Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick (2010)

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“Our enemies are using … specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism… If we allow ourselves to be affected by these materials, our revolutionary mind-set and class awareness will be paralyzed and our absolute idolization for the Marshal (Kim Il-sung in this case] will disappear…”

This intriguing non-fiction read has been sitting on my TBR pile for a while – a fact that I rather regret now as it was a good read. In it, Demick follows the lives of six fairly typical people who were born and lived in North Korea. What adds another level of interest is that they have all defected to South Korea – which is the only way that Demick could ever get an opportunity to have this kind of access to interview them for the book. There is no way that she could have had that sort of unfettered access whilst they were living in North Korea as it’s such a government-controlled environment with regards to free speech and other civil rights (i.e. there aren’t many civil rights) – many individuals have served years in hard labor camps (similar to the gulag) or even been executed for saying something that was not supportive of the ruling powers.

Korea_mapAs the reader learns more about each of the book subjects, Demick structures the narrative to deliver startling descriptions of life under a communist dictator and his administration. In this day and age, it’s pretty astonishing to read about the trials and tribulations of its ordinary citizens, and you learn just why people stay in such a hostile environment. If it’s so bad, why not just leave? But, as with many things, it’s never that simple for the average citizen. Potential threats of execution and government-controlled education and media (along with high levels of poverty) narrow the available choices of such a populace and clearly demonstrates how the denial of reality by a whole government controls the future of a nation.

kim-jong-unHistorically speaking, North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as their government calls their country) has been held back from progress for decades, experiencing widespread famine in the 1990’s and poverty of resources and optimism for its people. Until reading this, I did not fully comprehend how powerless its people really were and how few choices or opportunities for change there really were in this particular environment (or weren’t which would be more accurate in this case). This, combined with news of the recent nuclear talk et al. by current leader Kim Jong-un, made it a very relevant read for me (which made me love it even more).

However, Demick does not take pity or feel sorry for her subjects. Instead, each person is allowed to keep their dignity and their individual lives are presented with journalistic objectivity which makes the descriptions of their very grey world even more powerful to Western readers.

Some of the notes that I made included the following:

  • If you (as an individual person) made a slight against the government (or their “Great Leader” as Kim Jong-un is called), not only would you be punished but also your whole family would be punished for three generations to get rid of the “tainted blood” (i.e. your parents and your children would be included in such punishment as was deemed necessary). This sort of thing doesn’t really encourage open communication about things, does it?
  • People need a travel permit from the government just to travel to the next town.
  • People who worked for the state (and everyone works for the state) didn’t get paid for months at a time and so almost the whole population were struggling for enough food, power, or shelter in a pretty harsh environment, weather-wise. Ugh. Even if the working folk had been paid what they were owed, there was still very little of anything to buy for the average citizen.
  • Despite this widespread famine and shortage of living necessities, the government still managed to scrape together enough funds to build a large and impressive building in Pyongyang just to house the permanent exhibit of “Kimjongilia”, a flower named for Kim Jong-il who was the leader of North Korea for half of the twentieth century. His grandson is the leader nowadays. (Him of the really bad haircut if you’ve seen pics.)
  • Also related to the famine: there are now significant physical differences between the populations of North and South Korea. Demick reports that due to significant childhood malnutrition, the average 17 year old male in North Korea is approximately five inches smaller than his counterpart in the healthier South Korea.

Demick is a prize-winning author and reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and was stationed in Seoul (South Korea) as their bureau chief. She is also the author of Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (2012).

National flower named after Kim Jong-Il, leader of North Korea in first half twentieth century.

National flower named after Kim Jong-Il, leader of North Korea in first half twentieth century.

Recap: 2015 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference

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As part of my job and life, I write any number of documents, reports, PR materials and numerous other pieces, so it’s important that I try to learn as much as I can to develop my skills. Luckily, I love to learn and when I was offered the chance to attend a prestigious writing conference near Dallas, I jumped at it.

The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference is an annual event organized by the Mayborn School of Journalism (or J-School as it’s known) at the University of North Texas. It’s been going on for quite some time, and has evolved into a pretty important literary event for those in the world of nonfiction (especially narrative NF, creative NF, long-form NF, literary NF or any of its other permutations). The conference’s theme was “The Great Divide” which covered, as the conference brochure says, “the great divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots in America and the social, economic, racial, cultural and political fissures created by this divide.”

