Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Exploring the environment in book club selections

from the Telegram & Gazette,
Worcester, MA
Read It and Reap by Ann Connery Frantz

Understanding environmental concerns is necessary to prepare for the issues emerging in political contests. Human rights, social justice, environmental action and animal rights are part of our world; this column considers books on the environment, and common efforts to "be the change."
There are so many books available, in so many directions, that it's difficult to select one for your book group. Technological change makes keeping current a challenge. Many of these books, then, are recent or new releases.
Stuart Smith's memoir, "Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know about the New Environmental Attack on America" (2015) concerns his work as a young, inexperienced lawyer confronting well-funded opposition after the discovery of poisoned water in Laurel, Mississippi.
Pollution, often linked to the weak and defenseless populations, is part of "Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Pollution Travel and Environmental Justice," by Phaedra Pezzullo.
In "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future" Gretchen Bakke deals with our aging energy system, which interferes with solar and wind alternatives. Competing interests and political units need to cooperate toward achieving conversion to a more intelligent, economical system. Bakke's focus is on how Americans are changing the grid, sometimes with gumption and big dreams and sometimes with legislation.
"Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial and the Fight over Controlling Nature," by Jordan Fisher Smith, takes on the difficult balance between America's natural resource management and human use of parks. Sparked by a bear-caused death in Yellowstone Park, a civil suit exposed the government's resource management practices, weighing preservation against human exploration. At issue: How much should parks do to protect either side?
Ken Ilgunas's study of the Keystone Pipeline, "Trespassing Across America," is an informative yet humorous account of his foot journey along the 1,900-mile long Keystone XL pipeline route. He reflects on climate change, the natural world, and the extremes to which we can push ourselves. Readers may enjoy its colorful characters and strange encounters—reminiscent, I think, of William Least Heat Moon's "Blue Highways."
Climate scientist Michael E. Mann and illustrator Thomas Toles, one of my favorite editorial cartoonists, have paired up in a book being released in September. "The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy" takes a satiric look at the attempts of climate-deniers and corporate interests to bury protest and further pollute the planet. Together, they expose the fallacies being argued. For a lively book that even "I-don't-read-science books" members will like, try this one.
Due in November, David Biello's "The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age" argues that civilization is at a critical point, requiring the efforts of science, powerful resources and common folks like us to alter the future. Biello argues we are the Earth's gardeners, but we are not in control of our creation. Survival, he says, depends on these gardeners and evolving solutions.
Vandana Shiva has written many times about environmental crises, energy mis-use, food, and the like. "Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability and Peace, "Soil Not Oil," "Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply" and "Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development" are all Shiva's work. Now, in "Who Really Feeds the World?" she writes about how to feed the world without destroying it, revealing agricultural practices that result in a starving world, rather than a well-fed population. This physicist-environmentalist also refutes genetic modification.
Finally, "What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming" is by Norwegian Per Espen Stoknes, who appeals to the heart as well as the mind regarding global warming. People can make needed changes simply, he believes, and he argues that persuasively.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Steve Huff takes on Saul Goodman's best advice

