If you’re anxiously waiting for new ‘Black Mirror’ episodes, read Rachel Heng’s ‘Suicide Club’

Rachel Heng’s dystopian debut novel “Suicide Club” is like watching the “Black Mirror” episode “San Junipero” for the first time.


“Suicide Club” 
By Rachel Heng. 
384 pp. Henry Holt & Co. $27.
July 10, 2018.

It’s hard to get your bearings, at first, but eventually you fall in love with the writing and the characters.

Like “Black Mirror,” Heng’s book features amazing technological advancements which are not necessarily for the better.

“San Junipero” and “Suicide Club” share other similarities: both are love stories about living forever and self-discovery, featuring girls living a lie.

In “Suicide Club’s” case, the girl is Lea Kirino, a 100 year old who looks no older than 50.

For a “Lifer”  like her, being 100 years old isn’t an incredible achievement. It’d be a failure. “Three hundred was now the number to beat,” writes Heng.

Part of that comes down to good genes (Lea’s comes from Japanese parents known for their longevity). If you’re deemed naturally healthy and have the right temperament, you’re prescribed a strict eating and exercise regimen that consists of DiamondSkinTM, ToughMuscTM and RepairantsTM — stuff that will eliminate wrinkles, instantly heal cuts and expand a human’s life span so it nears immortality.

If you’re not blessed with good genes, you’re labeled a “sub-100,” and will naturally die young. No DiamondSkinTM, ToughMuscTM or  RepairantsTM will be spared in prolonging your life. It’s sad, but that’s natural selection at work.

Like most Lifers, Lea’s goal is to become one of the few and first Lifers selected for the “Third Wave” of scientific and medical advancements designed to make you immortal, but when she accidentally steps in front of a car in an attempt to chase after a man who looks like her father, a man who’s been exiled and labeled as an antisanct for taking someone’s life, Lea gets flagged as an attempted suicide case, jeopardizing her own chances of being invited to the “Third Wave.”

Through mandatory group therapy meetings and attempts to find her father, Lea also meets the Suicide Club, a radical underground organization of Lifers who’ve had enough of the endless soulless days following the strictly government-mandated rules of what to eat, breathe and do. Like Lea, they’ve been flagged as attempted suicide cases and are monitored by government agents enlisted to enforce the status quo; the supplements they’ve taken as Lifers have made it impossible to “take a kitchen knife to your wrists and watch the life pour out of your veins” (You skin will heal before you bleed). Their philosophy: to really live, they have to be able to choose how they die.

Despite the subject matter, “Suicide Club” isn’t death-defying for its genre. “Suicide Club” feels like Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies” trilogy and other dystopian young adult coming of age novels I’ve devoured in one sitting. Perhaps that’s why I like Heng’s debut so much. Like “Black Mirror,” “Twilight Zone,” or “Brave New World,” “Suicide Club” explores what humanity might wish for and shows how things might be OK as they already are.

Fun fact: “Black Mirror’s” “San Junipero” episode actually inspired the design of “Suicide Club’s” UK book cover.

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “Suicide Club” by Rachel Heng from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. 


Why ‘Not That I Could Tell’ should be in your reading queue

My favorite lines in Jessica Strawser’s novel “Not That I Could Tell” are: “For once, I just want there to be a story with a happily-ever-after that does not involve ending up with a love interest. Do you think that’s possible?”

Her character, Izzy, a radio show producer struggling with her lack-of-love life, posed this question to her friend and neighbor Clara.

“Absolutely,” responds Clara, a stay-at-home mom of two.

Strawser’s novel, which is what you’d want from a rom-com if it were actually based on real life, is proof of it.


“Not That I Could Tell” 
By Jessica Strawser. 
236 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.
March 27, 2018.

By all means, Strawser’s novel passes the Bechdel test, starring a legion of women — mothers, daughters, sisters, friends and neighbors who genuinely seem to care about each other, and talk to each other about things other than men.

In the span the 336-pages of “Not That I Could Tell,” most of these whispered conversations revolve around women, or rather, one woman in particular: Kristin Kirkland, the mother of two four-year-old twins. The three of them and a million-dollar life insurance payout mysteriously went missing, becoming day-after-day front page coverage in Yellow Springs, Ohio (whose most famous resident includes comedian Dave Chappelle).

The main suspect is a man, Kristin’s estranged soon-to-be ex-husband Dr. Paul Kirkland, an obstetrician-gynecologist who moved back into Kristin’s house after her and her kids’ disappearance. But he’s just a obscure supporting character in Jessica Strawser’s drama.

