I have a little soft spot for British comedian Russell Brand, even though I fully realize it's probably easiest to love Russell Brand from afar, which, luckily, is what I will always be from Russell Brand.
Third: He can write a serviceable memoir. I really enjoyed his first memoir, My Booky Wook, although I have just become aware he wrote another one, titled (not very imaginatively, Russell) My Booky Wook 2, and I will not in fact be reading that book. Only so much time, and all that. But when I saw he had a new book out called rEVOLution, I thought, all right, we'll give it a try.
It's awful. Really. It's unreadable. I am not alone in this opinion; most book critics seem pretty united in their opinions that it is not a well-written or even funny book. So it hurts me to write that you should not read this book, which is a mish-mash of memoir, political and ideological beliefs, befuddled writing about yoga, and (a very few) interviews with anarchist, nonprofit organizer, Occupy protestor types, including some of their ideas for bettering the world.
But? Every 100 pages or so he still managed to charm me. For example, when remembering a fraught conversation he had as a child with his grandmother (the "nan" he was not very fond of, to be exact), he decides that what he has to do as an adult is try and see his grandmother's point of view:
"I now look at my nan in another way. As a human being just like me, trying to cope with her own flaws and challenges. Fearful of what would become of her sick daughter, confused by the grandchild born of a match that she was averse to. Alone and approaching the end of her life, with regret and lacking a functioning system of guidance and comfort. Trying her best. Taking on the responsibility of an unusual little boy with glib, atheistic tendencies, she still behaved dutifully. Perhaps this very conversation sparked in me the spirit of metaphysical inquiry that has led to the faith in God I now have." (p. 60.)
So yeah, I can't recommend the book. But you've got to love a guy taking the time to re-evaluate his grandmother. Don't you? I do.
*He is also no fan of the British royal family, which is where we diverge in our opinions.
Because if I had infinite time, I would definitely have to read Jeremy Scahill's huge brick of a book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. However, because it clocks in at 642 pages (of which 521 are text; the rest is notes and index) and because I am chronically short on time, I will have to return it to the library after only making it to page 21. What I read, however, I liked:
"This is a story about how the United States came to embrace assassination as a central part of its national security policy. It is also a story about the consequences of that decision for people in scores of countries across the globe and for the future of American democracy...
This book tells the story of the expansion of covert US wars, the abuse of executive privilege and state secrets, the embrace of unaccountable elite military units that answer only to the White House." (p. xxiii.)
Now THAT, my friends, along with about one more page of text, is how you write an introduction (although here it is called "a note to the reader"). Short, meaty, to the point, with well-constructed sentences. And you don't have to read much farther to learn shocking things about what our government considers acceptable in terms of assassinations--of U.S. citizens, mind you.
As regards the subject matter itself, is this book bound to be depressing as hell? Well, sure. What isn't, these days? But it is also bound to be a cracking good read, and a fast one, for all its five hundred pages. As soon as we win the lottery and I can hire cleaning people and nannies, this is the first book I'm checking out (checking out? hell, BUYING, as long as I've won the lottery).
I felt very unfulfilled by what I wrote yesterday about George Packer's book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. I feel I am not giving you the flavor of the book, or explaining why I couldn't seem to put it down, even though it was a downer.
One thing I would like to say that I particularly appreciated in Packer's choice of interviewees and subjects was his choosing Americans from all over the spectrum: from the factory worker to the political operative to Peter Thiel and other Silicon Valley luminaries. In fact, the Peter Thiel/Silicon Valley parts of the book were the ones I found the most informative. This sounds terrible to say, but I've now read so many books about the loss of our manufacturing base, failing heartland cities (Detroit among them), and working-class woes that none of the narratives from those perspectives particularly surprised me or provided new knowledge. But many of the points-of-view and ideas given by Thiel, the PayPal billionaire, were quite interesting (although Thiel in general gave me the super-heebies, also making him a fascinating character):
"At Cafe Venetia in downtown Palo Alto...Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and said, 'I don't consider this to be a technological breakthrough.'
Compared to the Apollo space program or the supersonic jet, a smartphone looked small. In the forty years leading up to 1973, there had been huge technological advances, and wages had increased sixfold. Since then, Americans beguiled by mere gadgetry had forgotten how expansive progress could be...
