“STEALING THE FIRE”— The Centrifuge Scandal

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“STEALING THE FIRE”

The Centrifuge Scandal

Amos Lassen

In 1996, German nuclear engineer Karl-Heinz Schaab was accused of selling secret information about a nuclear centrifuge to Iraq. With this stolen data, Saddam Hussein was able to obtain indispensable information on the production of nuclear arms. What we do not know is if Schaab was only a shrewd traitor or a simple pawn in a much more extensive network. 

Directors John S. Friedman and Eric Nadler use Schaab’s trial over the centrifuge scandal as a starting point to investigate the nuclear weapons trade and to decipher grand-scale relations among national governments and multinational corporations.

Through the use of archival footage and interviews with scientists, historians and prosecutors, Friedman and Nadler discover the centrifuge scandal’s incredible chain of events. The roots of the scandal began in Nazi laboratories and the centrifuge cylinder got to the Soviet Union via German prisoners of war but first made a brief two-year stopover in the U.S. and finally wound up as the property of Degussa, a German company that supplied concentration camps with Zyklon-B. 

Karl-Heinz Schaab is a deceptively drab German technocrat with one discernable character trait and that is his love of bad wigs. discernable character trait is a weakness for bad wigs. He says little and reveals less. In a Munich court in 1999 he was convicted of selling German nuclear technology to Iraq: appropriating the secret plans for an array of centrifuges used to produce weapons-grade uranium.

The filmmakers have attempted to follow Schaab’s trail in Iraq, where he met with Khidhir Hamza, the former director of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear project (now defected) and in Brazil, where, the filmmakers say, he was involved in a plan to build a Brazilian nuclear submarine.

Most of Mr. Schaab’s story is told through his defense lawyers. The film moves among Rio de Janeiro, Munich and Baghdad (with several side trips) and it comes across as an espionage thriller. It is interesting to note that the centrifuge technology was first developed by scientists working for the Third Reich’s atomic bomb project. Several of those scientists went on to work for the Soviets, the Americans or both during the cold war. The Nazis’ corporate partner in their atom program was Degussa, a multinational corporation that continues to try to sell atomic technology to governments like those of Iraq and Pakistan. We are told here that Degussa’s corporate history includes a contract with the SS to process the gold and silver fillings taken from the death camp inmates, as well to manufacture Zyklon B, the gas used to murder many of them.

Questions about the reasons for have become more complex at the same time that they have become urgent. Ever since the efficiencies of the industrial revolution were used to service of the globe’s most powerful war machines, many have seen the ever-growing refinements of warfare as leading, inevitably, to the end of civilization. Yet, for whatever reason, this hasn’t made war rare or brought about the enduring peace many scientists and humanists expected after the devastation of World War II. This video documentary uses Schaab’s trial as a starting point to investigate the nuclear weapons trade and questions why warfare has continued to endure despite the consequences.

Our collective best hope is not to worship wars but to eradicate them by discovering why they are fought, and do so the sooner the better. We know that While mainstream media, the press, and the government are collaborating to create a simplistic fantasy of good vs. evil in America’s New World Order, there is a contrary, terrifying global reality that is quietly taking shape, one in which uncontrollable nuclear weapons proliferation, combined with growing inequity in the distribution of the world’s resources, will lead to wars without clear moral purpose.

Schaab’s trial for treason—which led to an astonishingly lenient 100,000 deutsche-mark fine and 5 years’ probation. It is the frame for the film and it would be easy to blame Schaab for the predicament that now supposedly confronts the free world: a Saddam Hussein armed with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

To understand why wars are fought, it helps to understand the system that victimized Schaab, the same system that makes criminality of the sort he practiced so lucrative. His trial is shown to be a waste of time, and the film concludes that if Western leaders seek peace as they claim to, they will eventually desist from their misguided strategy of ferreting out and prosecuting corrupt individuals, or bombing them into oblivion. Instead, the industrial complex that sustains and rewards this corruption must be examined and reformed.

The trade in war materials—convoluted, interconnected, plagued with shifting alliances and ethical lapses—is seen here mostly through the German firm Degussa, and Leybold, a Degussa subsidiary. Degussa helped to manufacture Zyklon-B, by processing metals taken from concentration camp victims, and by aiding in the Third Reich’s atomic program. This story is told partly in the testimony of Erna Spiewack, who was a lab technician for Degussa in 1941. She was horrified about the bloodstained dental fillings that were shipped to Degussa to be smelted and refined. But, she also says that she was young and had no idea where they came from. Even if she had known, there was nothing she could do. This type of question comes up fairly often. What is the relevance of individual agency in such vast systems as the Nazi war machine or the post-war global arms trade? Time and again, individuals can easily contribute to these systems but rarely can individuals oppose them.

A particular individual contribution to Degussa’s war effort, that of Gernot Zippe who was known as the “father of the centrifuge” made contributions to Degussa’s war effort and after the war was over, the Russians captured him to help them develop the atomic bomb. Shortly following his return to Germany in 1956, Zippe was snapped up by the CIA to work on U.S. centrifuge technology. We, therefore understand, that through a convoluted trail involving meetings of nuclear scientists in Amsterdam, Austrian bank accounts, and contacts with Iraqi and Egyptian diplomats, there existed a variant of the sophisticated uranium centrifuge technology Zippe had created and it turned up in an Iraqi weapons site in 1996.

In trying to deciphering grand-scale relations among national governments and multinational corporations, only one thing can be known for sure and that is that weapons are of great value.

Thus Degussa is spared the defendant’s chair at Nuremberg because of the firm’s association with American companies such as the DuPont Corporation, and NASA sells rocket technology, much of it lifted from the Nazis after World War II, to the Egyptian government in the 1960s, only to see the rockets used against Israel in the Middle East wars of 1967 and ‘73. NASA’s and Degussa’s technologies are later combined for nuclear missile plans found in Iraqi possession following the Persian Gulf War. All of this leads Nir Amit, a former head of Israeli intelligence, to call the targeting of civilians in Tel Aviv by Egyptian and Iraqi missiles a “continuation of the Holocaust.” And in that he has a point.