The leads are all strong and likable female characters from: Izzy and Clara to their neighbors, Natalie; Natalie’s precocious 12-year-old daughter Hallie; and lesbians Randi and Rhonda.

Through Strawser’s words, you come to care for this army of women who don’t blame Kristin for kidnapping her kids or for leaving (if that’s what really happened). They just hope that Kristin and Aaron and Abigail aren’t hurt or dead.*

Their friendships are the reason you should be reading “Not That I Could Tell.” And these women are how happily-ever-afters without love interests are possible.

Now if only we could see more female-dominated narratives like this in films, movies or television shows….

* Since we don’t know if Kristin is dead or injured, “Not That I Could Tell” also passes the Women in Refrigerator test on a technicality.

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “Not That I Could Tell” by Jessica Strawser from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. 

Recalling a ‘A Short History of Drunkenness’

If I could add one word to the title of Mark Forsyth’s book “A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present,” I would include the word funny so it’d read “A Short Funny History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to Prohibition.”


“A Short History of Drunkenness” 
By Mark Forsyth. 
256 pp. Three Rivers Press. $18.
May 8, 2018.

Not that there aren’t sad things in the book. (Englishwoman Judith Defour strangled her two-year-old baby and sold the baby’s clothing to feed her gin addiction.) But for the most part, “A Short History of Drunkenness” doesn’t dwell on the sad things — like how alcohol should include a warning label for “could cause death.”

It’s introduction — “I’m afraid that I don’t really know what drunkenness is” — made me chuckle. “That may seem an odd confession for a fellow who’s about to write a history of drunkenness,” Forsyth writes, “but, to be honest, if authors were to let a trifling thing like ignorance stop them from writing, the bookshops would be empty.”

So how can someone not be able to define drunkenness? Forsyth, who admits he “drinks an awful lot more than most,” describes it like seeing the Silence from “Doctor Who” — those aliens you instantly forget about if you don’t see them — in that “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

“Certainly, if an alien knocked on my door and asked why people across this peculiar planet keep drinking alcohol, I wouldn’t answer, ‘Oh, that’s just to impair our reflexes. It’s basically to stop us getting too good at ping-pong,'” he writes.

So Forsyth’s “The Short History of Drunkenness” is his attempt to explain something that “will never and can never be precisely recalled.”

Forsyth’s thesis: most religions and cultures can be interpreted through their relationship to alcohol. Alcohol was the very reason people worked (from Ancient Egypt to Australia) and cultures (from Greece to Russia) designed rituals around required binge-drinking. “In 9,000 B.C., we invented farming because we wanted to get drunk on a regular basis,” “Very primitive writing was really just a bunch of IOUS,” and “The Pilgrim Fathers weren’t meant to land at Plymouth Rock, but the Mayflower had run out of beer. So they had to stop there,” writes Forsyth.

People devoted themselves to gods of drunkenness (think Ninkasi, Hathor, Dionysus, Bacchus or Odin) and men who controlled the intake and distribution of alcohol wielded the power (George Washington exchanged free booze for votes). Even monotheistic religions like Christianity “saw wine as a Good Thing,” with the gospels pointing to Jesus’ reputation as a “drunkard.” And since Christianity required wine for the ritual of communion, “wherever Christianity has spread, the Christians have had to take vines with them.”

Alcohol even had a role in the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians were buried with jugs of imported wine, Chinese cultures used alcohol to talk to the dead and faithful Muslims and Vikings are promised eternities full of wine or mead in heaven or Valhalla.

But the most amusing explanation for why humans drink might be the most primitive, or what Forsyth calls the “Drunken Money Hypothesis”: “We evolved to drink.”

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present” by Mark Forsyth from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. 

Eliza Robertson writes new myths with debut novel ‘Demi-Gods’

Eliza Robertson’s debut novel “Demi-Gods” is an experience — like that of a total eclipse of the sun, both frightening and awe-inspiring as the moon swallows the sun, suddenly overpowering her daylight with his darkness.


By Eliza Robertson. 
240 pp. Bloomsbury Publishing. $26.
April 10, 2018.

“Demi-Gods'” sun is Patrick and its “changeling” moon Willa (or perhaps it’s the other way around), step-siblings living in mirror border towns by the sea — “one nudging the forty-ninth parallel, the other a twenty-minute cab ride to Tijuana.”

