Library Loot

Same old story. Out running errands yesterday, dropped by the library to return a book. And walked out the door with four more. Even though I’m already up to my eyeballs with library books I couldn’t resist grabbing more reading material. Will I ever learn? No, of course not. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog.  

About Time I Read It: Haben by Haben Girma

I don’t think anyone can resist a memoir by the first deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. Even though I was up to my eyeballs in library books I didn’t resist it either, grabbing a copy of Haben Girma’s 2019 Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law during one of my weekend library visits. A light read but far from a piece of fluff, I whipped through it quickly. I walked away from Haben with both an admiration for its author, but also a new perspective on what it’s like to live with different abilities. 

As one might guess from the book’s subtitle Girma is a pretty remarkable person. The American-born daughter of Eritrean immigrants she was born legally blind and deaf. As a child she might walk into a room and see a person sitting on a couch as a shadowy blur. But by the time she was a young adult her sense of sight had deteriorated to the point “walking into a room is like stepping into an abstract painting of fuzzy formations and colorful smashes.” Born with low frequency hearing but not high, over the years she would lose even that modest ability. But to her credit she bravely battled on, refusing to let those sensory restrictions prevent her from living an accomplished life. 

And what an accomplished life so far. In high school, Girma successfully lobbied her parents to let her to spend a summer in the African nation of Mali doing relief work. Later, instead of sticking safely close to home in the Bay Area with premier colleges Stanford and UC Berkeley in her own backyard she opted to attend Lewis and Clark in my former town of Portland, Oregon. (It’s fun to imagine I might have passed her on the street during one of her forays off campus.) Later, after graduating from Harvard Law School she would go on to serve as a disability rights lawyer and play an instrumental role in winning a landmark ADA-related case. For her successful efforts as an attorney and disabilities advocate she earned a trip to the White House to be honored by both Vice President Biden and President Obama.

Much like it’s author, this memoir is direct, passionate and a much needed challenge to our long-held assumptions of people with different abilties. 

Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us by Brian Klaas

About a year ago political scientist and writer Brian Klaas began making the rounds on my favorite podcasts The Bulwark, Deep State Radio and The New Abnormal promoting his recently published book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. As he answered questions related to the long-purported belief that power corrupts and what, if anything can be done to keep corruptible individuals away from the levers of power I couldn’t get enough. That’s because several years ago I experienced first hand what it’s like to suffer at the hands of a tyrannical leader. I couldn’t wait to read Klaas’s book and promptly checked out his cool podcast.

Before long I used Overdrive to borrow a copy for my Kindle and eagerly went to work reading it. Employing a Malcom Gladwell-esque style Klass recalls his interviews with a wide array of individuals ranging from an African dictator to a retired American general tasked with running the occupation of Iraq to countless subject matter experts. By the end of the book Klaas showed us not only corrupt leaders looks like but how they’re able to rise to power. He also weighed in on what possible strategies we can employ to make sure they don’t always seize power and if they do, how we might reign them in.

According to Klaas, the worst tyrants, be they CEOs, third-world despots or even some out of control head of an HOA posses in varying degrees what he calls the “dark triad” of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellism.

Narcissists feel they’re naturally entitled to positions of authority and are willing to engage in risky behavior like breaking laws, regulations and norms because they see themselves as too clever to suffer the consequences. Typically, most dictators are eventually dethroned because their reckless misrule ends up pissing off enough, or at least the wrong people. Many a CEO lost his/her job by making heedless decisions that brought shame upon the company name .

Psychopaths, immune from experiencing empathy, are able to abuse others to pursue their agendas. An unscrupulous potentate will happily jail and torture dissidents while a toxic executive won’t hesitate to humiliate a subordinate during a meeting for a perceived shortcoming, especially if he/she is seen a potential rival or attempts to speak truth to power.

Lastly, aspiring Machiavellis will hijack whatever resources that come with their positions to further advance themselves. A power-crazed HOA president will target residents he doesn’t like with endless parades of citations. One East African strongman appointed a surprisingly number of women to his rubber stamp parliament, not because he shared their feminist values but because he wanted to send Western nations and NGOs the message he was a progressive ruler and therefore deserved of larger aid packages. Larger aid packages he could line his own pockets with.

