Tag Archives: non-fiction

Hero or Traitor?

serialAnyone else here obsessed with the Serial podcast? I listened to the whole first season in one sitting. Yes, that’s 12 hours. No, I didn’t talk to anyone or move.

If you aren’t familiar with the series, it’s from the creators of This American Life with host Sarah Koenig. It tells one true story over the course of a season; hence the name.

The first season was a riveting story about Adnan Syed, a young man — wrongfully? — convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee in 1999. Using court documents, police interrogations, witness interviews and even driving tests, Koenig found far more information than was ever revealed in court. In fact, her investigation led to an appeal in Syed’s case (currently pending).

Season two follows another case: that of Robert Bowdrie Bergdahl, better known as Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl is the Army soldier captured in Afghanistan and held captive (and tortured) for five years by the Taliban. The circumstances of his capture and release have generated a lot of controversy. Donald Trump called for his execution. Is he a traitor? Is he a hero? Why did he leave his post? Was he working with the Taliban? Is he just a dumb kid who made a terrible, life-altering mistake? Koenig articulately captures the frustration of Bergdahl with his superiors, as well as the frustration and anger of the soldiers tasked with “rescuing” him. I hate to be the one that tells you, but you never really find out the answers. In December, Bergdahl was charged with one count of desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty (Article 85) and one count of misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place (Article 99).

AP Photo/U.S. Army, file

AP Photo/U.S. Army, file

I wanted to read more about Bergdahl himself, but it turns out that no one has written a book about him! Sebastian Junger should get on this. I did find this list of books to read if you’re addicted to season two of Serial. And while lists don’t usually do it for me, I read two of them: one from each end of the spectrum.

NoWayOutNo Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan, Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer

I have read very few books about the Afghanistan War, even though it’s been going on most of my adult life, and I am friends with people that served there. Part of me thinks it’s surreal to read about a war that is still happening. And maybe part of me doesn’t want to know. No Way Out is the story of a Special Forces team dropped into an enemy-held valley with the mission to capture a terrorist leader. Instead they were ambushed, stuck in the Afghanistan mountains, continuously attacked by machine gun fire and rocked-propelled grenades. It’s fast-paced, especially the battle scenes, and you often have to remind yourself that you are reading non-fiction. This actually happened. While learning about the war, the battle and the weaponry, you are also introduced to individual soldiers, which makes the book better, but harder to read. When the battled ended, 10 soldiers were awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third highest award for combat valor.

GuantanamoGuantánamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi

This is the first (and only) diary written by a Guantánamo detainee. Mohamedou Slahi has been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba since 2002. It is very easy to think of the remaining 93 Guantánamo prisoners as faceless, nameless, American-hating religious extremists. But then there’s this German-trained engineer from Canada. In his third year he began a diary. By turns darkly funny and terrifying, Slahi recounts his life “before” U.S. custody. Page upon page of text have been black-bar redacted by the United States government. Slahi has never been charged with a crime. A federal judge ordered his release in 2010. The U.S. government appealed. Slahi remains in U.S. custody.

Serial fans, how did you feel about the last episode? Does Bergdahl seem like a traitor?

For the record, I think he was far more “dumb kid” than “needs to be executed.”

suzy

 

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“I Paint So That I Don’t Have to Talk”: The Art of Drew Struzan

Back in December when we were reflecting on all the Star Wars-related materials the Library has, I briefly touched on the majestic music of John Williams. Today I want to talk about another artist who was first introduced to me via Star Wars–Drew Struzan.

If that name doesn’t ring a bell, what about names like Indiana Jones, John Rambo or Harry Potter? Now there’s probably so much bell-ringing in your ears you should make an appointment with an audiologist. You might not recognize Drew Struzan’s name, but you’ve certainly seen his work, whether it’s in the form of an album cover, a book jacket or one of his over-150 movie posters.

