From the Archives: Dark Money

Following the 2016 election, I tried to better understand what had happened by reading books. Along with the New York Times list of “Six books to understand Trump’s win,” I found that Dark Money brought much illumination into developments that had been decades in the making. Disturbing but essential reading, and I’m sharing my review again during this year’s edition of Nonfiction November because it’s still as relevant as ever. This review was originally published on October 17, 2017.

Jane Mayer, Dark Money (2016)

As my highly non-political brain tries to grasp what is really behind the political and social upheavals of our time, I’m grateful for the books that are helping to give me some insight into these difficult and complex topics. Such a book was the first entry in this series, The Unwinding by George Packer, which created a kaleidoscopic narrative impression of the experience of ordinary and extraordinary Americans over the last forty years.

Packer pictures the economic and social disintegration of our time as a complex web of small and large interacting forces that makes it hard to blame any one person or group. That view has its own validity, but it’s also important to recognize the influence of certain wealthy individuals who have methodically worked to subvert liberal tendencies and swing the government sharply to the right, in service of their own self-interest. In Dark Money Jane Mayer brings this secretive group — centered around the Koch brothers — into the limelight, painstakingly piecing together a story that they would much rather not have uncovered, but that everyone needs to know. The Kochs and their ilk form an incredibly powerful, single-minded, focused force that has already changed our country in manifold ways, and intends to do so even more in the future.

Mayer first delves into the family history and character of the main operatives, most notably Charles and David Koch, two of four brothers born into a fortune built on fossil fuels, but now reaching its ever-expanding tentacles into a dizzying array of companies and enterprises. Rich in material goods but poor in empathy, compassion, and social conscience, the Kochs are typical of an emerging class of American plutocrats who follow their own version of the Golden Rule: The ones who have the gold rule.

For all of their adult lives, the Kochs have been doggedly fighting to eliminate legislation and constraints that would hurt their personal and business interests. A failed bid for a Libertarian vice-presidency and some damaging environmental lawsuits (as well as bitter family in-fighting over their inheritance) formed temporary setbacks, but with the Obama presidency and the country’s alarming swerve towards liberalism, their cohort of conservative donors expanded, and their efforts gained momentum. The 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United tremendously magnified their impact, as it enabled them to pour massive undisclosed contributions into political campaigns and candidates. And as our present situation makes clear, they’ve now risen to unprecedented heights of influence, and are close to achieving the goal of destroying all governmental checks on their power.

Underlying this story is a decades-long campaign to transform the intellectual landscape through the manufacture of radically conservative ideas, which are incubated in think tanks and university programs controlled by the billionaire donors, placed into the culture through respectable-seeming books, and made effective through legislation. The whole process takes place under the aegis of non-profit organizations that serve as tax breaks for the rich while pushing their self-serving agenda. These anti-social institutions mask their true intentions behind benign-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Mayer carefully uncovers this secret history by making connections that others might have overlooked, putting together the existing pieces and filling in the blanks where necessary, always being careful to reveal both her evidence and the gaps where it is missing (which are sometimes just as telling). Her conclusions will surely be challenged by those who are threatened by them, and a number of her sources have to remain anonymous due to the severe repercussions they would sustain if they were named. Mayer herself became the subject of a smear campaign that bore traces of Koch involvement, as usual hidden beneath layers of obfuscation and secrecy. Investigative journalism like hers is under attack, naturally, so we should appreciate it while we  can, and do our best to make sure it can still exist in the future.

Fascinating, chilling, and infuriating, Dark Money is a must-read for anyone who wants to know what is behind some of the more puzzling developments of our time, such as the sudden drop in public concern about climate change, one of the most insidious products of the Kochs’ ideological mill, and the rise of the Tea Party, an ersatz grassroots movement grown in the soil of big money. Mayer methodically and convincingly traces the fingerprints of the robber barons who profit most from our oil-based economy, and provides an essential awareness of some of the hidden forces that shape our lives.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such power, but I keep coming back to the thought that such outward phenomena are given us to try to wake us up to our inner tasks and responsibilities, and to reveal what lies beneath our unexamined habits of thought and action. Just as Donald Trump is the logical president for a society that values money above all else, the Koch brothers are the logical rulers of a system with self-interest and selfish materialism at its very core. Both are symptoms of the pervasive illness of our time: alienation from the true sources of life and the true nature of the self. We can rage against their excesses and blame them for their abuses, but the uncomfortable fact remains that to get at the root causes of this illness, we have to look within, to grapple with it in ourselves. Otherwise, even if we manage to contain and control it in one place, it will soon break out in another.

