Book Review: Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance by Bill McKibben

Welcome to Vermont in the winter of 2017. Donald Trump has been elected president, the winters are more midatlantic mudfest than snowy paradise, and the strange, unique state of Vermont seems more and more in danger of becoming just another bland American state. Enter Vern Barclay, 70 year old radio show host and current leader of a quiet underground movement seeking a free, independent republic of Vermont. Vern comes into his activism more by accident than by malicious intent, but before he knows it, he has become the leader of a movement dedicated to keeping Vermont small, fair, weird, beautiful, and free.

As a University of Vermont alumna and as a former resident of the state, I always enjoy reading stories focused on my former home. McKibben has created a small, odd tale of resistance that mirrors the small, odd state of its setting. Even when I lived in Vermont (which is about a decade ago, now), you could walk into a restaurant and know exactly where the food you were eating came from. Vermont was a localvore haven long before the word was invented. The state is home to way more microbreweries and distilleries than you think you may need. The funky, friendly, live-and-let-live attitude of the majority of the state means that you can have your hippy-dippy Subaru and co-op grocery, and your handguns too. Add to all this the fact that Vermont, being small yet mighty, has made overtures of independence and succession in the past. In fact, one area of the state, called the Northeast Kingdom gets its name from an unsuccessful attempt at sovereignty when the country was young.

What we have in Radio Free Vermont is an uplifting (though very, very white) story of resistance Vermont style, involving calm discussion, reasoned arguments, lots of local beer, minor property damage, cross country skiers, and no violence. This is a resistance with an undercurrent of subtle Yankee humor. This is a resistance of the intimately local, and of neighborly cooperation. It is not loud, or violent, but it is the spark of something beautiful and funny that helps light the darkness of our current times.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

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Book Review: A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

A Good Country

A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

Reza “Rez” Courdee is the son of Iranian immigrants living the good life in Laguna Beach, California. Rez considers himself a typical American teenager, partying, dating girls, smoking pot, and surfing with his friends. When most of his American friends stop talking with him after a misunderstanding while on a surfing trip, he finds himself befriending other local Muslim kids. After several high-profile terrorist attacks on American soil, Rez feels isolated by the quiet suspicion of his schoolmates and neighbors. Feeling rejected by the country of his birth, he begins to withdraw deeper into his Muslim identity. The shift from revisiting his roots towards radicalization is subtle, but Rez soon finds himself walking the path of an extremist.

This was an amazing book. I am still working through everything in it. Khadivi brings us into the life of a typical teenager, and then slowly unravels everything he formerly valued about himself to turn him into something darker. Perhaps the most startling thing for me was the illustration of the knife-edge existence of being “other.” When he is the typical American teen, he is accepted by his peers and neighbors to greater or lesser degrees. Neither he nor his parents are particularly religious, and he lives the life of a first generation American — strict parents who want to see him excel in his studies so he can grow up to fully realize the American Dream.

With the loss of his American friends, he finds himself teased by his new Muslim friends. He is called a poser and a fake; someone who wanted to be American so badly he rejected his Muslim heritage. With the terrorist attacks making every Muslim seem suspect, the path of least resistance becomes sheltering in the one community that doesn’t look at him like he may have a bomb strapped to his chest. This then is the razor’s edge. Is he American or is he Muslim? With his country and community reeling from terror attacks and falling deeper into islamophobia, it appears more and more to Rez that he cannot be both.

With this comes the impossible choice: does he cut himself off entirely from his past, his family’s history, and a large portion of his identity, or does he reject the country of his birth? In this story, Khadivi shows us that it is not necessarily hatred that drives the fall into extremism, sometimes it is hope: hope for a community that will not and cannot reject the seeker. And in trying to find this community, Rez falls afoul of evil men, men who are more than willing to prey on the uncertainty and vulnerability of teenagers to convince them that their hopes and dreams can be found at the end of a gun’s sights.

The book is incredibly moving. We like Rez, we want so much for him to find his place in the world. We practically shout at the page for him not to listen to these people leading him down this dark path. We also see just how difficult it is to fight this kind of radicalization. One character talks of dominoes falling; a terrorist attack breeds new fear, which gives rise to more islamophobia, which pushes more people towards violent extremism. The cycle seems self-sustaining, and the governments of the world have been stymied in finding an effective method of ending it.

