Confessions of a Bookaholic: Race, Civil Rights, and #blacklivesmatter

For the last few months I have been trying to educate myself a lot more about the racial tensions and battles in the United States, both in the days of yore, and also yesterday. As more and more black people are being targeted with unnecessary force I want to try to understand as best I can the history, what has changed, what has not changed, and the current situation. It is not light reading, my heart is heavy and I get angry, a lot, at the things I read. I imagine this will be something I continue to study as I try to understand. I started with some biographies and autobiographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to understand a little more of the historical context of current problems, the difference between civil disobedience/peaceful protest and Malcolm X’s more violent activism. I also read John Howard Griffin’s monumental book Black Like Me, and I’ll be damned, but all four of those books discussed, extensively, how a black man should act when white police were around. Honestly, it’s the SAME problems that are happening on streets and in parks today. The New Jim Crow truly opened my eyes to the nitty-gritty problems in our criminal justice system, which I felt conversant in having watched all available seasons of Law and Order…uh, it’s not like that. Not at all. And I am embarrassed that I knew so little about what truly happens on a day-to-day basis for men and women who are arrested for drug possession, drug use, or, you know, just being black and in the “wrong place” at the “wrong time.” We have so much work to do, and while I may not have all the knowledge and details and background, and I certainly don’t have the memories of my own racial oppression to work from, but I can still be an activist. I can still try to understand and speak out against the unspeakable atrocities that are happening to citizens of this country.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson (4 stars). Firstly, this is not an autobiography, but a chronological collection of MLK Jr’s writings and speeches detailing his work towards racial equality in the US, up to his death. Secondly, I listened to the audiobook version, and many of the speeches are actual recordings of MLK’s words, complete with gritty technology and crowd noise. I really appreciated this book, I liked hearing MLK’s own words, I think the only speech I had heard him voice before was his “I have a dream” speech. I also really liked how detailed he was in his letters, opinion pieces, and other writings to detail non-violent protests, but I also really like how specific MLK gets about what will happen if there is no response to non-violent protest (spoiler: things will turn violent; Nelson Mandela came to the same conclusion; Gandhi did not have to come to that conclusion because the government in India made sweeping efforts to correct social and racial injustice around the country). I would now like to read an actual biography of MLK to fill in a lot of the details that are skipped in this collection.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable (4 stars).  I knew very little about Malcolm X prior to reading this book and I appreciate the author focusing on the ways that Malcolm changed and transformed his public persona throughout his lifetime. From a criminal, to a minister and teacher for the Nation of Islam, to starting his own Islamic church (branch? organization?)…from militant protests to a more inclusive and civil dialogue, Malcolm X was constantly adjusting his politics and his protests. I am still processing said politics and trying to figure out my opinion. I think there are a lot of comparisons between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, their very different protesting style and brand of activism, and I think that both have valid points. Malcolm X was representing urban poor, which is a very different demographic from small Southern towns where MLK worked. Malcolm had zero formal schooling, and prided himself on being just like the people he worked with. MLK had a doctorate and his friends were similarly educated. I’m not saying one is a better leader than the other, I’m saying they are very hard to compare. Also, as a middle class white girl from the American West, I feel like I cannot make a judgement call on what Malcolm X or MLK Jr were to the different groups of people who followed them. I have a lot more reading to do.

Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, by Walter Dean Myers (3 stars). This is a decent biography…for children. Malcolm X had a pretty rough life, and while his drug use and dealing is discussed, as is the fact that he was a “burglar” there isn’t much real talk about the horrible conditions and lack of opportunity Malcolm had in his early years, or much about the violence he preached in his middle years. He is a super controversial character, and part of his appeal to so many inner city black men is he had lived their existence and had served prison time for his crimes. This book doesn’t necessarily deny that, but it definitely doesn’t go into detail about the realities of his options, choices, and decisions when it comes to drugs, women, violence, and theft.

Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin (4 stars). I am so conflicted on my rating for this book; on the one hand, I am furious that the first-person narratives from people of color, of their every-day experiences are not taken as seriously as this book where an upper class white man essentially goes into black neighborhoods in the south in an elaborate “black face” disguise and writes about it is taken seriously. Now, that isn’t John H. Griffin’s fault, necessarily, and I think he makes a lot of excellent points describing the differences between his experience as a white man and a black man in the same neighborhoods in the same couple of weeks. Griffin’s experiment was in 1959 when segregation in the South was still very prominent in many cities and towns that Griffin visited. Also, some of the racism and action he came up against is still prevalent today, and that is something–as a white person–I need to deeply consider. I think this is a must read book.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (5 stars). This was such a difficult book for me to read, the text is dense and full of statistics and stories, and the content is…heartbreaking doesn’t seem to cover it. Alexander discusses changes throughout the last 30 or 40 years in policing, the war on drugs, minimum required sentences, and how the vast majority of policies on a state and federal level surrounding those topics put people of color–the vast majority young black men–behind bars and with a felony record that bars them from many social services, job opportunities, and housing options, which, in turn, turns them back to a life of petty crime in order to survive. I am still processing this book, but in a time of so much unnecessary police brutality, in a time of race discussions and arguments, I think everyone needs to read this book.



Love (noun) vs. Love (verb)


Love Wins.

That is one of the placating statements in times of violence or fear or hate. Love Wins. I’ve said it. You’ve said it. I’ve truly believed it. In the end, love wins. Good always triumphs over evil, love will prevail over hate.

It’s not enough. And, depending on how you are defining “love” it’s not even true.

Love as an idea or a pinnacle of humanity is not enough, as a descriptive noun it gives warm fuzzies but does not promote change of behavior. However, love as an action, now that’s something else entirely. Love as a verb is scary, and determined, and all-consuming, it keeps you up at night.

Love is flawed but trying. Love is committed and forgiving, but has no patience with complacency. Love is a living thing that must be tended to, encouraged, and allowed to grow. Love is something you DO, actively, and continually. Love as a VERB is a CHOICE. I’m not talking about romantic, sexual love, the twitterpated butterflies early in a relationship. I am talking about something much more, much bigger, and much more difficult to maintain.

A wise man once said “Love your neighbor,” what he meant was to treat all humans as if they were your own. To fiercely protect the unprotected as if they were your own babies, your own blood. To stand up for the downtrodden and the abused as if they were YOUR parent, YOUR child, YOUR lover, and YOUR friend. To champion the weak and oppressed as if your own happiness depended on it.

We are there. The forces of hate and fear and vitriol are growing stronger and stronger, or, they are the same as they always have been but we are hearing about them more now. Christians who are truly following the admonitions of Christ can no longer “pray for XYZ” and consider their work done. Humanists who claim to be anti-racist or anti-sexist or anti-whatever can no longer leave it at that. Love as an action is not complacent, it is not pithy, and it CERTAINLY is not convenient. It’s time to get uncomfortable, folks. It is time to take a stand and dig in our heels, those who are fostering and encouraging hate and fear have a huge jump on us already, and to combat that cloud of evil we need to do more than sit at home and offer hashtag prayers.

I am done with this shitty status quo. In 5, or 15, or 50 years I will not say “oh, I sat by and let that happen, I didn’t want to get involved.” I’m not entirely sure what my next steps are, but I have had enough. Enough of rape and domestic violence, enough anti-woman culture, enough violence towards women by men, enough #NotAllMen, enough violence towards ethnic or religious groups by those who refuse to understand, enough vitriol, enough hate crimes towards LGBTQ persons, enough racism, enough police brutality towards those with dark skin, enough #AllLivesMatter, enough mass shootings and enough elementary school kids being killed in broad daylight, enough young black people being shot for NO GOOD REASON. Enough. I am done. And I am no longer going to be polite and nice about it.

I will love fiercely and without abandon, and if that means I will literally crush hate and fear and all the loathsome ideology that comes with it, so be it. If you (the metaphorical “you”) want to be racist, or sexist, or anti-feminist, or homophobic, or trans-phobic, or anti-Islam-because-they-are-all-terrorists, or pro-zero-gun-regulation-whatsoever-because-what-have-guns-ever-done-to-anyone, or in ANY way promote the unequal treatment of humans, you will be tongue-lashed without mercy. Out of love. Because that shit is not okay. Love is not passive. Passivity is apathy, a definitive lack of action. Love is a verb. It’s time we start acting that way.