It’s up to us to reconnect to the inexhaustible source of creative energy, to unflinchingly face the ways that unconscious greed shapes our actions and motivations, and to overcome the weakness of egotism with the strength of love and compassion. If enough of us would take up that task with as much energy and determination as these two men have devoted to their dark pursuits, it would create a far greater light, and illumine much more that presently remains unseen.

From the Archives: A Guide to Blackstock College

Throwback Thursday is a feature of my new blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle, that allows me to take a look back at some of my favorite posts from past years on ECBR. This week I’m linking up one of my most popular posts, which was also one of the most fun to write — for reasons I think will become clear as you read on. This post originally appeared on October 31, 2015, as the kick-off post of Witch Week.

TamLinIn Tam Lin, Pamela Dean takes her college experience and mixes it with elements of the well-known sixteenth-century ballad about a young man entrapped by the Fairy Queen, who is then rescued by his mortal lover from becoming a Halloween sacrifice. It’s a wonderful novel about that time between adolescence and adulthood when the world opens up, revealing both its promise and its dangers. It’s about love and friendship and books and learning and life, and how they all intertwine in the process of growing up.

Because I attended the same school as the author — Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota — every time I reread Tam Lin I find a special pleasure in identifying and imagining the buildings, landscapes, and events that are so lovingly described in its pages. Dean says in a note that “Blackstock is not Carleton,” but really, it’s pretty darn close. For those who don’t have the advantage of having been there in person, here is a guide to help you visualize some of the geography I know and love so well.

As we approached the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication and my own graduation in 1991, it was interesting to note how much the Carleton campus has changed in that time — far more than it had changed since the setting of Tam Lin in the early seventies, which on my first reading seemed like the remote past. The core remains, though, and if you stroll the campus with book in hand you’ll still recognize much of it.

In any case, if you ever do have the chance to go to Carleton, whether for a day, a term, or the whole four years, take it. Even if the fairy queen doesn’t actually ride through the Arb on All Hallows Eve, it truly is a magical place.

Heartfelt thanks are due to Matt Ryan, Carleton’s Associate Director of Web Communications, and to the Carleton Archives for their help with obtaining the images in this post. For requests to use these images elsewhere, please contact the College.

BlackstockCampusMapA map showing the “Blackstock” names for Carleton buildings that existed in the mid 1970s, when Tam Lin is set. Keep in mind that some sizes and distances have been changed in the book, and some buildings eliminated.

Major Locations

In the text the Blackstock name is given first, and then the Carleton name (if different) in italics. Attentive readers will note that the name-pairs often have some obvious relationship — e.g. Watson becomes Holmes. I’d be grateful to anyone who can cast light on the more obscure ones (Dunbar? Murchison?).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ericson Hall (Nourse Hall)
Janet, our heroine, lives here with her two roommates during her freshman and senior years, having a distinct prejudice in favor of the old-fashioned style of dormitory. I liked it too, when I lived there as a freshman. There really is a Little Theater in the basement, scene of a highly charged production of The Revengers’ Tragedy in the book and of countless student productions through the years in real life. I never heard of any ghosts, though.

Eliot Hall (Evans Hall)
Janet and her friends live here during her sophomore and junior years, in Column A — the building’s oddity being that it is arranged in vertical columns rather than horizontal floors to reduce noise. In its Carleton incarnation, this unfortunately also did away with much of the floor-based socializing that sustains student life, and so it was remodeled some years ago to a more conventional floor plan. Eliot/Evans also housed Janet’s and my favorite dining hall, where one could enjoy the view across Bell Field without having to trudge all the way to the edge of campus (see Dunbar, below). Alas, that too is gone, replaced by a more central, modern facility. Still remaining is the Cave, the student hangout in the basement where Thomas (the Tam Lin character) drowns his sorrows in weak beer.

