Nonfiction November: New to My TBR

Well, Americans, how were your Thanksgivings? I hope you sternly noped any racisms you encountered from your relatives and ate plenty of delicious turkey. We are reaching the end of a wonderful Nonfiction November, hosted this week by the fab Lory from the Emerald City Book Review.

It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

I may as well confess now that I have not been as riotously active a participant in Nonfiction November as I intended. For one thing I was doing NaNoWriMo (I didn’t write a novel, I just wanted to write 50,000 words on the month total, including blog posts and things like that), which is a time suck; for another thing I had wonderful visitors visiting me off and on throughout the month; and for a third and emotionally wringing thing, this damn election happened and pulled focus away from rejoicing in books to, like, figuring out how I’m going to fight.1

Do not take this to mean that my commitment to nonfiction has dimmed. I love and cherish nonfiction and you wonderful nonfiction bloggers, and I will be taking your recs and screaming about nonfiction books with you for many months to come.ANYWAY. All of that to say that I wasn’t able to visit as many blogs and scream about as much nonfiction as I was hoping, this November. I did get some awesome recs, of which the one that excites me the most is Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England, by Sarah Wise. I got this rec from the new-to-me blog Curiosity Killed the Bookworm–thanks!! I’m always interested in ways the Victorians solved social problems, and the history of mental health commitments is particularly relevant to my current reading after I read the wonderful Committed earlier in the month.As always, thanks to all the wonderful hosts who made this event happen! I’m sorry that national events overshadowed it for me at times, and I’m already eagerly anticipating its return in 2017.

  1. The answer is “all the ways.”

Nonfiction November: Book Pairing

Nonfiction November continues, hosted this week by Sarah at Sarah’s Book Shelves. This week we’re talking book pairings!

Nonfiction November

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Mm, yes, I love a good game of Read This Then That. Nonfiction November has pegged me accurately in this regard. Let’s start with a creepy debut novel I read earlier in the year, Krys Lee’s How I Became a North Korean.

It’s an excellent look at the lives of North Koreans after they escape from their hometown, and I’m pairing it up with Suki Kim’s Without You There Is No Us, as an act of rebellion against everyone in publishing and the media who framed Kim’s book like a memoir instead of the work of investigative journalism that it is. Down with gendered bullshit!

Next I will be pairing up two books where maybe you’ll read this recommendation and say “Jenny is this just a thinly veiled plot to get us to read these two books you’re already obviously very excited about?” To which the answer is, of course, yes. Yes, that is what is happening. Sorry to have been so transparent.

Read Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, an alt-history Congolese steampunk fantasy that has dirigibles, deception, lesbians, and characters who use cats for spies.

Then when you’re finished and you have thousands of questions about which elements of the plot are from real history and which ones are from Nisi Shawl’s considerable imagination, get thee to David van Reybrouck’s Congo, a magisterial history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s massive but engaging. I can’t recommend it enough.

Thanks to the Nonfiction November hosts for staying fabulous! What nonfiction are y’all reading this week?

Review: Committed, Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson

Note: I received a copy of Committed from the publisher for review consideration.

I maintain a master list of Claims that Require Heightened Scrutiny, and the number one item on my list — indeed the reason I started to maintain the list — is this: Any claim that a complicated problem has a simple solution. Nothing infuriates me more1 than people insisting that a complicated thing is actually very simple if people would just look at it in a new way. No! Systems are complicated! Even when there is a simple solution (e.g., we have a vaccine that prevents polio), the implementation of that solution remains immensely complicated, because there are a lot of other factors in play besides the obvious medical one.

So Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson’s book Committed: The Battle over Involuntary Psychiatric Care (pubbed by Johns Hopkins University Press) is balm to my soul, acknowledging as it does that the question of involuntary psychiatric care is a complicated issue to which there may possibly be no good solutions.

CommittedI come to this book with a history of being both a consumer and a provider of mental health care myself (I have depression, and I spent a number of years volunteering on a suicide hotline), and of knowing lots of people who consume and provide mental health care. People I love have been involuntarily committed, and people I love have recommended involuntary commitments, so while I am far from an expert, I am at least aware of some of the problems with both sides of this argument.

On one hand, involuntary commitment can be tremendously traumatizing. Standards of inpatient mental health care vary wildly, and underfunding of the mental health system means that many service providers are underpaid, under-trained, overworked, exhausted, and not remotely respectful or kind to people with serious mental illnesses. If you come to an emergency room with a mental health issue — often having tried to get outpatient mental health care from other resources and failed because we as a society have so massively under-prioritized those vital services — you may get an emergency room physician like this one:

If someone is suicidal, I can’t think of a time I would send them home. I’m very cautious about letting someone go home when they’ve changed their mind about being suicidal. I let the mental health professional make that decision, but when it comes down to it, if I am the physician of record, then I have to be accountable. So I give great deference to a mental health professional, but I don’t give them the complete latitude to discharge our patients. . . Once the flag is raised and I’m worried about someone, why wouldn’t we err on the side of giving them more services and not less?