The information age arrived on schedule, but without the utopia. Cars, trains, and planes were not much better than they had been in 1973.* The rising price of oil and food showed a complete failure to develop energy and agriculture technology. Computers didn't create enough jobs to sustain the middle class, didn't produce revolutionary improvements in manufacturing and productivity, didn't raise living standards across classes. Thiel had come to think that the Internet was a 'net plus, but not a big one.' Apple was mostly a 'design innovator.' Twitter would give job security to five hundred people for the next decade, 'but how much value does it create for the entire economy?' Facebook, which had made Thiel a billionaire, was 'on balance positive,' because it was radical enough to have been banned in China. But that was all he would say for the celebrated era of social media. All the companies he invested in probably employed fewer than fifteen thousand people." (p. 383.)
There is a LOT to unpack in just those few paragraphs, and a lot to think about. I suspect that's why this book took me so long to read, even though it's quite readable--there's a lot of paragraphs like that, that you almost have to take the time to digest.
There. I feel I've done the book more credit now.
*I might also point out there are similar problems in health care, since I've read several times in the past months about how the maternal death rate from childbirth is now higher than it was in 1978.
When I got George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America from the library, I'm pretty sure I started reading it that night--I was very excited to see it, as I am a fan of George Packer's. When I started it, I did have difficulty putting it down, but since I finished it, it's been sitting on my night table while I try to think what to say about it.
I don't really know what to say about it.
Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I get the feeling he's got a pretty good grasp on most issues of American economics and culture. In this book, he chooses not to write a straightforward journalistic investigation of such topics as the loss of America's manufacturing base, the problems of our political systems, and many more, but rather gives the reader a picture of them by interweaving several character portraits. The individuals whose stories he tells through the narrative are Dean Price (an idealistic and optimistic entrepreneur of the type typically presented as the type that will "save our country" with their entrepreneurial drive); Jeff Connaughton (a longtime political operative); Tammy Thomas (an Ohio woman whose town and economic situation keeps worsening due to lost jobs and dropping wages); and Peter Thiel (the Silicon Valley billionaire who founded PayPal). In between he also provides short chapters briefly sketching the biographical details of such American luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, and many others.
It's an interesting way to provide a snapshot of America. Typically I prefer a more straightforward piece of nonfiction, like Matt Taibbi's Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, but there's no denying that this type of investigative storytelling makes for fascinating (if sad) reading as well. What surprised me a little bit was how long it took me to read the book--you don't feel like it's taking a long time while you read, and the stories are all character-based and move right along, but you can feel the depth of detail, research, and work behind Packer's writing. It really is, to put it as simply as possible, a somewhat amazing book. Depressing, of course, because it left me with the feeling of, well, what can we possibly do now?, and because (as some critics have charged, conservative David Brooks among them) Packer doesn't really provide any overarching statements or analysis. Normally I like some overall theme or structure myself, but this book works better without it. For lack of a better description, it drops you right in there with Americans facing a future that does not appear to be getting brighter. In some ways it reminded me of Joe Bageant's excellent Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War. In other ways it reminded me of Chris Hedges's Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, although I think this was a stronger book because Packer doesn't rely on overblown rhetoric as much as Hedges does (and he also doesn't present the Occupy movement as any kind of great hope for future change).
This has been a dry review; sorry about that. I was actually a little stunned by this book, and I'd suggest giving it a try, but don't read it at bedtime. It's not relaxing. (And if you're going to read any of the review links below, go for the Christian Science Monitor one--it includes a great interview with Packer.)
Yes, I know. It's becoming the all-Taibbi, all the time blog around here. I can't help it. Every time I read one of his articles (except for some of the financial ones I don't understand, and don't particularly want to understand), I think, well, right on, Matt Taibbi. Thanks for saying it out loud, even though you must feel like you're banging your head against a wall by now, because NO ONE IS LISTENING.
The article in question last week deals with Bradley Manning and the leak of national secrets to Wikileaks. Taibbi, bless him, points out that the only story anyone can write about this story has to do with the "Is Manning a hero or a villain" storyline, or makes a lot of veiled comments regarding Manning's gender and sexuality, neither of which are really the point.
