nonfiction · review

Arabian Journey, by Levison Wood

I’ve realized that I have a deep love of nonfiction accounts of amazing, slightly-crazy journeys. Levison Wood’s An Arabian Journey definitely fits the bill. Wood, a journalist and world traveler, had wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger, T.E. Lawrence, and Freya Stark—Europeans who traveled into the Arabian desert and made friendships with Bedouins, Arabs, and the other residents of the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula.

When Wood first floated his idea of walking around the Arabian Peninsula to two friends he wanted to go with him, they told him he was nuts. Not only was he nuts, they told him, but they had proof that the idea could never work. Many of the places Wood wanted to visit during the fall of 2017 were active war zones, had recently been war zones, or were shaping up to possibly war zones in the near future. It would be incredibly dangerous because of all the fighting on top of the fact that the Arabian Peninsula is one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Wood, of course, goes anyway.

An Arabian Journey is an amble of a book, fittingly enough. Wood starts in Syria and Kurdistan, planning to walk “clockwise” around the Peninsula—which of course puts him in the middle of the Syrian Civil War and the lingering fight against ISIL. In each country, Wood travels with a guide/fixer. Some of these, as his guides in Oman and Saudi Arabia, are great. Others, like his cantankerous guide in Iraq, are so awful that Wood regrets even starting out. It didn’t take me long to figure out, based on these detailed sketches of the people he works with and meets, that Wood is as interested in people as he is in the scenery of the desolate deserts and mountains of the Peninsula.

Wood is at his best when he’s talking about that scenery. He loves the empty spaces and wildness and arid danger. He marvels at the flora and fauna of the magical sounding island of Sir Bani Yas and the frankincense trees of western Oman. A lot of his journey is miserable, mostly because his luck in picking guides is dreadful about half of the time. When he has a good guide, like his guides in Oman who hooked him up with good camels, Wood can almost transport you. These passages make up for the parts when Wood is at the mercy of guides who half-ass their way through the desert or who want to scam him out of more money. Wood’s account is completely honest, for good or ill.

An Arabian Journey mostly scratched my itch to travel (via words) to remote places full of history and packed with interesting people and animals. I would never have the gumption to pack up for a long walking tour in my own country, let alone traveling to a place that is so dangerous for so many reasons as Wood did. I’m glad that I got to tag along, in a way—even if there were parts I wish Wood had glossed over. If you have a yen to visit far away places via print, I would recommend An Arabian Journey.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

An Arabian Oryx, one of the many amazing animals Wood saw while hoofing it around the Arabian Peninsula. (Image via Wikicommons)

Eighty Days, by Matthew Goodman

One of my favorite books is Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. I love the book partly because of its humor, but mostly because I would love to have the funds to travel around the world and see as much as my eyes can hold. I read the school library’s copy so many times that the librarians just let me take it when I liked. So when I saw an audiobook of Matthew Goodman’s nonfiction account Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World in my library’s online collection, I had listen to it. The fact that I would also be driving back from Phoenix, Arizona was pure gravy.

Nellie Bly in her traveling outfit (Image via Wikicommons)

I knew that Nellie Bly, a pioneering reporter for the New York World, had made a trip around the world in less than 80 days. What I didn’t know what that another publication sent its own female writer to try and beat Bly. Elizabeth Bisland (who I have come to love after listening to this book) was dispatched about nine hours after Bly set off, traveling in the opposite direction. While Bly was traveling east from New York, Bisland would travel west. Winter was a bad time to travel on the Atlantic and the South China Sea, so Bisland’s editor and sponsor thought that traveling west might help her make better time. The women’s editors and the owners of their publications spent lavishly to get any advantage for their competitors. Funny enough, though, Bly didn’t know she had a competitor until she hit Singapore.

Elizabeth Bisland (Image via Wikicommons)

Each chapter of Eighty Days covers part of Bly and Bisland’s journey, using those parts to discuss a variety of other pertinent topics: misogyny and women’s efforts to becoming journalists in the nineteenth century, the weird fixation people had with Bly and Bisland’s attractiveness, class tensions in the United States, colonialism, Bly’s hatred of the British (exacerbated by a particularly bad batch of staff on her Mediterranean crossing), trains, ship crossings, racism, and so much more. I learned so much from this book and, because it was so well written, I was never bored. Not for a moment.

