Archive for the ‘Nonfiction Review’ Category

Review of I Am Dance, by Hal Banfield

Monday, May 10th, 2021

I Am Dance

Words and Images of the Black Dancer

by Hal Banfield

The Literary Revolutionary, 2019. 94 pages.
Review written August 27, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I Am Dance is a gorgeous art photography book featuring twenty black dancers. Here’s a paragraph from the creator’s introduction:

Much like the old proverb about children, it is believed that dancers should be seen and not heard since it is widely understood that dancers speak with their bodies. It was important to me that this I Am Dance project be a platform for the black dancer to express themselves beyond just using their bodies. I wanted this project to be a place for them to also have a voice. Finding a good cross section of talented and trained dancers with interesting and dynamic stories to share was the first order of business and proved to be quite a task. Through months of trial and error, I would eventually identify and assemble a core group of talented and disciplined dancers who latched onto the concept of this project and were willing to be photographed and share their personal stories. What started out as an idea for a photo gallery exhibition would eventually blossom into a collection of diverse stories and images that now fit into the pages of this book.

Each of the twenty dancers is featured in two spreads full of beautiful action photos. Looking at those photos alone gives plenty of opportunity for wonder. They are also given a short page of text each, in their own voices, talking about what dancing means to them.

After many “I Am…” statements, such as “I Am Powerful.”; “I Am Joyful.”; “I Am a Fighter.” and “I Am Connected,” the book ends with a page heading: “We. Are. Dance.”

Because we danced today, the voices of tomorrow will shout louder, every hip will sway wider and every finger will snap sharper in time. Like the roar and crash of the ocean waves, the next generation of dancers of color will hear the undulating taps and echoes of our toes urging them to pick up the beat and keep the rhythm.

I am not a dancer, and I am not black, but I was still inspired by reading and gazing at this beautiful book.

iamdancebook.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Talking to Strangers, by Marianne Boucher

Thursday, May 6th, 2021

Talking to Strangers

A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult

by Marianne Boucher

Doubleday Canada, 2020. 176 pages.
Review written September 8, 2020, from a library book

This is a short and sweet graphic novel memoir about when the author was 18 years old and got sucked into the Moonies.

She was all about ice skating and got an audition in California for the Ice Follies. But while she was there, she met some strangers on the beach. They showered her with love and attention and talked with her about not conforming to expectations.

One thing led to another. First, she was just going to go to a weekend retreat. They added teaching and community and before long she was fully involved.

Her mother back in Canada couldn’t get the California police to intervene, since Marianne was 18 years old. So she found people who specialized in extracting people from cults. They laid plans and got help from a former cult member. Since Marianne didn’t want to leave, they had to get her away from the group in order to convince her, and none of that was easy.

The graphic novel format makes this a quick read, but it’s still a powerful story and a frightening one. At the end, the book does touch on her difficult healing process, and it provides a resource list at the back. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were some similarities with our current political climate. But may we all find healing with Beauty and Truth.

penguinrandomhouse.ca

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Stranger Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle

Friday, April 30th, 2021

Stranger Planet

by Nathan W. Pyle

Morrow Gift (HarperCollins), 2020. 144 pages.
Review written September 21, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a second volume of cartoons from Nathan Pyle’s webcomic about alien beings who do the things that earthlings do – but talk about them in a straightforward manner that’s hilarious.

I follow Nathan Pyle on Facebook, so I already had many favorite cartoons from this book. For example, there are a few rewritten songs that fit perfectly in the tune of the original. I’m thinking about trying “The Small Eight-Legged Creature” during Storytime at the library.

The author’s insights are devastating. The purpose of board games is: “For the group: Entertainment. But individually: Domination.” And there’s even a Library cartoon!

This structure is full of texts.
For us to purchase.
No, we simply take.
This is incredible, by which I mean difficult to believe.
Observe this: I briefly possessed this though I did not read it.
There is no shame.
There are no expectations.
They expect you to return them.
It is the core concept.

One thing I love about these beings is that gender is not obvious or indicated by their words. So the transgender friends I have wouldn’t have to worry about what their kids should call them. In fact, I’m thinking of asking my own offspring to call me “Lifegiver.”

This book delightfully points out the amusing aspects of everyday existence by showing us how they’d look if aliens did them.

nathanwpyle.art
harpercollins.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi

Monday, April 26th, 2021

Stamped from the Beginning

The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

by Ibram X. Kendi

Bold Type Books, 2016. 583 pages.
Review written April 25, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

I got to hear Dr. Ibram Kendi and children’s author Jason Reynolds speak about this book at ALA Annual (Virtual) Conference in June 2020. Jason Reynolds used the research from this book to write a version for young people. Soon after the conference, I listened to the audiobook where Jason Reynolds reads his version, and I was amazed. I ordered myself a copy of the original book – and it took me much longer to read it and absorb the information.