Speakers were heavy hitters in the world of lit NF: there were keynotes from Anne Fadiman and from Barbara Ehrenreich, there were editors and writers of all levels from places like the Washington Post, New York Times, and The Atlantic magazine, and there were Pulitzer Prize winners talking about their work.

There were panel conversations about the ethics of writing someone else’s story (as happens with lit NF many times): should a writer appropriate the life story belonging to someone else and if so, what is the obligation (if there is one) of the writer to that someone during the process and afterwards (in terms of literary success etc.)?

There was one particularly interesting panel about a young journalist (actually on the panel) who had made a colossal mistake with a story, an error which may have played a role in the source’s eventual suicide. Who should have stopped the error? The journalist himself? His editors? In the end, twelve people read the story prior to print and no one said anything to stop it being published as it was written. How did that occur?

Another panel discussed the rights and wrongs involved in Rolling Stone’s wrongly reported fraternity rape case at a Virginia university. So many people were involved in the process, but somehow the source’s story didn’t get fact-checked… How? Why?

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It was a very thought-provoking two days and I learned a great deal, one of the biggest being that every lit NF (whether it’s a book or a short-form article) has a formal structure to it (thanks to good editors if you have one) and I’m slowly deconstructing essays and other documents to see how they are built within these structures.  I think that you have to know the rules to break the rules (re: grammar and other writing bits and pieces). This deconstructing process reminds me of diagraming sentences so if you liked to do that, then you’ll probably enjoy deconstructing essays. It’s great fun on long plane rides, if you ask me.

So – not only was the conference worthwhile, but being in Dallas meant that I was pretty close to lots of friends who live in the area so I managed to catch up with some of them in the scant free time there was. I might also have found a bookshop very close to the hotel. I can neither confirm nor deny that books were bought on this trip.

Anyway, a good trip and well worth the time and effort. You should look it up if you’re interested in lit NF, reading or writing it.

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Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End – Atul Gawande (2014)

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“One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes

are what matters most.”

Passing by the New Release shelf at the local library, I quickly noticed a new title out by Dr. Atul Gawande, one of my fav authors and an experienced surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He’s also an excellent writer who has often published medical-related essays in places such as the New Yorker and elsewhere. He’s also written a few other titles, all with a medical connection and mostly very good. (I’d class his “Complications” title as excellent really. You should check him out if he’s a new author to you.)

This new title focuses on human mortality and the role that medicine plays in the lives of aging Americans and then death. Medicine can do many things, but its main role has developed over time to sustain life through addressing medical problems. And you know, medicine is very good at that. However, with medicine being an art (as opposed to a science with a definite right and wrong answer), physicians are not always so skilled with squidgy end-of-life issues (including the dying process prior to death).

This sounds such a morbid and depressing book, but Gawande takes a very serious topic and asks tough questions (of himself and of others): When should expensive medical approaches stop if a patient is terminally ill? Who should decide that point and when? Is it the doctors? The family (especially if the patient is very ill and unable to voice concerns)? The patient him- or herself (if it’s possible at that point)?

Obviously, it should be the patient in question, but end-of-life issues can be extremely difficult to talk about for the many players in that situation. It can be frightening and confusing for everyone involved, but I totally agree with Gawande when he writes that this tough conversation should be a normal part of the living (and dying) process. That’s where physicians need to be in a leadership capacity, not in telling families what to do but in finding out what the actual patient wants. Does s/he want endless life-saving measures at the end point? Or just relieve the pain and suffering?

By taking real-life cases of patients (terminal and otherwise), Gawande talks us through the decision process of how the medical world treats terminal and elderly people. Medicine can prolong a life for much longer than perhaps is best for the patient, but what does the person in question really want? That is where the hole is in most medical care – there is often little consideration of what the patient in question really wants — what is important to them and not what their family members (or their health care team) want. It gets complicated for everyone unless someone skilled in the dying process can jump in and ask the right questions.

