have preferred something like “her father” or “her mother.” Probably it wouldn’t bother most people. I’m noticing a trend in YA fiction in which it seems secondary characters (at least, usually secondary) have to be quirky in ways that don’t seem important or maybe don’t make sense. For example, Dee’s roommate not only has the odd name Gremma, but she also vivisects her teddy bears because she’s interested in medicine. That makes no sense to me because vivisecting teddy bears won’t help anyone learn anything about anatomy. I could see it if she were dissecting animals or something, but perhaps that was a bit too gross. I guess this trend just reminds me too much of the “manic pixie dream girl” thing that ran rampant in movies a few years back. I do like the fairy tale allusions and there were some other fun surprises along the way, too. The book was a fun diversion, though, and if anyone’s looking for something new to read for the R. I. P. Challenge, you might check it out.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I am counting this book as my second selection for this year’s R. I. P. Challenge.

R. I. P. XII

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Review: The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost

I was a big fan of the series Twin Peaks, which I watched faithfully each week until some time into the second season, after which I felt the series took a nosedive (I did ultimately watch all the episodes at some point last year). I read Laura Palmer’s secret diary (and wished I hadn’t). I watched Fire Walk With Me (and wished I hadn’t). When it was announced that the series would return, I was excited because I thought I’d have some answers about what, exactly, was going on. Well, if you watched Twin Peaks: The Return, maybe you liked it. Maybe after it was over, all you could think was “WTF did I just watch?” (That was me, by the way.) I think I did like parts of it, but in general, I can’t really recommend it because I felt it dropped too many threads and didn’t resolve much of anything. I was so frustrated by the ending of the series, that I decided to read Mark Frost’s book, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, hoping it might offer some answer. I also decided I would check it out of the library rather than buy it because I had a feeling it wouldn’t be something I’d need to own. I have to say that it did explain the series a bit, but not enough.

The book presents itself as a dossier compiled by a “mysterious” person the FBI refers to as “the Archivist.” No one who has watched the series will likely be surprised by the Archivist’s identity, but they might be surprised by a few of the revelations the book offers. Recorded weirdness in the area near Twin Peaks dates all the way back to Lewis and Clark, and the book implicates everything and everyone in this weirdness, from aliens and UFOs, the Air Force, Richard Nixon, Jack Parsons, L. Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley, the Masons, the Illuminati, the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph, and Douglas Milford, who you may remember married a young siren named Lana in the original series and died on his wedding night—it’s strongly implied sex with Lana did poor Dougie in. However, much of the series still remains unexplained. Frost has another book coming out on Halloween, and perhaps this final tome will put the mysteries to bed, but I am starting to feel about the Twin Peaks franchise the same way I feel about Anne Rice.

Let me explain.

I really loved Interview with the Vampire. I rushed right out and read the rest of the Vampire Chronicles that had been published at the time. I also loved The Vampire Lestat. I didn’t love The Queen of the Damned, but when I enjoyed The Tale of the Body Thief, I decided maybe The Queen of the Damned was a fluke. Then came the others. MerrickThe Vampire ArmandMemnoch the Devil (which remains the only book I’ve thrown across the room). I couldn’t finish Blackwood Farm. I decided maybe I should quit Anne Rice because I was disappointed time and time again. But then I’d give her another chance. Finally, I gave Prince Lestat a chance, and it was just bloody awful. I kept trying because I kept hoping Rice would return to the storytelling I enjoyed in the first few books I read, but after being disappointed time and again, I was forced to conclude that I should quit Anne Rice. And I was a big fan. I used to check her fan website for news nearly every day in 1995 or thereabouts.

I won’t give too much away because part of the fun of reading this “dossier” is discovering the creepy history of Twin Peaks and trying to figure out how some of the events in Twin Peaks: The Return fit in. For example, this crazy episode. No, it still doesn’t make complete sense, but it makes a little more sense after I read this book. Also, some of the characters’ histories, ret-conned or no, definitely take on more significance than they appeared to have in the original series. The book also has some inconsistencies, both internally and connected to the series. I always find it frustrating when that happens. The book definitely goes in a more X-Files direction than the original series did.

Honestly, some of the episodes of Twin Peaks, both the original series and The Return, remain some of the creepiest things I’ve seen on TV, and for my money, villains don’t come much scarier than the ones you find on Twin Peaks. But I admit my patience with the franchise may be at an end—not that it’s clear that Lynch and Frost plan to continue.