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Boone Hall Plantation, Charleston, South Carolina

Boone Hall

Earlier this fall I had a conference on the east coast and as a treat to myself I decided to go a little early and spend a few days in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston has been on my list for ages, I’ve only heard wonderful things about the charm, the weather, the food, and the ambiance. I was only in town for two and a half days, but I managed to squeeze in plenty of mini adventures. I knew I wanted to tour an old plantation; there are a couple of large ones operating as farms and historical tourist destinations in and around Charleston. I read reviews from other bloggers (Janssen, Holly, and Kristin), and looked up where they were in relation to my hotel, but the deciding factor that made me choose Boone Hall was this gorgeous avenue of ancient oak trees leading up to the main house; three-quarters of a mile, lined with 100 trees.


I mean….come on. This isn’t real, right?!


The house is kind of your typical Georgian-columned antebellum affair, no photos allowed inside, minimal opportunity for touring the inside. But again, I did not come to see the house. (Actually, that’s only partially true. Once upon a time I was an architecture major and this is the exact kind of building that I would have gone ga-ga over. In fact, I think I designed an antebellum plantation house for a class project once. That being said, we were only allowed in the formal dining room, the library, and a screened in side-porch. The rest of the house was strictly off limits. I would have loved to see the kitchen and some of the upstairs bedrooms.)


One of probably 15 remaining slave cabins on the property. Most slaves did not live in such structures, they lived in huts that were easily–and frequently–destroyed by tropical storms hitting the South Carolina coast. These brick cabins were reserved for the most high-ranking slaves (if that is even a thing) who worked in the house or did labor most essential to the immediate comfort and prestige of the Master. Field slaves lived in shacks and huts closer to the fields.

I took a ride around the plantation farm lands, they have a thriving local produce business in a number of different crops. The plantation also employs many local people to farm, give tours, and help maintain the property. My tour guide’s grandfather was a slave at Boone Hall and he said a number of the other plantation employees had ancestors who were slaves on this property. I am still thinking about that concept. As a white person from the Wild Wild West I certainly have very little perspective or right to an opinion about the moral ethics of this, but it struck me as something that should require additional thought. And I’ve been thinking about it for almost a month now, more so as I continued to read a number of first-person slave narratives.

In addition to the historical aspects, Boone Hall hosts a small cafe (meh), gift shop (hrmph), and number of festivals, carnivals, fairs, and other events throughout the year to celebrate various holidays, crop harvests, and other pieces of plantation life.


I enjoyed my little meander around the plantation and the historical lessons from various guides, but what I truly came for were those gorgeous oak trees, huge and stately, dripping in Spanish moss.


If I ever turn up missing, the first place you should probably look is the branches of these trees. Chances are more than likely that I’ve run away from Real Life and am camping out in their arms waiting for the storm to pass. (Seriously, SO swoony!)

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Harriet the Bookaholic: September 2015

So many great books this month! The Lemon Tree is perhaps one of the better books I’ve ever read, and particularly timely, I think.

The Middle East

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (5 stars). This amazing book details the history of the Israeli/Palestine conflict by following two separate families, one an Arab family who was driven from their historical home in Palestine, and another of Jewish refugees from Bulgaria who settled in that same house in the newly formed country of Israel. The families are both fighting for the same thing–their rights to a home and historical homeland. When that homeland is the same for opposing factions, and governments and rebel fighters and “domestic terrorists” (of the Israeli or Palestinian variety) are all in on the action, and it’s motivated by religion and war and all sorts of ancient feuding and anger and tug-of-war, well, frankly, you get the mess that is the middle east. This taught me so much about the history of the region and the people who are fighting for it, about refugees and their plights and fears and lives. Read this. Read it now.

The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer (4 stars). Isaac is a Jewish-Iranian jeweler during the reign of the Shah and the subsequent revolution. Because of his success and wealth (and ties to important individuals in the Shah’s government) he is targeted by the Revolutionary Guards. This is his story, and the story of his wife and child, and their extended family. In Iran during and after the Revolution one person’s relationships with the former regime could (and did) mean trouble for the entire family. I devoured this book in a day and a half, such a wonderful writer and the different point of views of narration–from a wealthy Jewish jeweler, to a child, to a aristocratic woman losing everything important to her–bring so many pieces to life in a 3-dimensional way. Recommended.

Additional Recommended Reading: Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, by Shirin Ebadi; The Butterfly Mosque, by Willow Wilson.