What is the point? Let Taibbi tell you: "Manning, by whatever means, stumbled into a massive archive of evidence of state-sponsored murder and torture, and for whatever reason, he released it. The debate we should be having is over whether as a people we approve of the acts he uncovered that were being done in our names."
Wonder what's being done in our names? Go read the article to start to find out.*
*And here's a fun fact for you, from an article linked to by Taibbi: the Pentagon spends BILLIONS on PR? Gross.
And now I know why.
Unfortunately, for contrary people like myself*, putting a book on any sort of "Best of..." list is a sure gambit in getting me NOT to read it. In a way, this is why I am always at a loss to understand the concepts of "book discoverability" and "social reading" as much as I should.
But with North Korea in the news a lot this past year, I've been thinking I should read the book on the subject, and because I am too lazy to read a real history of North Korea or the Korean War, I thought I would check this title out.
It's unbelievable. And I don't use that word lightly. I actually found it beyond belief in some parts. Demick begins her narrative with a fairly powerful image:
"If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea...It is baffling how a nation of 23 million people can appear as vacant as the oceans." (pp. 3-4.)
North Korea has been lacking in light since the early 1990s, Demick points out, which is when the economy there really crashed, taking its power stations with it (and leaving its infrastructure's copper wires to be stolen and sold by its starving citizens). And that is just the beginning of this story.
Because Western journalists are not typically allowed into North Korea, Demick largely had to wait for her story to come to her, in the form of six people who were born and raised there, but who then defected to South Korea or China. Reporting the book this way was a necessity, but it also makes it a very accessible read for those nonfiction readers most drawn to character portraits--two of her subjects conducted a secret, long-term love affair (which took years to get to the holding hands stage, and which was conducted in North Korea almost entirely under the cover of darkness, as the two would simply walk for miles together at night), while others were true believers in the North Korean system, or had families and children they had to leave when they defected. In short, these are very human stories.
You simply have to read this book to believe it. I am not a person who really believes that democracy is the only answer, or that America is the best country in the world (does one really have to be best, I always wonder?) but it is mind-boggling to me to imagine a society where your future is dictated largely by your caste (people belong to government-dictated social classes, and everyone knows your class), you can't make any sarcastic or negative remarks about the government at all, neighborhoods are watched over by community snitches ready to report any transgression, and your job and food are simply assigned to you (if and when there are jobs and food to be had).
It is simply surreal to believe that a country causing such a fuss with nuclear testing is the same country where "a survey of 250 North Korean households conducted in the summer of 2008 found that two thirds were supplementing their diets by picking grass and weeds in the countryside." (p. 289.) Makes me wonder how it is inside the country now, in 2013, nearly four years after this book was first published.
*Conversely, a review where someone rips into a book is usually a review that makes me want to read said book (just out of morbid curiosity).
I know, I know, you're starting to feel a little down just reading these reviews, aren't you? Well, hang in, we're getting through the week.
Barbara Garson's Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession was a book I saw on many "forthcoming books" nonfiction lists earlier this spring, and the title intrigued me enough so that I put a hold on it at the library. Then I heard the author speak on public radio, and while I didn't hear the entire program, I liked her point that we are thinking of our current financial situation in America all wrong--most peole date our financial "crisis" to 2008, while Garson posits that things have really not been that great (particularly for working stiffs) for a lot longer than that, back even to the late 1970s. The book is divided into three segments representing our financial lives: Our Jobs, Our Homes, and Our Savings.
And of course nothing here is that big a surprise either (at least, not if you're a downer book addict like me):
--"By the fall of 2010 there were fourteen million officially unemployed Americans--40 percent of them classified as the long-term unemployed. An additional ten million were working part-time but said they wanted full-time jobs. Fifteen million more had dropped out of the labor force since this recession began." (p. 46.)
--"California was the Wild West of mortgage innovation. Nine out of the top ten subprime lenders were based in California before the crash, and so were most of the top ten mortgage banks that failed. California has 12 percent of the U.S. population, but between 2005 and 2007 more than 56 percent of America's subprime mortgages originated in California..." (p. 149.)
But this is a book that's more about personal stories and analysis than a recitation of numbers. Consider this exchange between Garson and one of her interview subjects:
--"'What am I looking at here in Evansville?' I asked the lean fifty-year-old [Charles Whobrey, president of the local Teamster union] as he led us into his cubbyhole of an office. 'How could a town have gotten this depressed since Lehman Brothers collapsed?'