So am I going to give Twin Peaks another chance with this book on Halloween? Probably. I mean, I still have too many questions about what the hell I watched this summer. But let’s just say I’ll be wary of anything else that comes down the pike if this next book disappoints as much as the series. And as I did with this book, I’ll be checking it out of the library. I’m wary to say the least.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


R. I. P. XIII am counting this book as my first selection for this year’s R. I. P. Challenge, as I found it sufficiently creepy (just like the series) to be an R. I. P. read.

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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

My school’s Upper School read this summer was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I initially picked this book up some years ago, but something interrupted my reading, so I wasn’t able to finish it. I had always wanted to go back and finish it, so I was glad of an opportunity.

If you are not familiar with the book (though probably most people are by now), it’s the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family (as well as how Rebecca Skloot obtained Henrietta’s story). Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She had cervical cancer. Her doctor excised tissue samples including both normal cells and cancer cells. Her cancer cells, known to science as HeLa, became the first immortal cell line. It has been used to create the polio vaccine, and also conduct research in AIDS, various forms of cancer, and innumerable other projects. Henrietta Lacks’s family, however, did not know about the research done with her cells, nor did they benefit monetarily from their use. This book explores not only the story of Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to science but also the ethical dilemma introduced by lack of informed consent, as well as racism and poverty.

This book raises some interesting questions. I found it fascinating. I love reading about people’s stories. However, the story, in this case, is in the hands of a white woman who is no part of the Lacks family. Some have argued she blurred the line of objectivity toward one’s subject in how close she became with the Lacks family, particularly Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. I have also heard others argue that Skloot took advantage of the Lacks family as much as Johns Hopkins did. I would argue she was not going to obtain the story without blurring that line, and it’s also possible that family members would not have been able to tell the story without Skloot’s interest and help. Still, it’s an important consideration in terms of what happened to Henrietta Lacks’s cells. The cells are outside of the control of the family, and many argue that it’s too hard to figure out how to compensate the Lacks family, who have struggled in poverty and often (ironically) without health insurance. Anyone can order a vial of HeLa cells online, but the Lacks family receives no part of the profits on those sales. HeLa cells have benefited humanity tremendously, and a great deal of good has come from the research done with them, but very little consideration has ever been given to her family. For instance, Henrietta Lacks’s genome was released a few years ago, though it was later withdrawn after the Lacks family voiced concerns about privacy. In this era, when information like that is out there, it’s impossible to put back in the bottle. Henrietta Lacks’s medical records have also been released. It’s a shame the Lacks family has been treated the way it has, and though it’s hard to say whether or not the treatment would have been different had she been a white woman with the means to pay for her healthcare, my personal belief is that her race and class played a role in how she and her family were treated. It’s still true that once tissue is excised from our bodies, it is no longer considered ours, and doctors and scientists can do whatever they like with it. I suspect that will change some time down the road, but right now, case law says we do not own our tissue once it’s no longer part of our body. Think of all the times you may have had blood drawn, or a biopsy. Or even signed up for 23 and Me or a similar DNA site. In fact, the agreement you make with 23 and Me is that your DNA can be used for research, and you don’t get your results about family, ancestry, or health information without making that agreement.

This books definitely exposes interesting ethical issues in science and medicine, and it finally tells the story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line, and I think both stories needed to be told. I really enjoyed reading the book. It raised a lot of questions and made me think.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I am counting this book for the Backlist Reader Challenge, as I have been meaning to go back and read it after starting it years ago. This time, I started over at the beginning rather than pick up where I left off, which turned out to have been a good idea since I read the book quite some time ago.

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TLC Book Tour: Whispering in French, Sophia Nash

Sophia Nash’s novel Whispering in French begins as Kate Hamilton flies to Biarritz in the south of France to see if she can convince her grandfather to sell the cliffside villa that has been in her family for generations. She doesn’t expect to fall in love with the place herself and to risk everything to save it, finding herself and discovering a new confidence and ability to take risks in the process.

Meanwhile, her grandfather’s neighbor asks Kate, a psychologist, if she will help his great-nephew, Edward Soames, whose PTSD as the result of several tours of duty threatens to destroy the man’s life and perhaps even, his uncle fears, cause his suicide. He proves to be a difficult case, and Kate breaks some of her own rules in order to reach him.