Institutional problems can be neither attributed to nations nor solved by individuals. They can only be addressed through fiercely collective intellectual work and ethical contemplation.

“Stealing the Fire” conveys the price of war for U.S. audiences by intercutting footage of the World Trade Center collapse with the testimony of a civilian who suffered under the state of war in Tel Aviv. “Either we collectively learn to manage the global industrial weapons network, no matter its intricacies, or we will eventually learn, as individuals, a lesson of brute simplicity: what these weapons do.

“I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO”— Remembering James Baldwin

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“I Am Not Your Negro”

Remembering James Baldwin

Amos Lassen

Haitian filmmaker Raul Peck’s  powerful new documentary is a memoir/semi-biography of James Baldwin, the great African/American man of letters. The screenplay is made up of prose taken directly from Baldwin’s texts or letters which are read by the actor Samuel L Jackson who does so with passion and dignity. Baldwin had been asked to write a biography about the lives of three of his civil rights activists friends who had given their lives for their beliefs; Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King.

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Baldwin left America and lived in France from a very early age so that he could escape the discrimination he faced as an openly gay black man. He claimed that the United States is a complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded.  In this documentary we actually see several of Baldwin’s TV appearances on visits to the US where he never held back on his own strident and somewhat controversial opinions. When Dick Cavett questioned him about American society’s racism and whether how he felt about the fate of Blacks in this country, Baldwin replied that he felt hopeless not just for the Black man but for all of mankind.

What I find so amazing in this film is the way Director Peck and his editor Alexander Strauss juxtapose archival footage with Baldwin’s words and video excerpts of current troubled spots like Ferguson. We see just how accurate Baldwin was and see that his fears have become a reality some thirty years after his death. What is absolutely fascinating is that even though Baldwin was so out of line with most political and social commentators at that time and with the general public, he still was respected for his outspoken opinions and views. Today with its political climate, I am not sure that would have happened. Baldwin said at the time that “racism is the source of America’s emotional and moral poverty, and that apathy and ignorance are the price of segregation”. 

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The film is a meditation on the prophetic brilliance of Baldwin who was the poet of injustice and inhumanity. He wrote down what he saw (in essays and novels and plays and poems) and he was far ahead of his time (that is now catching up). It is shocking the way Cavett used the word “Negro” while speaking to Baldwin and I think many of us think that the word no longer exists. I remember watching a documentary about the freedom riders several years ago and in a clip of a newscast with Walter Cronkite, the news anchor used the word and I found it to be totally abrasive.

James Baldwin remains a towering figure in the fields of letters and human rights and someday there will be a great documentary about him— this is not that film. Yet here we discover a great deal about Baldwin without the historical facts that biographical documentaries look at. We do not learn about his and how that came about. We see a bit about his fame and the celebrated figures he was close to and about his self-imposed exile to Europe. His sexuality is mentioned only once and in an FBI report that was instigated by the paranoid-closeted racist J. Edgar Hoover who warns that Baldwin is “dangerous” and that he’s suspected of being a homosexual.

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The film transports us inside James Baldwin’s mind, and we become close to his existential perception of the hidden meaning of race in America. Jackson’s reading of Baldwin’s words is uncanny and beautiful. He holds onto the meaning of each word and these words are both proud and drenched in shame, and we sense that they reflect Baldwin’s insecurity and display his honesty. Baldwin lived with the idea

that if one was black, the complexity of his humanity was not seen. He felt that rights weren’t necessarily going to change that. He saw that a racist society oppresses, but that it also hollows out the souls of those who are doing the oppressing. For Baldwin, racism against black people was, fundamentally, a way that white America had come up with to play out its own psychological disfigurement. Until white America came to grips with that, our society would remain broken.

Baldwin speaks to us like a somberly eloquent ghost from the past, and he that the “American racial problem” is not the American racial problem. It’s a crisis of the American spirit, with race as the excuse. The documentary focuses much of its energy on the fights for racial and economic justice during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and it has much to say about the uneasy and troubling signs of racial hatred today.

“We Were the Lucky Ones” by Georgia Hunter— Separation, Survival and Reunion

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Hunter, Georgia. “We Were the Lucky Ones”, Viking, 2017.

Separation, Survival, Reunion

Amos Lassen

 Georgia Hunter’s “We Were the Lucky Ones” is a novel based on the true story of a family of Polish Jews who are separated at the start of the Second World War and who were determined to survive and to reunite.

In the spring of 1939 and three generations of the Kurc family were trying to live normal lives as war grew closer. The talk around the family Seder table was about new babies and budding romances and certainly not the hardships that threatened Jews in Radom, Poland. However, it did not take long for the terrible things that began to overtake the rest of Europe came to be and the Kurcs find themselves all over the world trying to find safety.

As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee Europe and others tried to escape death at the hands of the Nazis. Some worked hungry in the ghetto factories or else hid and pretended not to be Jewish. They were all driven by the will to see each other again and the fear that this might not come to pass. They rely on hope, ingenuity and the strength to persevere.

The novel spans six year and five continents and moves from Krakow to Paris to North African prisons and the gulag of Siberia. It is a story of the triumph of the human will. Here is a family living in that time of the twentieth century’s darkest moment, yet having the spirit to survive. Author Georgia Hunter modeled the characters on those in her own family and this is, in effect, their story. With them, we enter

another world that is astonishing, heartbreaking and horrible. Hunter re-imagines her own family in her debut novel and she should be very proud of what she has written here. We see love in the devastation of war and we learn what was left behind and lost, seemingly, forever.

“Insomniac City” by Bill Hayes— Life with Oliver Sacks

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Hayes, Bill. “Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me”, Bloomsbury, 2017.