Dunbar Hall (Goodhue Hall)
Janet’s second-favorite dining hall is here, with even more spectacular view thanks to its floor-to-ceiling windows, but lower popularity due to its distance from the center of campus. That’s gone too, repurposed into an enormous “superlounge.” Proximity to the Arboretum makes it a good choice for outdoorsy types, and Janet spends a lot of time going back and forth over the bridge that links it to the main campus (as do many of the more unsavory characters).

Masters Hall (Laird Hall)
Home of the English department in Janet’s time and mine, this former science building is a proud edifice facing the center of campus, with a lofty, high-ceilinged interior. She happily spends many hours here delving into the treasures of English literature, as did I. The warren of temporary buildings behind Masters/Laird where Janet has to hunt for her advisor either never existed at Carleton or was gone before I got there, though “Laird Annex” was a computer lab where I printed out my papers using the college computers.

Library (Laurence Gould Library)
Also known as the Libe, due to the Carleton/Blackstock penchant for abbreviating everything. Janet first encounters Thomas in the stacks here, seeks clues to the identity of the Ericson ghost in the archives, and finds peace in its “padded rooms” for studying. Because it’s built into a hill, it’s much bigger than it appears from its front elevation.

Chester Hall (Old Music Hall)
In her most obvious deviation from actual Carleton architecture, Dean makes the comely but rather petite old Music building into a looming, menacing supernatural presence of considerable grandeur. I do remember a listening room and music library, but not a marble-floored hall suitable for roller skating. A significant event takes place in one of the practice rooms, but I can’t say whether that is based in reality or not.

Arboretum
To my loss, I never spent much time in this enormous natural preserve during my time at Carleton. Janet is wiser, and as a Blackstock faculty child she has a longstanding knowledge of its byways. Her first romantic encounter takes place here, as well as meetings of the more supernatural variety. It’s a good place to locate your fairy court, if it’s going to be attached to a midwestern college.

Janet made a ceremonial stop in the middle of the bridge. She knew this stream in all its manifestations, from cracked mud set about with slimy green rocks to the foaming mass that covered the knees of the trees and lapped at the concrete wall that separated the parking  area from the woods. Today it was about midway between those two. All the rocks were covered, and the grass that overhung the banks like combed hair drifted sideways in a mild brown current. The air was full of dusty sunlight and a slow fall of yellow elm leaves. The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, thought Janet, recalling favorite poems with a pleasurable melancholy. — Tam Lin, pp. 46-47

Minor Locations

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Taylor Hall (Burton Hall) – Janet dislikes the dungeon-like dining hall in the basement of this dormitory on the far west side of campus, which causes a rather sticky situation when she ends up uncharacteristically going there one day.

Womens Center (Cowling Gymnasium) – Site of Janet’s freshman fencing class, this smallish gym is in convenient proximity to the East side dorms where she lives.

Murchison Hall (Musser Hall), Forbes Hall (Myers Hall), and Holmes Hall (Watson Hall) – These modern dormitories get short shrift in Janet’s book, but I lived in two of them and they weren’t so bad. I was definitely glad I never had to live in Musser, though.

Appleton Hall (Boliou Hall) – The building where Janet has her first Greek class is a pleasant place to study art and art history. The fountain in front tempts Carleton students to splash in it on hot summer days.

Olin Hall – The science building that looks like a radiator doesn’t even get its own Blackstock name. It does have an open-air auditorium nearby, though, suitable for impromptu performances by Music and Drama majors.

Observatory (Goodsell Observatory) – This historic building is one of the gems of the Blackstock/Carleton campus. Janet takes astronomy just so she can learn to use the telescope, an aim with which I sympathize.

