Non-fiction

REVIEW: Caste

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”

Isabel Wilkerson has written an important book. Long-listed for some awards, and short-listed for others, it was named the #1 Non-Fiction Book of 2020 by Time magazine, and Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club.

Despite all that, not everyone will read it.

Everyone should.

Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist has written a powerful, disturbing, and heartbreaking account of the American caste system. I know there are people who hear the word “caste” and think, not here! Or that’s only in India or other places. Wilkerson, through impeccable research of caste systems in India and Germany easily proves that a caste system is fully alive in America. Her book gains more credence as she weaves in stories and examples of our caste system at work. Like the time when a little league team went to a public pool to celebrate their win and the one black child on the team was not allowed in the pool and was relegated to eating his lunch on a blanket outside the fenced area. When his coaches pleaded with the lifeguard to let him in, the cleared the pool of everyone, and placed him on a raft, while one lifeguard pushed him around the pool repeatedly saying, “Don’t touch the water. Just don’t touch the water.” It’s no surprise a teammate recalled this incident saying the boy was never the same after that outing.

As hard as it is to read these stories, it’s imperative we do; especially if we have had the privilege of being born to the dominant caste. It’s our role to dismantle the confines of our caste system, rewrite policy, open doors, extend the seats at the table to everyone.

Wilkerson writes:

“In our era, it is not enough to be tolerant. You tolerate mosquitoes in the summer, a rattle in an engine, the gray slush that collects at the crosswalk in winter. You tolerate what you would rather not have to deal with and wish would go away. It is no honor to be tolerated. Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself, not tolerate them.”

I couldn’t agree with that sentiment more. I have never felt good about the idea of tolerating another person. We need to connect, understand, respect, and support one another. And while we need more empathy, it’s not the cure-all to eliminating this struggle for power that has been ingrained for centuries.

“Empathy is no substitute for the experience itself. We don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are not in pain. And people who have hit the caste lottery are not in a position to tell a person who has suffered under the tyranny of caste what is offensive or hurtful or demeaning to those at the bottom. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.”

I believe that all of us in the dominant caste have a responsibility to make the world better for everyone, not just those who look like us. One way to start is by understanding how we got here. Wilkerson’s book is a great place to start.

Week 48: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

Ever read a book that you can’t stop talking about it–even before you have finished it? Then once you have finished it, the chatting up really begins? You are recommending it to everyone you encounter, reader or otherwise, and then you have spent so much time talking about it that you kinda forgot to review it on your blog because you have talked about it so much you felt like you have already reviewed it, extolling its greatness from the rooftops… or at least by the water cooler at work? Well, this blabbermouth is finally sitting down and making her recommendation official. The book I just can’t stop talking about is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.I don’t care who you are or what you do. I don’t care what you like to read and what you don’t like to read; I just really hope you read. And when you do, you should read this book. (Really I do care; this tough talk just helps me make my point all the more strongly).

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the stunningly true story of a young, black woman growing up in the Baltimore area. Henrietta came from a long line of poor black tobacco farmers without formal education or any real financial means. When illness struck, they relied on the trust and generosity of Johns Hopkins to provide care, at no cost–a trust that was broken when Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer in her early thirties.

What Henrietta and her family didn’t realize (for years), was in turn for her care and treatment, doctors retained samples of her cells and tissue upon her death. These specimens were not obtained through informed consent. And unbeknownst to anyone, these specimens would literally change the course of medical history.

Henrietta’s cell and tissue samples were the first that could be maintained and reproduced outside of the human body. Not only did they stay alive, they multiplied at a never-before-seen rate. Her cells were shared with scientists around the world and brought about advancements such as the vaccine for Polio, an understanding of HPV and other cancers as well as other women’s health issues. Completely unaware of their mother’s contribution to science, for many years Henrietta’s descendants were (and still are) living without even basic medical coverage. Ironic, isn’t it?

Have I hooked you yet? If I haven’t, consider this: Henrietta’s cell research (which still goes on today) brought to light serious and ethical concerns around medical consent, the need of specimens for advancements in medicine and whether or not individuals or their families should be compensated for providing or donating cell or tissue samples that lead to cures and medical advancements. The medical community is split on the issue and even after reading this wonderful book, I am not sure where I stand. I know that Henrietta and her family had a right to know her cells were being used. I also know that her family–especially her family (and everyone in the country for that matter)–should have access to medical care delivered by providers they can trust.