Life With Oliver Sacks

Amos Lassen

Oliver Sacks was one of my heroes. He was a man who loved life and was a genius. Here is Sacks as seen through the eyes of Bill Hayes, the man who he spent his last years with. It was 2009 when Bill Hayes came to New York City from San Francisco. He had no idea of what to expect yet he only bought a one-way ticket and had no job or prospects of one.. He was forty-eight years old and had spent much of his life in California where his partner had recently died. It did not take long before he was caught up in the rhythms of the city. He knew he needed change and the loss of the love of his life grieved him. He was able to find some consolation in the beauty of the city’s skyline at night and in some of the New Yorkers. Hayes had been an insomniac his entire life and he met kindred souls in New York as he took late night walks. Bill Hayes unexpectedly fell in love again— with neighbor and friend, noted author and neurologist, Oliver Sacks.

Hayes shares his life in New York and with Sacks in wonderful slices of life and this all starts with Sacks telling him that he fears wasting life more than he fears death. We see Sacks at his sweetest and dearest. He fell in love when he was seventy-five years old and facing his last few moments on earth. He died not long after in August, 2015. What Bill Hayes gives us here is a meditation on death alongside of a celebration of life. He has written a love song to his adopted New York City and to those who fall under its magic. For those who have been to New York City, you are aware of all it has but here we get the bonus of also learning about Oliver Sacks. While this is Hayes’ memoir it could also be Sacks’ as well. The part of Oliver Sacks’ life that has been missing is his last years and we see here that they were years of love and happiness. We also see that it is never too late to fall in love. As I read, I kept hoping that the book would not end the way history has it and that the two men would have more time together. Yet it is good to know that they enjoyed the moments that they had together and the love that they shared flows off of the page. We read about life, soul mates, and love and I found myself both tearing up and smiling as I turned the pages.

Hayes recreated New York for me through the use of journal entries, photos and recollections of his daily activities and I love his story of meeting Oliver who fell in love with him as he faced illness and death. We see the living Oliver here and he is glorious even in his last days. Mixing “memory with desire”, Bill Hayes gives us a wonderful story that is beautifully written with tenderness and very open eyes showing us that humanity indeed has soul, something we so badly need to know.

 

“LAND AND SHADE”— Returning Home

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“Land and Shade” ( “La Tierra y la Sombra”)

Returning Home

Amos Lassen

“Land and Shade” (Tierra y Sombra) was the 2015 winner of the prestigious Cannes Camera d’or prize. It is a simple movie that manages to find its way to the hearts and minds of viewers. The story revolves around a low-income family in the Valle de Cauca region in Colombia. The matriarch Alicia (Hilda Ruiz) and her daughter-in-law, Esperanza (Marleyda Soto) work in a sugar plantation in a brutal environment for very low wages. The son Gerardo (Edison Raigosa) has become ill with of some sort of respiratory problem and is confined to bed and can, of course, no lon ger work on the plantation. Gerardo’s wife takes his place while taking care of him and their 6-year-old son. Alfonso (Haimer Leal), Geraldo’s estranged father suddenly comes home and enters the constrained family dynamic.

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Gerardo’s respiratory ailment is caused by working at the sugar plantation where workers are treated inhumanely. His wife wishes they would move away but Gerardo refuses because his aging mother is so strictly attached to her house and land. Alfonso, who has been away for 17 years away, wants to take care of his son but his former wife has only disdain for him. She warns him to stay away and not to feel like that is his home. We understand that there is deep history between them and we see this through long silences and the charged atmosphere of the film.

Writer-director Cesar Augusto Acevedo shows us the horrible conditions that farmers face in Colombia.  We see scenes of abusive treatment that include withholding pay from workers and in the desperation in the workers’ faces. The family here shows the tip of the iceberg. From 2013 to 2014 massive national strikes included peasants and workers who were met with repression and violence from the government. The helplessness of Colombian workers is reflected through the lives of this family.

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We see the inequality and corruption when Alfonso, fed up with seeing his ill son becoming weaker, takes him to the doctor. At the visit, the doctor offers no advice other than to prescribe more medication. Alfonso his quiet loses his otherwise somber and quiet demeanor and starts to shout saying that he will not take his son back to the house because he will die. His gradual demise becomes an apotheosis to show every fracture and every possibility for redemption for this family.

At the core of the family conflict is Alicia’s attachment to her house and her land, which presumably was built and sustained through much sacrifice. Gerardo’s wife believes that the poor environmental conditions are killing him and wants to move away— there are no other jobs there but at the sugar plantation. She feels that leaving with Alfonso would be a fresh start for the young family, but Gerardo cannot break away from his mother.

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There is a lot of tenderness between the family and a deep love and this makes choices even more difficult. Silences in the film are filled with mixed emotions that take the audience into the family’s desperate and perilous situation. While the film is very quiet at times, director Acevedo shows us a great deal about love and family.

The film is one of dualities and doubts. On one hand it is sad and vitalizing (as we see in the indoor scenes) while some outdoor scenes, regardless the real circumstances, are often filled with light and non-family activity. There is a balance between the agony, sacrifice, and misery of this broken family that is united by an imminent death and solidarity, humanity, and forgiveness by the love they share.

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This is a film of uncommon restraint and compassion. We get a seemingly helpless situation that focuses on, fleeting moments of regret, resentment, reconciliation, hope, loyalty and love within and between these characters.

The film’s conflict is primarily about the impossibility of prioritizing connections. How can a man decide between his roles as a son, to a mother who already has been abandoned and who relies upon him for the necessities of living, and as a husband, to a wife who wants to leave her husband’s childhood home because she is convinced there is nothing there for her own family? Is a woman able to choose between staying with her sick husband and leaving him to die in order to provide her son with a better chance at life?

