The Education of an Idealist: a Book Review

Now, that I finished The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power, I want to write a proper review, not just a short note.

I loved everything about that book! First of all, I loved the writing style. The book is written in a very personal way, yet it talks about the most critical global problems, about the historical event which shaped the past and present of our country and the world in general. And Samantha’s personal story is intervened with the history at large in such a natural way that I can’t even imagine that story to be told differently. If I would ever end up writing my own story, that’s exactly how I would want it to sound :).

Samantha Power has been in all the places where history has been happening in the past twenty years. If she were not physically present there, she would still be deeply involved with the issues. Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, Syria, working for Obama’s first presidential campaign, working in the White House, being the US ambassador to the UN, trying to resolve Russian – US issues, staying for LGBT rights – and wherever she goes she remains true to herself.

Reading this book, I understood more of the background of some actions or absence of those; for example, now I know why Obama was avoiding calling Armenian genocide a genocide.

Another thing I love about that book is how she talks about being a mother and being in public service, not sugar coating the problems, but making it clear that all the sacrifices were made consciously, and she would never decide differently.

I have to mention the hilarious episode from this book; it was so funny that I laughed out loud while listening. Samantha asked her stepfather to babysit when she was called for some White House duties on a short notice. Her stepfather started to panic when he could not find the milk to feed the baby, and Barak Obama saw Samantha on the phone, trying to calm down her stepfather. Obama took the phone: Eddie, that is the President of the United States speaking. Eddie, you can do it!

I might later come back and write more, but for now, I am finishing this review with the conclusion that this is one of the best books I read in the past year.

Books Which I Read Earlier This Year

I am horrible with writing about the books I’ve read, so ai decided at least to mention several books I read earlier that year. I do not have detailed reviews for them, but I wanted to let my friends know that I think those are important books, and worth reading.

The first one is Madeleine Albright The Mighty and the Almighty. I liked that book somewhat less than the “Fascism” book, or rather I was less excited by it. But I still think that for those who want to understand better the rationales behind American foreign policies, it is a must-read. 

The Nuremberg Trials is a very detailed description of the unique international trial against the war crimes conducted by Nazi Germany during World War II. I especially recommend it for those of my friends who went to school in the Soviet Union and didn’t have a chance to revisit their knowledge about the famous Nuremberg Trial since then. Even for the broader audience, it’s very educational and thought-provoking.

This book about Rwanda genocide is an absolute must-read for those who do not know much about the Rwanda genocide, except that “something bad happened.” It shows how horrible things might turn if the world is ignorant. 

That concludes my first quarter reading, at least the books which I find worth reading, and I hope to write in more details about the books which I read in April and May.

Reading Samantha Power

I have a list of at least ten books which I read and never reviewed, and I do not want that book to end up in the same list, that’s why I want to write just one paragraph here.

I am currently listening to The Education of an Idealist, and it is so good!!! May be it is just me, but I laugh and cry while I am listening to this book on the go.

I will write more when I will be done.

“American Dirt” – a Book Review

I have to admit I decided to read this book after I saw a sharp criticism of it in the media (which means, it was in the beginning of March, so this is yet another very belated review). I was struggling to give this book a low rating because the book is very well written, and I could not pause until I reached the end of the audiobook. However, I have to agree with those who say the book misrepresents the issue of illegal immigration. Granted, stories like the one described in the book happen. But the author is trying to convince the readers that most of the immigrants are in a death-threatening situation. I think that the idea is that those who are unaware of the hardships the illegal immigrants are going through will understand that they have no other choices. I believe that such a presumption will lead to the conclusion, that if the crime rate in Mexica and Central America’s countries will go down, there will be no reason for people to try to immigrate illegally.

I disagree with that. There are economic reasons for illegal immigration, and they are present on both sides of the border. There is nothing wrong with people looking for better lives. They should not face death threats to justify their decisions. It’s legislation problems which make the current situation illegal, although there is a willingness to work, and a need for work. That’s what should be addressed.

Spending Time: a Book Review

I am two months behind on blogging about the books I read, life takes precedence, and there is no time for anything else. However, keeping a promise to myself and others, I am still trying to catch up on my past reading. Below is a short review of the book Spending Time – The Most Valuable Resource, which I read back in February. 

