These graphical biographies cover the early years of John Lewis, now a congressman, but formerly a preacher and activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Book one revolves around the desperate attempts by African Americans to desegregate southern restaurants. It sounds simple enough: walk up to the counter and ask for a cup of coffee and perhaps a couple of slices of toast. In reality, nearly all southern commercial establishments from the Civil War through the 1960s were designated off-limits to people of color. The act of entering, sitting, and ordering was illegal and could be met with beatings and incarceration (and though it is not covered in the book, terrorism, see The Warmth of Other Suns). To chose a nonviolent response while whites screamed, hit, kicked, and spit on you was an act of remarkable bravery. Book two describes the 1961 Freedom Rides by blacks protesting segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals. Protesters were met with firebombs, the KKK, and police beatings. The cartooning and simple language make the books accessible to readers of all ages, who, if they are paying attention, will recognize that current protests over #black lives matter have deep roots and that the work of generating equality has not yet been achieved in America.
On the surface this is a fictionalized account of two women who made one another famous during The Great Depression: Dorothea Lange, a government employed photographer, and Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of what may be the most famous photo of the era, Migrant Mother. Using available historical information (I know because I checked), Marissa Coin, the author weaves together the lives of these two women and brings to life the endurance of strong women getting by during extraordinary times. Underlying the narrative is a discussion of the nature of history and photography. History being a series of perhaps unreliable and haphazardly preserved recollections interpreted by future observers and photographs turning out to be exactly the same. Pictures are no more than the preservation of a second in time that might or might not reflect reality and whose interpretation relies as much on the viewer as it does the photographer or the subject.
Every once in a long while you read a book by an author you recognize is much, much smarter than the rest of us. Christopher Hitchens is one of those. Eula Biss is another. I picked up On Immunity thinking I was going to learn about New Age parents thinking they are protecting their children by forgoing inoculations. And yes the book does dig into the science of how vaccinations succeed and how pseudoscience survives on the internet forever. The study purporting to demonstrate that some vaccinations could lead to autism, for example, has been so thoroughly discredited as to exist only in a world inhabited by believers in alien abductions. It would be a mistake, however to think On Immunity is only an account of germs and antibodies. Rather, it is a work of philosophy covering the nature of who we have become as overprotective parents, men and women so concerned about perceived threats to our children, and our desires to keep them immortal like Achilles, that we are in practice creating national and international health hazards that will be borne by the poor and underserved in the healthcare system. Our desire to remain undead forever is an invitation for Biss to discuss the inherent fear of parenting and the curse of Dracula who never died, and like a bacterial infection survived on the blood of others.
Modan is part of the first generation of Israeli graphic novelists. In The Property, an elderly Israeli grandmother returns to Poland with her granddaughter to search for a building confiscated from her family at the start of World War II. The grandmother is making her first trip back to Poland reluctantly. The granddaughter, age early twenties, accompanies grandma to provide moral support, out of curiosity, and to learn history. Once in Poland the granddaughter meets a handsome Polish tour guide to bygone Jewish Warsaw. While the farce of modern day Polish infatuation with all things Jewish after three million Polish Jews were slaughtered in the Shoa is piercingly and humorously rendered in Modan’s drawings, a potential romance blossoms between the young Israeli and Pole. While granddaughter is traveling Warsaw on the back of a tour guide’s motorcycle, the grandmother meets the man who took over her family’s apartment and numerous secrets are revealed as the two old people speak, none of which can be described without spoiling the book.
After a couple of decades of living in Britain, Bill Bryson decides to journey around the country one last time before moving with his family back to the U.S. He takes seven weeks to do a grand loop stopping in towns large and small to describe the British Isles of the early 90s with special attention to beer, architecture, and people, in that order. No doubt, the more you know of England the more you would appreciate his observations, but even without being able to fully appreciate the locales he was visiting, I was left with some rather wonderful impressions. Firstly, Bryson reminds one of the value of seeing the world at walking speed. That alone made me reevaluate the amount of daily energy I devote just to keeping up. Secondly, tied as I am to the natural world, I don’t pay nearly enough attention to the power of buildings as individuals or in their collective. Thirdly, this book is vintage early Bryson. He is so funny on so many occasions I laughed aloud as if I was the one who had consumed one too many brews. If you have a chance to listen to the audiobook. It’s a remarkable read aloud.
Includes everything you ever wanted to know about swimming: Greek mythology; the history of swimsuits and swimming pools; the beauty of open water swimming and how to make the most of counting laps; the evolution of the four basic strokes; the physiology of exertion; and the health benefits of a sport that won’t let you breath when you want to. As a dedicated swimmer I thought I would love Sherr’s paean, but to my surprise what surprised me most is that there are people out there who love swimming. Men and women who get into the water and feel free, weightless both physically and mentally, unbound from the strictures of noise and sight. I mostly find swimming to be difficult and though the book was breezy and easy to move through, it would have been a better magazine article.
Let’s begin with the fact that I picked up the book after the world discovered that Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. I can’t help but think it colored my reading. For starters, Robert Galbraith was supposed to be a former special ops and spy kind of guy. Cormoran Strike, the private detective that needs to find a killer drinks, smokes, and womanizes, but not nearly as much if he had been written by a male author, which is to say he drinks to excess only once, smokes outside his office, and is exceedingly gentle with his temporary assistant, Robin. Is it just chance that the young woman with a sharp mind for investigating has the same name as Batman’s sidekick? J.K. Rowling’s forte is capturing scenes and making you feel like you can see everyone in their homespace. This story revolves around a supermodel who falls, or was pushed, from a third floor balcony. The model’s brother hires Strike because he believes she’s been murdered. The remaining characters are all Londoners and by the end you feel like you have just read a contemporary account of 21st Century England. And the mystery is terrific.
Well, someone has to tell it like it is and Kolbert lays it out there as clearly as anyone possibly can. She travels the world, to visit rocks containing the fossil record of the first five great disruptions in evolution when species, genera, and families disappeared with virtual instantaneity. Then she keeps traveling to demonstrate that, again geologically speaking, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction in the last two billion years. This time, the era called the Anthropocene, will appear in the rock record, millions of years from now, as the period when one species, Homo sapiens, destroyed an inordinate number of species around the globe. Humans have changed the climate, introduced devastating invasive species from one part of the planet to another, demolished habitats of every variety, and polluted land and sea to such an extent that only the heartiest rats, cockroaches, and bacteria are likely to survive. Philosophically, it is interesting to ponder that perhaps the most sentient species in earth’s history is aware enough to understand the malice it is causing, but not smart enough to do anything about it. In the end, the book, well written as it is, was too depressing to finish.