''You're not looking at the effects of just this recession,' he asserted. 'So many people here survive paycheck to paycheck, obviously living beyond their means, that when something like this hits...well, let me go back.
'I started working for the union in 1981...I started in March, and not a month later President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Permanently fired the strikers. That doesn't happen much in American history. Killing PATCO [the air traffic controllers' union] sent the signal to business--as it was supposed to--that it was okay to get rid of the unions. 'Uh-oh,' I said, 'I have the knack for gettin' involved right when the wheel's going into the mud.'"
And with unions went wages..." (p. 82.)
It's kind of a strange read. Garson does not, for the most part, provide really shocking details of homelessness or utter destitution. What she DOES provide is a rather unnerving portrait of an increasingly large group of people finding it a bit tougher, every single day, to keep and find jobs, to keep making their house payments, to stay out of debt after experiencing a health setback, to have anything for retirement; in other words, pretty much everyone's growing daily monetary struggles.
I have read other similar books that I liked somewhat better: Richard Longworth's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, for instance, or even Louis Uchitelle's The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, which was published before 2008 and was therefore all the more prescient. But I did enjoy Garson's viewpoint, and I'd never heard of her before, so now I may look into some of her earlier books (including Electronic Sweatshop and All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work).
If you're looking to become suicidally depressed, have I got the book for you.
A few weeks ago I was actually browsing my library's "Serendipity Collection"--a shelf of books that are new, bestselling, or otherwise popular, and for which there are usually long waiting lists, but in that small collection they are available on a first come, first serve basis. I place a lot of holds, and normally have a pile of books to pick up and check out, but nothing great had been coming in for me, so I thought I'd look around. So I ended up checking out Chris Hedges's and Joe Sacco's investigative work Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.
According to Hedges's intro, the pair (Hedges is a journalist; Sacco is a graphic novelist/journalist) "set out two years ago to take a look at the sacrifice zones, those areas in the country that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement. We wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks like when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit."
So yeah. You're starting to see where the suicidal depression comes in, right?
The book is comprised of four chapters on "destruction": in journalism and graphic novelettes the two tell the stories of people they found on the Native American reservation at Pine Ridge South Dakota (poverty, alcoholism, drug dealing); Camden, N.J. (a former industrial/dock town where immigrants used to find the American dream and now poverty and lawlessness rule, along with racial tensions and violence); a coal-mining region of West Virginia (where mountaintops are being blown off, there are very few coal jobs to work anymore, and everyone has diabetes or other health conditions from breathing in coal dust); and Immokalee, Florida, where illegal immigrants work in modern-day slavery. A fifth and final chapter titled "Days of Revolt" centers on the Occupy protests in New York City.
It's so sad, but I couldn't stop reading it. On the other hand, I don't know if I can recommend it. Really. I know the authors meant the last chapter in particular to be inspiring, but I just can't help feeling that the Occupy protests were not enough to offset the relentless misery in the first four chapters. What I did find inspiring, actually, was one of the graphic novelettes in the Camden, N.J., chapter, featuring a woman named Lolly Davis, who not only worked and took care of her own children, but also raised other people's children, and in one memorable story, during race riots in the city, warned her white neighbors across the way to "put something red in their window" (as a rioter had told Davis to do) so rioters would leave them alone.
I thought the format was done well too--I'll admit I skipped ahead and read most of the graphic novel bits before I read the rest of the text. But that was to be expected--I've never been much of a Chris Hedges fan. I find him a bit histrionic in all his books (I wasn't overfond of his title War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, either). Here's what he has to say towards the end of his narrative:
"The game, however, is up. The clock is ticking toward internal and external collapse. Even our corporate overlords no longer believe the words they utter. They rely instead on the security and surveillance state for control. The rumble of dissent that rises from the Occupy movements terrifies them. It creates a new narrative. It exposes their exploitation and cruelty. And it shatters the absurdity of their belief system." (p. xii.)
Okay, sure. I wish the game really were up, but I suspect it is not, and won't be for a long time, even with continuing Occupy protests. But that's just me. Do read the book sometime, but do me a favor and make sure you're not depressed when you start (although whether you should blow a happy mood with it either, I just don't know).