Like the sun and the moon, they chased each other out of the sky and didn’t exist in each other’s universes except for those six rare fleeting instances of totality between 1950 and 1961 — when they  happen to be in the same time and place because of circumstances out of their control.

The first time happened in 1950 when Willa was nine and Patrick 11. Willa’s mother and Patrick’s father Eugene brought them together in Willa’s family’s beach house in Salt Springs Island, British Columbia. Willa got stung by a jellyfish and Patrick offered to pee on her arm to numb the pain (she wouldn’t let him, but peed on herself while Patrick listened) and dared Willa to intentionally poop in her underwear as collateral to hold their secrets.

The second time happened in 1953 when Willa was 12 and Patrick 14. Patrick’s older brother and Eugene’s son Kenneth brought the family together in San Diego because he was graduating high school. Willa’s mom and Patrick’s dad were still seeing each other. While the step-siblings were at the hotel pool, Patrick intentionally went into the girl’s changing room while Willa was showering and masturbated to the sight of her boobs.

The subsequent meetings are similarly dark and perverted — as if you were reading whispered taboo secrets or hearing the sea’s soft shhhhhhhhhhhh’s.

“Events between him and me seemed to occur on another membrane, which pulsed, here and there, into the membrane we all occupied, but which contracted when a third person entered the room,” wrote Robertson from Willa’s first person confessional. “I remembered our interactions as I remembered a dream, with doubt, and if I mentioned that night to him, I expected him to look at me questioningly. I didn’t trust that my subconscious hadn’t invented the whole thing.”

So Willa and Patrick became each other’s half-remembered suns and moons — stealing secrets from their imprinted shadows even though they barely knew the other, “thinking about memory as a space we dwell in.”

And so they basked in each other’s borrowed light, both compelled and disgusted by the power they had over the other, thinking about how “‘scared’ was an anagram of ‘sacred.'”

Robertson’s prose is intentionally blurry, using pronouns instead of names and lacking quotation marks so you’re never sure when Patrick’s speech begins and Willa’s ends.

Instead, Robertson challenges dualities, immortalizing Patrick and Willa through both beautifully poetic and vulgar prose.

With “Demi-Gods,” Robertson writes a new myth, rivaling Psyche and Cupid’s, Oedipus and Jocasta’s, Castor and Pollux’s and Cronus and Zeus’s. Her “demi-gods” Patrick and Willa can instill fear, turn day into night and blind you if they meet.

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “Demi-Gods” by Eliza Robertson from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. 

What ‘The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing’ says about you

If you’re hoping “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing” is your WebMD on how to self-diagnose yourself for depression, anxiety, neuroticism, obsession, schizophrenia, egocentrism, or something else entirely based on a series of 10 inkblots known collectively as the Rorschach test, Damion Searls’ book doesn’t necessarily fit the bill.

If you’re hoping “The Inkblots” will teach you something about the history of the Rorschach test and the man behind it (even if it reads like a dry textbook), then Searls’ book is the one for you.


“The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing”
By Damion Searls. 
416 pp. Broadway Books. $17.
Feb. 20, 2018.

Searls’ became fascinated with Hermann Rorschach and his test after he encountered Rorschach’s inkblots, “so rich and strange — enticing enough, in any case, for me to spend the next several years exploring their history and their power.” The result is this 416-page book — which contains almost 100 pages of extensive footnotes. (Searls’ Rorschach test results revealed his obsessive tendencies.)

Through its pages, we learn about psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss Russophile who read Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” for fun and looked “like Brad Pitt, maybe with a little Robert Redford thrown in.” Rorschach was the oldest son of a painter, who died from lead poisoning and suffered from “depression, delusions, and bitter, senseless self-recriminations” when Rorschach was 18. Rorschach, who was nicknamed Klex (German for “to daub, to paint mediocre paintings”) because he made pictures out of inkblots, inherited his father’s artistic talents.

His father’s death inspired him to become a doctor, eventually working in an asylum where he encouraged his mental patients to draw. It was there that Rorschach first invented and experimented with his inkblot tests and discovered an open-ended questionnaire about them could reveal how a person thinks.

Rorschach discovered patterns between his patients — how “certain kinds of answers were given almost exclusively by either schizophrenics or people talented at drawing.” He found that certain types of answers (based on movement, color, form and detail) revealed personality traits from introversion to extroversion and emotional instability to thoughtfulness.

“The Rorschach ‘seemed like a mental X-ray machine. You could solve a person by showing them a picture,'” said one of Rorschach’s students.

