Book Review: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn


Author: Howard Zinn
Title: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Narrator: David Strathairn
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc, 2017 (originally published in 1994)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I received an advanced review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This book serves as an autobiography of the historian and activist Howard Zinn, and intersects with America’s history of inequality and imperialism, as well as the work of activists towards justice and equality.  Zinn grew up poor in Brooklyn and worked at the Brooklyn Naval Yard where he formed bonds with the other laborers.  He signed up with the Army Air Force during World War II in order to fight fascism, but was also exposed to segregation in the armed forces and participated in a napalm bombing raid in France that he felt was more of a show of American military might than a strategical necessity.

Zinn began his academic career at Spellman College in Atlanta in 1956 where he served as a mentor to Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman.  He also became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, serving as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  Zinn was fired for insubordination in 1963, and accepted a professorship at Boston University in 1964.  Zinn’s arrival BU coincided with the movement against the war in Vietnam of which he became an active leader.  Zinn’s courses were extremely popular but he also had to contend with prickly and conservative BU president, John Silber.

Despite the dominance of inequality and opression in the world, Zinn remains optomistic.  He sees the changes made in people in the various movements as a net positive.  He notes that while tyranny is a danger in a short term it also will be defeated by the people in the long term.

Recommended books: This is an Uprising by Mark Engler
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman


Author: Mark Salzman
Title: Iron & Silk
Narrator: Barry Carl
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc, 1987
Other Books Read by the Same Author: Lying Awake, The Soloist, Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, and The Laughing Sutra
Summary/Review:

When I was in high school, Mark Salzman came to speak to members of the National Honors Society (his father worked in development for my school).  I was not a member of the National Honors Society (long story – still bitter), but my English teacher had been at our talk and said he was “wonderful,” and that we should all go down and crash the NHS meeting instead of having English teacher.

I remember entering the library as Salzman was telling an animated story about astronauts that involved him walking across the top of a table.  I enjoyed his stories and his positivie attitude about embracing life, so I got a copy of his memoir Iron & Silk.  It soon became one of my favorite books and for many years I read each new Salzman book as it came out.  Since I’m trying revisit books on my list of Favorite Books of All Time, I figured it was due for a reread.

Mark Salzman grew up in suburban Connecticut and at a young age was drawn to kung fu (more properly termed “wushu”) and from there a more general interest in Chinese culture and language.  Earning a degree in Chinese studies from Yale, Salzman travelled to China in the early 1980s to work as an English teacher for two years at Changsha Medical University. This was at a time when China had been shut off from the United States for decades, so Salzman was among the first Americans to get a taste of everyday life in China.

Much of the book is about the cultural exchange among Salzman and his students and the other faculty.  There are many humorous stories of the differences of expectations in a classroom setting and the different understandings of history from Chinese and Western backgrounds.  Salzman becomes something of a local celebrity for being a tall, blond man who can speak fluent Chinese.  Some of the warmest parts of this book involved a fisherman Salzman meets who is amazed by the foreigner in his midst and basically welcomes him into the family.

Salzman also takes the opportunity to study his own interests including learning Chinese dialects and calligraphy.  The core of the book, though, focuses on the martial arts, as Salzman receives instruction from two different wushu masters whose different styles are the metaphor in the title of the book, iron and silk.  The “iron” teacher was Pan Qingfu, a legendary grandmaster who starred in Shaolin Temple, China’s first blockbuster film released in 1982.

Rereading this as an adult, I’m more aware of the gravity of the stories Salzman’s acquaintances tell of World War II and the Cultural Revolution.  I also notice when Salzman’s biases creep in.  But by and large, this is still the same charming, humorous, and inspiring book I remember reading as a teenager, albeit now it seems more of a relic of the 1980s than current.  I remember also seeing a movie adaptation of this book that somehow included a romance that doesn’t exist in the books, and wasn’t very good, even though Salzman and Pan Qingfu.  So read the book, ignore the movie.

