Book Recommendations: Non-fiction

Note: This post will be updated as I read and is linked in the Navigation menu

One year I made a New Year’s resolution to read one non-fiction book a month. I thought it was going to be a tedious way to improve myself and continue to learn after graduation from university. I did not expect to fall in love with the genre.

This list is divided into two sections. The first is non-fiction for people who don’t read non-fiction. The genre can be intimidating! These books are easy to read, with a chatty style and lack of overwhelming technical terms.

The second section is for books that are more specific/niche/difficult to read. I recommend them for people who already have an interest in the subject or are willing to push through technical language.

Non-fiction for Fiction Readers:

Macintyre, Ben– Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

D-Day is often most remembered by that scene from “Saving Private Ryan” but this book delves into the ludicrous, hilarious, and astonishing story of the agents who spun the lie to the German intelligence that made the battle succeed…because the Germans were expecting the troops to land elsewhere. Some highlights from these characters include requests for chocolate from MI5 “for medicinal reasons,” a man with a degree in chicken farming creating entire networks of fake spies to feed bad information, and a woman who whispers insults about people to her dog in Russian. If you like James Bond, you’ll love this story because these real people pulled off one of the greatest espionage schemes in history and they were perhaps the least capable of doing so.

Nafisi, Azar– Reading Lolita in Tehran

Note: this book has a LOT of heavy literature analysis. If you don’t like classics, maybe this might not be the best choice. I almost put it in the other category but if you’re a heavy reader of fiction, you may have the background that this book relies on. Reading Lolita made my top ten list of 2016. It beautifully illustrates how our relationship with literature can give us strength and purpose while also focusing on parallels between literature and our modern lives. This book feels important to me on another level because it is very humanizing of the people of Tehran. In the western world, we’ve been blasted by negative media about this area and only see certain images of it. The book is political, feminist, and deeply touching.

Roach, Mary– Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Everything Mary Roach has written is well worth reading but I picked Gulp because of the many, many absurd scenes in this book that had me picturing the professional scientists Roach was interviewing staring at her in dumbfounded exasperation. Roach asks questions that we all wonder but are usually too polite to ask and isn’t afraid of getting her hands covered in various types of fluids and solids to understand the science. She conveys these stories with gleeful prose that’s easy to understand and easier to laugh to. I think Gulp requires less squeamish warning than Stiff, so I picked it for this list.

Ronson, Jon– Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Like Mary Roach, Jon Ronson has a way of reporting his stories that is comedic and relatable. This is a collection of essays with highlights include Ronson interviewing the Insane Clown Posse about their song “Magnets” and their distrust of nerdy looking people wearing glasses, a trip where he attempts to recreate a road-trip from a James Bond novel, and visits the North Pole where it’s always Christmas (maybe enough to drive people to murder).

Sandel, Michael J.– Justice, What’s the Right Thing to Do?

What’s that whole, philosophy thing about anyway? Michael Sandel breaks down in an understandable way many of the prominent ethical questions of our time. It’s a book that was suggested to me when I first showed interest in philosophy and a recommendation I pass on. The philosophy in Justice is all practical, ethical philosophy, not the sort of nebulous “How do we know we know?” topics that tend to have people running away screaming at the top of their lungs. The questions discussed here include examining the free market, taxes, and capital punishment. It’s a great resource on being able to understand and structure your own opinions on topics that often arise when politics are discussed while also being accessible to readers unfamiliar with philosophical concepts.

Simon, Matt– The Wasp that Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems

This may be the funniest non-fiction book I have ever read. It’s split into easily digestible sections, perfect for consuming when you have 10 to 15 minutes of time and want to learn something new. The book captures perfectly how shockingly strange our neighbor animals on this planet can be. It will gift you with many stories to pull out at parties, though maybe people don’t want to hear about the ant that stacks up the dead bodies of its conquered foes on its back like a towering monument of victory (I absolutely would love this story at a party).

Non-fiction:

Gladwell, Malcom– What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

I would call Gladwell a less funny more technical Mary Roach. His writing is still far into the range of accessible, but he focuses more on journalism than comedic journalism (not that his stories can’t be amusing).  This collection of essays, which I think is much better in the latter half, covers topics from why there’s only one ketchup and dozens of varieties of mustard to the difference between choking and panicking. I prefer this one to Blink, because I feel that, unfortunately, there are some pop-psychology mistakes present in that book.

