Troublemaker by Leah Remini (Ballantine Books, 2015)
The sub-title of the book tells exactly what kind of troublemaker Leah Remini is – “How I Survived Hollywood and Scientology.” This memoir of a celebrity television actress is not hilarious like the one by the star of Parks and Recreation; it’s disturbing, but fascinating. Lots of celebrities write about Hollywood, but no one writes about Scientology, and Leah explains why. Those who still belong to the “church” of Scientology (which has no deity) are strictly forbidden to do so, and if you have friends or family still in it (and most do) when you escape, they will be punished for your speaking out, as well as never being allowed to contact you again.
Leah Remini spent over 30 years in Scientology before she finally realized what it was doing to her. She doesn’t get any points for brilliance there, but she has a good heart. The mandatory constant psychological training is promoted as making you and the world better, which can be a trap for people with good intentions but little education – Leah dropped out of school in the 8th grade because not surprisingly, the “church” discourages formal education. They demand that members constantly purchase courses of study to get various levels of certification, putting most of them in terrible debt, as Leah points out. But the worst part is the punishments that are doled out for any kind of deviation from policy, major or minor, and the way Scientology controls its members. Leah should be applauded for escaping from this cult and telling the world what this surprising large and powerful organization is really like. I encourage everyone to read this book.
The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham (Penguin Random House LLC, 2017)
I thought this was going to be a novel but in fact it is not, though it reads like one. It is the true story of two young immigrants who came to the U.S. from El Salvador. The author is a teacher at a California high school for immigrants and also a journalist who writes about the immigration system. The young men, who are twins, agreed to let their story be told. It is not sugar-coated to bring out sympathy in the reader, but it does so anyway. While I feel that the United States has a very violent culture, it’s safe compared to El Salvador, where the teenage gangs have literally taken over the country and murder people with impunity to hold their power.
The book answers a lot of questions I had about immigrants and helps me understand their situation better. The only unanswered question is why people always migrate to the U.S. instead of heading south to South American countries that share their language and culture. Maybe someone will write that book next. The author did mention that since 2014, some immigrants are settling in Mexico rather than trying to get all the way to the United States.
The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine by Miko Peled (Just World Books, 2012)
I recently heard Miko Peled speak at a conference, and after his speech I immediately bought his book. His story is very eye-opening for someone like me who has been consuming “mainstream media” coverage of Israel all my life. Peled is the son of a famous Israeli general who distinguished himself in both the 1948 and 1967 conflicts. But his father Matti Peled went on to become a peace activist, and Miko followed in his footsteps despite the way this stance put him at odds with his fellow Israelis. As a young man, Miko Peled moved to southern California, opened a karate studio, and started a family. Then in 1997, after his 13-year-old niece was killed in a random bombing in Jerusalem, he joined a group of Palestinian peace activists in California. He started making several trips to Israel every year to get to know the Palestinian situation and try to help them (for example with medical supplies).
Over time Peled came to champion the Palestinian cause. He believes that a “two-state” solution is unfair (since Israel has taken nearly all of the Palestinian’s land) and the only real solution is a secular democracy where both peoples have equal rights. I have always thought the same thing myself and wondered why no else supported the idea. However I naively thought Palestinians were allowed to live anywhere in Israel and were only deprived of their religious rights, when in fact they are crammed into two small areas (Gaza and West Bank) and not allowed to travel or live anywhere else in the country. In this book Peled makes his point by relating many horrifying stories about how Israelis abuses and kills Palestinians, some of which he personally witnessed. It is also pretty clear that the police abuse of American citizens we have been seeing here in the last few years has its origins in the way American and Israeli soldiers in the Middle East behave.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel (Viking, 2016)
Acclaimed writer Dava Sobel (Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter) has written another fascinating book that brings science to life, this time with the help of historical photos and letters. This book, like the recent movie Hidden Figures, is about women “computers.” Several of the women whose history is told in The Glass Universe are among the few well-known woman scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, Cecilia Payne). Initially women were only allowed to serve as underpaid staff at Harvard Observatory who carried out tedious but very important calculations on photographs of stars taken on glass plates. Sobel notes that Harvard’s collection of half a million glass plates that captured the sky on each night between 1885 and 1992 is irreplaceable. As time went on these women astronomers were able to publish papers, present at international conferences, and hold professional titles. They were responsible for key discoveries in optical astronomy, such as the classification of stars and the relationship between brightness and period in variable stars.
Strangers in their own land: anger and mourning on the American right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press, 2016)
This nonfiction book written by a respected sociologist (her tenth book) is as readable as a novel. A resident of Berkeley, California, Dr. Hochschild spent the past six years visiting Louisiana, interviewing people on the political right and getting to know their culture. Her goal was to try to understand what she calls the Great Paradox. Red states that have the most industrial pollution and environmental damage consistently elect the most right wing Republican and Tea Party candidates. These politicians eliminate or fail to enforce environmental regulations, while offering incentives for fossil fuel companies to relocate to their states. Over the past twenty years states such as Louisiana have become havens for oil refineries, fracking operations, and all kinds of polluting industries. Hochschild takes a very personal approach in which she tries to “scale the empathy wall” and truly understand people whose political values are very different from her own. By visiting people’s homes, churches, and businesses, she gradually builds up a “deep story” about why people on the right end of the political spectrum prioritize jobs, their Christian faith, and their communities over the very real health impacts (such as cancer) that local environmental degradation is causing themselves and their families. Part of it is a deeply ingrained loyalty to the free market system and pride in being able to take care of themselves; part of it is a hatred of the federal government dating back to the Civil War. A key factor is that the South has an insular culture (most folks don’t ever travel far from home) with a heavy dependence on right-wing media sources like Fox News and talk radio. I recommend this book highly to liberal and progressive readers open-minded enough to want to understand people on the other end of the political spectrum.
The Revolution Where You Live by Sarah Van Gelder (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017)
The co-founder of Yes! Magazine, Sarah Van Gelder, wrote this book to tell the story of her “12,000 mile journey through a new America.” Yes! Magazine (to which I subscribe) is an online and print outlet for articles by progressive “solutions journalists” who envision “positive futures” for our country. Van Gelder started from her home in the Seattle area in mid-August 2015 and drove all the way across the country and back home again, stopping along the way to learn and pass on inspiring stories of various communities. The unifying theme across these stories is the concept of “acting locally” to solve community problems. The problems that Van Gelder is concerned about involve poverty, inequality, racism, and climate change, and she encounters some great solutions like local food production, worker owned cooperatives, urban farms, time banks, and restorative justice circles. Because the author lives on land that belongs to an Indian reservation, indigenous peoples are featured in many of the book’s chapters, along with African-Americans and other people of color. Van Gelder didn’t talk to political leaders (with one exception) or CEOs of large think-tanks; her focus was on grassroots solutions being implemented by people in American communities, both rural and urban. This is an inspiring compilation about what must have been a wonderful journey.