What freaks me out is that he’s talking about suspending someone’s civil rights and then making them pay a really large amount of money for that suspension, and he doesn’t seem to realize that’s what he’s describing. His personal comfort with the idea that someone who has experienced suicidal ideation — regardless of the level of risk the mental health professional has assessed in their examination of the patient — is the deciding factor for whether a person is kept against their will. His comfort trumps research and experience, is what he’s saying, and unfortunately, this reflects exactly what I have heard from friends who work as mental health professionals in hospitals.

So that’s on one hand: The civil rights of mentally ill people are regularly taken away on the basis of one doctor’s opinion, which is informed more by a CYA mentality than the assessment of the in-house mental health professional. Legal procedures designed to protect patient rights are frequently perfunctory, with patients given inadequate representation and information about what’s happening to them.

On the other hand, advocates of involuntary treatment like E. Fuller Torrey argue that mentally ill patients who display anosognosia (a lack of awareness that they are ill) require medication and therapy before they can meaningfully consent or withhold consent for treatment.2 If we blanket oppose involuntary treatment, what becomes of suicidal and homicidal patients who won’t seek help for themselves? Do we permit patients who are a danger to themselves and others to leave the hospital untreated, or do we have a responsibility to help them (even if it’s against their will)?

See. It’s tricky.

Miller and Hanson explore the issue from a wide range of perspectives, speaking with experts in the field, medical professional, mental health care professionals, patients with both good and bad experiences of inpatient mental health care, and police departments that have implemented mental health training for their officers (chronically mentally ill people who don’t get treatment often get funneled into the criminal justice system, which is very ill-equipped to deal with them). They consider the various — and they truly are various, since there are no nationally accepted standards for inpatient mental health care — policies that govern the use of seclusion and restraint, forced medication, and even involuntary electroconvulsive therapy. They explore evidence into the links between gun violence, particularly mass shootings, and untreated mental illness, and whether involuntary mental health care offers a solution to those problems.

Unfortunately — for people who want things to be simple — the answer, if there is an answer, is that if we want to achieve both the goal of protecting the civil rights of mentally ill patients and the goal of minimizing the chances that such patients will harm themselves or others, we’re going to have to pay for it, with time and money. Many of the ethical and medical problems around involuntary commitment arise because these patients have no other treatment options. The emergency room, which should be the last resort, becomes the first resort, simply because community mental health care is lacking. Hanson and Miller note that in half of all US counties, there are no mental health professionals at all. And the more money we pour into involuntary commitments, the less money is available for maintenance mental health care.

At the end of the book, Hanson and Miller make a number of policy recommendations, most of which require — surprise! — investment in a mental health infrastructure. This data nerd reader would also love to see better record-keeping on involuntary commitments nationwide, as I suspect that race, class, and gender are all factors in the decision of whom to commit against their will. Committed provides an insightful, balanced look at the many complex factors that influence involuntary mental health care. If you’re remotely interested in mental health or civil liberties, I highly recommend this excellent book.

  1. Well, probably some things do, but I can’t think of them right now.
  2. You’ll have spotted this leads to kind of a Catch-22: If they know they are sick they’ll want treatment; if they don’t want treatment, they must not know they are sick and thus should have treatment.

Nonfiction November: Choosing Nonfiction

Well, the weather is still confusingly warm, but nevertheless my calendar informs me that we are now in the month of November, which can only mean one thing, book lovers: The triumphal return of Nonfiction November!

Nonfiction November

This week is hosted by Rachel of Hibernator’s Library, and we’re talking about book selection techniques. To wit:

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to?

If all the nonfiction topics in the entire world were billiard balls on an infinite pool table, and you set one of the balls in motion every time you read a nonfiction book, and then you next read books about every billiard ball topic that first billiard ball clunked into, that would be a generally accurate depiction of my ever-expanding nonfiction interests. At one point (though I cannot exactly conjure up a clear memory of this in my mind), I only read memoirs. Then memoirs plus books about very conservative Christians. Then memoirs plus books about very conservative Christians plus gay history books. And so on and so forth, you get the idea. The more things I know, the more things I find there are to know.

actual footage of me at the nonfiction shelves in my library
actual footage of me at the nonfiction shelves in my library

Do you have a particular writing style that works best?

