Tag Archives: nonfiction

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, by Peter Sis

The WallSis’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.

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Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Anti-War Movement, by Carl Oglesby

Ravens in the StormThe 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

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande

BetterGawande 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.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

This happens to be the book that finally taught me how to spell dilemma.

We have, Pollan says, a crisis of food in this country–where diet books are bestsellers and no one ever loses any weight, where we can eat anything we want and no one kThe Omnivore's Dilemmanows what to eat. Butter’s bad for you, eat margarine! No, margarine’s bad for you, eat butter! Meat’s bad for you, eat fish! Wait, fish has mercury in it! And, more than that, we don’t know where our food comes from. Or, we do: it comes from Food Lion, in a box. And before that? Well.

So Pollan goes on a quest to eat trace four meals from their origins to the table: fast food, ‘industrial organic,’ ‘beyond organic,’ and hunter-gatherer.

The meat of this book is Pollan’s look at the industrial-agricultural complex, which is built on a foundation of corn; which is itself built on a foundation of government subsidies, and chemical fertilizers, and ultimately, a whole lot of fossil fuel. You think a Hummer is bad? What about a Big Mac, or asparagus in January?

It’s a seriously scary book, beautifully written, thought-provoking, knowledgeable, tracing connections between things you’d never have thought to connect. But I’m ultimately a little disappointed that Pollan’s handwringing can’t move beyond personal action. The problems of industrial agriculture and fast food and food culture are not (as Pollan totally acknowledges!) personal moral problems. They are systemic problems. Yet Pollan denounces the system without seeing any way to change it – besides growing and gathering your own food, something that’s a little beyond most of us.

That’s a small thing. It’s a fantastic book, and almost a necessary one.