Kate weathers a string of crises, from lack of money (never actually a serious crisis, as it turns out), to a violent storm, to a reconciliation with her family, to discovering family she didn’t know she had, bureaucratic red tape. I was curious as to why so many crises hit the protagonist in such quick succession only to be neatly resolved within a chapter or two. The basic plotline meandered a bit, not quite resolving itself for this reader. I wondered also at the inclusion of the adventures of the neighbor’s cat and a hedgehog, who were later joined by a dog, in the garden. However, Kate’s self-realization and acceptance of herself felt realistic in light of the challenges she faced as she decided to stay in France. The setting is rendered realistically and vividly. Readers looking for a light beach read might enjoy this one.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

From the Publisher

• Paperback: 384 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (August 1, 2017)

Award-winning romance author Sophia Nash makes her women’s fiction debut with a beautifully crafted, funny, and life-affirming story set in the Atlantic seaside region of France, as one woman returns to France to sell her family home and finds an unexpected chance to start over—perfect for fans of Le Divorce and The Little Paris Bookshop.

Home is the last place Kate expected to find herself…

As a child, Kate Hamilton was packed off each summer to her grandfather’s ivy-covered villa in southern France. That ancestral home, named Marthe Marie, is now crumbling, and it falls to Kate—regarded as the most responsible and practical member of her family—to return to the rugged, beautiful seaside region to confront her grandfather’s debts and convince him to sell.

Kate makes her living as a psychologist and life coach, but her own life is in as much disarray as Marthe Marie. Her marriage has ended, and she’s convinced that she has failed her teenaged daughter, Lily, in unforgivable ways. While delving into colorful family history and the consequences of her own choices, Kate reluctantly agrees to provide coaching to Major Edward Soames, a British military officer suffering from post-traumatic stress. Breaking through his shell, and dealing with idiosyncratic locals intent on viewing her as an Americanized outsider, will give Kate new insight into who—and where—she wants to be. The answers will prove as surprising as the secrets that reside in the centuries-old villa.

Witty and sophisticated, rich in history and culture, Sophia Nash’s novel vividly evokes both its idyllic French setting and the universal themes of self-forgiveness and rebuilding in a story as touching as it is wise.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Sophia Nash

Photo by Mary Noble Ours

Sophia Nash was born in Switzerland and raised in France and the United States, but says her heart resides in Regency England. Her ancestor, an infamous French admiral who traded epic cannon fire with the British Royal Navy, is surely turning in his grave.

Before pursuing her long-held dream of writing, Sophia was an award-winning television producer for a CBS affiliate, a congressional speechwriter, and a nonprofit CEO. She lives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs with her husband and two children.

Sophia’s novels have won twelve national awards, including the prestigious RITA®Award, and two spots on Booklist‘s “Top Ten Romances of the Year.”

Find out more about Sophia at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Harper Collins provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. You can catch the reviews of other readers on the TLC Book Tour.

Tuesday, August 1st: Girl Who Reads
Wednesday, August 2nd: Just Commonly
Wednesday, August 2nd: I Wish I Lived in a Library
Friday, August 4th: Art @ Home
Monday, August 7th: A Chick Who Reads
Wednesday, August 9th: Reading to Distraction
Thursday, August 10th: BookNAround
Monday, August 14th: Tina Says…
Tuesday, August 15th: StephTheBookworm
Wednesday, August 16th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

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TLC Book Tour: Strange Contagion, Lee Daniel Kravetz

Strange Contagion coverLee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves was born out of tragedy. A series of teen suicides among students and alumni of Palo Alto’s Gunn High School suggested an epidemic was underway. Kravetz, a new father and resident of Palo Alto, was concerned about his community. What was causing these students to commit suicide? Could the epidemic be stopped? How? These questions prompted Kravetz to explore the way emotions and behaviors are communicated in a society.

Kravetz learns that emotions are not terribly different from communicable diseases. We are highly suggestible creatures, and the emotions of others are easily transmitted. We catch everything from the goals of others around us to courage or bravery or fear to the host of feelings, positive or negative, that others around us bring into the room.

In fact, we are so susceptible to the spread of viral emotions that we don’t really even need to come in contact with individuals to be influence by them. Their emotions can be communicated through others who bring them to us or even through social media. As Kravetz says, “role models are so influential that oftentimes we don’t even know whom we’re modeling—or that we’re modeling them at all. And that at once enthralls and frightens me” (118).