But I do.*
Do consider reading his latest at Rolling Stone, Hurricane Sandy and the Myth of the Big-Government-vs.-Small-Government Debate. And if you don't have time to read it, just read one of my favorite quotes from it:
"In the abstract, most Americans want a smaller and less intrusive government. In reality, what Americans really want is a government that spends less money on other people."
Amen, brother. That's one of those quotes I wish I could just print out on a notecard, and silently hand to people when they want to engage me in any sort of political discussion.
*And I hope he and his are safe--sounds like he lives in Jersey City, which was hard hit by Sandy.
Author Chrystia Freeland** (of the new book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else) and my one true love Matt Taibbi (described beautifully by Moyers as "perceptive and merciless," although I rather think Taibbi might have more mercy in his little finger than do the wealthy and political jerks he covers, in their entire bodies) were on Bill Moyers and Company this past weekend. Enjoy!
*And I do mean pleasure--my heroes and crushes Bill Moyers and Matt Taibbi in one place. Yummy. Fifty Shades of Grey, eat your heart out!
**I am not, however, sure I how feel about Ms. Freeland in this interview. She seems a bit too forgiving of the plutocrats for my tastes.
I bet that headline got your attention.
I don't really mean it, don't worry.
What is remarkable is this article by, of course, Matt Taibbi. Now as you know, I love Matt Taibbi with my whole heart and soul and I WILL NOT REST until you love him too. You can start by reading this article, which contains a lovely, succinct description of George W. Bush:
"Then conservatives managed to elect to the White House a man who was not only a fundamentalist Christian, but a confirmed anti-intellectual who never even thought about visiting Europe until, as president, he was forced to – the perfect champion of all Real Americans!"
His earlier paragraphs, about Bill Clinton, aren't bad either:
"'Liberals' only remaining big issue is abortion because of their beloved sexual revolution, was the way Ann Coulter put it. 'That's their cause – spreading anarchy and polymorphous perversity. Abortion permits that.'
So they [conservatives] fought back, and a whole generation of more strident conservative politicians rose to fight the enemy at home, who conveniently during the '90s lived in the White House and occasionally practiced polymorphous perversity there."
What's remarkable about Matt Taibbi is that he's smart, and in his business and political reporting, he sees approximately 1000% more bullshit than any normal person should have to see and assimilate. And yet he still ends an article like this one by saying the process is "remarkable to watch." I get the feeling this guy just loves life, and he'll take a laugh wherever he can get it. Maybe I'm wrong, but I hope not, because I love him for it.
Happy weekend, all.
In my trolling for forthcoming nonfiction titles I formulated some ideas about what's going to be big in nonfiction this year. These trends are, of course, based on my opinion--I've never really looked at or considered trends before, so I can't speak to my accuracy. All I can really tell you is that I looked at more than 300 forthcoming nonfiction titles, as well as a number of various blog and journal articles, to formulate these ideas.
So what's going to be big, and why?
I have two words that are bound to strike fear into the heart of anyone who never had or has completely lost any interest in politics: Election Year. God help us all, but 2012 is a big election year and correspondingly, political and current events books are going to be big. Not only will candidates be putting out their own books and having books written about them, plenty of authors are getting in on the subject. In addition to current political titles, there's a number of big political historical biographies coming out.
Curious about what the actual politics titles are? Please check the spreadsheet I posted a link to Monday*, or check out a condensed list of forthcoming political titles here.
I can't be objective about these titles; the very idea of reading any of these books makes me want to puke, but I'd like to give an extra special pukey shout-out to Dennis Prager's title Still the Last Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph, which is described at Prager's website as explaining how "Humanity stands at a crossroads, and the only alternatives to the 'American Trinity' of liberty, natural rights, and the melting-pot ideal of national unity are Islamic totalitarianism, European democratic socialism, capitalist dictatorship, or global chaos if we should fail."**
But if you're interested in politics? This is going to be a very good nonfiction year for you.
*A word about the spreadsheet. It's organized by genre, but those are my genre headings. Where I use the heading "name memoir," that means "celebrity memoirs." Also, books tagged with my genre heading "Malcolm Gladwell," are variously known as "Making Sense..." books, "Big Idea" books, "Big Think" books, and many other headings. I tend to call them Malcolm Gladwell books, myself, since his titles (e.g., The Tipping Point) are the best known in the genre.