This is not an easy book to read, but it’s so helpful as it normalizes the aging/dying process for millions of Americans. A lot of people have prepared for their actual death with wills and other legal documents signed and in the lawyer’s office. Where there is often a gap is the actual process of dying: the months/weeks/days when one slowly loses one’s health. (Gawande calls this the ODTAA Syndrome: One Damn Thing After Another when a person’s health starts to fail like dominoes.) Some people will, of course, die suddenly but millions of people will have a long journey ahead of them in the dying process, so Gawande also addresses the cultural treatment of the elderly and the infirm with regard to assisted living, nursing homes, and the tough battle it can be when adult children take over the decision-making process and players disagree about the next steps. It’s a debate between the issues of safety and happiness. Which is more important?

A very provocative read for me. I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2001, and as I had a fairly weird type of tumor, it took a good six months to get a correct diagnosis and then a plan of action. The following six months (and the following treatment) pretty much changed my life on several levels, one of which was addressing and accepting my mortality. (Well, we all will die, really, but pancreatic cancer has an extremely high mortality rate so this had to be addressed. However, it’s not always easy to start the discussion.) BTW, I’m all good and fine now, and I have a “new” normal in my life now – I’m very happy that I have this chance.

Knowing that it was quite possible that I could be dead by the end of the year changes one’s perspective and forces one to live more in the moment: life is made up of small moments so how to make sure those little things are good? I’m not going to go all Deep and Meaningful on you, but suffice to say, Gawande’s book contains much needed timely advice for everyone, sick or not. When your loved one is in the ICU intubated is not the time to have these dialogues.

Homeward Bound – Emily Matchar (2012)

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This title has been pretty high on my TBR for about the last year or so. Why I haven’t read it is a question for the ages, but eventually I pulled it off the shelf. Written by Emily Matchar (who writes the New Domesticity blog), I was familiar with the general tack of the narrative and the whole book stayed quite close to that, overall. Material-wise, it wore a bit thin in places and there was some repetition (probably to keep a word count up there), but as mentioned, there were salient points in it.

Matcher takes a critical look at the world of what she calls “New Domesticity” – the Gen Y-ers who are embracing back-to-nature “crunchy” lifestyles of urban homesteading (keeping chickens, growing veg etc.) and home crafts such as knitting or making jewelry. This is not that notable in and of itself, but Matcher’s perspective is through more of a feminist lens which studies what this rejection of the workplace in lieu of being a SAHM/F (but mostly mothers) could mean for women in the future. It’s really quite an interesting read to consider this return to domesticity being viewed as a political statement (which some participants would argue it is).

From the book, it seems that quite a few Gen Y-ers (more than 95% female in this particular non-academic study) appreciate the steps that the first-wave and second-wave feminists have taken but blame this early feminism for their retreat from the workplace to the remolded idea of June Cleaver life, saying that their parents rejected domestic life to work and parent, and now they want to reclaim it back (“except it’s different”).

“New Domesticity is most attractive to people who are removed enough from the horrors of rural poverty to find canning charming, yet struggle to find genuinely fulfilling careers and decent ways to balance work and life.”

Emily Matcher.

She likens the people in their 20’s and 30’s as being raised by the “I’m OK You’re OK” parents who taught their offspring the lovely (but rather idealistic) idea of everyone being “as special as a snowflake” and thus having unrealistic expectations of beginning jobs once they’re graduated.

Additionally, as a human, one tends to make friends who reflect what you individually believe (“birds of a feather flock together”) which is both strengthening for their beliefs but also adds a great deal of peer pressure. Matcher reports groups of friends aligning very strict parenting behaviors (e.g. intensive attachment parenting styles) with almost a moral quality, seeing peers who don’t follow their way of acting as being “worse” or even “bad” parents at times. (Obviously, not everyone holds that opinion, but it was quite a common occurrence in the book. May have been the sample though which did seem rather limited at times.)

The adoption of this “new domesticity” is also very class-oriented, with only people who have reliable and middle-class working partners to support them and make them able to reject working in a full-time job. As the saying goes, “only those with enough money can say that money doesn’t matter”…)

It takes resources to do lovely but expensive and time-consuming hobbies like quilting or making jam, especially when you add in the common pipe-dream of making a sustainable living from a small Etsy on-line shop. (Most people don’t succeed, but it’s a nice idea. The reality, according to Matcher, is that the majority of these micro-crafting enterprises either don’t sell anything (re: the former website Regretsy) or do sell some but with the owners having to turn into temporary mini-sweat shops to get the orders out. (“I’d like 150 mini jars of home-made plum jam for my wedding please. It’s on this next Saturday.”)