Because Bly and Bisland were both writers—and because they were working for news publications that were doing their best to get every bit of publicity out of the journey—Goodman has a wealth of material to work from in showing us readers what the two women saw and felt as they raced around the world. As I listened, I loved hearing the parts about Bisland because they frequently featured her lyrical, clear-eyed writing. The narrator’s laconic, soothing voice reading Bisland’s writing and the chapters about her often made the journey seem like a cruise rather than a race. Bisland’s accounts of visiting Japan made me jealous. So much history has happened that, even if I were to get on a plan now, I would never be able to see what she saw. Thankfully, Bisland’s words and Goodman’s research helped me imagine a bit of the exotic foreign locations she and Bly visited.

Eighty Days is a wonderful work of history. It’s beautifully written, extremely well researched, and always interesting. For readers interested in this period in history, women’s history, or the history of travel, I strongly recommend it. And for readers who need something to listen to while they make their own journeys, Eighty Days is probably the best thing you could cue up on your player.

nonfiction · review

Denial, by Deborah Lipstadt

How does one have an argument with someone who doesn’t play by the rules? And how does one argue with someone who consistently refutes the truth of eyewitnesses, documentary evidence, and archaeological findings? This is the position that historian Deborah Lipstadt found herself in when David Irving sued her and her publisher for libel after she published a book about Holocaust denial. In Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, Lipstadt shares all that happened to her in the five years she spent preparing her defense and the libel trial that concluded in 2000. This book is hard to read (or listen to, in my case). Lipstadt takes us deep in to Holocaust denial territory; that territory is full of appalling distortions of reality and anti-Semitism. The audiobook narrator does a solid job reading the text and captures Lipstadt’s matter-of-factness well, but she does occasionally struggle with the German words in the text.

Lipstadt offers a short but thorough background for herself before jumping into her work on Holocaust denial, which she thought was going to be self-limited. She planned to write a book and then move on to something else. But then one of the major subjects of her book, Denying the Holocaust, David Irving, sued for libel. Her lawyers believed that Irving hoped she would back down to avoid a costly trial. Ironically, a large part of Irving’s case was that Lipstadt and other historians were trying to silence him.

The trial itself lasted less than two months. The preparation for the trial took five years, because Lipstadt and her solicitors had to prepare an irrefutable defense. In the United Kingdom, where Irving sued, the person who sues has the advantage. Where an American court would have to consider freedom of speech, in a British court, the accused libeler has to prove that what they said was absolutely true; it can’t just be an opinion. So Lipstadt’s solicitors assembled a team of historical experts to review Irving’s writings, his history of anti-Semitism, and the actual historical evidence of the Holocaust, to blow Irving out of the water.

Irving is alternatively a bully and a victim in Denial. He attempts to badger the expert witnesses into admitting mistakes or gaps in the historical record. He also gives long speeches in court about how he is a victim in all this, that he is being silenced and that he can no longer make a living writing. He claims over and over that there is a conspiracy against him and he takes great umbrage that his reputation has been damaged.

Lipstadt shows him damning himself from his own mouth on more than one occasion. He is clearly a liar and a Holocaust denier. There is so much proof that he has lied and distorted evidence that it seems absurd that he is still arguing. And yet, he makes an attempt (and some of his witnesses also) to show that he is presenting a “useful” “alternate” interpretation. This part of his defense reminded me of so many other people who have tried to argue “alternative facts.” There are some things that are objectively true, that can only be interpreted in another way if the interpreter has an agenda, as Irving did, to distort facts to support their own point of view.

Denial fascinated me and not always in a good way. As I listened to the audiobook on my long drive to visit family in Arizona, I hissed—actually hissed at my speakers—as Irving and his ilk would constantly belittle survivors, ignore important details, fabricate details, and outrageously lie about what happened during the Holocaust. Irving’s position is infuriating for its disrespect and audacity that I had to marvel at Lipstadt’s restraint as she sat in court, listening to it, without responding. I wouldn’t have been able to do what she did.