Wellllllll, I mean, I like a book with nicely done endnotes. On my Official List of Grown Adulthood Lifehood Policies, rule number 6 is “Always verify sources,” and this is obviously more difficult to do when the book is pop nonfiction of the type that doesn’t run to endnotes. When books don’t have notes, I never feel like I really know the information contained inside; I just feel like I at best have heard rumors about it. So although I do read nonfiction where the sources aren’t carefully documented, it’s not my preference.

Oh, hm, that wasn’t really writing style so much as citation style. Well, for writing style, I like it when authors can find a good balance between theory, data, and anecdotes. It’s a tricky balance to strike!

When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you?

Note: This gif is from the show The Good Place. The show rocks. Watch it.
Note: This gif is from the show The Good Place. The show rocks. Watch it.

If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

I no longer have any recollection what this book is, but there is a book on my TBR spreadsheet entitled The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse. In the “precis” column, Past Me wrote “EDWARDIAN INTRIGUE AND CRIIIIIIME,” with seven Is in the word “crime,” even though as you may know the correct spelling is with only one I. Is the missing corpse the duke’s? Why does he have a secret wife? Who is the murderer? Way to go, author Piu Marie Atwell, you have left me with many questions.

How do you choose your nonfiction reads, friends?

LAUREN REDNISS ALWAYS: A post for Nonfiction November

This week for Nonfiction November, we’re talking about nonfiction that comes in different and exciting forms, not just your standard academic monograph or zippy book from Norton about Satanists or whatever. Pop by Rebecca’s blog to see what everyone else has to say about this!

Nontraditional Nonfiction: This week we will be focusing on the nontraditional side of reading nonfiction. Nonfiction comes in many forms. There are the traditional hardcover or paperback print books, of course, but then you also have e-books, audiobooks, illustrated and graphic nonfiction, oversized folios, miniatures, internet publishing, and enhanced books complete with artifacts. So many choices! Do you find yourself drawn to or away from nontraditional nonfiction? Do you enjoy some nontraditional formats, but not others? Perhaps you have recommendations for readers who want to dive into nontraditional formats.  We want to hear all about it this week!

I do, of course, zealously refer you back to Anne Carson’s book-in-a-box, Nox, which blows my tiny mind every time I touch it. But this is not a week to talk about poetry. So instead I’m going to talk about the wonders of illustrated nonfiction.

I JUST REALLY LOVE PICTURES IN BOOKS

There is this lady named Lauren Redniss, and every few years, she makes a beautiful nonfiction book with wild and wonderful illustrations. One was about a girl in the Ziegfield Follies. One was about Marie Curie. One is about the weather. I cannot detect a pattern in that progression, which is exciting because it means I have litrally no idea what Lauren Redniss is going to do next.

If you fear you are possibly not so interested in Marie Curie or the weather or whatnot, do not fear! I too was not interested in them! Except then Lauren Redniss drew things that look like this, and come on, y’all, I’m only human.

Lauren Redniss!
Look how cool and attractive that is.

Have you read any good illustrated nonfiction recently? If yes, tell me about it in the comments pleeeease, I can’t resist an illustrated book.

Oh, you want me to recommend some other form of nontraditional nonfiction? Maybe not necessarily in book format, but not a biopic either because you feel like if you’ve seen one biopic you’ve seen them all?

YES OKAY.

(Please still love me, guys.)

Nonfiction November: Book Pairing!

Every November, four wonderful bloggers (Kim and Leslie and Katie and Rebecca) team up to bring us the marvelous Nonfiction November. The theme of this week is book pairings, in which we pair our fiction reads with a nonfictional counterpart.

Earlier in the year, I had the inestimable privilege of participating in Alice (of Reading Rambo)’s readalong of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s book The Monk. It was…deeply stupid. HOWEVER. As I was scouring my reading spreadsheets for nonfiction books to highlight in this book pairing, I remembered that I read a book earlier this year in which every insane thing done by Evil Nuns and Evil Monks was completely non-annoying BECAUSE IT WAS TRUE.

I give you: The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio.

The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio

I read a review of this book that said it was the story of a nineteenth-century convent in which many scandals occurred, and I admit, I came to it with a skeptical eye. I was like, I mean, a scandal in the 1800s is like, not even a blip on the radar of our modern, cynical times. But I was so, so wrong.

Here’s all you need to know about the book: A relatively well-connected nun emerged from the convent at Sant’Ambrogio insisting that the nuns there were engaged in idolatry and wicked sexual practices. Not only that (she said), but when this nun refused to cooperate with this stuff, the novice mistress tried repeatedly to murder her. And she was not exaggerating. If anything she was underplaying it. IT WAS ALL GLORIOUSLY TRUE.