Additionally, other critics and Matchar have linked this withdrawal from working life to the domestic front as changing how society views its community problems and rejects the social good. For example, numerous examples shown in the book report that people want to follow Ghandi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” , which is a lovely idea, but when it’s employed in a “my family first and pooey on everyone else” does move the focus from solving community problems as a whole to just solving your own immediate family’s problems (when really, they’re not even “problems”). To wit, parents who may have otherwise volunteered as a PTA leader (or with other vital skills) are now more focused on these intensive home-life choices, which means that the PTA would miss out on this individual’s leadership skills. So it’s a big ripple effect in some ways…

The misguided anti-vaccination movement is a good example of this, along with some cases of home schooling where the parenting “teacher” is in absolutely no position to be teaching science or other subjects and, despite their intentions, are only putting the “protected child” at a disadvantage when they enter public school life. (Not everyone, of course, but I do worry about the more extreme examples.)

There was also some repetition from chapter to chapter, but I think it was because each chapter had been written at a different time with specified word counts (or page counts), and the author was struggling to meet those parameters. (Maybe not the case, but I’m going to give benefit of doubt here.) Oh, and If the author mentioned “crunchy” as a description of the eco lifestyle one more time, I was going to throw the book at the wall.

Still, I enjoyed the critical perusal of the world of cupcakes (and more) and I still don’t really get why people try to follow such extraordinarily complicated parenting rules (such as attachment parenting guides describe) which only seem to add an extra unnecessary level of stress to their lives…

I also don’t really get why these (mostly) women force themselves to live a work-intensive home life – “from scratch” is a common refrain like their great-grandmothers — whilst rejecting working life. Why not put that home-focused effort into something that pays good money (like a job) that will be able to support you in the unpredictable future? This lifestyle seems almost selfish in a way.

It also brings to the fore the risk that this New Domesticity population bring to their lives whilst they completely reject the serious side of working life (like having a job). Removing themselves from the workforce places a huge financial risk on themselves – the kids will grow up, their relationship/ supporting spouse could leave or die, and then what happens to the domestic maven? One cannot live on cupcakes and hand-made bread alone forever. (I might be of a more pragmatic bent than others though.)

It might well be that this book was just focused on a very small sample of people and that the majority of New Domesticity fans are well-intentioned and sensible; if that’s the case, then the world can relax, but if this is true to form, then it’s a bit concerning to think about.

Needless to say, if anyone would like me to taste-test any cupcakes, please feel free to send me one. 🙂

Hiroshima – John Hersey (1946)

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“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk…”

Having seen this title on Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling’s blog and reading her positive review, I picked it up at the local library. I only had a vague idea of the awful situation that happened in Hiroshima on August 06, 1945, and so I was a pretty clean slate to start the piece. Then, after being riveted to the book for 31,000 words, I finished the read, astonished that (a) this whole bomb thing happened in the first place, and (b) why it’s not really talked about much any more. (At least, not in the world in which I live.)

John Hersey was an award-winning journalist and writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for this work. He’s also considered to be one of the earliest writers who wrote what was called “New Journalism” and I think would be called “literary non-fiction” now (or perhaps “creative non-fiction”) and, in fact, when this piece was published, it was considered so important that the editors of the New Yorker magazine handed over its large editorial space to print this whole thing in its entirety. (It was published in 1946, just over one year since the bomb had landed in Japan.)

Hiroshima in ruins. October 1945, two months after the explosion. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Hiroshima in ruins. October 1945, two months after the explosion. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Hersey follows six ordinary people who happened to be living in Hiroshima on that fateful day, and then he follows them as they endure the after-math of this horrible incident, and this structure was so effective as it allowed the reader to see the utter confusion and horror from a more human perspective as opposed from an international political view. I am not that well versed in the history of why the atom bomb was used (although I have read about it more), but it still sounds like a dreadful idea to me, affecting innocent townspeople who had *nothing* to do with the decisions of the warring governments of different countries.