Denial is an important book. Not only does it share Lipstadt’s harrowing legal journey, it shows us how important it is for historians to be scrupulously ethical and honest in their work. History should not and cannot be a tool for people to use to their own ends however they wish. Denail clearly shows us what can happen if it is. I shudder to think what might have happened in Lipstadt had chosen not to fight. Thankfully for all of us, Lipstadt is a fearless warrior. And also, thankfully for all of us, the court was on her side and on the side of history.

Lipstadt’s TEDTalk about Holocaust denial and the libel trial. (May 23, 2017)
nonfiction · review

We Believe the Children, by Richard Beck

In the 1980s, a strange kind of hysteria swept across the United States. Concerned parents would turn their children over to therapists or investigators, who would subject the children to repeated interviews until the children began to reveal horrific tales of sexual abuse, torture, and strange rituals. Fears of satanic ritual abuse at the hands of daycare workers and babysitters lead to hundreds of criminal charges and very long prison sentences that are not overturned until the late 1990s and early 2000s. In We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, journalist Richard Beck takes several steps back to look at not only what happened in cases like the McMartin Preschool trials and its aftermath, but how it all came about in the first place. Reading the book was like standing in the middle of a hurricane as events spiraled out of control. Our vantage point shows us multiple points where the panic could have been stopped…but also shows us how powerless we are to actually stop the storm. 

Beck begins with Sigmund Freud. Though many of Freud’s theories have been modified or outright discredited, his idea about repression and the power of repressed memories has stuck around. What Freud discovered later, as Beck reveals towards the end of We Believe the Children, is that it is appallingly easy for people in authority to convince vulnerable people that they have memories of things that never happened. This revelation came much too late for the people who got swept up in the panic. This and other psychological and sociological developments, Beck shows us, created a maelstrom that made a social panic possible.

The McMartin case forms the spine of the book. A mother of one of the children enrolled at the Manhattan Beach, California called the police in 1983 because she thought that her son had the marks of abuse. Her persistent calls were a spark to tinder. Her worries touched off worried among law enforcement, social work, and therapists that child abuse was endemic and that some of it was caused by satanists. Kee MacFarlane, the founder of a group that specialized in helping children “recover” memories, was hired to interview the boy and other children enrolled at McMartin Preschool. Their coercive, grueling interviews with the children lead to a growing belief that a satanic sex abuse ring was operating out of the school. No physical evidence was ever recovered despite repeated searches and even digging up the ground under and around the school. Millions of dollars were spent on the investigation. Two trials dragged on for years. Other waves of accusations and trials erupted across the country; all of them depressingly similar. 

In between chapter discussing the McMartin case, Beck dives deeply into a variety of topics. In a chapter about the prosecutors, Beck discusses how people used the panic to support their political ambitions. In the chapters about the parents and community responses to the panic, Beck builds a case for how feminism and economic changes touched off a deep unease about the role of women as mothers. Daycares are an easy target for that unease because they make it possible for mothers to work outside the home—something that was increasingly necessary as it became impossible for a single breadwinner nuclear household. Beck circles back around to Freud towards the end of the book, to bring home an important point about how all the idea of childhood sexual abuse and “recovered” memories got twisted up with a variety of agendas and social fears. (Beck even spends some time vindicating the old man.) 

When I picked up We Believe the Children, I was looking for an in-depth history of the satanic abuse panic. I got that and much more in Beck’s solid, incredibly well researched book. In fact, the only question I have left is, whether or not it’s possible to stop another panic like this if similar social forces align again. 

nonfiction · review

The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth, by Thomas Morris

38095085There are many reasons that I am thankful that I was born when I was. My sex can vote. The FDA and the EPA exist. (For now.) Mostly, I am thankful for all the medical advances of the last century. I am thankful for antibiotics, antisepsis, and anesthetic. After reading Thomas Morris’ The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, I am unspeakably thankful that I was born decades after doctors prescribed enemas for everything, bleed everyone even if they were already bleeding, and never, ever washed their hands.

Thomas Morris has been entertaining ghouls like me for a long time with his medical history blog. The blog, and this book, share remarkable and appalling stories from three hundred years of medical history from journals in English, French, and German. The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth—which of course contains the eponymous story—is much like Morris’ blog. The stories are repeated with minimal commentary and helpful definitions from Morris.