Kean, Sam– The Violinist’s Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

This book has a lot of dense science focused on genetics, but the stories within are worth pushing for. While genetics don’t determine everything about our life, they can determine how well we can play the violin (due to extremely flexible fingers) or why eating a polar bear’s liver is lethal and why nuns were some badass scientists. Another book where I went around yelling at everyone about what I learned within it.

Newborn, Jud– Sophie Scholl and the White Rose

I actually had to read this book for class and ended up finishing it in the university library, sobbing where everyone could see me. Sophie’s story and the story of her brother and the rest of the white rose is affecting because the main players of the story are so young. These are students (and a professor) who were brave enough to try to spread a message of resistance against the Nazi regime, risking their lives to do so. There’s a fervent (maybe foolishly idealistic) passion in the texts that these students wrote that’s intoxicating. The only way I can describe this book is spiritually uplifting. It restored my faith in humanity.

O’Connell, Mark– To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Transhumanism is an idea that I’ve been interested in for years and Mark O’Connell’s book is a great entry point to the world of people seeking to leave our biological bodies behind. Because O’Connell doesn’t subscribe to the doctrine of transhumanism himself, there’s a through-line to his adventure that follows his own path of regarding his mortal body and what it would mean to be free of it while not losing sight of how absolutely bonkers some of the transhumanists’ ideas sound. For people who are interested in futurism, biotechnology, and A.I., this book will be a pleasure to read.

Review: Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for honest review.

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Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries and Meanings of Languages by Daniel Tammet is a non-fiction piece that focuses on our relationship as beings possessing the ability to communicate through language. This relationship isn’t always tended to—how many of us on a daily basis think about the words and the words others use to communicate, especially not just what they mean but how they sound, look and feel? In many ways, I felt as though this book asked of me to slow down and find pleasure in the way in which humans communicate.

Though it is a book about linguistics, Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing doesn’t require a previous knowledge or interest in the subject. Not bogged down with linguistic jargon, and thoroughly explained with the jargon arises, Every Word tells stories about language that are accessible and will appeal to a wide audience, which is its strength. Through personal stories and interviews, Tammet weaves together a tapestry on the beauty and frustrations of language, at once a method of connection and a barrier of understanding. It’s a love letter, laden with hopes, fears, frustrations, and the triumph of connection.

Tammet’s personal relationship with language is the first subject in his book and it is a necessary beginning as the author experiences language in a way that many people don’t. Identifying on the high end of the spectrum of autism, Tammet’s first experience with language was one that no one else understood. Numbers were his chosen way to communicate and Tammet describes this system and his tumultuous relationship with using English to express himself.

From the opening pages of Every Bird, I found myself examining my own relationship with language. It was German that I found myself ruminating on first because it is a language I began to learn as an adult. From Tammet’s explanations on his synesthesia with words where they had colors and textures associated with them, I remembered when I learned the adjectives langsam and schnell. They were wonderful words—langsam where the tongue makes a slow trip from the teeth back to rest, as lazy as the speed it implies. And schnell the opposite, a quick scoot. The verb schneiden and the noun Schnitt that sound like the whisper of scissors closing and were so easy to remember because of that.

Even now, writing this review, when explaining how Tammet describes his number language I wanted to use the word Kopfkino—a movie in the head. In English, perhaps, he painted a picture in my mind. After that, I had to think on English words I loved: velvet, which sounds as slinky and silky as it feels, iridescent and how it sparkles, luminous and its glow.

When a book leaves me spending so much time outside of reading it on thinking about the topics within, the writing was a success.

The rest of Every Word journeys through many topics, all related to language. Tammet captures the paradox of language in discussing the utopian dream of an easy-to-learn global language of Esperanto and the tragedy (to some more than others) of the disappearance of languages due to cultural imperialism. Here too he delves into the politics of the language of repression and the efforts of native speakers of suppressed languages, like those in Africa, to publish works in their mother tongue. He takes us on a trip to cultures obsessively dedicated with preserving the sanctity of their language in an effort that is both admirable and fool-hardy.

I felt that these subjects were handled with respect. Even when Tammet’s position on the topic shows through his writing, he isn’t dismissive of the other side of the arguments presented. With many of these political issues, there’s strong arguments on both sides and I liked that Tammet expressed his own doubts and beliefs without pressuring the reader to agree with him.