It’s not that it’s not amazingly good and thorough and eye-opening. But it’s densely written and packed with information. I only read a chapter at a time, so it took me a long time to get through it, but I’m deeply glad I did.

This book doesn’t make me comfortable. I didn’t know much about systemic racism at all. I didn’t recognize the racist ideas that I always accepted as normal, from the time I was a kid. But wow – it is a good thing to learn about.

This is a book about racist ideas, not a book about racist people. It’s fascinating to me that the author presents that a single person can have both racist ideas and antiracist ideas. And those may change over time. It’s not that a person is hopelessly racist, but they may put forward racist ideas and act on racist ideas.

He also distinguishes between two kinds of racist ideas – segregationists and assimilationists. I’ll quote a section in the Prologue that talks about the three kinds of ideas, and this will also give you an idea of the style of the book.

In 2016, the United States is celebrating its 240th birthday. But even before Thomas Jefferson and the other founders declared independence, Americans were engaging in a polarizing debate over racial disparities, over why they exist and persist, and over why White Americans as a group were prospering more than Black Americans as a group. Historically, there have been three sides to this heated argument. A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities. During the ongoing debate over police killings, these three sides to the argument have been on full display. Segregationists have been blaming the recklessly criminal behavior of the Black people who were killed by police officers. Michael Brown was a monstrous, threatening thief, therefore Darren Wilson had reason to fear him and to kill him. Antiracists have been blaming the recklessly racist behavior of the police. The life of this dark-skinned eighteen-year-old did not matter to Darren Wilson. Assimilationists have tried to have it both ways. Both Wilson and Brown acted like irresponsible criminals.

Listening to this three-way argument in recent years has been like listening to the three distinct arguments you will hear throughout Stamped from the Beginning. For nearly six centuries, antiracist ideas have been pitted against two kinds of racist ideas: segregationist and assimilationist. The history of racial ideas that follows is the history of these three distinct voices – segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists – and how they each have rationalized racial disparities, arguing why Whites have remained on the living and winning end, while Blacks remained on the losing and dying end.

The title of the book is taken from a speech by Jefferson Davis and points out his racist, segregationist thinking. But it’s tougher to recognize that assimilationist thinking is also racist. Here’s more from the Prologue:

It may not be surprising that Jefferson Davis regarded Black people as biologically distinct and inferior to White people – and Black skin as an ugly stamp on the beautiful White canvas of normal human skin – and this Black stamp as a signifier of the Negro’s everlasting inferiority. This kind of segregationist thinking is perhaps easier to identify – and easier to condemn – as obviously racist. And yet so many prominent Americans, many of whom we celebrate for their progressive ideas and activism, many of whom had very good intentions, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority. We have remembered assimilationists’ glorious struggle against racial discrimination, and tucked away their inglorious partial blaming of inferior Black behavior for racial disparities. In embracing biological racial equality, assimilationists point to environment – hot climates, discrimination, culture, and poverty – as the creators of inferior Black behaviors. For solutions, they maintain that the ugly Black stamp can be erased – that inferior Black behaviors can be developed, given the proper environment. As such, assimilationists constantly encourage Black adoption of White cultural traits and/or physical ideals.

He admits this is a complicated book:

There was nothing simple or straightforward or predictable about racist ideas, and thus their history. Frankly speaking, for generations of Americans, racist ideas have been their common sense. The simple logic of racist ideas has manipulated millions over the years, muffling the more complex antiracist reality again and again. And so, this history could not be made for readers in an easy-to-predict narrative of absurd racists clashing with reasonable antiracists. This history could not be made for readers in an easy-to-predict, two-sided Hollywood battle of obvious good versus obvious evil, with good triumphing in the end. From the beginning, it has been a three-sided battle, a battle of antiracist ideas being pitted against two kinds of racist ideas at the same time, with evil and good failing and triumphing in the end. Both segregationist and assimilationist ideas have been wrapped up in attractive arguments to seem good, and both have made sure to re-wrap antiracist ideas as evil. And in wrapping their ideas in goodness, segregationists and assimilationists have rarely confessed to their racist public policies and ideas. But why would they? Racists confessing to their crimes is not in their self-interest. It has been smarter and more exonerating to identify what they did and said as not racist. Criminals hardly ever acknowledge their crimes against humanity. And the shrewdest and most powerful anti-Black criminals have legalized their criminal activities, have managed to define their crimes of slave trading and enslaving and discriminating and killing outside of the criminal code. Likewise, the shrewdest and most powerful racist ideologues have managed to define their ideas outside of racism. Actually, assimilationists first used and defined and popularized the term “racism” during the 1940s. All the while, they refused to define their own assimilationist ideas of Black cultural and behavioral inferiority as racist. And segregationists, too, have always resisted the label of “racist.” They have claimed instead that they were merely articulating God’s word, nature’s design, science’s plan, or plain old common sense.