Don’t read The Monk; it’s stupid. Read this instead.

(Nonfiction November Hosts: That’s…not really what a book pairing is?
Jenny: ANARCHYYYYYY!)

Not a dumb American: American edition

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Rebecca’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

My American history memory is in a parlous state, mostly because I have never been terribly interested in it. But I am VERY VERY interested in colonial powers and the ways they do colonialism, so I was eager to pick up Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, published by my much-beloved Beacon Press. It isn’t a history of the indigenous peoples of the US, but rather a history of the US happening to indigenous peoples.

I had to read this book one chapter per day, because otherwise I got too sad about it. Because basically here is the history of the US happening to indigenous people:

Stage 1: Various colonizing groups got to America and made treaties with the Indian nations they encountered. The colonizers despised the Indians and cheated them blind, but they acknowledged that the Indian groups were sovereign nations who got to America ahead of them.

(There were some massacres during this stage. Sometimes Indians massacred colonists, and sometimes colonists massacred Indians. Bad times all around.)

Stage 2: The USA got founded, and it made some treaties with Indian groups about where the United States ended and the Indian lands began. When American settlers settled on Indian land, and the Indians said, “Hey!”, the US government would most of the time just be like:

Because they would claim that the settlers were acting without the permission of the US government. But if the Indians attacked the settlers, the government would be like “Nooooo! The savages are attacking Americans!” and they would send out the army to burn down the Indian villages and redraw the treaty lines (often by getting some random Indian to sign the treaty and then be like “Okay! Now it counts for all people in your tribe!” even though the person who signed wasn’t actually authorized to speak for that tribe). And so on ad infinitum.

(There were massacres at this stage also. You should just always assume there are massacres going on. Also, the Trail of Tears.)

As I was reading about Stage 2, I was thinking, Oh yeah, this is what the Wilders were doing probably. This was the Laura Ingalls Wilders, settling on Indian land that actually really belonged to the Indians by treaty. Boy, the Ingalls family was not on the right side of history.

But man, if I thought Stage 2 was miserably depressing, I was not emotionally prepared for Stage 3. (Like, I knew it was coming, but I just really didn’t want it to.)

Stage 3: The US government got tired of paying lip service to the idea that they were ever going to honor their treaties with the Indians, I guess because redrawing the treaties all the time was creating too much paperwork for them or something. They announced that Indians weren’t sovereign nations after all, nor did Indian tribes have any legal significance as a unit. All Indians from now on would be considered as individuals (not members of a tribe) and would be wards of the state.

Yes it is. The Ingalls family was around during this bit, as well. They bridged the gap between Stage 2 and Stage 3. I’m not harping on it to make you feel guilty about liking those books; it’s just what I kept thinking about as I was reading. I got too depressed in this stage to take in some of the information coming my way. I was just thinking, Ugh, ugh, ugh, please stop it, America, you are the worst.

Stage 4: Hooray! A beacon of light at last! Y’all, I got so used to the story being about America using superior weapons and weapons to kill Indians and steal their land that I forgot anything else was ever going to happen. Stage 4 is the civil rights stage! Although Indian activist groups campaigned for a lot of things they didn’t end up getting, there were some things they did end up getting, including the occasional admission by the US government that they had been treating the Indians badly all these years.

If you are currently thinking, Jenny’s a colonialist asshole for being excited about the US government doing the absolute bare minimum of what it damn well should have been doing all along, I can’t argue with you. But y’all, Stages 2 and 3 were really rough. Dunbar-Ortiz talks about the massacre at Wounded Knee (often considered the end of Indian resistance in the United States), and really, any time you’ve got pictures of mass graves containing children, you’ll take no massacres + small shitty government concessions as a major win.

Overall: I didn’t learn a ton of information that I didn’t already know, at least in hazy outline. Dunbar-Ortiz is talking about patterns, not specifics, for much of this book, and we already know the general outlines of how European-American colonizers wiped out as many Indian tribes as they could over the course of a few centuries. However, I think it’s really important and valuable tTo see it laid out all in one place, as an integral part of the development of the country. I wrote down a ton of books from the bibliography, and I’m hoping to read more indigenous histories of America in the future.

Important takeaway: We gotta get Andrew Jackson of the $20 bill. I have been saying this for ages, but now I think so even more. It is insane and insulting that we have him on there. Let’s replace his face on the twenty with somebody whose policies didn’t kill quite so many people. I vote for Harriet Tubman. Nobody can argue with Harriet Tubman; partly because she is an awesome heroine from history, and partly because she is way tougher than you and would definitely win in a fight.