Some of his most famous movie posters are collected in Drew Struzan: Oeuvre and The Art of Drew Struzan. From Hook to Hellboy, The Thing to The Walking Dead, Blade Runner to Batkid Begins, Struzan’s work is instantly recognizable and unquestionably beautiful. The books also include some of his studio work, like portraits of his grandchildren and his own interpretation of Baba Yaga. I’m someone who can barely draw stick figures, so I admire an artist like Struzan—his drawings and paintings almost look like photographs.

For more on Struzan beyond the art, I highly recommend the 2013 documentary Drew: The Man Behind the Poster. It reveals a placid, taciturn family man, like the sweet grandfather everyone wants. While the details of his early life are fascinating, hearing him talk about his work is the most interesting aspect of the documentary. Regarding movie posters, he says how important it is for a poster to not only sell the movie’s premise but also evoke the feeling or emotion of the movie. In a world where most movie posters consist of awful photoshopped giant heads, Struzan’s work has a classiness to it that harkens back to a golden age of cinema, when the multiplex was a portal to another world of imagination and wonder. Often imitated, but seldom replicated, you can look at a movie poster by Struzan and know exactly what kind of movie you’re going to see.

If you’re a fan of Steven Spielberg or Star Wars (read: everyone), or if you just like good art, you should check him out.

–Ross

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The Difference: Thoughts during Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, and I have been reflecting on the long history of women’s issues, especially in the workplace where woman have historically had to deal with lower pay, sexual harassment and other types of discrimination. Over the years I have tailored my own actions as a woman in the workplace based on my experiences and the fear that I would appear less than equal to my male co-workers.

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Click for a list of books on back pain available through the Library.

In the last month I had two medical issues to deal with. The most recent happened when I managed to slip while hiking  and wretched my back. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on the couch with a heating pad and letting the kids destroy the house. It wasn’t until Monday morning when I dropped like a sack of potatoes trying to stand up that I realized I may have done a little more than pulled a muscle. Turns out I am the new owner of a bulging disc. Not a slipped or herniated disc, just one that is bulging, and I have been told this is better, less painful.

The whole scenario was pretty funny and offered some excellent stories for me to tell. In less than 48 hours I over-shared this whole experience with co-workers and my poor boss … texting him at 6 am to tell him I wasn’t going to come in to work and explaining the why and the how. I am sure he was beyond thrilled to be woken up at 6 in the morning to me explaining that my left leg was numb and asking about back injuries.

The other medical issue? Well, it was a miscarriage. This, dear reader, is difficult to discuss. I like to share funny stories, but emotions? Not so much.  It happened in the middle of February and began at work. I had to ask to leave. I spent the rest of the day on the couch experiencing intense symptoms and eventually had to go to the ER. I was then sore, tired and overall pretty off for a few days. I had gone in to work, though, and assumed I would be fine, but it turned out I just wasn’t. Yet I was loath to tell my boss; I needed to explain to him that I was not well and needed to leave, that I had pushed myself too hard but it hadn’t worked. What was the difference? I told him every sordid detail of my back escapades, why didn’t I share this medical emergency too?

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Click for a list of books on handling miscarriage and infertility.

Partially it was because it wasn’t funny. I like to make people laugh, and letting them laugh at my own misfortune is fine, but this went beyond misfortune to misery. The other reason, I think, is because it can’t happen to him, at least to his person. Anyone can have back issues, and it didn’t make me feel weak or “less than” to share that experience, but I was afraid to talk about my miscarriage. I was afraid that it would look bad to discuss a woman’s issue in the workplace and to use it as a reason for missing work.

Of course, this was my own inner projection. My boss is a lovely, caring soul who could not have been more understanding and accepting. The difference though, was my own experience of how it would be perceived. As a younger woman in the workplace I heard the grumbles from co-workers about the moms who would leave early to get a sick child. At the time, I vowed never to be that woman. Then I had kids of my own, and I have left on many occasions for lots of issues, all the while hoping that my co-workers understood.