Student Union (Willis Hall) – In Janet’s time, the student union is crammed into this tiny old building with an iconic clock tower. At Carleton this function was eventually to be taken on by the repurposed Sayles-Hill Gymnasium (see Room Draw, below).

Sterne Hall (Severance Hall) – This attractive dormitory also boasts a “Tea Room” in the basement where Janet and Thomas buy greasy french fries. In my time this was just another dining hall, but we still called it the Tea Room.

Music and Drama Center – Janet frequently walks past this much-maligned modern construction but oddly never sets foot inside it, in spite of her love of music and drama.

Chapel – Janet also admires this lovely building from a distance but never goes inside, even though she must have done so at some point. At Carleton, weekly convocation gatherings in the chapel are a longstanding tradition; once they had a religious element but this has been replaced by secular lectures and presentations. Janet mentions Convocation exactly once.

She looked out the window in time to catch the best view of Blackstock, as the bus climbed the hill that led them out of the river valley the town was built in. The buildings between which she ran and bicycled and trudged laden down with books made one tight cluster, the chapel tower, the brick battlements of Taylor, the black glittering clock tower of the Student Union, the brick stack of the heating plant and the mellow sandstone of the Anthro building crammed in the center of a circle of trees, green and red and yellow. You could have put the whole thing in your pocket. — Tam Lin, pp. 138-139

Other

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Tunnels – The steam tunnels that so conveniently linked many buildings on the East side of campus were closed due to safety concerns after my freshman year. I don’t remember seeing Homer in Greek on the wall, but there’s a lot of other amazing graffiti down there, including a reproduction of Tenniel’s Jabberwocky, a Twister board, and the yellow brick road.

The Town (Northfield) – Janet and her friends go downtown to buy bedspreads, eat sandwiches at a diner, and pick each other up from the bus — all typical activities for students needing to get off campus for a while.

The Old Theater (Old Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis) – The theater where Janet and Thomas go to attend highly meaningful performances of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Lady’s Not For Burning was demolished in 2006, replaced by a new waterfront complex. (I’m not sure why Dean already called it the Old Theater in 1991 though. Did she have some inside information?) This article from NPR gives some historical background, along with interior and exterior photos of the theater. It also includes shots from the first and last plays to be performed on its stage: both productions of Hamlet, appropriately enough.

Schiller – In a significant early scene, Janet gets involved in a pitched battle over the bust of the German poet, which is jealously guarded by groups of students who try to steal it from one another while also making dramatic appearances at public events. Yes, this really does happen at Carleton, and there are more wacky stories about it than you can shake a stick at. The idea is to keep things fun, clever, and nonviolent, which is Carleton in a nutshell.

Room Draw – The dormitories at Carleton (and presumably Blackstock as well) are mixed, without designated dorms for upperclassmen. Rooms are assigned via a quota system, whereby in the spring each student draws a random number that allows him or her a place in line to choose from remaining rooms. Janet and her friend Molly both draw extremely low numbers for their sophomore room, which is why they are so glad that their third roommate Tina is still willing to stick with them even with a high number that might have given her a chance at a single. At Blackstock room draw and registration take place in the old gymnasium, which by my time at Carleton had been made into the new campus center.

Traying – The temptation to take trays from the dining halls and use them to sled down Bell Hill is something few Blackstock/Carleton students can resist, and Janet and Thomas are no exception.

They had made the bottom of the slide properly: instead of stopping abruptly in the hollow made by everybody’s stamping feet, the tray skimmed halfway across the huge expanse of Bell Field, slowed, and slowed, and stopped somewhere in the middle. The setting sun lined the bare branches of the trees across the stream with gold, but down here there was a blue and gray twilight. — Tam Lin, p. 285

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of the Blackstock/Carleton campus, and that if you don’t know it through either its fictional or real-life incarnations, it’s intrigued you enough to take a look!

Join me at the Castle!

Happy New Year! It’s sure to be another challenging one, but as long as we are still able to share our reading lives, there will be something to be glad about.

As the Emerald City Book Review comes to a close, please join me at my other blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle, where my giveaway celebrating seven years of ECBR is still open for one more week.