**Does this sentence even make sense? It's hard for me to tell, I get bored in the middle of it and can't view it as a whole.
I know, you're starting to be just as sick of Time magazine's list of the 100 Best Nonfiction titles as I am, aren't you? I'm also getting sick of my lists. Lists get old, I find, which is part of why I can never quite believe how much people seem to like lists for everything. Evidently you need to be a more organized person than I am. Or, perhaps, all things in moderation, and this has been just too many lists.
But, we have started. And because I never finish anything, I feel that we need to finish this. But that doesn't mean I can't cheat. Take today's categories: Nonfiction Novels and Politics. Christ. Can you think of more boring categories? I can't. And what does "nonfiction novel" mean, anyway? Yet another category I disagree with. So today I'll tell you Time's picks, but I'm not listing my own. If I can think of any Politics titles that didn't make me puke, I will add them to an Investigative Writing list I still plan to do.
In the meantime, please do discuss the below, or suggest any title picks of your own in these categories!
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer (This one should be True Crime, guys, it just SHOULD)
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (Again: TRUE CRIME. Just call it a genre already, for the love of God.)
Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen
All the President's Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel P. Huntington
The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater
God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley, Jr.
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
The Making of the President 1960, Theodore H. White
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt
The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter
What it Takes, Richard Ben Cramer
I really struggled with what to title today's post. "What a fucking waste"? "War is just so completely stupid"? "Finally a war book that points out the military shit is largely beside the point"? Read Peter Van Buren's spectacularly depressing memoir We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and you'll see why it would have made me think all of those things.
Van Buren was a State Department worker who was sent to Iraq to head up an ePRT--an "embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team." He lived there for a year, and details, in short chapters that can be read whenever you have a spare few minutes, a multitude of the stupid things he saw while there. He hits all the high points of our illustrious American liberation in Iraq: how we knocked out sewage and water treatment and electricity plants without ever building them up again; how we dropped our little Green Zone headquarters right on top of Saddam's old headquarters, nicely illustrating the whole ordeal was just a regime change, and not for the better ("Conveniently for Iraqis, the overlords might have changed but the address had not. The place you went to visit political prisoners who opposed Saddam was still the place you went to look for relatives who opposed the Americans"--p. 155); how we spent millions and billions of dollars on less than nothing, with State Dept. and military types alone handing it out willy-nilly, with no research or follow-up, simply to meet their own made-up objectives. Christ. Consider:
"Kids were always hanging around everywhere; few attended school in rural areas, and those who did went only half days because boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime. The new Islamic Iraq we midwifed in 2003 couldn't afford to double the number of schools, so it was girls in the mornings and boys in the afternoons." (p. 83.)
That bit annoyed me but it was actually pretty innocuous; there are much more damning chapters about agriculture specialists who didn't know anything about agriculture, military types who were looking for any kind of activity that included women so they could just throw money at it and hit their "making the lives of women better" objectives, and constant, constant waste. It's an eye-opening read, if you can stand it.
Well, first, because Bageant describes a world so like my own. His first chapters describe his youth growing up near his extended family and their farm in Virginia, and how his grandparents ("Pap" and "Maw") were very can-do people. I too grew up on a farm and know people who knew how to do things (and regularly did them) like raising one's own animals, hunting, butchering, raising gardens, canning food, and fixing and maintaining all the farm machinery.* So a lot of that--the missing it and not missing it, which Bageant displays, I can relate to.**
But I also like Bageant because he takes me out of my comfort area. I'm a Northern girl, and there are often things about the American South (culture, history, how anyone can stand the climate) that I don't understand. Bageant makes that world more clear for me. And he does it as a person whose ideology I respond to almost as instinctively as I often respond to Wendell Berry's.
On politics: "Today he [a Republican neighbor] would be even rarer, because he was a Republican with the common wisdom to understanding something that no Republican has ever grasped since: he realized that any wealth he might acquire in life was due not only to his own efforts, but also to the efforts of all other men combined--men who built the roads that hauled his merchandise; men who laid rail track, grew crops, drilled wells, and undertook all the other earthly labors that make society possible." (p. 52.)