“MADE IN FRANCE”— The Horrors of Terrorism

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“Made in France”

The Horrors of Terrorism

Amos Lassen

Director Nicolas Boukhrief explores homegrown French Jihad in “Made in France”, his investigative of thriller that explores extreme Muslim groups that exist inside Western nations and can strike at a moment’s notice. Shot before the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, we see well-crafted action sequences we see and learn that the two large-scale terrorist attacks that were recently carried out this year were only the most recent of many others that had taken place over the last thirty years including the bombing of a Paris commuter train station in 1995. It was this incident that was the inspiration for this film that looks at a domestic terrorist cell infiltrated by a Franco-Algerian journalist, Sam (Malik Zizi) who hoped to survive the ordeal long enough to publish a tell-all book about what happened.

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However, Sam had to first contend with the group’s psychotic leader, Hassan (Dimitri Storoge), a man who claims that he was trained by Al-Qaeda in the Middle East and is now back in France to carry out the dirty work that he was trained to do. To pull off his mission, Hassan recruits three young believers willing to do anything for the cause: Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed), a North African thug and ex-convicted thug who served time in prison; Sidi (Ahmed Drame), an African nice guy who hoped to avenge the death of his cousin; and Christophe (Francois Civil), a Breton white guy who was trying to get back at his rich parents and he allowed the terrorist cell to meet at his dead grandma’s suburban home.

Boukhrief shows that how French Jihadists can come from all walks of life and that they are often found in working-class households with immigrant origins. Hassan comes across as a person with major mental problems who receives orders that he blindly obeys.

The film is made on a “what if” scenario of homegrown, domestically targeted terrorism that’s being punished because it anticipated a real-world tragedy. It stresses that locals, rather than refugees, can be responsible for such a threat. Boukhrief sets the story almost entirely “inside the cell,” following his protagonist, Sam, who is a journalist dedicated to Islamic culture as he researches an article on extremism. He goes undercover inside a radical mosque located in the suburbs of Paris putting his wife and child in danger.

Much later, Sam goes to the police for help, bringing two tough cops (Franck Gastambide and Nicolas Grandhomme) into the story but not until after the terrorists have a first lethal strike with the heavy- execution of the dealers who sell them weapons.

Hassan comes home from a trip abroad where he visited Jihadist training camps in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. He tells his fellow believers that they have been chosen by Al Qaeda to perform “taiga”— blending and becoming invisible. He thus has them shave of their beards. In the days since the last terrorist attacks in France, the country has looked suspiciously at its Arab citizens and residents. We are reminded that not all Arabs are Jihadists, and not all Jihadists are Arabs.

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The film starts with a lecture against pornography and the tone of what we hear is anger. There is talk that the Internet is evil as is “fraternization” (males and females hanging out together even of they are merely looking at each other). This is a reflection of decadence that leads to adultery, and adultery is worse than murder. Murder is permissible under certain circumstances, but adultery is never allowed. A Muslim imam in a mosque delivers the lecture and the group hearing it is quite diverse.

Sam says later that it is the mosque that is so very good at radicalizing young men. The imam is like a subtle cult leader and his listeners listed to him out of belief that later becomes fanaticism. The inherent misogyny in the system seems to be attractive to a certain kind of disenfranchised young man.

Boukhrief struggles to find a balance between the thriller genre and its real life inspiration. He has created a tense atmosphere that is as scary as any horror film. The stress on the fact that anyone can be a terrorist stays with us long after the film is over.

“Unclobber” by Martin Colby— What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say

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Martin, Colby. “UnClobber”, Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say

Amos Lassen

There has been, of late, an unprecedented fracturing in churches in America because of the ways they look at and have attitudes for the LGBTQ community. The ammunition is only six passages in the Bible (often known as the “clobber passages”) and this is the traditional Christian position and has been one that stands against the full inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Colby Martin’s “UnClobber” reexamines each of those frequently quoted passages of Scripture and he alternates this with his own story of being fired from an evangelical megachurch when they discovered his stance on sexuality. With Colby Martin’s new interpretations, we get some new life out of some outdated and inaccurate assumptions and interpretations.

What many do not understand is that many feel a disunite between head and heart. Using their heads they understand that both God and the Bible hate gay people. However in their hearts they know that they have friends and family who are gay and they have a difficult time excluding and/or condemning them. “UnClobber” has another option and it presents us with a different way of looking at Scripture. Martin gives us a new and accessible way to look at the holy writings that affirms and includes LGBTQ people. By combining thoughtful-theological-study with a compelling-pastoral-memoir, we get a powerful progressive Christian manifesto that challenges “all Christians to love better and without condition.”

For many, this book will shed light on the topics of truth and love. Many have been taught that the bible is very clear on homosexuality. “UnClobber” is a beautifully written, relatable memoir of Colby’s journey to find truth. He provides a brilliant theological breakdown of scripture particularly, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

We are taken on a family’s journey from hurt to healing with a defense against “clobbering” gained through a fresh re-reading of the texts. Martin’s story of reconciling his belief in a loving God with the teachings of his church is a message of hope, wholeness, and healing for anyone who believes that the church is for everyone and anyone.

Colby Martin mixes his own story into the narrative as he goes through each of the “clobber” passages in Scripture and he poses questions to how each of these passages are used through translations interpretations, cultural context interpretations, and descriptive/prescriptive language interpretations.

“This book is for those who believe the church has been wrong to reject the LGBTQ community but believe the Bible is clear on condemning homosexuality, those who want a more inclusive Christian faith but are held back by what they have been taught, affirming Christians who seek to articulate views on the Clobber passages, those who are LGBTQ and want to be a person of faith but believe that the Bible clearly condemns it, or those who are “curious about how a straight, white, formally conservative evangelical pastor came to an affirming position”.

Martin uses information that scholars have researched and studied, and gives it to us in clear language that we can all understand.