The experience of women in the work place isn’t something that is the same across the board. It is as different as each person in the work place. We all have our share of obstacles and difficulties, and my recent experiences serve as a reminder to me that we should support each other, because you just don’t know what might be going on behind the scenes. I am lucky to have experienced such support at work, but realize this isn’t the case with every, or possibly most, women in the workplace.

This is a huge issue, and thankfully, the Library has plenty of resources where you can learn more about women’s issues in the workplace:

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-Natalie

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On Reading 100 Books, Part II

Another year over, and once again I failed miserably at reading 100 books.

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But I did succeed in garnering the silent judgement of cats everywhere.
Source

All right, maybe “failed” is a strong word. I ended up reading 70 books and that’s nothing to scoff at, right? Scornful sideways glances from feral felines aside, I decided to highlight five of my favorite books and three of my least favorite books of 2015. If it tickles your fancy, you can look at the whole list on the next page.

The Five I Liked the Most:

loveLove is a Dog from Hell: Poems, 1974-1977 by Charles Bukowski
I learned about this book of poetry by way of The Limousines’ song of the same name. This was my first foray into the writings of Bukowski and it didn’t disappoint. With lines like “I have gotten so used to melancholia / that / I greet it like an old / friend.” and “I am going / to die alone / just the way I live,” this certainly isn’t Lord Byron or John Keats.  This is the kind of stuff you read after a breakup, right before rushing out to do it all over again. These are a few of my favorite lines from the poem Chopin Bukowski:

people need me. I fill
them. if they can’t see me
for a while they get desperate, they get
sick.

but if I see them too often
I get sick. it’s hard to feed
without getting fed.

youYou by Caroline Kepnes
Stephen King—of whom I officially became a fan in 2015 thanks to It and Four Past Midnight—called this book “hypnotic and scary.” What more of an endorsement do you need? You illustrates how easy it is to stalk a person in the digital age. It’s an eerie, well-written page-turner that’s left me eagerly awaiting the sequel, Hidden Bodies, due out in February.

mosquitoMosquitoland by David Arnold
It’s very seldom that a book bring me to tears (in a good way), but this YA debut did just that. The premise—a teenager has to return to her home town via Greyhound when she learns her mother is unwell—was what interested me in this book. Whether in real life or in fiction, I love a good road trip. Just like the tumultuous teenage years, Mosquitoland is equal parts happy and sad. It’s now one of my favorite YA novels of all time.

treesSea of Trees by Robert James Russell
I came across Aokigahara—a dense forest at the bottom of Mt Fuji and a popular place where people go to commit suicide—while reading one of my favorite websites. Doing a simple Google search for more information on the location led me to this novella. It’s a quick, creepy mystery about a couple searching Aokigahara for the woman’s lost sister. What’s even creepier is that two movies have been made about this forest, one starring Matthew McConaughey released in 2015 and one starring Natalie Dormer that came out just last week. The creepiest bit, though, is that this is a real place. Check out this great documentary short put out by Vice for more on the Suicide Forest.

linesPoorly Drawn Lines: Good Ideas and Amazing Stories by Reza Farazmand
This book actually came in for someone else, but I saw it and ordered it for myself. It’s hilarious, nonsensical and was a welcome break from the previous book I’d read, The Price of Salt, which was neither hilarious nor nonsensical. Visit the website of the same name for more giggles.

The Three I Liked the Least:

watchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
I went into this book with almost zero expectations. I’ve experienced first-hand how disappointing a decades-later followup can be (I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Part of the charm of To Kill a Mockingbird was the way that Lee wrote Scout. Everything that happens is seen through a rose-colored, knee-high lens of childhood. That’s not the case with Watchman. Scout is twenty-six and has returned to Maycomb to visit Atticus. Events transpire that make her question the truths she clung to during childhood. The readers question these truths right along with her and I normally love a good existential rumination, but it’s handled in such a bland and forgettable way here. And that’s not even mentioning how certain characters are almost unrecognizable (ethically speaking) from their Mockingbird counterparts or how the death of a beloved character from Lee’s first novel is only eluded to rather than shown. How this ended up on Goodreads’ Best of 2015 list is baffling, especially when almost every patron I talked with about it also didn’t like it. I don’t want to waste anymore digital ink complaining about it, so I’ll just echo Philip Hensher‘s comments:  it’s “a pretty bad novel.”