On what to do now: "Ok. I'll say it so you won't have to. There ain't no goin' backwards. We certainly can't all take up horse farming or go to sowing lespedeza hay and oats. Of course not.
But the underlying theme here is loss, and that loss poses some big questions. It is at all possible to regain a meaningful, positive, and satisfying expression of character while working in such a monolithic, non-human scale of 'production'? Anybody else feel like America is just one big workhouse, with time off to shit, shower, and shop? Or is it just me?" (p. 69.)
On community: "A community with no memory of its dead is no real community, because it has no human connectivity grounded in time--just interaction. It's merely a location populated by disassociated beings. A community's inherited memory from its dead provides its spiritual and moral animation, its posterity. This is because we are humans, not aggregations of marketing or employment demographics, and are more than just a bunch of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time." (p. 111.)
I could go on and on. But I really just think you should read it. I really do. Even with its many issues. (I think Bageant should have included more family stories and a bit less class warfare discussion; some of it's uncomfortable; he concludes without providing much in the way of suggestions for change; etc.) Read it and feel free to complain to me about any of those issues, but also tell me what you THOUGHT about it. I want to know.
NOTE: Re-reading these reviews I notice I've done a terrible job of explaining why I both loved this book (and Bageant) and am conflicted about it. If you just watch this brief video of him talking (please note it's not really suitable for work), I think you'll see his anger and understand my conflict. My question after that is, how, Joe? How do you try to educate and help people? People who may or may not want education and help?
*I don't know how to do any of these things, although if forced, I could maybe plant, maintain, and harvest a garden. But it would be a half-assed garden and would mostly be eaten by bugs and bunnies, and if I had to work in it when it was much warmer than 70 degrees out I would be swearing a lot.
**These were also not people who believed in government "handouts." "Pap may have been a Democrat, but he felt free to cuss either party and its candidates with equal fervor, if he was in the mood. He didn't like Coolidge, and, though he voted for FDR twice, he was leery of parts of Roosevelt's New Deal. Particularly Social Security. He could not grasp how a man could get money in the mail at the end of the month if he had not worked during the month...After he died, a shoebox of uncashed Social Security checks was found under his bed." (pp. 35-36.) That is SO something my grandpa might have done.
I'm pretty much done with politics. I've been pretty much done ever since I read John Bowe's superlative book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, in which he pointed out that the system isn't broken, the system is working exactly the way it was set up to work.
So why on earth would I check out George W. Bush's memoir Decision Points?
I read the first chapter of it last night, and I just spent a good half-hour washing the dishes and thinking about it. My questions about this title and why I would read any of it are legion. Let's consider them, shall we?
Q: Why would anyone who is done with politics, and who was no fan of W., be interested in this book?
A: Sometimes, when I am in a whimsical mood, I find autobiographies and memoirs by people I dislike amusing. In this case I was also vaguely curious to see how W. put a spin on the events of his life and presidency. I liken this, particularly in George W. Bush's case, to "getting inside the mind of a serial killer,"* which is a reason some people cite for reading True Crime. Also, this is a book a lot of people will be reading, and the librarian in me wants to look it over. Last, but not least, it always gives me an illicit thrill to check out Republican memoirs from--gasp--publicly funded libraries.
Q: Does W. himself actually believe this stuff?
A: I don't know. Sure seems like it. In the first chapter, W. gives a flash history of his life up through 1986 and his decision to quit drinking (chapter 2 starts in 1999, with his presidential bid). In a sick sort of way there was a lot to laugh about in the first chapter.** Here are the highlights:
"Nearly all the historians suggested that I read Memoirs by President Ulysses S. Grant, which I did." (p. xi.)
(I have my doubts about that. Grant's memoir is over 500 pages long. But I digress.)
"As the days at Andover wound down, it came time to apply for college. My first thought was Yale. After all, I was born there. One time-consuming part of the application was filling out the blue card that asked you to list relatives who were alumni. There was my grandfather and my dad. And all his brothers. And my first cousins. I had to write the names of the second cousins on the back of the card. Despite my family ties, I doubted that I would be accepted." (p. 13.)
"My attitude toward the [Vietnam] War was skeptical but accepting...One day in the fall of my senior year, I walked by a recruiting station with a poster of a jet pilot in the window. Flying planes would be an exciting way to serve...Dad referred me to a man named Sid Adger, a former pilot who was well connected in the aviation community. He suggested that I consider joining the Texas Air National Guard, which had pilot slots available. Unlike members of the regular Guard, pilots were required to complete a year of training..." (p. 16.)