Not a dumb American: Truth commissions edition

Unspeakable Truths is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Kim’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

Some time ago I got the idea in my head that I wanted to learn more about a fuzzy thing I could not quite define that was related to shifting from a terrible, warry society to a less-terrible not-war society. As with so many things, it was tricky to find books about this when I didn’t even know the name of what it was exactly. For your reference, the thing I wanted to look for was transitional justice, and all the resources on transitional justice said that if I wanted to learn in particular about truth commissions such as the famous one in South Africa, Priscilla Hayner was my gal.

Hayner’s Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity is the gold standard for an overview on truth commissions, and the book was put into a second edition in 2010. That is the edition you should probably get, if you’re interested! My library only had the 2001 edition, as did PaperbackSwap, so that was the one I read. I would be most interested to get hold of the updated one and discover new findings in the world of truth commissions, since I know there have been many more in the past decade and a bit.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I learned:

Apparently when the UN came to get rid of the militia government in Haiti and reinstall their president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, US military forces swept into the government office and took away a whole bunch of Haitian government records. And then we refused to give them back.

Yes! And Haiti kept asking for the records because, you know, they’re theirs, and the US eventually said Haiti could have the records back, but only if they didn’t mind if we first blocked out parts of them we didn’t want Haiti to know about. (Haiti said no so we just kept them.) What? What? Is this situation ongoing? (I will never know because I don’t have access to the updated edition of this book, and the internet has been of no use to me in this regard.) If (as I suspect) it is ongoing, I’d like to remind the US government of that time Putin came by and stole Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring and we all thought Man, Putin is just the worst, and then when he invaded Ukraine we were like, Yep, that’s about what we’d expect from a dude who would steal a dude’s Super Bowl ring. And that was only a Super Bowl ring, not irreplaceable government records.

One of the most fascinating chapters of Hayner’s book was the one about naming names. Truth commissions throughout the world have had very different goals, some of them more focused on reintegrating society, others on punishing perpetrators of terrible crimes. But regardless of the main aim, a major decision that truth commissions must make is whether to say exactly who is responsible for specific crimes committed against specific people. And it is so tricky! Your first instinct is to say, yes, we want to name names, so that those terrible people cannot continue to hold positions of power because, you know:

EVIL

Except that it turns out to be much more complicated than that even if you accept the premise that some people are Evil independent of their situation (which I do not). Although it is pretty easy to identify the foot soldiers and rally enough proof from eyewitnesses to feel confident enough to say, this person took this priest up in a helicopter and dropped him into the ocean, it is much trickier to get positive evidence about who gave the commands that made that happen. So then you end up with the foot soldiers getting all the blame, and the commanders none, which is not a) fair or b) beneficial to national reconciliation. But if you name names of the higher-ups without sufficient evidence, it will kind of be your fault if a not-guilty or not-very-guilty person gets dragged out of his home by vigilantes and shot in front of his family. Or if you name names and include witness testimony as to that person’s guilt, maybe the person the witnesses named will hire his thugs to go drag your witnesses out of their houses and shoot them in front of their families.

So, okay, you don’t name names after all. All the victims’ advocacy groups are furious with you for your pusillanimity, and NGOs publish statements condemning your truth commission for caring more about protecting the rights of perpetrators than upholding the truths of victims. Nobody is dead because of you, but all the work you’ve done is now suspect. If you wanted everybody not to hate you, you maybe should have found a different job.

Hayner also includes a chapter of two case studies — Cambodia and Mozambique — of countries who have not instituted and do not want any kind of truth commission. They want to stop talking about it and move on. Cambodia held a tribunal, eventually, to try a few of the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for the Cambodian genocide. And here’s what Hayner says about Mozambique, a country whose civil war was funded heavily by the apartheid government in South Africa, who believed an unstable Mozambique was in their interests:

Stories abound of how soldiers of the two warring sides put down weapons and greeted their opponents as brothers. When the peace agreement was signed in Rome, “word came from the top, and the war just stopped. Not another shot was fired,” described one observer. The war just “went out,” like a fire goes out, said another. From that day on, the former warring enemies have lived in peace virtually without incident.

That’s no longer fully true, incidentally, but the image of a foreign-funded war going out like a fire when it’s no longer in the interest of foreign powers to have a war in that country is going to stick with me.

If you are remotely interested in international law, human rights, or government transitions in unstable countries, I can’t recommend Unspeakable Truths enough. Every resource I’ve found on transitional justice sings its praises to the skies (so you don’t have to trust me), and I’ll be shoving this at various people in my life over the next few weeks.

(Psst, Eva! Read this! I think you would find it really interesting!)