I am Raymond Washington by Fortier & Barton

RaymondWashingtonI am Raymond Washington
by Zach Fortier and Derard Barton
2014

The Crips were founded in Los Angeles, California, in 1969. This book mentions that there is some conflicting information regarding who takes credit for the gang, but that there shouldn’t be: it was Raymond Washington.

Raymond Washington was born on August 14, 1953 and died on August 9, 1979, just shy of his 26th birthday, and his story feels like something in between a classic rags-to-riches American myth and the story of Alexander the Great. He grew up in what was essentially an urban-American war zone and created order for his little section of it. He created something much larger than himself and died young. He was not the only kid creating a gang, but his particular gang grew and continues to grow well beyond the original intent some fifty years later.

Most of what I’ve read about gangs before (admittedly not a lot) has been from the external view: told from the perspective of police about these violent groups threatening the welfare of the established class. Despite Fortier’s history as a policeman, however, he clearly respects Washington and a significant amount of the book is recounting interviews with Washington’s friends and family. This gives the reader the interior perspective of the gang, where the violence is merely a necessary defense of what the gang really provided its members: a sense of structure in a chaotic community and a sense of protection from threats.

It really struck me that the way to fight gangs is not to be one more set of people fighting them, but rather to provide viable alternatives to the people who see the gang lifestyle as their only and best option. Because everyone, friends and family and Washington himself, knew that gang life was brutal and short and nothing you wanted for the people you loved. Raymond Washington was not a hero, but he also wasn’t a villain. Or maybe he was both. But he was certainly a complex individual.

Fortier is clearly impressed by Washington. It’s also clear that Fortier’s experience is as a cop rather than as an academic writer. The writing is very plain-spoken and direct, in some ways it feels more like an oral history than a written one. But he doesn’t buy into the mythos surrounding the conflict between cops and gangs; trying instead to get to the actual facts of the situation and the facts are fascinating. This is a really fascinating look at the impact of the racial tensions of LA in the 1950s-1960s on a child, and the impact in turn of the young man that child grew up to be on the world around him.

Fire Monks by Colleen Morton Busch

FireMonksFire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara
By Colleen Morton Busch
2011

The opening sentence of the book is:

On June 21, 2008, lightning strikes from one end of drought-dry California to the other ignited more than two thousand wildfires in what became known as the “lightning siege.”

The book focuses on the threat of wildfire to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and proceeds chronologically, day by day and sometimes hour by hour. Over the course of ten chapters, we go from Saturday, June 21, 2008, one p.m. when the news arrives about the wildfires, to Thursday, July 10, one p.m. when the fire arrives as the Center. Then there’s an eleventh chapter covering July 10th, and a twelfth chapter covering the mop up afterwards.

It’s a slogging, almost painful recounting, that really highlights how any conflict can be summarized by “hurry up and wait.”

It’s a nonfiction account and there’s probably an equal amount of discussion of the ways of Zen as there is the ways of fire fighting, with a focus on where they can intersect and where they diverge. I found the references to other fires particularly fascinating and the author clearly did a lot of reading on wildfire fighting in general to be able to discuss expectations and possibilities.

There’s a cast of twelve characters, nine monks and three professional firefighters, who the author focuses on as they desperately try to plan for all the possibilities and correctly balance the risks to people versus the chance to save the physical center. There’s a lot of stress and disagreements by all involved and while I am absolutely positive it would have been a lot worse if the same situation had happened with people who were not Buddhist Monks, it’s still unpleasant, for both them and me.

This took me a ludicrously long time to finish, especially since it was a kindle book on library loan and thus I had to have my kindle on airport mode for the better part of a year to avoid losing it. I persevered however, because despite everything, it really was fascinating.

 

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.