Tammet also creates a space to admire the personalities and quirks of languages—how Nahuatl dances with repeated syllables, for example. Similarly, he writes on the joy and playfulness of what it means to be a writer and tame language for the use of storytelling. George Perec, Tammet relates to us, wrote a novel without using the letter ‘e.’

There’s a universality to the subject of Every Word that makes it easy to recommend to people, often with me regaling them with a favorite anecdote from the book. I learned a lot reading the book, of course, but I also felt a new connection with the globality of languages and the words I learn both in my mother tongue and that of the one I chose to learn. It’s an absolute joy to read and inspiring of conversations on the more political questions where are not necessarily answered in the text.

This is a book for people who love language and for those who don’t already to fall in love with it.

Every Word as a whole reminds me very much of my favorite story to tell when asked about living in Austria or learning German. The common question: why did you chose to learn German, isn’t it hard, aren’t the sounds harsh?

I’ll leave this here, with a smile because it still makes me laugh every time I talk about it and is, I think, in the spirit of Every Word.

In German, a snail is a Schnecke. A slug, on the other hand, is a Nacktschnecke. Nackt, of course, because he’s naked.

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Rating: 5/5 stars

Recommended for: people interested in language, especially topics of language preservation and linguistics, readers who like accessible non-fiction

 

 

Thoughts on Li’s “Dear Friend,”

dearfriendCapturing the quality of suffering during depression is a task that presents challenges to authors, especially in regards to communicating with readers who have never lived through a depressive episode. I use the word quality because there is a sensation to the experience of depression that is about as easy to explain to people as a taste they’ve never encountered before. In searching for a book to capture how I felt for years as a young woman that I could share with other people as an example of my experiences, there was the sense that the books I was reading had characters that were too melodramatic.

 

In truth, the characters were accurate to how depression affects some people and in many of them I saw myself and the ways I was out of control myself those years ago. But there’s a certain conceit to these characters, an expectation that the reader understands how depression influences not only thoughts but the body holistically. Unfortunately, I felt if I pointed to these novels, people would respond with a comment I’ve heard said among friends, “Why don’t they just do something about it?” turning depression into a concept of control (it is, of course, a concept of control, but not in the way that they think. In depression, one finds control in giving up trying to control).

For them, as I’m sure it was for people in my own life, the melodrama seems insincere, exaggerated, perhaps even intentional.

In Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, author Yiyun Li wrote a book that is partially a memoir, partially essays on her personal relationship to literature, and more essentially, ruminations on the experience of depression.

By picking and peeling at all the facets of her feelings, Yiyun Li unwinds the tangled and brambled knots of depression. Reading musings that are eloquent on the contradictions present in depression was eerie in that the thoughts were as intimate as my own.

“But when we read someone’s private words, when we experience her most vulnerable moments with her, and when her words speak more eloquently of our feelings than we are able to, can we still call her a stranger?”

Yiyun Li addresses the melodrama of depression, of how one is both aware of how helpless one is being and yet is also unable to be anything but. Inherent in this is the doubt, “Am I being melodramatic?” that doesn’t diminish the reality of suffering.

Captured here is the self-scorn that one has during depression as one holds in their mind the view of themselves and their depression as both an observer and the agent of action. I’ve always found that difficult to express—how it often felt as though I was watching myself and berating myself like a part of my mind had remained healthy and isolated while the rest of my mind induced my body into behavior I neither wanted nor could stop.

The contradictions of depression are examined as well, with a tender hand because Yiyun Li is not judgmental of suffering or scornful of it, but the opposite. Suffering is explored with a gentle intimacy and a respect. She is able to express how integral depression becomes with identity—invaluable and tyrannical.

“All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing…It is either a dictator or the closest friend I have ever had. Some days I battle it until we both fall down like injured animals. That is when I wonder: what if I become less than nothing when I get rid of this emptiness? What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?”

It would be a mistake to assume that this treatment of the subject romanticizes depression. Instead, a merciful acceptance permeates the work. The feelings that others labeled in her younger self that others labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ the older Yiyun Li requires no justification for.