Racist ideas began in fifteenth-century Europe – and were developed and promoted in order to justify slavery. In this book, Dr. Kendi traces those ideas from their origin all the way through Obama’s presidency. There’s a little bit in the Preface to the Paperback Edition about the election of Trump, but not much because it had recently happened. He does sum up what comes across in the book, that the history of racist ideas is not a simple progression:

Stamped from the Beginning . . . does not present a story of racial progress, showing how far we have come, and the long way we have to go. It does not even present a story of racial progress of two steps forward – as embodied in Obama – and one step back – as embodied in Trump.

As I carefully studied America’s racial past, I did not see a singular historical force arriving at a postracial America. I did not see a singular historical force becoming more covert and implicit over time. I did not see a singular historical force taking steps forward and backward on race. I saw two distinct historical forces. I saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. I saw the antiracist force of equality and the racist force of inequality marching forward, progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in policies.

When the Obamas of the nation broke through racial barriers, the Trumps of the nation did not retire to their sunny estates in Florida. They created and sometimes succeeded in putting new and more sophisticated barriers in place, like the great-grandchildren of Jim Crow voting laws – the new age-voter ID laws that are disenfranchising Black Americans in the twenty-first century. And the Trumps of the nation developed a new round of racist ideas to justify those policies, to redirect the blame for racial disparities away from those new discriminatory policies and onto the supposed Black pathology.

That gives you an idea of how dense and packed with information this book is. It includes what scholarly and popular discussions occurred at various times in American history and is backed up with amazing research. I do highly recommend approaching it the same way I did and listening to or reading the young adult version by Jason Reynolds first. That will give you the big picture before you tackle this high-level academic tome. I’m planning, in fact, to listen to the Jason Reynolds book again, in order to solidify the ideas in a more graspable form, now that I’ve dived deep.

This is an amazing work of scholarship, and I highly recommend it for every American. You’ll gain a much better understanding of racist ideas and where they came from, and your eyes will be opened to some of them that you may have always taken for granted.

ibramxkendi.com
boldtypebooks.org

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Dusk Night Dawn, by Anne Lamott

Monday, April 19th, 2021

Dusk Night Dawn

On Revival and Courage

by Anne Lamott

Riverhead Books, 2021. 208 pages.
Review written March 30, 2021, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

It’s impossible not to love Anne Lamott. This is because she tells us all her failings, instead of trying to impress us with how wonderful she is. It’s so easy to relate to those failings! Plus, she makes us laugh by looking at things in an unexpected way.

And now she’s married! So now we get her thoughts about this man she’s married and about living with a partner and about being real with each other.

If you’ve read Anne Lamott, you’ll understand it’s more of her funny, insightful, quirky goodness. Without fail, her chapters leave me smiling, though I can’t always pull out a paragraph for quotes, because it takes the whole story to fully appreciate it.

But here’s a nice paragraph I did pull out:

Trust me on this: We are loved out of all sense of proportion. Yikes and hallelujah. Love reveals the beauty of sketchy people like us to ourselves. Love holds up the sacred mirror. Love builds rickety greenhouses for our wilder seeds to grow. Love can be reckless (Jesus is good at this), or meek as my dog, or carry a briefcase. Love is the old man in the park teaching little kids to play the violin: much time spent tuning, the children hearing their way into the key he is playing. My parents heard the key as success, security, moving expeditiously, and living as expected. But love lumbers like an elephant, it naps on top of your chest like a cat. It gooses you, snickers, smooths your hair. Love is being with a person wherever they are, however they are acting. Ugh. (A lot of things seem to come more easily to God.)

penguinrandomhouse.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of A Short Philosophy of Birds, by Philippe J. Dubois and Elise Rousseau

Thursday, April 15th, 2021

A Short Philosophy of Birds

by Philippe J. Dubois and Elise Rousseau
translated by Jennifer Higgins

Dey St. (William Morrow), 2019. First published in France in 2018. 176 pages.
Review written May 15, 2020, from a library book

A Short Philosophy of Birds is a collection of twenty-two short essays that refer to details in the lives of various birds and then draw philosophical conclusions and suggestions for human lives.