And to stay in touch, please be sure to follow me over at the Castle, using WordPress, email, Bloglovin’, Feedly, or your method of choice. I look forward to connecting with you.

Gems of 2020

January 2020 feels like it took place more than a year ago, but by the calendar of ordinary time, it’s just been twelve months. And thus it’s time to choose my “Gems of 2020,” which will be my last list of favorites here at the Emerald City Book Review. For my reading and blogging plans for next year, join me on January 1 over at Entering the Enchanted Castle.

In reading terms, I did not manage to read as many books as usual, but many of them were excellent. I was thrilled that Susanna Clarke finally released another book and that it was one of my favorites of the year. I journeyed through Maya Angelou’s seven memoirs, sharing in her life of pain and joy, and through other people’s lives including a brilliant, disturbing memoir of postpartum psychosis, and a fictionalized account of the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

I learned from scientists about neurological differences and the world of bacteria, unseen and misunderstood realms that lie all around us in plain sight. I also learned from the voices of people with so-called disabilities; I was humbled by their persistence and courage, and motivated to use my own senses more fully.

There were lighter reads marketed for younger readers that also brought important moral and spiritual issues to ponder, and romantic comedies that lifted my mood and reminded me that life and love are still worth striving for.

These books, and many others, kept me going through this dark and disturbing year. What have been your own favorites? What do you recommend?

 

[divider]

 

2020 Releases
Fiction: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Nonfiction: Inferno by Catherine Cho

More favorites I read in 2020:

Historical Fiction: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Memoir Series: Maya Angelou’s memoirs
Book Everyone Should Read: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Science: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
Suspsense: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
Romance: Jill the Reckless by P.G. Wodehouse
Spirituality: The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu
Sensory Differences: An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks; The World I Live In by Helen Keller; Eavesdropping by Stephen Kuusisto
Reread (and read-along): The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Series Finish: Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
Around the World: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Classics: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Linked in the Sunday Post at Caffeinated Book Reviewer

Ring out the old, ring in the new – Celebration and giveaway

Dear friends, it’s almost time to say goodbye to The Emerald City Book Review. I invite you all to join me in the New Year over at my other blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle. I’ll be moving all my book blogging activity over there, along with sharing thoughts about life, language, and other magical things.

It’s been absolutely wonderful to share this seven-year journey with you, and I want to thank everyone for making it such a joy.

This blog and its archives and old posts will remain up for at least six months, so don’t worry if there’s something you still want to read. And I hope to create an archive version of the site, for future reference.

I’ve also compiled some of my personal favorite posts in book form as The Best of the Emerald City Book Review. See the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance to win a copy, through January 6.

In addition, sign up for my email list at Entering the Enchanted Castle to get an extra chance in the giveaway. Until January 1 you will also receive a free PDF proof copy of the book. Don’t forget to confirm your subscription to complete your registration.

To stay connected, be sure to follow enterenchanted.com using your favorite method. My Facebook and Twitter accounts will stay the same, and I will try to transfer over WordPress and Bloglovin’ followers, but if that doesn’t work, or if you use another method, you will need to sign up again.

Once more, thank you for being here, and I hope to see you soon over at the Castle.

a Rafflecopter giveaway
https://widget-prime.rafflecopter.com/launch.js

Challenge wrap-up 2020

As the year comes to a close, here’s a review of how I did on my challenges — which I kept to a minimum this year, not wanting to overdo it. And I’m quite happy with how I did, so that was a success!

I finished six books for Back to the Classics:

Classic with a Name in the Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Classic by a Woman Author: The World I Live In
Adapted Classic: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Classic about a Family: Brideshead Revisited
Translated Classic: Le Petit Prince
Classic with Nature in the Title: The Old Man and the Sea

And kept up with the Book Blog Discussion Challenge with a post (almost) every month:

Should I read more current books?
Do you have a reading plan?
Are there too many books?
Do you like books about fighting?
Do you dislike first-person narratives?
What is your favorite (or first favorite) classic?
Can you resist free books?
Am I addicted to reading?
Am I an e-book convert?
Should memoirs be considered fiction?
What is the best of the Emerald City Book Review?