As a liberal arts minded person with no penchant for anything to do with math or science, I never would have guessed I would have devoured a book like this. Thanks to Skloot’s extensive research, compassion for the Lacks family and storytelling talents, I couldn’t put it down. The book alternates chapters between Henrietta and her family’s lives and the science and medical communities’ use of her cells for personal and professional gain. The perceptions and opinions the Lacks family has today of the medical community is understandably complicated. But for once, someone told Henrietta’s story truthfully, and for that the Lacks have found a small piece of peace and honor for the woman they hardly knew.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 384
Genre: Non-fiction

Week 43: Lift – Kelly Corrigan

This week’s book came to me in padded envelope, a most unexpected gift from a friend I have recently reconnected with thanks to facebook. I had seen this book before and loved its cover and size (more than perfect for this project) but just couldn’t come around to plopping down the money for such a tiny hardcover or even $9.99 for a Kindle version, which wouldn’t leave me the gorgeous dust jacket. So I just did what I did with it what I do a lot of things. I forgot about it.

Imagine my surprise when this showed up from the very friend that I promised to send a book to and without me telling her what it was (just that I love-love-loved it) she ended up checking out that very same unmentioned book at the library. Wowzers, right? Or even a bit cooky? Perhaps there are NO coincidences, Oprah. And for those of you wondering what other book I was talking about, take a look over here.


So back to this lovely little book, LIFT by Kelly Corrigan. You can read it about as fast as you can watch an episode of Glee or Parenthood, but I promise LIFT will be so much better. And I love Glee and Parenthood. LIFT is a letter to Corrigan’s daughters, 6 and 8, an attempt to make sure her daughters understand how they came to be. This seems driven by the fact that Corrigan once heard “the average person barely knows ten stories from childhood and those are based more on photographs and retellings than memory.”


What? That sounds crazy and totally right all at once.


It’s heartbreaking that I am going to remember more of my kiddo’s childhood than he will. How will he not remember lying in bed and playing Two Truths and One Lie? Or just today volunteering to be the lead vocal on Beatles’ Rock Band I Want to Hold Your Hand? Or cutting just about all of his hair off right before his fourth Christmas? Well the last one I do have a picture of; but she’s right. I don’t remember much of my own childhood unless I am flipping through a photo album, and then it’s as fuzzy as the insta-matic prints staring up at me through the cellophane sleeves.


The stories Corrigan shares are a bit of a hodgepodge, which I think they would have to be when you sit down and put pen to paper for something like this. This book really is wonderful and yet it leaves me wanting more. Corrigan’s writing style is conversational and in reading it I really felt like we were chatting on the phone or nestled into a really comfy couch. She’s introspective and funny and cool and just the bees knees. That’s why I wanted more. Reading LIFT, is like talking to the best of your friends.


I haven’t read Corrigan’s first effort, THE MIDDLE PLACE, which chronicles her and her father’s bouts with cancer. However, I can tell you that after reading LIFT, I want to pick it up.


Immediately.


Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 96
Genre: Non-fiction

Week 41: Theology: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land – Joe Frascella

This week my BFF and I are in Beantown for a girls week away. It’s her first time and my second to what’s fast becoming one of my absolute favorite places to visit. Boston has history, fantastic food and so much to do. In the spirit of this trip and a great tour of Fenway Park we just took (one of the best tours so far), I decided to pick up THEOLOGY: HOW A BOY WONDER LED THE RED SOX TO THE PROMISED LAND by John Frascella. If Helen Fielding was the queen of chick-lit, I think Frascella may be on the high court for dick-lit in this breezy book about baseball for boys.

Not to say that women won’t like this, but it’s heavy on details and stats on the rise of one smart and quirky Theo Epstein as the youngest major league General Manager in the history of the game. Appointed at 28 in 2002, the Boston Red Sox broke an 86 year old curse to win the National Championship. Shockingly, he resigned in 2005 and was rehired just 3 months later. Since then, the Sox won another ring in 2007.


Frascella’s writing is a bit light and airy and his book comes off more as a tribute than a non-fiction account of an interesting person of note. Epstein is apparently tremendously private and I understand did not participate or cooperate with the publication of this book. That being said, most of it appears to have been obtained by information you can Google about Epstein or the Sox.


