Thursday, April 5, 2018

Book Review: How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Title: How Democracies Die
Author: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Pages: 320 pages
Release Date: January 16, 2018
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Nonfiction; Politics; Democracy
My Rating: 5/5

Donald Trump’s presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we’d be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one. 

Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die—and how ours can be saved.

One of my favorite books last year was Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny, a compact little history/blowhorn of the dangers of an impending democratic collapse. How Democracies Die is like the extended version of this book I didn't know I needed. Frankly, I'm spent on the influx of books, movies, shows, music, merchandise, etc etc that continue to capitalize on the current political climate - amendments (all of em), feminism, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, school shootings. These works are getting more attention, no matter the quality. For example, The Post: an Oscar-nominated, mediocre-at-best movie about the importance of the free press. Anyways. This book stood apart. It's history, y'all. 

Gatekeeping in primaries is important, and has been done since the beginning of our democracy. Don't let the bad guys run for office, it's simple. This is not going against democratic principles, quite the opposite. It is to preserve them. To keep out potential demigods. Republicans failed so hard at doing this in 2016. And now we have a megalomaniac. The comparisons in this book of events leading up to democratic collapse throughout history and the moves made by the current administration is uncanny. We are witnessing textbook procedure on how to squash a democracy. But we need to learn from the past. We need to keep the current administration in check, that's all. How Democracies Die is entirely optimistic.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Review: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

Title: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Author: Timothy Snyder
Pages: 128 pages
Release Date: February 28, 2017
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books
Genre: Nonfiction; Politics; Democracy
My Rating: 5/5

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

This book has been on my radar for quite some time, but it took Timothy Snyder appearing on The Daily Show to finally kick my ass into picking this one up. On Tyranny is right in my wheelhouse: a compact guide that links the past with the present. A warning, if you will. A big CODE RED.
"To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true than no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, than all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights." 
History gives us a glimpse of how how bad things can get, and empowers us to stay out of these traps in the future. This above passage on post-truth was particularly mind-blowing. WHY? Because post-truth paves the way to regime. If you say the truth is false (and enough people believe you), there is no law. There is no democracy. To go after facts, you must 1) lie yourself, and 2) say your opponents or journalists lie. Therefore, no one believes in truth and resistance becomes impossible. Does this sound familiar?

This small book is an endless resource in times like these and was probably made pocket-size for that same reason. Highly recommend.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscars Lowdown 2017

It's Oscars day people! This year, only a handful of the Best Picture nominees were based on true stories throughout history. This has made my job much easier and considerably boring. Let's get to it.

A look at the fictional contenders:
Arrival: This is an alien movie I can get behind. Based on the 1998 short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, this film was smart. International cooperation! Linguistics! Physics! Maths! I suppose this is as believable as it gets to an alien invasion. 4/5 stars

Fences: You need to be alert-as-fuck during this movie. The dialogue comes at you fast. Based on the 1983 play of the same name, Fences was my favorite of all the Best Picture nominees. 5/5 stars

Hell or High Water: The story was interesting enough, but overall this came off as a missed opportunity for a good film. 2/5 stars

La la Land: I mean, I liked it. It was pretty to look at. The nostalgic escapism was an Academy member's wet dream. This was a musical with mediocre voices, mediocre-er dancing, blasé choreography, and the glaring issue of a white jazz savior. Without getting too far into it, here's an excellent article from Paste that does. 3/5 stars

Manchester by the Sea: This started off as a darker version of Garden State, but came through in the end. Affleck's performance was fine but I truly do not understand all the accolades he's receiving. The Washington Post published an interesting article on Hollywood's "Boston Problem" and how Manchester by the Sea, although taking place in the vicinity of Boston, isn't defined by it, as most Boston films are. (read: The Town, The Departed, Patriot's Day, Good Will Hunting, Mystic River, and I'm going to go out on a limb and even say Ted). 3/5 stars

Moonlight: Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's 2003 semi-autobiographical play 'In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue', Moonlight went against every preconceived notion I had of the film going into it. I'd like to watch it again for that reason alone. The last segment just seemed off. 3/5 stars

A look at the historical contenders:
Image sources: The National Archives and The Hollywood Reporter
Hacksaw Ridge: This film tells the story of Desmond Doss, a combat medic in World War II who made headlines after his refusal to carry a weapon. Doss went on to receive the Medal of Honor after carrying 75 of his wounded infantry men to safety during the Battle of Okinawa. This movie was fucking garbage. 1/5 stars