Some of the stories will test readers’ stomachs. So many of them involve horrendous injuries, including one about a soldier who was wounded so many times in battle that the only explanation I can think of for his survival is that he was Wolverine actually popping up in the historical record. A lot of the stories had me laughing uproariously. My diagnosis is that I suffer from an overdeveloped sense of  schadenfreude, but then, how can you not laugh when a man tries to stifle a noxious burp while lighting up only to blow fire out of his nose.

At times, I wished there was a little more background for the stories in this book. The historical record offers plenty of opportunities to talk about the strange logic of some of the cures doctors used to attempt or about physicians’ aversion to cleanliness. Morris does include some background about the cures and gives a few more details about some of the surgeons mentioned in these stories. But this book is a great read even without that extra bit of history. It is tailor made for readers like me, who delight in awful and hilarious stories from medical history.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

nonfiction · review

Babel, by Gaston Dorren

39027389What makes a language a lingua franca? In Gaston Dorren’s entertaining and enlightening exploration, Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, it seems to come down to a mishmash of timing, economics, cultural dominance, government policy, and colonization. Dorren looks at the twenty most spoken languages in the world—Vietnamese, Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, Javanese, Indonesian/Malaysian, Bengali, Tamil, Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Farsi, Turkish, Arabic, Swahili, Russian, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and English*—through historical and linguistic lenses. He touches on what makes them unique and how they came to prominence. He also uses the languages as a springboard to talk about issues of nationalism, oppression, what makes a language “weird” or hard to learn, endangered languages, and the interplay of culture and language. Most of all, Dorren has fun with the wonderful variety of human languages. Word nerds will love this book.

Dorren devotes a chapter to each language, counting down from Vietnamese to English. (Japanese gets an extra half chapter so that Dorren can show us how idiosyncratic its spelling systems are.) Each chapter has a slightly different focus so that a) the book isn’t repetitive and entirely packed with linguistic jargon and b) so that he can cover many of the different influences that act on the world’s languages. Some chapters (Bengali, Mandarin, the second Japanese chapter) look at writing systems. A few chapters (Japanese and Javanese) touch on how linguistic elements influenced and are influenced by social and gender stratification. The chapter on Arabic is one of my favorites because it consists of a brief dictionary of words that have been borrowed into and from Arabic into other languages; some words, it seems, are extremely mobile. Two chapters even have accompanying sound files on Dorren’s website so that non-Korean and non-Punjabi speakers can hear examples.

Several other chapters, like Tamil, Hindi/Urdu, Javanese, Indonesian/Malaysian, and Swahili, in particular, revolve around lingering problems with colonialism and nationalism. Dorren shows us over and over again how one’s mother tongue is an integral part of our identities. Having to learn a foreign language to education oneself, to use the court system, to take part in government, and so on erases the value of an indigenous language. Civil wars have erupted in part because of (Tamil) or been averted by (Indonesian/Malaysian) the choice of an official language. The chapter on Swahili is another of my favorites because it gives examples of societies in Africa that are comfortably (mostly) multilingual.

Dorren balances the heavy chapters about linguistic and civil conflict with fun (for word nerds, anyway) glimpses of linguistic oddities. Over and over, these chapters point out that it’s more luck and timing than anything else that gave some languages their edge in becoming lingua francas (though there are quite a few languages in the top 20 that benefited from policy). Tonal languages like Mandarin and Vietnamese are very hard for people who speak non-tonal languages to learn. Japanese spelling seems tailor-made to prevent literacy. And German, English, and Spanish grammar are packed with oddities. Yet, speakers of these languages see nothing strange about them at all. Indeed, speakers of English and the other most commonly spoken languages will extol their logic, ease of use, beauty, and other positives when asked about their complexities.

Whenever I read a book that gallops through languages like this one does, I have to marvel at the sheer variety of ways that people make themselves understood. Books like Babel also make me regret that I grew up in a distressingly monolingual society. Babel made me want, like Dorren, to dive face first into words and linguistic expression, so that I can share ideas and stories with others. Dorren’s failures with Vietnamese reassured me that, even though learning another language is hard, learning to navigate another language is a matter of time, effort, and enthusiasm. I hope that Babel similarly encourages other readers to take up the banner of bi- and multilingualism. Bon chance, tous le monde!

