Libraries’ Transformative Powers

As a student of international development with a boundless love of libraries, I delighted in reading this article from Slate about “The Library’s Global Future.” My involvement in the education sector stemmed from my conviction that education, and libraries by extension, are vital to improving political and economic climates, preventing human rights abuses, and encouraging strong civil societies in developing (and developed!) countries.

As sad as I am to see that a future full of libraries with diminished catalogs of physical books, at least libraries will likely remain in some form as useful spaces for public discourse and inter-connectivity, both in person and via access to the Internet. I would love for the libraries of the future to continue pushing their purview further by providing an increasing array of public services, such as therapy groups and skills trainings. While I applaud the work that the Gates Foundation and others have sponsored, far more can be done in that arena, one in which government, non-profit, or corporate funding could have tremendous impact.

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Steven Lee Myers’ The New Tsar

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir PutinI must confess that I am slightly obsessed with Vladimir Putin. Not in the hero-worshiping way of many Russians (and some Americans!) but because he is one of the most unbelievable global figures today. From hairless cat doppelgangers to  “Wrecking Ball” lyrics,  Putin has spawned memes almost as baffling as (though more amusing than) his policies, both of which are sure to continue for the forseeable future as Putin continues to rule as dictator in every way but name.

Steven Lee Myers’ The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin attempts to explain how that came about, so of course I had to pick it up. Myers was a reporter for The New York Times in Russia throughout the 2000s as well as the former Moscow bureau chief. As such, he is able to present an unbiased account of Putin through Myers’ own perspective as well as that of his many sources, from his impoverished childhood in Leningrad to his improbable rise through the ranks of the KGB and subsequent entree into politics to his development of a cult of personality and absolute authority in Russia today.

This book is long, nearly 500 dense pages (plus endnotes), but the material is riveting. As a whole, it’s both strongly and thoroughly composed, but a few parts stood out to me:

  • Pictures of Putin throughout the years, particularly his amazing ’80s style while working in East Germany
  • His undistinguished KGB and political careers, in which he succeeded mostly by being somewhat efficient and not quite as corrupt as the next guy (ironically given the current bureaucratic sluggishness and cronyism in his government)
  • His surprising loyalty to his closest friends/mentors and therefore his intolerance for “betrayal”
  • His quasi-rational, but increasingly paranoid, fear/resentment of the West
  • And, of course, conspiracy theories about his personal relationships, including the conspicuous absence of his daughters from the public eye and his rumored affairs with both women and men.

I will say I hate the cover typeface and photo, intimidating though Putin looks, because of its blandness – it doesn’t reflect the high quality of the writing within and I fear many readers might not pick it up after judging the book by its poor quality cover.

Additionally, I wish there was additional analysis on the most recent 5 or so years as Putin’s newest term as president began. Perhaps because of the recency, that portion of the book is the briefest, but given that the geo-political crises still occurring in places like Ukraine and Syria, I am most curious about the future consequences of Putin’s actions and beliefs on those issues. Still, this is a biography, not a policy book, so I guess that’s out of Myers’ scope and I can forgive the lack of prediction.

Highly recommend for anyone interested in Russia/the Soviet Union, the KGB and the Cold War or with a general interest in current affairs and international politics.

5 Stars

 

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark PlacesI was one of the odd few who hated Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Naturally I was less than thrilled that my book club picked Dark Places for it’s October read, and so I didn’t even attend. However, the urge to read something in theme with my favorite holiday plus the encouragement of friends who claimed that I’d probably like it more, finally convinced me to read it.

Seven year old Libby Day survives the brutal massacre of her mother and two sisters. Traumatized and injured, she testifies against her fifteen-year old brother Ben, who is found guilty of “The Satan Sacrifice.” Twenty-five years later, the news has moved on to other victims, but Libby’s still stuck in the past, unable to live. As her trust fund of donations from well-wishers dwindles, she agrees to help the Kill Club, a secret society obsessed with true crimes and convinced of Ben’s innocence, discover the truth. But her attempts to reconnect with and interview the players from her childhood end up revealing secrets that the killer would rather keep buried.

Although the description sounds like a bad Hallmark movie, I still nurtured hopes of a good read. Unfortunately, from the first pages, I detested Libby (though in fairness, possibly not more than she detests herself). I don’t want to victim-blame, but she hasn’t even tried to pull herself together, instead living off the generosity of others and being cruel to anyone who tries to be kind to her. Thirty-two is too old to be playing the angsty teenager card. She’s a detestable human – not to get into this debate again, but while characters don’t necessarily need to be likeable, they need to be tolerable to read about. I couldn’t stand the pages upon pages of her sniveling and mindless self-absorption.

I did enjoy the alternating chapters between the past and the present, both because it served to build anticipation towards the mystery and because it offered a break from Libby’s perspective. I at least sympathized with her mother Patty for having to raise such shitty children alone and for doing the best she could in bad circumstances, but am not particularly interested in the struggles of being a poor farmer in Kansas or being a wannabe-Goth teenage boy in a small town. Ben was cast from the same mold as Libby, all rage and sulkiness. Thankfully Flynn writes that type well and it’s not surprising that he was suspected of murder.

The truth of course is even worse, and I won’t spoil it except to say that at least Ben embraced the consequences of his actions. Libby never does, ending her story in only a marginally less pathetic way that it started. To be honest, any character development in between I probably missed because I skimmed over a good chunk of the middle out of boredom. Needless to say, this is the last time I’ll pick up this particular author. She triumphs in creating twisted characters, but with so much of that in the news, I don’t need it also pervading my fiction.

2 Stars