Rorschach died at 37 before finishing his work, but his students continued his testing. A. Irving Hallowell discovered that cultures influences patterns in answers. For example, Samoans tended to give pure color responses because their language defined colors as nouns (red literally translated to “like fire, like flame”; blue meant “the color of the deep sea”; and green was “the color of everything growing”).

Rorschach’s test eventually took on a life of it’s own, showing up in art (think Andy Warhol’s “Rorschach” paintings); comics (think Alan Moore’s “Watchman,” featuring a masked vigilante named Rorschach); television (think the opening credits of Netflix series “Hemlock Grove”); and political metaphors (Hillary Clinton has been compare to “our national Rorschach test”). Meanwhile, how a Rorschach test is administered and interpreted today depends on who you ask.

If you ask me though, “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing” isn’t as fascinating as Rorschach’s pop culture legacy — reading it feels like doing homework — but what I see and think probably says more about me than the book itself.

Disclaimer: I received Damion Searls’ “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, his iconic test, and the power of seeing” from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

‘Number One Chinese Restaurant’ shows how much the Chinese American dream really costs

Regardless of whether it’s true, they say the sidewalks of America are paved with gold. It’s the best story and as Lillian Li writes, “In a world without fairness, the best stories rose to the top.”

Li’s debut novel “Number One Chinese Restaurant” is about the best story: the American dream — a hard-working Chinese family who opens a successful D.C.-based Chinese restaurant, makes The Washington Post, buys a mansion.


“Number One Chinese Restaurant”
By Lillian Li. 
304 pp. Henry Holt and Co. $27.
June 19, 2018.

The Han family’s American dream is paved with gold, but beneath those gilded surfaces are fathers who died from cancer without his children by his side because they were instructed to keep the restaurant open during the holidays. It’s about parents who took their children to movies at theaters and slept through them because they were so tired from working all the time. It’s about the abandoned mansions that never felt like home because the family spent all their waking hours working at the restaurant. It’s about mothers who fished dumplings out of the trash and ate them to show their children to never waste food. It’s about children begrudgingly working in their family’s restaurant while growing up (“Every day at a Chinese restaurant was bring – your – kid – to -work day,” jokes one of the characters), embarrassed by their relatives’ poor English, mannerisms or jobs.

In that way, the family’s restaurant becomes both a dream and a curse — the thing that prevented them from becoming a “normal” American family who went on scheduled family vacations, sat for family dinners at dinner hours and talked about anything other than work.

Chinese parents toiled at the restaurant for the sake of their ungrateful children, who saw the restaurant as the “monument to his father’s greed” and wished their family had a “job with a larger purpose than filling a bank account.” Parents worked to build their children’s futures, telling Chinese parables their children didn’t understand.

Li tells her own parable with “Number One Chinese Restaurant” — that of Han brothers Johnny and Jimmy years after their father, Duck House’s founder Bobby Han, died from stomach cancer. The Han siblings keep the Duck House running between the two of them, but Jimmy’s ambition is to start his own restaurant — a Chinese fusion place separate from the one his father started.

This is costly, Jimmy learns, and to build his own Chinese American dream, he has to set his father’s on fire.

“Number One Chinese Restaurant” isn’t the best place you’ve ever eaten. The food is cooked with too much oil and MSG. But Li cooks with a lot of heart, using ingredients you don’t always see. Your stomach feels full after this meal even as your heart yearns more more.

Disclaimer: I received a free ebook of “Number One Chinese Restaurant” by Lillian Li from NetGalley in exchange for a honest review. 



Why you should skip ‘School for Psychics’

K.C. Archer’s book “School for Psychics” sounds a lot like the books, T.V. shows and movies I devoured while growing up — Francine Pascal’s “Fearless,” Scott Westerfeld’s “Midnighters” trilogy, James Patterson’s “Maximum Ride” series, Stan Lee’s “X-Men,” David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” — following the same serialized formula of misfit kids getting special powers and ending up saving the world.

Ugh, right?

“School for Psychics” recycles this over a new mediocre plot-heavy series — which already has its own T.V. adaption in the works. 


“School for Psychics”
By K.C. Archer. 
368 pp. Simon & Schuster. $16.
April 3, 2018.

This time, your superhero trying to find herself is 20-something-year-old Standford dropout Theodora “Teddy” Cannon, who lives in her adopted parents’ garage apartment and has a knack at winning big in Las Vegas casinos.