Slavery & Racism:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (4 stars). I love Twain’s dialogue, and I cannot get over how Huck, a mostly uneducated kid, thinks through all these enormous topics like god and religion, racism and slavery, and parenting and society, and then comes to his own determination based on all the logical facts he can grasp. I love that. I think all humans should be better about using Huck’s mentality: people are people, things are things, they should not be confused. You need people, you don’t need things. Also, Tom Sawyer almost ruined the ending of this for me. He is so determined to use Jim and his escape to freedom as his own personal playtime, and unfortunately Huck doesn’t ever stand up to him. I’m sure Twain uses this as some kind of “society is messed up and thinks this way, and we go along with it because it’s ‘proper’ or ‘expected’ and, in the end, this behavior makes changing the status quo impossibly difficult.”

Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman, by Dorothy Sterling (4 stars). I read this when I was a kid (6th/7th grade-ish) and even though this is written or younger readers it is such a wonderful introduction to Harriet Tubman, her determination, drive, strength, and persistence in bringing slaves from the south into Pennsylvania, New York. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed (allowing escaped slaves in the northern states to be recaptured and taken back to their former Masters), she led her charges another 1,000 miles north to Canada. Harriet guided hundreds of men, women, and children to freedom, crossing back into slave territory time and time again to bring people to safety. During the Civil War she served as an army nurse, hospital administrator, scout, and front line general in South Carolina as well as organizer of the all black infantry divisions and a fierce proponent to petition Congress to grant those men equal pay with white soldiers. Called both “Moses” and “The General” she is one of the true hero’s of the 1800’s and the fight for the abolition of slavery.

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, by William and Ellen Craft (4 stars). This first-person account of a small family who escaped from the south into the Northern states, and then on to Canada and finally England is simple yet very powerful. The Crafts do not mince words on describing their hopes and dreams for freedom and it comes across so clearly and heartbreakingly beautiful, a quick read.

Oronooko, by Aphra Behn (3 stars). When I downloaded this I thought it was a first-person narrative of a black slave in the America’s. It is not. Author Aphra Behn spent some time in Suriname in the 17th century, and this story is based on her experiences, first printing in 1688. For it’s time, she shows remarkable insight on the essential human-ness of black people. She details their feelings and emotions and relationships. However, she also claims that a black slave, the African Prince Oronooko, had a straight Roman nose, straight hair, and arrived in the New World on a slave ship dressed in a snappy suit and speaking both English and French. So…there are some clear problems there. (Yes, I’m sure it’s possible that some of those things were partly true, but I just…I don’t believe this was the case in 1688.) She also has these super irritating ideas of a “noble savage,” that Christians cannot be slaves but can own them (but a black slave converting to Christianity does not equate with freedom, obviously), and that black people enjoy being slaves because their masters are so kind and they can’t possibly want anything more than a kind master. Again, for it’s time, this is all super progressive, and that third star is solely because of that fact.

Additional Recommended Reading: 12 Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.


David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (4 stars). This book touches on so many different pieces of why and how an underdog can win over a giant, or other seeming insurmountable odds. I love a good underdog story–most of us do–and Gladwell delivers in spades. In my opinion, this isn’t as great as Outliers but tackles some similar subject matter (what is it that makes one person succeed and another fail?).

Additional Recommended Reading: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell; The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande (3 stars). Gawande is one of my favorite writers, I love his ability to describe facts and difficult concepts or industries in a way that is easy to digest. That being said, I feel like this book was more personal to him than any of his others, and with that there seems to be more anecdotal fact/evidence than not. Which is fine, but it is a different kind of writing than I expected. I did appreciate that this book made me think about end of life care–partly for me, mostly for my parents–and helped me figure out some steps that I should be discussing with my spouse and my parents and siblings in order to be prepared and be able to make the best decisions possible under new, emotionally heartbreaking circumstances, whenever they show up.

Additional Recommended Reading: Complications, by Atul Gawande; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey.

The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, by Azar Nafisi (2 stars). Of the three books Nafisi discusses that–for her–define America I had really only read one of them, so a whole book of literary critique and analysis on books I hadn’t read or even heard of was…rough. The three books are Huck Finn, Babbit and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. (A quick check of my Goodreads friends shows that only one has read either of the latter, most don’t even have them flagged in an ambitious “To Read” pile. Shrug.) Overall, I enjoyed the section about Huck Finn, but the rest were super “meh” to me. I also realized that my love of non-fiction instead of novels made this book even more mediocre for me. I just…I don’t relate to these fictional characters the way she does, so hundreds of pages about them is not engaging for me, it feels like I’m cornered at a boring party and she’s talking and raving about people I don’t know and she doesn’t give any background information, just starts in on theories about their lives and…it gets real old real fast.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose (who at least explains basic pieces of the plot and characters before she goes on to discuss a book you haven’t read).


Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley (5 stars). I love this play! A very quick read, this one-act play focuses on doubt, suspicion, prejudice, and expectation. Gah, you should all read it!

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner (4 stars). I listened to Tony Kushner speak a few months ago and decided I should probably read his most famous work. I liked and appreciated it, I liked the dialogue and the imagery, I’d be really interested in seeing this performed live.

Additional Recommended Reading: A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansburry; Crime & Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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Harriet the Bookaholic: April 2015

Another month, another pile of book reviews. In addition to two books on the rulers of (and from) the Hapsburg Empire in 18th century Europe, I devoured a pile of first-person narratives on slavery in the American South and another pile of accounts of defectors from North Korea. At first glance these two topics may seem fairly separate, however the more I read accounts both of life as an American slave on the plantations of the South and human existence within North Korea’s regime–and the struggles to adjust to life outside those institutions, the more they seemed aligned in their horrors and evils as well as the difficulties to assimilate to a more democratic and free-thinking society. More to come on that, I feel. I’m still ruminating on it. (Yes, I ruminate. Like a cow. What of it?)

Also, a note: I have tried to cut this post down to, you know, something less than 3,000 words. But it just isn’t happening. That being said, each book is linked to my review on Goodreads, most of which are longer and more expansive and possibly a little rantier; you know, if you’re in to that sort of thing.

Maria Theresa & The Hapsburg Empire

Maria Theresa, by Edward Crankshaw (4 stars). Maria Theresa was one of the last rulers of Austria’s ancient House of Hapsburg and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and her territory covered vast tracts of Eastern and Central Europe including Austria, Hungary, Germany, Czech Republic (then Bohemia), and a number of other smaller provinces and districts and states. She was crowned Queen and Empress (and a bunch of other titles) in 1740 at age 23 after the death of her father, and reigned for 40 years, a contemporary with King George IICatherine the Great, and Louis XV. She led several wars, and had massive reforms enacted throughout the continent including small pox vaccines/inoculations, increased civil rights, primary education for peasants, and religious reforms. Maria Theresa had a gift for selecting men who knew more than she did on any given subject and then trusting them to help her make decisions. She brought stability to her empire in a time when most of Europe was rocked with revolution and civil war. She also gave birth to 16 children, the youngest, Maria Antonia, would become Marie Antoinette in an ill-fated marriage trying to create an alliance between France and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Crankshaw’s biography can be a little dry and textbooky, but I specifically wanted to know more about Maria Theresa and there aren’t many books about her. Crankshaw includes a lot of info about the rest of Europe, including the wars and leaders of France, England, Russia, and Prussia, and entire chapters devoted to culture, architecture, and music of Bavaria, Vienna, and Prague and the masters who came from that era (Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, etc), and I appreciated being able to place some of these more familiar-to-me characters into a broader historical arena.

In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa, by Justin C. Vovk (3 stars). Of Maria Theresa’s 14 surviving children five became rulers in their own right across Europe. This book follows their stories, their children, the history and political landscape of a revolutionary Europe including the French Revolution and Napoleon’s campaigns. I loved learning more about Joseph II, Maria Theresa’s successor and Holy Roman Emperor; Leopold II, Duke of Tuscany and Holy Roman Emperor after Joseph’s death; Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma in Italy, Maria Carolina/Charlotte, Queen of Naples; and Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. I was astounded at how the children and grandchildren of Maria Theresa and their political alliances and strategic marriages eventually covered over a third of Europe. The history was fascinating and new-ish to me, I loved learning more about the different kingdom/queendoms and how they played nicely (or not) with each other. All this being said, this author needs an editor with a BIG red pen; minus two stars for lack of proper editing. Vovk always calls these five rulers “Maria Theresa’s five special children” and after the second mention of “special” in the intro I started scribbling out that particular word, it just grates on my nerves. Special? Really? Is that the best you can do? They are not a supermarket bargain!

Additional Recommended Reading: Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund.

