This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

I’m a longtime admirer of Naomi Klein, a journalist, author, and activist. Her previous books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were both eye-opening for me in terms of their content, and admirable to me in terms of Klein’s ability to write sharp, concise prose that tames thorny issues into words that are not only easy to follow, but enjoyable to read. I had high hopes when I heard that she was releasing a book about climate change, since that is a complex topic with often-changing theories and information. This Changes Everything did not disappoint.

In her introduction, Klein recollects that for a long time, she felt that climate change, though unfortunate, was not necessarily a critical issue. I can relate to that feeling–it seems like there are so many problems facing the world today that it’s overwhelming. Klein reveals the first time she began to see global climate change as a truly critical issue–in 2009, she met with Angelica Navarro Llanos, Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization. Llanos explained the “Marshall Plan for the Earth” to Klein, where wealthy countries who had benefited from causing climate change would pay reparations to developing nations who were being hurt by it. Klein began to understand how connected climate change is with food justice, super storms, clean water, poverty, and other pressing issues.

In the rest of the book, Klein goes on to show how all these issues are interconnected. She spells out who profits from climate change (energy companies; entrepreneurs who want to block out the sun) and who suffers (pretty much everyone else), and what steps need to be taken immediately to delay–and eventually repair–climate change. Her tone captures the urgency of the situation, but is not without hope. She highlights examples like the Lakota entrepreneur Henry Red Cloud, whose organization trains American Indians in the installation of solar and wind energy projects on reservations. It creates jobs and low-cost energy sources and reduces pollution. As a journalist, Klein traveled around the world and spoke with many fascinating people working on various projects related to climate change, and This Changes Everything includes partial interviews with many of those people.

If you have felt overwhelmed by media reporting on climate change, I would highly recommend reading This Changes Everything. Naomi Klein has written a compelling, cohesive story that takes into account many of the causes and possible cures for climate change.


No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn GreenwaldI admit that when the news broke about the NSA’s surveillance scandal, I didn’t feel terribly alarmed about it. Of course I value my own privacy, but the NSA wasn’t really going to spy on me, right? What’s the big deal? In his book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, Glenn Greenwald aptly explains what exactly the big deal is. Greenwald is an acclaimed journalist and after reading this, I understood why he’s won so many awards. He’s great at turning something complicated and maybe a little bit boring into a compelling narrative. It doesn’t hurt that in researching this story, his own life turned into a bit of a real life spy novel. Greenwald was the journalist to whom Edward Snowden decided to entrust his leaked documents, but in order to meet with him, Greenwald and his colleague had to travel to Hong Kong and follow Snowden’s requests, like meeting in unoccupied hotel conference rooms and greeting each other with code phrases, or covering his head with a towel when he types in his computer password to prevent any hidden cameras from being able to observe. At first, Greenwald (and I) thought Snowden’s measures seem extreme, but as Greenwald gets in deeper, Snowden begins to seem more and more reasonable.

I recommend No Place to Hide to any reader looking to understand the NSA surveillance scandal and what the right to privacy should mean in the USA. It also doubles as a pretty good true crime thriller.


The Moth, edited by Catherine Burns

The Moth edited by Catherine Burns


For those of you who may not be familiar with the Moth, the intro to the radio show sums it up: “True stories told live without notes.” Told live! So when I first heard about The Moth book, edited by Catherine Cook, I admit I was a bit skeptical. I’m a fan of the Moth’s podcast and radio show, and have even told some stories myself at the Louisville Moth StorySlams. But so much of what I love about Moth stories are the way the tellers tell them, and I wasn’t sure how well these stories would translate to the written word. And furthermore, I wasn’t quite sure what the point of doing so was, when most of these are available on the Moth’s podcast. But since I do love the Moth so much, I decided to put aside my misgivings and try the book. I’m glad I did.

First of all, I loved the preface by Adam Gopnik, the forward by George Dawes Green, and the introduction by Catherine Cook, all of which give different perspectives on the history of the Moth and how Moth stories are shaped. Cook’s introduction also makes it clear that the 50 stories chosen for this book aren’t necessarily the 50 best Moth stories, but rather 50 that were chosen because they would adapt well to the page. These are undeniably great stories, though, and if they lost anything by being transcribed, they also gained something by giving the reader the opportunity to linger over favorite phrases, or re-read particularly surprising lines.