Image sources: People and IMDB

Hidden Figures: Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's book, Hidden Figures is based on the female African-American mathematicians at NASA who helped calculate rocket trajectories in the 1960s. Sometimes you see a preview of a movie and know that the entire film is going to offer little else besides those two minutes. This film was that. 3/5 stars

Image sources: ABC and Stark Insider

Lion: When Saroo was five years old, he mistakenly boarded a train and was carried hundreds of miles away from his hometown. It was India in the 1980s, and means of communicating were limited. Unable to locate his family, Saroo was put into an orphanage and eventually adopted by a couple in Australia. Decades later, Saroo uses new resources to locate the family he left behind. I really liked this one. 4/5 stars

And my picks:
I watched every single Best Picture, Best Actress/Actor, Best Supporting Actress/Actor movie so I'm basically an expert.

Best Picture: Fences
Best Actor: Denzel Washington in "Fences"
Best Actress: Natalie Portman in "Jackie"
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis in "Fences"
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight"

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Review: Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang

Title: Human Acts: A Novel
Author: Han Kang
Pages: 224 pages
Release Date: January 17, 2017
Publisher: Hogarth
Genre: Historical fiction
My Rating: 4/5

From the internationally bestselling author of The Vegetarian, a “rare and astonishing” (The Observer) portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice.

In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.

The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho's own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.

An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.

In May of 1980, Chonnam University students took to the streets to protest strong military rule in their school and city of Gwangju. Exercising martial law, South Korea's leader Chon Doo-hwan sent his troops to immediately shut down the demonstration by any means necessary. Students were gunned down. Appalled local citizens took up arms by raiding local armories and police stations to continue the democratic Gwangju Uprising. Nine days and 600 casualties later, they surrendered to Doo-hwan's troops.

Although the rationale behind the Gwangju Uprising is timely today, the political unrest is secondary to what Han Kang's Human Acts is about. Broken into interconnected chapters, Kang explores what compels people to protest ("Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world"), survive imprisonment, torture, sexual assault, and to heal.

Don't get me wrong, Human Acts is not about perseverance. Quite the contrary. Kang's characters assert that 'moving on' is often not possible. Putting up emotional barriers is sometimes the only way to survive. This is absolutely worth a read for Kang's writing and imagination, but hot damn, this book was brutal in every sense of the word. 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

Title: A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy
Author: Sue Klebold
Pages: 336 pages
Release Date: February 15th 2016
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Nonfiction; Crime
My Rating: 4/5

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Over the course of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives.

For the last sixteen years, Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horror? And how, as his mother, had she not known something was wrong? Were there subtle signs she had missed? What, if anything, could she have done differently?

These are questions that Klebold has grappled with every day since the Columbine tragedy. In A Mother’s Reckoning, she chronicles with unflinching honesty her journey as a mother trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible. In the hope that the insights and understanding she has gained may help other families recognize when a child is in distress, she tells her story in full, drawing upon her personal journals, the videos and writings that Dylan left behind, and on countless interviews with mental health experts.

Filled with hard-won wisdom and compassion, A Mother’s Reckoning is a powerful and haunting book that sheds light on one of the most pressing issues of our time.

All author profits from the book will be donated to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues.

After finishing Dave Cullen's 2009 Columbine, I soon after stumbled upon Sue Klebold's book about her son's involvement with the Columbine massacre. Released only last year, A Mother's Reckoning was monumental, as the Klebold's have remained rather silent in the seventeen years since the shootings for both legal and sensitivity reasons. 

I loved this. Sue's extensive work with suicide prevention is apparent. She has dedicated her life since Columbine to better understand Dylan's actions. More specifically, to better understand why - in what would become his final act - he committed suicide.

More than once, Sue explains that she solely blames Dylan for his choices but does point her finger elsewhere (namely video games, movies, the school's culture, bullying, and Eric Harris). She goes so far as to include the line, "Eric was a failed Hitler; Dylan was a failed Holden Caulfield." I don't know how I feel about that.

I was surprised to piece together how conservative Sue is despite her claims of being pretty liberal. For example, Sue explains that Littleton, Colorado "wasn't the drug-riddled inner city, or some supposedly godless corridor like New York or Los Angeles." whoa there.

In some instances, Sue was the mother who believed her child could do no wrong. In recounting parts of Dylan's life 17 years later, in some ways I believe she still is. A little of this read as Sue telling her audience what they wanted to hear. Although I was conflicted by a lot of what Sue wrote, I love her. Her thorough attempt to piece together her past in order to move forward is commendable. What a life she has lived.