starwarsStar Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
Unlike Go Set a Watchman, I had at least one expectation for this book–that it would prepare me for the galactic landscape after the fall of the Empire. Sadly, this book did little to elucidate the mystery of what happens between the end of Return of the Jedi and the beginning of The Force Awakens. The plot takes its time getting started and by the time it does, I wasn’t nearly as invested in the characters as I should have been. These weren’t familiar characters like Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, so I didn’t particularly care what happened to them. Not to mention the new characters all came across as annoyingly self-assured. Because of this, I felt like there were no real stakes in book at all. But maybe that’s on me; it’s been a long time since I’ve read supplemental Star Wars material. There is one scene of Han Solo and Chewbacca aboard the Millennium Falcon, but as a whole, the book skews toward poorly-written fanfiction. In the plus column, I’ve got to give credit to Wendig for introducing the first gay hero in the form of ex-Imperial soldier Sinjir Rath Velus as well as a lesbian couple. In a universe where there are literally hundreds of different alien species, Star Wars has never been that concerned about diversity … but that’s a blog post for another day.

americanAmerican Pastoral by Philip Roth
This is up there (or down there) with The Train from Pittsburgh as one of my least favorite, most hated, severely unenjoyable reads of 2015. The actual plot of this book–an all-American family is torn apart after their daughter blows up a convenience store at the height of the Vietnam War, with musings of the rise and fall of the American Dream sprinkled in–could be boiled down to probably fifty pages. The other 350 pages of Roth’s novel are made up of tangential ramblings including, but not limited to, the history of Newark, the minutiae of Miss America contests and more information on glove-making than any human ever needs to know. It was frustrating for me to read through these prolonged chapters filled with walls of text and just when I thought that there was no point to be made–that maybe I’d picked up a New Jersey history book by mistake–and I was about to give up, Roth would wrap up his tangent and continue with the narrative. In It, Stephen King was similarly long-winded while detailing of the history of the fictional town of Derry, but King held my interest far more than Roth did in describing a place that’s only a six -hour drive away. Again, I have no one to blame but myself–I only read this because first-time director Ewan McGregor filmed the adaptation here, but getting through this book was such an ordeal that I’m now in no hurry to see the movie, despite my well-documented love for Pittsburgh on film.

Did you set or reach any reading goals in 2015? Do you have any reading goals for 2016 or any tips on how I can finally get to 100? Sound off in the comments below!

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June 2015 Recap

You’re a busy person with many worthy internet essays to read, so we thought we’d try something new to help keep you in the loop with all things Eleventh Stack: recap posts!

On the last weekday of every month Eleventh Stack will publish  a list, with brief descriptions, of posts you might have missed the first time around. Since it’s never too late to discover a good book, film, or other library item, you’ll get a second chance to make your TBR list even longer. Read on to see the topics we tackled in June!

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Art by MikaylaM on RedBubble.com (click for portfolio!)

If you enjoyed this highlights reel, you’ll love what the Eleventh Stack team has cooked up for July. See you tomorrow with books, movies, and more!

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What Book Changed Your Story?

Happy end of Pride Month, everyone! We celebrated with you this June at PrideFest by making a community quilt, and now I want to share what a wonderful experience we had. We asked PrideFest attendees to write a title of “A Book That Changed Your Story” on a quilt square, and the finished quilt will start to travel around our 19 branches in the fall. Here’s a teaser:

Photo taken by the author.

Photo taken by the author.