Hersey writes in an objective voice, reporting what this small group of survivors tell him about how the bomb affected the lives of themselves, their families and Japan itself. Their multiple ongoing physical injuries and illnesses from the radiation lasted for years, not to mention the emotional toll that followed, and I was astounded to see that the government was reluctant to pay for the ongoing medical care for these people and how little the medical personnel knew about radiation sickness. (Interesting note: Japanese culture/language was not comfortable with the Hiroshima victims being called “survivors” interpreting the word as focusing on being alive which could suggest a slight to the sacred dead. Instead, the survivor group was named “hibakusha” which means “explosion-affected persons.”)

The a-bomb was dropped on August 6 sixty-nine years ago, and so it’s fading from memory as its survivors et al. pass on with just the other day, Google reporting that the last member of the Enola Gay flight crew had died. However, as this horrific event fades into the past, I think it’s very important for people to remember it and apply the lessons learned to present-day world politics.

So, this was an amazing read, and, right or wrong, it happened and it needs to be remembered. A powerful read which sent me down the numerous fact-finding rabbit holes on the interwebs to find out more.

General Reading and Life Update

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So, I must apologize for the lack of blog posts recently. It’s been due to lots of things really, but as they were good things, I’m not complaining. My big brother and his family were visiting from England and as 2/3 of the family had never been to Texas before, and it was Independence Day weekend, there were loads of things to do whilst they were here. So there was not much reading time there. However, there was lots of laughing, catching up, Buddy Holly, 1930’s bluegrass music, cowboys and swimming. 🙂

Add to this, the sorry excuse of a case of Reader’s Block and an inability on my part to find a book that caught my interest, and it was poor showing on the bookish side of things.

However, I am hoping that now life is back to normal, my reading life will recommence. I’ve just started reading Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” (1911) which I am really loving. It’s a reread, but I remember it as a totally different book which is curious. Checking on-line, it seems that this novel (almost novella) is pretty polarizing for general readers, and so I’m looking forward to finishing it and then researching the blog post for it. (Look for that in the near future.)

For my non-fiction, I’m delving into the world of Memory Championships with writer Joshua Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein.” (I’m hoping that I can learn to remember useful things like where my keys are as opposed to not-very-useful things like obscure Latin phrases and the lyrics to Justin Timberlake songs.) Reading it is a bit of a slog right now, but hoping this picks up in the next chapter or two. Otherwise, it’s “off with its head” (Cue: Alice in Wonderland.)

And then a bunch of library books all arrived at the same time, so will dig through these this weekend to see what takes my fancy.

I might also take a wander through my bookshelves to see what leaps out from the shelf…

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Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief – Lawrence Wright (2013) (DNF)

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After having read and loved Janet Reitman’s non-fiction book on Scientology (see link below), I was really interested to see that another investigative journalistic book called “Going Clear” also about this provocative belief system was available at the library and I whisked it off the shelf as quickly as I could. It seemed to check all my interest boxes: religious thought, Pulitzer Prize winner writer, interesting/provocative subject, celebrity, public relations/influence etc…

And at first, it was quite ok. The subject was fascinating, but as page followed page (right up to when I finally resigned from reading it on page 158), the writing style seemed to bug me. However, it was hard to pin down what, exactly, it was that was annoying until it hit me: this Pulitzer Prize winning writer used the same sentence structure and the same average sentence length (about 15 words) for almost EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE in every single paragraph. Oh. My God. It was painful to read despite the riveting topic.

Now, I must admit that I haven’t read the work for which Wright was awarded the Pulitzer (The Looming Towers), but perhaps that was written in a different style. Obviously someone liked it enough to get that award, and someone liked this book enough to make it a finalist in the National Book Award event. But that someone wasn’t me. This book seemed to have been written by a computer, perhaps, or maybe an intern. The information itself was great, but how it was presented was repetitive and boring: “In the morning, Dick and Jane went to the park and saw the ducks. The ducks were hungry and the children fed them bread that they had got from home in the village…” Subject, verb, object with the same length of sentences. It was like reading a freshman composition essay in college.