Given our current social and political climate, the concepts that Kravetz discusses are frightening, but they also explain a great deal about the collective mood on both sides of the political spectrum. Kravetz doesn’t have solutions because the problem is too complex. Navigating viral emotions means we need to be aware of our own feelings and what is causing them, and we also need to be aware of our susceptibility to the emotions of others. We also need to accept that others influence us. Kravetz concludes, “Beneath the surface, we are all connected” (220). This idea might not be new. After all, Emerson explored in his writing about the concept of the oversoul. But Kravetz’s psychological and sociological exploration of the way we are connected offers more explanation of how we are all connected. If social contagion is a part of the human experience, we need to learn how to live with it and fight it (when it’s negative) in the best way we can, just as we have done with communicable diseases.

This book gave me a lot to think about, especially as I teach high school students like those who go to Gunn High School. Though we do need to be on guard for negative social contagion, such as the suicides that prompted Kravetz to explore the topics in this book, we can also channel social contagion positively to spread love and care for each other. In a discussion of the communicability of bravery and courage, Kravetz writes that “the trick to passing along lasting courage is one of overwhelming the system with examples of it, flooding the environment with models of generosity, authority, demonstrations of personal responsibility, and examples of calm in the heat of battle” (114). In the end, perhaps the best way to combat negative social contagions is to be what Kravetz calls the interrupter. We can do what we can to be the model of courage, bravery, kindness, compassion, and happiness. As Stephen King says, “We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.”

Rating: ★★★★★

From the Publisher

About Strange Contagion

• Hardcover: 288 pages
• Publisher: Harper Wave (June 27, 2017)

Picking up where The Tipping Point leaves off, respected journalist Lee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion is a provocative look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.

In 2009, tragedy struck the town of Palo Alto: A student from the local high school had died by suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Grief-stricken, the community mourned what they thought was an isolated loss. Until, a few weeks later, it happened again. And again. And again. In six months, the high school lost five students to suicide at those train tracks.

A recent transplant to the community and a new father himself, Lee Daniel Kravetz’s experience as a science journalist kicked in: what was causing this tragedy? More important, how was it possible that a suicide cluster could develop in a community of concerned, aware, hyper-vigilant adults?

The answer? Social contagion. We all know that ideas, emotions, and actions are communicable—from mirroring someone’s posture to mimicking their speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our environment. But when just the right physiological, psychological, and social factors come together, we get what Kravetz calls a “strange contagion”: a perfect storm of highly common social viruses that, combined, form a highly volatile condition.

Strange Contagion is simultaneously a moving account of one community’s tragedy and a rigorous investigation of social phenomenon, as Kravetz draws on research and insights from experts worldwide to unlock the mystery of how ideas spread, why they take hold, and offer thoughts on our responsibility to one another as citizens of a globally and perpetually connected world.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Lee Daniel Kravetz AP Photo by Ian TuttleAbout Lee Daniel Kravetz

Lee Daniel Kravetz has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a graduate of the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Journalism. He has written for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among other publications. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and children.

Find out more about Lee at his website, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Harper Collins provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. You can catch the reviews of other readers on the TLC Book Tour.

Tuesday, June 27th: A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, June 28th: Book Hooked Blog
Thursday, June 29th: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Friday, June 30th: Books & Tea
Tuesday, July 4th: Wining Wife
Tuesday, July 4th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, July 5th: Based on a True Story
Thursday, July 6th: Readaholic Zone
Thursday, July 6th: she treads softly
Friday, July 7th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Monday, July 10th: StephTheBookworm
Tuesday, July 11th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, July 12th: Books on the Table
Thursday, July 13th: Library of Clean Reads
TBD: Sapphire Ng

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Review: The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, John T. Edge

John T. Edge’s book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South explores a culinary history of Southern food from the Civil Rights era to the present day. What is potlikker? According to Edge,

Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food. During the antebellum era, slaveholders ate the greens from the pot, setting aside the potlikker for enslaved cooks and their families, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. (6)

What Edge sets out to do in this book is explain how the cuisine we think of as Southern food emerged from black cooks. Edge also explains the ways in which Southern cuisine has changed over the years and discusses some of the major movers and shakers in the world of Southern cooking. In addition, he discusses issues related to access to food and poverty as well as movements in fast food and farm-to-table cooking and the gentrification of Southern food (and restaurants), ending with discussion of the influence of immigrants to the South on Southern cooking.

Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South” (read more here). He was recently featured, as was Michael Twitty, whose book The Cooking Gene comes out later this year, on the Gastropod podcast.

