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Bookworm: ‘Humans’ is like a bag of crunchy snacks

‘What Were We Thinking’ is a thinking person's read

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Humans”

  • By Brandon Stanton
  • c. 2020, St. Martin's Press
  • $35, higher in Canada; 448 pages

Nice to meet you. And it was. You've always believed that it's a good thing to expand your life, visit new places, and make new friends. Doing so always makes you feel energized. It's a chance to become enlightened, enriched, entertained, and involved. So, it's nice to meet you, nice to get to know you. As in "Humans" by Brandon Stanton, what's your story?

"Humans" author Brandon Stanton.

Ten years ago, Brandon Stanton decided to launch a curious project. Acting as though he was on a "mission of a madman," he planned to approach strangers on New York City streets and in parks, "engage them in conversation," take their picture, and map his work. At first, he used conversations as captions for the pictures. Then his opening questions became deeper. His confidence grew, and he began to understand that "random people" liked talking to him about themselves. Eventually, the conversations became "more central" than the photography.

Still, he says, getting the conversation, the picture, the time isn't easy. People tend to have "shields" and going beyond those shields is sometimes "exhausting," but Stanton says that today, he looks on the sidelines for the best stories. He randomly hunts where nobody else is looking, he says, and he poses an opening question that's almost irresistible: "What's your greatest struggle right now?" he asks.

The answers, as you'll see in this book, go beyond everyday drama. You'll read tales of lies and hidden lives, purpose found, and opportunity rejected. Many tales feature missing parents or lost family connections because storytellers were gay, angry, abandoned, or mentally ill. There's a boy who can't understand why his father "loves touching his phone so much." A man who sold his favorite piece of jewelry to buy his son a bicycle.

"Humans" by Brandon Stanton.

You'll read stories of love between cultures and countries and arranged marriages. There's a man who would be king here. People and dogs or cats. People who have gone through trauma others can only imagine. And a man who "just had the best day of my life."

Imagine yourself walking through a party or a conference, making brief eye contact, catching random bits of conversation as you move. That's what it's like to read "Humans."

Based on the website and the popular "Humans of New York" on social media, this book is a collection that features the Big Apple, of course, but it also expands the territory into other countries, as author Brandon Stanton writes about how he overcame "shields" as he worked abroad. Like tales you'll find online, the lengths here are as varied as the people profiled, and subject matter bounces and lands on a wide spectrum of experiences. Fans will find stories they'll remember and some they won't. New readers will find, to their great delight, that we're not as different as it seems.

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Be prepared to be addicted: reading "Humans" is like sticking your hand inside a bag of crunchy snacks. You'll want more, can't quit sampling, so enjoy this book, visit the website, and get acquainted.

“What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era”

  • By Carlos Lozada
  • c. 2020, Simon & Schuster
  • $28, $37 Canada; 261 pages

Somebody better explain. There are a lot of things that don't make sense here. Things don't add up, they don't match, they're not in alignment. Is there a reason or solution for this mess, or will it ever be sorted out? As in the new book "What Were We Thinking" by Carlos Lozada, can the answer be determined?

"What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era" author Carlos Lozada.

As the nonfiction book critic for the Washington Post, Carlos Lozada has seen his share of political books; specifically, books on Donald Trump. In early 2016, he proposed that reading them become an official part of his job. Surely, there was some sense to be made of politics then, and maybe it was inside those books.

Four years later, Lozada says, perhaps not surprisingly, "The most essential books of the Trump-era are scarcely about Trump at all."

In what Lozada calls "heartland literature," some of them attempt to explain the 2016 election by categorizing voters, using the stories of blue-collar workers who were hardest hit by poverty in years prior. "Race versus class" appears quite often in these books – as does one same interviewee, in several books.

Some authors who use "resistance writing" focus on the Trump policies with which they disagree, and they "rarely look beyond activist communities on the left." Books written by conservatives and supporters are largely (and fawningly) complimentary toward All Things Trump, while Never Trumpers are more concerned about the future of the Republican Party. Most books written by immigrants understandably focus on their own stories rather than on policy; others feature a collection of individual tales of coming to America. Books that were written about Trump's lies all include "a hefty dose of personal attacks ... "; some include discussions about the word "lie." And then there are the books about Trump's ties with Russia, work that has "suffered from unplanned obsolescence...."

"What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era" by Carlos Lozada.

You might be asking yourself now if there are any books about the Trump presidency that are worth reading, and the answer is "yes." In "What Were We Thinking," author Carlos Lozada has a dozen of them you can try.

Be warned, however, that there's room for argument.

Since this book was written, at least a dozen others in various genres have joined it on the shelves and most of them fall neatly into any one of Lozada's loose categories, but readers will undoubtedly have their own favorites on which to lean in attempts to understand today's politics. Even so, Lozada offers intelligent assessments and a balanced, fair explanation for why many of the most popular titles can be swatted away. His literary reasoning is often very funny – he's the master of the burn – but he's also relatively even-handed, though readers will easily be able to ascertain how Lozada leans, politically.

There are many days left until the election but so little time and if you've already been reading up on the subject, here's more for your political TBR pile. What you need to know is that "What Were We Thinking" is a thinking person's read, and that explains everything.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.