I received a free copy of the book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 December 2018.

* I use the language names Dorren uses. If you have issues with grouping Indonesian and Malaysian or Hindi and Urdu together, you can take it up with him.

nonfiction · review

The Poison Squad, by Deborah Blum

38813233The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade For Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum, is as close to a perfect work of nonfiction as I can imagine. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that it was custom written for me. This book follows the career of Dr. Harvey Wiley, a tireless proponent of legislation to keep food safe for consumers. His chemical work and political advocacy helped bring about the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and government regulation that helps keep Americans safe and healthy to this day. Without Wiley’s work, unscrupulous food, drink, and drug manufacturers would have continued to adulterate these products with poison and sold garbage under false labels. This may not sound all that exciting, but this book is packed with political scandals and (my favorite) horrible stories about awful historical practices. Blum writes about all of this with wit and fairness that made it all a pleasure to read—but only for people with strong stomachs.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the result of decades of work by pure food advocates and researchers like Dr. Harvey Wiley. Prior to its passage, it was not uncommon for meat and dairy products to be laced with formaldehyde as a preservative; for candy to be colored with toxic coal-tar dyes or canned peas to be colored with copper sulfate; or for products like coffee, tea, cocoa, and spices to be the actual sweepings from the floor sold as cheaper versions of the real thing. (Last night, I was recounting some of these gems to my sister on the phone until she changed the subject for some reason.) Three things infuriated Wiley. First was the fact that manufacturers adulterated food and drinks with toxic and potentially toxic substances. Second, Wiley was adamant that everything sold be accurately labeled. Corn syrup should be called glucose. Blended and colored alcohols should under no circumstances be sold as “whiskey.” The third thing, I think, is the one that made Wiley the angriest: the constant fighting against manufacturers who used money and influence to gut safety laws and regulations so that they could keep making money.

This battle plays out through the course of The Poison Squad. Wiley and his team will discover some substance being used that sickens people or investigating cases of poisoning, publish excoriating bulletins about these substances, then be defeated by corporate interests most of the time. Wiley, as the head of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry, had volunteers who would take varying doses of adulterants and preservatives to see what would happen. Some of the trials, as with sodium benzoate, had to be stopped early because the volunteers got so sick. (Sodium benzoate is still used as a preservative, because it is generally accepted as safe under certain limits. Wiley’s volunteers went above that limit.) It would seem like common sense to legislate and regulate against these substances, but anytime Wiley made a recommendation, lobbyists and manufacturers would raise a hue and cry that legislation would destroy business. Blum only says it explicitly in the epilogue, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines that this is still happening in the United States, especially now that the Republicans are in charge.

Political cartoon published in tribute to Dr. Wiley (Image via Wikicommons)

What partially turned the tide was Wiley and his allies’ rallying public opinion against manufacturers of adulterated food and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle*. Blum quotes Sinclair, who wrote about his best-known novel, “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Sinclair and other journalists, who visited packing plants and talked with the victims of poisonings and their survivors, raised so much hell that legislators were forced to legislate. The first half of the book recounts the uphill battle to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act. The second reveals how many loopholes and inefficiencies there were in the law and how far people like Wiley still had to go in order to make food, drink, and medicines safe for consumers.

Most of The Poison Squad is a justly deserved paean to Dr. Wiley, but I appreciated Blum’s efforts to show his problematic parts, too. Wiley’s courtship of his wife bothered me. I was frustrated more than once with Wiley’s inability to keep his mouth shut at critical moments, as well as his sometimes sloppy science in his race to prove that certain chemicals were harmful. Blume also gives time to the scores of others—his volunteers, journalists, other food chemists, the increasingly powerful women’s political action groups, and friendly legislators—who also helped promote food safety legislation and regulation. Above all, this book made me appreciate how much effort went into making sure that I can trust what I eat and drink. I said a little prayer of gratitude to Wiley and his allies yesterday as I heated up a can of tomato soup to eat with my grilled cheese. And I smiled to see the label on the side of the can listing the ingredients, which came from Wiley’s work.

* I read The Jungle in college and there are parts of this book that are still ingrained in my memory. Like other readers, it made me turn vegetarian for a long time.