This is an incredibly relevant book to read, especially now. In many ways, the book reminded me of Human Acts by Han Kang. The topics it deals with are difficult to face, but it is vital that we tackle this head-on, and try to break this cycle of violence. Perhaps one must ascend the hill traveled down on the path to extremism, and perhaps the climb becomes a bit easier with hope as your vehicle, rather than hatred.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Orphans Tale.jpg

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

When we first meet Noa, she is cleaning a German train station in exchange for scraps of bread. Kicked out of her parents’ home at sixteen for becoming pregnant to a Nazi soldier, and later forced to give up her baby in service to the Reich, Noa is cast adrift, keeping herself to the background and speaking with no one. On the fateful night, an odd sound draws her outside the station, and to a boxcar filled with dead and dying infants; Jewish babies whose parents have been sent off to concentration camps, their children left to die of exposure in the German winter.Seeing movement, she snatches a still-living infant from the pile. As the enormity of what she has just done overcomes her, she flees into the winter night.

Astrid is a trapeze artist from an old Jewish circus family. Returning from Berlin after her Nazi-official husband divorces her, she finds her family home abandoned, her parents and siblings vanished. She seeks out Herr Neuhoff, owner of a rival circus for answers, but no one knows what has become of her family. Neuhoff makes her an astonishing offer: to hide her from the Nazis by giving her a new identity as a performer in his circus. Astrid accepts the offer, and, one snowy night, the circus finds a half-frozen teenager and a baby in the woods.

Noa, fearful of retaliation by the Nazis, and desperate to keep safe the Jewish baby she rescued, accepts a similar offer to hide within the circus as a performer. She is placed under Astrid’s tutelage to learn the flying trapeze. Rivals at first, the two women form a bond as everything crumbles down around them.

The Orphan’s Tale is incredibly well written. Both Noa and Astrid are brought sharply to life through the power of their dueling narratives. Each woman is broken but resilient, each vividly wrought and believably fashioned. The horrors brought on by the Nazis are contrasted with the small braveries of those who resist them.What emerges is a tale of love and humanity against one of the bleakest backgrounds imaginable. The story is made all the more amazing once you learn it is based (loosely) on real people and events.

This book is a good fit for those who enjoyed books like The Orphan Mother or The Light Between Oceans. Anyone with a fascination for World War II will also enjoy this book. I would also recommend this book for anyone looking for a reaffirmation of humanity; for the knowledge that even small acts of resistance in the face of fascism can make a difference.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Orphan’s Tale will be available for purchase on February 21st, 2017.

A TBR for the Next Four Years #Resist (Part One)

First off, I’d like to thank everybody who responded to my Reading List for the Resistance post over a variety of platforms. This is my follow-up list, a resistance-themed TBR of books I plan to read (hopefully I’ll get to most of them this year). As I read and review each, I’ll be adding links for convenience sake. I’ll likely be posting updates as well when new books come to my attention. As always, if you have anything you think I should add, give me a shout!

I’d also like to add that I tried to make an effort to seek out books with diverse authors. My searches led me to some very interesting books, and I’m excited to read them!

Brave New World
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

This was by far the most suggested book, and I shockingly have never read it! Brave New World introduces us to a dystopian future where even our genetics are under the thunb of the World Controllers. This book is considered a classic of dystopian literature.

Anarchism and Other Essays
Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman

Okay I’m going to say this once: I do not condone bomb-throwing and attempted assassination. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, Emma Goldman as something of a badass. An immigrant who came to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, Goldman became the queen of the anarchist movement in New York. She advocated and lectured for prison reform, for an end to inequality, she spoke out about rampant militarism and sexism. All topics which are still relevant today.

The Origins of Totalitarianism
The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

Another great suggestion! This book details the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, starting with the rise of anti-semitism in the early 1800s through to Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia. An important book to help set current events in perspective.