As it often happens, the title and the annotation promised more than the book delivered; however, I do not regret I read it. As my friends now, I take pride in using my time wisely because I always want to do more things than time permits. As a result, I deeply regret that I do not have Hermione’s Time Turner, and continuously search for a substitute of it :).

Each time somebody promises me that they have a secret of getting more done within the same time slot, I am ready to jump in. 

This book does not provide any magic solutions. However, I was very curious about the time dairies which people participating in the research were filling in. I want to know where does my time goes! Once, when my co-worker told us about the Clokiefy app, which she uses to track her time spent on the projects, I decided to try to use it to trace my time in general. 

It didn’t work, and after a little bit over a week, I gave up. It took too much time to record every ten minutes spent on something. The classification of time usage had quickly become very complicated, and I was having a hard time recording activities that I was doing in parallel with others. But it looks like the time dairies mentioned in that book worked perfectly. I would love to be called to participate in such research! 

One particular observation caught my attention. The author was saying that the more money a person makes, the more activities are becoming available (yes, that was “before the war”). At the same time, a person does not have time to participate in these activities because… well, because they spend all their time working! 

At that time, I thought that there is a lot of wisdom in that statement, but now I am not sure. The quarantine cut all my massive volunteering work, on all cultural events, which were either canceled or moved online. And still, I feel like I need twice more time to do all the things I want to do. So it looks like it is something else :).

I know that I do not have time to email, or call, or to FaceTime many of my friends, and I often find myself talking to them in my mind, while I am doing something else. I do not have enough time to document what’s going on in the world these days. And I do not have enough time to do all the professional – non-work things. I will keep trying 🙂

Caffeine: A Book Review

I listened to this book a long time ago (everything before the wartime is “a long time ago”), but I didn’t write a blog post, which I intended to write; other things took preference. By now, I have five books that I read and never wrote a line about, so I am trying to fill in the gap. 

That short book (or a long essay) was suggested to me by Audible.com.  Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World is available only in the audio format, which is, in any case, my preferred format. I really liked it; it was something unexpected:). For me, like for many of the readers, the part where the author Michael Pollan decides to live a caffeine-free life while working on this book looked a little bit weird. Being a heavy user of this drug for at least forty-six years, and also being off it for both of my pregnancies and breastfeeding periods, I do not understand how in the world skipping one cup of half-decaf drink can have such a drastic effect on a person! 

What I liked in the book was the history of caffeine-containing drinks (tea and coffee). I never linked the introduction of these drinks to the Europeans to the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. But after Pollan mentions that fact, it seems so obvious! Yes, the coffee-drinkers got this new power – the ability to think faster (and getting irritated when people around them don’t do that :))

Also, I was very well aware of the fact that in Medieval times people would drink beer instead of water for sanitary reasons – water would often contain dangerous bacteria. And both coffee and tea came as safe substitutes of water! Pollan indicates that in the earlier times when manual labor didn’t require a lot of precision, it was ok if a laborer is always slightly drunk:). But for factory worker operating machines, it was unacceptable. So it all went hand in hand – progress, and caffeine!

There are lots of other interesting facts in this book, like the part about having coffee machines at the workplace, and why in some countries most people drink tea, and in others – coffee. 

But I still do not understand why the author decided to go without caffeine for several months. Maybe to create an intrigue 🙂

Madeleine Albright. Fascism: A Warning. Book Review

Madeleine Albright was the first Secretary of State I saw in action after I immigrated to the US. From the first time I heard her speaking, I had the deepest admiration of her as a political leader and a person. Somehow I didn’t come across her books earlier, but now I’ve downloaded several, and I am going to listen to all of them.

On the topic of the book “Fascism,” I think Albright has a unique perspective as a person who experienced the fascist’s regimes as a child and later had to interact (or oppose) them as a political leader. Her attitude is personal, and it could not be any other way.

I read a number of good reviews of this book (as always, only after I finished reading), and I am not going to repeat them, just a couple of additional notes. First, I found it very important that Albright speaks of many countries, which demonstrate the signs of fascism in their domestic policies. We often think that the potential threats are the same old North Korea/China/Russia, we might think of Venezuela; we remember the Rwanda genocide, and that’s pretty much it. Albright gives her audience a broader perspective, taking about Chile, Ethiopia, Hungary, and even Poland.