So, “What book changed your story?” I love this question for a few reasons. First, reading is a highly personal activity. We pick what we read, and we read what we love, which makes bookshelves probably the second window into the soul. (Raise your hand if you, too, make a beeline to someone’s bookshelf as soon as you spot it.)

Second, I like that this question makes us think about the profound effect reading has on our lives. There’s probably that one line you’ve read that you never came back from — that changed how you saw yourself, the world and your place in the world.

And then I like this question because, at PrideFest, it became abundantly clear that a concomitant joy of reading is living in the company of readers. There’s the thrill of excitement and sense of affirmation seeing someone read a book that’s dear to you as they wait for the bus and the fun of talking to someone about that book, or them asking you about it.

Photo by Maggie McFalls.

Photo by Maggie McFalls.

At PrideFest, some of you knew right away what book changed you. Others left the table, thought about the books they’d read and themselves, and came back hours later to answer the question. And when you answered, some shared stories about those books: reading Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love in the early nineties after the AIDS crisis, naming a beloved daughter with some clever wordplay from the The Velveteen Rabbit (which is read by Meryl Streep on OverDrive). Many people answered that Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues changed your story, but almost all of you had different reasons why. One person praised Winnie the Pooh’s values and the character’s disregard for “gender role or size”. (It’s all about that honey!) We talked about children’s novels (Mommy, Mama, and Me), YA (I Am J, How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater, The Miseducation of Cameron Post), fiction (Rubyfruit Jungle, The Front Runner) and non-fiction (Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, anyone?).

Another reason I love this question is because we identify ourselves in so many different ways. Identifying and claiming a title is empowering. Sometimes, we find community, and we find ourselves when we do so. The only thing I know for sure is that on a fundamental level I am a reader, and I’ve always loved meeting my own people. Pittsburgh makes a lot of best-of lists, but one thing that isn’t mentioned explicitly is the people. So let me say explicitly that the best thing about Pittsburgh is yinz. Thank you to all who shared, thanks for being… my neighbor.

–Isabelle

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The Good Fight

There’s a category of books I sometimes choose to read. I won’t say that I like them, even though I recommend them to friends. These books never leave me feeling better; most of them lack catharsis or even schadenfreude. They are full of terrible, violent things happening to undeserving people, and these events are so far in the past that no fundraisers or awareness campaigns or angry letters can ameliorate them.

When I was young, this category was manifest through Holocaust literature. There are a surprisingly large number of juvenile and adolescent works about the Holocaust (and the Second World War more generally). Some of the best are Number the Stars, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and The Book Thief. Perhaps so many exist because so many people were affected, so there are many stories that can be told. Though they have good and brave heroes, (including real historical figures such as Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank) all are, at some level, stories of fear and cruelty and death.

 

Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet - click through for source.

Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet – click through for source.

In college I discovered the Soviets. I had intended to introduce myself to classic Russian literature (i.e., Dostoevsky, et al.) and instead got Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And while Russian literature is often characterized by suffering, the writings of anti-Soviets are particularly gut-wrenching because the suffering is a result of deliberate persecution by those in power. The Gulag Archipelago and The Bridge at Andau depict systemic victimization of populations within and outside of Soviet Russia, respectively. They depict a populace hurt, angry, and bitter. At their best moments, they leave me sobbing.

My shelf of terrible books has continued to expand, encompassing more of the world’s tragedies and shames. It now includes more contemporary stories of child soldiers (Never Fall Down), violence against women (Girls Like Us, Half the Sky) and more. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I read these books, not only despite but because of the discomfort they cause me? Why do I recommend them to my friends and family?

I read these books because the horrors they describe need to be known, and they need to be felt. I need to be familiar with this darkness so that I can recognize and fight it in the world around me. I need to see the effects lone people can have through deliberate moral action in the face of injustice. While it is far too late to save the victims of the Holocaust, the world still has cruelty and persecution I can fight.

What else should be on this shelf? What else do I need to read and know? Leave me your recommendations in the comments.

  • Bonnie T.

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