This isn’t a book, necessarily, about overcoming depression and moving on triumphantly. Nor is it a book where Yiyun Li is seeking understanding, though that seems counter to the purpose of writing a memoir about depression. From the beginning of the book I was given the impression that the author didn’t care of the response of the reader and wouldn’t pander to their understanding. No excuses are presented, no explanations offered for why she was depressed beyond recognizing some of the origins of her feelings. Depression is personal, intimate, and this prose feels like the intended audience was none other than the author herself—the younger self that she can’t truly reach but is addressing.

The title encapsulates this distance and also the tone of Yuyan Li’s approach. Her depressed self isn’t an enemy but a friend she cares for. This is why there is no conquering, no triumph. One does not triumph over one’s friends or seek to conquer them, they attempt to understand. This is what appeals to me most about Dear Friend, that emerging from depression isn’t an activity that implies an award be handed over at the end.

Dear Friend is dense, circular, as tangential and meandering as exploring one’s own mind. It is through this format that Yiyun Li is able to capture the immense breadth of depression, the waves and tides of it, the way it affects relationships with strangers and intimate friends, the contradictory nature of how it provides control and also takes it away, the way one wants to cling to depression like a life boat and to shuck it as easily as changing clothes, and the stillness, the lethargy, the sense of non-being.

Dear Friend begs to be read and examined as carefully as Yiyun Li annotated the letters of authors she read. It’s stunning, heart-rending, frustrating, and difficult to parse. Yiyun Li admits she’s always been enamored with authors that elude understanding, a stance she’s tried to emulate her whole life. Though Dear Friend is confessional, this sense remains—it is deeply personal, simultaneously detached.

There’s an honesty to Yiyun Li’s thoughts and a lack of condemnation that I think some people would struggle with. But I also read it as an outline of tolerance, respect, and validation. It’s a book I will come back to in my own life as a way to articulate and understand my feelings and one that I will reference when others have misconceptions or questions about the experience of depression.

Which D-Day Spy Are You?

 

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. In celebration of the absurdity that was the Double Cross system, here are the D-Day Spies for you to tag yourself as.

“Scoot” aka “Tricycle

-play boy

-sent back pictures of his current gf reclining in front of planes instead of information

-bought an expensive car as part of his ‘role’

-demanded the british government buy him chocolate “for medical reasons”

-good fashion sense

 

Bronx

-“Lesbian” tendancies

-good at being bad at gambling

-no matter how much money she is allowed, manages to spend all her money

 

 

Treasure

-keeps a diary

-said diary is mostly about her dog

-really, really loves her dog

-talks smack about people to her dog in Russian

-almost betrayed the entire operation over not being reunited with her dog

 

Brutus

-got arrested for distributing inflammatory pamphlets

-should have been playing it cool as a spy

-has no chill

-owned 32 cats after the war

 

 

Garbo

-spends most of his time with fictional people of his own creation

-has an overactive imagination

-would be that person in your university class who can write 15 pages for a paper and say absolutely nothing but is praised for it

-has a diploma in chicken farming

We Have Lift Off: Mercury 13 Launches Women Astronauts Into History

PicsArt_01-30-01.54.08Following Rocket Girl as the second book in my women in science bender, The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Woman and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann may be the new love of my nonfiction collection – just thinking of those skillfully woven citations and footnotes has my heart a’twitter. Ackmann manages to do what so many nonfiction books fail to – present a work that has both a strong research base and a strong narrative. Paired with her ability to deliver information objectively while still communicating the emotional impact of it, Ackmann may be one of the best nonfiction authors I’ve read in recent memory and she does justice to a story that has spent too long untold.

Recounting the story of thirteen women who aspired to join their male counterparts in the race to the stars, Mercury 13 uses pilot and initial testing candidate Jerrie Cobb’s experience as a lens to both explore the broader societal implications of sexism in the space race and the personal stories of the women who experienced it firsthand.

As someone who has spent countless tear-filled hours in the library writing research papers, it was so satisfying to see how much time and effort Ackmann devoted to her own investigation. The book is absolutely saturated with information; often a chronic complaint from a citation and footnote fetishist like myself, Ackmann makes sure that her facts are clearly stated, correctly cited, and easily located in the end notes. But for how data-heavy this book is, it never feels dry or dull. Until you’ve tried to convince someone that the function of the compression system in the legs of an astronaut’s G-suit is interesting, you don’t understand how difficult a task making information exciting is, but Ackmann accomplishes it effortlessly.