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith by Alethia Jones, Virginia Eubanks, Barbara Smith

A fascinating look at the life and activism of Barbara Smith. Smith has an unreal amount of experience with grassroots social justice movements. As a black woman, and a lesbian, she has been fighting for equal rights on several fronts for most of her life. This book actively deals with the current hot button topics of intersectionality and identity politics, and as such is a good reference for anyone looking to become an ally.

The Book of Unknown Americans
The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez

This is a fictional story about immigrants from Mexico and from Panama. While ultimately a love story, this book also deals with the effervescence of the American dream, and the meaning of being an “American.”

The Book Thief
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Another critically-lauded fictional work (and a hit movie!). This was suggested by a Litsy member as a necessary read. Beyond the subject of Nazi Germany, The Book Thief is also about the importance of resistance in the face of fascism.

The Illegal
The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Another fictional tale about a marathon runner named Keita who flees his native Zantoroland to become a refugee in the natiojn of Freedom State. Unfortunately, Freedom State is cracking down on undocumented people. Facing death if he returns to his homeland, Keita instead becomes part of the underground of Freedom State.

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, Alastair Smith

This nonfiction look at politics starts with one simple hypothesis, that politicians’ primary interest is to keep themselves in power, whatever the cost to the “national good.” The book posits that the line between a democracy and a tyranny is perilously thin, needing only the complacence of enough people to shift from the former to the latter.

It Can't Happen Here
It Can’t Happen Here

On a related note, this Great Depression-era political satire details the rise of an American president who installs himself as a dictator to save the United States from welfare cheats and the liberal media (sound familiar?). Written as the Nazis were coming to power in Germany, this book could be taken from today’s headlines.

Okay, that’s probably enough for now, I’ll be putting out another list soon. In the meantime, feel free to chime in with your own suggestions!

A Reading List for the Resistance

This past week has been a whirlwind. Eight days ago Donald Trump assumed the leadership of one of the most powerful countries on earth. In this short amount of time, he has appointed bankers, billionaires, and executives to head up his cabinet. He has signed executive order after executive order which diminish the rights and the quality of life that my fellow countrymen deserve. He has also inspired massive protests around the united States and the world. This is not a political blog, this is a reading blog. But in the face of nascent fascism, I feel I must resist when and how I can. Today I am using my favorite weapon: Books.

Looking to get mad or stay that way? Want inspiration or motivation? Want to expand your reading outside of your comfort zone? This is my reading list for the resistance.

The Handmaid's Tale                                                                       1984

Okay, these two are probably the most obvious. Let’s face it, the current administration seem to have taken The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 as instruction manuals rather than dystopian speculative fiction. Since “alternative facts” are making a comeback, 1984 will give you the rundown on just how to go about training yourself to accept them. And with both the executive and legislative branches of the government intent on rolling back women’s rights, you might want to check out this view of a United States that took that position to the extreme. And remeber:

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)

Don’t laugh. Everyone has got to start somewhere, and The Hunger Games is a great place to do so. The surprisingly complex young adult series brings the power of resistance to younger readers and those who would rather not start out with weightier tomes. Plus, you’ve got to love a strong, flawed female protagonist.

Human Acts

This book may be one of the best of 2017. No Joke. Human Acts, written by Han Kang, is the story of an uprising and brutal massacre that took place in South Korea in 1980. The book is powerful, and extremely moving. Beyond the relevance of a “Democratic” government brutally putting down its own citizens, this book also explores the nature of crowds: the increase in brutality on the part of the soldiers receiving encouragement from on high, and the courage of the citizens who stand together in solidarity.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

Erik Larson is the king of narrative nonfiction. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin gives insight into the rise of Nazism through the experiences of an American diplomat and his family. Larson is famous for the depth of his research on his chosen subjects,and this book is no exception.

V for Vendetta

The classic graphic novel about resistance in the face of fascism (and the inspiration for those lovely masks Anonymous members are always wearing). V for Vendetta takes place in an alternative England ruled by a pseudo-christian dictator. I hesitate to add, but you can also watch the movie version (not as good, but love to John Hurt).

These six books will get you started. I’ll be posting my #ResistTBR in a few days. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts, as well as any suggestions for further reading! I’ll certainly be adding more books in future posts, so let me hear from you!