An Eccentric Variety: April-May Reading

Friendly warning: this post will be a long one.

Thanks to a combination of factors-a week long Spring Break in April, the conclusion of seven weeks of standardized testing at work, and the winding down of the school year-I have been able to increase the amount of time that I can devote to my pleasure reading.

I will attempt to summarize each of the books that I have been reading below and explain why each one is worth reading. However, to be clear, I do recommend each and every one of them.

1. Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order by Noam Chomsky – Chomsky discusses the neoliberal (i.e., in summary, Paul Ryan’s and Ayn Rand’s) economic policies that have helped promote capitalist agendas at the cost of democratic governments in other parts of the world (especially Latin America) and democratic policies, both domestic and foreign. As the title says, these policies prioritize profit-at any cost-over people.

This was the first book of Chomsky’s that I have read, and it did take me a while to get used to Chomsky’s writing style. Many of the individual chapters were originally published in other places, like magazines, and as such some of the chapters do not have the end notes to which I am used. However, that is a small issue and one which I quickly got used to; additionally, due to many of the other books on this list that were more rigorously documented, I had some familiarity with the book’s material already, yet not from an economically centered perspective.

2. Occupy: Reflections on Class War, Rebellion, and Solidarity by Noam Chomsky – This short book includes a series of interviews and essays of Chomsky about both Occupy Wall Street and the wider Occupy Movement. The content was often insightful and articulate; however, I will say that some of the later pieces were repetitive in places. That is the nature of interviews, though.

I especially like some of Chomsky’s critiques of the Occupy movement, which occur while Chomsky also sees great hope in what Occupy has accomplished and continues to do. At the same time, he explains that activists must consider the unexpected consequences of their actions. He argues that activism must be done in such a way that people demand more of the government and fight its terrible policies, but not in such a way that they let the government off the hook for neglecting its responsibilities to its people. His example is charity: it is good for communities to help each other in times of need, but at the same time, the people should not replace the government and allow its malfeasance to continue.

3. Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington – As an English teacher, I have read several books on writing, including Stephen King’s On Writing and Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Yet, most of the books of writing advice that I have read are either centered on fiction, like King’s, or centered on academia, like the Strunk and White. This is the first writing book that I have read that centers on memoir as a genre.

The author makes sure to differentiate between someone’s memoirs (an autobiographical, heavily factual recounting of one’s life) and a memoir (a personal essay of variable length). The author also emphasizes that, while memoirs are personal, memoirs also must be well-written and tell a good story. In that way, there are some areas where fiction and memoir overlap. Barrington stresses that personal writing does not and never will excuse bad writing.

The book also has writing exercises at the end of each chapter, designed to help someone with the whole process, from planning to generating ideas to writing drafts. In this sense, anyone interested in blogging about personal issues, struggles, or just favored memories will find helpful information in this book.

4. American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism by Richard Seymour – Beginning in the earliest years of American independence, Seymour charts the history of protests against American imperialism. These protests morph as the form of imperialism morphs – from colonial to diplomatic to economic and cultural imperialism.

The book is well-documented. I learned things about anti-imperialist protests that were new to me. I knew a little about US involvement in Latin America, but was unaware of the extent that it happened, and I knew nothing of the extent of the protests in the States. Another thing that I learned was that divestment is a protest tactic that is decades old. Before reading this book, I only knew of divestment as way of protesting the Israeli settlements in Palestine. I was completely unaware that, as a protest tactic against imperialism, divestment is about as old as I am: a product of the 1980s.

5. Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell – Vowell is a contributor to This American Life, a voice actor, and a writer. Unfamiliar Fishes is about the history of Hawaii, especially focusing on the arrival of white missionaries from the US, the establishing of schools and churches, and the coup by white business men (descendants of the missionaries, in some cases) who promptly handed Hawaii to the US.

However, someone who wants to read this book cannot expect a typical, dry academic explanation of Hawaii’s history. Vowell does quote sources throughout the book, but does not include endnotes or a list of bibliographical sources. This book is more a combination of historical research, travelogue, and personal essay than an academic treatise. That being said, I really enjoy Vowell’s writing style and voice as an author, both of which remind me of radio essays on NPR.

6. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan – First off, I really enjoyed Pollan’s previous book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Cooked focuses less on the food sourcing that his previous books do, and instead discusses the four elemental transformations of food: fire, water, air, and earth.

Each of these four transformations has a style of cooking or a food associated with it, and Pollan apprentices to a cook in each section to learn about the transformations. Fire is represented by whole hog barbecue in North Carolina. Water is represented by braising-and a little by stews-in Pollan’s own home (a friend teaches him in his own home). Air is represented by freshly baked bread, learned from two separate artisanal bakers. Earth is represented by the process of fermentation, specifically the process used to make kimchi and sauerkraut.

Similar to his other writings, Pollan mixes his writings about these elemental transformations with insight about the ways that food change culture, some recipes (which he includes at the end of the book), and with lessons on how these transformations have changed the way that Pollan cooks personally.

7. Disobedience and Deomcracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order by Howard Zinn – In this short essay (clocks in at 124 pages), Zinn critiques Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas’ Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience. According to Zinn, Fortas’ main argurment was that citizens of America should obey the law, allow for the slow and non-existent progress of politicians and lawmakers, and keep the peace. In Fortas’ opinion, that is a well-run democracy.

Zinn, on the other hand, argues that democracy is characterized by protest. He feels that governments often respond to lobbyists and corporations instead of protecting the rights of its citizens. As a result, he argues that people must disrupt the peace, protest government decisions, and commit civil disobedience. In Zinn’s mind, citizens must demand and fight for their rights and for democracy, since the government will not protect either one of those on its own.

8. Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian by Howard Zinn – This book is a short collection of Zinn’s essays and speeches, on a variety of topics, including the first amendment, academic freedom, war, civil disobedience, and objectivity. Despite the varied subject matter of these pieces, Zinn continues to emphasize why people need to know history, which is to understand how power and wealth are used as tools of oppression and how to resist them. He also emphasizes that people must be active participants and advocates for democracy; democracy is not something a government will hand to its people, and instead they must fight for it.

9-10. Saga, Volumes 2 and 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples – Saga is one of my favorite graphic novel series. Both volumes delve deeper into the story of Alana and Mark, and you learn more about the backstory of the couple (including how they meet, how they fall in love, and their favorite book). The series is still narrated by their daughter, who we have not seen, except as a baby. The dialogue is full of witty snark and sarcasm, which helps make the characters both entertaining and unique.

What have you all been reading? Would you recommend it? Let me know in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “An Eccentric Variety: April-May Reading

  1. You have reminded me that I really need to read some of Chomsky’s work this summer. Seeing as I am halfway through a Master’s degree in linguistics, I feel like it’s a requirement of some sort.

    • You know, his work in linguistics is the first that I heard of him. That was longer ago than I like to remember, as part of my teaching credential, but I still haven’t read any of it. Feels a bit shameful as an English major to admit that, haha.

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