Second, in her definition, “fascism is not an ideology, it’s a method.” And from that perspective, she talks about the governments, which can potentially become fascists, but do not employ any of the fascist’s methods, maybe just yet. This is where I might disagree with her, I think that this approach might open counterproductive arguments.

Overall – I learned a lot of new facts from that book, and it definitely prompted me to think more deeply on the topic.

“Heartland”: a Book Review

I wanted to share my impressions of the book “Heartland,”  which I recently finished reading. 

From the very first page, the book captured my attention: the first page said that although we never admit that classes in America exist, they do. Moreover, whichever class you’ve born in shapes your life in a very significant way. Indeed, it is challenging, if not impossible, to break out of your class-instilled barriers.  

That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country’s lack of awareness about its own economic structure. Class didn’t exist in a democracy like ours, as far as most Americans were concerned, at least not as a destiny or an excuse. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.

Smarsh

The power of the book is that, on the one hand, it’s the author’s true story. Through the book, though it is not clear until the very end, the author explains her very personal decision not to have children by telling the life stories of the previous generations of her family. On the side of the storylines, she provides a very in-depth analysis of social and economic trends which led to the current situation and keep people from getting out of poverty. For me, the biggest revelation of the book was a discussion about why people who need help so badly might reject this help, and as a consequence, why poor people might favor republican policies. 

Society’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself. 

Smarxh

People perceive receiving assistance as seeing themselves lesser beings, and it translates into “nobody believes I can make it on my own.”. So, controversially, if the fact that you are poor is “your fault” gives you the hope to get out of poverty. It may be just me thinking slow, but it took me some time to understand how this thought process works. And that’s my biggest takeaway. 

“The Guarded Gate” by Daniel Okrent

That’s one more book which I want to rate “six” instead of five, from one of my favorite authors, Daniel Okrent. It describes the darkest pages of American history, I could not imagine, such views were common, acceptable, and even praised. 

We all know quite a bit about slavery; we know something about the prosecution of Americans of Japanese descent. Perhaps, we heard about antisemitism at some stages of American history. 

As for the rest, I do not know about you, but I was clueless about the triumph of eugenics in the US in the good first half of the 20th century. I did not realize that there was an official policy to grade immigrants based on which European country they were coming from. That not only Jews and Eastern Europeans were undesirable, but also Greeks, Italians, and other Southern Europeans. That officials were trying to prove that these people are more inclined to be involved in crimes and other unlawful activities. That’s all is pretty horrible. 

I liked this book review from NY Times, and I hope it will persuade you to read this book if you didn’t do it yet. It starts with the numbers:

Immigrants arriving between 2000 and 2010 constituted approximately 3 percent of the United States population, while those arriving between 1900 and 1910 constituted 8.9 percent of the population

As usual, we should know our history to avoid repeating it. Especially in times like this. 

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin – a Book Review

One more from my summer reading: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder.

I could give this book six stars if this rating were available. Extremely informative, great explanations of all “whats” and “whys.” I know the history of this period better than many, but still, there was something new to me.

Also, there were two historical facts, which I only knew from my grandaunt tellings, but never saw them in writing. Being from a family of the “enemies of the nation,” I learned about large portions of the country’s history from the stories my grandaunt told me. At that time, I was sure that they would never become parts of the official account. But after 1985, and especially after 1991, a significant portion of this history became public. There were several facts, however, which I never heard mentioned officially, so I was not even sure whether I remembered them correctly.

To mu surprise, I found the mentioning of these events in the “Bloodlands.” The first is the mentioning of the nationality-based “cases” in the 1930s. My grandaunt told me than my grandfather was prosecuted”as a part of the Polish Case,” but since it was never mentioned otherwise, I thought I might have imagined it. That was the first time I saw it in print.

The second fact was the description of Polish Jews sent back from the Soviet Union to Poland after the war. My grandaunt was a professor at the Leningrad State University at that time, and she was telling me about one of her students who were afraid to do back.

My grandaunt told her: why? It’s now free Poland without Hitler. There will be o antisemitism or anything alike. She remembered how this student shook her head and said hesitantly: I am not so sure… My grandaunt said, she could never forgive herself that she sent her away. Once again, that’s the first time in my life, I saw these facts in writing.

I gave this book to Igor for his 34th birthday:)