Many of the topics discussed have birds with contrasting behaviors. For example, some types of birds have equality in parenting duties and others don’t. Another fun example is that it turns out robins generally have more courage than eagles. So we’re often asked which type of bird we’d like to emulate.

I enjoyed the essay that talked about the joy a hen displays when taking a dust bath. Here’s a bit from that:

The hen’s bath should give us pause for thought. Why don’t we bathe with the same intensity of purpose? Our lack of plumage means that we don’t need to spend so much time cleaning ourselves, but even so . . . Dogged as we are by duties and commitments, worries about the past, the future and the sense of being in a hurry – always in a hurry – we rarely find a moment to experience true delight in the act of cleansing ourselves. The hen does not wash if she is stressed. No, she doesn’t take her usual jubilant bath, but either sits still and silent or rushes around screeching. But we still wash even if we’re worried or tense, so how can we manage to savour the moment, as the hen does?

Each chapter is only several small pages long, and so they’re just the right length to read one essay per day and have something to mull over. Along the way, you’ll learn many interesting facts about the life of birds and perhaps become more observant. But you’ll also have many occasions to think about your own philosophy of life.

hc.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Courage, by Tom Berlin

Sunday, April 4th, 2021

Courage

Jesus and the Call to Brave Faith

by Tom Berlin

Abingdon Press, 2021. 144 pages.
Review written March 29, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

This book is written by the pastor of my church. They gave a copy to all church members and regular attenders as part of a bag of goodies to help us observe Lent. All the small groups in the church have been working through this book during the six weeks of Lent. The pastor’s sermons have kept pace with the chapters of the book. And as an additional resource, he recorded a video for each chapter at a significant site in Washington, DC, and we watch those short videos during our small group discussion each week.

Honestly? I’d never thought much about courage. Is that a guy thing? I mean, I never wanted to be in the military or be a policeman or firefighter and never gave much thought to the need for courage.

But this book has made me think of courage in new ways. He covers six aspects of courage – clarity, conviction, candor, hope, fortitude, and love – and looks at six incidents in the life of Jesus that demonstrate these things. It makes me think about the ways I need to display courage to do the things God calls me to.

I think my favorite chapter is the final one. It talks about how it’s easier to be courageous when we know we are loved – and we are loved indeed.

When we believe that God loves us, we enter a place of courage. The knowledge of such love creates a foundation of confidence on which courage stands. It enables us to know that we can be vulnerable with others because their acceptance or rejection will neither increase nor diminish the love we offer others.

Although I wasn’t curious about courage before our church started studying the topic, it’s been an interesting and fruitful topic. The sermons and the small group discussions have been inspirational and encouraging.

AbingdonPress.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Every Penguin in the World, by Charles Bergman

Sunday, March 28th, 2021

Every Penguin in the World

A Quest to See Them All

by Charles Bergman

Sasquatch Books, 2020. 193 pages.
Review written September 30, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I wouldn’t have called myself a penguin lover before reading this book, though I certainly don’t dislike them. Who could? But reading this book has me fully converted.

The author is an English professor. He and his wife decided to take trips to see every current penguin species in the world. And he took wonderful photographs on these journeys.

The photographs do steal the show. Penguin chicks are adorably cute, and adults are sometimes comical, sometimes beautiful, and always striking. Their location in remote southern locations adds to the beauty of these photographs.

And it’s difficult to get to the remote locations where penguins live, so the story of this quest is a story of adventure. The author does a great job of communicating the dangers and difficulties of their travels while also conveying the way the penguins changed his life spiritually and called him to this pilgrimage.

Of course, there’s also information about how so many penguin species are endangered and what we can do to help. If a universally beloved creature is in danger, how can we expect to save creatures that aren’t so adorable? So this book is also a wake-up call.

I found myself looking at the photos here over and over again, but the words drew me in as well. This is a wonderful little book that you can be sure you’ll want to come back to. I think I’m going to order my own copy to be able to look at pictures of penguins whenever I want to be uplifted.

sasquatchbooks.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Pain Studies, by Lisa Olstein

Sunday, March 14th, 2021

Pain Studies

by Lisa Olstein

Bellevue Literary Press, 2020. 191 pages.
Review written December 2, 2020, from a library book

Pain Studies is a book of musings about living with migraines. I’ve gotten migraines since I was a child, so I was ready for a book like this. Though it also made me thankful for how very much better they’ve gotten since menopause.

I’m not sure I approached this book in the best way, just a short chapter every day or two. Using that approach, I didn’t really catch her train of thought too well, so it felt like scattered musings about living with pain. When I look back, I see a few more themes than I remembered. Joan of Arc, for example, is mentioned in the last chapter, and I’d almost forgotten how much attention she’d gotten earlier in the book, as someone who experienced voices and visions other people didn’t understand – a little bit like how migraine sufferers experience things other people don’t understand.