World War II

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan (4 stars). After multiple recommendations I finally picked this up for a church book club discussion; Girls of Atomic City follows the story of a half-dozen women working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a secret city built to enrich uranium for the atomic bomb. At one time 72,000 people were living in this government compound with no idea what they were doing, no real idea the materials they were working with, and unable to discuss their work with anyone else, family and friends included. I wanted more information about the women themselves, their stories–although Kiernan conducted dozens of interviews with them, and to be fair, they were not allowed to keep diaries or journals at the time. I wanted more information about the African-American experience, families not being allowed to live together, blacks were banned from schools and dances and swimming pools, segregation all over the place with African-American’s having substantially sub-par facilities in every possible respect. There is a lot about the science and technology that went in to discovering how to produce enriched uranium and then use it to fuel the atomic bomb, and that was interesting. I also felt very little was spent on the thoughts and emotions of the characters after the bomb was dropped, which is when they finally figured out what, exactly, they had been working on creating. At most there is 2 or 3 sentences from a couple of individuals. All in all, however, I really appreciated and enjoyed this book.

Additional Recommended Reading:Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin.

North Korea

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (4 stars). The North Korean gulag are prison work camps with unimaginable conditions. North Koreans can be sentenced to years of imprisonment for stealing a bit of rice, or for making a comment in passing that one of the Dear Leader trio is perhaps not 100% divine, or any other minor offense. The conditions inside the camps, and the mortality rate of prisoners, are as bad as the worst concentrations camps during WWII. But, consider this: Auschwitz existed for three years; the North Korean prison camps have been in operation for over 50 years. Shin was born in Camp 14, his parents had been sentenced to life in the gulag after his father’s brother defected to South Korea. Shin was bred to inform on his family and his fellow prisoners, public executions were commonplace, and starvation and physical torture were a way of life. Unlike citizens outside the prison camps, Shin did not receive the indoctrination and brain washing about the Kim family; he knew nothing about the outside world (not even basic things like that the world is round). At the time of it’s publishing (2012) Shin is one of only three people to escape from a prison camp and make their way to South Korea or the West and tell their stories. Three. In 50 years. Shin is the only one who did not have previous experience outside of the camp to help him escape and survive; he was born inside it’s electric fence. His escape is remarkable, he managed to find his way to China and then to South Korea without wealthy backers, without a guide and against all possible odds. He had an incredible amount of luck on his side, which only makes me wonder how many other people with just a little less circumstantial luck have failed their attempts to escape, only to be returned to the gulag for torture and execution.

Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot (3 stars). One of the earliest memoirs of life inside North Korea, I think. Kang and his family are sentenced to the gulag/prison camp when he is 10 and remain there a decade. Kang grows up starving and malnourished, he learns to swallow salamanders and catch rats, he forms a strange type of friendship with fellow detainees, carefully trying to sort friends from informers, and his stories about the violence, deprivation, executions and lack of humanity in the camp is gut wrenching. The writing is a little choppy with some strange circular wanderings in story and chronology, so minus a star for that. Escape from Camp 14 is definitely a better book, although Kang’s experience in the gulag is perhaps a little more typical of most Koreans who were sent there for re-education/reform.

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, by Melanie Kirkpatrick (2 stars). Don’t even bother. I have a lengthier, rantier review on Goodreads, but the gist is this.  Kirkpatrick only highlights those who help North Koreans escape, not the refugees themselves or their stories. She has serious views about Christianity being the only way to help refugees, she calls children of kidnapped North Korean brides sold to Chinese men “half-and-half” (they aren’t dairy products!), and she has no qualms supporting the idea that there needs to be some kind of moral qualification before an escapee deserves help and assistance. For example, the Christians she discusses refuse to help those “with blood on their hands.” Even if, say, a prisoner is “promoted” to guard–receiving MUCH NEEDED extra food or clothing–and then follows orders that result in beatings or even execution of fellow prisoners. It’s not like the guy had any choice, and it’s not like the DPRK has EVER made a habit of teaching basic morality or decision making skills to their citizens. You follow The Party and The Kim, and everything else can send you to the gulag with no trial and no warning, for an undetermined amount of time. Ugh. I was so bugged by this. Skip this book.