Recommended books: The Silent Traveller in Boston by Chiang Yee, The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth, and An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: An American Childhood by Annie Dillard


Author: Annie Dillard
TitleAn American Childhood
Narrator:  Tavia Gilbert
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, Inc., p2011.
Summary/Review:

I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek many years ago and so I’ve long meant to read another of her books.  An American Childhood is a memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s.  The early chapters are vivid descriptions of her inner life as a child focusing on her imagination. A particular compelling passage describes her horror at a figure crossing her room at night which later realizes is only light from passing cars, but nevertheless she continues to imagine that something is really in her room.  From an early age, Dillard is fascinated by nature and she describes learning about it from books at the library and experience much of nature even in her urban environment.  As she gets older the narrative grows into more of a traditional memoir more focused on people in her life and her experiences at school and church.  Dillard’s prose is beautiful, but I didn’t find this book nearly as engaging as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Recommended booksOne Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty, Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy
Rating: ***

Book Review: Spinning by Tillie Walden


Author: Tillie Walden
TitleSpinning
Publication Info: First Second (2017)
Summary/Review:

Walden’s illustrated memoir tells of several years in her childhood when she was a dedicated figure skater and synchronized skater which involved rising early to get to the rink, extensive travel to tournaments, and a discomfort with the performative femininity expected of her.  Outside of skating, Walden moves from New Jersey to Austin, TX and has to adjust to a new school, deal with a bully,  and come out as a lesbian.  It’s an insightful and meditative look back on the choices made in childhood and their long lasting effects.

Favorite Passages:

“I’m the type of creator who is happy making a book without all the answers.  I don’t need to understand my past fully in order to draw a comic about it.  And now that this is a book that other people will read, I feel like it’s not really my turn to answer  that question.  It’s for the reader to decide, to speculate, to guess.  It reminds me of how in English class in high school we would always talk about the author’s intentions in every moment.  And I used to always wonder if there was ever an author who really didn’t mean any of it, and the meaning found its way in by accident.  I think I’m that author.”

Recommended booksFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher


AuthorCarrie Fisher
TitleWishful Drinking
Narrator:  Carrie Fisher
Publication Info: S&S Audio (2009)
Summary/Review:

Based on her stage performance, the delightful Carrie Fisher wryly reflects on her celebrity upbringing, her marriages and relationships, her mental health problems, and substance abuse issues.  An interesting memoir for fans and non-fans alike.

Recommended booksFuriously Happy by Jenny Lawson, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, and You’re Never Weird on the Internet by Felcia Day
Rating: ***

Book Review: When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele


Author: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
TitleWhen They Call You a Terrorist
Narrator: Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2018
Summary/Review:

This memoir depicts Patrisse Khan-Cullors life growing up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, where her family and community were under constant surveillance and harassment from the police.  Her father was in and out of prison and her mentally ill brother was also imprisoned and tortured by the police.  As Cullors grows older she also deals with her disillusionment with her mother’s church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and grows to understand her queer identity.  She became an artist and an activist in her teenage years, advocating for reform and abolition of prisons.  In 2013, responding to her friend Alicia Garza’s post about Treyvon Martin, she created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and has been active in shepherding the movement.  This memoir is both harrowing and hopeful in depicting the lives of people of color and LBGT people in America that is under assault, but also the positive gains that come when people stand up for their rights, equality, and dignity. This is definitely required reading for all Americans in 2018.

Favorite Passages:

“I cannot help think that the drug war, the war on gangs, has really been no more than a forced migration project.  From my neighborhood in LA to the Back Bay to Brooklyn, Black and Brown people have been moved out as young white people build exciting new lives standing on the bones of ours.  The drug war as ethnic cleansing.”

Recommended booksThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and  Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Rating:

Book Review: A Life in Leadership by John C. Whitehead


Author: John C. Whitehead
Title: A Life in Leadership: From D-Day to Ground Zero
Publication Info: Basic Books (2005)
Summary/Review:

I read this book for research at work.  Whitehead tells his life story which involves commanding landing vehicles on D-Day, rising to Co-Chair of Goldman Sachs, serving as Deputy Secretary of State to George Shultz, leading numerous nonprofit organizations, and guiding the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan after the September 11th attacks.  His style of writing has a bit of a humblebrag to it, but I suppose he’s earned it he spins the yarns of the many significant historical events and trends of the 20th and 21st century he was directly involved in.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Papi: My Story by David Ortiz


Author: David Ortiz with Michael Holley
Title: Papi: My Story
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
Summary/Review:

