Sis’s graphic-novel-memoir describes his youth in communist Czechoslovakia and the effects of government oppression, from his childhood in the 1950s until his emigration to the U.S. in 1984.
The artwork is impressive, dense pen-and-ink line drawings in black and white with splashes of color. It makes use of graphic-novel sequential panels and montages when appropriate, but is generally written more like a picture book or heavily illustrated nonfiction book, with full-page spreads and captions at the bottom. As beautiful as the artwork is, I most liked the excerpts from Sis’s journals, which expand on the brief captions.
There’s humor to offset the grim subject matter, and the book moves easily between the personal and the political. It works well as a personal and easy-to-read introduction to the Cold War and life under the communist regime.
The 1960s Anti-War movement is something that’s always been vaguely of interest to me but I’ve never seriously studied it, so I picked up this book as an introduction to the history.
That was a mistake on my part, because it’s not a history; as the title indicates, it’s a personal history, or a memoir, of Carl Oglesby’s involvement in the SDS. Oglesby started out as a technical writer/editor for a defense subcontractor, got vaguely involved in politics by a circuitous route, and subsequently discovered through research that the Vietnam war was a really, really dumb idea. (The ‘ravens’ in the title refer to Oglesby’s characterization of himself, and others, as neither a hawk nor a dove – not a pacifist for the sake of pacifism, but opposed to stupid and unwinnable wars). Oglesby eventually found himself elected president of the Students for a Democratic Society, writing and delivering anti-war speeches, staging nonviolent protests, traveling to Vietnam and Cuba, and trying to bring moderates and even conservatives into the movement. This, as the movement was radicalizing itself, beginning to make overt appeals to Marxism and revolution and violence.
I feel like this book would be better appreciated by someone with a solid grounding in the relevant background and history, because there were many points where I wished for more context, more information, instead of some level of assumed knowledge. The book is clearly one person’s individual point of view, and while it’s always calm, measured, and politically moderate, it doesn’t quite strive for objectivity. In some ways it feels more like long-after-the-fact persuasion and editorializing and self-justification than mere recollection of the era.
That said, it’s a fascinating story. I loved reading about the divisions within the movement, the conflict between moderation and radicalism, especially since I am sometimes equally tempted by both sides. It was also interesting to read about the slowness of the radicals to embrace women’s lib – with liberal publications still making their female employees get the coffee! And it’s scarily timely to read a book that deals with paranoid administrations fighting unpopular and unwinnable wars
Gawande tackles the question of what people can do to be “better” through a medical lens – not necessarily from a surgical point of view, and there’s no scalpels-and-gore in here, but in relation to doctors and medical situations. He divides “performance” into three rough categories: diligence, morality, and ingenuity. It’s interesting how these aspects play into each other. Ingenuity isn’t merely about cleverness; it’s about not being willing to accept the status quo, about being certain that there could be a better way of doing it. And it’s clear from the chapter on washing hands that merely “trying hard” isn’t good enough. You need to set up systems that make it easy to do the right thing.
There’s a wide variety of topics covered in the book’s eleven chapters: washing hands, a polio outbreak in India, war casualties in Iraq, morality around seeing patients naked, malpractice lawsuits, cystic fibrosis, childbirth. Each is thoughtful and revealing of things I hadn’t thought about.
Unless something is seriously wrong with my own body my interest in medicine tends to be limited to watching House on TV, but I read Better on the strength of other people’s recommendations and I wasn’t disappointed.