He tweets. "Good thing about insomnia is my neighborhood gets weird between midnight and 4 AM. *opens iPhone, types 911 but doesn't send, just in case*"
He sings. Tenor. "I studied to be an opera singer. Did it professionally. But once, a singing gig fell through after I'd learned all the music. I was very excited about it; next thing, the producer called and said the company's not doing any more productions at all. I was depressed by that, so I diverted myself in the blogging."
He parents. "I get up around 4 a.m. and write or research for a couple hours. Then I get the kids up and off to school. Sometimes, I take my wife to work—she's the English chair at Worcester Academy. After school, when the kids come running back in, I have to remind them I'm actually working."
He's funny. On deciding to be one's own lawyer, for instance: "I applaud your moxie. Because to face a court of law with your wits and whatever legal training you picked up from the Google school of law—and that one cousin who's been to jail so much he really knows stuff, man—takes courage."
He's versatile. He edits and blogs about science and "cool tech" for "Maxim" magazine's online site. He has thousands of Twitter followers for a satire on life coaching that he runs with two friends. His credits include TruTV's Crime Library, the New York Observer and the Observer’s tech blog,, CBS News, Village Voice Media, the Daily Beast, and Complex Magazine.
Just now, he's written a book. You've probably never heard of him.
Steve Huff lives in Worcester, on the border between a nice, and a not-so-nice, neighborhood. This makes for very interesting scenery. The uniform-jumping-over-the-hedge kind. He is about as busy as a writer-journalist can get, but he always remembers to think like a guy who's hungry for clients. He hasn't forgotten lean times. Right now, though, life is promising: a major publisher has released his first book, "Don't Go to Jail!: Saul Goodman's Guide to Keeping the Cuffs Off." (see sidebar)
Anyone familiar with the AMC television series "Breaking Bad" or its spin-off, "Better Call Saul," knows about the shady lawyer played by actor Bob Odenkirk. Saul's an Albuquerque attorney who handles those luckless offenders—petty thieves, pot smokers and the like—who end up in small courtrooms with judges who've seen thousands of them before, and will see thousands more. He's tricky, savvy and usually gets the job done for his clients.
Done, that is, if they do two things—as related by Huff. Handling a sticky legal situation is often as much about the point of view you approach it with as it is about the alleged crime itself. Saul's first bit of advice: "Keep your mouth shut." Second comes "call a lawyer." He really means it: "I want to put into your brain a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Saul Goodman singing "MAKE NO STATEMENTS" to the tune of the 'Hallelujah Chorus.' "
It's hard to imagine Huff could write so expertly about legal matters, but he does. "I'm not a lawyer," he says. His work has been vetted by the program's legal consultants, however, and assisted by his years of legal writing. In earlier years, the knowledge gleaned from his research and writing background earned him interviews on major television news and crime programs—an interest he's now abandoned because of its gruesomeness.
"I had been writing about criminal justice since 2005," Huff said. "In 2004, almost nobody was blogging yet, and those who were wrote about politics. I liked crime stories, criminal justice stories, so I wrote about them. It was just good timing, at the beginning of social media intersection with crime stories. I was an amateur—but within about six months of the first post, I was getting calls from editors at big web sites, wanting to hire me to write articles for them. Writing work took off from there."
He focused on crime until about 2009, then started to look for variety. He loved humor and had friends who were working as comedians, so he fed that need. It was lucky happenstance that he got the job. A friend saw an editor's tweet, looking for someone funny who could also write about crime. The timing was perfect.
Once hired, he was given an almost-laughable deadline: one month to write the book. Not many people would jump at that; Huff did. "There was a lot of intense work," he said. "The all-nighters kind. I might as well have been a law student for a few weeks there. But I didn't have to cover the deeper intricacies of the law because I was supposed to write something that was in context of "Better Call Saul"—a book that one of his potential clients would want to read. Saul handles kind of small-crime stuff in "Breaking Bad" and in "Better Call Saul." Cops finding weed in your car. Getting caught urinating in public. The book is fiction in that way—Saul is writing a kind of conversation with a client."
Don't mistakenly consider this a humor book—alone. It's a serious book written with humor. Big difference. It's about avoiding jail if you can (read up on "attitude"), handling yourself in court, or in jail, snitching—or not, avoiding future temptation once you're out, and modifying your life.
It is funny, all the way through, but it's a solid book of advice as well. "You're your own worst enemy by not knowing your rights and how to handle yourself in an arrest," Saul says, via Huff's pen.
To prepare, he said, "I sat down and binge-watched the first season of "Better Call Saul." I tried to catch a number of episodes of "Breaking Bad"—episodes in which he was featured—to get an idea of the voice of the character. His voice informed some of the humor." Capturing that voice was a shared task. "The book really is kind of co-written. I wrote the manuscript and it was sent off to the writers for the show. Then, a number of them did what they call a punch-up. They don't edit your manuscript; none of my content was changed or corrected. They just made it sound more like the character might talk. Some of the jokes are theirs and some mine (I'm pretty proud of a couple of them.)."
Though he was ghost-writing, and knew his part would be anonymous, the publisher (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press) gave him cover and title page credit for his work. "I woke up the day after I turned the book in and thought 'that felt really good.' It gave me a lot of confidence. Even if you're making a living in digital publishing (aka blogging), any writer wants to see themselves in print."
The book came out in April, and he's soon to start another one for 2017. He's reticent to say too much about it right off, beyond its connection to the shows.

