Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

By Mary Roach

SpookRebecca has read a fair amount of Mary Roach, but this is my first book of hers, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it! I don’t often like nonfiction, but she has such a juvenile sense of humor about it all that I really appreciated! Basically if anything has even a distant relationship to genitals or farts or such, she’ll be sure to delve into it.

In the introduction, Roach writes, “Simply put, this is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith.” And I’d say that describes me to a T! She covers reincarnation, séances, ghosts, and near-death experiences, among others, and it is all fascinating. I’m not sure that I can sell this book any better than including the opening to one of my favorite passages:

Is it possible to dress up like a ghost and fool people into thinking they’ve seen the real deal? Happily, there is published research to answer this question, research carried out at no lesser institution than Cambridge University. For six nights in the summer of 1959, members of the Cambridge University Society for Research in Parapsychology took turns dressing up in a white muslin sheet and walking around in a well-traversed field behind the King’s College campus. Occasionally they would raise their arms, as ghosts will do. Other members of the team hid in bushes to observe the reactions of passerby. Although some eighty people were judged to have been in a position to see the figure, not one reacted or even gave it a second glance. The researchers found this surprising, especially given that the small herd of cows that grazed the field did, unlike the pedestrians, show considerable interest, such that two or three at a time would follow along behind the “ghost.” To my acute disappointment, “An Experiment in Apparitional Observation and Findings,” published in the September 1959 Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, includes no photographs.

Roach goes through an enormous amount of archives, in order to bring us the juiciest bits. In fact, I think that’s why I like it so much – reading this felt like gossiping with a good friend. If I have one little quibble, sometimes Roach’s research takes her into realms that are a bit much for me. Rebecca warned against the vivisection chapter in Gulp, and I’m here to warn against the ectoplasm chapter in Spook. I did not know what rumination was before I read this, and I’m not super happy that I know now.

Courage is Contagious, ed. by Nick Haramis

CourageCourage is Contagious: And Other Reasons to Be Grateful for Michelle Obama
edited by Nick Haramis
2017

This is a book of seventeen short essays about the impact First Lady Michelle Obama had on people.

I was first attracted to the title of the book, because it really is true: it is a lot easier to be courageous when you see other people being courageous. I’ve been getting worn down by the current political situation and I was hoping to get some inspiration.

It was less an inspiring call to action as a warm reassurance that great people inspire greatness in others. This book is a demonstration of the importance of representation. Many of the essayists had only fleeting direct contact with Michelle Obama, and their stories are not so much about those meetings themselves as the impact those meetings had on their lives and their perspectives. As much as they write about how genuine Michelle was, the book celebrates Michelle as an icon who’s inspired millions. Some of the essayists had name recognition, some of them do not, but they consist of authors, artists, actors, activists, a couple of students not yet settled into careers.

I like and respect Michelle Obama, though she’s never been a particular inspiration to me. It was still heartwarming to see how she’s inspired others.

Simpson Testimony and Steele Dossier

Oh, man! I’ve been on a kick of most excellent period-piece mysteries, but I had to interrupt it to focus on the latest, most crazy political controversy from the past couple weeks. After Senator Feinstein released the transcript of testimony from Fusion GPS CEO Glenn Simpson, I read two fascinating (and lengthy) twitter threads analyzing the transcript.

Elizabeth McLaughlin is a lawyer and CEO, and has a 60-tweet thread of her reading here: https://twitter.com/ECMcLaughlin/status/950884746082562048

Seth Abramson is a former criminal defense attorney and journalist, and his 200-tweet thread is here: https://twitter.com/SethAbramson/status/950800455797534720

The analyses are fascinating, and the quotes from both Simpson and Steele are completely bonkers! So, a quick rehash, which I’m going to put after a break, because it gets a bit involved. Continue reading

fail, fail again, fail better by Pema Chödrön

failcoverfail, fail again, fail better
by Pema Chödrön
2015

This was an elegant short book with two main sections: the first is a transcript of a commencement address that the author, an American-born Buddhist nun, delivered to the 2014 graduating class at Naropa University, and the second is a transcript of a follow-up interview that delves further into the topic.

Both sections were good, although I enjoyed the first part better. The commencement address was more elegantly written and more beautifully laid out and had a feeling of something in between poetry and prose. The interview delved more into Chödrön’s person life experiences and how they effected and were effected by her thoughts on failure.

The thoughts really come down to:

  • Failure is always possible but do not allow fear of failure to stop you.
  • It is important to acknowledge that a failure is a failure rather than pretending it isn’t, to either yourself or others.
  • Examine each failure to determine why it happened and allow it to be a learning experience without focusing on blame: either of yourself or others.
  • Failures range from minor to devastating but they are always external actions: you can fail, but you cannot be a failure.

None of these thoughts are particularly unique or anything I haven’t run across before, but they’re important and well worth being reminded of on a semi-regular basis.

This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson

thisbookisoverdueThis Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All
by Marilyn Johnson
2010

I enjoyed this book but it also left me feeling kind of weird and antsy in a way that took a while for me to figure out. It’s made up of twelve chapters that are essentially stand alone non-fiction stories about some pretty amazing things that different librarians and groups of librarians are doing in the world right now. This is a direct counter to all those (generally upper/upper-middle class) people who write articles about how no one uses the library anymore. People are absolutely still using libraries, both in traditional ways and in new and innovative ways.

This book looks at twelve ways that librarians have done some pretty amazing things from innovations:

  • Having a real working library offering real world information and services staffed and resourced in an MMO RPG (massive multi-player online role playing game
  • Having mobile librarians working with mobile devices and hooked into real-time databases offering fact-checking and up-to-date information to protestors, counter-protestors and locals alike during massive protests.

to protecting traditional values:

  • Taking on the United States federal government in a massive silenced court case about reporting on the reading habits of their customers
  • Providing computer literacy training around the world to ensure people can access books in whatever form the library happens to have it in, physical or digital.