I found Frascella’s story to take on almost too strong a tone of adoration. Certainly, Epstein is bright and has done a lot to help the Red Sox franchise, but the high praise is a bit syrupy sweet for my taste. True baseball fans, and Red Sox aficionados for sure, might really enjoy the flavor of Frascella’s writing.


For me, Frascella’s THEOLOGY is no book wonder, but an enjoyable read for anyone interested in covering the bases on some recent Red Sox history making.


Rating: 2 stars
Pages: 208
Genre: Non-Fiction

Week 29: Long on Books, Short on Reviews!

 

So this past week I have been in Oklahoma with the kiddo visiting family. It has been a week of indulgence. Sleeping in, sunning lots, laughing more, forgetting calories, competitive bouts of dominoes, Uno and Rummy. Oh, and lots of books. In a word, it has been a little slice of perfection.

I was able to knock out three books this week before getting back to the grind of daily living. I really considered just keeping this windfall a secret and writing up a single review for each of the books and posting them across the next three weeks, but you all know I just can’t do that. Plus, I have the next two weeks of books already selected for my August book club and my work trip to New Orleans, so there you go. And, since that grind is about to start up here real fast, here I go with three reviews that are short and sweet.



 

Book 29: The Super by Jim Lehrer

Career newsman Jim Lehrer, famous for the MacNeil/Leher NewsHour and more recently the PBS Newshour, has another iron in the fire as a novelist. Who knew? I certainly didn’t, but my folks did and this week while I was back in the heartland they recommended I check out Lehrer’s 20th novel, THE SUPER.

THE SUPER takes readers back to 1956, a time when luxury travel was via train, most specifically, Santa Fe Railway’s The Super Chief. Lehrer weaves together actual historical events and individuals with fiction to create an interesting story of what could have been during one 39-hour trip along The Super Chief’s route from Chicago to Los Angeles. The individuals at the forefront are The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable; millionaire Super Chief regular, Otto Wheeler who hopes to die riding the majestic train; fading Hollywood movie producers Darwin Rinehart and Gene Matthews; as well as former President Harry Truman. When a passenger ends up dead just hours into the trip, an all-out investigation ensues.

Reading about a simpler, more luxurious time was certainly enjoyable; yet I felt that Lehrer spent too much time building up the action and it was only after page 100 that I was really engaged. Not a problem if we are talking about a 700 page book. But at 224 pages, that’s almost halfway in that I finally really cared. It was also hard to distinguish between a number of the Hollywood producer types in the alternating chapters of the story. Lastly, the intrigue was not at the level of a Murder on the Orient Express, which the book jacket references, but a softer mystery.

Overall, I think people interested in train travel and the days when the silver screen ruled over the small boxes in our living rooms will enjoy THE SUPER. Folks looking for a page turning, gut wrenching thriller will need to grab a different book off the shelf.

Rating: 3 stars
Pages: 224

Genre: Fiction

 

Book 30: Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor (Author) and Peter Parnall (Illustrator)

I adored this book!

I am not going to wait and tell you and that may make the rest of what follows not really matter since I spilled the beans in the first sentence of my review, but I don’t care.

I absolutely adored this book!

When visiting the folks, they save the kiddo and I the trouble of bringing books by swinging by their local library and grabbing a few titles for us. It’s a great way for us to get exposure to stuff we might not normally pick up and it’s even more special when there’s a gem in the mix like EVERYBODY NEEDS A ROCK.

Written in 1985, EVERYBODY NEEDS A ROCK is a delightful children’s book that eschews toys and other material things for the pursuit of nature and the world around us. The narrator, a young Native American girl, walks kids through the rules of navigating the great outdoors to find the perfect rock. Be it smooth or lumpy, shiny or dull, she recommends that it should be small enough to fit in your pocket and that you should select it entirely on your own (not rushed or at the direction of some adult).

Written in a poetic nature, the tone of the book is delightful and what truly makes it special are the exquisite illustrations. I haven’t seen anything like them. Peter Parnall has captured the whimsy and nature and childhood with these gorgeous drawings illustrations which embody the beauty of Native American art.

EVERYBODY NEEDS A ROCK is a rare and wonderful find. I loved it so much I am buying copy for the kiddo and me. Everybody does need a rock, but they need this book too.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 32
Genre: Children’s Literature


Book 31: Marland Tragedy by Kim Brumley

Part of my time in Oklahoma was in Ponca City, a quiet pocket of gorgeous tree-lined streets that is rich in both history and a smidge of scandal when you mention the name Marland. That’s E. W. Marland, a pioneer of the Oklahoma oil industry.
 