In the interim, he'll continue his gig as a writer and contributing editor to and hopes to delve into some singing this summer.

"It's funny. I've been finding myself wanting to do it again, because my voice is still in good shape; I just haven't pushed myself to get out, beyond church choirs and that sort of thing. I'll look for some opportunities to do it this summer. It's a part of me, and I don't want it to be sitting there gathering dust."

He blogs, too, on current events, history and "bad ideas." His life-coaching parody, Your Life Coach, appears on twitter as @lifecoachers. It boasts 41,000 followers and the honor of being blocked by life-coaching guru Depak Chopra.

"I noticed that Twitter was full of people who presented themselves as life coaches," he said. "They were saying the sort of rote things you can get in any book. My friends got together with me to do it. We were all adding lines." Others noticed, and followed. Some of them—though he didn't realize it—were famous in their own right, like—shall we say—rock stars. "They would re-tweet it and suddenly I had a lot of followers. That's how social media works. You can become friends with somebody who has a million followers."

A self-described "recovering fat guy," he finds time away from his sedentary occupation to keep trim, frequently taking runs in his neighborhood. Though he's from Tennessee, he and his wife have enjoyed living in Worcester for the past four years. "In a funny way, we really find it charming," he said. "There are these circles of neighborhoods radiating out from the city center. We're right on the border between where it can get a little hectic, a few break-ins, and such, and a block away—where it's always very pleasant. Being from the South, I've lived in apartments and in suburbs, but never in this urban setting. When Spring comes, you pop your windows open and immediately you can hear everyone doing their business."

Though there's a good-sized list of digital publications he's written for, he enjoyed doing a book. "It's a lot more fun than I anticipated it would be," Huff said.
He's an expert on criminal justice and cyber crime—fields of expertise he gained by doing his job well.
"You've got to work, work, work," he said of freelancing. "You can't take a break from what you're doing."

Monday, August 15, 2016

Human rights, racial justice make timely book club selections

Your book club may want to select a book on human rights or racial equality—maybe more than one. Given the volatile nature of the current political campaign, it's important to discuss issues involving racial justice, human rights and justice. There is a vast amount of writing in this area, and it's impossible to recognize it all here, but some of the most important to consider:
Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me," is a 2015 National Book Award winner. Coates writes (beautifully) to his son about the "racist violence that has been woven into American culture." It's a short memoir of race and racism in America. Don't expect pretty words—expect truth.
Worcester Public Library staffers point to "The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens" by journalist Brooke Hauser. It's a nonfiction account of a school in Brooklyn where educators work with students who have survived danger, abandonment and other hardships in coming to the U.S. Here, they encounter new obstacles: legal issues, poverty, the language barrier as they courageously follow their dreams.
In "The Fire This Time," author Jesmyn Ward presents 18 essays by some of the country’s foremost thinkers on race, beginning with James Baldwin. Historian Jelani Cobb says this anthology "should be read by every one of us committed to the cause of equality and freedom.”
In her prize-winning book, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” poet-essayist Claudia Rankine (she's included in Ward's collection) tells narratives of black men pulled over by the police. “Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now,” she writes. “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”
James Baldwin, who wrote about racial injustice for decades ("Go Tell It on the Mountain," "The Fire Next Time," "Notes of a Native Son") is a seminal source for the voice of the black person in America.
Many authors write about injustice. Michelle Alexander takes that theme into the U.S. prison system with "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Alexander details the ways the prison complex destroys black lives and indicts both that system and the police brutality many inmates encounter from the start of their lives as young black men.
Women talk about feminism and racism in "This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color," edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua.
For books with popular impact, try these:
"I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban," by Malala Yousafzai.
"Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" by Katherine Boo.
"A Fine Balance," by Rohinton Mistry, a brilliant, moving novel about the overriding, inhumane treatment toward Untouchables in 1970s India.
Finally—though there is no finally in a world so full of injustice and human need—Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie's prize-winning novel, "Americanah." It's the story of a Nigerian woman who comes to the United States for an education and stays to make her way in America. Adichie explores racism here and in other parts of the world within the story of a young couple who encounter American life differently.