Usually when a book is so well-researched, though, the story suffers – the author is so burnt from the actual research that they give one big “fuck it,” slap their data onto the pages into a rough approximation of order, and send it to their publisher in a self-loathing- and caffeine-fueled rage. So imagine my surprise when I was reading Mercury 13 as much for the story as for the information. With such a large history to tackle, choosing Jerrie Cobb to be the focal point of the book was a smart decision. She gives readers an anchor to ground the information they are receiving in and serves as human context for the massive amount of data Ackmann crams into this slim volume. While numbers themselves are often looked at with indifference, the excitement, anger, and pain they cause Cobb and her fellow female test subjects makes them palatable and adds substance to Ackmann’s account, even making me tear up near the end of the book.

For how emotional the personal accounts were, though, Ackmann never let her own emotion or opinion shine through. When discussing a prominent NASA director who called the female astronaut candidates “110 pounds of recreational equipment” for the male astronauts to use sexually, she was able to keep her professional objectivity while my blood pressure skyrocketed so fast that my vision blurred. In true scientific form, Ackmann allowed the information to speak for itself, which made a bigger impact than her own words ever could.

After closing the book, I want to beat down the door of every school room filled with young girls and throw it at them like it’s goddamn candy at a Fourth of July parade. I want to take every person who has ever told a girl that women don’t make good scientists or innovators and forcefully jam this book into their colon. I want to scream incoherently into the wind as the pages of this book rain down on me from the heavens. God bless Ackmann for her account of the Mercury 13, which finally tells the story of women who were kicking ass in a time when they weren’t even allowed to fly a plane without heels.

What The Fuck Wednesday – 02/24/16

Have you ever reached a point in a book where the author clearly just said “fuck it” and called it a day? Ever read something so brilliant or absurd that your brain does a double-take? We’ve dedicated Wednesday to capturing these moments when you just have to ask yourself, “What the fuck?”

VonG:

One of my goals for this year was to read a non-fiction book every month. I wasn’t too excited about this goal, it was more of one of those goals directed towards making me more of a well-rounded reader (and hopefully person). But that didn’t mean I was going to enjoy it.

My selection for February is Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, which has turned out to be one of the most hysterically true stories I have ever learned in my life.

When we think of spies, we think of the sexy image that James Bond represents: confidence, expensive cars, action sequences of drawn out chases, secret messages, and, of course, the Bond Girl–espionage at its finest

It turns out the reality of the spy life, at least during World War II, had almost all of those things except the sexy part. Instead everyone is a goddamn mess (which I have sympathy for, because this would be me if I was a spy.)

The entire Double Cross operation is one big WTF moment as in, how the hell did they ever pull anything off?

The spies, at the very least, had some of the appearance of the James Bond lifestyle, especially agent “Scoot,” also known as “Tricycle” also known as Serbian playboy Dusko Popov.

“Dusko and Johnny were friends. Their friendship was founded on a shared appreciation of money, cars, parties, and women, in no particular order and preferably all at the same time.”

Sure, Dusko sounds like James Bond material. But this is a man who will later write a letter to British intelligence demanding that they buy him….chocolate. Because we all know that having your chocolate funded by a top secret spy agency is how espionage works.

“My heart is in a very bad condition. My doctor who is my biggest friend says it is too much alcohol, tobacco and sin. The only remedy which I found efficient until now was milk and chocolates. Please send $100 worth of any kind of chocolate you can think of. I don’t mind what they are. I am taking them as medicine.”

You and me both, Popov.

What about “high” speed chases? The double cross spies had those as well, but they looked a little more like this:

Screenshot 2016-02-14 21.02.44

You can’t make this stuff up. Even if you made this stuff up, people would say you weren’t being realistic. This is beautiful.

And thanks to one spy’s obsession with her dog (girl I feel you), you get gems like this:

“Britain was preparing for battle on an epic scale, and MI5 was seriously considering whether to deploy a navy submarine to fetch a small dog, illegally, in order to placate a volatile double agent.”

Freaking INCREDIBLE.

And the Bond girl? Popov spent a lot of time sleeping around and sending pictures of his girlfriends to MI5 (I’m sure they really cared), but shout out to Double Cross agent Bronx, who was both a lady Bond and slept with women and men. I’m going to say it, she had Bond Boys.