I have actually spent many a summer in Ponca City just walking distance from the Marland Mansion (and walked the grounds of the property many a time, I have). It seemed only fitting to pick up a book about the highly controversial E.W., and at just under 200 pages, MARLAND TRAGEDY it was.
 
MARLAND TRAGEDY follows E. W.’s contributions to the oil industry, being one of the first to find and access oil in Oklahoma and creating Marland Oil Company which paved the way for companies like Conoco to enter the scene. Oklahoma native, historian and author Kim Brumley also chronicles Marland’s numerous efforts as a philanthropist to improve the status and surroundings of his fellow Oklahomans. Marland lived, for many years, a life of luxury and opulence before poor business and political decisions would undermine his efforts. And, unfortunately, his legacy is a tainted one due to his marriage to an adopted niece, Lyde.
 
Yep, you read that right. Marland adopted the niece of his first wife (and her brother) when their parents could no longer care for the children and Marland then annulled the adoption in order to marry Lyde. And this was all after his first wife Virginia died. It was probably for the best she wasn’t alive to see how his life played out.
 
Now, Lyde was no longer a child when the annulment and subsequent marriage occurred. They weren’t technically related. She was also a willing and consenting participant in the relationship. However, it’s a little Woody Allenish and, for a number of reasons, the act was considered highly scandalous and attracted the attention of city residents, business partners, politicians and peers throughout the country. What followed were years of public scrutiny, bouts of seclusion and disappearing acts, ongoing scandal and rumor, and what was probably the total destruction of Lyde’s human spirit. Tragic, indeed.
 
While the facts, not all of which are proven, that surround the Marland family are indeed fascinating, MARLAND TRAGEDY is jumpy, a bit repetitive in structure and style and in need of a strong editing hand. Despite that, it’s clear that Brumley has a passion for Oklahoma history and the indelible imprints made by this highly generous, yet equally dysfunctional family. It won’t be the most eloquently written autobiography you pick up, but it reads at an engaging clip.

Rating: 3 stars
Pages: 188
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

Week 26: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith – Jon Krakauer

On July 27, 1984 brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty brutally murdered their sister-in-law and 15-month old niece. They said it was a directive from God, a “removal revelation.”

In fact, Dan Lafferty’s exact words were, “I was doing God’s will, which is not a crime.”

And so sets the stage for UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN: A STORY OF VIOLENT FAITH by Jon Krakauer, an exhaustive exploration into the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (The Church of Mormon or LDS) and the excommunicated sect, The Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).


I actually sat down with this book in 2003, when I was five months pregnant. While I hadn’t read Krakauer’s previous books, INTO THIN AIR or INTO THE WILD, I knew he was a well-respected non-fiction writer who had received a fair amount of acclaim. After making it through 100 pages, though, I had to put it down. The violence, especially involving the baby was too much to bear while my own baby was growing inside of me and my hormones were all crazy. The historical backstory was especially comprehensive and just too dense for me to really get lost in. Fast forward six years and one of my fellow book clubbers mandated it for her turn hosting this July and here I am again.


The second time around the violence was still hard to read and the history was again dense and slow moving, much like working your way through a thatchy forest, pushing the bark and leaves out of your way to make it to the clearing. That being said, I think this is an important book, flawed and all.


Why?


It’s important to understand history so we can anticipate and plan for the future. It’s important to learn other’s perspectives and their world views in hopes of understanding them. When things go wrong (horribly, horribly wrong), it’s important to be willing to go back–even to the very beginning–to understand how it could have happened. And, hopefully, to do whatever is needed so it doesn’t happen again. However, this becomes infinitely complicated when the horribly, horribly wrong is done in the name of religious freedom.


UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN recounts Ron and Dan Lafferty’s movement into the fundamentalist teachings that sprang from LDS founder Joseph Smith and subsequent self-ordained prophets throughout Mormon history. The FLDS faith is riddled with documented atrocities toward women and girls (including physical, sexual and emotional abuse) placing them outside of an equal role with men, and into one that views them as property. When Ron’s wife Dianna can no longer take his steadily growing controlling nature she leaves him and takes their children across the country. Her departure sets off a downward spiral in Ron, already angry at the world and profoundly narcissistic, who copes through obsessive prayer and requests for revelations from God. Finally, he gets his wish; a direct order to kill his sister-in-law Brenda and her daughter Erica, as well as two other community members, all seen by Ron as having aided in Dianna leaving and disrupting God’s plan for him.