I found this book fascinating from start to finish, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I gained a lot of insight into Southern food, and I also learned quite a lot of history that I didn’t know. One really interesting story that Edge shares early in the book concerns President Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. I had always assumed that he really had to be prodded quite a lot to sign the Civil Rights Act, and probably to an extent, he did, but he as he tried to garner support for civil rights, he often told the story of his cook, Zephyr Wright, being unable to use the restroom during a stop on a cross-country trip. He varied the story to suit his audience, but like many of the people who heard the story directly from Johnson’s lips, I found it to be quite moving. As Edge explains, “The Zephyr Wright story reduced a national issue to a personal one. It moved the argument from the senate chamber to the cloakroom and then to the kitchen” (27).When Johnson signed the Act, Zephyr Wright was there, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. He handed her one of the pens he used, saying “You deserve this more than anybody else” (28).

I think it’s hard not to see things differently when you hear someone’s personal story. It’s one of the reasons politicians bring up everyday Americans during conventions or on the floor of Congress. We are moved by stories. To a certain extent, this book stitches together the stories of Southern cooks from Georgia Gilmore, who fed Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. in her home/restaurant to Michael Twitty, who recently attempted to engage Paula Deen in conversation after her infamous declaration that she had used the n-word. Twitty invited Deen to learn “why so many people were so upset by her comments” (278). He wanted her to know that “the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform, is far more galling than you saying ‘nigger,’ in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy” (279). As far as I understand, Twitty never received a reply from Deen. It’s a shame because it might have gone a long way to repairing the damage she caused.

Edge’s main point, I think, is captured when he says “The adjective Southern and the noun Southerner have, since the nineteenth century, referenced the white South and the Confederate South. Those limited categories failed the people of the region. The South was never monochromatic” (2). As Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States, says “Who can lay claim to the South?… I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too” (309). That South included black barbecue pit masters and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Stephen Gaskin’s commune the Farm and chefs Paul Prudhomme and Nathalie Dupree. It included grits, boiled peanuts, fried chicken, okra, hoppin’ john, biscuits, cornbread, and yes, pot likker. I think anyone interested in food history would enjoy this book, but I think it will speak especially to anyone who has called the South, with all its messy contradictions, home. As Edge says, “In this modern South, the likkers at the bottoms of those vessels sustain many peoples. And they remind Americans of the vitality that drives regional foodways” (308).

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, Stewart Lee Allen

The description of Stewart Lee Allen’s book The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee would have prospective readers believe that Allen was on a quest to answer two big questions: “Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization?” and “Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history?” I’m not really sure either question was answered, but I did learn a few things about coffee, and I was entertained.

Allen begins his journey in Harar, Ethiopia, said to be the birthplace of coffee.As he claims partway through the book, “Coffee and humanity both sprang from the same area in eastern Africa.” Next Allen treks through Yemen, Turkey, Austria, France, and from there to Brazil and finally across America on Route 66, following the course of coffee-loving mystics and adventurers and the coffee plant itself. It’s a little bit like what might happen if you put Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a blender. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was more a straight history of coffee, and though there was some history, it was equally Allen’s memoir of his trek around the world in search of coffee’s history.

However, I did learn a few things, such as why coffee dominates in America and tea in Britain (it really has a lot to do with the American Revolution and the Opium Wars), how coffee houses have fomented revolution, and about coffee’s origins among Sufi mystics. For a self-professed coffee fanatic, Allen holds some surprising views. For instance, he doesn’t rag on Starbucks like most coffee snobs I know. Instead he says:

Sure, they’re a megacorporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés. But that’s just something large corporations do. The important thing is that they serve fine coffee. Their baristas are generally first-rate.

 

I actually really like Starbucks, but a lot of people don’t describe their coffee as “fine.” I realize that’s partly because it’s really uncool to like anything that’s popular. Hipsters seem bent on making everyone unhappy about liking anything. I am admittedly not a real coffee aficionado, so perhaps that explains why Starbucks and Dunkin and the like taste good to me. I am also not a hipster—not even close.

This was entertaining, quick read, and most of all, it was fun to read with a nice cup of coffee in the morning, but if you’re looking for the straight history that the book’s title suggests, look elsewhere.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book as the “object you might hunt for” for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge because, not only because Allen spends a lot of the book hunting for various types of coffee and stories about coffee’s history and travels, but also because I have sure spent time on a quest for a good cup of coffee on occasion, myself.

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