One way to reduce the number of bad leaders is to ensure less corruptible individuals wind up in positions of authority. Applicant pools need to be widened as to attract as many capable individuals as possible, not just those with a pathological desire to control and abuse others. Hoping to attract a more kindler, gentler candidate pool a municipality in New Zealand produced a light-hearted recruitment video in which two police officers, played by women of color, pursue a purse snatcher. During their on foot pursuit they even stop for a moment to help an elderly woman cross the street. At the end when they finally apprehend the thief it’s revealed he’s just a dog. The goal is to attract helpful sorts, not Rambos or Dirty Harrys.

In the starkest of contrasts, thanks to minuscule applicant pools the demand for law enforcement officials in rural Alaska is so great police departments are resorting to drastically lowering standards and hiring convicted felons. Even those who’ve committed assaults, rapes and attempted kidnappings have been hired by short-staffed departments desperate to fill their ranks. (Despite the offenders having committed those crimes in the very communities they’re now entrusted to protect.)

Lastly, we must find ways to keep the high and mighty in line. Corporate America spends billions to closely monitor even its most loyal of low level employees through surveillance cameras, recorded phone lines and computer software to log keyboard strokes and website usage. But little, if anything is done to ensure high level executives follow the law, act responsibly or refrain from using their authority to pursue personal vendettas. With a disturbing percentage of CEOs psychopaths, and in all likelihood members of the dark triad, ways must be found to hold them as accountable as their lowest rung employees.

For all the reasons I’ve already outlined this outstanding book should be required reading for anyone who interacts with the powerful in any sector be it private or public. Please consider Corruptible highly recommended.

Library Loot

Even though I’m making my way through several books right now I could not resist grabbing another sizable stack of reading material when I stopped by the public library yesterday while running errands. My modest small town library never ceases to surprise me with its impressive array of great books. Never underestimate your local public library! 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog.  

Book Beginnings: Corruptible by Brian Klaas

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

Does power corrupt, or are corrupt people drawn to power? Are entrepreneurs who embezzle and cops who kill the outgrowths of bad systems, or are they just bad people? Are tyrants made or born?

Last week I featured the 2019 memoir Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Eritrean-American lawyer and disability rights advocate Haben Girma. The week before that it was the 2016 novel This House Is Mine by German writer and linguist Dörte Hansen. This week it’s Brian Klaas’s 2021 Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.

I heard about Corruptible late last year when the book’s author Brian Klaas began making the rounds on some of my favorite podcasts. After experiencing first-hand the horrors of toxic leadership in the workplace, Corruptible sounded like the perfect book for me. Recently, I stopped procrastinating and finally borrowed a Kindle version through Overdrive. Instead of me blathering on, here’s what Amazon has to say:

Corruptible draws on over 500 interviews with some of the world’s top leaders—from the noblest to the dirtiest—including presidents and philanthropists as well as rebels, cultists, and dictators. Some of the fascinating insights include: how facial appearance determines who we pick as leaders, why narcissists make more money, why some people don’t want power at all and others are drawn to it out of a psychopathic impulse, and why being the “beta” (second in command) may actually be the optimal place for health and well-being.

Book Beginnings: Haben by Haben Girma

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

I’m deafblind. Because I can’t see faces or recognize voices,
every conversation needs to start with a name. My friends begin conversations like this: “It’s Cam,” “It’s Gordon,” or if someone is drinking, “It’s me.”

Last week I featured the 2016 novel This House Is Mine by German writer and linguist Dörte Hansen. The week before it was the 2016 biography True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy by Hungarian-American writer Kati Marton. This week it’s the 2019 memoir Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Eritrean-American lawyer and disability rights advocate Haben Girma.

Haben is one of several books over the last month or so that’s intrigued me as I’ve walked by it on the shelf during my weekend trips to the public library. The true story of a death and blind woman who was able to graduate from Harvard Law School was simply too hard to resist. I was also pleased to learn she did her undergraduate studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, a city where I lived my entire life until just a few years ago. Instead of me blathering on, here’s what the book’s page on Amazon has to say:

Haben defines disability as an opportunity for innovation. She learned non-visual techniques for everything from dancing salsa to handling an electric saw. She developed a text-to-braille communication system that created an exciting new way to connect with people. Haben pioneered her way through obstacles, graduated from Harvard Law, and now uses her talents to advocate for people with disabilities.