I know that David Ortiz is a prodigious slugger, has a big heart, and a potty mouth.  From his baseball memoir, I’ve also learned that he holds a grudge.  A bit too much of this book is full of Ortiz’s resentments against his manager in Minnesota (and two different managers in Boston), the Red Sox front office, the Boston media, and everyone who suspected him of PED use.  Granted he actually is justified in his anger against these people, but it weighs down what is otherwise an insightful book about his life in baseball.  I particularly enjoy what Ortiz says about how he became a student of the game and studied pitchers while on the bench so that he could become a better hitter.  He talks of learning a lot from fellow players, especially Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez. And then he passes along that knowledge to younger players from Dustin Pedroia to Andrew Benentendi.  Outside baseball, Ortiz reflects on his marriage to his wife Tiffany and how he was contending with their marriage falling apart right around the same time as the magical 2013 series.  It’s an entertaining book and a must read for fans of Big Papi and the Red Sox, and baseball fans in general.

Favorite Passages:

“I’ve always been amazed at people who criticize baseball players for showing emotion, especially in playoff games. What do they expect when every move you make is with the game on the line?  You’re a competitor.  You want to be sucessful for your team and your city.  You’re not supposed to respond when everyone is losing their minds in the stands, to the point where you really can’t hear anything?

Why not?” – p. 76

“To me, Pedroia is the prototype.  I’d never met anyone like him in baseball.  It’s hard to explain.  For example, I love baseball.  Love it.  But what I saw from Pedroia made it clear to me that his connection to baseball was beyond everyone else’s.  It was so much more than just love for the game.  He was the game. Seriously.  Everything that was good and true about baseball was in Dustin Pedroia.  He breathed it.  He lived it.  He’d do anything to play it, to be around it, to talk about it.He was such a force of energy, talent, and humor that it lifted our entire clubhouse.” – p. 116

“I believe the Boston media is powerful when it comes to the fans and, in some ways, influential when it comes to the way the team is managed.  When the media make a big deal about something, when they create a problem or issue, what are the fans supposed to think?  They figure that these people are around the team 24/7, so they must know what they’re talking about.  But they don’t.” – p. 151

Recommended booksBecoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball’s Most Enigmatic Slugger by Jean Rhodes, Pedro, Carlos, and Omar: The Story of a Season in the Big Apple and the Pursuit of Baseball’s Top Latino Stars by Adam Rubin, and Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season by Stewart O’Nan
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick


Author: Anna Kendrick
TitleScrappy Little Nobody
Narrator: Anna Kendrick
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

Anna Kendrick is a talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive, so it’s reassuring to read her memoir where she shares her insecurity and feelings that she is a misfit.  On the other hand one my wonder why someone who is a  talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive has anything to complain about.  Luckily, Kendrick’s memoir is full of humor and perspective on her life story.  She tells of being a child actor on Broadway commuting from Maine to New York for auditions and living in a tar-stained Los Angeles apartment with several roommates even as her fame grew, but she’d still not seen the financial reward.  There’s a lot of insight on her relationship to boys and men and how she’s grown to assert herself.  And then there’s her hilarious takes on celebrity life such as the ridiculous things a woman has to go through for photoshoots and red carpet occasions.  It’s a different type of celebrity memoir, funny, honest, and beneath the surface, a little bit sad, but ultimately persistent.

Recommended books: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day and Bossypants by Tina Fey
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Our revolution : a future to believe in by Bernard Sanders


Author: Bernard Sanders
TitleOur revolution : a future to believe in
Publication Info: New York : Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2016.
Summary/Review:

This memoir/political treatise starts with a short background of Sanders’ life and then a more detailed account of the 2016 election campaign. It’s still pretty remarkable how in a short time a little known Senator from a small state was able to bring together so many people and win 23 primary elections, get millions of votes in other primaries, and win nearly half of the elected delegates.  Although the 2016 election ended in the triumph of evil, there’s a lot of inspiration of reading this story of what can be done when bringing together a movement based on equality, progressive values, and social democracy.  The second part of the book diagnoses the political ills of America and what can be done to heal them.  It’s preaching to the choir for me, but a handy guide that I hope will be relied on in the coming years.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***1/2