I also kept going with my Reading All Around the World project. After reading twelve books, I slacked off in the last quarter of the year, but added Danubia to my list (I think it should count, even though it’s not about a single country, but a whole empire that has now been split up into many nations).

Other goals I had this year were to read more nonfiction — I did quite well with that, judging from my Nonfiction November round-up — and to read more books from my own shelves. This was not so successful, but I did polish off a few of those.

How have you done with your challenges this year? Did they help you to discover some great new authors? Or get to some books you’ve been meaning to read for years?

Month in Review: November 2020

This year I was very happy to participate in Nonfiction November, having read a lot of great nonfiction and eager to share with other readers. It was a wonderful event!

I did not get a lot of new reading done. Besides finishing and reviewing Danubia for Nonfiction November, I was mostly reading through the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, because I wanted to refresh my memory before enjoying the final volume, Return of the Thief (which I’m nearly done with now). What a pleasure it has been to watch this series evolve over the years. Bravo to MWT for bringing it to a worthy close.

This month I gave up on my French reading club book, L’énigme de chambre 622 by Joel Dicker. It was not interesting enough to hold my attention, especially in a foreign language. And far too long! We’re moving on to another book, La femme au carnet rouge by Antoine Laurain, and I’m looking forward to that.

What were your highs and lows this month?

[divider]

Reviews

 

Other Books Read

  • The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

Other Features and Events

On my other blog

  • On the eve of November (Halloween), I posted a reflection on the Masks we all wear.
  • Another significant date came a few days later: I posted about 9/11 and 11/9.

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Nonfiction review: Danubia

Simon Winder, Danubia (2014)

You might think that a book subtitled “a personal history of Habsburg Europe” would be quite distant from our current preoccupations, would be dusty, nostalgic and quaint, irrelevant to the challenges we face today. You would be wrong.

This is a chronicle of the last few hundred years of the eastern part of the ancient Holy Roman Empire, which was ruled by the Habsburg family, generally located along the Danube river, and morphed into Austria-Hungary before its demise in the twentieth century. Over the entire length of that long period now hangs the shadow of the train wreck that was the Great War of 1914-1919. What happened there? How can we understand it, and how prevent it from happening again?

Those questions are not distant or irrelevant. They are ever more pressing, as the powers of division and conflict rise again, as tyrants and oppressed people struggle once more. As I read, I was repeatedly struck by the way things have not changed all that much at all, and at the same time how hard it seems to be for us to process the way things really have changed fundamentally. Will we ever learn?

Winder writes in a jokey, conversational style that could cause one to dismiss him as lightweight and not serious enough for such a big topic. Whether you find it engaging or irritating is probably a matter of personal taste. This is not an academic study, nor does it claim to be. It is a personal rambling through some personal pleasures and preoccupations, and should be judged as such. I would not take it as my only source of information, but as a starting point and an occasional source of laughter or jolt of recognition, it’s not bad.

For example, here is Winder’s description of Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination set off the Great War):

Of course we will never know if he would have been a “good” Emperor. It may well be that he had just waited too long and that whatever qualities he might have possessed had long curdled, lost in a maze of ritual, uniforms, masses, and — above all — hunting. His shooting skills made him legendary, belonging to that disgusting and depressing era when even the aristocratic hunting expedition became married to modern military technology, unbalancing the entire relationship of hunter and hunted, so that shooting partridges became like a proto-version of playing Space Invaders.

Academic it may not be, but it is vivid and memorable. Along with a vaguely chronological overview of the Habsburg rulers, who were a largely unattractive lot with occasional amusing eccentricities, we get interpolated commentary about Winder’s obsessions with things such as zoo architecture, folkloric villages, the music of Haydn, and much more. It’s like rambling through a historical museum with a talkative, witty, and easily distractible friend.