This doesn’t try to pull meaning out of migraine, doesn’t try to make the reader see a higher purpose. I appreciated that, even if the result felt a little bit scattershot. But my own thoughts about migraines, when I have them, take on that same wide-ranging aspect. And I found many nuggets I appreciated. There’s a fellowship of migraineurs that none of us actually wants to be part of, but I recognized this voice speaking from that group.

Let me give you a couple of the nuggets I liked. This is in a chapter about the difficulty of describing pain:

The trouble with standard pain scales, it seems to me, is that they weren’t written by the right people – the people in pain. Often misheard as language that does not communicate, it turns out that the seemingly chaotic fragments of description people in pain manage to offer in fact cohere into meaningful systems of categorization. Researchers, Scarry tells us, have gathered up the shards and found logic in their arrangement, mapping dimensions relevant not only to diagnosis but also to treatment and sometimes even cure.

This one’s at the start when she’s introducing the topic of pain:

Drowning is one of the words we use to describe pain when we’re desperately in it, though often it’s used for other things, too: heartbreak, overwhelm. I’ve never experienced anything close to drowning, but I imagine that, like pain, it has a way of flooding you with the present. Yes, it makes you hazy, it fogs up memory’s edges, but in the moment, it is the moment and you are nowhere else except and only exactly where it puts you.

In some ways like any acute pain and in some ways possibly unlike any other, migraine is a particular version of the present. What happens when its present becomes yours for extended periods of time, for a significant portion of your life? This is the pain, or the present, I wish to discuss.

There’s a chapter toward the end that reminded me of all the times people asked me what caused my migraines.

Sometimes chance is cause, but is it ever what we mean by causality? Chance is cause stripped of meaning, an origin story or fated end without moral or lesson. (“People get what they get; it has nothing to do with what they deserve.” [House M.D.]) But any cause as yet unknown glows luminous. Answerless, we search for answers, because questions call and press. Somewhere out there, we feel sure, is the information that means, but, beyond our reach, it can’t matter yet. And when causality’s riddle turns out to be procedural or a purely chance operation, can it ever?

Maybe it’s a question of meaning versus meaningfulness. Chance may not teach us anything, but chance identified is a kind of answer and therefore a kind of balm, a version of no blame. I mean, in a way it’s reassuring how clearly the migraines come and go of their own volition, according to their own logic. One way of translating the void, the reams of unilluminating data, the typically atypical patterns: there’s nothing you did; there’s nothing you can do.

So this isn’t exactly a book I’m going to recommend to all my friends who get migraines. Because it’s not exactly comforting or inspiring. But on the other hand, it’s validating to read someone else’s musings on pain you’ve experienced. And if you’ve never experienced pain like this, perhaps reading this book will bring you a step closer to understanding.

blpress.org

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Unrig, by Daniel G. Newman, art by George O’Connor

Saturday, March 6th, 2021

Unrig

How to Fix Our Broken Democracy

by Daniel G. Newman
art by George O’Connor

First Second, 2020. 282 pages.
Review written November 23, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a book that talks about things that are broken in our democracy, and how we can fix those things. Places where solutions have already been found are highlighted, and there’s a website related to the book, UnrigBook.com, to help the reader follow up with action.

The book is presented in graphic novel format, which makes the points more clear and easier to digest. It also disguises that this is not a long book, and the reader comes away ready to act.

The book begins by talking about money in politics and the ways some localities have managed to level the playing field so that the voices of ordinary people have as much weight as lobbyists or big corporations. We also learn about how much time our federal representatives spend looking for more cash rather than the work we sent them to Congress to do.

We learn in this book about gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other ways that people in power try to stay in power. Here’s a paragraph that stopped me short, clearly written before the Covid-19 pandemic:

Tellingly, voter ID laws, passed by Republicans, typically exempt voters who use mail-in ballots from having to show ID. This is because mail-in ballots typically favor Republicans, and Republicans have sought to suppress voting only by groups that skew Democratic.

So this book doesn’t address issues that were new for the 2020 election, but it does present many issues about running a democracy that I hadn’t thought a lot about before reading this book. Lest that give the impression that this is a partisan book, let me assure you that it points out flaws in politics from both parties and suggests ways we can unrig the system to make it more of a democracy.

This book doesn’t take long to read, but I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to be a well-informed citizen in our democracy.

UnrigBook.com
georgeoconnorbooks.com
worldcitizencomics.com
firstsecondbooks.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?