Additional Recommended Reading: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick; Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim; The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

Charles Darwin

Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (4 stars). Did you know that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the exact same day? Authors Desmond and Moore incorporate a ridiculous amount of research in this book pulling from political and historical documents, vast correspondence between anti-slavery and pro-slavery advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, and hundreds of newspaper articles, journal essays, research publications, and books of natural scientists around the world. They explain in detail the history of the Darwin family’s fight against slavery both in the British Empire and the America’s, they carefully lay out the political and social landscape on both sides of the Atlantic in regards to buying and selling human beings. And to exhaustive detail they point out how during the mid-19th century scientists, scholars, and theologians were debating against each other on the truth behind race, creation, humanity, and our origins. SO. FASCINATING! I also realize that at nearly 500 pages it is not for the feint of heart or the casual reader. But I absolutely loved it. A book about Darwin AND abolition?! Sign me up. And if you could manage to add a few chapters about North Korea or volcanoes that’d be perfection, thanks.

Additional Recommended Reading: Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, by Adam Gopnik; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas; The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution & Future of the Human Animal, by Jared Diamond.

American Slavery

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (5 stars) Read this book. Read it right now. There are very few first-person narratives from women who endured the tortures of slavery in the American South, Harriet Jacobs’ memoir tells the story unique to women, especially mothers, and their particular difficulty in escaping slavery and leaving their children. The plights of young women with regard to leering masters, jealous wives, and bearing half-white children who then “follow the mother” and become slaves on their white father’s plantation, sold as cattle at his whim. Harriet’s story of escape is heartbreaking, and in many ways mirrors that of Anne Frank and her family. Harriet is hidden for 7 years in a tiny garret of her grandmother’s house. She cannot stand up, she has no fresh air, no sunshine, and she does not come out. She lives above her family and children listening to them as they grow, listening to her master speculate on her whereabouts, watch her children and brother be thrown into jail for months in hopes of her returning to slavery…and she remains silent until there is a safe time for her to escape…again, SEVEN YEARS after she was in hiding. After Harriet is reunited with her children and her brother in the northern states she encounters a different type of racism, she is still viewed as less than white people and must navigate those issues, all the while worried that her master will come and drag her and her family back to the South. Seriously, read this book. Now.

Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup (5 stars). I had so many feels while reading this book! Published in 1853 the language can be a little cumbersome, but after a few pages I fell right into the rhythm and descriptions. This first-person account covers Northup’s life as both as a free black man in New York, and life as a slave in Louisiana. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery, beaten savagely anytime he protested that he was, in fact, a free man of the North. Northup’s sparse style lets the reader come to their own conclusions and feelings on the subject of slavery, and I appreciate that this was a very fact-driven narrative instead of an emotional treatise. I think the only way it could have been accepted in the literary world of it’s time would have been as it was, any additional elaboration would have been viewed as adding to the truth. This is a time when the vast majority of whites didn’t think Africans and African-Americans had feelings, intellect, or emotions; that they were, in fact, no more human than cattle or pigs. I kept thinking how many people today are kidnapped or tricked into some kind of slavery, whether indentured servant, sexual worker, or otherwise. Many of those first-person stories are written in a heartbreakingly sparse style, giving fact after fact with little elaboration on how that made the victim feel. Read this book, please. So very, very moving.

The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois (4 stars). This is a collection of long-ish essays Du Bois wrote about various aspects of life for the newly emancipated slaves in the South. Their difficulties in gaining any kind of economic freedom, their utter lack of civil rights and due process, and the laws and culture in both North and South that continued to set them as less-than. This is not something to sit down and read through, but read an essay and think about it, about the education opportunities and how that affected the former slaves who were not allowed to be literate, and the newly free young people who desperately wanted to learn but had very few opportunities due to such low economic circumstances in their families lives. This was so heartbreaking, and I saw the seeds and beginnings of so many of the issues we still grapple with today.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass (4 stars). This is a very quick read/listen, but absolutely worth it. In the same vein as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which I loved) this was one of the earliest books that gave the majority of free, white citizens some kind of idea that slaves may actually have their own feelings, emotions, and personalities. That they may love their children or their husbands and wives, that they may actually *want* to be free to govern their own lives and decisions. It is baffling to think that once upon a time these very basic ideas of humanity were completely absent. And, as I look at the news/media, sometimes it seems like we may not have come as far as a whole population as we like to believe.

Additional recommended reading: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas; Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela.

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