Interestingly though, Ron’s revelation isn’t for him to kill them, but for his brother Dan to do it. He is just the voice, while Dan is the body to carry out the revelation. Ron’s increasing anger and narcissim compounded with Dan’s fervent fundamentalist fanaticism enabled them to “do God’s will” and take lives of two innocent people. Fortunately, they were unable to carry out the other murders due to some circumstances beyond their control.


Horrifying? Yes. Fascinating? Eerily so. Unconscionable? Absolutely. And yet, everything I shared with you was a supporting character to the chapter upon chapter of the starring role: The History of Joseph Smith and the Chuch of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This is a problem only because the book–on the front cover even–markets itself as a true crime story. I wanted to know so much more about what led up to the murders of Brenda and Erica and just enough history for me to understand the role that violence has played in the FLDS faith. Before closing the book I wanted to know:


When Ron shared his revelation with people of his church, why did no one go to the police?


Why didn’t Brenda’s husband Allen do anything to protect her? Yes, Ron told him too.


Why did no one tell Brenda that they feared for her life?


Why didn’t Krakauer–who had access to both Dan and Ron in prison–have any follow up with Allen?


Why didn’t Erica leave when she had the chance?


I can’t expect all the questions to be answered, most certainly not the last one. These just seem like gaping holes in an account that is so meticulously researched documented. Still, I came away knowing more than when I came in. I came away knowing more clearly the differences between a religious community trying to appeal to the mainstream (LDS) and one that is fervently against the norm (FLDS). I came away knowing that religious fanaticism practiced under a banner of heaven, regardless of the faith being followed, can be horrifically destructive and should not be excused.


Rating: 3 stars
Pages: 432
Genre: Non-fiction

Week 12: The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care – T. R. Reid

It has been a monumental week, no matter what side of the political fence you sit on. This week, the President of the United States signed healthcare reform into law. Now, I am not here to debate arguments, the situation or the yet-to-be-seen outcomes. I think we can all agree that our system is not a perfect one and it’s one that could benefit from some form of redesign. So that’s what I took a look at this week, turning to a non-partisan, highly informative and tremendously fascinating book: THE HEALING OF AMERICA: THE GLOBAL QUEST FOR BETTER, CHEAPER, AND FAIRER HEALTH CARE by T.R. Reid.

Ried, a former Princeton graduate, naval officer, reporter having covered four presidential campaigns and chief of the Washington Post’s Tokyo and London bureaus is taking on the U.S. healthcare system and attempting to find solutions–by looking at the World Health Organization’s top-ranked countries for health care (we aren’t one of them). He hits the road with his bum shoulder and the knowledge that we have the highest percentage of deaths that are cureable with medical intervention and some 22,000 Americans die annually due to lack of medical coverage. How will treatment and cost differ between the U.S., France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Canada, and what best and worst practices will he identify in the process?


I found the individual country case studies fascinating. France has successfully converted to a completely digitized medical record all contained on a microchip that is affixed to a credit-card sized piece of plastic (a system, ironically enough, that was created by Americans). Preventive care is the focus of many of our European counterparts. Japanese citizens have access to over 2,000 health plans and can see a specialist immediately – often without an appointment.

Now, I am touting the pluses; but Reid goes into an objective analysis showing the successes and failures of each country’s system. He speaks to top health officials, health reformers and providers along the way creating a full picture of how other comparable nations are managing and providing health care. He breaks down a number of different models (of which the U.S. uses a little bit of every kind), myths (it’s not all socialized medicine outside of our contiguous 50 states) and realities (we are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t hold health care as a basic right for all its citizens).

Reid’s research found that American’s aren’t cold hearted. When polled, the vast majority are in favor of everyone having access to health care and think that most do. Unfortunately, there is a significant number of Americans who are uninsured, underinsured and unable to obtain health care. There is so much we can learn when looking at how others not just provide health care, but finance its delivery. There is tremendous opportunity to arm ourselves with information and knowledge to understand what we really have available and use that information to create a better, cheaper and fairer system.

I think Reid’s book is one tool to do just that.

Rating: 5 stars
Genre: Non-fiction
Pages: 288