 

“Fundamentals of LGBT Substance Use Disorders: Multiple Identities, Multiple Challenges” by Michael Shelton— The LGBT Community and Drugs

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Shelton, Michael. “Fundamentals of LGBT Substance Use Disorders: Multiple Identities, Multiple Challenges”, Harrington Park Press, 2016.

The LGBT Community and Drugs

Amos Lassen

In “Fundamentals of LGBT Substance Use Disorders: Multiple Identities, Multiple Challenges” “Michael Shelton looks at and reviews the empirical literature and synthesizes what we know about the prevalence of LGBT substance use, abuse, and treatment availability, emphasizing the need for affirmative therapeutic practices”. He explains and assesses the principles of trauma-informed and culturally competent treatment/intervention as well as the challenges of minority stress and microaggressions experienced by the LGBT population. In separate sections he focuses on the sub-populations of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals and in separate chapters the focus is on LGBT youth, the elderly, family constellations and concerns, criminal justice issues, and rural LGBT substance abuse. This is an introduction to the field that will be useful both as a primary textbook and as a handbook/reference for LGBT-focused and general substance-use disorder clinics and their administrators, clinicians, trainees, allies and volunteers.

As a clinician, Shelton is deeply aware of the need to utilize current research, evidence-informed practices, and culturally fluid approaches. He wonderfully united his knowledge with his writing skills as a writer and presents his findings to his readers. There is a significant health issue that is tied to substance use in the LGBT community. This is another resource to assist in meeting the challenge.

We get an in-depth look at the best and evidence based practices. Two of the main issues here are minority stress and trauma, which are important to the understanding and the treatment of problematic substance use in sexual minorities.

 

“And So Is the Bus: Jerusalem Stories” by Yossil Birstein—On The Bus

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Birstein, Yossel. “And So Is the Bus: Jerusalem Stories”, Dryad Press, 2016.

On the Bus

Amos Lassen

Having lived and worked in Jerusalem for many years, I used the bus to get where I needed to go. In Israel, the bus serves more than just public transportation and I found that it was a great way to practice my Hebrew when I was a new immigrant as well a wonderful way to meet people and hear their stories. Yossel Birstein here brings us twenty-one stories that he heard as he rode around the city. I remember a wonderful book by Edmund White, “The Flaneur” and I thought to myself that this is a wonderful term for a stroller or one who saunters. It is also a wonderful for Yossel Birstein who managed to unite strolling with riding a bus and staying aware of what others were talking about. Not exactly an eavesdropper, he was able to engage with people and get them to tell their stories. A bus ride is anything but a smooth way to get from here to there. Buses stop every so often and riders get off and get on—the composition is constantly changing. Keeping in mind that Israel is a country of immigrants and different life styles, the chances of hearing great stories is everywhere. On the bus, however, stories tend to be short since so are the bus rides so one must remain alert and this is where the driver comes in, If you have ever taken a bus in Israel, you know what I mean—the rides are far from comfortable because the driver does what he feels he has to do to bring his passengers to their destinations.

Because the stories are short, we real only get a glimpse at who the teller is but I love this since it is up to us to imagine who he/she is. Sometimes they are willing to share what they have and sometimes not—it is just fun to listen or in this case, read.

Many of those who ride the buses in Jerusalem escaped the horrors of Eastern Europe and it was on a bus that I saw a person’s arm with a number tattooed on it for the first time. Their stories tend to be heart breaking and we become aware how much that their past has affected their lives. We hear stories of survival in Israel and we remember that the city is one of the powder kegs of the world and we hear funny stories of day-to-day experiences. We even hear Bible stories from the religious riders.

To give you an idea about the length of the stories, imagine twenty-one stories on only 105 total pages. I felt like I do when I go to a restaurant that only serves tapas and you need to order several in order to get the sense that you are having a real meal. They do not take long to eat but at the end your appetite is sated.

The way Jerusalem is built, we see that it is a city of neighborhoods with each neighborhood being home to a certain kind of people so that riding the bus to Geula or Mea Sha’arim will provide different stories and those based upon religion and faith than riding to the Jaffa Gate or to Ramat Rachel where we might hear stories of Arab/Israeli coexistence or what it is to tend to chickens on a kibbutz.

As much fun as the stories are, Birstein deserves all the credit as the person who shares the stories that he heard. He has a wonderful sense of irony and he knows just how much to tell. There were moments that I was eavesdropping on some very private moments but was unable to stop reading (we’ve all had that feeling) and as I came to last story, I realized that I wanted more. It is amazing just how much someone will say to a stranger yet we also feel that via the stories, Birstein had created his own little family of storytellers—people he heard from just once and whom he probably would never see again. This is just one of the ironies we get here. “And So is the Bus” is also a wonderful picture of Jerusalem since we see the cities through the eyes of those who live there (and have something to say about it). While the stories really have nothing in common with each other content-wise, they do give us a sense of the city— one that we would ordinarily not get.

 

New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2016

New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2016

The year’s notable fiction, poetry and nonfiction, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. This list represents books reviewed since Dec. 6, 2015, when we published our previous Notables list.

Fiction & Poetry

ALL THAT MAN IS. By David Szalay. (Graywolf, $26.) Szalay writes with voluptuous authority about masculinity under duress in this novel in stories.

ANOTHER BROOKLYN. By Jacqueline Woodson. (Amistad/HarperCollins, $22.99.) Girlhood and the half-life of its memory are the subjects of this intense, moving novel, Woodson’s first for adults (she is a Newbery Honor winner) in years.

THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS. By Karan Mahajan. (Viking, $26.) Mahajan’s smart, devastating novel traces the fallout over time of a terrorist attack at a market in Delhi.

BARKSKINS. By Annie Proulx. (Scribner, $32.) Tracing two families and their part in the destruction of the world’s forests, Proulx’s latest novel is a tale of long-term, shortsighted greed.

BEFORE THE FALL. By Noah Hawley. (Grand Central, $26.) A private-jet crash leads to a media firestorm in Hawley’s readable thrill ride of a novel.