There’s a wide variety of stories in here, truly something for everyone. Some of them are stories from celebrities–I particularly loved Darryl “DMC” McDaniels’ moving story about how a Sarah McLaughlin song saved his life–or people with extraordinary jobs, like astronaut Michael Massino’s story of a harrowing spacewalk–but many of them are from so-called ordinary people with so-called ordinary stories, and those perhaps best represent what I love the most about the Moth. I was moved to tears by Jennifer Hixson’s story about sharing a cigarette and a story with a woman after a fight with her boyfriend, and by Ellie Lee’s story about finally realizing what an important place her father’s grocery store was for their neighborhood. I was moved to hysterical laughter by George Dawes Green’s story about his stubborn mother and their family’s historic plantation. The Moth collects stories from all walks of life, and I would recommend it to fans of the the Moth radio show as well as to any fans of well-told stories.


This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t by Augusten Burroughs

This title is Augusten Burroughs take on the traditional “self-help” book. This book is anything but traditional with various chapters titled “How to Ride in An Elevator,” How to be Fat,” “How to Remain Unhealed,” “How to Be a Good Mental Patient,” and the chapter I found the most valuable “How to Lose Someone You Love.” In this chapter, Burroughs gives his firsthand account of losing a loved one to terminal illness and how the most unbearable situations can somehow become bearable. My favorite quote from the book “I learned that the proper way to prepare for someone’s death is being alive in the same room with them for as long as you are allowed,” is housed within this chapter. While some may find the author’s writing style blunt, raw and even offensive at times, others may find his style refreshing and to the point.  I fall somewhere in the middle.  If you can look past the book’s rough language and the author’s extreme disdain for the fake it until you make it philosophy of positive thinking, you may discover a message about hope and the resiliency of the human spirit.


Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen

Storms of my Grandchildren by James Hansen
I was inspired to read Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen after hearing about the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy this fall. I have heard a lot over the last few years about “global warming” and “climate change” and I wanted to understand more about those issues. James Hansen, currently the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is the best-known researcher of climate change in the USA. This book was written in 2010 but he predicted that storms would continue to become more destructive than ever before, like Hurricane Sandy.

This is his only book written for a general audience (as opposed to his fellow scientists) and it’s clear that he’s not sure how to explain these issues to people without his scientific background. Often he refers to his grandchildren and repeats stories of how he tried to explain things to them, which was generally helpful for me. Still, at times, this book was difficult for me to understand.

I’m glad that I perservered and read all of Storms of my Grandchildren. In addition to learning about the science of climate change, Hansen also talks about political censorship of science (done by both major parties) and ideas for the future. Even if I didn’t understand all of Storms of my Grandchildren, I still feel like I have a much better understanding of climate change, as well as how we as humans can go about fixing it. I recommend reading this book, but make sure to allow yourself plenty of time to read it–it’s interesting material but it’s definitely not a page-turner.


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander


A few of my very smart friends enthusiastically recommended The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander to me, so I expected that it would be an interesting book. But I wasn’t expecting it to be as readable and compelling as it was. Michelle Alexander is a legal scholar and I was afraid this book would be very dry and dense, but I was extremely impressed with how clear, concise, and eloquent her arguments were. You definitely do not need to be a lawyer or legal scholar to perfectly follow this book.

As indicated by the title, Alexander makes the case that the American prison and justice system acts in the same way the old Jim Crow laws did to create a permanent undercaste  (she explains that it is indeed a caste and not an underclass, because there is no way out of a caste, while class is more fluid). In her introduction she admits that this argument sounds extreme and it took her many years to become convinced of it, but the more she learned about our current systems of justice, the more concerned she became. In the United States, felons are the last group of people who can be legally discriminated against. They cannot vote, serve on juries, or receive public assistance (such as food stamps or public housing).

This is a difficult topic to talk about–many find it difficult to sympathize with felons, since they must have committed a crime and brought this situation upon themselves, right? Alexander’s book outlines how difficult it truly is for poor Americans to get a fair trial. Since public defenders are so overworked, many who are accused of crimes are convinced to plead guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence, without being informed about all the rights they will lose once they become convicted felons. Studies have shown that white and black Americans use illegal drugs in equal proportions, or that white Americans use more illegal drugs than black Americans. Yet in some states, as many as 90% of drug offenders in prison are black. In Kentucky, 1 in 5 black men of voting age are unable to vote due to felonies. If this information concerns you, or if you don’t believe that such a thing could be possible in the United States in 2013–especially if you don’t believe it could be possible–I highly recommend The New Jim Crow. It’s a stunning and important book, and Alexander is an exceptionally clear and thorough writer. I recommend this book even to readers who don’t normally pick up works of heavy nonfiction.


Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley Anne Jones

I consider Freddie Mercury one of the top five vocalists of all time.  Just visit any local stadium on a Friday night to hear Queen’s classics like “We Will Rock You or We Are the Champions,” to reaffirm that his music from the 1970’s-1980’s stands the test of time.  I wanted to read this book not only because I am a huge fan of Freddie Mercury, but because the author had actually spent some time with Mercury as well.  She did not receive all of her information second hand.  This biography covers Freddie’s upbringing from his birth in Zanzibar to boarding school in India, his rise to fame in England, The United States and Worldwide to his early death in 1991 from AIDS.  Yes, Mercury’s life was excessive but he was also extremely giving and loyal to those around him.   What I found the most interesting part of this biography was not about Freddie Mercury’s life, but about his relationship with other members in his band Queen.  Queen was probably the most educated rock band in history.  All four members of Queen Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor received their college diplomas.  Two members working on advanced degrees had to suspend their studies when the band became successful.  Once Queen’s line up was complete in 1971 with John Deacon joining the group on bass, the line up never changed until Freddie’s death in 1991.  This is unheard of in the Rock World, especially when the lead singer is considered a superstar like Mercury.  Something even rarer was that Queen kept the same business manager from the early days of the band to the end.  It is important to note that although each member could have taken individual credit for writing some of the most well-known songs in rock such as Somebody to Love (my favorite Queen song) written by Mercury and Another One Bites the Dust by Deacon all members were given equal song writing credit regardless of the original author.  Queen was a band with much talent and little ego.  This is not to say that the band didn’t argue, because they did.  But their mutual respect for each other as artists always won out in the end.  In this day and age when rock bands break up at the drop of a hat for the silliest of reasons, it was refreshing to read about a band that remained so loyal to each other.


Scary Books for People Who Don’t Like Scary Books

Happy Halloween! My favorite part of Halloween is always children and pets in cute costumes. A couple years ago I bought a costume for my cat, but he hates it more than anything in the entire world and wriggled out of it in 30 seconds flat. He’s selfish that way. Anyway. What I don’t like about Halloween are scary, gross things. For example, zombies. Zombies are disgusting. Everyone knows that, right? Does everyone like zombies because they’re disgusting? I don’t get it.

That said, despite my general aversion to the horror genre, sometimes I accidentally read scary books. Sometimes I even like them. Here are my favorite scary books. They’re spooktacular!! (They’re not really.)

Feed by M.T. AndersonEating Animals by Jonathan Safran FoerA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonPreludes and Nocturnes by Neil GaimanZeitoun by Dave EggersBirds of America by Lorrie Moore

(See the rest of this list over at Rants & Raves, the Teen Scene blog!)


Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream by H. G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights by H. G. BissingerI loved the TV show Friday Night Lights even though I’m not much of a football fan. When I found out the show (and movie) were based on the book Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger, I decided to check out the book and compare it to the show. To write Friday Nigh Lights, H. G. Bissinger spent a year living in Odessa, Texas, a town known for having a great football team and for having extremely dedicated fans. I thought the book was a fascinating way to explore the repurcussions of football mania. Some of the actions Bissinger captures are crazy–like the fans who wait outside the school for days with sleeping bags and coolers to make sure they can get tickets for a high school football game, or when a rival school’s football player sued the school when he was disqualified from the team (and state finals) for failing classes. Friday Night Lights is also about how hard the team works and how proud the community is of them–especially important since economic downturn in the town meant many people had little else in which to feel pride.

A note: I was also somewhat shocked by the frequent, uncensored use of the word “nigger” in this book. It’s always a shock to see that word in print and many of the people Bissinger interviewed for his book use it very casually, so readers should be aware of that.

I enjoyed reading Friday Night Lights, but overall I have to say that it mostly made me reflect on how great the show is. Friday Night Light the show has five seasons to really flesh out characters and give them all emotional complexity (not to mention, the power of fiction to add all kinds of wild twists). Don’t go into the book expecting it to be like the show, but do read it if you want a thoughtful analysis of life in small town Texas.