Tons of information was included – so much that it seemed padded at times, and oh – did I mention the repetitive sentence structure and length?…

I was really disappointed as I was looking forward to reading some more about L. Rob Hubbard et al as I think he’s a fascinating topic in his own special way. (Compare this read with another book that I’ve read on Scientology: Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman).

If you’re going to read a balanced well-written non-fiction book on scientology, I would highly recommend the Reitman book. The Wright one will have you doing facepalms due to its elementary writing style.

The Devil’s Highway – Luis Alberto Urrea (2004)

book223This is a non-fiction recounting of a fatal trip attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border which ends, tragically, in the deaths of 14 Mexican nationals in a huge desert in Southern Arizona. This was a much more balanced read than I had expected. Urrea is a Mexican-American writer and he has immersed himself in other border-experience non-fiction books, and I was anticipating a very pro-immigrant/pro-border freedom type of narrative. However, as the book progresses and you get deeper into the story, you recognize that it’s such a complicated issue with so many moving parts to take into consideration that it would be short-sighted to boil it down into a black-and-white issue.

Urrea does not take the easy route here and so this ends up to be a balanced and careful look at the Yuma 14, as the case is called, where 26 Mexican nationals (plus two guides/coyotes) attempt to cross the Devil’s Highway near Tucson, one of the harshest and hottest environments in the world, completely unprepared and led by guides (or “coyotes” as they’re called) who pretty much took their money and run leaving the travelers without food, water or a map. Only 12 men survived the three-day journey.

What I really respected about this author was the fact that this is such a hot-button issue and yet he didn’t resort to the easy way of pointing fingers and laying blame. After reading this, I was sympathetic (or at least had a clearer understanding) of all the players involved: the coyotes who bring groups of people to the U.S. illegally; the walkers (border-crossers) who are desperate enough to pay large amounts of money to the coyotes (and their bosses), the men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol (who are mostly just doing their best in a tough situation), and the complexity of the politics on an international level. You also can’t ignore the role played by narco-traffic-ing (which is a whole other issue).

This look at the very human side of illegal border crossing was a rather harrowing and very fascinating journey for the reader – more especially for the walkers who attempted the journey. Urrea managed to put names to all the faces in the situation which really helped to suck me in as a reader. These were men who had wives and families who cared about them (coyotes included). It’s not a black and white issue and deserves a much more considered and detailed look than the politicos and general public allot it. (Interesting to read this at the same time as Congress is debating an immigration “reform” bill…)

Urrea’s non-fiction deserves a larger audience. He’s a great writer covering this huge complicated issue while maintaining his reporter’s neutrality. One good read.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal – Mary Roach (2013)

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“People are surprised to learn: They are a big pipe with a little bit around it.”

– Ton van Vliet

 

As high as the bar had been set with Mary Roach’s previous books, this one reached it (if not higher). Roach is a smart, funny and good science writer who seems to ask the same weird questions of her experts that I would want to ask – she actually does though which elevates her to Superstar status in my eyes.

After having covered large nebulous topics before, Roach’s decision to look in-depth at the human (and other animal’s) digestive system from top to bottom is perfectly done. I know I might be crossing the line here in Fangirl raving, but she is that good. Honestly.

Gulp, her latest release, covers digestion from taste buds to umm… fecal matter, and everything in between in a meandering twisting manner that takes the reader down numerous rabbit holes, but not in a digressive manner – only in a natural trailing way so that you too end up as curious as she is about things you hadn’t really thought about. Who knew that people were paid to taste pet food to make sure it’s palatable and matches the description on the tin? (I didn’t.) Once I’d read the lists of strange things that people have swallowed (on one end) and have inserted into themselves (at the other end), you start to realize the plain fact that humans are odd. No way around that, I’m afraid.

Chapters cover everything from the mechanism of swallowing to fecal matter transplants (an important medical treatment for some cases) and none of it seems irrelevant. It’s all sewn into the content of the book in a seamless manner and when you add in the wit that Roach has with her writing, it’s fascinating. Even if you didn’t really like Elvis that much, he’s got a mention here – next time I see him, I will immediately think of his bowel problems, no doubt about it. It’s thought that he died of a medical issue that was not recognized at the time as it was quite rare – megacolon. Honest. You need to read the book to find out more.