BEHOLD THE DREAMERS. By Imbolo Mbue. (Random House, $28.) In Mbue’s bighearted debut, set against the backdrop of the American financial crisis, a Cameroonian family makes a new life in Harlem.

BLACK WATER. By Louise Doughty. (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Expecting to be assassinated, the hero of this excellent novel grapples with guilt over his actions in Indonesia.

CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD. By Alexander Weinstein. (Picador, paper, $16.) The terror that technology may rob us of authentic experience — that it may annihilate our very sense of self — is central to this debut collection of short stories.

COLLECTED POEMS 1950-2012. By Adrienne Rich. (Norton, $50.) Work from seven decades displays Rich’s evolution from careful neo-classicism to free verse, and her embrace of lesbian feminism and radical politics.

COMMONWEALTH. By Ann Patchett. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) An engaging family portrait, tracing the lives of six stepsiblings over half a century.

DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING. By Madeleine Thien. (Norton, $26.95.) A Chinese-Canadian professor probes the mystery of her father’s life amid upheavals in China in this ambitious novel.

DON’T LET MY BABY DO RODEO. By Boris Fishman. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) A family from the former Soviet Union embarks on an American road trip in a novel that is a joy to read.

END OF WATCH. By Stephen King. (Scribner, $30.) The gloriously fitting final installment of King’s trilogy featuring the retired police detective Bill Hodges is a big genre-busting romp.

EVERYBODY’S FOOL. By Richard Russo. (Knopf, $27.95.) This sequel to “Nobody’s Fool,” set 10 years later in the same upstate New York town, presents engaging characters and benign humor.

THE FORTUNES. By Peter Ho Davies. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27.) This novel, a meditation on 150 years of the Chinese-American experience, asks what it means to be a Chinese-American.

A GAMBLER’S ANATOMY. By Jonathan Lethem. (Doubleday, $27.95.) A backgammon hustler with telepathic powers returns to Berkeley, Calif., for surgery in Lethem’s inventive 10th novel, the theme of which is remaining open to possibilities.

THE GLOAMING. By Melanie Finn. (Two Dollar Radio, paper, $16.99.) A woman tries to remake her life in Africa in Finn’s intricately plotted novel.

GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS. By Max Porter. (Graywolf, paper, $14.) A father and his sons struggle with a death in this luminous novel.

HERE COMES THE SUN. By Nicole Dennis-Benn. (Liveright, $26.95.) Dennis-Benn’s tale of life in the impoverished neighborhoods of Montego Bay, Jamaica, sheds light on the island’s disenfranchised.

HERE I AM. By Jonathan Safran Foer. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Private and public crises converge for four generations of a Jewish family in this ambitious, often brilliant novel, Foer’s third.

HOMEGOING. By Yaa Gyasi. (Knopf, $26.95.) This wonderful debut by a Ghanaian-American novelist follows the shifting fortunes of the progeny of two half sisters, unknown to each other, in West Africa and America. Gyasi was one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honorees in 2016.

HOT MILK. By Deborah Levy. (Bloomsbury, $26.) In Levy’s evocative novel, dense with symbolism, a woman struggles against her hypochondriacal mother to achieve her own identity.

HOUSE OF LORDS AND COMMONS. By Ishion Hutchinson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.) Exuberant work from a young Jamaican-born poet who looks to the island’s teeming life and fractured past.

I MUST BE LIVING TWICE: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2014. By Eileen Myles. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $29.99.) Charming and confounding poems from a provocative voice.

IZA’S BALLAD. By Magda Szabo. Translated by George Szirtes. (New York Review, paper, $16.95.) A meditative Hungarian novel about grief and history by the author of “The Door.”

LAROSE. By Louise Erdrich. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) A man who accidentally killed his best friend’s son gives the man his own child in this powerful story about justice and forgiveness, set in and near a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.

THE LIFE-WRITER. By David Constantine. (Biblioasis, paper, $14.95.) A widow immerses herself in the letters her late husband received from an earlier lover in Constantine’s lyrical novel.

THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS. By Edna O’Brien. (Little, Brown, $27.) In her harrowing, boldly imagined novel, O’Brien both explores Irish provincial life and offers an unsettling fabulist vision.

LOOK: Poems. By Solmaz Sharif. (Graywolf, paper, $16.) Sharif’s skillful debut collection draws on a Defense Department lexicon of military terms.

THE MIRROR THIEF. By Martin Seay. (Melville House, $27.95.) Linked narratives and various Venices reflect one another in this clever first novel.

MISCHLING. By Affinity Konar. (Lee Boudreaux/Little, Brown, $27.) Konar uses the unsettling and grievous history of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments on children, particularly twins, to riveting effect in her debut novel.

MISTER MONKEY. By Francine Prose. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) The dreadful revival of a musical based on a children’s novel about an orphaned chimp is observed through various points of view in this fresh, Chekhovian novel.

MOONGLOW. By Michael Chabon. (Harper/HarperCollins, $28.99.) In this beautifully written hybrid, a San Francisco writer named Mike presents a memoir about his grandparents, a World War II soldier and a Holocaust survivor.

THE MORTIFICATIONS. By Derek Palacio. (Tim Duggan, $27.) This sweeping debut novel limns the exile and return of a Cuban-American family.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. By Elizabeth Strout. (Random House, $26.) A writer and her estranged mother attempt to reconnect during a brief visit in a Pulitzer Prize winner’s exquisite novel of careful words and vibrating silences.

NINETY-NINE STORIES OF GOD. By Joy Williams. (Tin House, $19.95.) This collection of micro-fictions is a treasure trove of tiny wry masterpieces.

THE NIX. By Nathan Hill. (Knopf, $27.95.) In this entertaining debut novel, full of postmodern digressions, a young professor tries to write a biography of his political activist mother.