I did not ever really understand what happened in the time leading up to the war. It was such a tangle of nationalisms and bad diplomacy and self-aggrandizement that I could not wrap my head around it. But I did get this: nationalism is a dead end. Although Habsburg rule may have been terrible, the empire at least provided its diverse population with some room to move and interact and create, while after the empire fell, people were imprisoned in the narrow, dirty cells of their new nations. And of course, with a lot of people and entire ethnic/religious groups exiled, killed, or soon to be killed. We have to find a better way than this.

This is the kind of book I don’t like to read as an e-book (which is what I did). I would rather have the whole book before me so I can refer to former sections, look at maps and lists of rulers with confusingly similar names, and mark favorite passages. So if you do read it, I recommend paper.

If I can get my hands on a physical copy I might read it again, and I’d like to read Winder’s earlier book, Germania. Have you read anything by Simon Winder? Would you like to? Or is his personal take on European history not to your taste?

[book-info]

Nonfiction November: New to my TBR

Nonfiction November comes to a close with the topic New to My TBR (hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey): It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book.

Here are some of the titles I’ve added to my “want to read” list. What’s on yours?

  • Difficult Women – Adventures in Reading, Writing, and Working from Home – “took a series of big fights and showed the women who were involved in them, featuring some huge characters”
  • Apollo’s Arrow mentioned at What’s Nonfiction – “an up-to-the-minute analysis of what’s happened this year, how it compares to past pandemics and plagues, where we’re headed, and what’s important to know about epidemiology as we try to get there.”
  • They Called Us Enemy mentioned at The Book Stop – “Takei’s work is brilliant – it’s moving and yet provided a lot of historical detail I wasn’t aware of, all in the form of a graphic novel.”
  • Know My Name mentioned at Adventures of a Bibliophile – “It’s just another important read to better understand the experiences of women in America, and why society and the government largely fails to protect us. “
  • Dear Life mentioned at BookerTalk – ” In her book she argues that even in the final months, weeks and days of life, there can be moments of joy.”

Nonfiction November: Be the Expert

Hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction), there are three ways to join in Nonfiction November this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This year I read several books by blind people or about the topic of blindness. My interest was first sparked by reading Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life for the Classics Club last year.

I then wanted to read another collection of her essays, The World I Live In, which came highly recommended by Oliver Sacks, among others. As I said in my review, “it is the description of her other senses, of the world of touch, smell, and taste that she lives in, that is most fascinating and mind-expanding. Her finely differentiated, sensitive observations made me feel how blunt and unrefined my own sensory experience normally is, how I go through my colorful, sounding world without truly seeing and hearing it. Perhaps it is I who am handicapped, rather than Helen Keller, who perceives so much through the faintest vibration in her environment.”

Oliver Sacks’s own An Anthropologist on Mars contains several fascinating case studies of blind or vision-impaired individuals, including a painter who becomes color-blind with disturbing results; a man whose brain is damaged by a tumor that is later removed, leaving him blind but convinced he can still see; and another man who is able to have an operation that partly restores his sight but ends up unable to negotiate this new world. It is revealed that sight is not only about functioning eyes, but something we must learn to do — with very great difficulty after we lose the malleability of our brains in early childhood. There is so much to think about here, that I can only recommend that everyone read this illuminating book.

This was all so interesting that I wanted to learn more. Library browsing brought up Haben, an autobiography by a deaf-blind woman who graduated from Harvard Law School and now works as a lawyer for disability rights. Her courage and persistence were impressive, and it was good to read from an inside perspective about her experience of prejudice, misunderstanding, and the struggle to make herself seen and heard.

I also stumbled upon For the Benefit of Those Who See by Rosemary Mahoney, a journalist who has been terrified of becoming blind from a young age. When she wrote an article about Braille without Borders, a school for blind children in Tibet, she was moved to investigate further and spend time teaching English at another school in India. Mahoney seemed quite oblivious about how unreasonable her own fears and prejudices were, which was a little off-putting, but she does uncover some important information and experiences that added to my understanding of the topic. I would rather have read a book by a student of Braille without Borders, though.

Have you read any other books by or about blind people? What can you recommend?