 

Library Loot

With a tall stack of library books by my bed I should be content with what I’ve got and continue reading my way through it. But after returning several books to the library the other day I felt reckless and borrowed more. Will I ever learn? Probably not. 

 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog.  

20 Books of Summer: Free by Lea Ypi

In all the years of writing my blog I’ve featured just two books by an Albania writer. In 2012 it was Spring Flowers, Spring Frost and the following year The Fall of Stone City, both by Nobel laureate Ismail Kadare. With over two dozen of his works translated into English, there was a good chance if I featured anything by an Albania author it would be something by Kadare. But recently a new Albanian writer has taken the stage. In January of this year Lea Ypi’s memoir Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History was released in the United States generating considerable acclaim. After reading favorable things about it on both The Captive Reader and What’s Nonfiction I knew I had to give it a chance. Then a week or so ago I was in the mood to read something for Rose City Reader‘s European Reading Challenge so I downloaded a copy through Overdrive. This book is definitely worth the hype and should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. (Just yesterday Rennie of What’s Nonfiction named Free to her list of “10 New Release Favorites of the Year So Far.”)

For close to half a century the small Adriatic nation was ruled with an iron fist by Enver Hoxha, a Stalinist dictator hell-bent on running the country according to his uncompromising communist vision. Freedoms of religion, expression and the press were nonexistent, as was private enterprise. Political parties other than the country’s ruling communists were outlawed. Over time this puritanical approach became too much for even Albania’s communist allies. Starting with the USSR and its satellites in the mid-1950s one by one they severed ties with Albania with the last one, China breaking off relations in 1978. Rejecting both the capitalist West and the “revisionist” Socialist Bloc an ever defiant Albania stood alone and isolated.

Lea Ypi could not have come of age during a more momentous time in Albania’s history. In the mid-1980s as a school girl, Enver Hoxha, the only leader she, and much of the population has ever known died. After his death, things slightly loosed up a bit. Her family, like others were allowed brief visits abroad, but the nation’s new communist leaders enacted no sweeping reforms. But in an isolated nation where empty Coke cans thoughtless discarded by visiting tourists were treasured by impoverished Albanians and prominently displayed like expensive status symbols  something even as simple as a plastic air sickness bag mystified young Lea on her first trip outside the country.

What makes sets Free apart from other memoirs of life under communist rule is you see all this monumental history unfold through the eyes of an innocent child. Over the course of the memoir you learn just how oppressive life was under Albania’s communist overlords as one by one the white lies and not so white lies she was fed by her parents and other adults are gradually exposed. (Like the euphemism “university” used in place of prison.) The end result is a fast-paced read that at times feels surreal.

Albania, through fits and starts, attempted its path towards democracy and free market capitalism while coinciding with the author’s own journey towards adulthood. Whether or not her nation can ultimately achieve this goal is unclear, but in the end she left Albania to attend college abroad and never returned. With no small amount of irony looks back and compares her country’s rocky attempts to shed its communist past and recast itself as “European” as having much in common with Albania’s much earlier struggles to build a socialist state that would serve as a springboard towards an eventual communist utopia. Both were blind faith exercises with the understanding today’s painful sacrifices will help create a freer and more equitable tomorrow. Perhaps only time will tell which path ultimately was best.

Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I hope to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished Alexander Münninghoff’s 2020 family memoir The Son and Heir. I’m happy to report I was able to apply it to a number of reading challenges including the European Reading Challenge and the Books in Translation Challenge. With the European Reading Challenge in mind I started two additional books, one fiction and the other nonfiction. Ruta Sepetys’s 2022 historical novel I Must Betray You is quickly shaping to be one this year’s best works of fiction. Frank Blaichman’s 2009 Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II is a rare first-hand account of the life of a Jewish partisan fighting in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War. With my nose currently buried in Ruta Sepetys’s and Blaichman’s books I’ve been neglecting Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack and Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street. But I hope to get back to them as soon as possible. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) continuing to be televised I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. If you’re looking to follow my lead, start with recent Daily podcast “What the Jan. 6 Hearings Have Revealed So Far” and follow it up with The Bulwark’s episode “Mike Pence Must Testify.” The New Yorker: Politics and More episode “The Bombshell Moments at the Second Week of the January 6th Hearings” with Jane Mayer, Susan B. Glasser, and Evan Osnos serves up the great political insight you’d expect from that fine magazine. The Lincoln Project Podcast “The Second Hearing: The Rats are Leaving the Ship” with is worth it for the title alone. For an end of the week round-up with a panel of great journalists check out an audio version of last Friday’s Washington Week with the podcast episode “Jan. 6 Committee Lays Out Trump’s Efforts to Change 2020 Election Results.” Rounding things out, Molly Jong Fast and Andy Levy on The New Abnormal once again served up insightful and irreverent commentary on the hearings on the episode “Trump Lied, and Pence Could Have Died.” Lastly, for a great interview having absolutely nothing to do with the hearings check out Bulwark regular Tim Miller’s interview with Jamie Kirchick “When Homosexuality Was a National Security Threat” talking about his latest book Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. I’ve owned a Kindle edition of Kirchick’s earlier book The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age for several years and maybe after hearing this interview I’ll finally read it. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain, throwing head-spinning plot twists at me right and left. As I mentioned earlier, I’m knee deep into the January 6 Committee sessions and excited to see more. 

Everything else. With gas so damn expensive I’m trying to avoid driving into town but on Wednesday I traveled to an area winery to discuss a couple of chapters from Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School with my impromptu book club. Of course just like last week I once again snuck out early on Friday and joined my buddy the semi-retired sociology professor for beers at a campus watering hole.

About Time I Read It: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild’s 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa until recently is one many highly praised books sitting in my personal library ignored and unread for years. Even though I’d included it in several TBR reading challenges over the years I never made an effort to read it. Then last week for some inexplicable reason I picked up my copy of King Leopold’s Ghost and gave it a shot. Like so many other great books in my personal library that went unread so long I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Until the 1998 publication of King Leopold’s Ghost the death of as many as 10 million Congolese at the hands of their Belgian colonial overlords and agents was a forgotten genocide, at most an obscure historical footnote. Mining the historical record of first hand accounts, newspaper articles, letters and the like Hochschild has bequeathed  to a new generation a detailed and accessible history of the horrors that were inflicted upon the innocent peoples of of late 19th century Central Africa. Hochschild also recalls the forgotten stories of those crusading individuals who frequently faced impossible odds to bring such atrocities to light. Called by many as a history book that reads like a novel, King Leopold’s Ghost is a vivid testimony to both the evil that men do and those committed to fighting it.

As the nations of Europe carved up Africa in search of colonies one monarch from the relatively small kingdom of Belgium sought the biggest prize of all. For the first third or so of his adult life King Leopold was seen by his royal peers as a shallow bore, nothing more than a petty monarch of a minor realm. Tired of being out-shadowed by grander heads of state like his first cousin Queen Victoria of Great Britain Leopold wanted a piece of colonial real estate he could call his own. Playing imperial powers like England and France against each other and enlisting the assistance of the upstart United States while also crafting a wily public relations game he was able to place a huge swath of Central Africa under his control, in effect making it his own personal territory to exploit as he saw fit.

Wealth first flowed from Congo into Leopold’s private purse in the form of Ivory. Before advances in field of petrochemicals ivory was the plastics of the 19th century, used in everything from billiard balls to false teeth. Elephants were slaughtered mercilessly for their tusks to keep up with demand. Later, advances in technology sparked a need for rubber and before long Leopold’s agents were transforming Congo into one, massive rubber plantation. But these extractive industries came a horrible price. Perversely billed as an African “Free State” Congo was little more than a nation of slaves. To enrich Leopold its inhabitants were beaten, mutilated, starved and murdered into submission.

This is a great book that succeeds in telling a grim story. I highly recommend you read it and if you do, I strongly suggest you go with the newer 2020 edition. Barbara Kingsolver, in her foreward recalls the impact the book had on her 20 years earlier around the time her novel The Poisonwood Bible was published. The book concludes with a personal afterword by Hochschild in which he looks back on the two decades since the King Leopold’s Ghost’s publication and how some, but not all in the West, including Belgium have come to grips with the genocide. In the half century following the nation’s independence from Belgium Congo has been plagued by civil wars, poverty and oppression. Almost like Leopold’s murderous ghost still haunts the tortured land.