Turns out the latter is because of her psychic abilities, which allow her to basically read another person’s mind and to know with an absolute certainty if he/she is bluffing. This useful skill has other practical applications and Cannon’s recruited by the Whitfield Institute for Law Enforcement Training and Development, a secretive four-year San Francisco-based U.S.-government-affiliated school whose sole purpose is to find other psychic individuals like her and train them for government jobs in the F.B.I. and C.I.A.

There she meets her squad — students like Pyro, a former police officer who can randomly set off fires; Jillian, a hipster medium who can only communicate with animals; Molly, a hacker and empath who has the physically crippling ability to feel what another human is feeling; Kate, a clairvoyant who can sometimes predict the future; and Nick, an F.B.I. officer and Whitfield professor who relies on students’ psychic abilities to help the bureau solve crimes.

Although all the characters attending “School for Psychics” are adults, Archer’s characters seem younger as if they were emotionally stunted teenagers. Perhaps that’s due to the environment (it physically feels like high school with its own cliques and heightened sense of drama). Or perhaps it’s due to the lack of character development (You don’t get to know these characters, not even Cannon, so its hard to care for them). Or perhaps it’s due to the cringeworthy and unnecessary romances and flaccid love triangles (which only seem to be a part of this story because they’re part of the formula).

Whatever the case, all of the above make “School for Psychics” tiresome so if you can read what I’m thinking, skip this school.

Disclaimer: I received a free ebook of “School for Psychics” by K.C. Archer from NetGalley in exchange for a honest review. 


‘We Begin Our Ascent’: A man’s journey down a moral abyss

Joe Mungo Reed’s 256-page debut novel, “We Begin Our Ascent,” is an extended metaphor for marriage.


“We Begin Our Ascent”
By Joe Mungo Reed. 
256 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.
June 19, 2018.

Marriage is like a peloton — a race where partners take turns leading and leaning against the other though hills, mountains and plateaus. Horrific crashes might come between them, but they need the other racer for it to work — just like how Solomon needs his wife Liz to raise their infant son Barry. Just like how directeur sportif Rafael needs his cyclists Fabrice, Solomon, Tsutomo, Johan and Sebastian to wear poop-colored shorts, to satisfy their corporate chicken nugget sponsor and to win the Tour.

Written in first person, “We Begin Our Ascent” cycles between Solomon’s relationship with his wife Liz and the Tour. Both have been all-consuming and collaborative with their own peaks, plateaus and falls.

But “We Begin Our Ascent” plateaus until about four chapters into the book when we’re introduced to new terrain.

Naturally, new terrain requires new shoes, or as Rafael pitches, “built-up shoes for cycle races” — the kind of thing that would strip a man of his Tour de France titles or strip a country of its flag, logos and colors (if caught).

But, as Rafael rations, it’s a harmless open secret and everyone does it.

“Maybe you hope the others will be disqualified in many years’ time. Perhaps you want to win in the small print, be a little asterisk, but I thought you might actually want to cross the line first, hear the cheering of the fans,” says Rafael. “Then perhaps one day, as a man of such excellent moral judgment, you would have acquired the necessary stature to speak and be listened to on the subject of built-up shoes and they’d be banned forever and we would have you to thank.”

So Solomon makes a Faustian marriage with the devil and wears the shoes, which eat at his heels, holding his integrity, marriage and livelihood as collateral.

Perhaps “We Begin Our Ascent” should have been named “We Begin Our Descent” because the Reed’s book is really about a fall — how far and fast a man can go down a hill and what he takes with him.

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Disclaimer: I received a free ebook of “We Begin Our Ascent” by Joe Mungo Reed from NetGalley for this review.  

‘The Philosopher’s Flight’ soars

There are many things you could compare Tom Miller’s debut novel “The Philosopher’s Flight”  to — Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Name of the Wind” or J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” to name a few. But the closest thing I can think of plot-wise is the manga “Saga of Tanya the Evil,” written by Carlo Zen and illustrated by Shinobu Shinotsuki.

In it, a godlike being makes a waver with a Japanese atheist, betting that circumstance could change a  man’s faith. So just after this Japanese man is murdered by a vengeful co-worker he fired, “Being X” reincarnates him into the body of a poor blond blue-eyed orphan girl named Tanya and grants the man-trapped-in-a-girl’s body the magical abilities of flight and magic, which are used in the front lines of battle during World War I.


“The Philosopher’s Flight”
By Tom Miller. 
432 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.
Feb. 13, 2018.