(Speaking of Elvis, the washing machine repair man who visited the other day to fix ours happened to be a competitive Elvis impersonator. That was one fascinating conversation. Seriously. I had little idea about that world…)

I love Mary Roach’s writing, and I wish that we were friends (although that might sound somewhat creepy). She is one of the funniest and smartest science writers around, and whichever Roach title you end up picking, you’ll have an entertaining journey into a topic that you had no idea you were so interested in.

Highly recommended.

(Mary Roach is also hilarious in real life when we were lucky enough to catch her on an author visit to campus. Some authors need to never read their work (as they are dreadful speakers), but Roach does everything right when she presents her writing.)

And if you don’t believe how awesome Mary Roach is, here is an NPR interview which will prove it for you.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion – Janet Reitman (2011)

Scientology - ReitmanA fascinating, well documented and balanced (to me) approach about the puzzling world of Scientology. This is not a damning book (although it seems that there is plenty of fodder for that), but more of a neutral outside journalist peering in, collecting information and knowledge for five years, and then collating it together. From my non-Scientology perspective, it was riveting in so many ways. I have difficulty understanding how smart and otherwise rational people will sign a billion-year contract (to include past, current and future lives)  to “serve” this group (aka “the Cause”) and to hand over thousands and thousands of dollars and incredibly personal information that could be used against them when it looks like a big con job to me.

However, this is just me thinking that. Obviously, lots of other people disagree and if they want to spend thousands of dollars learning how to be “clear” (the highest level of spiritual growth as deemed by this church), then who am I to judge? It just seems to be that once one is in this religious group, it’s very hard to get out, and if you do, there are widespread consequences.

Plus having Tom Cruise as a lead spokesman does not really help with credibility that much.

hubbardOriginated by L. Ron Hubbard, a revisionist historian extraordinaire* and early science fiction writer, the history needs to be read to be believed.  It’s an amazing story. Hubbard has been quoted as saying “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start a new religion…”

Hubbard (or “LRH” as he is commonly referred to by Scientologists) claimed to be many things over the years and all embellished: he claimed that he had been an explorer, a naval hero, awarded himself a Ph.D. from a degree mill, claimed to be a nuclear physicist and modeled the group on military lines (allowing himself, naturellement, to be Commodore of the planet).  It’s very cheeky in some ways and somewhat disrespectful of others:  at one point, Hubbard calls himself Meytta, the “reincarnation of Buddha” (p. 102). His successor was not much of an improvement, if you ask me, although is reported to have more dictatorial tendencies.

Reading this was rather like reading a fiction story (and indeed quite a bit of it was developed out of Hubbard’s imagination) so it’s extremely difficult for me to understand people who would buy into this. (And it ain’t cheap.) But I think if you’re a “lost soul”, or perhaps someone who is looking for “answers” or perhaps a second or third generation Scientologist, then it might be easy to get sucked in to the bubble. It’s a very insular world and to question anything means that you run the risk of being “disconnected” by your church, your friends and your family or facing other disciplinary measures.  However, a lot of people say that Scientology has helped them and if it has, good for them. It’s hard to know what the truth is as there is so much inconsistency.

You know, it reminded me of Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven”,a non-fiction book about a splinter Mormon group. In both cases, there was this one human guy who invented a story which he made into a religion, wrote it down and it happened to star him as the lead role, but this belief system (?) seems way more sinister in a way. (This model also seems to be the model for many other (although more benign) belief systems.)

This was a fascinating read and although I am still puzzled by the whole thing, at least I know a bit more than I did. It did spur me to get a book called “Feet of Clay” by Anthony Storr, which according to the publisher blurb is “an eye-opening investigation of charismatic “gurus” from Jesus to Freud to David Koresh…and uncovers the personality traits that link [them].” I am quite sure that I would not make a good cult leader, but it will be interesting to see what traits they may have.  (And no, I am not getting into a debate about what is and is not a cult.)

And here is a link of a Q&A session with author Janet Reitman from the readers of the Washington Post when the book was released. Very informative!

Anyway, this was a good read – fascinating and strange, but very interesting.

  • Just google Hubbard. His story is bizarre as it’s been rewritten so many times by both himself and others. Reitman writes what she has found out about his life story, but it’s so odd that it’s hard to know what is fact and what is fiction. He definitely had an active imagination.