And so on and so forth. There's more, about how his early oil businesses failed due largely to bad timing in the mid-80s (there's lots of talk about merging with other companies, not being bought out for political good will) but I just realized, typing just now, that I've hit the end of my whimsical mood. I'm rapidly passing into my disgusted mood, which for some reason often does follow the whimsical one. But more questions remain: Does this guy really think he wasn't going to get into Yale? (A corollary: can he imagine what it must be like to come from one of those backward families where not everyone does go to college, let alone Yale?***) Does he really think serving in the Texas Air National Guard counts as serving in the Vietnam War? Is he the dumbest man alive, or is he so clever he just appears dumb?
Anyway. Even with a lot of dishes to do I didn't come up to any answers for my questions. After the dishes I picked up Decision Points, read a few more pages, looked at the pictures, and checked the index for "cocaine use."**** Tomorrow I'll take it back to the library.
**Laugh about in the way Albert Brooks describes in the movie Broadcast News: "At some point, it was so off-the-chart bad it just got funny."
***Sometimes I think about Helene Hanff, she of 84, Charing Cross Road, not having the money to attend college, and it breaks my heart. Particularly in light of this guy wandering through his years at Andover, Yale, and Harvard. That's all right--Helene educated herself, and gave us a great book about it: Q's Legacy.
****I'll end your suspense. It wasn't there.
The book Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, by Geoffrey Canada, has been sitting on my table for weeks now. I can't figure out what I want to say about it.
I can't remember how I originally found the book, but I think I saw the title and felt that I had to read it. (I abhor violence and yet can't stop reading about it.) If you've never heard of him, Geoffrey Canada is the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, and you may remember him from this American Express Members Project spot:
The book is a memoir, and short: 181 pages, so it can be read fairly quickly. Canada describes his childhood growing up in the Bronx, and how he learned early on the neighborhood codes of how and when to fight, how to gain a rep so he didn't have to fight, and how quickly things can spiral out of control once violence is introduced. Thinking of children across America, across decades, having to learn these lessons made me very, very sad.* This description of what happened before the fight really got to me, for some reason:
"During the time I was sizing up my situation I made a serious error. I showed on my face what was going on in my head. My fear and my confusion were obvious to anyone paying attention. This, I would later learn, was a rookie mistake and could have deadly consequences on the streets." (p. 20.)
It's a pretty shitty world where a kid can't let what he's feeling show on his face without having the fear that he'll get the shit kicked out of him.
About half of this book is Canada's coming-of-age memoir, and the other half is more about his experiences with the Harlem Children's Zone and his opinions about what is going on in today's inner cities (and he is not shy about saying that everything on the streets changed and became exponentially more violent as handguns became ever more available).
Do consider reading it. Oddly enough, it's not nearly as depressing as it sounds. I salute this guy and believe more firmly than ever that people like him are much more worthy of attention and charitable giving than any asshole politicians.
*Not least because I know if I'd grown up in these surroundings I'd have been toast--I cried easily as a kid, no matter how much I fought it.
I know I said enough with the heavy nonfiction reads, but I don't think this one really qualifies as "heavy." It's serious, but for one thing, it's not a really long book. And even though it is a serious historical story, it's also a very personality-driven and lively one.
In it, author Anthony Flint describes how Jane Jacobs (author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I still desperately want to read), a New York City resident and budding urban activist, took on Robert Moses, the New York city planner/builder who dreamed of dropping huge highways right through neighborhoody parts of Manhattan, in the 1950s and 60s. It's a fabulous book, and tells the story from both the urban design and personal activism points of view. I finished this one with a true appreciation for yet another feisty lady--Jane Jacobs--and the rare feeling that individuals can (or at least they were successful once) in taking on unnecessary "progress." Even if you can't think of anyone to buy this book for, consider gifting it to yourself.
So, who might like this book?
Anyone with an interest in or love for New York City.
Anyone with an interest in urban design or architecture.
Readers who enjoy character-driven histories.
Feminist readers who will find a lot to like in feisty (and very smart) lady Jane Jacobs.