Also shout out to the records about the Double Cross agents, who referred to Bronx’s “Lesbian tendencies” with a capital L. The only other thing to be reliably given a capital letter in attention were, of course, the all important double agent Pigeons. (Like actual bird pigeons. There were pigeons in the Double Cross department who were going to infiltrate the German pigeon houses. Send help.)

Maggie:

So I stopped at a department store on my way home from work to pick up some paper plates and beef jerky – I lead a sophisticated life – and just happened to sneak a glance at the bargain book box only to spot this little gem:

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Excuse me, but what godforsaken planet do I live on in which a publisher allowed the men of Duck Dynasty to write a book about their beards?

20160222_155409

Apparently one with a beard, if you manage to make it about half way through this book.

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I just can’t stop imagining the creative team for this book and how painful it must have been to sell their souls to pay off their MFA debt. The writer sobbing bitterly into his frappuccino as he types out rhyming beard couplets. The graphic designer looking through pages and pages of old men’s beards to photoshop onto children, sunflowers, and ducks – wondering where he went wrong in life, what he did to deserve this. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, but Jesus…

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Sweet, sweet Jesus.

 

Book Haul- Provoke Edition

Maggie and I had a conversation a while back where we ended up bemoaning how most of the literature we were presented in high school was written by white men. There was, of course, the token woman or person of color writer thrown in–Maya Angelou, ironically, as she qualifies in both of these categories and thus eliminated the school board’s need to have us read anything else god forbid, by people who aren’t white men. What I found most telling about our experiences of literature exposure was that, though we had both read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, neither of us knew until recently that the book was originally written in German.

The system failed us. Even when we were exposed to the voices of different cultures and races, they were edited or awkwardly tip-toed around. We read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings but why did it take until University for me to learn about the epidemic rates of abuse, especially against women and even further, especially against women of color? We read the book but we never really had the conversations that could matter.

Recently in Vienna, I visited the Albertina Museum. They had a temporary art exhibit called Provoke in the photography wing.

provoke1

I walked into the exhibit not knowing what to expect from “Between Protest and Performance, Photography in Japan 1960/1970.” Honestly, it’s not a time period I’m familiar with in Japanese history. Nor am I that familiar with Japanese art that isn’t the familiar wood-cut that fill the sections in Art History text books. In the exhibit I was suddenly faced with a voice I hadn’t heard much of.

Provoke features the photographs from three volumes of the magazine of the same name that Japanese artists published as well as images from other small magazines or books during the years 1960-1970. Three volumes doesn’t sound like a lot, but each one was packed with evocative, gritty black and white images and essays.

Though the photographers involved with the Provoke volumes were not student protesters themselves during the turbulent period of history in the years after the infamous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their art exists in tandem with the protests. This is the reason for the exhibit’s subtitle.

I have, of course, seen images of the mushroom clouds that heralded such destruction. To me, these are distinctively American images. They are clinical in their documentation, perhaps tinged with awe at the fact of destructive power produced. But that is all they can be because they are marked with the American perception of the bombings at the time. The awe isn’t horror yet or even regret.

Provoke features some images that tackle the topic of the aftermath of the bombings. These are images twenty or so years after the event, so they are not the same as the stark horror that marks the early photography after the bombing that occurred in Japan which has the aesthetic of photojournalism. The topic has had time, culturally, to breathe and integrate itself with art. The photos in this collection that relate to the bombings are deliberate, loving.

This is no longer documentation. The camera moves in close on scarred skin that has healed. It is intimate, too abstracted to be akin to the cataloged photos of those freshly injured and dead. The conversation has moved on with the lives of the people who survived. This is a person, not a war story.

More than the photos of the immediate destruction, these portraits hit me with an previously absent sense of overwhelming cultural guilt as an American. It brought to light to me how much as a culture we dropped the bombs then moved on. People in America have a kind of fascination with Japan now, based on technology and modern culture.

Perhaps it was that the images of the aftermath are too similar to the other war photography from World War II. Yes, it was horrific but so was the war on every front. A special responsibility is hard to separate when faced with the never ending slide show of that incomprehensible achievement of human suffering. (Not to mention, of course, that America perceives itself as the heroes of WWII.)

Japan couldn’t be hit by the bombs and then move on. Culturally the ripple of the events would continue for decades and one of those ripples ended in a couple of photos in a series mostly about protest. It wasn’t given special attention because it was just another fact, another facet of life. But for me, that made all the difference.