THE NORTH WATER. By Ian McGuire. (Holt, $27.) In McGuire’s darkly brilliant novel, the crew of a doomed whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle must reckon with fierce weather, pure evil, and the shadows of Melville and Conrad.

NUTSHELL. By Ian McEwan. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $24.95.) An unborn baby overhears his mother and her lover plotting to murder his father in McEwan’s compact, captivating novel.

REPUTATIONS. By Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Translated by Anne McLean. (Riverhead, $25.) A slender but impactful Colombian novel about a political cartoonist who re-examines his accusations against a politician.

THE SPORT OF KINGS. By C. E. Morgan. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Three Kentucky dynasties — black, white and equine — converge in this vitally written if melodramatic novel.

STILL HERE. By Lara Vapnyar. (Hogarth, $26.) In this razor-funny novel, four Russian friends try to make their way in New York.

SWING TIME. By Zadie Smith. (Penguin Press, $27.) Two multiracial girls in North London dream of becoming dancers (one has talent, the other doesn’t) in Smith’s exuberant new novel about friendship, music, race and global politics.

TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT. By Maria Semple. (Little, Brown, $27.) In this brainy, seriously funny novel by the author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a Seattle woman confronts private school parents, a husband’s secret life and more.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. By Colson Whitehead. (Doubleday, $26.95.) Whitehead’s well-built, stunningly daring novel turns the historical freedom network from metaphor to reality, complete with tracks, locomotives and platforms. The winner of this year’s National Book Award for fiction.

VALIANT GENTLEMEN. By Sabina Murray. (Grove, $27.) An audacious historical novel about the Irish revolutionary martyr Roger Casement.

THE VEGETARIAN. By Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith. (Hogarth, $21.) This novella in three parts is both thriller and parable. The winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

WAR AND TURPENTINE. By Stefan Hertmans. Translated by David McKay. (Pantheon, $26.95.) A masterly novel about memory, art, love and war, based on the author’s grandfather’s notebooks.

WEATHERING. By Lucy Wood. (Bloomsbury, $26.) This poetic debut novel, set in a damp house near a roaring river, explores the relationship between mothers and daughters.

ZERO K. By Don DeLillo. (Scribner, $27.) In the post-postcolonial future of DeLillo’s moving, mysterious 16th novel, a man joins his billionaire father at a desert compound where people can be preserved forever.

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Nonfiction

ALL THE SINGLE LADIES: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. By Rebecca Traister. (Simon & Schuster, $27.) A deeply researched and thought-provoking examination of the role of single women throughout history.

Journalism that matters.

More essential than ever.

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AMERICAN HEIRESS: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. By Jeffrey Toobin. (Doubleday, $28.95.) In this riveting account, even the S.L.A. is shown some compassion.

AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFÉ: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. By Sarah Bakewell. (Other Press, $25.) A lucid joint portrait of the writers and philosophers who embodied existentialism.

BLOOD AT THE ROOT: A Racial Cleansing in America. By Patrick Phillips. (Norton, $26.95.) How a Georgia county drove out its black citizens in 1912 and remained all-white for 80 years: a well-written, timely and important account.

BLOOD IN THE WATER: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. By Heather Ann Thompson. (Pantheon, $35.) A masterly — and heartbreaking — history, based in part on new materials about the Attica prison uprising and its terrible aftermath.

BORN TO RUN. By Bruce Springsteen. (Simon & Schuster, $32.50.) Springsteen’s autobiography, explaining how he rose from Freehold, N.J., to international fame is both plain-spoken and eloquent.

CITY OF DREAMS: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. By Tyler Anbinder. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35.) A richly textured guide to the past of the nation’s chief immigrant city.

DARK MONEY: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. By Jane Mayer. (Doubleday, $29.95.) A formidable account of how the Koch brothers and their allies have bought their way to political power.

THE DEFENDER: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America From the Age of the Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama. By Ethan Michaeli. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $32.) A powerful, elegant history of the influential paper.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: The War Years and After. Volume Three: 1939-1962. By Blanche Wiesen Cook. (Viking, $40.) The long-awaited conclusion of a monumental and inspirational biography.

THE ENGLISH AND THEIR HISTORY. By Robert Tombs. (Knopf, $45.) A Cambridge historian’s clearsighted retelling of English history also analyzes how the English themselves have viewed their past.

EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City. By Matthew Desmond. (Crown, $28.) A sociologist shows what the lack of affordable housing means as he portrays the desperate lives of people who spend most of their incomes in rent.

THE FACE OF BRITAIN: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits. By Simon Schama. (Oxford University, $39.95.) A splendid book to accompany a BBC series hosted by the eminently readable historian and art critic.

FAR AND AWAY. REPORTING FROM THE BRINK OF CHANGE: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years. By Andrew Solomon. (Scribner, $30.) Some 30 travel pieces, in prose sparkling with insight, describe “places in the throes of transformation.”

FROM THE WAR ON POVERTY TO THE WAR ON CRIME: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. By Elizabeth Hinton. (Harvard University, $29.95.) A well-researched study of the bipartisan embrace of punishment after the 1960s.

THE GENE: An Intimate History. By Siddhartha Mukherjee. (Scribner, $32.) With scope and grandeur, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies” presents the history of the science of genetics and examines the philosophical questions it raises.

GHETTO: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea. By Mitchell Duneier. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Duneier offers a stunningly detailed, timely survey of scholarly work on the topic.

HERO OF THE EMPIRE: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill. By Candice Millard. (Doubleday, $30.) Imperialism and courage are on display as Churchill fights the Boer War in Millard’s readable, enjoyable book.

HIS FINAL BATTLE: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt. By Joseph Lelyveld. (Knopf, $30.) A gripping, deeply human account of Roosevelt’s last 16 months in office, when the president fought to create lasting global peace — despite having received a diagnosis of acute congestive heart failure.