“The Philosopher’s Flight” is also about a man gifted with flight and magic, living in a female world during World War I. But while you can see threads of similarities between Miller’s book and existing works, “The Philosopher’s Flight” is truly original.

Miller subverts gender norms by drafting eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes and casting him in an alternate world where some women have become skilled at magic, specializing in written spells which control smoke, flying, passing messages remotely to another magic user or transporting things or people. In this world, women have excelled at practicing these magical skills — called empirical philosophy — while men in the field have traditionally been called and treated as lesser than because they possess less innate magical talent. Few, if any, of these male philosophers could fly.

But Robert, the son of philosopher and war veteran Emmaline Weekes, can fly and he becomes one of the few men accepted at Radcliffe College, Boston’s prestigious philosophy school. Robert’s goal: to become the first man to shatter the glass ceiling and join the U.S. Sigilry Corps’ Rescue and Evacuation Department, a division of flying philosophers trained to save the lives of soldiers in battle.

Robert faces his share of bullies: teachers that give him extra work, sexist remarks from women who question his sexuality and students that urinate on his equipment, but Robert is resourceful. And growing up with his mother and older sisters has prepared him to thrive at Radcliffe, even earning the respect of Gloxinia “Jake” Jacobi, an excellent student flyer who has a knack for securing anything; and Danielle Hardin, a student activist that’s returned from the war.

“The Philosopher’s Flight” is a novel you’ll fly through with its promise of magic and adventure — plus a female-only flying Olympics. But it’s lessons make it far from a light read. Through Robert, Miller confronts terrorism and moral dilemmas and racism and active shootings.

For every man like Robert, who’s heroes are all strong woman, there’s also a trencherist like Maxwell Gannett, who fears women and philosophy. Gannett and his cult of followers do anything in their power to kill powerful philosophers and to pass legislation to strip them of their prestige.

But through Robert, Miller shows us that it’s really the women who make up a man.

‘How Democracies Die,’ not with a bang but with whispers

“If, twenty-five years ago, someone had described to you a country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal supreme court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania,” write Harvard political science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. “You probably would not have thought of the United States.”

So how did this happen here? What led to the election of an authoritarian ruler who “subverts democratic rules, denies the legitimacy of opponents, encourages violence and indicates a willingness to curtain the civil liberties of opponents, including the media”?


“How Democracies Die”
By Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt 
320 pp. Crown. $26.
Jan 16, 2018.

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book “How Democracies Die,” it mainly comes down to the erosion of gatekeepers and the dereliction of social and cultural norms that have preserved American democracy since its founding.

It comes down to things like the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which opened the presidential nomination system from party leaders to people who directly voted for Democratic and Republican delegates loyal to presidential candidates in state primaries.

It comes down to people like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who wrote the GOP handbook on aversion to compromise, encouraged Republicans to play “constitutional hardball” and fanned dangerous rhetoric like “traitors,” “pathetic,” “sick,” “corrupt” and “unAmerican” to be applied to their Democratic counterparts. (Extreme partisan politics like how Republican leaders backed Donald Trump and normalized his candidacy over supporting opponent Hillary Clinton contributed to Trump’s presidency, write Levitsky and Ziblatt.)

It comes down to the rise of alternative media sources from cable news to Facebook, which further polarized voters and stripped power away from traditional media gatekeepers.

Mostly, write Levitsky and Ziblatt, it comes down to the decisions of political leaders to forego governing traditions like forbearance, “the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives,” and mutual toleration, “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book is a systematic explainer of how Trump became the President of the United States and why that’s a danger to American democracy.

“We fear that if Trump were to confront a war or terrorist attack, he would exploit this crisis fully — using it to attack political opponents and restrict freedoms Americans take for granted,” write Levitsky and Ziblatt.

It’s happened before with Hugo Chavez’s in Venezuela, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Adolf Hitler in Germany and others with leaders dismantling democracies while promising to protect it.

“Would-be autocrats often use economic crises, natural disasters, and especially security threats — wars, armed insurgencies, or terrorist attacks — to justify antidemocratic measures,” write Levitsky and Ziblatt. Then with “no single moment, no coup, declaration of martial law or suspension of the constitution” democracy is dead.

So could that also happen here? Are we living through the fall of the American democracy?

It’s a distinct possibility, write Levitsky and Ziblatt. “People do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.”

Disclaimer: I received a free ebook of “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt from Blogging for Books for this review.