It’s fascinating and (as a library science grad) personally inspiring.

That said, it also made me feel just a bit antsy with the way the author put librarians on this pedestal of being amazingly altruistic in all ways. She is surprised by their human foibles and shocked when there’s a case of a librarian doing something wrong.

Like any career, librarians include some truly heroic people and some truly awful people, and a lot of people who are generally in-between. There is a strong culture of altruism in the career path, yes, but we’re not saints.

So definitely read this book and read about some extremely cool people who are doing or have done some amazing things. But also take a moment to read a more low-key blog post about your every day librarians as well.

 

March by John Lewis

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March, books 1, 2, and 3
written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
illustrated by Nate Powell
2013, 2015, 2016

John Lewis is a g**d*** hero and every school child should learn his story and every adult should know it. That’s my take away from these books. I am embarrassed at how much of these events I didn’t previously know.

These books were both heart-wrenching and inspirational, made all the more so by the starkness of the story telling. Lewis is not specifically trying to be heart-wrenching or inspirational, he’s just telling the story. And the story is intrinsically heart-wrenching and inspirational.

John Lewis felt, feels, so strongly about achieving what is right that he knowingly walked into situations where he could be killed, refusing to physically fight back, and instead demanding that the world be better than it was through acts of faith and friendship in the face of hatred and anger. That takes levels of courage that I can’t really comprehend and yet want so much. He wanted to live and yet was willing to risk his life to accomplish something because, live or die, succeed or fail, just the attempt would be worth it.

That is a freaking hero.

These books are autobiographical and nonfiction. They give the reader a look at a specific part of history that often gets glossed over in the textbooks. But it’s important history, in part because it’s still ongoing. These events were only some fifty years ago and John Lewis is still alive and working today. And the issues he dealt with are still being dealt with today as well. These books make you think. They don’t necessarily tell you what to think, but they show you events that require thought.

So read them.

Read them now.

Something that gets to me about modern politics is how scared people are. Trump’s supporters want to cower behind a wall, protected from anyone and everything different from them. Trump’s detractors are terrified that he’s going to either kill them outright for being different or force them into a poor homogenous society cowering behind a wall. (I’m over simplifying, but I stand by the summary.)

John Lewis’s life is a testament against that level of fear. He could face fear and not let his warp who he was or change him into someone he didn’t want to be. Everyone should learn that lesson.

Another thing that struck me in these books was how evil some of the white people were. It’s generally not covered in text books, but it’s still historical fact—and not even all that historical. But there were just ordinary citizens who were also monsters and they raised their kids to be monsters. They went out of their way to kill, spread misery and spew anger.

It has occurred to me before that there is a level of cognitive dissonance in this type of violent racism, that clearly shows that the racists know themselves to be in the wrong and lying to themselves. True-believer racists go the white-man’s-burden route. But by violently trying to create a society that they consider to be natural, they demonstrate just how unnatural it really is.

These books also got me thinking about how methods change and evolve in every war as both sides learn how best to attack and defend. In the 1960s, the civil rights leaders made being jailed work for them by overfilling the jails and refusing to pay bail, forcing the cities to take the expense.

Unfortunately, racists have evolved since then and have turned the jail system into a for-profit venture and they benefit off the number of black bodies they imprison.

I’m reminded of the story of Jesus turning the other cheek. It’s often seen as purely an act of humility, but that’s because not many people know the cultural implications of Jesus story. Left and right hands were seen very differently, as were open handed slaps and backhanded slaps. Jesus wasn’t merely submitting to being slapped again, he was changing the situation so that the person slapping him faced a very different set of options.

I’m not sure what the modern version should be, but I do know that it needs to change with the times.

And a final thought:

One of the things that I find difficult with any civil rights movement is that I can never do enough, and so I become paralyzed and wind up doing nothing. But Lewis makes the point with this story, the story of his life and the lives the people he worked with, that no one person can do everything and that’s okay. Because you do what you can, don’t do what you can’t, and rely on others to do what they can. Civil rights, all politics for that matter, isn’t a single sprint: it’s a marathon and a relay. You work together and you go for the long run, and you pass the baton back and forth. You have some wins and you have some devastating losses, but hopefully over the course of years and decades you wind up with more achievements than setbacks. And that is a message that is always important, but especially important in today’s political scene.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

61unm4weinl-_aa300_Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
2015

So 2016 proved to be a bit of a wake-up call for me in terms of politics and social justice. We have some serious problems in the US, regarding unjust inequality of human respect and public safety in addition to inequalities of income, access to education, access to healthcare, and access to overall opportunities.

I’ve come to the realization that it’s a sign of just how sheltered I’ve been that 2016 was a wake-up call rather than just another demonstration of what the world can be like. It was time and past for me to expand my horizons and get out of my comfort zone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is only a couple of years older than me and this book is about his experience with being black in a white society. I’m white in a white society and thus a lot of racial issues are nearly invisible to me. I am not at all the intended audience for this book: he writes it as a black man to his black son about his experience with the way their blackness is seen by society. It is beautifully written and it’s an honor to be be allowed to read this somewhat intimate letter from a father to his son about his fears and hurts and anger.

It reminded me of Why Are They Angry With Us?, another book I highly recommend, but while that book was academic and intended for a general audience, Between the World and Me is very personal and intended for a specific audience of one, possibly expanded to include all young black men.

I’m glad I listened to it as an audio book rather than trying to read it as text. Coates reads it himself, which I always appreciate in audio books. But the real benefit of audio books is that they don’t stop unless you actively push the pause button. I found it a difficult book to hear but that very difficulty is what makes it all the more important that I listen.