HITLER: Ascent 1889-1939. By Volker Ullrich. Translated by Jefferson Chase. (Knopf, $40.) The first volume of a timely new biography focuses on Hitler the man, seeing him as a consummate tactician and an actor aware of his audience.

HOW EVERYTHING BECAME WAR AND THE MILITARY BECAME EVERYTHING: Tales From the Pentagon. By Rosa Brooks. (Simon & Schuster, $29.95.) A disturbing exploration of the erosion of boundaries between war and peace.

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. By David France. (Knopf, $30.) A remarkable account of how activists and patients won the funding that led to AIDS treatment from a reluctant government.

I CONTAIN MULTITUDES: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. By Ed Yong. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $27.99.) A science journalist’s first book is an excellent, vivid introduction to the all-enveloping realm of our secret sharers.

IN THE DARKROOM. By Susan Faludi. (Metropolitan/Holt, $32.) Faludi offers a rich and ultimately generous investigation of her long-estranged father, who suddenly contacted her from his home in Hungary after undergoing gender-reassignment surgery at the age of 76.

IN GRATITUDE. By Jenny Diski. (Bloomsbury, $26.) In her final memoir before her death, Diski, who was quasi-adopted by Doris Lessing, examines the origin, and the close, of her life as a writer.

AN IRON WIND: Europe Under Hitler. By Peter Fritzsche. (Basic, $29.99.) A deep reflection about World War II’s moral challenges for civilians.

LAB GIRL. By Hope Jahren. (Knopf, $26.95.) A geobiologist with a literary bent makes her science both accessible and lyrical, and offers a gratifying and moving chronicle of the scientist’s life.

THE LIMOUSINE LIBERAL: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America. By Steve Fraser. (Basic Books, $27.50.) An incisive history of a right-wing metaphor and its effects.

THE MAN WHO KNEW: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan. By Sebastian Mallaby. (Penguin Press, $40.) This thorough account of the former Fed chairman’s rise depicts him as political to a fault.

NEW ENGLAND BOUND: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. By Wendy Warren. (Liveright, $29.95.) Warren enlivens her study of Northern slavery with new research and a fresh approach.

ORSON WELLES. Volume 3: One-Man Band. By Simon Callow. (Viking, $40.) Expertly and convincingly, Callow rejects the common disdain for Welles’s post-1948 career.

THE PEOPLE AND THE BOOKS: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature. By Adam Kirsch. (Norton, $28.95.) Detailed and lucid accounts of seminal texts highlight the variety of Jewish experience.

PLAYING TO THE EDGE: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror. By Michael V. Hayden. (Penguin Press, $30.) The former C.I.A. director makes the case for Bush-era security measures.

PRETENTIOUSNESS: Why It Matters. By Dan Fox. (Coffee House, paper, $15.95.) A nimble case for pretentiousness as a willingness to take risks.

PUMPKINFLOWERS: A Soldier’s Story. By Matti Friedman. (Algonquin, $25.95.) Friedman has written a striking memoir about his stint in the Israeli Army in southern Lebanon in the 1990s.

A RAGE FOR ORDER: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS. By Robert F. Worth. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) The story of the 2011 Arab Spring and its slide into autocracy and civil war, beautifully told by a veteran correspondent.

THE RETURN: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. By Hisham Matar. (Random House, $26.) In this extraordinary memoir-cum-family history, Matar describes his search for his father, who disappeared into a Libyan prison in 1990.

THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. By Robert J. Gordon. (Princeton University, $39.95.) An economic historian’s magisterial assessment of the past and future of American living standards.

SECONDHAND TIME: The Last of the Soviets. By Svetlana Alexievich. Translated by Bela Shayevich. (Random House, $30.) The Nobel winner offers a powerful oral history of Russia, post-1991.

SHIRLEY JACKSON: A Rather Haunted Life. By Ruth Franklin. (Liveright, $35.) This thorough biography traces Jackson’s evolution as an artist and makes a case for her importance.

SING FOR YOUR LIFE: A Story of Race, Music, and Family. By Daniel Bergner. (Lee Boudreaux/Little, Brown, $28.) A portrait of Ryan Speedo Green, an African-American opera singer who overcame terrible childhood poverty and abuse. This season he has a lead role in the Metropolitan Opera’s “La Bohème.”

STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. By Arlie Russell Hochschild. (New Press, $27.95.) A Berkeley sociologist takes a generous but disconcerting look at Tea Party backers in Louisiana to explain the way many people in this country live now, often to the astonishment of everyone else.

TRUEVINE. Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South. By Beth Macy. (Little, Brown, $28.) A riveting account of two albino African-American brothers who were exhibited in a circus.

UNFORBIDDEN PLEASURES. By Adam Phillips. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) Linked essays examine the idea that forbidden pleasures have a tendency to obscure the meaningfulness to our lives of the unforbidden ones.

WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. By Cathy O’Neil. (Crown, $26.) A frightening look at the risks of the algorithms that regulate our lives, by a former hedge fund “quant” (she got her Ph.D. in math at Harvard) who became an Occupy Wall Street activist.

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR. By Paul Kalanithi. (Random House, $25.) A brilliant young neurosurgeon reckons with the meaning of life and death when he learns he has advanced lung cancer; a moving and courageous account.

WHEN IN FRENCH: Love in a Second Language. By Lauren Collins. (Penguin Press, $27.) Collins, a New Yorker staff writer married to a Frenchman, writes a very personal memoir about love and language, shrewdly assessing how language affects our lives.

WHITE RAGE: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. By Carol Anderson. (Bloomsbury, $26.) A timely and urgent call to confront the forces opposed to black progress since the Civil War.

WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. By Nancy Isenberg. (Viking, $28.) A masterly and ambitious cultural history of changing concepts of class and inferiority.

YOU’LL GROW OUT OF IT. By Jessi Klein. (Grand Central, $26.) Humorous riffs on being a woman by Amy Schumer’s head writer.