I could pull out one of my well worn, dirty and faded personal soap boxes about how art and literature should be used in history classes to illuminate students on the perception of events from different people. Of course, that soap box is of the same construction as my soap box on art education, because without learning to experience art, it can be hard to understand the significance of photos. Despite this, history text books line up photos often with nothing more than a small title and photographer name, without any discussion of the significance of the piece.

In Provoke I see photos on the universal triumph of protest, from both the young students and the determined older generation, standing still and tall in their ragged clothes. The photo of a young man screaming stands out to me, the faceless mass of the riot police familiar even though it is in a different country in a different time.

Photography and art have the special quality of needing no translation, at least not in the traditional way, giving every person equal opportunity for experience and emotion.

Though I don’t know much about the student protests, I’m looking forward to reading the translated essays in Provoke (the book) to learn about it from the people living during the times.

“This book was put together through the struggles of Nihon University comrades. We wish to dedicate this book as a love letter to all fellow students fighting on their campuses throughout Japan and the world.” -Nihon University All-Campus Joint Struggle League Secretariat

Rocket Girl – George D. Morgan

So in my mind, a rocket and a book have pretty similar trajectories. There’s the opening scene to set the stage, followed by rising action, a climax, and then declining action with the reader smoothly riding that comfortable emotional arc from start to finish.

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More or less.

Actually, that’s such an obvious and apt analogy that I’m surprised the author George Morgan didn’t make it himself since he felt the need to interject with whole chapters about his writing process throughout Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist. For such a fitting analogy, though, here is a rough approximation of how reading it actually felt:

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Based in part on the play Morgan had written and produced previously, Rocket Girl is the story of his mother Mary Sherman Morgan and her experiences as the first and only female engineer at North American Aviation where she developed hydyne, the propellant that finally allowed famous rocket scientist Wernher von Braun to launch a rocket into orbit.

Morgan clearly tapped into his creative writing skills here because this was a damn compelling story, clearly conveying the frustration as Mary struggles to find a foothold in the field and then urgency as she attempts to find a viable propellant before the Soviets do. Now I read a good deal of nonfiction and even consider it one of my favorite genres, but it’s rare that it makes me as excited as Rocket Girl did. Can you white-knuckle ride a book? Because I was probably as close as you can get when they first tested Mary’s new propellant on a full-fledged, real-deal rocket.

That’s just the rub, though: Rocket Girl reads as a story. It almost seems like Morgan took the play he wrote, slapped in a few sources here and there, and called it a biography. And when I say a few, I mean a few. He says his mother was notoriously secretive about her past, so how did he know what his mother’s internal monologue was when she road her horse to school, when she was in a hospital for unwed mothers, or when she finally saw her propellant succeed? He never says. I’m assuming that he must have had to ask relatives and acquaintances, but who were these people? He never says. Where is he getting this information?  It may very well be an accurate and well-researched account – he does provide sources that show Mary did invent hydyne – but Morgan takes too much creative license without facts to back it up, which makes me leery of some of the other information he offers.

Also, it’s very seldom that I critique a writer on a line-by-line basis, but there is a passage in Rocket Girl that I can’t let slip by. In the final chapter or two of the book, Morgan writes:

Like throwing a baby shower for a girl who had been gang-raped, the whole circus would turn a blind eye to what got them there in the first place.

Excuse me? The fuck did you just say? I had to reread this sentence at least three times before it sank in because I couldn’t believe that not only did Morgan think it was an acceptable comparison to make, but an editor didn’t immediately scratch it out on the transcript. Of all the analogies he could have made, why did he choose such loaded subject material? Then to imply that rape is something that people should turn a blind eye to? Male privilege, silencing victims, and co-opting others’ trauma for shock value all in one line – I don’t want to be a part of this world anymore.

Rocket Girl is a hard book to pin down. If Morgan had had a stronger editor or more experience with writing nonfiction, this book would have been easily one of the best I’ve read so far in 2016 – I loved the story, loved Mary as a character, and was in a constant state of wanting to screech “LADIES IN SPACE! FUCK YEAH!” at my family, friends, and coworkers (not that I need or usually offer an excuse). In the end, though, it’s impossible to look past the lack of sources and the motherfucking gang rape analogy, which makes this book difficult to recommend.